Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Tales of the Golden Corpse (Epic Day 2016/1)

I had the pleasure and the privilege to once again join Epic Day. After telling the Táin twice last year, both of which events were an amazing experience, I returned to California for a long weekend for a brand new epic, and some spectacular storytelling.

This year's selection came from outside Europe, as traditional for Epic Day, which is celebrating its 12th year in 2016. We voted last fall, and the majority decided on the Tibetan Tales of the Golden Corpse. This is not as much an epic as a traditional collection of tales within a continuous frame story (much like the 1001 Nights). It was different enough from the previous year's bloody war story that participants were eager to delve into it, and revel in the contrast.

There were 18 storytellers and some audience present; about 25 people gathered in Cathryn Fairlee's great storytelling room, bringing snacks and stories. We begun telling around 11 am, and finished just before 6 pm - not counting the breaks, the string of stories amounted to about five and a half hours. It was a nice, comfortable day of storytelling - and great fun as well.
In Tales of the Golden Corpse, a boy has to atone for his rash decisions by fulfilling a quest given to him by a Buddhist master: He has to carry a magical gold-and-turquoise corpse from a cemetery all the way to the master's cave, and he is forbidden to speak even a word while doing it. If he speaks, the corpse flies back to where it started, and the boy has to begin the trek all over again. The corpse, on the other hand, tries its best to make the boy lose - in order to coax a verbal reaction out of him, it keeps telling enticing stories that end with a twist or a cliffhanger. The boy falls for the trick every single time... hence, we get a long series of stories.
The tales themselves are more folk- and fairy tale-like than truly "epic." Some are variations of the animal husband or Beauty and the Beast; others have elements of the Kind and the Unkind Girls. All are saturated in Tibetan culture; some heroines remembered their past lives, and the story I selected dealt with the journey of a soul stuck outside its original body (which, by the way, was the eeriest of all the tales, and it could have easily doubled as a D&D adventure).
It was stunning to see how differently this Epic Day felt from the Táin. While the latter was a form of deep trance, following a hero from birth to bloody death and riding the emotional rollercoaster of Iron Age Irish myth, the Tales of the Golden Corpse were mostly light-hearted and often hilarious. There is something to say about the storytellers being a tad more comfortable here: Everyone had their own individual tale, so we worried a lot less about connecting with the others telling before and after; this also encouraged tellers to bring their own style to each tale, instead of trying to match others (in addition, there were a lot less names to painstakingly pronounce). The tales also felt less serious, and allowed for more playfulness, which we all took advantage of (while still respecting the stories and the culture, obviously). I am not saying this experience was any better or worse than the Táin - but it was profoundly different, and I am glad I got to experience both.

Some things stayed the same, though. For example, once again the true nature of the tales only emerged from oral telling. I read the book in preparation, and many of the stories felt "off," weird or even grotesque - but when I heard them told live, they all made perfect sense, and "grotesque" turned into "hilarious." We also soon found our connecting rhythm of running jokes - in the frame story. Everyone had to narrate Daychosangbo trekking back to the cemetery before their own story, and narrate the moment when the boy spoke and the corpse flew away in the end. This repetition did not only connect our telling into one continuous, shared experience, but also offered a great opportunity to add our own creativity to the repetition. Some people simply mimed the motions; others winked at the audience while the boy swore that this time he will surely keep his mouth shut; and everyone had a lot of fun with the questions or comments that burst out of the boy's mouth and ruined the silence. I also learned in practice that these questions or comments worked in telling, even if they seemed strange on paper. I changed  mine, because it didn't make sense to me when I read it; but after this experience, I think I'll switch back to the original question when we tell again in the fall.
(This is why I love it that there are two events for each year's epic)

One of my favorite moments of the day was Liz Nichols' telling of the Gold-Spitting Prince. In this story, two friends defeat a giant frog and a giant turtle; the monsters turn into tiny gems, and by swallowing them, the boys gain the power to spit gold and turquoise. Liz brought us bowls of gummy turtles and gummy frogs, in case we wanted to try for ourselves. Of course no one swallowed any of them whole (I think), but it was still very amusing to munch on some candy while listening to the tale (it's one of my favorite folktale types, I included the Mongolian version in my book).

All in all, we had a great day of fun tales, tasty snacks, and storytelling friends. I am looking forward to doing it all over again in the fall!

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like an awesome day :-)
    I also find some folk stories to sounds so strange on paper, but you're probably right: that's because they are meant to be told aloud.