A Story About Stories

This is a piece I performed for the Northcote Storyteller’s Club today. It’s been an odd day, preceded by an even odder night – but that’s another story.

I hope you enjoy it, whoever you are. The first part is a long and rambling semi-justification for the story that follows. It’s based on the recent crash-landing of US Airways flight 1549 into the icy Hudson River in New York City.

Northcote Storytellers Gig 2009-01-18

I’m an avid consumer of the news. I consume the news in the same way some people smoke cigarettes. If I have a moment of boredom, I take a long slow drag on international politics and forget about my own troubles for a while. And that pretty much tells you how relevant the informational component of modern news is to our own lives.

But there’s something vaguely unsatisfying about it. Something in the cruelty and randomness of reality that makes news stories less like a long slow drink of water and more like a shot of tequila. News is not contemplative. Journalist’s attempts to draw lessons from it are straightjacketed by the facts. The universality of the tale is quashed because you can’t legitimately retell it in each culture’s own context. If George W. Bush says something horrible that highlights a flaw in the modern democratic systems, and Australians journalists reported it as if Kevin Rudd had said that, there would be hell to pay.

So in order to make these global “important” stories work everywhere they have to be amped up for each market and demographic by swirling computer images and aggravated talk show pundits. The importance and universality of these stories is painstakingly carved by news reporters out of a reality that is far more arbitrary, cruel and random than anyone would like to admit. And the end result is that we’re left feeling a little bit confused and powerless, where a really good yarn might show us how to apply a lesson in our own lives.

So as the bulk of our stories have moved from the exaggeration and customisation of a thousand retellings in a hundred languages to the shoehorning of facts into a compelling narrative that you can maybe sorta kinda draw a lesson from, has anything been lost?

Uh, yes. Look at what happened to the Bible when it went from stories to news.

What I find absolutely fascinating about the Bible is that clearly it went through decades or centuries of oral retellings and written versions, along the way making Christianity one of the world’s more powerful and interesting and relevant religions, until someone decided there ought to be a canonical version. “That’s about fantastical enough! Leave in the bit about the fish, take out the bit about turning a little girl’s ears into legs, and let’s call it version 1 point oh. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The Gospel of Ted is too saucy, The Gospel of Steve tells people to ignore the Romans and concentrate on building really nice gardens, and Joanna’s gospel has all those tacky rhyming couplets that will be a bitch to translate.”

Incidentally, the way they selected which Gospels to include way more stupid and arbitrary than that: A Greek guy called Irenaeus, tasked around 150 AD with creating a canonical Bible, decided they should select four gospels from the many available, because there are four corners of the earth, four winds, and four beasts of the apocalypse. The first is completely wrong, the second is a useless simplification, and the third won’t matter until 2011. What an entirely appropriate way to turn an oral tradition into canon, and thus fiction into fact.

And so it was pretty much at that point that the Bible started becoming increasingly boring and irrelevant, and began being enforced by the sword as much as the word. Without being allowed to fundamentally alter in the retelling, it became increasingly difficult for the Bible stories to stay relevant and exciting. Who’s to say that if the Bible had been allowed to evolve as much in its later years as it did in the earlier ones, we not might have had Jesus riding dirt-bikes and making base-jumping to rescue a box of kittens from a runaway speedboat?

So what I want to start today’s news down the road, to retell it in a style that gives it a little room to breathe and grow and come to life. And, since most of the news we hear is so far away and disconnected from our own lives anyway, I reckon this makes the news more accurate and useful.

The Hungry Dragon

There once was a hungry dragon. He ate and ate and ate. He ate the earth to fill his belly, and he ate the air to fill his lungs, but no matter what he ate, the dragon was still hungry.

Every morning at 8am the dragon would taxi out of his cave, his tummy rumbling, his mouths yawning, his tail roaring and his wingtips blinking, for he was hideously deformed and everything was in the wrong place. And he would summon the local chieftains.

And the dragon would ask the chieftains to whisper in his ear and tell him where to fly, for the dragon was blind from his many deformities.

