Little People looking for good homes....
A trail of stories

The hunger for narrative

Arabian Nights by Edmund Dulac

In his great essay "The Power of Stories," Scott Russell Sanders explores ten primary reasons for telling and hearing stories. The first reason on his list is a simple one: Because they entertain us.

"Why else," he asks, "do we trade them so avidly, in myths and folktales, in poems and songs, movies and plays, novels and yarns, and countless other forms? Children tell stories spontaneously, exuberantly, even before they have enough words to fill out their sentences. Anyone who has made up a story for a child , or read one from a book, only to have the child beg for it again and again, night after night, knows that the need for story goes deep in us. Scheherazade kept a sultan from putting her to death by telling him stories, always breaking off in the middle of a plot at bedtime, leaving him eager for the next installment. You do not have to be a child or a bored sultan to hunger for stories, of course, nor a captive to be saved by them. We all hunger for narrative, from the simplest anecdote or joke to the most convoluted saga, as we hunger for bread or companionship or sunlight; and we all may be fed, and even restored, by a tale that speaks to our condition."

Arabian Nights by Edmund Dulac

Sanders goes on to note: "In all its guises, from words spoken and written to pictures and musical notes and mathmatical symbols, language is our distinguishing gift, our hallmark as a species. We delight in stories because they are a playground for language, an arena for exercising this extraordinary power. The spells and enchantments that figure in so many tales remind us of the ambiguous potency of words, for creating or destroying, for binding or setting free. Italo Calvino, a wizard of storytelling, described literature as 'a struggle to escape from the confines of language; it stretches out from the utmost limits of what can be said; what stirs literature is the call and attraction of what is not in the dictionary.' Calvino's remark holds true, I believe, not just for the highfalutin modes we label as literature, but for every effort to make sense of our lives through narrative."

The full essay can be found in Sander's essay collection The Force Spirit, and is highly recommended.

Arabian Nights by Edmund Dulac

The art today is from a 1911 editon of The Stories of the Arabian Nights, illustrated by Edmund Dulac.

Arabian Nights by Edmund Dulac

Arabian Nights by Edmund Dulac

Arabian Nights by Edmund Dulac

Edmond Dulac was born and raised in Toulouse, France, where he spent two miserable years studying law before embracing art as his true vocation; he then studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Toulouse and the Académie Julien in Paris before moving to London in 1904. Obtaining his first illustration commission (for Charlotte Brontë's  Jane Eyre) at the age of 22, Dulac went on to become of one of the greatest book illustrators of his day, while also collaborating on various theatre projects (usually with his friends W. B. Yeats and Thomas Beecham) and becoming an expert in postage stamp design. He spent the rest of his life in England (changing the spelling of his name from Edmond to Edmund), became a British citizen in 1914, and continued to create his exquisite illustrations right up to his death in 1953.

Arabian Nights by Edmund Dulac

Arabian Night by Edmund Dulac

Arabian Nights by Edmund Dulac

Arabian Nights by Edmund DulacThe passage above is from "The Power of Stories" by Scott Russell Sanders, published in his essay collection The Force of Spirit (Beacon Press, 2000); all rights reserved by the author.


As much as I admire the illustrations of Kaye Nielsen I much prefer the softer lines of Dulac's work. Although they were very near contemporaries and had careers that ran concurrently, for me Nielsen with his carefully considered angles and willowy heroines, represents the Art Deco style, while Dulac epitomises that of Art Nouveau with its natural free-flowing forms. It's interesting to compare their individual take on The Arabian Nights.

I agree Stuart. They are gorgeous.

By Edith Hope Bishop

What shall we say today
that cannot be said,
has been said,
will be said,
is past saying?

A story.
Beginning, middle, end-
conflict, resolution-
conflict, failure-
Lost and found,
found and lost,
found and lost and found and lost and found again (or lost).

This is the way.
The story is keep going.
The story is keep saying.
The story is past saying but never you mind,
let’s go.

I love Dulac's art. And while I like the words on narration, this part snagged me: "language is our distinguishing gift, our hallmark as a species." My favourite time of day is the late afternoon when all the sparrows of our neighbourhood converge on two or three particular trees and tell each other the stories of their day. Food stories, danger stories, according to scientists. The language of birds and other animals is rich and diverse, vocal or physical, artistic, complex, and often compassionate. I suspect animals hunger for narrative just as we do. Sometimes I feel real sadness at the feathered stories, paw stories, wild forest or grass stories, I am missing because I don't speak Animal.

