22 February 2016



That story was in the newspapers, it was all over Facebook, people sent me links to articles… it featured on the Today Programme where an incredulous John Humphreys interviewed someone on the subject. 
So what was it all about?
Dr Jamie Tehrani  and his colleagues at Durham University have been doing research into this subject using a method called  Comparative Phylogenetic Analysis and he’d come up with the findings that some tales might be 6000 years old!
(I won’t go into the details of the method, it’s long and complicated, but you can read all about it for yourself on these two sites: 

Is it, though, such an incredible finding? Didn’t we know, or at least suspect that all the time?
Historian Michael Wood in his recent TV series ‘The Story of China’ showed a storyteller telling a 4000 year old story. “That’s being told in the very place it happened” he said, “We know that because archaeologists have excavated those fields and found the evidence.” He didn’t find it surprising that a story could survive orally for that long even though those tales were all banned during the Cultural Revolution of the mid 20th Century. They sprang back up with no difficulty once they became acceptable again.  So if it’s possible in China why not in Europe?

Tehrani  himself said in his paper “Wilhelm Grimm (one of the famous Brothers Grimm to whom we owe many of the best known European folk tales) argued that the traditional German tales that he and his brother Jacob had compiled were remnants of an ancient Indo-European cultural tradition that stretched from Scandinavia to South Asia”. Many people said this wasn’t possible. They argued that the peasantry wasn’t capable of creating such stories from scratch and that they must all have been composed by some literate member of the gentry before being taken up orally.

I love singing ballads and, over the years, have done many of them. A particularly magical and ancient-seeming one which I’ve recorded but never performed live is The Outlandish Knight (Child#4) In it  a mysterious, foreign (or other-worldly?) ‘knight’ comes wooing, promises all kinds of wonderful things, and the young lady elopes with him; when they get to a distant riverbank he orders her to dismount from her horse and take off her clothes:

For it’s six pretty maidens I have drowned here
And thou the seventh will be”

but, as in many stories, she’s a clever girl; she tells him to turn his back while she disrobes and when he’s not looking she pushes him into the river:

Lie there, lie there, you false hearted man
Lie there instead of me,
If it’s six pretty maidens you have drowned here
Then the seventh has drown├ęd thee.”

The Beast from Beauty & the Beast

In his book Folk Song in England A.L.Lloyd devotes several pages to the ballad and points out that the story has been found right across Europe for many centuries and the further east you go the older the song seems to be. A scene which is missing from most British versions but is found in the Continental ones is this: at some point on their ride they stop beneath a tree. They dismount and she takes his head in her lap to delouse him (very romantic!) but not before he has warned her not to look up into the tree where hang either his blood-stained weapons or the heads of his previous victims. (Shades of Bluebeard or Mr Fox!)
This image can be found in many Hungarian and Slovakian churches although the hero is the Hungarian king St Ladislas, but sometimes he is depicted as a Tartar warrior...
Lloyd claims that the oldest depiction of the same scene is found on a bronze sword scabbard dating from 300BCE, found in Siberia—a warrior and his lady lie under a 9-branched tree by the river with their horses standing near by.

Jason fights the skeleton men who spring from the seeds he plants

 And how about Scarborough Fair or The Elfin Knight (Child#2) ?

When I was about 9 years old I was given a book called The Golden Fleece by M.W.Jennings as a school prize. It was one of those I read over and over so when I heard Scarborough Fair (the full version, not Paul Simon’s truncated one) I immediately recognised the image of ploughing the sea shore:
Tell him to find me an acre of land… between the salt water and the sea strand.
Tell him to plough it with a ram’s horn… and sow it all over with one pepper corn.
Tell him to reap it with a sickle of leather… and tie it all up with a peacock’s feather.

In my book it says:
Then Medeia, the witch maiden, told Jason what he would have to do, to win the fleece. First he would have to tame two fierce bulls with brass feet and fire for breath, and make them plough a field. Then he would have to sow serpents' teeth in the field. Out of each tooth would spring up an armed man, and he would have to fight with all these armed men....”
In the famous Ray Harryhausen film the armed men became skeletons as in the picture above. 

The story of Jason and the Argonauts goes back to when? Many millennia… if it is based on true events it must have happened before 1000BCE. 

Jack and the Beanstalk: 4000 years old?
On a much more everyday level there are many things which have survived for thousands of years and which we don’t question: I live in Belper, a name which comes from the Norman French Beaurepaire, so that name has survived 1000 years.  One of my favourite places to walk is the Chevin, which is large hilly ridge just up the road from Belper. Chevin is a modern spelling of Cefn, a name still found in Wales, which was the old Brittonic name for a wooded ridge. There have been no Britons in Belper to speak that language since Roman times but the name survived and was inherited by the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings, the Normans and now us. Our local river, which runs past the foot of the Chevin, is the Derwent. There are several River Derwents in England [as well as Derwentwater in the Lake District] and it is thought that it might be a word for a river, or just for water, which pre-dates any known language. So many millennia old…

Next time I’m asked “How old are the stories you tell?” - a question I’ve been asked quite often, I’ll now be able to say, with scientific evidence to back me up, that some are 6000 years old or more! Very satisfying.

And what was the oldest story which Tehrani was able to find? So far it is one we could call  The Smith and the Devil. In it a blacksmith, or more accurately a worker in metals, sells his soul to the Devil or some other supernatural being in order to gain supernatural abilities, particularly the ability to weld things together inseparably. Once he has mastered the power the smith welds the evil one to a rock or mountain so that he never has to keep his part of the bargain.
This is an idea which is obviously always relevant and updateable. It’s not that different to Prometheus stealing fire from the gods, Paganini  selling his soul for his fiddling ability or Robert Johnson’s bargain to become the best ever blues guitarist. Tehranni estimates the tale to go back 6,000 years into the Bronze Age when it would have been very relevant.

