The Psychologist October 2009
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on through word of mouth (although they may have become texts at various points as well). Traditional stories include myths and legends, historical tales and ‘fairytales’ (also known as ‘wonder tales’). A small proportion of wonder tales such as Snow White or Cinderella are very familiar today, partly because they have been transferred to other media and transmitted to wide audiences in novel forms. Riddles and proverbs are fragments of the oral tradition still commonly used today. It is possible to trace many of these stories back through the generations, during which time the tales have evolved considerably while still retaining a significant core identity. The fact that the same stories retain a widespread popularity and an appeal across generations, and often across cultures, has suggested to many that there is something archetypal about these enduring tales and that they must resonate with something deep in the human psyche. Many writers, such as Sigmund Freud, Bruno Bettelheim, Joseph Campbell, Ernest Bloch and Clarissa Pinkola Estes have speculated about how such stories may reflect aspects of the psyche and may facilitate the resolution of internal conflicts or provide an arena for wish fulfilment. Although it has been alleged that he took his ideas, largely unattributed, from the work of Julius Heuscher (Pollak, 1997), Bettelheim has been particularly influential. He suggested that these stories provide a means of transmitting unconscious role models to children and thus helping children through the various stages of psychosexual development. His idea was that, by identifying with the heroes and heroines they encounter in these stories, children rehearse strategies for dealing with such delicate issues as separation from their parents, failing to meet with their parents’ expectations and rivalries with peers. Stories allow difficult issues to be examined in fantasy without provoking too much anxiety (Bettelheim, 1976). In a contemporary analysis, Jon Kabat-Zinn (1994) wrote of such stories as ‘wise, ancient, surprisingly sophisticated blueprints for our full development as human beings’. These tales are often elaborate metaphors of transformation and frequently have an identifiable hermeneutic function. The message that they convey is often deeply implicit but sometimes, as in Aesop’ s fables, laid bare. The Brothers Grimm collected many The essential ingredients may remain the same, but every telling of a story is a unique creation that will reflect the storyteller’ s mood and their response to the physical environment and the audience. The story is conveyed not just verbally but also non-verbally, and the amount of eye contact, the tone of voice and use of gesture will be modulated and adapted in response to the reactions of the listeners. The style in which the story is told will reflect the content of the story and the personal style of the storyteller. Some storytellers are typically quiet and intimate in their style whereas others make expansive and animated gestures and use a wide vocal range. Thus storytelling is largely improvised and interactive. In order to make the experience intense and the story vivid to listeners, the teller may provide the sensory detail and information about how the characters are thinking and feeling. Stories are ‘remembered’ by the teller through interplay between language and image (Thomas & Killick, 2007). The teller may call upon the rhythm of the words as well as some specific phrases that are remembered exactly, and they may create strong visual images associated with the story – storytelling is not only about listening but also about ‘seeing’. The teller may be said to ‘inhabit’ the story and to take listeners on a journey. Such processes have much in common with well-known memory techniques. Indeed, the writer Doris Lessing has claimed that literacy may have had a negative impact upon our ability to remember. Without easy access to information provided by literacy there was more effort and success in committing tales to memory (Lessing, 1999). The storyteller role involves a number of aspects; the teller is part teacher, part preacher and part entertainer with different storytellers emphasising these elements to different degrees. The fact that a storyteller can select or change the story to suit the needs of the audience adds to the storyteller’ s power to engage. The expression to ‘spin a yarn’ reflects the fact that storytelling was often used to help time to pass more quickly when people were engaged in laborious, repetitive and boring activities. However a teller’ s function is not only to distract and to entertain. In many cases it is clear that there is an intention to instruct (or in some cases mislead), inform or influence through the meaning inherent in the tale and transmitted in the telling. ‘Telling’ tales – what are stories really saying? A story is a treasure chest of sign, symbol, image and metaphor. A staple component of many storytellers’ repertoires are traditional or ‘folk’ tales. These stories come from a mainly oral tradition, passed read discuss contribute at www.thepsychologist.org.uk 851 eye on fiction monographarchive/Monograph36.pdf McClellend, D. (1961). The achieving society. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand. Oatley, K. (1998). Emotion. The Psychologist, 11, 285–288. Oatley, K. (2008). The mind’s flight simulator. The Psychologist, 21, 1030–1032. Pollak, R. (1997). The creation of Dr B: A biography of Bruno Bettelheim. London: Simon & Schuster. Simmons, J. (2004). Dark angels. London: Cyan. Sunderland, M. (2000). Using story telling as a therapeutic tool with children. Bicester: Speechmark. Thomas, T. & Killick, S. (2007). Telling tales: Storytelling as emotional literacy. Blackburn: Educational Prining Services. Zipes, J. (2006). Why fairy tales stick. New York: Routledge. “A story is a treasure chest of sign, symbol, image and metaphor” JAMES MENDELSSOHN, WWW.BEYONDTHEBORDER.COM