Traditional Tales and the Modern Teller

by Rafe Martin

For tellers today, traditional tales are like a form of classical music. The patterns are known and resonant. In so many ways our work will naturally – whether we know it or not—reflect back to these oldies and goldies. Forty years ago when I was training as a mythopoeic literary critic I understood that such tales are the building blocks of the imagination. Shakespeare knew this. He took known tales and reworked them so that audiences would find new depth and new satisfactions with these old narrative modules. Such tales have a potentially seminal role in the repertoire of modern tellers as well. All stories syncopate against or play with ancient structural patterns. There are no new tales, just new ways to tell the patterns already woven into our psyches. The more familiar we are with story-tradition the potentially freer (and more resonant) our tellings. We are always working within a lineage of tale-telling that extends easily back 40,000 years – whether we know it or not.

But with this recognition comes a host of questions. What are the duties, obligations and rights of such tellings? Where do issues of universal imagination and specific authenticity, fit in? Who owns traditional tales, and what is legitimate for us as literate, mostly urban, tv, movie and book imprinted tellers to do with them without violating the bonds of story-ethic? Is a story once removed from direct oral experience (published in a book or magazine) fair game? It’s not just whether a white urban teller can recount a Zuni or an African tale. It’s also – can an Irish teller tell a Japanese one, Asian tellers, Islamic ones? Or how about – can a Christian teller legitimately tell a story from the Torah (meaning anything from the Old Testament!). Or can a Native American storyteller use an Italian tale? Can a Black teller tell a Jack tale? How much do we trust the imagination and depth of the teller, and how much the rules of village storytelling? (I.e., so and so’s family owns that story.) Or genetics? (I.e., Native tellers should tell native tales, Irish, Irish, Jews, Jewish, etc.) How far do we want to narrow the limitless ability of the imagination to become – anything? Would we want to say that a woman shouldn’t tell a story with a man in it, or man tell one centering on a woman? Should Eric Clapton not play the blues? How about Shakespeare – how can he be Othello, Cleopatra, the King Lear, and the confused university student, Hamlet?

If this remains unresolved, the problematic result is a split in future festivals, with personal, sentimental tales on one side, and ethnic tellers on the other — and in the middle, a no-man’s-land of myth-oriented, traditionalist, (but not traditional), tellers.

My own experience lies here – as writer and teller. Growing up Jewish, married to a child of Holocaust survivors, with a father who flew search and rescue over the Himalayas (China, Burma, India) in WW II, and relatives coming from Russia, what are my “traditional territories”? My mother read Grimm’s Tales to me when I was young, so I grew up with them as “my” stories. My first books were Greek Myths and Arthurian Tales. Grown, I studied myth and literature. I’ve told stories in Native communities, (I was invited back to Zuni – one of the most traditional – for twelve years) and for forty years have been a practitioner of Zen Buddhist tradition, under the guidance of important elder teachers and was recently ordained, able to now legitimately teach aspects of the tradition – which I do – in traditional Buddhist contexts, telling and commenting on Buddhist tales! So I am an urban, white, Jewish, Russian, 2nd generation immigrant, Grimm’s and Arthurian imprinted, literate and literary traditional (or more accurately, traditionalist) Buddhist storyteller and teacher. What stories do I have the right to tell? Jewish and personal? Jewish, personal, and Buddhist? (Which means Japan, China, Korea, Tibet, Southeast Asia, India). What about my literary background? And what about my experiences with Native communities and with meditation experiences that connect with Native insights? (I have a Zuni friend who has been posting Buddhist material on FB. Can she now tell Buddhist tales? Who would make that decision? What’s “authentic”? How would that function in non-traditional settings for non-traditional audiences? Would questions like – was it a good story? a well-told one –more likely come into play?)

Where do you stand with all this?

Hmm. Maybe we should talk.

About Rafe

Time, Newsweek, US News and World Report, and USA Today have cited Rafe Martin’s work, which has received multiple Parent’s Choice Gold, ALA Notable, Anne Izzard Storyteller’s Choice, and Storytelling World Awards. Rafe has been featured at the National Storytelling Festival, the National Institute, the International Storytelling Center, the Joseph Campbell Festival of Myth and Story, American Zen Teachers Conference, American Library Association, International Reading Association, Zuni Pueblo, American Museum of Natural History, NASA and Greenpeace — to name just a few, as well as at thousands of schools and libraries. His latest book, Endless Path, won a 2011 Storytelling World Award. Rafe is glad to still be around, telling and teaching about the glue that holds us together – stories!

Contact Rafe

(585) 442-2826

16 thoughts on “Traditional Tales and the Modern Teller”

  1. Thanks for this, Rafe. It’s a lovely summation of the issues of story “ownership.” I appreciate both your thoughtfulness and playfulness in the discussion. I’ve also been reading “The Endless Path,” and enjoying it so much I don’t want it to end, except that I know I will be reading it again.

