Why another retelling of Gilgamesh?

Originally posted August 21, 2017

The Gilgamesh Project began for me last year. I have been wanting to tell one of the great Epics for many years, but wasn't ready. I had been working on Beowulf, but it wasn't speaking to me. Ironic, as it is one of my favourite stories. I have over seven different translations, retellings!

My son had been studying mythology at high school. It bothered me that so much was omitted in some of the stories. Characters were missing. What I thought were essential plot schemes were absent, and to me, it seemed wrong. I understand these books cannot contain the full stories. One book with all these myths and legends would be too big to lift, but still. When my daughter began to study Ancient Civilization I decided to learn Gilgamesh, to tell at her school. I saw one version they were learning from and saw huge parts missing again. I read other parts added - not in any version I have seen and read! I wanted to create a telling of the story which stayed faithful to the original. I dove in and found a story I connected with and fell in love with.

Learning a story like this means, for me, immersing myself in it. I re-read the two books I had, one a translation by John Gardner and John Maier, the other being N. K. Sandars. Sandars does not work from the original cuneiform, but from German, French and English translations he had available. I then found Stephen Mitchell's wonderful poetic retelling, which captured a magical part of the story I had not felt, up to that point. I then invested in Andrew George's 1999 translation. Since these books have been produced, another tablet was discovered in 2015. I read about that, and what it contained. I then set to work.

Several months later I had a working story which stayed close to the translations I was working from. I did not use the children's retellings, but stuck with the full versions. I wanted to present the story authentically to middle school aged people and their teachers. I felt I had to make a few small changes. The last thing I wanted to do was have agitated parents calling me up, or schools getting upset. The part where Ishtar's priestess Shamhat "couples with Enkidu" for seven days straight became 'the priestess and Enkidu stayed together and danced for seven days.' In other versions written for young people, this is missed out all together. I feel that Shamhat tames Enkidu, so that Enkidu can tame Gilgamesh. We need to know this event happens. These are the sort of changes I have made. I used semantics to disguise what was happening in places. The story retains its gore, but this is not any worse than the six o'clock news or what is seen on people's devices and apps like SnapChat.

I was able to present my retelling of Gilgamesh to the entire 6th grade at my local middle school. About 175 students and all their teachers (Mathematics, English, Science etc. as well as Social Studies) attended. It was well received. In fact some of the boys wanted more gore! Of course.

Over the summer I worked on the book form with the idea of making it available for teachers, using my telling, and the books I have, as resources. This telling is, I hope, engaging to the younger reader and accessible to the youth of today. It is not inappropriate and remains authentic to the original cuneiform tale. At the back of the book there is a bibliography, a character list, a vocabulary word list/lexicon, and some activities for readers, which Social Studies and English teachers might enjoy using.

There will also be an audio available of the book. This is script read, and not a live storytelling, which I normally do, from the book. I am hoping all this will be out, released and in the big, wide world by the end of September 2017 at the latest.

Watch this space!


21st August, 2017

I think Shamash will go into hiding today for a brief time!

Artwork by Aidan Brooks

Stories Are Alive

Originally posted August 20, 2017

Last night I was telling stories at Camp Exclamation Point (CAMP!) where I go every year to share stories. The kids here face more challenges in their lives than most. For the last five years, I think it is, Odds Bodkin has joined me, and this year we had a special visit from Karen Pillsworth. Karen was standing in for Angela Klingler, who has been coming on and off for as long as I have been going (13 years).

For a change I told stories to the youngest Pods, and Odds told tales to the oldest group. I have been telling to the older kids since the beginning of offering storytelling to CAMP!. Because the younger kids only get about 30 minutes, I was able to hoof it up the hill (in a golf cart), join Odds to catch his last story and share two tales myself.

I told a story I had been working on, one I wanted to share with the CAMP! folks for the first time - The Golden Ball. They wanted another tale from me, and one young man asked me to tell the Scottish story known as The Lonely Boatman, or The Fairy Bride, depending on your source! It could be a couple of years since I have told the story. When the young man asked me, my first reaction was - no! It's been too long, I have not practiced it, I'll botch it up. But the story and characters floated to my mind and wanted to be told.

The story of The Fairy Bride, is not a silly story, it is not a story which makes us look at ourselves and laugh. It is a love story about the fey, the fair people - fairy folk. It's about losing something precious. And getting it back. It's on my third CD ('A Tangle of Tales') and is a beautiful tale. It was one of my Gran's favourite stories.

