Storytelling is a universal human activity that involves kaleidoscopic variations across time, culture, form, and personality. From prehistoric pictograms to current computer networks, people have cast their stories in countless ways: as verbal narrative in the oral, print, and electronic traditions; as music, dance, and graphic image; and as film, television, and theater productions. Stories that one absorbs as a child imprint patterns of language, literature, and social values; stories that one chooses to remember and pass on reflect the elements most important in a lifetime. Stories shape both individuals and groups. This significance makes storytelling a subject of study in numerous fields, including folklore, anthropology, sociology, psychology, speech/communication, library and information science, education, religion, literature, and theater. Each of these domains emphasizes different aspects, but almost any exploration of storytelling involves an interdisciplinary approach in dealing with the complexities of story and society, the interaction of text and context.
The Nature of Storytelling
Most courses in storytelling emphasize the oral tradition, past and present. Students work with selection, absorption, and narration of folklore for a broad range of age groups, from cumulative tales for preschool children to oral history among the elderly. Fieldwork and practical experience in collecting and swapping stories leads to a deeper theoretical understanding of the nature of story and its place in society. Background in folklore and its dissemination, awareness of ongoing controversies about the meaning and interpretation of narratives, and practice in oral interpretation and planning programs are all essential. Most important is an appreciation of the enormous range and depth of story—from myth, epic, ballad, legend, folktale, literary tale, and family narrative to personal anecdote—and the confidence that each person is already a storyteller with the potential to become a better one. The stage for storytelling "performances" can include homes, schools, workplaces, and all kinds of social and recreational situations. Listening to stories acculturates individuals, while telling stories reveals who they are.
Although storytelling is an activity for all ages, children are often considered a natural audience because stories are a memorable way to communicate knowledge. Storytelling in educational settings increases concentration span, expands vocabulary, enriches cultural literacy, transmits patterns of language and narrative, and bonds children with literature. Folktales make an especially valuable story foundation for young listeners because characters fall into archetypes such as hero, villain, trickster, helper; plots often assume the form of a journey or quest with a clear beginning, middle, and end; style is clean and simple; and settings and details are spare and symbolic. Experts disagree on the meaning and effects of such tales. Bruno Bettelheim, for instance, argues from a Freudian perspective in The Uses of Enchantment (1976) that fairy tales represent crucial stages of psychological development. Many folklorists, however, see Bettelheim as universalizing from a few specific European sources, and Jack Zipes in Breaking the Magic Spell (1979) argues from a Marxist-feminist position that Bettelheim neglects the sociopolitical implications of fairy tales. Folklorist Max Lüthi in The Fairytale as Art Form and Portrait of Man (1984) interprets the aesthetic characteristics of folktale. Robert Darnton asserts, from the viewpoint of a cultural anthropologist in The Great Cat Massacre (1984), that many fairy tales depict actual conditions during historical periods of common child abuse and abandonment.
Since many folktales fall into patterns that seem to repeat themselves in various times and cultures, folklorists have categorized and numbered them by tale type. Cinderella, for instance, is classified as Tale Type 510A and has hundreds of variants, each with a similar structure but different details. Another classification system involves motifs, or story elements that appear in different tale types. These are useful in studying stories but have come under fire as oversimplifying stories and taking them out of context. While structural-ists find common characteristics of stories to reveal global patterns, contextualists maintain that the real meaning of a story depends on the values and belief systems of its particular culture. Joseph Campbell, famous for his identification of a universal myth pattern in The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949), has been accused of reducing all stories to one ur-tale or "model" in a way that uproots their meaning in different social contexts.
Other controversies center on the ownership of stories. Does a European American, for instance, have the right to adapt a Native American story, make changes, and tell or publish it without tribal consent? Does copyright law favor an outsider's private authorship of materials that were in fact generated over a long period of time by a group of people who have no control over or share in profits from their cultural heritage? Equally problematic is the clash of values in a multicultural society exposed to stories that potentially offend conflicting segments of a community. Storytellers have been challenged in schools and libraries for introducing tales that some parents consider violent, sexist, or otherwise offensive. Mass media storytelling, too, has raised issues of selection and adaptation; Disney's films have been both celebrated and censured for representing changes in classic fairy tales.
