I’m Telling!


Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.

George Orwell 1984

I read on social media that my Uncle had just died. Another ‘good bloke’ gone to meet his maker.  What tales would they tell about him at his wake? Not the beatings and the rapes, not the abandonment of a young mother and child in a country he occupied. He is like all the other ‘good blokes’ in my extended family; the pedophile with a plaque dedicating a park and playground to him for his ‘good works,’ the murderer who killed his wife and three children before shooting himself, the football hero who imprisoned and beat his wife for two days, the arsonist who burnt down a house out of spite, all ‘good blokes,’ or so the stories that are told about them claim.

I imagine the mourners at my Uncle’s wake will regale each other with tales of mateship and bravado. We do not speak ill of the dead, so no one will challenge his ‘good bloke’ status by speaking of the horrors endured by his victims. Even if some are present, they will not tell their story for fear of ridicule, disbelief or accusations of madness. The stories of the victims continue to be buried with the perpetrators, unless we make a safe space for their telling.

My mother was who women in my family told their stories too. Over the years she told me many of those stories. But even she didn’t know them all; some stories never find a listener.

As a child she would say to her visiting woman friends, ‘little pigs have big ears,’ and my sisters and I would be sent outside to play, so we couldn’t overhear the Womantalk; the secret, sad and shocking stories of their lives.

As teenagers many of us were the subject of Womantalk, but telling our own stories was rarely an option. Victims were shamed into silence, suppressed by the threat of violence or sent away. In the 1970’s the time for advocacy was well overdue. The second wave of feminism had risen in the form of the Women’s Liberation Movement, and feminists were not only telling their stories publicly, they were acting on them, demanding law reform, the provision of Women’s health and information services and equal rights. Their stories had been kept secret long enough. Breaking the silence around issues of violence against women was a political act, a catalyst for achieving justice for women.

I became privy to many women’s stories while working in Australia’s newly created Rape Crisis Centres and Women’s Refuges in the 1970’s and 1980’s. It was here I learnt that every woman who came through the door had a story to tell, and often it was similar to the stories of the women who worked in the centres. I read Germaine Greer and Anne Summers seminal books, The Female Eunuch and Damned Whores and God’s Police, to gain a framework in understanding the oppression of Women as a class. With my feminist sisters I sang American song writer, Holly Near’s song Fight Back, at demonstrations:

‘Women all around the world,

every colour religion or age,

one thing we got in common,

we can all be battered and raped,

We can all be battered and raped.

And so we gotta fight back,

In large numbers,

Fight back,

I can’t make it alone,

Fight back,

In large numbers,

Together we can make a safe home.

Together we can make a safe home.’

My belief in the power of women as a force for political change emboldened me to tell my own story and advocate for the right of others to tell theirs. However it would be many years before I understood how best to advocate for myself.

While the foundation of my belief system is grounded in Feminism, I discovered that the oral telling of traditional folktales was a creative and exciting medium for expressing those beliefs. It did not take me long to find tales of wily women and clever girls. Sheroes. These were the stories I needed to hear, and thereby reasoned that others did too. Storyteller, Gill Di Stefano became my friend and mentor, and together we worked on stories of empowerment.

For the past thirty years I have told folktales, not the personal stories of women from my work in Women’s Services. Aside from the ethics of sharing another’s story in a context they are not aware of, I choose to tell folktales because they are the stories of the people, all people. They are our global inheritance. The joy of working with traditional stories is that there is a story for every purpose. They are a mirror reflecting our humanity, or lack of it. My task is to find the right story to tell at the right time to the right audience!

I am often asked why I became a storyteller, and for many years I gave explanations about the application of oral storytelling in the promotion of cultural diversity, literacy, oral traditions, education and communication. All valid reasons that I still subscribe too. However, one day I answered without thinking; because I want to be heard.

The most important validation any storyteller can receive is to be listened to. A story does not live without a listener. For centuries folktales have travelled from from tongue to ear and in recent times been written down, only to leap off the page and continue their journey with a new generation of tellers. Some stories have died with the tellers, and others have been resurrected and given new meaning.

Storytellers, Bettina Nissen and Harriet Mason said respectively, ‘ All stories are personal,’ and ‘If you want to be heard you will be.’ I have taken these words to heart, allowing them to guide me on my storytelling path. This is why I tell the story of Little Red Riding Hood.

This ‘protection’ story is a metaphorical tool for understanding power within society. It is also a story of empowerment with active agency by the girl. Unlike the reality for many victims of violence, a folktale has clear delineation of good and evil, goodness prevails and justice is dispensed. Little Red Riding Hood is not blamed for the wolf’s attack and the wolf is not free to attack again. End of story.

Given that so many women have loosed their stories upon the world, how is it that there is not an end to violence, in all its forms? Have they not been listened to? Have their stories been twisted into fantasies, buried or ignored?

While I have breath in my body, fire in my belly and a song in my heart, I am beholden to tell the stories of ‘the poor mother,’ ‘the hungry girl,’ ‘the foolish boy,’ ‘the abandoned baby,’ so that they may rise to the surface of our consciousness and be a torch to light our humanity and promote civil and compassionate societies.

