Reflections (part 2)

Part II of our report from the English Graduate Conference Oxford, Friday 6 June 2014. Please read Alex’s account below.

Alex Paddock on adapting a medieval tale:

Hi, I’m Alex – I was one of the participants in the Medieval Storytelling workshop, and am now part of the Oxford Storytelling Circle. As part of the workshop, both in application and during the exercises themselves, we were encouraged to think about the ways that story could perform important outreach work for disseminating our research, and we have continued talking about this in our circle meetings. I’m going to talk to you about the process of adapting one of my stories into a KS2-appropriate telling.

The medieval part of my own research is in zoocentric literatures, specifically the Physiologus and the later medieval bestiaries that build upon this text. Both text types exist in various forms and languages but follow the same broad pattern – they are catalogues of various beasts, trees and stones, some real some imaginary, which attach Christian moralisations to their attributes. The spiky yet soft-bellied hedgehog, for example, apparently represents a “sinner full of vices”. These books, to put it in very broad terms, have been critically valuable for their beautiful illuminations and for the ways in which they expound the medieval idea that the natural world was designed by God to be, as Thomas of Chobham has it “like a book written with various words and full of sentences in which we can read what we should imitate and avoid”. Their interest for my storytelling, however, is that they also have some brilliant stories, some fearsome and some hilarious monsters. Not all of the beasts or the versions work for retelling, but some, like The Whale of The Old English Physiologus, are perfect.

For those of you not as obsessed with medieval animals as I am, the basic synopsis of the entry for The Whale, broken down into its bare skeleton, as we learned in the workshop, goes like this:

The enormous whale, whose name the Physiologus tells us, is Fastitocalon, remains floating at the surface of the sea so its stony back becomes covered with weeds. Approaching sailors, thinking the whale to be an island, land there and build a fire to cook their food. The whale then dives to the bottom of the sea. The ships are dragged down with it and the sailors drown. When the whale is hungry it opens its mouth and emits a sweet scent, which attracts small fish. The fish swim into the whale’s mouth, which closes on them. The whale is like the devil. He deceives sailors and drags them down to their deaths like the devil drags those that he deceives down to hell. Those of weak faith who give in to the sweet aroma of worldly desires will be swallowed up by the devil.

Obviously, as it stands this is no good at all. But it has potential – the deliciously wicked sea-monster itself and the tension of the terrifying trick to which the unwitting sailors fall victim are both interesting story elements, and elements which have survived in later versions of the monster, such as Tolkien’s (himself, of course, a medievalist storyteller) Hobbit verse of Fastitocalon the Turtle-fish.

These are elements, nonetheless that the Old English Physiologus itself emphasises, creating a far more story-like entry than in Latin versions of the text.

The challenges for fully adapting this text are as follows:

– The language: it goes without saying that the Old English of the original is utterly inappropriate and incomprehensible for the intended audience. It is possible, however, to preserve some alliteration – a key characteristic of Old English verse, and I endeavour to do so in my telling. I also try to be faithful to some of the Old English compounds, such as ‘unlonde’, which translates easily as ‘un-land’, where the meaning is apparent, in order to give a flavour of the language, if not the language itself

– The order: In my telling I move the fish-swallowing section earlier to be part of the description of the Whale as a great monster, and allow the suspense of the Whale’s trick more space within the narrative

– The Christian moral. It’s anti-climactic, overly authoritative and religious propaganda. Obviously it’s got to go and actually I think that it doesn’t damage the so-called ‘medievalness’ (an idea that was much debated during the workshop!) of the tale to do so – The Whale remains still an anthropocentric paradigm of an animal of monstrous proportions, even without being compared to the Devil – very much a creature of its genre.

– The resolution: If we take away the moral, the tale still needs an ending (We practised this skill in the workshop – creating a satisfying ending from the extant materials of the story – Hannah and I found a new ending for the Brothers Grimm (but rather Chaucerian-sounding!) Tale – The Three Army Surgeons.) I took mine from the genre itself – the idea that learning about the natural world through wise words is important – that pre-warned is pre-armed. This is the ending I came up with:

“For years this happened, again and again, and always were the men deceived and always would Fastitocalon win his cruel game. Until one man, a lucky survivor, brought the stories of the great and terrible whale to the true and solid shore, and men and women began to learn of his evil ways, and be careful not to trust the unland that appears, like a dream of home, when tired sailors journey across a stormy sea. Knowledge became their only defence against his tricks, and this is why they told his story. For Fastitocalon is like the sea itself, as old as time and dark as the devil – forever there, and forever dangerous. And so only a wise seafarer can ever make a safe journey over the whale’s way.”

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