Lore of the lands

21st May 2004 at 01:00
Preview of the National Exhibition and Conference, Cardiff International Arena, May 27-28


Long ago, there was a Welsh king who had a terrible secret: he had enormous ears. To hide his secret he never had his hair cut and always wore a hat.

But his hair became so long that one day he sent for Bifan the barber to give him a haircut. Bifan was delighted to receive a royal summons, but was amazed when he saw the size of the king's ears. King March swore Bifan to secrecy, warning him that he would cut off his head if he told anyone.

For a while Bifan managed to keep the king's secret. But one day, when he could bear it no longer, he went down by the river and whispered three times to a clump of reeds: "The king has mule's ears. The king has mule's ears. The king has mule's ears!"

Bifan felt much better for having divulged the secret. A few weeks later, there was to be a feast at the palace. The king invited his favourite musicians to play. One of the pipers, called Enoc, decided to make a new pipe for the occasion and went to the river to collect a strong, straight reed.

As he started to play, everyone waited to hear the sweet music. But instead the pipe started to sing: "The king has mule's ears. The king has mule's ears. The barber told me so." Suddenly, there was silence. At first King March looked angry, then sad and ashamed, and then he just laughed.

His secret was out. Now everybody knew about his ears he wouldn't have to wear a hat all the time - and he wouldn't have to grow his hair long. He forgave Bifan and everyone cheered him. He realised that his subjects loved and respected him, whatever the size of his ears, because he was a good and just king.

A story told by a fireside in Wales can be remarkably similar to one related in a home in India or Africa. Terry Saunders looks at the way myths, legends and folk tales have spread throughout the world

Some people will recognise the close resemblance between the traditional Welsh tale of King March, above, and the ancient Greek myth of King Midas being given the ears of an ass for siding against Apollo in a music-playing contest.

But that is only half the story. Legend has it that it was Alexander the Great, or more particularly Alexander's great horned war helmet, that inspired both tales - and the numerous other versions of the story that are found across the world.

In the Irish tale of King Maon (also called Labra the Mariner), the barber tells the secret of the king's large ears to a willow that is cut to make a harp; in an Indian version he confides in a tree, which is felled to make a variety of musical instruments; in Africa the king grows his hair to cover two large horns on the side of his head. In all of these tales, the king's secret is revealed by musical instruments summoned to play at a special feast or celebration. And in them all, the king finally forgives the barber for revealing his embarrassing secret.

For storyteller and writer Mary Medlicott, parallels between the myths, legends and traditional tales of different countries provide a compelling air of mystery and an irresistible insight into how people long ago lived and made sense of the world. "What's fascinating," she explains, "is that some of the stories, like that of King March, have origins that can be tracked back through history.

"Others are also intriguingly close in many ways, but have arisen completely independently, reflecting common concerns, ideas and characteristics. King March's story, and its many parallels, is popular is because it highlights a familiar human dilemma, the problem we all have in bearing a secret, as well as exploring ideas like vanity, power and forgiveness."

Over the centuries, myths, legends and folk tales have criss-crossed the globe with surprising intensity. They have been told and retold, adapted and tailored to personal or local conditions. They have been written down and published and then returned to the storytellers.

Ms Medlicott feels passionately that all children should be familiar with the stories of their own culture. Her speciality is Welsh folklore, but her storytelling technique is to link the myths and legends of her homeland with parallel stories from across the world.

Recurring themes and characters promote universal understanding. They often encourage children to identify ideals of right and wrong, truth and honour, bravery and cowardice. Quests and conditions, which are often ignored with dramatic consequences, bring familiar patterns and sequences.

In the Welsh story of the farmer's son who marries a fairy maid, his happiness is ensured as long as his bride doesn't touch anything iron.

Inadvertently she does - and immediately vanishes back into her home in the magic lake.

This has echoes of the French tale, Melusina, where the bride disappears every Saturday. Her husband is forbidden to ask why, but when his curiosity finally gets the better of him he discovers that on that day each week she turns into a mermaid or, in some stories, a serpent. Once the spell has been broken, she disappears from his life.

During her childhood in Pembrokeshire, Mary Medlicott readily absorbed the rich tradition and rituals of Welsh storytelling. "Stories were told to entertain, to explain and to reach the deeper truth," she says. "My father was such a wonderful, natural storyteller that, through him, I quickly grew to know and love the fascinating and enduring tales of Wales."

She admits that today's children are likely to be swayed by many more outside influences than previous generations, and that in the march towards a global culture their own traditions are in danger of becoming diluted:

"There's a huge need to bring the tales of their heritage back to the children of Wales. Part of my quest is to encourage school teachers to draw upon their natural skills to extend and develop storytelling in the classroom."

Mary Medlicott's recent books include The Little Book of Storytelling (Featherstone Education, pound;6.50); and Open Secret (Pont Books, pound;4.99) AT THE EXHIBITION

Writer and storyteller Mary Medlicott, who has worked in primary and secondary schools, will be holding a workshop on storytelling on Friday, May 28 at 11am. It will cover multicultural storytelling for primary children, connections between Welsh myths and folk tales, and stories from other cultures.

LESSON IDEAS * Collect as many myths, legends and folk tales as you can from different cultures and countries. Look for similarities and differences.

Explore the aspects that have been changed and try to come up with reasons why this has happened. A good story to start with is Cinderella, of which there are hundreds of versions across the world.

* Choose a favourite story and re-write or re-tell it in a different setting or country to highlight different landscapes, characters, creatures, beliefs or traditions.

* King March is thought to have been inspired by the story of King Midas, from Greek mythology. Explore the journey that the story would have taken from Greece to Wales.

Who might have brought it to the British Isles? Do you think the ancient Romans, who adopted many Greek stories and beliefs, might have been involved?

* Numbers play an important role in many myths and stories. Three is seen as a magic number, with things often happening in threes and characters having to perform tasks three times.

List all the instances of three being used that you can find in myths and legends. Can you find any other numbers that are given special treatment?

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