storytelling


storytelling
   Until recently, folktales were studied for their content only; scholars did not think to enquire in what circumstances they would normally be told, by whom, to whom, and why. They seemed hardly aware of storytelling as an art form or a social activity. Partly, this was because England had no formal gatherings for story and song like those of Ireland and Scotland, and only one group of professional storytellers, the wandering Cornish 'droll-tellers' of the early 19th century, described by Robert Hunt and William Bot-trell. 'Stories were told as the occasion arose, as a natural element of daily life, rather than recited to an audience' (Philip, 1992: p. xiv); clues to the process can be gathered from biographies, memoirs, and novels as well as brief comments by some folklorists.
   One major channel of transmission was from nannies and nursemaids to the middle-class children they looked after. Dickens as a child was both horrified and fascinated by grisly tales of robbers and murderers told by his nurse, and the Bronte children by tales of the 'wild doings' in old families of the district; many folklore collectors cite old servants as their informants. The stories were sometimes used for moral instruction; a correspondent in N&Q describes two tomb-effigies in Wick-hampton Church (Norfolk) with oval stones in their hands, and recalls:
   When a child, having had an infantile quarrel with my brother, we were taken by our nurse to see these figures, and were informed that they were two brothers named Hampton who had quarrelled, and fought, and torn each other's hearts out. After this Kilkenny cat proceeding, Divine vengeance turned their bodies to stone, and, with their hearts in their hands, they were placed in the church as a monument to their wickedness. (N&Q 1s:12 (1855), 486-7)
   There are widespread but scrappy references to adults telling one another stories informally, as entertainment in pubs, at Christmas, at *wakes, as after-dinner anecdotes, in prisons and workhouses; humorous tales, *ghost stories, and *local legends are the types most often mentioned. Only one social group, the Gypsies, had a repertoire of oral fairytales; these they told among themselves, not as performances for outsiders. William Howitt in The Rural Life of England (1837) describes knitting parties then common in the Yorkshire and Lancashire dales; men, women, and children would gather in a neighbour's house, after the day's work was over, for a knitting session, during which: all the old stories and traditions of the dale come up, and they often get so excited that they say, 'Neighbours, we'll not part tonight', that is, till after twelve o'clock.... At Garsdale, the old men sit in companies round the fire, and because they get so intent on knitting and telling stories, they pin cloths on their shins to prevent themselves from getting burnt.
   Unfortunately, Howitt was interested in knitting, not folktales, and we learn no more. Recent interest in contemporary legends has led to a better awareness of storytelling as artistic performance, and the interaction of teller and audience. Gillian Bennett has analysed rhetorical strategies and structures used by some individuals when telling personal experiences and contemporary legends (Bennett, 1989). Michael Wilson has collected some 500 stories from young teenagers and analysed their performative techniques, aimed at horrific or humorous effects (Wilson, 1997).
   The art of public storytelling is currently enjoying a professional revival, with clubs and festivals flourishing; those taking part use material from many sources worldwide.
   See also *Contemporary Legends, *memorates.
   ■ See the introduction and commentaries in Philip, 1992; Doris E. Marrant, Folklore 79 (1968), 202-16; Bennett, 1989a; 1989b; Wilson, 1997.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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