Saturday, December 31, 2011

Storytelling, Our Human Connection

Our final assignment in English was a 6-8 page research paper using one of our primary texts and another text of our choosing and researching if and how it is relevant today.  I chose Malouf's Ransom and Homer's the Iliad focusing on the importance of storytelling.  I have no idea how I scored on this particular paper, but I got an A for the class and enjoyed working on the research for this project (:

Janin Wise
Dr. Ndeh
English 1102
November 30, 2011

Reaching Through Time, Homer’s The Iliad and Malouf’s Ransom, Our Human Connection
            Storytelling and narrative are an integral part of being human.1  As, Barbara Hardy said, “We dream in narrative, daydream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct, gossip, learn, hate and love by narrative” (quoted in McEwan, vii).  Homer wrote the Iliad in 800 B. C. and Malouf’s Ransom is influenced by this poem.  But why would a modern writer be inspired by a 3000 year old poem?  And are modern audiences able to connect to either narrative?  Storytelling, as illustrated in Homer’s Iliad and Malouf’s Ransom, is an essential part of the human experience and is as relevant today as it was in 800 B. C.
            Storytelling has many definitions.  Most dictionaries define it as a, “narrative account of a real or imagined event or events…used to pass on accumulated wisdom, beliefs, and values.”2   They have been shared in every culture to entertain, educate, teach morals and preserve social and cultural customs and norms. 3  In its most restrictive definition, it is defined as the act of performing a story for an audience.  But others expand that definition to include written texts and other narratives.  This paper focuses on the definition provided by Amy Spaulding in The Art of Storytelling:  Telling Truth through Telling Stories, when she said, “Storytelling is, at the same time, an act of creation and also a connection with people from the past who we never knew.  It feels meaningful, whether one is conscious of the connection with ages past or not” (13), because one of storytelling’s most enduring elements is the ability to illicit emotional and visceral responses in its audience, be it a group of live people or a single reader.
            The earliest forms of storytelling were oral, before writing, and used as part of religious ritual 4, accompanying daily activities, or done to rhythmic accompaniment. 5   As these stories evolved into third person narratives, they became sources of entertainment and records of a cultures history, opening the way for creative embellishment and the creation of hero tales. 6    With the invention of writing, these traditionally oral tales could be recorded and passed on into the future. 7
            In 800 BC, the poet Homer stood on the cusp of this change.  He used the newly acquired technology of writing to record the oral stories that had passed down through the Greeks for centuries, 8 thereby preserving them for subsequent generations.  In his time, the Greeks accepted Homer’s stories as historical fact.  After all, as Annette Simmons points out in The Story Factor, “The norms and habits of any group’s culture are passed down through the stories that are told and retold” (221).  On the surface, Homer’s Iliad appears to be the story of a long fought war with many battles, but this is the background used as the canvas for the story of the pride and wrath of Achilles.  This paper focuses specifically on Book 24, after the murder of Patroclus by Hector and the revenge murder of Hector by Achilles, centering on the abuse and subsequent ransom of Hector’s body.  Hector’s body is unburied and abused for 11 days.  Priam, the King of Troy and father of Hector, following the advice  of the gods, goes to the Greek encampment and offers a ransom to Achilles for his son’s body.  Reminded of his father and his own mortality, Achilles accepts the ransom and they share a meal.  Priam returns Hector’s body to Troy and Achilles is redeemed.  The poem ends with the funeral and lamentation of Hector (Homer).   But this is merely the plot.  This poem has “an historical background and an actual setting, but these are only incidental,” and used as “a stage on which the great tragedy of love, sorrow, passion, and death is acted” (Scott, 28).
            Homer used the formula of his time, repetition and effusive descriptive phrases, to share stories that were well known to his audience.  “Into the story of Achilles’ anger, the poet has woven most of the great human emotions and has endowed all his actors with an individuality that has never been surpassed.” (Scott, 42).  This endowment of emotions gives Homer a universality that “at times” makes one “hardly aware that we are reading him in translation and not in his own language” (Myrsiades, x). 
            In his time, Homer was considered the epitome of poetry and storytelling.  He is credited with the birth of the literary Western world, with the Iliad as a “nearly perfect example in European literature of the orally composed epic.” (Rexine, 71).  For the Greeks, his epics were taken as fact for a distant past that they were intimately familiar with.  “According to Dorthy Walsh, the essential function of literature is to convey what a given human experience might be like.  From this point of view the Iliad not only tells us what happened as a result of the anger of Achilles; it makes us feel in a particular way what that whole complex of actions “was like.”  We listen to Homer because he awakes in us a complicated emotional awareness that we cherish and could never have experience unassisted” (108, Dimock in Myrsiades).   As John Rexine says in The Concept of the Hero,
“All the Homeric heroes are fully human but also possess an excellence—that marks them as special… They are conscious of their humanity and of their mortality.  They know their limitations.  They know how to use both physical and intellectual human resources to confront problems.  They experience a certain heroic loneliness but at the same time know that as human beings they must function within human society.  They know that suffering is an innate part of the human experience, and they do not avoid confronting what has to be confronted.  They provide models of human action and character to be studied, admired and even imitated.  The Homeric heroes appeal to us because we recognize in them our own humanity and also the full possibilities of that humanity” (76, Rexine in Myrsiades).

