Tales from another land

Martin Elrodt

martin When I first fell in love with storytelling in 1990, at the age of 24, and in the following years migrated from my previous profession as actor to being a storyteller, it was still quite common to be greeted by organizers and audiences alike with statements such as: “You are a storyteller? Why, you don’t have a long grey beard, and there’s no rocking chair…!” or, after the performance: “But you didn’t tell the story as it is written in the book!”

Since the Brothers Grimm published their collection of folktales, storytelling in public German consciousness has stood for “grannies or grandpas telling wonder tales.”* This nexus between an activity (storytelling) and a genre (wonder tales) has been so strong that in German speaking countries – including Austria and Switzerland – the majority of storytellers would not call themselves Geschichtenerzähler, which is the adequate and exact translation of storyteller, but Märchenerzähler (fairy tale tellers/wonder tale tellers). As far as I know, this doesn’t happen in any other language on this planet.

In order to understand these still prevailing ideas about storytelling and its strong connection to wonder tales, one has to take a closer look at the past, and especially at the time before and after the Brothers Grimms’ activities.

The past
There is not much evidence of what kind of stories have been told in Germany before the 19th century. Storytelling has always been considered a minor art, if art at all, performed rather casually in private and informal spaces: travelling craftsmen, merchants or soldiers would pass down a mixture of folktales, anecdotes and real news from one place to another; stories would be gathered and retold by village people on long winter nights when tedious chores were to be done by the family or even the whole village, e.g., spinning or mending fishing nets. Neither literature nor the scarcely developed sciences cared for this part of popular culture. There is nothing comparable to the works of Charles Perrault (France) or Giambattista Basile (Italy), although motive (as in the Aarne-Thompson Index of folk tales: elements of plot, characters or places that would come up in different stories all over the continent) and text research proved later that in Germany as well there must have been an exchange between literary works and the oral tradition.

The author was an actor and puppeteer by profession until he discovered in 1991 that his true vocation was storytelling. Currently the coordinator at the “Red Internacional de Cuentacuentos” (RIC, International Storytellers’ Network), www.cuentacuentos.eu, the author also runs the website www.erzaehlen.de as a platform for the storytelling community in German speaking lands. He can be reached at jme@ellrodt.de.

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