There is so much publicity and cheer leading for personal narrative that I feel we might be getting away from folk and fairy tales, and losing focus. There is much craft that goes into a well-told personal narrative to make it work for an audience. It is also easy to simply tell a personal story for self-gratification. I was into the poetry open mic scene back in the day and you would hear beautifully crafted poems and some crass work which should have been kept within a bedroom or therapists office. I feel the same at some slams, or open mic storytelling too. There is some high art, and there is some rubbish. It can be the same for folk and fairy tales too. I have seen stories ruined for me with a bad telling.
I have been asked about the relevance of folk and fairy tales, myths and legends these days, and this saddens me. A growing number of kids don’t know Little Red Riding Hood, and have not heard of King Solomon. There are, in many works, references to such tales, and if the youth of today are not hearing these stories then those references are lost. Reading Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series of graphic novels, you know Gaiman has a deep level of understanding of mythology. As someone who knows these ancient tales and stories I gain another level of enjoyment of the books. It is not only literary references which are lost but a level of understanding too.
Hansel and Gretel is set in reality. In the days when the story was created, young children, the sick and elderly were given over to the forest in times of starvation, or even when the fear of lack of food became apparent, so that the strongest survived. This does not happen these days, although some cultures as recent as 100 years ago still did this. But children, and the elderly are abandoned, or it can feel like that to them, when parents work three jobs to pay bills, or travel away from home for work, or are just ignored, and the elderly are placed in homes. This story can help young folks process what they might be going through.
Stone Soup is also set in fact. A study of warfare in Europe up to the 1700’s will show you that many battles were fought over the same territory, and the same routes were used to march to these places. Soldiers had to find their own food on route and often stole food (appropriated?!) as they passed through villages and towns. Often these soldiers were starving. Only the officers were well fed and clothed, the conscripted soldiers were not professional soldiers but men gathered by force from their homes to fight a war they were not interested in, nor whose stakes would have any effect on them other than the fighting. If stray soldiers found their way into a town, they would have been ignored, in fact there are historical records stating that some soldiers were hung, or even beaten to death. Understandable when some armies burned crops to stop another army from feeding itself, sending a village or town into starvation. This happened to the same villages and towns, year after year. The story of Stone Soup could have been a true personal narrative at one point. Homer, in the Iliad describes what is now known as PTSD. There is truth and power in the old tales.
These stories can be used to teach about our histories and how our cultures have changed, but they also teach about compassion, and how some things have been happening since time began. Sure, some are pure entertainment, the same as some personal narratives are, but there is a depth which, I feel, folk and fairy tales go to and reach in which personal narrative does not. One can lose oneself in a folk or fairy tale and become any of the characters and be safe, so if the subject is hard, you are one step removed. Personal narratives do not necessarily have that. Listening to a personal story can plunge the listener back to their own trauma, or fear more directly.
As human beings we need to be exposed to many different types and styles of telling. We need to hear different stories just like we need to hear all different types of music. We need a foundation to build from, not just in telling stories, but in life, and the ancient tales, the myths, legends, folk and fairy tales can do that. They teach us that we can survive, we can process things we do not understand through the ancient stories, they can explain the world around us, and they can, most importantly give us hope. So when someone says to me, ‘Why folk and fairy tales?’ I tell them – hope. They always give us hope, and sometimes a really good laugh, too!
Simon Brooks will be a featured storyteller at theFlorida Storytelling Festival in Mt. Dora, FL, January 23-26, 2020 He recently performed at the National Storytelling Festival where his animated style drew much praise.