Once Upon a Flame | Ep. 210

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(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)
(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)

Think about a time you told a story.

Maybe you told the story of something that happened to you in your life. Maybe you made up a tale from your imagination. Or perhaps you retold a tale you’d already heard – maybe even on this podcast!

We’re about to meet a character who claims he has no stories to tell. And as a result, he gets swept into an adventure that he hopes will end happily ever after!

Our story is called“Once Upon a Flame.” It was adapted from tales told in the European country of Romania. You’ll also find related, but different, variations from Scotland and Ireland.

Voices in this story include: Ryan Dalusung, Jessica Rau, and William Mapother, whom you grown-ups may recognize from the hit TV series “Lost,” and the movies “Another Earth” and “On Sacred Ground.” Watch for him this fall in the western film, “Outlaws.”

This episode was adapted for Circle Round by Rebecca Sheir and Eric Shimelonis. It was edited by Nora Saks. Original music and sound design is by Eric Shimelonis. Our artist is Sabina Hahn.

Coloring Page

(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)
(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)

ADULTS! PRINT THIS so everyone can color while listening. We’re also keeping an album so share your picture on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and tag it with #CircleRound. We'd love to see it! To access all the coloring pages for past episodes, click HERE. Our resident artist is Sabina Hahn and you can learn more about her HERE.

Things To Think About After Listening

Believe it or not, this story marks the finale of Circle Round’s sixth season! Now that our season is drawing to a close, we invite you to make up a story of your own with a Storytelling Jar!

  1. Find an empty jar and some small pieces of scrap paper.
  2. On each piece of paper write a random word or phrase. You could write anything: zebra, football, purple, gigantic, “Here today, gone tomorrow,” “Ready or not, here I come!”
  3. Put your pieces of paper inside your jar.
  4. With some friends or family members, take turns pulling out a piece of paper.
  5. Read the word or phrase on your paper, then use it as inspiration for a story. Give your story a beginning, middle, and end, and let your imagination run wild!

Once you’ve finished your Storytelling Jar, send us a photo of you and your creation! Email us at

Musical Spotlight: Piano

Eric Shimelonis playing the 88-key piano; each key moves hammers that hit strings to make a sound. (courtesy of Rebecca Sheir)
Eric Shimelonis playing the 88-key piano; each key moves hammers that hit strings to make a sound. (courtesy of Rebecca Sheir)

Music scholars believe that Italian instrument maker Bartolomeo Cristofori invented the first piano in the early 1700s. Cristofori had been building clavichords: keyboards that could play softly and lightly (piano in Italian). He’d also been making harpsichords: keyboards that could play loudly and strongly (forte).

After a lot of tinkering, Cristofori created the piano: a keyboard instrument that could play all levels of dynamics! Thanks to felt-covered hammers that strike wire strings inside the instrument, the piano can play soft, sweet melodies, loud, epic ones... and everything in between!


NARRATOR: One chilly, blustery winter’s eve, three traveling merchants happened to cross paths on a country road. Their names were Milo:

MILO: Whew! This is some cold!

NARRATOR: Matilda:

MATILDA: I’m shivering in my boots!

NARRATOR: …and Magnus.

MAGNUS: We should take shelter for the night! But where???

NARRATOR: The merchants glanced around the wide open countryside, their eyes peeled for a house, cottage, or inn. At first, they saw nothing. But then…

MILO: Look there! Through the trees!

MATILDA: (Gasp!) Is that… a light?

MAGNUS: I believe so! Let’s follow it!

NARRATOR: The merchants’ feet crunched deep in the snow as they wound their way into a dark forest. When they came to a clearing, their chilled faces broke into warm grins. Because standing before them was a cozy red-brick cottage with tendrils of smoke curling from the chimney.

When they knocked on the was answered by an old woman with hair as white as sugar, skin as wrinkly as a prune, and a smile as wide as a rainbow.

WOMAN: Greetings! You three look frozen to the core! Who are you, and why are you wandering around in this bitter weather?

MILO: Well madam, I’m Milo…

MATILDA: I’m Matilda…

MAGNUS: …and I’m Magnus.

MILO: We are traveling merchants.

MATILDA: We met on the road, and need to take shelter from this storm!

MAGNUS: May we please come in?

WOMAN: Of course! Of course! Come sit by the fireplace. It’ll warm you up in no time.

NARRATOR: The merchants hurried inside and huddled in front of the crackling, blazing flames.

MILO: Good madam! We appreciate you taking us in!

MATILDA: What could we pay you for a bite of supper?

MAGNUS: And a place to lay our heads?

