Not all stories have the same importance, or the same purpose when they are told. A great story also has a time and a place in which its audience will be most receptive. As the Proverbs tell us, “A word rightly spoken is like apples of gold, in settings of silver.” So what are the best stories, those "words rightly spoken"? At what age, and at what time should they be shared with our students?
Without presuming to know the answers to those questions, I am purposing here to submit a list of the ten best stories that I have told to my students, here at The Saint Constantine School. It’s no secret that I love telling stories, and I hope to share the ones that I keep coming back to - the ones that the children really love and that keep working for them. Our school loves countdowns almost as much as it loves stories, so hopefully the “top 10” format will allow you to wrangle with my selections and decide what you really value in a story. One note about the criteria: the stories had to be ones that I have told in one, or only a few, class sessions. One day, I might make suggestions for how to tell these stories, but it seems presumptuous enough to suggest what ought to be told.
So here, without further ado, is my list of the ten best stories ever told.
10. The Bremen Town Musicians
This Grimm’s Fairy Tale has all the ingredients for a good comedy: A few misfits on a road trip, encountering danger, frequent misunderstandings, and painful surprises. It is perfect for October and spooky stuff, and music or dramatization fits right in here. I give the robbers a theme song when I tell it.
9. The Fish Wife (Orphan Brothers)
This Hmong story is similar to other tales where a fisherman is rewarded for rescuing a fish, except that the fishermen are orphan boys and the fish transforms herself to secretly help the youths when they are working in the rice fields. What sets the story apart most is the gratitude that the boys show as they wander around trying to repay everyone in the village, and the incredible voyage they make into the heavens to rescue the fish wife from a jealous devil with the help of the Great Shao. It is difficult to find a copy of this story anywhere.
8. The Master and the Man
Like many of our folktales, this Irish tale about the good folk (Leprechauns!) was collected and retold in the 19th century. Its author, Thomas Croften Croker, tells the story with the many asides and humorous jabs that make Irish folktales so wonderful. It gets even better if you are brave enough to try the dialogue with the accent (the worse you do, the better).
7. The White Stone Canoe
This is a Chippewa Indian story about a youth who ventures forth to the land of souls to find his departed bride. It is short, but full of melancholy and beautiful imagery. The version I use is from a collection called American Indian Legends, and it is widely available.
Another humorous Grimm’s Fairy Tale, Thumbling honors children in a very special way. We see how grateful the parents are to have a child, even if it was only as big as a thumb. After the little scamp gets into various kinds of trouble, the tale asks us to reckon why the ravenous but helpful fox is deserving of many chickens for the return of this little son. There are other notable types of this folktale, including the Japanese Momotaro, as well as the Bamboo Cutter.
5. The Maid Maleen
A princess is locked into a tower by her own father in this Grimm’s Tale, and the image given is one of total darkness for a long period of time. After her escape, the land is desolate. She only recalls her life as Maid Maleen in wistful little riddles when she walks beside her former suitor who thinks that she is someone else that he is set to marry. It is full of the hope of spring after winter and resurrection after death, and so it ends fittingly with the children playing around the tower, singing Kling Klang Gloria.
4. Little Snow White
One of the greatest fairy tales, by virtue of its virtue; Snow White gives a beautiful picture of the pure soul, illumined and not undone by its jealous rival. The trusting and innocent Snow White has guardians: dwarves that delve in the mountains. The scene that we always draw from this story, in my Art classes, is that vivid moment when the dwarves discover the sleeping Snow White, and they hold their candles above their beards like monks holding vigil. The watchfulness (nepsis) of the dwarves isn’t enough to prevent the catastrophe. The Grimm’s account includes the resolution where the piece of the dreadful apple is, after all, dislodged by a servant stumbling over the roots of a tree.
3. The Epic of Gilgamesh
A little out of place in the list, owing to its length and complexity, but I have never told the story in its entirety to students, and, strange to say, I have never felt the need to. The story is very ancient; even older versions predate the tablets that give us the lengthy account of the Babylonian epic. This story takes place when civilization may have been a new enterprise, and there is a poignant look back to the wilderness, and to what is lost and gained when mankind chooses to dwell in cities. For our young students, there are many adventure stories and survival books to fascinate them in the elementary years, but Gilgamesh is, I believe, a better model to build from. Many of the adventure stories have an existentialist underpinning, hard to eschew in modern times. This includes books like Hatchet, Island of the Blue Dolphins, My Side of the Mountain, etc. What I find remarkable about the story of Gilgamesh, is that despite all the curses to the contrary in times of suffering, the gift of companionship is proven to be worthy of every great risk and loss in the end. After all, Gilgamesh returns to his city, accepting his mortality and serving his people, repenting of how he once lorded it over them.
2. Urashima Taro
This beautiful tale of a fishing lad and his merciful rescue of a tortoise (sea turtle?) is set in a fishing village in Japan and is still a matter of local legend in that place. Without spoiling the details, it is worth mentioning that there is a journey to the palace of the king of the sea, a wedding ceremony, and a garden of the seasons described with wonder in this story - and it is close to the best story on earth. In many versions, there is a cautionary saying at the end, which I tend to omit because it is so clear from the outcome that it really needs no mention.
1. Joseph and His Brothers
The story that never ceases to move and touch the heart if it is read in its entirety, the tale of Joseph and his brothers is simply the best story that has been told. It tells the thoughts and feelings of real people with no need for soliloquy. We know how Ruben, the older brother, feels, how Jacob is grieved, how Benjamin is surprised, with only a few genuine words. For all of its truth to the “mundane” details, the story of Joseph the dreamer, and his acceptance of Providence, is able to take these living examples and weave them into the unfolding mystery of the joy we have in the resurrection. Beyond all expectation, the surpassing love of God is shown to us, if only we can see it.