“. . . as these tellers of tales sat around the fireside or under the shade of trees, and looked into the rapt faces of the listeners, the deeds of men, monsters and the phenomena of nature became fused into one and their work grew architectonic, the story taking on artistic form and moving on to a magnificent climax, revealing in the end the ethical order of the world.”
So summarizes my following excerpts from the introduction of a small, tattered book [Wyche, Richard Thomas. Some Great Stories and How To Tell Them. New York: Newson and Company, 1910.], a copy of which was passed on to me by my grandmother.
With the spirit of Halloween once again animating us, it’s a time for the telling of macabre tales of ghosts, ghouls and goblins. But then, it’s always a time for the telling of stories. We are a storytelling people. At times our tales have questionable worth, but often enough, we tell stories “taking on artistic form and moving on to a magnificent climax, revealing in the end the ethical order of the world.”
I hope that this blog of mine, When Is A Party Not A Party, is a storytelling blog in the above “artistic” and “ethical” senses—with stories of our exponentially-changing world, stories of library robots, rocketships from India to Mars and teenagers (“digital natives”) who multitask with current media technology in a super-fast manner–ultimately, stories of “spiritual development.” It, at least, would make my late grandmother happy, and that would make me happy. The best stories, ultimately, make people reflective of our world—and happy in the common quest to become a more positive force within it.
So, here are some brief reflections on the history and value of story-telling, of turning the outward in and the inward out, from a 1910 book that now spans almost a hundred years through the times of my grandmother, my mother and myself. –SB
STORY TELLERS were the first teachers. Before the art of writing or of making books, before even the runes or picture writing, there were story-tellers. Sagamen, scalds, rhapsodists, bards and minstrels by word of mouth handed down through the centuries much of our literature. Unconscious teachers they were, but none the less did they inspire and teach the people as they recited the deeds of their great heroes, . . . Before even the day of the Sagamen, somewhere far back in the morning twilight of the world, people began to tell stories.
When the child-race first looked out on the face of nature, saw the sun, moon, and stars; heard the stormwind and thunder; saw the tragedy of nature, the death of summer and the long sleep of winter, what did he think? To him it was pregnant with conscious life—men, monsters or gods, to be obeyed, worshiped or grappled with. This world of outward phenomena beating in upon him was a great fact, sometimes bringing cold, hunger and death, and at other times warmth, joy and gladness. If the world of outward phenomena was a marvel to the child-race, none the less significant was the discovery of the world of inward phenomena. Where did these hopes, these fears, longings, yearnings, loves and hatreds come from, and what did they all mean? He did not stop to analyze, but in obedience to a universal law spontaneously expressed in some way what he saw and felt.
He had two great facts to deal with, the world of outward objects beating in upon him and the soul and self-consciousness stirring within him. What must he do? In some way give expression to what he saw and felt; he must make the inward outward. He could interpret this outward world only in terms of his inward life. He had life, joy, sorrow, difficulties, death, and when the day was over he would lie down and sleep; therefore the sun must do like wise. When the sun came up from the sea and burned his way through the sky and went down gain, to him it was life—conscious life. The sun strangled the serpents of the night; he went forth like a strong man battle. Sometimes the storm-clouds would vanquish him; then he scattered his enemies, and from a clear sky smiled upon the children of men. Then again he went down in a stream of blood, in the red clouds of sunset; and still again into the calm and perfect peace of a clear sky.
. . .
Some became expert in the recital of stories, and as these tellers of tales sat around the fireside or under the shade of trees, and looked into the rapt faces of the listeners, the deeds of men, monsters and the phenomena of nature became fused into one and their work grew architectonic, the story taking on artistic form and moving on to a magnificent climax, revealing in the end the ethical order of the world.
In some such way came the Saga and the Saga-man, the story and the story-teller. Crawford says in the introduction to his translation of the Kalevala, the great Finnish Epic, that it dates back to a time of great antiquity, to a time when the Finns and Hungarians were a united people; in other words, to a time at least three thousand years ago. Although the poem is as voluminous as the Odyssey, it lived all these centuries by oral tradition among the people. It was collected and published for the first time during the last century.
In Rune III of the Kalevala, we have a true picture of the ancient story teller and his work
“Wainamoinen, ancient minstrel,
Passed his years in full contentment,
On the meadows of Wainola,
On the plains of Kalevala,
Singing ever wondrous legends,
Songs of ancient wit and wisdom,
Chanting one day, then a second,
Singing in the dusk of evening,
Singing till the dawn of morning,
Now the tales of oldtime heroes,
Tales of ages long forgotten,
Now the legends of creation,
Once familiar to the children,
By our children sung no longer,
Sung in part by many heroes.
Far and wide the story traveled,
Far away men spread the knowledge
Of the chanting of the hero,
Of the song of Wainamoinen;
To the south were heard the echoes,
All of Northland heard the story.”
In the oldest specimen of English poetry that has come down to us, we read of Widsith, the far traveler: “Thus roving, the gleemen wander through the lands of many men as their fate wills; they find ever in the North and in the South some one who understands song.” These story tellers, sagamen, skalds, gleemen, rhapsodists, who wandered from land to land telling or singing of some great deed, were welcomed by court and king, as well as by the common people. And sometimes as one passed from one court to another, a chain of gold hung about his neck as a royal gift.
These story tellers, bringing news from the outside world as well as giving the people glimpses of the higher realms of thought with which their story dealt, were true teachers and poets. Not surfeited with book-learned lore, they spoke out of their hearts to the hearts of the people. Their names have usually been forgotten, but their work remains in the stories of Ulysses, Siegfried, Beowulf, King Arthur, St. George, The Kalevala and similar stories—a picture of the life of the primitive race, a history of the spiritual development of man in time’s morning.
The spoken word has more life than the printed page. Literature was first vocal, and nature’s plan has suggested the method for the education of the child to-day, and the stories she used have in turn become the stories for the children of to-day.
Note: above photos by S.A. Bort, autumn 2014.