Here’s the full question:
“When I’m at a storytelling festival and go to the story swaps, I hear storytellers telling “folktales” from someone’s published copyright book and the old stories have been revised and retold and copyrighted. Now today the storytellers think they are telling traditional stories. Isn’t this destructive for the storytelling movement?”
This question describes a process that happens in many parts of society. I think that understanding this process is important to the storytelling movement, to achieving our common goals. To do so successfully, we need to be clear about the different relationships we can have to traditional stories. Only then can we treat each other with full respect and benefit from each other’s perspectives.
Folklorist Tristram Coffin uses three helpful terms:
- Traditional culture
- Literary culture
- Popular culture.
As I understand Coffin’s terms, literary culture–based classically on books, but also existing in films, audiotapes, etc.–exists in fixed forms that are passed on without alteration.
Traditional culture does not exist in fixed forms, but exists in the shared and changing life of a community. The process of oral communication changes what is communicated, producing multiple variants of songs, stories, riddles, etc.
Popular culture can be similar to traditional culture in that things are communicated orally. But it is similar to literary culture in that there are written (or recorded) “originals” which are not changed by the process of oral communication.
How is popular culture different from literary culture?
The U.S. Declaration of Independence, for instance, can be thought of as existing in literary culture. We learn of it through referring directly to its fixed, written form.
In contrast, most of us learned the “Pledge of Allegiance” to the flag (part of U.S. popular culture) orally. Many of us have even witnessed or initiated changes in the text (“and to the republic, for witches stands”). But popular culture acknowledges only one version, the written version, and refers us back to it. The changes introduced through oral communication never “take root” and lead to independent versions within popular culture.
We Live In All Three
These three forms of culture exist side by side in our lives. In a single day, we may read a book, share items from popular culture orally, and transmit a joke or repeat an urban legend that forms part of our traditional culture.
Further, the same story or song can exist in each of these three types of culture, simultaneously or over time. Thus, we have oral folktales (traditional) that become written (literary) and then enter into popular culture—and from there may even re-enter traditional culture. At this moment, for example, there are “Cinderella” stories in each of these categories of culture.
Some of the disagreements among storytellers are related to the overlap of the three kinds of culture.
When the asker of the above question goes to a storytelling festival expecting traditional culture but finds people behaving as though they expect popular culture, there is a conflict in expectations. It may come out as “those people are all shifting the story line” (from the viewpoint of the one who expects traditional culture), or as “that person doesn’t know the story” (from those who expect popular culture).
The problem is not what the story is, however, but the different, unspoken expectations about stories in the two types of cultures.
Is One Culture Better Than The Others?
In their essence, all three kinds of culture are good. There is no one kind that is superior; they are just different channels of heritage.
But there is another factor. The dominant view in our society values that which can be owned. This view treats the three types of culture differently:
- Literary culture? Great; we’ll write, print and sell the books and recordings.
- Popular culture? OK; we’ll use the channels of advertising and electronic media to influence it and thereby influence what people want to own.
- Traditional culture? Hmm. People don’t own things in traditional culture, at least not in the prevalent sense of “own.” Not interesting. But maybe traditional culture can be a source for what we can sell?
Thus, the dominant element in our society is quite comfortable with the world-view implicit in literary and popular cultures, but can only ignore or “colonize” traditional culture.
Naturally, some of us see the pillaging (or “death on the vine”) of traditional culture, and, rightly, react with outrage.
Who is the Enemy?
While in the heat of this justified indignation, it is tempting to identify popular culture or literary culture as the problem, and see all those who willingly enter into them as the enemy.
The problem is not one kind of culture. The problem is especially not one kind of storytelling, storyteller, or venue for storytelling.
The problem is the dominant view in society.
So What Should We Do?
Our outrage will be wasted if we turn it on each other. Instead, we can educate each other lovingly about
- The overall, society-wide problems;
- The possible consequences of our unaware complicit actions; and
- The power of working together.
Storytelling is an artform that tends to focus our attention on what cannot be owned. Therefore, it has great potential as part of the changing of our society’s dominant world-view.
All of us who understand this power—whether we focus on the traditional, popular, or literary applications of storytelling—are potential allies in the transformation of our world.