As early as in Russian sources of the twelfth century one may read that a rich man, suffering from sleeplessness, ordered his attendants to tickle the soles of his feet, to strum on the gusli, and to tell him fairy tales. Ivan the Terrible, who became one of the popular heroes of the Russian folk tales, was its most avid fancier, and three old blind men followed each other at his bedside, relating fairy tales before he slumbered. Skillful tellers of tales continued to enliven the leisure of tsar and tsarina, of princes and gentry, as late as the eighteenth century. Even at the close of that century we find in Russian newspapers advertisements of blind men applying for work in the homes of the gentry as tellers of tales. Lev Tolstoy, as a child, fell asleep to the tales of an old man who had once been bought by the count’s grandfather, because of his knowledge and masterly rendition of fairy tales.
Roman Jakobson, “On Russian Fairy Tales”, appendix to A. Afanasiev, Russian Fairy Tales, translated by Norbert Guterman, New York: Pantheon, 1945, p. 635
Illustration inspired by a mesopotamian drawing
I am not making a plea for the art I practice. The novel, storytelling in general, will always be able to take care of itself. […]
Storytelling can take care of itself. Is it true? Have censors been so ineffectual, century after century? Yes, they have. They are ineffectual because, in laying down the rules that stories may not transgress, and enforcing these rules, they fail to recognize that the offensiveness of stories lies not in their transgressing particular rules but in their faculty of making and changing their own rules. […] Because (I parody the position somewhat) a story is not a message with a covering, a rhetorical or aesthetic covering. It is not a message plus a residue, the residue, the art with which the message is coated with the residue, forming the subject matter of rhetoric or aesthetics or literary appreciation. There is no addition in stories. They are not made up of one thing plus another thing, message plus vehicle, substructure plus superstructure. On the keyboard on which they are written, the plus key does not work. There is always a difference; and the difference is not a part, the part left behind after the subtraction. The minus key does not work either: the difference is everything.
Storytelling (let me repeat myself at the risk of boring you) is not a way of making messages more –as they say– ‘effective’. Storytelling is another, an other mode of thinking. It is more venerable than history, as ancient as the cockroach. Nor is this primitiveness the only way in which stories resemble cockroaches. Like cockroaches, stories can be consumed. All you need to do is tear off the wings and sprinkle a little salt on them. They are nourishing, to a degree, though if you are truly looking for nourishment you would probably look elsewhere. Cockroaches can also be colonized. You can capture them in a cockroach trap, breed them (quite easily), herd them together in cockroach farms. You can put pints through them and mount them in cases, with labels. You can use their wings to cover lampshades with. You can do minute dissections of their respiratory systems, and stain them, and photograph them, and frame them, and hang them on the wall. You can, if you wish, dry them and powder them and mix them with high explosives and make bombs of them. You can even make up stories about them, as Kafka did, although this is quite hard. One of the things you cannot –apparently– do is eradicate them. They breed, as the figure has it, like flies, and under the harshest circumstances. It is not known for what reason they are on the earth, which would probably be a nicer place –certainly an easier place to understand– without them. It is said that they will still be around when we and all our artefacts have disappeared.
This is called a parable, a mode favoured by marginal groups – groups that don’t have a place in the mainstream, in the main plot of history – because it is hard to pin down unequivocally what the point is.
In the end there is still the difference between a cockroach and a story, and the difference remains everything.
J. M. Coetzee, “The Novel Today”, Upstream , vol. 6, 1988, pp. 3-4
Illustration inspired by a drawing of a rhinoceros from the Chauvet Cave, France
Yes, of course, some people tell stories one way, some another. Perhaps it is because people sometimes separate for a while and still go on telling stories. But in all these stories about the old time, people use different words and names for the same things. There are many different ways to talk. Different people just have different minds.
!Unn /obe, storyteller of the Ju/’hoansi, in the Kalahari; Megan Biesele, Women Like Meat: The Folklore and Foraging Ideology of the Kalahari Ju/’hoan, Johannesburg: Witswatersrand University Press, 1993, p. 66
Illustration inspired by a drawing of a turtle from the Mimbres Culture
And then the cold winter nights, Granny went into her little compartment, tent, in the barricade, and it was storytelling. I was very young then, but I remember my granny well. There were wonderful stories told round the little fire. I remember my daddy sitting around the fire in the middle of the floor, just a stick fire in the middle of the tent, a hole in the roof and the smoke going straight up through the hole. A little paraffin lamp, the cruisie turned down, home-made by my father.
Granny would tell a story, Father would tell a story. Maybe a few travellers passing by would stop and put their tent over in the “Tinker’s Turn’, a place across the burn from the wood where we stayed. […] They would also tell stories and have a little get-together. Our tent was a stopping place for travellers who came down to Argyll, and there was always time for a story.
Now Granny would stay with us all winter in that big barricade with her little compartment. […]
Now Granny was a an old lady, and every old traveller woman in the bygone days never carried a handbag. But around their waist they carried a big pocket. I remember Granny’s –she made it herself, a tartan pocket. It was like a large purse with a strap, and she tied it around her waist. It had three pearl buttons down the middle, not zip in these days. Granny carried all her worldly possessions in this pocket.
Now, Granny smoked a little clay pipe. And when she needed tobacco, she would say, “Weans, I want you to run to the village for tobacco for my pipe.” And she’d give us a threepenny bit, a penny for each of us and a penny for tobacco. The old man used to have a roll of it on the counter, and he cut off a little bit for Granny for her penny. We came back and our reward was, “Granny, tell us a story!”
