Saturday, 23 January 2016

Intent To Tell by Steve Gladwin

Many years ago, when I first came to Wales, I got into conversation with a storyteller friend about repertoire. What would and wouldn’t we tell? My friend surprised me by saying that she preferred to stick to the tales - of her ‘homeland’, ie of northern Europe. When it came to stories outside that area and those of those of ‘native peoples’ in particular, she didn’t feel  comfortable telling the ‘sacred tales of other people’. I couldn’t agree with her but then I couldn’t exactly disagree either. In the intervening years I’ve often wondered whether she changed her mind about this. Recently I’ve had reason to consider this issue again and whether there is a particular ‘way’ which we should tell stories.

In November I picked up from my bookshelf one of the many books of traditional tales which have been stacked there for the entire time I have lived here in Wales. (And before!) The book in question was one which I had never got on with. Faded, but still magnificent, I found myself thumbing once again through 'American Indian Myths and Legends' by Erdoes and Ortiz. I’ve owned it for as long as I can remember and just before I left Somerset, I added to my collection their 'American Indian Trickster Tales'. This slimmer volume contains such stories as 'Monster Skunk Farting Everything To Death', (I”m not making this up!). However, although I confess to having read that one once or twice, I had never read either of the actual books.
The books which stayed on the shelf!

But there I was sitting down with it in November - and dear reader - I found myself completely entranced and captivated. If there is such a thing as finding the right time for the right book, surely I had done so. There were I admit, some tales I found complicated, but there were far more which were powerful, vital and often visceral. Almost uniquely in my reading of such volumes I found myself feeling that not only the stories of the people, but also their lives and history were really being captured. More often than not the tales had been recorded from actual sources rather than simply retold. I remember years ago having a similar reaction while reading Neil Philip’s collection of English Folk Tales, a great many of which are also in dialect. But would I tell any of Erdoes and Ortiz’s tales as a storyteller? Why ever not? 

Long before I came to live in Wales I spent a week here on a writers retreat in Lampeter with my then partner and two poets. The retreat turned out to be as much about drinking as writing but that need not concern us here! Besides drinking, I spent most of that week reading my way through Joseph Jacobs Celtic Tales. I was introduced, along with their delicate line drawings, to many tales which would become favourites later.The one which completely hooked me however was called Powell, Prince of Dyfed. Notwithstanding the change of spelling, it comes from the first branch of the collection of Welsh tales called The Mabinogion.

The first appearance of Rhiannon from Joseph Jacobs Powell, Prince Of Dyfed with illustration by John D. Batten.

In October 2014 my first book The Seven was published, concluding a process which had first begun with that early reading of the first ‘branch’, as the four tales are collected. The Seven’s antecedents are firmly in the second ‘branch’, Branwen, Daughter of Lir, as well as other Welsh tales. In The Seven I take a number of liberties with this story. As a writer with an obsession which has lasted for years I never much questioned my right to do so.

My point however is that as a storyteller I would have felt almost bound to question doing that and would therefore have been a great deal more cautious. After all, when you are giving a live performance in Wales, it’s best not to invite the unwelcome attentions of any Mabinafia. I’m sure this applies equally to any country where the audience feel they have a right to hear those tales unblemished or ‘mucked about with’.

I have always felt that what you do as a storyteller depends on your intent in the first place. If you set out to improve without altering the balance, add to without compromising the message, then surely this is permissible. 

Do we always do this as writers? I must confess that I’m not sure. Whereas I would have balked at messing about with the story of Branwen in front of a people for whom it was an essential part of their culture, I’m sure I didn’t question it half as much as a writer adapting a tale to attract an often Welsh readership. My concerns as a writer were all about how I might make the idea work. My editor here in Wales, shared the same concerns.. At no stage did she say to me, ‘You can’t do that with the story of Branwen.’

Several years ago Seren Books in Wales commissioned a number of Welsh writers and poets to write new versions of the Mabinogi stories. I have read only a couple of them including White Ravens by Owen Shears. I felt that while retaining some essence of the original, I also enjoyed his treatment because it went its own way. That is surely how it should be. Another storyteller friend disagreed. She felt that he’d lost the essence of Branwen altogether.

One of the series of Mabinogion retellings by Seren Books.

Whatever the truth, it’s the intent that matters. I feel as I have always done both as a writer and a storyteller. If we set out to do justice to the tales we are telling when we ‘adapt’ them, surely the story gods will be with us. More often than not, we are also old and wise enough to judge when we are doing right or wrong by them and the story.

