Huddled around the fire pit, a crowd of around fifty people sat silently, motionless in the dark. In front of us a storyteller was mid tale: a tale of a Bear King, with castles, golden scissors and a wicked Hag. There were mountains and rivers, endless lost woodlands, of course, and a journey. A journey of discovery.
Her voice was lilting: a special storytelling tempo and rhythm, which she periodically reinforced by tapping gently on a tabor. On occasion, her lilting speech gave into full song. And we sat for an hour as the story unfolded, captivated not by images and effects, music or animation, but rather by the spirit of the story itself.
I understand the neurology: the rhythmic lilting tone is a mechanism of memory, our brains seek routine and structure and, by accommodating this in the story, we can recite long passages by heart. But even if the recital is not verbatim, the story just need a structure, a core narrative. You can fill in the rest. The castle was described as having ‘many rooms’ and ramparts: no mention of turrets, but my mind filled in the details. Our stories can tie into existing knowledge and our understanding of the ritual.
We understand the various stylised roles of storytellers: perched on a log in the woods, sat on the couch of Breakfast TV, stood up to tell us the weather, sat in front of a class of children. Each styles presages a particular story type: news, fiction, challenge or support.
This tale had a moral, as so many do. Stories are ways that society finds agreement, and then shares it: we remove consequence by positioning the learning in a fictional space, but make no mistake that the messages are sent to us directly. Stories of Kings and Princesses, Witches and stolen children warn us of the danger of straying away, of the power of unity, of our place in the social structure and of what ‘right‘ means and how it differs from ‘wrong‘.
Stories are not unstructured: they often tie into conventions and patterns, as do poetry, song and even art. The power of three is well understood in writing (i consciously use it myself, often, and am constantly surprised by how satisfying it is). Three sisters, three days till a wedding, three golden gifts, three daughters. By falling into these structures, we are constrained, but also carry the benefit of familiarity and preconception, which can ease the process and help in delivery. Your story can be challenging, but still delivered within established styles (although you can, of course, gain power by challenging that style: fractured poems or non linear stories that play with the rules of physics that are supposed to constrain them).
There’s an unwritten understanding that the storyteller is not simply recounting facts: rather they are painting an aural soundscape to let us visualise the story as it unfolds. I could have read this story in a couple of pages, it didn’t need an hour, but that would not have been the same, would strangely not have been so rich, not because the storyteller gave me more information, but rather because, over the sweep of time, my consciousness was able to fill in rich detail.
Stories are complex, but powerful. Whilst this story was performed in the middle of the night in a woodland in Southern England, the format and sense of togetherness could have been from anywhere around the world. I think that by reflecting on how stories work (and indeed how they are adapting to new media and methods of communicating) is valuable in understanding how they find their power and permanence.