The oldest story in the World, intriguing… How many ancient tales survive among our own nation? Very few.
Once there would have been more, but while printing saved stories, it lost them too by its silence, so the first printers gave new life to the Canterbury Tales, they ignored peasant stories, which have been lost. One 15th century writer said he would pass over in disdain such traditions ‘Concerning Wade and his bote called Guingelot, and also his strange exploits in the same’ but what is this lost tradition? Soon came the Reformation, and old, heathenish stories were cast out deliberately. It was a blessing to the nation overall, but incalculable loss to our folklore.
Writing discourages the oral transmission of stories, perhaps because we look to the page for confirmation, perhaps because those written down lose their vitality when nailed to paper, perhaps because the old is drowned in the huge volume of new, printed stories. Many of our traditional fairy takes survive only because the Brothers Grimm hunted them down in the forests of Germany and Walt Disney committed them to film. We have a lot to thank Mr Disney for if the opposite of ‘Disneyfication’ of stories is losing them entirely from our consciousness.
The oral tradition is stronger than a book-bound people can imagine. The Book People at the end of Fahrenheit 451 are a fantasy suggested by oral stories but are actually celebrating the written word. We are Book People. Beyond our paper culture, the story long handed down is a phenomenon.
For bookless people, a story is more immediate. When John Ross moored his ship further north in the Arctic than any ship had hitherto sailed, the local Eskimos told his crew of another fleet which had visited them, and recounted all the detail as if it had been yesterday: but it was Martin Frobisher’s fleet of three hundred years before.
Britain has some older stories surviving from a distant age, like those of Beowulf, and the lively tales of the Mabinogion, which would have been lost if not written down. Ours is a young nation, of just fifteen centuries or so. Beowulf is but a youngster, and the older stories it recounts, of the Volsings and of Waldere reaching into pan-Germanic legend, are wet behind the ears compared with the classics. We have some older snippets – the legend of the Lady of the Lake, who wed her suitor on condition that she be touched with no thing of iron, may come from the collision of the Bronze with the incoming Iron Age. Even this story is young.
The Trojan War reaches deep into the Bronze Age. The names of Graeco-Roman deities can be traced to the early Indo-European languages, but not their legends. The Bible reaches back to Creation itself, but the earliest actual stories are of the Bronze Age, and in parallel the earliest written stories from Babylon and the east tell of the great flood, which happened millennia ago in many places across the world.
We can tell stories that are written in the landscape, as Rudyard Kipling did of his beloved Sussex, and wind yarns about the bits of history we know and the castles, the carved hillsides and the ancient standing stones, but this is not a living story of those times.
See you the dimpled track that runs, All hollow through the wheat?
O that was where they hauled the guns That smote King Philip’s fleet!…
And see you, after rain, the trace Of mound and ditch and wall?
O that was a Legion’s camping-place, When Caesar sailed from Gaul!
And see you marks that show and fade, Like shadows on the Downs?
O they are the lines the Flint Men made, To guard their wondrous towns!
In Australia there are tribal tales that have no dates and were not written down, until white anthropologists passed by. We may think of Australia as young, but its native people had the place for untold ages without interference.
There is in Victoria a mountain called Mount Eccles with a slot-like crater lake in its heart, and around it a wet landscape, inhabited since tie beyond estimation by the Gunditjmara tribe, and they have a creation story of the High Head emerging from the earth, spreading his blood and teeth across the landscape and creating the wetlands, just as the lava did when Mount Eccles erupted. Stone tools have been found buried in ash from that time, so the people were already here. The thing is, the scientific data for the eruption puts it at 36,900 years ago, when even in Europe the Old Stone Age hunters were still wandering an untamed continent.
It is unimaginable that a story could be told uninterrupted since Palaeolithic times, but somehow among a tribe in a once forgotten continent there is proof of a form of immortality of the spoken word.
- The Oldest Stories in the World by Theodor H Gaster
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
- Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of Our Forests and Fairytales by Sara Maitland
- Puck of Pook’s Hill by Rudyard Kipling
- Rewards and Fairies (sequel) by Rudyard Kipling
- Beowulf: J R R Tolkein edition
- The Tain
- The Mabinogion (Gwyn Jones ed.)
- Northumberland Folk Tales by Malcolm Green