The decline of oral tradition - Story-telling - Forms and genres - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


47. Story-telling


Mary Medlicott


The decline of oral tradition


Loss and change in the world’s oral traditions is still acute today. As the continent of Africa and other areas experience a huge loss of native languages and the change away from traditional rural patterns of life that happened much earlier in other parts of the world, so whole bodies of story are lost along with the circumstances in which they would have been told. The depredations of Aids have also become a new agent accelerating the decline.

Decline in the oral tradition has, however, never been a straightforward issue. As is shown by a number of essays in a recent anthology of research papers, Traditional Storytelling Today (Macdonald 1999), the oral and literary traditions in a number of ancient cultures such as Iran and India successfully co-existed over many centuries, with each continually providing new stimuli to the other as stories moved back and forth between them. Nonetheless the growth of literacy and mass publishing can undoubtedly be seen as major reasons behind a worldwide decline in the oral tradition. Collectors such as Pitre in nineteenth-century Sicily noted that many of the best story-tellers with the biggest repertoires were themselves illiterate. The advance of literacy undermined the traditional tellers, diminishing the respect that they had been accorded. The coming of television quickened the process. A story is told of a story-teller in a pub in Ireland, in the middle of telling a tale when the television was switched on. He stopped in the middle of what he was saying and never told again.

Changes in social structures and the circumstances in which people meet together have furthered the processes of decline as people worldwide have tended to move into cities, leaving behind the natural, long-established venues for story-telling. Even the development of central heating has been a factor as, in the northern hemisphere, traditional fireside settings became redundant or non-existent. A further significant factor has been the increase in social mobility and the decrease in size of family units, with these often no longer including grandmothers and other such mainstays of domestic tradition.

The writing down of folk stories and myths, which was eventually to bear fruit in the current renewal of story-telling, also had the effect that it often led to a misunderstanding of the nature of the stories themselves and the audiences for whom they were intended. When a story is written down, not only the choice of words but also the choice of audience assumes a fixed and long-term importance. As well as adopting a highly literary style, numerous of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century story-collectors, such as Perrault with ‘Cinderella’, decided that folk tales and fairy tales were meant for children. Since then, children have increasingly benefited from the presentation to them, often in picture-book form, of stories from all round the world which had previously been part of adult belief-systems.