Making the familiar material relevant to the audience

CATFISH_HN

The storyteller does not recreate some else’s work but rather creates his own interpretive version in the process of telling the story. Through the use of such devices as analogies, the storyteller imbues the familiar material with meaning relevant to his audience and puts his own particular stamp on the stories.

Mary Ellen Page, “Professional storytelling in Iran: Transmission and practice”, Iranian Studies, vol. 12, 1979, pp. 212
Catfish. Illustration inspired by the ceramics of Mimbres Culture, Nuevo Mexico.

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A good storyteller possesses a full knowledge of the story

dragon_caligrafia

[In Iran] whether a man comes to storytelling through formal training or whether he trains himself, he will list the same things as significant for succeeding as a storyteller. A good storyteller is described by storytellers and audience alike as well versed (vared) in his material. He feels that he must be in possession of a full and complete knowledge both of the literary source and of the tumar. A storyteller also prides himself on having in his memory a considerable body of lyric poetry.

»The audience is familiar with the storyteller’s repertoire, and a storyteller will not perform material which is unknown to his audience. The audience, he fells, will never come back every day and pay to hear a story it has never heard before (balad nistand). In short, the valued aspects of being a good storyteller are those which are most reflected in the training to become a professional storyteller – memorization of texts and command of familiar material.

Mary Ellen Page, “Professional storytelling in Iran: Transmission and practice”, Iranian Studies, vol. 12, 1979, pp. 199-200.

Illustration inspired by the drawings of MinaLima for the book by J.K. Rowling Fantastic Beasts and where to find them.

Two ways of becoming a storyteller in Iran

lesotho-2

[In Iran] [t]he steps a man takes to become a storyteller vary from person to person. […] The storyteller usually learns his craft from a master storyteller. As a student (shagerd), he takes lessons from a master (ostad) whom the student pays for lessons and for providing material. The master himself is a practicing storyteller. The student works alone with his teacher. The stress in training is on rote memorization of the material. The student is taught the literary work Shanama [the “Epic of the Kings”, by Ferdowsi, 940-1020 AD], line by line. […] In addition to the literary work, the student must also copy and learn the tumar, which he receives from his teacher. This tumar is a story outline in prose of the episodes making up the stories he will tell. The student also learns philosophy and religion, and poetry from poets other than Ferdowsi. The period of time of training varies from individual to individual. […]

A storyteller may enter his profession on his own without having gone through more rigorous training. He may simply be attracted by the craft of storytelling, go to hear a number of storytellers, learn from listening to them how the stories are told, pick up the literary work and memorize it, then go off on his own to practice his new trade.

Professional storytelling in Iran: Transmission and practice”, Iranian Studies, vol. 12, 1979, pp. 198-199

Illustration inspired by rock art paintings in Lesotho

Tales by the mile

mujeres

From our encampment near the shore of this famous lake [Lake Urmia] to the city or Mârâgâ [Maragheh] is eighteen miles: we made this march at night. Moollâh Adeenah, the story-teller of his majesty, was one of our party. The Elchee [ambassador] asked him to beguile the weariness of our road with a tale.

‘How many farsekhs* long do you wish it?’ was his reply.

‘At least five,’ was the answer.

‘I can exactly suit you,’ said the Moollâh; ‘you shall have Ahmed the cobbler.’

I could not help laughing at this mode of measuring a tale; but I was assured it was a common custom, arising out of the calculation professed story-tellers were compelled to make of the leisure of their hearers. All further remarks upon this usage were put an end to, by Moollâh Adeenah desiring us to be silent and attentive; his wish being complied with, he commenced as follows:

‘In the great city of Isfahan lived Ahmed the cobbler, an honest and industrious man…’ [the retelling of the story takes 19 pages ]”.

* 1 farsekh = c. 3 miles = 5 kilometres

Sketches of Persia, from the journals of a traveller in the East, London: J. Murray, 1845 , p. 252 (first published in 1827).
Illustration inspired by Bushman rock paintings in the Cederberg, South Africa