Nineteenth-century folklore collections reflected a concurrent rise of nationalism. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm are by far the most famous collectors of German tales; Peter Asbjornsen and Jorgen Moe, of Scandinavian; Aleksandr Afanas'ef, of Russian; and Joseph Jacobs, of British. Charles Perrault is famous for his earlier (1698) collection of French fairy tales. In the United States, collectors have often concentrated on regions or genres, with Richard Chase, for example, collecting and retelling Appalachian tales, and Jan Harold Brunvand specializing in urban legends. As definitions of folklore have expanded to include storytelling in factories, corporations, therapy groups, nursing homes, urban gangs, and other contemporary settings, informal storytelling has become a common subject for ethnographers analyzing organizations of all kinds. Stories about the founding partner of a law firm, for instance, may be the truest indicators of the culture of that firm. Similarly, the stories passed around a class of students in a long-distance education program can reflect the value system of an electronic community as well as the legendary aspects of the effects of computer technology on the individual, for better or for worse. Long before people become adults, however, stories permeate their lives.
The Storied Life
Humans are immersed in stories even before birth. A fetus floats in a dark, warm world of its own. It cannot see, but it can sense the beat of a heart. Whatever else intrudes on its senses, that beat is basic, rhythmic, and sure, organizing the baby's sensibilities into a predictable pattern. Heartbeat is the first storyteller. The baby also hears, in its underwater world, bumps and thumps from far away and one other sound, steady, up and down, silent, and steady again. The voice of the baby's mother moves in patterns even as the baby's brain is formed. With the rhythm of those patterns is born the baby's story self: its sense of emphasis, continuity, and—above all— the rise and fall of sounds that lead to expected patterns. Patterns elicit order from disorder; stories, which are patterns of sound and narrative, also elicit order from disorder. Even submerged, the baby is exposed to the very elements of story. After it is born, the child's story self develops with the acquisition of language, interacts with stories that it hears informally, extends into literacy, intertwines with literature, and embraces social culture. From lullabies to nursery rhymes to finger games to folktales to fairy tales to family lore, children absorb patterns of language and narrative from hearing stories.
From hearing stories, children learn to tell stories, progressing from unformed efforts at description to clearly articulated realistic accounts to expressive flights of imagination. There are many theories about this development. Arthur Applebee, in his book The Child's Concept of Story: Ages Two to Seventeen (1978), says that children organize stories in increasingly sophisticated arrangements, beginning with a first primitive level called "heaps," or stories containing no obvious means of organization, and progressing through a second level he identifies as "sequences," or stories with a particular idea that associates their elements. The third level is "primitive narrative," in which elements are associated by complementary relations, with the consequences of certain actions becoming important. The fourth level consists of "unfocused chains" organized into chunks that bear some relation to each other; the fifth level involves "focused chains," with one central character maintained throughout; and the last is "narrative," in which events are organized to form a coherent whole. A study by developmental psychologist Peggy Miller has shown adults and children narrating or co-nar-rating from four to thirteen personal stories every hour among families of African-American, Anglo-American, and Chinese backgrounds.
As an effective form of socialization and acculturation, storytelling helps integrate the old and the new. One tells old stories to new children to help integrate them into society. One tells old stories about new events to enlist the wisdom of those who have gone before. Even new stories reveal old patterns, because stories symbolize human experience. This balance of the old with the new is something everyone seeks, on both an individual and an international level. Every nation, industrialized or developing, has a common need to balance the preservation of unique traditions with the incorporation of global changes. Every community struggles to maintain self-identity while merging with an increasingly diffuse world community.
Storytelling allows people to strike this balance: While vastly different cultures share common motifs and tale types, each tale carries its own cultural flavor. When people share traditional stories, they are not only passing along their own cultural values, but also sharing a universal tradition. As the world has moved from oral to printed to electronic modes of communication, the interpersonal sometimes seems lost to the impersonal, but storytelling is an irrepressible activity. The Internet carries a frequent exchange of urban legends, which are often variants of older rural legends making themselves at home in the city. Traditional stories travel well, but, paradoxically, they also root easily.
