**I wrote this essay for the Meanland blog contest while in the middle of shifting from Europe back to Australia. I even wrote some of it in Heathrow Airport (remember how much I love Heathrow?) While I wasn’t successful in scoring a regular gig for the Meanland blog, I was excited to be involved (even glancingly) in such an innovative way to seek out good ideas and those who have them. The first of the winning essays has now been published and is a very good read. Check it out for yourself at meanland.com.au. So without further ado, here is my essay on the topic of digital writing and oral storytelling.**
Have you ever heard someone tell a story in a tavern? For that matter, when was the last time you listened to someone telling a story—not about their weekend or their recent trip to Bali—a real story, a work of fiction.
If you’re anything like me you struggled with it, attention slipping, plotlines escaping, distractions getting the upper hand. In our fundamentally literary world, following an oral narrative can be hard work.
Oral storytelling (and story-listening) were central elements in ancient, medieval and early-modern popular culture. A cosy tavern on a cold northern night, filled with a community sharing stories, news or scandals is a quintessential image of medieval England.
The scenario is most famously depicted in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, where a motley group of pilgrims compete in a storytelling competition situated in the taverns they stop in along their route. The pilgrims come from a range of social strata, and the stories they tell vary from pious sermons to lewd yarns that would make a footy-player blush. This variation in theme and style highlights an important aspect of oral storytelling traditions—their variety. It is impossible to speak of one cohesive popular culture today, and the same goes for the entertainments of the past.
That said, there were clearly themes that were likely to be well received by a tavern crowd. Both manuscripts and other sources, such as the Canterbury Tales, are evidence of the widespread popularity of the romance genre. Medieval romances were stories of courtly love, adventure and magic: More Lord of the Rings than Georgette Heyer.
In the oral tradition, the romances were populated by a set of familiar characters and plot lines—King Arthur and the Holy Grail, Gawain and the Green Knight, Tristram and Isolde. As Nancy Bradbury argued in her book Writing Aloud, medieval storytelling involved ‘a set of infinitely recombinable ready-made narrative episodes’. Thus, each re/telling involved a combination of borrowing and invention. The storytelling tradition was ‘built up out of a common stock of tough but flexible structural units’ that facilitated the activity of storytelling and helped people all over Europe find and create entertainment.
So where is storytelling today? As in medieval Europe it’s all over the place in a number of different forms and genres: from video or podcasts, to theatre performances, book readings and even tweets (see for example the 2010 Royal Shakespeare Company/Mudlark project Such Tweet Sorrow).
Rather strikingly, stories involving high adventure, dashing heroes and a good dose of magic have also lost none of their popularity since Chaucer’s time. It seems that humans still have a ‘thirst for the otherworldy’, as Daniel Mackay put it.
On this quest to trace storytelling culture to its modern home, then, I followed the path of the otherworldly to a little-known address in an internet byway. Here you can find the Running Stag Inn, where Burke tends the bar and serves a particularly multiracial clientele, including humans, elves, drow and gnomes. Of course Burke is a work of fiction, one among the characters who inhabit the fantasy role-playing website Faerun RP.
This Inn (an e-Pub?) is a modern gathering place, where a community of like-minded, if far-flung, members come together to create and tell stories.
Faerun RP is one among many fantasy role-play (RP) websites active on the internet. The homepage on another site, Mizahar, provides an introduction to the activity as a whole, describing itself as: ‘a fantasy roleplay forum in which a dedicated, friendly, and free community of roleplayers and artists gather to spin epic-level tales via collaborative storytelling.’
The storytelling on these websites involves a number of multimedia elements—from character avatars, to theme music and scenic photographs—all used to complement and flesh out the written stories.
The structural units of this environment are even more visible than those of the medieval oral tradition. Some, such as Faerun RP and The Legends of Krynn, are based on ‘campaign settings’ published by the megalithic Wizards of the Coast as part of the Dungeons & Dragons universe. These are the same rule books used in ‘table-top’ RP games, but on the RP website the focus is most-often on the storytelling, with dice and scoring rarely, if ever, used.
Unlike the examples above, Mizahar is proud to assert that it does not ‘borrow from mainstream Tolkien fantasy’. Instead it has its own universe, complete with 20 distinct races, numerous religions and all the other necessary structural elements.
Just as in the medieval oral storytelling tradition, these frameworks provide much assistance to the modern storyteller. By setting a story in a pre-defined world and using characters whose basic attributes are already familiar to the audience, writers are able to get on with the real business of the day—telling a rip-roaring story.
The differences between this storytelling environment and that of the medieval troubadours are numerous. The role-play website is an asynchronous environment, where teller and listeners share neither spatial nor temporal location. As the Mizahar introduction also points out, the stories in a role-play website are multi-authored. Outside of the ‘in character’ story forums there is a buzz of activity on ‘out of character’ forums, where plotlines are formed under the guidance of a central storyteller (otherwise known as a Dungeon Master). The extent to which this situation differs from the oral tradition is difficult to say, as a tavern environment is impossible to reconstruct from the historical sources.
Of course the most fundamental, inescapable, difference between the medieval storytelling tradition and the website communities is in the form of the words they use. In the medieval tavern the words were spoken and listened to, in the Running Stag Inn the words are written and read.
But the fantasy role-play website doesn’t really fit in the world of literature—even the more formal (book-form) expressions of fantasy writing are often rejected by the literary world. In this instance it is clear that the material substance of the stories is not the most defining feature of the activity. Rather the key is the purpose of those involved—entertainment, play, the whiling away of an evening in the company of friends: In a word, storytelling.