Too often today, the term storytelling conjures an image of sleepy children being read to before bedtime. Of course, telling bedtime stories is a cherished ritual in families, but I am speaking now of a different kind of storytelling.
In the electronic age where entertainment is just a click away and information is distributed in books, newspapers, televisions and computer sources, we are somehow surprised to remember that in the not-so-distant past, information was shared primarily by word of mouth.
Storytelling is an ancient and time-honored oral convention. Traditionally, stories were often accompanied by music and set to poetic rhythms. This made them easier to listen to and simpler to remember.
In ancient Britain, bards and minstrels traveled between kingdoms and were renowned for their skill and treated as honored guests. Ancient storytellers were often employed by a prominent family and would live and travel between households with that family. Those bards extolled the virtues of their employers and committed to posterity; their victories. They orally recorded the histories of that sect, family, tribe or clan. As they traveled, those storytellers brought news to various regions and gathered inspiring legends. They created new stories and songs as events dictated and opportunities arose. The storytellers’ arrival caused much anticipation in areas starved for entertainment, gossip and information from other regions.
Storytellers of old, gathered news and knowledge, as well as fictional tales, songs and ballads from various regions. They shared these to educate and entertain the population as they roamed. Historically, the best stories outlive the tellers.
Many stories, especially the more timeless tales, have survived from antiquity, often for centuries, to present day. Frequently those ballads and fables that have best stood the test of time, contained morals or teachings that were considered valuable life lessons. The best-known fables were collected by various European writers and preserved in written format, recorded as fairy tales and folk tales. The best known continue to evolve and be re-created to this day. Some of the most famous fable collectors, editors, translators and writers are; Charles Perrault from France, Andrew Lang from Scotland, The Brothers Grimm from Germany, Hans Christian Anderson from Denmark … Most of their stories survived as oral folk tales until these collectors gathered them up and recorded them as written tales.
Hundreds of illustrators have since applied fantastic pictures and designs to enhance these traditional tales. During Victorian times, these stories served the purpose of teaching children morals and traditions, in a way that would be entertaining and amusing. Most of the stories re-written during this time frame were ‘dummed down’; many of the more complex and/or gory details of the originals were eliminated to sanitize the stories for children. Some of these tales in their original context are shocking by contrast.
Today, you will be glad to learn no doubt; storytelling has survived throughout its long and interesting history, as an ongoing and living oral tradition. Many storytellers today still travel the globe, collecting and creating stories, some accompanied by music, some not. There are also many ‘tellers’ who never leave their home regions; they are the local experts on the lore and legends of those places they inhabit and know well. Today tellers may be found in rural market places and urban universities. Present day tellers will pass on the oral history of our time and the past, to future generations. These ‘sharers of wisdom’ tell their tales at large gatherings and crowds, at festivals and at humble firesides worldwide. Many modern day storytellers tell stories designed for adults, and many specialize in tales for children. Some re-tell old tales with a personal spin, some create stories that are uniquely their own.
One up-and-coming tradition in New England is the telling of stories combined with a meal at a rural inn or restaurant. This is not only an excellent way to pass an evening; it also brings people in a community together and can create long and lasting friendships. This is storytelling as it was meant to be.
Tales of magic and the mundane, fantasy and fact make each story special. Many present day storytellers specialize in one or more genres. Some tell ‘in character’ and sometimes even in costume. A storytelling gala can bring some diverse specialties together, such as: historical, individual character, tales from specific regions such as the British Isles, Africa and Russia, tales of haunting mystery and cowboy tales, Native American tales, children’s stories, New England Tales and ongoing sagas….
If you are uninitiated and wish to experience this timeless phenomenon for yourself, I would suggest attending a gala or an event where storytellers will be featured.
Everyone has a story. What’s your’s?
All the tellers featured above, and many more, have biographies at the link below:
Tellabration is a worldwide storytelling program, happening annually and nearly simultaneously during one week in November. Look for a program near you this year.
Some local places where storytellers gather are:
Tea And Tales held at Franklin NH Public Library, check for schedule
Storytellers are often featured at Renaissance and other faires
Some organizations that support Storytelling:
The National Storytelling Network, aka NSN –
Many special thanks to: