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History of Storytelling - Part 1

Traditional Tales - Part 2

Story for Schizophrenia - Part 3

Changing Meaning - Part 4

The Storyteller's Art - Part 5

Enchanting Bird 1 - Part 6

Enchanting Bird 2 - Part 7

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A Story for Schizophrenia

Well, I went for something you might think of as obvious, a version of the ‘genie in the bottle’ story from the Arabian Nights. If you remember, the fisherman has found a bottle and opened it, but the genie inside turns out to be not the wish-giving kind at all, more your murderous bastard in fact.

He allows the fisherman only the chance to ask one question after which he’ll kill him. The fisherman elects to know how such an enormous spirit could possibly have fitted inside the bottle and, when this very powerful but fortunately stupid genie demonstrates by shrinking and hopping back inside, he corks it up again. He then has the option of throwing the bottle back into the sea, keeping it by him corked up or letting the genie (who now promises wishes and all sorts) out again.

In folklore (as also in different ‘arrangements’ of the Arabian Nights) there are all sorts of versions of what happens next and all sorts of treatments of the same fundamental plot motif of the ‘trapped being of power’. It might be worth mentioning (since these things sometimes get in the way) that, in different tellings from different cultures, the fisherman figure changes gender and class, time and place whilst the genie becomes devil, demon, ghost and all sorts of other things.

But I suppose, however it is dressed and wherever or whenever it is told, there’s an essential element that communicates, makes metaphorical sense, perhaps particularly to someone going through what my untimely visitor was going through.

Anyway, listening to the tale calmed him down at least, part of the power of storytelling. Afterwards he swore that it had made a huge amount of immediate and practical sense too, maybe partly because, on that occasion, I left the ending open in the manner of what is called a dilemma story and we talked about the fisherman’s options.

There are two themes I’d like to draw out of this instance. The first is around the story itself and tales like it. As I’ve already suggested, it’s one of many so-called ‘universal’ tales - it crops up in many different cultures in different disguises. It’s a short example; longer tales are often made up of various shorter plots and motifs as it were stitched together in different ways.

Many of the fairy tales we grew up with are examples. For instance, hundreds of variants of the Cinderella story have been recorded around the world. In 1893, Marian Roalfe Cox abstracted 345 (mostly European) variants in a study for the Folklore Society hailed as the first ‘scientific’ investigation of a tale and its variants, and her list has been much augmented in the century since with studies of Cinderella in other cultures.

The trouble with folklore study though, at least in its more old fashioned orthodoxies (modern folklore study is different) , is that it’s a bit like Victorian butterfly collecting. Specimens caught, preserved and ‘pin-stuck under glass’ as it were. A marvellous colourful display but you can’t always guess that the ‘items’ were once alive, much less imagine how they were alive.

Next, Changing Meaning

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Roger Elliott
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