Monday, March 23, 2015

Theme Reveal: Epics from A to Z!

Roll out the red carpet, ready the cameras. The A to Z Challenge Theme Reveal is here!

Those of you who have visited my blog before will not be terribly surprised. For the past two years I have done themes related to folktales, fairy tales, and other traditional stories. Since, you know. I'm a storyteller.
(Last year's theme was Tales with Colors, and the year before it was Weird Princesses)

This year's theme was brought to you by a very special occasion: I have received the J.J. Reneaux Mentorship Grant from the National Storytelling Network. This grant allows me to work with a master storyteller in order to develop my skills further in a specific field of storytelling. I am honored and excited to be the mentoree of Cathryn Fairlee, and learn about telling epics and other long-form traditional tales.
In the spirit of making the most of this opportunity, my theme lines up with my mentorship project. It shouldn't be a complete shock...


This year's theme will be: Epics from A to Z!

I have been scheduling posts since January. I have read all the 26 epics that I will post about, one for each letter (okay, almost all of them. You'll see). The posts will tell you a little bit about where each epic came from (time, culture, geographical place), introduce you to the hero(es) and heroines, and then provide a witty and whimsical (*cough*) list of highlights to show you how awesome epics can be, and give you an idea of why you should read them.

I hope you will find these old stories as intriguing, fascinating, and all-around... epic, as I did. I also hope that you will find some that you have not heard about before - I purposefully picked less well-known stories whenever I could. Many of them were new for me too. I am excited to invite you along on this adventure!
Happy A to Z!

(Click here to read my other theme reveal today on MopDog: 26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary)

Friday, March 20, 2015

Teaching English has never been about grammar tests

I tell stories in English. I write (and publish) in English. I got a Fulbright Scholarship, and I am doing my PhD in the USA. I read books in English for fun. I watch TV shows in English. At this point, I am technically bilingual.
None of this would have happened, if I didn't have great English teachers.
Including my mother.

My mother never sat down with me to fill out grammar tests; she never made me practice Past Perfect, or Spanish conjugations in the afternoon. What she did was a lot more important, and a lot more effective than that: As I grew up I watched her, day after day, take honest enjoyment from using the language. I saw her with English books in her hand, reading for fun. I saw her watch TV shows and movies. I heard her sing along with English and Spanish songs, and she taught them to me too. And, most of all, I watched her prepare for all of her classes with incredible excitement, passion, and attention to detail.
She didn't make me learn the language - she made me LIKE the language.
And she does the same with her students.

Too many language teachers in Hungary think that language is about grammar. They make the students painfully fill out pages after pages of grammar tests and incomplete sentences - often explaining all the rules in Hungarian, and barely speaking English in class at all. This is due to our national system of "language certificates" that are based on tests, with a smaller oral component. The general belief is that once you have the grammar down pat, speaking will come easy (that is not how it works at all - people will stress out about perfect grammar, and rather not say anything they are not sure about). Hence, most English teachers regard anything that is not a workbook as a complete waste of time.
Things like singing.
Things like playing.
Things like watching TV shows together.
Things like riddles.
Things like tongue-twisters.
Things like reading Harry Potter.
Things like storytelling.

Things like a Creative English Contest.

My mother works for a bilingual vocational high school. In the past five years she has been organizing a regional English contest that fit her philosophy of teaching: It was supposed be, above all, FUN for the students. It was a kind of talent show where participants could sing, or tell stories, of perform scenes from a play, or even rap. There were cookies, and drinks, a general good mood, and multiple prizes. Not because of the "everyone gets a trophy" mentality - but because my mother understood that teenagers standing up in front of a crowd, performing creative work in a foreign language, and enjoying it, is one hell of an accomplishment in itself.
(An accomplishment that would even make most English teachers break out in hives, I might add)

This year, they decided to take the contest away from her. They said they will make it better. More respectful to the reputation of the school. They will have frontal audiences, sitting politely. No food, no drinks, no music, and, most of all, no English. There will be a hierarchy of winners, from best to worst. It will be great.

