Thursday, July 2, 2015

Folklore Thursday: The princess who bitch slapped a dragon

If you are a storyteller or a story-lover, chances are you are every familiar with Aarne-Thompson folktale type 301, commonly known as "The three kidnapped princesses." It is the story where three princesses are stolen by a dragon/giant/evil person, and a hero sets out to find them, usually with his brothers or companions. He rescues all three, but on the way home he is betrayed by the others and left behind (in the Underworld, inside a well, etc.). Eventually he makes his way out of there with the help of a giant bird, or some other magical creature, and arrives home just in time to save the youngest princess from her wedding. The traitors are then properly executed or exiled, and the hero becomes king.

I have never really had a close relationship with this story, even though it's Hungarian version, Son of the White Horse, is THE textbook Hungarian folktale.


I was reading Rusyn folktales this week - stories collected in Transcarpathia more than a hundred years ago - and I finally found the version that I can get behind.
Here is what made it work for me:

1. The three heroes are brothers, and each has a superpower: One can fly, one has a sharp sense of smell, and the youngest is a master of sword fighting. If you have missed the memo, I do love folktales with superpowers.

2. The youngest hero is NOT betrayed by his brothers. The soul of the third dragon he kills takes on his shape, and tricks the brothers into leaving him behind.

3. The place where the youngest hero gets stuck is on top of the Glass Mountains (instead of the Underworld). He can't come down.

4. The hero finds the mothers of all three dragons and receives magic items from them. With that, he lets them live. A refreshing change from all the folktales where the enemy is tricked into giving away items, and then killed anyway.

5. The hero meets a giant bird that offers to take him down the mountain, but he has to find water first. He manages to find a tree and dig up a well. Very impressive, given that the mountain is made of glass.

6. When he gets home, the hero takes on a job as a dressmaker. He makes the wedding dresses of the two older sisters. The youngest princess shows up before her won wedding in tears: She knows her "prince" is a fake, but nobody believes her. She asks for an ugly dress, stating she is being married off against her will.

7. The hero shows up on the wedding day, and calls out the impostor as the evil soul of a dragon. He claims that he can be destroyed if he is slapped with a left hand. Hearing that, the youngest princess immediately pounces on the shapeshifter, and bitch slaps him so hard he turns to dust.
Heck yeah.
Happy Ending.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Story Saturday: Why you should research your folktales

Full disclosure: I am a storytelling research junkie. I go so far down rabbit holes that I technically live in Wonderland. I follow interesting stories until I run into sources that are in medieval dialects. I lose chunks of time when I'm in the library. If a story doesn't have at least three documented sources, I feel naked.

I have recently been asked: Is all that research really necessary?
Well, maybe not quite all of it. Part of it is the excitement of discovery - feeling like a storytelling Indiana Jones (incidentally, I'm also a trained archaeologist). BUT researching your folktales does have some very practical and important benefits.
Some of them, based on my experience, are:

1. You might find out they are not actually folktales
I lost count of how many times I saw a story quoted as a folktale, just to eventually trace it back to a literary source. I found a "fifth branch of the Mabinogion," written by an amazingly talented college student. I found "Greek myths" that were made up by English poets in the 17th century. I found "Chinese folktales" "inspired by" folklore sources.
I have nothing against literary stories - but I like to know if my folktales are actually folktales. For copyright and intellectual property reasons, if nothing else.

2. You get to know your stories better
If you really want to work with a story, the more familiar you are with it and its origins, the better your work gets. Knowing the material you are working with is part of being a professional. And "knowing" usually goes beyond a cursory read of a picture book.

3. Kids. WILL. Ask.
Adults will too, but kids especially. They will want to know things that you did not include in the story. Who was the hero's father? What does that country look like? What do tapirs eat? How far is Ireland from Greece? These are things that I have come across while researching folktales and legends, and they have came in handy when the children started to ask. I wrote more about one particular event here.
Being able to answer questions does not only make you feel cooler, but also enhances the storytelling and learning experience. Especially useful when you tell in an educational setting.

