Into The Marvellous: The Art of Oral Storytelling + Travelogue + Interview With Martin Shaw From His Canadian Tour
"The writer holds a revered position but the oral storyteller is still an outlaw." - Martin Shaw
Back in the Seventies, the Sex Pistols roared across the UK on the Anarchy tour, and overnight a hundred new bands were born. These were gigs that everyone claimed they’d seen. Suddenly everything was breathlessly, wonderfully, possible.
It’s 2023, I think I’m witnessing the same thing, not with punk rock but with oral storytelling (which might just be the original punk rock making a comeback for the endtimes).
It wasn’t a band this time. It was a man named Martin Shaw.
He was road weary when we picked him up at the Vancouver airport, but somehow radiated good cheer.
“Gentlemen!” he called as he strolled towards us, black wide brimmed hat, crimson scarf and houndstooth jacket. “I sense the next ten days together are going to be a journey into the marvellous!”
It’s myself, Ian Mackenzie and Reg Wilford. All three of us have known Martin in various capacities over the past years and, after a bumpy first half of his tour, I suspect he’s happy to be with people he knows.
(Photo by Sydney Woodward of Folklore Studios on Salt Spring Island)
Over the coming ten days which include seven live shows and a weekend retreat, we get to see Martin at work. All we know is that entire tour has been, and will continue to be, entirely improvised.
There was the ribald humour that runs constantly when you get four men in a truck. There were the late nights after the gigs sitting with Martin and basking in it all. There were the dinners and breakfasts together. There were the immediate ‘inside jokes’ that developed, disappeared and came back at the end of it all. There was the growing love and care we had for each other as we learned how to support each other along the way.
And then there was watching Martin tell stories on seven different evenings. In each show, Martin did the impossible and, paraphrasing William Butler Yeats, fashioned everyday out of nothing and taught the morning stars to sing. Every performance was different.
There was almost no overlap of stories night to night save a couple.
Martin Shaw is a mix of punk rocker, stand up comedian, improvisor and storyteller. And he’s an absolute master at what he does. Wilderness guide and author of seventeen books, he's out on his own someplace wonderful, and beckoning for us to come join him.
He does what Jan Blake articulates so beautifully in that he uses one of his arms to hold and love all the people in the story and the other to hold and love everyone in the audience. In so doing, he loves everyone those stories came from and all those who might yet hear those stories.
We’re back in Reg’s truck. Martin is asleep yet again having passed out from the horror that there was going to be a second ferry we needed to take to get to the gig (for the second day in a row). Welcome to B.C. He sleeps every afternoon - in the truck or in a bed for a few hours if he can get one - conserving his energy for the night’s performance. He likes to keep the days low stimulus - not a lot of new input or ideas.
There’s something essential and hidden away he has to locate in himself. The mood changes for a couple of hours, he becomes blank again, withdrawn and quiet. Excited folks keep offering to take him on hikes or visit some beauty spot but he always says no. Everyday is a quiet refusal of one thing or another.
Everything, absolutely everything is about conserving juice for the evening. He’ll spot one or two things a day and seems to know that’s what he needed to glimpse. Just a breadcrumb. Then the eyes close, he shuffles further still into his houndstooth jacket and that appears to be that. He doesn’t want brunches, new friends, affirmation or guided tours of anything. He’s not disinterested, just focused on something that will not come into view till he walks on stage.
In reality he appears to be tracking something we can’t see.
Before shows he takes time in the green room to get himself ready. We leave him to it. This seems to be another acceleration again of his endless pursuit of the deep interior. For sure he’s not in there rehearsing lines. He says he has to get empty, a bit like he does on wilderness vigil. Every time the evening settles into anything that could feel like a show he derails it.
He tells us that he prays to be defeated by the God that lives within the story. I don’t think there’s many storytellers praying that.
This is when you remember the man spent four years living in a tent, not attending drama school. He's serving in a different temple with very different intentions.
