Oral storytelling is a transformative art we can all learn and grow from, says a reviver of the tradition in Turkiye.
Renan Tavukculoglu was first dragged to one of my nights of folk stories by her eight-year-old son Can who loved mythology. As the founder of a word-of-mouth marketing company, Renan knew everything about the power of stories – how they spread and sell. But she did not expect a couple of fairy tales to trigger her own journey of transformation. Ten years later, after not only listening to but also re-telling many tales, she credits these ancient stories for inspiring her to create a non-profit for the empowerment of girls in Turkiye.
We often mistake traditional tales as “children’s stories.” However, having told and taught fairy tales to mostly adult audiences for nearly 20 years, I have witnessed how listening to and working with tales can profoundly transform people.
When I started my storytelling career with the motto, “change stories, change the world”, I knew that rekindling the lost oral tradition was a way to bring people to imagine together; a powerful magic that we were missing in fast paced cities. Still, it took me years to understand how the old tales of the oral tradition could provoke such radical and seemingly unrelated changes in people’s lives. I think it is both related to the nature of the stories – which are different from the other stories we hear day-to-day – and to the process with which we integrate and own them.
The characters in tales, for instance, are one-dimensional, unlike in novels where characters are more complex and can be both merciless and gentle. In tales, one sister will be purely jealous, the other purely generous. Each character embodies one of the many energies that we all contain. We could say that the sum of all the characters in a tale makes a complex ‘real’ person. Seeing our many sub-personalities projected onto different characters helps us untangle our complex personalities.
The plots of tales are streamlined. Often a tale will tell in 15 minutes a story that a novel will develop in over 250 pages. This helps us focus on the big picture without getting lost in the details and detours of the journey. The most famous example is Paolo Coelho’s “The Alchemist,” which is based on a rather short folk tale.
Tales also speak the metaphoric language of dreams. In real life, you struggle to make a decision. In tales, you will stand at a crossroad talking your decision over with a wise elder or… a wolf.
In real life, you are betrayed. In fairy tales, you are pushed down a well. What about the depression that follows your betrayal? Fairy tales would have you pushing a door to the underworld, spending seven years in the dark realms before returning healed and a healer to the surface world.
Tales take our inner journeys, our feelings, our fears, limitations, or aspirations and turn them into metaphors so we can actually face them – not as concepts but as concrete experiences. They let us walk through our dark forest and experience the sensation of finding our lost path. They plant the seed of a guiding vision. Take the classic tale of three brothers who set off to find a healing blue flower. The first two brothers are self-righteous, egoistic, and full of themselves. One will get lost because he refuses to accept advice, the other because he lacks dedication.
However, the youngest brother is humble and persistent. He surrenders his ego to the path, goes slow, helps those he meets, and takes their counsel. He will find the blue flower. None of us are one of the brothers; we contain all three, and are constantly trying to orchestrate a balance between their energies.
However, listening to the tales is not enough to experience their life transforming magic. It is when we take the seat of the storyteller and start to transform and retell the stories that we reap the most benefits. Tales, as an open resource database of stories, call us to do just that.
Today, professional authors and screenwriters are few and far between. But in a traditional village, especially during long winters, everyone would have a shot at making up a tale. They lend themselves to endless editing, mixing, and matching. Telling tales helps us look at our own story through a four-step healing process: taking the story in; questioning, changing, and owning the story; retelling the story; being changed by the story.
We are all more or less familiar with the first three steps of this process. However, the last one is where the magic happens.
We are changed by the stories we own and tell. There used to be chances to spontaneously do so at any fireside gathering. Now that we primarily consume highly processed stories curated by large studios, the opportunities for this life-changing process have become rare.
However, nothing is easier to rekindle than a storytelling fire. The coals of the oral tradition are always warm. I know because when I started to tell folktales in Turkiye, in cities where the art had become nearly extinct, everyone thought I would need a time machine. The truth is that it took like wildfire overnight because nothing had replaced the live telling of folk tales. When storytellers leave, they leave a gap – a gap that many modern technologies may claim to, yet fail to fill. So why not turn off the TV tonight, or better yet, turn off the electricity, light a candle, and share a story?
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