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Why Do We Love Storytelling?

Why is it that human beings just cannot resist a good story? The Ancient Greeks loved them, the Romans did too; the Vikings told long and complex stories called sagas, and there is a rich oral tradition in Arab communities naming storytellers hakawati. Even modern day stories told through television shows, movies, comic books, episodic podcasts and games are incredibly popular. All across the world, from the African continent to New Zealand, and from Iceland all the way down to Argentina, people cannot get enough of stories, whether old or brand new.

Storytelling serves many purposes, from relaying the history of a people or place, to offering entertainment, distraction and comfort, to imparting a lesson or parable. Stories have traditionally been passed down orally, from one person to another, keeping alive languages, legends and a sense of connection through the generations. However, we now have so many ways in which to record and pass on stories, with modern iterations reaching more listening ears than was ever possible before.

Book of tales

Book of tales

Preserving History

Spoken word stories have been used since time immemorial to record the histories of different communities. Ancient tales tended to take the form of songs, chants or epic poetry which served the dual purpose of better captivating an audience and rendering the story easier to remember and repeat. However, stories were also told through visual mediums such as cave paintings and hieroglyphics, as well as through written words.

Details don’t always focus on tales of bravery, danger and defeat either; humans have always recorded the simple things, such as recognisable rituals like hair-washing, hunting animals and playing sport. It is these smaller, everyday occurrences that best preserve the cultures that made them, giving modern humans a clearer glimpse into our past. Although details may be embellished or abstract ideas introduced, more often than not we look to the familiar world around us for inspiration.

With this in mind, it is easy to see why we are so drawn to telling our own stories with the media available to us now. Blog posts, YouTube videos, Instagram photos and other online publications are just another way to record our own everyday encounters with the world, in the hope of preserving some part of our lived experience for future generations.

Passing the Time

Of course, another function of storytelling is simply to pass the time. As well as preserving history and culture, the oral tradition was born from a need for entertainment during long winters and periods of enforced inactivity. Even now, when we’re in search of some downtime and need to relax we seek out stories. These days they may come in the form of movies viewed on a laptop screen, table games played on a smartphone, or books read from an e-reader, but they are still fulfilling the old need for storytelling.

Gathering together for ‘storytime’ is something that humans have done since forever and, even though we rarely sit down as a community to hear the storyteller speak on such an intimate scale anymore, we still gather in cinemas, bookshops and living rooms to hear tales told. Those of us who have the gift of storytelling do so still through novels, scripts, comics, games, artworks, and more, whilst audiences gather together to appraise the latest offering in a communal viewing experience. Although we no longer have to wait out the long winter in most of the world, we still have these moments where we would rather get lost in a story than deal with whatever’s happening in ‘real life’.

Teaching a Lesson

Storytelling

Storytelling

Hidden within most storytelling entertainment is a lesson beyond remembering the culture that first invented the tale or the time when it was first told. We often refer to stories with the most obvious lessons in them as parables or allegories. However, most myths, fairytales and fables also teach a lesson to the reader or listener.

Morals, customs and advice all change with the times and so stories have to be adapted or have parts rewritten. For example, when the Grimm Brothers collected traditional oral folklore from around their home country of Germany, they made sure that these ancient tales fitted with their own modern sensibilities before publishing them in written form. This sometimes meant omitting parts with which they didn’t agree, or embellishing stories to make the pertinent moral more obvious.

We still enact this role of editor with our stories today. If a book is published and the themes are labelled controversial by a community, then that book may be banned from sale. If a movie is released and it contains material thought to be sensitive or offensive, then it will receive an age-appropriate certification or may even be banned too. Although we do love stories, we are aware of the power that they can wield and trailblazers may not always be met with enthusiasm.

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