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

Monday, February 16, 2015

Stories that Resonate Deeply

Illustration by H.J. Ford

I love stories – who doesn’t? It’s why I became a storyteller. And with told stories, I love the time-out-of-time feeling that happens when teller and listeners make the story come alive together. Stories on a page are fine words, but a different magic happens when we make the story appear in our minds’ eyes, when we conjure together what the youngest son looks like, how the smile beams from the kindest daughter, imagine the threatening leer of the monster, and feel the comfort of the old woman who gives advice.

I think of myself as a medium. The old folk tales come through me to share with others. It’s important to me that they are remembered and told; they are the wisdom of many generations before us distilled in a form we can understand, regardless of what age we are when he first hear them. We can hear a story over and over and it still resonates deeply for us because our life experience adds meaning to the story. It enriches our understanding and feelings about life.

Let me give an example. In about the sixth grade I became fascinated with the myths of ancient Greece, Rome, and Scandinavia. I couldn’t say why these stories hooked me, only that they seemed to hold secrets I wanted to understand.

In high school I latched on to a particular myth, “Cupid and Psyche.” You may remember it: Psyche is married to a mysterious husband who comes to her only at night and warns her not to try and look at him. Her jealous sisters urge her to kill what they say is surely a monster, and Psyche determines to see the truth for herself. But the lamp spills oil, burning her husband’s shoulder, as she gazes upon Cupid, the god of love. Cupid flees because love cannot live without trust. In her grief, Psyche searches for her husband and prostrates herself before Cupid’s mother, Venus. Angry Venus gives Psyche seemingly impossible tasks to ruin her, but, with help from surprising sources, Psyche (Greek for “soul”) ultimately is reunited with Love.

This heroine’s journey spoke to the teenage me because I wanted to find love and be worthy of meeting seemingly impossible tasks. 

H.J. Ford, Blue Fairy Book, Andrew Lang, editor
Years later I chose as my first folk tale to learn the Scandinavian classic “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.” As I delved into the characters I recognized the similarities between Psyche and the Scandinavian lass who agrees to go with a Great White Bear to help her family. The lass sees the bear only by day but at night senses a presence with her who disappears by dawn. She begs to visit her family and, although warned by the bear that to listen to her mother could bring doom, on her return she follows her mother’s urging to investigate the night presence—to disastrous effect. Love cannot live without trust, and the enchanted bear, really a prince, must now marry a troll. After a long, arduous search the lass proves her faithfulness and love and trust are restored.

By then I was married with a son and another child on the way. “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” was a favorite of my son, who sat on my lap to listen as I practiced telling it. His favorite stuffed animal was a white bear—for him, the bear turning into a prince was wonderful. For me, the tale of losing and gaining trust spoke volumes about relationships.

You may be thinking that not every story carries such a deep meaning, and you are right. But what I have learned over the years is that it’s not for me to say which stories will resonate deeply with listeners who, with me, make a story come alive.

A few weeks ago, my husband came home from a cigar shop he likes to visit. He was talking with the young man behind the counter, who, it turns out, vividly remembered my telling of a Japanese tale, “The Stonecutter,’’ to his class when he was in elementary school. Now in his 20s, he retold it to my husband: how a poor man cutting stone blocks from a mountain one day wishes to be greater than he is; how the mountain’s spirit transforms him, first into a samurai warrior, then into an emperor, into the sun, a raincloud, and then the mountain itself; how he finally realizes that as a man he had a power he had not understood. And so he once again becomes a stonecutter.

The story had spoken to him—you could say it had spoken to his soul—and he remembered it still.

written by Maria LoBiondo