4. You get to pick your favorite version
Looking at several sources will result in several different versions of the same folktale. This way, you may find one that is even better than the first one you encountered first. Or you might want to combine elements of several of them to create your own. I talked about that process earlier this week.

5. It weeds out mistakes
Sources of folktales make mistakes sometimes. These might be translation mistakes (like Cinderella's infamous glass slipper, or "leopard" becoming "tiger" in many African folktales), or factual mistakes, like the heroes of an Arab folktale sharing a cup of wine (unless the story is pre-Islam). I used to change animals around in some children's stories, until I realized that those particular animals had particular meanings in the given culture. Researching the sources of your sources, and learning more about the tales, helps you avoid these mistakes. The fact that no one might ever notice, doesn't change the fact that they are there.

6. You might find other stories
Part of researching your stories is reading other tales from the same tradition. It expands your view of a folktale, and you might even find other stories with the same hero or same symbols. If you supplement your research into one tale with immersing yourself in the entire oral tradition it comes from, you might find several new stories you would not have found otherwise. I had this experience when one random tale in a multicultural collection led me on a binge of amazing Zhuang folktales.

7. It breeds cultural sensitivity
I left this one last, because I cannot stress this enough. Researching a story reveals the importance of that story within tradition. Your research does not only teach you about one tale; ideally, it will teach you about the culture it came from, or the many cultures that passed it on. This creates a sense of culture, and a sense of respect for telling tales from cultures other than your own. You might even find out that the tale holds a sacred role in its original context, and decide to respectfully refrain from telling it. It happens. It's part of a storyteller's job. There are countless tales to find, track, and learn about.
That's what research is for.

In conclusion, here is a screenshot of my computer, researching the Silent Princess folktale type:

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Folklore Thursday: A mosaic of stories

Today is Folklore Thursday on social media! If you want to find out more, follow this link, or click on the #FolkloreThursday hashtag on Twitter! Hosted by @FolkloreThursday.

One of my favorite things to do as a storyteller? Looking up several versions of the same tale, and building my own from them. It is kind of like a make-your-own ice cream thing.

One of the stories I am working with recently is most commonly known as The Black Thief and the Knight of the Glen. It belongs to Aarne-Thompson folktale type 953 ("Old robber tells three stories"), and I have managed to find about a dozen different versions of it, most of them from Scotland and Ireland. Interestingly enough the story also shows up in the Grimm Fairy Tales, but it was edited out after the 6th edition (it was No. 191 until then).

The story in a nutshell: Three young men and an old thief are caught trying to steal a king's horse. They are about to be burned alive for their crime. In order to save the lads, the old thief tells the king that he has been in a worse situation before. The king promises that if it's true, one of the lads can go free. The old thief tells outrageous stories about his close brushes with death; each story gets more hair-raising and exciting, and after each, one of the lads is let go. After the last story, which involves saving a baby from a giant, the king realizes that the child the old thief saved was no other than himself, and lets everyone go free with gifts and good wishes.

There are many things to love about this story, and it is a lot of fun to tell. In order to show some of my build-a-story process, here are some details:

1. The protagonist is known as the Black Thief, Red Conall, Conal Yellowclaw, or the Byzantine Brigand in different sources. In my version, I call him Red Conall, the Byzantine Brigand, because his red hair is an important plot point in the story, and "Byzantine Brigand" just sounds too awesome not to include.

2. In some versions the three lads are Conall's own sons whom he tries to keep away from becoming robbers themselves (Conall himself reformed in his old age). In other versions they are three princes sent on a quest by an evil queen. While both versions carry a lot of emotional weight and possibilities, I tell the second one, because an old, wandering former master-thief taking three exiled princes under his wings is just too interesting to pass up. He definitely becomes a father figure that is willing to sacrifice his own life to save the lads.

3. The three stories told by Conall are varied across the board. One of them is often a version of the "Blinding the Cyclops" episode from the Odyssey. I left that one in since it is exciting, and also intriguing that it shows up in an Irish folktale. I especially like that according to Conall, he and his companions went into the Cyclops' cave because they wanted to rob it. Conall talks about his former exploits of thieving and robbery with pride, even if they went horribly wrong in the end. He used to be the best of the best, after all.

