Cat Weatherill with her dulcimer

Cat Weatherill returned to open the 2005 Durham Literature Festival with a show based on three lais by Marie de France, the earliest known female French poet. She might have frozen for her art in the authentic surroundings of Crook Hall's medieval hall, but the stories that she told were designed to heat the blood. Only the gigantic masks (a vestige of sculptor David Gross's participation in the recent Art in the Garden exhibition) were unmoved: the audience were caught up in these tales of courtly lust, as if they had been written yesterday, not eight centuries ago.

Cat Weatherill built a bridge from then to now. She started with her surrounding, evoking the ghosts who doubtless lurk in the shadows of the old hall, before promising that she could almost certainly keep them at bay - unless... "Unless you have a mobile phone,", in which case they are likely to leap from their hiding place and rip your head off! She proceeded to draw a link between herself and the author on whose work her stories were based, Marie de France, about whom very little is known. She was almost certainly, said Cat, a travelling storyteller like herself, moving from court to manor house to monastery with her tales. And these narratives would surely have been accompanied by music, though this would have been played on the lute, the harp or the rote, not the Appalachian mountain dulcimer which she used.

Kissing the Wind twines together three of Marie's Lais. In Guigemar, a handsome knight finds himself isolated at the end of the hunt, and is cursed by the hind as it falls to the hounds: his wound will never be cured until he finds a woman for whom he will suffer all the pains of love, and she will suffer the same for him. This turns out to be not so much a curse as a blessing, for a magical ship arrives and carries him to the lady in question, and Guigemar learns about love's pleasures as well as its torments.

Cat Weatherill with her book, Barkbelly

Yonec ends less happily, although the situation of the unnamed heroine is similar; she is married to an older man, who keeps her shut away in a tower, for fear that she will find a lover. But her prayer is answered, and a worthy young suitor flies in through her window in the form of a hawk. This idyll has a tragic outcome for the lovers, but their son, Yonec, avenges them and inherits his father's title.

Guigemar is a Breton knight, and Yonec takes place in Wales, in Caerwent and in Caerleon-on-Usk; the middle ages would have classified both as part of the "Matter of Britain", that group of tales and legends of which the best known concern King Arthur. With Lanval the material becomes explicitly Arthurian: Lanval is a knight of Arthur's court who has been mysteriously overlooked when good things are being distributed. Fortunately, a beautiful lady takes pity on him, and showers him with love and riches - but there is a condition, that if he ever tells anyone about her, he will lose her love forever. Is this arbitrary demand proof of the lady's magical nature, or does it simply demonstrate the complete authority of the courtly lady over her suitor? Lanval finds out when, eventually, pressed beyond endurance, he blurts out his secret.

The three stories present in turn a hind, a hawk and the most beautiful lady in the world. In Kissing the Wind, Cat Weatherill brings them all together, in a tent in a glade in the forest, rather in the manner of the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. This is pleasing, and suggests a skill in weaving together different elements which promises well for her book, Barkbelly, which brings together pirates and magic and a circus - everything that will appeal to eight to twelve year olds!

Cat Weatherill talking to Herb Wharton

Cat Weatherill ended her performance by recommending the Festival's other storytelling events, with a particularly glowing endorsement of Ben Haggarty's appearance on October 1st. But the alliance of storytellers took on an international dimension which surprised even her, with the presence of Australian storyteller Herb Wharton, who is in England for an art show, and decided to use his rail pass to hear some stories told, Durham style.

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Simon Fanshawe