A few days ago I came across a used copy of The Way of the Storyteller by Ruth Sawyer. I had never heard of this 1942 publication before, but as I read the first few paragraphs in passing, I was hooked by its old-fashioned sense of wisdom, practicality, and humanity. There was something about reading this book that made me feel that I was in the presence of a true artist, a master teacher, for the message that runs through the book stands undiluted, even after all these years. I went to look up the book on Wikipedia later, and my instinct was confirmed—I was not the only one so captured by the book. It turns out that The Way of the Storyteller is an enormously influential book in the field, and Ruth Sawyer is the patron saint of storytelling.
The storytelling that Sawyer is talking about here is mainly the storyteller of the oral tradition. And though there has been a resurgence of the modern day griot in some quarters recently, this book from 75 years ago reminds us of just what an integral part of everyday life oral storytelling used to be, intimately woven into the social and educational fabric of the day. Sawyer talks about her storytelling in elementary schools, libraries, reform schools, and prisons all across the country. She talks also about the restorative power of folk tales, and how by telling the myths and folk tales of a culture, one generation raises another.
Sawyer takes her art very seriously and has the aura of a tough taskmaster with no time for foolishness. She warns would-be storytellers that there are no shortcuts available and that telling stories requires lots of hard work. The tale must be chosen with the audience in mind, and the storyteller must be absolutely familiar with the folk tradition of the tale, she warns, otherwise there is no chance of getting to the heart of the story.
And the heart of the story is what is always important. She never lets go of that. She believes deeply in the need for, and nourishment of, folk stories for all children. She believes that if children are told such stories when they are younger, that then they can learn to be full adults. But, she warns, the stories are not for the sake of teaching lessons or morals, but for the sake of imagination, for the sake of inner freedom, for the sake of the sacred bond formed between storyteller and listener.
When I read such a unapologetic humanistic view of education and art, it makes me sad and happy at the same time. Sad, because when I look at the educational system at this point in the US, it is so far from what Ruth Sawyer envisioned. She doesn’t talk about “achievement” or “college readiness” or “testing” or “assessment.” Instead, she talks about how to lead children through delight onward to wisdom by telling stories. On the other hand, I am happy to have stumbled across this classic, because the knowledge that in all times and in all countries there have always been those who have championed the message of true relation, communication, and the importance of art, gives courage and permission for one to be courageous as well. There’s so much nonsense all around us that it’s a blessing to hear from someone who reminds us what it’s all about.
It’s a flashlight beam cutting through the dark, illuminating a pathway. This is a classic book with classic wisdom.