When stories are told again and again, passed from mouth to ear and back throughout the years, a strange thing sometimes happens. If they are told in the right way and in the right places, and if at all possible beneath a new moon underneath an ancient gnarled tree, the stories congeal out of the night air and where once was just words imbued with magic, becomes magic imbued with life. The speaker usually doesn’t even notice, and the listener hardly ever does, caught up in the rapture of the story as they are, but sometimes when the gods are looking the other way and the sprites of the forest are working their mischief, the words permeate this world, plucked from that golden ether by fingers unknown, and emerge as sturdy and determined as words can be.
Once they fall to the ground they usually spend a moment rooting in the damp soil, tasting, sniffing, stretching. And then with a look around at the gathered listeners whose entrancement brought them into existence and the story teller whose verve birthed them into being, the stories slink or dash or scamper or gambol, depending on what kind of story they are, off into the shadows. Some may stop to pinch a rosy cheek, to nick a bit of snuff from a leather pouch, and I’ve seen one particularly feisty, drama-filled tale upend a flagon of ale and gulp it down so quickly the owner never knew it was gone. These stories, fortified by soil stench, warmed by the embers of the fire, and delighting in the power they find they wield over listeners and tellers alike, are usually cocky for the first years of their existence. Those telling the story will often find the characters growing unwieldy, maudlin or foolhardy or deplorable, depending, as always, on what kind of story it is. The listeners listen and their faces grow wide with wonder. The story has changed! It’s bolder and wilder and brash enough to push a baby out of its crib. When the fire burns low and the last draught of whiskey has been drunk, they’ll clap the storyteller on the back and more often than not she’ll blush, wondering how the words twisted like that in her mouth. The story changed, but it wasn’t the storyteller’s doing. And in the back of the room, or swinging from the splintered rafters above, or perched in the nook of a tree where moments before had been a cozy family of baby birds but now lay only bones and the cries of a bereft mother, the story will sit and watch and cackle with glee.
As the years wear on, the story grows weary of itself and tires of the same tale again and again. No matter the changes he makes there is only so many times you can watch an audience laugh at the funny parts, gasp at the scary bits, and smile at the happy resolution. By this time the story has heard other stories, stories with characters so different than its own, plot lines that rise and fall in different patterns, and endings that come from nowhere with a feeling of surprise and relief all at once. The story will find what tellers it can, and wait impatiently for them to get through his story, and the teller finds that for once he can tell the the tale easily enough with no nerve-wracking pauses, the characters don’t say anything they shouldn’t, and the ending comes quickly, if a little dully.
And then, the teller is on to the next tale. The audience sits gasping and laughing and enthralled, and among them, unnoticed but often wedged among the front row of listeners, not even bothering to steal snuff, grab a drink, or pinch a cheek, is the story. He listens to these new tales and delights in them, alive and zinging as they are with possibilities. As he listens, he looks around, waiting to see this story, his cousin or aunt or brother or niece, fall from the air and look around at their new world. He waits and is ready for the moment they arrive, when he’ll grab them by the hand and they can run off together cackling into the dark night.
The paintings in this post are by Swedish artist John Bauer. I love the dark wild feel of his pieces; they seem untamed, odd, and just a bit dangerous, as all proper fairy tales should.