Nick Hennessey is a professional storyteller and musician, and winner of the 2000 World Championship in epic singing with his performance of the Kalevala (the Finnish national epic). I spoke to him about interpreting the Kalevala, the relationship between landscape and stories, and what makes storytelling so uniquely compelling as an art form.
What first drew you to storytelling?
I grew up in Alderley Edge, South Manchester, in the shadow of a hill about which there is a legend. And I grew up in the shadow of Alan Garner and his first book The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. In its opening pages, it had in it the legend of this hill, and so from a very young age I felt that landscape and stories were basically connected, and we only know a place by knowing its stories. That was the only traditional ‘story’ I ever knew – nobody told me stories as a child.
It wasn’t until I was in my twenties when I was doing a PhD in Cultural Geography that I came across the reality of stories and storytellers, the relationship of place and identity. I ran out of funding for my PhD and I realised I would either have to write 80,000 words or I could just give it all up and be a storyteller. I figured storyteller was more fun. It obviously struck a chord with me – there was a frustrated musician in me somewhere that I wasn’t aware of. I met a number of storytellers, Hugh Lupton and Ben Haggarty a little later on. At that stage they had pioneered a revival during the ‘80s and ‘90s. I didn’t know it, but I came in soon after that. I was one of the next generation for them, so they were very eager to nurture me and help me on.
Why do you think there was that revival? Is it a renewed interest in group identity?
I don’t think it’s fair to say that it’s group identity that they were interested in. It was more about realising that the source of literature was the spoken word. There was also the fact that Duncan Williamson, who was an old traveller who I think they found in Scotland who knew a phenomenal number of stories and never wrote them down. He married a young American academic who then started writing them down. He came into the scene – or maybe just turned up and we built a scene around him, I don’t know – and that was authentic. I think it’s authenticity that is key to the revival, rather than a constructed notion of the storyteller, of which there are many.
Since then the novelty has worn off and we’ve had to re-establish it. There are so many storytellers now – I think there must be hundreds in this country when before there were probably fewer than ten professional storytellers. So I think that the revival was just one of those things that happened almost randomly at a point in time. The likes of the Company of Storytellers worked tirelessly to establish and continue this work, and to find other storytellers and nurture the newbies along.
Would you say it’s what specific about a place and its landscape that makes fairy tales interesting, rather than the fact that you can find archetypes in tales across the globe?
The oral tradition thrives on variation, not on similarity. It’s the differences between the stories that are so interesting. Archetypes tend to boil it all down to the essentials. I think that while this goes some way to help us understand, psychologically, the impact of stories on the psyche, I don’t think that represents the oral tradition. Constant reinvention, developing new strands and stories from old ones, is really what the oral tradition is about.
Every story told is told by someone, in a place. It’s context-driven and context-dependent. I could tell you an anecdote in a colloquial situation, but if I was telling the same story in a performance, I would formalise it. So the story starts to change the moment you change the context. A folk tale comes from a storyteller from a place, in a landscape. Both teller and listener will always be drawing on a familiar and intimate imagined landscape, because we can only draw from that which is grounded in experience. And that landscape is going to be important to you in some way, and the story has to be rooted in something. In the way that the story is connected to the breath, the breath comes from the body, and the body is in the landscape. Those things can never be separated. So landscape is always part of the story.
You tell stories from the Kalevala – the Finnish epic – in an English setting. How do you bring Finland into your tellings?
That’s been an interesting journey. Before I started telling Kalevala, I never wanted to tell stories from another culture, only my own. This is partly because telling stories is kind of a form of cultural appropriation, and you have to be careful what you do with them and treat them with respect. I once met a Native American who said that he was fed up with white people who were now telling their stories – the one thing they had to keep for themselves! So when I started I was always aware of this. I swore that I would never touch stories from any other culture, and then someone lent me a copy of Kalevala. Because I’m a singer, and it’s a singing tradition rather than a storytelling tradition, I started to get interested in it. Then I thought I could tell them so I could learn something about epics, just so I could apply it to my own culture. I’m still doing that fifteen years later.
