The folk process is an endlessly fascinating and wondrous thing. Much like genetic evolution, mutations and variations creep in with every repetition until eventually it has either become something else entirely or lost it’s ability to survive. Sometimes a story will change to suit a warmer or wetter climate, sometimes it may find that it’s feet are no good for a new terrain and it will take to the wing…
I accidentally stumbled across an example of the breadth of variation brought on by oral transmission of even a very simple four line trope. Storm Ciara was doing her best to wreck the fences out the back and I found myself typing in to Facebook:
“It is night
It is dark.
It is stormy.
The rain is falling down in torrents.
If you are a skipper, please, please turn to your mate and ask them to tell you a story.”
Now, if none of this rings a bell I must first ask if you have been hiding under a rock and then go on to explain that I first heard this famous opening from my father at tea one evening, long before I began my explorations of storytelling. Some reference had been made to entertaining with a tale and Dad suddenly came out with,
“It was a Dark and stormy night, and the rain fell down in torrents, and the Skipper said ‘tell me a story’, so the Mate began…”
The Mate of course begins his story “It was a Dark and stormy night, and the rain fell down in torrents, and the Skipper said ‘tell me a story’, so the mate began…”
and so it goes on…
This delivered with great gusto, my father’s eyes wide, long arms gesticulating with outsized hands (all traits which he passed on to me very much unchanged!). As a child, I remember the infinite, helical nature of the story that never ended, but also never really started, forming a chain of stories within stories stretching through immeasurable, parallel stormy nights, being quite mind blowing.
Within minutes of my post I had variations pouring in “In my childhood, it was always the mate who asked the captain for a story.” said Anne.
Viv commented “my dad’s was …” it was a dark and stormy night, and the wind began to howl, and captain jack to captain jo said tell me a story and this is how the story began… “”
“It was a bright and sunny afternoon” quipped Robin.
The inevitable internet search found only one reference to this widely known eternal tempest, on a joke page in reddit:
“It was a dark and stormy night on buffalo hill… a group of bandits sat around a campfire… one of the bandits said to the captain, “tell us a story captain… ” etc.
Which readily demonstrates the stories adaptation to the inland terrain of the American continent.
And so it spirals off in to the distance. I wonder where this strangely evocative collection of words will end it’s journey, if it ever does… maybe in some far distant future a space captain will gaze out of their bridge at some twisting nebula flashing with electrical discharge, and as the stellar wind batters their fragile craft they will turn to their Mate and say “Tell me a story”…