I can still picture him in the school hall, with a cluster of eight year olds sitting on the floor around his chair, listening eagerly to every word. He wore old fashioned clothes, almost Celtic in style. That might sound strange, but when you grow up in Wales it somehow feels less contrived to hold on to your heritage. He had an array of ancient musical instruments and would bring different ones on each visit: there was a metal bowl that reverberated and a gnarled hunting horn.
It was the little details that drew you in: how he conjured up the scene before you by mentioning something as simple as the click of an old woman’s knees as she stood up.
There aren’t many people like him anymore, who go from place to place and tell stories, but long ago that was how most tales were passed on. The tradition of speaking stories aloud is a long-established one, which makes sense given that literacy in Britain was very much limited to scholars, clergy and the wealthy educated until as late as the nineteenth century.
The way that a story is going to be told affects the way it is composed. Homer’s epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey are held to have started life as part of the oral tradition before later being written down. The need to memorise long passages was helped along by poetic meter, giving the lines a familiar rhythm and pace. Songs also make stories easier to remember, and there are many examples of folk songs and ballads that tell a story in rhyme.
Today, literacy among adults is at 86.3% worldwide. We can individually and independently take in huge quantities of information, choose stories that interest us, and know that anything we forget is still safely written down and stored for future reference. That’s an amazing thing.
But are we missing out, as the storytelling tradition wanes in many societies? We may be forgetting the art of remembering, by no longer needing to memorise poems or sagas, losing the richness of spoken word and the shared experience of sitting together, wide-eyed, wondering what is going to happen next.
If there’s a way of keeping this tradition alive, I think we need to grasp it, before it dies out altogether.