What do we tell?

© U. Breinl

We tell fairy tales, farces, myths and legends – but also literary and biographical stories we have invented ourselves. Our material ranges from the oldest epics of world literature to a vision of the future we have devised ourselves, from intricate dramaturgies of long stories and full-length programmes to short, pointed jokes on an open evening.

All the storytellers in the association tell traditional stories. These include above all folk tales. In the magic fairy tales, a magical force helps the hero or heroine to achieve their goal. In fairy tales, it is the hero/heroine themselves who make their fortune through cunning, cleverness or chance. Legends, on the other hand, are about places and people that have a realistic background and/or explain strange phenomena. Fables, i.e. animal stories in which the animals have human characteristics, which criticise society or serve educational purposes, can also be found in the repertoire of the storytellers.

Some of the storytellers also specialise in mythological material, telling Greek sagas of the gods or epics such as Homer’s Odyssey. But the programme also includes Celtic or Germanic heroic sagas such as the Nibelungenlied, national epics such as the Persian King’s Book of Firdausi, the Georgian The Knight in the Tiger’s Skin, the Turkish Book of Dede Korkut or the Finnish Kalevala.

We tell fairy tales, farces, myths and legends – but also literary and biographical stories we have invented ourselves. Our material ranges from the oldest epics of world literature to our own visions of the future, from intricate dramaturgies of long stories and full-length stories.

But it is not only traditional stories, originally passed down orally, that offer material for narration. Sometimes it is also the self-invented story or plot-intensive modern literature. The storytellers then put the plot into a narratable form they have developed themselves and shorten entire novels to an hour-long programme.

Biographies are also central sources of narrative material. The spectrum ranges from world-famous personalities to everyday heroines to light-footed autobiographical experiences.

Many of the association’s storytellers are multilingual and have a personal connection to the traditional stories of the country they come from. Some draw on stories from their own families. In general, however, the storytellers of the association follow a transcultural approach, which means that a storyteller does not appear as a representative of only one particular culture, does not embody the tradition and wisdom of one culture, but sees herself as a person under the influence of different cultures, is always a border crosser of different cultural systems.

Therefore, she also moves freely through the materials of different origins, discovers the familiar in the foreign and in turn makes the foreign narratable through appropriation in the familiar.

The Topicality of  traditional materials

Materials that are now considered the oldest traditions of world literature had already been on a long oral journey before they were written down for the first time. As old as the stories are, they have never lost their relevance because they deal with timeless themes of humanity.

The oldest literary monument of humankind, the Gilgamesh Epic, which was carved into clay tablets in Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago, deals with criticism of power, the transgression of laws out of personal lust for fame and greed, the ruthless devastation of the environment, but also with the longing for an equal counterpart, for friendship and (same-sex) love, and above all with the human striving for eternal life. These themes are still relevant today in the face of our climate crisis, a neoliberalism that demands ever new tributes, same-sex love, the development of artificial intelligence and research aimed at prolonging human life.

The narrators open up these materials, some of which are difficult to access, through research – often lasting years. They tear them out of their dusty stiffness, which they have experienced through writing and scientification, bring them back into a new orality and make them accessible to everyone, i.e. also to distant and uneducated audiences, without losing the depth of the content. That is part of their art.

The storytellers in our association consciously look for material that has a contemporary connection. They free the stories from outdated role models, racist attributions and religious exaggerations. If they do retain these in the content, then they do so consciously in order to show historical developments, to clarify the time of the plot and its world view. But then they provide them with a commentary that reflects their personal distance from the attitudes and statements in question in the story.

Images of the soul in fairy tales

The helpless princess in the tower, the cruel one who has the suitors’ heads cut off, witches, wicked stepmothers, happy simpletons, brave warriors and mute princes in fairy tales, however, remain, because they do not represent real actors, but are to be understood as soul images -simple, one-dimensional, clearly delineated from one another, obviously divided into good and evil. Their encoded messages can reveal our personal patterns of action, provide us with relief, release us from them, and ultimately heal us.

How many parents today still lock up their children, longing to protect them from the terrible outside world and its dangers, or to remain certain of their love forever and not lose them to a partner. The longing of young people to find the ideal partner is timeless. How many young lovers have to prove their maturity first in order to win true love – that is, the princess or prince – in the end!

The simplified archetypes in fairy tales can act like a mirror that reveals one’s own weaknesses. The characters in the fairy tale cover different personality parts of each human being that are in conflict with each other. They have to remain one-dimensional in order to be able to look at them individually. The fairy tale serves to bring these soul parts of us into play with each other, to weigh them up, to balance out disharmonies and to make us see ourselves – and not to adopt a certain role model from the fairy tale into our lives.

In order not to blur these boundaries between dream and reality, the storytellers usually do not modernise the inventory of fairy tales, but leave it in its dreamlike, time-distant time, “when wishing still helped”.

Many fairy tales, myths and legends are about respectful treatment of nature. They often formulate the warning to man to keep moderation, to be aware of his own limits and to see himself as part of nature and not as its ruler. For the first time in human history, there is now an entire generation that is no longer in contact with nature. Fairy tales and myths can build a spiritual bridge to the ancestors’ understanding of nature and preserve lost knowledge.

The sources of the storytellers

The traditional materials are taken from large collections in book form, such as the famous collection of the Brothers Grimm, Afanasyev’s Russian Fairy Tales, Basile’s Pentameron, or translations of ancient writings.

On the internet, there are large-scale archives that offer extensive collections of material from all over the world in full text, such as www.hekaya.de or in English www.pitt.edu/~dash/folktexts.html, or make digital prints of old collections available for reading, such as in the Gutenberg project www.projekt-gutenberg.org.

But it is not only written sources that serve to build one’s own repertoire, but of course also listening to other storytellers. International storytelling festivals are true story exchanges!Im Internet gibt es groß angelegte Archive, die umfangreiche Stoffsammlungen aus aller Welt im Volltext anbieten, wie etwa www.hekaya.de oder in Englisch www.pitt.edu/~dash/folktexts.html, oder aber Digitaldrucke alter Sammlungen zum Lesen zur Verfügung stellen, wie zum Beispiel im Gutenberg-Projekt www.projekt-gutenberg.org

Aber nicht nur schriftliche Quellen dienen der eigenen Repertoirebildung, sondern natürlich auch, anderen Erzähler*innen zuzuhören. Internationale Erzählfestivals sind wahre Tauschbörsen von Geschichten!