The power in stories

The kind of stories that I’m interested in exploring on this blog aren’t just for entertainment. They’re not ‘fictions’ in the usual sense of the word. As Alan Garner puts it: ‘The difference between legend and modern storytelling is that the modern story is a conscious fiction, whereas the legend … was, in its origins, an attempt to explain a reality.’ This is what I’m interested in: the stories that underpin our lives, our concepts of the world, our ways of being. Through all the years that I’ve been working with stories I’ve been astonished at how easily people seem able to dismiss stories – ‘fairy stories’ especially. Stuff for kids, they’ll mutter. Escapism. They’re not real.

Curiously, perhaps, I find the world of myth and story as ‘real’ as anything else that I’ve ever encountered. But that’s a question of phenomenology, and not what I’d like to talk about here. I’d like to talk about the power in stories, and why we should be careful with them. In the early posts on this blog I suggested that a headlong rush to create grand new metanarratives as some kind of ‘solution’ to our disenchantment with the world isn’t a good way forward. Among all of the reasons why I believe that is true, the most compelling reason to me is because that isn’t how stories usually work to create meaning and ways of being. That isn’t simply a matter of my opinion; even the quickest reading of oral history, of the cultural history of stories, myth, narrative in various traditions around the world, shows quite clearly that the stories that ‘go to work on you like an arrow … make you live right’, as western Apaches explained to anthropologist Keith Basso, aren’t grand overarching metanarratives but smaller stories accumulated over time. It is the ‘smaller’ stories that provide ways to test our hypotheses about the nature of the world, that attach us to place, to the land, to the earth. The folk tales, the fairy stories, the legends, the myths.

The stories that hold a real power to transform are the stories that reveal the world to us in all its complexity. That peel layers of the world away like an onion. Many of the old stories that we now remember so well are as memorable as they are for good reason. That reason is the surprising complexity that can be hidden in apparently the simplest of tales. As a perfect example of this, I thoroughly recommend Lewis Hyde’s book Trickster Makes This World. Hyde’s long and gloriously detailed overview of Trickster characters and stories in different world mythologies – from Coyote and Raven for the native Americans, Hermes in Greek myth, Eshu in Yoruba myth – makes it clear that these aren’t just funny stories made up for the purpose of entertaining (though entertaining they certainly are!) Trickster stories, Hyde tells us, call attention to the actual constraints of human life. ‘Where parody is able to strip the things it mocks of their charm, it opens up spaces in which something new might happen. When trickster breaks the rules we see the rules more clearly, but also see everything the rules exclude: the revelation of plenitude calls for a revelation of mind.’

The point here is that people didn’t just sit around making up Trickster stories. Trickster stories, like all the stories that teach us new or more insightful ways of being, evolved. They evolved from generations of tribal wisdom and philosophies. They were handed down from generation to generation – not static things but perfectly and gloriously dynamic, changing when necessary with new or especially challenging times. To me, that is how stories work. When we talk about creating ‘new stories’ for the changing world in which we now find ourselves, it’s important to understand that gestating powerful transformative stories isn’t the work of a moment, but of a lifetime. Of generations of lifetimes. Which isn’t an argument against trying, but simply to offer a cautionary note: that storymaking carries with it a serious responsibility. And that there can be bad stories as well as good stories, just as there are bad novels and good novels, and good poems and bad poems. I often find myself fearing a proliferation of bad – poorly conceived – stories that will drown out the good, though sometimes too I wonder whether it really matters, as long as there are those able to discern the real jewels. As Robert Bringhurst tells us, ‘Bad mythology in the sense of fake mythology is almost everywhere you look in the present day … There is plenty of flawed mythology too … The mythteller … should never have an agenda.’

So if we’re to create new stories, let’s understand how stories work to transform us so that we can create good new stories, not bad ones. Let’s understand archetypes and symbols and images and metaphor and all of the other fundamental building blocks of narrative which we must use in our careful crafting. Stories have power – let’s make sure we’re using that power properly. As Bringhurst says: ‘Stories are one of the fundamental ways in which we understand the world. They are probably our best maps and models of the world – and we may yet come to learn that the reason for this is that stories are some of the basic constituents of the world … Oral culture means much more than telling stories. It means learning how to hear them, how to nourish them, and how to let them live. It means learning to let stories swim down into yourself, grow large in there, and rise back up again.’ It means that the power of stories is such that there is an obligation of the part of the storyteller or storymaker to do it right.

Once upon a time storytellers were like shamans – they had training, they had a gift, a calling. In Irish culture, for example, the seanachaidh (or seanchaí ) was a keeper of traditions, trained to pass on the oral history and traditions of a people. The keeper of the folk tales, the instructive tales.  Storymaking and storytelling are skills. Of course they’re not exclusive skills, but they require learning craftsmanship and understand of the ground, no more and no less than writing a good novel requires an understanding of narrative structure and the rules of grammar (whether you then choose to follow them or break them). Alan Garner, as always, says it beautifully: ‘The purpose of the storyteller is to relate the truth in a manner that is simple: to integrate without reduction; for it is rarely possible to declare the truth as it is, because the universe presents itself as a Mystery. We have to find parables; we have to tell stories to unriddle the world … The job of a storyteller is to speak the truth; but what we feel most deeply cannot be spoken in words. At this level only images connect. And so the story becomes symbol; and symbol is myth.’

