Tuesday 3 March 2015

In-Persona Storytelling

By Duke Cariadoc of the Bow

One of my favorite activities at events is to wander from table to table at a feast or from campfire to campfire at a camping event, telling poems and stories. I know of no better way of pulling people out of the twentieth century, if only for a few minutes– especially if the story is presented as a medieval story told by a medieval storyteller. While I am telling a story, I am their environment–especially at night around a bardic circle, with nothing in sight that is obviously inappropriate to the twelfth century. A further attraction of storytelling is that it is an art with a real function in the SCA world, one that gets done not because someone has announced that we ought to promote the arts but because people want to do it.

By “in-persona storytelling” I do not mean telling stories about your persona, an activity I regard with considerable misgiving. I mean telling stories as your persona–from his point of view, not yours. This article is about how to do so.

Consider a simple example–a short period anecdote about the bird that is the world:

The Commander of the Faithful was sitting with his nadim, his cup companions. One of them said, “Commander of the Faithful, did you know that the world is a bird?” “No,” he answered, “tell me that tale.”
“Ah,” he said, “The world is a bird. Syria is its body; Iraq and Yemen are its wings. The Orient is its head–and the Maghreb, that is its tail."
Sitting among the cup companions there was a Maghrebi, a Berber of the Maghreb like myself.
“It is a true tale,” he said. “And do you know what kind of a bird the world is?”
“No,” replied the Commander of the Faithful.
“Ah,” said the Maghrebi. “It is a peacock.”

There are a number of things worth noting about that story–aside from the observation that neither ethnic prejudice nor one-upmanship is a modern invention. I do not explain what “Commander of the Faithful” means–because the information is not necessary to understand the story and because my persona would take it for granted that his hearers already knew. Nor do I explain where the Maghreb is. I do, however, make it clear that I am myself a Maghrebi, and thus make myself part of the frame of the story. All of these are ways in which I try to project the illusion that both I and my hearers are medieval people. I do explain, in passing, what “nadim” means, on the theory that my listeners are foreigners, and so, although they will of course recognize such obvious terms as “Maghreb” (the Islamic west–North Africa and Muslim Spain), they might not know what “nadim” means. And even in that case, my explanation (“cup-companions”) takes for granted the social setting–a ruler surrounded by his favorites.

More subtly, I do not explain the social context of the story–that the Berbers, being neither, like the Arabs, the originators of Islam nor, like the Persians, major contributors to Islamic civilization, are viewed as second class citizens, natural targets for other people’s denigration. That is implicit in the story–and is precisely the sort of thing that people take for granted about their own situation and are unlikely to explain to others.

In-persona storytelling, like other forms of in-persona activity, involves changing your normal behavior in two ways. The first is by omitting elements that positively identify you as a person born in the twentieth century–not, for example, preceding the story with the explanation that it is a medieval North African anecdote from the 14th c. Kitāb Mafākhir al-Barbar.[1] The second is by adding touches that identify you as a medieval person–ideally, as a particular sort of medieval person from a particular time and place.

My describing myself as a Maghrebi and telling the story with the obvious pleasure of someone on the winning side of the exchange is a simple example. Another occurs when I recite Malkin Grey’s poem “The Raven Banner,” based on an incident in Njalsaga. The poem contains a reference to Odin. While there is no strong reason why a medieval Muslim should not tell foreign stories–I have a period reference to one telling a story from India, and there are surviving records of Muslim visits to both east and west Norse–there are good reasons why a believing Muslim would have reservations about references to a pagan God. The beginning of the Muslim credo is “There is no God but God,” and while medieval Islam was a reasonably tolerant religion, there were limits. Hence when I tell that poem, I follow it with an explanation– that “Odin” is the name of a Djinn, demon, or some such creature that the Northmen, ignorant of the Unity of Allah (the Compassionate, the Merciful), worship as a god. In much the same way, a Christian storyteller telling an Islamic story might make some comment concerning the false doctrines of the Paynim. The point is not to start a religious argument but to make the teller’s world-view into a medieval frame for the medieval tale. This is a period device; both the Indian collections described below and the Nights are structured many layers deep, with stories inside stories inside stories.