The lighting technician doesn’t even show up in Duncan. Fucking hell. We’re in a big, long Church hall. The stage is packed to the gils with what looks like the remains of the homes of several hoarders belongings as they sort out the wills. It’s barely covered with some fold out, cloth walls. The lighting choices are to have the entire hall lit up or turn off the main lights and have Martin entirely backlit by the horribly positioned stage lights. Luckily a friends shows up with a last minute fix. Some variant of this issue arises frequently, it’s part of touring life. Obstacle after obstacle, scuff after scuff. How on earth is he going to do with this without amplification? The whole tour has been done without a mic, thousands of tickets sold.
There’s almost nothing that Martin hasn’t already had flung at him over so he bears it wearily but with good grace. The room is stiflingly hot, no more so than on stage. There’s almost a haze over the crowd, folks overspilled onto the floor around the seats. This is the moment he has sacrificed the rest of the day for. Expectations are through the roof. And on he strolls, peering out from under the brim of his hat.
It’s almost frightening, wondering what on earth is about to happen. Knowing he’s out there without any handrails.
He gets up onstage and breaks the ice with a joke, his opening lines are almost always some sort of self-deprecating remark or acknowledgment of the impossible hopes in the audience and how unlikely they are to be achieved. A sigh or relief from the audience; laughter. Everyone relaxes and sits back. He seems to be doing the best to immediately kerfuffle any expectations of his being a velvet cloaked, story stick carrying ‘storyteller’.
The evening’s will often open with reference made - directly or indirectly - to conversations from the day or things that happened and throughout the evening the mountain in the molehill is revealed or hinted at. In the lead up to the big nights, he pays keen attention to little goings on, seeing if he can divine what big stories might be coming towards him for the evening’s performance or at least a rope he can climb to get closer to the ropes of big story.
He throws up his grappling hook and starts to climb to see which other ropes of story - big or little - might be nearby. The audience witnesses the moment of realization come when the story he needs to tell dawns on him after he’s swung to and fro on the rope of the past day or so’s happenings. “And now I know what story to tell you…” he’ll say. It strikes a strange chord of delight with the audience. Smiles erupt and people look at each other with wide eyes wondering what the story will be and knowing they’re about to go into the marvellous too.
And then he blows it through the fucking roof. Every night, scriptless, I saw him crush it.
(Photo by Ace Hicks)
He says interesting things about North America: that in Celtic myth it’s the direction (West) you sailed in to either heal or die, that he’s always aware he’s in some kind of Otherworld here. He says we’ve maintained odd bits of tradition, language, craft and attitude that have often been lost at home. He doesn’t say this to curry favour but thoughtfully, simply to hear how the words sound in the room as he’s thinking them. There’s as much grief as there is joy in the evenings. Afterwards people stand around hugging each other, sometimes tearful, not quite knowing what happened. Most nights a standing ovation.
Every night, in front of us all, he swung from rope to rope, dancing in the air over a pit of spears. It was remarkable but here’s something even more remarkable: years of sitting with elders and reading books learning how to make rope, years hunched over in black tents and cottages outside of town making the rope of the dozens and dozens of stories he would tell as he learned both the matter of the story (the bones) but also crafting his own sense of them (his own style, interpretation and performance). And then there were the years of learning to climb those ropes. And then the years of learning how to swing from rope to rope while making it look easy.
On the second to last night it’s recorded for a live stream, and is afterwards available for download. Although it’s a fine experience in the morning he tells us that now it’s been frozen like that, all the previous meanderings are done. It finished something. He has to start over, keep pushing his form, go some other route. And sure enough that last night we are into tales of Celtic saints and the voyage of St Brendan, of which he has uttered not a word until that moment. It keeps turning on a dice like that. High stakes, big rewards.
A pint of Guinness in a glass in his hand within thirty seconds of the show. It’s the rhythm we quickly get into.
