Story

I love being outside, and from camping and hiking with the Woodcraft Folk on, I’ve loved storytelling outside too. I love warm summer days teaching, and this time earlier in July with Home Start was a joy in so many ways (I mentioned them in the previous two posts). 8325C7B0-0434-46B0-8C8C-F84C42D6F1E4Anna from Home Start has been kind enough to let me reuse the pictures she took, and I’m vain enough to have picked this photo. “You’ve got your gob open,” was the immediate family comment. Yes, I have: it is at once in the same tradition and a long way from all those MSS of the medieval Magister spouting in a lecture.  I was reminded sharply while I was working with their volunteers of the story in Kevin Crossley-Holland and Jill Paton Walsh’s Wordhoard in which the new teacher in the monastery school lets the boys out to read and learn in the orchard.

The perspicacious will also note that I’m not reading a story at this point, but discussing an article, down by my side – specifically Wyver et al (2010) The Ways to Restrict Children’s Freedom to Play: the problem of surplus safety, Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood Vol 11, no 3 – to explain something about safety and families. I love exploring that article; it is such a judicious mix of research synthesis and plain common sense.  But of course I did it with a story and it’s that pedagogic tool I first want to reflect on.

Teaching isn’t stand-up, I know, but there is always some room for a story in teaching, whether it’s through sharing a book (Anthony Browne this time; maybe Up The Mountain next time?), or a traditional tale told orally (next time I meet Home Start will be the autumn: I think hallowe’en pumpkins may get a look-in), or an anecdote to illustrate a point. This episode in our morning’s training was about giving parents permission – if such a thing is needed – to do a little bit of thinking ahead and then to let the children explore. The group picked up on the phrase surplus safety.  It’s not without risk, and the story I told was of a boy who fell while out of Forest School whose dad said to me “He never has an accident with me; he’s always in his pushchair.” The spin I put on it was that children need to be given opportunities. As Shirley Wyver and team point out:

They [sc children] will make postural adjustments to maximise stability and efficiency….

and they suggest that early protection from falling can limit the problem-solving a child needs to do on unfamiliar terrain. We discussed the section in Wyver’s article where she suggests it’s a mistake to think small children are not good walkers: children need to exercise (and so, often, do we). And walking brings us away from the adult as in charge, the story-teller/performer.

SDB7B4F32-2A3A-4B43-8D47-1D6FD937FACAtory is not all that happens outside. The very experience itself affords the chance to chat, to wander, to find a new way or a new place – and this is the problem with story as outdoor pedagogy: it is still too close to the teacher-as-Master. Again, this was something we discussed, and I confessed how hard I find it not to jump in and explain: this is called n…; that x is brilliant because it smells like…  While there is clearly a place for “the naming of parts,” for the acquisition of agreed names, there must also be time for independent discovery, for the friend who brings you an egg-shell they have found, for the ladybird on the hand, the sound of the wind in the grass, or even, simply – as one of the people I was with pointed out – that not all grass in green. Warneford Meadow lived up to my praise of it: the grasses were purple and tawny-gold.

Doing the Tudors

It was interesting to talk to some teachers about the work I’ve been preparing around traditional tales for Outdoor Classroom Day, and something of a challenge to find a set of stories that linked with “Doing the Tudors” and “Doing the Romans” to then tell the children. Given the school I was working in, the Romans proved easier than I’d thought: with Akeman Street on the doorstep of Combe village, we pondered what Roman life was like off the roads, away from the imposed civilisation of the invaders. Yes, there were wolves.
For the Tudors, I went for a story that had a version known in the time of Elizabeth I: The Three Heads of the Well. I started from this version, and cut and reshaped and simplified. It helped that the school had a real well…and the three heads that provided me with their magic (‘weirded me” as the language of one version goes) through the day were maybe Katharine Briggs, Terry Jones and Alastair Daniel.  Actually there were more: Adrienne Duggan, the ever-at-my shoulder Mat, the inspirational Neil Phillip… and more – see below…

But back to Doing the Tudors, the point of this post. The “Doing” of topics is always an uneasy business, with that sense of finality, of completion, a dusting of hands and a walking away. I fell into this language myself (I don’t  think I noticed the children or staff using it), and was conscious of how it brought with it another meaning: finished but maybe superficially, as in “We did Oxford yesterday; is this Stonehenge?” Layers of detail and meaning lost.  Having just gone back to my first postgrad research in Tudor history through reading Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Thomas Cromwell, I was well aware of the complexities of “doing” and “finishing off” the Tudors. I know Year 6 had not been discussing the gaps in extant correspondence in this archive or that, of course, but if I thought my “doing” laid bare a “been there, done that” assumption, I need not have worried.

