Dæmon in the Wood; Hide and Seek

An Art of Things Unreal

Like the manufacture of complex tools and weapons, like speech, or the artificial production of dyes and pigments, story-telling is a peculiarly human activity, a unique property of Homo sapiens’ societies. Other animals than man communicate within their own species by a variety of visual, acoustic, and chemical means that help them to sustain life and maintain communal identities. In some respects it is hair-splitting to differentiate between those species’ communications and our own uses of speech. But alone among animals, only man converses with his fellows in a narrative manner. Dolphins or other very intelligent beasts may someday be taught to speak in a mode men will understand, or some of us might learn their “languages,” but it is wildly improbable that any of them will ever tell any of us even a rudimentary story.

In moments of typically human fantasy, some natural scientists who study the universe around our small planet enjoy telling a speculative story of how other “intelligent beings” similar to man might inhabit a kind of astral Arcadia in other solar systems far from our world, hidden from us beyond the reach of any present faculty except imagination. Yet even if by diligent exercise of our mechanical genius we earthlings do eventually contrive to discover and talk with some such invisible trans-galactic Arcadians, thus realizing one of the most compelling fantasies of our so-called “science fiction,” our sense of being truly like or unlike those “aliens” will depend in large measure upon whether they can appreciate our traditional narratives and we theirs. For unless they too are story-telling creatures they will not be acceptably “like us” no matter how ably they otherwise speak, calculate, manufacture, or color themselves and their artifacts with the paints and dye-stuffs of their worlds.

The amount of story-telling that happens in a single day on our planet must be enormous. No one has ever tried to measure it, but any experienced collector of oral tales knows that counting them is like taking a census in China: the counting no sooner begins than the reproductive process invalidates the count. All the engraved stones, clay tablets, papyri, manuscripts, and printed pages devoted to records of old stories in all the world’s museums, archives, and libraries probably amount to only a fraction of the stories told orally during a few months’ time in the modern world. Since the tales that have been preserved in writing are so numerous, are by nature relics of the past, and are often manifestly products of older traditions that were never recorded at all, the social custom of telling stories by word of mouth must long have been as highly developed and as prolific as it is today. Indeed, no period of history is innocent of it, and until comparatively very recent times most of the world’s history was itself composed of more or less standard oral narrative matter.

The original and still fundamental way of telling a story is by speaking, although story-telling and speech are not the same thing. Children ordinarily attain a fair proficiency in language during the first years of life, but the evidence of modern story-collecting indicates that even a minimal competence in oral narration is seldom achieved before adolescence. Furthermore, not all adults learn to narrate well enough to satisfy the traditional expectations of their peers, and I know of no culture where more than a small minority of the whole adult population are recognized as expert story-tellers by the rest of their society. Yet despite these limitations, spoken narrative is an ancient and exuberant institution among men everywhere.

Erwin Panofsky expressed a common opinion about the purpose of story-telling in his little parable of a dog:

A dog announces the approach of a stranger by a bark quite different from that by which he makes known his wish to go out. But he will not use this particular bark to convey the idea that a stranger has called during the absence of his master.1

Were Panofsky’s dog able to bark at a stranger in the past tense, it would indeed have mastered a first principle of narrative skill. The basic utility of narration is memorial; it enables men to share memories of things whether or not they may have ever personally experienced them. For that reason oral stories are usually told about memorable events, things somehow noteworthy or apart from routine occurrence. Even the most ordinary oral tales obey this principle, like the following Jewish (Hasidic) story from New York:

I heard a story about Z., the shohet. In that town there was someone called Avrom the lumber dealer because he sold trees. He had a sister-in-law who couldn’t remarry because she wasn’t sure her husband was dead. Whenever he went to the Rebbe to ask him what to do about it, the Rebbe used to tell him you have to look through the newspapers and things like that. They kept on going to the Rebbe, but nothing that they did and the Rebbe did helped. They didn’t find anything in the newspapers. Then the Rebbe said, “You have to go to a certain shohet. He could help you.”

So they went to a big shohet who was also a relative of that woman, and the shohet asked, “What could I do?” And they started to think. They showed him pictures of the man. Now this shohet used to go to a certain town to sell meat and buy salt. He said that in that town someone looks like the picture of the man. “Next time I’m in that town, since it’s a matter of life and death, I’ll investigate.”

