James H.F. Lloyd explores the magical world and unexpected delights of traditional storytelling at the Felin Uchaf retreat in north Wales, and talks to Daniel Morden, one of Wales’s most renowned exponents of the art form.
It’s a warm and sunny evening at Felin Uchaf, a small community project of celtic roundhouses and timber frame buildings far out on the arm of the Llyn Peninsula. We’re all packed into every nook of the community roundhouse to hear Daniel Morden tell folk stories he has collected from around the world.
Daniel stands beside the fire. The evening light is filtering through the lazing smoke from the fire and gaps in the thatch. After a short monologue about “luck – a chance we dress up in story,” he becomes a Sultan. His hips lean forward, walking with a slow swagger, pointing and growling at his subjects. The stories possess him. Later he becomes a humble peasant, an old woman with iron teeth, Orpheus travelling to the underworld, a young boy who will not tell his dream. The young boy is locked away in a tower to starve for not doing so. Watching him pace in the middle of the circle, each of us are the stones of the tower, thickly walling him in. You can hear it in our silence, the slow waking realisation the tale has come to an end; we are possessed too.
Daniel Morden has been a storyteller for 30 years, listening to and retelling stories from around the world, often accompanied by musicians as part of The Devil’s Violin. Many of the stories he tells us are from eastern Europe and beyond. The seed of his interest began in childhood, when theatre-in-education companies travelled around schools and performed plays for the children. He remembers one production of “The Hunting of the Snark”. Two performers, one in khaki and pith hat, the other in a leopard skin suit. The hunter gathered the children in close and spoke a spell, a simple string of words:
We’re in a jungle.
And they were. Four words made the school hall vanish.
When Morden told me this story, I liked to imagine the teachers transported into the jungle too, becoming equally engrossed in the adventure to find the legendary Snark. The magic is not reserved for children. At Morden’s storytelling evening, several generations had come to hear him tell the stories. A week later at the start of half term, the roundhouse was full of children listening to Dafydd, Felin Uchaf’s project manager, telling tales of the springtime. For children, each story is an adventure of magic and fortune, kindling for the imagination. For adults, the stories can be like meeting old friends again. They are familiar yet always changing, as are we.
We have always told stories with our tongues. There was a moment in the evening at Felin Uchaf when two swallows flew in through the thatch, recently returned from their winter nesting grounds, and I wondered how far they had travelled to be there. But some of the stories that Daniel was telling had been travelling for thousands of years. Talking about Folk Tales of Britain, Philip Pullman writes, “to open it anywhere is to sink a shaft into the memory of a people and all that they know.” Some of these stories are ancient, being passed from generation to generation for years and years. David Phelps tracks the roots of the stories he collected in Worcestershire Folk Tales. There is the wonderful story he calls “The Female Soldier,” based on the historic Worcestershire-born Hannah Snell, who becomes the first female Royal Marine when she goes in search of her sailor husband. Worcestershire stories are full of vicars and parsons, saints and priests, religion clearly being a key aspect of life in the midlands. The Devil appears regularly. As Phelps says, “the people of Worcestershire are noted for being pious and God-fearing.”
There is also the tale of the French invading Worcestershire, a mysterious tale that originated with Owain Glyndwr’s raids into England with French mercenaries. There is a Herefordshire folk tale about a man called Jackie O’Kent, rumoured to be Owain Glyndwr after he mysteriously vanished. In English fashion, he has sold his soul to the Devil. In Welsh folk tales, there are fantastic stories of princes and saints. Eric Maddern’s Snowdonia Folk Tales includes a story of Prince Madog, who in the 12th Century fleeing his brothers warring for control of Gwynedd discovers land to the west; America. This story was found to be true. But in less straightforward ways, these old stories are the lucid dreams of a culture that has long since passed into history. What ancient gods and characters are concealed beneath different names and metaphors of the Mabinogion? In the poet Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, he argues the travelling minstrels of Wales preserved their ancient goddess preceding the patriarchal gods in muddled stanzas, metaphor and disguise.
