Gather Ye Round - Return of the Storyteller
(Originally published at Samhain 1994)
It is difficult for us today to understand what the winter would have meant to our pagan ancestors in northern Europe. As we move into the darkest quarter of the year most of us can look forward to months of relative warmth, reliable food supplies and an endless supply of home entertainment at our fingertips. In fact it is all too easy to forget that for our ancestors winter was a time of fear, constant cold, hunger (and often near-starvation) and tedium. We are also a literate society in that most of us can pick up a book or newspaper and read to amuse or inform ourselves.
But we forget that until the beginning of this century, with free basic schooling for all (theoretically) that most of our great-grandparents relied on word of mouth for both information and entertainment. It's not surprising therefore that one of the most powerful images of the world of our ancestors is that of the storyteller - the provider of entertainment through the long dark winter nights, purveyor of wonder and magick, the transmitter of tribal and community myths, legends, teachings and values.
In the closing years of the 20th century the storyteller is making a comeback. Throughout England and Wales there has been a resurgence of venues providing opportunities to listen to professional and semi-professional storytellers telling the Cuchullin myths, the Kalevala, the Arthurian myths, the legends surrounding Robin Hood, Celtic and Russian wondertales, the Anansi tales of the Caribbean and the myths and stories of the American Indian tribes to name but a few. You will find a number of these venues listed in the Wotsons pages of this magazine. This summer I have heard Sir Gawain and the Green Knight , The Birth of Taliesin , a selection of the early ballad stories of Robin Hood and chunks of the Mabinogion told by some of the finest storytellers in this country. So what is behind this quite unexpected resurgence?
I suspect that much of the explanation lies precisely in the nature of our late 20th century society. For it is, in some ways, an age of certainties - we know far more about our planet and about the cosmos in which our planet moves than our ancestors ever did - but at the same time recent discoveries in science, and in particular in the field of physics, are revealing to us that our universe is a far more magickal and wonderful place than we dared to think only a generation ago. And so it has become once again a place of mystery, of ''unfinal'' frontiers - and so also does our more familiar, inhabited world. Is this perhaps the explanation for the growth also in the past decade of the fascination of modern western folks with ''shamanism''?
For like the shaman, the storyteller is a walker between the worlds. If you have seen one of the new breed of skilled storytellers telling one of the great myths or esoteric stories you will know what I mean. If not let me explain. I have seen a number of people attempt to ''tell'' stories which they have read once or twice in a book somewhere. Inevitably such a telling falls flat. Why? Because just to read a story is not enough. Because to tell a story successfully you have to tell it from the inside. This means that you have to live it from within, experience it from the point of view of each of the characters, walk and laugh and weep and despair with them in turn; you must visualise each turn of the story and its action until you can run it though your imagination like a film; think deeply about the underlying message which the story itself is trying to convey; understand the energy flows, movements and the turning points of the action. This stage was described to me as ''bone-patterning'' - stripping the flesh off the bones, like a shamanic initiation, until you can see the underlying structure of the story - of the journey on which you will take you listeners. And only then you will start to tell it to yourself. Not to anyone else. To yourself. And after telling it to yourself a number of times, playing with imagery, the rhythms and timing and expression of your voice, you think about it some more. And only then do you tell it to an audience. One of this country's foremost storytellers suggested to me that to prepare a wondertale for public telling requires over a month of intensive work along the above lines. No wonder it is not enough just to read a tale in a book and then regurgitate it in public. To do so is an ego-trip, not storytelling.
The storyteller, then, is a mediator between our known world and that of the unknown - a communer with dragons and elves, with faeries and angels, with magickal and mythical beasts, with Gods and Goddesses, heroes and demons, able to pass freely from this world into those above and those below and to help us to experience those other realms for ourselves. He or she is an intensely powerful invoker of elemental powers, of the powers of absolute transformation, can show us how to confront our most deeply-engrained fears, or teach us how to experience ecstasy or bring us face to face with death or terror of the spirit - with the infinite and incomprehensible. He is the archetypal magickian, the archetypal guide. Where many of today's pagans are stuck in the forced and artificial, amateur dramatics approach to myth and ritual peddled by so many ''pagan'' writers whose books are readily available on the shelves of high street book shops - enlightenment and magick for £8.99 or whatever - the storyteller lives and communicates the power, meaning and reality of myth to a depth that cannot be appreciated until experienced.
And experience is the crucial word here. The word experience brings us back to the idea of telling a story from the inside.
Having had the opportunity during this summer to listen to a number of storytellers working with a variety of material, I have been struck by the power of the wondertale for teaching the esoteric mysteries. Wondertales are characterised by, well, wonder - they leave the listener with a feeling of wonder (i.e. awe) and with such unresolved questions as ''I wonder ....?''). These are the stories concerning magickal beasts, often humans transformed into animal form by witchcraft and seeking the human who will redeem them and set them free (remember The Frog Prince?) or which act as the magickal animal helper ( Puss in Boots or Ivan's horse in the Russian wondertale of The Firebird) ; they may deal with battles between the elemental powers (see The Nixie of the Mill Pond in the Grimms' collection) or with the facing of terrible fears and complete transformation ( The Firebird , and The
Hare in the Moon , for example) or with the immutable nature of some of the great forces of the universe (Godfather Death) . They often deal with the passage of the individual between the realms such as we see in Pwyll's visit to, and return from, Annwn in the First Branch of the Mabinogion and the captivity of Rhiannon and Pryderi in the Third Branch, and with marriages between mortals and the faery folk. These provide our classic stories of the faery and otherworld realms, including the widespread one of the faery bride who is lost when her husband gives her three undeserved ''blows'' (often not blows at all by mortal standards) or touches her with iron - a Welsh example being The Shepherd of Myddfai from the Carmarthen area.
The important element with a wondertale is that it almost inevitably deals in some way with transformation - both as a catalyst for our individual personal transformation and by leaving us already transformed, however subtly, when they have ended. If it touches us it will change us - whether we realise (or indeed like) it or not. Wondertales, then, are the most occult of all stories and frequently carry within themselves echoes and shadows of very ancient pagan lore if we have the sensitivity to understand them.
But I think that there is another reason also for the resurgence of storytelling. There is some evidence that parts of our culture may be becoming increasingly non-literate - for example library loans are down year on year and visual, usually computer- or TV-based entertainments have increased. If so, can we really be surprised that our almost-forgotten and long-despised (by academics) oral and folk culture is enjoying such a resurgence? As both a pagan and an apprentice storyteller I welcome this development.