Building a story world is part of crafting a story. This world building does not demand that the story-crafter live in that world. If that were the case, none of us would be able to tell very many stories. Story crafters can use research and imagination to build their story worlds. But imagination, in my experience, is rooted in the world I consider especially mine – not my everyday world, but the world of my heart. And I know that world not in words but through my senses, not only visually but through sounds, feelings, and even smell.
The world that anchors my imagination is centered around a small town in northern New Mexico. Los Alamos occupies a number of the mesas along the Pajarito Plateau between the Jemez Mountains and the valley of the Rio Grande. This world has specific boundaries (I am using the word “boundaries” with the meanings of “edges” not the meaning of something that cannot be crossed.)
The Jemez Mountains -- more usually referred to as “The Jemez” (HAY-mez) – define the western edge of my childhood world. I still know the shapes of those mountains as well as I know the shape of my own hands. The eastern edge of the world was marked by a much newer and far more official boundary. Where the last of the volcanic eruptions that resulted in the mountains of the Jemez occurred approximately 40,000 years ago, the “Main Gate” of Los Alamos was erected in 1943 after the United States Government acquired a portion of the Pajarito Plateau (between the Jemez and the Rio Grande valley) for use by the Manhattan Project.
It was not until 1949 that a young chemist, who had spent the war years on the Project, but at Oak Ridge, drove his pre-war Plymouth up the narrow road the clung to the side of a cliff east of Los Alamos. He and his wife had travelled from Wisconsin, where he had just finished a post-doc, to New Mexico with their new baby girl tucked into a basket in the back seat.
That is why my father always told me I came to Los Alamos as a baby in a basket – it sounds a bit Biblical but that was not my father’s intent. Besides I’ve seen the basket. It would not have floated. Given my age at the time, I have no idea if my parents checked in at the war-time Main Gate, or the “newer one,” the one I do remember. Soon we were all settled in the form of housing called a Sundt, directly across the street from what was then called the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, where my father spent his entire career.
With the passage of time, my parents moved to one of the post-war neighborhoods, one built for the vast numbers of young scientists hired by the Lab to work on the development of what was sometimes called the H-bomb. Many of these scientists arrived, as had my father, with a wife and the beginnings of a family. The ones who were single soon snapped up (or were snapped up by) the young teachers hired to work in the Los Alamos School system. In any case it was the era of the baby boom and the US Government spent the early 50’s building laboratory facilities to replace the wartime buildings and neighborhoods to house that baby boom.
My family ended up in what was called Western Area, a neighborhood of one-story single and duplex houses with nice yards and an average of three kids per family. For the kids, the best thing about Western Area was playing in “The Woods.” This was an extensive ponderosa pine forest with canyons both to the south and north of the slopes that led up into the Jemez.
We were, at a rather young age, allowed – nay encouraged during the summers – to leave home after breakfast and play in the woods, canyons and all. Sometimes we went as part of a pack of kids, but solitary exploration was also common.
Thus I, at the age of 8 or 9, started to find the world that would provide me the raw material for the world of stories like one of my favorite Norwegian folktales. Shortshanks!
In this tale, collected and published by Asbjornsen and Moe, Shortshanks was the younger of a pair of twins born to an impoverished family. As soon as he arrived, the elder of the twins sat up, looked around, and announced to his mother: “I can see there’s no room for me here. Give me a bite of food to eat and a rag to wear and I’ll be on my way.”
The poor mother was not a woman who was willing to turn a newborn loose, but the child won the argument, took the food and toddled off. Soon the second twin put in his appearance, made the same observation and the same demand as his brother and also toddled away.
Once he caught up with his brother, the twins sat down, shared their food and decided to name themselves. Thus the elder became “King Sturdy,” and the younger “Shortshanks.” The twins then divided the world in two and parted. Before bidding his brother farewell, King Sturdy told Shortshanks, “If you ever need help give me a shout, and I’ll show up.” But he wasn’t that good a big brother because he added, “First be sure you really need me. I won’t like it if I find out you could have settled matters on your own.”
