This is the second of four posts in a series about the third annual “Going Deep: Long Traditional Stories Retreat” held in Bethlehem, Indiana, on March 19-22, 2009.
On Thursday night I and the other retreat participants walked over from the Storyteller’s Riverhouse to the old Schoolhouse to hear Liz Warren share “The Story of the Grail.” There were a few local residents and other visitors in the audience as well.
The Schoolhouse has a kitchen, restrooms, and, I think, some small meeting rooms in its basement. The main floor is divided into two large rooms, one of which holds the displays of a small local history museum.
The other large room still feels like an old-timey, all-grades classroom. There is a large American flag and an upright piano on a raised wooden platform at one end of the narrow space. There are also a couple of old school desks with the wooden seats attached to the wooden desks by thick, curved metal. Mostly, however, the space is open and flexible.
When we entered it Thursday night, we saw that someone had arranged a few rows of metal folding chairs in a half-circle facing one of the long walls. Between the high windows on that wall, someone had asymmetrically draped long swaths of gauzy red, white, and black fabric and hung a small quilt that showed three black feathers floating over three large red crosses on a white background. On a table in front of the wall were a couple of candelabras and some roses.
One of the “Going Deep” producers, Olga Loya, welcomed us and introduced Liz Warren.
Liz wore a black dress with red strappy sandals and silver earrings, plus an enameled wrist corsage of white roses.
She began by holding up a short, curved stick that had a row of round bells along its side and a crystal on one end. Liz pointed this “story wand” in each of the four compass directions, plus towards the sky and towards the ground, and shook it as she invoked the spirit of each direction, while the rest of us snapped our fingers. Then she recited a poem that I later learned was by from “Midsummer Night and Other Tales in Verse,” by John Masefield, 1928.
Then she began to tell.
Her telling style was very relaxed, very natural, as if she were sharing something that was so much a part of her own being that she almost didn’t even need to think about it as she spoke. Mind you, the story was very well crafted – i.e. deliberately shaped and paced with conscious decisions about language, volume, tone, etc. – yet it also felt as if Liz had actually been there in the time of King Arthur and was letting us know what had happened to people she knew personally.
The story she told was of Percival, a boy whose mother had lost her husband and other sons to the violence of knighthood. She was desperate not to lose him, too. Her way of protecting him was to keep him isolated and completely innocent of the ways of the world.
But one day when Percival was out playing in the woods near his home, some dazzling creatures covered in shining metal came by on horseback. Percival had never seen anything like them! He asked if they were angels, but they laughed and explained that they were knights who served King Arthur. Percival ran home to tell his mother that he wanted to become a knight, too.
Her heart broke then, but she let him go.
Maybe you know the rest of the story, too, how Percival the young Innocent, through the course of many romantic adventures with both women and men, becomes Percival the Warrior, also known as the Red Knight. How he finds himself at the Grail Castle, but doesn’t realize that that is where he is, nor what he should do there with the Wounded King, and he blows his chance to save the world and himself. How he has more adventures, makes more mistakes, learns more lessons, and finally, finally finds his way back to a second chance at the Grail Castle. This time he is able to ask, “What ails thee?” and “Whom does the Grail serve?” This heals the Wounded King and allows him to die, and Percival becomes the Wounded King himself.
It is a wonderful, wonderful story, full of symbolism and hope. Our wounds are also our gifts, our strengths. And we are not responsible for the answers, only for asking the questions.
The next morning after breakfast the retreat participants gathered in the living room of the Storyteller’s Riverhouse for three hours of structured discussion and other activities to deepen our understanding of, and connection to, “The Story of the Grail.”
Liz gave everyone a green folder that held several handouts, a baggie of other supplies, and…a copy of her award-winning CD recording of the story!
