The destination for history

Why the story you tell is important


Fairy tales are more than true, not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten – G.K. Chesterton

We know we live in a time when many dragons exist, those of climate change, global inequality and probably quite a few others that you can bring to mind. So what are the stories we are telling ourselves about how they can be beaten?

Folk tales are never neutral but they are not necessarily always wise and beneficent as anyone who has come across the tale of Little St Hugh of Lincoln, used to justify medieval anti-semitism, will understand. Its malignity is obvious, so much so that it has lost its power and most people would only find it repugnant. But there are more subtle narratives out there. Perhaps you heard them down the pub or read a story in a newspaper. They tell the story of ‘The Other’, the outsider who is not one of us. How dangerous they are, what a threat to our cosy existence. Or perhaps you are listening to stories that are even more dangerous, those that tell us that this is the way the world works, you can’t do anything to change it and you would be a fool to try.

If you read the stories in the new Anthology of English Folk Tales or indeed those in any of the other books in the Folk Tales series you will come across quite a lot of fools. Strangely they make friends with all and sundry and have a habit of killing dragons and generally making the world better. Perhaps they were too foolish to understand the other stories they were told; perhaps not.

There is a famous late eighteenth century cartoon by James Gillray called French Liberty, British Slavery. In one half of the cartoon a French peasant sits in front of his cold hearth chewing a raw onion and congratulating himself for living in a land of liberty. In the other John Bull tucks into a great slab of roast beef, complaining that he lives in a land of tyranny and high taxes. Both are right and both are wrong. It all depends what story you tell yourself and sometimes you might be telling yourself the wrong story.

Storytelling, in all its many guises, is the way we make sense of the madness around us that we choose to call reality. Listening to or reading folk tales you can become aware that there are a lot of different possibilities out there, that the world is more magical than we might think it, that there are more creative solutions to problems that we fear are impossible.  It may have been ever thus but there now seems to be too many people out there who want to limit the stories we listen to. If you liked that you must like this, don’t go searching for something different; the world is a scary place, don’t go exploring but stick with the stories that tell you that you are right and everyone else is wrong headed. So walls are built and there is always someone who makes a surprisingly good living out of selling the bricks.

Unlike politicians, folk tales do not shout, telling you what to believe. For good or ill they are more subtle than that. You can listen to a folk tale many times, think you know it, when suddenly your heart will open up to a new meaning, because that was you needed to learn at that moment. And, as a storyteller, I am convinced that no two people hear the same story when I am telling it. In Robert Irwin’s latest book, Wonders Will Never Cease, the protagonist, Earl Rivers, listens to a telling of Jack the Giant Killer and is outraged. To him the peasant Jack is a thief and a murderer, the Giant, an aristocrat like himself, has every right to his goose, his harp, his castle and the rest of his property. We all bring our prejudices to the story though, speaking as a peasant, it does no harm to consider the Giant’s point of view for once.

If we only listen to the stories that limit us, the danger is not only that we will limit ourselves but also we will inevitably start telling stories of limitation.

So read and listen to the stories of how the dragons of greed and the giants of despair can be beaten. Then you might be able to tell the stories that you want told.   

By David Phelps

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