The Story of Narrative Transcript

By Mark Sundaram

We all like stories. Actually, it’s more than that – we all NEED stories. Without stories, we can’t process information, work out cause and effect, or understand things that happen to us. Welcome to the Endless Knot. Today, I’m going to tell you a story all about stories, and why we tell them.

Let’s say you’re living in the Indus river valley in 6000BC, and one day there’s an eclipse. You and everyone else are scared and bewildered by the gradual disappearance of the sun, and then relieved, but still bewildered, by its reappearance. You have no way of knowing why this has occurred, or if it will happen again, or when, or whether it will affect you. Do you, therefore, ignore it or forget it, as one random event among many others? More likely, you would turn the event into a story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end; with characters (the sun, something that makes the sun go away, something that brings it back); with motivations (the sun runs away, or is attacked, or hides its face, or is eaten); with consequences (failed crops, or the birth of a king, or the death of a loved one). We could almost say that you wouldn’t really “know” that the eclipse had happened until you had told the story of the event. And, having turned it into a story, you might feel like you now knew how to react if it happened again.

In fact, this is pretty much how many civilizations have responded to eclipses.  For instance, ancient Chinese myth holds that solar eclipses were caused by the heavenly dog tiangou taking a bite out of the sun, so there’s a tradition of people playing drums, banging pots, or making other loud sounds to scare the sun-eater away.  In fact the word shí means both ‘to eat’ and ‘eclipse’.  Similarly, one of the most important gods in the Egyptian pantheon was Ra, the falcon-headed sun god. Legend had it that every day Ra captained a boat crewed by gods across the sky. At night, Ra returned to the east via the underworld, bringing light to the dead. It was a treacherous journey: Apep, an evil serpent god, attempted to stop Ra by devouring him. Solar eclipses were thought to be days when Apep got the upper hand, though Ra always managed to escape. Myths like these are types of narrative used to keep track of and make sense of the world, to link effects we see to causes we can understand.

When we think of the word narrative, we tend to think of stories, of books and fiction. But the act of narration is much more fundamental than that.  Narrative is one of the ways the mind organizes information. It’s a kind of filing system, if you will, that the brain uses to order and store information for later retrieval. The word narrative itself comes from the Latin word gnarus which means ‘knowing’ or ‘skilled’ and comes ultimately from the same Proto-Indo-European word that gives us the word ‘know’. So basically narrative is a way of knowing the world. It is a way of taking the complex jumble of information that we are exposed to every day and organizing it into some manageable form. After all, it’s much easier to remember a story than a random collection of facts. The scholar Walter Fisher suggested the idea of the Narrative Paradigm, that the human mind tends to organize information into the form of a story, including such expected elements as characters, plots, motivations and actions. There are of course other ways of logically arranging and storing information, but Fisher argued that narrative is a fundamental method that humans use for this task. In fact, the Indo-European root which gave us the words narrative and know also gives us the word cognition, so I suppose it’s quite appropriate that narrative is a fundamental part of human cognition, and that we turn to cognitive science to understand how narrative works and how we use it.

Incidentally, the words story and history, which come from the Greek word histor meaning ‘wise’ or ‘learned’, come ultimately from another Indo-European root *wid- meaning ‘know’ or ‘see’ and also give us words such as wise, wit, and vision. And believe it or not possibly the word penguin, but that’s another story. The point being, narrative and storytelling are intricately connected to knowing and knowledge.

And that’s exactly how humans have used narrative, at least for as long as we have evidence of humans thinking in fundamentally modern ways. Some of our earliest evidence of human use of language is our capacity to tell stories, and the earliest stories we know of are what we now refer to as myth. Now it’s easy to simply dismiss myth as superstition and unsophisticated thinking. The most common use of the word today refers to something that people think isn’t true, like “the myth of the Free Market” or “the myth of Global Warming”, or in the expression “urban myth”, as in the urban myth of alligators living in the New York sewer system. But a more accurate way to think about myth is as, in the words of one succinct definition, “a traditional narrative that is used as a designation of reality”. Myth is a narrative that expresses something of cultural relevance to the people who create and retell it, that allows them to process the world around them (both its physical realities and its emotional and societal elements) into something meaningful that can be understood. Narrative organises the random and overwhelming input that our brains receive into a coherent set of relevant and related items, so that we can react appropriately to it. Myth is just one way this works, whether it’s stories exemplifying the transition from child to adult (like in the hero’s journey outlined by Joseph Campbell) or explanations of why there are seasons (like the story of Persephone’s abduction to the underworld in ancient Greek myth). We tell stories so that we can know what’s happening.

