The Running Muse

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Running Food

By The Running Muse, Apr 24 2015 03:37PM

You would be hard pushed to find any literary genre which has no references at all to running. From the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad and the Bible through to Shakespearean drama, children's tales and the full range of poetry and novels, there is plenty of fleeing and racing and chasing to punctuate the stories as they unfold.

As metaphor, running can bring a sense of intense emotional movement or an urgent striving in the lives of the characters, a psychological energy that embraces a need for freedom and escape, maybe, or for direction and self-control.

'With both legs on, I go faster than a bird can fly', says a one-legged character, for instance, in Philip Pullman's translation of 'Six who Made their Way in the World' (aka 'The Six Servants'), one of the Children's and Household Tales collected in the early nineteenth century by the Brothers Grimm.

This proto-paralympian, whose other leg has to be strapped on, has been recruited to run in a race against a princess for marriage or death, during which he grabs a bit of a kip half way around.

Already we can recognise elements from other tales here - from Ovid's Atalanta story, for instance, or from Aesop's fable, The Tortoise and the Hare. This particular story also involves the assembly of a team with specialist skills in pursuit of a common goal, a theme which finds later echoes in the world of cinema, such as in Akiro Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai (as well as its western remake, John Sturges' The Magnificent Seven) and the Ocean's 11 movies.

In addition, while one-legged runners had once been organised as freakshow entertainment in 'cripple races', the one-legged characters of literature have often been portrayed as strong and obsessive in their quests. Robert Louis Stevenson's pirate anti-hero in Treasure Island, Long John Silver, for instance, could run with or without his crutch 'with the speed and security of a trained gymnast' (see him taking that curve below!). Melville's Captain Ahab in Moby Dick also springs to mind.

Falling between those two stools, perhaps, is a 1964 'Beyond the Fringe' sketch in which a one-legged Dudley Moore is determined to audition for the role of Tarzan - 'a role for which two legs would seem to be the minimum requirement', as Peter Cook tells him.......'your right leg is perfect, I've got nothing against your right leg - unfortunately, neither have you'. Nevertheless, and notwithstanding the comedy, Dud is on a challenging quest of sorts, albeit articulated in a way that may grate on modern ears.

These are just some of the motifs in this one short fairytale that crop up time and time again in all kinds of sagas and legends from different eras, regions, media and cultures. There may appear to be as many different kinds of stories around the world as there are imaginations to create them, but there are those who claim to have identified just a handful of fundamental plots underlying all of them.

Cultural transmission through migration and trade can only partially account for the way so many tales have evolved independently over millennia in widely separated lands, and explanations for this are likely to be found amongst traits or experiences that have common elements for us all.

Candidates include our relationship with natural phenomena, or perhaps the structure of the brain and the psyche that emerges from it, or even the capabilities and limitations of our physical bodies - which include running, of course, a very common narrative theme as the goodies and baddies pursue each other or evade archetypal dangers. Another one is food.

Comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell has suggested that even this small set of basic narratives derives from one universal 'monomyth', but the classification of folktales has moved in the opposite direction. The Arne-Thompson 'tale type index' recognises over two thousand categories (with titles including 'The Grateful Dead' and The White Snake', rock fans!), number 2025 of which is - yep, you've guessed it - running food.

Now regular readers will be aware that The Running Muse would not be taking up your time with anything as useful as nutritional advice for your PB - the 'running food' of our title simply refers to food that runs, more specifically to food that runs away. Oh, and talks.

Probably the most widely read running quote ever comes from the sugary mouth of a fugitive biscuit: "Run, run as fast as you can! You can't catch me, I'm the Gingerbread Man!"

This charming boast from the children's story, The Gingerbread Man, also known as The Gingerbread Runner or the Gingerbread Boy, was originally an oral tale from the US, first published in 1875. It will be familiar to older readers from the Ladybird book and to younger ones in the animated film, 'Shrek', in which an evil prince chants the above refrain as he pulls off our hero's legs during interrogation.

In the printed versions, the half-baked ginge - half man, half biscuit - escapes from the oven, but is pursued across the countryside by various people and animals. Perhaps unwisely, he repeatedly taunts their running ability as he stretches away from them, but, like any cocky runner getting a deserved comeuppance, he eventually meets his match. As the rhythm of the story builds up to a climax, it is from the jaws of the cunning fox that we hear his pathetic cries: 'I'm quarter gone....I'm half gone....I'm three quarters gone....I'm all gone!'

It's not often that anyone commentates on their own death quite so resignedly - 'Help!' would have perhaps been a more effective survival strategy - but there is an explicit lesson for children to absorb here, a moral case that is presented to them in a more familiar way than, say, in the isolated 'pride comes before a fall' from the biblical Proverbs, or in more complex narratives where arrogance (hubris) meets with retribution (nemesis), such as in the Greek myths.

Themes of food, hunger and survival are staple ingredients of fairy tales. They offer 'contradictory metaphors of life and civilisation as well as barbarity and extinction', as mythographer Marina Warner puts it, adding that 'control of food - procuring it, preparing it, cooking it, eating it - lies at the heart of determining who eats and who gets eaten in the material of fairytale', the Grimms' 'Hansel and Gretel' being an egregious example.

Runaway food seems to tap into that anxiety. The academic name for such folktales is 'The Fleeing Pancake', a genre which includes the adventures of an elusive Hungarian cheese that eats people, the thrilling escape of a whole vegetarian dinner, and a modern version of The Gingerbread Man by Eric Kimmel that has a tortilla outrunning predators in a rattlesnake-infested Texan desert.....until it meets a wily coyote.

Back in the real world of 10k's, I myself tell the story of my fruitless pursuit of an impressively speedy banana in a race. Now I wonder which of those seven basic narrative plots my highly embellished account would be filed under: 'overcoming the monster', 'voyage and return', 'rebirth', 'comedy', 'tragedy', 'the quest' or 'rags to riches'.

And which one of those, dear reader, do you think best describes the story of your own running life? Most of them, perhaps?

Well, whichever, our tale of the runaway biscuit will certainly strike a chord for those of you afflicted with that bane of many a runner bouncing their bowels along a marathon route, the 'runner's trots', a kind of diarrhoea often known as........'the gingerbread man'!

Yep, it really is - I'll leave you to work out why, but let's just say I've witnessed many a long distance runner suddenly increase the tempo to 5k pace while veering off in the direction of roadside bushes.

'In my end is my beginning', as the poet said.

The Seven Basic Plots: why we tell stories (2004) by Christopher Booker

Grimm Tales: For Young and Old (2013) by Philip Pullman

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Any other runners out there who think there is much more to running than physical exertion?


Well, you're not alone - ever since the earliest cave paintings, the meaning and pleasure of the running experience has been explored by writers, painters and composers, by philosophers, film-makers and dramatists.


Comedians have laughed at it, scientists have analysed it, and historians have chronicled its cultural resonance. The Running Muse will be nourishing your runner's soul with stories from all of them.


Even the sweatiest of ancient Greek gyms were also places of intellectual endeavour, so welcome to a new blog for the thinking runner, a miscellany of musings on running in culture that will be navigating the existential wonders of putting one foot in front of the other.


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