The practice of storytelling is as old as the human race itself. Long before ink was first put to paper, the oral tradition of tale telling had taken root, with stories passed from person to person, from generation to generation, growing and changing with each new telling along the way.
It is always a great pleasure to discover a new story, and a good one stays with you long after turning the final page or hearing the last word. The King’s Table, written by Jean Edmiston and published by The Hidden Dancer Press, is one such offering, gripping and drawing the reader in from the first page.
In the green heart of a fallen oak I found this story.
So begins this skillfully and delightfully crafted tale. An old king who has spent many years surveying his kingdom from an ancient old tower, dies, and his son returns from lands far away to take the throne. Unimpressed with his inheritance, the new King’s curiosity is sparked by the last bequest from his father, a wooden box with a note bearing the command to find the King’s table. The table is duly discovered, but disaster strikes and the table is no more.
The search is then on for the one that can replace the famed table in all its glory. Who will prove up to the task? So follows a tale that will warm your heart and make your eyes suspiciously damp as you read through to the satisfying conclusion. Firmly rooted in the land and our common heritage, The King’s Table subtly touches on themes of continuation of history, stories, family and belonging. There is also a strong feeling of the mystical running beneath the carefully chosen words, reminding us at every turn of the magic of the earth.
The King’s Table is the perfect example of the old adage that good things come in small packages; Jean Edmiston manages to effortlessly weave a tale that is both beautiful and comforting in its simplicity, drawing on the familiar, yet also keeping it relevant to a modern reader; timeless storytelling at its best. There is the added boon of a female character in a prominent role, and a positive one at that, taking an active role in redressing the balance of equality in storytelling and beyond.
The use of trees and associated imagery throughout grounds the story firmly in the earth, and Edmiston’s carefully crafted text perfectly paired with illustrations by Andrew Foley brings the story firmly to life. It is the perfect tale to read alone curled up before the fire, or out loud to a group of rapt listeners; why not pick up a copy of your own and carry the tradition on yet further?
As well as having a copy of The King’s Table to read, #FolkloreThursday was lucky enough to talk to Jean and her daughter, Amanda, about the importance of storytelling, both in their own work as storytellers and in the world at large.
Willow: What is the first story you can remember being told, and which is the tale that has stuck with you the most?
Jean: My first memories of stories told to me were my father and mother’s tales of their childhood . My Dad was the storyteller and had an endless supply of stories about places we visited. Every mountain it seemed had a giant or a mysterious beast or ghastly event. Coastlines were inhabited by mermaids and smugglers, a sad hermit that lived in a cave, a ghostly piper, and all of these were mixed up with his own adventures growing up — and I’ve come to realise that this is where my fascination for stories of place began. I was also was an avid reader of the Grimms, Hans Anderson, Greek legends, and anything I could find under the heading of legends and folktales in a battered set of Arthur Mees’ Encyclopedia.
Amanda: The first story? I couldn’t tell you what order they appeared in chronologically, some feel like they’ve always been there… I remember sitting in my grandparent’s garden aged about 3 or 4, smelling the clove-scent of the flowers that grew in the tale I was being told: ‘Felicia and the Pot of Pinks’, a story about a girl who looks after the plants she inherits and discovers they are under an enchantment and not quite what they appear to be. I also remember loving ‘Wild Swans’ at a very young age, the story about a girl weaving nettle shirts to save her brothers from a spell, a classic that has now become one of my signature stories. Some of my favourite stories were the ones my mum told me that began ‘When I was a little girl…’ or ‘when your Gran was growing up on the farm’, those family anecdotes that become a personal mythology, family folklore that carries lessons learnt over the generations forward.
Willow: How long have you been storytelling? How did you get started?