I don’t listen much to recordings of storytellers because I so prefer the live experience, but I had bought this CD when Liz told this story at the first “Going Deep” in 2006 because I wanted the chance to catch more of the symbolism in the story. I have listened to that first CD several times and admire it very much. It was expertly produced by Susan Klein. On Friday morning, I was delighted to now have a copy to give to a friend!
Liz started the workshop by reciting again the Masefield poem with which she had started her storytelling program. Then she taught us a rousing, story-related song that she had written called “Oh Wandering Heart.” It has several verses. The chorus goes like this:
Oh wandering heart, oh wandering heart
When will you cease to roam?
Oh wandering heart, oh wandering heart
When will you come back home?
It was fun to sing!
Then we all settled into our chairs and Liz opened the floor for general discussion and questions about the story. There is a lot to “unpack” in this story, and the various images resonate a little differently with each listener. It was illuminating to hear what other people had found powerful in the story, and what else the story had made them think of. The discussion as led by Liz was both scholarly and respectful of the personal, if that makes sense.
That was the first hour of the workshop.
After a little stretch break, we turned our attention to one of the handouts that Liz had prepared for us. It was titled “Sovereignty and Storytelling.” It focused on the character of Cundry:
“Cundry is a manifestation of the goddess of sovereignty – the goddess of the land. In the Celtic tradition, he who would be king must accept Sovereignty unconditionally in both her hideous and beautiful aspects. This is because the king must accept the land and its people in all their forms.”
When he does, there is a “sacred marriage between king and land and it has obvious parallels for all kinds of relationships, including storytellers and the stories they seek to tell.”
The handout included four prompts, such as “Recall a time in your life when you needed to be asked, ‘What ails thee?'” First we reflected on them on our own, jotting down notes on the handout. Then we each found a partner and took turns sharing our notes. Then we came back together as a group and anyone who wanted to could share with the whole group his or her responses to the prompts.
Our green folders included several other handouts that Liz had prepared for us. They focused on other aspects of “The Story of the Grail” and offered other powerful questions for reflection and exploration that we could work with on our own.
After a second short break, Liz asked us to pull out the baggies of supplies from our folders. Each baggie contained two red-black-and-white-striped beads and three yards of narrow ribbon – one white, one black, and one red. She invited us to “engage with our ribbons” while we shared personal stories of how the archetypes of Maiden, Mother, Crone, Innocent, Warrior, and King have been active in our lives.
“Engaging with our ribbons” (I loved this expression!) meant gathering the three ribbons together and tying a knot in one end, then stringing on one bead, and then braiding the three strands until we got to the other end and knotted on the second bead. People wore the finished pieces as double-bracelets or headbands or anklets, or they saved them to use as bookmarks or put them in their pockets as talismans.
Braiding while sharing whatever stories came up was a very soothing combination of activities.
At some point in the workshop Liz repeated one of my favorite quotes: “If you bring forth what it is in you, it will save you. If you do not bring forth what is in you, it will destroy you.” – Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels.
The workshop ended with all of us standing in a circle, holding hands, and repeating a sort of prayer that Liz had used in her telling the night before, too. I don’t remember it exactly. It was something about hoping to bring grail light to the world. In any case, it was an uplifting conclusion to a very satisfying three hours’ work.
After lunch, a free afternoon, and supper, it was time to hear the next long story. More about this in the next post…
Liz Warren is the author of The Oral Tradition Today: an Introduction to the Art of Storytelling. This is the textbook that I have been using with my storytelling students this semester. Liz teaches at the South Mountain Community College Storytelling Institute in Arizona. She produces the Mesa Storytelling Festival in Mesa, Arizona, and the Myth-Informed event at SMCC. Her recorded version of “The Story of the Grail” received a Parents Choice award in 2004 and a Storytelling World award in 2006. “The Path of Truth,” her recording of Arizona family stories, will be released later this year. Every summer Liz teaches storytelling in Ireland for Study Abroad Ireland. Learn more about SAI here. Check out Liz’s Ireland Journal, too.
Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com