Burning Brightly; New Light on Old Tales Told Today
What is it that draws people to storytelling, to stories, and in particular, to the old stories? What is it that brings them in droves to storytelling festivals, in bunches to story gatherings in cities and hamlets, and what compels some to take up the role of teller of stories?
Folklorist / storyteller Kay Stone addresses these and other questions in her analysis of storytelling in North America. Her particular interest is stated in the foreword: “I want to know why, on the edge of the turning century and in the midst of increasing social, technological and human challenges, people are still retelling and rehearing the old stories...”
The book is divided into two sections. The first looks at organized storytelling communities and their members. In this section, Stone draws on her own first hand knowledge and experience of storytelling as well as years of interviews with tellers in Canada and the U.S. While tellers and organizations from both countries are quoted and examined, the focus of the book is on the Toronto storytelling community. Stone proposes that this examination provides an overall model for comparison with other groups. She acknowledges that each group, regardless of nationality, has its own unique personal and artistic dynamic, but says that each also shares recognizable features with other groups of comparable size and complexity.The Growth of the Storytelling Movement
Before examining anyone group she looks at the growth of the storytelling movement, particularly since 1970. Among the intriguing statistics she supplies are the number of tellers, groups events, and states (or provinces) listed in a major directory in 1984, and then in 1995. As you might guess, the increase is significant. Stone points out that while individual tellers may have fired the storytelling movement, its growth and development really took hold when intentional communities of tellers were formed. These groups succeeded in spreading the word in a way that individuals would not have been able to, and resulted in a growing number of tellers and listeners.
Forces Affecting the Movement
The enormous growth in numbers makes one wonder where all the tellers are coming from. Stone attempts to give shape to the storytelling movement by identifying four major streams, or forces, which affect it. They are: traditional, library educational, theatrical, and spiritual- therapeutic storytelling. These streams, she says, "...cut the parallel channels that continue to feed the wide and winding course of organized storytelling today, providing a steady wellspring from which tellers continue to draw energy and experience." She examines each of the four, quoting tellers directly and using the descriptions themselves in directory and festival listings to place them in one of the streams. One of the most interesting exercises in this area is that in which she follows the descriptions of select tellers over a decade or more, to see how their perception of themselves and their telling changes. For experienced tellers, the strictly delineated streams are too narrow. Instead we see how their work, while emerging from one background, later encompasses a wider range, probably as a result of the interaction with tellers from, and their experience of, other streams.
Social Identity Of Tellers
Over time, as Stone tells us in one chapter, tellers gradually discover and develop their social identities as tellers. The questions of social identity and development of artistry are intriguing to me. It is an interesting exercise for tellers to ask themselves just when they came to recognize themselves as such, and when they claimed, or accepted, the role of storyteller. More interesting still is to chart the stories they have told over a significant period of time. This exercise perhaps more clearly than any other, can trace the growth of their artistry and the paths their telling follows.
What Stories Are Told Today?
And what are the stories being told today? Where and what is the place of the old tales, the wondertales? Do these old stories still carry the same weight now? To answer these questions, Stone turns again to the modern tellers who reconstruct the stories, bringing them to life from the written page and investing them with meanings both personal and universal. Stone particularly questioned whether tellers told the stories of the Brothers Grimm. While the response indicated that most had told, or do tell some Grimm tales, it was evident that these tales are not a primary part of most tellers' repertoires. However, folktales from various cultures continue to be widely told. Her discussion of the place and impact of these wondertales, both on the teller and listener, suggests some answers to the question of what it is that draws people to oral storytelling, and demonstrates once again the power of the old tales to reflect on the human condition.
The Tellers And Their Tales
The second half of the book introduces tellers who loosely represent the four major streams of storytelling mentioned above, and provides the text of one story from each teller. The work of Joe Neil MacNeil, Marylyn Peringer, Carol McGirr, Bob Barton, Stewart Cameron, Marvyne
Jenoff, Susan Gordon and Kay Stone is described and discussed. This section is divided into four chapters:
Creative Drama and Storytelling; Old Tales, New Contexts; The Teller in the Tale; Difficult Women in Folktales; and The Development of a Story Text. Here Stone's insight into both stories and the tellers themselves enables the reader to perceive the connection between reality and the wondertaIes that are told. The old tales do not help one escape reality, rather they deepen reality, and Stone demonstrates how the tellers included in the book bring story and life together. "By facing the anguish of the external world, and in fact bringing it in to their stories by en-visioning familiar people, places and objects, the tellers...demonstrated that folktales and reality are not as separate as we might wish to believe. They accomplished this...by accepting and developing stories as serious artistic expressions, by seeing the real potential of metaphor and archetype as potentially transformational."
A Book Feast
Burning Brightly is a book for all tellers and followers of the storytelling movement. I found it insightful and thought-provoking. Stone doesn't sidestep thorny issues (such as in-fighting and tension within storytelling communities) but neither does she place undue weight on what one teller described as "growing pains." In getting to the answer to her question of why people are still telling and listening to the old stories, she takes us down many paths, showing us the whole forest of the storytelling movement so that we can understand the context for the tellers and tales who most directly address her question.
The concluding chapter of the book is titled The Wedding Feast. I would describe the whole book as a feast for the storytellers. It raised questions which I will pursue, and I am sure that I will return to it again as I ponder this profession to which I lay claim. Our storytelling guild will use it as the basis for many discussions: of art, artistry, the continuum of tellers, and the recontextuaIization of tales for starters. Look for this to become a standard on storytelling bibliographies.
The Second Story Review, Vol 3, No. 3, Sep 1998