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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Tell us a story

Plot and conflict beg for resolution

Issue: "'To stay is to be killed'," Nov. 29, 2008

At any literature conference, especially children's literature, one is likely to hear elaborate tributes to "stories": "Stories can save us" is the idea expressed, explicitly or not, by keynoting fiction writers everywhere. The last time I heard this was the weekend before the election, a contest not so much between philosophies or policies as "narratives." The cocky pilot tested and redeemed or the symbol of oppression at long last vindicated-which story would appeal to Americans the most?

But back to the conference: Just how stories can save us is a matter of opinion, and every speaker has one. Stories help us make sense of experience; they create community out of disparity; they inspire empathy for others; they expand narrow worlds. All well and good. The question that seldom comes up is, Why? Obviously, as someone pointed out at the conference, "Humans are the only creatures who tell each other stories." Crows and whales are great communicators, for example, but they don't tell jokes or swap hunting yarns. What makes humans this way? Why did the ancients regale each other with tales of loss and restoration? Why do children learn to put narratives together almost as early as they do sentences?

Though none of the authors at the conference delved into this question, their faith in the power of stories remains unshakable. But Richard Dawkins, perhaps the world's most famous skeptic, is having none of it. Recently he announced he was taking time off from his post at Oxford University to look into a phenomenon that has troubled him for some time. He's wondering if the love of fantasy among children creates an "anti-scientific" frame of mind that religion can all too easily exploit. "I think looking back to my own childhood, the fact that so many of the stories I read allowed the possibility of frogs turning into princes, whether that has a sort of insidious effect on rationality, I'm not sure. Perhaps it's something for research."

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If Dawkins suspects that "bringing children up to believe in spells and wizards," e.g., Harry Potter, dooms them to a life of superstition, he betrays a stunning ignorance of humanity-however much he may know of its bits and pieces. Does he imagine that children who read fairy tales harbor a sneaking suspicion that frogs really do turn into princes? That they can't make metaphorical distinctions? Or (more likely) does he throw fairy tales and Bible stories into the same witches' cauldron of pernicious anti-rational influences?

If so, he's not the only one to conflate the Bible and all other supernatural tales. The late Joseph Campbell built his reputation on the "power of myth," noting rightly that every culture had its epics and legends whose outlines were amazingly similar from one civilization to another. Interesting that the "hero's journey" is repeated all over the world: a humble birth, a mysterious parentage, a testing in the wilderness, mighty or miraculous deeds, betrayal and persecution, death and eventual triumph. Who does that remind you of?

Jesus, the Christian replies. And your point is . . .?

Campbell and his ilk assumed that the gospel story was force-fitted to a pattern that already existed, but they never inquired into the sources of the pattern. It's a question that cries out for an answer. Why do we instinctively know that a plot must have a conflict and resolution? Why are we moved by fall and redemption? Why do we want to tell the hero narrative over and over, unless it's written on our bones?

And where-as C.S. Lewis and many others have noted-does that very story appear in a historical context and insist on being factually true, attested by witnesses? Where does "Once upon a time" become "In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus"?

A story will indeed save us, but only when it's more than a story. And only when we realize that the story is telling us, instead of the other way around.

If you have a question or comment for Janie Cheaney, send it to

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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