    1. Thank you all for these thoughtful and insightful responses. We walk the Path together indeed. This is a dialog to continue, one we explore, not with pages of text but by the way we live our lives and tell our tales. There are issues of integrity here — as you all point to — which underlie the whole tradition of tales, and their appearance and reappearance in many cultures. At Hopi, Zuni’s across the Arizona-border near-neighbor, I discovered that the hottest bands for a time were reggae and that Hopi kids were creating their own versions. “Pretty neat” is what I thought. Thank you all for your good words — (and thanks, Gail, for your words on Endless Path too!)
      I remember Gary Snyder (one of my respected model Elders) writing something to the effect that poets, healers, gamblers, and artists have to be scrupulous in their dealings. The work depends on and reflects it. And there’s Bob Dylan’s great line — “To live outside the law you must be honest” (Obviously Sweet Marie, from Blonde on Blonde.)
      All best to all. Cheers for dialog!

  2. Rafe, you speak to my heart and direct experience of traditional tales as “a form of classical music, the patterns are known…” I trust the patterns completely, they hold me as I listen, live with, digest, muse, travel in and “abide with” the stories. The stories are an entry to cultures, “my homework”: the process of inquiry and understanding the culture, and journey. When I tell the story, I aim to trust and be loyal to the path, mindful of who I am, present to the physical place, who is there to make the journey with me, and the occasion for the telling. In those confines, I am free to make the journey of the story as I tell. We are not alone. Ancients accompany us, we are listening. Heaven on earth.

  3. Rafe, you put the modern storyteller’s dilemma beautifully. I’ll add yet another twist to the conundrum.
    Those of us who research variants and versions of traditional tales are familiar with the ATU (formerly AT) index of types of the folktale — the index that presents zillions of plot types, mainly from folktales from the Indo-European diaspora, but also occasionally from elsewhere. Each type is identified AS a type because different versions of it have been archived in different places — that is, the basic plot shape has remained recognizably the same, but the details, the individual motifs, vary from place to place and teller to teller.
    What are the implications of this? One implication, surely, is that as people encountered tales, they altered them to suit their own audiences and worldviews, thus creating variants. Storytellers felt free to take whatever tales “spoke to” them, adjust them to make better sense or better craft (in their view), and tell them as they wished.
    Thus there is an age-old tradition of borrowing tales from other cultures and telling them one’s own way. That’s the reality that all the indexes to tale types (not only the ATU index) reflect!
    I mention this not to advocate wholesale and heedless tale-snatching, but just to put the idea into the mix. I myself am very sensitive to political and religious restrictions on tale-telling and tale-altering and I try to avoid misuse of the traditions that are sacred to people’s identities or religions. But that care has not always been the rule in the 40,000 years of history.

  4. Thanks to Rafe (and NSN for inviting Rafe) for such thoughtful wonderings! And to Gail, Angela and Jo for deepening the conversation-as well as others who are yet to comment. So much to ponder!

    A quick thought sparked by Jo’s…indeed, there’s a 40,000 year (or more) tradition of sharing, absorbing, and incorporating stories passing thru your own “village”, carried by an Other–that continues to this day. But we must be mindful (and humbled) by some of the history of those centuries-particularly “recent” history (by that, I mean recent millenia). Wars and empires and colonialsim and violent repression and forced assimilations have done everything from burning libraries from Alexandria to Mexico to forbidding languages and prayers and songs, dances and, yes, STORIES…we’ve had holocausts and diasporas, genocides and relocations–an strange laws, like copyright, imposed that fail to protect ancestral wisdom and put a greater value on “property” than “culture”. We have not yet guaranteed the future of languages and cultures for unborn generations….we must walk softly and keep talking and respecting each others stories as we add this new factor-the “storytelling professional and industry”-into the story of humanity…

  5. Thanks for this Rafe. A good reminder of a vigorous yet kind debate I had with Dovie years ago. Since then I don’t tell Native American stories (I’d rather be able to state names of tribes but I’m not good enough at that, sorry). The same happened when I met Aboriginal storytellers – I don’t tell their dream tales per their request. I don’t tell them not only because I realized this habit was not appreciated. I also realized I don’t really have the depth I have in other tales and stories I feel at home with.

    Just to add another issue – while traveling abroad people often introduce me as “a storyteller from Israel and she will tell us Jewish stories”. I must say I don’t like that. I’d rather have the freedom to tell whatever I choose believing I’m a fine teller. As an Israeli I’d rather tell Israeli stories – not the same thing as Jewish. If I choose to tell Jewish tales, what I like is not necessarily what a Jewish audience abroad is expecting…

    The ‘traditional’ or ‘national’ often push organizers to seek tellers according to their ‘origin’, neglecting the fact that a great teller is a great teller.

