A Trail of Light
Storytelling Traditions by Marcie
"On a sultry autumn night, in the Deep South, a tall, thin young
man walked the dark road to the only store within miles of his familyís home.
The wisp of moon barely lit the sky. The breeze that stirred the trees
masked some of the sounds of the night, and mimicked others. After making
his purchases, the young man headed home. As he stepped onto the road, a
wild shriek pierced the night. That sound could mean only one thing:
a mountain lion was on the prowl.
Seeing movement in the trees at the edge of the road, and catching a glimpse of tawny fur, the young man broke into a run, clutching his brown paper sack. The sound of the wildcatís growl, too close behind him, gave wings to his bare feet. He ran so fast he got home ten minutes before the time he left the house in the first place."
Many years later, I heard my tall, thin grandfather tell this tale. Like all of his grandchildren, I asked him to tell the story over and over again. We could feel the night air and hear the wildcatís cry. It was eerie, as he told it, and gave us shivers, but we would always giggle as he completed his story, "I ran so fast, I got home before I left."
"Heirlooms we donít have in our family.
But stories weíve got."
My grandfather was a very straightforward storyteller. He kept it short
and to the point, but his expression and tone of voice set the mood. There
are other kinds of storytellers, not nearly as succinct, but just as
enthralling. The owner of the company I worked for through most of my
twenties told longer tales, very linear, but filled with description. I
can remember her leaning her aging, but still lovely face, on her hand as she
told the tale of traveling alone from her hometown in the Canadian province of
Saskatchewan to London, Ontario at the tender age of four. Aside from
telling a tale, her vibrant stories, accented with humor and punctuated by
sparkling violet eyes, told much about the storyteller and a life most fully
Still other storytellers must practically circumnavigate the globe in the roundabout way they convey their tales. Like sidebars in a magazine, background information is provided on each person, place or thing. My well-traveled mother-in-law, Barb, is just such a storyteller, and has in fact, circumnavigated the globe. Her anecdotes about her children are short and funny, without detours, but her travel stories are a "long and winding road" which her listeners travel with her. We sit enthralled at she tells tales of mist-shrouded back roads she traveled in New Zealand. A decade ago, she spent six weeks in Vietnam with a friend whose family still lives there in a tiny village. The Vietnamese people treated Barb like visiting royalty. I may never have traveled the undeveloped roads of Vietnam, with a bus-full of friendly natives, to watch an eclipse from the seacoast, but Iíve seen it and felt the wonder of the experience - through her stories.
While my mother-in-law came home from her extended visit to Vietnam filled
with stories of the people she had met, of their poverty of situation and
generosity of spirit, Vietnam was already filled with stories of its own.
In her book CHILDREN OF THE DRAGON (Selected Tales from Vietnam), author Sherry
Garland retells six folktales. With titles such as "The Legend of the Monsoon
Rains" and "The Raven and the Star fruit" these stories invite readers to visit
a far-away land with fascinating traditions.
"How the Tiger Got its Stripes" begins with this passage, "A very long time ago, when animals could still speak like people, a rice farmer awakened early one morning, inside his bamboo hut not far from the jungle-covered mountains. While gray mists swirled over the rice paddies, this farmer led his water buffalo down the dirt trail toward a grazing pasture." Sherry Garlandís vivid story telling offers just a glimpse of the wealth of storytelling material from a 4,000-year-old culture.
Other Asian nations have unique mythologies and story telling methods as well. Japan has many unique rituals for storytelling, including Bunraku Theater, in which life-sized puppets, controlled by puppeteers camouflaged in black garb, present a traditional or contemporary tale. Once upon a time, before the advent of television, storytellers would come into Japanese villages by bicycle to share a story using large illustrated cards called kamishibai. The storyteller made his livelihood by selling candy. Children who bought candy were offered the positions nearest the storyteller and his painted cards. The gaito kamishibaiya-san would leave the children with a truly suspenseful cliffhanger, and cutting the story off in mid-telling, go on his way, leaving his listeners eager for his next visit and the next installment of his story.
Africa is a large continent filled with many nations and a vast number of languages, and each one contains a unique tradition for conveying its history and lore. Despite differences in flavor, affected by neighboring nations and religious influences, most of the African cultures share the tradition of weaving together memory and music, storytelling and dancing. Often, a soloist leads and listeners respond in chorus. The diverse stories, frequently accompanied by unique regional instruments, tell of magic and faith, of young heroes and respected ancestors. The stories are taught to the young so that, it is hoped, they may be continued into perpetuity.
Wherever one travels in the world, each culture has fascinating storytelling traditions reflective of the unique character of its people. BEYOND THE BORDERS, an international storytelling festival held at St. Donats Castle on the South Wales coast each year at the end of July celebrates the "tradition bearers" who carry on pre-literary and oral customs. In 2006, this festival will feature the themes of "Dragons and Silk" weaving together the lore of East and West.
A Scottish Travelerís proverb assures us, "The story is told eye to eye, mind to mind, and heart to heart." The International Festival of Storytelling held each year in Scotland highlights the rich traditions of Scottish, Gaelic and Celtic lore. This festival is held in October, as the air that sweeps over the meads and lochs becomes invigoratingly cool and folks turn to fireside entertainments.
"The universe is made of stories, not atoms."
You can look across the globe,
circumnavigate the worldís folklore, but you can also look closer to home for
the tales unique to your region. Where I live, literally halfway to
the North Pole in northwestern Lower Michigan, near the 45th parallel, we are
steeped in indigenous lore. The name "Michigan" is borrowed from a native
American word meaning "Great Water." Native American symbolism, as well as
that of many other cultures, often uses the metaphor of a circle. The
circle of the seasons, of life itself, is portrayed in many stories. Just
a few miles north of my home is a local gathering place known as The Stone
Circle. It is, quite simply, a large bonfire. For several months of
the year, folks gather around the fire, sharing their stories, through poetry,
songs and narrative.
"His house was perfect, whether you liked food,
or sleep, or work, or story-telling, or singing,
or just sitting and thinking, best,
or a pleasant mixture of them all."
J. R. R. Tolkien (1892 - 1973), The Hobbit
RESOURCES: The following resources are offered so that the reader can delve much deeper into the rich variety of storytelling traditions around the world. Tip: Look for festivals in your area by utilizing your favorite search engine. Just enter the phrase "Storytelling Festival" and your geographical region.
http://www.timsheppard.co.uk/story/ Extensive UK site on traditional story telling
http://www.scottishstorytellingcentre.co.uk/ Information about the International Storytelling Festival and much more
http://www.beyondtheborder.com/ Fascinating information about this years celebration
http://www.sherrygarland.com/ This prolific childrenís writer provides information about her projects, including Children of the Dragon, Selected Stories from Vietnam (Harcourt)