Hi Terri,

I have always adored the paintings of Edmund Dulac and these are absolutely haunting with their exquisite detail!! I also like Russell Saunders' perspective on the power and significance of storytelling. His ideas about language and its artistic hunger coinsides with the excerpt of an article I read in the Boston Globe. The piece emphasized a new study which has unearthed ancient musical instruments dating back to prehistoric times. Among them, was a delicate flute carved from the wing bone of a bird. This haunted me along with the text and pictures on today's blog. I have often thought the language of story binds itself to musical rhythm and uses melody to underscore the magic, spirit, intensity, and meaning of its narrative. In this study, the professor heading the project, noted that even in ancient times, artistic expression was a vital part of human development and existence. Narrative as it unravels in the voice of a poem, story or song has the natural musicality of speech but it also enriches its spirit/essence with the underpinning of instrumental music, especially the humble and haunting sound of a flute. The song infuses its breath into the hollowed out bone, wood, or reed. Nature and humanity blend to express the tale, the gift of mind and voice, the gift of memory. The gift which was often handed down from the woman storyteller to her daughter.

A Flute Primer

The find suggests just how integral artistic expression may be to human existence: Music apparently flourished even in prehistoric days when mere survival was a full-time endeavor.
Professor Nicolas Conard

Song unravels from the lips
of the story spinner.
Thread upon thread
seeking to send its breath
through the bone of a bird
or the stem of a willow.
The mother barely knows
how its spirit hungers
to harmonize, to weave
melody through a vessel
crafted from wing or shoot.
For each syllable to find
its shadow in a note;
and each note to leave
its footprint on the daughter,
her womb of unborn words
that carries a new tale
or continues the old.

Thanks so much for sharing this!
A beautiful way to start my day.



I really like the echoing effect in this poem and the premise of a story's need to continue onward. The story ha a spirit all its own once it is given life through thought and voice. And it cycles through stages of being lost and found then lost again and so forth. You capture that temperament of it so well. I also like the way this poem summons a trail to follow of what should be said, of how it is said through stages of drama ( conflict, resolution, failure, ...)and time sequence, and how the story must survive -- by constant motion. This is a gem and I thank you for sharing it!

Take care,
My Best

One problem I run into a lot here is that I am excerpting short passages from long essays or books, and thus presenting authors' words out of their larger context. If you seek out the full essay, Sarah, Sanders is careful not to imply that animals have no language of their own, but that the particular form of language that humans have allows for a particular form of storytelling that is unique to our species. Not better than the language of other species, just different.

As a writer, he is highly attuned to the natural world, and to the animal world in particular. See his beautiful words in this post from a little while ago, "The Blessing of Otters":

His daughter is a scientist/naturalist who specializes in the study of birds; and bird communication is something he talks about in one of his essays...though I can't remember now which one....

And oh, I so agree with you about feeling great sadness in not being able to speak with animals in their own language! If someone granted me one magical power, that's the one I'd want to have.

I can't pick a favorite between Rackham, Dulac, and Nielsen -- perhaps because I discovered them all at the same time and fell hard for the work of all three.

I love this, Edith. I love the rhythm of it, the folk grammar of it, the truth of it.

This is beautiful, Wendy, as is your comment above it explaining the inspiration for the poem. I know poems are meant to stand for themselves but your reflections on them are always so rich too. Perhaps when you finally publish that book there could be an Afterward with these reflections on each piece? Just a thought....

Me too! Working with animals on our farm it is a constant marvel how much we are able to communicate between the species- but those old tales about having the power to really speak with animals fill me with great longing.

I'm reminded of your post about it, Terri, and also the comments in response:

Thanks so much Terri

for your lovely words and wonderful suggestion!! I like the idea of an afterward with reflections on what inspired each piece.

Again thank you!
Take care

Thank you for that. I didn't mean to sound negative about Sanders, I loved his essay, it just prompted me into that thought about the language of animals.

I agree with you about being able to speak with animals ... I know someone who can understand much of the language of birds, and I myself learned a little cat-language over the years, but to actually be able to speak with them, in their own tongue - how marvellous that would be.

Thank you, Terri. I'm so grateful for your posts and comments. I hope you have a wonderful weekend.

I agree. The poem is marvelous on it's own, but I love the commentary as well. What a beautiful thought: a flute carved from the bone of a bird. Song reborn. I just love it, Wendy. Thank you.

Can't stand my typos: its not it's! ;)

Hi Edith

Your kind words and thoughts are so deeply appreciated!!
I am glad you enjoyed both the poem and the commentary!

Take care
My Best

Hi Edith

Thanks so much for the kind words and thoughts regarding the poem and the commentary. I am so glad you enjoyed both!!

Please take care
My Best

You didn't sound negative, Sarah! I just worry that when I compose posts like this my selections of particular passages might leave impressions their authors didn't intend; and I'm reminded that I must be mindful as I make quotation choices. In this case, for example, I could have included the section of the text in which Sanders explains what he means by human language (and its impact on stories) in relation to the languages of other animals. Sometimes I err on the side of quoting too much (making the posts overly long) and sometimes I err in quoting too little!

What I hope, though, is that readers will be intrigued enough to seek out the full work.

Personally, I'm convinced that all sentient beings have their ways of telling stories. And that it's incredibly arrogant of humans to assume that if we don't yet understand the languages of other species, they don't exist. (And I despise Rene Descarte's pernicious view of animals as organic automata, without consciousness, minds, or souls. But then, it wasn't all that long ago that philosophers and theologians were still debating whether women have souls....)

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