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

Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


47. Story-telling


Mary Medlicott


The renewal of story-telling


The contemporary revival of story-telling can be traced to a number of developments, including the rise of psychoanalysis and the new understanding of symbol and myth brought about by Jung and other writers such as Joseph Campbell and Bruno Bettelheim. After a revulsion against myths and fairy tales on the part of many parents and teachers on the grounds that they were too violent, the new understanding of their psychological value is currently helping to change attitudes about their suitability.

Another factor behind the revival was the twentieth-century increase in travel, with the consequent interspersing of peoples across the world and the new valuation of ethnicity and culture. In Britain, during the 1970s and early 1980s, for example, new cultural needs were felt - for instance, for children to learn why the celebration of Diwali is an important part of Indian life. This created a demand for story-tellers from different cultures to tell the religious stories and folk tales of their peoples. Over a similar period, a developing awareness of ecology was combining with new regard for the knowledge of primitive peoples to create an increased interest in traditional ways of life and the wisdom enshrined in the world’s oral traditions. The growth in the children’s book market, too, began making widely available, often in colourful picture-book format, traditional stories which had previously languished in obscure collections. Gail E. Haley’s version of an Ananse tale, A Story, a Story (1970), and Joanna Troughton’s version of the Aboriginal story of Tiddalik (What Made Tiddalik Laugh (1992)) are examples of what has become an important genre.

In Britain, revival was apparent in such developments as the foundation of the now- defunct College of Story-tellers, which took much of its inspiration from Sufi stories and the work of Idries Shah; the forming of the multicultural troupe of story-tellers and musicians, Common Lore; and the organisation of major story-telling festivals for adults, the first taking place in Battersea in 1985. Story-telling gained ground in schools and libraries, reminiscence work was done with elderly people and story-telling therapies began to be developed with disabled and ill people. In education, the National Oracy Project was influential, with numerous projects and publications drawing attention to the importance of story, the abundance of techniques for working with it and the value of encouraging children to see themselves as tellers. A new breed of professional story-teller emerged from these many developments, with the renewal also gaining immensely from the fresh opportunities it brought to traditional tellers like Duncan Williamson, a Scottish traveller who claims to know more than 2,000 stories, some of which have been transcribed in Fireside Tales (1983) and other collections.

The renewal in Britain was marked and crystallised by the formation in 1993 of the Society for Storytelling, an organisation including among its membership both those who tell stories on a professional or non-professional basis and those who simply enjoy listening. The Society’s wide-ranging activities have included a special focus on the potential of story-telling in education. Scotland and Ireland, where renewal saw especially fertile new connections being made with old oral traditions that were still surviving, have both subsequently instituted a guild of professional story-tellers with accompanying growth in the spread and type of story-telling events in both countries. A significant further development throughout Britain has been the springing up of local story-telling clubs for adults.

Much of the impetus for the story-telling renewal in Britain came from America, where story-telling for children had long been a feature of the public-library system. The growing success of the major annual story-telling festival at Jonesborough, Tennessee, and the formation of NAPPS (the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Story-telling), subsequently renamed as the National Association for Storytelling, gave focus to a substantial renewal evidenced in the prevalence across the country of storytelling festivals, clubs, conferences, workshops, college courses, and a flourishing market of books and cassettes related to story-telling.

The USA was ethnically a fertile ground for story-telling renewal. Already home to the numerous rich story-telling traditions of the Native American Indian peoples, it had also become host to a huge variety and number of other ethnic traditions, first with slavery, then with the influx of immigrants from other countries and continents. These varied traditions are now well represented in the spread and variety of the work offered by America’s professional story-tellers. Canada too has made a distinguished contribution. Toronto’s Public Library Service pioneered story-telling training and provision at Boys’ and Girls’ House, and the Toronto School of Storytelling became important.

Neither in America nor in Britain was the revival in story-telling a sudden movement. In Britain, the poet John Masefield had developed a passionate interest, although he failed to get a planned Guild of Story-tellers off the ground. The librarian Eileen Colwell was a pioneer, instituting regular story-telling sessions as a feature of England’s first children’s libraries in the 1920s and, in A Story-teller’s Choice and other books, she created useful collections of good stories for telling with notes about how to tell them. In the USA, Marie Shedlock, author of The Art of the Story-teller, and Ruth Sawyer, author of The Way of the Story-teller, had both been highly influential, drawing particular attention to the value of story-telling with children.

Story-telling revivals have now gained momentum in countries across the world. In Australia, the stories of the Dreamtime have assumed new importance as part of the Aboriginal fight for political and cultural rights. In Iran, story-telling has been introduced as a significant feature of teacher-training. In France, through the work of Abbi Patrix and others, considerable experiment has taken place in story-telling as a performance art. Throughout the world, public attention has been drawn to the cultural, spiritual and educational importance of stories by means of festivals such as Beyond the Border at St Donat’s in South Wales; the Festival at the Edge in Shropshire, England; the Scottish International Storytelling Festival in Edinburgh; the Glistening Waters Storytelling Festival in New Zealand; the Vancouver Storytelling Festival; and innumerable others, in Germany, France and other European countries.

Story-telling has in the process of renewal acquired many interesting new contexts for its occurrence, as for instance in Japan where, in the period after the Second World War, the innovative bunko movement provided a way of compensating for the absence of libraries for children. A system in which people with private stocks of suitable books invite neighbourhood children to their homes to borrow their books on an informal basis, the bunko movement remains widespread. Especially since the influential visits to Japan of the English librarian-story-teller Eileen Colwell, it has encouraged oral story-telling, with many bunko mothers taking on the role of story-tellers to the children visiting their homes, extending the children’s interest in stories by this approach.

The modern renewal in story-telling has also raised a number of contentious issues. One which has been strongly felt, for instance among North American Indian story-tellers, is the question of whether stories may be told by people from outside the communities where the stories originated. A second not unrelated issue concerns copyright. Of particular relevance when story-tellers are being paid for their work, the question relates to the ownership not only of a story but also of the manner of its telling. To whom does the story and the telling belong when they have been developed for performance by a particular story-teller?