Stories, I truly believe, live within us. I have likened them before to children - sometimes errant children, who hide away when you have practiced and planned on telling them, or they can jump up and down and demand to be told.  The Fairy Bride is a gentle story, sad in places, thoughtful in others, and when I was asked to tell it, the tale stepped quietly to the front, ready to be told. It was alive, and it breathed as I spoke the words. The telling was different, easy, relaxed - I caught the elusive dragon. When the story ended there was that pause you sometimes get as folks take it all in, then a sigh, then applause. This was a large group of young people from 12 years up, not a group I would have pegged this story on, especially when they wanted ghost stories. This was not a ghost story in any manner or form. And they loved it.

Another story I tell on the same CD is called The Story Untold, Song Unsung. I end it, where and whenever you hear it, with words I came up with for this story: "If you know a song - sing it. For they wrap us up and keep us warm when we need to be held. If you know a story, tell it. For stories are like boots and like to travel." And I'll end this blog the same way.

If you know a story - tell it. Stories are like boots and love to travel.


17th August, 2017

Favourite Epic (for now!)

Originally posted July 6, 2017

I am not sure if I can say I have ONE favourite epic anymore. I have read too many and enjoy them all. The one I have the most connection with is Beowulf, probably because I have known it the longest. And have read many different translations.

I have five versions of it, and there are a couple of other re-telling in some childhood books of myths and legends I own and love. I have two young person translations/re-tellings, one by Michael Morpurgo which pulls you in like no other revisit I have read, and the other by James Rumford who only uses Saxon words. This renders the language very blunt and edgy, but I love it. This is quite the opposite of Morpurgo's poetic style of writing and are great to compare. The other versions I have are David Wright's prose translation, Burton Raffel's translation, Michael Alexander and of course Seamus Heaney's definitive (for me) bilingual verse translation. In collections, I have Kevin Crossley-Holland's superb translation, James Riordan and Brenda Ralph Lewis' young readers version of the tale, and I recentlyfound an 'updated verse translation' by Frederick Rebsamen, which I have yet to read. And I have, of course, seen the movie directed by Robert Zimeckis, with screenplay written (along with others) by Neil Gaiman. This is a 'based on' movie and has some very interesting ideas and concepts in it, but is not the 'proper' version of Beowulf! The movie is good entertainment.

Odds Bodkin has released a live recording of Beowulf. It is a recent acquisition for me. Like all of his work, it is deep, funny, and brilliantly told. Odds' version is entertaining and pulls you in so you cannot back away from it and sticks very closely to the story. There are parts where he uses the exact wording and phrases from the translations which pop out for me. The humour he injects into the story is artful, and respectful to the original. I have listened to it several times. In fact I am at the point where I cannot start it unless I have the time to finish it all. I cannot stop listening to the words and music which flow so wonderfully throughout the hour and twenty minutes or so it lasts.

If we lived in those days of Grendel, swords, and mead halls, and spoke current English, this telling by Odds would be the quintessential telling. I am not usually a fan of live recordings, but this is one of those performances that truly benefits an audience. The musical accompaniment on guitar, never drowning Odds out, pulls you along, fills your ears and body leaving you totally immersed in the man's words and fully within the story.

But another story I have immersed myself in this year is Gilgamesh. It's been 'bugging' me for a while. By that I mean that I read a translation years ago and listened to a classic reading by Sebastian Lockwood and never thought I would tell it - because other people tell the story and fellow Brit Sebastian does such a stellar job.

A couple of years ago, my son began studying the epic, so I revisited it. The copy of the epic he was studying was lacking a great deal of the story. Then this year my daughter began studying it in 6th grade social studies. The version they were using was a young person's retelling, but was so off from what I read I decided to research it more. I immersed myself in the epic, reading what there was on-line, re-reading the two versions I had by Gardner & Maier, and N.K Sandars, and buying and studying two more versions - a very thorough translation of both Sumerian and and Akkadian cuneiform by Andrew George, and Stephen Mitchell's poetic version of the epic. Mitchell did not translate, but used a number of translations available to him.

As I read more and more Gilgamesh and researched the gods and goddess in the story, the closer, or more attached, if you will, I became to it. Essentially, Gilgamesh is an entitled bully. He creates amazing gardens, and presumably sponsors the arts, yet at the same time, he terrorized the citizens he was supposed to protect, the people of Uruk. They call for help from the gods, who in turn send down Enkidu to be his opposite. Enkidu is created by the gods and sent to calm Gilgamesh's restless heart and nature. The epic becomes an incredible tale of redemption when Gilgamesh loses Enkidu, his soul brother. The king of Uruk goes in search of immortality and instead returns to Uruk humbled, for the first time in his life.