4. You can never quite tell how much of Conall's stories are true, and how much he is making up on the spot. The last story usually includes a physical sign - he saves the baby's life by cutting off a little finger, and that's how the king knows it was himself, since he is missing a finger too. I like to imagine that Conall just looked at the king, saw the missing finger, and took a chance on it. It is never said in the story when I tell it, but kind of implied, that Conall is just pulling a Scheherazade, making up tales on the fly in desperation to save the princes' lives. You have to be an awesome storyteller to get away with that three times in a row.
(Scheherazade at least always had a day to think ahead...)

Anyhow, fun story, many possibilities. I really enjoyed assembling my favorite version.

Here is a short list of some of my sources:

Johannes Bolte & Georg Polívka: Anmerkungen zu den Kinder- u. Hausmärchen der Brüder
Grimm, 1913. (Der Rauber und seine Söhne)
Italo Calvino: Italian folktales, 1992. (Three Tales by Three Sons of Three Merchants)
J.F. Campbell: Popular Tales of the West Highlands Vol. 1, 1890. (Conall Cra Bhuidhe)
J.L. Campbell: Stories from South Uist, 1961. (The Byzantine Brigand)
Wilson M. Hudson: Tire Shrinker to Dragster, 1968. (An Gadaí Dubh: The Black Thief)
Joseph Jacobs: Celtic Fairy Tales, 1892. (Conal Yellowclaw)
Andrew Lang: The Red Fairy Book, 1890. (The Black Thief and the Knight of the Glen)

William Thackeray: The Irish Sketch Book, 1843. (The Black Thief of Sloan)

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Story Saturday: Night of the Museums

Story Saturday falls on a Sunday this week. Reason: I spent yesterday in Budapest at the annual Night of Museums, and was too busy to write. Today I am catching up with a full report on some museum storytelling fun :)

I started the afternoon (after getting fabulous Northern Lights-themed make-up done by a friend of mine) at the Hungarian National Museum - and with that, checked another dream museum venue off my bucket list. Incidentally, their theme for this year was Dreams, and they invited me to do two shows, one for kids, and one for adults.
The children's storytelling took place in the crafts room where kids could paint and draw dream creatures; one corner had a carpet and a pile of pillows ready for listening. The room was not very spacious, and it filled up very quickly with children and their parents - about a dozen families or so. I told tales that featured dreams and dreaming in some form: A story about a baku that eats bad dreams, the King's daughter who lost her hair, Ma Liang's magic paintbrush, and La noche del tatú. The little stars in the corners of my eyes didn't last long with all the eye-rubbing I did for the stories; as they fell to the carpet, a little girl immediately collected them for souvenirs. I also had the world's best-behaved two-year-old in the audience, who just happened to have my name.
The adult show took place on the stairs of the museum's main hall; people sat on pillows on the stairs, and I stood below them on the landing. I got a microphone which carried my voice through the echoing main hall and over the noise of people streaming up and down the parallel stairwell. At first I thought I would have some moving traffic, but the stairs soon filled up with listeners, and I ended up with about thirty people sitting through the entire one-hour show (including some well-behaved kids who had parental supervision). I told an Aesop's fable about Zeus inventing dreams (a new addition to my mythology repertoire), a folktale from the Inner Hebrides about the Makers of Dreams (I have wanted to try this one for a long time, it's a gorgeous story); I told Zal and Rudabeh because I could (it does feature a prophetic dream at one point) and it worked miracles as usual; and in closing I told the legend of Angus Og and Caer. The loud, echoing quality the microphone gave my voice was strange at first, but I managed to play with it so it actually added to the storytelling atmosphere. The audience was smiling and very attentive. Adults shows are awesome, because I can tell all the longer, more poetic tales...

