Attila. Bronze medal after an antique original.
Reading Mary Stewart’s historical novel The Crystal Cave, introduced me to the idea of building a completely believable world on the foundations of history, legend and myth. For me, her Merlin became the Merlin and her Britain the Britain. As I now craft my own tales from similar material, I try to reach that same level of believability.
Stewart placed her stories against the background of the Arthurian history of Britain in the Dark Ages. I am working with the Völsunga Saga. These two sources share a common historical theme -- the battles between migrating tribes of barbarians and the Late Roman Empire. In Stewart’s world, the Romanized Britons fight the Saxons. In the world of the Saga, the invading Germanic Tribes fight for their places in the empire.
The history is similar but the word “historical” can be misleading. Long after I first read Stewart, I learned that the British chroniclers of the era made little if no mention of Arthur and the legends of Camelot were not recorded until several hundred years later. In the same way, the Saga material is also only loosely connected with the records of its time. I suspect that the stories of the British Arthur, the Germanic Gundahar, and the Hunnish Attila all followed the same path from the actual event to the stories told about the event in gossip, legend, epic, and fiction.
A British leader bearins some form of the name Arthur could well have fought the invading Saxons. Slightly more than a century earlier, Gundahar, the leader of a Germanic tribe known as the Burgundians, established his people on the Roman side of the Rhine River. He acquired this territory by supporting the local would-be emperor. A Roman general loyal to the legitimate emperor hired an army of Hunnish mercenaries to fight the Burgundians and Gundahar lost his life in the subsequent battle.
Attila, the most famous of the Huns, took no part in that battle. His formidable army did not enter the empire until some years later when he swept through Roman Gaul into Italy where he was defeated. During his retreat, he took a bride but suffered a nosebleed and drowned in his own blood on his wedding night. That has got to be one of the most unexpected and dramatic deaths in all of history! Apparently Attila was in a drunken stupor at the time.
The separate fates of Gundahar and Attila were recorded in the chronicles of the time. The information is also compiled by later Roman historians who drew from those chronicles. Those historians and chroniclers shaped the material to fit their needs. One chronicler, writing eighty years after the death, reported that Attila had been stabbed to death by his bride whose name, Ildico, indicates that she might have been Germanic.
Historians and chroniclers were not alone in reporting and repeating the stories of what happened. Somebody shaped the set of Arthurian legends that finally appears in the writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Somebody turned Gundhar’s death in battle into the scene in the Völsunga Saga where Gunnar lies in the snake pit, charming the serpents by playing his lyre with his toes. He died when the instrument broke, the music ended, and the snakes woke up.
Somebody crafted Attila's rather unusual death into his murder at the hands of his wife, Gunnar's vengeful sister Guðrún.
All these stories probably grew in the hands of the wandering merchants who carried gossip from place to place, the storytellers, and the praise-poets, the crafters of tales told to and about kings. Everybody from earliest chronicler to historical fiction to storyteller is doing the same work – taking what seems to have happened and shaping it into a believable compelling world. That is the work I saw when I read Mary Stewart’s book. That is the work I try to do.
Brynhildr and Guðrún by the Swedish artist Anders Zorn (1860 – 1920)
In this scene from the Völsunga Saga, Brynhildr and her sister-in-law Guðrún are bathing in the river. Brynhildr – who is married to King Gunnar -- tells Guðrún, “My husband rode through fire to claim me. Your Sigurðr is nothing beside that. Go, wash downstream. I’m too good to use your rinse water for my bath.”
She was picking a fight.
Long before he met her, Guðrún’s husband Sigurðr killed a dragon, listened to the advice of a couple of birds and rode through a ring of fire to claim the Valkyrie Brynhildr. He woke her with a kiss and together they pledged eternal love. But Sigurðr needed more than a single dragon-killing on his resume, so off he went to make a name for himself. As he travelled, he fell in with Gunnar and his brother Hogni. The three young men pledged eternal blood-brotherhood and the two Burgundians took Sigurðr home.
Gunnar’s mother immediately plotted to add Sigurðr – and the dragon’s treasure – to her family. She brewed and served an ale that made him not only forget Brynhildr but fall madly in love with her own daughter, Guðrún. After the wedding, the scheming old queen decided that her son Gunnar should marry Brynhildr. But Brynhildr had returned to her ring of fire to wait for the brave man who had ridden his brave horse through the flames.
