We all have that one friend who is an engaging storyteller and the life of all parties. And some of us who are as good a storyteller as Queen Scheherazade of 1001 Arabian Nights fame, might even be able to save our skin and get out of a life and death situation. But I am sure that you’ll agree that even the most boring stories become interesting if told by an enthusiastic storyteller whereas the best stories die quickly in the hands of a dreary narrator. So are storytellers worth their weight in words?
In primitive times, stories were passed down to generations by word of mouth. Be it songs, poetry, fables, heroic tales, religious epics, chants, myths, fairy tales, or any other form of communication and entertainment, stories have indeed come a long way. As the written word came into being and storytelling evolved over several centuries, professional storytellers also developed their art largely through different iterations. From puppeteers to troubadours, court minstrels, and authors, storytellers have perfected their craft over time.
From times immemorial, storytellers were not only an integral part of the society but also established themselves as important figures of the community. Their ability to tell stories effectively and memorably was recognized as an invaluable skill. In the olden days, people needed a way to remember the valiant feats of soldiers and kings on the battlefield. And storytellers emerged as the answer to preserving and representing these raw emotions and sentiments when they recreated the sequence of these deeds at wars.
Gradually, oral storytelling emerged as a powerful medium and contributed to the ascent of storytellers. Aesop was arguably the most prolific and oldest storyteller as his fables can be traced back to 500 B.C. in ancient Greece.
Storytellers of yore were popular in all spheres of life. They were found in the courts of kings where they entertained royalty as well as in humble surroundings like coffee houses and market places. Professional storytelling was practiced by court minstrels and wandering artists who sang epics or religious tales in medieval Europe. Oral performances of storytellers and puppeteers showcasing older religious and heroic or legendary tales were so popular that they enjoyed long runs at fairs and other events.
The popularity of storytellers scaled new heights in the African, Middle Eastern, Asian, and Native American cultures and groups as historians, verbal artists, and those performing religious functions. They added a new dimension to storytelling by replacing props and objects with extensive use of songs, sculptures, paintings, and puppets to depict epic or historical tales.
During the Middle Ages, European storytellers, primarily seen in Britain, Italy, and France, made their mark in society by performing in various genres as minstrel story singers, musicians, poets, and comedians. In medieval England, minstrels who failed to receive royal patronage were welcomed by monasteries or found a place in the homes of aristocrats. Russia witnessed the growth of another form of storytellers known as skomorohs or wandering bards who sang epics to the beat of musical instruments. After the 14th century, other forms of entertainment found favor with the audience but storytellers or story singers continued to make occasional appearances at fairs where they performed with painted panels.
In the 17th century, renowned French writer Charles Perrault’s name became synonymous with fairy tales. Perrault had a government job and when he retired, he worked on popular folklore and turned them into fairy tales with powerful moral lessons. He would often present these stories at the court of Versailles. Subsequently, he became one of the first French authors to write stories, particularly for children. Hans Christian Andersen made a name for himself in the 19th century as he traveled the countryside of Denmark telling children stories that he had formed. And when he decided to write them down, the stories became etched in history forever.
In Asia, before the last century, only people who belonged to the upper echelons of society were educated. Storytellers of that era were extremely sophisticated and performed across genres ranging from theatre, puppetry, and picture narration. There were family lineages or performance guilds where teachers taught the subtle nuances of storytelling to apprentices. Storytellers popularized the Hindu epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata as well as the Buddhist Jataka Tales among the educated classes and the uneducated masses all over South and Southeast Asia.
The art of storytelling has evolved and so have modern-day storytellers. The powerful voice of narration will always have a place and purpose as storytellers leave their indelible mark in the minds and hearts of the audience. After all, storytellers can kill a story or bring it to life with their inimitable art of storytelling. More so in today’s society where storytellers can wield magic with their powerful voices to influence, inspire and most importantly, teach valuable life lessons as stories are easy to remember. We focus with rapt attention on the storyteller’s magical voice and the words being read out or narrated and connect with people and society as a whole.