Storytelling (oral tradition)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Storytelling (oral tradition)

Storytelling (oral tradition)

An art thousands of years older than writing, oral tradition began with the human sharing of anecdotes, testimonials, cautionary tales, and hero boasts. Its style and themes undergird world scripture—for example, the Ephraimite and Judean narrations that form the Hebrew CREATION story in the book of GENESIS (ca. 500 B.C.), the Mayan POPOL VUH (A.D. 1558), and Persia’s epic Shahnameh (The Book of Kings, ca. 1010), FIRDAWSI’S exaltation of dynasties. The entertainment of court officials flourished with Scheherazade’s telling of the stories of The THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS (ca. A.D. 942). Her skill at narration and suspense saved her life and enriched the marriage of her mate, King Shahryar, a notorious woman-hater whose antipathies softened from hearing tales and parables. The practice of pleasuring the community’s ear with stories thrived among the Assyrian war camps of Sargon II, the Polynesian islanders whom ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON entertained in Samoa, and the aboriginal sand tracers of Australia. Stories from oral tradition were recorded by Afro-Caribbean mythographers in Barbados and Trinidad, absorbed by English audiences reading the Canadian NATURE LORE of PAULINE JOHNSON and Grey Owl, and reported by the fictional Marlow’s in JOSEPH CONRAD’S HEART OF DARKNESS (1899). In the rhapsodic essay “The Songs of the Ukraine” (1834), the Russian writer NIKOLAY GOGOL lauds peasant folklore, which mingles with the birdsong of the steppes. He asserts that folk songs are “the vibrant, clear, colorful, truthful history of a nation, revealing the whole life of the people” (Gogol, 1982, 1986), especially the stories of past power structures and the evolution of survival strategies.

Inventive, rhythmic, and immediate, live storytellings by a harper, griot, jester, kahuna, minstrel, or seanachie incorporate different elements to heighten the impact of words, chant, call and response, animal sounds, and tunes. Essential to repetitions of familiar pourquoi (why) FABLES, such as RUDYARD KIPLING’S Just So Stories for Little Children (1902), is the teller’s ability to shape the narrative to the age span, interest, and needs of the audience. For refugees and the victims of diaspora, stories create the illusion of home and the familiar. For the anguished colonial, the masking of outrage with parody, trickster deceit, and mimicry, such as the Anancy the Spider tales of Jamaica and the Nigerian Hausa story “Spider and the Lion,” offer an outlet for pent-up frustration and fear of the oppressor. The teller’s tone can vary from sober WISDOM LITERATURE, as in the biblical book of Esther (ca. 175 B.C.), to simplistic jests in the PANCHATANTRA (ca. 200 B.C.), wry incongruities in stories by WILHELM and JACOB GRIMM, gripping narratives of battles and narrow escapes in the Babylonian GILGAMESH (ca. 1800 B.C.), and the verse stories and fables of MARIE DE FRANCE and JEAN DE LA FONTAINE.


Some Polynesian oral tradition found a bilingual preserver in King David Kalakaua (1836-91), a would-be emperor of Oceania who recorded the myth, legends, fables, and folktales of the Hawaiian realm. Born a quarter century after Kamehameha the Great united the island string under one dynasty, Kalakaua was educated in English. In addition to starting a Hawaiian-language newspaper, he amassed The Legends and Myths of Hawaii: The Fables and Folklore of a Strange People (1888) for translation into English. Like the Russian ethnographer Nikolay Gogol and the Grimm brothers, the island king valued oral tradition as a nation-building tool for his Hawaii-for-Hawaiians campaign. In the style of the Greek rhapsode, he incorporated oral genealogies, GODDESS LORE, taboos, PROPHECY, and hula and worship chants along with outrigger voyages, tattooing, sacrifice of prisoners of war, and cannibalism as true elements of the Polynesian culture that spread from Hawaii to New Zealand and east to west from Rapa Nui (Easter Island) to Fiji. In an artistic renaissance, he masterminded a comprehensive collection of pre-Christian lore before islanders lost touch with their pagan past.

Kalakaua amplified tales that encompass nature lore and history, particularly the arrival of pioneers from Tahiti and the rapacity of Captain James Cook and the European explorers who followed him. A phenomenon myth recounts how an immigrant family took refuge on a volcano and shape-shifted into lava that overwhelmed their pursuers and drove them into the sea. Voyage lore in “Moikeha and the Argonauts” describes the reunion of Polynesian dynasties from Hawaii, Samoa, and Tahiti. It concludes with an EPITHA- LAMIUM involving the young chief Laa's triple marriage and feast and followed by “the sacred firstborn children of Laa, / Who were born on the same one day” (Kalakaua 1972, 135). “The Iron Knife” describes the first war of conquest. At a height of zeal, “the Hawaiian army, cheered by chants of battle and beating of war-drums, is buffeting the waves on its way to Maui” (182).

In the late 20th century, the Australian author Kim Scott (b. 1957) rejoiced in oral tradition as the antidote to the savagery of imperialism. He created a fictional story keeper in Harley, protagonist of Benang: From the Heart (1999). In a deliberate act of reclamation of the past and reunion with lost peoples, the bard chants to a circle of listeners at a campfire. Benang claims that his words channel voices annihilated by invaders of the island: “I touch the earth only once in my performance—leaving a single footprint in white sand and ash—through me we hear the rhythm of many feet pounding the earth, and the strong pulse of countless hearts beating” (Scott 1999, 9). His oral seance mesmerizes hearers with the exuberance of ancient spirits. He assures them, “I am alive. Am bringing life” (10).


Beckwith, Martha Warren. Hawaiian Mythology. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1977.

Gogol, Nikolay. Arabesques. Translated by Alexander Tulloch. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1982.

Kalakaua, David. The Legends and Myths of Hawaii: The Fables and Folklore of a Strange People. Rutland, Vt.: Charles E. Tuttle, 1972.

Scott, Kim. Benang. Fremantle, Aust.: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1999.