Tops or Bottoms

For all storytellers, it is interesting to observe how a tale develops: from first discovering the story, deciding whether to tell it, exploring its possibilities, trying it out in performance, then modifying it as it evolves in subsequent tellings.

Three weeks ago Randel McGee asked on Facebook about Tops or Bottoms, a folk tale I had met decades before but had never told.
I had already been wondering about what story to tell for a friend’s birthday party that evening. Knowing that the food was to feature some of the more unusual potato varieties, including the French blue-black Vitelotte, of course I now had just the right tale!

As is often the way, I enjoyed discovering the tale’s possibilities in that very improvised telling, but decided to work more seriously on it.
Given that the original party performance had to point to the potatoes, the farmer only met the giant twice. Obviously folk tales work better with threes. But rather than the English tale’s trick with iron rods to slow the giant’s harvesting, I liked the clever suggestion given by Australian/Singaporean teller Kiran Shah – a very satisfactory ending which gives a leaner plot. (Thanks again, Kiran.)

During the next two weeks I had several performances which gave me the opportunity. Here is the first, a week later at my annual Amnesty International benefit performance – which was, appropriately, on a farm in Darmstadt.

At the first party, a friend suggested recording using my iPhone. So here is the very unplanned (and poorly lit) video.

Want to download the video?
Videos are provided free to view.

If you want to download one, I can arrange that. Just send me a mail telling me which story you’d like, and your reason for wanting a download.

The story belongs to AT tale type 1030, Crop Division between Man and Ogre.
D.L. Ashliman’s online collection of folk tales lists 13 variants of the tale from various cultures, including one from Aesop’s Fables.
Ashliman’s 13 tales are exclusively European/USA. However, and not surprisingly, the FaceBook discussion following my posting the recording shows that it is told in India.

Subsequently a good storytelling friend Deeptha Vivekanand pointed me to a version from Gujarat, ‘Lord Siva and the Satwaras’, in Folktales of India edited by Brenda E. F. Beck, Peter J. Claus, Praphulladatta Goswami, University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Later a Storytell friend Mary Garrett sent her skeleton together with a moral:

    • Bear and rabbit share a farm
    • When bear takes tops for his share, rabbit plants potatoes, carrots
    • When bear chooses bottoms, rabbit plants corn and such
    Moral: Know your crops


The video clips here are all amateur quality, shot in various theatres.

Their intention is just to show the range of my storytelling and give a flavour of a live performance.

Permission is granted for use in non-commercial educational contexts.

The videos are © Richard Martin.

Professionally recorded CDs and DVDs are available here.

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Permission to tell outlines my views on copyright

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