Thursday, April 21, 2011

Issues with oral storytelling

Surlalune referenced an online article, Richard E Grant unravels origins of The Arabian Nights, which piqued my curiosity. It's a very interesting article on the history of the Arabian Nights; however, as is often the case with fairy tale history, it seems the only conclusion we can come to about origins are that they are "debatable." Such is life when dealing with stories that were passed down by word of mouth for who knows how many years. In a way it's disappointing that we can't learn more about our favorite tales, but at the same time it adds to the mystery and enchantment. These tales seem to grow out of human history and have become a part of mankind-they are probably the most accessible link we have to our earliest ancestors. That in itself adds to the appeal, in my opinion. But how trustworthy are any of our versions of the tales?
From the article:
"Trying to pin down the origin of stories that have passed down orally is akin to juggling with water.

The tradition of oral storytelling and embellishment down the centuries makes perfect sense when you consider that tribes of nomadic people travelled across North Africa to the Middle East and beyond to India, putting storytelling centre stage around camp fires in the evenings.

Anyone who has ever played that game where one person whispers the beginning of a story into someone else's ear and they then have to repeat and add to it, will know how a story evolves and expands very quickly.

Likewise, the oral tradition of repeating the stories that make up The Arabian Nights, told by different people over a period of 10 centuries, will be hugely variable."

What he says is true, and yet some people put more faith in story tellers from the past. For example, the Grimms claimed that their sources could tell the same story twice and the wording would be exactly the same both times (I think I read that in this book.) It might sound incredible, but memorization was much more valued in other cultures than it is today. Victorian children would regularly be given passages to memorize as their homework. In illiterate societies, memorization is the only way to retain and pass on information. I remember reading a book about Pocahontas when I was little, in which she tells John Smith that, if her father Powhatan spoke for three hours to his messenger, the messenger could perfectly repeat the entire message to its intended recipient. Memorization is a skill that can get better with practice, as any actor will tell you, so it's possible that the stories were retained much better through the centuries than we might imagine.

At the same time, it's obvious that with all the variations on each fairy tale that we know of today, somewhere along the line, the tales did change-and authors are still playing around with the themes, challenging and questioning old patterns. Sadly, though writing down the tales helps us today to have a better idea of the tales' history, it gives way to the belief that fairy tales have a definitive "original" version, which is not the case at all.

The article also says: "The more violent and sexual aspects of the stories were watered down in Galland's translation, and the panto versions we are so familiar with from childhood are testimony to this self-censorship." So, even literary versions can't be trusted-this certainly applies to the Brothers Grimm as well. Do you ever feel that, the more we learn, the more we realize we don't know anything?

Illustrations by Virginia Frances Sterrett

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