"They link tellers to listeners, and listeners to one another," he says. "This is obviously so when speaker and audience share the same space, as humans have done for all but the last few centuries of our million-year history, gathered around fires or huddled in huts; it is equally if less obviously so when we encounter our stories in solitude, on the page or screen. When two people discover they have both read Don Quixote, they immediately share a piece of history....Strangers who discover their mutual devotion to fairy tales or gangster movies or soap operas or Shakespeare's plays become thereby less strange to one another.
"Frank O'Connor went so far as to declare that 'the one subject a storyteller must write about' is 'human loneliness.' Whether or not stories speak to it directly, they offer us a relief from loneliness, by revealing that our most secret feelings and thoughts do not belong to us alone, by inviting us to join the circle of readers or listeners. The strongest bonds are formed by sacred stories, which unite entire peoples. Thus Jews rehearse the events of Passover; Christians tell of a miraculous birth and death and resurrection; Buddhists tell of Guatama meditating beneath a tree; the Hope recount the story of their emergence from the earth; the Aborigines repeat in song the primal deeds of their ancestors.
"As we know only too well, sacred stories may also divide the world between those who are inside the circle and those outside, between us and them, a division that has inspired pogroms and inquisitions and wars.
"There is danger in story, as in any great force. If the tales that captivate us are silly or deceitful, like most of those offered by television or advertising, they waste our time and warp our desires. If they are cruel they make us callous. If they are false and bullying, instead of drawing us into a thoughtful community they may lure us into an unthinking herd or, worst of all, into a crowd screaming for blood -- in which case we need other, truer stories to renew our vision. So The Diary of Anne Frank and Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz are antidotes to Mein Kamp. So Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and Toni Morrison's Beloved are antidotes to the paranoid yarns of the Ku Klux Klan. So the patient exchange of stories between people searching for common ground is an antidote to the hasty sloganeering and slandering of talk shows."
"We are creatures of instinct," Sanders writes later in the essay, "but not soley of instinct. More than any other animal we must learn to behave. In this perennial effot, as Ursula Le Guin says, 'Story is our nearest and dearest way of understanding our lives and finding our way onward.' Skill is knowing how to do something; wisdom is knowing when and why to do it, or to refrain from doing it. While stories may display skill aplenty, in technique or character or plot, what the best of them offer is wisdom. They hold a living resevoir of human possibilities, telling us what has worked before, what has failed, where meaning and purpose and joy might be found.
"At the heart of many a tale is a test, a puzzle, a riddle, a problem to solve; and that, surely, is the condition of our lives, both in detail -- as we decide how to act in the present moment -- and in general, as we seek to understand what it all means. Like so many characters, we are lost in a dark wood, a labyrinth, a swamp, and we need a trail of stories to show us the way back to our true home."
The paintings today are by Charles Folkard (1878-1963), who was born in south London and worked as stage magician before turning his hand to design and illustration. He created Britain's first daily newpaper cartoon strip (The Adventures of Teddy Tail), but he's best known today for his long career as a children's book illustrator, producing sumptuous editions of fairy tales, nursery rhymes, Aesop's Fables, Alice in Wonderland, Pinnochio, The Princess and Curdie, and numerous other classics. Folkard died at the age of 85, still painting right up to the very end.
The passage above is from "The Power of Stories" by Scott Russell Sanders, published in his essay collection The Force of Spirit (Beacon Press, 2000), which is highly recommended. All rights reserved by the author.