To that, Shortshanks answered, “Then it will be a long time before we see each other again.” And off he went, stumping and stamping and stamping and stomping along the traill that wound through thick pine forest.
Research tells me that the large conifers of Norway are the Norway spruce and the Scots pine, not the Ponderosa pines I stumped and stamped and stamped and stumped through in the woods. But the feeling of independent and maybe slightly scary aloneness among trees that towered far over my head is one I can give to Shortshanks.
Yes. A world of story, built from my world with research and imagination,
I have been looking back at some of the earlier entries in this blog and have found my first reactions to El Becerro. I had just been to the 2014 NSN Conference where New Mexican storyteller Joe Hayes had used the story in his class on working with stories from different cultures. El Becerro (the word means “calf” or “young bull”) goes like this:
There was an old woman who, as was the custom, sent her cattle into the mountains for the summer. Unfortunately, she soon fell terribly ill and learned that she would not survive unless she drank a broth made from the liver of a calf. Since her own cattle were not available, she went to her neighbor, an old man who had kept one of his own calves in the valley. He agreed to “loan” her that calf. (“Loaning” meant she could slaughter the calf he gave her and pay him back with one of her own at the end of summer.)
The broth did not help and the old woman did not survive. Once the cattle returned from the mountains the old man asked the woman’s son for a calf. When the young man refused to pay his mother’s debt, the old man’s wife came up with a plan. The couple pretended to forget about the matter.
When the time came to clean the acequia, the communally-owned irrigation ditch, the old man asked the Mayordomo, the ditch boss, to schedule the young man’s first water in the middle of the night. The Mayordomo was well aware of the argument between the neighbors and agreed to do just that.
On the night the young man went out to the irrigation gate to turn his share of the water into his fields, he saw a strange and wavering figure in the distant trees, a figure who called out to him in a tearful voice.
He was terrified and turned to run, but the figure seemed to come closer. “Do not be afraid, m’jito,” she cried. “It is me, your own mother. I need your help. I owe my neighbor a calf and I cannot reach heaven until my debt is paid. Please m’jito pay my debt. Give the old man a calf. No, wait, give him two for all the trouble you have caused him.”
Terrified, the young man went straight home and spent the rest of the night under his bed, trembling.
The old man emerged from the bushes. While his wife untangled her best bedsheet from the branches, he turned moved the water from the young man’s field to his own.
The next morning the young man took his two best calves to his neighbor’s house. When they opened the door, he – with deep apologies – gave both calves to the old couple.
In 2014, I was interested in the ways research could help me build the world of this story. Why did the community send their cattle into the mountains? What exactly was an acequia, and how did the community work together to clean it? Why and how was the irrigation water allocated? Since I had lived in Northern New Mexico for almost forty years, I knew the answers to most of these questions, but I had a lot of fun digging deeper.
Now that I am looking more broadly at the world of the story, I am realizing that I am more closely connected to El Becerro than I originally thought. As a matter of fact, I met one of the calves in the story (or at least one very like him.)
During my childhood my father occasionally loaded my brother and me into the back of our family’s ’57 Chevy Carryall (a distant ancestor of today’s SUVs) and took us up into the Jemez Mountains, just west of Los Alamos, for an overnight camping trip. Those were the days when State Road 4, which wound from the Pajarito Plateau up into the mountains was narrow and not yet paved.
On one of these trips, Dad navigated the Carryall around a particularly sharp corner where the aspen trees crowded the road and came to a complete stop. There, in the middle of the road stood a small cow. Or, as my father explained, an adolescent bull (which is an exact translation of the word becerro).
This becerro had planted himself right in the middle of the road and – undoubtedly hormone-befuddled state – seemed unable to understand that he was no match for the Carryall. He refused to move and we could not get around him. Dad honked the born.
El becerro did not move.
Dad opened the door, stood on the Carryall’s running board and shouted.
El becerro did not move.
Dad climbed down and walked toward el beccero, waving his arms.
