|Not long ago, I chanced to open a magazine
at a story of Italian life which dealt with a curious popular
custom. It told of the love of the people for the performances of a
strangely clad, periodically appearing old man who was a
professional story-teller. This old man repeated whole cycles of
myth and serials of popular history, holding his audience-chamber in
whatever corner of the open court or square he happened upon, and
always surrounded by an eager crowd of listeners. So great was the
respect in which the story-teller was held, that any interruption
was likely to be resented with violence.
As I read of the absorbed silence and the changing expressions of the crowd about the old man, I was suddenly reminded of a company of people I had recently seen. They were gathered in one of the parlours of a women's college, and their serious young faces had, habitually, none of the childlike responsiveness of the Italian populace; they were suggestive, rather, of a daily experience which precluded over-much surprise or curiosity about anything. In the midst of the group stood a frail-looking woman with bright eyes. She was telling a story, a children's story, about a good and a bad little mouse.
She had been asked to do that thing, for a purpose, and she did it, therefore. But it was easy to see from the expressions of the listeners how trivial a thing it seemed to them.
|That was at first. But presently the
room grew quieter; and yet quieter. The faces relaxed into
amused smiles, sobered in unconscious sympathy, finally broke in
ripples of mirth. The story-teller had come to her own.
The memory of the college girls listening to the mouse-story brought other memories with it. Many a swift composite view of faces passed before my mental vision, faces with the child's look on them, yet not the faces of children. And of the occasions to which the faces belonged, those were most vivid which were earliest in my experience. For it was those early experiences which first made me realise the modern possibilities of the old, old art of telling stories.
It had become a part of my work, some years ago, to give English lectures on German literature. Many of the members of my class were unable to read in the original the works with which I dealt, and as these were modern works it was rarely possible to obtain translations. For this reason, I gradually formed the habit of telling the story of the drama or novel in question before passing to a detailed consideration of it. I enjoyed this part of the lesson exceedingly, but it was some time before I realised how much the larger part of the lesson it had become to the class.
They used--and they were mature women--to wait for the story as if it were a sugarplum and they, children; and to grieve openly if it were omitted. Substitution of reading from a translation was greeted with precisely the same abatement of eagerness that a child shows when he has asked you to tell a story, and you offer, instead, to "read one from the pretty book." And so general and constant were the tokens of enjoyment that there could ultimately be no doubt of the power which the mere story-telling exerted.
|The attitude of the grown-up
listeners did but illustrate the general difference between
the effect of telling a story and of reading one. Everyone
who knows children well has felt the difference. With few
exceptions, children listen twice as eagerly to a story told
as to one read, and even a "recitation" or a so-called
"reading" has not the charm for them that the person wields
who can "tell a story." And there are sound reasons for
The great difference, including lesser ones, between telling and reading is that the teller is free; the reader is bound. The book in hand, or the wording of it in mind, binds the reader. The story-teller is bound by nothing; he stands or sits, free to watch his audience, free to follow or lead every changing mood, free to use body, eyes, voice, as aids in expression. Even his mind is unbound, because he lets the story come in the words of the moment, being so full of what he has to say. For this reason, a story told is more spontaneous than one read, however well read. And, consequently, the connection with the audience is closer, more electric, than is possible when the book or its wording intervenes.
Beyond this advantage, is the added charm of the personal element in story-telling. When you make a story your own and tell it, the listener gets the story, _plus your appreciation of it_. It comes to him filtered through your own enjoyment.
That is what makes the funny story thrice funnier on the lips of a jolly raconteur than in the pages of a memoir. It is the filter of personality. Everybody has something of the curiosity of the primitive man concerning his neighbour; what another has in his own person felt and done has an especial hold on each one of us. The most cultured of audiences will listen to the personal reminiscences of an explorer with a different tingle of interest from that which it feels for a scientific lecture on the results of the exploration.
The longing for the personal in experience is a very human longing. And this instinct or longing is especially strong in children. It finds expression in their delight in tales of what father or mother did when they were little, of what happened to grandmother when she went on a journey, and so on, but it also extends to stories which are not in themselves personal: which take their personal savour merely from the fact that they flow from the lips in spontaneous, homely phrases, with an appreciative gusto which suggests participation.
The greater ease in holding the attention of children is, for teachers, a sufficient practical reason for telling stories rather than reading them. It is incomparably easier to make the necessary exertion of "magnetism," or whatever it may be called, when nothing else distracts the attention.
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