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

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Grammar of Story

by Paula Davidoff

 Fairy Ointment illustration by J. D. Batten 
Every storyteller knows some version of this tale: a midwife is summoned to a fairy dwelling. Sometimes the woman she is called to serve is human; sometimes she is not. When the baby is born, the midwife is given a salve or ointment and instructed to rub it on the child’s eyes. By chance or by choice, she gets a bit of it in her own eye and, in that instant, the scene before her is transformed. In some variants of the tale, a comfortable dwelling turns out to be a cave or hovel, and the respectable couple who needed her service become wizened imps or elves. In other tales, the opposite occurs and the midwife finds a humble cottage transformed into a splendid room crowded with fairy folk. Either way, the ointment has allowed her to see through the fairy glamour, the magic which makes things seem other than they are.

Begin typing the word glamour into a Google search and you’ll get automatic completions like “glamour shots,” “glamour nails,” and “Glamour magazine.” Today, glamour is almost a synonym for beauty, but a certain kind of beauty: exciting, sparkling, alluring. In fact, some etymologists make its root an Indo-European word for ‘shine,’ with cognates like gleam, glitz, and glimmer.
However, there is another respected etymologic theory about the root of  glamour, namely that it is an alternate spelling of grammar and that it means “magic, enchantment, or spell,” as in “fairy glamour.” At first glance, the two words, glamour and grammar seem to be at opposite poles – one has to do with movie stars; the other with elementary school teachers, but dig a little deeper and you realize that this second etymology explains why a textbook of magic is called a grimoire.

A grimoire contains formulae for casting spells, making amulets, and summoning demons, among other occult activities. These texts are said to have been written by necromancers as ancient as the Egyptian god Thoth, the Biblical King Solomon, and Hermes Trismegistus (the alchemist mentioned in Gerry’s recent post).  Folklore teaches us that making magic is no simple task. It requires learning, patience, and much practice to get it right. The sorcerer’s apprentice must acquire deep knowledge of the natural world before he can command the supernatural and, as the story teaches, there are no shortcuts.

The root of our English grammar is the Latin grammatica or the Greek γραμματκη which means, literally, the art of letters. Grammar texts teach the rules for putting words together correctly. Learning the rules can be tedious but, just as with the lessons of the grimoire, mastering them gives one great power. In fact, when you think of it, language is magic, pure and simple. Take its first building blocks, letters, string them in a certain order and, ta da!, the letters now convey meaning; they put a picture in one’s mind.  They’ve cast a spell, a spelling.

And language is a crucial part of magic making. The words chanted over a potion are as important as the ingredients in the pot. They must be pronounced correctly and in the right order. It’s the same with stories. Like newts and frogs, some story ingredients are easy to find. They are the stuff of everyday life: people, places, and problems. Other ingredients are, like dragon scales, more difficult to come by, and finding an effective combination of any of these elements can be tricky. The storymaker must first learn to understand their value, learn how they work together, and practice, practice, practice to get it right. There are no short cuts.
Those of us who tell folktales find stories ready made. But we must still study our grammars so that, when we find the exactly right words, we know how to put them together to not only convey our understanding of the tale, but also to create images in the minds and uncover truths in the hearts of our audiences. We know the power contained in a well wrought sentence. Put just the right number of sentences in perfect order and cast a spell to transport listeners out of themselves and into strange souls in distant lands at other times, to make things appear other than they first seemed. Story glamour.

Storyteller illustration by Andrew Kostiw

Friday, December 4, 2015

Storyteller as Alchemist

Mosaic of Hermes Trismagestrus from the Duomo di Siena
by Gerald Fierst

When I tell stories, my audiences inevitably give me new stories in response. I read folk lore and myth from around the world.  I listen to personal stories.  I create stories from my own life.  This artistic profession has given me a profound respect for the powerful effect a story has on the individual and collective psyche. 

Over decades of telling stories, I have come to understand the connection between the storyteller and the hermetic tradition of alchemy.  Popular culture imagines alchemy as a Harry Potteresque turning lead into gold, but in the tradition of Hermes Trimagestrus, (you can see the portrait of Hermes in the mosaic floor of the cathedral in Siena)  alchemy is the art of summoning energy to transform both the physical and spiritual plan so that (as we say at a good performance) time stands still, and we are transported to a new and more powerful reality.

Storytelling cannot exist in isolation, but needs the collaboration of the viewer as well as the artist.  Storytelling ( I will now use the term storytelling/storyteller instead of alchemy/alchemist ) transforms a personal vision into a universal statement. We open ourselves up to the experience which the artist offers, and we are transformed by new ways of perceiving ourselves and our world.   The craft of the artist is to know the formulae  developed over millennia and to reinvent the structures that have become conventional in order to enable the psyche to expand and understand the new facts being presented. 

Working with StorytellingArts, I have seen this process happening in audiences ranging from preschool to adult,  most powerfully,  at the Morris County Youth Detention Center where a group of storytellers has worked over years.  The residents are 15, 16, 17 year olds.  They wear prison uniforms.  They are small groups supervised by a guard. Whatever their old life was, it is stripped away, and they are neutralized. It is at once prison, and, as the superintendent once told me, “the last best hope to start again.”  It is a bleak, heart breaking place- AND YET.

The Jews say if you can save one soul you save the world.  This year the storytellers chose our theme as super powers and magic.  Jack McKeon and I began the year with a series of stories based on the concept of elemental powers.  Jack told a version of The Stonecutter in which a man cutting blocks from the mountain wishes himself to become the sun, a cloud, the wind, the mountain and, finally, once again the man, for a man with tools can transform the world and  is the most powerful.  The session that day was unremarkable, but the next day, when I returned alone, one of the boys entered the room bubbling with excitement.  He had been telling Jack’s simple story over and over again.  The other boys laughed and shared his delight, and the guard rolled his eyes and nodded in acknowledgement.  The boy had discovered a voice that could enlighten and entertain; and if the stories we tell ourselves lead us on our life’s path, this simple story could be the beginning of this child’s positive sense of himself.

Do I know this? - no.  Do I hope this?- yes.  Over and over, I meet people who remember a story I told years ago.  Grown ups who remember a story they heard me tell when they were children in school.  Stories are powerful magic, and, perhaps, on that day last fall, Jack and I made one boy’s life transform from the impossible to possiblities, for one man can level mountains.

Such visions are what the Hermetic tradition is all about.