If you had walked round my school when I was a small boy you would have noticed the occasional silent classroom where the children were seated on the floor and paying complete attention to their teacher’s words. Very little consideration would have been required for you to realise that they were being told a story. What is a story? The recounting of a series of events which are logically linked and given in temporal order. Stories are often set in the past and satisfactory examples almost always involve people or at least anthropomorphized animals. The events within the story are the ‘plots’ and it seems that there are really very few basic plots. Small children naturally need a clue that they are about to hear a story and in English the words ‘once upon a time’ act as a suitable preamble and have not yet been entirely superseded by ‘long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away’. Even traditional stories leave a little room for innovation by the narrator, but exactly how much is debatable. In a domestic setting too much deviation from the received text is likely to provoke the age old cry of ‘tell the story properly daddy’.
Adults tend to regard ‘stories’ as fictions and for this reason I shall now switch to using the alternative term narrative. Narratives can certainly be fictitious, or factual, or contain elements of both. They are not identical to myths, which seem to be intended to offer an explanation for a custom, belief or tradition in the society concerned, and to have a supernatural element. Nor are they legends, in which incredible events are linked with the names of genuine historical individuals. Theseus kills the Minotaur in a myth, and King Alfred burns the cakes in a legend. There are risks here. Two separate ethnic groups may have individual origin myths which appear to give them both the ‘right’ to the same piece of land.
Most people who have considered the question do not see the role of a narrative as simply the provision of entertainment. Even in our literate society children’s narratives provide much of our shared cultural heritage. How else would we know that King Arthur pulled his sword from a stone or that outlaws in Sherwood Forest robbed the rich and gave to the poor? Teaching society’s expectations by means of the behaviour of characters in a narrative was a situation familiar to Norse and Anglo-Saxon poets. It is also a common device in the New Testament where the events within parables are intended to be easily understood and ethically instructive.
Personally I am perfectly happy to hear fictitious or factual narratives but I am made uncomfortable by blurring the distinction between the two. There was a short novel, made into an extremely successful film, entitled Picnic at Hanging Rock. In this a group of Australian school girls go for a walk with a teacher and several mysteriously disappear. Later one reappears but can give very little explanation of what had happened. The story purports to be a series of true events, but is in fact totally fictitious. I found it extremely unsatisfactory. The ‘real’ world is certainly full of inexplicable events and unresolved enigmas. It is a world in which people can indeed vanish without satisfactory explanation. However the world of fiction exists only in the author’s mind. In my estimation fictitious narratives should retain an internal logical consistency and many, including myself, look for an ending that resolves all apparent contradictions. Not for nothing do the authors of detective stories eschew murderers who have not previously been introduced in the text, or rare and untraceable South American toxins.
Narratives concerning a great religious figure or leader are a rather special case. It seems that all people of this type acquire a collection of tales which exhibit aspects of their wisdom or beliefs about the world. There is absolutely no way in which it can be determined if these are based on actual events or not. My own feeling is that this uncertainty does not matter in the slightest. The parable of the good Samaritan tells us how we should behave and how, in a time of necessity, we may receive help from where we least expect it. Whether there was ever once a road along which one could go down from Jerusalem to Jericho scarcely matters. Such narratives also indicate what type of behaviour could be plausibly believed about the leader in question. The gospel stories strongly suggest that whatever the actual events the evangelists, and their readers, considered it quite credible for Jesus to be kind to children, or to talk wisely to centurions in the street and to women at wells.
A great many stories are told concerning the Buddha. There is one that as a parent I find deeply sad but also wholly true. I have heard a number of slightly different versions, one of which is recounted by Sir Edwin Arnold in his Light of Asia. The parable concerns a mother whose cherished only son had been bitten by a snake and had died. Her neighbours told that the only help she could expect was from the teacher in the yellow robe. In her despair she had come to the Buddha, carrying the dead body, and said: ‘Master, do you know any medicine that will bring my child back to life?’ The Buddha looked at the mother with gentle eyes and said ‘yes, but you need to bring me a handful of black mustard seed from a house where it is freely given to you and where no child nor parent nor servant has died.’ So she frantically wandered from house to house. Everywhere she told her sad story and everywhere she found people anxious to help by giving her the mustard seeds, for the poor show pity to the poor. But when she asked about deaths in their houses they grew sad and could only report the loss of their own children and friends and family. Throughout the entire town not one single house could she find into which death had not entered at some time or another. Overwhelmed by her grief she returned to the Buddha and asked where she could find seeds not associated with death. His answer was: ‘my sister, I would poor out my blood if it could help you search for that which none finds; today you know that the world weeps with your loss which is a grief that all hearts share. Now bury your child’.
I hardly need to comment on the meaning of this narrative. Through a simple story we learn that experiencing the loss of someone dear is a common human property which can never be wholly escaped. We also learn that however willing our neighbours what we ask of them may be beyond their capacity. I would add that I feel that if Buddha and Jesus had ever had occasion to meet they might not have found that they had a great deal to argue about.