Most people are familiar with a variant of the persecuted heroine, often called Cinderella, and can identify with the child abandoned in a wilderness. This is one of the most common motifs in folklore precisely because abandonment is the child's—and many an adult's —deepest fear. From Ishmael or Moses, to Aladdin, to Hansel and Gretel, to Babar the Elephant, to E.T., the generations recast this fear and resolve it in story form. Each community shapes the problem according to its own landscape: Ishmael survives a desert; Moses, a river; Aladdin, a cave; Hansel and Gretel, a forest; Babar, a journey to the city; and E.T., an odyssey among modern scientific earthlings. In "The Story of Two Jealous Sisters" from The Arabian Nights, all three of the sultan's children— Bahman, Perviz, and Parizade—are abandoned to a river before they win their rightful place. Anyone can identify with those children, especially with Parizade, who combines courage, virtue, and quick wit to save her brothers and fulfill her fate.
The same baby who was described earlier as being imprinted with the patterns of her mother's voice before the first breath was taken will move with bated breath through the patterns of "The Story of Two Jealous Sisters" and learn from it the value of courage, virtue, and quick wit. Stories teach the art of survival, and they offer hope for the small, the vulnerable, and the powerless. Humans of all ages have within them the elements of hero and of villain. Stories help to distinguish one element from the other and to make decisions about which role to choose. By communicating social experience through archetypal characters and symbolic conflict, traditional stories help pattern people's lives in a socially thoughtful way. The more confused and threatening a situation becomes, the more need there is to understand stories that have cast light on the pathways of the past. The generations living at the beginning of the twenty-first century, who must formulate peaceful alternatives to nuclear extinction, can find inspiration in the epic of Gilgamesh, where the wild man Enkido leads a king to be more humane, offering friendship to end their battle for supremacy.
Each community and nation abounds in story. Paradoxically, the poorest communities are sometimes the richest in story wealth. It is of national and, ultimately, of global importance that each community glean its stories and preserve them by passing them on. Old people, who are often the unsung heroes of tradition in a modern world that under-values traditional wisdom, can add their store of the traditional stories they heard as children, along with the personal stories that have patterned and made sense of their lives. In the nineteenth century, Scandinavian folklorists established an invaluable archive in Ireland and organized the collection of Irish tales just in time to preserve a tradition changing almost too fast to record. Increasingly, however, collection within a community by members of the community is emphasized when anthropologists view their informants as collaborators rather than subjects. Through storytelling, people can heighten their own awareness, increase support for the collection and preservation of their cultural heritage, and reach out to others. The exchange, comparison, and contrast of people's separate stories can only underscore their common humanity.
Why sing lullabies to a baby? Why say nursery rhymes? Why chant along with the games played on a toddler's fingers and toes? Why tell children stories of what happened to grownups in their own youth? Why pass on tales of the African trickster Anansi or the Greek trickster Odysseus in a library story hour? Why read poetry aloud in a classroom? Why lead students to read literature or view art at all? Why spin extraordinary tales of ordinary events during coffee break? Why encourage the elderly to exchange stories about their lives? The answer to the first question is the answer to them all, for they are inextricably connected. Storytelling offers to a listener patterns that give comfort through rhythm and repetition, patterns that identify shapes of human behavior, patterns that lead to understanding a random world, and, ultimately, patterns that lead to understanding oneself. At a time when miraculous technologies often convey words devoid of deep meaning, people can renew themselves with old patterns of story.
Folklorist Howard Norman (1985) quotes the Cree Indians of North America as saying that stories wander through the world looking for a person, inhabit that person for a while, and then are told back out into the world again. A symbiotic relationship exists: If people nourish a story properly, it tells them useful things about life. Humans need to nourish their stories, collect them, and release them back into the world for the sake of the future.