WOMAN: What could you pay me…? Well… since you asked… how about…one story.

NARRATOR: The merchants exchanged a confused look.

MILO: Uh, we’re sorry madam…

MATILDA: …but did you say…

MAGNUS: …“one story”?

WOMAN: That’s right! I would charge each of you one story! The way I see it, there’s nothing more precious than a spellbinding story — a tantalizing tale! So one by one, you will spin us a yarn… then you shall earn your room and board. How does that sound to you, Milo?

MILO: Well… it sounds a bit unusual, to be honest. But count me in! I love a good story!

WOMAN: Marvelous! And Matilda? How about you?

MATILDA: I’ve always enjoyed stories – telling them and hearing them! I’m in!

WOMAN: Good! And Magnus – what do you think?

NARRATOR: Magnus wasn’t as quick to respond. When he did answer the woman’s question, it was with a question of his own.

MAGNUS: So um, about this whole ‘telling a story’ thing… What would you do if, say, we didn’t have a story to tell…?

WOMAN: If you ‘didn’t have a story to tell’...?!?

NARRATOR: The woman paused. She furrowed her weathered brow.

WOMAN: …If you ‘didn’t have a story to tell,’ then it will be off with you! I’ll send you back out into the cold! But come now. Who in this world doesn’t have a story to tell?

NARRATOR: Magnus said nothing. He just tightened his lips and looked down at his hands.

WOMAN: Well friends, I have some hearty porridge warming on the stove. Let’s hear your stories, then we’ll all dig in! Milo! Shall we begin with you?

MILO: It would be my pleasure! Long ago, on opposite ends of town, there lived two brothers: Felix and Casper. Felix was so rich, that he threw all of his tarnished silver coins into the trash! But Casper and his wife were poor, so they decided they must sell their one and only cow, Clover. But instead of selling Clover, Casper wound up trading her for a talking, three-legged pot! Over the days that followed, Casper and his wife took very good care of the pot. And the pot kept skipping to Felix’s mansion, making off with all of his extra grain and fabric, and bringing them back to Casper and his wife, who were very grateful!

NARRATOR: The old woman’s smile grew bigger and bigger as Milo shared his story. She was beaming from ear to ear by the time he came to the end.

MILO: …Eventually, the pot made off with Felix, and carried him all the way to the North Pole! Then it skipped back to Casper and his wife, and gave them Felix’s tarnished silver coins. So the kind couple was rewarded for their kindness. And thanks to Felix’s cold heart, he was left in a very cold place!

WOMAN: Oh! What a charming story! And I love the lesson. You’ve definitely earned your supper, Milo. Now how about you, Matilda? Tell us your tale!

MATILDA: I’d be happy to! Once upon a time, Owl and Thrush were the best of friends. Back then, Thrush had feathers that sparkled with every color of the rainbow. One night, Owl and Thrush found a jewel-filled cave, owned by ogres! The ogres said the birds could bring home some jewels, as long as they never carried more than their own body weight. Owl and Thrush agreed and came back every night to pick up some glittering jewels, then fly them back home again. But Thrush became jealous of how many more jewels Owl could carry. So he snuck back to the Ogre’s cave to try to snatch more than his own body weight!

NARRATOR: The old woman’s eyes grew brighter and brighter as Matilda spun her yarn. They were positively sparkling as Matilda shared the conclusion.

MATILDA: But when Thrush tried carrying more than his own body weight in jewels, the ogres set the cave on fire! Thrush’s colorful feathers got burnt. And because he went back on his promise, he’s had drab feathers ever since.

WOMAN: Goodness! That was delightful, Matilda. We could all learn a lot from little thrush. You are more than welcome to a bowl of porridge. But let’s not forget our third storyteller this evening! Magnus? Are you ready to tell your tale?

NARRATOR: Magnus shifted uncomfortably.

MAGNUS: Um, yeah, about that… Uh… here’s the thing. I don’t have a story to tell.

NARRATOR: There was a moment’s silence. Then the old woman let loose with…

WOMAN: (Laugh)

NARRATOR: …a laugh!

WOMAN: Oh come now, Magnus. Surely you’re joking with us! You really don’t have a story to tell?!?

MILO: Yeah! Surely you heard stories when you were a young boy!

MAGNUS: If I did, I don’t remember any.

MATILDA: How about when you were a young man?


MILO: Well, how about a true story then?

MATILDA: Yeah! Something that’s happened in your life!

WOMAN: Milo and Matilda are onto something, Magnus! Surely you have a real-life event that you could share with us and –

MAGNUS: Enough already, okay??? I’m telling you! I don’t have any stories to tell!  Look, madam. Why can’t I just pay you money for my room and board? Why all this fuss over something as silly and insignificant as a story????