These stories are so different to their counterparts in film and literature, going against all the rules of modern storytelling. They appear formulaic and repetitive. Characters are what a writer would call flat; undeveloped and unmotivated. They experience no real change to their characters. They are slaves to their fate, their choices not always feeling like theirs to make. Physical descriptions are usually reserved to distinguish archetypes, not individuals. In Hungarian folk tales, an old woman with iron teeth is a nod to the listeners that she is supernatural. Or the smell of sulphur is a fun way of announcing the Devil’s arrival in English folk tales. Often characters go without names at all. They are the farmer or the hunter, the sultan or the witch, or the equally anonymous “Jack” in English folk tales. Folk motifs are so entrenched that the six-volume Motif Index of Folk Literature was created, which is now available online. What would be tired clichés in other mediums are moments of creativity and joy in the spoken story. The Mythologist Martin Shaw says that these stories are “a place where repetition and creativity meet.”
It is not just the creativity of the storytellers he is referring to, but the audience watching, listening. These stories are zip-files for the imagination. Compressed in one sentence can be an excitement of images and understandings that expand in the mind. The folk tale on the page can feel flat and underwritten, but this leaves a larger space for our imaginations to inhabit. The humanity of the characters is offered by ourselves. We furnish the stories with our own meaning. “An audience listens to the same story,” Daniel Morden says, “but every individual hears a different version, according to their life experiences and cultural background. A traditional story is a Rorschach inkblot. We see in it what we are looking for.” The stories are continually changing form within each member of the audience. And we are constantly changing too. Every day our understanding of the world changes, and the world is always changing. “I am reminded of the transformation chase motif,” Morden continues. “Two magicians pursue one another. One becomes a hare, the other a hound. One becomes a salmon, the other an otter, then a bird, a hawk. This is our relationship with traditional stories. We can hear them over and over again, and interpret them in different ways, according to our mood, the news, what has been told before. Every time I think I have a hold on a story, it shapeshifts out of my grasp.”
This adaptability is one of the spoken story’s greatest strengths, especially in a time of rapid change. Their contemporaries in film and literature are much less so. Once a book or film is created, the vast resources invested into them mean they can rarely be altered any further. The greater level of control given to the storytellers is at the diminishment of the audience’s involvement in shaping the story. They can at times be less engaging, less personal. In film especially, there is often no space for the imagination to inhabit. Every scrap of detail and meaning is dictated to us. Anyone who has Netflix binged only to have forgotten what happened in the previous episode will know that feeling of numbness and disengagement. With storytelling, the audience has to be engaged. It can be an exhausting experience, imagining worlds and stories, but it is never an unsatisfying one.
The spoken tale cannot help but transform like a Chinese whisper, changing with each telling. They must change too. This is how the stories stay alive, not lost to the past. “It is the duty of a storyteller to adapt the story to suit the times,” Morden says. “They must make it speak for a contemporary audience. What is the essence of this story? How can I retell it so that it is available to people today? This might involve editing, embellishing, reordering the plot.” In Daemon Voices, Philip Pullman notes Italo Calvino, who in his Italian Folk Tales borrowed the Tuscan proverb “The story is not beautiful unless something is added to it.” To tell or to listen to a story is an invitation to take part in moulding it, and to pass it on.
If the story provides the bones which the audience fleshes out, the storyteller brings it to life. “Words are one component of the story,” Morden says. “The story needs a storyteller. 60% of all communication is nonverbal. We communicate an enormous amount through gesture, tempo, facial expression.” A lot can be said through the silence alone. While Morden is telling the story of Orpheus, he looks back to see his love vanish into thin air. Morden is left standing alone, hand outstretched, grasping nothing. Together, we share the pain of Orpheus understanding he will never see her again.