Initially I went over to Finland in 2000 to find out more and to travel round. At the end of 2000 I entered the epic singing competition, performing partly in Finnish and partly in English, and I won it which was very surprising. Because I won there was a sense that they were giving me the credentials to carry on. Nobody else is doing it, and I do find it utterly fascinating on many levels, not least of all the material; the content and form of the stories, the singing tradition, the historic role the Kalevala played in Finnish identity. It pulls in all the threads of interest for me, so that’s how it started.
If you don’t speak Finnish, do you use someone else’s translation?
I don’t translate it myself. Even for native Finns, it’s not an easy thing to read because it’s in Karelian dialect, which is an old form of Finnish. Interestingly when it was first published in 1835, most people had to wait until the Swedish version came along before they could read it! I look at the material and don’t get caught on the text – I look for the meaning and the events. In parallel I’m researching and developing my own style which is based on the old singing tradition, so I’m improvising within those parameters.
Kalevala doesn’t exist without the metre, and the metre doesn’t work in any other language. It doesn’t work in English, but I don’t think you can do the story justice if it’s not somehow rooted in the metre. When I first started exploring telling it, I put some in so people could hear it. Now I improvise almost entirely in the metre – I could do it from start to finish but it’s a little too much to listen to the same rhythm for nearly two hours. To explore the freedom of performance I try to move in and out of it as creatively as I can. But the rhythm is integral.
The other interesting thing about the form in Kalevala is that every line can only be the length of a breath. Every line is a complete image, which means that the material is very dense – image after image. We don’t have that style over here. Maybe we once had a bardic storytelling tradition that was related to a form – the likes of Beowulf suggest that we did – but it’s gone now. We only have fragments and hints. But one of the things that I loved about Kalevala is that Lönnrot collected it from the source, so when you read Kalevala you’re only one step from the source. Over here, you’re very many steps from the source with no way of finding out what that original source might have been.
Where you mentioned a people being affected by their landscape – do you think that this also impacts upon the way the characters in the Kalevala interact with higher powers or forces?
There’s a lack of moral hierarchy in the Kalevala which is one of the interesting things that drew me to it. Up until then I’d only understood mythology in terms of a hierarchy, particularly Norse mythology. Even in Irish myth, the waves of invasion suggested a hierarchy. I’d never encountered anything, except Australian Aboriginal dream songs, which happened on one plane and were about forces without hierarchy. It’s not that the mythology is their religion, but that sense of elemental forces being innate is crucial. Over here we have ‘a specific forest’ – in Finnish and in Swedish it’s ‘the forest’. If it’s just ‘the forest’, then it makes sense that the next step is to have a spirit associated with that, giving it a very elemental force.
The story of Kullervo, for example, goes from tragedy to tragedy. But there doesn’t seem to be any higher power dictating that it does so.
I started telling that story because I think it’s the hardest to tell. With most other stories I know, things start off ok, get worse, then get better. With Kullervo things start ok, get progressively worse, everyone dies and then he kills himself. It’s the ultimate anti-hero story. I like the contrast between Kullervo and Väinämöinen, who is the great golden hero and when he plays the sun stops to listen. When Kullervo plays, nobody listens or takes any notice of him.
Whenever I tell that story in Finland, it’s their favourite story. In the scene where he makes love to a woman then finds out it’s his sister, when I first started telling that in England the room prickled with terror. In Finland they just tut and say ‘Unlucky!’ There’s a deep empathy with Kullervo, something in their sentiment and emotion that makes sense to them – maybe it’s a sense of struggle. I don’t know why it is. But you’re right, there’s nobody controlling Kullervo, he’s just following a line of impulses.
Can performing stories out of their national context reveal something more universal about the audience that they are being performed to?
