Monday, September 29, 2008

Once upon a time

I've been thinking a lot about the role of storytelling in a community, and (quite easily) convinced myself to go spelunking around the university library stacks. There is a whole field, or several fields, of study on this, ranging from folklore to English theory to anthropology and all sorts of academic self-congratulatory pap. But mixed in is some good stuff.

I stumbled across John D. Niles's Homo Narrans, flipped through a few pages, and checked it out. This is a fascinating exploration of the role of storytelling disguised as an academic piece on Beowulf and oral narrative.

Seriously, this is good stuff, and has helped focus some of my own thoughts. For example:

I believe that a group of people needs stories like they need air and love and nourishment. That stories help place us in our own history; help define what is right and wrong; explain why good things and bad things happen. They pull us together; they are a link to the past as well as the unimagined but optimistic future.

Stories are the way we breathe with the world outside our own immediate experience, and I think when people stop telling stories their society becomes stale and dried up and brittle. Stories breathe as they are told and read and remembered and re-told. They change. They're alive.

Somewhere I read that prisoners in a concentration camp in WWII would recite, from memory, entire passages of Shakespeare or the Odyssey, scratching the old words on bricks or wood. Something about that gave them strength, I like to think: the idea that a character and his or her misfortunes and fortunes, choices, villains, adventures ... somehow endure beyond the life of the storyteller, even beyond the life of the society that produced the story.

So why tell stories? I can't help it, though often they are thought to be "lies" (Recently I tried to convince my wife that a "goat" is just what we call a recently shorn sheep. Same animal.) But it's not just elements of stories I'm talking about. Not just a magic bean, or a three-legged ox or a green-faced monster that lives at the bottom of a fog-shrouded pool.

It's the story. The what-happens-next? The listeners or readers or watchers of this spun reality who are somehow drawn into it until they feel the chill of the characters in winter, they feel the hot anger or betrayal or fear. The thing that happens when a story is "experienced," for lack of a better word ... well, this, as Gordon Gecko would say, is good. It works.

Storytelling is what makes us who we are, from fur-clad proto-humans huddled around a fire to sailors passing the graveyard watch, a circle of kids listening to Where the Red Fern Grows.

Light the fire and dim the lights. Close the door against the dark and the rain. Step closer, children. I'm going tell a story.

Once upon a time...

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