And then it’s out to the pub. He’s a different animal once the evenings imagining has run through him. Mischief is present. Much time is spent unpacking the gifts and letters he constantly receives. On Salt Spring, we stayed up late with two bottles of wine and a cigar on the back patio of a home, donated by a kind local who knew none of us, sucking the marrow our of life. After the first bottle of wine, I asked Martin, “Shall we open the second bottle?” “Of course we should! A bird can’t fly with just one wing!” I pull out my note book and go over what I heard Martin say. He’s been on travels alone at the front of the room and it’s important to remind him that he wasn’t alone - we saw it too. Travel can be a lonely proposition. Seeing him warmed up on the porch, we are privy to a kind of second set. Through a haze of cigar smoke, another leap. That’s something he says - when he’s on stage it’s a leap, when he’s teaching it’s a bridge.
When the tour ended, I looked over my notes and honed in on the questions around oral storytelling. I asked them to him and he responded. You can read them below.
(Photo by Sydney Woodward of Folklore Studios on Salt Spring Island)
During the tour, a few times, you made a distinction that a story is not primarily a map but an atmosphere. What is the difference between the two?
A map is primarily a message from eyes to mind, an atmosphere is something you enter: it requires all your senses. It doesn't reveal to you the quickest route to your destination, rather a complete encounter. Smell, vision, hearing, taste even - these are things that may be activated when a storyteller has plunged into the atmosphere a particular story offers. The pungency of a forest, the spray of the sea, the dankness of a cave. A story wishes you to tarry; how can you really get to know it if you are striding from bullet point to bullet point, night after night? You have to show fidelity to what you can see at that moment and report back. Sometimes a scene will stretch or contort, even one you've told a hundred times before, and you should pay attention to that, follow its lead. If you are treating the story only as a map that may frustrate you. I suppose it's like the old adage about the journey being as important as the destination. It's not that myths don't provide patterns and direction - they can - but the primary surrender is to the sensory tapestry the story provides in the first place. An experienced storyteller knows that to understand a tale, first they have to get lost in it. A map can feel transactional, and hurt the feelings of the story if it feels it's being treated so. You have to live where it lives.
You speak about the need to create an encounter with the story rather than making a commentary on it. In practical terms, what’s the difference between the two? How do you create such an encounter?
Much of what we see on social media isn't myth it's commentary on myth, and usually psychology in disguise, or myth being flogged for some groovy new positioning within the culture wars. It's used as exotic decoration, but the same modern mind is just an inch under the surface. I'd have to say: don't offer commentary on what a myth is until you've travelled a hundred miles in its kayak. Don't find out what you think from Youtube. Tell the story, in your mouth, over and over. Puzzle on it, dream on it, fast on it, feast on it. Take it for a stroll not a hike, don't manipulate it to make a hip little comment and get 'likes'. The story will soon shift from your side like an offended lover. It's to do with that big old word phenomenology, or what I call Beholding not just Seeing. Wait to see what it tells you, don't tell it 'what it is'.
That doesn't mean you don't study, don't do research. But all that book-knowledge is relegated to a secondary stream. The telling is a Temenos, the stage is a-place-set-apart. Those moments can be sacred. By ignoring the oral telling you are circumnavigating the holy heart of the experience and settling only for theories and opinions. Your mind is stimulated but the soul not so much. The storytelling is a kind of praying.
Without the story being actually told it's all talk and no prayer.
I will tell a story in front of an audience quickly after learning it because I’ve done it for so long, and I know the amount of information I’ll immediately receive. I wouldn’t recommend this for about ten years, it’ll likely get unglued in your hands. Tell it to small groups and keep the stakes delightfully low for some time.
You said, “Don’t recite the story. Imagine it in front of them. See it as happening before you.” How does that work?