I have written my own retelling, suitable for middle school aged people. To try and make a story containing pretty intense, if not explicit, sex scenes, battle scenes, into a story readable for young people was quite a challenge. It is not finished quite yet, but when it is, the story will also include social studies materials, a lexicon, character sheet, sources, and maybe a game. These tools will be able to be used by educators and parents. Once the story piece is finalized, I will be recording it, making it available via download only. I am hoping that will be done by the end of July. I am close! The book will contain illustrations by S. Aidan Brooks which I am thrilled about.

Professional Development

Originally posted May 5, 2017

We have a couple of electricians working on our stove, putting new wiring in, banging and crashing.
I am exhausted.

A few weeks ago I was working all weekend at a conference with the delightful Doug Lipman on sound for the Sharing the Fire storytelling conference of Northeastern Storytelling.
I have set up bands before, in my youth. I have set up sound in rooms for small presentations and story performances, but never done sound for a conference.
First of all, I have to say I was approached to do this as a volunteer, as was Doug. We were pooling equipment to create a soundscape for the presenters and audiences to ensure a great conference. I think we did that. It was a lot of fun.  I present a workshop called 'Be Loud, Be Loud, But Not Too Loud', so I had better know what I do!

Then last weekend I went to the Northlands Confabulation. I am just recovering!

So often in the arts, people ask one to work for free. It rarely, if ever, is asked of a contractor, or lawyer, but artists get asked all the time to work gratis. I think some of it is that people assume you never went to college. Or that you don't have bills! But all professional artists have bills and on-going expenses. When my computer breaks down, I don't hand it over to my IT person - I don't have one! Well, it's me and I can only do a certain amount. When I need a new publicity campaign, I don't wander the hall to the PR department. Wait! That's me again and I pay for the paper, ink and mailing costs for all that stuff. And training and on-going professional development has to be organized and booked by me.

I just spent this past weekend (29th and 30th of April, 2017) at Lake Geneva in Wisconsin. I was presenting a workshop on microphones, PA systems and how to use and set them up to get the best sound for someone that presents stories. There are a few technophobes in my profession, although I love tech stuff, especially sound. Although I got a stipend to be at the conference and deliver my workshop (Be Loud, Be Loud, But Not Too Loud), I had to get myself there, pay for the hotel, and registration fee. The advantage is that the stipend off-set some of the costs of driving the 2,096 miles there and back and I got to attend other workshops.

After watching some storytellers perform on Friday night I made my mind up whose workshops I wanted to attend, where I wasn't sure before. I went to Ingird Nixon''s workshop on 'Story Evolution By Way of Creative Selection.' The title alone had intrigued me but when I saw her perform, I knew I would learn from her.

Some of the things we did, were reminders of what I used to do and worked well. We get into habits, get out of others, so reminders are very important, and prevent our work getting stale. She introduced me to some techniques I had not tried which sparked some great ideas for stories I am working on right now. It was very well timed.

Another presenter I had to see was Susan O'Halloran, presenting 'Storytelling and the Culturally Relevant Classroom.' I recently saw Susan presenting at Sharing the Fire, the North Eastern Storytelling Conference where I was doing sound with Doug Lipman. There is a lot of misunderstanding about culture and how it effects what we do. My wife told about a training her workplace had on culture in the workplace. This was my own version! Susan does a fabulous job.

On Sunday I went to Antonio Rocha's workshop - 'A Conversation with Antonio.' It is always interesting to see how other storytellers work, and find out what makes them tick. Antonio is a remarkable storyteller who uses mime in his work. I do too, but not to the extent that Antonio does. He is a trained mime, and to watch him tell stories is like watching a human being being poured into different the invisible containers of his characters. What he does is pure magic and to learn from him is a gift.

When you think about asking an artist to work for free, please see the value in what they do as their art, and realize they are also their own IT department, PR company, booking agent, trainer, and office manager and pay them for what they do, just as you would an electrician, real estate agent, or doctor. After all, you don't see too many artists with multiple homes, a few cars and a boat, wearing Prada, or Rolex watches.


Originally published August 31, 2016

Boo! Halloween is one of my personal favourite times of year. I love the spooky tales, horrible horror stories, ghoulish tales, ghost stories, yarns about witches, black cats and dogs with red eyes. Stories that make us shiver, cringe, hide behind the couch, are not just kids' fare. Often these stories were written and/or told for adults. There are a good number of great stories for kids, but there is a bigger number of tales for older kids and adults.