She sat in front of her little tent, and she had a little billy-can and a little fire. We collected sticks for her, and she’d boil this strong, black tea. She lifted the can off, placed it by the side of the fire and said, “Well, weans, I’ll see what I have in my pocket for you this time!” She opened up that big pocket by her side with the three pearl buttons. I remember them well, and she said, “Well, I’ll tell you this story.” Maybe it was one she’d told three nights before. Maybe it was one she had never told for weeks. Sometimes she would tell us a story three-four times; sometimes she told us a story we’d never heard.
So, one day my sister and I came back from the village. We were playing and we came up to Granny’s little tent. The sun was shining warm. Granny’s little can of tea was by the fire: it was cold, the fire had burned out. The sun was warm. Granny was lying, she had her two hands under her head like an old woman, and her little bed was in front of the tent. By her side was the pocket. That was the very first time we’d ever seen that pocket off Granny’s waist. She probably took it off when she went to bed at night-time. But never during the day!
So my sister and I crept up quietly and we said, ‘Granny is asleep! There’s her pocket. Let’s go and see how many stories are in Granny’s pocket.’ So very gently we picked the pocket up, we took it behind the tree where we lived in the forest and opened up the three pearl buttons. And in that pocket was like Aladdin’s Cave! There were clay pipes, threepenny pieces, rings, halfpennies, pennies, farthings, brooches, pins, needles, everything and old woman carried with her, thimbles… but not one single story could we find! So we never touched anything. We put everything back inside, closed it and put it back, left it by her side. We said, ‘We’ll go and play and we’ll get Granny when she gets up.’ So we went off to play again, came back about an hour later and Granny was up. Her little fire was kindling. She was heating up her cold tea. And we sat down by her side. She began to light her pipe after she drank this black strong tea. We said, ‘Granny, are you going to tell us a story?’
‘Aye, weans,’ she said. ‘I’ll tell you a story.’ She loved telling us stories because it was company for us, forbyes it was good company for her to sit there beside us weans. She said, ‘Wait a minute noo, wait till I see what I have for you tonight.’ And she opened up the pocket. She looked at me and my little sister for a while, for a long time with her blue eyes. She said, ‘Ye ken something, weans?’
We said, ‘No, Granny.’
She said, ‘Somebody opened my pocket when I was asleep and all my stories are gone. I cannae tell ye a story the nicht, weans.’ And she never told us a story that night. And she never told us another story. And I was seventeen when my granny died, but eleven when that happened. Granny never told me another story, and that’s a true story!
Duncan Williamson, The Horsieman: Memories of a Traveller 1928-1958, Edinburg: Canongate Press, 1994, pp. 6-8
Illustration inspired by a japanese netsuke
The story went into the forest, the thoughts into one’s own mind.
Closing formula of Maithil storytellers, Nepal; Coralynn V. Davis, Maithil Women’s Tales: Storytelling on the Nepal-India Border, Urbana & Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2014, p. 1
Illustration inspired by a drawing of the Huichol people, Mexico
“How does a man become a singer, you ask? Not through straining his voice on a the bare hill tops, not yet through making presents to many teachers.”
“Is a singer born a singer then, Parchen-tulchi?”
“No, neither is a tulchi (rhapsodist) born. How can a man invent pictures of the world of heroes, how can he see the hundred snowy peaks of Altai and the ten blue lakes and the seventy swift rivers and the red and yellow camels and the herds of black and roan and piebald horses, if these things are not communicated to him my forces other than his own?”
“What forces are these?”
“When I was a boy of twelve I pastured my father’s flocks on the steppe. One day I saw a giant ride up on a dragon, whether in dream or in fact I cannot tell you. The giant asked me if I wished to become a singer of epic tales. I told the giant that this indeed was my dearest wish but I feared it might never be. For my father was sending me to the monastery to put on the lama’s robe and learn the sacred books. The giant pointed to a white goat, the largest and best of my father’s goats. ‘Give me that goat to sacrifice to the King of dragons,’ he said, ‘and you shall sing such heroes’ songs as will make your name for ever dear where men gather at night around the fires, or meet at the great feasts of the princes.’
“Gladly I agreed, the giant struck me on the shoulder, mounted his dragon and was gone. When I came to myself there was no one, no giant, no dragon, but near by a wolf was eating the white goat, the very one the giant had demanded for a sacrifice. From that day I knew that I had the gift of song, given me by the lord of dragons himself.”
“And all was then easy – song, and fame, and learning?”
Parchen smiled. “Nothing was easy. For my father beat me sorely because the wolf had eaten his goat. He sent me to the monastery and there the monks beat me because I could not learn the sacred doctrine.”
“Yet you became a singer?”
“I had the gift. They let me learn the songs and sing. When I knew them I felt the steppe call and left the sacred walls to wander among the tents of the princes and sing the deeds of my people.
”I had many songs, and the spirits spoke easily to me, so that I became famous among men. Many were the gifts I had, silks, garments, saddles, carpets, horses, and sheep, but I spent all and went back again to the monastery. In those days I was gay and careless, given to drunkenness and women, was prodigal of all things and loved the life of men. Even at one time I loved a Russian woman, and she me.”
Mongolia; Ralph Fox, “Conversation with a Lama”, New Writing, autumn 1936, pp. 180-181
Illustration inspired by a Bird Man Rapa Nui, Easter Island