Final Thoughts (for now) about Oral Narratives

I’ve written so far about the conditions necessary for an oral narrative to be passed down unchanged. To be preserved at all, the people who tell the story must find some value in it for their present lives, regardless of what it meant to their ancestors. And to be passed down unchanged, it must be told for some purpose that would be hindered if the story is altered.

These conditions are difficult, but obviously not impossible, to meet. And, just as obviously, a narrative can potentially be perceived as worth being told by any society that encounters it. If a story were to emerge anywhere that, for whatever reason, resonates with people in most cultures, it could easily spread worldwide in a remarkably short amount of time; certainly much shorter than the 4,000 years calculated for an individual to become a universal genealogical ancestor. This might even happen if, after the story began to spread, it ceased for some reason to be told in its culture of origin. However, if a society that adopts a story uses it for a different purpose than did the society from which the story was learned, the likelihood of it remaining unchanged would be altered as well.

The conclusion that this all leads to is that, even if it were known that a particular traditional story were inspired by a historic event, the observed present distribution of the story could not be used to determine the location where that event had occurred, or to reconstruct the specific details of the event. That information would need to be obtained from a different source.


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