I have seen my mother, and her way of teaching, work wonders on highschoolers. They passed language exams with flying colors (to the endless surprise of Team Dry Grammar). I have seen many of them go on to scholarships, semesters abroad, or bilingual jobs, and I have read the emails they send her years later, when they finally realize how much of an advantage her teaching style has given them.
It is not about grammar.
It is not about Present Perfect.
It is not about Perfect at all.
It is about Self-confidence, Creativity, and Fun.

Some teachers will never understand  that. But the good ones do.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

St. Patrick's Day post: A love letter to Irish stories

It is nine in the morning, and the cops are already picking up piss-drunk college students all dressed as leprechauns.
I am not Irish. As far as I know, none of my close or far ancestors are even remotely Irish. I am also not American, so I am experiencing this whole day through the double lens of an outsider.
And yet, I can't help but take it personally.
As a storyteller.

Take my advice: Do NOT visit today. The green will burn your eyes out. There is green nail polish, glittery green shamrocks, leprechaun costumes from all points of the Halloween spectrum, Irish cookbooks, and a scattering of Irish History for Dummies. Out of morbid curiosity, I visited the children's books section. I shouldn't have.
Not. A single. Irish story in sight.
Believe me, it is not for the lack of available materials.
So, instead of ranting even more, I decided to get personal, and give you a little tour of my love affair with Irish stories, through a list of books.

Dömötör Tekla: Germán, Kelta Regék és Mondák [German and Celtic Tales and Legends]
I found this book on my uncle's bookshelf when I was maybe twelve or thirteen years old. It was my first venture outside of Greek mythology, and instantly enchanted me forever. The first part of the book was Norse mythology, the Niebelungenlied, and German folktales; the second half was Irish mythology, Welsh mythology, and Arthurian legends. It was my very first encounter with Lugh, Angus Og, Conn of the Hundred Battles, Maeldun, Cú Chulainn... and Fionn Mac Cool.

Rosemary Sutcliff: The High Deeds of Finn Mac Cool
I was in high school, preparing for an ESL competition. Every contestant had to read a book in English and then do a presentation on it. Digging around in the gloomy "foreign languages" section of our library, stuffed under a bunch of Dick and Jane books, I found a tiny volume titled The High Deeds of Finn Mac Cool. The name sounded familiar. I read the book.
I fell in love. Hard.
This was the late 1990's. All of my classmates were throwing screaming fangirl fits over Leonardo DiCaprio and the Backstreet Boys. Meanwhile I, being the nerd of the herd, had a hardcore crush on Oisín, and wanted to be a bard.
(My English teacher told me I could keep the book if I won the contest. I didn't. When six years later I came to the USA for the first time, this book was my first Amazon order).

Arthur Cotterell: The Encyclopedia of Mythology 
I also found this one (in Hungarian) in our high school library, and pretty much had it constantly checked out until I graduated. Some of the pictures burned into my mind so deep I still recall them every time I tell the corresponding story. For example, here is the picture of Macha's Curse - see my experience with telling in the previous post about Epic Day.

Lady Augusta Gregory: Gods and Fighting Men
The first Hungarian translation of this book came out in 2006. I fell in love with the Fianna around 2000-2001. I found the English version online or Sacred Texts, and spent hours applying my shaky English reading skills to it, page by page. It was a lot of work, but every deciphered story came as a new discovery. It was about the same time i started telling some of them to my friends. I didn't know what a storyteller was yet, but the stories wanted out.

Michael Foss: Celtic Myths and Legends
I stared at this book in the window of our local book shop (on my way to school) for a long time before I decided to spend my allowance money on it. Even in Hungarian it was a hard read, not the child-friendly rendition of tales I was used to. But it was also my first introduction to stories like the Children of Lir or the Battles of Magh Tuireadh.

W. B. Yeats: Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry
I got a large, heavy, English print version of this for my 17th birthday from my parents (who by then learned what my taste was in books). I didn't only get to practice advanced English on it, but also learned a whole lot about the Irish fairy folk. If I had any doubts before about the "cute fairy" stereotype, this book completely slayed it for me. Teig O'Kane is still one of my favorite stories.