This isn't for everyone. I do it because I'm curious about wild things and I don't want to domesticate my imagination by turning it into a recital. But - some master tellers do just that and it can be incandescent. But for me all the action happens in the live arena, not the green room or study. To actual imagine in public requires tremendous surety. This is where hundreds or thousands of hours in public come in. 80% of storytelling is just holding your composure together as a room full of strangers look intently at you and form distinct opinions. That's so unnerving that many want their words in a pile before they go through it. I understand that, and some can make it beautiful. But I didn't get into this for to be the most sublime and assured teller of words that always behave and do what I say and never stumble. I did it to try and find the wildest way I could of telling the truth. Truth differs from teller to teller, so you better figure out what yours is, no matter how subtle.
The truth is not facts. They come and go. They truth is a deeper, more anarchic weave of polyphonic eruptions. I'm not just reeling off lines learnt from a page - that's literacy not orality - but showing some faithfulness for the thing that's actually happening right there at that moment. What’s happening in the shared eruption of imagination in the room. It’s a many sensed, many voiced encounter and I don't want to comb its feathers through.
This is my work, as witness to the music of what happens.
I wrote down a quote of yours in my journal that struck me in particular and I’m hoping you might be able to help me understand what this is about for you: “Focus on images, not etymology. The soul is fed by images.”
It feels like everyone I know has fallen in love with etymology. It's great and you can look awfully smart awfully quickly if you lob the root system of a word about. I get it. It helps us understand something about how we've got were we've got. But be very sparing if you try and crowbar that into a story. You just look like you're showing off. Save it till a later chat and it may be useful. The moment you utilise it you're addressing the wrong part of the participants' character. You're not courting their soul anymore, you're likely showboating. You're cooking with the wrong ingredients. Always go for an image over a concept, an image over an explanation when actually dealing with the primary encounter of telling. Etymology always feels like an excavation to me, a bringing up into the light. But mythtelling is often a descent, a downwards move. Keep everything in the direction of darkness, torch light, horses in the rain. Gifted storytellers can make asides, even tell a story within a story, without it losing its heft and sense of direction. Again, it’s about trust of the teller.
A few times on the tour, you referenced ‘blue feathered language’. What is this and why does it matter?
We are in initiatory times but we lack initiated language. We have some very smart people out there but mostly they operate within the mode of words as persuasion or argument, and usually pick-a-side. Even folk that go on and on about myth are rarely using the antique technologies that truly honour it. Myths need coaxing. We are seemingly in magpie times - black or white, right or left. But magpies have these blue feathers if you pay close attention. Myths speak blue feather language - they can be co-opted for sure, but they are meant to offer some third, artful perspective when culture is butting heads.
To be a sovereign in ancient Ireland you had to bind your chariot to two wild horses. They would want to go in two different directions and you had to dictate through charisma, will and skill a third road that both horses obeyed. The third road is not some bland middle ground, but something sparky and charming enough to intrigue both horses. That's a blue feather move. You shouldn't be punting for leadership without it.
And a decent leader has to have what i call the Service Code embedded within them. That involves knowing there's something bigger than your own passions at play. Until you are defeated by a story you will get nowhere near it. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel, and as Rilke says, we need to be beaten, decisively, by constantly greater beings. Storytelling involves submission. It's a hierarchy of skills and wisdoms, not a level playing field. A great storyteller used to be honoured like a blacksmith was honoured, or a holy woman, it's both a skill and an art, it takes the scuffs of everyday reality and renders them magnificent again. It reminds us of the prayer mat we kneel on and the smoke hole we praise through. Right now, I can barely fathom anything more important.
So many folktales end in a marriage. When describing wedding scenes - are you trying to bring the feeling of the wedding into the room? To incarnate it?