Photo by Roman W. Schatz

untold 21


At the age of 57 she realised all she wanted was a living wage

How do you survive? Not by selling crocheted hats at markets that’s for sure! I admire any artisan who can make a living as a market seller, but most I’ve spoken with supplement their income from markets through selling online and they usually have another ‘proper’ job or income support. For the first time in my life I have no income from any source but my music and storytelling. I am too young for the pension and too old to be on the checkout at the reject shop. I am not going to centrelink to be taught how to write a job resume and then spend my precious time applying for inapproriate positions in marketing and sales. So before anyone takes it upon themselves to see me gainfully employed there are a few points to consider. I am a feminist, a socialist, and a humanitarian. I have a strong sense of ethics, will speak out against injustice and advocate for the disempowered. Too late to be a candidate for the United Nations new Secretary General, but even that position is not up my alley because I’m a storyteller and musician. These are the mediums I work in.

How about volunteer work? Often seen as a way into paid work I believe all artists volunteer in their communities, or all the artists I know do, to varying degrees. For the past sixteen years I presented weekly storytime sessions to the kids at my local school, the last ten years working with children with learning difficulties through to children with severe diabilities in the school’s support unit. This was my heart work, because the children in the support unit taught me how to be a better human being, and I am eternally grateful to them for the privilege of sharing songs and stories with them. However having an income also meant that I could commit to voluntary work. As to ways into paid work, there was never any interest expressed by the leadership in the school to have me conduct storyarts programmes or be an artist in residence. I suspect an attitude typical of many schools in Australia.

So maybe you just aren’t good enough? I have worked in some of the world’s elete international schools and given papers and workshops at international teaching and librarian conferences. I travel to urban and rural areas in Australia to provide professional development training in oral literature and storytelling to early childhood educators. I still do and tomorrow I may receive a reply from one of the hundreds of organisations I email each month saying ‘we want you’ for whatever project/professional development/concert/programme they are organising. Then again, I may not. Much is dependent on funding and getting to the right person. My degree is in performing arts, not librarianship or teaching so those two traditional employers of women are not a haven for me.

So what is the solution? A living wage for every person, regardless of what they do. I hear the haters harking back to that old eighties term of abuse, ‘dole bludger.’  What about the capitalists who make money out of money? No one ever calls them investment bludgers and demand they pay tax! (Actually some of us do but they are more likely to be revered as heroes or larrikins and put on congratulatory rich lists than be made accountable as white collar criminals).

Still, having a living wage is a human right. A more equitable society is not only more just and compassionate , it is more productive. It means that my friends in their 50’s and 60’s who are not working full-time can continue to look after their grandchildren, make art and carry out the tasks associated with their role as community  elders.

Pictured is Artist Joy Serwylo and granddaughter

The Facts of Life Part 2

Babies love their bodies. They kick their legs and waggle their arms amid peals of laughter. They discover joy in touch, a sense of accomplishment in movement and pleasure in looking at themselves and others. If babies are the victims of neglect and abuse, then they are more likely to be withdrawn, frightened and non-communicative. The suffering of children is not new; children have been abused, imprisoned, starved and exploited in every century. However, in the twenty first century we talk about it. Enlightened governments and people are moved to not only speak out on it but act to prevent it. So how do we explain the most basic fact of life, that children have a right to be children, and all that is incumbent with being a child; the right to be loved by their family and community, protected, nurtured, nourished, sheltered, educated, free and self determining. Vis-à-vis human rights.

When I was a child my mother’s mother was fond of saying that children should be seen and not heard. This translated as children were not allowed to have a voice, and if they did speak out against an injustice or even express an opinion then they were ignored, punished or not believed. Children were not as important as adults – children told lies – children could not be trusted. Such were the commonly held beliefs of many adults for much of the twentieth century.  However in 1979 the United Nation declared it was The Year of the Child. This was not the first time that World organisations recognised that children had rights, but the notion had gone beyond the United Nations meetings rooms into the daily lives of many people and organisations throughout the world.  ‘Care for Kids,’ was being sung in playgrounds, schools and homes, even if in reality many were not being cared for. Following on from this was The United Nations 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, the first legally binding international instrument to incorporate the full range of human rights—civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights for children.

If we accept that children have the same rights as other human beings, then we must respect them, but also teach them to respect the rights of others. This begins with children’s first interactions. They discover that actions have consequences, their bodies can experience degrees of pleasure and pain, they have a range of emotional responses to stimuli and they can make choices. Parents, carers and educators have the privilege and challenge of assisting children grow into fully cognizant, compassionate human beings.

In the twenty first century we have International and National laws recognizing children’s rights, a far higher standard of living in most countries than a century ago, amazing advances in science and technology, enough resources in the world to end poverty and many more enlightened people promoting Human Rights. So why aren’t the world’s children all enjoying what they are entitled to?

The second fact of life is that not everyone respects another person’s humanity. Violence against children can take many forms. There is also specific sexual violence against girls that must be addressed, such as Female Genital Mutilation, Child Marriage and femicide. Every child has the right to defend themselves, speak out and be heard. They should also have advocates and recourse to the law. Which brings us to the enforcement of children’s rights.