After the two dream-shows I traveled across town to Óbuda and climbed a hill to get to the second venue of the night: the Polaris Observatory. The sun was setting when I got there, but they already had telescopes set up on the roof, and people peering at the moon and the evening star. I arrived early enough to sit in on a presentation about the history of telescopes, and learned a lot from it. My own theme was the Northern Lights (hence the make-up and the costuming), and by the time 9pm rolled around the room was so full we started worrying about fire regulations - we easily had 50 adults and children, if not more... In one hour, I had ample time to tell all 5 stories I prepared (see my previous Folklore Thursday post), and they all worked great! I started with Lindu, and then told Niekija (the longest of the five). After the two love stories I decided to go a little darker, and told Lights in a Bottle - there was an adorable and very vocal five-year-old girl in the front row who made comments about the story. I was worried at first that she would be scared of the ghosts in the bottle, but the story itself took care of the issue, by making the Lights chase the ghosts away. Next I told the Scottish legend about the Merry Dancers; the boys in the back cheered loudly for the fighting and the rain of blood. I bought a bracelet made of heliotrope earlier that morning to be able to show the kids what the "blood-stained" rocks look like, and after the show they all lined up to inspect the bracelet up close. I closed the hour with the Estonian story about sleighs in the sky (probably the most cheerful of the five), and let the audience go so they could observe the star-lit night sky from the roof.

All in all, it was a perfect afternoon/evening of storytelling. I especially loved how Night of the Museums made me create two entirely new themed shows. I am definitely keeping them.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Folklore Thursday: 5 Tellable Stories about the Northern Lights

Today is the first Folklore Thursday on social media! If you want to find out more, follow this link, or click on the #FolkloreThursday hashtag on Twitter! Hosted by @FolkloreThursday.

This Saturday is the Night of Museums in Hungary - all museums open all night, with fabulous programs happening everywhere! It is my favorite event of the year, and as usual, I am spending it with storytelling.
The Polaris Observatory in Budapest asked me to visit them and tell tales about the Northern Lights. Isn't that just the prettiest request a storyteller can get?! I threw myself into research, and I soon discovered something: While the Northern Lights inspire a sense of awe and magic in people around the world, most sources bring up the same couple of myths and legends about them over and over again. In addition, a lot of them are only brief descriptions of beliefs ("people used to think they are...") instead of actual stories that can be told in a performance. I had to dig long and deep; I love a challenge like this, but boy was it hard to do without access to Interlibrary Loan. Anyhow, a couple of days of intense research yielded some truly gorgeous results.

In order to organize my notes, and also to help other storytellers who run into the same topic, I decided to list some of the stories I managed to dig up. Enjoy!

1. The Legend of the Milky Way (Estonia)
(No wonder this one's hard to find with a title like that)
This is a folktale from Estonia, telling the story of a maiden named Lindu who took care of directing the birds in their migration. She is proposed to by various celestial bodies - the Sun, the Moon and the North Star - but eventually falls in love with the Northern Lights instead. A beautiful, graceful story, also adapted into a picture book titled Elinda Who Danced in the Sky. The folktale is probably related to the first song of the Kalevipoeg (I mentioned it during Epics A to Z this April).

2. The Nimble Men (Scotland)
This is one of those stories that is mentioned in a lot of sources, but only in passing ("in Scotland they believed the Northern Lights resulted from the Nimble Men fighting in the sky"). I managed to find the actual story with some digging (see the title link). It is a very visual tale with a lot of great imagery and bright colors - the Merry Dances having a ball in the sky that turns into a battle. The "Queen Beira" the story refers to is actually the winter spirit/hag Cailleach Bhéara.

3. Niekija and the Northern Lights (Saami)
The daughter of the Moon runs away from a marriage with the son of the Sun, and while she is in hiding, she falls in love with the Northern Lights. This story exists in a couple of variations, and can be found (among other places) in Far north tales, in The Sun Maiden and the Crescent Moon, and in a picture book called The Son of the Sun and the Daughter of the Moon.

4. Lights in a Bottle (Skolt Lapps)
Another hard-to-track but fascinating tale, collected by Robert Crottet and published in The Enchanted Forest. It involves a mysterious old man who keeps the Northern Lights (souls of the dead) in a bottle, and tries to steal a young man's soul to make himself young again.

