One Tale, Many Voices: using stories to build a community

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Following on from my guest post for Mr. Knighton, and the thing about creative ownership earlier this week, I wanted to explore the idea of communities based on storytelling a bit further. It is, after all, the fundamental reason that we tell stories – to communicate to an audience. So understanding how that works is an important foundation to storytelling in general.

The role of oral tradition

You too could be Brad Pitt

You too could be Brad Pitt

Before literacy was commonplace, storytelling was done via oral tradition. A bard (or whatever they called themselves at that time and place) spoke to an audience, passing on tales via listening and memory. It was a moment of communal gathering and shared experience, and that dates back a very long time indeed. For a recent example, though, the kids’ cargo cult in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome is good.

The Homeric Epics were originally formed from aural traditions, with a specific underlying purpose relating to building a community spirit. At the time, the Greeks existed in independent city states that frequently warred between themselves. But a greater threat existed round the continent in the shape of the Persians – a unified empire with an ambitious king and an impressive army. By sharing stories of a similarly unified Greece who defeated a legendary Eastern opponent (in this case, Troy), it was hoped that a sense of a national community would be instilled despite the more recent history of inter-city wars.

Granted, that’s a fairly extreme example of using stories to build a sense of community, but it makes the point. A shared tradition of stories, told to a gathered audience, serves to strengthen the bonds between them.

Oral versus written history

As Western culture moved from oral to written tradition, storytelling began to move from a group activity to an individual one. It also began to segregate the audience by education and class. The sense of community that had been engendered by oral storytelling underwent a fundamental change. It also meant that story structure itself underwent a change.

Oral tradition has a number of significant traits which exist to help the narrator remember the entire tale. Repeated phrases, lists of names, stock scenes – these all were a standard feature of memorised stories. With written texts, however, none of that is strictly necessary and so the style of narration shifted. The focus now was on entertainment via words alone, rather than performance.

For a long time, it also meant that different types of stories were recorded. Given the segregation by class and education, texts catered to the tastes of those who could read and afford to buy the written word. Anything that was interesting only to poor communities – rather than rich individuals – was left unrecorded. So not only was oral tradition under siege, its replacement did nothing for those that it had primarily helped.

Communal storytelling today

Fear of the unknown, helplessness and loss of identity

Fear of the unknown, helplessness and loss of identity

We’re now, according to Walter Ong, in the age of secondary orality – a time in which oral storytelling is consciously reliant on written material. I’ve talked about this a little bit before when I covered the Gutenberg Parenthesis, but it’s important here because Tom Pettitt’s conclusion is all about the growing online community in which stories are told by secondary orality to a community that is no longer confined by geography. The community has, essentially, become worldwide (it’s also been called the global village and is a fairly hefty sociology subject).

…rapid communication with large groups of people in a speed that would resemble oral storytelling, without having to share the same physical space with your audience.   ~ Secondary Orality in Microblogging, Liliana Bounegrou

Because the stories being told are written they can be referred back to, cited and built upon. The Slender Man myth is the best modern example I know of a community-created and told story, developed through secondary orality. It links into key fears that are shared by a community, highlights them as a concern and binds the community together against those fears. We’ve almost come full circle.

As a roleplayer, of course, communal storytelling is a fairly major part of my life. I regularly get to see the power of stories bringing people together in a tight-knit community that relies on shared narrated experiences for bonding. I have to say that seeing it in action – all those lives and imaginations working together to create something communal – is actually quite powerful. The uninitiated might only see geeks in funny clothes waving rubber swords around but there’s a very real kind of magic going on beneath the surface.

That’s not all, folks

As evidenced by the littering of links, particularly in the last part, this is a huge subject and one which I’m not properly equipped to explore. I know almost nothing about sociology or anthropology, both of which are major factors in the function of storytelling. But it is something I find fascinating so, if any of you know more, please do share. I’d really like to learn.

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