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Why Do We Need Stories?

Have you ever thought of why we need stories? Clearly, as this site demonstrates, we love stories. We love heroes and villains, adventure and danger, thrills and spills, and, of course, at the end, we like the good guys to win (most of the time). But, why? Is it just the excitement, the characters, the plot, the message? Is it something that is built into our genetic code, does it offer an evolutionary advantage or is it something we are taught? As a place to start I asked some professional and exceptional storytellers the ‘simple’ question: Why do we need stories?

Michael J. SullivanMichael J. Sullivan, the ever helpful author of the Riyria series of books, explains that, “Storytelling has been ingrained in mankind since we started being social creatures living in groups of extended families. It’s how we learn, how we pass down our history, and how we entertain ourselves.

“Look at fables; they are an entertaining way to teach youngsters valuable life lessons. Sure we could simply say, ‘No one likes someone who is greedy.’ But it is driven home so much more when relayed through a dog that loses his bone when he tries to steal another one from the dog he sees in the lake.

“Also, stories expand our imagination and take us to places we’ve never been and let us live vicariously through heroes we wish we were. Our bodies are limited by certain physical aspects. I’ll never soar like a bird, or swim to the depths of the seas, but with imagination I can do exactly that, and it is so much more fulfilling to share those ideas with others and have them join you in your limitless adventures.”

Mark LawrenceMark Lawrence, Gemmell Award winning author of the Broken Empire series, says, “Storytelling is a biological imperative bound up with the evolution of language and man as a social animal. We’re not herd beasts and we’re not solitary hunters – the story is part of the glue that binds us together. Whether we are the storyteller or the listener we’re taking part in a ritual, we’re finding common ground and constructing a mythology that shapes and guides. These days that mythology is Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Lord of the Rings or some other pervasive tale, but the role of those tales is similar to the ones told around the campfire where we roasted our mammoth steaks – stories reflect, simplify, unify, distil, instruct, guide, amaze…we are the story we tell ourselves – we need many threads to weave that tale.”

Sarah ChornSarah Chorn, the owner and blogger of Bookworm Blues (I’d advise you to visit it), says, “Since the dawn of time we have been telling, and listening, to stories. As soon as primitive man discovered how to mix certain substances and create paint, we started to write those stories down. Just look at the Lascaux Caves in France for evidence of that. For thousands upon thousands of years, the story told in that cave that day has been told to everyone else who has ever visited it.

“Reading and writing happen for different reasons, depending on the person or situation. One thing is for certain, though. The telling of, and listening to, stories seem to be a fairly human compulsion. Stories are a way for us to understand the world we live in, to absorb and deal with powerful situations and emotions. Stories give us the ability to breathe life into something abstract, and show someone what the world outside of their own neighborhood might be like. Stories give power to the powerless, and propel writers and readers outside of the boundaries of our own flesh.

“Literature is the mosaic, the intricate tapestry that connects person to person. It transcends time, and gives reason to this wild, chaotic, beautiful, confusing world we live in.”

Stories have been in existence forever. Before the advent of mass literacy, the oral tradition of telling stories was an important aspect of many cultures. In some, it still is. The romantic notion of children sat at the feet of a wise storyteller who fascinates and enthrals them with stories about the gods and heroes of their culture is one we can easily imagine. Indeed, many of us have a similar experience at primary school: sat around the teacher’s feet as she (or he) reads to them the story of The Gruffalo or Room on the Broom.

There is power in the voice and in the collective sharing of the story. The image of a skald or bard holding a crowd captive by the power of their voice and the message in their stories is one that appears in many fantasy novels. You can find examples where the storyteller is regarded as a magical being or the possessor of magical powers (Alan Dean Foster’s Spellsinger series or Michael Scott’s Tales of the Bard).

Trojan Horse by KeithwormwoodOf course, there are other cultures that beat medieval Europe to the written novel. The Greeks with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey push the story further back. The Hebrew Torah and, later, the Christian Bible are designed to reveal cultural truths and morals to the reader. In the Bible, Jesus uses parables, stories with meaning, to teach his followers and others about his beliefs and morals. Go back further and you have the Epic of Gilgamesh, perhaps the world’s first great work of literature. Stories have power and have influenced millions over the thousands of years since we developed language.

The first fantasy novel, or at least a book that we might regard as fantasy, written in English is likely to have been Le Morte d’Arthur written by Thomas Mallory in 1470 and published in 1485. However, we all know that this was not the first mention of King Arthur and though in truly historical documents his name is largely missing there are documents from 820AD and later that include a passing mention. Geoffrey of Monmouth (1130) is credited as the creator of the modern Arthur in his book History of the Kings of Britain. Whatever the true origins of the character and his stories, whether fanciful or true, there is no denying that this story has been popular for over a thousand years. From Tennyson’s retelling that altered the story in ways to illustrate his views on the morals and politics of the day, to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s novels, the story of Arthur and Merlin still has power.

Viking by thomaswieveggIn the 13th and 14th centuries there was an explosion of storytelling and literature in Iceland. The sagas tell of the history of the people of Iceland in the 10th century and the birth of the country itself. There are powerful characters, murders, romance, and betrayal – everything you could want in a story. According to the BBC, one in ten of the population (300,000) are published authors; stories are at the heart of the country.

And you should know, and probably do, that stories have power. Some governments have sought to ban books that did not agree with their own political or moral ideology and others resorted to burning them. Napoleon Bonaparte once said, or he may have said it more than once, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” But Nathanial Hawthorne, who was just seventeen when Napoleon died, said, “Words – so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.”

As Mark, Michael and Sarah have said, we have a biological and sociological need for stories. They allow us to experience lives we could never lead, visit places that are out of reach, and do things we could, and in some cases would, never do. A story is more than a collection of words arranged into a structure; they are an act of creation that speaks to us across the years and miles between author and reader. A well written story can force us to re-evaluate our morals, our truths, and our future. But they do more, stories bring us together in a shared experience in the same way that great music and great art can do.

You can find out more about our helpful and fantastic contributors below:

Mark Lawrence: TwitterBlog
Michael J. Sullivan: TwitterBlog
Sarah Chorn: TwitterBlog

Title image by MelanieAlexandra.

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