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.


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.

Persisting Fairy Tales

Once (of course) upon a time, there lived three disciplines, and they lived in a cottage in the woods or possibly on separate parts of a campus. The Big one was called Anthropology, the Middle-sized one was called Folklore and the Teeny-tiny one was called Children’s Literature…

And one day Alan Garner and a whole load of other people threw open to all of them (rather more than three!)  the question

Where are your stories?

That question, which he asks in story-form as well as lectures, might be seen as being as disruptive as the breaking-and-entering “delinquent little tot” Goldilocks’ intrusion into the bears’ cottage. In Boneland – not Children’s Literature, I know – Garner asks his storytelling ancestor this massive question about the roles of story and culture. The Man says he “dreams in Ludcruck…the cave of the world” and in response to the question about stories, begins with an origin tale about Crane. The Man’s stories (which are, after all, Garner’s stories) continue to ring true for the human newcomers to what we now might call the Peak District, and so his dancing and singing are not in vain: the stories are handed on. Garner talks about this relationship of place and story passionately, eloquently. They become origin stories, spirit stories, and mix with concerns through the ages to give Garner his alfar and his Morrigan. This kind of reconstruction and continuity gives a lot of power to the way Garner (and Townsend and Rowling and Pullman and Lewis….) themselves tell stories, drawing some of their authority (if that’s the word) from storytelling of past times. If there is continuity here it is because folklore scholarship has enabled a sort of  continuity of sources. Leafield’s Cure-all Water, its Black Dog, all the Black Dogs maybe, and the standing stones at Rollright and elsewhere are examined by writers such as Katherine Briggs and Neil Phillip and often re-presented by Briggs, Lively, Rowling et al. One form of continuity.

We see another in the engaged and detailed work exploring landscape and language in Rob Macfarlane’s Landmarks which, as he writes of Richard Jeffries, is

fascinated by the strange braidings of the human and the natural.

Here, language is seen to contain elements of older land use, beliefs and practices. Sparrow-beaks explain fossilised sharks teeth and a tuft of grass looking like a bull’s forehead is bull-pated in Northamptonshire.

I have written before about folk tales that explain places, and how these “fairy” tales do provide a sort of continuity, although I think that possibly the syncretism of European story and British folk tales brings its own obscurity: Garner is on his own ground by Seven Firs and Goldenstone, but he is not suggesting that le Petit Chaperon Rouge lived in Congleton.

Where we get into trickier areas is when folklore is pulled into service elsewhere. Gargoyles and grotesques become evidence of a continuing belief in goblins; stories of boggarts become somehow real. I have looked behind me in darkening woods, been impatient to leave a lonely valley, and must acknowledge the pull of this argument, just as Garner steps (nimbly) between his own writing and rural practices and traditions in discussing the roots of his great novel Thursbitch. This talk is chilling, enlightening, inspirational – so that Big Bad Wolves, the Green Knight, Garner’s vision of story and space walking together pepper this blog:  turn but a stone and start a þurs. 

But can this is universalised?   I suppose my problem comes down to how much is understood but not spoken and certainly not (until recently) written. Can we see a Jack-in-The-Green and know for certainty this is the same as the carving on that roof boss, and that this is a continuing belief?  Can we really link Star Carr and Abbots Bromley? Did my great-grandma know quite who she might be warding off by crossing the fire-irons at night?

I would love to see those links clearly. We have tantalising hints, shadows, half-stories (Katherine Briggs’ doctoral work documenting the continuing traditions in literature in folklore across the Interregnum is fascinating) that might lead us in all sorts of directions, and Garner’s defence of place and story should not be overlooked. Rob Macfarlane’s “strange braidings” go between town and country but also between present and past, and how far back they link and join we can speculate  – but we cannot know. Briggs puts it well when she comments on the recurring concerns in Arthurian stories:

A remarkable thing about the Arthurian stories is the way in which primitive themes reappear amongst the most sophisticated embroideries. It seems as if the matter of Britain had a magnetic quality which attracted every type of myth towards it

This “magnetic quality,” it seems to me, is a good image of how Children’s Literature, especially when it explores themes that themselves arise from traditional tales, draws to itself fears and triumphs from former times. Piers Torday’s There May be A Castle is a good example, where quests and knights and woods and danger are explored: Abi Elphinstone, too, works magic here. Perhaps our best bet is to see that similar concerns – fears of the outside as well as celebrating its joys, the worrying menace of wolfish men, women placed outside the Christian context by their (sometimes useful) cunning, half-seen wanderers in a twilight wood –   continue to be represented in cult and place and story.

Apologies for the weak ending here: I think what it means for me is that, studying Children’s Literature I have to pay due attention to Anthropology and Folklore as fundamental to my understanding of so many works I want to study. You can see it clear as day in Garner’s Elidor or Weirdstone – but what about other books – younger children’s books, for example –  I am trying to look at, where the outdoors is a challenging place?