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Storytelling may be broadly defined as an ancient method of conveying ideas, intimations, and emotions in a narrative form with or without the accompaniment of music or visual art. Originally an oral tradition, storytelling has evolved from its earliest form to include a variety of multimedia applications. Folklorists generally do not approve of such inclusive definitions. In her scholarly analysis of the history of storytelling, The World of Storytelling (1990), Anne Pellowski defines storytelling as:
The art or craft of narration of stories in verse/and or prose, as performed or led by one person before a live audience; the stories narrated may be spoken, chanted, or sung, with or without musical, pictorial, and/or other accompaniment and may be learned from oral, printed, or mechanically recorded sources; one of its purposes may be that of entertainment. (Pellowski 1990, p.15)
Storytellers may have also collected stories from various people they encountered while telling the stories they had learned or created from observations and life experiences. Stories may have been used to entertain, but they were also used to educate audiences. Folklorists discuss oral tales of two main types: Marchen and Sagen, which are German terms with no exact English equivalents. Marchen is both singular and plural, and means something akin to fairy tale. These tales, which are not presented as true, are set in the timeless/placeless world of once-upon-a-time. The Sagen, or legends, however, are presented as factual, with powerfully specific times and places. The common folk may have told their stories at home, at work, and at festival times. Folk stories were told repeatedly and handed down through generations from one teller to the next, making use of storytelling for teaching purposes. Collectors of folktales, such as the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, Joseph Jacobs, Peter Christian Asbjornsen, Jorgen Moe, Andrew Lang, Joel Chandler Harris, and Richard Chase seem to have gathered tales, in part, for the purpose of cultural enrichment.
What is the purpose of storytelling? Pellowski, in line with other theorists, says that storytelling may have started as informal entertainment or play, and only gradually became intertwined with religious rituals, historical recitations, and educational functions. Most theorists suggest that storytelling fulfills the desire for playacting and meets entertainment needs while helping to explain the surrounding physical world or helping honor or placate the supernatural force(s) believed to be present in the world. Storytelling can help explain and express strong emotions and experiences in memorable, long-lasting ways through the intricate use of rhythm, rhyme, and repetition. Storytelling can help preserve traditions, customs, and societal standards, while bestowing immortality on leaders or ancestors. Pellowski notes the earliest evidence of storytelling may be found in the Westcar Papyrus of the Egyptians, which includes tales of encounters between a pyramid builder named Khufu or Cheops and his sons. One of the most famous tales recorded on papyrus is known as The Shipwrecked Sailor.
Pellowski traces the development of the bardic tradition, defining the bard as, “a storyteller whose function is to create and/or perform poetic oral narrations that chronicle events or praise the illustrious forebears and present leaders of a tribal, cultural, or national group” (Pellowski 1990, p. 21). The bard was a storyteller, a poet, and a musician. The term bard had its introduction through Greek and Roman tales of the Celts. Bards have also been known as rhapsodes, minstrels, or jongleurs.
Tales from a variety of cultures have been preserved because of storytelling traditions. Some examples are: Beowulf, an Anglo-Saxon tale of courage in the face of brute strength; Gilgamesh, a Sumerian epic tale of the Sumerian king, Gilgamesh, and his friendship with Enkidu, the half-beast, half-man being created to destroy him; The Iliad, a Greek epic tale of the Trojan War; The Odyssey, a Greek epic tale of Odysseus on his homeward journey from Troy; Story ofSigurd (Siegfried), a Norse legend; The Volsunga Saga, the adventures of Sigurd, including the killing of a dragon named Fafnir; The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood and King Arthur and His Knights, legendary English tales of daring and bravery; Song of Roland, legendary French tales; Sundiata, The Epic of the Lion King, a legendary African tale of how Sundiata became King of Mali; The Tain, an Irish tale of the legendary hero Cuchulain, his birth, battles and ultimate death; and The Ramayana of India, a religious tale.
Pellowski, Anne. 1990. The World of Storytelling, expanded and rev. ed. Bronx, NY: H. W. Wilson.
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