12 April, 2007

Telling The Human Story

Do you ever wonder about how we tell the human story? I was reading Peter Ackroyd's The Fall of Troy over Easter – a novel about the discovery of the ruins of Troy – and it took me back, inevitably, to the story told by Homer in the Iliad and the Odyssey of the great heroes and their gods. And this, in turn, reminded me of the many Celtic folk tales I've read and which were once part of my own oral tradition of storytelling.

In my mind, a river of stories runs down the ages from there: the Aeneid, the legends of Arthur, Beowulf, Héloise and Abélard, the Canterbury Tales, and on through the Renaissance to modern times, the river growing broader and faster with each passing generation. The source of the river was probably a lakeside camp-fire in Olduvai Gorge with a small cluster of half-human families settling down for the night, confabulating tales of spirits and magic. And here we are, in an age when every man, woman and child with Internet access is able to tell their story to the whole wide world.

Not so long ago, our stories were learned by heart during long apprenticeships and told to audiences hungry for information and revelation. More recently, when writing was new, books were precious things, carefully crafted and lovingly read and re-read. Now books are churned out by the millions, can expect a few weeks on the bookshop shelves if their author is very lucky, and then become old and forgotten as the next month's batch is produced. Alongside them, are the newspapers and magazines and, of course, the Web. Much of what is written today is good for a few hours and then is disdained. Our story is being told now at a frantic pace, almost in real time. While it grows increasingly detailed, domestic and trivial, it grows more grandiose, global and profound.

Domestic and trivial: like the TV networks, where soaps and 'reality TV' shows begin to predominate as they try to find cheaper and more engrossing alternatives to drama and documentary, or the publishers that drop tired old literature in favour of romantic novels, action novels and 'sword and sorcery' fantasies, the Web feeds us two-paragraph news items and blogs – the daily minutiae of tens of millions of people's lives.

Grandiose and global: like a TV serial in its fourth season, the plots grow more exaggerated and earth-shattering as the audience grows more bored and demands more titillation. The old stories of heroes and their great deeds are too tame for us. What is the fall of Troy when on a whim the whole of Iraq can be crushed by invading armies? What is the slaying of Grendel when a billion people wait to die in the next flu pandemic? What is it to us that Atlantis sank beneath the waves when half the major cities in the world may disappear the same way over the next hundred years?

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