Stories and Storytellers: the importance of stories

While tidying up some old files I came across a piece I had written for a guest blog spot (see note below) on the topic of stories. As it seemed to fit with the theme of my own blog, I offer a tweaked version here:

I have been thinking recently about stories, storytellers and the importance of stories to both children and adults alike. At present, these musings are rather random but I would like to turn them into something more substantial. I give you here some of my tangled thoughts in the hope that it might make them somewhat clearer to me….

Of interest to me is what makes a good story; which stories can be said to have stood the test of time and why this should be so. In addition, books that once fell out of fashion and that have since been rediscovered and reprinted. For example, Persephone Books now have a long list of fascinating reprints of once forgotten twentieth novels by women writers (I loved Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson).

Book cover of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day featuring two fashionable ladies

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

Moreover, what about children’s stories? Before Christmas, I was pulling together ideas for an article on Christmas gifts. Having recently been to an entertaining reading by Frank Cottrell Boyce in the company of a very critical nine year old, I added his latest book Cosmic to my list. At the event, Boyce talked to his young audience about how stories are told, retold and then retold some more. Each time storytellers add new elements. He regaled the children with variations on the theme of finding treasure and the (often-fatal!) consequences. It is a simple enough plot, yet there is enormous potential for exploring a range of actions and emotions. Great comic material too as Boyce proves in his novel Millionaires. There is a good chance that at least some kids reading it will have caught the lifelong story bug

I was initially thinking about the written as opposed to the spoken story but many authors also can spin a good yarn if doing a live session. And in Ireland, where there is a fine tradition of oral story telling I have been to many sessions that can be enjoyed by all ages. Think of in particular, Niall de Burca, Eddie Lenihan and Jack Lynch who can hold audiences in the palms of their hands with their wonderful (and often very tall) tales.

Children’s writers do a fantastic job of creating an imaginary world but story telling can be just as important to adults too. One book in particular that started me thinking about the vital effect a storyteller can have is Tahar Ben Jelloun’s This Blinding Absence of Light. In this novel, based on real events Selim, enduring the horror of imprisonment in Tazmamart, a secret prison in Morocco, becomes a storyteller to his fellow prisoners. He has no books, nor paper and pen so he draws upon his memories to retell old tales and even movie plots to them.

Cover of This Blinding Absence of Light with a figure in desert landscape.

This Blinding Absence of Light

Telling stories is a means of assisting him (and them) to survive, to keep his brain working and to keep up morale amongst the prisoners. They are all in tiny individual cells and it is a way of communicating through the walls, darkness and fears that surround them. The book is a moving testimony to the power of the storyteller. Those are of course extreme circumstances. Even so, people have often used stories in extremis, to come to terms with, and to make sense of events beyond control. Sometimes even to find humour in an otherwise difficult situation.

Well, those are some of my musings….now I am off to curl up with a box of chocolates and a good story.

This piece dates from 2nd January 2011 and this is an edited version of a blog entry for Hand and Star (now apparently defunct but formerly edited by Tom Chivers)  

As a postscript to this piece, there is a connection with my previous piece on Georgette Heyer in that one of her novels Friday’s Child became a symbol of survival for a group of Romanian women political prisoners. One of the women told and retold the story from memory and later, after spending twelve years in prison was able to write and thank the author (in 1963)  from the safety of the United States.

Never underestimate the power of a good story or a great storyteller – if you have any particularly favourite stories that you would like to share, just drop a line in the comment box. I’d love to hear about them!



2 comments on “Stories and Storytellers: the importance of stories

  1. […] along. I have written a little about the importance of stories and storytellers in a previous post (April) so this aspect of the book was of particular interest to […]


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