Once upon a time…

Photo credit: Ethan Hu

…there were no books. I know, I know, it hardly bears thinking about. A world with no books sounds ghastly.

So soon enough, someone invented books. Or writing, at any rate. The Sumerians used clay tablets, the Egyptians used papyrus. The Chinese were the first to crack the secret of paper as we know it today. Someone else came up with the bright idea of binding single pages together to keep them all in one place and in the right order. Gutenberg gifted the world with movable type in the mid-fifteenth century. Still, literacy remained the preserve of the elite until very recently in human history.

This didn’t mean there were no stories; far from it. Stories pre-date books, and printing presses, and writing, and all recorded history. The need to hear them is embedded so deeply in human psyche that even people who have nothing to do with books find a way to access stories. Television and films thrive on stories; so does the music industry (many of the best songs are, at heart, a story) and newspapers – just because a story is true doesn’t mean it is any less of a story.

As with books, all of these are relatively modern inventions. Our ancestors would have got their story fix face-to-face, as part of a rich and constantly evolving oral tradition. There are many parts of the world in which stories are still passed on in this manner, from one generation to the next.

While on holiday in Orkney this summer, Himself and I were privileged to attend an evening of traditional storytelling, courtesy of Lynn Barbour and John Brooks. The scene was set in a cosy upstairs bar, with a peat fire, comfy seats and low lighting. Not only did Lynn tell two beautiful Scottish stories, but she set the scene for each by explaining the culture and world events that would have impacted on its invention and passing on. One of the stories she told was that of Assipattle and the Stoor Worm (you can read an abridged version here).

Apart from being a rollicking good tale, the story of Assipattle disproves the widespread notion that JRR Tolkien invented fantasy as we know it today. Assipattle and the Stoor Worm is an archetypal hero’s-quest story, starring a farmboy who becomes a hero (sound familiar?) fighting against a vast, acid-breathing, virgin-eating reptile (or, as we would have it today, dragon). Lynn explained that the story first emerged at a period in history marked by particular volcanic activity in Iceland – activity that the Orcadians of the time would have been aware of, but utterly unable to explain. So they came up with a story for it.

Many of our most clichéd traditional stories were born in this manner. Myths and legends from all corners of the globe were originally told around fires on dark winters’ nights, and were fresh and exciting instead of old and hoary – and very believable. A story well told offers every bit of a full-immersion experience as IMAX cinema, as well has having better pictures.

In modern times, we are lucky enough (mostly) to have books; stories we can carry round with us and indulge in whenever we please. That doesn’t mean we should forget where it all started, or allow the art of traditional storytelling to fall by the wayside. Still less that we should discount the stories from those times as irrelevant or clichéd. They spoke to our ancestors, as a means of passing on their understanding of the world, and there is no reason that they should not speak to us just as deeply today.

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