Monday, September 30, 2019

The Beauty in the Tale: Medieval Story Camp with the Világszép Foundation

Gather around, people, I'm going to tell you about my day job.
Two years ago I joined the Világszép Foundation as one of their resident storytellers. The Foundation was started in 2010 with the goal of aiding and supporting children in the state care system. Originally it organized summer camps, and then they added a volunteer storytelling program that sends tellers to group homes to tell bedtime stories to the children (we don't call these orphanages because most of the kids are not orphans, they just can't live with their family for various reasons). Since then, we have added several new programs, such as an inclusive kindergarten, inclusive after school programs, volunteer mentors, and career and crisis help. Still, the summer camps remain a large part of our work; we organize 6 or 7 of them every summer in the Story Center in Paloznak, a magical, peaceful lace by Lake Balaton. Storytelling is an integral part of every camp, but for kids aged 8-11 we specifically organize Story Camps around a theme. This year, our theme was Knights and Chivalry, and I would like to tell you more about it.

The camp was five beautiful, sunny days long. We started off each day with nursery rhymes and storytelling, and closed each one with a story and a lullaby (it might seem like nursery rhymes and lullabies are strange for this age group, but they create a connection that the kids rarely get to experience). The theme was all about chivalry, especially virtues: we used the stories to start discussions and activities about how real knights treat each other and the people around them. We had many adventures, built castles, made shields, and even held a tournament at the end of the week, after which we knighted all fourteen children.

Of course all of this would not have been a coherent whole without the storytelling. Story Camp is always especially fun for the tellers because we get to tell to the same audience regularly, opening and closing every day. The story collection for the camp took a lot of research, planning, and collecting to fit the age group, the virtues, the themes, the activities, and the Világszép philosophy - I had a lot of fun compiling it, and I was quite proud of the result. We ended up having nine "official" stories:
Prince Milinkuc (Hungarian folktale about a prince who has an incredible dream that he holds on to through many trials, and an evil ing who sends him various riddles to solve)
Dame Ragnell (A 15th century feminist classic, asking the big question: "What is it that all women want the most?")
Sistram and the Dragon (King Dietrich and his mentor drag a young knight out of a dragon's mouth - teamwork, people!)
The Kitchen Knight (Sir Gareth arrives to Camelot as a kitchen lad, but then goes on a quest with sassy Lady Lynet and proves his worth)
Astolfo travels to the Moon (A snippet from Orlando Furioso where an English knight takes a hippogriff to the Moon to find the lost common sense of his best friend)
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (I LOVE telling a classic to an audience that has not heard it before!)
The Bonny Lass of Anglesey (Scottish ballad about an epic dance-off between a brave lady and some English lords)
Culhwch and Olwen (Old Welsh superhero team-up with a brave prince and some famous knights from Arthur's court)
Damon and Pythias (A medieval retelling of an old Greek tale of Friendship where one friends offers to die in the place of another)

It is always great fun for a storyteller to tell to the same audience for days. Kids get used to the stories and the medieval world, and become familiar with some of the characters (Sir Gawain, obviously, became a fan favorite). Three of us shared the nine stories above, so the kids also got to hear different styles of storytelling. You could tell that they were very much engaged because they made comments, asked questions, and even corrected us when we said something wrong (sometimes to the point where I had to take a pause to laugh myself).

Beside the "official" storytelling times, I also adored spontaneous storytelling moments, of which we had quite a lot. We had afternoon nap time every day, but since this age group doesn't really nap (or stay quiet) anymore, I offered them that they could join me in the Story Room (yes, we have one) and lie down to listen to some tales. These were my favorite moments of the entire camp: I sat on a couch surrounded by children - some listening intently, some dozing off, and some lying quietly until it was their turn to open their eyes and tell me what I should tell next. They were peaceful, beautiful afternoons filled with stories. At one point the kids discovered that I like superheroes and I speak Marvel (we got into a conversation over lunch about whether or not Thor's hammer is made of vibranium) (it isn't) they came to the afternoon sessions to ask for "superhero stories." I defaulted to Thor and Loki since the interest was already there... and I ended up telling them my entire Norse mythology repertoire. They listened with rapt attention, asked questions, discussed details, compared myth to Marvel, and even acted out some fun moments of the stories (such as Thor pretending to be a bride). Once again, I discovered how pop culture can be a bridge to traditional stories, and I got to nerd out to my heart's extent.
Every once in a while a kid asked for a story when no one else was around. These moments also had a certain kind of magic, and I tried my best to select stories that would fit that very special one-person audience.

I told twenty-three stories in five days, and each of them was a very memorable, unique experience. Whether it was with the whole group, or with a few kids, or just one child, they all carried the story-magic of Paloznak and the Világszép (lit. "Beauty of the World") atmosphere. They were days filled with smiles, hugs, sunshine, swimming, fruit straight from the trees, and peace. It was the perfect place to be, and I would not trade it for any other gig or performance.
I'm already counting down the days for next summer!


  1. I struggle to find the words to say how much I love this post. Those fortunate children--maybe not in other parts of their lives, but in these moments with you and the other storytellers. I stand amazed and delighted.

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