Monday, June 2, 2014

The Archaeology of Story

After all these years of hanging out with Fagan and editing him through at least twenty books, you have at least a reasonable scenario for how telling stories around the communal fire began.  Simple, really:  a hunting clan has brought in a woolly mammoth or aurochs.  The ladies have butchered the prey and have set it over the coals to cook.

Sooner or later, one of the boys begins remembering the time old Max had a run in with an aurochs and was nearly trampled by it.  After all, you couldn't blame the aurochs for getting pissed; you'd not be too happy with someone jabbing you with a spear.

"I thought for sure Old Max, he done bought the farm after that aurochs charged him, but good old Fred, he done clambered up that aurochs's back and pounding him with his whatchamacallit, hammer?"

"Not so fast there,"  one of the hunters would've said, "we haven't invented agriculture yet, so Old Max, he couldn't've bought the farm."

"Why, hell, man, haven't I been burying melon and fruit seeds, then tending to the shoots?"

"You can't call that agriculture, man.  You ain't even around to water them, half the time.  Face it, we're still hunters and foragers.  We don't stay still long enough to invent no agriculture."

Liberties with the language to the contrary notwithstanding, you could imagine a bunch of Neanderthal or earlier, telling stories while waiting for dinner to cook.  There is something about a fire that makes you want to hear and tell stories.  So these early forebears had little or no written language; so what?  They had oral tradition.

Such stories contain the wisdom of cultures and tribes. In some cases, they impart a creation myth, in yet other cases, they embed cultural secrets.  Such stories, whether by design or a divine innocence, also impart the mischief and cultural hegemony.

We thus become storytellers for a variety of reasons, some of which are subversive, others still propagandistic.

A few years--maybe as many as a thousand--later, the first Duke of Lancaster, one John of Gaunt, fourth son of King Edward III, and a well-regarded member of the Plantagenet family, sent one of his trusted commoner employees to Italy on a bit of business.  While there, the employee, one Geoffrey Chaucer, undoubtedly met an Italian writer name of Giovanni Boccaccio, who'd written among other things a set of tales called The Decameron.  

This collection of tales was narrated by a number of nobles who'd fled the city of Florence in order to avoid a plague.  To keep themselves entertained, they passed their evenings by telling stories, all of which had some embedded moral.

Clearly, Chaucer was impressed with Boccaccio, to the point of embarking on his own frame-tale narrative with the ensemble cast of a group of pilgrims, making their way to Canterbury Cathedral, "the holy blissful martyr for to seeke/That them hath helpen when that they were sicke..."  Chaucer also got a chance to hear Boccaccio talk about Filostrato and Teside, which Chaucer worked into Troilus and Cresside, later to have nudged Shakespeare into his own version, Troilus and Cressida.  Chaucer also got a jump on his own story, "The Knight's Tale," from The Canterbury Tales.  

Boccaccio and Chaucer called attention to the frame tale, an event of some sort in which the gets to hear a number of different stories as though coming from a number of different characters.  Today's readers and writers, if not directly influenced by Boccaccio and Chaucer, are sure to catch resonant frequency in Tim O'Brien's 1990 masterpiece, The Things They Carried.

With a retrospective peek, we can see story evolving from a single narrative, say a night errant, or a coming-of-age-story, to a distinct sub-genre, in which people gather to tell stories and/or play some form of party game, telling stories about other persons and in the bargain revealing relevant items about themselves.

Thus we not only have such frame-tale collections as James Joyce's Dubliners, Sherwood Anderson's Winseburg, Ohio, Ring Lardner's You Know Me, Al, and John O'Hara's Pal Joey Stories, we also have F.S. Fitzgerald's Pat Hobby Stories, and Ernest Hemingway's Nick Adams Stories, in which we experience one of the more illustrative of all points of view, the character, telling a story about one or more other characters.

And from this, we have an ironic but shrewd commentary on the human ability to narrate with reliability, the fact of a reader being more open to accepting the judgement of a character than the judgement of the writer.

Camp fires, hearth fires, barbecue pits, and gatherings of people, essential ingredients for more story about more people.

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