(Original post date: 11/2/18)
I don’t mean to boast, but I decided one day to perform a random act of kindness for my younger sister. I bought her the DVD Labyrinth, one of her favorite movies, as well as mine. Before watching it, we first decided to go through the trailers just to see if there was anything interesting. I don’t know about her, but one trailer certainly caught my attention. It was an ad for a T.V. show, another creation of the legendary Jim Henson. A narrator invites viewers to “a magical world where tales of fantasy and adventure come true”, during which we are treated to a montage of enticing fairy tale images: ancient castles, beautiful princesses, brave adventurers, strange creatures, and true love. But what about the show itself? Does it live up to its promise? All that and more, my dear readers. All that and more.
In a castle with no name, in a land of shadow and dust, an old man rests in his tattered armchair, a goblet of wine at his side and a warm fire blazing in the hearth before him. A strange old man he is: ears like saucers, a nose like a cherry, his hair like snow-laden grass and his robe a mishmash of faded colors and threadbare patches. In another mystical part of the world known as Greece, there is another man: an Athenian thief with little but the rags on his back. Deep within the maze of the dreaded Minotaur, he wanders in search of treasure, even as he seeks a way to escape the passages as cunning as he. But you mustn’t be fooled by these appearances, for these are no ordinary souls. With a twinkle in their eyes and but a few words, they have the power to conjure whole worlds, revive eras long past, and bring the most glorious visions to life. In short, they are each a Storyteller. And so, night after night, and accompanied by their loyal though rather snarky dog, these sages of the spoken word regale their audience with tales of beauty, valor, joy, sorrow, and wisdom . . . and all with their own unique flair.
Both the original and Greek Myths series were developed and written by Anthony Minghella, who directed such renowned films as The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Cold Mountain. The first series consists of nine episodes and focuses primarily on the retelling of more obscure European folk tales, a combination of German, Russian, and Celtic. The spin-off miniseries consists of four episodes and focuses, as the subtitle states, on the myths of Ancient Greece. Both shows are formatted with a framing device of their respective Storyteller in the “real world” introducing a story, which makes up each episode proper. Like many of Henson’s works, The Storyteller features a combination of human actors and puppets, with the former taking on the lead roles.
The original Storyteller was played the late John Hurt, of Watership Down, The Elephant Man, and Nineteen Eighty-Four fame. Henson originally intended the eponymous character to be a puppet himself, but eventually decided to instead have him played by an actor wearing heavy make-up. Thanks to this design choice as well as his superb acting, Hurt reminds me greatly of characters like Merlin from Disney’s The Sword in the Stone, and Brother Aiden from Tomm Moore’s The Secret of Kells. Despite his impish appearance and humble surroundings, he seems to possess a borderline wizardly insight and power that one can’t help but be awed by. But he also has a lively, creative zest and a grandfatherly charm and amiability, punctuated from time to time by some goofy, but still very human absentmindedness.
[EUROPEAN] STORYTELLER: (To the King.) I am a teller of stories . . . a weaver of dreams. I can dance, sing, and in the right weather I can stand on my head. I know seven words of Latin. I have a little magic and a trick or two. I know the proper way to meet a dragon. I can fight dirty but not fair. I once swallowed thirty oysters in a minute. I am not domestic. I am a luxury, and in that sense, necessary.
The Greek Myths Storyteller was played by Michael Gambon, better known to Harry Potter film fans as Albus Dumbledore from The Prisoner of Azkaban onward. Though physically younger and more robust than his European counterpart, he is no less wise and candid, as fascinated and reverent of the ruins around him as a historian or archeologist. With eloquent speech and a rich, strong voice, he projects an almost royal, warrior-like nobility as he honors Greece’s greatest tragedies, treating their heroes, gods, and monsters with the dignity and respect that such tales are due.
[GREEK] STORYTELLER: (Excitedly exploring the labyrinth.) This must be the labyrinth of Knossos. Nobody’s been here for centuries! This was the Minotaur’s prison. A thousand Athenians died in this passages. [. . .] The Minotaur must have charged that way, trampled that very path. [. . .] (To the audience.) Half man, half bull, mad with hunger and sadness. Until a hero came with a bold heart and a bright sword.