Jean: Oh my Mum always said my talking, and talking, and talking, would be the ruin of me one day, and my imagination — mixing up dreams and stories with reality — and the wee folk having a party under the big chair were real — yes they were REAL — I was 4 yrs old at the time. So maybe I was just born that way. Certainly when I realised in my late 30’s that there were ‘storytellers’ (whilst watching By Word of Mouth series about the revival of storytelling on Channel 4) it was like an epiphany — a moment of everything making sense — my whole being yearned to be a storyteller; that’s what I was. I was working at the time with a women’s writing group and I was so excited to find myself telling the stories rather than writing them. I was sponsored by some friends to attend storytelling workshops in London run by Mary Medlicott, the storyteller who had put together the Channel 4 life changing programmes, and Karen Tovell. Here I learned the craft and skills needed to tell stories in different contexts, to shape traditional stories with your imagination and memories — to find your own voice. I also met other like minded folk, and within a year I began my career as a storyteller. Mary Medlicott is still a good friend and we tell each other stories and discuss work and possibilities regularly on the phone.
Amanda: Given how often I got into trouble for making up fantastical fibs as a child, and how much of my time I spent creating magical worlds to inhabit in my head or for my friends to play in, you could probably say I’ve always been storytelling! I became a full time professional storyteller over eight years ago now. I was a single parent at the time trying to find a way to create an interesting and sustainable life for myself and my baby, I’d studied herbal medicine and was inspired by how so many legends from around the world included the role plants played in people’s lives, and started to share these as a volunteer at a toddler group we went to. My mum encouraged me hugely and the group loved the stories and were hugely supportive, going on to find funding for me to develop stories for the garden they were based in. From there I was awarded funding to create stories for a weekend of events at Chelsea Physic Garden, and asked to appear in a short film storytelling for The Scottish Ballet education department. I immediately loved what I was doing, it was like coming home, I’d finally found my perfect career!
Willow: What are the origins of The King’s Table?
Jean: Tim and Maggy Stead were the people that believed in my storytelling ambitions and sponsored me to go to the workshops in London. Tim Stead was an exceptional sculptor and furniture maker. He worked with great respect for the trees and wood he worked with. He sadly died in 2000, but Maggy and his apprentices carried on the work. Also, my father who was a sculptor who often worked with wood. His passion for the trees and their stories has never left me. I love trees and would say that trees have been my friends and my guides on occasions — The King’s Table is my way of showing respect for trees and the people who work with them; my father and Tim in particular.
Willow: Where do you find your storytelling inspiration and how much of your own histories and lives influence the tales you choose to tell?
Jean: The landscape and it’s stories — the ones whispered to you during a storm or the legends you hear or read, but also the stories that I identify with. The feelings or the events —somehow they meld and become my story — yes, my own life experiences are very much a part of why and how I tell a particular story.
Amanda: I prefer to make my storytelling work site specific, so where possible I visit the place, exploring and discovering its plants, people, history, folklore and traditions, stories usually then suggest themselves and I then add layers and references from my research and exploration. Venues and organisations I’m creating work for often have elements or themes they want me to tie in, so that adds another layer. For example I frequently tie sessions in with subjects being covered in schools… I find layers of history, lore and storytelling can add an engaging, creative dimension to most curriculum subjects and events!
Plants and their uses always crop up (excuse the pun) in my sessions, they’re not always the primary focus, but plants do form an essential part in the fabric of our lives, and stories often heighten our awareness of this, adding a layer of magic to parts of life we forget to see. Inevitably my own history and life influence the stories I tell and the ways I tell them, it’s one of the things that brings storytelling to life, that and the influence of the audience who you learn to respond to, the subtle responses of people listening can suggest a twist or turn that then changes the path of a story, each session then takes on a life of it’s own.
Willow: Why do you think the continuation of the storytelling tradition is so important? Would you say there has been a revival in recent years?
Jean: We are all storytellers, it’s how we communicate in the little everyday stories of our lives. These stories help us to understand the world around us, to understand the events, to learn about places and people. They have always been there evolving and changing — new ones added — I always say we are our stories — there’s an African proverb that says: “When an old person dies it’s like a library going up in flames”.
Amanda: Oral storytelling keeps stories alive, allowing them to grow and develop organically, keeping them vibrant and valuable for new audiences, adapting to change and needs; increasing the potential for people to understand their continuing relevance. Ideas can be planted and information passed on in an engaging, lively format that allows audiences to respond as creative individuals. At the same time stories have roots in tradition and history, providing us with a safe place to learn and explore all kinds of incredible and wonderful or difficult and challenging things.
