High Kings and heritage

I’ve been very privileged to work with High Bickington Primary School recently. High Bickington is a small village in north Devon where the church is next to the primary school, with a special doorway between the two. Following my work with the school on community trails and landscape, with Devon Wildlife Trust through Beaford Arts’ Hidden Histories project, the school has asked me to work with Years 5 and 6 over six morning sessions, sharing stories and legends, and helping the children to develop their own storytelling skills.

Primary school children these days have a very formal training in grammar and language structure. I doubt whether I knew my adverbials from my relative pronouns when I was 9 years old! Now, every child would be able to tell you the difference; but surely the method of language is there to serve the imagination, not the other way round?

That’s where storytelling can help to complement the curriculum, in a number of different ways. Working with stories can help children to discriminate between fact, opinion and imagination, and appreciate the value in all of them. They can apply their grammatical skills to new scenarios and characters that test their vocabularies and dexterity with words.  And crucially, storytelling can give children confidence with words and fluency of imagination that doesn’t rely on writing everything down. All of this, quite aside from the content of the stories themselves and the learning within.

During the last session, we explored character in stories of the islands of Britain. We travelled with the dastardly Vortigern to Wales, met the young and confident Merlin, and followed King Utha Pendragon in his battles against the Saxons, observing comets and shapeshifting into Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall to win the heart of Igraine. By the time Merlin was at the gate of Tintagel Castle being handed a newborn baby boy, a few of the children knew the answer to my question. “Does anyone know what they called the baby?”

There is a magic about the Arthurian stories that runs deep through our landscape and our psyche. Enchantment, honour and adventure are all here in rich measure. Following on to the Sword in the Stone, we shared the story of how a young servant lad can also be King, and how his leadership qualities were the most important consideration to the knights who would follow him. To adults and children alike, this is compelling and true to the heart.

Yet the details are different for all of us. A quick quiz showed the children just how different the pictures in people’s minds can be after a story. Some of them gave Vortigern a gruff deep voice, to others he sounded high and squeaky. Igraine was a brunette in some of the children’s minds, blonde in others, and to one most definitely a redhead. We developed the characters and quizzed the stories still further, until we were empathising with the dragons and wondering about the price Merlin had to pay for following the fate written in the stars.

Then the children were asked to make their own back-stories, working in groups to develop a narrative from a question, and testing it with the rest of the class. The results were inspiring. The story of how Merlin’s cloak was made from the starlight of two stars colliding, and how Merlin’s fairy father left it for Merlin at his birth, will stay with me for a long time. There were no notes, only pictures, and imaginations ran free.

In the final analysis of the morning, we talked about King Arthur. What qualities does a good leader need? The first answer came swiftly: honesty. Amen to that, in these troubled times. Years 5 and 6 of High Bickington Primary, I think you’ve nailed it.


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