The UN implementation of the Convention of the Rights of the Child is monitored by the Committee on the Rights of the Child. National governments that ratify it (noting that the United States and Somalia have not ratified it), commit themselves to protecting and ensuring children’s rights. They agree to hold themselves accountable for this commitment before the international community. The reality is that many countries who violate the convention are not made accountable for their actions. The Australian government is a current example, imprisoning children indefinitely in detention centres akin to concentration camps, witholding their medication, refusing them legal advice and various other human rights, and yet they have not been brought before the International Court of Justice at the Hague. How powerful is international law, if it cannot be enforced and the violators cannot be made accountable?

If we empower the most oppressed group of humans in the world, girls, then we are issuing a direct challenge to the oppressors. To recognize that girls are human beings and therefore entitled to human rights means not only an end to the violence against all children, but an end to violence against women, minority groups and indigenous people. It will mean an end to war, poverty and starvation, the plundering of natural resources, the pollution of the earth and it’s atmosphere, in short, empowering girls will create a humane, compassionate world. And that is what is so frightening to the oppressors. The dictators, tyrants, warmongers, profiteers, traffickers and fundamentalists do not want girls to have a voice, choices, or an education, because this directly threatens their power base.  Their authority, status, money and perks will be eroded. Silencing girls through mutilation, murder, imprisonment, denial and collusion continues, to ensure the dominance of a patriarchal power structure.

Empowering girls, all girls, means ridding societies of archaic beliefs on the nature of being female and educating communities in a scientific, humane understanding of health, sexuality and reproduction. Prioritising the education, heath and welfare of girls addresses illiteracy, child marriage and poverty. Children, all children, have the right to be children, the right to be respected as human beings and the right to determine their own lives.



The Seventies: 40 Years On

Sometimes I look with nostalgia at the seventies: not to the music, the clothes, the cars or the haircuts, but the awakening of student political power. I rail at its absence in many Australian high schools today, as highlighted by a quick comparison of my youngest daughter’s experience of finishing Year 10, and my own.

She came home from her Year 10 break-up party, put on by the school at the school, which she had been preparing for all month … annoyed – to use a polite term. She thought it was crap. No proper food, it was supposed to be a meal, but when do party pies constitute a meal? And what about the vegetarians, again not catered for. (She’s always served tomato sauce on a piece of white bread, at Australian schools’ preferred food (sic) fund raiser – the Sausage Sizzle!)

They had a DJ at the dance, but the selection of music and it’s loudness was not to her or her friends’ liking. In her words; the music was crap too.

The students were to come dressed up in a decade from the twentieth century. She went as a hippie from the seventies, which required buying a new dress, make-up (to look natural), a flower tiara and various other bracelets, anklets. She looked beautiful; the epitome of youthful freedom. The irony being that for her to look like an example of an anti-materialist sub-group cost me sixty dollars. But then being a hippy, punk, goth or even grunge today, is all about fashion, not social change or politics. Capitalism profits on the backs (and feet) of the young.

She goes to a conservative Catholic school (Is there any other sort?) There are reasons why, unlike our other kids, she is not going to State High School, but for the purpose of this generalised discussion of comparisons, it doesn’t matter. I find her school’s make-up blitzs, obsession with uniforms and their length, reminiscent of the state country high school I went to forty years ago.  Are Catholic schools forty years behind State schools in their attitudes to dress codes or is it the same for State schools? As far as I can ascertain, both systems still impose the wearing of uniforms on their students, but state school students can wear shorter ones.

The basic tenet that what a woman or girl looks like, is more important than what she thinks or does, still holds true in Western Capitalist societies and the institutions, in this instance, schools, that uphold them. The focus on punishing girls who don’t comply with an institution’s dress code rules does nothing to build self-esteem in young women, or encourage them to reach their full potential as human beings. Besides, many young women are already experts in punishing themselves, through a range of behaviours from self harm to anorexia. Addressing these life threatening behaviours with effective duty of care measures is of far greater value than suspending them from school. Today, organisations like Beauty Redefined are leaders in challenging patriarchal ideals of beauty and educating the public about the effects of sexist advertising on young women and men.


But when I was in Year 10 the second wave of Feminism was just beginning. It was 1975; International Women’s Year. Young people were urged to have a voice and organise, and we did. At the school, girls campaigned to wear ‘slacks’ as part of the winter uniform. Up until then girls were only allowed to wear dresses, winter and summer. At the time many employers still did not allow their female employees to wear trousers, and equal pay for women was still being implemented across workplaces in Australia.

Young, progressive teachers with outspoken political views were being employed in state high schools, and these teachers mentored students in organising and lobbying for changes. Student Council was not just about fund-raising, but a voice for students. Young people were given the opportunity to articulate their demands, discuss policies, make changes and work together to achieve them.

Our Year 10 leaving party was organised and catered for by ourselves and it cost very little. We were responsible for it, and I remember that it was fully attended and generally enjoyed.  But before I wax lyrical about the power of young people, I cannot forget that in my Year 10, six out of the thirty girls aged between 15 and 16, became pregnant that year. These statistics are similar to what is now identified as the experience of many young women in the developing world.

