Discussing Mr Fox

A lesson plan

This lesson plan comes with a health warning: it contains material which is overtly violent and implicitly sexual.
While that makes it very suitable for most classes who are in their mid-teenage years and older, and although the hot-seat discussion activity certainly helps students handle such explosive content, users ought to be aware that this is a “strong” story.

But before you shy away from something which seems so explosive, consider:

  • Such strong content certainly meets the essential ELT criterion of being significant;
  • Storytelling allows the listener to retain some control over such material (see the “Fear of Fantasy” chapter in The Uses of Enchantment, (Bettelheim, 1975)
  • The hot-seat activity, drawn from drama work, offers a controlled way for students to discuss issues which they might normally feel uncomfortable with.

Before the Tale – Preparing the Hot-Seat Discussion

The hot-seat activity is described in detail below. Given optimal conditions for this activity, the students and teacher sit on chairs arranged in a circle, with one extra empty chair – not too close to the teacher’s chair.

But teaching reality is not always perfect. I often have to teach in pretty crowded classrooms, and you may be doing the same. If you cannot get rid of the desks, and if you cannot have everyone in a circle, the activity can still be done with an empty chair placed somewhere in the room where it is relatively easy for students to get to it. Not ideal – but it will work.

Before the Tale – Creating the Atmosphere for Storytelling

As a teller, I feel very strongly that storytelling should always stand out as something different from the rest of the lesson. Not only does this honour the rich tradition of storytelling, it also enables the students to experience the tale as something special. So do what you can to emphasise this difference physically.

Make sure that all the normal paraphernalia of the classroom is cleared away. No textbooks cluttering up the desks. Only an exercise book and a pen for the short writing activity after the telling should be readily to hand.

Now do what you can to change the look of the room. Re-arrange the chairs, perhaps. Or close the curtains, change the lighting. It might even be possible for you to light a storytelling candle. When I tell in class, I simply take off my spectacles; everyone immediately knows the significance of that. It does not matter what you do, just something to show that what comes next is different.

Let The Tale Speak For Itself

Although the general topic of horror stories/sexual violence/revenge/justice could easily be discussed in order to begin the lesson, I should always want to place the tale where it belongs; at the beginning. 
So I do nothing more to start the lesson than explain that the students must have paper and pen to hand for a short writing activity later in the lesson, arrange the chairs if possible, do what I can to create the atmosphere – and then simply tell the story. 
Here (appropriately) is a skeleton of the tale:

Mr Fox

Lady Mary, seven brothers, and many suitors.

Rejected all, until she met Mr Fox.

No one knew who he was, nor where he came from.

He told her about the house where they would live, but never took her there.

She wanted to know. Day before the wedding, rode through the forest to find it.

Came to a wall, above the gate was written: Be bold, be bold. 
She was bold – went through the gate.

Came to the house, above the door: Be bold, be bold. But not too bold. 
But she was bold – went in.

Staircase – went up. Small door: Be bold, be bold. But not too bold – lest that your heart’s blood should run cold.

But she was bold – opened the door.

Hanging from hooks on the wall, row upon row, bodies of young women, white wedding-clothes stained red by their own blood.

Screamed, ran down stairs. 
Saw through window, Mr Fox coming, dragging yet another woman, her white wedding-clothes stained red with her own blood.

Lady Mary hid as Mr Fox dragged woman to stairs.

Young woman with last strength put out her hand (a hand with a ring) to hold on to banisters.

He saw the diamond ring. Drew sword, cut off hand. 
Hand flew through air, landed on Lady Mary’s lap.

He couldn’t find hand, dragged body upstairs to bloody chamber.

Next day, wedding feast. “My dear, you seem so pale.”

Bad dream.

“Oh, dreams are always the opposite. But tell me your dream.”

I dreamt I rode to look for your house – wall – gate – Be bold, be bold.

Mr Fox: “It is not so, nor it was not so.”

“Saw door – Be bold, be bold. But not too bold.

“It is not so, nor it was not so.”

