We craft and tell stories because we’ve stood on the uncertain edge between the waking world and our imagination, between enchantment and fear. And we remember other stories that help us build our own stories, scraps of lumber and fragments of narrative we gather together to make stories for ourselves.

The Golden Goose

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There may be as many kinds of storyteller are there are stories.

Just now I was going to write that there are two kinds of storyteller—those who work in community and those who work in solitude—but then abruptly realized how reductive that would be to say. Even the great Sir Francis Child, with his threefold division of ‘blind beggar’, ‘nursery maid’, and ‘clerk’, is only two-thirds right.

Because whenever anyone chooses to tell a story, a hundred different reasons may crowd in on them—after all, why this story, in this way and at this time? The answers for those questions might not be looked for, the storyteller might not even be aware of them, but they are no less real. Nor, I think, are they arbitrary. Some of these reasons may be purely personal and emotional. But others may come from beyond the storyteller’s control.

Whose stories are we telling, for instance? In the business of retelling folklore and creating new fairy tales, they are not the teller’s stories, certainly, except in the most transitory and liminal sense. For a few glittering moments, they can be said to be ours—while the words are in our mouths or at our fingers. Before, they belonged to the person who told them to us, and afterwards they belong to our hearers. The idea of owning a story, in anything beyond the prosaic economic sense, becomes ephemeral. Copyright and royalty may be ours, but is the story, really?

By the same token, the story never ceases to belong to anyone who told it. This, I think is, what is meant by a tradition of stories, and of storytelling—a golden thread, if you will, that connects the glittering style of Charles Perrault with the equally glittering chiaroscuro of Walt Disney, with the story about the girl who prayed to the tree that grew from her mother’s bones.

I said ‘golden thread’ just now, but perhaps ‘golden goose’ might be more accurate. Especially in times like these, when mountains are blowing up and the barbarians may be once more at the gates, it’s too easy to get heavy and serious about what we do, and why we do it. The golden goose of a story is just sufficiently silly, I think, to show us what might really be happening:

Once upon a time there was a clever storyteller who got hold of a spiffy goose of a golden idea, and it stuck. The baker liked the idea too, so she tried to grab it and got stuck to the storyteller. Then the butcher grabbed hold of the baker, and the candlestick-maker grabbed hold of the butcher, and the very contrary gardener grabbed hold of the candlestick-maker, and here we all are, priests and shamans and hobos and flautists and baristas and gravediggers, like some weird postmodern regathering of the Bremen Town Musicians, strung out in a reckless running line snaking in six ways at once. But—and this is the crucial point—we’re not letting go just because some princess is laughing. It’s precisely because she’s laughing that we’re holding on.

And yes, it’s silly. It’s meant to be, whether we all know or care or not. And some folks seize hold from greed, or arrogance, or because they’ve nothing better to do, or because their friends are doing it, or because they don’t know why exactly—some for the love of beauty and marvels, some for enthusiasm for strangeness, and some for—well, why wouldn’t you, really? A hundred different storytellers, a thousand different reasons.

But the goose that began it is gold all through.


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