Wednesday 18 March 2015

Storytelling: The Art of Oral Recitation

By THLaird Colyne Stewart, March AS 49 (2015)

This article is to examine the art of storytelling within the SCA. It will strongly be coloured by my own experiences and exposure within (and outside) the Society, but I have tried to make it as broad as possible. The author is also thankful for the input of Kitta Mjoksiglandi in the writing of this article.

There are many aspects of storytelling this article could explore: how to write a story, how stories were told in period, how to tell a story, and so on. I think that is too much to try and cover in one article, so I will instead focus on one of those topics—namely, the act of reciting a story to an audience.


Want to know how to find stories and where to tell them? Then read on!

Finding stories to tell (and giving proper credit)

As a storyteller, one of the first things you’re going to need to do is—of course—build a repertoire of stories. Where, you may ask, would one find such stories to tell? There are various places to go to find material to recite.

Firstly, there are period sources. Since we are a medieval re-enactment group, it only makes sense to learn to recite the same tales that may have been told in period. You can find these stories in various medieval books that are quite often freely available online. Duke Cariadoc of the Bow has compiled a great list of period sources in his article “In-persona Storytelling” (which is included in the Links below). As well as telling these invented tales, you could teach your audience bits of history by telling them about the Battle of Stirling Bridge, or the sack of Constantinople.

You could also learn stories that have been written by modern day bards within the SCA (or other re-enactment groups). Many bards have shared their stories online. However, when telling a tale written by someone else, it is only courteous to give that author credit. Though I doubt in period if a minstrel would bother giving credit for the song he just sung, in our modern world it is only polite to do. Also, when telling a story by an extant contemporary, you should try to stick to the original words as closely as possible.

Another option is to write your own material. You could write a story based on the exploits of someone you know, or write a fable, or mythologize your home group…the possibilities are quite endless. When writing your own story to tell you also have the option of making it as modern or as period in form as you desire.

What to tell when

Not all stories are appropriate at all times. A bawdy tale is great for around a rowdy campfire, but not necessarily apt for a dignified feast. Likewise, you may be at an in-persona circle that would not be so welcoming to a “no sh@t, there I was” type story. It is always important to gauge the crowd, see how they are reacting to the other performers, and use that information to help you choose what tale to tell. If the circle is fast-paced and lively, you may not want to tell a long, slow story (you may want to save that for a more sedate circle).

Where to tell your tales

When people think of bards performing in the SCA, often the first image that comes to mind is of the bardic circle around a campfire. And while this is indeed an excellent place to tell a story, it is far from the only available venue. The feast hall offers different options for the telling of a tale. You could tell a story to the entire hall, or to an individual table, or you could entertain the servers in-between removes.

You could also tell a tale during court (though this should only be done at the invitation of the Royalty or Nobility holding said court). At a camping event you could wander the site telling short stories to passersby.


There are several techniques you can use when telling stories to make the act more enjoyable for both you and your audience. These techniques may not necessarily all be period, but they are useful tools for the modern or re-enactment storyteller regardless.


One of the techniques I have come across in a lot of stories from many different cultures is that of repetition. That repetition can be used a few different ways. One way is to have a refrain that is used every so often. For instance, Dame TSivia bas Tamara v’Amberview has been telling “the camel story” since the 1970s, which relies on the refrain

And the winds blow a ' back and forth. And a ' baaaack...and forth.

Another is to construct the story in such a way that incidents repeat (usually in threes). For instance, I once read a Native story where the hero encounters three animals who need his help. He aids each one, and in turn receives a gift. He then faces three trials which he overcomes using the three gifts (using each one in the order in which he received them).

Repetition aids in recall, so working repetitive elements into your story will help your audience remember what is going on, and will help them remember the tale after you are done the telling.

For more on repetition in story telling, see Martin Shaw’s article on the subject in the links section.

Keep it brief (at least at first)

Something that storytellers struggle with constantly is trying to figure out how long their stories should be. The answer is highly variable. If you are just starting out, I always suggest that shorter is better. If you are going to be telling stories for the first time you are better off aiming for something under five minutes in length. Though stories can be much longer, I have seen storytellers kill a bardic circle by telling a lengthy tale that no one was interested in hearing. As mentioned earlier, you need to read your crowd, and if you are still learning how to do that, brevity is your ally. Shorter stories are also useful for telling in situations where you do not have a lot of time (such as the kind of stories Duke Cariadoc of the Bow tells to servers while they pause between removes).

Here’s an example of a short tale I told at a circle in honour of a Calontiri guest:

At our first Pennsic War, my wife and I were at a merchant’s when a column of Calontiri warriors trudged by. They were dragging their weapons and singing what sounded like a dirge. I remarked to the merchant that our side must have lost, as my kingdom was allied with Calontir. “No,” said the merchant, “you won. Those are happy Calontiri.”

Gestures and pacing

Many storytellers make use of hand gestures and moving around their space while telling a tale, but storytellers are by no means unanimous on whether this should be done, or, if it is, just how much it should be done.

While pacing around and moving your hands can draw emphasis to what you are saying, it can also distract from the story. Master Fridrikr Tomasson is quite capable of keeping a hall enthralled with just the power of his words, but other storytellers may find it difficult to obtain that same level of rapt attention without using their body. As always, you should do what feels natural to you.

Just remember, if you do use hand and body movement during your tellings, do not let them detract from the tale itself. If you spend too long orchestrating and practicing your movements, it will end up detracting from your story. Your telling will not seem organic but rehearsed.