“Saw small door – Be bold, be bold. But not too bold – lest that your heart’s blood should run cold.

“It is not so, nor it was not so.”

“Saw bodies.”

“It is not so, nor it was not so.”

“Saw you – dragging another young woman.”

“It is not so, nor it was not so.”

Diamond ring.
 You cut off hand.”

It is not so, nor it was not so. And God forbid that it should be so.”

“But it is so, and it was so. Here’s hand and ring I have to show.

Lady Mary’s brothers drew swords – cut Mr Fox into a thousand pieces!

Language Considerations

I have told the story many times to a wide variety of audiences, both in school and on stage to adults. Although I know that the language is often beyond the level which the audience could actively use, the power of storytelling is so great that listeners are able to understand far more than they “should”. So don’t be afraid to stretch their listening skills.

However, there is one phrase which I know will cause trouble to my German listeners, even to quite advanced students. It is the refrain of Be bold, be bold.

Normally in such a situation I would simply change the word bold for a more easily understood one (here I might say Be brave, be brave). But I find something so mysterious and evocative, magical even, in the traditional phrase that I always keep it in my telling. What I do add to help understanding is But Lady Mary was bold, she was very brave, and she went in through the gate.

Similarly with Mr Fox’s protestations It is not so, nor it was not so. And God forbid that it should be so. Not language we would normally offer our students as a model for their own, but so strong that I always keep it in the story. (Interestingly, it is just such phrases which often stick in students’ minds; years later they will say, “Oh, yes, that story: Be bold, be bold, but not too bold.)

Incidentally, do not be tempted to over-come such problems by pre-teaching vocabulary. Since words are best learnt in context, and the story provides the richest context of all, pre-teaching is counter-productive.

If you meet a printed version of the story, do not let it imprison you. Try to strip away the literature to reveal the bones again. See how those bones form the logical structure of the story. When you see that, you no longer need to worry about forgetting the story; you simply know how the story must go on. And you can concentrate on telling that tale to the listener.


As you begin to form your own version of the story, beware of including too many details. This is a common mistake amongst participants in my workshops when they are working on fleshing out a skeleton into a tale. Wanting to do a particularly “good” job of it, they start including lots of details, which usually hide the essential structure of the tale.

Indeed, it is a feature of traditional tales that details are few and far between. Tales deal with generic types rather than the fully rounded characters of literature, and similarly description is kept to an absolute minimum.

Rather than seeing this as a sign of simplicity, it is important to recognise that this is one aspect which allows the listeners great freedom to “see” the tale in their own way, making listening to such tales an even stronger experience.

About the Tale

Folklorists have developed different ways of classifying the enormous number of stories in the world’s oral tradition. The most widely used is the Aarne-Thompson Index (AT). AT classifies “Mr Fox” as belonging to “The Robber Bridegroom” (AT955) and “Bluebeard” (AT311 and 312) tale types.

Further versions of the tale are in English Folktales (Neil Philip, 1992), and an American version “Old Forster” is in The Second Virago Book of Fairytales (Angela Carter, 1992). Interestingly, Shakespeare refers to the story in Much Ado About Nothing, where Benedick says: Like the old tale, my lord, “It is not so, nor t’was not so, but indeed, God forbid it should be so.” (Act I, sc. 1).

After the Tale

Setting the atmosphere and telling the tale will probably take up to 15 minutes of the lesson. In my experience of telling this with mid-teenagers or adults, I expect to have an emotionally charged yet quiet atmosphere in the class. Allowing a few seconds for this mood to continue, and without an abrupt change of voice, ask students to write down a few questions which they would like to have an answer to concerning the story.

It may be necessary to stress that these should be questions they would really like to ask, rather than “comprehension-test questions” of the How many brothers did Lady Mary have? type. Some students may be anxious about writing the “wrong” sort of questions, and will ask for more specific instructions; I reply briefly, “Anything you’d like to ask connected with the story”, and move away to let them get on with it. During the few minutes the students are writing, circulate to help with any necessary vocabulary.

