The variety of story - Story-telling - Forms and genres - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


47. Story-telling


Mary Medlicott


The variety of story


Magic is a universal ingredient of different oral traditions, a central representation of the transformative power which stories and story-telling possess. There are many other common themes. However, different traditions also reflect the distinctive ways of life of the peoples who created them. Special characters and types of story emerge, often much loved by children. The Arabic world of the Middle East has Nasruddin Hodja, the wise man often regarded as a fool by others. Ghana has Ananse, half-man, half-spider, whose stories travelled with slavery to the Caribbean. America has Brer Rabbit. England has Jack. Russia has Baba Yaga, the witch both loved and feared. Almost everywhere, animals are important. Taking on different aspects of human personality, they are also reminders of the mythical time, where stories often begin, when humans could talk to animals and animals could talk to each other.

The innumerable bodies of story which represent the world’s oral traditions could scarcely have emerged without long passage of time and anonymity. Anonymity is particularly significant. From Homer onwards, oral stories coming into written literature acquired particular tellers who became closely associated with them. That process has continued. Hans Christian Andersen, well known in his own circles as a brilliant story-teller, especially with children, drew deeply on Scandinavian oral traditions in producing his written stories. Yet his stories do not easily lend themselves to being told as opposed to being read aloud. Nor would it be easy to contemplate retelling the Lake Wobegon stories of the contemporary American story-teller Garrison Keillor unless you were the man himself. Some stories become integral with particular people and their style. However, the stories of genuine oral tradition are characteristically the property of no one.

Anonymity differentiates the oral from the literary tradition. What happens when it is absent illustrates some of the problems the oral tradition has faced since the development of printing. Putting stories into writing tends to harness them to the phrasings and viewpoint of the particular writer. It also removes them from active memory: when people can go to a book for a story, they tend no longer to retain it in a readily tellable form. Thus while the great eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European folk-tale collectors such as Perrault in France, the Grimm brothers in Germany, Afanasiev in Russia, Asbj0rnsen and Moe in Norway, performed the great service to humanity of recording huge numbers of stories which might otherwise have disappeared, the publishing of folk tales inevitably changed some of the central facts of the oral tradition. When a story is written down, it no longer needs to be remembered. What works in speech does not always work on the page, and reading is generally a private activity whereas story-telling, by definition, is shared.