Stories shape people

Joos van Cleve, ‘Madonna of the Cherries’, Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery (discussed here

Inverted Commas 20: Ribbons of space-time

People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around.
Stories exist independently of their players. If you know that, the knowledge is power.

Stories, great flapping ribbons of shaped space-time, have been blowing and uncoiling around the universe since the beginning of time. And they have evolved. The weakest have died and the strongest have survived and they have grown fat on the retelling […] stories, twisting and blowing through the darkness.

‘Witches Abroad’

“Stories are important,” Terry Pratchett wisely wrote, but he recognised that narratives are very much chicken-and-egg issues. Unconsciously we grow up playing out scripted roles: we are a good child or a naughty one, we sense we’re masters of our fate or else forever fated, we’re loved or we’re rejected. Some of us are princesses in disguise, others ugly sisters; some feel they are the knight in shining armour, others the dragon. For every one born with a silver spoon in their mouth countless others will hear resonances in Albert King’ s lyrics: “Born under a bad sign, been down since I began to crawl. If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.”

You would think that a creative writer would claim credit for coming up with original plots, that they were the one shaping stories; but Pratchett knew that he was just recycling or repurposing existing blueprints, because stories do indeed exist independently of their players.

Terry Pratchett

But we have to beware of pigeonholing stories as though that was all there was to basic plotlines, don’t we? In another context psychologist Lucy Foulkes discusses the dangers of thinking summary diagnoses are really the key to understanding human character:

“If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism,” academic and autism advocate Dr Stephen Shore has said, and this is true of all diagnostic terms. Even when a condition or disorder significantly shapes a person’s behaviour, it can still only be one part of the story. When attempting to understand and describe someone’s character, we need to resist linguistic laziness to convey who they really are.

Guardian Saturday, 16th October 2021

“Only one part of the story.” A psychological diagnosis may be like a Tale Type or Basic Plot — Rags to Riches, for example, or Overcoming the Monster, or Tragedy — but just as there are multiple, even infinite variations in narration so no two persons with a particular diagnosis will be the same.

© C A Lovegrove

All these thoughts rise to the surface when I consider the cultural narrative that tends to dominate at this time of year, the Christmas Story. The earliest accounts were given by the evangelists Matthew and Luke, with Luke providing the most circumstantial details. But ever since that time its basic narrative shape has been reinterpreted, reshaped, embroidered and adapted, whether in art, sermon, folk tradition or exegesis, according to century and culture, denomination or personal whim. Every individual who thinks they’re familiar with the ‘true’ story has their own version, their own concept of the ‘facts’ and their significance.

Take one example. Many Christian fundamentalists declare that 25th December is the anniversary of Jesus’s birthday and fervently believe it, some even castigating as pagan those who demur from this article of faith. They ignore one inconvenient literary fact and not a little attenuating evidence.

Neither Matthew or Luke say when the child was born. The 25th was only fixed as a convenient day to celebrate the event during the reign of the emperor Constantine in the 4th century, and that only because it could probably displace the popular Roman worship of the Syrian god Sol Invictus — the Unconquered Sun — who appears to have been associated with this date (coming, as it does, not long after the winter solstice).

Whatever the imperial reasons for this choice of date to celebrate the Nativity the symbolism associated with the midwinter turning point is potent: rebirth, renewal, the return of light, new life burgeoning. And this concept of a midwinter Christmas soon began to attract further symbolism — hope for the disadvantaged, gift-giving, greenery, warmth, family, childhood, and so on — all affecting adherents’ thoughts, behaviours, actions, beliefs.

The Christmas Story then is one of those “ribbons of space-time” that Pratchett identifies as having evolved and “grown fat on the retelling,” a meme complex or memeplex (this last an exceedingly useful term from psychologist Susan Blackmore) that has shaped and will continue to shape us, believers, agnostics and atheists alike.

That Pratchett guy certainly knew what he was talking about.

All that remains for me to say is to wish you all the best for this season, despite all the political shenanigans, pandemic fears, economic uncertainties and environmental fears that assail us daily. Let’s hope for true tidings of comfort and joy coming our way!

