Thursday, November 18, 2010

Stories Attribute Significance

Reading thuRsday

I once heard a Native American creation tale which explained that the mountains surrounding their homeland came into being when the trickster punished wicked giants by trapping them and turning them to stone. I was struck by the way in which the story imbued the landscape with significance.

One of the remarkable things about Lord of the Rings is the way in which Tolkien produced a fictional landscape full of the significance attributed (or accreted) by three ages of lore: there were stories, often only hinted at in the text, behind so much of the landscape that it becomes a quasi-character in its own right.

There's something very interesting going on here. In both cases it is the stories that give the landscape significance.

But stories work their magic on more than simply physical features. Stories give people and events significance. A number of people have wryly observed that we can't collectively understand a tragedy until we've watched the made-for-television movie about it. If we peel away the cynicism, the remaining kernel of truth is that stories are one of the most powerful ways of defining meaning and attributing significance.*

* This power arises from that fact that stories are models, which emphasize some elements of the thing being modeled and suppress others.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

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