Untold Tales

A lifelong Doctor Who fan, I was saddened by the death of actress Elisabeth Sladen in 2011. For those not in the know, she was one of the most popular female companions to have appeared on the show, accompanying Jon Pertwee and later Tom Baker ~ she even had her own short lived spin off show back in the day. When the series was revived, she returned to make a guest appearance alongside David Tennant before being given a successful spin-off on children’s TV. She led a gang of teenagers who defended the Earth from alien threats. The teenagers were an ethnically diverse bunch but, in reading about the actress the other day, I was surprised to find that they would have become even more divers, had not Ms Sladen’s untimely death lead to the cancellation of the show. The teenager who played her adopted son, Luke, was scheduled to come out as gay in a future episode. It was surprising to read that this would have made Luke the one of the first gay central characters in any BBC children’s show.
All of which may seem neither here nor there to many readers, however TV shows are simply one of the latest incarnations of the storyteller’s art. Child-focussed stories are, perhaps, amongst the most important types of narrative because we are at our most impressionable when we hear them.
Stories aren’t just a way of keeping kids quiet, or sending the little sods to sleep. They tell children who they are in ways that far too many adults have forgotten. Little girls learn what it is to be women and boys men. Adults sensitive to this have realised that a poor choice of story can actually be quite damaging. Many fairy tales date back hundreds of years and exhibit rather dated views of women, in which they lead lives of submissive obedience and drudgery from which they only ever escape if they marry a rich man. Feminist writers have revised many of these old tales (or produced completely new ones) in which the heroines are feisty and sort their own problems out. If there is a romance, then it is on more equal terms.
We can argue as to what has the greatest impact ~ fictional role models or the actual flesh and blood people to whom we are exposed. Common sense suggests it should be the latter but, for those of us who grew up with less-than-inspirational role model, the tendency to find solace in characters from books, TV shows etc. becomes quite strong.
Which segues us back to Sarah Jane Smith and her gang of investigators. To have a poor role model can be quite destructive to growing minds, but to have no models at all can be even more so. Society sometimes chooses to ignore those subgroups which it wishes didn’t exist.
My primary experience of this is being gay, though it clearly applies to other “invisible” groups. In these days of Pride Marches and the like it may seem strange to talk about LGBT people being invisible, but these are very recent developments and for a good few centuries since first Christianity, and then Islam, got their stranglehold on so many societies, we have been swept under the carpet.
After a person has read or heard a thousand and one stories, none of which feature anybody like them, then not only does one flounder for a role model whilst young, but one feels increasingly irrelevant in later life.
I don’t wish to blame monotheist religions entirely for this, because it has become a pervasive attitude. Since the days of Darwin science has determinedly argued that the chief point of existence is to replicate one’s genes in the next generation. If that isn’t a story that swiftly devalues all non-breeders, I don’t know what is.
I have written before about the need to (re)create stories for Gods whose original tales have long since been lost. The same might be said of groups of people who either never appeared in stories in the first place, or who were deliberately edited out of them. This latter issue is, perhaps, worth a brief reflection ~ because the power to edit is the power to control. We might well ask: who controls stories in a given culture?
Within revealed religions it is frequently a priesthood or equivalent that regulates the written word ~ both the primary source and the latter histories, hagiographies and whatnot that coagulate around the central text. Within some pagan traditions there is a body of mythological texts ~ sometimes recorded by outside agencies (monastic scribes etc.) and sometimes by actual believers, such the works of Homer, Hesiod etc.
Commentators have noted that these written texts often reflect both a specific class and gender view. In most societies, up until very recently, only the wealthy could afford to be literate and then usually only men. So a great many religious and mythological texts are written by educated men receiving their funding from the upper classes. It is only comparatively recently that people such as the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, and Alexander Carmichael began to catalogue the tales and songs of the common folk (many of whom have been women). How close the tales that appear in anthologies are to the original ones told around kitchen tables or in taverns, it is seldom possible to say any more.
The rich and powerful wished to hear tales of deities that founded cities and guarded dynasties; the poor spoke about fairies that helped or hindered crops, cattle or childbirth. Whilst they are tales about the entities important to each class, they are also accounts of the class themselves.
Stories have a life of their own. They want to be told. If we do not tell our own tales, someone else (maybe someone who hates us) will tell them for us in their own way. So finding and owning our own tales is key to developing a deeper sense of who we are, one that exists on our own terms rather than someone else’s.

Comments

  1. Great article. I think the longevity of the lasting tales is based on the way they speak to the souls of so many people on a deep level. So the question is how to quest new tales, from the land, about the gods and from personal experience that work a similar effect. How to write a new poem or story that will stand alongside an ancient myth, classic fairytale or story of Robin Hood? Not easy.

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  2. Not easy at all. Dickens managed it with 'A Christmas Carol'. I sometimes think that there is little or no way to direct the passage of the Muse. She (or he) alights where it will.

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