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Stories by Firelight and Emberglow

0ne of my boys was sent to camp by his father under vigorous protest.  Camp was just summer-school, an out-door jail.  The boy sulked through the first three days.   At Sunday Even-Fire his eyes wakened.  On Monday he was a different boy.   He had listened to John G. Neihardt's "The Song of Hugh Glass" rendered into story-prose by one who had felt every word of the poem as one feels the shock of a dive into cold water, or the glow of warmth from an open fire.  Story-hour had kindled his imagination with a spark dropped in his soul.

Years later that boy became a counselor.  He did everything well except the telling of stories.  There he was weak and felt his weakness.  One winter he quit college work, re-enrolled as a special student, betook himself to the library and spent six months saturating himself with some of the finest stories of all time.

He read diligently, and re-read.  He built an indexed card-system of concentrated book and story-reviews.  He practiced telling stories to Boy Scouts at weekend meetings.  He found varied audiences and retold the same story a dozen, a score of times, each time better than the one before.

He no longer needed to look for chances to storyize.  He was in perpetual demand.   By the time summer came he had mastered half a dozen stories, and knew a dozen more tellably well.  He came to camp, and we all sat wide-eyed in astonishment, as though by a miracle the dumb had learned speech and the music of spoken words.

Here was inspiration to the boys.  "Gosh! if I could ever tell stories like that!"  And this counselor, not content to exhibit his new-found powers only, was quick to encourage the practice of this, one of the oldest of human arts, among the kids.  He had set them an example.  Next he gave them opportunity for emulation.   Then he took particular pains to teach, usually by indirect suggestion, how best to make a story live vibrantly.

How to Do It

bulletFirst: The selection of a masterpiece.  Second-rate stories will not do.
bulletSecond: a reading, then a re-reading, then a re-re-reading aloud.
bulletThird: the telling to a group.
bulletFourth: the re-telling to another group, and, if occasion permits, to still another. Always with revision toward concentration upon essentials in action.  Dramatic accent at the right time, in the right spot.  Control, reserve, explosion only at the fully warranted climax, and even then an explosion controlled, like that of powder in a gun, not a mere flash and roar in the open.   This last it had been hardest for him to learn, and hardest to teach.  The emotions of adolescence are more apt to be like firecrackers than cannon aimed at a mark.

The Environment

bulletFifth: setting. "The Son of Hugh Glass" should be told at twilight on a hilltop or high rock, with a view of great distances melting into a far horizon.  "The Song of Three Friends" goes best beside a winding river.   Masefield's "Jim Davis" belongs on the sandy beach of a lake, or, if possible, over the thunder of ocean-breakers. "The Three Musketeers" or "Les Miserables" fits almost anywhere by firelight, and can be told indoors on rainy nights, their themes are so universal.

The Right Ending

bulletSixth: the quiet ending.  All the excitement consonant with a stirring tale; but stories are for bedtime and the artist will bring about a natural and easy relaxation of tension toward the close of an evening tale.  Not too long or slow a decline, or half the boys may be asleep before the story is finished; but an easy shelving off, like a beach rather than a rocky ledge.

Omit Commentary

bulletSeventh: a lesson in sportsmanship, hidden, unconscious and never moralized upon.  Every great story bears such a lesson.  It needs no exegesis.  Sermonizing kills the spirit of a vital story quicker than anything except half-hearted telling.  John Ridd in "Lorna Doon" is heroic in sportsman-like qualities.  Alexander pouring the water on the ground from his helmet can be made a hero.  We need not dwell upon some other of his activities at story-hour. Fra Antonio, in Janvier's "The Aztec Treasure House," can carry across all the sweet spirit of St. Francis in a setting as ruggedly thrilling as that of any story ever told, and without the aid of a golden text.

Only the Best

There should be no room at camp for anything but the best in story-telling.  The wealth of classic masterpieces of the art is so great that it cannot be exhausted in a score of summers.  The good story is wanted again and again.  Interest grows with repetition. Summer after summer boys will listen to "The Count of Monte Cristo." Hanford Burr's "Around the Fire" stories never grow old or threadbare.  The story of "Joseph" if told in boy language and not in the lingo of Sunday Schools is immortal.

Develop Good "Teller"

But let us remember, above all, that telling the story brings more to each boy than listening to it.  Let us pass on the art of the story-teller to the campers, boys or girls. Give 'them every opportunity to practice this, an almost lost art, among their fellows.  Prime them first to be brief.  Their comrades may tire of a lengthy attempt by one not versed in story-telling.  But they will listen eagerly to brevity, however amateurish.  And encourage preliminary reading, and reading aloud, except when spontaneous tales from the camper's own imagination are in order.  But to either, set a time-limit, preferably by a warning signal given to the eye, not to the car (a nod of your head, a raising of your hand).  A stick, or small totem, in the storyteller's hand, may be passed from one boy to the next in order around the circle.   Thus stories go the round without interruption from outside the magic ring.

A Little Praise

Then, let no story-hour go by without a word of praise to each spokesman either before his fellows, or afterwards to himself or herself alone, or both.  Nothing will encourage young boys more than a friendly pat on the back concerning such a work of creation.  If a criticism is in order, make it positive, and smother it with commendation for well-doing.  Make each story a step toward telling it again, or venturing upon another.

A Look Ahead

And, at close of camp, make it a point to liven every camper toward learning good stories during the winter, to bring to camp another season.  Thus will the tradition of story-hour, the spiritual atmosphere of firelight and emberglow develop and unfold itself into the choicest and most deeply valuable of all camp activities.

By A. E. HAMILTON, Sebago-Bear Mountain Camps and T. R. Ranch

See Also: 

Campfire Story Telling

Ernest Thompson Seton on Story Telling

F. Haydon Dimmock's Good Story Telling

Bibliography for Camp Fire Stories

Campfire Helps






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5 Camp Fires ] Bibliography ] [ Firelight ] Council Fire ] Week Program ] Heart of the Camp ] Ceremony from India ] Invocation ] Mowgli Story ] Oath Ceremony ] Pantomime ] Pointers ] Evening Pow Wows ] Accounted For! ] Scout Law ] Story of Fire ] Good Story Telling ] Timber Wolf Ceremonies ] Traditions ] Scout Yells ] What To Do? ] The Gray Areas ] Philmont Song Book ] Campfire Skits & Stunts ] Scout War Songs ]

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Last modified: October 15, 2016.