I had chickened out of telling the story with the death of the Queen at the end of The Three Heads, and softened the part about the King’s bribe to the cobbler to take the horrid step-sister away. Some of this was about brevity and tellability, and some of my choices, I reckoned, were about taste.  The children were not to be fooled, and although they enjoyed the story, I was soon in a discussion about what a “real Tudor” would make of the way it concluded. They wanted – in their words – a (they said “the“) “cruel ending.” Beheadings or divorce would have been in order. They appreciated the cruel (step)sister going off with the cobbler – but didn’t see that there was a bad ending somehow in her having to work for a living. Such is the power of storytelling and literature in the curriculum – but note to self: a Roald Dahl ending with blood and shame would have been truer to the earlier versions and maybe pleased my young audience more. Those children had Done the Tudors well.

Alongside what help I and my tutelary spirits could be for “doing the Tudors” or whatever, there were two other magic presences in this day’s work: Jackie Morris and Rob Macfarlane, artist and wordsmith of the great The Lost Words, whose work I shared with every group. It was wonderful to read the short acrostic for Ivy, (“the real high flyer… you call me ground-cover; I say sky wire”) and see the Reception class lap it up, and the “top Juniors” appreciate their understanding of an acrostic. Best of all, as the younger children went back to their room, one of them pointed to the ivy on the school wall, and another said “I say sky wire.” That really surpassed all the messages I could hope to give about links between language and literature and environment. We couldn’t have said we’d “done” language and the environment any more than I have “done” the Tudors, but that five year old knew a nature metaphor when he saw it.

Importance and Binary Opposites

The presentation on What Children Shouldn’t Read for the Reading Spree didn’t go too badly, and reflecting on what did (and didn’t) get heard has been interesting. A few messages went astray both from me and from other presenters, although the “reviews” to listen to are, of course, the people who were actually there, and caught nuances more than the powerpoint slides Twitterers want to argue with. Responses on social media have been thoughtful (and certainly less spittle-flecked) than they were following the first one, at least.  However, reading them does bring me back to Kieran Egan, whose Teaching as Storytelling was a key element of my 20 or so minute ramble. He asks

  • What is most important about the topic?
  • Why should it matter to children?
  • What is affectively engaging about it?

and then  follows this with the challenge to find binary opposites/pairs:

  • What powerful binary opposites best catch the importance of the topic?

Big questions when we look at storytelling and curriculum.   I suggest that they are different for teachers than they are for children. In What Not to Read I suggested we might ask “How do we look at books when we are educators?” and the same is true of how we look at the whole phenomenon of the outdoor curriculum and outdoor storytelling in particular – and in many ways, looking at curriculum is closer than using Egan’s probing questions as being essentially about storytelling.

There are tensions, binaries around ecocriticism and curriculum. Am I storytelling outdoors as a part of the Green Agenda?  How do I deal with a tension around book sharing and how we might orally present traditional tales – there are, for example, practical issues around books and outdoors (as we discovered in a session last year when it poured with rain)?  Teachers’ binaries will be concerned with these curricular issues; children-as-audience will be concerned with, as Egan puts it “the human adventure that began in magic and myth…” and they might be concerned with good and evil, danger and escape (Roald Dahl’s Goldilocks is a wonderful skewing of these concerns with his “delinquent little tot” and her fate at the hands of Baby Bear) or with destruction and redemption (I think at once of a beautiful and politically charged book I have discussed before: Michael Foreman’s A Child’s Garden).

So many binaries to disentangle, when the challenge from Egan is to find the  “binary opposites” that “best catch the importance of the topic” (my emphasis).   This is no small task when selecting books or stories for an outdoor audience; a huge task for teacher or school when considering why they might want to do storytelling and the practical considerations that arise from this plan. Why do we teach how we do?  What prevents us from running on the free rein of professional expertise and creativity?

*

To end with an esprit d’escalier thought about presentations and co-presenters at the Reading Spree, I will take a wide-angle lens view, and ask another of Egan’s questions:

  • What content most dramatically embodies the primary opposites?

This Saturday it was for me testimony from Simon from Whitby – of children in his school who had never been to the beach – and Nicki – a librarian on a TA’s salary, buying library stock from her own pocket.

I went the next day (Sunday) to a panel discussion hosted by members of the Blackfriars congregation about the impacts of poverty and austerity on the educational experiences of children in Oxford. The feelings of the three speakers (and including my Maggie), all in various roles in education, around the squeezed budgets of public services suggests to me the final and most obvious binary: funding and austerity. Life chances are enhanced by things like decent libraries and book provision (and excellent library provision and staffing such as evidenced here) in towns and schools: refusing to answer calls for better staffing and book stock is an ideological choice, to cut public funding and cut taxation.

