A Hunt for the Theme

A thought about the theme in stories (part 1)

I want to write today about the reason we humans love stories so much. Or rather, how stories make us human.

As you can imagine, it’s a very deep topic. I personally find it fascinating – unsurprising perhaps, since I love crafting stories so much – but even as a consumer (a reader, a TV-watcher, a movie-goer, a series-binger…) they take up a huge chunk of my leisure time.

To ease the discussion, I’m going to begin with a microstory.

Once upon a time, thousands of years ago, the tribe of your ancestors shared a juicy fresh portion of mammoth meat around the fire. They were in a festive mood. The catch would last them a moon or more. As they finish yet another song, the tribe elder asks the oldest hunter to retell the hunt.

The oldest hunter clears his throat.

“We followed the herd for days, waiting for the right moment, but without luck. The mammoths were already reaching the edge of their territory, and about to escape into the open, icy steppes, out of reach forever. Days of patient tracking spent for nothing. They would spend even more just to return back and begin anew.

“But I refused to accept the inevitable. I stepped aside, and without letting the others see what I was doing, I buried and abandoned an ivory necklace my wife crafted for me the day our firstborn arrived. It was my most precious possession. A tribute to the Gods, who finally blessed us a few minutes later with a change of wind!

“We spent the rest of the morning setting a trap downwind and the underbrush on fire upwind. It worked! The mammoths panicked and ran towards the pit we had dug.

“But – oh, the Gods are capricious! – despite terror driving the mammoths mad, the herd didn’t split. They kept running, about to miss their trap!

“Before I could stop him, the youngest hunter leapt forward into their path, fire-stoken branches in his hands and screaming with such superhuman determination that we knew in that instant that he was touched by the Gods!

“And the herd split in two! Half of the monsters passed to his left, the other half to his right, sending an old female straight into the pit!

“And the youngest hunter was left untouched, in the middle, fire in his hands and panting like he was still hearing the songs of the Gods in his head.”

As the oldest hunter finishes the tale, every young woman’s eye is resting on the youngest hunter’s proud smile.

The tribe elder laughs boisterously and begins chanting another song of gratitude to the Gods.

Okay, so I just made up that story to make a point. But to do it properly, I need you to imagine that the tale the oldest hunter tells his tribe is different. In this second version of the story, this is what he narrates:

“We followed the herd for days, waiting for the right moment, but without luck. Then, finally, as we were about to give up, the wind changed! We spent the rest of the morning setting a trap downwind and the underbrush on fire upwind. It worked! The mammoths panicked and ran towards the pit we had dug. It was very dangerous, one of them almost trampled the young hunter! But, at the end, blessed be the Gods, an old female fell into our pit! We surrounded her and made the kill with our spears.”

This second version of the story is shorter, snappier. It is factual and goes straight to the point. And it does the job, right?

No, not right! It doesn’t do the job at all!

Because, what really is the job of a story?

That’s the crucial question!

What is it that this first version has that the second version is lacking?

Well, in my (not so humble) opinion, it is something very elusive that writers call “theme.” And theme is what I want to talk about. Because I believe that we humans are not so much obsessed with stories, as with their themes, even though they mostly run under the current of consciousness.

Okay, Isaac, so what’s a story’s “theme”?”

Theme is the lesson – the code of behavior – the storyteller wants you to learn.

Shocking, huh? Theme is, yes, propaganda!

And I’m going to say something even more shocking. The stories that you enjoy the most are those with a theme that deeply resonates within you.

Okay, phrased like that, that doesn’t sound too controversial, but let me rephrase that in more blunt terms: the stories that you enjoy the most are those that more successfully try to convince you of what is right and wrong.

Got that?

In other words, we love propaganda that works on us!

Just think about those two versions of the hunt I made up before. Think about the second version, the shorter one. What were the themes there? What the lessons? I would say… the importance of teamwork, perhaps? The virtue of patience, if you stretch it?

Now let’s compare that to the themes of the first longer version. What are they? Well, we have a character sacrificing something of immense symbolic value, and another one doing something desperately heroic, standing in harm’s way, both for the better good of the tribe. Sprinkle that with some piety – the Gods being an active part of the narration – and in a nutshell, we find in this version of the story deeper themes that resonate with most human societies – even modern ones.

Oh, there’s so much more to say about themes and the drive of stories in the evolutionary history of humankind. I’m just scratching the surface here. But I think I’ll leave it for the time being. This is a lot to process already, and it’s getting long enough as it is. At this point, if I can just make you aware of the existence of these deeper themes within stories and give you a glimpse of why they are somehow important, we can call it a day.

[To read the second part of this entry, click here.]

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