My goal for The Fifth World
involves doing for ecopsychology and deep ecology what Star Trek
did for humanism: using fiction to explore a hopeful vision of the future. In my case, that involves a post-civilized, feral humanity, something in line with some of the ecotopian fiction out there.
I've studied in the past how writing and orality affect the way we think and perceive, so I didn't take it for granted that the traditional story structures came from story itself. On the contrary, I rather assumed they didn't, that they instead came from the structures of written
story specifically. Since so many biases, misconceptions, and assumptions surround so-called "primitive" life, I realized early on that a straight-forward approach would likely not work. Instead, I decided I would need to use the emergent properties of the rules to steer players towards a feral, oral, animist, traditional approach. And for the most part, I think I've succeeded at that better than I really could have hoped for at the outset, but The Fifth World
remains in beta, and some problems continue. High among them this problem of how to push an oral story structure.
I've mentioned before my fascination with Harold Scheub's Story
. He analyzes oral traditions in several African cultures, and identifies the crucial elements of story in these oral traditions.
Story is never simply a cause-and-effect organization of events. It is that, necessarily, but that is not the reason for its existence. We have seen that the narrative is not even the first aspect of storytelling that a child learns: patterning is. To stop with an analysis simply of narrative, and thereby to ignore the more critical aspects of storytelling—emotion, rhythm and pattern, trope—is to dwell on only the most obvious and the simplest aspect of the tradition. It is true, narrative is inviting because it can be studied in an almost mechanical way. It is possible, as Propp has demonstrated, to anticipate the organization of events in a story. The reason for the attractiveness of this one aspect of story is that it can be scientifically analyzed, charted, and graphed. But in the end, it tells little about story." (Scheub, 1998:47)
Scheub argues (convincingly, I think) that in oral tradition, story has more to do with rhythm than with what we would traditionally call "narrative," or the "cause-and-effect organization of events." I think this may speak to one crucial distinction between oral tradition and literature. Usually couched in terms generally derogatory towards oral tradition, orality operates almost like music, seeking rhythm and consistency, glossing over inconsistencies with repetition, whereas the written word invites analysis and structure. I would put it as orality operating in a social context that seeks harmony and agreement, whereas literacy operates outside of a social context, and thus invites criticism. But that trend towards analysis creates a distinctly literate tone. Oral stories set down in writing often seem repetitive and cliche as written stories (read the Illiad
again for examples). But it also means that written stories tend towards more complex structures. Literacy creates the notion of the singular author, and places an emphasis on the individual creativity of that author, expressed in an original work. Oral stories play with rhythm and repetition, which tends generally to create storytellers honored for their ability to use the language of the established oral tradition, its images and themes, to express themselves through rhythm and selection.
Reading Scheub reminded me of something Paul Shepard wrote in Nature and Madness
: "[Music's] physiological effect is to reduce inner tensions by first making them symbolically manifest, then resolving and unifying them." Melodies played together harmonize. Music brings us
into harmony. It allows us first to create a theme for our own divisions by dancing, singing and playing out a specific pattern of our own. As our own singing, dancing and playing harmonize with that of others, we, the singers, dancers and players, synchronize with one another. It creates harmony from discord in more than just the metaphorical sense. Scheub's understanding of story seems similar. We take images instead of notes, using tropes instead of songs, and begin to layer those images one on top of the other, until discordant images harmonize. Stories thus exist to unify the separate, to bring together what we find divided.
Like music, the necessary steps of that give us a set pattern, like the three act structure. We must first introduce the images we mean to reconcile (act one), then the main point of the story of weaving those images together takes place (act two), and then we must finish the work with the final, climatic unity (act three). Just like music must first introduce the themes, then play with the themes, and finally bring those themes together into a conclusion. But this pattern shows you more a by-product of story than the actual function of story, just like music may happen to follow that pattern, but that tells you very little about a piece's real meaning.