Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres

 

47. Story-telling

 

Mary Medlicott

 

Story-telling is often regarded as the ‘ur’ form, the base of all the arts. It combines the art of the tale, regarded in the Irish proverb as ‘worth more than all the wealth of the world’ , with the fundamental human propensity for seeing life in the form of stories. As Isaac Bashevis Singer put it, ‘Today, we live, but by tomorrow today will be a story. The whole world, all human life, is one long story’ (Singer 1976: 5).

The oral tradition was originally the basis of all knowledge. Prior to the development of writing, it was the only way to share and pass on actual or imaginative experience. The manner of the communication was also highly significant, since it involved direct contact between the listener and whoever was the story-teller, sometimes as part of special celebrations, often in the course of ordinary life.

The oral tradition consists of three main sorts of material. First are the inherited stories which include myths, legends, folk tales and fairy tales and all the proverbs, riddles and songs which traditionally accompany them. Second are life stories, many of which are also inherited. Accounts of personal, family and tribal events, these can be seen as the building blocks of history and the cement of social living. Third is the new material story-tellers create, sometimes weaving it so seamlessly into the old that its newness can scarcely be recognised except as creating the topicality and freshness which are major ingredients in helping tradition to survive.

For children, the materials of the oral tradition carry enormous educational potential as well as providing entertainment. In The Ordinary and the Fabulous, an influential book on using traditional literature with children, Elizabeth Cook argues that: ‘a grown-up understanding of life is incomplete without an understanding of myths, legends and fairy tales’ (Cook 1969: vii). Describing the power of story to empower and inspire, the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe observes in Anthills of the Savannah: ‘The story is our escort; without it we are blind.’

 

Co-existing traditions

 

There is vast variety in the world’s oral traditions. At the same time, most oral traditions themselves possess many different threads with key places such as palace or castle, temple or church, market square, kitchen and bedroom providing the focus for different kinds of stories and different modes of telling, the nature of each determined by the type of venue, the kind and size of audience and the expectations surrounding the story-teller.

In courtly traditions from ancient Greece to modern Africa, story-tellers entertained the chief or king, his entourage and guests. Normally highly trained, they undertook a long apprenticeship. In medieval Wales, such a story-teller was known by the name cyfarwydd, the familiar one, the one who knows the way. In contemporary West African countries such as the Gambia, comparable traditions are still upheld by the griot trained from childhood in the ancient stories, the music to which they are sung, and the history and genealogy of whoever is the griofs patron.

Story-telling has also played a vital part in esoteric and religious traditions, the simplicity, wisdom and depth of stories providing a form of teaching as important for the adult on the high slopes of spiritual search as for the child on the foothills of knowledge. Buddha, Mohammed, Christ and other great religious teachers spoke in the form of stories. Preachers of all kinds have maintained their example. In the West, Sunday School remained one of the few venues where the telling of stories survived even in the period of its general decline. The telling of stories retained similar importance in India, where for example the telling of the story of the Ramayana still plays a vital part in Hindu celebrations of Diwali. However, a characteristic of religious stories, especially in the modern age, has been their tendency to spread to new audiences outside the religions of which they have formed a part. The teaching stories of Sufism, for example, characteristically possess a pithiness of wit which has proved widely attractive to people not themselves followers of that religion’s beliefs. In other religious traditions, as for example among the Hasidic Jews or many North American Indian peoples, the important stories were specifically not to be shared with outsiders.

Market-place story-telling was typical in many cultures and is still to be observed, for example in Morocco. From North Africa and the Middle East to the Asian subcontinent and the Far East, it was the skill of the market-place or roadside story-teller not only to hold the attention of an audience but to attract it in the first place. Peripatetic story-tellers have also played their part in rural situations. Satisfying the hunger for new stories of remote rural communities, they too have helped create and maintain rich story-telling traditions, for example in the Chinese countryside.

Celebration and accord are the keynotes of community story-telling traditions. In Ireland, the ceilidh is the time for music, dancing and stories. Among the Xhosa in South Africa, intsomi is the term for the well-loved tales told on such occasions. In West Africa, dilemma tales are a speciality, a way of communally sorting out complex issues of psychology, ethics and imagination. Wherever the venue - Indian verandah, Maori marae or Scottish traveller’s tent - stories have traditionally been central in marking the community’s seasonal life and in developing and maintaining a sense of community spirit.

Although children were typically included in the community story-telling occasions of many different traditions, remaining present until they went to sleep, the occasions themselves were rarely specifically for them. Children had other times, especially bedtime, when stories were told and discussed, with grandmothers characteristically playing a vital role in cultures across the world.

Domestic story-telling was, however, not necessarily for children. The Egyptian writer Huda Shaarawi has described the visits of the flower-water seller to the women’s household as events that were especially enjoyed when she was growing up: the flower-water seller was a story-teller (1986: 46). Spinning, weaving and dress-making were also aspects of women’s lives that were closely linked with story-telling in numerous cultures of the ancient and recent past. The well-known European figure of Mother Goose, now integrally associated with children’s nursery rhymes, probably derived from the elderly women who ruled the kitchens of European households in past centuries and, in this role, told stories to the servant-girls when the day’s work was finished.