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Twice upon a time...

July 08, 2015 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy
"For storytelling is always the art of repeating stories, and this art is lost when the stories are no longer retained. It is lost because there is no more weaving and spinning to go on while they are being listened to." (Walter Benjamin)

What's the most famous story you know? How many variations of this story have you read so far? What happens to a story when we retell and rewrite it? The idea of repetition is not a modern concept as written literature has its roots in oral storytelling. As Walter Benjamin points out, 'experience which is passed on from mouth to mouth is the source from which all storytellers have drawn. And among those who have written down the tales, it is the great ones whose written version differs least from the speech of many nameless storytellers.' Why do certain stories stay alive and how do they manage to do so? There are great stories which survive through the centuries, and they do so by being told and retold in a variety of versions. There is a fascinating moment in the transformation of tales and classical stories when the readers and listeners start responding to them, trying to make sense of the stories. Understanding and interpreting stories also means that we reflect on them and often adapt them, because this way we take ownership of the stories, making them part of us. Linda Hutcheon refers to our age as 'our postmodern age of cultural recycling'.

Legends, myths, Biblical stories, allegorical tales, fairy tales are constantly retold in our times, sometimes so often that we even forget their origins. A great number of classics have enjoyed the same popularity, only the modes of representation have increased. First there were verbal retellings and paintings, musical works and dramas, and today we also have picture books, films, musicals, cartoons, comics, video clips and computer games, just to mention the most popular ones. We can often tell a classic tale or fairy tale by a single phrase or image, they are so deeply rooted in our cultural heritage.

Little Red Riding Hood
Illustration by Catty Flores for a new Helbling reader. © Helbling Languages

When we retell a story, a whole array of exciting processes come to life at the same time. We understand them, interpret them, find the most significant elements in them, shape them according to our contemporary taste. If we know previous versions of the same story, new ones can surprise us, entertain us, make us think, and of course they can disappoint us if they do not live up to our expectations. Most importantly, we preserve the stories for future generations, adding extra layers of meaning to them as we do so. Students often do not know the original story behind a retelling, so the retelling becomes their first experience of the story.

One exciting project to look out for is Save the Story. Save the Story is a self-proclaimed 'mission in book form: saving great stories from oblivion by retelling them for a new, younger generation.' The series offers a selection of classics retold with charm and panache by famous authors and illustrated by top international artists. Even the most skeptical readers cannot fail to be won around by these elegant books which often entice the reader to go on to read the original.

The same mission has its rightful place in the language classroom. When we teach English, we also want to teach the culture, history and literature of the language. Students will love to learn English through their favourite stories, fairy tales or legends. In extensive reading programmes they continue this by reading or watching adaptations of classics. These adaptations often range from films through graded readers to graphic novels. Teachers also love telling and retelling stories, and we often enjoy modern retellings which place an old story in our own time and space.

According to the Guinness World Records website, the most portrayed character of all time (on TV) is Sherlock Holmes. What other literary characters and stories are we familiar with? We have picked our favourite ones based on the Guiness World Record website, Amazon search results and IMDB film lists and of course our own experiences and tastes.

  1. Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  2. Dracula by Bram Stoker
  3. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  4. Little Red Riding Hood
  5. Robin Hood
  6. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
  7. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  8. Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie
  9. Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift
  10. Beauty and the Beast
  11. Freddy the Frog Prince
  12. The Hare and the Tortoise

If you want to make sure that your students read and think about stories in English, start with these as they are probably familiar with most of them in their first language and they have an easier access to them in English. You can also check out the titles below to introduce your young readers to the world of fairy tales and legends.

Would you like to read more about the power of stories and storytelling in the classroom? Read our articles on our Blog.

Do you have a story you like much and often retell? Which one is it? Share it with us.

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