Storytelling: The Inspiration Behind the Arts

Updated on December 27, 2018
Stephen Austen profile image

S.P. Austen 1960- 2020 was an independent author writing on a diversity of subjects and genres. He passed away on June 30, 2020

Whether we are uplifted by great music, inspired by a gripping story in a book or enthralled by a film or stage play, moved by a marvellous painting or sculpture, we have entered the realm of storytelling.

Storytelling has always been a part of the human psyche, as far back as the earliest times when the first cave paintings were made. The wonderful depictions of bison leaping on the dark cave walls of Lascaux in France, in reds, ochres and deep browns, is not just a pictorial representation of what the people of the time saw. It is much more than that, it is a story unfolding before our eyes. These ancient artists were describing in art the story of their lives in a far distant past.

Lascaux Cave Painting. Attribution: Peter80
Lascaux Cave Painting. Attribution: Peter80 | Source

We might assume that being so long ago in human history these cave-painters did not yet have any kind of language that we know of or would recognise. Perhaps a few grunts and facial expressions would be how they communicated, and likely there were hand signs and gestures too. But in order for these people to preserve a record of their lives that told others how they lived and what they did, they used pictorial representations to tell that tale which would last for tens of thousands of years.

The ancient Egyptians used hieroglyphs much later, and these we can see as further evidence of using imagery to tell a story. That story may indeed be a historical record of the lives of the Pharaohs or even of the mythical gods. Yet it is a story nonetheless. The ancient Greeks produced plays to tell their tales, and both the Greeks and the Romans told stories about their pantheon of gods, as did the Vikings through their strange and fanciful sagas.

Image by: KathleenPirroArts
Image by: KathleenPirroArts | Source

Orchestral Music

If you have ever sat enraptured, as I once did, in St. Paul's Cathedral listening to Handel's Messiah being performed live, then you will have some idea of how a story (in this case, the account of the life of Christ) can inspire and move your spirit through music. Beethoven's Missa Solemnis has a similarly potent effect upon the soul. A good play with moving performances such as Les Miserables with stirring songs can do likewise. All of this tells a story. If Victor Hugo had never penned Les Miserables we would not have the stage play of the book nor the deeply moving and evocative songs that embellish this marvellous tale.

When we hear the music and watch the performance of Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky, we are watching the dramatisation of a fable, a story of a Princess transformed into a swan. Peer Gynt by Edvard Grieg, began as a poem by Ibsen, which subsequently became a play and then the musical score. Ride of the Valkyries by Richard Wagner, is based on the ancient Norse mythology of the female spirits who decide who lives and dies in battle. Turandot by Puccini, has its roots dipped in several tales from the past, from Persia to China, compiled into the current stage opera of the present day, with all its intensity, and evocative and moving music score and drama.

Image by: nikidinov
Image by: nikidinov | Source

When we hear such music we are touched by what it evokes from within us, even when we do not understand the words sung in Italian, German or French. The gestures of the performers, their expressions, their body language, tells a story. The songs and the music give the tale its weight. This is what we bring away with us when we leave the theatre and come home still thinking about what we have seen and witnessed. It is the drama of our own little lives, magnified and telescoped out into our perceptions. The lost love, the sorrows, the privations, griefs and joys, are all a part of what we are as human beings. It is the story of each and every one of us, and we respond dynamically to it.

Dramatic Artwork

Think of some of the great artists like J.M.W Turner, who painted dramatically, using colour and light to express the dramatic scenes that he loved to paint. Every painting that he executed was a story captured in a moment of time. Many of the old masters painted stories too, from countless Biblical and historical scenes, all depicted in oils for the viewer to stand enthralled by the drama of the piece. Sculpture too, from ancient Rome until the present day will portray a scene for the beholder, either in life-sized three dimensions or in frieze or relief. Each image is a moment captured in a story of one kind or other.

Iconic paintings such as Lady Butler's Scotland Forever! depicting the charge of the Scot's Grey's at the Battle of Waterloo, conveys the drama of a full cavalry charge. We can feel the thundering hooves, the cries of the mounted cavalrymen brandishing their swords, the horses snorting forwards into the fray. Even without being present at the actual battle, the painting makes us feel that we are there. At least a part of the story of Waterloo is presented to us, with some elaborations, to comprehend the actuality of warfare.