Cut after cut and cut as politicians tear one another apart and us along with them. There’s a binary for starters.

 

More Dragons: St George’s Day

Ignoring the debates about how much the Church has baptized pagan celebrations, part of me wants to ask people to back off the appropriation of Christian festivals for secular ends, from the feast of All Uncomfortable Family Obligations (25th December) to Chocolate Bunny Day (which this year fell earlier this month).    It is perverse of me, I expect, to push the fact that today is celebrated by many/most Western Christian Churches as St George’s Day, the solemnity that remembers the martyrdom of a saint from the Middle East whose cultus spread during the crusades as a sort of military demi-god. The feast has moved because the week (“octave”) after Easter is deemed to be so special it clears the calendar of other celebrations. I shall not comment on the crusader link, and for now I’ll skirt round those other ways in which tales of George and his emblems and cross have supported or excused violence against the enemies of England or Western Christendom.  It is my fervent hope that, as I said earlier this year, those dragons are in the end going to burn themselves out, but today I find myself in some doubt.59610823_10161841658920341_2877297955658792960_n

Just briefly, however, to reflect on whose saint George is. Not in terms of whose patron saint he might be, if that means who he might support in a battle or a football match, or whatever (all of which seem pretty empty to me, although I recognise the power of Shakespeare both at the time of his writing Henry V and of Laurence Olivier’s stirring speech in his film version), but in terms of tradition.   Tradition is  powerful thing, of course, and the St George tradition renews itself through the institutions of English monarchy, flags on church buildings – and more recently by appropriation of a mythic, medieval past by right-wingers that reminds me uncomfortably of Romanita in Mussolini’s celebration of Vergil. Mind you, Vergil’s own plea to a mythic past is also open to exploration…

What are we left with?  Lots of English images of churches, flags, the rolling countryside of the story of a land fit for heroes that has given rise, indirectly, to the powerful love of landscape and nature that might yet save our environment? Shall I wind up the gramophone and start the Vaughan Williams or Holst … and go on a search for a Land of Hope and Glory of 1220, 1420 or 1950 that never really existed?  It is not to be denied that imagery, music, tradition are key to understanding identity, and these myths are important. Above is a nod, in some form, to the traditional iconography in the red(ish) rose in my back garden this morning, out early, out in time for St George’s day (the white Yorkshire rose is hanging back, I note). So when is St George’s Day? Does the tradition of 23rd April stand, and if we get a new national holiday, that will be it? Or is it something for Christians, with our own calendars, celebrating a saint from such uncertain past histories we are unsure who we are celebrating, or for people looking for an identity?  Do Christians cede St George to people in search of a mascot, a symbol of a (xenophobic, possibly violent and unthinking) nationalism? What did I celebrate when I opened my breviary today?

I have to wonder if what I celebrated was not St George, and certainly not Englishness, but a curmudgeon’s hankering after a faith identity that separates itself – or has been separated – from a nationalist identity, and this is born, in part, from the Reformation script that meant Catholics were seen as in some way foreign. Here we are at the us-and-them of identity: we are us because we are not them. Perhaps this is why a combative dragon-slayer fits so well.  Perhaps we are all looking at mythic pasts for identity guides.  Uncomfortable thoughts on a fine spring morning.

Omens

It’s a spring day as March comes to its “out like a lamb” ending. The sun is shining and I’m out on Warneford Meadow, treading through tufty grass, and along paths worn by commuters. It is our local Green and a valuable space, with a rich and (I suspect) growing biodiversity.   I am one of a number of visitors, human and non-human – and as I trot down one of the paths I see a bunch of magpies. The Opies record the rhyme as:

One for sorrow
Two for mirth
Three for a wedding
Four for a death.

Lots of other versions are on record, testimony to the respect  people (maybe) had for these striking birds as messengers.  The Boke of Saint Albans has, in its lists of the Compaynys of beestys and fowlys has a tiding of [mag]pies (but beware: I’m not sure I trust a list with  Superfluyte of Nonnys or Noonpacience of Wyves)…

One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
Never to be told.
Eight for a wish
Nine for a kiss
Ten a surprise you must not to miss.

(It received a boost by being the theme tune for the Thames TV production of Magpie, ITV’s Blue Peter Rival, when perhaps other customs and rhymes have fallen by the wayside – but that began when  I was the key audience: a long time ago, now.)

