Simon on Storytelling

Jenny made telling stories feel like an easy and natural extension of conversation. Sat in a circle, she quietly shared with us some experiences and thoughts about storytelling, with a perpetual focus on openness and finding what works for each teller and telling.

She told us stories, with moments that still stay with me, as she embodied the fear and hope of her figures. And then, alarmingly, she asked us to do the same: what seemed so natural to her, she asked us to do. The first stories we told, we told in pairs: weirdly, I still feel a bond with the person I spoke to as we sat on the floor, cross-legged like five year olds, struggling for words. I was taught to be a teacher more than ten years ago, and this had the same sense of crushing embarrassment, pushing through the pain.

But, based on what we had seen and what Jenny had said, there were little moments ‘where every word was at home, / taking its place to support the others, / the word neither diffident nor ostentatious, / an easy commerce of the old and the new.’ And then at those moments, it felt like telling stories might just be something natural and real: I felt free: like the moment when Harry first rides a broomstick in The Philosopher’s Stone, it ‘was easy; it was fun’.

We had a simple task at the end of the first day: to work on a 15 minute telling of a story we love. It was remarkably hard work and I spent half the night trying different combinations of adjectives and applying new metaphors in a bid to capture precisely what it is that I find so haunting and perfect in the Greek myth of Baucis and Philemon: to find a way of telling in words what always sits in my mind.

And after that it felt easy. From the first morning of the second day (to echo Eliot without shame), storytelling suddenly felt like something I could do: like something I had always done. Given a story in three paragraphs, I could find in it what mattered to me, and what I felt didn’t work.

In the course of a PhD, even when you’re a foolish fond old man like I am (34 and feeling it), there are moments when you reshape how you see yourself. Outside the immediate world of my research (where there have been many), I have had two: one was this, when I suddenly felt like I was remembering what I had always known, and I wanted to tell everyone about it.

The first question after almost every storytelling is ‘how do you remember all that?’ I suppose the odd thing to me is that the story doesn’t feel like something I need to remember: it’s just there, hovering out of sight during most of my conscious life. Storytelling, Jenny Moon taught us, is made out of moments: instants of time, like Eliot’s ‘winter thyme’, that exist ‘in and out of time’. And that is very much how Beowulf works. Moments accumulate, echo something else, or shimmer on their own and sink away again. I’ve always loved the moment that the Geats rest their weapons against the outer wall at Heorot, leaving some men outside who thus presumably miss all of the exciting action within. I’ve never ‘told’ that moment, because when I reach that part of the story I always worry about time and get on with it: storytelling doesn’t feel like a desperate attempt to remember so much as an exertion of control over memories that throng to the surface, like those sea-monsters in Grendel’s Mother’s lake.

I almost always just tell the first third of the text I study most: the story of Beowulf and Grendel. But I have told the full story in three installments and, on one epic occasion, gone on much longer to tell the whole thing in one go to some very patient Year 6 pupils. It changes a bit each time I tell it, though there are parts that I now feel I’ve got ‘right’. For a long time, I struggled with one of my favourite parts of the poem: when Grendel enters Heorot and Beowulf, lying awake, watches one of his men being torn apart. The difficulty came with endlessly flicking from one perspective to the other: at one telling, I felt like I was miming a tennis umpire, rendering the whole thing ridiculous. I found the solution by returning to the text, seeing how it manages the points of view, and trying to use the same flow. It worked (to my mind!) perfectly, and ever since then I’ve gone back to look at the poem whenever I’ve been in difficulty with telling the story.

Inevitably, then, storytelling has reacquainted me with Beowulf, a text I know pretty well having studied it, on and off, for the last fifteen years. It’s given me a new appreciation for the dexterity and control exhibited by the narrator: the poem has a beautiful combination of the profoundly humane with the tense, comic, and gruesome, to which I can only aspire as I retell it. To tell a story, you first have to both read and love it, and it’s been a joyful journey to fall in love with Beowulf again.

My research is into processes of reading and reception, and something that fascinates me is how different groups, in different contexts, seem to engage with the same story told in much the same way. One of my nephews, who’s four and has just started school, was very unhappy when we had to stop playing so I could go and tell a story. On my return, he insisted that I tell it to him. I really didn’t expect it to work: he doesn’t like unredeemable nastiness of any kind in stories and refused to watch ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ last Christmas after being told that the loathsome banker was ‘a baddie’. Like any sensible child, he also doesn’t generally sit still for more than about three minutes. But we sat on the kitchen floor and shared the story of Beowulf and Grendel, a little toned down and with some gore skipped over, for fifteen minutes. And then we played Beowulf and Grendel and Hrothgar and Heorot all day (and on several subsequent occasions).

So I’ve now told the same story to a four year old, to a group in an old people’s care home, to a grown up audience at Cambridge’s ‘Festival of Ideas’, to student teachers at the Institute of Education, and of course to different groups of year 6 pupils in primary schools. I’m hoping to establish some longer term relationships with some schools and care homes closer to me, so I can work on telling other stories: Beowulf and the dragon, at least, will be a good standalone story when a group wants to hear it, and there are other texts in the manuscript I study that I’d love to play with. I also want to find ways of telling stories in the homosocial environments that the texts I spend most time with depict. In short, that means pubs: one day I hope I’ll have the courage to go and sit in my local and start talking about Beowulf and Grendel over a pint.

Above all, storytelling and the training Jenny gave us has helped me to fix on the elements and movements that feel ‘real’ to me in texts. I love being able to create my own version of the figure of Beowulf out of the shifting picture given by the poem, and to use that in undermining some of the standard elements of heroic masculinity which I find uncomfortable. Unexpectedly, I’ve discovered in myself an almost pathological opposition to female figures for whom any amount of bravery, imagination, and power is rewarded with a settling marriage, and retelling folktales where the brilliant woman tells the man to sod off remains an ambition only realised in my mind. I need to find ways of exploring the figure of Wealhtheow, Hrothgar’s queen, in the story of Beowulf and Grendel; and of Hygd, Hygelac’s queen, when I tell about the dragon. Grendel’s Mother is either ignored altogether by most modern retellings, or overwhelmingly sexualised, and I love telling her story in a form that feels true to both the text and my own sense of what makes a powerful figure in a great story.

I wouldn’t have applied to take part in the course unless I thought storytelling mattered; without thinking that ‘storytelling’ could be something I cared about. But I never really expected to think of myself as a ‘storyteller’. I’m happy to say it now, almost hoping that someone says ‘go on then, tell a story’. Because then I know I can convince them, as I never have before, with tedious logic, that what I research matters.

Simon Thomson

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s