So what are the real changes for young women forty years on? Young women, then and now, are powerful, but they are also vulnerable. They still experience angst and look for ways to deal with it. What differs is the political and social climate of conservatism we live in; the idealisation of materialism, the self-centredness of social media and the predominance of apathy. This conglomerate of oppressiveness is difficult for a seasoned advocate to deal with, let alone a young person experiencing the traumas and intensity of hormonal imbalances, emotional dramas and physical changes to their body.

Although I can’t fight my daughter’s battles for her, I can be her sparring partner. I’m flexible enough to duck the dramas and tough enough to cop the odd jab to the heart. I can talk to her about what it was like when I was young; she may even listen to me. In my heart I want her to be someone who rise’s up and helps others to do the same. I want the young women of today to be leaders in compassion and humanity for themselves and for others.

the common woman is as common as the best of bread

and will rise

Judy Grahn


The Dream Serpent

To what degree are our thoughts and actions influenced by our family, friends, the culture and country we live in and our environment?  One thing that used to annoy me as a young adult was the attribution of a ‘talent’ to others, most often said in phrases like ‘she must get that from her blah blah because none of us are interested in it.’ While modeling and mentoring cannot be underestimated in the socio-political development of a young person, neither can their own independent choices. In my case, the fact that I loved to write was not due to an inheritance from a relative who had a preponderance for writing dreadful poetry; I read books and wrote stories because they were my ways of coping with my world. 

Later I read books and met people who were to influence my actions and world view;  the Women’s Liberation Movement being the most influential because it provided both a theoretical framework for understanding my experiences and that of other women, as well as empowering me to challenge injustice. Today I still call myself a feminist because I believe that if one woman is not free then none of us are. Interpret ‘us’ and ‘free’ however you like. I think of ‘us’ as humanity and ‘free’ as able to enjoy all human rights. But who is telling us what is going on in the world? Are we to believe the sources of our ‘news?’ Propaganda masquerading as information, vested interests posing as authorities, advertising disguised as research. If we do not question what is served to us through mainstream media then we are liable to become and remain complacent, compliant and disempowered. Pastor Martin Niemoller’s (1892-1984) words spoken during the reign of Fascism in Germany are still pertinent today.

First They came… – Pastor Martin Niemoller

First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.


The following folktale from Georgia speaks to me of the need to understand what influences our choices and why me must continue to question them.

The Dream Serpent

There was once a King who was troubled by a dream. He called his advisers together to divine the meaning of the dream but none could. ‘Surely in all the land there is someone who can tell me what it means to dream of a fox suspended by his tail, from the ceiling of my palace,’ he announced.  And he called his men to gather all the people together at the palace so see if there was one who could interpret it for him. 

So the people came from the north, south, east and west to be interviewed by the King. Among them a farmer from over the mountains. On the way to the palace he had to travel along a narrow path, bounded by mountains on either side. In front of him, lying on the path was a serpent. As the farmer came closer, the serpent reared up and spoke. 

‘Where are you going and what is your purpose?’

‘To see the King and tell him the meaning of his dream,’ answered the farmer, taken aback by the the serpent’s speech.

‘Do you know what it means?’ asked the serpent.

‘No idea,’ replied  the farmer.

‘I do,’ said the serpent, ‘and I will tell you if you agree to bring me half the reward the King gives you.’

‘I agree,’ said the farmer, and listened as the serpent explained the meaning of the dream.   

When the farmer found himself called before the King he answered. 

‘The hanging fox means that your kingdom is like a den of foxes, where cunning, treachery and mistrust abound.’

The King was pleased with the farmer’s interpretation and rewarded him with two sacks of gold. The farmer left the palace but returned home the long way, thereby avoiding the serpent’s path and not honouring their agreement.

Time passed and the King had another dream. In this dream a sword hung suspended from the roof of his palace, dangling over his throne. The King wasted no time in summoning the farmer. Reluctant as he was, the farmer knew that if he wanted to find out the meaning of the dream he must go by the way of the serpent.

Once again the snake lay across the path and asked where he was going and for what purpose. The farmer answered that he had been summoned to tell the meaning of the King’s dream.

‘Do you know what it means?’ asked the serpent.

‘No idea,’ said the farmer.

‘I do,’ said the serpent, ‘and I will tell you if you agree to bring me half the reward the King gives you.’

‘I agree,’ said the farmer, and listened as the serpent explained the meaning of the dream.   

When the farmer found himself called before the King he answered. 

‘The sword means that war is about to take place. Men are sharpening their weapons in preparation for battle.’

The King was pleased with the farmer’s interpretation and gave him four sacks of gold and bade him return home quickly as he had a war to wage.

The farmer returned along the way in which he had come and met the serpent on the road.

‘Have you half the king’s reward for me?’ he asked.

The farmer was angry at the serpent’s request and drew the sword he carried by his side and waved it at the serpent.

‘All I have for you is black stone and burning cinder,’ he threatened, and chased after the snake, who slithered down his hole, but not before the farmer sliced off his tail.

