A cautionary tale

31st March 1995 at 01:00
Storytelling can oppress children as well as help them to find their own voice. Jack Zipes looks at the uses and abuses of the art

Once upon a time it seemed crucial for every small community to have its own gifted and respected storyteller to preserve local traditions. Those days have long since gone, just as community spirit seems to have vanished. Film and television have replaced the "genuine" storytellers and use stories to further their own ends. Commercialism and high technology have induced children to tune in to trivial mass-mediated stories that keep them from thinking but reward their consumerist instincts. Children are rarely exposed to "real live" storytellers, and few people today would ever consider storytelling a viable profession. Indeed, would you want your son or daughter to become a storyteller?

However, the present state of storytelling is much more complex than it would seem. This month, British storytellers met for the third annual gathering of the Society for Storytelling at Exeter University to exchange ideas and discuss ways of creating a more effective network. Clearly, their commitment reveals a renewed interest in the oral art form throughout Britain. In America, the National Society for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling, which has grown immensely over the past 20 years, has successfully spread the word, so to speak, about the value of storytelling with children in all areas of their lives, and there are similar developments in Germany and France. Storytelling appears to be enjoying a second coming, not a decline.

Ironically, this upsurge of storytelling may be due to the breakdown of communities and the alienation that has resulted from the impersonal mass media. In protest against the fragmenting impact of post-modern technology, many people appear to be searching for a new sense of community, and storytelling may be one way to restore a shared tradition and social values. In particular, the innovative storytelling with children that has recently flowered in the West can lead to strengthening children's creativity, co-operation, and social awareness.

But storytelling with children, while extremely important to cultivate, is faced with two major problems linked to the potential abuse of children. First, a traditional mode of oppression is built into the stories themselves, which limits imaginative thinking; and second, a commercial use of mass-mediated stories deludes children into believing that they can solve the conflicts in their lives with power. Whether oral or written, numerous tales, especially those like "Beauty and the Beast", "The Ugly Duckling", "Sleeping Beauty", and "Rapunzel" that became popular in the 19th-century, have always carried with them certain latent oppressive mechanisms that enchant and enchain children rather than liberate them.

Stories aimed at children have always been rationally conceived to justify the ways adults use the power of the word to keep children in their place or to maintain a sense of their own power as adults. In the case of stories "told" or conveyed by the mass media - I am thinking of The Power Rangers, Home Alone, The Lion King, and Ninja Turtles - children appear to be empowered to determine their lives. But these stories really give children a false sense of power or a power that can turn to violence for individual gain. Whether transmitted by the mass media or directly by the storyteller, these stories are not innocent or mere entertainment. All the more reason why storytellers must confront the oppressive tendencies of traditional tales and the deluding features of commercial, mass-mediated tales if they are to avoid abusing children with their craft.

Take the case of fairy tales as an example. These tales have been with us for hundreds of years, and we tend to forget that adults were the ones who first told them, wrote them down, and circulated them - and still do. Fairy tales - and other genres like myth, fable, and legend as well - have always expressed an adult viewpoint on social relations and power. If we examine the Grimms' tales - and this is also the case in many other collections such as Andersen's tales, Andrew Lang's multi-coloured series, and Italo Calvino's Italian Folk Tales - we find well over a hundred tales, still popular today, in which the main focus is on children who experience some form of abuse.

Numerous tales begin with children being kidnapped, used as objects in a barter with the devil, or abandoned. Abandonment and continual persecution are central issues in "Brother and Sister", "Hansel and Gretel", and "Jorinda and Joringel", and children as readers are expected to accept this harsh treatment with good grace because of the so-called happy ending. Though they may ultimately defend the rights of children and underdogs to survive, the tales do so only by rationalising the actions of the adults, who want to make certain that their children are socialised to forget the abuse they have suffered.