As the example suggests, I also sprinkle my conversation with stock phrases that would come naturally to a medieval Muslim but not to a modern American. When I refer to God it is “God the Most Great,” or “Allah (the Compassionate, the Merciful).” Mohammed is “Our Lord the Prophet (blessings to Him, his Kindred, and his Companion Train).” Solomon is “Suleiman Ibn Daud, King and Prophet, God's peace and blessing upon him.”

What You Should Know and Where to Find It

In order to do this sort of story telling, you need three sorts of information:

1. You need to know what modern acts and words are inappropriate to your persona–and for the most part, you already do know that. It does not require extensive research to realize that a 12th century North African Berber would not introduce himself to people with “Hello, I am a North African Berber from the 12th century,” any more than I introduce myself to people mundanely with “Hello, I am an American of Jewish descent from the 20th century.” Some other examples are more subtle–I try, for instance, to avoid terms such as “O.K.” that have an obviously modern ring to them. But the more subtle they are, the less it matters if you get them wrong; if you don’t recognize a term as modern, most of your listeners probably won’t either.

A related point to remember is what things your persona does not know. David, for example, knows that by Cariadoc’s time (c. 1100) Muslim Spain has begun its long decline. Cariadoc’s view is that, while the Franks to the north of al-Andalus have been troublesome of late, they have been driven back before and will be driven back again– just as soon as the Andalusian princes stop fighting each other long enough to deal with them. And if the party kings don’t, Yussuf the Almoravid will. Again.

2. You need background information– information about how your persona would have viewed the world around him. The best way of getting that is to find readable primary sources from about the right time and place–books written by your persona’s Page 290 neighbors. Such books, in my experience, are both the most interesting and the most reliable source of information about past points of view. Of course, some of what they tell you may be false–Alexander the Great was not a Muslim, for instance, and did not, so far as I know, have a wise vizier named al Khidr–but the people who read the Iskandernama and told stories from it thought he was and did. What matters is not what is true but what your persona thinks is true.

3. You need period stories. You could make them up, but since you are not really a medieval person the stories you make up are likely to feel more like modern stories about the middle ages than like real medieval stories. That is especially likely if you start by making up stories instead of starting with stories actually told by medieval people and learning from them what sorts of stories they told. Hence my view, at least, is that most or all of your repertoire should consist of period stories. For sources, see below.

Learning to tell Stories

Most of us can talk much better than we can recite. Hence my approach to storytelling is to learn stories, not to memorize them. To learn a story, I read it over one or more times. Then I tell it. After I have been telling a story for a while, I like to go back and reread the original. Often it is a humbling experience–because I discover that I have misremembered some elements, or omitted details that make it a better story. The next time I tell it, I am a little closer to the original. I do not expect to ever end up with exactly the same words–nor is there any particular reason I should. But I do try to get steadily closer to the original.

One piece of advice I always give to new storytellers is to start with short stories. One reason is that it is easier to remember all of the contents of a short story. Another is that it is easier to do a competent job of presenting it. A final reason is that if you tell a short story badly, you only bore your audience for a short time. A long story, told badly, can come close to killing a bardic circle.

Start with very short stories, such as the example at the beginning of this article. Tell them to anyone who looks interested–not only around a bardic circle but waiting in line to get into Pennsic or when conversation flags around the dinner table. The function of storytelling is to entertain– especially to entertain people who would otherwise be bored. It is, along with singing, the most portable of arts; since you always have it with you, you might as well use it. If you find that people like your short stories– ask for another instead of politely holding still until you are finished and then remembering a prior appointment somewhere at the other end of the event–you are ready to learn longer ones.

Who Are You and Why Are You Telling These Stories?