What this means is that studying narratives, whether in literature or in pop culture or in the news media, is a way of understanding how people think now, or have thought; of understanding the human psyche. Literature is not just a cultural artifact or an interesting niche for the specialist. There is a real scientific basis for the connection between the human brain and the narratives that are constructed by individuals. By trying to understand the narratives we create, we are better able to understand ourselves. Take that example of the alligators in the New York. While there may not actually be carnivorous reptiles living in the sewers, the story reflects the very real discomfort people feel due to our disconnect from and lack of understanding of the infrastructure of our modern urban life, on which our very lives depend. How long would any of us last if modern civilization collapsed?

There are many examples of stories that show this connection between knowing and narrating, from the earliest myths to more recent literature and film, but I’m going to relate the well-known example of the Greek myth of Persephone to show this.

Persephone was the daughter of Demeter, goddess of grain, and Zeus, the king of the gods and a sky god. One day when she was a young girl, she went with a group of nymphs to pick flowers in a secluded meadow. She wandered a little away from the rest of the girls, when suddenly, the ground opened up and out came Hades, god of the dead, in his chariot; he snatched up Persephone and they disappeared under the earth again. When her disappearance was reported, Demeter was devastated. She wandered the earth searching for her lost daughter and grieving for her; she neglected her duties, and no grain grew anywhere. People were starving. Eventually, Demeter found out that her daughter had been taken to the underworld, and she went to Zeus to demand that he force Hades to return her. Zeus agreed to do so, as long as Persephone hadn’t eaten anything while she was there. Unfortunately it turned out that the girl had been persuaded to eat 6 pomegranate seeds, so Zeus decreed that she would spend 6 months of the year in the underworld as the wife of Hades (his brother), and 6 months with her mother. Thus, so the story goes, we now have the seasons: spring is when Persephone comes up from the underworld, like the grain sprouting from the ground, and autumn is when the seeds are planted and Persephone goes to spend the winter underground.

The first thing to notice about this myth is that it is particular to the world in which it was created: it explains the seasons in a way that makes sense in the context of certain types of European agriculture, where wheat is planted in the fall and grows in the spring, and summer is harvest time. It doesn’t make much sense in a climate like I know here in Northern Ontario, for example, where planting can’t take place until late spring, and the fall is harvest time. But we can see how this story explained something about the world to the people who told it: it recounts the vegetative cycle of planting and growth, and shows how it recurs annually. It does more than that, though – it’s not just a way of knowing the natural world. At the same time it structures and makes sense of the socio-cultural world of the ancient Greeks, and even allows an understanding of some of the emotional elements of that world. Persephone’s story dramatises the experience of a young girl getting married, who is separated from her peer group and her mother and becomes part of another household, at the bidding of her father and without her consent; although marriage is not the same as rape, the violence of the story reflects the emotional state of a girl undergoing such a dramatic transition. At the same time we see Demeter’s grief as the sorrow of a mother who loses her daughter to marriage, and can’t protect her against male violence.

This story, then, gives its teller and its audience a way of knowing the world around them, both its natural cycles and the social conventions they live within. And every time it was told, it would also reinforce that understanding of the world, helping people make sense of their own experiences and emotions by giving them a framework in which to place them.

And of course we always think about things happening in order – when one thing happens after another, we feel that it must have happened *because* of it, cause and effect. And as soon as we think that, we’re telling a story. We often construct a story out of our lives, with ourselves as the main character. It helps us make sense of our lives and gives us a feeling of continuity.

So storytelling is more than entertainment, it’s more than a way to pass the time – it’s a way to think, it’s a way to know, it’s a way to communicate. Without it, we have great trouble making sense of the vast amount of information coming in – narrative is organisation. And when we understand this, we understand a lot more about our own history, our own literature, and ourselves.

Subscribe to this channel to see more videos about language, thought, and culture, and the interconnections in the world around us. If you have comments or questions, I’m @Alliterative on Twitter, or leave them in the comment section below. You can also read more of my thoughts at my blog, The Endless Knot.