These tales come from all over the world. After a recent listserv request for stories of this kind, I put together a list of tales I tell. Below is this list. Some can be told to younger ears, and some need to be shared with mature minds! The stories are listed starting with the less fearsome tales at the beginning of each section, with the chillier tales coming last. There is some overlap with the end of the 'Tales With a Little More Terror' and the beginning of the 'Terrifying Tales' sections.

Spooky Tales for Younger People
The Man Who Was Afraid of Nothing - Japan
Zara's Magic Kettle - Russian
The Big Toe (although in the last couple of years I have stopped telling this tale as it is told frequently at camps in the summer and has lost it's JUMP impact!
Black Bubble Bubble Gum, a story first told by Francis Caffrey although close to John Steinbeck's short The Affair at 7, Rue de M-
Kolbold on Board - A Scandinavian pirate ghost tale
Bony Fingers and Wet Lips - Europe/America
The Gunniwolf - An English variant of Little Red Riding Hood
Little Red Riding Hood - Germany/France
From Aloft - English/American
Baba Yaga - Russian
Baba Yaga's Black Geese - Russian
The Miser and the Apple Sauce -  A tale originally told by the wonderful Papa Joe
The Unwelcome Guest or The Tailor in the Graveyard - England - One takes place in a house, the other in a - you guessed it - graveyard!
The Viper - England/America - told as a true, personal tale, making it just a little more scary!
The Hedley Kow - England
Wicked John and the Devil - Wales and Ireland, America - this is a tale told by many people

Tales With a Little More Terror (can be told to slightly older kids, or much older kids when ramped up!)
The Benders - a true story from the American Mid-West 1873
Cell 17 - a true story of the Carbon County Jail, Mauch-Jim Thorpe, PA
The Unstoppable Coffin - a joke story, told as a true, personal tale
The Other Mother - England
The Hunchback - A story from 1,001 Nights where a hunch is killed by choking, being pushed down stairs, and a couple of beatings
The Piper's Revenge - a tale of horror from Scotland
The Severed Head - Africa
Taily-po - American
Vasilisa the Beautiful, the story of Vasilisa and her doll - Russia
Wiley and the Hairyman - American
Hand of Glory - England
Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves - Middle East. One of my favourites where Ali's brother is cut into four pieces and stitched back together for a descent funeral, and the thieves are killed with boiling oil, and their leader stabbed by Ali's maid servant

Terrifying Tales for Teens and Grown-Ups
WW Jacobs' The Monkey's Paw (retelling)
RL Stevenson's The Body Snatcher (retelling)
Edgar Alan Poe's The Black Cat (retelling)
Mr. Fox - England
Mary Cullhaine - Ireland
Weyland Smith - England/Scandinavia - a man from the ancient Norse tales who kills a king's two sons and has sex with the king's daughter in revenge for maiming him and imprisoning him on an island. He flies off to find, once more, his wife - a Valkyrie
The Rosewood Casket - America
Golden Hair - an original telling of two folk tales from Eastern Europe which I have blended together. A dead count steals a woman and her true love comes to rescue her, of course!

Great Stories for Dark Evenings by the Fire
These are tales which can be fit into the last of the two categories but are more for older kids and adults than young kids.
Margret of the Three Gifts - Scotland
Tam Lin - Scotland
The Roma Cheating Death - a Russian Gypsy tale
Hansel and Gretel - Germany

I hope you enjoy finding these tales and telling them yourself. And of course, if you want me to tell any of these tales to you, let me know! I do all sorts of programs including a split event where there are two sets - the first set shorter (30 minutes) and for younger kids and the second set longer (45 minutes) for older kids and adults. For more information about my Fright Night Program, shoot me an email:
Simon at Diamondscree Dot com

Moving House

Originally posted May 16, 2016

For the last ten or so years I have been blogging on blogspot, for the reason that it was easy, and available to me at the time. I have enjoyed using blogspot, but it is time to bring my work under one roof. This is one of the last few boxes for me to move to my new house and unpack!

So here is the first blog on this now, almost new, site (house)!

The Old Tales by Simon Brooks © June 2016

 There are many things that the old folk and faerie tales, or as I like to think of them, the ancient stories can teach us, even help us with today. Mostly inspiration. You can take a story at face value if you only want entertainment. By looking deeply at the stories we can learn a lot, and even see ourselves staring back at us.

