From penguins to subpostmasters to magical procedures: the power of storytelling.


It's the worst bit of teaching. No, actually, "worst" is the wrong word. It's hardest, because it requires so many skills all at once. I have to sit and read essays, each of which will present me with something unique. A student's unique struggle with the problem of turning their ideas and thoughts into coherent sentences.

I could make all of this about marking, which I've been doing almost non-stop for the last two weeks. But no. This is about how, very often, we find little gems in the middle of marking academic essays that set us off on new magical paths.

We've had submissions of long projects (3k words) on science and society to go through this week and during all of that, I found a few references in a student's bibliography that have sent me off on a bit of a journey.

You see, I'm really interested in the way that stories work for humans, how important they are to us. Obviously, I'm curious because I write fiction myself, but I have another, very relevant reason for disappearing down this rabbit hole. This is a bit of a "research notes" blog, because I'm not ready to write the piece I want to write yet, but...

Penguins and Postmasters

In the middle of last summer, I wrote a blog post about how the Planet Earth documentary uses the basic monomyth hero's journey to engage viewers in an amazing story about penguins living on a remote volcanic island.

52 Weeks of Writing: Week 31—What Matters In Storytelling As Demonstrated By Penguins
Let’s talk about penguins. Specifically, let’s talk about how penguins can help us learn about how to write good, compelling story structure.

Now, six or seven months later, and I've been flooded with news stories about the subpostmasters' Post Office Scandal. I know the basics of what happened, and I'm aware it's been rumbling on in the background of life here in the UK for a while.

So why did it blow up?

Well, on 1st January, ITVX aired a new dramatisation of the events. It's brought the issue more attention and focus than it's had in a long time, if not ever.

The real Mr Bates: The man behind new ITV Post Office IT scandal drama | ITV News
Alan Bates worked at a post office in Llandudno, and is portrayed by Toby Jones in the new ITV Drama Mr Bates vs the Post Office. | ITV News Wales

This got me wanting to write more about the power of stories to make a difference to people's lives. I've got a lot to stitch together here, but it also feeds into the last seminar I teach on another course, where we discuss whether we can use fiction to mobilise and educate people about the climate crisis.

I'm incredibly grateful to the student who has no idea that I dug into their footnotes to pull out the source and see what it had for me. The student wasn't even writing about fiction, but the way humans are so driven by and create so many narratives as a species.

I want to do this for entirely selfish reasons, of course. I want to be a writer, a published author, working on fiction that makes a difference to people's lives in the same way that others' fiction has held me together. Being able to justify what often feels like an intensely selfish act with a lot of academic research is, you know, one of my toxic traits.

The Process

I don't want to rush in and write the post now, this week. I could do, if I put my head down and got on with it, but it would be rushed. I also want to avoid jumping in too early. It's now two weeks since the series was released, and although, so far, the scandal has survived the news cycle churn, I want to see how this unfolds in the longer term.

In the internet age of the 24-hour news cycle, I'm sure I'm supposed to leap on things the moment they're in the spotlight to take advantage, and I don't want to do that. Penguins dashing themselves on rocks for food isn't the same as more than 700 people's lives being destroyed and then being punished for an IT failure.

I knew about the story because of a BBC documentary. It strikes me as fascinating that the documentary didn't seem to hit with as much emotional punch as the new drama.

So far this week, I've been making notes on the TV show itself, and the media impact it's had since it first came out. I've watched the show itself, and experienced the intensity of emotion that must have gripped the audience who went on to become so vocal in calling for justice for the subpostmasters.

But now I have a new, more academic direction.

The Starting Point

My student cited a relatively small study from 2021 examining the impact of a single storytelling session on hospitalised children. It deals not with reported emotions but with hormonal responses, especially the role of oxytocin:

"We found that, compared with an active control condition, one storytelling session with hospitalized children leads to an increase in oxytocin, a reduction in cortisol and pain, and positive emotional shifts during a free-association task. These multimodal findings support evolutionary theories of storytelling and demonstrate its physiological and psychological effects under naturalistic stress conditions." (Brockington et al. 2021: 1)

This is a study of 81 children, so it's not very large in terms of scale. It also only compares two interventions, without a control. But it does point me in a direction I wasn't expecting to go. I thought I'd want to write about the impact of the drama on the audience, and the capacity of a story to enlighten, change people's minds, and encourage social action.

At the same time, it makes me wonder if there's another angle worth exploring as well—the role of telling the story on the individuals involved as well. I am aware that interviews with the main subject, Alan Bates, have revealed his own view of the experience of what's happened since the show aired. I have yet to work on that angle in any detail, however.

The next step I usually take when I find something curious I know nothing about is to delve into the bibliography. I try to encourage my students to do this as well. It's a good way to get beyond recommended reading lists and into the meat of the scholarship.

I'd been planning, late last year, to start investigating narratology in some depth to see if it might help me tell better stories. Now, I seem to be going in a related direction with this—and also potentially back into the world of ancient magic.


A key component of one style of ancient magic procedure is what's called the historiola. David Frankfurter's piece, "Narratives that do things", provides a good introduction into this standard facet of Roman–Late-Antique Egyptian magical practice.

It works like this: in order to get what they want to happen, a practitioner needs to engage the support and powers of a supernatural agent (deity, angel, or god). To do that, they frequently have to refer to or even tell a relevant myth or story associated with that supernatural agent.

The procedure that leaps instantly to mind comes from GEMF 15 (previously known as PGM XII). A practitioner makes a small figurine of Eros, with a Psyche companion (from whom we never hear again), and then completes a three-day activation ritual. As part of the ritual, the practitioner reminds Eros of the myth surrounding him and Psyche, which also serves to let the deity know what he should do for them.

It does make me think that practitioners of ancient magic knew something, even if only subconsciously, about the way stories can make other beings do things when told in the right way. I sincerely hope that as all this unfolds for the subpostmasters, that the drama continues to work its magic in the modern world.

Some useful sources:

Brockington G., Gomes Moreira A.P., Buso M.S., Gomes da Silva S., Altszyler E., Fischer R., Moll J. (2021) Storytelling increases oxytocin and positive emotions and decreases cortisol and pain in hospitalized children. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2021 Jun 1;118(22):e2018409118. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2018409118. PMID: 34031240; PMCID: PMC8179166.

Frankfurter, D. (1995). Narrating Power: The Theory and Practice of the Magical Historiola in Ritual Spells. In Mirecki, P. and Meyer, M. (Eds.) Ancient Magic and Ritual Power (pp. 457–476). Brill.

Frankfurter, D. (2017a). Narratives That Do Things. In Johnston, S. (Ed.) Religion: Narrating Religion. Schirmer Books.

Background to the Subpostmasters Scandal:

Peachey, K, Race, M, and Sri-Pathma, V (2024) "The Post Office scandal explained: What the Horizon saga is all about" at (Accessed 10.01.2024—when the article had been updated four hours prior).

My starting point for further research:

Gerrig, R (1993) Experiencing Narrative Worlds, Routledge, New York.