Orality Newsletter #8 - Accuracy, fidelity, stability?

by Janet Stahl

What are we measuring when we talk about the accuracy of an oral story, especially a translated story? What are the core essentials of a story that must remain stable from one performance to the next? And who decides on these standards? How do we maintain fidelity to the original text when we translate the story to another medium? Are there any universals that we can count on to help us answer these crucial questions? Do people who are primarily oral communicators have better trained memories? How do we deal with comments such as “A story is never told the same twice”? Since meaning is also conveyed in posture, gestures, facial expressions and intonation, how much interpretation leeway is to be given to the performer? These are some of the questions we hear when the topic of storytelling comes up. This is such an important topic and so complex, I decided it is best confronted through anecdotes. How is that for a twist?

The Ancient Practice of Cantellation of the Torah
The cantor’s job during a Jewish Sabbath service is to chant the portion of the Scripture for the day. Word-for-word accuracy is an important aspect of the Jewish tradition for cantellation of the Scriptures. The education of a Jewish boy includes learning to chant the Torah or at least the portion of the Torah that he will perform at his Bar Mitzvah. This ancient tradition stems from a time when it was costly and painstaking for the sacred words to be copied and literacy meant committing the Scriptures to memory as much as decoding symbols written on parchment or papyrus. In this tradition, we see that rhythm can be a memory aid. Prose is much more difficult to recall and retell than poetry and lyrics to which rhythm and music are added. However this oral tradition is based on a written text that has been carefully preserved for millennia. Many would agree that this cantellation of the Scriptures is not storytelling and is reading a text out loud. It does not attempt to convey meaning through non-verbal gestures, intonation and facial expressions.

An Eastern Cherokee Storyteller
The designated Eastern Cherokee historian tells of his grandmother’s practice of using the help of young children to rehearse the sacred stories, which at that time were not to be written down. Any child who could point out a mistaken word or an omission received a freshly-baked cookie. The rehearsal continued until the cookies ran out. The keen, linear aural memory of the children and their tolerance

Orality newsletter #8
By Janet Stahl for exact repetition helped the old woman maintain the word-for-word accuracy in her performances of the stories including words that were archaic and which the children did not understand. (Stalling, 2008) It would seem that maintaining word-for-word accuracy of the sacred oral stories was important to the Eastern Cherokee at the time of this historian’s grandmother. More importantly, from this anecdote we see support for Walter Anderson’s Law of Self-Correction that most stories that are considered important and survive for generations are told repeatedly so a teller will have heard it many times and not just once before trying to perform the story. And most audiences of sacred stories will correct a careless teller to bring the story back to the traditional rendering (Thompson p. 437). Herbert Klem reports of a similar practice in Nigeria, where expert storytellers participate in storytelling sessions by making corrections to the stories being told by the less-experienced tellers. According to Klem stories in which ancestral lines and origin are recited, are sacred and may not be altered; however word-for-word accuracy is not important for all other stories. (Klem, 1982)


Epic Tellers in the Slavic Tradition
The Slavs are the last Eastern European society to maintain the epic telling tradition in which expert storytellers can go on for hours relating their famous stories in verse. (Lord, 1960) As these storytellers and their performances were studied, Lord and other discovered that no two tellings were the same. In oral traditions, creativity is in the imagery, in the form, in the embellishments and illustrations while the expected creativity in written stories is in the plots and characters.

Nigerian Storytellers
In Nigeria and other parts of Africa, storytelling is a highly developed art form. The skill of the storyteller is measured by his creative use of the language and his ability to invent idioms and other verbal arts. The same plot with the same characters is used over and over again but the audience is focused on the verve and drama of the story rather than the teller’s accurate memory or the content and the plot. (Klem, 1982)

The Art of Storytelling
Recently a professional storyteller shared with me that she tries to avoid being introduced to an audience for fear that it will interfere with the rapport she needs to develop with the audience during the first few minutes of her performance. She said that if the rapport is not established well, the performance will fall flat and no amount of expertise will overcome the problem. She evaluates her performances according to the rapport she develops and maintains with her audience throughout the performance. Expert storytellers maintain that each performance of a story is a fresh literary creation and is influenced by the audience and the situation. Skilled storytellers will take into consideration the formality of the setting, the theme of the accompanying festivities, ages and status of the audience. They continually monitor and adjust their performance to the response and interest of the audience.