Weddings usually come at the end of the story and are to do with a high tide of the heart. They are to do with healing, a coming together. After the intrigues and betrayals of the story, suddenly a wholeness arrives, all the ships set out in the same direction, old friends settle their differences and everyone is in love. This isn't corny, it's necessary, especially if its been a rather dark ride to get to this point. There's a contract for oral storytellers - well, I feel there is, and live by this - that the audience has to trust them. That no matter how deep and turbulent the tale gets, there will be some redemptive energy announced at the end. A green shoot will burst from the ashes, life in its way continues. The alchemical journey of a story, from lead to gold, involves a set of stages, and the wedding is one of them. They are to do with a spiritual reunion, even a glimpse of heaven.
You speak about the difference between ‘the sense and the matter’ in story telling. What do you mean by this?:
The matter is the bones of the tale, the sense is what the teller does with it. If you see a fantastic telling of a story and dream of telling it, then go back to the simplest rendition you can find. Build from there. Don't coast along on the hard-earned phrases the teller conjured. They likely worked a night shift in the deep forge of their own soul to get them. If you tell a story using all the observations you witnessed from the first teller that's not the oral tradition you are utilising, more intellectual or imaginative theft. The sense of the story is where the teller reveals their particular genius, and it’s the reason you may love their telling of the same tale more than someone else's. There are as many ways of telling as there are weather patterns or animals on the plains I always say. Find your own way. It'll be more than enough. Seeing Billy Connelly, Gioia Timpanelli, Robin Williamson helped me understand my essential energy when I was a young storyteller, and I will always admire them and lovingly quote them. We all have influences and should acknowledge them every chance we get, but you really need to burrow down into your own sense of things.
What is the relationship between innovation and tradition in storytelling?
Tradition is the matter. Innovation is the sense. Tradition is an old woman gripping a girls ankle who has found she can fly. The job of a grown up is not to let the girl go - she will be scorched by the sun - but not to bring her down to earth either, but to live in the useful tension of both. That's the incubation that makes masterful storytelling.
What is the relationship between dreams and stories?
Storytelling in the way I do it is rather like dreaming with my eyes open. All sorts of information usually restricted to when I'm asleep filters into my waking time. This is terribly useful. You and I have just been travelling up the west coast of Canada, when the tour ended and I returned to Dartmoor I found some dates had been added. Every night asleep i'm in some kind of casino, hospital, chapel or temple exploring the next evenings safari. This has now happened for one straight week - I'm not being especially poetic. Whether I'm asleep or awake at this point the myth telling is in full disclosure. It doesn’t seem to care. It's a little tiring, though intriguing.
I've been asked recently to offer more social commentary. This surprised me as I thought everything I did was social commentary, though in a blue feather kind of way. A way that brings in our honourable and sometimes dishonourable dead, sea lions and flakes of snow. That evokes a mode of behaviour, and dare I say it, morality.
My dreaming form is basically how I think deeper. I've come to the conclusion that its Otherworld Thinking. This is more useful I suspect than me wheezing on about things in a strung out, daylight speech that you can no doubt get much more effectively from others.
You say that storytelling is a ‘counter-cultural act’. What do you mean by that?
The writer holds a revered position, but the oral storyteller is still an outlaw.
It's a vagabond art, leaving little trace at the end of an evening save in the hearts of those that stood firm in the scrum. It's our most ancient thing. We did it in the Dordogne caves, we do it now. You will have heard me say at the end of an evening, that our people from five, ten, fifteen, twenty generations back peering in would understand what we were doing that night, without the use of a screen or even a microphone.
Oral storytelling is a redemptive act of resistance and delight in the face of despair and franchise. In its purest form, it is completely counter-cultural. It's a polyphonic mosh-pit that refutes any mono-meaning and flips outrageously and reverently between known and unknown worlds. It's how we quilt our life to the Otherworld, how we occasionally glimpse heaven.
I tell ancient stories because I know they are in the future too.
To Learn More About Martin Shaw:
Beginning in September, the 20th anniversary of Martin’s school: five weekend program Stalking the Rebel Soul, a few places left.
Martin’s Substack: The House of Beasts & Vines.