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.
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.