Folktales bring us the wisdom of the ages. They have been honed and shaped over centuries. They are there for everyone, functioning on the one hand as entertainment and on the other through offering so many layers of meaning that they are accessible to all. Adults may proclaim that Jack and Ti-Jean, Cinderella and Red Riding Hood (and all those other lesser-known heroes and heroines of the stories we ought to be telling more often) are archetypes. Children simply recognize in these long-lived characters various aspects of their own being. Folktales become then one of the places where children experience what it is to know themselves as adventurers.
Once upon a time, there was a storyteller called Joan Bodger who was running a Headstart program in Harlem. It was before Headstart got going. Experts came to visit, to see what all the fuss was about. One of them asked Joan, somewhat disparagingly, “What do you want for these children?” Joan answered, “I want them to be poets and princes. Poets to the extent that they have command of their own language. Princes – you know, like the heroes in the old stories: they may be shoveling the muck in the stables but they will stand at the centre of their own lives.”
We cannot imagine a parent or educator who would not have a similar aim (although we would, of course, say “princesses” as well). We’ve both been working with children for many years now – Jan as storyteller and writer of books for young people; Jennifer as storyteller and specialist in arts education. We’ve seen how a story told seems to be able to leap directly over barriers to some deep place of understanding we know will stand young listeners in good stead. We do not set out to be teachers but we are aware that the folktales inform and instruct as nothing else can. “What will you carry away with you from what you’ve heard today,” we ask often. The answers are always surprising and always heartfelt.
Here’s something else. The folktales belong to oral tradition. They were meant to be remembered and they are. Go into a school once, come back a year later, two years, meet the same children. They will always be able to name the stories told. That speaks volumes for how well the stories must be doing their work of handing on a torch of strength from those who have gone before us and in whose steps we tread.
We do not believe the folktales are “pure magic.” We believe they must be handled with care.
For more information on Jan Andrews go to http://www.janandrews.ca