What stories have been passed down for generations in your family? Are they fables, myths, or fairy tales? Do you recite them from memory at dinner or have they been written down? What do they say about the culture and values of your great-great-great-grandparents? These are the types of questions Dr. Justine McConnell, lecturer in Comparative Literature at King's College London, and Anna Conomos, performance storyteller and author, had us explore during Thursday night's one-hour discussion session at Oxford's Story Museum.
The venue was apt for this event. The first floor room dubbed 'the Story Exchange' held a cosy and captive audience, ready to 'swap stories' with McConnell, Conomos, and Tish Francis, the eager moderator and co-director of the Story Museum. For me, the event started off a bit lukewarm, with softball questions (e.g. 'Why are ancient myths still popular today?', 'Do we tell stories just for fun, or are they multi-layered?'), and examples gravitating towards Greek stories: Icarus, Aesop, and Homer; the initial answers and discussion did not really take me anywhere I had not thought about already. However, after about twenty minutes the panelists and the audience warmed up. Conomos shifted the focus from academic talk to amicable storytelling in recounting a Greek story in which a woman must prepare salty coffee to test the self-control of a potential husband, and a man must seek a potential wife who can exhibit the patience of making dolma smaller than her finger. This story elicited a chuckle from the audience, as well as Conomos' remarks that there are so many food-based stories, especially bread ones; Francis picked up on this and described how the opening of the Story Museum involved breaking bread in the patio.
The highlight of the evening was when Conomos performed the story of Alexander the Great. She began by connecting with us, asking how long ago he lived (answer: he was born 2,373 years ago), and whether he was still alive (how puzzling!). It turns out that Greeks are certain he never died, and we were left wondering why this might be the case. Conomos then told us about the curse befalling Alexander the Great's sister, seamlessly assuming the roles of hunched, old, wise men, Alexander himself, tall and fearless, and Thessalonike, the naive and guilty sister. I will not give away the story, but I will let you know that the reason Greeks say Alexander the Great is still alive is related to how mermaids are commonly figureheads on ships.
I walked away motivated to do more research about storytelling. McConnell brought up an interesting point, that stories we tell today are multi-layered, involving entertainment, moral lessons, political statements, and other elements, and that perhaps the one-dimensional stories were not passed on and have ceased to exist. This got me thinking about the evolution of stories and what kind of 'natural selection' might be acting upon oral tradition, but that is to be expected when you bring a biologist to a Story Museum event. Also, we discussed how stories have changed to be more or less gruesome over time. I had heard about Grimms' fairy tales becoming more child-friendly (e.g. taking out the bloody ways in which Cinderella's stepsisters tried to fit into the slipper), but I did not know that Euripides might have added the infanticide in Medea in order to win a theatre competition.
Overall, I am glad the evening turned out better than expected. I appreciated the friendly dynamic between Francis, McConnell, and Conomos in the first discussion part, and I am glad they opened up to audience questions at the end. I was able to learn how they absorb stories in the twenty-first century; McConnell is partial to physical books over e-readers and regards storytelling podcasts like bedtime stories. Conomos, unsurprisingly, prefers live storytelling where she can observe the tone, gestures, and face of the performer, all of which she successfully utilized herself while narrating Alexander's tale.
I would recommend visiting the Story Museum, whether for an event or just to browse the exhibits. It is a museum in the making, and the staff would like feedback about what stories you want to see there in the future.