Storytelling at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas

On Saturday, the 25th October 2014, I held a storytelling session at the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic (ASNC) as part of the Cambridge Festival of Ideas. It was a c. 15 – 20 minute story which I had written myself by distilling the essence of countless ancient tales about people’s encounters with mounds. Lore of this kind occurs across Scandinavia and Iceland, with similar stories known across Orkney, but strands of it also appear in “Celtic” mythology.

Mound-folklore survives up until the present day across the world. Before the tales were recorded on paper, however, they are likely to have already survived a long-standing oral tradition including several strands and variations. The substance of these tales is to keep an amicable relationship with mound dwellers and to be careful around mounds. The dwellers can be dead relatives or historical personalities (Old Norse draugar). With the succession of time these usually change into mythical entities due to the loss of memory of who exactly is buried in the mound.  Sometimes place-names are the only remnants of a personal name, and in other cases all clues vanish with only myths of a mound-spirit remaining. Other strands of mound-tales allude to distortions of time and space within mounds. The latter is the strand of tale I chose as the core subject of my story, primarily because it offers countless plot ideas as well as comedy value, which might be received well by young readers or audience members.

In essence – tales of this kind warn to be careful around mounds, to not accept supernatural gifts or food, and to bring votive offerings in order to keep the dweller on your side.

Screenshot 2014-12-12 17.08.27 (2)

Don’t accept supernatural gifts or food – run and leave a votive offering!

My story consisted of a core narrative, which was read by me, in addition to lines spoken by characters of the story. I had printed these lines on narrow strips of paper for volunteers to read. The intention behind this is to create a fun way for people to act and improvise without worrying about rehearsing and memorising lines. In addition to this, the storyteller gives directions which are interwoven with the story (“He looked frightened” / “She handed over a coin”). The impromptu nature of the performance adds to the entertainment and the overall humour of the performance.  Depending on the audience, audience members can be asked to volunteer impromptu at the start of the session – but in case of tumbleweed rolling across the room the story can also be read by the storyteller alone.

For the Cambridge Festival of Ideas I decided to ask for volunteers in advance and I was pleased to find that there were too many volunteers for roles, all of whom were students at the department. I was also glad to be in front of a very friendly, supportive (primarily adult) audience that did not hesitate to join in when asked to give owl-noise impressions (This could have easily been a moment of awkward silence with throats being cleared…). The volunteers really made the most out of their roles, especially considering that they had only seen their lines a few minutes before the performance. The mound-dweller got a striking entrance under a green shawl, whilst one of the students off stage blew into an empty glass bottle for some extra eerie sound effect.

The mound dweller appears… but only one of the siblings can see the creature! Jonathan Hui (PhD student) Jennifer Barnes (MPhil) and Maura McKeon (undergraduate) acting out the scene, with Nela Scholma-Mason narrating in the background.

The mound dweller appears… but only one of the siblings can see the creature!
Jonathan Hui (PhD student) Jennifer Barnes (MPhil) and Maura McKeon (undergraduate) acting out the scene, with Nela Scholma-Mason narrating in the background.

I would like to express my thanks again to Jo Shortt Butler for organising the event and for contacting the volunteers; and to all the volunteers for their time and their effort, and I hope everyone enjoyed it as much as I did!

Nela Scholma-Mason


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