Cultural Crossroads: Martin Maudsley – ‘Stories seed more stories’About Martin Maudsley

Martin Maudsley is a professional storyteller based in South-West England. He has worked for the BBC, the National Trust, the Eden Project and the Soil Association, amongst many other organisations. In 2007 he established the Bristol Storytelling Festival, and was its director for seven years. He integrates music and poetry into his work, and draws on traditional tales, legends and myths from all over the world.


1. You’ve been a professional storyteller for many years. How did the fascination with stories begin?

As the oldest of four siblings my beginnings in storytelling stretch back to childhood (a long way!) – telling tales at night to my younger brother in the bottom bunk. At university in the late 1980s I encountered adult storytelling performances and was completely captivated by what I heard. Through their inspiration I began telling my first proper stories to friends round the fire in the evening – I remember feeling so nervous I insisted on switching the lights off so everyone had to sit and listen in the dark!

One of my first work roles was in environmental education – at a field studies centre taking school groups outdoors to learn about geography, ecology and the natural world. I discovered that storytelling was a wonderful way both to keep groups of restless kids engaged, as well as to convey complex ideas about the world. A passion for storytelling grew from there and gradually I found more and more opportunities to tell stories for a living. I’ve been semi-professional since 2002 and became a full-time, freelance storyteller just over ten years ago.

2. What kinds of sources do you use to collect story material? Have there been some particularly rich veins you’ve been able to mine?

Where possible I love to source stories by hearing them told; they go into the mind so much more effectively than reading from the page. But it’s rare to get lots of new material that way, so I’m a great collector of books of folktales, myths and legends, and am often found trawling second-hand bookshops. I’m particularly fascinated by the relationship between stories and landscape so I’ve consciously sought out stories from the British Isles, and in particular Dorset, where I live.

I’ve had a long-standing fascination with Old Norse tales, with their vibrant pantheon of gods and the way that nature infuses the mythology. I love the image of Yggdrasil, the World Tree, complete with tree-top eagle, root-bound dragon and scampering, scurrilous squirrel. One of the stories I tell most often is the epic tale of ‘Wayland the Smith’, recounting the love and loss of his swan maiden wife. Although Scandinavian in origin it has become entwined within the language and landscape of England, and there’s even a Neolithic barrow in Oxfordshire that’s become known as Wayland’s Smithy.

Poles apart, in both geography and culture, I’ve also become entranced by stories from the Middle-East and the Arab world, especially the Arabian Nights stories as woven together by Scheherazade – perhaps the world’s greatest storyteller. I travelled around Morocco in 2009 asking people on trains and in shops to tell me tales and listening to the storytellers in Marrakesh square. I took Tahir Shah’s book In Arabian Nights with me as a travel companion, and later put together my own storytelling performance based on ‘Alf layla wa layla’. Plus I’m an enormous fan of Nasrudin/Joha, collecting an ever-growing number of his wise-fool stories in my head. Which reminds me of one I heard recently: the Hodja was once fishing from a bucket in the town square. A neighbour came along barely able to conceal his mirth: “How many have you caught so far then, Nasrudin?” he asked. To which he replied: “Well, including you, that’s nine today…”

3. People sometimes talk about a limited amount of stories in the world, that there are roughly only half-a-dozen structures that all stories follow to some degree. Do you agree?

I don’t really buy into the idea of a limited number of stories. It seems quite reductionist and doesn’t particularly help me as a practising storyteller. I’ve always been much more delighted by the sheer diversity, complexity and wide-ranging imagery of stories rather than their narrative similarities. That said, I do like the way in which the same stories pop up at different times in different cultures around the world. ‘The Pedlar of Swaffham’, for instance, is a story that has deep roots in Norfolk but also has versions from Palestine and Ireland.

I sometimes refer to the Aarne–Thompson classification system which groups together folk literature into motifs, which helps when looking for different versions of a traditional story. It’s expansive rather than reductive, with thousands of numbered entries including wonderful titles such as ‘Bunnies Beware of the King’ and ‘Wolf Dives into Water for Reflected Cheese’.

4. What is a story?

That’s a tough question. I’ll start by saying what storytelling is, as it’s slightly easier! Oral storytelling, as an innate human attribute, is the act of recounting a tale in words and gestures through the transfer of mental images. Each story is uniquely recreated in the moment – ‘in the space between the teller’s tongue and the listeners’ ears’ (UK Society for Storytelling). The skill of the storyteller lies in connecting with his/her own imagination and crafting improvised descriptive language that allows listeners to see their own vivid images as they piece the story together. The ‘made in the moment’ nature of oral storytelling (without a memorised script or acting out) means it can be highly engaging, emotional and profound – it exercises the mind and touches the heart.

Drawing on this I suppose a story, at its most basic, is a picture painted within the mind. I don’t hold much with the idea of stories necessarily needing a beginning, middle and end – that sounds more like a sandwich to me! Some stories are short and abrupt, others long and winding, others seemingly without an obvious ending. Stories have their own self-defining integrity; hard to define in abstract but you know when you’ve heard one. Perhaps only a story knows what a story is!

5. Could you give an example of how stories have helped you personally in some way?

Poignantly, it was the power of stories that gave me the strength of purpose to become a storyteller myself. I’d been struggling with a combination of failures in my work and personal life and was unable to resolve a way forward, with attendant feelings of inadequacy. I eventually quit my job and took a year out. During that time a few stories started to work their gentle magic. The Grimms’ tale of ‘Iron John’ resonated deeply for me – like many stories set in the Northern European woods it’s a story of transformation. A boy leaves the comfortable palace to confront a wild man who lives in the forest, and in doing so finds his own fertile wildness within. At such times of crisis or chrysalis stories can sometimes provide us with a ball of string to hold on to as we step into the unknown.

I’ve also been very aware of the power of stories to bring people together and create temporary communities in the moment of their telling. I was once travelling on a train in England which broke down between stations. After twenty minutes amongst other disgruntled commuters waiting for assistance suddenly, in a fit of recklessness, I decided to stand up and tell a story to the whole carriage. To my amazement everyone listened, and afterwards the whole carriage was buzzing –talking to each other, telling other tales, finding connections with each other. The same happened in Morocco when I asked for Joha stories – as soon as one story was out of the bag, people gathered around telling more stories. Stories seeding more stories, to take root and bear fruit in unpredictable ways…