(c) 2015, Tim Jennings

This article is slightly expanded from The National Storytelling Network's journal,
Storytelling Magazine
Fall 2015 ("the fairy tale issue")


by Tim Jennings

I Hooked on Fairy Tales

Here’s an origin story.

In 1970, aged 22, I heard Sarah Cleveland at a folk festival, performing an old tale about three brothers that she heard in her family when she was a little girl. Time changed. My mouth opened slightly, my eyes shone. I became ageless.

I wanted more.

* * *

JRR Tolkien believed fairy tales to be a kind of literal spell. He wrote that “at their highest” they are magic doors to a supremely real place “outside Time itself,” where piercing joys carry “the very taste of Primary Truth.” 

Tolkien discusses “tales of Faerie” in a broad sense, covering mythology, epics, and written fantasy, as well as the root (and I believe realest) form: märchen. Märchen is a folklorist’s term for spoken narratives of wonder and magic, socially generated, collectively maintained, reproducing and evolving through oral transmission like folksong.

In the nineteenth century, stories of this kind were famously “discovered,” transcribed, and edited into fixed prose classics by the Grimm brothers, Asbjørnsen and Moe, Afanasyev, and others. The term refers both to the mutating oral tales and to their canonical texts, as adapted more or less freely according to the tastes of the writers.

* * *

Like Tolkien’s elves, oral märchen always seem to be departing. Their natural habitat has disappeared from the developed world, “development” itself breaking the line of transmission. Generations pass, tale-spinners pass away, the tales do not pass on, people forget how they work, and we are left with texts.
Texts cannot substitute for the living tale. You cannot experience a tale from a text, anymore than you can smoke tobacco in Magritte’s pipe.

But märchen have historically used texts as a kind of seed, a way to reenter oral tradition. For example, certain oral tales collected by the Grimms have been traced to a book: The Arabian Nights.

I wondered if maybe, after studying Magritte’s painting, and doing research, and trying a lot of stuff that doesn’t work, or kind-of works, maybe somebody unfamiliar with real pipes could— possibly? — I hoped! — learn to make one, and smoke it.

I started telling. It was awful.

* * *


People who start doing stand-up are very crazy. They really want it so badly, it's a very deep desire.

When you start, you stink. There's no other way to do it. It takes some kind of mental illness to push against that, you know, to go onstage and just bomb horribly and then still do it because you love it. You just have some really deep desire to make it work.

Actually, it's usually the comedians that start awkwardly and badly who end up being interesting. From my experience, when I've seen people show up and from the first day onstage they're just easy-like, really amiable comics who just know how to talk to people, they don't usually end up being that special. They get some quick success but they don't turn into something really unusual and great.

—Louis CK (on Terry Gross's Fresh Air)

* * *

Contemporary folk storytelling— marchenspieling!— is a craft, and sometimes a trade.

Apprenticeship lasts 3 to 6 years in most trades. The next level of skill is Journeyman, and you can ply your trade on that level. After another three to six years, you have the opportunity to produce a fine and difficult piece of work, demonstrating to those who will be your peers that you have attained a level of mastery. This is the original meaning of “master piece.”

I spent years reading and listening, failing and succeeding, developing pieces through performance in front of audiences who weren’t there to be polite— i.e. not other storytellers— adapting my delivery to their responses. I had a journeyman period, driving all over creation, making some kind of living.

Then I made my master piece (in the crafts sense!), an interpretation of the Norwegian classic, Farmer Weatherbeard.

II - Picking A Story

Why Farmer Weatherbeard? Why any story?

Not because it teaches something. Not because a sponsor wants a story about transportation. Not because somebody <cough> Joseph Campbell <cough>  says “Here’s what this story’s really about.”

The tale should call you. It’s a mysterious process, but we can talk about it rationally.

Maybe I sensed Tolkien’s Other Side through the text; it was long ago, I’m not sure. I do remember the following less mystical allures.

1) Dasent’s translation presents the story as a Jack tale. I told a lot of stories about Jack, from Appalachia and Europe. I still do, sometimes, but in my Weatherbeard he seems to have become “the boy.”

2) The tale was long and challenging. I felt ambitious.

3) It looked really old; there were bits of Norse myth tucked in here and there.  Like the old man in the story, Thor once escaped on a giant eagle. Like Weatherbeard, a pursuing frost giant drilled through a mountain. In Valhalla, slain Vikings fight by day until they’re all dead again, then get up and go inside to eat and drink themselves into a stupor. Weatherbeard’s great hall above the clouds has heaps of dead bodies out in the yard and heaps of sleeping creatures inside. The tale is not “really about” mythology; myths and märchen are kissing cousins, one can transform into the other like Eros and The White Bear.

