Epic, Allsburg, and The Art of the Story-Teller

Oral story-telling is in the throes of a long, drawn out death, one which it began decades, even centuries ago, well before most of us were born. And though we do not mourn that fact, we should.

It is in our nature to share experience, to teach lessons, to connect with one another via constructed tales. Humans tell stories. We did it even before we used language. Now, of course, we have not only language, but the written word, the motion picture, the digital age, all mediums by which we can impart more detailed and sensory stimulating stories.

As each art form slips away, there is an inevitable nostalgia for its successes, though the form may be generally inferior to the newest form. Is that not the current idea? Why build replacement parts for a printer when you can simply build and sell a new printer? After all, newer must always be better, riding on the ever-moving science wave of discovery. If we change something, we must be doing it for a reason.

But when it comes to the oral tale, perhaps we are losing more than we think. Though its replacements are vastly cooler and more capable in many respects, their medium tend to exclude equally awesome elements that the oral tale demands: namely spontaneity, on-your-toes creativity, and a personal connection between the speaker and listeners.

When you picture story-telling, what do you see? Is it a man dressed in a Renaissance costume entertaining kids at the county faire? Or perhaps it is the antiquated range of romantic moments, from Homer telling his epics to the Victorians producing drawing room plays to Katharine Clifton reciting Herodotus by the desert fire in The English Patient. Story-telling often surfaces as something childish or outdated.

Before we had written texts, however, before the concretization allowed by writing, story-telling performances were meant for everyone, young and old. There existed the art of the bard, a person whose occupation was that of mastering and memorizing long tales to take on the road and tell to groups of people.

The tales told by bards were meant to entertain, but entertainment took various forms, and often included tales meant to impart history and spread cultural knowledge. Consider the epics of different cultures, usually heroic tales about a founder of a nation or culture. Gilgamesh, Greece’s Illiad and Odyssey, France’s Song of Roland, Spain’s Poem of the Cid, Beowulf, even the Bible, all these are thought to have begun as oral stories1. These tales contained information important to a sort of national identity. History lessons as it were. They were the defining stories of a nation when nations were just being conceived.

If we look at the epic of Son Jara, a hero tale from Mali, we see a living example of this. Son Jara has been told for centuries, and still is today, carefully entrusted to the culture’s bards. In modern day renditions of the tale, the bards include pieces of information from that day and age, showing that the tale itself has no concrete form but rather morphs to remain relevant to its listeners. For example, it would be hard to imagine that an airplane played a role in the epic four hundred years ago, while the epic as told today includes not only airplanes, but radio broadcasts and mentions of foreign dignitaries2. And this points to one beauty of the oral story: its flexibility allows it to play the role of a cultural and historical device through which its listeners could feel connected to their past via the familiar presence of their present.

Now, I do not mean to laud here the use of a flexible story as a form of preserving history. Though, in truth, the intentional manipulation of a story by an author to suit a time is really just a more blatant version of what historians do with “facts”, continually re-interpretting them to suit the mentality of the modern age. Today, we rely on information of the masses, consensus, collection of data, research, trial and error to come to our truths. Who is to say that as a story gains experience, filters through the masses, collects data as it goes, experiences the trial and error of reception, is not a similar thing? And even more importantly, if people can find a way to feel connected to their past, invested in it, that would be a vast step beyond the cloud of intellectualism that blocks it off today. But, perhaps because I am a product of my place in time, a firm believer in at least trying for a distinction between objective and subjective in matters of intellectual importance, perhaps for this reason, I would find it difficult to invest my belief in the truth of history that served such a personal need to compel an audience. Imagine the political pollution if only a small set of people were responsible for relaying the proper history and national representation of a culture. For forming impressions that could not be fact checked by a doubtful audience. The epic as a preservation of culture lacks in many ways.

Today we have libraries and multiple sources by which we can come to our own conclusions. I do not mourn the loss of the oral tradition for the purity of its form. Instead, it is the mutability, the involvement, the instigation for the common person to engage themselves in such a communal act that I mourn.

