What is it about stories?

I recently came across this quote in an interview with fantasy author Garth Nix – speaking about the importance of a moral message in children’s books:

“I subscribe to the belief that if you want to send a message, use Western Union.”

This reminded me of the famous Tolkien quote, from his introduction to The Lord of the Rings:

” I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence.”

And yet when stories deal with the issues we have to face in our lives, we feel the rightness of it. Of course, neither of these authors are suggesting that stories should be morally neutral or avoid commenting on ethical issues. In another interview Garth Nix says:

“Fantasy is an exploration of philosophy and reality, and those are things that interest me.”

And Tolkien goes on to explain the difference between allegory; “the purposeful domination of the author” and what he calls “applicability” which is the readers freedom to connect the story to their own experience.

So why are stories so fascinating? Why are we so obsessed with stories? It is probably one of the few truly universal human traits. Novels, soap operas, fairy tales, movies, celebrity gossip magazines, hard news, comics – stories are addictive. And of course the next question is – what is the purpose of a story?

My pet theory is that stories are a way of infecting ourselves with the experience of others. I’m not sure if you have noticed how difficult it is to imagine anything you have not seen or lived through yourself. I discovered this when I was little and visiting the home of another child. I could not visualize their home at all until I had been there. I tended to populate it with things from my own home, or the homes of others I had seen. I was intrigued by this difficulty.

Now I believe that we are unable to learn new things unless we experience them ourselves. We gather these experiences into ourselves, and they become part of our library of reality. When imagining something new, we draw upon past experience, cobbling together our memories. But stories give us a way to learn about things without directly experiencing them. When someone tells you a story, you connect to their inner library and gain access to their memories. You add these memories to yours without having to see, hear, feel, or be there yourself. I believe that our need for stories is a fundamental survival drive like hunger.

Which brings me to my second question – “Why are stories important”?
Which is one of those questions which should not really be asked. “Why are children important”? The answer is often: “They are the future” which to me seems to imply that children are only important because they may eventually turn into adults. Surely children are important in themselves?

Is there not a level on which a story, or any work of art, should not have to justify its existence in terms of social comment? Or to put that another way – are stories that do not have a clear reference to social or political issues – escapist? Or even – what’s wrong with escapism?

To quote Michal Ende

“If people forget that they have an inner world, then they forget their own values. The inner world must be added to the exterior world, it must be created and discovered. And if we do not, now and then, make a journey through our inner life to discover these values, they will be lost.”

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. trish
    May 31, 2008 @ 18:11:39

    Interesting post. I think we like stories for the same reason we like gossip or peeking in people’s windows; we like to have a glance at what other people’s lives are like. I also think stories can be a way of relating to people, of saying, Hey! I do that too! or, I know someone who’s just like that! Stories can be inspiring, hopeful, or heart-wrenching. Ultimately, though, they touch us emotionally.

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