2.3 “What did you say?”: The Transformative Power of Oral Storytelling

Question #1: Orality confounding the written word in Robinson’s text.

Stories change in the telling. Somehow, when words leap off the page in the shifting tones of speech, the narrative takes on new meanings and finds new emphasis. I have always been a great lover of the spoken word, and the difference it makes when words are spoken aloud as opposed to being kept inside one’s head never fails to astonish me. My relationship to spoken word vs. written word requires a bit of backstory, so bear with me.

When I was a much smaller creature, my parents read to myself and my siblings almost every night. My dad has the most delicious voice, deep and warm with a soft English accent, cultured from years of actor training. I cherished those storytelling sessions, in which he encouraged audience participation and never failed to do all the voices. Favourites included Roald Dahl’s The BFG, E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories, and a charming translation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, among many other shorter books that he indulgently read to us over and over and over. There’s something special about the repetition and retelling of beloved stories: they contain gems that only reveal themselves upon repeated readings.

He would improvise stories for us, too. “Tell us a story out of your head,” we’d say. “OK, give me some ingredients,” he would say, before weaving a narrative out of the bizarre assortment of ‘ingredients’ we would provide for him.

Upon rereading The Hobbit recently, I experienced a strange meeting of familiarity and alienation. Here was the story I knew and loved, prompting déjà vu and a several conversations with my father recalling that time together, but it was different. Somehow, in its text form, I was able to gather more information, but less of the feeling of the work. I had a greater understanding of the psychology of Bilbo’s adventure, but somehow less of the sweep of the adventure itself. This is especially apparent in “Riddles in the Dark,” the chapter in which Bilbo meets Gollum. I found a recording of Tolkien himself reading the chapter, and what a difference it makes to hear it aloud, instead of in the lonely confines of one’s own head!

My father, among other things, is an actor and a performer of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. More than any other poetry I’ve ever encountered, this work begs to be heard aloud. As he has the vast majority of Hopkins’ work memorised, my father and I would go for long walks in the fields near our house in England and pick them apart line by line, discovering new meanings and connections every time. There’s something in the sweep and sound of the words in the air that brings the poetry to life. On the page, the poetry is difficult, dense, and somewhat inaccessible, but as soon as it is heard aloud, it touches something deeper than its literal meaning can ever achieve. (And yes, that’s my Dad reading the poem)
As I have continued to fall deeper in love with literature and performance, my dad and I continue to read and discuss poetry together. I took a course on Milton’s Paradise Lost last year and we read it aloud to each other over Skype, and we have plans to do the same for Dante’s Inferno.

All this brings me (finally) to Thomas King, Harry Robinson, and Coyote.


The first thing that struck me upon looking at “Coyote Makes a Deal with the King of England,” was that it has been arranged on the page like poetry, in short lines with plenty of enjambment. Immediately, I took this as a cue to slow down as I read it, to treat it as poetry wherein every word matters, every punctuation mark and every turn of phrase is significant.

As I read, however, I found myself tripping up on the unconventional use of language, the colloquial phrases and ever-shifting pronouns that sometimes make it hard to determine the subject. I had a hard time following the story, and my brain kept trying to keep track of the narrative’s inconsistent timeline and the tiny details of the story.

As soon as I read it out loud, however, and even more so when I had a friend read it to me, the words took on a new quality. All of a sudden the minute details didn’t matter so much, and the shape of the story – how it dips, loops back on itself, and develops – became clearer. Its layout on the page changes the way it is read aloud in a way that would not normally be such a significant part of textual stories, forcing more pauses and different emphasis. As Thomas King mentions in his article “Godzilla vs. Post-Colonial,” “the patterns, metaphors, structures as well as the themes and characters” in Robinson’s text “come primarily from oral literature,” which explains why it is so much more accessible in oral form (186).

The intersection between written and spoken stories is complicated further, of course, by the story’s content. Here we are, confronted with an oral voice in text form, and, what’s more, “an oral syntax that defeats readers’ efforts to read the stories silently to themselves, a syntax that encourages readers to read the stories out loud,” telling a story that speaks of the validity of textual documents (King 186). It’s confounding to encounter a story that has orality at its core but champions the authority of the written word. The law, the “Black and White,” is official precisely because it is written in books and preserved for centuries not through words and stories passed from one generation to another in oral form, but in writing that remains unchanged and constant.

Furthermore, the unconventional use of pronouns – shifting from “he” and “they” for example – challenges the mind of a reader like myself so used to European literature and form. Perhaps, the use of “they” in reference to Coyote, the King, the Queen, God, and others, reminds us that there really is no one subject, no protagonist, and no separation between them either. The subject becomes a little more vague, but this allows a greater flexibility in which the reader can learn to understand the subject as simply a part of the whole. Coyote is God, is the Angel, is the Queen, etc. Perhaps we’re not as separate as we like to believe, perhaps the European settlers and the Indigenous people really are twins. When I encountered this in written form, it confused me. When I heard it read aloud, it took on a new meaning and I understood a new facet of the story world.

This is just one small example of the possibilities inherent in the tension between written and spoken words. One is not more affecting than the other, but they have different qualities. The written word has the power to preserve stories that would otherwise be lost, an endeavour that was extremely important to the aging Harry Robinson who “perceived his death as a blow to the process of storytelling” and who worked hard to record and translate the stories so that they were accessible to a wide audience (Robinson 29). Oral tellings, on the other hand, keep the stories fresh and current, as each telling situates them within a contemporary context, and helps to maintain the connections between past and present. Robinson’s text provides a fascinating view of the intersections between the two forms, and the practice of presenting written stories out loud and oral stories on the page opens up opportunities for finding more common ground between cultures.

Works Cited:

“Gerard Manley Hopkins.” The Poetry Foundation. Web. 26 June 2014.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “The Windhover.” Bartleby. Web. 27 June 2014.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “”The Windhover” read by Richard Austin.” Victorian Web. http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/hopkins/windhover3.html. Web. 27 June 2014.

“J. R. R. Tolkien reads “Riddles in the Dark” (Whole – 29:52).” Online video clip. Youtube. YouTube, 5 Feb 2013. Web. 26 June 2014.

King, Thomas. “Godzilla Vs. Post-Colonial.” Unhomely States: Theorizing English-Canadian Postcolonialism. Mississauga, ON: Broadview, 2004. 183-190. Print.

Robinson, Harry. Living By Stories: A Journey of Landscape and Memory. Ed. Wendy Wickwire. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2005. Print.


1 Thought.

  1. Hi Jess,
    I loved reading about your connection to oral stories, it set up for the second half of your blog rather nicely.
    A comment on the tension between written and oral stories-
    Oral stories demand for you to be present. As it is unlike a written story, where you can go back and re-read a paragraph if you get distracted, an oral story changes in time, as you mentioned in your last paragraph.
    So I guess my question is- do you think the act of being present has evolved over the years as well?

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