Thoughts after The Good, the Bad and the Uglier
Stories from Emily Hennessey and music from John Dipper on June 5th 2020


Reflections from Una, aged 9

I was excited by the magical forests and the weird trolls.

I loved the story about little Butterball, because he was really clever and cunning, and it was amazing that he had the courage to chop up the troll daughter!

The Princess and the Elk was a really thoughtful story. A bit like a dream. I felt the cold air on my arms and I could hear the ferns and bracken rustling…!

Emily is a really captivating storyteller – one minute her face turned into a disgusting troll and the next minute she was a goat munching some bright green crunchy grass. She made the trolls and other characters in the stories come alive by her facial expressions and I could smell the mossy ground.

Because it was nearly bedtime, John’s music made me feel very peaceful….I thought that the fiddle- type instrument was a very curious shape – but it had the most beautiful sound. The atmosphere of the room, when John was playing his instrument made me feel like getting up and dancing a lovely amicable dance…

John did a really lovely piece at the end of the evening which felt like it cast me into a dreamy mood; I think that John is such a talented musician and Emily is an amazing storyteller.

And from Gwen, aged 7

I was interested in the story where the little Princess was carried through the trees by the mighty Elk and first lost her crown and then her dress and her necklace to the dark misty creatures reaching up from the forest floor – but she still had the quiet Elk carrying her, if only she would hold tight to the antlers! But in the end she was pulled into the murky lake and stayed there at the water’s edge forever. It was sort of sad but beautiful too.

I liked the one about the troll baby and the human baby getting swapped too, especially the ending…. It’s funny how what was happening all the time to the troll baby, was also happening to the human baby! It was good that the human mother was so kind to the strange hairy little troll baby, because it kept her strong, and it meant her golden human baby was also being looked after, even though she didn’t know that till the end of the story.

I loved the tune John played for his baby daughter. It sounded full of love.

And from Holly, aged 40

When I lived in Newcastle I regularly attended the A Bit Crack storytelling evenings, but moving out into the North Pennines ten years ago and starting a family made travelling to the monthly performances a bit more tricky. So, for me, one of the brightest gifts of this challenging Covid springtime, has been that I and my two children have been able to zoom in and enjoy these wonderful evenings of story and song. At first it felt counter-intuitive, attending a storytelling evening online – but miraculously, the power of story, the integrity of the tellers and the uplift of music all carry across the wires, waves and out through our screens, and make their wondrous way into our minds and hearts. How vital it is, at this moment, to travel in this way – when we are so home-bound, to look out at the world through different eyes, and hear it through different ears (some of them large, pointed and hairy!)

This early June Friday evening, with a full moon hidden by racing clouds and our young runner bean plants being thrashed around outside in the garden by the wind, we gathered by our fire to hear Emily Hennessey’s stories and John Dipper’s music. Malcolm first took us on the wing to the Hebrides where we heard how the Redstart, with his blaze of chest and tail, has to select who will receive his gift of fire! He righteously chose the humble, hardworking woman to receive this power – which brought to mind the importance of all the less visible workers at this time who deserve so much more.

I have always been drawn to the twisted, misshapen beings that limp or shriek through myths and legends. What Emily conjured for us was a world where such earthy creatures lurked behind every pine and boulder. She took us first to the familiar story of the Billy Goats Gruff, one of the only troll stories commonly told in this country. Who is the troll in this story? Might we perhaps all have a bit of that troll within us?

We left the goats happily chewing their lush new grass, and were carried, via a beautiful bridge of Swedish song from Emily, to the wee cottage in the northlands, on the edge of a dark forest where Butterball lives with his mother and father. Here little Butterball (as round as a ball, with skin as smooth as butter) is visited three times by a haggard, hungry troll who lures him out of his hiding place and into her sack with promises of gifts, and is taken off back through the forest to her troll house to be made into supper. Emily’s vivid characterisation of the troll mother taking her head off her shoulders to rest it under her crooked arm was gleefully abject. Glancing over at my 7 year old daughter’s lurid fascination left me contemplating later on the distinction between live, embodied ‘horror’ and the tv version which my children find too overpowering. Perhaps it is also to do with the ‘core character’ of the storyteller, who can shape-shift seamlessly and explore the darkness because they always come back to the stability of the storyteller role. Emily did this with total assurance, and my kids and I loved it.

