J.C. Renoux, The Art of Telling Stories (2005)

L’art de conter: la pratique et le répertoire du conteur

I borrowed this book on a whim at the library and it was like an Internet rabbit hole, but on paper, which is way more cool in my perspective. I don’t even know where to start for my American readers, but perhaps I should explain the title of the book and it would make its purpose clearer.

“Conte” in French is more ancient than stories, it could be translated as fairy tales but the fairies are not always present. We include myths, legends, folktales from the antiquity to the contemporary period. And “conteur” is a professional storyteller. How does one make a living being a storyteller in France, you may ask? One tours the libraries and try to get subsidized to run community projects at primary schools (schools in France start at 3, the perfect age for hearing stories) or in family-friendly fairs. I’ve taken my kids to such performances, indoors and outdoors, and I love them. (I suspect that it is really tough making good money on this line of business, don’t idealize it…)

The author of this book is such a professional, operating in the South of France (which has a long oral tradition) and he insists that his art is not like an actor’s (although I do think that the ones I saw were probably actors of street theater doing this as a side gig). The storyteller works with existing myths and he knows about the structure of traditional tales, but he can use these tools to create new stories on his own or with kids.

This is where Renoux pushed me hard down into the rabbit hole: there were pages about the structure of myths and the categorization of stories done by 20C researchers. I learnt quite a bit about the Aarne Thompson index, which literally blew my mind… (inserted several hours into Wikipedia) I knew that people had collected stories, but I had no idea that people had indexed them! (I have never studied anthropology or sociology but those domains fascinate me). Apparently when a storyteller is pitching a performance to customers, he refers to this index (is that for real? I have a hard time imagining the job interview: “are you doing mostly ATU 300? We were looking for ATU 100 or 200 at most…” Or maybe that’s the way it goes?).

The book also showcases a few tales by Renoux or others (and how they fit into one or several categories of the ATU index), and some stories that he created together with some classes.

I had to give the book back early to the library because of our summer trip but I’ll dig in deeper coming fall. It also interests me as a writer, to be able to recognize patterns (one would say tropes? or is it differen?) and structures in traditional stories. In the past I have invented many stories at bedtime for my sons (often because we had finished all the available books) and I know for a fact that it’s not so easy to find a satisfactory pace and balance in a story even if you have the “right” ingredients (the prince, the dragon and the evil witch…).

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