A Look Back at Jim Henson’s The StoryTeller

Michael Wermuth, Jr. – I’ve been watching The StoryTeller quite a bit lately, and it is such a great series. The concept of the series was suggested to Jim Henson by his daughter, Lisa, who had been studying obscure folk tales. Nine episodes were made in 1987, but the episodes were broadcast really infrequently until 1989, when the remaining unaired episodes were shown as part of The Jim Henson Hour (and even then, one episode wouldn’t air in the United States until HBO started rerunning the series in 1997). The series starred John Hurt as the titular storyteller, accompanied by Dog, who was performed by Brian Henson and helped steal the show, providing wisecracks, asides, and insight into the stories. They were the only regular characters, but were rarely part of the actual stories told. The two played supporting roles in “Hans, My Hedgehog,” and the storyteller himself was the star of “A Story Short,” but otherwise the episodes featured their own characters. 
Jim Henson’s Creature Shop created many creatures for the show, and many of them make the show so great. Among the creatures are the devils from “The Soldier and Death,” The Griffin from “The Luck Child,” and the lion from “The True Bride.” Some stories, such as “Sapsorrow,” only have realistic animal characters who don’t actually talk, and some creatures, such as The Storyteller when transformed into a hare in “A Story Short,” are only there for one scene. The actors in these stories also do wonderful jobs, though I can’t remember any of their names off-hand (except for Jennifer Saunders, who plays one of the bad sisters in “Sapsorrow”). Many of these actors would later become well-known stars, but with the exception of Jennifer Saunders I don’t know what they are famous for. The show’s music is also good, sounding like ancient classical music. 
The best episodes are the ones that aired as part of The Jim Henson Hour. My favorite episode is “The Soldier and Death,” one of two (along with “The Heartless Giant”) directed by Jim Henson. This story combines multiple folk tales to tell the story of a soldier who obtains a magical sack which he uses to capture Death, allowing everybody to live forever, but when people (including the soldier himself) start to grow old and want to die, he lets Death free, only for Death to be afraid to go anywhere near the solider. It’s such a great story, the devils are very funny and steal the show, and it has such a bittersweet ending. While the ones from The Jim Henson Hour are the best, my least-favorite also happens to be one that aired on The Jim Henson Hour, that one being “The Three Ravens.” I don’t know why, but whenever I watch that one, I have trouble paying attention. The same can be said about “Hans, My Hedgehog” and the entire StoryTeller: Greek Myths series. 
I feel like “Fearnot” is a rather underrated episode. It’s such an interesting story, about a young man named Fearnot who does not know how to fear or shudder, so he goes on a journey to find out. He encounters a number of scary characters and situations, but doesn’t fear them, and his lack of fear makes him quite lucky. He makes a friend who tries and fails to help him, but he seems like a good friend, and I like the look of the scary characters he meets. Some of the other great episodes include “The Luck Child,” in which a king wants a “luck child” to be killed, “Sapsorrow,” a retelling of Cinderella with the title character posing as a rotten-looking servant, and “The Heartless Giant,” in which a boy tries to save his brothers from a giant with no heart. 
While there aren’t many episodes of The StoryTeller, most of them are great. All nine episodes (as well as all four episodes of The StoryTeller: Greek Myths) are available on DVD. The series is a treasure that belongs in the collections of any fans of the work of Jim Henson.

The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier, muppetmindset@gmail.com

4 thoughts on “A Look Back at Jim Henson’s The StoryTeller

  1. It's interesting that your two least favorites were my two favorites…The Three Ravens and Hans-My-Hedgehog. The latter consumed my imagination as a child. Overall, the series was top notch and I wish there had been more of them. Nice post!

  2. I too loved Hans-My-Hedgehog and very much liked The Three Ravens, although the latter would not be counted as a favorite.

    My favorite by far was The Soldier and Death. An incredible retelling and combining of two other Russian folktales I knew from childhood. The Heartless Giant is similarly excellent and has a recombined pedigree. Fearnot is also superb.

    I have to say that The Storyteller is perhaps my favorite non-Muppets Henson production aside from Labyrinth. Labyrinth beats it out but only just. It is very difficult for anything to compete with a movie that has Henson mentality, Fround design and David Bowie music.

    I was not all that intrigued by the Greek Myths version of the series. It lacked something the original series had, not the least of which was John Hurt.

  3. Sean Bean (from “The True Bride”) went on to star as Boromir in “The Lord of the Rings” and is currently on “Game of Thrones”. Jonathan Pryce (“The Three Ravens”) starred in the West End and on Broadway in “Miss Saigon”, was in the film version of “Evita” and in “Brazil”, among many other films.

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