By committing these oral poems to written form, these same epic heroes could pass forward into time beyond the life of the poet himself.  It is interesting to note that these orally composed epics “belong to a literary genre that has been largely replaced today by the novel” (Rexine in Myrsiades, 71), like Malouf’s Ransom.
            When Malouf first heard The Iliad, as a grade school child 1943, he immediately connected the “ancient and fictional war” with World War II, “We too were left hanging in the midst of an unfinished war.  Who could know, in 1943, how our war too might end?” (Malouf, Afterword, A Note on sources.) 
The first section of Ransom is dedicated to Achilles, immersing the reader in his point of view, his mentality, and his emotions.  All of this is so that the reader can intimately understand why Achilles feels compelled to do what he does, and to anticipate how he will respond.  The rage, the need for an impetus to break the wearisome cycle of endless revenge.  One is steeped in Achilles’ despair and monstrous helplessness, a state created by his own actions.
            The second section of Ransom focuses on the unexpected motivations of Priam.  The reader is invited to see into the honor of a King and find the heart of a father.  And the final section focuses on Somax, as the storyteller.  The last thing left in the minds of the reader are the words of Somax.  In the first excerpt, it as Somax and Priam return to Troy and Somax looks on into to what the future will hold for him:
“As for all that has happened in these last hours, what a tale he will have to tell!  He will tell it often over the years.
            In the early days, while Troy still stands solid and gleaming on its high hill, the figures he has to speak of, Priam, Hecuba, Achilles, will still, in the minds of his listeners, be sharers of their own world, creatures like themselves of flesh and blood.  Later – when Troy has become just another long, windswept hilltop, its towers reduced to rubble, its citizens scattered or carried off, like Hecuba and Hector’s wife Andromache and Cassandra and the other Trojan women, into exile and slaver – all he has to tell, which was once as real as the itch under his tunic and the lice he cracks between his nails, will have become the stuff of legend, half folktale, half an old man’s empty bragging.
            Even the memory then, of what once was, will have grown dim in the minds of a generation who, for the whole of their lives, have known nothing but chaos and lawlessness”  (final chapter).

Clearly, the progression of the tales are evident.  From telling them to audiences who would know and have seen the living people—almost like sharing gossip to the ages beyond, when those hearing will believe them to be nothing more than legend and the stuff of make believe.
            The second excerpt is after all the time has passed, and Somax is an old man who, like he dreamed of doing, has told these tales for generations.
“So many stories!
            He tells them to anyone who will share a drink with him.  On summer evenings under the big misshapen sycamore at the tavern door, nodding off at times in mid-sentence so that his listeners creep away smiling and shake their heads.  Or by the light of a single oil lamp, and with a young one on his lap- one of his many great-grandchildren – on long nights when the entire village is holed up against invaders behind the doors of a fortified barn.
            Those who sit, intent as children, and give themselves up to these old tales, will have heard them a hundred times before and know every detail and unlikely turn.
            The meeting in the tamarisk grove with the impudent fellow who was, in fact, the god Hermes in the guise of an Achaean warrior: a dandified youth with golden tresses, and a scent – it was this that had given him away – like gillyflowers.
            How, in a quiet spot beyond the same tamarisk grove, he had managed without too much trouble, to tempt the old king, Priam, who had never heard of such a thing, to cool his feet in the running stream, and taste one of the little griddlecakes his daughter-in-law was such a dab hand at.
            How he had spent the night in the open yard beside Achilles’ hut in the Greek camp, and was given gobbets of meat to eat that the great Achilles himself had sliced and roasted.  With scallions, and the finest wheaten bread to soak up the grease.  And had slept very comfortably afterwards under a lamb’s wool rug provided by one of Achilles’ squires.
            His listeners do not believe him, of course.  He is a known liar.  His is a hundred years old and drinks too much.
            What he has to tell did happen – or so they say- but to someone else.  Idaeus, the man was called, King Priam’s herald.  Is it likely that such a figure, a king’s herald, would have griddlecakes in his satchel?  Do great kings dabble their feet in icy streams?
            This old fellow, like most storytellers, is a stealer of other men’s tales, of other men’s lives.”  (final chapter).

