The Elements of Story ... the Fifth Element

The Elements of Story # 5: The Fifth Element

In earlier posts I’ve played around with the four classical elements of water, earth, air, and fire by imagining them as the elements of Story. But there was another element in ancient philosophy, sometime called the quintessence, or the fifth element. In Greek mythology it was the pure, celestial aether that the gods breathed, then was later defined by classical and medieval philosophers as a substance without any physical properties, or a quality of the universe that was “subtler than light.” Then there’s the 1997 Bruce Willis science-fiction film which reveals that this subtle, mysterious element, with the power to save the world, is LOVE.

So what’s the fifth element of story? I had a tougher time with this one than the other four. What was the subtle, magical “aether” in which a story takes place? It had to be something common to every story, whether told by book or screen or even the good old-fashioned human voice. Could I really pin down something so elusive and mysterious? In the end I realized I couldn’t define the fifth element, or I didn’t want to. Instead it made more sense to get at it by way of a story. It’s a very short story but one of my favourites -- I posted it on this blog a couple of years ago. It’s Tale 200 in The Complete Grimm's Tales for Young and Old, translated by Ralph Manheim:

The Golden Key

One winter's day, when the ground lay deep in snow, a poor boy was sent to the forest with a sled to bring back wood. After gathering the wood and loading it onto to the sled, he was so cold that instead of going straight home, he thought he'd make a fire and warm himself a bit. He cleared a space, and as he was scraping away the snow, he found a little golden key.

"Where there's a key," he said to himself, "there's sure to be a lock."

So he dug down into the ground and found an iron box.

"There must be precious things in it," he thought. "If only the key fits!"

At first he couldn't find a keyhole, but then at last he found one, though it was so small he could hardly see it. He tried the key and it fitted perfectly. He began to turn it--and now we'll have to wait until he turns it all the way and opens the lid. Then we'll know what marvels there were in the box.

The Grimm brothers placed this story last in their collection, as if to remind us that stories and storytelling have no end but go on and on through the ages. It’s also a story that draws you in with a character you can begin to care about, and a mystery, and then, just as the story seems to be about to really get going, it leaves you hanging. One can imagine a traditional storyteller ending an evening’s performance with this tale-with-no-end, as a way of bringing her audience back to the real world while reminding them of her skill. As if to say “See how I have you under my spell? Now I’m letting you go.”

Together a story, its teller, and its listener enter a magical space, a field of invisible forces that draws much of its energy from the desire to know what happens next? This is the fifth element, the quintessence of Story.

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