In days past, much of a child's ethos development began with the bedtime stories told by their mother and father or other community members. However, most of our modern exposure to stories comes not from our elders but from media such as movies and television. In-person storytelling mostly only happens at the theater (with an honorable mention for those times when Mom has an extra glass of wine and starts talking about her college days).
I learned early on that to connect with an audience, my performance must be a version of the truth; sharing an emotion, being private in public, is the key to bridging the gap between the stage and the seats and leaving the audience with a memorable impression. I learned to recite and perform the words of the playwright with unflinching accuracy, one director even having the cast begin the run again and again each time someone so much as hesitated in recalling a line.
This was very specified training; common English class curriculums spend countless hours studying classics like Beowulf and Shakespeare, even the Bible, without giving due consideration to their spoken word origins... so, I'm here to make it up for you.
The Biblical Telephone Game
Before the Bible was first written down in Aramaic (or Greek for the New Testament), the teachings of Jesus & Co. were passed down orally. Some might argue that this makes for one big game of telephone – how can we know for sure whether errors of speech or deliberate altercations didn't skew the message of the story? Well, we can’t know for sure, but there is plenty of evidence to support that most of it was preserved just fine through word of mouth.
While the game of telephone is all about passing on the message secretly, Jesus and his disciples weren’t whispering their lessons behind closed doors. Their storytelling, and most storytelling for education or entertainment in that day, was happening out in the open for the whole community to hear. It was repeated over and over, giving the original teller plenty of opportunity to hear and correct their students. If someone messed up, there would be a whole community to keep them accountable for their error.
The National Geographic Resource Library states that stories “allow us to share information in a memorable way, which might have helped our ancestors cooperate and survive. By telling a story rather than merely reciting dry facts, we remember the details more clearly."
The Bible also exhibits controlled oral tradition through linguistic parallelism. This is when multiple sentences are given in similar forms so that the passage has a pattern and rhythm. There’s a famous example of this form just after Jesus’s lessons on hypocrites in the Book of Matthew: “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (NRSV, Matt. 7.7). In these three statements, the verb comes first, followed by the future result of said action. Not only does this hammer home the message to faithfully reach out to God, but it’s extremely easy to memorize. It’s more of a brain worm than saying something like, “It will be given to you if you ask or search for it.” By using techniques such as these, ancient storytellers were able to use the power of oral tradition to pass on their lessons and history without needing to pick up a pen.
The Musicality of the Epics
While the Bible is full of lessons and education, there are plenty of stories in the oral tradition canon meant to entertain and pull at one’s heartstrings. Beowulf and the works of Hesiod fall into this category, though of course they are not without moral lessons. But can these works even be considered literature? Isn’t reading them completely unnatural, when they were first brought to life around a campfire or in an amphitheater? John Miles Foley, a scholar of comparative oral tradition, points out how “We forget that there’s an ongoing-ness to them; you can’t go get a cup of tea and come back."
The experience of picking up a book to read Beowulf and the experience of hearing it sung with a harp are two wildly different things. When you take such a performance and reduce it to what can be captured with ink on a page, you lose the vocal intonations and musical flourishes that bring life to the story. We don’t consider how much time is needed to say a particular line or the musical accompaniment that sets up or isolates a particular performative moment. Such performance was key before literature was widespread; even Hesiod had to learn an instrument before being allowed to submit his poetry to competitions. The public wanted to be told the story, to be entertained, not do the work of reading it or learn how to read in order to do so.
To Shakespeare & Beyond
Shakespeare’s original audiences, though centuries after Hesiod’s, did not change much in that regard. While Shakespeare and many of his troupe were literate, and the higher class were educated, the Globe famously catered to both commoners and the wealthy. The area directly in front of the stage was cheap admission for the commoners; higher-class folks could purchase more expensive seats in the mezzanine. Shakespeare expertly walked the line between what the educated would appreciate and what would entertain the commoners. In “Midsummer,” he includes just enough of Theseus’ ramblings about the politics of Athens to balance out the bawdy, slapstick humor of Bottom transforming into an ass. This way, both classes feel included and entertained, proving Shakespeare a true master of storytelling in his time and throughout the modern day.
We can see the foundations of storytelling laid out for us by oral traditions when observing patterns in the media we consume today. It’s the difference between Interstellar and Spaceballs, between Morgan Freeman and Will Farrell. Even as humanity diversifies in education, humor, and plain ol’ taste, no one can deny the power of a good story.
Beowulf. Translated by Seamus Heaney, W. W. Norton & Co., 2000.
The Bible. The New Revised Standard Version, American Bible Society, 1989.
Hesiod. Theogony. Translated by Barry B. Powell, University of California Press, 2017.
“Oral Tradition 1/2.” YouTube, uploaded by Theudebrand, 25 Dec. 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=15fi-hjIXIs.
“The Reliability of the New Testament (Oral Tradition).” YouTube, uploaded by InspiringPhilosophy, 17 April 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=vCp-ayAp7fE&t=242s.
Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Dover, 1992.
“Storytelling.” National Geographic Resource Library, 1 April 2020, www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/storytelling/.