The Storytelling Rule I’m Glad I Broke
Now, for some of you this may sound unremarkable, harmless, trivial even. Let me explain. Very early on in my storytelling life, before I knew a chain tale from a porquoi story, I attended a story swap. Swaps are sort of like laboratories where storytellers can try out new material in front of fellow story lovers. This particular evening of tale telling began with a woman standing up and announcing, “I’ve been working on a REAL Cinderella piece.” The others in the group smiled and clapped. “No Disney versions for me!”
As the crowd roared it’s approval, I sank in my seat. What the heck were they talking about? “Real Cinderella”? “No Disney’? What could anyone have against a little bippity-boppity-boo! My shock only continued to grow as the woman began to speak. The story that she called Cinderella was nothing like the tale I knew. There was no mention of talking mice, no little songs, and to my absolute amazement and horror, the birds in this tale weren’t happy avians who perched on Cinderella’s shoulders – they were attack animals!!
The discussion that followed kept my mouth clamped shut, and my butt glued to the chair. Person after person talked with scorn about the folktales that had been “altered”, “sanitized”, and, in one person’s words “mutilated”. The more heated the conversation grew, the more confused I became. My then limited knowledge of stories, told me that folktales were ancient – from a time before books, when everything was passed along orally. And as these tales were shared by one person and then another, they changed, mutated – adding or subtracting details along the way. Sort of like that old game “telephone”, where the first person whispers in someone’s ear, “My sweater is blue.” and what the last person hears is “Your grandmother’s a kazoo.” If that was the case, why was everyone so upset about the fate of Cinderella’s sisters being softened, or not revealing that Hans Christian Anderson, the author of “The Little Mermaid” and other tales, had a REALLY BIG dark side?
I didn’t dare ask these questions at that meeting, so a few weeks later, sure I wouldn’t suffer some sort of folktale retribution, I spoke with a long time professional storyteller about what I had seen and heard. “Glad you asked”, she said, chuckling as she pictured my fear of questioning the tellers that evening. And with her, over a cup of tea (I know – very storytellerly!), I learned the following: yes, stories do and SHOULD change and grow with each telling and with each teller. That is why there are so many variations of even the least known folktales. Part of the beauty of storytelling is that a room full of people could all tell the same tale, and it would be different each and every time. But, she also explained, the basic plots of these stories all had meanings and significance. Long ago, before Dr. Phil, the experts on Oprah, or any of the ten thousand books on raising children and personal ethics, folktales taught lessons. The hero of a story was an orphan to signify he was at the cusp on manhood. The wicked Queen was killed to show that evil could be overcome. People were penniless, got lost in the woods, and threatened by things that went bump in the night. In other words, real, honest to God life happened. These stories were used to prepare the young, and not so young for the realities of the world.
As I learned all this, I began to understand why those storytellers were so fired up. Taking out all the “big time grown up stuff” as my friend B.B. calls life’s challenges, was akin to some store bought cakes. Really pretty to look at, but completely tasteless.
On the other hand, I could see why people would want to tinker with some aspects of a folktale. I know I just wouldn’t feel comfortable telling a group of seven year olds that Cinderella’s stepsisters got blinded by a flock of winged critters that must have escaped from Hitchcock’s “The Birds”.
So what’s a responsible storyteller to do? I suppose it’s one of those personal decisions that “only you can make”. I chose a middle (and I hoped not cowardly) path. I would simply not tell stories that had those things I felt uncomfortable giving voice to. Sure, I’d adapt aspects of the tale, and tell it in my own style and words; but I would always keep “the guts” of the story true to their original intent. That way, both I, and the tale, would keep our integrity. Problem solved. Case closed. Until I met the Knee High Man.
The story of the Knee High Man originally attracted me for a completely superficial reason – it was about someone shorter than I am! (Being called shortie all your life leaves an impression, I guess) The details of the tale basically go like this: tired of being only knee high, our hero tries to make himself more “sizeable”. He asks several large animals how they became so big, but nothing works. In fact, each new plan causes him to have a headache, which in turn makes him even smaller, until he is only about an inch tall. Finally, he asks the Owl, who mockingly tells him,”The only thing that needs to be bigger about you is your brain!”
Always being one for getting a laugh, I played up the Owl’s words – and the tale worked just as it was. Audiences enjoyed the Knee High Man’s journey, and they chuckled at the punch line. What more could I want?
But one day, as I watched a group of especially adorable faces staring up at me – I saw something besides delight at the end of the little guy’s journey. I realized the audience was rooting for him, they wanted him to succeed. And as I searched my storytelling soul, I did, too.
“What now, Einstein?” I recall asking myself. “You said you wouldn’t alter the arc of a tale, but now you REALLY, REALLY want to!” Darn me!!!!!!
I tried to keep telling “The Knee High Man” the original way, but more and more it felt wrong. Then I banished it from my repertoire, but I missed the little fella. I began to search for similar stories with endings I liked better, but to no avail. And then – I did it. I crossed the line.
I was in a classroom of fourth graders with learning disabilities, and zero self esteem. I had already told one or maybe two stories, and all was going well, but I was struck with the feeling that I wanted to do more. I wanted to leave those kids with something. And all of a sudden I knew what that something was. I launched into “The Knee High Man”, keeping true to the story all the way until the end. There, I broke the rule. I changed the story. Instead of making a joke, the Owl asked, “Why do you NEED to be more sizeable?” And as the Knee High Man thought about this question, he realized he didn’t need to be any different – he liked himself the way he was.
Every time the Knee High Man said, “I like myself the way I am”, he grew. When he was back to being knee high, he went home, and never tried to be taller, or more sizeable ever again.
I’d like to say I felt guilty about committing a storytelling no-no. But I didn’t. Especially not after going around that classroom, and hearing those kids say what they liked about themselves, and each other. Maybe, I thought, that’s what the Owl meant – maybe he was saying, “Dummy, realize what you have. Be happy with who you are.” Or maybe not. Either way, I found MY ending to this tale – and it has stayed that way ever since.
To this day “The Knee High Man” is the only story I’ve ever altered in that way. I still believe in abiding by the original plot of a story. And there are many tales I will never tell because they aren’t “me”, just as they are. But every time I see my audience chanting along with the Knee High Man, “I like myself the way I am.” I can’t feel anything but joyous. Happy that for a little while, at least, some people realize how wonderful they really are.