For National Storytelling Week, Writer Katherine Wiseman explores why storytelling is still essential today.
My mum is a huge Tom Jones fan – always has been, always will be. She thinks he’s a musical genius. She used to have a poster of him pinned to the inside of her wardrobe door. She had to take it down in the end. It was getting suspiciously frayed around Tom’s lip area.
We grew up on Tom’s hits. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve performed heart-rending interpretations of Delilah that reduced my audience to tears. Another of Tom’s classics that left an indelible imprint on my mind was called The Young New Mexican Puppeteer. It told the story of a young man who used puppets to highlight injustice and bring about social change. I know I’m not making it sound like a whole lot of fun, and maybe it isn’t quite in the top bracket of Tom’s many hits, but bear with me here.
The tale of that socially aware puppeteer was carrying on a tradition of inspirational storytelling that goes way back into unrecorded time. And storytelling has always been used to reflect and question and to guide. Ancient Egyptians painted their tombs and temples with pictures of their gods and rulers passing judgement and smiting their enemies, just in case you were tempted to step out of line. (By the way, smite is a word that deserves wider usage, don’t you think? I’m going to try and use it every day.) The Bible is crammed with parables and in medieval times, when your average peasant couldn’t write his own name let alone read the Bible (in Latin), church walls were painted with flamboyant scenes of heaven and lurid (and that’s putting it nicely) ones of Hell.
As the ability to read became the norm rather than a luxury, at least in the privileged west, the printed word has taken over from visual story telling. And stories can’t help but provide a mirror to society. It’s inevitable. What you see and experience around you informs what comes out of your pen or, more probably these days, out of your keyboard.
Because we human beings are clever and complicated, we are able to draw comparisons even when books depict worlds very different to our own. Take Lord of the Rings. Much as I love being swept away into Middle Earth, I consider myself pretty fortunate that I don’t inhabit that world of slavering orcs (and I bet they smelled really bad) and malevolent, all seeing eyes. But Tolkein’s epic still holds a mirror to society. People suffer. They see evil and they strive to overcome it at great personal cost.
At the other end of the scale when it comes to epic writing, I write stories about Blaggard’s School for Tomorrows Tyrants, the world’s best educational establishment for trainee criminals. Just like Tolkien, I don’t actually live in the world I write about. I live a life of unrelenting honesty. Cross my heart. But Blaggard’s is a reflection of today’s ultra-material world.
“One must always be careful of books and what is inside them for words have the power to change us.”
My protagonists are secret Dependables (non criminals) who have to find a way to fit into Blaggard’s, or be sent somewhere much, much worse. Milly and Charlie just aren’t prepared to follow the criminal herd and abandon their principles for a quiet a life. So what I’m really writing about, when you strip away the anarchy and weird gadgets and cackling villains, is staying true to yourself and overcoming setbacks. Just like in Middle Earth, good overcomes evil, somehow.
What I’m saying is that story telling will never cease to be relevant. Or even diminish in relevance. Through stories we inspire and teach and bring about change. Cassandra Clare, who writers the Mortal Instruments series summed it up: one must always be careful of books and what is inside them for words have the power to change us. And the amazing thing is – they do it in a way that is enjoyable.
I’m going to finish by whizzing back to Tom Jones and that adolescent puppeteer. A song telling a story about someone who tells a story and changes people’s lives. That’s pretty epic. Genius, in fact. Tom Jones, my mum’s been right all the time – you’re a genius.
Katherine is a successful children’s book author and her series featuring Blaggard’s School for Tomorrow’s Tyrants, the world’s best school for trainee criminals, has been widely loved. For all her her latest news visit https://katewiseman.uk/about/