By Allison Cox © 2001.
Each month I tell stories to the teens in the Remann Hall Juvenile Detention Center as part of my health education work for the local Health Department where I am employed. Our goal is to prevent of violence and substance abuse. We have found that stories offer these youth a safe venue for listening to these various issues without feeling they are being lectured. We give them various ways to respond to the stories and share their thoughts – so many of them are desperate to have someone listen to them and they are hungry for stories. Last month, I told each class an adapted version of tale “The Heartless Giant” from Norwegian folklore and also a beautiful literary version can be found in The Storyteller by Anthony Minghella, Knopf, NY, 1997. The quotes are from my adapted telling. This story is 30 minutes long but most of the class stayed engaged throughout the story.
Story synopsis: The kings’ youngest son, Leo, discovered that there is a giant in the dungeon below the castle. In the past, this giant removed his heart (too much pain in such a big heart), replaced it with a wasp nest, and then ravaged the countryside until the King caught and imprisoned him. The prince befriended the giant and told him all his secrets. Leo decided to free the giant, but once the giant was loosed – he immediately began to maim, kill, and ravage again. Leo blamed himself – while saying nothing. The young prince tried to stop both his brothers from going after the giant, but they insisted that it was their duty – neither brother returned. Finally, Leo leaves to search for the giant. After 3 years, he finds the giant’s trail and befriends 3 animals that he saves from death. These animals point the way and/or carry him to the giant’s lair. Outside the giant’s house were hundreds of life-like statues that Leo discovered were really people turned to stone by the giant – including his two brothers. Leo tells the giant that he was banished and the giant takes Leo on as his servant as long as there are “No tricks, no traps!” Leo cleans, cooks, waits, watches, and one day asks the giant “What ever happened to your heart?” The giant lies to Leo twice as to where his heart was hidden, until finally he admits that his heart lies hidden in an egg, in a duck, in a well, in a church, on an island, in a lake, in a mountain “that is so far away that you can not even imagine it.” Leo takes on this impossible task and with the aid of his three animal friends, returns to the giant’s house with the egg containing the heart. “You once broke my heart and now I will break yours” Leo tells him. The giant begs for mercy and Leo tells him to turn the statues back into people, make amends for all the wrongs, and finally – “put your heart back – for with your heart in place you would never act as you do.” The giant agrees. Leo’s brothers rush to hug their savior. The giant returns to receive his heart, but as Leo lifted he egg up to the giant, his brothers seizedthe egg, and all the statues-turned-back-into-people scream for revenge. The giant whispers to Leo, “You promised…”, as the eldest brother crushes the egg and the giant dies. Leo is chosen as the next king because of both his courage – and kindness. He lives to an old age, has 42 grandchildren and tells them all this story… only in Leo’s version, the giant gets his heart back in the end, makes amends, serves the kingdom… Because, after all that happened, in the end there is this: once there was a boy who met a giant… and they became friends.
The morning girl’s group was invited to think about scenes and images from the story that stood out for them. Then they named the various characters/objects/images from the story that came to mind. The girls offered these responses quickly and easily. Here are some of them:
Since this group has the longest class period (2 hours), I then asked the teens to pick a character / object / image from this list and to observe what came to mind as I made the following suggestions for exploring these aspects of the story and then to write these observations down. I learned this exercise from NLP studies and from Melonie Ray of Vancouver, British Columbia as a method to develop characters in stories. Some of the questions are the same ones that Melonie had used.
Imagine you are that character, thing, animal, place… “Step into” what you chose and notice – how do you move? How does the world look from your eyes/from this place? Is your skin/exterior rough or smooth? What are the sounds around you? Notice the tastes and smells. How old are you? What are your powers? What are your limitations?How do you feel about the other characters in the tale?
When the group reconvened, I asked them if they had a new understanding of the story now – several said yes and most wanted to share their experience.
Giant (chosen by 3): My eyes have darkness in them and the world at my feet looks small. I look and feel rough and the sounds around me are harsh echoes of the constant thoughts in my head. I am 13, 17, or a million years old. My power is my strength – controlling others, turning them to stone. I can be stopped by the crushing of my heart, also my relief would stop me. I am just using Leo to get my way, but I want to do right for Leo and I want to solve this “wanting” feeling. I feel alone and scared because there is no one there for me and I am below in this cell. I am hurting everyone that I love and all I need is a friend.