Her son was not the right man and his horse was not the right horse. At his mother’s urging Gunnar tried riding Sigurðr’s horse. The beast would have none of him. The old queen cast many spells and managed a shape-change between Sigurðr and Gunnar. The horse thought he was carrying Sigurðr through the flames. Brynhildr, when she woke, saw Gunnar and thought he was the right man.
After Gunnar married Brynhildr the two couples lived together in the same Hall. The magic had blurred her memory but Brynhildr suspected that something was not quite right. She kept picking fights with Guðrún.
Finally she goaded her sister-in-law into telling the truth – all of it. During the subsequent eruption, Sigurðr tried to bring peace to the Hall by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Brynhildr threatened to return to her family if Gunnar did not kill Sigurðr. Gunnar caved and had Sigurðr murdered in his bed. Brynhildr then killed herself and the two lovers rode to Óðinn’s Valhalla on the flames of their funeral pyre.
What a story. It’s like an opera. Wait – it has been turned into an opera! It’s also a story that with historical roots that reach back to the fifth and sixth centuries CE.
The chronicles of that time speak of a pair of sisters-in-law, one named Brunhild. The historical Brunhild and her nemesis Fredegnde each fought to protect her own son’s inheritance in Merovingian Gaul (which is approximately today’s France). Brunhild lost big-time. Fredegunde’s followers killed her in an especially gruesome fashion. They tied her to four wild horses and let the beasts run wild. The results were bloody, to say the least.
The story of the historical Brunhild is only one of the many bits of shiny information I gathered as I worked on my thesis. I was an academic pack rat. Finally, after reading reams of my prose, my advisor asked, “Why are you telling me this?” Clearly it was time to get organized.
So I procrastinated by binge-watching not only the “Lord of the Rings” but the making of the “Lord of the Rings. It turned out this was not actually procrastination but a vital step in understanding what I was trying to do. I had always known that storytelling is more than words. What matters is the movie inside my head. As I watched all the enthusiastic artists designing and building the world of “Lord of the Rings” I realized that I didn’t need external designers to help me build my story world. It was all in my dragon’s trove of random information.
Brynhildr lives on in popular culture. Googling her name produces pictures of substantial opera stars and scantily clad young ladies, all wearing horned helmets. None of these ladies have anything to do with my story world but something about the tale of the doomed historical Brunhild, who ruled as regent for both her son and her grandson and fought so fiercely to maintain her power, had entered the repertoire of the wandering storytellers of the era. They made changes, but the theme of battling sisters-in-law remained. My understanding of the doomed historical Brunhild helped me build the Brynhildr of my story world.
Research is fun! Procrastination is useful!
I grew up in a family of compulsive readers. My mother allowed my brother and me to read anything and everything we could get our little hands on. (I didn’t discover the high cupboard where she stashed the really good stuff until I was about twelve.)
This is not to say that there weren’t any rules associated with reading. My early interest in the New Yorker magazine gave rise to: “If you have to ask, you are too young to understand (so don’t ask)!” Reading instead of doing homework or chores was Very Bad and resulted in Confiscation of Books. And reading while unloading the dishwasher, setting the table or folding laundry was Inefficient and resulted in Shouting about Books.
Sometimes my mother, my brother, and I all tried to read the same book at the same time. In that case, the book in question could not be squirrelled away out of reach of the other readers.
When I was about eleven, Mom had to yell: “Harriet, do you have Euripides in your bedroom?”
I did. Not Euripides in the flesh (dude’s been dead for a long time), but in the form of the third volume of The Complete Greek Tragedies. This gorgeous set of four books arrived at our house courtesy of a book club (the Amazon of the 1950’s). Aeschylus was bound in light orange, Sophocles in a slightly darker shade of orange, and the two volumes of Euripides were in dark and darkest orange. Mom started with Aeschylus and I started with Euripides. Since she didn’t have to waste any reading time going to school, she caught up with me.
By then I had met my first murdering mother. I refused to return Volume III of The Complete Greek Tragedies until I had finished reading Medea.
(Even if Medea was the one who ended up crowded into the edge of the scene on the ceramics.)
Medea helped Jason steal the Golden Fleece from her father. She encouraged him to steal her, as well. She did her best to get rid of the man who had usurped the throne that should have been Jason’s. And then, in Corinth, she gave him sons.
She did everything she could for the man she loved and he dumped her to marry a princess. He also had the gall to reminder her that she was a “barbarian” and that his new marriage would benefit her children. As far as I was concerned, Medea had every right to kill that princess and her father (with a poisoned dress and crown no less). She also had the right to make Jason suffer.
