Kage Baker loved storytellers.
She loved stories, yes, but maybe more than even those, she loved the people who made them. It was not sparkling gems that moved her so much as the jewelers that made them that captured her fancy. It was her admiration and wonder at the ability to make a palpable Something out of indisputable Nothing that made her a storyteller in her own time. It seemed to her the finest of crafts; as Shakespeare (himself one of her fave rave storytellers) put it:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven.
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
When asked who her favourite writers were, she would grin and reply “Old dead white guys.” Because mostly she liked storytellers, and most of the ones she could find on the library shelves were, yes, old dead white guys. They make up a considerable proportion of the global population, and an even larger proportion of what was free to small girls in the 1950’s. The Brothers Grimm and Andrew Lang. Kipling, Stephenson, Twain. Shakespeare and Marlowe, Homer and Ovid; heck, Walt Scott and Walt Kelly and Walt Disney.
In the 1960’s, Kage moved on and up and out the scrutiny of the Children’s Librarian. She discovered that most of her favourite juvenile storytellers also wrote for adults; she found Keats and Tennyson and Yates and Shaw and O’Brien and Kerouac and Hesse and Dunsany and Peak, and more Shakespeare, more Kipling, more Stephenson. It was always the story for Kage, white-hot and clear as a lightning bolt: character and plot were in service to the shape-shifting power of the story. These dead white guys set her mouth for it.
Then all the singers of the 60’s showed up, making a very loud noise, and for awhile she was captivated by words, simple and of themselves. But the search for more beautiful and stranger words led her back into history; and the long twisty road that eventually led out of the library via a hidden door and a troll-guarded bridge, a deadly desert and roads of bricks every colour of the rainbow. And there one day Kage walked out into the Woods Near Athens, and there she stayed and became a storyteller herself.
The Renaissance Faire was lousy with storytellers. Just walking along the roads was like wandering through all the books on a miles-long shelf – you went in and out of dozens of tales just wandering along with a beer. You might find yourself the audience, the narrator or suddenly be handed a halo and a divine mission: a star! What, a play toward? I’ll be an auditor. An actor too, perhaps, if I see cause. (Shakespeare again) says Puck. That’s what it was like.
And if a fairie can’t resist, what are the chances of a 22-year old with a head full of stories?
Not that Kage resisted. We used to laugh about it, incredulous we had stumbled into this perfect, and perfectly insane, place. O, don’t throw me in de briar patch! we would cry to one another, and stagger on laughing. At Faire, Kage found out what stories were for. She found out how to let them in her head, and out again through her mouth and hands. Ultimately, she couldn’t have kept them in or out even had she wanted to. “But why would I want to do that?” she sad once to me. “I’m a voice on the wind, a pair of eyes and a mouth to tell what I’ve seen, a horn hanging in the branches of an oak. The story flows through me like a river!”
It was under the oaks that she found that river. She was sitting, waiting, on a sleeping bag, most incongruously on the edge of a Persian rug laid out in a little hollow under an oak the size of a church. Tents ringed the flat floor of the grove, where other actors reclined and waited; in the branches of the oak, high in the air, three or four limber young men lay on their canopy ropes like sailors in the sails of a great ship, and waited too. On the rug was an armchair and a standing lamp, wired up to a car battery; and to that chair came a man striding out of the warm dark to sit and tell us a story …
That man was Mark Lewis. He was The Storyteller: not A, but The. He was as bright and as distinct and as singular as a Tarot card. He was the only one of what he was, larger than life, with a laugh like a benevolent god and a smile like a toothpaste commercial. His voice was deep and sweet and variable; if you could make wine out of velvet, it would taste like Mark Lewis sounded. He was big, and bearded like a particularly dimply pirate, and even when he leered at customers as he followed Sir Francis Drake through the streets with a chest of gold and jewels clutched to bare, broad chest – he somehow looked wholesome. Nice.
And at night, once or twice a Faire, he’d come out and set up in the dark and tell us stories. He could make it rain (no, I’m not kidding; I participated in it more times than I can tell). He taught us the taste of stars in our mouths. He could play two recorders at once AND a kazoo, and tell a story around them. He was a nice guy, a good man, and a brilliant artist.
When there was no more room in the grove for the audience, he moved to Main Stage, where he could hold the entire cast of Faire bespelled at once. When the Faire was forced to move quarters, Mark would still come out and find us, and set up in the dark on some other stage, and people – by then carrying babies that had not yet been born when their parents first heard Mark Lewis – brought their kids to fall asleep to his magic voice.
By then, though, he’d grown up and out into the world, just like the oak. He married a wonderful woman; he had beautiful children. He deserved every good thing that came to him, and he never betrayed his craft. He won two Emmys. He was a teacher and told more stories, and more and more of the world came to know and value him; you can look him up, Dear Readers, as Mark Lewis Storyteller: Word Pictures. Watch and listen to him if you can. It’s not the same as sitting on the warm ground with a bottle of sweet wine and Kage Baker at your side; but you will hear what she heard, you will feel what she felt.
Two days ago, Mark Lewis died. I found out last night, coming in off the road after a long weekend at Dickens Fair – tired but happy, so freaking full of myself; we’d had a grand show that weekend, and I was still burning high. And Mark Lewis – was dead.
I can honestly say that, although we know we all must die – yes, and all whom we love as well – I found it easier to believe in my own death than Mark Lewis’. Gods spoke through that man. Kage knew as soon as she’d heard him once, that she wanted to dedicate her life to the same muse. I don’t compare to either of them, but you should find his work, Dear Readers, you should hear him and find out for yourselves. I don’t have the words to describe his. Maybe the famous Muse of Fire could do it, but she’d need a better vessel – Maybe one like Mark Lewis.
Sleep well, dear man.
O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend/ The brightest heaven of invention, A kingdom for a stage, princes to act./ And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!