The storyteller is the story


This image by the Dutch artist Cor Blok shows Gandalf (the White, after his death and resurrection) relating the story of his battle with the balrog to Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli. On the wizard’s body one can see various episodes from his chase and struggle with the balrog, from the lowest depths of Moria, where strange creatures dwell in the darkness, up the Endless Stair, to the highest peak of Silvertine. Gandalf’s conical hat doubles as the peak on which he wrestles with his enemy and finally casts him down, after which he is rescued by the eagle Gwaihir the Windlord.

When I first encountered Blok’s illustrations for Tolkien’s work, I wasn’t sure what to think of them. They’re not at all in the heroic mode of artists like the Brothers Hildebrandt, which was the art I first encountered on calendars and the like when I first fell in love with Tolkien’s work in the 1970’s. I liked illustrations that matched the grand, epic feel of the book. Blok’s work looked a little too, well, childish.

It was this particular image that won me over to Blok’s vision of The Lord of the Rings. It’s a vision that doesn’t try to illustrate so much as suggest. And what this particular image suggests to me is the archetypal figure of the Storyteller.

There’s a truth about storytelling depicted here: that the story and the storyteller are really one. A story is not something a storyteller just spins out of nothing, or reels off like a tape recorder. Storytellers carry their stories with them, sometimes for many years, and the shape and events of their lives help to shape their stories. The same story told by three different storytellers would of course become three very different stories. Just as a dancer is her dance, a storyteller is his stories. And this is true of all of us, even if we don’t think of ourselves as storytellers.

For me, the fact that my stories are part of me, physically, is most obvious when the story I have to tell is a difficult or painful one. At those times, like Gandalf wrestling with the balrog, I can feel myself, my body, struggling to get the story out.

Try this: the next time someone tells you a story, even if it’s just an “ordinary” story about the odd encounter they had on the bus this morning, or the dumb thing their cat did yesterday, pay close attention to how the person’s body contributes to the telling: facial expressions, gestures, movements. Sometimes you notice that the story the person is telling with their words is not at all the same story their body is telling. 

The next time you tell someone a story, notice where in your body the story seems to be coming from -- it might not be just from inside your head.

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