I’m immediately aware of a thirst being sated; the thirst for story, for being uprooted, for being confronted with a throng of characters that all offer up something surprising or vital or allegorical. And I know that in this experience of listening, something deep and simple is being nurtured in me: sitting here in the warmth alongside my children, drinking in the stories and the music, being moved by the skill and craft of this storyteller and musician, and knowing I’m sharing in a collective experience as I glimpse, between stories, the 70 other friendly faces on my screen. In this time of global crisis, and a world where so much feels knocked off balance, there is something healing in witnessing what human creativity can conjure and reveal and translate.

John’s music, played on his extraordinary 14-stringed Viol d’amore, formed a pathway between the stories, allowing the images and sounds of the tales to rise and fall, settle and then shift again. He played a piece evoking the ringing of church bells – poignant in these times of silent churches. And then an old, lilting tune paying homage to a King of Poland that he’d masterfully altered to make more true, more subtle, more mysterious.

I loved the ‘changeling’ story – a troll infant taking the place of its human counterpart as the result of a troll mother’s chance, night-time abduction of a human baby. While the father is repulsed by this hairy, big-eared baby, the mother immediately connects to the vulnerability she sees in the troll child, and the fear and pain of her own lost babe is countered by the urge to look after this little abandoned creature. Perhaps somewhere inside, her instinct is that in caring for this baby there is more chance that her son is also being looked after. The troll baby is extremely difficult to comfort, and turns its crooked nose up at all the ‘hygge’ comforts like goats milk with honey or mashed potato and cheese. Finally the mother’s intuition overrides her rational conditioning of what counts as ‘nurture’ – she grabs a rodent brought in by the cat which the troll baby is thrilled with. More than an emblem of the deep-rooted intuition to care, this image deliciously transgressed polite norms and tapped in to an exciting, wild animal part of me that ‘culture’ tends to restrain. The trolls unearth that in us – an ‘id’ that can be let out in the space of the storytelling circle.

Under the pandemic through which we are living, we are being asked to let go of so much, but the greatest of these, perhaps, is a sense of having control. We struggle to bring to bear a sense of acceptance over the impact of this frightening and awesomely powerful micro-organism. Later in the troll story, the human mother reaches a point of total sacrifice. After her house goes up in flames and her neighbours reject her, she sits by the well, and is asked to make a brutal choice, yielding up everything dear to her. The poignancy of letting go her beloved in preference for caring for the troll baby was deeply moving. More than that, this symbol of acceptance acted like a sluice gate, releasing tears built up over these last weeks as I have tried in vain to control the safety of and security of my family and community and do my bit to stop the spread more widely. It is only when the mother in the story completely lets go that the trolls have no power over her anymore – can we not find hope and sustenance in that ?

Still moved by where Emily had taken us, I listened to John’s piece inspired by Alan Garner’s childhood and felt the intensity of how we are rooted in the landscapes of our upbringing and our ancestors, and the riches latent in this sense of belonging. His playing and looping of the early Purcell was pure bliss and led into the dream-like landscape of the Elk and the Princess story that Emily closed with. There is the quiet constancy of the Elk, stepping through the gloom, caring for the young princess, bidding her to hold on to the sturdiness of his antlers. But here again is the young and innocent being pulled by the darker forces that dwell beneath and in the earth. But there was a mood of beauty and tenderness in this story, and I was left with the feeling that we must not ignore these creatures of the netherworld, they are part of this earth, of our nature and that they ask us for acknowledgement and attention, even as we squirm to look at them.

The piece John played as the evening ended was a beautiful ode written by a musician friend of his in honour of a woman in the area who had died, someone unknown to the composer, though the tune was named after her; Mrs Chambers. I was struck by the beauty and the longing in this music, and the gift of someone being stirred to write a tune for a relative stranger, in honour of their life ending. So many have died without sufficient mourning or recognition in recent times, and this kind act stood as a far greater testament. Perhaps a similar instinct that the storyteller has in re-shaping stories of old to tell afresh in our times. Offer them up as medicine, as wisdom, as reflection.

So I end with my heartfelt gratitude to the bringers and tellers of story and the players of music.