The storytelling revival is something that has been talked about a lot for quite a while now! For me storytelling has always been there, coming from a family who have always told stories and my mum being a professional storyteller. But I think the way we tell stories changes and adapts continually and awareness of its value is hopefully increasingly widely accepted… this in part is down to the large number of fantastic tellers working currently. For quite a while now there has been a gradual shift, an ever increasing awareness and appreciation of women working in storytelling and a move to include new and exciting settings beyond the mainstay of the once very male-oriented club and pub circuit, making storytellers vital additions to events in educational and heritage settings.
Willow: What has been your favourite storytelling experience and why?
Jean: Over the 30 or so years I’ve worked full time as a professional storyteller there are many times I’ve thought that was an amazing project, but thinking on it, it’s the moments actually I enjoy when you see the wonder and excitement on children’s faces as they listen, or when storytelling to adults you get a certain kind of silence when you can hear folk listening. When I lived in SW England I had some unforgettable positive and rewarding working experiences in schools — summed up by a boy, who at the beginning of my residency with his class, announced, “This is rubbish”; yet at the end said, “When I grow up I’m going to tell my children and grandchildren lots of stories — stories are fantastic.” It doesn’t get much more rewarding then that.
Amanda: This is a really tricky question! I have really loved most of my storytelling experiences; each new project I start, or gig I go to, leaves me enthused, excited, and full of ideas! Firsts are always memorable, so the moment when I arrived at Chelsea Physic Garden was introduced as the storyteller and people I’d never met before started talking to me about my stories and I realised, sat in a beautiful garden in the warm summer sun, that this was what I might do with my life, as a full time job, is still a visceral and moving memory.
My mum telling me The King’s Table for the first time was very magical; I cried — it still makes me cry — but my mum telling me stories is still one of my favourite storytelling moments. She is breathtakingly good at what she does, but its also heightens my awareness of our relationship… a beautiful sense of shared ideas. At the moment I’m hugely excited about the unveiling of a trail in Rutherglen in South Lanarkshire. The sculpture has been created by Rob Mulholland whose reflective work has been inspired by stories I developed as part of an intergenerational project gathering local lore and stories from heritage groups, care home residents, and nine primary schools, with a fantastic community gardening project: Grow 73. Lynn Semple and Eugenie Aroutcheff who started Grow 73, and have managed and helped deliver the heritage trail project, have been incredible to work with, a real inspiration and I can’t wait to see the finished result!
Willow: What would be, for you, the ultimate storytelling project you would love to be involved in?
Jean: I enjoy passing on my skills, and working with my daughter Mandy and seeing her grow and flourish into a fabulous storyteller has made me very proud of her, and very happy. Currently I mentor apprentice storytellers, storytell to groups of residents in care homes, and I’m creating little books of my favourite original stories with very talented illustrator Andy Foley. Just more of this: to carry on inspiring new storytellers, to make books (more books planned with Andy Foley) and to tell stories and find new ones. I am bereft if I go too long without telling stories!
Jean Edmiston, Jan 2018
Amanda: Hmmmm, dream job? I’d love to be asked to work on a collaborative project by one of the big botanic or physic gardens; researching, writing, and telling plant stories embellished with the history of the land they grow on, to create a fabulous book with herbal stories, lore, and use, alongside beautiful art: a combination of stunning illustrations by someone glorious like Kate Soutar, or Jackie Morris, and photographs of my herbal storytelling boxes…adding bits of memories collected during workshops with community groups and the public…(I’m dreaming big here!) with an accompanying herbal story garden, pathways of planting, sensory storytelling: it’s way through the book as a lasting interactive element. If you then added a bit of travel to research the stories, and history, and talk to people, delivering workshops as I went to add to the book (fully funded of course!)… then that would be my dream job at the moment! Amanda Edmiston, Jan 2018
With that, our visit to the world of storytelling and tellers comes to an end. Many thanks to Jean and Amanda for sharing their insights and passion with us, and don’t take our word for it where The King’s Table is concerned – go and treat yourself to a copy on Etsy.