WOMAN: “Silly”...? “Insignificant”...?

NARRATOR: The woman fixed Magnus with a cold stare.

WOMAN: You’re actually telling me that you believe stories are “silly” and “insignificant”? Despite the entertainment they offer… the education… the enrichment… you are of the opinion that they’re nothing but foolish trifles? Well, if that’s what you truly believe, Magnus, then you can get out of my cottage! NOW!

NARRATOR: Before Magnus knew what was happening, the old woman lunged toward him, seized him by the arm, and lifted him from his chair!


NARRATOR: Then with a show of surprising strength, she pulled him across the room, drove him out the door…


NARRATOR: …and slammed it shut behind him.

MAGNUS: Jeez! I can hardly believe my luck! I have no shelter, no warmth, no food… all because I have no story?

NARRATOR: But as Magnus would soon learn, all of that was about to change. Because unbeknownst to our hapless hero… his story was just beginning!

What do you think will happen next?

We’ll find out, after a quick break.


NARRATOR: I’m Rebecca Sheir. Welcome back to Circle Round. Today our story is called “Once Upon a Flame.”

Before the break, three traveling merchants took shelter with an old woman on a cold winter’s night. In exchange for room and board, the woman asked each of the merchants to tell a story.

Milo and Matilda were happy to spin a yarn. But Magnus claimed he didn’t have any stories to tell… so the woman kicked him out of her cottage!

The snowflakes were so thick and clumpy, Magnus could hardly see as he stumbled through the forest in search of shelter. When at last he emerged from the woods, his eyes opened wide.

MAGNUS: Up that hill! I see a light! It must be a house! I hope whoever lives there is home – and they’ll take me in!

NARRATOR: Magnus raced up the steep, snowy hill as fast as his feet could carry him. And sure enough, at the very top he found a tiny one-room house.

But even though the house was tiny, a big ruckus was going on inside! Magnus clamped his hands over his ears as he squinted through the window.

MAGNUS: Could it be?!? This house is full of farm animals! I see two bleating goats, six squawking chickens, and one mooing brown cow! And look! They’re crowding out the poor family who lives here! I see a man, a woman, four children, plus a grandmother and grandfather, and they all look positively miserable!

NARRATOR: Magnus was desperate to get inside and feel some warmth, but he knew better than to knock on the door of the tiny one-room house.

So, bracing himself against a brisk gust of wind, he wrapped his arms around his trembling body and set off down the other side of the hill. When he reached the bottom, his heart gave a hopeful ping.

MAGNUS: Look! Through that tall wall of hedges! I see another light! Which could certainly be a house… and surely this one won’t be anywhere near as crowded!

NARRATOR: But when Magnus shoved the hedge’s prickly branches aside and pushed his way through…he clamped his hands over his ears! Again!

MAGNUS: Goodness gracious! Listen to that flute-playing! It’s completely off-key and off-pitch! And it’s making the dog howl and the cat yowl… I may be as frozen as a popsicle, but I am not going inside that house!

NARRATOR: So… as another gust of wind buffeted Magnus’s frigid frame… he resumed his trip across the snow-covered countryside.

His hands and feet were numb by now, and his breath froze into frosty white vapor each time he exhaled. Just when he was certain he couldn’t make it any farther, he came to another hill… topped with a brilliant glow that seemed to light up the sky!

MAGNUS: Ah! That light is surely coming from a very big house! A spacious one! Surely they’ll take me in!

NARRATOR: Magnus began trudging up the hill. As he climbed, he could have sworn he heard the pops and crackles of a fire, and he was almost positive he smelled woodsmoke.

And when he reached the top…


NARRATOR: …goosebumps rose on every inch of his body – and not just because he was frozen to the core. It was because the big house at the top of the hill… was surrounded by fire!

MAGNUS: This is the wildest thing I’ve ever seen! There’s a circle of fire around this house! A collection of flames racing and leaping around, without so much as touching the walls – let alone burning them!

NARRATOR: By now, the wind was blowing with such force it nearly lifted Magnus off the ground! Clumps of ice and snow were pelting him from every direction.

MAGNUS: Ugh! I can’t stay out here any longer! I know I’m standing outside a house encircled by flames, but I have to get inside. Otherwise I'll freeze to death!

NARRATOR: Magnus clenched his fists, lowered his head, then began charging toward the fire. But the moment he did…

…an explosion of sparks burst toward him like a firework!

MAGNUS: Yikes!

NARRATOR: Magnus leaped out of the way and tried approaching the house from another side, but the same thing happened!


