Gateway to the Classics: Children's Stories and How to Tell Them by J. Berg Esenwein & Marietta Stockard
Children's Stories and How to Tell Them by  J. Berg Esenwein & Marietta Stockard

The Story-Teller as Artist

Out of your cage,

Come out of your cage

And take your soul on a pilgrimage!

Pease in your shoes, an if you must!

But out and away before you're dust:

Scribe and stay-at-home,

Saint and sage,

Out of your cage,

Out of your cage!

—Josephine Preston Peabody, The Piper.

The story-teller is an interpreter of life—he interprets the life embodied in his story to the common life which throbs through his audience.

The first requirement for an interpreter is the ability to understand; the second is power to transmit his understanding.

It is a mere truism to say that he who would understand life must first of all live it; yet how many of us burrow like moles, each in his separate dark passageway, not questioning why we burrow, or whither the passageway leads. Or if we have passed the mole stage and stand upright on the face of the earth, do we not still obey the animal instinct to consort each with his own kind? The millionaire in his limousine seldom has much discernment of the problems of a strap-hanger, while the man who always has a nickel is just as blind to the life of the man who must walk. So also the mother in her sheltered home may have small vision of the way of the woman who, perhaps through no choice of her own, walks with empty arms and a lonely heart.

But the artist who would perfectly interpret life must touch vitally the lives of "all sorts and conditions of men," else he cannot have a sympathetic imagination to grasp the varied problems of all classes. To be able to think and feel with his fellows he must possess the insight to search out their hidden hearts; and, if he be a great artist, he will have also the bigness of soul which does not lightly condemn that which his probing reveals. He will have, too, the skill born of heart and head which is able to reveal the bond of emotion that "makes the whole world kin." Love, hate, courage, fear, joy, sorrow, make up a common human-beingness which eliminates surface class distinctions.

It is with such fundamental emotions that the artist deals, whatever the medium he chooses for their embodiment. The painter with his brush, the sculptor with his chisel, the writer with his pen, the story-teller with his spoken words, each in his own way transmits the message his spirit has seized and evaluated. For artistry deals with values, set up as standards for works of art which are yet to be conceived and brought into being, and not with mere methods or technique.

Story-telling, then, rightly belongs to the arts, and the story-teller's preparation for his work as an artist must begin with the enrichment of his own personality. He must acquire the culture of the student of literature; he must be mellowed through his experiences in his own human relationships; he must be, as Ethel Clifford says,

". . . lover of wind and sun,

And of falling rain, and the friend of trees;

With a singing heart for the pride of noon,

And a tender heart for what twilight sees.

"Let him be lover of you and yours—

The Child and Mary; but also Pan,

And the sylvan gods of the woods and hills,

And the God that is hid in his fellowman."

With his culture, with his love of nature, with his love of his fellowman, he must keep the dauntless courage, the joy in life, which belongs to the spirit of youth. Difficult, perhaps impossible? Yes; the ideal of the artist is always so. As Browning tells us, "A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's heaven for?" Not so much the attainment as the pursuit of the vision differentiates the clod from the master.

So he who has not some urge of vision should not enter the field. But he who cannot resist the call for creative expression must choose his medium—then sharpen his tools.

Voice and Word

The spoken word is the story-teller's chief technical equipment. A knowledge of words, precision and fluency in their use, as well as voice-placing and training in articulation, are essential. The successful story-teller must make word and voice the servants of his spirit. Voice and utterance infallibly reveal the appreciation, or the lack of it, which the story-teller has for the story he is presenting.

It is through speech that man begins to assert his divinity. We move through life wrapped in the impenetrable veil of individuality, sentenced to aloneness—except for the gift of expression. It is chiefly through the spoken word that spirit kindles response of spirit, and reveals itself to its kind.

"The eyes are the windows of the soul," but the voice is its musical instrument, through which its subtle harmonies are transmitted. The old Witch of the Sea was maliciously sagacious when she required the little Mermaid to give her voice in exchange for human form, and then set her the task of winning the love of the Prince in order to attain the soul.

Thought of in terms of the painter, the voice is the pigment which gives color to the story-teller's pictures. He paints in spoken words, and his canvases are the minds of his listeners. So the story-teller needs the painter's love of beauty, the writer's command of words, the actor's sense of the dramatic, the orator's adaptability to his audience, the psychologist's knowledge of the mind, the philosopher's interpretation of the meaning and purpose of life. Does all this seem an appalling program? So is any other that honestly contemplates child-development; but how rich is the reward at the end!

It is the joy of the story-teller, as it is that of every artist worthy of the name, that his preparation must be as broad as life itself. The aspiration to be an interpreter of life is a daring, a wonderful dream.

Suggestions for Study and Discussion

  1. What is art?
  2. In what fundamental respects does an art differ from a science? From a trade? From a business?
  3. Why are we justified in regarding story-telling as an art?
  4. Does the fact that an art has a technique imply that its practice is governed by fixed rules?
  5. Does a knowledge of the principles of the story-teller's art tend to hamper originality or to encourage it? Give reasons.
  6. May one go too far in laying down rules for the practice of an art?
  7. What is the difference between a principle and a rule?
  8. What relation does art bear to life?
  9. Briefly explain what the poet meant by her lines quoted as a preface to this chapter.
  10. What is interpretation?
  11. Should the impossibility of attaining the ideal deter the possible artist from attempting to express himself through art?
  12. What has emotion to do with art?

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