Hot-Seat Discussion

When you judge that most students have written three or four questions, end the writing phase and explain the basic rule of the hot-seat activity; all answers must come from the hot-seat (you now indicate the empty chair).
Ask who would like to read out one of their questions. 
Then turn to a student you expect will feel happy to do this, ask them to walk to the hot-seat and give an answer to the question. Since I have not yet explained that this is going to happen, it helps to select more confident students as the first few candidates for the hot-seat. Soon the class sees that even when they have little idea of what to answer, simply getting up, walking to the empty chair, sitting down and facing the others usually helps them to be able to say something. 
After the first answer, thank the student, gesture that they may return to their place, and ask another to go to the hot-seat to give a DIFFERENT answer to the SAME question. Even if the second student says, “But I wanted to say that, too”, encourage them by insisting that it has to be a different answer. So selecting the student to give the second answer is even more critical than selecting the first. It occasionally happens at this stage that someone really blocks. Ease over that difficulty by inviting another student to give a “different answer”, and watch out for a later opportunity to include the blocked student; so far, this has always happened successfully once the activity really develops momentum. 
Depending on the question and the level of the class, I should hope to have at least three different answers to the first question, just to make it clear to everyone that creativity is called for, and also a sense of fun. 
When you feel that sufficient answers have been given, invite the next question. 
After a few minutes, I begin to call on those students who are not normally the first to contribute. By now the activity has begun to impose its own dynamic, and this helps the more reserved to participate. 
When the activity works well, it is usually not long before some students put up a hand to show they disagree with an answer and want to give one of their own. Silently motion them to stand behind the hot-seat, ready to take their place. It is not uncommon for a queue to develop!

Let it Become Serious

Usually the questions to a story like this are quite serious ones. The answers, though, may not be. At least with teenagers, they are often not so serious at the beginning. But I find this frequently changes after 10 or 15 minutes. Girls in particular begin to discuss the implicit issues far more seriously. The teacher can maintain some degree of subtle control over this by choosing who to take for answers to particularly sensitive questions. When the activity is working well, that level of control is often no longer necessary, and the teacher will need to give little more direction than suggesting when a new question should be put.

The Standard Homework

Whenever I tell a class a story, there is always one additional piece of homework: tell someone the story. If they are very young learners, I tell them to tell it all or in part in their own language if necessary. But tell it they should. After all, what are stories for if not to be told?

Of course, there are so many additional follow-up activities possible. Books like Once Upon a Time (Morgan & Rinvolucri, 1983) or Storytelling with Children (Wright, 1995) are full of suggestions. And the more you use stories in your lessons, the more often you will find yet another idea of how to follow it up. Are these ideas from a book, or your own? You will probably never know.

You can see some examples of follow-up writing on my web site:

  • Here is what a class of 12-year-olds did after hearing a ghost story, Mary Culhaine
  • The Wooden Ball was written and illustrated by a class of 14-year-olds

Developing your Storytelling Skills

Having led many teacher-training workshops on Using Storytelling in the Classroom, I know that teachers often feel the need to improve their own skills. For that reason, at least half of each of my workshops is devoted to just that.

Reading an article like this is rather like learning to swim from a book. So if you want to improve your abilities as a teller, you could look around for storytelling workshops in your area. Your local library might be able to put you in touch with one. National organisations like the UK Society for Storytelling are another place to start: http://www.sfs.org.uk/

You can also get a taste of what I mean from this video clip: http://www.talesandmusic.de/see_us/videos.htm which is at the end of my video The Strongest of Them All (Cornelsen Verlag, 2000).

(And if you ever come to one of my workshops, please say “hello”.)

“How to Become a Storyteller”

An American teller, Papa Joe, puts it simply, paraphrasing Einstein:
”If you want to become a storyteller, tell stories.
If you want to become a better storyteller, tell more stories.”

 And really, it is as simple as that!

Watch my telling of this tale

© Richard Martin 2002

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For those who are teachers: Telling stories in the classroom: basing language teaching on storytelling