Time passed and once again the King had a dream. This time he dreamt of the slaughtered carcass of a sheep hanging from his roof. Straight away he called for the farmer to come. Upon hearing the news the farmer was distressed. He knew he had to see the serpent to know the meaning of the dream. He set off and soon found himself in the presence of the snake, who asked where he was going and for what purpose. The farmer answered that he had been summoned to tell the meaning of the King’s dream.

‘Do you know what it means?’ asked the serpent.

‘No idea,’ said the farmer.

‘I do,’ said the serpent, ‘and I will tell you if you agree to bring me half the reward the King gives you.’

‘I agree,’ said the farmer, and listened as the serpent explained the meaning of the dream.   

When the farmer found himself called before the King he answered. 

‘This is a sign that now everywhere peace and prosperity prevail upon the land.’
The King liked the interpretation. It had been two years since the war and now life was returning to normal, the crops were bountiful and the people were happy. He gave the farmer six sacks of gold.
The farmer thanked the King and made his way home. When he came to the place where the serpent lived he stopped and begged the serpent for forgiveness. He offered him all six sacks of gold to honour his commitment of half the King’s rewards he had received over the years.
The serpent asked that the farmer listen to him while he explained what happened each time they had met. 
‘When you first came to me, the people of the land were like the foxes; cunning, deceitful and treacherous. And you too, were a deceiver because you did not honour your agreement with me, but took another path home. The second time you came to me, war was at hand. You too took up arms and used them mercilessly, cutting off my tail. And now, when peace is upon the land and all are content and trusting, then you too can be generous and just. But I have no use for your gold. It is wisdom that is truly valuable. Go in Peace.
The serpent then turned away from the farmer and disappeared down his hole leaving the farmer alone with the gold. 

Sources: http://www.sacred-texts.com/asia/geft/geft00.htm

Georgian Folk Tales TRANSLATED BY Marjory Wardrop, Published by David Nutt in the Strand, London [1894] 

Retelling of a Georgian Folktale by Hugh Lupton in Riddle Me This: Riddles and Stories to Sharpen Your Wits Barefoot Books United States, 2007

Artwork: Perspective, Roman W. Schatz, 2010, acrylic on cardboard, 



Reason to Beat Your Missus

What is the purpose of taking a traditional story from one culture and positioning it in another? I have noticed that many storytellers do this and some even claim that the story they are telling is from their own culture. There are a number of issues to explore here, including ethics and professionalism. 

When I was a beginner storyteller and had to programme according to the requirements of my employer and I didn’t have a broad enough repertoire of stories or the confidence to assert what my repertoire was, I did adapt stories to an Australian setting. The most obvious one I recall was the folktale, Stone Soup, which has provenance in many countries throughout the world but not in Australia. So why did I tell an Australian version with a swagman (an itinerant Australian laborer who carries his personal belongings in a bundle as he travels around in search of work) as the protagonist? To fit in with a programme of stories about the Great Depression in Australia. The story worked because the swagman was of the same ilk as the characters I had encountered in the traditional tellings of the tale, poor soldiers and travellers, and the setting could easily be the bush of Australia. I believe if told by enough people over time this version could well find a home in Australia. Such is the nature of many traditional stories. As Isaac Disraeli said, ‘Tales have wings, whether they come from the East or from the North, they soon become denizens wherever they alight.’ This is evident in the number of different versions of the same tale told throughout the world. The Jewish Australian folklorist, Joseph Jacobs, explains the evolution of a folktale in the notes of his book, Indian Fairytales.
‘This collection is of special interest to us in the present connection, as it has come to Europe in various forms and shapes. I have edited Sir Thomas North’s English version of an Italian adaptation of a Spanish translation of a Latin version of a Hebrew translation of an Arabic adaptation of the Pehlevi version of the Indian original (Fables of Bidpai, London, D. Nutt, “Bibliothèque de Carabas,” 1888).  

It is possible to set the tale of Stone Soup anywhere and in any time because of its archetypal nature. However, I don’t believe that all folktales adapt to the country to which they have been brought to, and more to the point, I don’t think that they should. I like the idea that people can bring their own traditional tales to another country and tell them as they are without having to adapt them to the dominant culture.

For example in Australia we don’t have wolves so when telling the European tale of Little Red Riding Hood its not necessary to Australianise it by substituting a dingo for the wolf.  We don’t have elephants, tigers or monkeys, but we do have a host of indigenous animals that have their own traditional stories told by the original inhabitants of Australia, the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. I maintain it is important to learn the traditional stories of the country you live in. It is also important to understand about diversity: there are many different lands, cultures, traditions and eco-systems that make up our world.
 As to claiming that a particular story is from your own culture and you know that its not, then this is simply appropriation, or cultural theft; an act that is all too common in the history of many indigenous people’s. We now live in a time where we have access to the stories of many cultures and traditions and the internet has made it possible to research story sources hitherto only available through particular libraries. One of the joys of storytelling for me is to discover the provenance of folktales and acknowledge their origins and travels. 