She unleashed one bad-ass revenge on that husband of hers. Even though it grieved her, even though she did not want to kill her sons, she had no choice. Not only did she kill her sons, she refused to let Jason have their bodies.
We all look at stories through the lenses we craft from our own stories – those we have lived and those we have heard. At eleven, I had only the lens of my growing understanding that the world is not always fair to women to apply to Medea.
Now I see Medea through a whole set of lenses. The world was not fair to her, and her own actions and the expectations her culture backed her into a corner where all her decisions were impossible. She was a victim. She was a monster. She was a bereaved mother all at the same time.
I am beginning to suspect that these lenses, built from story and experience are a vital part of the process of working with the stories that are difficult to craft and distressing to tell. Understanding the lenses helps me understand the story.
Not long ago, I decided – as one sometimes does – to take a look at myself on the internet. That’s when I found it – “The Volsung Story: Sygny, Brynhildr and Guðrún speak to the modern audience” -- my own Master’s Thesis for sale on e-bay at the cost of 183.25 (Australian). Amazon has it priced at about $60 but lists it as “not available.” My first response to this discovery was simple and inelegant: “W! T! F!”
How could this be? I dug out my old Prescott College paperwork and found that Pro-Quest, the company that published my thesis had the right to sell my work. It seemed I would receive a small amount of royalty once the sales reached a certain level. This, it was pretty clear, had not happened. I’ve not seen a single check from Pro-Quest. I can only assume neither the Australian nor the American reading public has discovered “The Volsung Story: Sygny, Brynhildr and Guðrún speak to the modern audience.”
In spite of the disinterest in my thesis, the original material in the The Völsunga Saga, an epic found in several fourteenth century Icelandic manuscripts, casts a long and mythic shadow across general western culture. There is treasure in the saga, a cursed ring, and a dragon. Women are married against their wills, there is greed and betrayal and vengeance, hidden heirs and an iconic sword. Plus, mothers who kill their children.
I addressed the questions of how and why to tell stories like this in my thesis. Now I plan to revisit the question in a way that is more accessible to other storytellers. As I work, I will periodically use this blog as a report on the more interesting nooks and crannies of my exploration.
I’ll begin with the picture that hangs in a South Mountain Community College classroom where storytelling is often taught. Created by artist Joe Ray and some of his associates during the La Lloronathon at the college four years ago, it depicts La Llorona, the wailing woman through different sets of eyes. At least here in the Southwest, La Llorona is one of the better known of the “murdering mothers” stories. In this story Maria, betrayed by the father of her children, drowns her little ones in a river and becomes the ghost who wails along rivers and ditches, searching for her lost little ones. Maria’s story is not alone. The Greek Medea kills not only her children but the princess for whom her husband has left her. And the Volsung Guðrún, seeking vengeance for the deaths of her brothers, kills her sons and feeds them to their father.
How do we tell these stories? And why? That is the question I will try to answer.
I never expected to become a teacher, never lined up my dolls (not that I had many dolls), stuffed animals (well, except for an owl or two, and I was not trying to teach them anything) or younger siblings (my brother was not very cooperative) in order to “play school.” And I certainly refused to “play school” with my friends. School was no fun at all. As soon as I figured out how to read, I decided I’d learned everything I really needed to know. By the end of second grade, I had gone on a homework strike that lasted a good seven or eight years. College straight out of high school was out of the question.
Even after I got a little older, even after it became clear that it would be easier to earn a living with a degree, college never quite worked for me. Life, in the form of marriages, children, and that earning a living thing, kept getting in the way.
It took falling in love with storytelling to land me in a most unexpected place – as an instructor at a community college. When I first enrolled at South Mountain Community College in Phoenix, I planned to acquire an Academic Certificate in Storytelling. I figured that would teach me what I needed to know and I’d be on my way. Once again, life happened. I became aware that I could teach at the Storytelling Institute, if I had a master’s degree.
Umm, I didn’t even have a bachelor’s degree.
That, it seemed, could be fixed. The next few years turned into a flurry of classes and graduations. Academic Certificate, AA, Bachelor’s and finally a Masters in Humanity from Prescott College.
But when I first stepped into a classroom as an instructor, I had the feeling that my journey through higher education had taught me nothing at all about how to teach. There we were, twenty community college students and I, and what was I going to say to them?
