In which I tell stories in protest, and inadvertently answer a question about the role of imagination in storytelling.
This is a tale of two parts.
In the first part, I was recently at a retreat day led by Malcolm Guite. There was a discussion about imagination - Guite has written about theology and poetic imagination at length in his wonderful book Faith, Hope and Poetry, which I finally finished reading in February - and at one point, he asked me to say something about the role of imagination in storytelling. Taken by surprise, I talked briefly about how, in storytelling, the audience does at least half of the imaginative work by creating the story visually in their own minds, which was true, but a little garbled and possibly not very relevant!
In the second part of this tale, I was asked to do some storytelling on the 3rd May at an outdoor event for the Let Kids Be Kids campaign: children and parents who were protesting against the emphasis on SATS and testing in education by taking a day off school to do fun learning out of doors. I went along very gladly, because I agree wholeheartedly with the campaign and have been following the news about the SPAG tests with growing horror (have a look at Michael Rosen’s blog for a good commentary on the whole thing).
I chose two stories to begin the session. The first was Peg Soup, a story which I have recently added to my repertoire: it’s a version of the well-known folktale in which a traveller claims to be able to make soup out of a peg, and so persuades previously poor or selfish people to add the few ingredients they have individually as ‘flavouring’ until a real soup has been made which everyone can share. The second story was one I’ve been telling for years, in which Ming Lo visits a wise man to ask him how to move a mountain, and the wise man responds with various ridiculous and ineffective methods before relenting and telling Ming Lo to ‘dance the dance of the moving mountain’, which turns out to involve walking backwards with his eyes shut. When he opens his eyes, the mountain is far away.
After telling both stories, I asked the children whether they’d noticed any similarities between them. This is usually a good way of opening up a general discussion about storytelling. What tends to happen is that a few tentative answers will focus on the method: “There were bits that repeated” “There was a rhyme” or “You did actions”, for example. As the children learn that there are not really any wrong answers, they become more confident and we can start talking about the stories themselves, at which point they might notice that both stories contained a trick, that they both contained people who believed that the impossible was happening. Then we could start to talk about what role the trick played in the story.
This time, however, one of the first answers came from a girl who confidently said the following: “Both the stories were about how if you think you can’t do something, or don’t have something, the answer is actually inside you all the time”.
I was stunned, because it is very unusual to find a child - or an adult - who can leap straight to the heart of the message of a story like that, and I can only assume that she has been steeped in folktale since infancy to do it so instinctively!
It was only when thinking about her surprising answer later on that I realised that the two stories perfectly answered the question about the role of imagination in storytelling. In fact, the traveller and the wise man both embody the role of imagination within their stories. Instead of giving an instant solution to the problems of the other characters - in fact, instead of pointing out that the things they want (a meal out of nothing, a mountain to move) are impossible, they both respond by imagining what would happen if the things were possible and teaching a lesson that way.
And this is precisely the kind of teaching which is hampered by the mindset of a Gove or a Morgan or a Gibb who thinks that learning must be rote and precise and testable, and that teaching must have a measured outcome. Neither the wise man nor the traveller point out that they have been teaching a lesson all along. They leave their pupils to work it out by themselves - and even if they never do, even if the trick is never revealed, the villagers will still get together to share their goods when they make ‘peg soup’, and Ming Lo will still know which dance to do when he is next faced with an immoveable object. The fact that they won’t know how they are achieving these impossible things won’t actually matter to them. They have learned something all the same.
Let’s have Lewis Carroll’s White Queen, who could believe in six impossible things before breakfast, for education secretary. It’s only by imagining how the impossible could happen that we can ever achieve it in real life.