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Sunday, April 26, 2015

Stops Along the Way

by Paula Davidoff

In a castle by the sea, there lived an old lord who had no wife or children living, only one granddaughter whose face he had sworn he would never look at for as long as he lived because on the day she was born, his favorite daughter had died.

Illustration by John D. Batten
That is the beginning of Tattercoats, a persecuted heroine-type tale collected by Joseph Jacobs in More English Fairytales. I love to use this story when I’m teaching because that first sentence implies three generations of family history and, therefore, leads to many questions. When did the Old Lord’s wife die? How many children did she leave behind? What happened to those who weren’t the father’s favorite? Who was the granddaughter’s father? Was he the husband of the favorite? If so, why isn’t he mentioned; if not, what is the story of the child’s conception?
The list of questions becomes longer as the story goes on to introduce an “Old Nurse” (Did she also nurse the Old Lord’s children? What happened to her children?), a gooseboy who plays a magic flute (Is he really a boy or does that title simply establish his role as a servant? If he is a man, could he be the father of the heroine? a child of the Old Nurse?), and geese who, eventually, turn into page boys (Were they always enchanted boys? Or, in their boy form, are they enchanted geese? In either case, who is responsible for the enchantment?).
Everyone with whom I discuss this story, from fourth graders to people old enough to be the great-grandparents of fourth graders, talks about the hidden stories they infer from the text as if they were talking about real people, people they know and care about. And, of course, on some level they are, because the characters in folktales represent us and the people in our lives, and serious conversation about these characters helps us understand ourselves and guide our behavior.

In the story, when the Old Lord learns of his favorite daughter’s death, presumably, from childbirth,
He vowed never to set eyes upon his granddaughter for as long as he lived. Then he sat down in a chair by a window overlooking the sea and began to cry great tears for the daughter he had lost. He sat there crying for so long that his tears wore through the stone window sill and ran down in a little channel to the sea, and his hair and beard grew long, into his lap and over his knees, until it wrapped around the rungs of the chair and grew into the chinks in the floor.

It was this description of grief that made me decide to learn to tell Tattercoats. The old man’s anger and despair wrung my heart, and the fanciful description of his hair and his tears, metaphors for his emotions, bound me to the tale as firmly as the grieving father was bound to his chair.
Long ago I learned that there are moments in every story that cause some listener to think, Wait, what just happened? That makes no sense. These moments are usually not the ones that we think of as demanding suspension of disbelief; they are not about flying carpets or talking animals or singing bones. They are about the listener and they are the story’s way of saying, Yes, look here; here there is something for you.
One of the first times I recognized this phenomenon was early in my storytelling career when, during a workshop for teenage mothers, we were discussing the Grimm tale, Fitcher’s Bird. The women had listened closely, punctuating the telling with gestures and remarks: shakes of the head, groans when the first sister decides to peek into the forbidden chamber, gasps at her fate, and so on. By the end of the story, dead girls had been brought back to life, the heroine had evaded capture by dressing herself in honey and feathers, and the sorcerer had unwittingly carried his captives back to their home in a basket on his back, but the first question I got from my audience was,
Wait a minute. I don’t get it. Didn’t that room full of dead bodies stink?

The question floored me. I didn’t articulate the first thought that came to mind: This is a story, not a scientific treatise. In fact, I didn’t offer any answer. Instead, I fell back on that old teacher trick for gaining time to think and asked, Anyone have an idea about that? Answers varied from It’s just a story, to The chamber was magic, to Maybe the room was refrigerated or the door was airtight, while I wondered, Why did that detail break this woman’s suspension of disbelief?
I didn’t get an answer, although, in the weeks that followed, as I got to know the women, I was able to speculate on possibilities that helped lead me to the conviction I stated above, namely that when something in a story breaks one’s ability to stay in the tale, it’s the story’s way of saying, You need to look closely at this moment.

When I first read Tattercoats, I recognized the Old Lord’s reaction to the latest chapter of his family tragedy, but I think that what stopped me at that moment was the, as yet unconscious, realization that the image held a lesson I needed to learn. At the time, my own family happiness and security was being challenged by events out of our control, and there were many days that I wavered between anger at the fates who had visited us with misfortune and despair at my inability to change the course of events. As I worked in the story, telling and retelling, writing and thinking about its characters, visualizing places and events, my feelings shifted. The change was subtle and influenced by life events that had nothing to do with my story work, but I think that the story was also there, beneath the surface, working its spell.

Years later, when I revisited Tattercoats, it surprised me. The moment that had originally captured my attention no longer seemed central. This time it was the heroine’s story. My focus was on her ability to find her way aided only by the joy she found in the gooseboy’s music. And that’s how story works. The answers are there, but they shift with time and changing circumstance. We often don’t hear them if we don’t need them, sailing through a tale from Once upon a time to happily ever after without a pause. It’s when we stumble that we need to stop and examine the path.

Paula Davidoff