There are a variety of contexts in which medieval people might tell medieval stories. Some story tellers may have been wandering mendicants, hoping to collect enough from their listeners to pay for dinner and a roof over their heads. Others may have been professional entertainers, supported by patrons. One of the most famous works of medieval Arabic literature, the Assemblies of Hariri, revolves around Abu Zaid, a gifted poet, storyteller and con man working his way across al-Islam. None of those fits very well with either my persona or my SCA history.

For an alternative, consider one of my favorite sources–al-Tanukhi’s Tenth Century Tabletalk of a Mesopotamian Judge. The author starts his book by complaining that the anecdotes told in polite company nowadays are not nearly as good as the ones he remembers from his youth–and proceeds to recount every story he can remember, presumably in the hope of improving the situation. The context is upper class men Page 291 entertaining each other with anecdotes, mostly about contemporaries. In a world without radio, television, or electric lighting, such casual storytelling must have played a much more important role than in our world–especially in a climate where sensible people rested during the midday heat and did much of their socializing in the cool of the evening.

There are a lot of places where period stories can be found. Some are collections of stories, others are histories, memoirs or long tales containing incidents that can be told as separate stories. Many of the sources are available in a variety of translations. Some can be found in almost any bookstore, others may require a search through a good university library or, nowadays, the web.

For the convenience of story tellers who prefer stories that their personae could have known, I include information on dates and places. It is worth noting, however, that stories traveled far and lasted long. Stories from the Indian collections appear in the Thousand Nights and a Night, the Gesta Romanorum, and the Decameron; the Gesta Romanorum was, in turn, a source for both Chaucer and Shakespeare. Similarly, Apuleius plagiarized parts of his plot from an earlier Greek work and contributed one story to the Decameron, published some twelve centuries after his death.


The Golden Ass by Apuleius. A lengthy and episodic story written in the second century.

Katha Sarit Sagara (aka The Ocean of Story). A very old and very large Indian collection, containing many of the stories found in the Panchatantra.

Panchatantra (aka Fables of Bidpai, Kalila wa-Dimna, The Tales of Kalila and Dimna). A very old Indian collection, possibly dating to 200 B.C. It was translated into Persian in the 6th century, into Arabic (as the Kalila wa-Dimna) in the 8th century, from Arabic into Greek in the 11th century and, a little later, into Hebrew, and from Hebrew into Latin in the 13th century. The first English translation was in the 16th century.

The Thousand and One Nights. The story of Scheherazade, which provides the frame story for the Nights, is mentioned by alNadim in the 10th century, but the surviving texts are considerably later, possibly 15th century. The Burton translation (16 volumes!) is a delight; Payne is also supposed to be very good. Anything under eight hundred pages and calling itself the Arabian Nights is likely to be an abbreviated and bowdlerized version intended for children.

The Table-Talk of a Mesopotamian Judge, by al-Muhassin ibn Ali al-Tanukhi, D. S. Margoliouth, tr. Al-Tanukhi was a tenth century judge who found that the anecdotes people were telling were no longer as good as the ones he remembered from his youth, and decided to do something about it. The book is full of retellable stories, many about people the author knew.

An Arab-Syrian Gentleman and Warrior in the Period of the Crusades: Memoirs of Usamah ibn-Munkidh, Philip Hitti tr. Usamah was a Syrian Emir; his memoirs, dictated in his old age, describe events during the period between the first and second crusades. They are entertaining and episodic, hence can easily be mined for stories.

The Travels of Ibn Battuta, H.A.R. Gibb tr. The author was a 14th c. North African world traveler who certainly made it to India, may have made it to China, and wrote an extensive account of his travels, some of whose incidents work as stories.

The Subtle Ruse: The Book of Arabic Wisdom and Guile. (Raqa’iq al-hilal if Daqaiq al-hiyal, author anonymous, Rene R. Hawam, tr.) Anecdotes about tricks, classified according to their perpetrators: God, Satan, angels, jinn, prophets, Caliphs, Kings, Sultans, Viziers, Governors, administrators, judges, witnesses, attorneys, Page 292 jurisconsults, devout men, and ascetics.