Orality newsletter #8
By Janet Stahl They inject varying degrees of emotions, pathos, drama, humor and subtlety through their non-verbals depending on the audience and situation and purpose for telling the particular story. These dynamics hold true in the States, Canada, Europe and Africa and might reasonably be considered universals. I suppose skilled authors of written texts will also take into consideration the background and interest for their intended audience; however their only option for making adjustments for audience responses is revising and reprinting or reposting electronically after a long delay.


Helen of Troy
Most scholars now agree that the Iliad and the Odyssey have a long history of being performed orally before they were ever written down. Some argue that they developed over decades and maybe even centuries. The main plot of the Iliad involves Paris, a prince of Troy taking Helen, the wife of Menelaus, King of Sparta, back to his home in what is Turkey today. In some surviving written versions, Helen is abducted by Paris and in others she is seduced and then goes willingly. In some versions, Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of sexual passion and desire, gives Paris permission to take Helen as a bribe for judging her the most beautiful of the three goddesses; Hera, Athena and Aphrodite. Helen’s willingness to go with Paris or her abduction was not a core element in the story that carried the significance of the story. The core element is that Paris violated the host/visitor relationship by taking his host’s wife. Menelaus and his brother King Agamemnon were obliged to fight the Trojans and retake Helen not for Helen’s sake so much as to right a wrong done to them. They had to restore the honor of their name by fighting Paris and the Trojans. These two poems are considered the greatest epics of the Ancient Greeks and yet we have no record of the original. They are ‘liminal’ epics marking the transition from the time of the heroic age when gods and heroes interacted and the time when heroes interacted with other heroes. It seems apparent that the epics had included fabulous events in which gods interacted with heroes but at some point in history, the writers began rationalizing the stories to remove the fabulous features (VanDiver, 2000). In the recent Hollywood version of the story called “Troy”, the fabulous beauty contest between the three goddesses was not included. None-the-less the element relating to host/visitor relationships and the fight for honor and respect has been maintained.

Herodotus – The Father of History
Herodotus, who lived in the 5th century B.C.E., is accredited with carrying out inquiry in an attempt to list and describe important events and to also explain the causes, which begins the literary tradition of recording history. He presented two reasons for his research and writing: “so that noteworthy events will not be forgotten and so that human achievements will not lose their glory.” (VanDiver, 2002). Herodotus must establish his own criteria for accuracy. He tried to verify his information by either talking to an eyewitness or to those who had spoken to eyewitnesses, meaning he considered his information verifiable back to ~200 years or about three generations. This rule for defining the accuracy of information in oral traditions is referred to as the “threegeneration reachback”. Beyond this timeframe, the accuracy of the orally-transmitted information is

Orality newsletter #8
By Janet Stahl questionable. At the same time, any written stories beyond the three generation reachback can be assumed to allude to knowledge that the original audience knew but is lost to the contemporary audience (VanDiver, 2002).


The story of Cinderella has endured for millennia and seems to have made its way around the world. Strabo recorded an Egyptian version in the first century B.C.E. in which the sandel of a Greek slave girl is snatched by an eagle and dropped in the lap of the king, who is so struck by the event that he sends his men to discover whose sandal it is. When the slave girl is discovered, she is taken to the king who makes her his wife. In a ninth century Chinese version, a warlord searches for the girl whose foot would fit into a slipper so small “that it was an inch too small to fit the one among them with the smallest feet.” (Murphy, 2000). Three ancient European traditions of the story have survived, all involving a young girl treated poorly by her stepmother and stepsisters, the young girl be clothed and sent to the ball by magic and the prince searching for his future wife using the slipper that will fit only on the young girl’s foot. One of the original versions was written by the Grimm brothers who were Christian scholars. Their practice in translating and copying literature was to pay close attention to maintaining accuracy to the original meaning. However, they felt obligated to alter any stories of faith or spiritual matters so that the story would “touch the heart” of the readers or listeners and “awaken their spirits and move them to trust [in God]” (Murphy 2000, p7). They altered the Cinderella story to highlight the communion of the saints and the bonds of faithful love. They added parting words of wisdom from the dying mother to Cinderella to always remain good and devout. They used the dove as the symbol of the Holy Spirit who enables the unity of love in the story. Cinderella is blessed being poor in the spirit. The father, who neglects his daughter and forgets the memory of his first wife, is punished by disappearing in the story (Murphy 2000, chapter 6). While the Grimms’ stated purpose for restoring the ancient stories was to give them religious life and to awaken the hearts and thoughts of their audience, Roger and Hammerstein and Disney would have had purposes relating to entertainment when they remade the Cinderella story into movies. Rogers and Hammerstein tended to downplay the resolution of Cinderella’s problems simply through marrying, a common motif in European tales. They focused on a rags-to-riches theme that would have been popular in America in the 1960s (Swanson 2004). The more recent versions of Cinderella to come out of Hollywood, “Everafter” and “Ella Enchanted” to name two, seem to celebrate the empowered heroine. The storyteller’s purpose for telling a story can have a huge impact on the interpretation that he or she presents.

