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Storytelling Themes


The words seemingly came from a mental storehouse of phrases and narrative devices accumulated over a lifetime. Lord identified two types of story vocabulary. The first he called formulas: rosy-fingered dawn, the wine-dark sea, certain set phrases had long been known of from the books of Homer and other oral epics. But no one realized before Lord how common these formulas were. He discovered that across many story traditions that fully 90% of an oral epic is assembled from lines repeated verbatim or with one-for-one word substitutions.

Oral stories are built out of phrases stockpiled from a lifetime of hearing and telling stories. The other type of story vocabulary is theme. A theme is a set sequence of story actions that structure the tale. Just as the teller of tales proceeds line-by-line using formulas, so he proceeds event-to-event using themes. One almost universal theme is repetition, as evidenced in Western folklore with the rule of three: three brothers set out, three attempts are made, three riddles are asked.

A theme can be as simple as a specific set sequence describing the arming of a hero, starting with shirt and trousers and ending with headdress and weapons. A theme can be large enough to be a plot component. For example: a hero proposes a journey to a dangerous place / he disguises himself / his disguise fools everybody / except for a common person of little account (a crone, a tavern maid or a woodcutter) / who immediately recognizes him / the commoner becomes the heroes ally, showing unexpected resources of skill or initiative. A theme does not belong to a specific story, but may be found with minor variation in many different stories.

Themes may be no more than handy prefabricated parts for constructing a tale. Or they may represent universal truths - ritual-based, religious truths as James Frazer saw in The Golden Bough, or archetypal, psychological truths as Joseph Campbell describes in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. The intrinsic nature of stories was described in A Palpable God, by Reynolds Price (Akkadine Press) when he wrote: A need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo sapiens--second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter. Millions survive without love or home, almost none in silence; the opposite of silence leads quickly to narrative, and the sound of story is the dominant sound of our lives, from the small accounts of our days events to the vast incommunicable constructs of psychopaths. There are many kinds of stories, such as fables, parables, myths, legends. Stories are of many moods, such as humorous, inspirational, didactic or educative, frightening, tragic, romantic.

Folklorists sometimes divide oral tales into two main groups: Märchen and Sagen. These are German terms for which there are no exact English equivalents; the first one is both singular and plural. (1) Märchen, loosely translated as fairy tale(s) (though fairies are rare in them) take place in a kind of separate once-upon-a-time world of nowhere-in-particular. They are clearly not intended to be understood as true

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