Queen Mother: I am 75 years old. The world is light and fuzzy. My skin is rough and I am surrounded by lonely sounds and the world stinks. I am an all-powerful queen but I am stopped by my own family. I feel I am losing…
Moss: It is dark here. I am sad and covered with a fuzzy like feeling. The sounds were loud until the giant’s voice faded to a whisper. The smell of giant surrounds me, with the taste of dirt. I am 3, 4 or maybe 5 years old. I have no powers… I have no feelings.
Church: The world is light, great and wonderful. My surface is smooth and I am very kind. I am 12 years old or even as old as 28. I am so strong that no one can stop me. I feel great about some things and some things I will punish…
Castle: It is gray and there is fog everywhere with just a hint of light hiding behind the clouds, shining down upon the yellowish grass. It smells wet. I am 10 to 17 years old. There are cobwebs and the castle is very run down. I have a wishing tower and only falling stars can stop me.
Heart: It is dark and I feel love. I am smooth, and the sounds are in harmony, heavenly. Life tastes sweet. I am 17 years old. My power is to make good and be loved by all – hate and fear can destroy me. I love them all.
I found it interesting that many of the girls picked ages close to theirs for the characters illustrating their identification with the story. Otherwise they picked the other extreme – the Queen mother was 75, the Giant was a million years old – unfathomable ages to them. Even the girl who said that the Church could be as old as 28 – seemed to think that this was extremely old.
The afternoon girls group (1 hour) were each asked to come up with one word that for them described what the story was all about (this was after discussing the story together regarding the parts of the story that had made an impression). Here is the list they gave me:
Respect (Leo), Faith (Leo), Responsibility (king, Leo, brothers, animals…), Loyalty (animals), Helping (Leo, animals), Courage, Forgiveness, Caring, Amends (Leo, Giant), Determination (2 chose this – Leo, wolf, horse, Giant), Friendship
The boys afternoon group (1 hour) discussed the story regarding those aspects of the tale that had made an impression. Immediately the point that the giant had removed his heart came up – “All that pain in that giant heart.”
I asked them “Why did he take out his heart?” They told me:
His wife left him. He lost a friend.
He was an outcast. He was alone, lonely.
He suffered from a mismatched love.
I talked with them about the changes that Leo went through in the story – “What caused these changes, this loss of innocence?” They responded:
He lost his brothers.
He was betrayed by the Giant.
He had to steal from his father.
The Giant took Leo’s dignity away.
And also they said:-
Leo went after the giant because he wanted his brothers back.
He had to prove himself to his brothers and the king.
This is a story about patience.
“Can you imagine being locked in a dungeon with your arms and legs chained to the wall for years – unable to stretch out your legs?” I asked. “I’d die” one boy said.
At the same time – two boys began to talk …
“I am like that giant. I took out my heart – I stopped feeling. Now, I don’t care about anyone else but me. There is no one else I can count on.”
One added – “I try to be good but it doesn’t get me anywhere – just more pain. At least when I do bad I get something – some money or things that I want. But when I do good, I just get nowhere. ”
We offered some follow-up ideas for the teacher and the class. I pointed out that in spite of all that happened, Leo still believed in the good in some things – (he helped the animals – he wanted to give the Giant his heart back.). I told them “You can write tomorrow about what are those things that you do believe in – in spite of everything that has happened.” My co-worker added that just as there were helper animals in the story, he believes that there are helpers placed in each person’s life. “Think of who those helpers are in your life – and write about how it is that they help you.” At this point – we were out of time. It was clear that the boys group had wanted more time to talk…
After each of these sessions, several students waited to shake my hand or thank me and they commented about how much they liked the story. I had chosen this story because it reflected previous discussions with the teens regarding emotional pain, violence, imprisonment, loss of innocence, justice and confused loyalties. As usual, the youth showed me so much more that the story held for them and always they ask – when are you coming back?
Article originally appeared in Words on the Wing: Issue 6, Winter 2001
Allison Cox has worked as a mental health therapist, social worker, health educator, health promotion specialist and prevention specialist – and for the past 20 years, storytelling has accompanied her along these many paths. She was the chair for the Storytelling for Prevention Conference in Fife, WA, 1998 and is the vice chair and a founding board member of the Healing Story Alliance Special Interest Group of the National Storytelling Network. She is the editor and graphic artist for the Healing Story Alliance journal – Diving In The Moon: Honoring Story, Facilitating Healing. She is the co-editor and contributing author in the books: The Healing Heart: Storytelling for Caring and Healthy Families and The Healing Heart: Storytelling for Strong and Healthy Communities – published by New Society Publishers and available this Jan/Feb. Allison performs as a professional storyteller across Canada and the US.