When I decided to become a storyteller and travel, the world of Irish storytelling opened up for me. I got to meet people like Richard Marsh, Yvonne HealyClare Murphy, Liz Weir, and Brendan Nolan (among many, many others), and I finally had others to talk with about all the stories I have loved and cherished for so long. I got to visit American libraries and delve into their collections in search of more stories, more legends, and most of all, more Fianna. I grew as a storyteller and as a person; but none of this would have happened if I had not wanted to be an Irish bard first.

There is a saying that claims that if the name of Fionn Mac Cumhail is not spoken at least once every day, the world will come to an end.
Well, not on my watch.
(I still have a crush on Oisín)

Finally, here is a new find of mine. This book I got as a gift from my mentor Cathryn Fairlee. It is significant because it is the first novelization of Fianna legends that I actually like, because the author's idea of Finn and his men is very close to how I have imagined them over the years. I am only halfway through the book, but I am loving it.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Laughter, tears, and lots of blood – My first ever Epic Day!

Thanks to the J.J. Reneaux Mentorship Grant, I was able to travel to the West Coast for the first time (I really wandered away from home…) and participate in Epic Day. Cathryn Fairlee, the mother of Epic Day, happens to be my mentor, therefore I was totally obligated to make the trip on the grant money. Totally.
I have always loved epics and other long-form traditional stories, and always hoped to share my enthusiasm with other people. Epic Day is the ideal venue for that. Not only it is all about epics (a different one every year) but it also consists of a group of devoted, bright, and story-savvy people who love epics every bit as much as I do. Some of us traveled farther than others, but everyone was there because they would not have missed it for the world.
This year’s Epic Day featured the Táin bó Cúailnge, the Cattle-Raid of Cooley, Ireland’s national epic mostly known for its main hero, Cú Chulainn. The story was separated into 18 parts and performed by 20 eager participants; without the pee and lunch breaks, it took up a total of 5 hours and 45 minutes.
After Cathryn’s short introduction to the Táin and its world, I had the responsibility and the pleasure to kick off the epic with the tale of Macha. It was one of the shortest episodes, but a very important one, and also the only part of the Táin that I have told before. It features the hands-down best curse in Irish mythology, and a very powerful female character. Once I was done, all I had to do was curl up on the couch, relax, and listen as the epic flowed on.
Hearing the entire story told in one day was an incredible experience. I am not new to storytelling or long stories, but epic-telling and epic-listening is a whole different mindset. You settle into the story with the commitment to follow it all the way through, get invested in the characters, and ride the whole emotional roller coaster from start to finish. It is intense, emotionally exhausting, and absolutely wonderful.
Everyone did something different with their part. Some told in Irish accents; some only used an accent in the dialogues; some did not use an accent at all, or used modern slang when needed. Some told in the first person; some left the poetry in, chanting or singing it, and the sung version of Scathach's prophecy was absolutely haunting. Everyone told according to their own style, and the pieces still fit together perfectly into one continuous story.

So here is what I learned from Epic Day: Hearing an epic told orally is vastly different from reading it on the page. (Duh.) I have read the Táin before, and it has never been one of my favorites; I had no emotional investment in Cú Chulainn (I'm more of a Fionn Mac Cumhaill gal), and I found a lot of the descriptions weird and over-the top. But when the story was told, grotesque turned hilarious, gory turned into satire, and suddenly the entire thing was a lot more enjoyable. Storytellers competing in who can come up with the most ridiculous description of a feat, or who can describe an over-the-top heroic deed in greater detail, gave spice and life to the entire experience. For example, Tim Ereneta somehow managed to deliver the line "I will stand above you like a cat's tail erect!" with a perfectly straight face and a resounding, heroic voice.
 Cú Chulainn's "war spasm" quickly became a running joke that kept returning in various episodes, and storytellers of all styles had great fun with the descriptions (which are usually somewhere between the Hulk and a Transformer). After a while, we started cheering for the "war spasm" scenes. Similarly, the high number of casualties turned into a theme, and I faithfully scored the certified kills on the program card. In the end we had 2169 fallen heroes, two dead bulls, a dead horse, and a dead hound. Cathryn might need a new carpet.