“It is a celebration of community,” Morden tells me. “Now, you can watch virtually anything on the telly. Why bother to go out, when you can watch whatever you want in your front room? At a live event, a group of strangers gather. The story is a shared experience. The audiences laugh, gasp, shiver, breathe together. In this time of social fragmentation, when we barely know our neighbours, that is more important than ever.” If we gathered as strangers, the stories and their tellings change us, perhaps only fleetingly, into something more. The stories are a shared experience that bring people together. At Felin Uchaf, people I have never met but have seen across the room, have sung with, laughed with, felt sad with, now give smiles and a “good night” as we leave. “The very act of joining with strangers in a public space to share an experience is an important – and political! – thing to do in these times when there are those who foster the view that ‘they’ – the people we don’t know – are not like ‘us’,” Morden says. “Stories are empathy generators. If you are thrilled or touched by a story from an Islamic country, it is harder to think of Islam as alien and other.”
Today, storytelling is something that often has to be sought out. Daniel goes on to tell stories at Hay Festival, and the Beyond the Border storytelling festival happens every year in Wales. Although once, these stories would have been widespread, a part of everyday life. “I have been to parts of the Third World, where everyday intercourse still involves storytelling and singing and riddles and proverbs,” Morden says. “It must have been this way in Wales once.”
Wales has a long tradition of storytelling in the travelling bards and minstrels of medieval times. These were remarkably similar to the Griots in West Africa, who were highly respected by royalty as the memory of their people; the keepers of their stories. But this traditional kind of storytelling appears to be in decline. “The Industrial Revolution, the Revival and a couple of World Wars ended the oral tradition here,” Morden says. The mythologist Martin Shaw refers to himself as an “endangered species.”
“Songs, poems and tales were passed down from one generation to another, but it only takes one missing generation to end the game of Chinese whispers,” Morden says. Luckily, many of these stories have been collected and written down, but it is the art of storytelling and everything it entails that brings these stories to life. Philip Pullman says “if they remain undisturbed [in books], they will die of neglect. They should be taken out and made to dance.” This break in the chain has been made ever more likely by the recession. School funding has been drastically and shamefully cut. The arts must always appear a frivolous indulgence to those who cut its funding before anything else. When Morden became a storyteller himself, he thrived off visiting schools and telling stories to the children. “I used to visit schools all the time. I visited two or three primaries a week every term for twenty years. But then the financial crash happened, then austerity, and the bookings dried up. Children love stories. I would happily spend all my working life telling to them. It is an enjoyable way for them to discover other cultures, other ways of living.”
Storytelling is crucial to child development. Studies on have indicated that the reading of stories to children and all the searching conversations that arise from it are hugely beneficial to their cognitive ability. In Daemon Voices, Philip Pullman quotes the findings of Language and Learning: an International Perspective (1985):
Several investigators have noted how much more complex, semantically and syntactically, is the language that occurs in this context… Furthermore, the frequency with which children are read to has been found to be a powerful predictor of later success at school.
But to feel that social cohesion nurtured by the storyteller must too be a crucial part of social development. We think and communicate through stories. It is suggested by Noah Yuval Harari in his Sapiens that this is one of our greatest evolutionary advantages, allowing us to organise ourselves and to work together.
Martin Shaw says these stories are connecting, of the earth. He claims some do not originate with us, but with animals and things much older than ourselves. It’s hard to deny this when you hear these tales that are so tantalisingly familiar, these characters and places deeply rooted in our nature. We are increasingly disconnected and isolated from the people around us, and of the world on which we depend, however far we remove ourselves from its cycle. If these stories can reawaken that sleeping, buried part of us, they should be sought out and supported. Hearing these stories is to be in conversation. It does not matter what culture or stretch of earth they originated from. Their characters and motifs are a universal language. We sit and listen to these stories, and without saying a word, some part of us replies.
Maybe the greatest strength of the storyteller is to reunite us with these old friends, and to introduce us to those they know will nourish us. Morden tells me a story he heard from Africa:
A missionary brought a television to a remote African village. When he left, the villagers were crowded around it.
A few months later, when he returned, he found the telly abandoned, and the villagers listening to their storyteller.
“Why aren’t you watching the telly?” he asked, “it knows so many more stories.”
“The television knows more stories,” a villager replied, “but the storyteller knows us.”