El becerro lowered his head.
Dad walked rather quickly back to the Carryall.
I was a child with a vivid imagination and I immediately became deeply unhappy. What if that cow (I still thought of el becerro as a small cow) trampled my father? What if the cow refused to move? We would have to back down the road! What if dad couldn’t find a place to turn around before we got to the place where the road went along a cliff? I saw nothing but disaster.
Dad climbed back into the Carryall and shut the door. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I have a plan.” And he put the Carryall into compound low, otherwise known as granny gear.
The Carryall was not a 4WD vehicle, but it didn’t matter, not with compound low. All Dad had to do was tap the accelerator once and the Carryall started forward and a speed somewhat slower than a walk.
El becerro stood his ground. He even lowered his head, bur the Carryall was undeterred.
My imagination when back into high gear. “Dad, what if we run over the poor little cow?”
“Don’t worry,” Dad answered. “He’ll move.”
He did, but not until the Carryall’s front bumper nudged him. And when that cow’s nerve finally broke, he fled with a truly impressive burst of speed.
We continued up to the campground where we all had a fine time.
That little episode, by itself, is barely a story but it did – years later – provide me with more than facts about the world. Remembering the story helped me remember the smell and taste of the world. I am not saying that storytellers need this kind of connection with the world of a story to tell that story.
I am saying that storytellers need a deep connection with their own worlds to connect with the worlds of the stories they tell. I will be exploring this further in future blog entries.
My husband Stretch and I arrived in Tempe on January 2, 1991. During the past 29 years in Arizona, I have been a traffic engineering technician, and an unpublished novelist. I have hung out in the back of various local ‘cello sections and have been both a community college student and an adjunct instructor (at the same college). I have also become a storyteller.
As a storyteller, I have always been deeply interested in building the worlds of the stories I tell. It does not matter if I am working with one of my favorite Scandinavian folktales or the legends of Scotland during the Dark Ages, I want to understand the world of the story. And by understand, I mean more than knowing about the geography. I want to know how the people who lived in that world lived there. From that information I can build the world of the story – and that’s something that deeply interests me.
Building a world requires research – and research is always fun – but it also requires having a world. By leaving Tempe, which will happen in January of 2020 when Stretch and I return to New Mexico, I am returning to the world that is most truly mine.
If you look at the top of the NM license plate you'll notice the words "Land of Enchantment." Those of us who have left New Mexico tend to describe the place as the “Land of EnTRAPment,” instead of Enchantment. This is not meant in a bad way. There’s a pull, there’s always a pull, because nowhere else is quite the same, no matter what happens. As I prepare to return, and as I actually survive the practical aspects of the move (it is all so much more complicated than it was 29 years ago), I will be exploring the way the world that will again be mine connects with the world I build in stories.
In my next post, I will start with a story I worked on with Joe Hayes in his workshop at the NSN conference in Phoenix a number of years ago. It’s a folktale from Northern New Mexico which I have combined with a personal story.
Storytellers who are interested in the Völsunga Saga material have a number of sources, as well as a number of translations of those sources. William Morris, a late-nineteenth-century textile designer, J.R.R. Tolkien (yes, that Tolkien) and University of California archaeologist Jesse Byock have all translated the Saga. Of these, I prefer Byock. Morris is so late-Victorian elaborate that it makes my head hurt, Tolkein relies heavily on the alliteration that was a feature of Nordic poetry which also makes my head hurt. Byock simply tells the story.
Much of the Saga material is also found in the Lays (narrative poems) in the medieval collection called The Poetic Edda. The stories in the Edda are similar, but certainly not identical to the ones in the Saga and the various translators have made their own decisions concerning the action.
That’s where the tangled trails come in. In broad outline, the story I call The Fight of the Valkyries goes like this:
Sigurd the Völsung kills the dragon Fáfnir, follows the advice of seven nuthatches (small European birds), takes the dragon’s treasure and go finds the Valkyrie Brynhild, who is sleeping in a ring of fire.