I also disagree that there is only one set way to tell a story. Or the idea that they can only be told with a certain rhyme, rhythm and cadence. The Kalevala chanted to suitable musical accompaniment might make for a thrilling experience, but few of us are linguistically equipped well enough to understand it. Once a story leaves the oral tradition, or its natural land, something of its power may is lost. Should that however prevent us from trying to recapture it with the abilities we have. More often than not nowadays, that recapturing is done by writers as much as storytellers.

Should there then be different responsibilities for an 'oral' storyteller, to those of us who are 'retelling' a story it as a writer? How concerned should we be with having the right intent?
Lastly is there any right or wrong way to tell a story? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Native American Myths and Legends and Native American Trickster Tales, (which includes Monster Skunk Farting Everything To Death) are published by Pantheon Books.

Getting hold of a complete volume of Joseph Jacobs Celtic Fairy Tales doesn't appear to be easy but Pook Press do a nice selection with an arresting cover and the John Batten illustrations.

Seren Books have commissioned all of the retellings of The Mabinogion, with often very interesting results.

Storyteller Fiona Collins wonderful retelling Pryderi, for The History Press in her Ancient tales Retold series, tells the story of the one character whose life spans the entire four branches.

My own offshoot The Seven - a retelling of Branwen amongst other things is available from Pont Books.



Susan Price said...

I really enjoyed the post, Steve, and you post some thought-provoking questions.
My own position, as someone who has often retold folk-stories and used myths and legends as a basis for fiction...

We are all, no matter what part of the world we come from, the children of African Eve. She wouldn't want us falling out over such little matters, would she?

Recent research suggests that folk-stories, such as Sleeping Beauty and Red Riding Hood are indeed as old as many of us have always thought they were - going back to at least the Bronze Age in some cases. That's as old as Homeric Myth.

The only reason they survived so long is that they are images of our inner life - Jung's archetypes, if you will. That is why so many of us find them, and myth, so compelling - that's why they were told and retold.

When modern story-tellers turn Robin Hood into a tv series or a film script, they are doing no more than story-tellers have done for centuries - retell what appeals to them in a story, and tweak it a little for their audience.

I'm quite relaxed about this, even when it's done to material such as English and Northern myth and legend, in which I feel an ownership. Hollywood, for instance, can add little comic animal side-kicks to the hero of Greek Myth, or turn the Norse Myths into blockbusters... Doesn't matter. The original Myths are still there, unchanged, for anyone interested in them to read. And, after the films, there will be more people curious enough to look at the real thing.

I have some sympathy with Native American, African and Australian peoples who often must feel beleaguered - and then they see their sacred stories being 'stolen' too.

But they're not stolen, anymore than Kevin Costner stole Robin Hood, or Wagner stole Norse Myth. They used it, played with it - but the original is still there (and even 'the original' remember, was just the version that was written down. There were many others that weren't.)

Perhaps, because of this 'theft' there are now more people, the world over, interested in the Robin Hood legend and Norse Myth than there would otherwise have been. And some of them have gone on to do their own reading and are, even now, angrily telling their friends how Hollywood twisted and spoiled what they've discovered for themselves to be a much better story.

I think it's possible that, by attempting to make story-tellers and writers feel guilty about using the stories that are - I think = the shared heritage of us all, Native peoples are dismissing some of their best ambassadors.

Jack John said...
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Steve Gladwin said...

Thanks for all of your fascinating comments Sue - I quite agree with all of your points. The 'originals' of any story or myth are surely a blueprint held in the bank of time and memory and cannot be spoiled whatever we do to them, no matter how hard we might seem to try! I have just been reading a wonderful collection of early Kurt Vonnegut short stories. One of them is about a nativity lighting competition judged on Christmas Eve. The local gangster (reformed!) fresh out of jail is the clear winner with his garish abominations which outdo anyone else. But his three central figures of Mary, Joseph and Jesus are stolen and he has to replace them which he does. There is a search for them however and they are found in a tumbledown barn full of straw with a single lantern above them. The first person in there - the driver to the judges - immediately falls on his knees when he enters. People then start to come from miles around to see it. I'm a very lapsed Christian but I found that story very moving and it very much backs up the above. I do however feel a little different with my storyteller rather than writer face because I sometimes have to meet the people face to face who cherish these blueprints like children. Glad you liked the blog.