5. Sleds in the Sky (Estonia)
This one I found in a Hungarian collection of Finno-Ugric folktales. It tells about a rich man who left home every Thursday night in secret, taking his sled and his horse alone. One night his servant spies on him and sees that the sled is glowing with the colors of the Northern Lights. The servant sneaks onto the sled and goes with his master, who flies up into the sky and spends the night racing other light-sleds, celebrating a celestial wedding. This is how the servant finds out that there are people in the world who lead secret lives as Northern Lights...

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

5 Things to Love about El Ministerio del Tiempo, and 5 I Wish to See in Season 2

I have written previously about the pilot episode of Spain's new hit time-travel TV show, El Ministerio del Tiempo (The Ministry of Time). Since then, the first 8 episode season has concluded, and the show has been renewed for a second season by clamoring popular demand. I did a lot of the clamoring. In my opinion, it was one of the best TV shows I have watched this year, and believe me, I watch a LOT of them.

Here are 5 things I absolutely loved about the Ministry:
(Mild spoilers)

1. The team
The characters I gushed about in the pilot only got better as the season progressed. Amelia, the 19th century Spanish version of Hermione Granger, got to be the official boss of the trio, which I found really cool (usually "brains" and "leader" are two separate characters). An added bonus is that she knows the most about history, even though she is not the most "modern" of the three.
Next to Amelia, the "boys" also showed their very best. Alonso, the 16th century soldier, became the heart and soul of the team - a really lovable big softy. Julián, the 21st century guy, took a graceful supporting position, respecting the higher competence of his teammates whenever the situation required it. The group dynamic was not only excellent between the tree, but also between the rest of the ministry staff.

2. The continued culture shock
Unlike in other time-travel shows (I'm looking at you, Sleepy Hollow), culture shock accompanies the characters all the way through the season, and shows up in delightful small details. Alonso never learns to open vacuum packaging, and doesn't understand why women can vote; Amelia is shocked into silence by the sight of an airplane. The writers even paid attention to which changes they would take to more easily - the 16th century soldier learns to ride a motorbike and shoot a gun fairly quick, but struggles with changes in ethics and society. Amelia adjusts well to culture, but has trouble following government policy. All in all, their adjusting to the 21st century is a work in progress that does not get handwaved away.

3. The cameos
Since there is a definite educational aspect to the show, many famous characters from Spanish history make guest appearances, from Queen Isabel (played by the same actress as in the hit show Isabel) to a slightly neurotic and very lovable Velázquez who works as the ministry's sketch artist. Each episode is full of historical Easter eggs, and characters that inspire their own memes (such as Fifty Shades of Lope de Vega).

4. The humor
The show doesn't take itself very seriously, even if it pays close attention to historical detail. It is peppered with witty one-liners and off-hand history jokes, as well as well-placed time-travel situation humor. One of my favorite scenes is the glance at the Ministy's "smoking room" - a time-gate that leads to a theater's back door where people from all historical eras can stand around smoking in their various costumes, and no one bats an eye. All episodes, even the most action-oriented ones, are balanced out by delightful writing, and the obvious fun the creators had with it.

5. The costuming
Once again, attention to detail. Time agents visiting another era have to dress accordingly - but on top of authenticity, the designers also went for fun, and each mission brings up some new surprises in the fashion department, whether they travel into the 15th century, or the 1980's.

My favorite episode of the eight was probably No. 4, which was an awesome mix of (very meta) Isabel-references, some serious jabs at the Spanish Inquisition, and a medieval Groundhog Day.
With that said, I have seen most of the show twice by now, and I plan on watching it all over again.

And here are 5 things the fangirl in me hopes to see in Season 2:

1. Jaime el Conquistador and Queen Violante
This is the Hungarian in me speaking, but I would definitely lose my mind if Queen Violante made an appearance. She was a Hungarian princess married to one of the most famous kings of Aragon in the 13th century. She was a remarkable woman, and I would love to see her cross path with the Ministry.

2. Romans
The show has not gone to the Roman era yet, but it has been established that it's possible. Clearly, as a Classics person, I would pay to see that.

3. Crossover with Carlos I
TVE is currently working on a follow-up show to Isabel, based on the life of Charles V, Isabel's grandson and Holy Roman Emperor. Since the Ministry has already crossed with Isabel as a joke, they might do it again with Carlos.