In this way, Malouf has done two things:  One is to recast Homer, the teller of the tales, in the skin of Somax; and the other, by also using Somax to represent himself, he has continued the tradition of telling and sharing tales and changing them in the telling.  It is both a nod to the original nature of orally shared stories and an embracement of the modern novel.  In his own words, Malouf says that,
Ransom is a return to that unfinished story;
It re-enters the world of the Iliad to recount the story of Achilles, Patroclus and Hector, and in a very different version from the original, Priam’s journey to the Greek camp.  But its primary interest is in storytelling itself – why stories are told and why we need to hear them, how stories get changed in the telling – and much of what it has to tell are ‘untold tales’ found only in the margins of earlier writers”  (Afterword, A Note on sources).
In interviews discussing Ransom, Malouf explained that the character Somax, which he introduced to the story, is meant to be a representation of himself as storyteller and to share with the reader (as audience) his point of view and perspective.  Malouf, himself, asks the important questions:  Why are stories told?  Why do we need to hear them?
            One possible answer lies in interpretation of the story of Achilles, Patroclus, Hector and Priam as an analogy. America is involved in an ongoing war in the Middle East, with no foreseeable end in sight.  In the narrative of today, America could be mighty Achilles with the attack of 9/11 equivalent to the shock and horror of the death of Patroclus.  When Bin Laden was slain this year, it was much like the death of Hector—answering a call for revenge, and much celebrated in the United States, and like Hector, he was denied the burial of his customs.  But unlike the unrelenting anger of Achilles, the act was cathartic for many Americans.
            It is more likely that these stories relevance today is in the ability to make people feel connected to each other and the world at large.  Stories give the feeling of finding one’s place and belonging.  It is an emotional connection that people are too often deprived in this modern age.   
“In our technological economy, human attention is the emerging scarce resource.  People need it, crave it, and will pay for it with their cooperation.  In today’s world almost anyone …is operating under a deficit of human attention… Depression is at epidemic levels because all of this information simply leaves us feeling incompetent and lost.  We don’t need more information.  We need to know what it means.  We need a story that explains what it means and makes us feel like we fit in there somewhere” (111, Simmons).