 I also believe that with today’s mobility with people moving not just about the country, but around the world, folks lack grounding. I believe the ancient stories allow us to regain some grounding and in can help us recapture our heritage. Many of the old tales tell us about the ‘cruel world’ that is out there and how the heroes and heroines (mostly vagabonds and waifs) of these stories figure it all out. By doing this the stories give us hope.

 Not much has changed with us humans, really, if you think about it. There is still greed, hate, corruption and war, and it’s usually over what others have that we want (the big bully in the playground after the good candy). And we all know there are no magical spells in the real world. But there is hope that we will find solutions if we look hard enough and find the right people to help us.

 The really old stories, such as Gilgamesh and Beowulf, teach us about the old cultures, and the hero code of conduct. Many of the ancient heroes talk about their kin, their relatives. These characters are often introduced as ‘son of’ such and such, ‘cousin to’ so and so, and ‘warrior under’ this lord or that. These heroes are deeply rooted in their own genealogy, they know who they come from, where they come from, and are fiercely proud of it. And when it comes to walking the talk, they definitely do that. Some might see this as bragging, but there is more to it than that. It is about pride of the family name and honour to themselves and their lineage. When a hero says he will slay the dragon he will slay the dragon or die trying. We could all learn from this. He doesn’t pretend to slay the beast by hiding it somewhere and giving it a pay-off. He slays the beast.

 When warriors had done well for their lord or chieftain, these men and women in these tales received great honour and recompense. The kings and rulers would offer much in the ancient tales, to the men that made their kingdom what it is. In some cultures the leaders give away almost all to the rest of their people knowing that they will get it back in the future if they were a good leader. I think this is something we could learn from! Of course we know these are stories, and in real life the riches came from plundering and invading other nations. And still do. But if we look at these stories and how some parts (by all means not all!) could teach us a thing or two. And no, I don’t mean we go beating our chests, buy guns and claim we will kill the beast, but we need to look at the problems we have and when something needs to change, change it. If something needs fixing, fix it. Don’t just patch it up and make do, but fix something. There is much that is broken in our society. The old tales don’t just help us see the issue, but encourage us to confront it, and do something to make things better for all.

 Some of these tales are mirrors to our own inner selves and can help us see what we are really trying to achieve. This applies to adults as well as children.  Two legends that show remarkable ethics are the story of King Wenceslas, and the Arthurian story of Sir Cleges and his miraculous winter cherries. Cleges routes out corruption and greed and is rewarded for this. His Lord, King Uther Pendragon (Arthur’s father), looks after Cleges and his family (who had become penniless). Wenceslas of Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) was one of the most revered Kings (actually Duke) of his time, a fair and just man who dispensed justice with an even hand, despite his somewhat dysfunctional family (his mother killed her own mother-in-law when her husband died, and Wenceslas was eventually murdered by his brother). Wenceslas was made Saint because of his good treatment of his citizens.

 With the story giving us a distance to an issue, we might be able to handle a problem out which might be too difficult, otherwise. Take Little Red Riding Hood, for example. I know of a young girl, about 6 or 7 at the time, who asked for the story to be read to her. She wanted the tale told to her at least once a night for about a month. We discovered the young girl had found out a friend of hers had seen a registered sex-offender who lived near-by, staring at the house from the bottom of the drive. In listening to the story, we later figured out, it enabled the young girl to process what had happened to her friend, safely. There are stories about relationships going bad, and trying to rectify the mistakes made. There are stories which ‘teach us’ or remind us of what is really important.

 Yes, there are stories like Hansel and Gretel where the mother (in the original) tells the father to leave the children out in the forest because there was not enough food. She knew they would all starve if they fed the children. Back in the past, this was a real issue, and the young and elderly were put out to die. This does not happen in our culture now, but these stories remain relevant when families suffer through divorce.  The children might be ‘abandoned’ in other ways and these stories can reach out to them and offer some sort of hope. Yes, the stories are dark, but they teach us that the world can be harsh, and that there can be a way out of the forest, even if it is not immediately apparent.

 The stories talk about compassion, sharing, fighting on the side of right, to overcome the big, bad wolf, dragon, or evil giant, to use our minds and not just brawn.

 There are many things that the ancient stories can teach us, even help us with today. And let’s face it, if they weren’t good, they wouldn’t still be around today. These ancient tales are really good stories, if you look a little deeper. Go on. Go ahead. Lean over and peer in more closely.