The next time he went to that town he found that man and it was her husband. And he gave her a divorce so that she was able to get married again.2

This story is a good example of plain oral narrative. It tells of something abnormal—a flaw in the fabric of society—and of a procedure for mending it. One has no way of knowing certainly whether the events narrated ever actually happened, but they are entirely plausible in themselves. Like many plain narratives, this example is equipped with names and social titles, which are not so gratuitous as they might seem; how symbolically appropriate that a shohet (ritual butcher) is the agent who duly disjoints the members of the defunct marriage, finally severing the useless legal tie between the uncertainly dead husband and the abandoned wife.

The story also contains a quantity of reported speech, which is one of the commonest devices of oral narrative everywhere. Of course, one might doubt whether the rebbe (an unordained, Hasidic rabbi) in the real event did actually say: “You have to go to a certain shohet. He could help you.” More probably the rebbe gave a specific direction: “You have to go to Z., the shohet. He could help you.” And as for the shohet, were his exact words just those quoted in the story? “Next time I’m in that town, since it’s a matter of life and death, I’ll investigate.” Even the story-teller would probably admit that he does not know what the butcher said verbatim, while insisting that his story is nevertheless a correct account of the essential facts concerning the woman’s search for her truant husband. In other words, the story-teller has devised an imaginary conversation to express not the absolute reality of the past events he narrates, but only the essential reality as he conceives it. To this extent at least, almost every oral narrative contains an element of fiction, something conceptual that is either somewhat more or somewhat less than a perfect report of simple, unembroidered fact. Story-telling is seldom, if ever, only a direct encoding of past happenings, like the hypothetical bark of Panofsky’s dog to announce a visitor who has long since departed.

But if oral stories are not altogether factual, neither are they often wholly fictitious. The admixture of fiction can be considerable without doing any violence to fact; at times it is indistinguishable from fact. Even simple tales, like the story of the abandoned wife, the rebbe, and the butcher, contain some elements so typical of ordinary experience in the places where the tales are told that it is a hard and profitless task to determine whether they narrate facts about actual historical persons or just things that might abstractly happen in the lives of people like the characters in the narrative. Consider for example the story What a Little Thing Did” that Clement Doke recorded in the early years of the 20th century among the Awalamba, a Central African people who lived in present-day Zambia and The Congo:

And one daughter and a son were born. And a man, her cousin, married the girl; and on the morrow he went hunting. His first father-in-law died, and his mother-in-law remained. One day a certain man came and said, “I (want) to marry your mother-in-law, my son-in-law.” And that son-in-law of his said, “Marry, am I to deny my mother-in-law?” And sure enough he came and married his mother-in-law.

One day he said to his son-in-law, “Come, son-in-law, let us go into the bush, that we may cat some honey.” Ah, and the son-in-law went with him into the bush.3

Thus far, this too is a plain narrative, telling of entirely plausible persons and events. But it is highly selective in its depiction of those persons and events. Just as the Jewish tale of the abandoned wife identified its characters chiefly by reference to their social rôles as rebbe, ritual butcher, husband and wife—all categories of the real society where that story was recorded—so too the Lamba tale describes its cast of Awalamba4 by their respective places in Lamba society, not by individual attributes or unique acts that would identify particular historical persons. It is the qualities which a character represents (and which he may consequently also share with others) more than who he personally was (as distinct from anyone before or after him) that matter in oral narrative tradition.

The Lamba story begins by telling what might have happened to four particular Lamba people once upon a real historical time, or possibly to any past member of Lamba society who belonged to one of the six categories of sex and kin that are mentioned in the story. Thus, just as reported speech in oral narrative expresses an essential rather than an absolute reality, so too oral narrative characters are not absolutely real, total historical persons, not even in plain narrative with its ostensible quality of reportage. Not even plain oral narrative reports total reality, but only meaningful parts of it, or a presently significant reality.

The next events of the Lamba tale “What a Little Thing Did” carry its hearers into an entirely different dimension of story however, a dimension quite apart from plain oral narrative.

