It would be difficult to imagine what human life would be like
without stories-from myths recited by Pueblo Indian healers in the
kiva, ballads sung in Slovenian market squares, folktales and
legends told by the fireside in Italy, to jokes told at a dinner
table in Des Moines-for it is chiefly through storytelling that
people possess a past.
In Homo Narrans John D. Niles explores how human beings
shape their world through the stories they tell. The book vividly
weaves together the study of Anglo-Saxon literature and culture
with the author's own engagements in the field with some of the
greatest twentieth-century singers and storytellers in the Scottish
tradition. Niles ponders the nature of the storytelling impulse,
the social function of narrative, and the role of individual talent
in oral tradition. His investigation of the poetics of oral
narrative encompasses literary works, such as the epic poems and
hymns of early Greece and the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf, texts
that we know only through written versions but that are grounded in
That all forms of narrative, even the most sophisticated genres of
contemporary fiction, have their ultimate origin in storytelling is
a point that scarcely needs to be argued. Niles's claims here are
more ambitious: that oral narrative is and has long been the chief
basis of culture itself, that the need to tell stories is what
distinguishes humans from all other living creatures.
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