A teller of sacred stories

Robert Béla Wilhelm, storyteller

Robert Béla Wilhelm, storyteller

In 1965, a young New Jersey college student, in need of money for rent and tuition, took a weekend job as a tour guide at $25 a day, for a charter company that specialized in high school class trips to Washington, DC.  The company gave him a binder of facts and statistics to learn, but the student, Robert Béla Wilhelm, quickly realized that only a story makes facts and statistics come alive.

Sixteen years later, Bob was a university professor and had written his PhD dissertation on the craft and philosophy of storytelling.  His wife, Kelly’s, PhD centered on travel and leisure.  Both had grown up in storytelling families, and in 1981, they founded Storyfest Journeys (see their Facebook page too) with an inaugural trip to Ireland.  After more than 50 storytelling oriented, small group tours to Europe, the Pacific, and destinations in the US, they are still at it.  It was thanks to the Wilhelms that Mary and I traveled to Iceland in 2012.

Over time, Bob and Kelly have focused their energy on mentoring storytellers and specializing in sacred stories.  I just received word that Bob has completed a 17 year labor of love that he calls, “Parables Today, A Weekly Lectionary Storybook.”  For every Sunday of the three year lectionary cycle of the Catholic church, he presents stories from around the world along with artwork, and reflections.  The tone is open and ecumenical; many of the tales will appeal to people of any faith or none at all.  They  are now freely available at sacredstorytelling.org.

I was thinking of Robert Wilhelm when I wrote my second post on this blog, which featured a poem called “Story Water” by Rumi.  I think it’s safe to say that Robert has carried on Rumi’s tradition, which centers on the understanding that our spiritual dreams and longings are woven of stories.  Abstract understanding may sometimes move the heart, but more often it is The Prodigal Son, or Arjuna at Kurukshetra, or Coyote coming along that opens our eyes of understanding.

If you love stories, take a look at the stories that Robert Wilhelm loves.

Structure in Folktales, continued

Red Riding Hood, by Gustave Dore

In my last post, I said I was going to review some folktales to see if any conventions of the “three act structure,” used in contemporary fiction and cinema, apply.  Lest I be accused of hubris, I did not say I was going to be systematic about this.  My qualifications are simply a lifetime of love for this stuff.  Here are a few random observations.

The first thing I noticed – and I should have expected this – was the apples and oranges nature of my comparison between long fiction and short, between modern novels and screenplays and the kinds of tales you find in Grimm and other folklore collections.

Some longer epics do mesh with the three act structure.  In Homer’s Iliad, plot point #1 is Paris taking Helen to Troy, and plot point #2 is the Trojans wheeling the horse into the city – this is how the 2004 movie, Troy, is structured too.  It seems the three act structure only really fits longer fiction.  This leads to the question of whether the concepts apply to short fiction at all and to folktales in particular.

Every one of the folktales I reviewed has what Syd Fields called, an “inciting incident,” an event or situation that sets the action in motion.  The king is sick, the princess is missing, a dragon is loose on the land.  Often this is right where the tale begins, without any other preamble.

In terms of the major plot points, most of the folktales I looked at only have one.  Some have two and a few do not have any.  Are there any plot points, in the sense of a major crossroad, in the tale of Red Riding Hood?  Not really.  The unfortunate girl obeys her mother – “Take this basket to grandmother” – and events roll on to their unfortunate conclusion.

Cinderella has a single plot point.  The fairy godmother asks, “Do you want to go to the ball?”  When Cinderella says yes, her happy fate unrolls like destiny.

Cinderella by Edmund Dulac

Another common folktale set up has just one decision point:  three brothers or three sisters set off on quest.  Each of them meets an “insignificant” or repellant creature as they set out.  The older siblings are arrogant and come to an unfortunate end.  The younger sibling behaves with respect, and the creature’s advice and boons are key to fulfilling the quest and often finding love and riches as well.

