Discussions of storytelling are often bedevilled by pedants, publicists, and proselytizers with predispositions to corporate-type formulations. The internet, for example, offers the three Ps, the four characteristics, the five Cs, and the seven functions of storytelling. For those with moral or religious leanings, those seven functions can be expanded to ten, including illustrations of “relationships to, and with, authority”; descriptions of “appropriate responses to life or model behaviors”; and definitions of rewards and paths to “salvation and damnation.” None of these are helpful exemplars for curious minds who wish to know how storytelling actually works in providing insight into human nature, to say nothing of how pleasure is derived from the sheer act of telling and listening.
Fortunately, J. Edward Chamberlin is one who knows how to recount the origins, essence, and scope of storytelling without numbing the reader or leading one astray by tedious categorization. His latest book, Storylines, covers a wide range of material: from childhood tales to literary classics, scientific commentary to spiritual ceremony, folk songs to pop music. Chamberlin describes how various storytelling forms give shape and substance to reality, illuminating the origin and purpose of things, the ways in which we constitute community, and how we can overpower the truths of everyday life through contradictions and uncertainties. He argues that by opening up the world, stories can keep us going — and help confirm our humanity. Chamberlin’s short book, a follow‑up of sorts to If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories?, from 2003, is not literary criticism or an aesthetic critique, per se, but a more philosophical investigation of a phenomenon that is not essentially objective fact.
If the content sounds forbiddingly heavy, Chamberlin’s style isn’t. Most of his diction and explication could easily be shared over a cup of coffee. He is no genteel stylist, but this is not to say that his conversational tone articulates material in a naive manner. Throughout Storylines, Chamberlin shares narratives that “come from my family and friends and the traditions of story and song I grew up with,” alongside those “from Indigenous and other communities around the world that I have been privileged to spend time with.” His first chapter, harking back to Ras Kumi, a legendary Rastafarian elder who was once Bob Marley’s spiritual adviser, sets out a “pure paradox” of storytelling: “There are people here who think the world is round. And people who think the world is flat. Same people.”
The Rasta’s wit is a cogent reminder that we all live with uncertainties. “For we believe the world is round,” Chamberlin explains. “But we also believe that we are standing right side up, not upside down as we might if the world really were round. Which it is. And with that we go about our business, comfortable in a contradiction that sets both truth and belief on their heads — and leaves us with a good story.” He goes on to show how we can find solace by taking things figuratively instead of literally, as when people refer to the sun rising or setting, clearly an inaccurate perspective in scientific terms. We balance truth and belief “in stories we live by every day — and with whose contradictions we are comfortable,” as when the Jesus of history is combined with the Christ of faith.
Chamberlin emphasizes “the grace of balance,” offering another example from science: “Light is both a wave and a particle, and things can be in two places at once.” Storytelling illuminates “the wonders of our world, some of which we know only by scientific or religious hearsay.” It also allows us “to wonder rather than to worry.”
Of course, Chamberlin continues, even extraordinary storytelling cannot eliminate all worries: “But it helps us balance these worries with words and images that offer sanctuary. Sometimes, as we learn when a sad song makes us feel happy or a scary story puts us to sleep, the sanctuary is in the contradiction.” Indeed, contradiction is commonly found at the heart of storytelling: “Once upon a time,” for instance, is a nearly universal signal meaning “right now” as much as it does “back then.”
A professor emeritus of English and comparative literature at the University of Toronto, Chamberlin has a broad perspective. He describes the connection between storytelling and survival as one that combines the communal, the covenantal, and the competitive. Different eras have taken their turn with metaphor and riddle, while always maintaining the role of the storyteller as “the custodian of truth and belief.”
Another of Chamberlin’s explorations is of the form of ceremonial storytelling, whether that’s a child donning pyjamas before their parents read to them, standing for the national anthem, bowing one’s head or kneeling to pray, or the rituals associated with the Sun Dance. “Storytelling requires faith in the ceremony that is being enacted,” he explains. The ways of storytelling change because of technology and the manners in which we interact with one another. But special language can signal essential, enduring protocols: scientific jargon or formula; esoteric spiritual terms or ancient languages (such as Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Hebrew) in a religious setting; or non-book texts (such as blankets, pipes, hats, baskets, masks, totems, cave drawings) within principally oral cultures.
Storylines covers an enormous historical and political territory, with allusions to African, European, and Asian cultures as well as numerous references to poets, philosophers, politicians, novelists, painters, musicians, anthropologists, historians, social and political rebels, priests, songwriters, linguists, scientists, mathematicians, statesmen, media specialists, community organizers, and even a racist Supreme Court of British Columbia judge. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of this book is its delving into Indigenous stories, especially those found in Canada. On this score, Chamberlin has impressive credentials. A former senior research associate with the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, he has had a long involvement with land claims and has denounced the brutal and disgraceful facts of residential schools, where generations of First Nations children had their traditional stories replaced with white European ones, often to the extent that they could no longer participate in or celebrate their own cultures and customs.
In illustrating how survival stories can enlarge hope, inspire courage, and even help heal, Chamberlin — whose godmother was Métis, with a distant connection to Louis Riel — turns to a distinguished elder, Neil Sterritt of the Gitxsan people in northwestern British Columbia. Sterritt, who led his community in “a recognition of their ancient residence and modern sovereignty in their homeland,” possessed “a storyteller’s gift for surprise, which he used on one occasion to protect the traditional hunting and fishing in his people’s territory.” In doing so, he deployed “an inspired bit of mischief.” When the police and a large contingent of officials from the department of fisheries arrived in 1986 to enforce regulations prohibiting the community’s fishing practices, Sterritt organized a blockade that constituted a traditional Gitxsan battle order: “children in front; women next, the guardians of place; and the men hiding safely behind, urging everyone on.” And then the children threw a volley of marshmallows at the government agents, leading to an embarrassing retreat. The so‑called Marshmallow War made the evening news and newspaper reports throughout the West, and it inspired many other Indigenous groups to use civil disobedience and defiance in asserting their rights. (Gitxsan children once again threw marshmallows at passing RCMP officers in 2021, in solidarity with a Wet’suwet’en blockade.)
Such stories should be more widely celebrated and consolidated in our living history, instead of the increasingly empty ritual of land acknowledgments. Lip service is free, easy, and a salve for guilty consciences, but it hardly makes up for the pernicious Doctrine of Discovery, which more than 500 years after Columbus continues to demean Indigenous people as if they had no writing, civilization, or humanity prior to contact. White European stories have too long been the only official ones, celebrating growth and development and “civilized” progress while harming homelands, heritages, and environments.
Perhaps we should pay less attention to the three Ps that the internet champions and more to the many Indigenous stories that are a foundational part of the much-touted Canadian mosaic. With Storylines, Chamberlin offers a welcome lesson in how we might go about doing just that.