Shadows into Story

by Charlotte
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Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s Jorinde and Joringel is a wonderfully shady, shadowy story. A troubling bundle of toothsome old tropes from ‘Once upon a time’, where ‘Good’ is the most beautiful and/or handsome in the village and ‘Evil’ is old and bent and solitary, with a hooked nose, yellow skin and red eyes.

Still, Jorinde and Joringel is a well written and engaging story and I enjoy telling it!

Intro panel to Jorinde and Joringel Shadow Puppet Theatre from Charlotte and Emily Present.

In fact, it was the ‘youth vs age’ and ‘good vs evil’ stereotypes which caused me to imagine Jorinde and Joringel as a shadow puppet story. The visual play between light and dark would echo and accentuate the story’s shady, contrasty, subject matter.

A shadow puppet theatre works by positioning cut out paper puppets or objects between a direct light source and a translucent screen – so that the shapes are cast as shadow images onto the screen. The shadows cast by the puppets have a smooth elastic quality which, when coupled with well thought out moving parts, gives shadow characters an uncanny kind of ‘life’. The puppets can fly, hold hands, change direction, grow bigger or smaller, dance, walk and even transform into something completely different. The puppeteer can also use the shadow of their own body extremities to give further mystery and marvel to the medium.

Shadows are strange things. Not simply dark shapes, they contain refracted light – light which is literally bouncing off everything it bumps into. In this way, shadows hold secret information about the colour luminosity, movement and texture of the surfaces from which the light is reflected.

A shadow puppet image acts like an optical illusion as far as our brains are concerned. Behind the screen it is all cut paper, masking tape and satay sticks, but out front, the viewer watching the screen is beguiled by the magic of the shadow. They see girls dancing and holding hands, a tiny fluttering bird in a cage and a witch changing into an owl. Light shade shape and colour are translated eagerly by our eye and brain to interpret and make sense of what we think we are seeing.

The same could be said, metaphorically, for the way out brains perceive and understand stories and reality. We are constantly affected and influenced by the light, colour, shade, tone and texture of our values and beliefs in relation to the world we think we live in. Our human brain makes its own sense of all of this and our imagination does the rest.

When viewed through a twenty-first century lens, the old fashioned stereotypes in Jorinde and Joringel reminded me of their unpalatable and outmoded biases. It isn’t hard to understand why some people hold strong views about the messages contained within these old tales. However it is also apparent, to me, that if you scratch at the surface of contemporary social and political dilemmas, these old issues are still here and as contentious, troublesome and provoking now, as ever they were in the times of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.

As a little once-upon-a-time loving girl in the 1970’s, I particularly liked the story of Jorinde and Joringel – and yet at the same time was troubled by it. It wasn’t just that the heroine was the most beautiful girl in the village – a kind of girl I just couldn’t relate to. Neither that she was doomed to get hitched to the most handsome boy – a horrible fate from my point of view.

No! it was the Old Enchantress who gave me the greatest cause for worry. I really felt sorry for her. I remember wondering who she really was and how she came to be in that miserable enchanted castle with sad, bird-prisoners for company. Her character seemed to exist, just to represent all that was undesirable, bad and immoral in human existence.

Actually, the old enchantress is absolutely necessary to the plot of Jorinde and Joringel, because without an evil character to battle and win against, there is not much of a satisfying story to tell.

From the storyteller’s point of view, it is exactly these uneasy contrasts contained within the story of Jorinde and Joringel which make it such a great story to tell. The presence of wickedness and its threat to all that is good, allows the audience to experience fear about bad things. Then when the evil presence is destroyed everyone can heave a collective sigh of relief. All has been set right in the world and we can go home feeling happy and reassured.

Because no matter how sophisticated and modern we humans have become, the majority of us still want whatever we happen to believe is ‘good’ or ‘right’, to triumph in the end. This is an inconvenient truth for whomsoever represents that which is considered bad. The ongoing narrative battle between good and evil is as much a trope of our modern world as of the olde. We humans have expectations about how things should be and we want to see it turn out that way.

Being a storyteller, I like to wonder about the contrasting light and dark natures of these old narrative stereotypes, such as needing good to triumph over evil. I like to reflect upon their connection to the ancient, almost instinctual human need for the sun to rise everyday. A primal fear of the loss of life-giving warmth, drove ancient humanity to create religions, rituals and stories about the sun and it’s cycles. The hope being to cement the continued appearance of the glorious brilliant sun and celebrate the end of the dark and threatening night.

The ancient art of storytelling, even in its modern incarnation as news and media, generally tries to fulfil the same wish. If the day’s news is particularly gloomy, they usually stick a feel-good, heartening story in at the end. In this way, story continues to use its power to reinforce a narrative of hope for humanity. Hope which we continue to want to believe in.

Thinking about human ways of telling stories nothing quite beats a good story told around a fire. Fires attract shadows all around them at night. Deep within their fiery hearts they create shadowy heat pictures as the embers burn and glow and turn to ash. I like to think that shadow puppets stir a primeval nerve deep within our psyche – similar to the primal call of an open fire.

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