It occurred to me that each and every one of them had a story that was, in one way or another, a lot like mine. Some of them had not done well in school. Some of them had been distracted by life and were trying to catch up. Some of them were valiantly trying to do their best in the face of circumstances far more challenging than my homework strike had ever been.
They all seemed to think I was in my natural habitat. I wasn’t, so I told them a story. My story. It’s something I have been doing ever since. As well as my story, I tell folktales, myths, legends, almost every class session, no matter what the official subject.
Heck, I’d even tell stories if I were teaching math!
Because this is what I’ve learned, both through my own experience and what I have learned from others: listening to oral stories together creates a community. And I, as a teller, am part of the community I create in my classrooms.
As an instructor, I have the content, and content is important. As a storyteller, I know that community is just as important.
Have you built communities with stories? I’d love to hear from you.
When I was a child, my father sometimes loaded my little brother and me into our 57 Chevy Carryall and took us up into the Jemez Mountains, west of where we lived in Northern New Mexico. The road to our favorite picnic spot skirted the southern edge of the Valle Grande, part of the Valles Caldera, the collapsed remnants of a volcano Wikipedia informs me is a small supervolcano. I used to press my nose against the window of the Carryall, squint at the brown specks that I knew were distant cows, and imagine that the family which owned the vast meadow rimmed with distant mountains had a son, a boy about my age. I wanted to marry this imaginary boy, just so I could spend my life in the center of that great beauty.
The Jemez Mountains will always be – in the words of my daughter who feels the same way – the place where my soul lives. Returning to this place, as I do briefly at the end of every summer is both an interesting and a bittersweet experience. Thanks to forest fires, pine beetles, and the passage of time everything, even the skyline has changed. The overgrown ponderosas of my childhood and youth have become stark burned skeletons standing guard over thickets of new growth. The people who were so important during that same time are mostly gone. As a storyteller, I am achingly aware of the stories that have been lost to time.
This has been a wet year, and lush new growth covers the mountains. The Valles Caldera is becoming part of the National Park system. Now, almost sixty years later, my brother and I loaded our father into a SUV even larger than the old Carryall and drove him – thanks to a backcountry driving permit – into the Valle itself where we discovered a new story, that of more interlocking bowls and mountains, more dark forests and tiny streams almost hidden in the tall grasses, than any of us had ever imagined possible.
New growth covers the mountains and new people with new stories fill the town where I grew up. Since I am still part of the community, even though I am rarely present, I see it as my job to help the new stories emerge, even as I remember the old ones.
Thus I will be working to find a time, a place, a way to offer the people who are now living their stories where I once lived mine, to share those stories – with me and with each other.
Sheep in strange places and other adventures: the reflections of a girl reporter
First a clarification – this “girl reporter” thing is more than half a joke. There was a time, long ago, when I was a reporter, though one a bit older than a “girl.” I covered County Council, School Board, and Department of Public Utilities Board meetings for a weekly paper. When Sean Buvala asked me to share my observations at the recent National Storytelling Network Conference on the Storyteller.net Amphitheater I happily returned to my roots, bought a reporting notebook, and got myself to Kansas City.
Covering the NSN Conference was vastly more educational, inspiring, and entertaining than covering any kind of board meeting. Now that I am back in the “normal” world, I’m posting a few written reflections about my experience, to supplement, not replace what you hear on the Amphitheater.
Storytellers, as Donna Washington pointed out during her keynote address, often work by themselves. When they get together, they get a little crazy. The audience participation in her “scarry story” (tell a brief story about one of your scars to as many people as possible in a very short time) echoed through the ballroom like a cocktail party on steroids.
There are storytellers who express their joy in life by ululating. Kind of like this but a whole lot louder! (I wish I could do that.) They are given to spontaneous singing and dancing. And they tell each other stories! Walking into the hallway outside the ballroom in the Marriott Hotel was like walking into a wall of sound – excited voices exchanging memories, ideas, plans, dreams.
And those dreams – each workshop I attended pointed a way to a dream. Kevin Cordi shared ways to craft story by being brave enough to tell an oral rough draft to what he called a “deep listener,” one who helps the teller unfold the images. I, who don’t like to even talk about a story that is under construction until I have gone as far with it as I can inside my head, was challenged by this process to work in an entirely different way. It’s called playing out loud!