But wait! The “Lay of Fáfnir” calls the birds “titmice.” They tell Our Hero to get the gold and take it straight to the hall of a man named Gjuki, who is the king of the Burgundians. They mention Gjuki’s daughter Gudrún and then talk about Brynhild. And “The Prophecy of Gripnir” has Sigurd going first to Gjuki’s Hall and then to find Brynhild. (BTW – Morris gives the avian speaking role to eagles!)
Once Sigurd finds Brynhild, he decides he loves her. She feels the same way and they exchange pledges before he rides to the hall of a man named Heimir, who is Brynhildr’s foster-father. There he spends his time doing fun happy warrior things – hunting, starting small wars – with her kinsmen. Once she arrives at Heimir’s Hall, they again pledge their love but she tells him they will never marry. He wanders off and ends up doing fun happy warrior things with two sons of a king named Gjuki. The three young men have so much fun that they pledge blood brotherhood and Gjuki’s sons take him back to their father’s Hall.
This is if Our Hero hasn’t already made friends with Gjuki’s sons before waking Brynhild.
Gjuki’s witch of a wife casts the spells that bind Sigurd to her daughter Gudrún. He completely forgets Brynhild, happily marries Gudrún and swears blood brotherhood with her brothers (if he hasn’t done so already). Then Gjuki’s wife, whose name is Grimhild, decides that her older son, Gunnar, should marry Brynhild. Everybody – even Sigurd who is still under the influence of Grimhild’s magic ale – thinks this is a wonderful idea so they all go visit Brynhildr’s father Budli. Budli is in favor of getting his daughter married off, but issues the standard caveat – if she is willing. Then they all go ask Heimir who gives the same answer. He also warns them that she will only marry the man who can ride his horse through the blazing fire around her own home.
Sigurd has already ridden through the fire once. What happens next? That’s for Tangled Trails Part 3
During my recent visit to Fort Union National Monument in New Mexico, I discovered that the ruts of the Santa Fe trail look more like a tangle of random arroyos than a tidy set of tracks across the short grass prairie. I am told that tourists often ask how to find the Santa Fe Trail while they are standing in one of those arroyos that are the trail.
I thought Google Earth might help me find the “real” trail. The iron tires of all those wagons, which were capable of carrying as much of 6,500 pounds according to Mark L. Gardener’s Wagons on the Santa Fe Trail published by the National Park Service must have left tracks that look like a road.
Not really. Those wagons may well have all started in Missouri (either in Fort Leavenworth or Independence) and followed one of two routes, the Mountain Branch and the Cimarron Cutoff. Many of the journeys actually ended at Fort Union, for much of the freight on the trail was military. But the trial, up close and personal is an enormous collection of nice straight lines.
In some ways, this makes sense. As a hiker and cross country I have often been on trails that turn into a confusing tangle, usually when hikers or skiers try to bypass a mud hole or find a smoother path. I’ve gone around a few mud holes myself. I have noticed the same need to go around mud holes as I develop the story of the great quarrel between the Valkyrie Brynhild and Gudrún, her sister-in-law. Brynhild, under the name of Brunhilda, is best known in her operatic form. She is soprano, often wearing a completely inaccurate horned helmet, in Richard Wagner’s “Ring Cycle.” The trail that I am following has two main branches and in some places, those branches contradict each other.
The first of these branches, The Saga of the Völsungs, compiled by an unknown Icelandic author during the 13th Century. This work is primarily prose and was drawn from the oral tradition in the form of Eddic poetry which is, in its turn, based on oral tradition. The second of these branches is a set of Lays, skaldic poetry, that are part of The Poetic Edda, which was also compiled by an anonymous Icelander at approximately the same time.
And why am I comparing the literature of medieval Iceland with the Santa Fe Trail? Because both processes – the formation of the trail, mud holes and all and my decisions while I craft my story – involve decisions.
