Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Un-trivial Story

Tēnā koutou katoa – Greetings to you all
Māui and his brothersDesign from the Māori fable of Māui and his brothers taming the sun
The Marae, Te Papa Museum of New Zealand

    Novelists and playwrights are done without it.
    The success of the film industry depends on it.
    Folklore is embedded in its construction.
    It is the basis for substantive contributions to world poetry.

    The Old Testament is so graced with it there is not a page
    in that book where it is absent.

    Its might is well known and celebrated by educators,
    instructors and coaches of all disciplines and in all cultures.

    It is the fascination of children, the bread and butter of
    storytellers, the potion used by keynote speakers
    and even the magic pill of bloggers.

Yet in an age when change is the watchword, the modest story remains steadfast and unvarying in its ability to capture the attention of people of all ages and in all walks of life. The conundrum is that it should be so commonplace and yet so potent.

How can this simple device still be so assiduously engaging?


At a recent meeting I attended, the guest speaker
made an inelegant approach to the topic, was inept at choosing words appropriately and had a tendency to ramble. What saved the too long speech and made it memorable was a story told near the close of its delivery. I watched, fascinated as people moved from angles of repose to more attentive postures.

Designers of adverts use its arousing magic in a similar way to the speech-maker. Executed well in the manipulative exploit of advertising, it can result in awards being won, and not just for sales statistics.


No other teaching device can bring context so uncontrivedly and adroitly to a teaching moment as the story. Whether written, narrated or depicted in scenes in a video, it has the knack of introducing a packet of learning incognito.

Through the conduit of the story, the whole of Māori folklore has been passed down to us by word of mouth, as were the traditional beliefs expressed in stories and songs of many other cultures.


There is an innate tendency in everyone to follow the passage of a story. The successes of the publishing and film industries are testimony to that, individually and jointly. What senses-able child in western society today does not know of Harry Potter?

For as much as adventure-games appear to captivate and engage participants with the matrix of the game, it is the unfolding escapade that captures the interest of players. They create and experience their own stories within the contexts of their games.

At the start of this century, my wife, Linda, learnt of the Sid Meier’s computer adventure-game Civilization III. Despite my total disinterest in adventure games at the time, she enticed me to partner her while she played out her first game. We chose to be joint advisors in building a British civilization ruled by Queen Elizabeth.

Being new to the rules and capabilities of CIV III, we had to learn a lot to help our growing civilization to survive. And did we learn a lot!

After a long struggle, successfully avoiding conflict after conflict, we won a cultural victory, according to the rules of CIV III, in building a virtual civilization on a resource-rich land-locked virtual continent. For as much as we have played the game since then, perhaps hundreds of times, we can still remember the thrill of our first CIV III adventure.


My daughter, Catriona, is as familiar with ice-cream as she is with the Eye of Sauron in the
Lord of the Rings movie trilogy directed by Peter Jackson.

She was just 12 years old when she first took an avid interest in all that The Rings had to offer. Catriona saw the films and then read the trilogy by J R R Tolkien a year or so later. When I discussed the nature of the Eye of Sauron with her, I was astonished at what she knew.

“It’s not the same in the films as in the books”, she told me. She explained that the film depicted the Eye of Sauron held in a tower, but in the book it was like the eye of a spirit that was seemingly ubiquitous.

Catriona read Tolkien only after having seen the films many times over. Yet the image of the Eye of Sauron as depicted in the film did not interfere with her ability to imagine quite a different concept of it as read from the book.

This experience showed me how able Catriona was at discerning a screen depiction from its counterpart in the original novel. But it was also proof of the power of the written story to excite the imagination, even in the wake of a different mental image laid down by a series of scenes in a movie.


I first learnt of Winnie-the-Pooh when I was eight years old, but not from a story read directly from one of A A Milne’s novels. My friend next door had a well-read older sister who delighted in telling stories to her younger brothers and anyone else who cared to listen.

In her own words she told the story that was later to become a favourite of mine and that I read to my children many times, “In Which We Are Introduced to Winnie-the-Pooh and Some Bees and the Stories Begin”.

Never underestimate the power of the story. Its unique ability to capture the imagination can make an everyday event memorable, add interest to an otherwise mundane activity, bring relevance to a teaching moment and wake up an indifferent audience.

Ka kite anō – Catch ya later


V Yonkers said...

A colleague of mine gave me great advice a couple of years ago when I was feeling frustrated about my students' evaluations and the work they did.

She said you get their attention with a story. Once you have their attention, you can get them to learn. It was good advice, I think.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Virginia!

It is good advice. Also good advice is to incorporate the lesson in the story. That way you can save time.

Catchya later