Attribution: Elizabeth Thompson (Lady Butler)
Attribution: Elizabeth Thompson (Lady Butler) | Source

The statuary of War Memorials to the Glorious Dead are but the solidified symbolic impression of the story of those lives whose names are listed amongst the 'fallen.' A bronze of a World War I soldier, helmeted head bowed towards his Lee Enfield rifle, standing solitarily on guard beside the white stone inscriptions of thousands of dead soldiers' names is describing the pathos and sorrow of warfare. The very look of it says it all. The story of warfare is there.

Theatre and Film

Stories such as Ben-Hur written by Lew Wallace are transformed into lavish beauty in an MGM movie. In fact, most of the truly memorable films on screen or stage were either novels or plays first. Once more, the power inherent in the word to move, inspire and invite embellishment is apparent. Without the greatness of the story, even if it is a myth or a work of fiction, there can be no inspiration or even inspired thought. Perhaps even the world itself could not change without it. Unless the word is there, we have no expression of soul in the first place.

Attribution: Strobridge Lithography Company.
Attribution: Strobridge Lithography Company. | Source

Without the following great novels, Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper, The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R Tolkien, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, and his ever perennial A Christmas Carol, to name only a small handful, we would never have seen the screen versions of these great tales to enjoy and be inspired by.

The Power of the Word

The spoken word, the written word, has great meaning. That meaning has been translated for us, in every form of art imaginable, from music, to mime, to dance, painting, to film and television, to plays and naturally of course, to novels. Words; words which truly speak to the heart, mind and soul. Words which move and create, which change and transform minds.

Our first adventure in words may have begun with guttural sounds, long, long ago, in an age impossibly far removed from modern man, and then interpreted as best they could with not so crude wall paintings. But with the advent of language in all its colourful and myriad forms, the human race was able to express in words the secrets of the heart, the mind and indeed, the soul.

We have words to thank for all other forms of high creativity, words which tell stories, whether fact-based or fantastical, it matters not which, so long as they move us. From words, we have songs, from songs we have orchestral music from Beethoven, Mozart, Handel, Elgar, Sibelius, Vaughan Williams and a thousand others. We have plays, performances in film and television, often alongside great music which touches the very soul in us. These very dramas were first written down, by some ancient bard or more modern ones, and then the story was taken to a much greater height, adding colour, light, music and performance.

But it was words which developed that essential human quality in us that has within it some sense of other-worldliness that touches the hem of the divine. Words link us to something greater than our current state, and make us want to be better than we are.

In the beginning, was the Word and the word creates worlds.

© 2018 S P Austen


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    • Stephen Austen profile imageAUTHOR

      S P Austen 

      19 months ago from Qualicum Beach, BC, Canada

      Thank you LJ. I like where you are coming from! Where would we be without our myths, fables and tales? They will inspire and teach us forever. Best wishes, Steve

    • Laurinzo Scott profile image

      LJ Scott 

      19 months ago from Phoenix, Az.

      Very well written... S P ... storytelling is a way to pass history down from generation to generation maybe more reliable than some news sources...

    • Stephen Austen profile imageAUTHOR

      S P Austen 

      19 months ago from Qualicum Beach, BC, Canada

      Thanks Anusha, I appreciate your kind feedback; the most powerful medium? I think I'd have to say music, because of the dramatic emotional impact it has on us. Combine it with drama, and you can see why some shows like "Le Miserables" just run and run for years and years. Best wishes, Steve.

      Thank you John, I always appreciate and respect your feedback. You certainly know this truth from your own poetic works and aboriginal studies. Best wishes, Steve.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      19 months ago from Queensland Australia

      I enjoyed this well written article, Steven. Men have always been storytellers, and yes in the ancient world before writing developed, painting, drawing, music, dance and the spoken word were the only ways of recording or passing on history for future generations.

    • anusha15 profile image

      Anusha Jain 

      19 months ago from Delhi, India

      What a great read!

      The amazing part is, that people do use more than one medium to convey their stories. And yet, the simplest of tools can have the most profound impact.

      You could add "Kathputli" -- the puppets to the list. They create a different kind of atmosphere. Folk stories accompanied by folk songs and fabulous skills of the creator -- puppet shows can be truly mesmerizing.

      Which do you think is the most powerful medium?


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