A Grimm’s fairytale, “The Water of Life,” is a good example.  The king is sick and only the water of life will heal him.  Two brothers set out, but disparage an “ugly little dwarf” who offers advice.  They wind up stuck – literally – in a mountain pass.  The youngest brother, who is open to help, receives it in abundance, both for the immediate quest and in overcoming the treachery of his brothers later on.  Although the action is rather complex, the only real decision the brothers face is whether or not to befriend the little man at the side of the road.  That choice determines their fate.

Beauty and the Beast by Warwick Goble

Some stories with two plot points echo the three act structure.  An example is, “The Pedlar of Swaffham,” which I discussed here a year ago:  http://wp.me/pYql4-85.  A poor pedlar in the English village of Swaffham dreams he will find gold if he travels to London Bridge.  Unlike most people who do not act on their dreams, he decides to go (plot point #1).  He spends three days waiting fruitlessly.  His decision to stick it out, to believe in his dream, is the second key plot point and is rewarded when a shopkeeper asks what he’s doing.  When the pedlar tells him, the shopkeeper says dreams are a lot of foolishness:  “Why just last night I dreamed of a bag of gold under the peddlar’s oak in the village of Swaffham, wherever that is, but you don’t see me running all over the countryside, do you?” 

A story like this seems so modern in it’s emphasis on trusting oneself and following dreams, it may be surprising to know that Rumi recorded the first version 900 years ago.  In other variations, the poor man travels to Baghdad, Jerusalem, or Krakow.  Still, in conforming (sort of) to the three act structure, “The Pedlar of Swaffham” is the exception and not the rule.


Every story has a beginning, middle, and end.  How long the sections are and how we move between them is the province of structure.  If you’ve ever heard a good storyteller, you’ve seen them adjust the pacing to match the mood of the audience.  You’ve seen gesture, expression, and silence used to enhance the tale in ways a written transcription can never capture.

It’s easier to gain an intuitive sense of how to tell a story aloud than to write one, and easier to structure a short story than a novel or screenplay.  Some people may gain a sense of how to structure a novel by reading them, but for the rest of us, constructions like the three act structure form a useful skeleton to build a story.  It isn’t the secret of what makes a novel or movie compelling, but I find it a useful bridge to that destination.

In a similar way, structure alone does not explain the magic in my favorite folktales.  For that I will have to slow down and consider each one more closely.  And there is a topic for more than one future post!

Puss In Boots by Gustave Dore

On Fairy-Stories by J.R.R Tolkien

Once in a while, I worry that I have said everything I have to say, that I have nothing left to blog about.  The mood hit yesterday, after I hit the “Publish” button, and it lasted a good 20 minutes.

Then I remembered that for the last three years or so, my battered and yellowing copy of The Tolkien Reader has been stashed in the software cabinet, along with CD’s for Office, Photo-Shop, and Quicken.  I have no idea why I put it there, but that’s where it stayed because I knew where it is was and it seemed as good a place as any.

When I say yellowing, I mean the pages of this book are really yellow:  it must be at least twenty-five years since I opened it, but I remembered Tolkien’s essay, “On Fairy-Stories” and had a look.

It was downright eerie to see how certain passages I had underlined decades ago are relevant to my present writing interests and concerns.  For instance, those who followed this blog in February will remember a three-part series I wrote on shape-shifters.  “The trouble with the real folk of Faerie is that they do not always look like what they are,” says Tolkien.

Tolkien asks what a fairy story really is and notes that it is not just a story about fairies.  It is also not a story for children, a connection he dismisses as a cultural quirk.  Fairy stories are, he says, “stories about…Faerie, the realm or state in which fairies have their being.”

Faerie lies beyond this world, in an intermediate realm, between the extremes of heaven and hell.  Tolkien quotes the ballad of “Thomas the Rhymer (Child #37) where the Fairy Queen shows Thomas three paths.  They will take the third, which winds into the unknown hills:

O see ye not yon narrow road,
So thick beset wi’ thorns and briers?
That is the Path of Righteousness,
Though after it but few inquires.

‘And see ye not yon braid, braid road,
That lies across the lily leven?
That is the Path of Wickedness,
Though some call it the Road to Heaven.

