Storytelling for Life

| 22nd March 2013
Why Stories Matter and Ways of Telling Them
Edgar Vaid reviews Josie Felce's book on the importance of storytelling and its continued relevance to our modern lives.

Last year marked the bicentenary of which notable historic event?  The birth of Charles Dickens?  Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow?  The assassination of British Prime Minister Spencer Percival?  

In their own ways, each of these may qualify as significant, but in the context of “Storytelling for Life”, the most important occurrence of 1812 was the publication of “Die Kinder und Hausmarchen”, which soon became a 19th Century best-seller.

Collected by the Grimm brothers, and more familiarly known to English readers as “Children’s and Household Tales”, it comprised 86 stories which became instant classics of their kind, and thereafter the most frequently read in the World - in scores of translations, variants, and editions.

Although the brothers performed a uniquely valuable service of collection, collation, and commitment to paper, the tales formed part of a centuries-old vigorous oral folk tradition, the storylines of which had echoes in Greek, Jewish, and Egyptian myths and sagas.  

Such societies were intuitively aware that just as imbibing good food encouraged the growth of physical bodies, so listening to well-told stories fed developing minds.  This is a recurring theme throughout Josie Felce’s book, which emphasises how “stories offer nourishment of the heart and soul”.  Its ‘mission statement’ is neatly encapsulated in the book’s sub-title “Why Stories Matter and Ways of Telling Them”.

That they do matter is attested to by anthropological evidence from diverse societies around the World, for storytelling may lay claim to having the longest history of any type of human public performance.  But why should it be endowed with this almost eternal character?  Josie’s answer rings true – “it is kept alive by our need to tell stories to children, neighbours, and strangers ........ and the curiosity we feel about the history and mythology of a place, country, or culture”.

Thankfully eschewing any Californian psycho-babble, she explains the significance of storytelling for children’s mental development.  Archetypal characters such as powerful kings, grotesque goblins, wicked witches, and fierce giants may personify emotions of anger, rage, jealousy, fear, etc.  When these are securely confined to the pages of fairy stories read by a parent, the child is helped to develop a balanced personality.

Rather more esoteric are the ideas of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who postulated that as a child grew, the evolution of its consciousness was analogous to the historical development of human civilisations.  This less than naturally intuitive approach forms the theoretical basis for the story types told to Steiner school pupils – ancient stories for very young children and, as they grow older, tales relating to more advanced civilisations.

When adulthood is reached, the contention that we still need stories seems blithely assumed, for it appears contrary to this book’s nature to mention any of the ample supporting contemporary evidence.  This is all around us – in the form of long-running television soap series, mass sales of paperback fiction, or audio CDs played on otherwise tiresome car journeys.  

So although the ancient practice of a storyteller relaying traditional tales to a receptive adult audience may be undergoing a revival, it remains a niche activity in developed, industrialised societies.  However, what may have waxed and waned over the decades, been taken for granted, but never disappeared, is the everyday habit of telling short stories in the school playground, the saloon bar, railway station waiting room, or open air fruit and vegetable market.

First heard by children in the home, rather than playground, fairy tales are often characterised by a good-hearted hero making a perilous journey including various challenges, which he overcomes with the assistance of guides or helpers such as magical animals.  

Whatever their template though, they probably originate in our “pagan and shamanistic past, when most people did not read or write and needed these potent stories to understand events and themselves”. Bearing in mind the widespread illiteracy prevalent in England as recently as Victorian times, this suggestion of an association between a vigorous storytelling tradition and less literate societies is an interesting one.

As hinted at earlier, a particularly notable facet of traditional stories is found in the way that comparable plot structures, character motivations, etc are held by storytellers’ memories in societies that are both widely diverse culturally and distant from each other geographically.  So, for example, both “Vasilisa the Wise” (Russia) and “The Blue Fish” (Africa) exhibit similar elements to our own “Cinderella”.  

Rather intriguingly, this might constitute supporting evidence for Rupert Sheldrake’s morphic resonance hypothesis, which postulates that memory traces are neither local nor located in the brain, and that “the organising fields ........ of human behaviour, of social and cultural systems, and of mental activity can all be regarded as morphic fields which contain an inherent memory”, (“The Presence of the Past”, 1988).

Whilst all traditional stories may be appreciated at their face values, cultural commentators can be greatly exercised by interpreting the deeper psychological meanings of such tales, especially the use of animals as metaphors.  

Thus the image of a graceful white swan gliding effortlessly over a lake’s mirror-smooth surface, its neck elegantly arched, represents the soul’s light, serene, and pure dimension.  However, this poise is only possible with the complementary power of the soul’s active dark side, here represented by a pair of large, black, webbed feet hidden underwater, but propelling the swan forward.  “Dark and light move together, in a dynamic relationship”.

Such observations form absorbing sections of the text, especially speculation over the sources tapped by storytellers’ imaginations in evolving their repertoire of stories – it was “the intuition before rational thought, which came from the closeness of people and animals in early tribal life”. 

If we imagine the hazardous existence of a small hunter/gatherer group, its storyteller knew instinctively that after days of physical toil he could lighten their exhaustion with tales which could encourage them “to face the trials of their deeper selves ......... and reassure them that their greater lives were worthwhile”.

Besides these comparatively analytical considerations, it’s worth stressing the text’s practical value, including advice to storytellers, teachers, and parents about the what, why, when, and how of telling different stories, more than 20 examples of which are included from around the World, from “Seventeen Camels” (Bedouin) to “Jumping Mouse” (North American Indian).  

We owe a debt of gratitude to those pioneering literary collectors who ensured that oral tales which might otherwise have been lost were written down for posterity.  The effect of their efforts was summed up by theatre director Jan Zimmermann who, (referring to the Grimm brothers as an example) commented “What they did was to conserve (the stories) forever like flies in amber - it’s up to us to keep them alive”.  

Taken as a whole then, an insightful guide to a timeless oral tradition is provided by Josie Felce, and so I will leave you with a quote which I felt touched elegantly on the essence of her project: “Modern tellers must take the scattered jewels of traditional stories and offer them to the next generation, knowing that much inside the stories comes from a mysterious source”.

Edgar Vaid is a freelance book reviewer. He can be contacted at 

Storytelling for Life is available to buy from the Guardian Bookshop


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