THE POWER OF TRADITIONAL TALES

© Hope C Lewis 2016

(NOTE: Hope Lewis will be presenting the workshop, History in My Own Words, at The Maine Muster, Saturday, September 17 in Waterville, ME. Details at https://www.facebook.com/MaineMuster/)

 

As a storyteller, I particularly enjoy the often profound messages hiding behind the innocent exterior of traditional stories. Traditional tales allow me to reach beyond my own experience and share the insights of countless generations from a world of cultures. These stories can speak both of our profound human commonality and of our uniquely different cultures. I haven’t yet discovered a theme or audience that isn’t enriched by this type story. My experience tells me that traditional stories are adaptable tools, as perfect for serving delicate doses of insight to adults as they are for easing a three-year-old over a fear of monsters. Allow me to share with you some of what these stories have taught me.

Now, I do need to clarify that when I use the term ‘traditional tale’, I am thinking way beyond Jack and the Beanstalk. I revel in the traditions of worldwide cultures, am delighted by the search for obscure stories, and treasure my extensive collection of tales. I do tell the familiar fairy tales from time to time. As most storytellers do, however, I add whatever special twist brings it alive for me and my audience.

For the youngest audiences, their understanding of the line between fantasy and reality is inconsistent. Tales of magic, talking animals and fabulous beasts fill two critical roles. First, it meaningfully embodies their emotions and experiences. In addition, it permits me, acting as their StoryWorld Guide, to help them clarify where the reality/fantasy line falls.

For slightly older children, these tales are guides to thinking, problem solving and logical consequences. The English favorite, “The Three Silly Wishes,”[1] memorably demonstrate the pitfalls of failing the think before you act. The paradox in “Getting Common Sense”[2] is always appreciated. The fact that it is a youngster who actually has the common sense does not go unnoticed by young audiences.

Familiar traditional tales offer an unparalleled opportunity for children to demonstrate their knowledge and mastery as they recognize what comes next in the story. Cinderella variations are always a favorite. One fourth grade teacher specifically requests an unfamiliar version of this tale. As the students recognize parts of the story, they become entranced with the idea that stories reappear in different guises and in different cultures. I often tell them a Sephardic Cinderella variation from Morocco[3] or the Micmac tale of “The Invisible Boy.”[4]

Traditional stories are a natural invitation to explore different cultures. One fourth grader of Japanese descent was delighted when I told a story from Japan. Other students compete to point out a story’s country of origin on the classroom map. Respectfully told, Native American stories develop appreciation and sensitivity for aboriginal life and history. Unfamiliar animals and social customs can be introduced.

Traditional stories are powerful tools for addressing developmental issues with young audiences. They can effectively ease fears and encourage imagination. Stories in which children solve problems, gain insights, face fears or defeat monsters are both popular and powerful. One of my most popular tales is a variation of the Tlingit story “How Mosquitoes Came to Be.”[5] I emphasize the youth and resourcefulness of the main character to the delight of young audiences. Told in the great outdoors of Acadia National Park it has particular relevance.

In truth, traditional stories have proven themselves invaluable in my role as storyteller for Acadia National Park.  I tell stories from around the world to entertain and educate children about animals that live in the park. “How the Loon Became a Sea Bird”[6] appears often in my program. I enjoy embedding interesting facts about the animals in the stories and in the patter between stories for a balance of fun and instruction. Did you know that loons can dive two hundred feet deep and fly underwater?

The wisdom and wit of Jewish stories delight adult audiences. This culture is full of stories that address serious issues with such a deft touch that the listeners find themselves laughing wryly. Acadia Senior College allows me great pleasure of teaching a course in Jewish Folklore and Story to local seniors. The course encourages a dialogue between Jewish and non-Jewish students that never fails to teach me something. Give yourself a treat and read Steve Zeitlin’s Because God Loves Stories.[7]

For all audiences, traditional tales can offer a deft touch on a range of social issues. Beginning the discussion with a story opens the subject with a light hand and engages the audience in shared awareness. Listeners become part of the social discourse without feeling that they have been sermonized to.

(Note: this article originally appeared in the LANES Museletter)


 

Hope Lewis with ChildrenHope Lewis is a performance Storyteller from Seal Cove, ME. She is honored to be an Acadia National Park Centennial Partner. She is the President of the Board of LANES (the Northeast Storytelling Organization) (www.LANES.org) and the coordinator of LOONS, a Storytelling Guild that meets in Trenton, Maine (https://www.facebook.com/LOONS-Storytelling-Guild-1661205690794302/)

 

[1] Forest, Heather Wisdom Tales from Around the World August House, Atlanta, 1996

[2] Yolen, Jane Favorite Folktales from Around the World Pantheon Books, NY, 1986

[3] Zipporah and the Seven Walnuts from Roth, Rita, The Power of Song The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 2007

[4] Nowlan, Alden Nine Micmac Legends Nimbus Publishing, 1983

[5] Yolen, Jane Favorite Folktales from Around the World Pantheon Books, NY, 1986

[6] Robertson, Marion Red Earth Nimbus Publishing, 1969

[7] Zeitlin, Steve Because God Loves Stories, Simon and Schuster, 1997

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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