‘And see ye not yon bonny road
That winds about the fernie brae?
That is the Road to fair Elfland,
Where thou and I this night maun gae.

Analogies jump to mind:  the imaginal realm of Archetypal Psychology, the place of soul, between the physical world and the formless world of transcendent spirit.  The astral world of Hindu cosmology, described in detail in Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, which is far more subtle than physical reality, and far more dense than the realm of spirit.  I am not just being scholarly here, but trying to point to a key fact:  Faerie is analogous to the place of dreams and nightmares, of angels and demons, in old and new traditions around the world.  I could cite a lot more examples.

According to Tolkien, some our most primal desires lie in our fascination with tales of Faerie:  the desire for “the realization, independent of the conceiving mind, of imagined wonder.”  Another is “the desire of men to hold communion with other living things.”  And finally, we look to “the land of the ever young” in our longing to escape death.  And though we can’t pull that off in physical reality, Tolkien says that “fully realized” or “complete” fairy tales end with “imaginative satisfaction” of some of our deep desires.  They give us “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

I’d recommend this essay, written in 1939, especially to writers of fantasy literature, but to writers in general, for Tolkien has much to say about another primal desire, the desire to be a creator of worlds – “sub-creator” is the phrase he uses.


And finally I will end with some unexpected good news for Tolkien fans.  Today’s Sacramento Bee reported that filming of The Hobbit has started after numerous delays.  This will be a two year, two film project, directed by Peter Jackson, staring Martin Freeman as Bilbo, and also featuring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellan, Cate Blanchett, and Orlando Bloom.   Release of film number one is expected in late 2012.  Something else to look forward to for those who love to explore the world that Tolkien created.

The Peddler of Swaffham

A comment here on a post about ghost stories put me in mind of certain tales that everyone has seen or heard in one variation or another.  Show of hands – how many heard “The Hook Man,” around the time they started to date?  How many variations of “The Vanishing Hitchhiker” have been made into TV movies or episodes of The Twilight Zone?

A much older tale that is widely distributed tells of a poor man who becomes rich by paying attention to a dream.

I first heard “The Peddler of Swaffham” told by Robert Bela Wilhelm, who, with his wife Kelly, has devoted his life to inspiring people to tell stories and explore the spirituality of stories.  Be sure to check out some of the riches on the Wilhelm’s website: http://www.storyfest.com.

Carving of the Peddler in a Swaffham church

Bob told “The Peddler of Swaffham” on one of his “Storyfest Journeys.”  More about the journeys soon when I dig out some of the pictures.

The gist of the story is, a peddler from a village in Norfolk dreams that he will find gold if he travels to London bridge.  He makes the journey with his dog, spends three days and nights on the street waiting, and is wondering what went wrong when a merchant asks what he is about.  The peddler says he dreamed of the riches he would discover at London Bridge.  The merchant laughs and says dreams are just foolishness:  “Why just last night I dreamed of a bag of gold under the peddlar’s oak in the village of Swaffham, wherever that is, but you don’t see me running all over the countryside, do you?”

According to Wikepedia, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pedlar_of_Swaffham) the first version of this story was a poem by Rumi, In Cairo Dreaming of Baghdad; In Baghdad Dreaming of Cairo, that later became a story in The Arabian Nights. I know I have seen a Jewish version of the story where the city is jerusalem. The story more recently was incorporated into the plot of The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.

Monument to the Peddler in Swaffham

What the Peddler of Swaffham or Cairo or Jerusalem has in common with countless folktales all over the world is it’s lesson that it is voice of the small, the despised, the overlooked, the ignored – the dream, the third son, the dwarf, the old woman, the child, the animal beside the road, that points the way toward the riches of a more awakened existence.

I once heard a psychology professor say that the way to get moving again if we are stuck in our lives is to listen for the small hunch, the little impulse, the passing thought that, “Oh, this might me interesting to try.”

The same teacher, on another occasion said that in his study of folklore, the greatest predictor of success, bar none, was the hero or heroine winning the help of a talking animal – but that is a story for another occasion.