Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.
Neil Gaiman, Coraline
Why tell stories? Why, throughout the history of humankind, have we carried these tales of fanciful characters and imagined places? Surely imaginary things have no place in today’s modern world?
I would very happily disagree with such a notion. Stories teach us lessons about the world around us, about each other and, perhaps most importantly, about ourselves. They spark the flame of hope when darkness seems inevitable and give meaning to the strange and unexplainable. They are the collected and curated voices of humanity that transport you to a different time, to understand how people lived, thought, and believed.
Stories (including ones you create yourself) have a purpose, and many of them fall within one or more of these general categories:
1. Stories that Teach a Lesson:
The world can be full of challenges and important lessons…but how do we remember them all? Some of you may remember struggling in a classroom to engrave the seemingly endless lists of dates, formulas, and facts into your young mind. If you were anything like me, you would have much preferred to be elsewhere, playing or exploring. One of the best ways to ensure that we (especially the youngest of us) remember a lesson, is to frame it as a story.
Fables teach us about values and morals, often with talking animals. Popular examples include Aesop’s “The Tortoise and The Hare”, “The Ant and The Grasshopper”, and “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”– all of which present specific values and morals that can help us navigate our journey through life.
Allegories are stories in which the moral or value is metaphorically personified as one of the characters and/or their experiences. This is similar to a Fable, but where Fables convey a lesson through a more straightforward explanation, Allegories rely on metaphor to convey an idea. Many Allegories have a religious, spiritual, or philosophical nature. One of the most well-known examples is Plato’s “The Cave”, which is representative of the escape from bias and the discovery of greater knowledge that calls into question a previously accepted sense of understanding. More modern examples could include C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” and Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games”.
Cautionary Tales tell of us dangers or repercussions for certain behaviors. This kind of story may be found in the style of a fable or allegory, but presents a warning against certain actions. Though some of these reinforce social norms that have long outstayed their welcome, others still resonate with readers today. For example, if you wish to warn children of the dangers of talking to strangers, look to “Little Red Riding Hood”. Additionally, there are numerous stories around the world about the sea, lake, and river monsters specifically designed to warn children from playing near the water by themselves.
2. Stories that Provide an Explanation:
Before scientific research told us that volcanoes are formed by ruptures in the earth’s crust, or that stars are distant balls of burning gas, (yes, I know it’s a bit more complex than that), stories wove tales of dragons and heroes that were immortalized in the night sky.
Nature Myths explain natural phenomenon. Norse myths tell tales of the Valkyries’ shining armor lighting up the night sky as they escorted fallen warriors to Valhalla, creating what we know today as the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights. Japanese myths say that any time you see a sun shower or “ghost lights”, a kitsune (fox spirit) is celebrating or having a wedding ceremony.
Origin Stories or Creation Myths explain how something was formed. These sometimes overlap with Nature Myths and explain how different things or places came into existence. One of the most common of these are the numerous stories of how the Universe (as we perceive it) was created. These are found in every culture around the world and often depict the different ancient deities of the Earth, Sun, Moon, and Sky. You may also come across different origin stories for historically significant cities and landmarks, such as Remus and Romulus and the founding of Rome.
3. Stories that Inspire:
Last, but certainly not least, there are stories that inspire those who hear them. They could stir within someone’s heart the vigor to fight for the downtrodden, love and kindness for others, or hope when all seems lost. These stories are sometimes created during difficult times, or when there is a need to rally people to a cause.
Heroes inspire important traits and virtues, such as King Arthur and his chivalrous Knights of the Round Table, the dragon-slaying princess Thakane, and the clever but mischevious Raven and Coyote from Native American folklore. Whether the hero is the questing, adventuresome sort, the kindhearted champion of the village, or the kind that outsmarts the villain without needing to lift a finger in violence…heroes are important to people of all cultures and can inspire listeners young and old, big and small, to greatness.
Battles between “Good and Evil” unite people beneath a cause. The battle could be led by a heroic champion, or it could represent a more historic legend of revolutions against an evil monarch. There is something to be said for finding strength in numbers and fighting for a common goal or against a common enemy. These stories may amplify the sense of “us versus them”, which can sometimes create the double-edged sword of deepening rifts between cultures but will also instill a sense of solidarity and belonging.
These examples are by no means all-inclusive and there are countless tales out there that may fit into one, all, or none of the themes I’ve covered above. This is meant simply to provide an overview of stories as I understand them and to inspire you as you collect and create tales of your own. If you have more examples that you would like to share, please send them in as a recommendation! Perhaps you can help me create “Scriv’s Library”, where we can share and discuss our favourite tales!