What to do? Which way to go? What do I use, what do I not use as I work on The Fight of the Valkyries, which will be part of the upcoming (September 20th, 6:30 pm) MYTH MOB performance in the South Mountain Community College Performance Hall. Some hear my decisions and those made by my fellow Mobbers – Liz Warren, Marilyn Omifunke Torres and Sulé Greg Wilson.
My mother read all six volumes of Gibbons Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, while breastfeeding my younger brother. As a compulsive reader (yes, it runs in the family) she explained that Gibbons was just boring enough to put down when the baby finished eating. It was rare to see my mother sitting down without a book in her hand and she passed her love of reading on to her children. By the time my brother and I were in elementary school, the three of us – my mother, my brother, and I – often found ourselves working our way through the same book. It made for interesting dinner table conversations.
Even though we were no longer sharing a dining room table, Mom and I were still reading in tandem when Jean Aul’s Clan of the Cave Bear came out. We wanted to love that book! Neanderthals, Cro-Magnons, romance, flint knapping! What’s not to like?
Aul lost us at the flint knapping. Pages and pages of flint knapping unleavened by anything resembling plot or even pre-historic sex. As my mother said, “she let her index cards show.”
The book was written during the 1970’s – researching meant going to the library, finding (which was not always easy) the necessary books, and sitting down with a stack of index cards. The procedure went as follows: 1) write name of book on top of index card 2) jot important notes and useful phrases on rest of index card 3) wrap stacks of index cards in rubber bands. While writing: 1) copy relevant information into hand-written first draft 2) develop some kind of method to keep track of citations (this is where the color coding helped) and 3) smoosh it all into a paper or a scene in a book or whatever.
I’ve done research like this and it’s really kind of fun. There’s something satisfying about a desk piled high with books and orderly little stacks of hard-won information.
Research is how I, as a storyteller, build the world in which my story lives. When the time comes to actually craft my story, I have to remind myself of my mother’s wisdom – don’t let your index cards show. The temptation is definitely there. How can I resist adding a detailed description of a Viking era turf house to my story? That’s what the people who told my material so long ago would have seen, right?
That’s index cards. As a storyteller, I have to remember to trust my audience, and my audience’s imagination.
How do you keep your index cards under control?
“Focus on images, not words.”
That’s good advice – and something I tell my Art of Storytelling students at the beginning of every semester. You need good images in order to tell stories.
But that’s not all you need. Think about those storytellers who create the cleanest and most evocative images for their listeners. Those tellers whose stories become your whole world. The ones who can make you forget that you are in a huge tent, along with a couple of hundred of your closest friends, sitting on a hard chair. As those tellers craft their stories, I am pretty sure that they make some very intentional choices about their use of gestures, voices, and words.
Intentional use of gestures does not mean that storytellers turn themselves into talking mimes, but some of the techniques in mime can certainly inform the gestures of storytellers. Intentional use of voice does not mean that storytellers turn themselves into actors without scripts, but some of the techniques in acting can inform the way storytellers use their voices. Intentional use of words does not mean that storytellers turn into out-loud readers, but some of the techniques of writing can inform the way storytellers use their words.
Which is the title of the workshop I am developing for this fall: “Use Your Words.”
A writer who veers from one point of view to another, a writer who mixes tenses in a random fashion, is a writer who pushes readers out of the story. A teller who makes the same mistakes has the same effect on listeners.
Serious writers can (should, and do) self-edit. They can (should and do) take their work to a writing group. They can (should and do) work with editors.
Admittedly, the process is not precisely the same for storytellers. The point here is not to create perfect sentences and commit the words to memory. (I tried that a couple of times when I was a student in The Art of Storytelling – at it was not a good idea.)
But storytellers can be aware of the pitfalls writers try to avoid by self-editing. They can develop the habit working within intentionally chosen boundaries – of tense, or point of view. They can also work with others storytellers, and many do. Storytellers also go to coaches and there are some very good coaches available.
In my 1-day workshop “Use Your Words” we will intentionally focus on using the literary techniques of writing and editing to craft stories pull your listeners into the world of your words.
