‘Did you recite something?’ Ruth said, when I told her I’d been to Caerleon.
I hadn’t. When she said that, I wished I had.
As I was standing on that grassy lip at the amphitheater, it had occurred to me that Edmund would have known a story to fit the occasion. During his field-trips to Cornwall the highlight for me was always the visit to Tintagel Castle. Not just because the place is spectacular and, well, awesome.
And let’s just step aside here to clarify that I don’t mean awesome in what the Oxford English Dictionary calls the ‘weakened’ or ‘trivial’ sense, as ‘an enthusiastic term of commendation’. Tintagel has an atmosphere.
The high cliffs, the ancient remnants of walls and pathways and the sheltered coves and caves below it inspire the kind of awe that means I’m conscious of having to breath. There, I look at the stonework, laid about seven hundred and fifty years ago, and think that the men and women who made and lived in the castle might walk around a corner at any moment.
Getting back to the field trip. After we’d done our exploring we gathered in the walled garden for a picnic. We were twenty-five students and a handful of staff, basking in early spring sunshine, eating sandwiches. The turf was emerald green, and the sea beyond us was so clear that even from that height we could see the ridges of boulders and banks of weed in its blue depths.
It was term time. There weren’t many other tourists straggling past, but when Edmund began to recount the story of how King Uther Pendragon seduced Queen Igraine from her husband with the help of Merlin’s sorcery, our gathering grew. People who had paused to stare at our hushed group lingered to listen. They drew closer, then settled on the edges of the walls.
How long did the story last? I couldn’t say. There is no time when the story works. Events unfold gently, paced by the teller to suit their audience. We listened with bated breath, even though most of us knew what would happen.
To listen to a bard is a special experience. This was not reciting lines learned, it was fresh words, being put together as the moment dictated. At every telling there are subtle differences. The emphasis shifts.
I was invited to join three Cornwall trips, and heard that tale twice more, each time seemed fresh. The bones of it were fixed, but the telling shifted. As Edmund’s family grew, as the world changed and we within it, and according to the make-up of each year’s student mix he re-worked his material.
Story tellers take us back to the origins of story. It’s not just that they recount traditional tales, the skills they employ are part of their inheritance, cherished and adapted to suit each individual’s style. Their spoken voice is as individual as the written voice.
The repetitions they use, the way their stories begin and finish, the way they use their vocabulary, all go to make a unique ‘tellers-voice’. This is a skill not to be compared to reading aloud. As enjoyable as that is, it’s fixed, the words have been set before the audience was met.
Edmund was a gifted story-teller. He loved the form, he loved language, and he loved his material, that was the heart of his re-tellings. He didn’t need the atmosphere of Celtic surroundings, or bonfires on a beach, his stories were as effective in the stark white classrooms of the Dean Walters Building or the room at the back of the Pilgrim’s Bar.
Telling is about knowing how the story works, not just forwards, but backwards and perhaps even inside-out. The world of the imagination is, and should be, stronger and clearer than the real world. We need to know our stories intricately and intimately, only then can we know which bits we can leave out and why that makes our story work.
Even if we can’t stand up in public to tell our story, in the privacy of our notebooks we can and should practice finding our voices. Because, with the long winter evenings ahead of us, perhaps there should be a night when we really stretch ourselves, and try a more traditional style of entertainment.