Very little has stuck with me from my 18 months of Communications and Journalism. Snippets about newsworthiness, communication theory, feature writing and so on come back every now and then. One lecture, however, sticks in my head. It was the first lecture in a subject for my Journalism major, called “Storytelling, Narrative and Features.” Well-known journalist David Dale came in and set out telling us about the story of stories. What followed was arguably the most interesting lecture. David told of Chaucer, a storyteller paid in wine. He outlined how good feature journalism was doing the same as fiction: gathering ideas, doing detailed research and then telling a story. It’s about virtual reality – creating the scene that can’t be immediately seen, or created by others. The characters tell the story. David suggested that despite the common motif, storytelling may be the world’s oldest profession: perhaps some primitive man offered to sacrifice a piece of his dinner to hear his neighbour tell the tale of his hunting that day. Regardless, a good story enthrals the audience. What’s more, David managed to do that as he spoke – the story of stories was engaging, and created in us a high view of the task ahead of us.
There’s something powerful in a good story.
A well-crafted tale stirs your emotion, and has the power to inspire and teach. It’s commonly known that we learn things by story: facts and data are one thing, but be it reconstructing history or teaching ethics to children, stories are important. They manifest the abstract in more concrete example. They can be used to plumb complex truths, or to cover them over and re-image ideas. So the story is also a weapon. An enthralling, entrancing story may capture your vision and shape your mind, whether it’s a fairtyale or an account of world history. So what might the consequence be if the story – however engaging the vision – is deceptive or manipulative?
Yes, this seems a little melodramatic: how can a tall tale have tangible, concrete impact? I’m not sure I’ll convince the suspicious, but recent events and encounters have made me think that we need to invest well in story-telling. There’s something powerful in a good story. But a powerful story may not produce a positive result. Over the course of this post, I’m just laying some groundwork. The next couple of blogs will follow up and consider how these ideas might be at play, particularly how they affect our faith, theology and witness as Christians.
More than a year after its release, I finally got around to watching the first of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” movies. I’d heard mixed reviews. Friends who had not read the book thought it tedious and pointless. I can sympathise somewhat: the story is far from over, and much of the film was merely laying groundwork for what is to come. The cinematics and overall production were fantastic, but for people who value story these can’t make up for loose ends and lack of climax. On the other hand, I have friends who thought I would dislike the movie, on account of its difference to the Tolkien story. Undoubtedly, there was a lot in this movie that simply didn’t come from The Hobbit. These friends of mine were wrong, however. I loved the movie – it was great! I think it was largely because I knew the story well enough to make sense of everything. I could appreciate the way that the story was told, because I could see how elements were included to lay a foundation for what was to come. I wasn’t immediately sold on fruity Radagast, but I’ve come around.
By this, I don’t just mean that I got a smug sense of insight when picking up a plot device that would be significant later in the story. Rather, knowing how the book plays out, you can see how the movie is getting there. That might seem to be the same thing, but when you consider the way that the story integrates with the Lord of the Rings books and movies, I think there’s more to it. Someone who knows middle-earth and the forces at play will understand and enjoy the nuance of the story.
Here’s the key: I had recently finished The Silmarillion, which is a collection of tales and lore from Tolkien’s fantasy world, both Middle Earth and its surrounds. This meant that I had a much better grasp of what was going on. The creation myth – itself a beautiful story – forms part of this larger story. Knowing the way that Ilúvatar sung the world into existence, and the exile of Melkor/Morgoth for his dissonant melodies gives a foundation that underlies the struggles between good and evil that we see much later. Indeed, knowing the history of the races and their interactions shows how it is not so simple: the world of Tolkien cannot be so simply classified as good and evil, and it is not only with the One Ring that obsession and power can distort good and evil. Stories of oaths, rebellion, deception, love, doom and so on all contribute to the way one understands the movie. As such, I appreciated the way that threads from The Silmarillion were worked in with The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings such that it made a lot of sense. The stories were often gripping in themselves – I particularly enjoyed the creation myth, the overview of the rings of power, and the story of Beren and Lúthien – but together they make sense of a much bigger story.
So what? Knowing the story often makes all the difference.
It’s the same deal with The Hunger Games. As with the Hobbit franchise, I only recently saw the first movie, and am yet to see the second. I enjoyed it, but again had friends who disliked it – they hadn’t read the book and didn’t really get the premise.
It often works the other way: you see a movie, and it’s different to your imagination. I think there’s something similar at play here. When characters and plots come alive in your imagination, the story can be somewhat ruined when someone else’s interpretation plasters itself over the top.
It’s not just in the fantastic or fictional realm that this applies. As a student of history, I deal in stories. I’m not someone who has that gift of storytelling; tone of voice, creativity, dramatic turn of phrase and so forth. It’s something I wish I did. But it is not always just about telling the story. One way to understand the process of history sees it as the task of learning and relating the story of the past. In a very real sense, that is the story of the present as well. Just as a grasp of the Valar and the history of Tolkien’s universe illuminate the later story, characters and motives, so understanding the past teaches us something of our own story. I’m not convinced it’s often the case that we can “learn” from the past in the reductionist manner some suggest. While “history repeats itself” is a neat motif, the reality is that no two situations are the same, and the same thing may not work twice. Instead, history – to my mind – teaches of the complexity of humanity and the universe we live in. It teaches us not just of crazy stories and the heights and depths of humanity, but also of motive, bias and limitations in perception and knowledge. Often, it looks at the governing narratives of the ancients, and how they understood their own identity and story – with direct socio-political impact. It tells us the great things that can be achieved, the transience of life, the often scary brutality of man, but also his glory and power. This all fits into our story, and teaches us who we are. This has enormous theological significance, but that is for another post. Also for another post is the idea of the metanarrative, which postmodernism would have us fight against.
For now, it’s time to finish up. Even without my cogitations, the fact that we enjoy movies and the books they are made from is evidence of our obsession with stories. From Gilgamesh, Homer and Aesopus through Tolkien, Kid’s TV and news magazine colour writing news biographical features, we’ve always loved stories. We’re wired for stories. It makes sense, then, to consider the import of stories for our life and faith. That’s my task in the next couple of posts. To be sure, I will only scratch the surface of a few ideas. If all goes to plan and my thoughts have any substance, hopefully the next few posts will help highlight some dangers and opportunities that our love of stories can bring.