Think of it this way. All those classic national oral epics now exist as single versions. One must imagine that this version that we all now refer to is just some arbitrary moment in the existence of the story, some random version that someone happened to write down. Though it can be argued that had they not been written down we never would have seen them, the preservation of a tale in a single form nullifies a story as something organic, changing, and pertinent. By the mere fact of being singular, of ceasing to grow, the single version of a story becomes the only one. The only “true” one. Where fun and fact would mix on the stage of a bard as he brought a tale to life, now we have singularity. In place of the whim of a teller, pages and film allow us to make facts concrete, to solidify a story in an unchangeable format rather than subjecting it to tellings and retellings. After all, if one does wish to preserve history, it suits the modern sentiment to be as “true” in one true form as possible.

What was once the bard’s profession– simultaneously creative and practical– for proliferating and spreading stories to large numbers of people has given way to both modern forms of story-telling and modern sentiment surrounding fact. With the proliferation of books, and then movies, both the historical significance of story-telling and the morphing potential of a story has been eradicated. With the printing press, there is no longer a need for story telling, we simply read the stories we need to know. There is an unavoidable truth in that movies and books give the world access to various outbreaks of imagination in a way that was not possible before. They have leant the label of “art” to what only before belonged to tangible items such as paintings, crafts, etc. While performers were lauded for the art of their performance, words themselves were not given much credit. But once you can hold the words and sign your name under them… then they can belong to somebody.

Realistically, we have gained much. Writing as an art form. Dispersal of knowledge. Democracy of story-telling. But, we must acknowledge that though they are similarly a creative form of telling a story, they are vastly different from bards in one very particular way. A movie or a book is the concrete version of a creative moment. It is immutable, crystalized, definitely formed. Once on film or in print, the actors or the author or the director can no longer change any aspect of the final product. The moment of creativity ends with its release to the public. And the loss of any form of wide-spread creativity… is something to mourn.

We are not, obviously, the children of an oral tradition, nor even the grandchildren or great-grandchildren. Why then be conscious of this particular genre curled into its dark hole, gasping out labored breaths? It’s something that belongs to the past, it is outdated and obsolete. This is what I thought as well, the dark 3am brain-train that brought me sadness. But then, I began to think of the popularity of radio shows these days. This American Life. Radio Lab. Moth Radio. People do in fact like to hear stories, even today. And even though the shows mentioned above use gimmicks particular to radio, such as overlapping sounds and crazy fades in and out between different speakers—t hings that spice it up a little for the modern listener, used to the frills of the television–they are still perhaps the last bastion of the oral art of story-telling. I take my hat off to you sirs and ladies.

Because what I think we don’t realize is that oral story-telling has a power beyond that of the written or filmed media. It has an emotional power, and ability to connect one person with another, to imbue a story with all the nuances of its teller. Whether or not the story is about the teller, they tell as much about themselves as anything else.

This brings me to a certain book put out by Chris Van Allsburg in 1984, The Chronicles of Harris Burdick. This “book” is a collection of fourteen (classically gorgeous) drawings, each with nothing but a title and a first sentence. The introduction claims that a man had given Allsburg’s editor this collection of drawings and first sentences as a taste of his work, promising to return the next day with the full stories that went with them. Of course, the man never returned, and Allsburg’s editor decided to print them as is. The result is a collection of partial stories. Spurred on by a single line and an enchanting image, the book acts as a stepping stone for parents (or anyone really) who feels the shy urge to indulge in a moment of making it all up as you go along. With the democracy of story-telling and writing as an art, Alsburg’s attempt to encourage other’s to tell tales is brave. He abandons his ownership over the stories and allows his art to spur the creative powers of his readers. And from what I know, people love this. Any child who had a brave parent, an awake parent, a parent willing to pour themselves into an act of creation, inevitably remembers those stories above all others from their childhood. Perhaps it is the involvement of watching your parents instead of pictures as they narrate. Perhaps it is the telling and retelling of stories that cannot help but shift, also shifting one’s attention from the story to the story-teller. And perhaps it is simply the knowledge that that story is a particular and personal gift given by the teller. Whatever it is, let us take Alsburg up on his offer. Let us revive that moment of the perpetual act of personal creation. And let it be fun. We don’t all have to be defined by our art, after all…

1There was– and still is– plenty of debate surrounding the oral origins of epic, especially with regards to Homer, Beowulf, and the Poem of the Cid. The most popular view currently favors the oral origin. If interested in the debate, read Milman Parry, Albert Lord, and John Miles Foley for arguments for oral origins (or “oral traditional theory”).

2Read recording of it by John William Johnson.

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