The workshop Children at the Well woke me up in a different way. Paula Weiss and Ben Russell not only talked about their ten years of interfaith intercultural youth telling, they invited their listeners to explore the same path. I brought a tiny idea of something I hope to pursue into this workshop and walked out with ideas and access to tools I can use to make it real.
There was, of course, so much more during the weekend. The comments during the Oracle Awards made it clear that the weekend was a family reunion, with gifts and thank-yous, old jokes and stories that only need to be half-told because everybody already knows the story.
As for those sheep? I found them in front of an historic high-rise condo building called the Ponce de Leon, just down the street from the Marriott. Why sheep, why there? We all get to create our own story about that one!
This is one of my favorite activities. I can't say I developed it -- it's a bit of a mash-up -- created from a couple of things I've seen and read about over the years.
Most of the credit goes to the way my storytelling students and Youth of the Year participants keep changing the "rules."
Here's how it works (at least right now):
Particpants stand in a loose circle, facing inward.
Leader (that would be me) explains that we are going to be throwing imaginary objects at each other, and then says "I'll show you how this works."
Extend hand that is hold and announce "this is a ____"
I usually say spider and use my whole body as well as my voice to indicate how totally creeped out I would be if I really had a spider on the palm of my hand.
I look directly at one of the other participants and say "Name), I am tossing you my spider." Then I throw the imaginary spider at the recipient, who must catch it -- or not depending how she/he feels about archnids.
Once the first toss is completed, I explain that the person with the spider can then throw that same spider to somebody else or else -- with appropriate gestures -- turn the spider into something else.
As we play this game, I encourage everybody to react physcally to the weight, the shape, the safety-danger-creepy-cuddliness of the flying object.
Spiders can become light sabers which can become turtles which can become ... well what would you toss at your friend?
Warning -- arachnid lurking below --not one I'd want to be throwing. He was on my back porch a coule of months ago.
It took me all of two-point-five seconds to tell Donna Martin that I would love to help out with the Youth of the Year participants. About two-point-five hours later, I said to myself, “Wait! Teenagers???”
Hero’s journey, refusal of the call to adventure, I had it.
I knew about teenagers. I’d raised three of them myself. Wonderful girls. But teenagers who weren’t mine? Community college freshmen were enough of a challenge?
I remained doubtful right up to the moment when I met my first group of Youth of the Year participants.
The teens who have been chosen for the Youth of the Year journey have all demonstrated leadership qualities. They are involved in their Club communities and are role models to younger members. In short, they are delightful, even when they are being high-energy, boisterous, teens!
These kids worked so hard that my road of trials consisted of trying to stay ahead of them. They answered the story prompts, learned to craft their stories, drew storyboards and had fun. All too soon, it was time for my first Youth of the Year story circle.
As I sat with the participants, I fought the temptation to speak, to make encouraging noises, to do anything to break the silence that had settled over the group. I knew some of the stories could be difficult to tell. I also knew that it was out of my hands. It was time to shut up and wait.
Longest two-point-five minutes of my life.
Then, one by one, on their own schedule, each one of these kids stood up and told a story. We heard stories of pain and beauty and pain and hope. The stories that needed to be told.
When it was all over, the kids all wrapped themselves into a spontaneous group hug. They were already stars and they knew it.
I’ve been back for every Youth of the Year Journey since then. Now I want to help other people do the same kind of thing with the teenagers in their lives.
It is 6:00 pm. The Youth of the Year participants have survived a school day. Maybe they’ve spent some time at sports practice, maybe they’ve been doing homework. These kids are motivated, but I’d better get them out of their seats and moving around before I lose them. Here’s what I do at the beginning of our second meeting. (We won’t have time to go through the entire process during my workshop during the National Storytelling Network Conference at the end of July, so I’m sharing it now.)
I start by telling a simple story. Then I draw a (very large) blank storyboard on the white board. (If there’s no whiteboard a flip chart works as well). We talk about what the first scene should be and I draw it while everybody watches.
This is important! I am modelling the level of artistic skill I expect from the youth – absolutely none! I am really really bad at drawing.
Then I ask what should go in the next square. I hand the marker to the first person who answers the question.
This is when the fun begins. People talk while they draw. Their friends make comments. What does a frog look like, anyway?
Soon everybody is laughing and we’re on to the next square. Once our storyboard is done, volunteers stand up re-tell the story, using the pictures if they get stuck. Usually nobody gets stuck. And everybody is turning into a storyteller.
There it is – physical movement, laughter, the opportunity to show off and to have fun together.
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.