This had been happening for many years. When they were young, the chieftains would fly on the dragon for the sheer joy of being up in the air and surveying their beautiful village. The dragon was young and lithe. He would swoop high in the air and low to the ground. The chieftains would describe for him the world that lay below, the peasants waving from their sunlit fields of corn and orchards of fruit, the church steeple that seemed so high from the ground but so small from the sky, and in his mind the dragon could picture it all, and they were happy.

One day, the wealthiest villagers approached the chieftains and asked if they could climb on the dragons back and fly across the land so they could sell their wares to distant villages.

At first, the chieftains were taken aback. “It’s just for fun”, or “It’s too dangerous”, they would say to one rich man. “It would take too much food, and would make the dragon tired”, they told another.

But over time, the chieftains grew bored, and they grew greedy, and they got mortgages just before the market dipped, and they agreed to take just one or two of the wealthy villagers on the hungry dragon’s back in return for some gold.

This went on for many years, and as time went by and the village grew larger, more and more villagers wanted to climb on the dragon’s back, and the chieftans wanted more and more money.

To convince the dragon to fly ever further, they had to feed more earth into his belly , and more air into his lungs. The dragon grew larger and more deformed, and the chieftains wore silly hats and name tags and stayed in exclusive lounges with free filter coffee and 148 cable channels wherever they went, and the back of his head was painted white and PG-rated films were projected onto it, and some of the wealthiest and most self-important villagers paid ten times as much to sit near the front in a different coloured seat with a cup-holder, and the dragon got fatter and hungrier and fatter and hungrier.

Until one day, much like the previous day and the one before that, at 8am the dragon taxi’d out of his cave. The chieftains climbed onto his neck and whispered in his ear while the wealthy villagers snuck onto his back and flicked absent-mindedly through a dog-eared copy of yesterday’s Wall Street Journal.

And once the chieftains had filled his belly with earth, they ordered the dragon up into the sky to fill his lungs with air.

On this day the dragon was hungrier than ever, and as he rose above the earth he smelled something. It was more delicious than earth, and more substantial than air, and without even a single thought he dove straight for it. It was a flock of geese.

The dragon opened his roaring mouths and filled them with delicious geese. He filled them and filled them until they stuck in his throat and he lost consciousness and he fell towards the earth.

At this point, nothing the chieftains could do made any difference. They shouted in his ear and pulled at his wings but the most they could manage to do was turn him away from the earth and towards a wide but cold river.

With a terrifying splash the dragon dove into the icy water. It filled his nostrils and his throat, washing away the flock of geese and decades of earth and his mind regained consciousness in a snap as his body experienced a completely new sensation. And for the very first time in his life, the dragon felt completely at peace, and he bobbed in the river, slowly sinking down and filling himself with the icy water as they wealthy villagers scrambled from his back.

And before he finally drowned, the hungry dragon had one last, long, slow, satisfied thought:

“Oh! That was the problem! I was thirsty!”

4 thoughts on “A Story About Stories

  1. trav

    heh, nice story. I’m not sure what the lesson it tells us is… maybe drink more water before flying?

    The discussion before the story is also quite an interesting concept.
    In some ways I agree that for the purposes of delivering moral lessons stories should not be constrained by factual occurrences, however I’d also say that the purpose of the news paper isn’t really to deliver that sort of lesson (except maybe through editorials and/or talk pages) but more to simply notify people of things that have occurred and let people draw their own conclusions.

    The fact that journalists believe they have to teach a lesson out of their stories is mostly something to satisfy their own ego, letting them believe their job is more important than it is.


  2. I see your point, but what I was trying to say (ham-fistedly) was that there is a spectrum of relevance and applicability with a story that roughly corresponds to distance.

    News that happens, say, in Melbourne is highly relevant to us. It affects people we know, in a culture we understand. The information is often immediately applicable in terms of changed behaviours.

    Most news that happens way off overseas, no matter how compelling, either has a long-delayed effect or none at all, and this when combined with the cultural and language barriers renders most of this sort of news an unsatisfying hybrid of tall tale and useless factoid.

    It’s just a shame, I think, that it’s considered such a news faux pas to twist the facts to make them more useful to people 😉


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