Partly what I love about telling Kalevala over here is that it’s such strange material. Taking it out of context and performing it here, I’m aware that behind me is a thread that leads all the way back to the Karelian forests, when I first heard the stories being sung. I’m trying to bring that sense of Finnish life and forests to an English audience. And, conversely, when I perform in Finland I get the feeling that I’m bringing something new. I’m performing it in English so they’re seeing it with different eyes. I think of the role of a storyteller as being a bridge between cultures, between the audience and the story, and in my case between Finland and England. It’s a very interesting role and you have to keep moving between different modes to make connections and resonances across. I’m aware that in doing so, as with all translation, you’re bound to lose as well as gain something. When I tell it I do bring my non-Karelian eyes to it, and no doubt as a performer I bring some sentiment to it that may well not be present in the original content. That’s the negotiation of being a storyteller.
What’s your favourite tale to perform?
In Kalevala there is a story called Antero Vipunen. Väinämöinen makes himself a boat, but there are three spells that he doesn’t have. He tries to find them and he can’t find them anywhere. He meets a herdsman who tells him to go and wake the ancient singer, the oldest singer, Antero Vipunen who knows everything. He travels: the first day he walks on swords, the second day he walks on mens’ axes, and on the third he walks on womens’ needle points. (This already suggests a shamanic journey.) He reaches the hillside and he sees the sleeping singer, who has become part of the mountain. There are trees growing from his forehead and his beard is tangled into them. Väinämöinen fells the trees, prises open his jaw and falls in to his belly. Antero Vipunen wakes up and says ‘Get out of my belly!’ Väinämöinen refuses, and makes himself a small forge. He swings his hammer, the smoke fills up and Antero Vipunen belches out the fumes. Väinämöinen says ‘I will not leave until you sings me all the songs that you know, all of your knowledge. Because if you die and you don’t sing them, then all the knowledge and magic will be lost. So sing them, and I will carry them with me through the world.’ So Vipunen sings, day after day, night after night songs pour out of him. The ground shakes, the sky resonates, and still he sings. Väinämöinen hears all of the songs and then he is spat out, and goes back along the road. He meets the herdsman again and tells him that he found what he was looking for, and a lot more besides.
The story that I first mentioned, The Sleeping King from Alderley Edge, is basically the same story. A farmer goes to sell a horse, and meets a man at the side of the road who offers to buy it. The farmer refuses but the man says he will be waiting if he cannot sell the horse at the market. The farmer cannot sell the horse, and when he returns he offers the man the horse for fifteen pieces of silver. The man agrees and leads him to a hill which splits open when he touches it, revealing a passageway that leads deep into the mountain. They go down, past iron gates, into a cavern full of sleeping warriors. The man says, ‘They are waiting, dreaming with the earth. One day, the call will come and they will return to the land. I’ve been searching for a horse to carry them, and that horse is yours so I will pay you.’ He gives him treasure, and the farmer goes to leave. Before he does, the man says ‘What you see is a mystery but it is not a secret. You must tell everyone about what you see and noone will believe you, but you will tell them anyway.’ The farmer leaves, the hill closes, and he goes off carrying the story.
To me, that’s the same as the Vipunen story. Someone who has a lack is introduced to something ancient, little more than a memory, and they journey into the earth to receive knowledge and to carry it with them. In a way, that’s what storytelling is about – listening for ghosts and things that people can’t quite remember, and carrying and sharing them. To me, this says something about what we need to pay attention to. We get so caught on the things that are right in front of our eyes that we forget to listen, to be aware what’s in the shadows and the silence. Väinämöinen, when he left, left with nothing in his hands. The farmer had a little gold, but not much. They have nothing really to show for it. And yet that’s somehow more real because it’s true to life.
The idea of singing things into existence – does this take on a new relevance within a singing tradition?
It does. I think that the idea of song as creation is close to the Aboriginals too, in their sense that speaking is original song. When we name something, we are singing its essence. We are identifying it – to separate the mug from the table we have ‘mug’ and ‘table’. Words have some qualities in themselves and I think the Kalevala and its tradition acknowledges that. It might be vanity on the part of the singers, to think that their power is the greatest power on earth. Of course all the arts and crafts thought that about their own work, I’m sure that blacksmiths used to have stories about blacksmiths forging the world. But I do think that there is something very powerful about speaking, and the resonance that creates it. It’s profoundly magical, and at the same time very ordinary and it happens all the time, we take it for granted.
Which stories are you telling for Beyond the Borders festival?