The Grimms' tales and other fairy tales as well are filled with signals that indicate to children that they, not their elders, are the ones responsible if they are harmed or violated. Little Red Riding Hood is held accountable for both her own "rape" and Granny's as well. Never, she tells everyone at the end of the tale, will she ever veer from the straight path. Children are not to explore nature. They are not to be adventurous. They are to be afraid of the world. But who has made the world such a dangerous place, and who does most of the violating that children are made to feel responsible for causing?

Given the increase in violence towards children, most storytellers and teachers are concerned to minimise the dangers threatening children. There are many programmes in schools that help children to become more aware of abuse and violence on the streets and in their own homes. Yet, storytellers and teachers overlook the fact that many of their fairy tales and other stories rationalise the trauma of abuse. Afraid of being too "violent" in their tales, they sometimes mislead children by concealing the ways violence originates in family and social relations and emphasize how we can all live in harmony.

In America, it is easier to be funny or mysterious as a storyteller than to recount tales that confront our harsh social realities. As a comical stand-up storyteller, one can gloss over the serious nature of humour in the tales and aim for a laugh or forgetfulness. As a mysterious cult figure, a storyteller can pretend to know the source of wisdom and appear as a powerful healing figure not unlike a mythic god, priest, or therapist. In each case, the storyteller perpetuates the rationalisation of abuse through well-told narratives that forge illusions of harmony. Such storytelling is related to the entertainment business and is no better than the commercial television programmes, films, and video games that make consumers out of children.

But storytelling, as I have seen from many imaginative projects developed by tale tellers in Britain and the States, need not be used to serve such abuse. In fact, it can be used to expose social conditions, provide narrative tools for children, bring about pleasure through insight into the causes of conflict, and enable young listeners to grasp differences between people and alternatives to distressing situations.

This is not an argument for the storyteller as critic or social worker, nor for storytelling as a form of therapy, in which all the participants discover the essence of their identity. It is not the role of the storyteller to be the healer, the shaman, or the omniscient guru. Rather, the model for the storyteller should be the little child in Andersen's "The Emperor's New Clothes" who is the only individual among hundreds who boldly steps up to the naked king and tells him the truth. This child is wise beyond his or her years and speaks what everyone else in the community knows but is afraid to say.

The truthful exposure in storytelling clearly has its therapeutic and cathartic moment, and storytellers must be aware of it. But, if they are going to use tales to counteract the abuse that children suffer in little and big ways in their daily lives, they must also pay more attention to exposing and sharing their lore and craft. By showing children the diverse forms and strategies of narrative and the way specific genres are used to deal with social situations, the storyteller empowers children and gives them the means to articulate their needs and wishes.

Storytelling always takes place in a socio-historical context, which shapes the reception of a tale as much as the tale or teller. As the context changes, so the function of the storyteller continues to change. Today, advanced technological and communication network systems make it difficult for the storyteller to help build a sense of community. Yet, despite all these changes, there is one function that the "genuine" storyteller must maintain, if storytelling is not to become an abusive form of manipulation. Here I am referring to Walter Benjamin's idea in his famous essay, "The Storyteller", that it is not simply the sharing of wisdom that is important.

The genuine storyteller must feel the urgency to divulge what it means to live in an age when many lies pass for truth in the mass media and the public realm. The storyteller must contrast the social reality with a symbolic narrative that exposes contradictions. From this contrast, the storyteller gives birth to light and sheds light on the different ways in which children can become their own storytellers.

Jack Zipes is Professor of German at the University of Minnesota. He has recently published a critical study of fairy tales, Fairy Tale As MythMyth as Fairy Tale (Kentucky) and has edited a collection of tales, The Outspoken Princess and the Gentle Knight (Bantam). This autumn Routledge will publish his new book, Creative Storytelling: Building CommunityChanging Lives.

The Society for Storytelling organises conferences and meetings throughout the country and produces a number of publications, including a directory of storytellers. For further details, contact the secretary, Joan Barr, 8 Bert Allen Drive, Old Leake, Boston, Lincs PE22 9EU.

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