Middle Eastern Informal Controlled Oral Tradition
Dr. Kenneth Bailey, a theologian with extensive experience living and teaching in the Middle East, designed a model for describing the oral traditions in the Middle East today. He contrasts the various situations in which stories are told and retold as formal-informal and controlled and uncontrolled. The

Orality newsletter #8
By Janet Stahl formal- informal dichotomy relates to the teller-audience relationship. Formal situations are ones in which the teller is a recognized teacher and the members of the audience are recognized as students. The controlled – uncontrolled dichotomy refers to the structure of the storytelling situation. A structure setting such as a school or a conference he considers as a controlled situation. In a typical Middle Eastern village, community wisdom is preserved in informal controlled storytelling situations. Men gather in a circle and take turns reciting the stories. Anyone in the community can attend and can take part in telling a story. However there are some definite restrictions. Only those who grew up hearing the stories have the right to recite them in a public gathering. A new commoner is welcome to attend and ask questions about the story. The person of the highest social and intellectual rank is called on to answer the questions. There are five types of materials preserved in the informal controlled oral tradition. Telling proverbs, poetry and parables are a popular way of preserving the community wisdom and for the last two, also for entertaining. Story riddles in which a hero faces a problem and gives a wise answer are also shared in these situations. The fifth type of story includes accounts of important figures in the history of the community. Most proverbs and poetry is recited word-for-word and if anyone’s memory fails them, the group assists him from their collective memory. Parables and recollections of historical people and events are retold with some variation, however with definite boundaries. Names and punch-lines cannot be changed. The basic scenes have to be told but the order can vary. Dialogue and emotion can be changed depending on the teller’s style and interests. When the story is irrelevant to the identity of the community and is not considered to be wise or valuable, the retellings can vary without restriction.


What can we conclude?
The oral traditions of many communities reflect an appreciation for the art of storytelling and the relationship between the teller and the audience as much as for the story itself. Oral traditions vary greatly from place to place and can have a bearing on what features of the stories remain stable with each retelling and from one teller to the next. If the storytellers are encouraged to use the appropriate richness of the language and enfold the story in appropriate drama, the stories are likely to have significant impact on the audience. It would be beneficial to study local oral traditions and identify methods for introducing new stories to be owned and approved by a community who can provide controlled opportunities for sharing the stories. It will be important to develop precedents for practicing and improving the storytellers’ performances so that the collective memory of the community will help maintain the stability of the story over time.

Orality newsletter #8
By Janet Stahl

Bailey, Kenneth. “Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels”, Asia Journal of Theology 5 (1991) pp.34-54 Klem, Herbert Dr. Oral Communication of the Scripture; Insights from African Oral Art, William Carey Library, Pasadena, CA. 1982 Lord, Albert B. The Singer of Tales. Harvard University Press, Harvard. 1960. Murphy, G. Ronald. The Owl, The Raven and The Dove: The Religious Meaning of the Grimms’ Magic Fairy Tales, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000 Stalling, Fran. storytell-owner@ lists.twu.edu, 2008 Swanson, Richard W., Provoking the Gospels: Methods to Embody Biblical Storytelling Through Drama. The Pilgrim Press. Cleveland. 2004. Thompson, Stith, The Folktale, University of California Press, Berkley CA, 1946 VanDiver, Elizabeth Dr. Classical Mythology Lectures, The Teaching Company Limited Partnership, Chantilly, Va. 2000 VanDiver, Elizabeth Dr. Herodotus: Father of History Lectures, The Teaching Company Limited Partnership, Chantilly, Va. 2002


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