Beginnings and endings

This post is about the importance of ritual openings and closings for storytelling; signals of other-worldliness, our willingness to leave disbelief and worries behind, and open up to the heart of story .

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Storyteller: I’m going to tell you a story.

Audience: Right!

Storyteller: It’s a lie.

Audience: Right!

Storyteller: But not everything in it is false.

Audience: Right!

(Sudanese ritual opening in Livo (1986: 188)

Telling stories to a new group can be nerve-wracking. Inviting the audience in, as a traditional Sudanese teller might, encourages them to imaginatively participate in the story. Some new audiences haven’t been sure when I’ve come to the end of a story. Is it that I’m not slowing down enough, or lowering my voice to signal the end? I need to start confidently, too.

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“Under the earth I go. Upon the oak leaf I stand. I ride the filly hat was never foaled and I carry the dead in my hand.” (Celtic ritual opening)

Such rituals give me a frame for stories from particular cultures.

In Storytelling: Process and practice, Livo and Reitz list many ritual openings and closings.   These rituals are often quirky rhymes that signal the story world, where anything is possible. In the past I’ve used –

IMG_2567“We do not really mean … We do not really mean … That what we say is true.” (Ashanti ritual opening)

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“Once there was and was not …” (Armenian beginning)

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“ … And so they achieved their heart’s desire. May you thus achieve your heart’s desire.” (Accompanying ending)

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“Now I’m ready to tell my story. And if you don’t listen, your ears will turn green and fall off.” (Beginning)                “ … and I’m glad to see you still have your ears.” (Ending)

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Folktales, themselves,  usually have formulaic beginnings. As soon as we hear “Once upon a time … ” we’re ready to travel into that make-believe world. Idries Shah (1991:105) begins the tale, The Three Riddles , like this – “There was a time, and there was not a time, when the sky was green and the earth was a thick stew…”

 There’s whimsy, too,  in this opening to the The Three Little Pigs. “Once upon a time when pigs spoke rhyme, and monkeys chewed tobacco, and hens took snuff to make them tough, and the ducks went ‘Quack, quack, quacko!” (Haviland 1972: 22)

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I met up with Scots Traveller & Storyteller Duncan Williamson several times in Scotland. When I saw him telling to children, he always involved the audience. Here he is playing the Mouth-Harp.

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Connecting with his audience, was second nature to Duncan. ” This story I’m going to tell you was my granny’s favourite – I hope you enjoy it. Now I’m going to tell ‘The Taen-Awa’ the way my granny told it to me: if you find any fault in it then I can’t. “(Williamson 1995:45)

And off we go into the story! The teller takes the audience far away on a journey and must bring the listeners safely back to reality again; home safe and sound –

“There was the cradle and John looked in … there lying in the cradle was the bonniest wee baby … his blue eyes … lying smiling up at his mammy. ‘There Mary, there’s your true baby.” (Williamson 1995: 64)

 “So everyone was pleased, and lived happily ever after.” (Steel 1983: 60)

“The wedding lasted from one Monday to the other Tuesday, and the whole land was in great joy, and if the strings of the fiddle hadn’t broken they would have been dancing yet! (Shah 1991: 228)

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And lastly,  here’s what we take away, when the stories are over and it’s time to leave – my favourite traditional closing from Armenia –  “Three Apples fell from heaven. One for the teller, one for the listener, and one for the one who took it to heart.”

     All text, except quotes, and photos by Meg.     Story Twigs …! by Meg Philp is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

   CROWLEY, Daniel J. ‘The Art of Bahamian narration’ in MACDONALD, Margaret Read, ed. (1999) Traditional storytelling today: an international sourcebook. Chicago, Fitzroy Dearborn.

HAVILAND, Virginia (1972) The Fairy tale treasury. Ringwood, Vic.. Penguin Books Australia.

