The Scottish International Storytelling Festival breathes life into fairytales, letting these gruesome cautionary stories evolve in the way they were intended, writes Jim Gilchrist
FAIRIES, what are they like? We might think of the saccharine, Disneyfied sprites of today’s children’s films and books or the cute Edwardian cut-outs that deluded Arthur Conan Doyle; but in Scots balladry, the wee folk were far from cosy. In Tam Lin, for instance – a supernatural epic the terrain of which is still marked by a well and a farm name, Carterhaugh, outside Selkirk, the vengeful Fairy Queen, foiled in her plan to hijack Tam back to the underworld, spits out:
But had I kenned, Tam-Lin, she says
What now this night I see
I wad hae taen oot thy twa grey een
And put in twa een o tree.
It doesn’t do to mess with the wee folk, it seems. James Hogg, the “Ettrick Shepherd”, recalled that his maternal grandfather, William Laidlaw – “Will o’ Phaup”, who herded in a remote area of Ettrick, was supposed to have encountered the fairies on various occasions.
“His hair,” according to Hogg, “stood all up like the birses on a sow’s back, and every bit oo’ his body, outside and in, prinkled as it had been brunt wi’ nettles.”
Then look at the tales collected by the brothers Grimm – Grimm by name and by nature, with the wicked queen in Snow White dancing herself to death in red-hot shoes or Rapunzel becoming pregnant in their earliest edition of the tale. Hans Christian Andersen is just as bad: his little mermaid, far removed from the Disney confection, agonised by guilt and flayed legs; the wayward dancer of The Red Shoes having her feet lopped off.
As the organisers of the Scottish International Storytelling Festival agree, fairy stories, in their original, uncensored form, can be seem more suitable for adults than for children. Prompted partly by this year’s bicentenary of the publication of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s first collection of tales (also currently the focus of an exhibition at the National Library of Scotland), this year’s festival, which opens on Friday, explores what it calls “the dark and dangerous world of European fairy and folk tale”.
For such tales, in the words of Donald Smith, director of both the festival and the Scottish Storytelling Centre which hosts it, “are entwined with the oldest layers of our culture and the deepest recesses of the human psyche.”
This year spreading its activities out from the Storytelling Centre to new venues such as Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden and as far as the Glasgow-based Scottish Youth Theatre, the festival’s theme of “Once Upon a Story: Folk Tales of Europe”, will have tale-tellers from as far apart as Norway, Poland and Ireland joining their Scottish counterparts.
Among them are two storytellers from Germany, both steeped in the works of the brothers Grimm but taking a very contemporary view of their craft. Asked whether we really need fairy tales in the 21st century, Svenja Krüger, from Hamburg, replies unequivocally: “Absolutely. Their themes and topics are quite timeless. They have been about for thousands of years to help us meet the challenges of life and accept our dark sides and our weaknesses. Fairy tales are basically a very rich and colourful way of dealing with these things.”
Kruger refers to them as Seelenbilder, “soul pictures”, that humankind shares in common. Their motifs crop up across the globe – she personally has come across more than 20 versions of the Cinderella story, for instance, including a native American version called Burnt Face. She cites Bluebeard, that grim yarn about a serial wife killer: “It’s brutal and messy and basically an example of looking at our own dark side – what do I want to hide in my forbidden room, what do I not want people to see about me? You face that and move on in life.”
In Aachen, Regina Sommer, who takes part in a Picturing the Grimms event at the National Library of Scotland on 24 October, found that telling the brothers’ tales to elderly listeners helped them come to terms with more recent darkness. Having returned to Germany after learning her craft during a decade in the United States, she found herself storytelling in homes for the elderly. “These were people who were kids or teenagers during the war and who would normally shy away from what happened then. But they’d say that they used to have the Bible at home, and a collection of the brothers Grimm, and when I told some of these stories, all of a sudden they would start talking about what happened during the war. It was a door-opener.”
Back in Scotland, Bea Ferguson, chair of the Scottish Storytelling Forum, regards such tales as vital, but particularly the act of transmitting them orally. “The great thing about the Storytelling Centre is that these stories are being told again and not read. With all these [printed] collections like the Grimms, or JF Campbell or Andrew Lang, the stories become fossilised on the page.”
And we still need them, she adds. “What is Harry Potter, after all, but a fairy story for the 21st century? It’s the fact that they deal in archetypes. They appeal to children who can take them at a fairly simplistic level, but they also appeal to academics and psychoanalysts. And they often deal with very dark themes because our psyches can be very dark, can’t they?”
In recent times, women have been reclaiming fairytales, notably the late Angela Carter, who retold them in The Bloody Chamber and edited fairytale collections for Virago, Marina Warner and Scotland’s Makar, Liz Lochhead, with her Grimm Sisters. Warner’s From the Beast to the Blonde homes in on the original tellers of these tales – mothers, grandmothers, nannies – a point which Ferguson takes up. They may have been collected and published by men, such as the Grimms, she points out, “but they would originally have been told by women, round the hearth while doing domestic chores, and carried on by women from generation to generation.”
Such tales remain with us as learning tools, she argues: “They allow us to believe that there are always ways through problems, that we can become the hero in our own story and find a way to our own ‘happy ever after’.
“But tell them, rather than read them, because they’re a different animal off the page.”
Once Upon a Time
As ITS subtitle “Folktales of Europe” suggests, this year’s International Scottish Storytelling Festival features performers from all four corners of the continent.
Eddie Lenihan and Jack Lynch will be telling tales of “the other side” from their native Ireland on 20 October, Maria Koroleva delves into the Russian tradition on 21 October and Norwegian storytellers Nina Næsheim and Øystein Vestre will spin yarns of mythical creatures on 22 October. Also look out for Malgorzata Litwinowicz and Michal Malinowski from Poland, Giovanna Conforto from Italy and Regina Sommer, Suse Weisse and Svenja Krüger from Germany.
• The Scottish International Storytelling Festival runs from 19-28 October. For further details, see www.scottishstorytellingcentre.co.uk
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