Birch, Carol, and Heckler, Melissa, eds. (1996). "Who Says?" Essays on Pivotal Issues in Contemporary Storytelling. Little Rock, AR: August House.
Brunvand, Jan Harold. (1981). The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings. New York: W. W. Norton.
Greene, Ellin. (1996). Storytelling: Art and Technique, 3rd edition. New Providence, NJ: Bowker.
Norman, Howard. (1985). "Crow Ducks and Other Wandering Talk." In The Language of the Birds: Tales, Texts, and Poems of Interspecies Communication, ed. David M. Guss. San Francisco: North Point.
Leeming, David A., ed. (1997). Storytelling Encyclopedia: Historical, Cultural, and Multiethnic Approaches to Oral Traditions Around the World. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press.
MacDonald, Margaret. (1982). The Storyteller's Source-book: A Subject, Title, and Motif Index to Folklore Collections for Children. Detroit, MI: Neal Schuman.
Miller, Peggy J.; Potts, Randolph; Fung, Heidi; Hoogstra, Lisa; and Mintz, Judy. (1990). "Narrative Practices and the Social Construction of Self in Childhood." American Ethnologist 17:292-311.
Mullen, Patrick B. (1992). Listening to Old Voices: Folklore in the Lives of Nine Elderly People. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Paley, Vivian. (1990). The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter: The Uses of Storytelling in the Classroom. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Pellowski, Anne. (1990). The World of Storytelling. New York: Wilson.
Stone, Elizabeth. (1988). Black Sheep & Kissing Cousins: How Our Family Stories Shape Us. New York: Random House/Times Books.
Stone, Kay. (1998). Burning Brightly: New Light on Old Tales Told Today. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press.
Thompson, Stith. (1977). The Folktale. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Warner, Marina. (1994). From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Storytelling may be broadly defined as an ancient method of conveying ideas, intimations, and emotions in a narrative form with or without the accompaniment of music or visual art. Originally an oral tradition, storytelling has evolved from its earliest form to include a variety of multimedia applications. Folklorists generally do not approve of such inclusive definitions. In her scholarly analysis of the history of storytelling, The World of Storytelling (1990), Anne Pellowski defines storytelling as:
the art or craft of narration of stories in verse/and or prose, as performed or led by one person before a live audience; the stories narrated may be spoken, chanted, or sung, with or without musical, pictorial, and/or other accompaniment and may be learned from oral, printed, or mechanically recorded sources; one of its purposes may be that of entertainment. (Pellowski 1990, p.15)
Storytellers may have also collected stories from various people they encountered while telling the stories they had learned or created from observations and life experiences. Stories may have been used to entertain, but they were also used to educate audiences. Folklorists discuss oral tales of two main types: Märchen and Sagen, which are German terms with no exact English equivalents. Märchen is both singular and plural, and means something akin to fairy tale. These tales, which are not presented as true, are set in the timeless/placeless world of once-upon-a-time. The Sagen, or legends, however, are presented as factual, with powerfully specific times and places. The common folk may have told their stories at home, at work, and at festival times. Folk stories were told repeatedly and handed down through generations from one teller to the next, making use of storytelling for teaching purposes. Collectors of folktales, such as the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, Joseph Jacobs, Peter Christian Asbjornsen, Jorgen Moe, Andrew Lang, Joel Chandler Harris, and Richard Chase seem to have gathered tales, in part, for the purpose of cultural enrichment.
What is the purpose of storytelling? Pellowski, in line with other theorists, says that storytelling may have started as informal entertainment or play, and only gradually became intertwined with religious rituals, historical recitations, and educational functions. Most theorists suggest that storytelling fulfills the desire for playacting and meets entertainment needs while helping to explain the surrounding physical world or helping honor or placate the supernatural force(s) believed to be present in the world. Storytelling can help explain and express strong emotions and experiences in memorable, long-lasting ways through the intricate use of rhythm, rhyme, and repetition. Storytelling can help preserve traditions, customs, and societal standards, while bestowing immortality on leaders or ancestors. Pellowski notes the earliest evidence of storytelling may be found in the Westcar Papyrus of the Egyptians, which includes tales of encounters between a pyramid builder named Khufu or Cheops and his sons. One of the most famous tales recorded on papyrus is known as The Shipwrecked Sailor.
