Homo Narrans: a storytelling species

Category: Language, literature and media

27 January 2020

Dr Mick Gowar

Dr Mick Gowar explores the origins of narrative and how, throughout human history and in today's digital age, we have always swum 'in a sea of stories'.

"[O]ral narrative is and for a long time has been the chief basis of culture itself. …it is chiefly through storytelling that people possess a past. It is through prized stories, often in a ritual context, that a complex religious dimension is added to life. It is through storytelling, very often, that people articulate their cherished values and…make possible a future that differs from what now exists." John D Niles

In the beginning, according to Jack Zipes (storyteller and scholar of folk and fairy tales and former Visiting Professor to Anglia Ruskin University), were acts of creative gestural composition; narratives that were not only pre-literate, but perhaps even pre-verbal. In his book The Irresistible Fairy Tale Zipes proposes that telling stories pre-dated speech; and the early species of homo may have used a pre-verbal sign language to communicate information in the form of simple narratives vital for survival - such as the location of food, or the presence of a predator.

Whatever the genesis or the medium of storytelling – verbal or gestural – as Zipes and numerous other scholars, writers, critics, philosophers, scientists and social scientists have asserted, storytelling is a basic human characteristic. It is a need which Maslow clearly undervalued in his famous hierarchy of needs, and which perhaps should have been included somewhere in the borderland between ‘Safety’ and ‘Belonging’ and not at the apex of ‘Self-actualisation’. And storytelling of all kinds – creation and origin myths, heroic epics, cautionary tales, legal codes, ethics, medicinal lore – are the fundamental ways in which individuals, and perhaps even more crucially communities, reimagine and recreate themselves; how they seek to overcome personal tragedy and communal disasters. As John D Niles observes in the introduction to his fascinating book Homo Narrans, stories aren’t just what we create, we actually live in a story-laden environment (or, as Salman Rushdie might put it, we are all swimming in ‘a sea of stories’). Stories surround us and contain us; they also provide the means by which we are able to navigate or even propel ourselves through our own lives and the lives of others, and such is their ubiquity that we are barely aware of them. As Tania Modleski, Maria Tatar and Marina Warner have all convincingly argued, even low status genres which are often dismissed as not worthy of serious literary criticism – the fairy tale, the women’s magazine romance and the Gothic horror story – engage, in perhaps a veiled form, with significant difficulties and conflicts in their readers’ lives.

Zipes and Niles emphasise in their work how ancient the practice of storytelling is, and remind us that, for example, to translate the Greek word muthos simply as ‘myth’ (as commonly happens) gives a false impression; muthos, should be understood as a term that embraces all forms of storytelling. Niles in his introduction to Homo Narrans refers to the earliest written stories – from ancient Sumeria, Egypt and China – to demonstrate that oral tales of gods, demons, heroes and monsters, of semi-divine founders of royal dynasties, tricksters and knaves were recorded as soon as the means to do so came into existence.

Story is something of which most of us are aware from our earliest conscious moments, when we create our first simple stories with our first words, combining, as Zipes has suggested, gestures and sounds: Point: Moo! = “I see a cow.” If scholars like Zipes and Niles are correct – that storytelling is a characteristic of all people and not simply those with what would be considered to possess an outstanding talent for composition and performance – this could equally mark the beginning of a butcher, a baker, or a candlestick maker, too: all of whom make stories, all of whom have stories to tell, and all of whom are innately creative users of language.

By Dr Mick Gowar, Secretary of the Ted Hughes Society; Principal Editor of Book 2.0; ARU alumnus and ex-lecturer, researcher and University Teaching Fellow
Published to mark National Storytelling Week 2020




References

  1. John D Niles, 1999. Homo Narrans: The Poetics and Anthropology of Oral Literature. Philadelphia, PA: University of Philadelphia Press: 2.
  2. Jack Zipes, 2012. The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  3. Jack Zipes ibid: 2.
  4. A H Maslow, 1943. ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’ https://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Maslow/motivation.htm. See also https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Maslow%27s_hierarchy_of_needs.svg [accessed 28 April 2019].
  5. See: Salman Rushdie (1991) Haroun and The Sea of Stories. London: Penguin.
  6. See Maria Tatar (1999) The Classic Fairytales. New York: W W Norton: xi. Also Marina Warner (1995) From The Beast To The Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers. London: Vintage; and Tania Modleski (2007) Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-produced Fantasies for Women. New York and Abingdon, Oxon.: Routledge.
  7. John D Niles op.cit: 1.

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