Posts Tagged ‘magic’

Blog revised (divided to make shorter pieces!) after expert advice that you can’t cope with long articles…
Tell you what, you tell me: comments below. And anyway, you’ve probably seen Part 2 of this already, thanks to blog layout. Hey ho.

The hero who faces the dragon can inspire or warn many generations

“…Let them [children] at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage”

PART 1:   Richard Dawkins won his headline coverage at the 2014 Cheltenham Science Festival by belittling fairytales and suggesting that childish fantasies should be dropped in favour of “a spirit of scepticism”.

Dawkins has a string of letters after his name. My late father, the entomologist Professor A D (Tony) Lees, had only BSc, PhD and FRS [Fellow of the Royal Society, Britain’s top club for scientists. You don’t get many of them to the pound]. From my earliest years, my father read to me and encouraged me to love stories.

In his own boyhood, my father was partly inspired to follow the way of the naturalist by reading the children’s fantasy series Dr Dolittle.

Before that story was razzamatazzed by Hollywood, Hugh Lofting’s stories about the little portly doctor from Puddleby-on-the-Marsh nudged young readers to consider very serious subjects indeed. The Dolittle books explore friendship, family, multi culturalism, moral dilemmas, money management, cruelty, ignorance, courage and the stultifying effect of narrow thinking – including academic snobbery… Lofting himself was a WW1 veteran and international civil engineer.

Relief from logic

My father – and his colleagues – sent me exploring Narnia, Middle Earth, Japanese poetry and mythology, Jules Verne proto steampunk science fiction and of course the spoof scientific methods of Sherlock Holmes. For these very serious scientists such fiction provided relief from the business of hard logic – as well as springboard moments of ‘What if..?”

Several models of mobile phone, medical diagnostic devices and even the latest space ship design derive directly from the enduringly popular TV science fiction series Star Trek.

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairytales,” Albert Einstein is alleged to have said.

The author Beth Webb says “Fiction inspires scientists to imagine the impossible.” All my life I’ve seen how the arts and science mutually nourish each other. I’ve observed author Sir Terry Pratchett deep in discussion with performers and scientists as he developed more of his glitteringly successful, magi-technical Discworld. Good fantasy writers start from real science in order to create plausible fiction.

And yes, bad fantasists distort science to con the less well informed. Look at almost any so-called UFO website; it’s very nearly impossible to find genuine information.

But the professors from around the world who dined at my father’s table, talking shop until my mother and I crept away in exhausted incomprehension, valued creativity from fine art to fine words. Very serious scientists love fantasy.

Great beards in the sky

Dawkins complains that fairytales indoctrinate children in “supernaturalism”. An ardent atheist, he worries that fables put young minds at risk of being caught in the webs of religion.

But isn’t it exactly the other way around? I suggest that young people experienced in the difference between fantasy and reality are far LESS likely to be taken in by claims of resurrection, virgins in heaven, tablets of stone, divinities with animal heads, guided thunderbolts or any of the great beards in the sky that rulers have invented to control the general population.

The woodcutter takes charge of the dragons, tricking them out of their treasure

Legendary hero Stan Bolovan wins wealth and happiness by keeping his nerve: a lesson for children? (Illustration from ‘Dragon Games’ story in DRAGON TALES CD and e-book by Chloë of the Midnight Storytellers)

I can’t have been the only child who was disappointed to discover that her toy magic wand didn’t work, and that no amount of burrowing to the back of wardrobes led to a snowy lamplit land. Privately, without fuss, I confirmed the difference between make-believe and the real world.

Dawkins fails to credit children with their natural bloody-minded common sense. We know in our bones – I revert to eight years old here – that frogs can’t turn into anything (except interesting corpses…), that superheroes don’t fly to the rescue and that dragons don’t light up our skies. And we see pretty soon that prayer can ease fear but it doesn’t stop earthquakes or save loved ones.

The uses of metaphor

As it happens I deal in make-believe on a daily basis. For the purpose of children’s entertainment I have constructed the fantasy world of Agent Green the Dragon Whisperer – lead draconics expert and field operative for DCHQ, Dragon Conservation Headquarters.

In costume and character I tell stories about dragons, plus traditional folktales and legends from many cultures around the world. I must be doing something right because it’s no trouble to keep a couple of hundred primary school pupils completely spellbound. Even teen and adult fantasy fans – especially Tolkien/LOTR enthusiasts – enjoy my Masterclass in the Care & Training of Dragons.

But what is actually the point of fairy stories and folktales? (As the very teutonic academic demanded at the end of my Tolkien Society presentation in 2012).

Beth Webb (also on Facebook) writes elegant fantasy fiction that is adored by an extraordinary range of children and teens. She also works with the UK’s most gifted and talented young people – frankly, the great thinkers and top boffins of our future – in writing courses bubbling with joyously outside-the-box creativity. Most of her students won’t become professional writers but they do go on to communicate more effectively with the rest of their world. They never forget the critical and constructive thinking skills – yes, the ‘spirit of scepticism’ – and the creative freedom opened up for them under Beth’s guidance.