Back to Warneford Meadow as I slog over a possible Roman settlement and try not to think about the Quis Est Iste Qui Venit of such a run.   Nine magpies, then as I approach it’s four then seven and then just one. What do we make of portents whose mobility makes the I Ching look solid?  Well, of course, we don’t, in general; it’s a bit of mind play while I run.

I remember that as I qualified as a teacher, the National Curriculum was just coming in, and the course leader was ending his goodbye speech to the PGCE with “May you live in interesting times.”  He did not foresee where we might be today: if we were only contending with conflicting views about curriculum that would be enough, but we have Schoolsweek announcing scandal upon scandal, Unionist bands and racists openly on the streets in London vying for publicity (and no, they don’t get links) with crowds and crowds of people with more politeness and less threatened violence, a Parliamentary struggle the likes of which I have never seen before… These are interesting times, but not in a good way. There are no signs or portents to match all of this rubbish.

And while I trundle my sixty-something way and wonder about what the list of magpie numbers might portend (I really did get the one above the other week), part of my mind is wondering: instead of nines and sevens am I just seeing magpie after magpie after magpie? Sorrow and sorrow and sorrow?  I don’t think I have ever felt gloomier about the state of my country and my profession.

So instead of corvid fortune telling, I will end with part of my play list for running:

Nina Simone whose version of Billy Taylor’s anthem to Freedom has been a lifesaver this winter.

And while we’re at it, her singing of Randy Newman’s great hymn to compassion.

Sod the magpies, stuff the omens: this is what we need.

Back into Storyland

Let’s start with the lyrics:

When a knight won his spurs in the stories of old
He was gentle and brave he was gallant and bold
With a shield on his arm and a lance in his hand
For God and for valor he rode through the land

No charger have I, and no sword by my side
Yet still to adventure and battle I ride
Though back into storyland giants have fled
And the knights are no more and the dragons are dead

Let faith be my shield and let joy be my steed
Against the dragons of anger the ogres of greed
And let me set free with the sword of my youth
From the castle of darkness the power of the truth.

 

I loved this song as a child: perfect Junior School Assembly stuff. I sang it in college with my friend Robert, too: a shared memory of school even though we hadn’t known each other. It colours, also, my understanding of fantasy literature: the wistfulness is something of a challenge and full of the pull of nostalgia, and for me (some way from assembly in Harlow), this folksy version by Martin Simpson of it really rings a chord.

I’m not swapping from wolves to dragons as an interest, but just to record, for National Storytelling Day, the wonderful variety of dragons. Here are some of my favourites, drawn, I ought to say, from the European tradition. The song I’ve cited above always reminds me these days of Tomie de Paola’s The Knight and the Dragon, where the luckless knight and dragon come to terms with each other, make peace and live happily. But there is also Eustace in  C S Lewis whose encounter with – and transformation into – a dragon are an allegory of sin and redemption; there is Rosemary Manning’s urbane and charming R Dragon, standing for the whole of Cornwall, wistful for the time of Arthur; the urbane and vain dragon defeated by The Paper Bag Princess… And there is Smaug the Stupendous.

It seems to me that dragons are (like wolves) personifications of a certain type of aggression, and that the fire they are often surrounded by is its potent symbol. Michael Martchenko‘s wonderful fire in the Paper Bag Princess has it all: all-consuming but ultimately exhausting. And at an uncertain hour, when anger is rife, maybe storytelling can remind us of this: those dragons of fear and anger (and criticism and self-doubt) are in the end going to burn themselves out.

Sauron’s Mission Statement

O Felix Culpa, O happy fault. (Here at 6’14” in English and here at 5’49”  in the original Latin).  Lent is here, the Easter celebrations (from which this quotation comes) will soon be here. And I’m thinking about Evil, or more specifically what fantasy writers envisage their real big baddies are after. I don’t find it straightforward.

In one of the best recent meditations on good and evil – maybe the Best, and certainly the funniest – Good Omens,  Adam, the child who is supposed to be the AntiChrist is entertained with this rhyme:

Oh the grand old Duke of York
He had Ten Thousand Men
He Marched them Up to the Top of the Hill
And Crushed all the nations of the world and brought them under the rule of Satan our master.

This comedy underlies one of the principal themes of the book, in which the mundane and the transcendent meet in drily witty distjuncture and/or a poignant juxtaposition of ideas.

And there never was an apple, in Adam’s opinion, that wasn’t worth the trouble you got into for eating it.