But, honestly, what’s a Jim Henson production without the puppets? The other half of both main casts is the Dog. His gravelly voice, courtesy of Henson’s son, Brian, will be instantly recognizable to Labyrinth fans as that of the delightfully cantankerous dwarf, Hoggle. Aside from being the literal audience within the show, the Dog also represents us, the viewing audience. As excitable as he is cynical, he often interrupts the Storytellers with questions and remarks, nit-picking and correcting any detail mistakes, but generally becoming emotional in spite of himself when the stories get really good. Plus, the Dog injects a healthy dose of comic relief in a show that might otherwise have ended up overly grim or somber, no matter how interesting or beautiful the legend in question.
[EUROPEAN] STORYTELLER: And he began to dance as only Kings once lost and then found can dance. A jig, a jiggle-joggle, and a leap!
DOG: (Interrupting firmly.) I’ve heard this story, and you’re telling it all wrong!
[. . .]
DOG: (Horrified.) Terrible! That’s a terrible story!
[EUROPEAN] STORYTELLER: (Surprised.) What?
DOG: (Angrily.) The baby died! What do you mean ‘what’?
[EUROPEAN] STORYTELLER: (Eying him intently.) Who said the baby died? I didn’t. This is a luck child.
DOG: (Suddenly understanding.) Oh . . .
[. . .]
[GREEK] STORYTELLER: (Addressing the audience.) Orpheus wanted to keep [Eurydice] away from the untrimmed trees and the ragged depths of the forest because he knew who was there.
DOG: (Anxiously.) Who was?
[GREEK] STORYTELLER: Centaurs, fauns, satyrs. Creatures given up to pleasure. Hairy and unpredictable.
DOG: (Luxuriously rubbing his back against the floor.) Like me, heh, heh.
[GREEK] STORYTELLER: (Smirking as he rubs the Dog’s belly.) Hairy anyway.
I think the juxtaposing of real and synthetic creatures is both smart and entertaining. The practical and green screen effects and the make-up on the humanoid creature actors are applied and performed with so much heart, care, and authenticity, from the beastly but noble-hearted Hans, the “grovelhog”:
HANS: (To the Princess.) Then I want you to be my wife and come live with me in the forest. I want you to be my Princess of Sweetness and Cherry Pie. I want to catch you up, and sing to you. I want you love me.
To the Graeae, three haggard sisters with one eye between them:
(All screeching out, as one sister rolls a dice while the other two wait, beside themselves with excitement.)
SISTER #1: Zeus! Father of the Gods! Lord of the Storm! Cloud Gatherer! Give me a six!
SISTER #2: Give her a two! Give her a two!
SISTER #3: Give her nothing, Zeus! Give her nothing!
But the meticulous, imaginative designs of the puppets and masterful performances of their puppeteers and voice actors insure that they steal every scene that they’re in. And the creators weren’t at all afraid to make them as creepy, outlandish, or fanciful as their given stories, from the spindly, blood-red Devils from “The Soldier and Death”:
SOLDIER: (Holding his deck of cards.) What shall we play for?
DEVIL #1: His soul!
DEVIL #2: His whistle!
DEVIL #3: (Matter-of-factly.) His teeth! I collect teeth!
And the gluttonous, ear-piercing Griffin from “The Luck Child”:
GRIFFIN: (Sniffs up and down, left and right.) My sniff snuff snaff manwhiff!
LITTLE MAN: (Cheerily.) Of course you can smell a man! That’s me!
GRIFFIN: No! Snuffle snort other sort!
LITTLE MAN: There’s no one else here! Now, are you hungry?
GRFFIN: Mmmm! My could eat a house!
LITTLE MAN: (Laughing.) Of course you could!
To the majestic, beautifully white Thought Lion from “The True Bride”:
LION: (Kindly.) Ayna. Don’t be frightened. I’ve come to help you.
ANYA: (Amazed.) Where have you come from?
LION: From your thoughts. ‘Is there no one in the wide world to take pity on me’, you thought. Well, there is. And here I am.
And the ominously arrogant vulture from “Daedalus and Icarus”:
VULTURE: (Taunting Daedalus.) When I look down from the sky, things are small. I see fields of corn like raffia mats. People shrink to the size of dolls. I see you hate your nephew!
