The Tradition of Bards, the Power of the Image and Peacemaking.

 Story-telling has always been a major way of passing on truths and traditions from generation to generation. There was a time that this was a solely oral tradition. Where stories (sometimes set to music) were repeated without any change in their ‘essence’ although the emphasis and setting may vary to bring context and life. So as nightfall descended and people gathered together around a fire or as winter closed in and people huddled together in huts, a story-teller or bard would start to tell the chronicles, legends and tales of their people. Many of them familiar but some of them new. People would listen and in their imaginations wander to far off places and the exploits of heroes or be beguiled by the courage and sacrifice of their ancestors. Inspiring each one in their own journey and fostering a sense of pride and honour for their own culture or respect for others and their way of life. They would laugh and cry, be encouraged and challenged, learn new truths and revisit old ones as well as glean what was needed to live a good, productive and full life.


In these ancient cultures we see this art being put to many uses. The bards would use their stories to keep the history of their people alive and dynamic, or as a means to impart truth and wisdom, or to teach, consolidate and re-emphasise values, traditions and protocols of their culture, as well as helping settle disputes by enabling opposing sides to see things from a different perspective.


We still live in a story-telling world. We are hungry for stories. We all seem to have an appetite for stories – whether that’s an obsession with celebrity, or a hunger for the news… a love of ‘soaps’ or films or books’ perhaps it’s just the curiosity to know more – so when you ask someone how their was weekend and they say ‘OK’ it’s just not enough. It is totally unsatisfying, especially as you’ve heard a whisper of a few ciders, some dancing and a pole! You have to hear the whole story….. ‘OK’ just doesn’t ‘cut it’.


Perhaps it is because deep down we realise that life is a story. We seem to have been conditioned to think of life as a kind of clinical experience … if we do this and that this will be the outcome… like 1+2 =3 but most of us realise that more often the reality is 1+2=9 for some reason! That life isn’t clinical and predictable even in the most mundane existence. ‘Stuff happens’.


Life comes to us in the same way we read a book or view a play or film…. chapter by chapter, act by act, scene by scene. When we get up in the morning life unfolds before us. No amount of planning can really determine exactly what will happen to you in any given day – there is always the unexpected. Often it’s mundane, sometimes comical, occasionally dramatic and from time to time even tragic.


When we as a family sit around our dinner table at night and we recount the day it is the stories not the ‘facts’ that get our attention. We hear the story being told and, like the listeners of the ancient bards, in our imaginations we see the drama unfold and we are shocked…or worried…or perplexed… or amused….and sometimes hysterical; but more importantly we are all engaged in life’s drama.


So what has this to do with the process of peacemaking? Understanding that life is a story and our life is part of a bigger story brings perspective. A big part of the peacemaker’s art is to help others to see that life isn’t as clinical or black and white as they may think. That their view of the world, culture, even right and wrong is not necessarily the correct or only way of looking at the issue before them. That their life and story is not the centre piece of humanity. A peacemaker helps bring context and perspective. Giving people a new or different perspective is often a large key to unlocking difficult situations and helping people find understanding, tolerance and peace with each other.


Now it would be short sighted just to think of story-telling as the art of putting words together because a story  can be told in many different ways whether it be a series of photographs or sketches or paintings or a song or a reel of film. As I was mulling over a previous blog, which towards the end started to examine and scrutinize the role of the visual communicator in peacemaking, my mind again has started to meander towards the thought of the visual communicator’s role as the story-teller. Someone who doesn’t just record facts or even beauty but looks to tell a story with the power of image. Story-tellers that, through their images, are willing to raise questions and issues, leaving people with as many questions as answers.                   


Whether we use photographs or video, sketch books or comic books, canvas or sculpture we can become modern day bards –  passing on the ‘traditions’, bringing truth, revealing new perspectives. The challenge isn’t just to produce exceptional images or beautiful art but to help the viewer to understand the story behind the image. To grapple with issues, to be able to learn, and to see value. Perhaps this will need more than one image or a mixture of different mediums – the visual coupled with words or music or just the noises that were present as you were capturing the stories or the words of the people you are portraying to help give context and build understanding, even empathy. A context to help the viewer to see and think beyond the image to the story.


It is my hope that we can once again see a new generation recover an authentic stream of the ancient tradition of the bard. Whether that is through words or music or images.


And that the story-telling is about inspiring people to honour and respect, and not disdain or derision, to morality and virtue instead of corruption and vice, to humility and heroism and not arrogance and egotism and to mercy and grace instead of intolerance and mercilessness; promoting and celebrating the good news over the bad, diversity over uniformity, difference over conformity, peace over violence and mercy over cruelty and intolerance.


Ian Rowlands