O Felix Culpa.  This is a comic-book version – a satire, really – of the Bosch-like vision of Hell: at heart Pratchett and Gaiman are looking at an anthropology of good and evil, not a grand theodicy, and Adam, the boy at the centre of Armageddon escapes the wrath of God, the disapproval of his demonic progenitor and the very real discipline of his earthly father to and go and play, “half angel, half devil, all human…” with an apple or two he has scrumped on the way.

And in this satire of the Apocalypse, Hell is seen not only as painted in C16th horror, but as an antiquated and bullying bureaucracy; Heaven is imperious and out of touch, The downright nastiness of a Medieval Inferno is offset by an inability to manage modern technology; rank on rank the hosts of Heaven don’t really know what God plans are for Armageddon. These failures of evil occur elsewhere: the Big Bad  (were)Wolf in Grandma’s bed is fooled by Red Riding Hood needing a poo, and his descendants, such as Catherine Storr’s Stupid Wolf,  or Wile E Coyote  have similar problems.If we were to apply to other narratives the same comic mismatches, we might find Sauron losing his keys or Voldemort not managing a bus timetable.

Very often Bad does not triumph, it seems, because it is inefficient. This inefficiency  allows Good to triumph and Evil to defeat itself. Maybe the best look at the ineffectual evil sidekick for me are Pain and Panic, whose plain idiocy is a thorn in the flesh for Disney’s marvellously impatient Hades in Hercules.  However, although minor characters in Rowling’s battle for domination are allowed comic inefficiency, and the mean squabbles of orcs allows Tolkien a sideways swipe at something that falls short of Evil, a dull, malicious nastiness, there are in the big baddies of fantasy depictions of evil that go beyond the silly, the clumsy, the mean. What stirs in Earthsea, the intrusive Dark in Susan Cooper’s sequence: these are not to be discounted as minor threats.  It therefore becomes important to ask: what are they evil for? Why are these presences evil?

What these great Lords of Darkness are hoping to gain is not always clear. If we suppose Sauron gains the One Ring, and the new Age that is ushered in is his dominance, the destruction of all beauty, the enslaving of the free peoples, then what? And why?

Sauron is given a backstory in the Silmarillion in the Lucifer-like fall of his master Melkor, Morgoth, the dark Enemy of the World, so that

…he rose like a shadow of Morgoth and a ghost of his malice, and walked behind him on the same ruinous path down into the void.

but this is still insufficient. Malice might be at the heart of the dominating and destructive works of Sauron and Melkor, and a part of their destruction, but at the start we are not really sure what they intend but destruction.

At one level, they are evil the way they are evil in order to provide the foil the good guys need: that there is a personal element to Voldemort’s hatred of Harry Potter is one of the strengths of the series; the growing malaise in Earthsea likewise gives the books their unique flavour. At another level it can be argued that these evils reflect a societal understanding of what evil does, and in many cases there is either an explicit description of how that evil has come about in the story or in a further text (such as the Silmarrillion): a Fall, of sorts, and a touchstone for what the author/audience might see as evil.

But how do they make sense of their existence? What, to turn to my title, are their aims and mission? What is their spirituality? In a moment of clarity, does Sauron at some point think “today was a day well spent”? What are Sauron, or Voldemort, or Cooper’s Riders left with if they triumph? It seems to me they have (only) Milton’s vision of

Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery Deluge, fed
With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum’d…

Perhaps that Nash-Tolkien  vision from the World War (think Menin Road or Wire as images of destruction, both linked here in the IWM) is simply of a grim, spreading, malicious destruction. The malice of the orcs, the cruel, sniping pettiness of Rowling’s OfSTED-like Dolores Umbrage are part of the bigger project as they pick apart anything good or beautiful.

The overall project, the destruction of human endeavours to be complete, at one, seeking peace and truth is what Sauron and Cooper’s Dark (and maybe Voldemort) are trying for.  To see this vision we might compare Nash’s Ypres Salient at Night with Tolkien’s account of the triumph of evil in the Fifth Battle:

Great was the triumph of Morgoth, and his design was accomplished in a manner after his own heart: for Men took the lives of Men and betrayed the Eldar, and fear and hatred were aroused among those that should have been united against him.

In other words, for Tolkien’s personification of evil, the engendering of destructive hatred is the end…

For Rowling? Apart from his vendetta against Harry Potter we only seem to have Voldemort’s desire for power: the struggle to frighten, to subjugate, to use those who admire and fear that power to bring more people under his rule. Is there a weakness in the narrative here – or is the threat of this fear, the menace that comes with his followers enough? Sauron  brings about strife and disunity; Voldemort seeks power and uses fear to recreate the world to his own ends. That leaves me with Cooper’s Dark and LeGuin’s failing powers. I think they are a subtler depiction of evil and will have to wait for another day.