One of the dramatic high points of the epic is the duel between Cú Chulainn and his former foster-brother Ferdia. It is not only full of heroic feats, but it is also emotionally heavy, and culminates in an epic fight scene. Cassie Cushing got that latter part, and she did not only figure out how the fight choreography probably went, but also demonstrated it with great skill in gestures and very grounded stances. She did a brilliant job.
Another fun part of the event was the thunderstorm that rolled around halfway through the epic, exactly in time with Michael's part about Cú Chulainn's first encounter with the invading army. The episode itself is kind of like an ominous set-up for a horror movie, with an unknown enemy leaving threatening clues for the attackers, and it went great with the sudden darkness and the rolling thunder. Brownie points for Michael, he made the most of the opportunity. We also took the chance to get our group picture with a rainbow in the background:

All in all, Epic Day was an incredible experience. We took frequent breaks, not just because of the amount of great coffee Cassie supplied us with, but also to give ourselves time to digest the episodes, talk about them, figure out and compare different parts, and share our feelings about the experience. We bonded over the story, and over many other things, and it did not take an entire day before I felt completely at home as the newest member of the epic family. 
We will do the same story once again in the fall, and I am sure it will be both new and equally awesome. I'm looking forward to it.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Turnip Princess is here and it's great

So, remember that one Guardian article from 2012 that some people still post on your Facebook wall every other week? It's titled "Five hundred new fairy tales discovered in Germany!" Well, good news: the much-awaited English translation is finally here!
Well, actually, a bilingual German-English volume has been out since last year, but the new book, titled The Turnip Princess, adds another batch of sixty-something tales now available in English. Yay!
I have probably waited the publication of this book with more excitement than most people wait for the new Star Wars movie. My boyfriend ordered it for me as a late birthday present (because for some reason not all folktale collections are published on my birthday, which is a crying shame). I devoured the entire volume in two days, and my copy now looks like this:

In which green slips stand for stories I want to tell (14), orange slips stand for stories that are also included in the other volume (7), and pink slips stand for notable moments. I have been busy.
The edition itself is very well done. Stellar intro from Maria Tatar (Hungarian pride!), extensive and thought-provoking notes on each tale, and an appendix with archive numbers, folktale types, and places of collection. Everything a storyteller can wish for.

And now, for some of the highlights!

1. Even though Tatar claims it's "not part of the European canon," the story of King Goldenlocks is actually a version of The Golden-haired gardener, a Hungarian folktale I just told two months ago at the Tenerife storytelling festival. I have never known another version of it, so I was delighted to find one in here!
2. Similarly, The Flying Trunk proved to be another variation of a Hungarian folktale that I included in my own book (The Winged Prince), and never found another version of. It is also a Cinderfella story where a prince loses a boot...
3. I was most excited about the Dung Beetle Prince tale that was teased in some of the articles, and it turned out to be the most adorable little story. I won't spoil it, but it's great.
4. There is a great number of tales in the volume that feature wood sprites, wood nymphs, gnomes, mermaids, and other mythical creatures, and most of them seem to be on amicable terms with humans. The darker steak is reserved for the mermaids who destroy mortals by loving them; but the woodland creatures are generally helpful and friendly, and revel a less known side of German folklore.
5. There is a version of the Pied Piper in this book (The Mousecatcher, or the Boy and the Beetle) that picks up where the children disappear inside the mountain. Think about that for a moment.
6. This volume (and the other one as well) features a tale that is a full-blown prequel to the popular "Tall, Wide and Sharpsight" folktale type, explaining how the magical helpers in these stories originally received their abilities. Yup. It's a superhero origin story, and it's titled Sir Wind and His Wife.
7. There is a tale of mortal girls marrying ice giants and living happily ever after.
8. At the end of a "Valiant Little Tailor" type story the princess refuses to be given as a prize and makes plans to murder the hero she is forced to marry.
9. There is a magical procedure described for turning a dragon back into a princess. (People get turned into some weird things in this book - among others weasels, tortoises, beetles, and little fish.)
10. There are several recognizable elements of pagan mythology, such as a folktale version of Freya's necklace.
11. More than one story deals with why people should not torture animals or vandalize trees. The tree one (The Singing Tree) gets especially creative in driving the point home.

