Storytelling Arts' mission is to preserve, promote and impart the art of storytelling to develop literacy, strengthen communities and nurture the human spirit.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Trusting the Tale

Illustration by Arthur Rackham
    Seven Ravens, from the collection of the Brothers Grimm, is one of those stories in which a sister is unwittingly responsible for the suffering of her brothers. In the stories I’ve read, seven or twelve brothers are transformed into birds: swans, geese, or, in this case, ravens. The fate of the brothers is dependent upon the actions of their sister; she is their only hope for a return to normal human existence, but to save her brothers she must make some sacrifice.

In Seven Ravens, the brothers are transformed on the day of the sister’s birth. Because the babe was sickly, the father sent his oldest son to the well to fetch water, so that she could be christened immediately. All of the brothers ran off together and, in the ensuing commotion, the vessel in which they were to carry the water home was knocked into the well.  After waiting a time for his sons’ return, the father supposed that they had been distracted by friends or play and, frantic with concern for the sickly newborn, he spoke the words that must have haunted him for the rest of his life, “I may as well have seven ravens as seven sons.” At that moment, he heard a rustle of wings and, looking up, saw seven ravens fly over the house.
Of course, the sickly babe grew strong, even without the ritual lustration. In time, she discovered the story of her brothers’ disappearance and set out to rescue them. At this moment in the story, it becomes different from the other brothers-to-birds stories I know. First of all, the sister is very young when she begins her journey and she remains a child throughout it. Her journey takes her out of this world, to the homes of the sun, the moon, and the stars. In this last place, she learns that her raven brothers live in a glass mountain, and she is given a bone that will unlock its door. After another long journey, she reaches the mountain only to find that she has lost the bone-key. She despairs until, realizing that her own little finger is the same size and shape of the bone, she cuts off her finger, puts it into the keyhole, and unlocks the door. After this, the events of the story flow smoothly to the brothers’ change back into human beings, and all of the children return home to their parents.

I tell this story a lot. I sympathize with the poor father and pray that I will never be held to such close account for thoughtless speech. I am moved by the courage of the heroine, and I love the fact that, unlike many folktale sisters, she is granted her accomplishment while she is still a child. I love the images that come to my mind as I tell: the boys, looking at each other as the splash from the fallen pitcher echoes in the well, and therefore, each witnessing the transformation of the others; the seven great black birds flying over the thatched roof of the house; the sister walking through the world carrying her little chair on her back; the stars in shining raiment, each sitting in its own seat, and the little girl placing her chair among them. I remember the faces of my own children as I watch her earnest explanation of her predicament. Later, I see the thick, black velvet curtain behind which she hides to wait for the ravens’ appearance. I see the dull gleam of the mother’s golden wedding band at the bottom of the seventh raven’s wine glass, and I see the brothers and their sister start, hand-in-hand, on their journey home.
However, there is one moment in the story that I do not see clearly, that is the child’s self mutilation. My cerebral imagination by-passes the event. It is only accessible through the heart. I hope that the children to whom I tell the story also experience that moment as I do, but of course, I don’t know. I watch their faces as it happens, and I have never yet seen a sign of the horror that a vivid image of the picture must evoke. When the story is over, they often ask about it. The occasional fifth grade boy says, “gross” or “cool” when he refers to it. But children seem to understand that difficult tasks require a sacrifice and that the best things are worth it.  

Yesterday I was telling Seven Ravens to a mixed audience of about thirty people who were attending a holiday arts celebration in Madison, NJ. The storytelling site was a small, lovely alcove in the Museum of Early Trades and Crafts. Children sat at my feet on a richly colored Persian rug; their parents and other adults sat in chairs behind them. As the little girl in the story approached the glass mountain, I looked into the faces of the children on the front row. They were completely absorbed in the tale – their eyes were fastened on me, their mouths slightly open. I looked beyond them at the adults and saw that a young adult couple sitting on a bench at the side of the room were just as present in the story.
The youngest children in the room were between two and four years old, much younger than my usual audience, and as I moved toward the story’s climax, I began to doubt myself. I wasn’t sure that I should tell it properly. I was afraid of what the children might see. I thought that maybe I would just say that the sister put her finger in the keyhole without cutting it off. It wouldn’t be so different, I told myself. She would be using her intact body to release her brothers, instead of sacrificing her finger to her quest.
As I write this, it seems odd to me that I could have had this series of thoughts without breaking the narration of the tale, but in the five or six sentences between the time the sister realized she had lost the bone-key and the cutting of her finger, I went back in forth in my mind about what to do. Just as the sister realized that her finger might be a substitute for the key, I glanced up at the couple on the bench. They met my gaze and I saw that the young woman’s eyes were brimming with tears. In that second, I knew that I couldn’t betray the story. There was, at least, one listener who needed the tale intact. I didn’t dwell in the moment. As soon as the girl found the solution to her problem, I spoke in one breath, “She took the knife she had brought to cut her bread, cut off her little finger, and when she held it between her thumb and forefinger and stood on her little chair, it just reached the keyhole and the door of the glass mountain swung open.”
As I spoke, I enacted her movements, but when the girl entered the glass mountain, I stopped talking, stood still, and took as few seconds to see the interior of the mountain and to look into the little faces on the front row. The children’s eyes were open wide, but they were smiling. They knew that everything would be fine. I looked at the young woman on the side. There were tears on her cheeks, but she was smiling, too. 
Postcard illustration by Oskar Herrfurth

“Trust the story,” I say to parents who wonder if they should read the “real” fairy tales to their children. Sometimes, we tellers need to be reminded, too.