Recently I had the opportunity to do a weekend storytelling project with very small group of nine- and ten-year-old boys. Before I even met these kids, I suspected that I should not try anything the least bit “school-like” with them. Who wants to sit indoors learning something on a beautiful Saturday morning in the mountains?
They turned out to be a great bunch of kids, but I was right about the school part! They would have much rather been on the ropes course with the bigger kids.
This was a challenge. Or an opportunity, depending on how I looked at it.
After telling the first story, I had everybody make name tags out of paper plates. My initial idea had been to use half a plate per name tag but the boys – still under the influence of David and Goliath, started referring to the paper plates as “breastplates.”
OK, turn a whole paper plate into a breastplate with your name accompanied by a drawing of your favorite scene from the story you just heard.
The drew a lot of bloody headless giants. They also talked about the story with each other.
My inner light bulb went on.
Leave the worksheets in the folder.
It was going to be a stories, crayons, and pictures on paper plates weekend.
Sequence a story? Let everybody draw their favorite part on a paper plate, punch holes in the paper plates, string them on a long piece of yarn in the proper order and hang it across the front of the room.
The 5p’s, beloved by the SMCC Storytelling Institute?
Outline your hand on a paper plate, decorate it while remembering People, Place, Problem, Progress, and Point.
Then listen to a story and draw your favorite person on a paper plate.
String everybody’s favorite person plates on another long piece of yarn.
And so on and so forth through the rest of the P’s.’
Not everything was a success. I had planned to have the kids make animal masks to go with Noah and the Ark. That was the reason for the paper plates in the first place. I even had popsicle sticks and glue so that the masks would have handles.
Gluing popsicle sticks to the edges of paper plates did not work so well.
When I wanted to punch holes in the paper plates to hang them on the yarn, I realized that the scissors at hand were not really up to the job.
When it was all over, my mall but mighty group of storytellers had taught me four important lessons.
First – paper plates are your friend. Heck, you can even use twelve of them for a storyboard!
Next – test your glue before you go.
And – know lots and lots of movement/story games. Make some up on the spot.
Finally – when in doubt, take a walk.
Thanks, guys. I had fun. I hope you did too.
When I was young, I lived in the land of the ravens. The Common Raven, (corvis corax) while an extraordinary bird, was indeed common in Los Alamos. The ravens of my youth were gigantic. And a glossy black. And extraordinarily intelligent.
Ravens are also tricksters, a fact I learned when I was a sophomore in high school. That was the year I enrolled in “Dawn Patrol” English which meant I trudged past three or four ravens at 7:55 am every school day. I always said “good morning” to those birds. One day one of them returned my greeting – word for work. He (or she) said “good morning” back to me.
I spent the next few days doubting my sanity.
Finally, after asking a few carefully chosen friends a few carefully chosen questions, I learned that one of the local families had adopted a baby raven. Once the bird became an adult he (or she) flew with the local flock, but returned each night to his (or her) human family. This, I was told, was a trickster bird who spoke English as well as Raven. Ever since that day, I have held ravens close to my heart.
Ravens are scavengers and the Los Alamos flock thrived on the local landfill, which closed a few years ago. Once they lost their primary source of food, the number of ravens in town declined.
And the crows arrived to take their place.
I have nothing against crows, but I have always wanted a picture of a Los Alamos Raven.
When I discovered that the crows had filled my old stomping grounds, I decided I could make do with a picture of a crow. Even that is not as simple as it seems.
Taking a picture of a raven is not as simple as it might seem. Crows do wander around on lawns and meadows in great noisy crowds but the presence – or even the idea – of a camera leads to their rapid and raucous departure.
At the end of one of my visits home, stopped on my way out of town for a final hike along my favorite trail along the edge of the canyon. I was carrying my camera but had completely given up on both the ravens and the crows. As I walked east, into the morning light I heard the single sonorous “grk” of a raven. I froze and peered up into the trees. There she was, between me and the glare of the sun, right at the top of a dead pine tree. Ever so slowly I raised my camera, only to discover that – for some reason – the viewfinder screen had gone utterly dark.