Definitely a recommended read for storytellers.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The best time-travel TV show you are probably not watching this season

Eat your heart out, Ichabod Crane.

Following the resounding success of Spain's high-profile, three-season historical TV show Isabel (also available on Hulu now), Spanish TV has once again gone and done it: This week sees the premiere of a brand new series that ambitiously encompasses the entirety of Spanish history through time travel. And damn do they do it right.

El Ministerio del Tiempo (Ministry of Time) is the story of a secret government agency that oversees the "doors of time" that lead to various points and places in Spanish history. The agents, recruited from many different eras, are responsible for keeping the country's history on track in the face of unforeseen complications, such as rival (French) time travelers trying to change the course of past events. The three main characters are Julián, a 21st century paramedic, Amelia, a 19th century early feminist and university student, and Alonso, a dashing 16th century soldier. They are all picked for their unique qualities and struggle with their own problems in their own eras, but come together as a team for missions to save the past and present of Spain. "Without them, the future is history."

The show is remarkable for a number of reasons:
(Mild spoilers)

1. It gives its audiences the benefit of the doubt. Instead of trying to spell out everything repeatedly ad nauseam, they allow the viewers the courtesy of assuming they all graduated a high school history class. The writers throw themselves with obvious enjoyment into their own country's culture, and drop names and references like they are hot; all needed explanations are made by the three protagonists, who often have to explain things to each other as well (and it's not always the 21st century guy that knows the answer).

2. It does culture shock and does it well. While Sleepy Hollow was dubbed by some of my friends as "the 5 minute culture shock," MdT pays attention to detail. Characters awkwardly try to figure out whether they should kiss, shake hands, or bow. Alonso is endlessly mesmerized by cars, but in return Julián has to admit on the first mission he doesn't know how to ride a horse. The absolute winning moment for me, however, was when Amelia was taken into the 21st century, and her (female) boss started her training by introducing her to the miracles of tampons. Apparently feminine hygiene products are even exempt from the Ministry's "no objects allowed outside their own time" policy. Brownie points.

3. It has a sense of humor. There were several moments where I burst out giggling; MdT doesn't take itself too seriously, and that makes the whole show endearing. Good acting adds to moments of humor, and some throwaway lines make the Ministry all the more likable. Because who else would you want as a sketch artist to catch potential suspects if not Diego Velázquez?...

4. It combines entertainment with education. Since it is based on Spanish history, once again RTVE is using the power of entertainment to teach viewers more about their heritage. The website, just like Isabel's, is full of extra information, social media links, timelines, interviews, the works. There is clearly a lot of effort that went into linking the adventures on screen to what really happened. According to historians, obviously.

Long story short: Time (heh) to brush up on your high school Spanish and crack open some history tomes. I'll definitely be a regular viewer.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Announce your A to Z theme with us on March 23rd!

Announcing the Great and Powerful A to Z Theme Reveal Blogfest!

Sign-ups for the 2015 A to Z Blogging Challenge are already under way. If you have done it before, you know how much fun it is (good for you!) and if you have not, this is your chance to give it a try! You can sign up to participate here.

One of the most burning questions participants ask themselves every year is: "Should I have a theme?"
Themes are not mandatory, but definitely fun. They let your visitors know what to expect, and help you create posts that line neatly up from A to Z. They also have an added bonus: They let you participate in a whole separate blogfest!

Two years ago A to Z participant Mina Lobo started the Theme Reveal, and we thought it was such a great idea that we made it tradition. It is now our very own, grand and festive way of rolling out our themes together!

Here is how the Theme Reveal Blogfest works:

Sing up on the Linky list below, and on March 23rd (Monday) publish a post on your blog in which you reveal your theme, tell us why it is exciting, and give us a hint of what to expect from it. Then, once your post is up, use the Linky to visit all the other blogs announcing their themes. Enjoy!

This is a great opportunity for all of you to get a jump start on your A to Z experience. You can link up with fellow bloggers, scout out and bookmark themes that you look forward to, and set out delicious themed bait on your blog to lure in wandering participants! This way, by the time the frenzied posting begins on April 1st, you will already have an audience eagerly awaiting your posts.

Sign up below, ready your theme, and mark March 23rd in your calendar!