The Shah-nameh of Firdausi, the Khamseh of Nizami, the Sikander-nama. These are all famous works of Persian literature, and should have bits that can be excerpted as stories. I do not know them well enough to recommend particular translations.

The Tutinama, “parrot tales,” is a 14th century Persian collection of stories based on an earlier Sanskrit work. Imagine the 1001 Nights with Scheherazade replaced by a parrot.

Mohammad’s People, by Eric Schroeder. A history of the early centuries of al-Islam, made up of passages from period sources fitted together into a reasonably continuous whole. It contains one of my favorite stories (the death of Rabia, called Boy Longlocks).

The Book of The Superiority of Dogs over many of Those who wear Clothes by Ibn alMarzuban. A 10th century collection of Arabic dog stories.

The Bible. It was extensively used as a source of stories in the Middle Ages.

The Koran.

The Travels of Marco Polo.

Gesta Francorum. An anonymous firsthand account of the first Crusade, extensively plagiarized by 12th century writers.

Gesta Romanorum. A collection of stories with morals, intended to be used in sermons; the Latin version dates from about 1300 and the English from about 1400. Its connection with real Roman history is tenuous at best.

The Mabinogion. A collection of Welsh stories written down in the 13th century, apparently based on much earlier verbal traditions.

Boccaccio, The Decameron. 14th century.

Chaucer, Canterbury Tales. 14th century.

Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur. 15th century.

Marie de France, The Breton Lais. Popular 12th century poems, based on Celtic material.

Njal Saga, Egil Saga, Jomsviking Saga, Gisli Saga, Heimskringla, etc. Histories and historical novels, mostly written in Iceland in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. All of those listed, and no doubt many others with which I am less familiar, contain incidents that can be excerpted as stories. My own favorites include the killing of Gunnar, from Njal Saga, Egil’s confrontation with Eric Bloodaxe at York, from Egil Saga, the avenging of Vestan by his young sons, from Gisli Saga, and the encounter between Harold Godwinson and his brother Tostig just before the battle of Stamford Bridge, from Harald Saga (part of Heimskringla).

The Tains: Written sources for the Irish romances go back to the eleventh century, but much of the material is clearly much older. One of the most famous is the Táin bó Cuailnge, whose hero is Cuchulain.

The Life of Charlemagne by the Monk of St. Gall (aka Notker the Stammerer), included in Two Lives of Charlemagne (Penguin). This is a highly anecdotal “life” written in the ninth century and covering many subjects other than Charlemagne.

The Chansons de Geste. French “songs of deeds.” The Song of Roland, the earliest and most famous, dates from the late 11th century; the translation by Dorothy Sayers is readily available from Penguin and very good. Other chansons include Ogier the Dane and Huon of Bordeaux. A version of the latter by Andre Norton was published as Huon of the Horn.

Orlando Innamorato (1495) by Boiardo and Orlando Furioso (1516) by Ariosto. A single story, started by one poet and completed by another. They are a Renaissance Italian reworking of the Carolingian cycle, the stories of Charlemagne and his Paladins. The story (and characters) jump from Paris to London to Tartary, with or without intermediate stops. The tale is well supplied with magic rings, enchanted fountains, flying steeds, maidens in distress, valorous knights, both male and female, and wicked enchanters, also both male and female.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses. A source of Greek and Roman myths for Renaissance writers.

De Nugis Curialium, by Walter Map, an English courtier of Welsh origin, is an entertaining 12th century collection of anecdotes with the feel of an after dinner speech to an audience not entirely sober.

[An earlier version was in Tournaments Illuminated, No. 81, Winter 1986. This version of the article is from A Miscellany, 10th edition, by Cariadoc and Elizabeth (David Friedman and Elizabeth Cook), 2011.]

[1] Quoted in H.T. Norris, The Berbers in Arabic Literature. Longman 1982

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