Parallel lines

How many narratives are there, and how are they put together? Why are we often satisfied with some stories which, when described, sound trite or clichéd while other more complex tales, more diffuse or with an unexpected ending, fail to please or even prove unwelcome? Are we doomed to merely know what we like and to only like what we know?

I ask all these questions because I sometimes find different fictions I come across — and occasionally even non-fiction narratives — following parallel paths towards a similar conclusion even though they may not be obviously related in any way. And it turns out I may like them equally well even while unaware of those similarities, possibly because I’ve subconsciously recognised that they follow patterns that I find familiar. What might the impulse be that unites so many plots that superficially appear dissimilar?

I’ve read a few studies in my time about how stories are structured. There is the Aarne-Thompson tale types classification (named after Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson, subsequently refined by Hans-Jörg Uther) which undertook to analyse folk narratives around the world, finding many commonalities; most discussion of folk- and fairytales refers to this system. There is Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale (1928) based on analysis of classic Russian fairytales, which I found strangely alluring despite its complexity.

I’ve also read Eugène Dorfman’s The Narreme in the Medieval Romance Epic: An Introduction to Narrative Structure (1971), which examines how many medieval romances appear to follow similar structural patterns. Then there’s Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) which tried to include all culture hero tales in a schema he called the monomyth. We mustn’t forget Christopher Booker’s often irritating study The Seven Basic Plots (2004) which attributed the success of many narratives to their following a limited number of templates, sometimes singly and at other times in combination.

So many approaches, so few answers in common. Is there another way to come at these conundrums, or at least suggest an alternative approach to why we seek out and enjoy particular patterns?

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Dark and dreary

Mist in the Black Mountains

Be still, sad heart, and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.

Every age must feel, at some time, that sense that the days are not only dark and dreary but that they will stretch on for ever. So it must seem in much of the world as 2017 draws to a close, seasonal warmth and cheer notwithstanding. Longfellow in ‘The Rainy Day’ tried to lighten the sad heart by telling us that the sun still shines behind the clouds but it’s hard to summon any optimism in these days of depressing rolling news and indignant instant media.

Emily Brontë’s ‘To Imagination’ has pre-echoes of some of our own despair — “so hopeless is the world without” with its “guile, and hate, and doubt, and cold suspicion” — but holds within it seeds to lighten the heart a little more than the promise of future sunnier weather: seeds of friendship and imagination:

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Winterlude

In case you were wondering I’ve not gone away.

(Of course, you may not have noticed.)

Life has been a bit hectic. If I ever was in any doubt, being retired is no holiday — not if I want to live a little. Well, live a lot.

In no particular order, here are some of the things I’ve been involved in over the last few weeks.

1. Playing the keyboard part in a Haydn Mass for a Sunday service in a local medieval church. (PS: it boasts a hollow yew tree said to be two millennia old.)
2. Accompanying the local choral society for rehearsals, leading to a concert in Brecon Cathedral where I sang in the tenor section. (This featured the Mass in D by Dvorak, Haydn’s Te Deum and choruses from Handel’s Israel in Egypt.)
3. Attending Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra rehearsals, playing the piano part, and performing in two concerts. (Film music by John Williams — 85 this year — was the theme, including items from The Cowboys, Warhorse, Jurassic Park: The Lost World and E.T., plus selections from Episodes IV, V and VII of Star Wars.)
4. Accompanying a student performing for the opening of a Confucius Classroom in a local school. (The goal of this UCL Institute of Education initiative is to help local schools to start or strengthen the teaching of Chinese language and culture.)
5. Accompanying students for instrumental exams. (Cello, violin and euphonium, since you ask.)
6. Conducting the local choral society performing a capella carols around the town. (And if it wasn’t for a recent heavy dump of snow which led to cancellation, I’d’ve today been singing with another choir a concert of Advent music by Praetorius,  Gabrieli and other contemporaries, all accompanied by sackbuts and a cornett.)
7. Not all activities have been musical: I’ve been clearing a wild patch of ground of vegetation and rubbish so we can do something with it in the coming year, and we’ve attended a couple of events in Hay Festival’s Winter Weekend. (Hay-on-Wye is one of the globe’s Town of Books, running a famous literary festival every summer.)

There we have it: a busy few weeks which has precluded much blogging. I can’t guarantee there’ll be much literary blogging this side of Christmas, or anything but random following of fellow bloggers’ posts.

But I’ll try. 🙂

Hibernation ends

This is a brief shout-out for Zenrinji, a sister blog dedicated to short form creative writing. This includes examples of haiku and senryu (Japanese micropoetry that partly inspired the name of the blog), limericks and doggerel of various kinds; and also so-called flash fiction, which features short stories of varied length but mostly under about 200 words, along with choice quotes and maybe even the occasional piquant observation!

Zenrinji has been brought out of a summer hibernation (just in time for the winter months, as it happens) but I aim to be less ambitious than when I started it: a haiku a day was the original description, but that discipline soon fell by the wayside.

Background to the blog can be found here https://zenrinji.wordpress.com/about/ but feel free to comment, positively or otherwise; that way I won’t feel I’m broadcasting out into the farthest reaches of space as my personal contribution to the CETI project.*


* Communication with extraterrestrial intelligence

Break

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c.1555 (oil on canvas) after Bruegel, Pieter the Elder (Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels)

A temporary post to let regular readers know I shall be offline for a little while — but not to worry! I shall return in due course with, hopefully, further goodies. Like Icarus in Pieter Bruegel’s painting my disappearance will hardly be noticed in the general scheme of things — but, unlike Icarus, I hope to swim back to the land of blogging. The odd post has been scheduled for my absence, but don’t be surprised if you don’t get any immediate feedback to your responses …

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Blogs I follow (5)

Fireworks [credit: Jon Sullivan, Public Domain]

We come now to the final instalment of my miniseries Blogs I follow, where you lovely people — fellow bloggers and visitors — get a view of what gets my attention on WordPress. This post represents a miscellany of weblog thingies that don’t fit either comfortably or conveniently into those categories I’ve previously examined, namely creative, book reviews, and bookish matters. So without further ado let’s jump in, with the usual caveat that there’s no ranking implied in the order they appear.

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