4. The other ministries 
It has been established that the Spanish government is not the only one that can travel through time. I hope they will elaborate on that. In my mind, other European countries would get their own Ministries too, and we'd end up with glorious spinoff series all over the place. *cough*Hungary*cough*

5. Moorish Spain
I would love to see an episode take place in Granada or Andalusia before the Reconquista. TVE has been known to shoot its shows inside the Alhambra and other historical sites. I could watch more of that all day, every day.

Conclusion: Watch. This. Show.
Five stars.

Fear and Trembling in Ancient Rome

One of my favorite summer gigs is camp at my former grade school. They invite me over every year for campfire storytelling (which is how storytelling really should be done).
This year, their theme for the week was time travel, and Tuesday evening fell on Ancient Greece and Rome. This is, for all intents and purposes, my home turf, so I was super excited; on top of that, they wanted me to tell scary stories, to create the whole traditional campfire experience.
I don't think they knew what they were asking when they told me "the scarier, the better."

I selected stories from my repertoire, including Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and the odd barbarian or two. I included Petronius' werewolf, Pliny the Younger's haunted house, the Nart skeleton story, and some darker pieces of Greek mythology. Since the organizers specifically asked for a mummy story to prepare the kids for the nighttime "bravery game," I also brushed up on Lord Hamon's case with the Mummy's Hand.
I arrived to the camp around 9 pm, dressed in full Roman garb (I love dressing up for storytelling; it's not really a character thing, but it does get me in the right mindset). The kids, almost 70 of them between the ages of roughly 8 and 14, eyed me from a safe distance; some of the boys demanded to know what I was. When I told them I was the storyteller, they frowned, and informed me that they thought storytelling was boring. I told them I was sorry, since according to camp rules they would have to sit through the horror tales anyway. The word "horror" worked like magic. It's the Achilles heel of middle school apathy.
For the next half hour or so I was surrounded by a swarm of kids, all talking at the same time. They wanted to know what stories I was going to tell, and whether they were going to be really, truly, really seriously VERY scary. I told them they could take their pick from werewolves, ghosts, mummies and dead people, and that choice occupied them for a good while. We also had a conversation about scary movies, video games, the Hunger Games, and superheroes, and by the time I got around to the campfire, one of the boys sat down at my feet muttering "finally somebody normal."

The stories were told in-between some performances by the kids. I decided to start with less scary ones, since the sun was just setting, and work my way up as it got darker. First I told the myth of Mestra, Odysseus' grandmother, and the evil king that ate himself. It is not very scary and only moderately gory, but it has a great mood, and also superpowers (it is included in my book under Shapeshifting). In the second slot I was asked to do something "scarier" at popular demand, preferably featuring werewolves, so I switched gears from Rome to Vikings, and told a child-friendly version of Sigmund and Sinfjötli (yes, there is such a thing as child-friendly gore). During the following break, I started getting signals that I had hit the kids' limit of "scary" sooner than I expected - a little girl asked me to not do anything "scarier than these," and a boy confessed that he might have nightmares if I tell about ghosts. Now, the mummy story I planned is not only allegedly a true event, but it is also truly terrifying - I was pretty sure it would max out the "they won't sleep for days" category, which might cause trouble for the camp leaders.
With that in mind, I made a judgment call. I told the kids that some people are scared of things, and others are scared of others; I didn't want to tell something horrible and make anyone feel bad. Instead I offered to tell them an adventure tale that just happened to be about Fear. I could see the shier kids relax, and the louder ones settled for adventure instead of horror.
I told the Red Lion, and it worked like a charm as usual. After the story, several kids came up to me to talk, and I stayed around for a while as the campfire died down and the leaders set up for the nighttime game. Some kids wanted to know if the stories were true; I talked to them about why people tell stories, and what we can learn from each. Some of them still demanded 'scarier' tales, but the telling time had passed; we had a conversation about dragons instead.

All in all, it was a fun gig, even if it didn't go quite the way I planned. I think the concept of "scary" stories meant something else for the leaders than what I had in my repertoire - I don't do jump tales at all. I am not a horror person, but if I go Halloween, I go for the chills.