Restoring an epic tradition: Langley woman to help retell 1,500-year-old Celtic story

Jill Johnson

Telling a nearly 1,500-year-old Celtic story is challenging on its own. Memorizing it is another task entirely, and one Jill Johnson of Langley is taking on with a dozen other storytellers March 19 in Seattle.

She and a host of fellow orators will take the stage of the George Center for Community for a three-hour recitation of “The Wonder Smith and His Son,” a traditional Irish epic. The tale is about Gubbaun Saor (also spelled Gobán Saor), a mythical builder and smith in Celtic lore, his son Lugh and daughter Aunya, and their battles against the evil King Balor.

Once thought lost to time, Irish author Ella Young collected written and spoken fragments of the story and compiled them into a book in 1927. Now it is getting a moment in the spotlight in the tradition it was shared for much of history, told by a speaker to a crowd.

“It’s something you won’t see anywhere else,” Johnson said. “This story has as much relevance in 2016 as anything else. It’s a story people will recognize.”

The performance itself will include traditional Irish music on violin, harp and penny whistle, also called a tin whistle. At three hours, there will be an intermission. In all, 16 musicians and performers from the Seattle Storytellers Guild are taking part, and Johnson is just one of the speakers responsible for one chapter.

Her section is later in the performance and deals with a climactic battle and a reunion of Gubbaun Saor and his daughter Aunya. Earlier in the tale, Johnson said, the smith favors his son over his more capable daughter, only to regret it later. Such a message of the prowess of women, said Johnson, is important today and was a highly progressive tale when it first arose in Ireland.

“This is a very contemporary theme,” she said, adding that it resonated with her, an important connection to a storyteller and to an audience. If neither party connects with the protagonist, the tale becomes less compelling.

“Any story that a storyteller tells has to have that connection,” she added.

Hearing an oration of an epic tale such as “The Wonder Smith and His Son” differs from traditional theater or even a monologue. A performance such as Johnson’s upcoming recitation is devoid of set design and props. It will be up to Johnson alone during her assigned chapter to bring the different characters to life through nothing but her own voice.

“It’s just the tellers, which is really how it was probably told hundreds of years ago,” she said.

Each speaker was assigned a chapter and given the freedom to tweak the language just enough to make it natural. Johnson said she left much of her text intact, other than some minor changes here and there.

“The words are absolutely beautiful, so I didn’t mess with it,” she said.

Taking part in such a performance was important to Johnson. As a lifelong educator, she said she saw the power of storytelling as a way to inform others and to sharpen memory with both young and old alike.

She gave an example of working with a South Whidbey preschool class and asking at the end of the year what stories were the students’ favorites. One boy, whom she described as being shy, perfectly recalled one of the stories she told nine months earlier. In another example, she said while speaking with elderly people a woman began sobbing. Only later did Johnson learn that they were tears of joy because the woman was remembering a cherished memory long forgotten and recovered because of her tale. Anecdotes like that challenge the notion that people no longer retain information well with the advent of handheld computers and instant access to information. Who needs to remember phone numbers any more when all that’s needed is a speed dial or speaking a name?

“The oral tradition is one of the oldest and most effective ways to transfer information from one person to another,” she said.

“We’re hard wired for story,” she added.

An oration of “The Wonder Smith and His Son”

Langley resident Jill Johnson will recite a chapter of Ella Young’s Irish epic “The Wonder Smith and His Son” along with 15 other performers at 7 p.m. Saturday, March 19 at the George Center for Community in Seattle.

Presented by the Seattle Storytellers Guild, the story is about Gubbaun Saor, a mythical builder and smith in Celtic lore. Along with his son and daughter, he battles an evil king and learns to respect his daughter’s prowess as equal to that of the men, a contemporary tale first uttered hundreds of years ago.

Admission is by a suggested donation at the door of $8 for individuals and $12 for families.

The center is located at 2212 N.E. 125th St., Seattle WA.