Don’t get fixated on details

Unless you are telling a fellow bards work, do not try to memorize the story you are telling. If you try to remember every little detail you may find yourself forgetting them and become flustered during the telling. I is better to learn the story in a kind of point form in your mind, which you can elaborate on as you wish during the telling. For instance remembering that the hero was wearing a purple shirt when the colour has no bearing on anything is a detail that you don’t need to learn. For instance, let’s look at this short story I once wrote:

It was on an unusually warm winter day that members of Ardchreag’s populace traveled to the canton of Skeldergate, to the inn owned by Berus Jarl and his Lady, Countess Marion. Upon arriving we found tables laid and awaiting us, while the appetizing smells of meat on a stick wafted from the kitchens where Streonwald and Etian could be heard bellowing. We claimed a table in front of the Thrones of Ealdormere, spreading out our crafts and gear. Berend worked on his tablet woven belt, while Eirik and Colyne poured over notes. Thorfinna disappeared into the vault of children where she was later found happily colouring.

As I returned from the merchants, my arms laden with goods, I heard the sounds of commotion. A fight had broken out! I ran to my table to find some of my companions under attack! Eirik and Wulfgang were in the centre of a swarm of ruffians, brandishing axes and swords. I made a move to join them, then saw that there was no need. Eirik is quite handy with a blade, and was cutting down his foes with impunity. Wulfgang, finding himself pressed by a huge man bearing a bar stool in has hands, proceeded to chase his assailant about the hall, before finally chopping him to the floor.

When it was over, when the tables had been righted, the blood cleaned, and the ale pored, an exhausted but beaming Wulfgang sat at our table.

“Did you see me?” he asked. “Did you see me chase that guy?”

We responded yes. Then we added that his attacker had been no mere ‘guy’.

“Who was it?” he asked.

“Berus,” we said.

His jaw dropped.

“The Kingdom Earl Marshal,” we went on.

The jaw dropped lower.

“Sir Berus,” we added.

All present then laughed long and hard at the expression on the face of a man who is usually jokingly referred to as a man who has none.

I just wonder, once Wulfgang has all his armour together, and first walks onto the lists, will Berus remember him?

The only relevant facts that you need to remember to tell this tale are:

  • The protagonist went to an event with someone named Wulfgang
  • Wulfgang took part in a boffer battle
  • Wulfgang chased around someone on the field and was quite pleased with himself
  • Wulfgang was completely shocked to find out it had been the kingdom’s earl  marshal (and a knight to boot)

Don’t worry if your story is different every time you tell it

As mentioned above, you don’t need to memorize every little detail, which means your story will end up different every time you tell it. That’s fine. In fact, many storytellers will reshape their story to better fit the situation they are in or the audience they are telling it to. For instance, while your story about a certain count getting wasted and running around naked on the battlefield until he runs into the queen may be appropriate for an adult’s only fire, its not so appropriate to tell in the marketplace with children listening…unless you change the details. So, instead of being drunk, the count is merely acting silly but still feels embarrassed for his behaviour before his queen.

Plus, variation is the spice of life. Your audiences will merge over time, but even if certain listeners have heard all your stories before, they will still seem fresh and interesting if they know all the details won’t be the same every time they hear them.

If you make a mistake, keep going

Mistakes happen, and one of the worst things a performer can do when they make one is to pause and admit it. If you make a mistake, just keep going. Most of the time your audience will not even know you got anything wrong. If you find you left out something intrinsic to the plot, you can work it back in at a different point. If you forgot to mention that your hero was supposed to find a sword back in the castle, have a squire appear and give the sword to the hero later.

Involve your audience

One way to keep your audience’s attention is to get them involved in the story. An easy method to do this is by taking advantage of having a repeated refrain, and having the audience say it with you. They will soon be waiting eagerly for your cues telling them they get to say it again.

Incorporating songs or poems

If you want, and if it fits in with your story, you can incorporate songs or poems into your telling. These could be used as refrains and a way to involve your audience. This would be especially appropriate if you are telling a Norse story, as people in the sagas often recited short poems. The only caveat I would suggest is to keep these bits short and to the point.

Telling a story while in persona

Rather than telling a story as yourself, you can tell it from the point of view of your persona. This adds a certain verisimilitude to your performance and is a great technique to use at period-only circles. Things to keep in mind are what stories would your persona know, and how would someone from your time and place tell a story? As mentioned before, a link to Duke Cariadoc’s article on this subject is included below.

Props (doll, puppets, talking sticks)

While the use of props is almost certainly not a technique used by period storytellers, it is a very useful modern tool (especially when telling stories to children). Dolls or puppets can be used to act out the story, or even tell the story with (or instead of) the storyteller. The talking stick (or conch shell or other item) can be used to pass from person to person, signifying whose turn it is to speak. These props can also be used as mnemonic devices, helping your audience remember certain details by associating them with specific props.

Signature beginning and/or ending

One last technique I’ll touch on is using a specific opening and or/closing to your stories, which are unique to you. When your audience hears it they will come to recognize it and it will help place  them in a receptive state of mind. Possible openings are “I saw it with my own eyes” or “when the world was young” while a possible ending could be “and for all I know they are fighting/dancing/singing/eating/etc still.”


Links: Storytelling (general)

Effective Storytelling: A Guide for Beginners,

Tim Shepherd’s Storytelling Resources for Storytellers,

Links: Period Storytelling

Medieval Storytelling: Engaging the Next Generation,

Links: SCA

THLaird Colyne Stewart is a student of the written word. He is the Curator of the Atheneaum Hectoris, the Precentor of the Scriptorium, the Royal Historian of Ealdormere, the Baronial Historian of Septentria, a chronicler and a member of the Bardic College of Ealdormere. He is a past Bard of Septentria and one of the founders of the now defunct Septentrian Performing Arts Troupe. In the modern world he holds a degree in English and Creative Writing and has studied writing, storytelling and folklore.

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