fyrtojetWhat, you might well ask, was a thirty-something academic doing inside the Fyrtøjet Cultural Centre for Children on Friday and Saturday night last week?

The answer is listening and watching. Almost by chance – which could be the beginning of a fairytale, if you think about it – we came upon the international Storytelling Festival for ‘grown-ups’ there. What a revelation it was.

Hearing the medieval Irish tale of Cú Chulainn, and old tales that imbue the Turkish landscape with meaning, was like being taken back to an age when the oral performance of stories was the most normal thing in the world – ‘my’ world, I might add, as a medievalist …

It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that vernacular literature in the Middle Ages was defined by orality. Yet it is one thing to know that as a fact – quite another to experience in the flesh what it might have meant in reality.

The sensation of hearing and recognizing formulaic phrases as they recur , I realized, is utterly different from noticing a bundle of letters and words reappear in a printed text and identifying it as a marker of genre. The same goes for a real, live storyteller narrating without a book to be seen – that elemental physicality is rarely palpable in the scholarly debates about concepts such as voice and performance.

So perhaps this is one way – and a better one, I suggest, than facile ideas of economic and social impact – in which we might build bridges with academic research, by coming closer to what it is all about in the first place. We’ll never know what it was really like, of course – but then, there is something fittingly medieval about recreating and reinventing earlier tales anyway. I see it time and again in the Swan Knight story and the various iterations it went through. But that, as they say, is another …