I’m doing a piece about the First World War with Hugh Lupton called ‘Barbed Wire for Kisses’. This is a new piece set in a fictional Lincolnshire village, and the entire thing’s told in the present tense which is very challenging. I’m also doing a piece called ‘The Whispering Road’, which is a Swedish folktale. The Kalevala performance I’m doing, as a result of the funding we’ve got, is with three musicians. Because they’re so steeped in the tradition of working with this epic singing style, what we’re trying to do is get to the point where we’re all improvising off each other in live performance. We take any number of different stories to work with at any one time. They have a repertoire individually and together, as do I, so when we come together on stage who knows which bit of which story we’ll do? The great thing about Kalevala is that when it was published it was in continuous narrative, but in the earlier tradition it’s more fragmentary. The idea is to return to that fragmentary style. Lönnrot got the idea of one continuous epic from watching singers who put together small songs to make bigger ones. We want to try that – how many different versions of Kalevala can we make in performance?
Do you try and incorporate visual elements into your performance beyond gesture?
Nothing that would be separate from my body. Musical instruments are the only external thing I have. My work over the last fifteen years I’ve been a storyteller has taken me more into the body than I ever expected. I assumed that the story was separate, the most important thing, and that the body was just something that hangs around under the jaw and doesn’t really do much and doesn’t matter. I found that’s not true – the voice is not separate, the body has to work. When we interact as human beings, in any space, we are responding to physical cues, we are in a physical conversation that underscores what we are talking about. So I’ve explored quite a lot of physical theatre, some mime work, looking at different traditions that explore what the present physical body can do. Obviously there’s gesture – it’s quite hard to speak without moving your hands – but there’s also posture, different stances to emphasise different things. I try not to look at these things too much, but build as much of a physical awareness as possible and then in the moment of performance just let it happen. I’m aware that the body does emphasise, underline, and comment on the story at different times. But the important thing is that the image stays alive in the inner eye of the audience. Anything else that gets in the way of that has to be forgotten.
Where do you draw the distinction between storytelling and theatre – is there a distinction?
I think most people say that they’re very separate because storytelling’s not a script, acting’s rooted in putting on a mask whereas storytelling is rooted in taking masks off. I would say that’s all true and generally speaking I would stand for that belief. But everything I’ve just said suggests that it’s not true, and that there’s a huge amount of common ground between the two. The only thing is that in storytelling there aren’t schools of practice – yet – so we don’t have formalised techniques. That makes it slightly different. But if you looked at the performances of the Ramayana in rural India, which are all traditional storytelling, you would argue that it is pure theatre. On the other hand, if you went to remote parts of Norway and sat in a cowshed with someone who knew a story about Odin, you wouldn’t say it was theatre. They clearly both have dramatic consequence, and a form that they are engaging with. I’m trying not to be afraid of learning from theatrical disciplines in order to enhance my performance.
Do you think that storytelling would lose or gain from having formalised schools?
I think it’s already beginning to form schools. There are already factions and cliques within the storytelling world which are based on our perceptions of what we think our work is all about. Those different groups disagree. So schools have already started to develop, and I suppose that’s inevitable with something that’s growing. I don’t mind what it does, so long as it keeps its eyes open, keeps challenging itself. One of the things about the Finnish music tradition is that they are not afraid to innovate – they learn their forms and then they innovate, so their forms are still present. Over here we’re a bit more fearful with that, we think that if you innovate you lose the original. But if you’re grounded in the tradition you’ll be fine, it will take care of itself. With storytelling we don’t need to hang on to anything, we just need to keep challenging and keep practicing. So long as at the end of the day we can stand up as performers and tell a story to people in a context, in a living situation, and we tell it with vigour and passion, nothing else will matter. Everything else will fall away. All that matters is that the image stays alive for the moment of the telling. The connection is the most important thing, that’s what people really come for. They come for being alive together, in a room, with something that’s unfolding. What could be more magical than that?
For more information about Nick and his upcoming performances, please visit his website. For other UK storytelling events, more information is available from the Society for Storytelling and the Crick Crack Club.