Do I still tell tales that I have ‘Australianised’? I do tell Stone Soup, but very different versions to my swagmen one, because my philosophy about the role of the trickster has changed. There are two versions that I now tell, and neither is about a swagman or set in Australia. One is in my book, Tell Me: Storytelling as a Global Language  and the other is on a previous blog. My trickster is still a teacher and a survivor, but now teaches compassion and community building for survival.
I still tell an Egyptian folktale in an Australian setting and in the dialect I grew up with because I always imagined it as a story from my own family. Unfortunately wife beating knows no national or cultural borders so this tale could easily originate in any culture. 
Theo Thomas was a bad bastard. Every morning he’d get out of bed and give his dogs a hiding. Just to make sure they did as they were told for the rest of the day. Fond of the bottle too, he was, and when he’d had a few, fancied himself a bit of a philosopher. He’d stand at the bar and let fly. 
‘If you wanna get the best out of ’em, there’s three things you gotta beat regular,’ and he’d take a swig of beer then continue ‘your dog, your missus and your walnut tree’. 
And some blokes, they’d laugh and egg him on with another drink, and some, they’d nod their heads and keep drinkin’ in silence. 
One day, Theo’s brother Tommy, joins his brother at the bar for a quiet one. And Theo turns round to him and says, 
‘You give your missus a good thrashin’ yet Tom Tom?’ 
Well Tommy gives him this puzzled look and he says, 
‘No Theo. She aint done nothin’ wrong.’
So Theo roars laughin’ and tells him, 
‘Whatta ya mean nothin’ wrong? You gotta belt a woman so’s they know who’s wearin’ the pants.’ 
Well Tommy he looks down at his moleskins, all confused like, but promises Theo he’ll think about it. 
So a few weeks later the pair meets up again. Theo’s three sheets in the wind and he says to Tommy, 
‘Didya give that wife o’yours a hidin’ yet?’ 
And Tommy starts shakin’ his head, 
‘I’ll be buggered if I can think of a reason to Theo. She does everythin’ right.’ 
Well Theo nearly falls off his stool, he’s laughin’ so hard. 
‘I’ll give you a good reason to,’ he says, waggin’ his finger. ‘I got six trout in the Ute. Take ’em home to the missus and tell her I’m comin’ for tea, but whatever you do, don’t tell her how to cook ’em. An’ when teatime comes, tell her you didn’ want ’em done like that see. An’ there’s your reason to give her a hidin’.’ 
So Tommy goes home and does exactly what his brother tells him to. 
‘Molly,’ he says, throwin’ the fish down on the table. ‘Theo’s comin’ for tea tonight, so cook up these fellers will ya?’ 
And he bolts out the door barely givin’ her the time of day. 
Now Molly’s a decent sort, even if she did marry a Thomas. Mind you, young Tommy’s the pick of the bunch by a long shot. More of a silly bastard than a bad bastard, if you take my meanin’. Anyways, Molly’s left standin’ there, starin’ at the trout and not knowin’ how her old man wants ’em cooked. Then she gets this idea see. She’ll bake two, fry two and whack the other two in a casserole. Molly’s smart. No flies on her. Half the afternoon she spends cookin’ tea. Choppin’ up onions and tomatoes for the casserole and pickin’ fresh herbs and peelin’ vegetables. And all the while she’s got the little bloke to look after as well. At the crawlin’ stage he was, and into everything. Poor little tacker had a terrible bad case a nappy rash. So she lets him get round bare- bummed for a while. It’s gettin’ on to five and Tommy’s comin’ in the door any minute. And she twigs. The little bloke’s gone real quiet see. So she looks under the table and fetches him outa there quick smart. Before he starts playin’ in the mess. She plonks him on the couch and gets a nappy on him. Just about to start on the floor she is, and in they come. Now she knows her old man likes his dinner on the table soon as he’s home, so she grabs a pudding bowl, whacks it over the 
mess and then goes straight to the stove. Well the men sit down and Theo gives Tommy a wink. Molly brings over the fryin’ pan and sets it down in the middle a the table. Tommy’s starin’ at it and Theo gives him a nudge. 
‘I wanted ’em baked, not fried,’ he says. 
Theo gives him the nod and Molly whisks the pan off the table and goes back to the stove. She opens the oven door and brings over the bakin’ dish. Well Tommy’s eyes nearly pop outa his head. And Theo kicks him under the table. 
‘I mean…I wanted ’em… in a casserole,’ he says, lookin’ at his brother. 
So Molly, she takes away that dish and puts it on the sink. Then she goes back to the stove and brings the big boiler over. Lifts off the lid she does, and the smell wafts right under their noses. Well, you shoulda seen the look on Tommy’s face. And there’s Theo’s givin’ him another boot to the shin and Tommy, poor bugger, doesn’t know whether he’s Arthur or Martha. 
‘That’s not what I wanted,’ he says, all flabbergasted, ‘I wanted um… I want… er,’ and he’s stuck for words so bad, he says, ‘I want… shit!’ 
Talk about quick. That Molly, she dives under the table and scoops up the puddin’ bowl and plonks it right down in front a Tommy. 
‘You want shit for tea,’ she says, ‘you can have it! But I’m havin’ fish.’ 
And that was the end of that. And you know what? Tommy never did beat his wife. And there wasn’t a happier man ever lived. As for Theo, well that’s a whole different kettle a fish. His dog ran away, his walnut tree died and there never was a woman foolish enough to marry the bastard. Serves him right too.
The Second Virago Book of Feminist Fairytales edited by Angela Carter illustrated by Corinna Sargood, Virago Press London 1993. 
Angela Carter cited her source as an Egyptian story from Folktales of Egypt by El Shamy, 1980, published by University of Chicago, US.
Indian Fairytales by Joseph Jacobs
Photograph by Roman W. Schatz