Pellowski traces the development of the bardic tradition, defining the bard as, “a storyteller whose function is to create and/or perform poetic oral narrations that chronicle events or praise the illustrious forebears and present leaders of a tribal, cultural, or national group” (Pellowski 1990, p. 21). The bard was a storyteller, a poet, and a musician. The term bard had its introduction through Greek and Roman tales of the Celts. Bards have also been known as rhapsodes, minstrels, or jongleurs.
Tales from a variety of cultures have been preserved because of storytelling traditions. Some examples are: Beowulf, an Anglo-Saxon tale of courage in the face of brute strength; Gilgamesh, a Sumerian epic tale of the Sumerian king, Gilgamesh, and his friendship with Enkidu, the half-beast, half-man being created to destroy him; The Iliad, a Greek epic tale of the Trojan War; The Odyssey, a Greek epic tale of Odysseus on his homeward journey from Troy; Story of Sigurd (Siegfried), a Norse legend; The Volsunga Saga, the adventures of Sigurd, including the killing of a dragon named Fafnir; The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood and King Arthur and His Knights, legendary English tales of daring and bravery; Song of Roland, legendary French tales; Sundiata, The Epic of the Lion King, a legendary African tale of how Sundiata became King of Mali; The Tain, an Irish tale of the legendary hero Cuchulain, his birth, battles and ultimate death; and The Ramayana of India, a religious tale.
SEE ALSO Communication; Ethnography; Ethnology and Folklore; Media; Narratives; Tradition
Pellowski, Anne. 1990. The World of Storytelling, expanded and rev. ed. Bronx, NY: H. W. Wilson.
Geraldine Cannon Becker
- Aesop semi-legendary fabulist of ancient Greece. [Gk. Lit.: Harvey, 10]
- Münchäusen , Baron traveler grossly embellishes his experiences. [Ger. Lit.: Harvey, 565]
- Mother Goose originally a fictitious nursery rhyme spinner from Perrault, later a Bostonian authoress. [Fr. Lit.: Brewer Handbook, 732]
- Odysseus wily teller of tales. [Gk. Legend: Odyssey ]
- Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso, 43 B.C.—A.D. 17) great storyteller of classical mythology. [Rom. Lit.: Zimmerman, 187]
- Remus, Uncle narrator of animal tales in Old South. [Am. Lit.: Nights with Uncle Remus ]
- Sandy told endless tales as she and Boss traveled. [Am. Lit.: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court ]
- Scheherazade forestalls her execution with 1,001 tales. [Arab. Lit.: Arabian Nights ]
- Watson, Dr. John H. chronicles Sherlock Holmes’s cases. [Br. Lit.: Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes ]
Storytelling ★★★ 2001 (R)
Anthology explores the roles that sex and dysfunction play in creativity. First story, “Fiction” explores the complex relationship of writing student Vi (Blair) and her boyfriend Marcus (Fitzpatrick), who has cerebral palsy. The two are using each other for different ends, most notably to read each other's writing. Vi moves on to an intense one-night stand with her formidable black writing professor (Wisdom). Shaken, Vi weaves the graphic, brutal, but fascinating encounter into a story of her own. In “Nonfiction,” feature documentarian Toby (Giamatti) goes to the burbs to document the life of a teen, his extremely dysfunctional family, and their Salvadoran maid. Solondz's characteristic black humor and social satire offers a range of hot topics, including homosexuality, political correctness, social stereotypes, the Holocaust, race, poverty, and the disabled. 87m/C VHS, DVD . US Selma Blair, Leo Fitzpatrick, Aleksa Palladino, Robert Wisdom, Noah Fleiss, Paul Giamatti, John Goodman, Julie Hagerty, Lupe Ontiveros, Franka Potente, Mike Schank, Mark Webber, Jonathan Osser; D: Todd Solondz; W: Todd Solondz; M: Belle & Sebastian, Nathan Larson.