How could this have happened?
I tiptoed under the tree, turned back, and realized that I had pushed the wrong camera button. The raven had not moved. I turned the view screen on and lifted the camera.
She was gone. In those few seconds, she had lifted herself on silent wings and left the tree. I heard her call once more from somewhere down the canyon.
And I laughed. Because, while crows are brats, ravens are true tricksters.
I am currently developing stories for MiM’s upcoming Experience Scandinavia event on December 5 and 6. This will be another wonderful weekend of music, art, food, dance, and STORIES! I tell at 10:15 both mornings. So I am looking at all kinds of Finnish – Danish – Swedish – Norwegian – Icelandic folktales. And I have noticed something. The man who wins a princess as his bride must often pass some kind of test. What role does the princess herself play in this process?
There are at least four Scandinavian folktales where the princess does a lot more than passively wait for the guy who can win her father’s approval.
In the Norwegian story of Haakon Grizzlebeard, the beautiful princess is the test. In his English translation George Webbe Dasent calls her a “wicked hussy.” This sounds a bit Victorian but the Norwegian “det leie trollet” seems to mean “rent troll.” Clearly I have fallen into the land of idiom and would welcome information from anybody who actually knows the language.
“Rent troll” or “hussy,” this princess rejects suitor after suitor until she finally angers Haakon so much that he resolves to teach her a lesson. Haakon and his princess learn a lot about each other during this lesson. They have passed each other’s test.
Shortshanks, another Norwegian hero comes across a princess who is in danger of being carried away by a series of ogres. The test is provided by external forces – the ogres – rather than the king. The princess takes an active role in ensuring that her father recognizes Shortshanks as the man who has truly won the right to marry her in spite of his questionable origins (he arrived on the scene in a flying golden boat).
The test in the Icelandic tale of The Cottager and the Cat also involves external circumstances. When the hero and his cat reach the king’s palace, they are looking for a job, not a princess. It is the cat who deals with a plague of rats and the king offers the cottager a choice – either become prime minister or marry the princess. The young man takes the princess. (Her opinions on the subject are not included in the story.)
The Danish tale of Jesper the Hare Herder, Jesper deliberately takes on the challenge set by the king, that of successfully herding a herd of fifty rabbits. In this story, the princess actively assists her father in testing her unlikely suitor. Jesper must outwit both father and daughter to win his prize. This story ends with what is described as a merry wedding, although nothing is said about the “ever after” part.
All four of these rather active princesses remind me of women in both the Icelandic Family Sagas, the Íslendingasögur and the Völsunga Saga. In their oral form, both these narratives were developed by and for the same audience – the Icelanders whose ancestors had left Scandinavia to settle on an island in the north Atlantic.
The family Saga of Burnt Njál includes the story of Hallgerda, daughter of Hauskild. When Thorwald asks Hauskild for his daughter in marriage Hauskild warns the young man that the girl has a hard temper, but nobody thinks to ask Hallgerda what she thinks of the match. Even before the wedding, she expresses her displeasure and the marriage does not last long. Bride and groom quarrel, he slaps her face and is soon dead at the hands of her murderous foster-father.
Signy, one of the murdering mothers in the Völsunga Saga, outright informs her father that her marriage to the Siggeir, King of the Gauts, will end in disaster. His refusal to listen to his own daughter leads to death – starting with his own plus those of ten of his sons followed by those of four of Signy’s sons, her husband and herself.
So, in folktale, men who pass the tests that are actually set more by the princesses than their fathers manage to make it to some form of happily ever after. The Icelanders learned from their Family Sagas and wove into the great narrative of their heroes, the flip side of the lesson: if she does not want to marry you, it is not going to turn out well.
Harriet has told stories at the Phoenix Fringe and at the Gila Bend Shrimp Festivals. She’s taken part in the AZStorytellers Project and in StoryRise events. As an instructor at the South Mountain Community College Storytelling Institute, she has performed in many events including the La Lloronathon and a number of Myth Informed concerts.