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
“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
In Malay, pengiluar lara, ‘Dispeller of Worries’, is the praise-name for the storyteller who possesses the art of enthralling his listeners. In the course of centuries, the Malay storyteller developed and refined his art until it became the very expression of the swift movement of the prince’s horse; the snake’s winding coils; the heavenly nymph flying through the sky, bright and golden. Inimitable are the images that are strewn across Malay tales.
Jan Knappert, Mythology and Folklore in South-East Asia, Oxford University Press, 1999 p. 195
Drawing inspired by a rock art painting of Kakadu, Australia
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.
Besides the material told, some purely physical attributes of the storyteller bear on his work. Things like vocal quality and gestures have an effect on the audience and its reaction to the storyteller. Most will, of course, agree that one must have a good voice to be a storyteller. Audience members will complain if a storyteller’s voice is weak (za’if). They appreciate storytellers who have voices which they describe as warm (garm), a voice which is effective in moving them. Storytellers may develop stylized manners of presentation, but these are not offered as the subject of instruction or as the major value of storytelling. […] All storytellers recognize, too, that they may take elements of storytelling style from other storytellers whom they have occasion to hear.
Mary Ellen Page, “Professional storytelling in Iran: Transmission and practice”, Iranian Studies, vol. 12, 1979, pp. 211
Illustration inspired by a drawing of the Mochica culture, Peru
[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.