I had a story ready for Story Night but didn’t tell it as there were many other people keen to take up the opportunity of telling. I saved the story up and it became the focus of our workshop last weekend. The subject of the workshop was tests and how they feature so often in stories, traditional stories anyway. I was particularly interested to explore whether the test has a similar role and importance to play in our contemporary stories.
We began, as we so often do, by sharing experiences, – on this occasion of exams, and then tests like driving tests, job interviews and public appearances and performances. I wasn’t surprised to discover that most people shared my dread of exams, and, yes, most had had dreams of exam and revision crises. Many also had ripe tales to tell of driving tests. All this was unrelated to how successful we all were at passing exams or driving tests. It seems that the very essence of tests leaves indelible marks on our psyches. I suggested that this might be a clue to creating or finding contemporary test-stories.
My first story was a simple old Chinese tale of five identical brothers each with the traditional equivalent of a superpower, and how by substituting for each other they survived a number of sentences of execution, and emerged from the trials as innocent as they deserved to be. This was a story about being tested but the clue to survival was not a superpower but cunning and ingenuity.
We spent some time anatomising what tests in stories involve. We distinguished between protagonists who set out on a quest and encounter a series of challenges and tests, and those who are pitched out of their comfort-zone and forced to engage with extreme difficulties. We noticed that many stories present examples of individuals who refuse to endure difficult situations and compare the consequences of this with the one who bravely confronts them. We noted the need for a goal or prize to make all this sufferance and suffering worthwhile. We noticed that tests of manhood and tests of womanhood were often very different.
The human qualities which traditionally carry us through difficulty seemed to be strength, endurance, perseverance, truth, honesty, worthiness, faith, and a readiness to use our senses and intelligence. All this added up to a kind of authenticity or integrity, which varied from culture to culture. Some cultures stories validated cunning and intelligence, others endurance, others honesty, and so on. There were differences between countries and continents, but the tests were everywhere, sewn into the fabric of storytelling. Against these positives were pitched darkness, doubt, fear, confusion, and that perennial staple, evil, which in story-terms is the malignity which will not redeem itself and must be destroyed. Meanwhile the protagonist comes through unscathed but, with some honourable exceptions, changed and more realistic in their relations with the world. Wiser, maybe, and certainly more seasoned.
I told another, longer, story, again Chinese. It involves three brothers setting off in turn to try to recover a beautiful brocade made by their mother who is wasting away for the loss of it. Its disappearance is supernatural and elemental, and the tests equally so. Of course only the youngest, most loving and bravest of the brothers goes the distance and finds the brocade. Along the way there are magic horses, fire, sea-storms, and the challenge to knock out their two front teeth. The brocade is found in a magic palace and magical things happen to it before it comes home safely to the mother. The reward is riches, comfort, peace and beauty, and, for the youngest brother, love. There is probably no such thing as a typical test-story but this one has many of the characteristic features of one.
I asked, do we need the supernatural and magic to make a story of a test work out? If we are telling a story of the realistic non-supernatural present can we still achieve the metaphorical depth and poetry of these older tales? We set to discussing these questions whilst each member of the group considered what contemporary story they might create which would include a significant test. The overall answer to the first question seemed to be, it’s tempting to use the supernatural and magic but not essential. One story-idea which emerged from the discussion was very contemporary – the passage of migrants across continents and seas to their chosen destination. We know from the news that there are many tests along the way in such journeys, many difficulties, much need for endurance and ingenuity. But the goal or prize may not be what was hoped for – the country of destination neither welcoming nor a promised land. In this I sensed a harder more contemporary story-shape, and I recalled that just this story forms the backbone of “The Grapes Of Wrath” by John Steinbeck. The 20th Century was rife with disappointment even as it promised itself so much. The American Dream has a lot to answer for.
One other, and to me unexpected, reflection on contemporary story emerged from the discussions. It happens that our lives today are full of tests willingly taken – extreme sports, television reality shows, binge-drinking stunts, celebrity challenges, publicity stunts. It would seem that, far from trying to stay safe and secure and comfortable, increasing numbers of us are putting ourselves through identifiably dangerous experiences. Is this because we have lost the religion which once gave us a secure sense of identity? Are we so well-off in various parts of the world that the challenges of survival, of getting food on the table and clothes on our backs, of enduring weather extremes, are now not enough to occupy our restless minds? And would the test we found most difficult be not to be tested at all? To suffer boredom? Is there a contemporary story to be told of that? Or do we need to go back to the old tales and rediscover spiritual difficulty and redemption? At the end of the workshop we were somewhat clearer about all this, but I know there is more to explore.