LIVO, Norma J. (&) REITZ, Sandra A. Storytelling : Process and practice. Littleton, Colorado. Libraries Unlimited, 1986.

SHAH, Idries (1991) World tales: the extraordinary coincidence of stories told in all times, in all places. London, Octagon Press.

STEEL, Flora Annie.(1983) Tales of the Punjab. New York, Greenwich House.

 WILLIAMSON, Duncan (1995) The Broonie Silkies & Fairies: Traveller’s tales. Edinburgh. Canongate.

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With a Little Help from the Brownies

Before the start of the year, it’s feels good to have a clear-out, a de-clutter and give-away, recycle or dump. It was my mother’s custom to have the house spick and span for the New Year. She would even go out in the snow to clean the downstairs windows! I found myself thinking of her as I cleaned out cupboards recently.

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As I washed down walls, I thought of all the years of housework mum put in. At the time, I was muttering that I could do with a little help. Shame I don’t have any brownies in the house.

But sometimes I feel someone’s watching me as I work. Where’s that Blu-tac?IMG_1603

In Scottish folklore, it was believed that the wee folk, Brownies,
would sometimes move into a home and help with house-work. These hob-goblins were very shy and worked at night when the household was asleep, sweeping, washing dishes, keeping things clean and tidy. According to a story in Duncan Williamson’s collection The Coming of the Unicorn, they were small men, in old shabby clothes, often with a long white beard and the most arresting, blues eyes you could ever see.  The only payment they required was a bowl of porridge with milk, left out at night by the hearth.

If you forgot, the Brownie could let you know by making a mess in the house, breaking dishes and the like.  If you offered money, it was considered an insult and they quit the place.

In “The Broonie’s Farewell” he tells of just such an event when the farmer’s wife leaves out a new set of clothes for the Brownie who had helped their farm to flourish. The farmer kept the clothes their Broonie left behind for years, hoping the he’d return.

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In English foklore, Brownies were most likely to help with animals and crops on the farm, sleep in the barn by day, and work by night. Like the Scottish Brownie, they liked to be thanked, with their bowl of porridge, but never be paid.

I wished for a Brownie in the house and remembered I had been one,  joining the local pack, like this,  at the age of seven.

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Baden-Powell, who had founded the Scouting movement, co-opted the Scottish Brownie, to create an alternative group for girls. (Thank goodness the Rosebuds idea didn’t stick.) Their sworn promise was …  ” “to help other people at all times, especially those at home.”

Each weekly meeting, we’d all skip around a papier-mache toadstool and sing, ”We’re the Brownies here’s our aim, lend a hand and play the game.” We were taught all sorts of useful skills, like how to light a gas stove and the order to wash dished in.  For me, the best bit about the Brownies was learning to sing lots of rounds and silly songs.

In my group of six, we also had our own song “Look out! Here we are the jolly Pixies helping others when in fixes” – which rings prophetic if you’ve read the my first post in this blog.

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According to folklore, they do say some Brownies went bad and turned into boggarts – big, strong limbed, evil looking, creatures doing damage and causing mayhem wherever they lived. They were aggressive and challenged any humans they encountered to a competition, some game of strength, and if you couldn’t beat them, they’d eat you!

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I’ve read several  boggarts’ tales in Alan Garner’s book A Bag of Moonshine. These teach the reader how to use their wits if they should encounter such a beast. Is that a Boggart?

 I’m sure there‘s a Boggart bothering me at work –  in the computer program I have to use. I was at at my wits end with it last week. So I’m reverting to what I learned as a Brownie, not sure what to do next? Let’s sing!

Join in with  In the Brownies! on YouTube – Billy Connelly’s parody of a well-known hit in the 70s. I won’t put the link here because of Copyright but watch it and sing along –  that just might help the Boggart in my computer decide to revert to being a helpful brownie again …

With thanks to Irene for the image of her Brownie pack.

All Word and other Images by Meg Philp.

Story Twigs … ! this blog by Meg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.