Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Roots of Literature

by Richard Crews
(Note: There is absolutely no evidentiary basis for this depiction—how could there be? But it makes a lovely and believable foundation for the study of literature.)

Imagine, if you will, a million years and more ago a small band of savages—perhaps a dozen, or twenty at most—huddling around a campfire at night. They are crowding inward a bit for the warmth and protection the group and the fire provide—protection from the cold and from marauding wolves and other predators who pass by in the night. There are a dozen or more adults in this group (a larger group cannot sustain its food supply); these are men and women between the ages of 12 and 25—few live longer—and half as many children, most of whom will not live to reach adulthood. They are hunter-gatherers; they spend their days searching out the roots, leaves, berries, barks, and bugs that sustain them, occasionally lucking across the carcass of a dead rabbit or rodent, or even able to capture and kill one afresh.

When sunset approaches, they gather tinder and firewood and build the campfire that will keep them safe through the night. Then as darkness crowds in around them, someone begins to recite the tribe's story. Everyone joins in, though the volume is low—little more than a murmur.

The tribe's story tells of their gods, their beliefs, their ways of eating and living and surviving. The recitation goes on hour after hour through the night. Some fall asleep from time to time, but there is always someone or some few awake, guarding the fire, reciting the story, watching against the dangers of the night. If one of the adults awakes and no one is telling the story, he or she feeds the fire and takes up the guarding vigil, and takes up the recitation again.

They all know the story—hours and hours of it. They have each heard it hundreds of times as they were growing up. Sometimes sections are added or forgotten—but not often. For the stability of the story binds them together as a culture. It tells the myths of their origins; it tells—as tales of their half-remembered heroes and ancestors--the patterns of migration and feeding that they follow through the changing seasons; it tells, as entertainment, what the tribe has learned through generations and needs to know in order to survive.

When at last the sky begins to brighten and the sun begins to rise, the story—and the fire—are allowed to die out.

Some places along their wandering migration are safer and more generous of food than other places. At these they linger; their camps become larger, stronger, and more permanent. Gradually the nighttime story-telling ritual dies out. Only the old folk remember it now—those who have survived into their 20's—and the recitation takes place only on special--on festive--occasions.

Over hundreds and thousands of years as the intellectual skills of the tribe develop written language and their technology finds and develops writing surfaces and mediums, the stories are written down, and the primitive basis for entertainment and education through literature is born.