"There will be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories..."
What does that have to do with a Christmas song? Seems as though it belongs to Halloween. I remember listening to those lyrics when I was a child, and then thinking the same.
Scary ghost stories...
This morning, as I mused on that question, my grandmother's face came to mind. I could hear her voice telling me "don't truck with the devil," and that she was "lonesome for the dead". Then I thought a lot about the story-telling culture of my own youth, and about story-telling in general. I landed at this question--why do humans tell stories?
My initial answer (to me) was that we tell stories to entertain. But after exploring the idea further, realized that there are so many more reasons that we humans do this.
The non-fiction type stories--or at least the ones that the storyteller believes to be true, quite often act as cautionary tales. Throughout history, they have served as a set of guidelines to keep us out of trouble, to keep us from harm--or in some cases, to serve the agenda of others.
At some point in time, the earliest man capable of spoken language told stories. Augmenting his limited speech with vivid displays of facial expressions and hand gestures, he told the story of the Homo ergaster child who played with fire. Children learned without ever having to feel the pain of a burn, to not play in the fire. It may have been little more than a grunt-punctuated game of charades, but storytelling has no limits on the way the tale can be conveyed.
Imagine how easily the concept of a non-fiction, cautionary-tale, migrated to being a fable. In a less complex time--an earlier time when science--with its inherent, analytical approach to things, had not yet morphed into the cynicism of recent times, even adults believed that nature transformed to teach us things.
And in many ways, today's stories are just that: fables wearing the trappings of today's world. But our understanding, our doubt, and our cynicism cloaks the ancient beauty of the tales, save for the wonder of a child as the meaning behind the tales becomes clear.
In the earliest story-tellings, the stories existed because the listener(s) could relate to the character(s). Because the story was them; that has not changed. Levels of literacy have changed, though, affecting the way a story is shared. Even so, storytelling begins in the human mind and then shared via voice, pen, or keyboard. The art of story telling is alive and well.
My grandmother used to tell us (my siblings and me) when we were quite small, that "the boogieman lives across the pasture fence in that woods". At first, fear kept us from asking questions--it was already more than enough to know that such a terrible creature existed there. (disclaimer--I have never actually seen a boogieman BUT my imagination pictured something quite horrible and...well...slimy-dripping-wet, climbing up through thick cattails) As time went by, we asked questions, and she responded as needed; the tale evolved, "Don't go there--he will drag you into the swamp." Later editions included physical descriptions of the woods and the swamp. As an adult, I was still afraid of the "swampy woods". (I now own them) <smirk> There are old sediment ponds below where an old coal mine's bony pile sat. But as a grandmother now, ye gads, I can relate to the need to use tales and fear to serve my agenda. "Stay out of the woods. Monsters live there."
In grandma's world-- a woman born in the 1880s, storytelling was an art. She managed the things that staying alive necessitated--the milk cows, the chickens, the garden, the fields of oats and corn. And there were no radios, no TVs. Stories were everything, the ultimate escape from a reality of hard physical work.
Storytellers were also the earliest historians. In absence of a written language, cultures passed tales from generation to generation, ensuring that the things worthy of pride were not forgotten...and that the mistakes of the past were avoided in the future. Humans needed to keep track of which tribes did what, ate what, stole what, and were predisposed to attacking, pillaging, and plundering to make a living. Knowing these things and then telling a child these things is one way. But to paint a graphic image through words is a whole other way. To tell a tale that sucks in the listener, to make them cry for those who were lost--even though they never met them, to make them feel pride in their people, to make them laugh, hope, and understand the goals and the rules... Embellishment serves its purpose, and is a useful tool in the storytellers toolbox. Sometimes, though, embellishments--when not handled properly, turn nonfiction to fiction. As is sometimes the case in tall-tales.
Even so, with such fabulous exaggerations as exist in tall-tales, the elements of reality-- the grounding that makes the story so relative to our very own existence, are alive and well. Our eyes light up, we grin, we laugh at the ridiculousness of it--yet see bits and pieces of ourselves in the very grandeur within the tall-tale's words. I don't know about you, but even in the tallest of Annie Oakley tall-tales, I see a little bit of me in that gal. We are the story.
And we can never dismiss the idea of plain old escape when it comes to tales. You know, as a writer, the added bonus of inventing other worlds and other characters for readers to slip into, is that I am the first person to escape to that world. I get to know the characters--good and bad--they are fragments of every soul I have ever known--and many I have never even met. I write for humans living in a complex world; I am inspired by those very same humans, and the stories of their lives, day in and day out.
For the industrialized world, the way we live has changed the necessity of owning a milk-cow, a small flock of chickens, and putting up everything in a two acre garden, for the sake of survival. We still work very hard to survive, but often is the case, the work is mental.
And I don't mean to dismiss the hard physical work that many, many, many humans still perform.
In either case, we need our escape. Our story dynamics have changed over the years, our motivation for telling them and for reading and listening to them has changed. And the types of stories we enjoy has evolved.
But one element remains unchanged...that the stories are us, each and everyone of us. We walk in the character's shoes, we cry with them and laugh with them if the story manages to convey a deep sense of emotions. And we miss them when we turn the last page and close the book.
Storytellers--and their stories have a complex history, Nearly as old, no doubt, as mankind, itself. And for the storyteller, inspiration takes varied forms, from a need to warn others about a threat, to a need to provide a means of escape for those trapped in the everyday world of reality.
Hug a storyteller today. :-) But don't interrupt them while they are practicing their craft ;-)