On Storytelling…

I’m thinking about storytelling this morning, and why we do it; I’m wondering about it because yesterday I came across another book, soon to be published, with a very similar premise to an idea I’ve been working on for a long time.  It’s not my WiP (which is a stroke of luck, sort of!) but something else I’ve written a lot of words on – something like 70,000 – and which I don’t really want to jettison out of hand.  I’m hoping there’s a nugget of story in there, something unique to me, which I can take and build on; something I can make which is different to what exists already.

I blogged recently about a similar theme – i.e. an idea which you’ve cherished and which you then see appearing in the world with a different author’s name on the cover – so I’m trying to take the positive out of it.  The positive is: I must be having good ideas.

But it’s funny, this impulse we have to tell stories, to make things up and to create plots and characters who do things, sometimes things we could or would never do ourselves.  What do we want to achieve as a result?  My ‘previous life’ as an academic who undertook research into texts and stories which were very old – as old as the language itself – means I’ve had an interest in this stuff for a long time.  Nowadays, perhaps, one of the impulses to tell stories is to achieve some sort of fame or immortality – to be remembered as a writer or a storyteller.  That’s a recent thing, in my opinion; so many of the most wonderful stories from the past are completely anonymous, including the vast majority of the medieval romances which I love so much.  I’ve often lamented the fact that we have no idea who wrote most of them, and I wish sometimes that they’d been a little more like modern writers and had thought to ‘sign’ their work.  The few ‘stars’ from the medieval period – Chaucer, Gower, Langland, Hoccleve, Malory, Marie de France (my personal heroine), among a small amount of others known only through the texts they wrote (like ‘the Gawain-poet’) – are vastly outnumbered by the writers of texts which display such skill and talent, and which are entirely free of any trace of their author.  That’s not to mention, of course, the texts which have been entirely lost; there’s no way of knowing how many are no longer in existence, what they were about, and who wrote them.  I lament, at times, for the lost hours of labour and love, sweat and toil, that went into the creation of works like these, of which no trace now remains.

The philosopher Richard Kearney once said something like: ‘We tell each other stories to tell each other who we are’.  If memory serves, he was talking about tales told around campfires by prehistoric men and women, who created the world around them every night after dark through stories and legends, but I think his insight can apply to everyone, and to every time.  In earlier ages, when the court poet (or ‘file’ in Irish) was one of the most important figures in the retinue because he knew the tribe’s history and was responsible for singing it into being, the idea of telling stories to bind a people together or, literally, tell them who they were, was vitally important.  It’s still important now.  It’s little wonder that the mythology of a country is closely guarded by its people, and why we are (or should be) very proud of our ‘national epic’; the English have the majestic Beowulf, the Finns their Kalevala, Icelanders their amazing Sagas and, in Ireland, we have our tales of the Sidhe, the Tuatha de Danann, the Firbolg, the Fomorians, Cuchulainn and Fionn MacCumhaill, among many others.  These sort of tales tell us what was important to our ancestors, what they feared and valued, the principles upon which they founded their societies.  For this reason, as well as the fact that they’re breathtaking works of art, they should be treasured by all of us.

Stories we tell can often say more about us than anything else – the kinds of characters we create betray our own fears and desires, our own loves and dreams; the kinds of situations they get into, and the means by which they make their daring escapes, tell the reader about the adventures dear to the author’s heart.  They might be seen as escapism and fantasy by a modern reader, but to earlier ‘readers’ (I should say ‘audiences’, as most early texts were, of course, recited aloud instead of read in private), they had the added thrill of being real.  When we read Beowulf now, we can caress the words describing the monster Grendel with our eyes and our minds, marvelling at the skill of the poet.  If we were listening to it around a fire in an eighth-century meadhall, we’d probably be more inclined to pull our cloak tighter around ourselves and hope desperately that tonight would not be the night that the monster would come calling.  We’d feel a greater and more passionate loyalty towards our fellow men, and a deep desire to protect our boundaries, our land, and pay homage to our king or liege-lord.  Perhaps that’s the real value of storytelling – it brings people together.  For the brief duration of the tale, every mind listening is focused on the same goal; every eye reading is in the same place, willing the characters on.  Characters, whether the irreproachable heroes of early sagas or the more fleshed-out, flawed human figures of later stories, carry the hopes and deepest desires of every human mind who has come into contact with them – including the mind that made them, and the minds who consume them.

But that’s just my two cents.  What other reasons are there for telling one another tales?  I can’t help but be influenced by my interest in the early periods of the world; has anyone any other thoughts?  Whatever stories you’re telling today, may they be good ones… Happy Tuesday to you all.

One thought on “On Storytelling…

  1. Rand Howard

    Lots of food for thought here this morning. I guess I have always been a storyteller. My mother knew I was going to be different than my brothers in many ways but one was that I would make up stories and tell them out loud whether anyone was listening or not. Later, I started reading books, which no one else in the family did except for my mother, and then would tell my brothers about them whether they wanted to hear or not. Yes, I was the odd child in the family.

    I have to ask myself why I want to tell a story about something that is so far out of my experience and direct knowledge. I don’t know, it has just stuck in my mind a long time ago and won’t go away. There is another WiP, that a cousin and I have been working on for many years, having to do with the family history in the American west during late 19th and early 20th century. It is complete to a point but could be made into a rather interesting novel. But, instead I am trying to work on something with a steep learning curve if it is to be ring true.

    I guess that is my answer, because it is a subject that I want to know more about, but I wish I had you academic background in the field. The Native Americans have a rich history in storytelling most of which is lost because, for the most part, there was no written language. I have thought about trying to take one of their legends and work that into my story but somehow they just don’t fit. There are some very good authors that have taken the Native American spiritual world into the modern time. From that standpoint, we do have a living group of story tellers passing on a tradition. I don’t feel I could pull that off. I do feel I can take an Anglo legend and make it fit into a 21st century geek world, but I may be fooling myself.

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