Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Power of Storytelling

During the Anglo-Saxon Period, before England was even Angleland yet or even one unified country--that wouldn't happen until 1066 when the Normans invaded (sorry--English teacher coming out), there were, at least according to tradition, storytellers called scops. They were wandering oral poets, but they didn't come into town to recite some sonnets (those hadn't been invented yet either). No, they were there to trade a place in the mead hall or around the fire and temporary room and board for a ripping yarn of monsters and heroes and the ordinary people who were caught up in the struggle between them. They told, in rhymed, rhythmic form, stories like the battle between Beowulf and Grendel and Beowulf and Grendel's mom (Sadly, even then, women were seen as second-class citizens--she was never given a name, simply being defined by her role in life. But that's another entry) and finally between Beowulf and the dragon.

fire, fireplace, flamesTimes change and technology moves on, so how the stories get told varies, but the storyteller is still central to our existence. Instead of the fire in the mead hall, we gather around the TV or movie screen. Sitting in the dark, mesmerized by the flickering light and the edge-of-your-seat-scared-for-the-hero-even-though-we-know-he'll-win story isn't a whole lot different from the days of the wandering storyeller. Stories of those fictional monsters seem to help us forget the real monsters out there. It's hard-wired in us by our maker to need to tell and listen to stories. It's not a matter of choice or even of taste. It's part of us. We, as a race, could no more stop telling stories than we could sprout wings and fly or learn to breathe through our navels. It's central to our being.

book, reading, people, black and whiteI would argue that one of the greatest things that ever happened to the art of storytelling was the invention of written language and, eventually, the onset of movable type. When that happened, stories weren't limited to the campfire. They could travel vast miles over land and sea to audiences even on different continents.

Or even into space. I recently read The Martian by Andy Weir (you can read my review of that book on ClutchMOV sometime in the next month). It's set in a future time when the United States is regularly sending human expeditions to Mars. In one particular mission, a storm so huge that it threatens to topple the escape rocket hits. Long story short, one guy doesn't make it to the rocket. And he's trapped on Mars, maybe forever. How does he stay sane? By doing four things, three of which involve the power of story. First, he keeps a running narrative of his time trapped far from other humans. He says he's doing it for posterity, but we all know it's because he's human and he has to tell his story. And what a story it is. He also watches all the movies and TV shows that he and his fellow crew members had taken with them to pass the time. Finally, he reads all the books that had been brought on the trip. Though he doesn't think of it in those terms specifically, he's escaping from his predicament for a short while every time he watches or reads a story. Yes, the indomitable human spirit, the yearning to live, to survive, is a large part of it, but that's just one more element in the story, isn't it?

I'm proud to be a part of that tradition. In a sense, I'm a modern-day scop, coming into your home and asking to be a member of your household, at least for a short while. In a way you even provide me room and board when you pay me for my stories. And have you ever thought about the fact that the universal image of the perfect place to read a book is curled up beside a fireplace? Pretty sure that's not coincidence.

book, pages, reading, fireplace, flame
So I hope you have a chance to curl up in a warm chair beside a blazing fire this weekend and help to continue that thousands-of-years-long tradition of storytelling. I'd love it if the story is mine, but even if it's not, I'm glad you're inviting some nomadic bard to take a seat by the fire with you. Offer him a cup of coffee for me.

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