Cultural Narratives

We Begin with a Story

Do you know the story of the Three Dolls? I first heard it at a storytelling festival, but I couldn’t tell you where it was first told. That’s often the way with stories.

The Three Dolls goes something like this:

A King, who was famous far beyond his own land for his wisdom, was sent a gift. Because his time was far less suspicious of unmarked packaged than ours is today, the King opened the strange gift. Underneath the wrappings were three identical dolls.

Confused about the cryptic present, the King sent for his advisors. There in the King’s court the advisors examined each of the dolls, looking for meaning. Not a one could explain the gift to the King.

However, the court storyteller had been watching. And, once the advisors had finished shrugging their shoulders in confusion, the storyteller approached the King.

“Sire, I believe that I have the answer to this question. May I show you?”

The King agreed. The storyteller thanked the King – and pulled three hairs out of the King’s long beard. (The length of one’s beard indicates wisdom, as we shall discuss later.) This affront to the royal facial hair did not go over well. The storyteller spent a moment mollifying the monarch before taking hold of the first doll.

The storyteller carefully threaded a hair through the first doll’s ears. The King’s hair slid in one ear and out the other.

“Ah. This doll is a fool; nothing ever remains in its head for long.”

The storyteller then took up the second doll. This time the hair did not come out the other ear, but remained inside the doll’s head.

“This doll is knowledgeable. It will always remember what it learns.”

Finally, the storyteller picked up the third doll. This time the long hair went in one ear and out the doll’s mouth. And the end of the hair took on a slight curl as it came. The storyteller smiled in recognition.

“This one is a storyteller. Any tale it hears will be told, and every time that tale is told, it takes on a new curl. The story changes with the telling.”

A story changes with the telling.

This is true of story adaptations – the novel-to-movie transformation comes to mind. I silently roll my eyes every time someone goes on and on about how a movie is so different from the book that it is based on. Yes, there generally is more backstory, world-building and subplot in a novel; novels are a different art form from movies. Form shapes content and how the audience will react to the story. Changing the medium will always change the story.

The stories we tell about our lives are much the same. Memory is notoriously changeable. The stories we tell about the past are inevitably shaped by our situation in the present.

If you look carefully at the stories that prosper today, in movies, shows, games, and books, you can see our ideas about the world reflected in them. Patterns start to emerge. Some of them show slow cultural shifts. Far too many of them show aching nostalgia for ideas of the past. The latter are popular, problematic, and starting to attract scrutiny. I personally question the foundations of many reoccurring stories – maybe you are too.

Do you see stories in the world around you? Do you tell them? Were you told a particular story so often that you believe it?

Which stories do we need to tell – and which can we do without?

Why do we love the stories we love?

I won’t say that I know all the answers, but I have my suspicions.

And oh, do I have stories to tell…