Educationalists around the world assert

  • For children transitioning from concrete thinking to abstract thinking, the structure, phrasing and imagery of fairytales/folktales demonstrate the uses of metaphor.
  • Fairytales accustom children to narrative structure and develop their vocabulary. Children who grow up hearing, telling and reading stories move more easily into written work at school.
  • Fairytales allow children to experience fear and danger at a safe remove. Children observe how wit, courage, creative thinking and co-operation solve problems.

I would also say that fairytales and folklore help connect young people to their cultural roots. Equally, stories from different cultures give children insight into other ways of life and different values. In a world where belief systems are clashing with ever bloodier violence, and the great beards of temple, church and mosque are prescribing and proscribing with ferocious zeal, stories become a last chance to broaden cultural horizons.

Very definitely fairytales promote scepticism: think of all the mocked and unloved third sons or daughters of storyworld who shine as role models, defying convention and authority to save their families. Consider Dawkins’ improbable frog prince, and the Beast in his rose garden: apparently impossible partners for a human – yet their gentleness and delightful good company invite us to take the difficult step of looking beyond appearances, beyond prejudices.

And now refill your glasses for Part 2: scroll up to the next blog post title ‘Fairytale: A Great Escape’

1425538_10151573281432537_1571695818_n

If you’d like to be entertained by live Story Cabaret (spoken word fantasy for audiences of adults) or would like workshops to inspire your own creativity, as well as for secondary schools Year 7 – Sixth Form, please check out my work

I also supply storytelling for primary and junior schools and family events as Agent Green the Dragon Whisperer

If you’re really keen, Dragon Tales the e-book for Kindle is available for a teensy tithe of treasure – only GBP£2.56 – including more illustrations

Chloe by Ken Skehan

While I’ve been snowbound, reading childhood books for the first time in decades – what were your top titles? – and generally fed up with time filler telly, I tugged off a bookcase a lovely little book that seems perfect for these conditions.

‘A Cotswold Christmas’ [Tempus Publishing Ltd, Stroud, Gloucestershire UK] is a delicious mix of historical anecdote, literary tradition and whimsy. Plus grand old photos including the actual River Severn frozen jagged ice bank to bank in 1940.

By kind permission of editor and Cotswold historian June Lewis-Jones, here’s the piece I wrote for the anthology:

‘Every Christmas I sense relief rising off my audiences like steam from a plum pudding. While you listen to a story, whining children and demanding mothers and the whole miserable debt-inducing race to shop, cook and shop again for the Big Day do not exist.

‘In the world of story, Christmas snow lies deep and crisp and even. Wolves howl in the approved manner, forests are satisfyingly mysterious. Ugly women become beautiful by the power of love and kindness (a magic that works in any world). A beggar discovers the meaning of generosity. And it doesn’t matter how fake my Babushka accent is, people laugh when she scolds the Magi and hearts melt when she offers the newborn Prince of Peace all the trinkets she’d gathered for the children she never had.

‘Traditional stories carry the identity of nations, the memories of communities, in myths, legends, folktales. This worldwide heritage contains powerful and moving reminders about what it means to be fully human. Morals and messages underlie every tale. Thoughtless choices have results you can’t imagine, or control. Beware what you wish for – you might get it! At the same time, every listener interprets the tale in their own way.

‘Storytelling is a spontaneous art form. No scripts, no reading out of a book. The storyteller is like a jazz musician – following a theme; drawing on artistry, tradition and adrenalin to make magic.

‘Christmas audiences can be merry, sour or stodged to the ears with festive fare. I have to assess quickly if the telling needs to be crisp and light, rich and romantic, or just over and done with as fast as possible! (…)

‘All year round I go for glamour. At Christmas the serious glitter comes out. Little black dresses, wild child evening wear (pink or peacock!) with swirling duster coats, red and green, and mega-sparkly earrings. Glitter eye shadows, bright lipstick. And, of course, the leopard-spotted or scarlet high heel boots. It’s the middle of winter, it’s England: people are in desperate need of cheering up!

‘In the Cotswolds, one audience can contain a mind-bogglingly mixed bunch: from fusty professors to shiny IT experts to tweedy young WI ladies. Invariably there are weary, wind-blasted farmers. Two golden rules apply: Do Not Get Between An Audience And Their Food; and, Don’t Start Later Than Nine-Thirty. Cotswold people work hard and drive long distances: come evening, they don’t appreciate being kept waiting for supper. By 9.30pm, they’re sleepy, energy for listening dwindles, and I’ve learned to wrap up by 10.30pm at the latest.

‘I lost my heart to the Cotswolds when I was eight years old. It’s a privilege to live here, and to work at what I love. Doesn’t matter if it’s a cosy country inn or a cruise liner-sized hotel all chintz and no taste. Doesn’t matter if it’s a glittering dinner party or a rickety village hall in some hamlet that’s not even on the map. Faces light up with joy and wonder, the atmosphere swirls with dreaming and laughter. Those winter tales and festive fables hold a power which calls to the true spirit of Christmas in everyone.

‘So, next November and December, I’ll be finding my way in the pitch dark, nursing my poor old car down ancient lanes, in gusts of rain, bouncing through puddles with potholes as deep as Australia. There’ll be skies quivering with stars, the smell of frost, bare branches against the moon. Several nights a week I’ll be coming home to hot chocolate, happy cats and (the secret of comfortable country life) my electric blanket!

‘It is very special to be a storyteller in the Cotswolds at Christmas.’