4) I wanted to tackle the finale: a magician’s duel-by-metamorphosis. The passage didn’t really work for me as writing, but I wanted to give it a try.
I had encountered similar duels, in traditional ballads and in T.H. White’s old original children’s Sword in the Stone (where, by the way, an anachronistic Merlin conquers by turning himself into chicken pox.)

5) I suspected that many tropes in the text which are unattractive to a modern reader might indicate specifically oral effects. How they worked was veiled, but (I thought) they couldn’t be mistakes. They had survived countless recastings and transmissions. If they didn’t do something, they would have dropped away. I wanted to explore what that “something” might be.

Two examples:
                  • Repetition irritates a modern reader— that long nose again!— but when performed fearlessly can be compelling. Things come around and around like the chorus of a song. When you read through song lyrics you skip the choruses, but in the song itself chorus is king.
                  • The tale moves along in an unliterary manner. No arc, character development, long builds, denouement, flashes of insight, interior action— just one damn event after another. And the space each event occupies seems randomly allotted. The content-rich finale, for example, zips by in less time than the part with the three all-but-identical old ladies, then lurches to an abrupt finish. It seems so wrong to the reading eye, maybe it evolved for the ear.


III - Learning and Performing.

I began learning Weatherbeard without a set text, speaking spontaneously in front of audiences, like a comedian. It’s uncomfortable, I was always acutely aware of whether the audience was on board, and at first of course they usually were not. The earliest stages have vanished from my mind, like the pain of childbirth.

Bit by bit I found ways to get and keep the focus, elements for my storyteller’s spell. Punch and Judy conversation for the old couple. Growing the old ladies’ noses with my finger. Interpreting “pipe” as a set of bagpipes. Fish-gargling.

I’m not sure I needed to set little anchor-point payoffs inside the repeating circles, but it comforted me to do so and seemed to work. Two examples: (1) When I increased the old ladies’ ages geometrically, audiences appreciated the cumulative effect, reacting enthusiastically to each new number.  (2) I was a little embarrassed to let out such a full-throated “It’s FARMER WEATHERBEARD and a THOUSAND MEN behind him!” every time, but it paid off: the bigger I went the more the audience responded. For some people it became a kind of catchphrase.

After some time, I had gained solid control of the tale’s first half. The finale, too, became reliably strong, I could always get the audience back with it. But in-between, starting with the eagle landing in Weatherbeard’s country, my connection with the audience waned, and there were several boggy spots where I was apt to lose them.

The story has already gone on quite awhile. The telling becomes quiet, and stays that way for several minutes: no fancy flourishes, big characters, or sudden noises to make heads turn my way. Heads start turning to each other, with the first hint of a murmur.

I began getting up out of my chair as the eagle alights. I’d walk around, exploring the country above the clouds.

“Heaps of dead bodies out in the yard” always gets attention.  (Don’t blame me, it’s in the book!)

By now I have located the main nexus of slack, and walk towards it as I continue to narrate. Maybe there’s a little conversation going on.  Maybe it stops as I draw near. Maybe not.

“And the eagle said”  — adopt eagle character— “just remember…”  peer at the talkers— “dont talk.”  Look elsewhere.  “They won’t wake up as long as you just…” another hard look — “dont talk!” 

The talkers rarely understand exactly what’s happening, but the talk stops, for a moment at least. “So he went into the great hall and there were heaps of sleeping creatures” —start walking through the audience, hopefully seated on the floor. “Snoring loudly.” Once in awhile somebody actually snores for me. “And he walked around them…. and stepped over them… and even walked right on top of them” — this calls for nice judgment, obviously.

Here the current picks up, no more doldrums until “There was his son, standing before him.”

Now, that’s definitely an ending.

“And the son said, “Here’s what we’re going to do.”

What? You mean, it’s not over yet?

Yup. What’s more, they’re going to do this thing three times before the finale finally comes along. Sigh. I gave it a chance, I really did, over many tellings. But finally I discarded the first two iterations, going straight to the final sale.

Hurray! Now it works! How do I know?

I say, “The old man sold the bridle!” and wait.

When it’s working, I hear audible gasps, visceral reactions as involuntary as a laugh, startle, or shiver. —“Oh no!”

“Oh yes!” thinks I, and roll out the finale.


What? You want more?

Two tales with coaching
Gingerbread Man
Dead Man's Liver

Online Videos
Imps of Misfortune
Water of Life

Tim and Leanne's Website

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