If you travel to the snowy scapes of Scandinavia…
…and encounter the native Saami people, you’ll discover that historically they have had an interesting relationship with…reindeer. To be specific, they drink reindeer urine.
Why? Because the reindeer eat the Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) mushroom – that’s the bright red one with white spots that featured in Alice in Wonderland – a very apposite book title as the mushroom contains a strong hallucinogen. The urine allows drinkers to experience the sensation of flight, to enter the spirit world, and to return to their people with gifts of wisdom and healing.(1)
Fast forward to our modern imagery of Santa Claus. His clothes are red and white. He is pulled through the sky by reindeer. And instead of gifts of wisdom and healing, he brings us…Christmas presents.(1)
What I’ve just done is tell a story – or in fact, tell a story about a story: how a narrative has been adapted by another culture for its own use. My hope was that you’d find it interesting – if a little bizarre – and maybe, cause you to question a tale you probably have known since childhood. That maybe, this story might cause you to question an aspect of your world view.
For me, a good story must, like Santa’s sleigh, transport you to a new world from which you return a slightly different person.
Where story-telling comes from…
Numerous social anthropologists have described how oral stories were probably told in most, if not all, ancient societies. They were handed down, generation by generation. Frequently, an individual was tasked with being the tribe’s storyteller and this was a role that afforded that person great respect.(2) The Saami shamans who delivered gifts of Fly Agaric mushroom at the time of the Winter Solstice were revered storytellers too.
What storytelling does…
Whether contemporary fact, myth or legend, by stories, elders infused the young with their world view, which helped the young make sense of the world they were growing up in – often a hostile and scary place.(2) A shared world view – Are you listening, world leaders? – leads to a cohesive society and world.
The ancient Greeks were also famed storytellers, their tales still celebrated and retold thousands of years later, both in books and in movies. (Thank you, Brad Pitt – among others!) In each case, the author’s narrative invites the reader into a fictional world…and attempts to keep him or her there using hooks, mystery and other tools of writing craftsmanship.
Stories reflect society. Yet they are also effective tools with which to question it.
The sum of a society’s stories ultimately make up that society’s overarching world view. In the English-speaking world, Austin, Bronte, Chaucer, Dickens and Shakespeare described the relationships and historical events of their time, but also through humour and tragedy questioned the rightness of events they depicted. Today we see new prominent tales of conflict and dystopia capturing the imagination, for example, those by Collins, Grisham, King, Lee, Morrison, Myers, and Roth.
Stories enlighten and entertain. They are evening relief after the day’s hard toil – with a message. They are each pieces of a fabric that together, form the patchwork quilt we wrap ourselves in. These stories are the pieces that together form our understanding of the world. We absorb them, are transported and return changed.
So, is the art of story-telling dying?
Contemporary authors like JK Rowling, Maeve Binchy and Dan Brown have proved that we can still be lured into starting – and finishing – a book. Of course, there’s always an exception to the rule: the great majority of people who bought Fifty Shades of Grey, never actually finished it! (4)
But think about it. What are you doing when you play an interactive video game? When you’re inventing a bedtime story for your child? What are you doing when you day-dream on your way to work…or reminisce about what might have been if you’d had the courage to ask for that alluring person’s phone number?
In all cases, you are creating a narrative. You are…storytelling. Maybe it’s only to yourself, but it’s a story nonetheless.
Evolution of the hero’s journey
What it is doing is evolving to keep up with our busy lives. So the pace of stories is getting faster. There are more hooks, more extremes, shorter words and paragraphs, punchier dialogue. If it wasn’t evolving to match our lives, to mirror our expectations, it might indeed die.
Then what would replace it? Well that, my friends…is another story.
- Rush, John, Live Science article by Main, Douglas (13 Dec 2013), 8 Ways Mushrooms Explain Santa, Live Science, Retrieved 23 February 2016.
- Johnson, Emily, Telling Tales, Museum of London, London Museums Hub, 2006.
- The_Tale_of_Genji, Wikipedia, Retrieved 23 February 2016.
- Bloom, Dan (7 July 2014), The Books Many Start but Few Ever Finish, The Daily Mail Online, Retrieved 23 February 2016.
- Morgan, Nick (8 Jan 2013), Thinking of Self-Publishing in 2013? Forbes, Retrieved 23 February 2016.