Storytelling Arts' mission is to preserve, promote and impart the art of storytelling to develop literacy, strengthen communities and nurture the human spirit.

Friday, June 7, 2013

By Storyteller, Julie Della Torre

When I get a new collection of stories, whether from a used book sale, library or bookstore, I immediately go to the story I’m currently working on or one of my favorite tales to see what this new reteller has done to it. Then I always settle down into the introduction. I’m looking for illumination and inspiration. After reading a well written introduction, I can’t wait to dive into the tales themselves.

Why do authors, collectors and retellers spend time writing introductions? As I read many introductions in a short time period it was easy to see why. Each writer has particular themes and concerns. Some want to set the collection in a historical time period. Some want to focus on the tales and still others on the telling of these tales. Some want to explore the importance of these stories in today’s world. Well, I guess all of them want to do that! 

Each introduction in the hands of a great writer is a perfect little essay in and of itself. How could they be otherwise with such authors as Jane Yolen, A.S Byatt, and Philip Pullman? I am only going to touch on a few introductions here, but I would send you to any of the introductions in the volumes published by Pantheon Press. There you will find Padric Colum in The Complete Brothers Grimm, Italo Calvino in Italian Folktales and Richard Erdoes in American Indian Myths and Legends among others.
I’d like to begin with my all-time favorite introduction, one I reread any time I need validation for what I do. Jane Yolen is a prolific and eclectic author and folklorist. Her introductory essay in the Pantheon collection Favorite Folktales From Around the World (Pantheon 1986) is the one I go to for inspiration.

 “Tales are meant to be told,” she begins, a point she reiterates in each of the five sections that make up this essay. Throughout the introduction Yolen’s belief in the power of story is evident. She speaks to the orality of the tales and how they change with the teller and with the purpose of the telling. The history of the collecting and writing down of the tales and even the history of storytelling in the United States is examined. Yolen takes us to an old storytelling culture where storytellers were apprenticed. This cultivation of new storytellers is a question we here at Storytelling Arts ask ourselves. Where are our future storytellers? The essay is sprinkled with poems and stories... even stories in the Introduction!!! The piece ends with a poem, ‘Why We Tell Stories’ by Lisel Mueller. How would you answer?

 A.S. Byatt is an author who loosely uses the folk tale form for many of her books. She would agree with Yolen’s interpretation of a William James anecdote: Literature. It’s story upon story upon story. It’s story all the way down. Byatt, in her beautifully written introduction to The Annotated Brothers Grimm by Maria Tatar (Norton 2004) writes her memories of reading the fairy tales and how the old fairy tales have influenced her own writing as well as most literature from the time the form evolved.  Why do I like this introduction so much? Byatt reminds me to take the fairy tales as they are; they make no designs on us. “I am not sure how much good is done by moralizing about fairy tales, “she states. The form itself with the flatness, stock characters and even violence put us all in the stories. “These tales collected by the Grimms are older, simpler and deeper than the individual imagination.” That’s why we tell these stories.

Maria Tatar is a renowned folklorist and author. She has studied and written about fairy tales for many years.  Her collections The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales (Norton, 2002) and The Annotated Brothers Grimm (Norton, 2004) both have outstanding introductions, but I would like to concentrate on the earlier edition. In this introduction Tatar focuses on the oral art of storytelling, that these stories should be told or read out loud. She speaks to the inherent morals in these old tales. Moralizing is not needed, though she gives guidelines on the importance of discussing these stories as they are told. In the introduction she clearly sets up the collection, explaining why she added the annotations, and the points of discussions that might ensue. She also speaks to the importance of illustrations of these old tales and includes many of the most famous illustrations. “...illustrations that provide not only visual pleasure, but also powerful commentaries on the tales, interrupting the flow of the story at critical moments and offering opportunities for further reflection and interpretation.” You can hear an interview with Maria Tatar on the importance of fairy tales in our lives here:

One of the newest collections of Grimm’s fairy tales is Philip Pullman’s Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm. (Viking 2012) Philip Pullman is a masterful storyteller and author of His Dark Materials. (Knopf) This introduction begins with a James Merill poem which Pullman uses as headings for six different sections of the essay. He gives a fairly detailed history and biography of the two brothers Grimm, of their collecting style and how scholars from many fields have interpreted the tales over time. “But,” states Pullman, “my main interest has always been in how the tales worked as stories.” The qualities and characteristics of the form are explored: flatness, stock characters, lack of imagery and description and swiftness of pace. He then defends the retelling and reworking of the tales. Fairy tales are not a written text, they are “transcriptions made on one or more occasions of the words spoken by one of many people who have told this tale.” “The fairy tale is in a perpetual state of becoming and alteration. To keep to one version or one translation alone is to put a robin redbreast in a cage.” As storytellers we know this to be true. Our ‘stories’ change from one telling to the next and evolve over time.   You can read an interview with Philip Pullman about this book here:

These are just some of my favorite introductions. Please let me know your favorites so I can look them up and enjoy them as well.