Both shows have two primary strengths. The first is relatability. Sometimes either Storyteller will begin narrating straight away, but most often he may be reminded of a tale by something quite ordinary. After getting rid of a spider for the terrified Dog and admitting to him his own fear of rats, the European Storyteller decides to speak of a unique lad, aptly named “Fearnot”, to while away the dark, frightening hours.
DOG: (Fearfully.) What should we do until morning?
[EUROPEAN] STORYTELLER: (Holding him comfortingly.) Well, I could tell you the story of the boy who set forth to learn what fear was.
DOG: (Surprised.) You mean he didn’t know?
[EUROPEAN] STORYTELLER: No.
DOG: He wasn’t frightened of rats or bats or cats or . . . things beginning with S?
[EUROPEAN] STORYTELLER: (Shaking his head.) No, a rare boy.
Likewise, the Athenian Storyteller enters a room filled with statues of cold-eyed soldiers, while the Dog finds a half-buried stone head from which snakes rise up like beckoning fingers: the head of the dreaded Medusa; the Storyteller is thus prompted to recite the myth of “Perseus and the Gorgon”:
[GREEK] STORYTELLER: (Joining the Dog to examine his discovery.) A thing of darkness. A night fear. Don’t even look at it!
DOG: (Terrified.) That face! It’s horrible! Where does it come from?
[GREEK] STORYTELLER: A long way away on a rock at the edge of the world lived a woman, with terrible claws, wings of bronze, and breath as foul as corpses. Her hair was a nest of poisonous snakes. Hissing. Alive. Catch her stare, and she could turn you to stone. Her name was Medusa, the Gorgon.
The second strength is immersion: both shows apply inventive ways to merge the “real” and “fantasy” worlds together to simulate the atmosphere of listening to an oral tale even as we still literally see what is happening on screen. This can be as simple as some well-executed camera edits and dissolves in which a story character drops an object in one shot and that same object appears by the Storyteller in the next. A more fantastic example is when he speaks while standing near a painting and we see the characters’ silhouettes move inside it accordingly. And it’s especially fun whenever he and the Dog “watch” the characters (in miniaturized form) as though they are actually present. In one such scene, Fearnot cheerfully dips his feet into a “pond”, a pond that just happens, in reality, to be the Dog’s water dish.
One of the gifts of Jim Henson was that he could make it very easy for us to forget that his puppets are just that: puppets, illusions, fantasies, creations of foam and fleece. But why would we want to remember such a thing anyway? The same principle applies to good stories, and The Storyteller provides children with an excellent introduction and education. Striking just the right balance between funny, thrilling, and romantic, this series retells these timeless classics in a mature and sincere way that respects the intelligence of younger audiences utilizing the whimsy and charm that Henson is known for. These are among the masters whose standards I always try to adhere to as an aspiring teller—and collector—of tales.
Credits: All images, audio, and links belong to their respective owners; no copyright infringement is intended.
“The Call” — Briand Morrison and Roxann Berglund
“Once Upon a Time” – Paul Gutmann
“Hunting the Mystery” – Paul Gutmann
All other sound clips are from the The Storyteller and The Storyteller: Greek Myths (produced by Jim Henson Productions; distributed by The Jim Henson Company).
ST Ep. 1 – “The Soldier and Death”
ST Ep. 2 – “Fearnot”
ST Ep. 3 – “The Luck Child”
ST Ep. 4 – “A Story Short”
ST Ep. 5 – “Hans My Hedgehog”
ST Ep. 9 – “The True Bride”
GM Ep. 1 – “Theseus and the Minotaur”
GM Ep. 2 – “Perseus and the Gorgon”
GM Ep. 3 – “Orpheus and Eurydice”
GM Ep. 4 – “Daedalus and Icarus”
Watch the original preview and episode videos here!
Listen to the episode here!
The Storyteller on Wikipedia
The Storyteller on Fandom
The Storyteller on the official Jim Henson Company website
The Storyteller on Jim Henson's Family Hub
The Storyteller on Den of Geek!
The Storyteller on tvtropes
The Storyteller on Common Sense Media
The Storyteller on IMDb
The Storyteller: Greek Myths on IMDb
Buy The Storyteller at Barnes & Noble
Buy The Storyteller T.V. series on Amazon
Buy The Storyteller books on Amazon
Buy The Storyteller on ebay
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