Sunday, February 12, 2012

Unpacking fairytales in Perth

Whenever I go to a really good storytelling show, I'm surprised again at how moved and excited and hyped up I get. Friday night I went on a bit of a road trip to Perth with my friends Ruthanne and Talia to see "The Brothers Grimm: 200 Years and Counting" with storyteller Dale Jarvis and musician Delf Maria Hohmann. Absolutely glad I went.

The show was at Full Circle Theatre in Perth, which, I'm told, is a redesigned car wash. It's a really lovely little theatre, and has something of the flavour of an old auto shop about it, although I'm not sure exactly how. Maybe it's the big, garage-looking wooden panels at the sides of the stage, or the high ceilings.

Dale and Delf have put together a show that weaves together the life stories of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm with some of the stories they collected and German folk music (Delf played the music, on guitar, banjo, whistle and dulcimer, and sang.) There were all sorts of things I hadn't known about the Grimm brothers, and a ton of fascinating facts woven into the story about who they were, why they started collecting stories, and the people they collected them from. There were stories about the brothers becoming celebrities, and unwitting political exiles, and a lovely bit played from the point of view of a self-important Hans Christian Andersen (who apparently once came to visit the brothers, and picked the wrong one to try and impress.)

And then there were the fairytales themselves, which were the original stories. Decidedly not the Disney versions. Some parts of these stories were actually pretty disturbing, especially told with the obvious relish for the gruesome bits that Dale showed. (His description of a father unwittingly eating a stew made of his youngest child was curdling. So was the story of the evil bishop plagued by an army of rats. That one actually made me squirm.)

These are weird, weird stories at times, too. As the evening went on you got a feel for them, for the place and culture behind them, and I started wondering, with some of the odder parts of the stories, what older myths they might be fossils of. Bits of The Juniper Tree in particular: which, if you know it, is one seriously strange story.

There were a couple of themes that kept coming back: magic trees growing out of graves, stepmothers eating their children, birds that sing the truth. And having even the familiar stories told in the old versions, and in the style that Dale told them, made me look at them new. I could actually listen to the story of Cinderella - oh, sorry, I mean Aschenputl - with new ears. For one thing, he told the German version. The one with no fairy godmother, but a magic tree and a pair of magic doves. The one where the sisters chop off bits of their feet to get them into the shoes, and the doves call them on it, and eventually pick their eyes out at the wedding. (The other version, which most of us are more familiar with, is actually a French version.) It made it new, and that meant, for me, that a vague sense of the people and the place - a little kingdom in the middle of what would eventually be Germany in the 1800s - started to build, as though I hadn't really imagined them before.

It was partly the style in which Dale told the stories, and partly the German songs that linked them together, and partly the stories that he chose, but I was suddenly thinking of the stories in Joseph Campbell terms. The stories unpacked themselves and I started glimpsing huge swaths of meaning behind them.

Dale ended with the story that the Grimm brothers always ended their collections with - the Golden Key. It's a strange little story that sounds just a little bit like a koan or a parable. A boy finds a small golden key in the forest, in the winter. He figures, where there's a key, there must be a lock, and looks around in the snow. He finds a small iron box, and fits the key in the lock. He turns it once. And we will only know when he finishes turning the key what is inside the box.


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