    1. Limor — I hear you. I also really like your closing sentence — kind of a nutshell version of the whole issue as it plays out in festival life — so far. “The ‘traditional’ or ‘national’ often push organizers to seek tellers according to their ‘origin’, neglecting the fact that a great teller is a great teller.” Not that “great teller” is a mantle anyone could claim. But “good teller,” “interesting teller,” “one genuine in their depth of understanding/handling the story” might be. Could be. Should be. If the world spins rightly. Cheers for that!

  6. Thanks for an excellent summary of the questions that surround this issue. Have to say, though, I’m rather depressed to see that it doesn’t seem to have moved on much in the decade or so since last I looked…
    Can’t help wondering if there’s a basic problem with the notion of ‘authenticity’ in this context – either that, or a deep confusion between the teller’s knowledge/intentions and the knowledge/intentions ascribed to the teller by audience, commentators or critics.

    1. Allan, I think this is exactly why I wrote the blog. I.e., “Can we get it moving?” It’s been a growing concern, and there is a deep divide in the functioning of the storytelling world at present — manifested in the three- way split I mention in the blog with a vague no man’s/no woman’s imaginative/mythic oriented ground somewhere dead center. “What saves a man is to take a step, then another. It is always the same step but you have to take it.” That’s a quote from the great
      St. Exupery.

      1. From where I stand this all seems a great shame, and if reports I hear of the virtual extinction of US tellers telling traditional material at the big festivals, positively alarming.
        In general in the UK we find ourselves somewhat bemused by all this, as it’s nowhere near such a big issue, but having lived (and worked as a professional storyteller) in Scotland, where such things are taken very seriously indeed, I have some sympathy with the dilemma you guys seem to be trapped in.
        Some sympathy, but also considerable alarm. In Scotland all of the traditional arts are deeply bound up with notions of cultural identity which provides the advantage of being something clear and strong for people to connect with…but..and this is a huge ‘but’, has the disadvantage that it tends to lead to the worst kind of parochialism.
        I wouldn’t have minded if Scots tellers ranted at me for pillaging the cultural riches of other nations. Being a polite race, they accorded me respect for being a professional and ignored me. (with a few honourable exceptions) The point, in the context of this discussion, is that a healthy culture is confident enough to include a broad range of ways of going about things, of opinions…so what if the odd individual is offended? As long as it’s not deliberate, that’s a good sign.
        You can’t please all the people, all the time, and it’s a disasterous mistake to try.

        1. Allan, if I read you right, I agree that tolerance is central. Absolutely so. But I’ll also be blunt(ish) — my sense is that the central issue is — Did the story live? Did the teller do his or her work for the story? And for the listeners. The source of that can reside in any number of factors — ethnicity and upbringing, imagination, talent, empathy, or long practiced skill. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that the jobe be done — for the story’s sake and that it work for itself — and for the listeners. Which is where story Telling differs from writing. The written story can be its own best version– for all readers, all times. The Told tale Has to work for the specific group of listeners. If it doesn’t it has no functioning life. The rub is — as you allude to — is that different audiences have different sets of expectations, appreciations and even skill sets. A “great telling” might miss the mark with an audience whose issues do not align naturally with the tale. Mythic territory is not a solution — but it is a good bet. Archetypal realms offer the widest range of possibility to various listeners.
          The issue is put to the test, though, with every telling. Which is why luck — and integrity remain closely aligned. Artists (i.e. storytellers) are gamblers and the forces have to align right for that “zing” to connect. Good luck to all! Cheers and thanks for your (and everyone’s) comments — and efforts.

  7. “We seem to need stories to come to a deeper understanding. Myth is the highest level of story. It’s story in which the nature of one’s identity is revealed or may get revealed. It’s the story in which we’re all embedded, which is the story of identity. Isn’t that the highest story? Myth to me is a story that touches on the nature of identity: who we are, where do we come from—that’s myth.”
    That’s a quote from an interview with me that was done by Tricycle Magazine back in 2005. It’s now posted in its entirely at Tricycle on-line. I’ll get the link and add as a follow-up.

  8. Great post, Rafe! As an Appalachian native of Melungeon descent, I don’t mind hearing those who are not of my heritage telling stories from my heritage, as long as they do so with respect. When my family moved to the city, my mother looked out the window of our apartment, and cried, “Oh, no! I’ll never reach those clotheslines!”. She was looking at telephone poles. She was not stupid. She just had never seen a telephone pole before. Often those who tell stories from other cultures, and even those who are from the culture, do not put the stories in the proper context. Audiences, therefore, get the impression that natives of the culture lack sense. Such disregard for a culture degrades it.

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