It is important to remember that storytelling is an integral part of being human.9  From relating what is experienced in a day to reading for enjoyment or telling a joke, even commercials, movies and television shows, storytelling is an inescapable part of everyday life.10  As many as the emotions there are to experience, there are words for sharing them and creating a narrative that gives them context and meaning.11 
Whether shared orally or written in text, stories “call us to consider what we know, what we hope for, who we are, and what and whom we care about” (Greene, quoted by Witherell in McEwan, 40).  It is this human interconnection that allows Achilles, Patroclus, Priam and Hector to resonate with us today, whether the teller is a 3000 year old, long dead poet, or a living, popular novelist from half way around the world.  In today’s disconnected, over stimulated and personally isolating, technology heavy world, it is that emotional connection and spiritual resonation that makes storytelling, in all of its form vital and necessary.
End Notes
1.      Spaulding, Amy  E.  The Art of Storytelling:  Telling Truth through Telling Stories , “George Gerbner, who was dean of the Annenberg School of Communication, reminds us that the one thing that no other species except human does is tell stories, says, “Our ability to tell stories is important not only because we live by storytelling, but also because we erect a world that is constructed from the stories we hear and tell.”” 93
Simmons, Annette.  The Story Factor  “The norms and habits of any group’s culture are passed down through the stories that are told and retold.” 221
2.      National Storytelling Association, 1997,
3.      Birch, Carol and Melissa Heckler (Eds.) Who Says?:  Essays on Pivotal Issues in Contemporary Storytelling, “Storytelling is the conveying of events in words, images and sounds, often by improvisation or embellishment.  Stories or narratives have been shared in ever culture as a means of entertainment, education, cultural preservation and in order to instill moral values.” 1996
4.      Birch, Carol and Melissa Heckler (Eds.) Who Says?:  Essays on Pivotal Issues in Contemporary Storytelling, “The earlier forms of storytelling were thought to have been primarily oral combined with gestures and expressions.  In addition to being part of religious ritual, rudimentary drawings scratched onto the walls of caves may have been forms of early storytelling for many of the ancient cultures.” 
5.      Sawyer, Ruth.  The Way of the Story Teller, “The first primitive efforts at conscious storytelling consisted of a simply chant, set to the rhythm of some daily tribal occupation…They were in the first person, impromptu, giving expression to pride or exultation over some act of bravery or accomplishment that set the individual for the moment apart from the tribe.”  45-46
6.      Sawyer, Ruth.  The Way of the Story Teller, “As the third person narrative became the more popular form, stories began to be told for the sole purpose of entertainment…  A feeling for what we call historical record came into existence, a sense of its importance to the tribe…. Out of the recording of hero events grew the hero cycles or sagas.  Out of growing imagination came the impulse to exaggerate and idealize.  Where history failed, imagination stepped in; for with the increasing capacity to wonder had come the capacity to invent.  As storytelling came to be more and more a source of entertainment, as tribe vied with tribe to outdo each other in their records of achievement, storytellers began to fabricate a richer, more colorful pattern than facts could produce.”  52-53
7.      Birch, Carol and Melissa Heckler (Eds.) 1996.  Who Says?: Essays on Pivotal Issues in Contemporary Storytelling, “With the advent of writing, the use of actual digit symbols to represent language, the use of stable, portable medial, stories were recorded, transcribed and shared over wide regions of the world…Traditionally, oral stories were committed to memory and then passed from generation to generation.  However, in Western, literate societies, written and televised media has largely surpassed this method of communicating local, family and cultural histories.” 
8.      Manguel, Alberto. Homer’s The Iliad and the Odyssey: A Biography  ,“Among the literary works of ancient Greece, the Homeric poems may have been the first to take advantage of the possibilities offered by written language: greater length, since the composition no longer needed to be short enough to be held in the poet’s memory; greater consistency, both of place and character, than that of oral poetry; greater continuity, because the written text permitted comparison with earlier or later narrative passages; greater harmony, since the eye could assist the composing mind by enriching the purely aural rules of versification with those of the physical relationship between the words on the page.  Above all, the poem set down in writing allowed the work of a wider, more generous reach:  he who received the poem no longer needed to share the poet’s time and space.” 26
9.      Bryant, A. S.,  in Annette Simmons The Story Factor, “Narration is as much a part of human nature as breath and the circulation of blood.” 27
10.  McEwan, Hunter and Kieran Egan.  Narrative in Teaching, Learning and Research, “We rarely get through a day, hardly even an hour, without either hearing or reading a story in whole or part or telling one to someone else.” 4
11.  McEwan, Hunter and Kieran Egan.  Narrative in Teaching, Learning and Research, “By using narrative form we assign meaning to events and invest them with coherence, integrity, fullness, and closure.” 31

Works Cited

Birch, Carol and Melissa Heckler (Eds.) Who Says?: Essays on Pivotal Issues in Contemporary
Storytelling, Atlanta, GA:  August House. Print.
Hacker, Diana and Nancy Sommers. A Writer’s Reference. 7th ed. Boston: Bedford/ St. Martin’s.
423-487. Print
Homer, translated by Herbert Jordan. The Iliad.  Norman, OK: Oklahoma Press, 2008. Print
Malouf, David.  Ransom. New York, NY: Pantheon eBooks, eISBN:978-0-307-37893-4, 2009.

Manguel, Alberto.  Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, A Biography. New York, NY:  Atlantic
Monthly Press, 2007. Print.
McEwan, Hunter and Kieran Egan.  Narrative in Teaching, Learning, and Research.  New York,
NY: Teachers College, Columbia University, 1995.  Print.
Myrsiades, Kostas. Approaches to Teaching Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.  New York, NY: The
Modern Language Association of America, 1987.  Print.
Sawyer, Ruth.  The Way of The Storyteller.   Middlesex, England:  Penguin Books, 1970. Print.
Scott, John A.  Homer and His Influence. New York, NY: Longsmans, Gren and Co., 1931. Print
Simmons, Annette. The Story Factor: Secrets of Influence from the Art of Storytelling.
Cambridge, Massachusetts:  Perseus Publishing, 2001.
Spaulding, Amy E. The Art of Storytelling:  Telling Truths through Telling Stories. Plymouth,
UK: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. 2011. Print.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I'd love to hear your thoughts!