Taming the tales

As adults we often squirm when a folktale ventures into the charged world of violence. I’ve known storytellers to avoid these tales or to temper them, particularly with child audiences.

Jack and the Beanstalk Denslow

The giant meets a violent end when Jack chops down the beanstalk. Illustration by William Wallace Denslow

On the other hand, I’ll never forget what the Canadian doyenne of storytelling, Alice Kane, told a workshop audience in Rochester, New York. This was years ago so I’ll have to paraphrase.

We’d seen her take the stage the night before. She was in her early 80s at the time. Before she walked onstage, a young helper brought out a chair. I assumed she was going to sit in it, which seemed appropriate for an elderly teller.

She didn’t. She placed a hand on the back of the chair, for stability. For the next hour she—and the audience—barely moved a muscle. No sweeping gestures, no exaggerated character voices, just a confident and sure mastery of stories that had us all in the palm of her hand.

Next day she gave a workshop on storytelling. One moment in particular stands out in my mind. Someone wanted to know how she dealt with violence in stories.

In her candid and direct way, she said surely we didn’t think children were unaware of the violence around them. Television was not the only teacher. They witnessed it on the playground, in classrooms, in their own homes.

Alice Kane told us we would lose credibility with children if we avoided the gritty tales. What children needed from us was assurance that justice would, in the end, prevail. The folktales that niggled our adult sensibilities reassured children that things would work out.

I wish I could remember her exact words. I can’t, but this quotation from G.K. Chesterton captures the essence.

“Children are innocent and love justice, while most adults are wicked and prefer mercy.” ~ G. K. Chesterton

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