The first ever commercial Christmas card

26 thoughts on “Stories shape people

  1. The individual details matter. Otherwise, all those people who posit n plots could just also provide n stories, and we’d be done.

    Instead, tens of thousands of stories are posted daily on Amazon alone – and their authors will swear they are different. And it’s not just because longer more complex stories combine several of the simpler ones, but because every detail matters. A story can change because the author chose ‘tall’ vs ‘short’ as the only changed word in a story about a woman – or a story about a man.

    Because every assumption changes the dynamics between the players. And the story and its readers.

    Some stories ring true when you poke them from all sides. Others seem to require an impossible amount of self-deception.

    I think we keep looking for the good ones.


    1. Of course individual details matter, which is why I tried to carefully distinguish between plots or story templates and the materials used to colour and distinguish them. Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber for example took stock fairytales and transformed them, repurposing them to give her female protagonists more agency than the originals allowed; and Margaret Atwood did similar things (as in a short story collection I’ve scheduled a review for after Christmas). So I do think we’re on the same page here, Alicia!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pratchett really understood people and their interactions with the world, I think! This year I’ve been rereading the Tiffany Aching subset of Discworld, where this idea of either following or resisting the usual story (including for Tiffany the usual story about what being a girl/woman means, and what being a witch means) is often highlighted.

    Lovely post. Merry Christmas!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I loved, and still love, the Tiffany series, and it’s especially poignant that an Aching novel was the last of his work to be published. Yes, she holds a special place in this reader’s heart for who she is and what she stands for, along with the many individuals she comes in contact with, flawed or not, for their innate humanity (in the sense of humanitas as well as human-ness).

      Liked by 1 person

  3. As far as I remember, the Roman Sol Invictus was Mithras, who was celebrated on the 25th of December. Being the most popular celebration of the time, it was really convenient to place there the birth of the new god. Marketing strategy. Merry Christmas ( or Mithras day) to you and your family, Chris. Ciao.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right of course, Stefy, the cult of Mithras is — like Sol Invictus — Persian in origin, and Mithras is associated with Sol whenever he’s depicted in a banquet scene, with occasionally Sol seen observing Mithras killing the bull. However, I’m not convinced they were the same personage — any more than Mithras is the same as Jesus — but that solstice date must’ve been, as it were, a godsend for triumphalist Early Christians! Buon natale to you and Mr Run, and I hope you have have a lovely peaceful break.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. It’s like the infinite number of monkeys eventually typing Shakespeare – I’ve never believed they would since each monkey would bring its own personality to its typing! 😉 🐵

    Merry Christmas, Chris – hope you have good one!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Simians and Shakespeare? Exactly what you say! There’s a reason why we use the phrase ‘monkeying about’ and I’d wager they’d loose interest long before they got a rhyming couplet out, let alone a sonnet or a speech. Anyway, have a happy Yule, FF, and may all your Christmases be bright!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Mallika, and to you and yours. 🙂 Though I’ve yet to read any Wodehouse (yes I know, it seems unbelievable, doesn’t it!) I think the reason we have certain authors as favourites or comfort reads is because of that variety within more of the same, the unexpected enshrined within what’s familiar. Heaven knows how much we’ve needed something comforting in recent times.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you🙂 and yes, I do agree. Wodehouse can be great comfort reading because his world does give one a sense of warmth and safety. Things go wrong there too, but one knows nothing’s ever terribly wrong and it will be all fall right soon. I hope you do get the chance to read read some Wodehouse soon.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. That passage from Witches Abroad will always remain one of my favorite quotes for the simple reason that it was precisely this that drew me into Pratchett‘s writing. (And how could it not?)

    Happy holidays and Merry Christmas to you and your loved ones. Thank you for a year of illuminating and thought-provoking post and inspiring conversations … I only would have wished there could have been more of them!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so pleased to have included one of your fave quotes, Ulrike, from a novel I’m hoping to review here soon. I’ve enjoyed the chats on our posts, however occasional they may have been, and I’m sure we’ll be having more in 2022!

      Liked by 1 person

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