The Lute Player

I am drawn to stories that present the artist as hero, or shero in the case of the Russian folktale I have retold. The fact that the lute player in this story is also a middle-aged woman recognizes maturity and patience as qualities necessary for the fulfilment of a (s)hero’s quest. One of the most inspiring quotes I ever read was by a 90 year old woman speaking of her women’s group, comprised of other nonogenarians. ‘We see ourselves as being role models for the 80 year olds.’
Everybody needs a role model or two. I am blessed with a courageous mother and friends who provide me with an abundance of role models. However, I don’t confine my sheros to  ‘live’ women. The ‘lute player’ in this tale is one of my literary sheros.


The Lute Player

There was once a beautiful and talented young princess who was courted by a handsome and noble young prince. In due course they were married and became King and Queen, and they reigned in peace over the forest lands for one score year or more.

My tale begins with the news of a barbaric ruler who invaded the countries to the north and east of the great forest lands. Though as ruthless as his marauding hordes and intent on conquest as far as the eye could see, the formidable mountain range that skirted the forest lands prevented any immediate plans of attack.

 But the king felt the forest lands were vulnerable. When word of the barbarian’s exploits reached his ear, he bade the queen take her leave and summoned his advisers to a council of war in his chambers. They debated long into the night and by sunrise, agreed that the only way to stop the barbarians encroaching on their lands, was to amass a great army, and march out to battle.

When the queen heard the plan she spoke against it. But she held no sway over the young men who saw war as an adventure and their fathers who saw it as a duty. Farmers became soldiers downing scythes and donning swords. They rallied under the king’s banner, and marched through the forests and across the mountain ranges, until they came to the edge of the sea. Here the two armies met.

It was late spring when the battle began. The air was heavy with the scent of blossoms and blood as both spilt in the fray. The King envisaged a short and victorious battle. His vision could not have been further from the truth.

 The barbarians were seasoned fighters, skilled in mortal combat. They descended on the peasant army, slaying them like beasts. Only the King’s life was spared. He was taken prisoner and transported to the barbarian’s stronghold across the sea.

A year had passed since the king and his army left the forest lands, and still no news of what befell them, reached the queen. During her husband’s absence she was kept busy not only with royal duties, but overseeing the management of the village farms. The women of the villages were used to working in the fields, planting and gathering the crops, but with their men away they worked even harder. And it was not a rare sight to see the queen among the people, pitching in to help.

At night she retired to her chambers and, after noting down the food supplies and treasury stores, took out her lute. As a princess she had played at the courts of kings. They were entranced by the nimbleness of her fingers, the sweet clarity of her voice and her angelic beauty. She had plucked her husband’s heart strings in this manner. But when she became queen, it was not considered seemly for her to engage in such girlish pastimes as musicianship. The lute was forsaken for the sceptre.

On a whim, the queen opened the chest where her instrument had lain in silence throughout the years of her marriage. She took off its velvet cloth and cradled the lute in her arms, remembering the pleasures it  brought in her youth. The queen found comfort in its familiarity and within the time it took for the moon to wax and wane she rediscovered her passion and her proficiency for making it sing. A well played instrument often desires company. But the queen no longer sang the innocent love sonnets of her youth. Her ballads were richer, bolder, earthier, like the timbre of her voice. And no one criticised the queen’s music, for she played in the seclusion of her chambers.

On the last full moon in Spring a messenger arrived at the palace, with an urgent dispatch for the queen. It was a ransom note from the king. He demanded that half the treasury’s gold be taken to the barbarian, in exchange for his release. The queen wept with relief to know her husband still lived, and sorrow for his terrible plight. But she knew that grief was a luxury she could ill afford. Her husband’s freedom was dependent on her action.

The ransom would never reach its destination unless taken by her alone. Gold, especially in large amounts, corrupted the most honest of men. And yet, if she took it herself, the barbarian, who she suspected was not a man of honour, would keep the gold, force her to be one of his wives and keep her husband imprisoned.

As first light approached, the queen had an idea. She took the pair of large shears from their place in the chest and lay them on the dresser in front of her. She sat before her looking glass and stared at her countenance. Worry lines etched upon her brow, dark rings encircling her eyes and drawn down lips. No longer was she a beautiful, young girl. But then a wise woman knows the transience of beauty in the face of Time, and cultivates wisdom in its stead. She held the shears in her hand and said farewell to her crowning glory. Her hair once golden as the sun’s first rays, was now streaked with the grey light of dawn. In two strong snips it fell into a lifeless heap upon the floor. She kept cutting until she had cropped it short, in the style of a boy.

