The festive season is a time for stories. They could be the tales about your life that you tell while catching up with loved ones, they might be a yarn told while sitting round the fire to entertain youngsters (and often adults, too) or they could take the form of the myriad plays, films, musicals or pantomimes that are used to beguile a wintry holiday afternoon. However they are expressed, stories are a currency with special secrets and significance.
Here’s the kind of scene that you might be familiar with. The family has come together for Christmas. There are people in the room spanning three generations. Everyone asks each other questions about what they’ve been up to since they last met. Someone – let’s say the grandparents – tells a story about something that happened on their holiday. As is often the case, it is revealed to be out of the ordinary. The grandparents say they were stuck in a people-carrier with a family they didn’t know, when they were being ferried from the airport to a hotel. One thing that was odd was that the family talked only to each other. The other strange thing was that the man in the family told a story about someone who had been in prison for murder but was now out and about.
I’ve just told you a story about a story about a story! We seem to have been doing this sort of thing for thousands of years. In The Odyssey by Homer, generally reckoned to be at least 3,000 years old, you find stories inside stories. The same goes for the great medieval Italian cycle of stories, Boccaccio’s The Decameron, or Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Whether in real life or in fiction, we seem to like it when people pass stories to us along a chain. We can hazard a guess as to why this might be: is it a way in which we can hear of events and thoughts, which, although far removed, appear to be connected to us? Does the business of saying, “I know someone who told me…” make the story seem more real?
Of course, we also love the personal story. We meet up. You ask me why I’m limping. I say, don’t ask! You say, go on, do tell. I say, you won’t believe this but I was walking over a stone doorstep and my foot buckled over and I sprained my ankle. You say, that’s so easy to do – you slipped on a rock at the seaside, you put your hand down and broke your wrist and you still get funny feelings in it and that was five years ago. I say, I hope I’m not still moaning about my ankle in five years’ time…
These stories are true. But what else is going on? I think there’s quite a lot. On one level, we are talking about the fragility of our bodies. Whenever we hurt ourselves, we are confronted with the fact that the human body is no different from sticks and stones. It’s strong but breakable. However, I can’t feel your pain, and you can’t feel mine. We end up being fascinated by whether our pains are the same and whether mine is worse than yours (of course it is!).
This tells us that when we swap stories, we are also involved in doing what has been called ‘higher order thinking’, even though it sounds as if we’re ‘only’ gossiping. When you told me your story about slipping on a rock, that was because, in a micro-second, you selected one aspect of my story – falling over and getting injured – and found a story of yours to match that choice. You could have picked up on another one – stone steps, say – and how you were once at an old house and they dug up the doorstep and found a dead cat under it. In which case, we’d be onto a theme of odd stone steps or how even the most ordinary of things can hold surprises.
Extract from The Power of Storytelling by Michael Rosen. This article first appeared in the January 2017 edition of Country Living magazine. To read the full length feature, visit the Country Living website.