Then as they went along, the father-in-law said, “Son-in-law, here are bees!” When the son-in-law had gone, he found the bees in a grass-stalk; and the son-in-law thought, “What sort of a father-in-law is this, who calls me to bees in a grass-stalk?” And he cut the honey from the grass-stalk there. Then his father-in-law said, “Eat the honey that you have cut out.” The son-in-law refused, saying, “I have not yet eaten honey from a grass-stalk.” And his father-in-law ate alone.

Up to this moment, “What a Little Thing Did” has been a plain narrative about supposedly real—or at least typical—Lamba people and their lives in past time. But with the appearance of the bees in the grass, the story-teller has departed from mere memory of either actual or typical past happenings. Clement Doke observed in a footnote to the story that the grass-stalk is “an impossible place in which to find a nest of bees.” The note was intended to avert misunderstanding by city-bred readers in Europe and America who might know very little about the hiving habits of wild bees or think anything possible on a continent so full of marvelous plants and animals as Africa. When oral stories are translated and published for urban people to read in print they usually need many such explanations to make them intelligible to an audience for which they were never intended. But Mr. Doke’s note also serves as a reminder that the detail of bees in a grass-stalk was just as fabulous and as deviant from an Umulamba’s5 real experience as it is to us who are outside Lamba culture. While bees nesting in a stalk of grass may be permissible fiction in a Lamba story, they are not a plausible image of the real Lamba world; they are something no Umulamba had ever actually witnessed. The son-in-law of the story discloses an authentic Lamba attitude when he marvels rhetorically in a fictitious speech: “What sort of father-in-law is this, who calls me to bees in a grass-stalk?”6

A typical stand of grass on the Central African plateau (Zambia, 1969)

To be sure, there is nothing inherently unreal about the nest of bees in the Lamba story, nor about the stalk of grass, so long as they are kept separate from each other. For a Lamba man or woman, stalks of grass growing wild in the bush had some utility as thatching,

People dwelt in grass houses, not bees! (Zambia, 1969)

but such stalks were otherwise utterly mundane and endlessly plentiful. Nor was there anything unusual about hunting wild honey; that too was a regular part of Lamba life. The only thing that makes these two details implausible in the story of “What a Little Thing Did” is that the story-teller has put them together as though they were one, which is impossible. Separately, they could be details in plain narrative, but conflated, they constitute decidedly another kind of story: fable. Whereas plain narrative recounts genuine facts, or at least facts typical of reality, fable depicts those same facts together with others that are fused or disjointed in ways which exist only in imagination. Conflation (or sunderance) of real facts into fantastic combinations is fundamental in fable-making. It is the same principle that informs a pictorial artist’s representation of monsters or other imaginary creatures, as when he conjoins images of the wings and legs of a bird of prey and of a woman’s head to make a picture of a harpy, or a human torso and an animal head to form a devil. In the same sense, because they are a mixture of things which are never mixed in reality, the bees in a stalk of grass are monstrous in the Lamba story.

Once such fantasy has entered a story, its effects are not confined to the details which generate it by their fictitious combinations. The younger man in the Lamba tale is less concerned about the miraculous or magical bees in a grass-stalk than about his father-in-law, whom he holds responsible for their violation of plausible hiving habits. Impossible things can be made real (or vice-versa) only by unreal or preternatural means. The son-in-law’s question about his elder companion was rhetorical to the Awalamba who heard the tale; they automatically recognized the father-in-law as an unreal or preternatural person who could not be only what he seemed to be when the story began, just a typical Lamba father-in-law who once married a widow and liked to go hunting wild honey with an agreeable younger relative. Simply because they were Awalamba, the natives who heard the performance of “What a Little Thing Did” recorded by Clement Doke had inevitably heard many tales like it before. To them, the father-in-law was obviously a magician, or perhaps not a man at all but rather an ogre, devil, witch, or other monster in human guise, himself an implausible combination of separately plausible qualities.

Nor does the infection of implausibility stop with the father-in-law. Obedient to his elder’s command, the son-in-law performs the unreal task of cutting the impossible honey from its place in the grass and thereby himself becomes an implausible character. Thus the fabulosity generated in a single implausible juxtaposition of facts spreads by association to neighboring details in an oral story until it embraces the whole matrix of the narrative where it occurs and makes the whole narrative a fable.


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