NARRATOR: He decided he’d give it one more try, but this time…

…all the flames around the house seemed to unite as one… then come blazing toward him, chasing him like a giant, fiery tidal wave.

MAGNUS: Oh noooooo!

NARRATOR: Magnus turned around and took to his heels. He could feel the heat scorching his back as he tripped, staggered, and stumbled through the snow. He ran and he ran and he ran… until eventually, he found himself back in the forest, in front of the tiny red-brick cottage in the clearing. With trembling hands he grabbed hold of the door latch, gave it a turn, and to his delight…

…the door swung open – revealing the old woman, Milo, and Matilda, all sitting at the table eating their porridge. While Milo and Matilda wore a look of surprise...

MILO: Magnus!

MATILDA: You’re back!

NARRATOR: …the old woman wore a look of scorn.

WOMAN: Magnus. I explained the rules of my cottage, and what you must offer in exchange for my hospitality. You failed to follow those rules. So give me one good reason why I should allow you to come back in here.

MAGNUS: Ummmm… because I’m freezing-cold?

WOMAN: I need a better reason.

MAGNUS: Because I’m ravenously hungry?

WOMAN: Better than that!

MAGNUS: Because I… I…

NARRATOR: Magnus took a breath. He could still smell woodsmoke in his nostrils.

And that’s when it hit him.


NARRATOR: The old woman stared at Magnus. Her eyes were bright and unblinking. And then… all at once…

WOMAN: (Laughter)

NARRATOR: … she let out a laugh!

WOMAN: A story to tell?!?? Why didn’t you say so? Come in, Magnus! Come in and tell us your story!

NARRATOR: So… he did. He joined Milo, Matilda, and the old woman at the table and told them everything that happened after he got booted from the cottage. He told them about the tiny one-room house filled with farm animals… the off-key flute playing with the howling dog and yowling cat… and the big house encircled by flames that reflected off the snow and lit up the sky.

When Magnus finished his tale, Milo and Matilda were agog.

MILO: Woah! That was amazing, Magnus!

MATILDA: Yeah! That’s some story!

MAGNUS: Thank you, friends. But I have to confess: I don’t understand any of it! The house with the animals, the noisy flute-playing, the fires… what did it all mean?

NARRATOR: The old woman smiled.

WOMAN: Well Magnus, it just so happens I have the answer to your question.

MAGNUS: You do?

WOMAN: I do! Let’s start with the tiny one-room house. You see, the people who lived in that house had grown dissatisfied, always complaining that their house was too small. So someone very wise told them to bring in their farm animals, one by one. And now, mark my words, once those animals go back to their places in the barn, the people will realize they had it pretty good all along – and that it could always get worse.

NARRATOR: Magnus tilted his head as he took in the old woman’s words.

MAGNUS: So… that family was learning a lesson! Life is all about how we look at it. But what about the house with the flute playing? And the howling, yowling animals? How do you explain that?

WOMAN: Well… Inside that house was a budding musician. Since he’s just starting out, his flute-playing isn’t exactly as sweet as caramel or as light as a breeze or as bright as the stars. But he has to start somewhere… and he has to keep trying, no matter who tries to stop him. If he keeps at it, he’ll find that practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes progress!

NARRATOR: Magnus thought for a moment, then grinned.

MAGNUS: I totally get it! And that’s an excellent lesson! But I’m still confused about the house surrounded by fire! What does that mean?

NARRATOR: The old woman’s eyes twinkled – almost like two little flames.

WOMAN: The house surrounded by fire… that was a house where people had fallen asleep – after each one had told a story… and the listeners has learned something from it. Each and every one of those stories and lessons had transformed into a blazing, fiery flame.

MAGNUS: But… why?

WOMAN: Why? Because stories light up our lives! They keep us safe and protected by teaching us to be better people. So the fires were just doing their job, and protecting the people inside. That is why you’re doing such a good deed when you give someone a story. And I thank you for your gift, Magnus. I also commend you. For at long last, my friend… you have a story to tell. 

NARRATOR: The old woman laid a soft hand on Magnus’s shoulder. She gave a gentle squeeze, then she rose from the table and shuffled off to her room. The three merchants grabbed some pillows and bedded down on the floor by the fireplace. Milo immediately nodded off…

…as did Matilda…

…and just as Magnus began to drift into a warm and welcome sleep, he could have sworn he saw flames leaping and dancing outside the cottage windows, and he was almost certain he smelled woodsmoke.

Rebecca Sheir Host, Circle Round
Rebecca Sheir is the host "Circle Round," WBUR's kids storytelling podcast.



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