6 thoughts on “The power in stories

  1. Thanks for this post, Sharon. I used ‘Trickster Makes This World’ as the departure point for a show in Edinburgh a few years ago – it’s a marvellous book (I prefer it to ‘The Gift’ myself) And Trickster’s why I’m wary of saying, ‘The role of the storyteller is [this or that].’ The storyteller tells stories because they have to, because the Mystery moves through them in that way, as the role of painters is to paint and singers to sing. For every storyteller whose role it is to relate the truth, I can show you one whose role it is to relate silky or jagged lies. But I agree completely about the obligation to do it right – that’s the deepest terror (for me) in telling: that a story told badly leaves the world less glorious than it was. A story told *really* badly might just damage space-time or harm the soul… And the same is true of all arts – it makes me think of Martin Shaw’s most recent post at the Westcountry School of Myth, in which he writes about ‘bad art.’ (Lest there be confusion: this isn’t about finesse, it’s about those more juicy indefinables, the ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’, the ‘aaah yes’ blood-thrum of it. Dare I say, the ‘coyopa?’) I also think that the most powerful stories tell themselves through us – they’re there already. Which is why one of the most crucial, difficult and magical parts of the craft (of any art) is to learn to continually get out of the way so that the story can tell itself with all the right angles and curiosities, free of our ridiculous human glosses and interference – work that I myself am very much only just beginning!


  2. Agree with all that, Tom; there are as many views of the role of the storyteller as there are tellers, I guess, and certainly there are other formulations of it than Garner’s, though I happen to love his. And Coyote tells a bigger truth sometimes precisely by telling lies, don’t you think? When I talk about craft though I do mean something more than just letting the ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ of the story through – I do also mean understanding the building blocks of story. Simply because if used correctly they make a story more powerful. I don’t think it necessarily has to get in the way of the story to know how to use imagery in the best way, to understand symbols and their cultural significance, to know how plot relates to setting and to voice … all of those things that are as much a part of the good storyteller’s art as, in a very different way and format, they are a novelist’s. The powerful story arguably has its life without or without us, yes, but how are we going to best tell that story in a way that maximises the chances that a given audience will respond to it? Instinct is absolutely essential for a storyteller, but it isn’t always enough (though in the greatest storytellers it probably is!) I suppose I believe that ‘human glosses and interference’ aren’t something we can ever fully step aside from – and so we need to know how to use that very human potential for gloss and interference for the good rather than for the bad. Which isn’t to say you can’t perhaps make a good story without that knowledge … but then I’m running the risk of getting into the kind of endlessly self-reflexive conversation that writers have about whether creative writing can (or should) be taught :-).


    1. Agreed.
      I’m not suggesting for a moment that the craft isn’t vital. Perhaps I’m thinking more of the *telling* than the *making* of stories here, but it may be true of both – there has to exist a tension between the ineffable and the concrete, so that at the same time as being so fully immersed in the story and its resonances that it exists in a cloud or mist around you, you must be grounded in the moment-to-moment awareness of the telling (‘pause, move, turn, change pace, whisper, crouch, startle, silence, shift level, make contact, withdraw, remind, tighten the circle…’) – the actual nuts-and-bolts of the storytelling, which yes, absolutely includes the gloss and interference of our human-ness.

      What I meant was that such self-consciously created tales, however solidly rooted in symbol and myth and archetype, run the risk of being mythological-by-numbers – firm and consistent through a (Jungian/Reichian/choose-your-paradigm) lens, yet lacking in that *aaah* which makes them dance. I know I’ve been guilty of producing work (both story-tellings and -makings) that ticks all the right boxes, but doesn’t have the crookedness or roughness of something *really* true, because I tried too hard to make it *right.* I was too much in the way with my symbols and cleverness.

      Perhaps really good storytellers know the powers and ways of their symbols and myths through their own experience, in the same way that shamans know the territory, and so can dance effortlessly with them in their creations.

      Which is perhaps why young storytellers, no matter how canny they are, should always look to old storytellers, no matter how ropy they seem, because they’ve inhabited the depths and heights of their stories’ meanings, through choice or (mis)fortune, in a way that the whippersnappers simply haven’t had time to.

      (And there are always exceptions and always stories that can only be told by the naive. It’s a minefield!)


  3. I agree fully with all that, Tom, and also wholeheartedly about ‘mythological-by-numbers’. Again, the same thing happens with writers – we’ve had so many submissions over the years at Two Ravens Press from people who clearly have read the ‘how to’ books (it’s interesting how it shows!) but have produced a story that is technically competent and has no heart. It’s the balance, isn’t it? I wonder sometimes if I have a skewed perspective, having begun actually working with (rather than just studying) stories in a markedly transformational (and therapeutic) context and only through those beginnings moving on to doing tellings. Because of the therapeutic work as well as my academic background I’ve always been interested in deconstructing the stories, understanding their bones. But originally I began working with stories because I heard the greatest therapeutic storyteller of all – Clarissa Pinkola Estes – tell a tale which hit me right in the stomach, not in the head. Once I understood why that happened, I was hooked. Interestingly, the stories she uses are old stories, mostly fairy and folk stories, that have evolved their imagery organically over the years … and when she tells those stories as part of her performances and then deconstructs them (talks about the symbols, works around the themes) then it enhances the experience for me, rather than detracting from it. This of course is a different modality of telling, compared to more traditional modes. But it has a power all of its own. And yes, in all cases learning from those who’ve been there is for sure the key.


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