 She clasped a moth eaten, cloak around her shoulders, slipped on leggings and a pair of calfskin boots, then smeared kohl on her cheeks. She hid the lute under her cloak and stole down the back steps of the palace.

In the guise of a minstrel boy, she traded songs for food, shelter and wagon rides, until eventually she came to a village by the harbour. Here she learned of the dreadful battle the previous spring, and the people’s relief as the barbarians were forced to return to another war across the sea. That evening the queen secured a passage aboard a merchant vessel and sailed to the barbarians castle.

Once outside the castle the minstrel boy began to sing. The songs were so poignant that even the birds stopped to listen. Word of the wondrous music soon reached the ears of the barbarian king, who summoned the minstrel boy to entertain him.

 That evening the minstrel boy found herself the guest of honour at the king’s feast. The king was so taken with the boy’s songs of courage and loss, treachery and passion that he bade him stay three days and play for him. At the end he could have his heart’s desire.

When the minstrel’s task was complete the barbarian king lay baskets of jewels and precious stones before him. The minstrel boy shook his head and smiled. His only wish was for company on the road. For the life of a traveler could be a lonely one. Was there not a prisoner in the king’s dungeon who could be released to accompany him on his travels? The king roared with laughter and escorted the minstrel into the bowels of the castle.

‘Take your pick,’ he said, with a wave of his hand.

Before the minstrel were scores of emaciated, bedraggled men. Her eyes scoured the prisoners until she found her husband and pointed to him. The king was led away from the other prisoners and stood beside the minstrel.

‘The road beckons,’ declared the minstrel. ‘We leave with the moon to light our way. Farewell your highness. Be sure that your deeds will make fine songs.’

The minstrel and the prisoner left the castle at a brisk pace and before dawn they’d boarded a ship and were sailing over the ocean. The queen did not reason the time was right to reveal her identity. Instead she listened to the man beside her speak of his deprivations. She studied the ravages of imprisonment upon his face and the wariness in his eyes. All the while waiting for a hint of recognition from him. None came.

It wasn’t until they were walking in the forest lands that the prisoner stopped and looked around him. He grew in stature as he stared at the trunks of the trees and the shape of the hills.

‘Stop minstrel,’ he said. ‘This is my land. The forest lands, where I am king. I did not reveal who I was before, but now we are safe, I can. Come with me to my palace and I will repay you for your kindness.’

‘Sorry, my friend. I am a traveler. Perhaps one day I will visit your court. Farewell.’

With that, the king continued on his way to the palace, and the minstrel, knowing a shortcut, raced off in the opposite direction.

When the queen reached the back entrance to the palace she crept through the secret passage and up the stairs into her chambers, where she immediately cast off her minstrel clothes and bathed her face. She heard the sounds of the king’s return, but had not yet completed her dressing.

When the king entered the palace he was greeted with great rejoicing. His advisers were immediately by his side. But the king was looking high and low.

‘Where is my queen?’ he demanded.

‘The advisers looked from one to the other before speaking.

‘Upon receiving news of your imprisonment, the queen disappeared. We have not seen or heard of her since,’ they replied.

Just then the queen in a beautiful ball gown descended the stairs.

‘There you are,’ said the king. ‘Appearing as though nothing had ever happened, while I languished in the barbarian’s dungeon. I waited for the ransom that never came. And you ran away as soon as you heard of my trouble. Now you’ve returned and I say be gone treacherous and faithless wife.’

The queen fled up the stairs and threw off her royal attire. She donned her minstrel clothes, picked up her lute and ran down the back steps and round to the front entrance of the castle. There she was met by the king’ s guard, who escorted her to the king. He leapt up and welcomed the minstrel boy.

‘Welcome my saviour,’ the king announced, and slapped the minstrel on the back.’ I would surely have perished if this loyal fellow hadn’t chosen me as his companion.’

And the minstrel boy played the lute and sang a song of such touching sentiment that the king was moved to tears. Then the minstrel removed the hood from her head, unclasped the cloak and revealed her queenly self. The king could not believe his eyes as he stared at the woman before him.

‘Your hair, your beautiful hair,’ he gasped, and tears rolled down his cheeks. ‘Forgive me my wise and spirited queen. Never again will I doubt your honour or your valour.’

 And true to his word, the king sought the queen’s judgment in matters of state, and more often than not, he acted on her advice. Neither was it unusual to hear the queen’s voice, rich as molasses, accompanying her lively lute playing. And yet it wasn’t only the palace walls that resounded with the queen’s music, the market place became her favourite spot to play in. And always within listening distance was her greatest admirer, the King.

Sources:     “The Lute Player.” Chinen M.D., Allan B. Once Upon a Midlife: Classic Stories and Mythic Tales to Illuminate the Middle Years. New York: Jeremy P.I Tarcher/Perigree Books, ©1993

Fearless Girls, Wise Women, And Beloved Sisters: Heroines In Folktales From Around The World  by Kathleen Ragan  Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company © 2000

Photo by Roman W. Schatz