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Storytelling on Its Own Turf

By RoseE Arianne Hadden | Published: June 8, 2022

Arianne telling a story by a campfire at sunset
Telling stories by Baby Lake at sunset.

Over my years at Concordia Language Villages, I’ve developed a bit of a reputation: if you want a cabin bedtime story, a really really captivating cabin bedtime story, you invite Arianne to come tell you a tale.

I love telling stories at camp. In an environment stripped of distractions like cell phones and TVs, we have the time and space to share stories as our species has done for centuries. There is no soundtrack, no special effects, no cast—not even any written language. There is just the teller and the audience, going on an adventure together to anywhere the teller’s imagination can take them.

There’s a lot to be said for this portability of storytelling. You can bring a story with you anywhere, and tell it with no supplies or preparation. I’ve told stories in the backs of crowded buses, on the floor of storm-shelter shower buildings and around campfires at sunset, but this spring, I learned about the unparalleled magic of experiencing a story on its own turf.

With COVID numbers declining and restrictions easing, my colleague Jean and I decided to take a trip and visit friends in northern Europe. In addition to letting us sleep on their couches, our European friends showed us around their home spaces, and through the stories that live there.

The Tower of London, England

Yeoman Warder Hardy shares stories before Traitor's Gate.
Yeoman Warder Hardy and his captivated audience
before the Traitor's Gate in the Tower of London.

Every tourist who passes through London has to visit the Tower; it is a fundamentally un-missable attraction. This is not just because of the carefully preserved buildings or even the breathtaking collection of the Crown Jewels, but also because of the Yeoman Warders. This elite group of 32 guards have been protecting the Tower since the reign of Henry VIII, and leading tours since Queen Victoria. Though they earn the role through more than two decades of impeccable military service, their primary value is not as guards, but as storytellers.

For our visit, we were led around the Tower grounds by Yeoman Warder Hardy, who captivated us with lurid tales of executions, beheadings, uprisings and other bits of gory chaos that took place on that very spot. In our group were quite a few young British children, who laughed in delight at Hardy’s dramatic and grisly retellings of their nation’s history—but hopefully gained some appreciation for the relatively quiet, stable parliamentary government they enjoy today.

St. Nikolai Memorial, Hamburg, Germany

The ruined, but still standing, tower of St. Nikolai Cathedral
The ruined tower of St Nikolai Cathedral.

Tales of death and horror can seem almost funny when they’re set 500 years in the past. However, our travels soon took us to St. Nikolai Memorial in Hamburg. Once the tallest religious structure in the world (and still claiming the #5 spot), nothing is left of this magnificent church but a single bell tower, a few broken walls and the crypt, which is now a museum remembering the bombing of the city during World War II.

I was struck by the mature and thoughtful tone of the storytelling in this museum. The exhibit, unlike other war museums I have seen, honored no heroes; instead, the curators focused their space on the victims of Operation Gomorrah. It shared the stories of German civilians who lost their families and homes; of marginalized Jewish, Polish and Romani residents who were denied access to bomb shelters; of the Luftwaffe’s bombing of Canterbury that provoked the Hamburg bombing in retaliation; and of the Allied pilots who were traumatized by the damage that they wrought on fellow human beings. The message of the museum is stark and painful, but also oddly hopeful. Stories of war, told unflinchingly, are a powerful tool for peace.

The Orkney Islands, Scotland

Any good historian will tell you that the distinction between history and just story is much blurrier than anyone is truly comfortable admitting. All history is storytelling, backed up by primary documents and written by unreliable narrators, with archeological remains that are open to wide interpretation. Nowhere was this blurriness more evident than on the main island of the Orkneys, off the northernmost tip of Scotland.

The Orkney Islands abound with archeological evidence of human habitation reaching back as far as 6800 B.C.E. The ruins of Skara Brae constitute Europe’s best-preserved Neolithic settlement: a half-underground village with stone hearths, beds, shelves and even fish tanks still intact after more than 5,000 years. The people who lived there are lost to history, and their lives can only be pieced together by the tools, bones, and beads they left behind. But one thing has not yet been found in the ruins of Skara Brae: weapons of war. It is comforting to think that, millennia ago on the very edge of the world, a group of human beings might have lived in such a way that they did not need any.

Teller Lynn Barbour seated in an Orkney Chair to begin her telling.
Teller Lynn Barbour keeps oral folkore alive in Orkney.

Our time in Orkney finished with a visit to the Orkney Folklore & Storytelling Centre, where teller Lynn Barbour keeps the story and history of Orkney alive as it has always been kept alive: through oral storytelling. We spent an evening sitting around the Centre’s peat fire as Lynn took us back through the ages with her voice and body. Her storytelling started well-grounded in reality, as she shared some pieces of poetry, then became more fantastical as she took on the persona of real people who had lived in the area within living memory. Lastly, she took us back to “the time before time, when legends were true” and swept us into otherworldly tales of Selkies and Finnfolk. But even these stories were set in the real, physical landscape around us: magically kidnapped sailors came home to Kirkwall Harbor, and selkies left their skins on the rocks below Stromness. The story and the space were part of each other.

Coming Home

I returned home to the U.S. with a new appreciation of stories in their proper place. In every location we visited, people told stories of their history, giving themselves a sense of who they are and what it means to be part of the story of that one special corner of the world. I became deeply aware that as the heir to a colonizing tradition, the stories I know are not the stories of the land on which I live. While I still cherish my stories, and will tell them to villagers in many cabins for many years to come, I’m also reaching out to learn the stories of the Anishinaabe upon whose land our Villages rest. Today, Indigenous tellers all over North America are using stories to assert their identity in the face of colonial erasure. You can find some of these amazing artists here, here and here.  

About the Author

RoseE Arianne Hadden is a four-year villager and eighteen-year staff member at Concordia Language Villages, including fifteen summers at Lac du Bois Hackensack in every role except camp nurse. She currently works in the Development Department and with the French Village Weekend programs. Arianne began telling stories before live audiences in her junior high speech and debate program, and has continued fairly well without interruption since then. She has an M.A. in Victorian literature from Brigham Young University and has told stories in Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, South Korea and New Zealand. 

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