Richard Martin, who was one of the people who sent material my way for this article, has a video of himself telling a version of this ancient story. It surprised me because it’s one I do and know as Jack o’Lantern or Jack the Bad Tempered Blacksmith. I can’t remember where I learned the story but it is so close to Richard’s (although it has grown a bit longer and more detailed) that I wonder whether it was from Richard—or did he get it from me? The storytelling world id very small!

See Richard’s version at THE SMITH AND THE DEVIL
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4 February 2016


Choices, choices. What goes in? What stays out? Which stories fit the criteria, which don’t? 

Although this post is about writing my latest book it also takes up the theme of identity which I mentioned last time. When is a British story British?

‘WHERE DRAGONS SOAR and other animal folk tales of the British Isles’ has just been published. It's my third book for The History Press. It’s a book of traditional stories about animals drawn from all over Britain. I really enjoyed writing it but before I could start I had to make a lot of choices.
My first two books: Derbyshire Folk Tales and Nottinghamshire Folk Tales were quite straight forward—if it was a folk  tale from that county then it could go in. This time I had to ask myself a few difficult questions.
What counts as the British Isles? How is that different to the UK or GB? Should I include Ireland? How about the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man, Orkney, Shetland? I thought about this for a bit and decided to exclude Eire because that is a whole different culture and deserves a book to itself, although a couple of little Irish stories did creep in because they fitted and helped to balance or explain the others. You could argue that Welsh and Scots stories are equally as foreign but I did decide to include both, although the ones I used were probably from the English language tradition rather than Welsh or Gaelic.
Once I had decided on that I let the stories choose themselves. If I had a choice of two versions of the same story I used the one which came from somewhere I hadn’t mentioned elsewhere in order to get a wide coverage.
I’m pleased with the area I managed to cover: all parts of England; quite a few stories from Wales and Scotland; the far north—there is a story from Orkney (nothing from Shetland although it’s mentioned). The Isle of Man gets several stories—it is often overlooked entirely; there’s one from the Isle of Wight; but I didn’t manage to include anything from the Channel Islands in the end. I did have a couple of tales pencilled in but they didn’t ‘make the cut’ mainly because I decided they were stories with animals in but not really stories about animals.

The cover design (by Katherine Soutar) is based on the story/song Reynardine which is something I love singing and which I had to include. 

I sing it on You Tube at:  REYNARDINE

and here is a link to me telling one of the stories from the book:  AYLESBURY BLACK DOG

When the idea of a book of animal folk tales first came up I thought—this is great, there must be hundreds, perhaps we can do vol.1, vol.2, vol. 3… But once I started researching I became more cautious. Yes, there are hundreds of well known folk tales about animals but how many of them could be called ‘British’? There are many folk tales which we all know and which have been a staple part of children’s literature for generations but which are not British in origin: tales from Grimm, Anderson, Perrault… American tales like Brer Rabbit; African tales about Anansi… You could make a case for including some of them because several generations of British children have been raised on them, but they’re not really British. An even stronger case could be made for including Aesop’s fables. They’ve been in print in Britain for over 500 years and most people know something of them—but they are still called ‘Aesop’s’ fables and are described as being Greek (or perhaps Egyptian). And they are aren’t they? They’re about grapes and pitchers, and wise men on donkeys—not things you find very often in an English village!  (But I’ll admit that I did allow at least one to sneak in!)

As I said in the introduction to the book the British are all immigrants. There was no-one here at the end of the last Ice Age. Over the past 10,000 years we’ve all come from somewhere else and either superseded or mixed in with those who were here already. And those waves of migrants all brought new stories with them. Whose stories should I include? I’m sure there’s no argument against stories from the Ancient Britons or Welsh; the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, even the Normans, seem long enough ago for theirs to count as British stories… or do they? Are some of them still identifiably Scandinavian or French? And what about tales brought by even more recent immigrants? Where do we draw the line? Does a Punjabi story count as British if it’s told by a British born Indian? When it comes to the tales I tell in performance it doesn't matter; if I like it and it fits I do it; but when a book has a description you have to stick to 'what it says on the tin'.
It comes down to a gut feeling of what fits rather than a scientific definition. I allowed in a couple of ‘immigrant’ stories because they fitted so well and also a couple of much more recent stories which owe their being to the internet and e-mail. Again, they fitted and cast a new light on older themes.

 As well as a wide geographical range I was also aiming for as wide a range of creatures as possible and I think I succeeded in that.

As might be expected there are quite a few tales about favourite British pets like cats and dogs (and even a tortoise and a parrot!) There are the familiar animals of the countryside—cows and bulls, hares and foxes. (I was surprised by a lack of stories about horses…)  There haven’t been wolves or bears in Britain for hundreds of years but there is no lack of stories about them. Many of the bears are of the ‘dancing bear’ type used for ‘entertainment’ until comparatively recently but the number of wolf stories shows our innate fascination with my favourite wild animal. There is also a whole range of more fantastic creatures—dragons, werewolves, silkies and so on. (Another thing to ponder: is a werewolf an animal or human?) More surprisingly perhaps, I’ve been able to include stories about alligators, lions and elephants! Well, the British have always been great travellers!

WHERE DRAGONS SOAR is available via the Shop page on my web site.  PETE'S SHOP  for £12 inc p&p

My You Tube channel contains a lot of videos of both songs and stories.
If you'd like to know more about my work have a look at   MY WEB SITE

You may also like to consider subscribing to Facts & Fiction storytelling magazine which I edit  ( FACTS & FICTION ) It's quarterly and covers all aspects of storytelling with news, reviews etc
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