The kind of stories that I’m interested in exploring on this blog aren’t just for entertainment. They’re not ‘fictions’ in the usual sense of the word. As Alan Garner puts it: ‘The difference between legend and modern storytelling is that the modern story is a conscious fiction, whereas the legend … was, in its origins, an attempt to explain a reality.’ This is what I’m interested in: the stories that underpin our lives, our concepts of the world, our ways of being. Through all the years that I’ve been working with stories I’ve been astonished at how easily people seem able to dismiss stories – ‘fairy stories’ especially. Stuff for kids, they’ll mutter. Escapism. They’re not real.
Curiously, perhaps, I find the world of myth and story as ‘real’ as anything else that I’ve ever encountered. But that’s a question of phenomenology, and not what I’d like to talk about here. I’d like to talk about the power in stories, and why we should be careful with them. In the early posts on this blog I suggested that a headlong rush to create grand new metanarratives as some kind of ‘solution’ to our disenchantment with the world isn’t a good way forward. Among all of the reasons why I believe that is true, the most compelling reason to me is because that isn’t how stories usually work to create meaning and ways of being. That isn’t simply a matter of my opinion; even the quickest reading of oral history, of the cultural history of stories, myth, narrative in various traditions around the world, shows quite clearly that the stories that ‘go to work on you like an arrow … make you live right’, as western Apaches explained to anthropologist Keith Basso, aren’t grand overarching metanarratives but smaller stories accumulated over time. It is the ‘smaller’ stories that provide ways to test our hypotheses about the nature of the world, that attach us to place, to the land, to the earth. The folk tales, the fairy stories, the legends, the myths.
The stories that hold a real power to transform are the stories that reveal the world to us in all its complexity. That peel layers of the world away like an onion. Many of the old stories that we now remember so well are as memorable as they are for good reason. That reason is the surprising complexity that can be hidden in apparently the simplest of tales. As a perfect example of this, I thoroughly recommend Lewis Hyde’s book Trickster Makes This World. Hyde’s long and gloriously detailed overview of Trickster characters and stories in different world mythologies – from Coyote and Raven for the native Americans, Hermes in Greek myth, Eshu in Yoruba myth – makes it clear that these aren’t just funny stories made up for the purpose of entertaining (though entertaining they certainly are!) Trickster stories, Hyde tells us, call attention to the actual constraints of human life. ‘Where parody is able to strip the things it mocks of their charm, it opens up spaces in which something new might happen. When trickster breaks the rules we see the rules more clearly, but also see everything the rules exclude: the revelation of plenitude calls for a revelation of mind.’
The point here is that people didn’t just sit around making up Trickster stories. Trickster stories, like all the stories that teach us new or more insightful ways of being, evolved. They evolved from generations of tribal wisdom and philosophies. They were handed down from generation to generation – not static things but perfectly and gloriously dynamic, changing when necessary with new or especially challenging times. To me, that is how stories work. When we talk about creating ‘new stories’ for the changing world in which we now find ourselves, it’s important to understand that gestating powerful transformative stories isn’t the work of a moment, but of a lifetime. Of generations of lifetimes. Which isn’t an argument against trying, but simply to offer a cautionary note: that storymaking carries with it a serious responsibility. And that there can be bad stories as well as good stories, just as there are bad novels and good novels, and good poems and bad poems. I often find myself fearing a proliferation of bad – poorly conceived – stories that will drown out the good, though sometimes too I wonder whether it really matters, as long as there are those able to discern the real jewels. As Robert Bringhurst tells us, ‘Bad mythology in the sense of fake mythology is almost everywhere you look in the present day … There is plenty of flawed mythology too … The mythteller … should never have an agenda.’
So if we’re to create new stories, let’s understand how stories work to transform us so that we can create good new stories, not bad ones. Let’s understand archetypes and symbols and images and metaphor and all of the other fundamental building blocks of narrative which we must use in our careful crafting. Stories have power – let’s make sure we’re using that power properly. As Bringhurst says: ‘Stories are one of the fundamental ways in which we understand the world. They are probably our best maps and models of the world – and we may yet come to learn that the reason for this is that stories are some of the basic constituents of the world … Oral culture means much more than telling stories. It means learning how to hear them, how to nourish them, and how to let them live. It means learning to let stories swim down into yourself, grow large in there, and rise back up again.’ It means that the power of stories is such that there is an obligation of the part of the storyteller or storymaker to do it right.
Once upon a time storytellers were like shamans – they had training, they had a gift, a calling. In Irish culture, for example, the seanachaidh (or seanchaí ) was a keeper of traditions, trained to pass on the oral history and traditions of a people. The keeper of the folk tales, the instructive tales. Storymaking and storytelling are skills. Of course they’re not exclusive skills, but they require learning craftsmanship and understand of the ground, no more and no less than writing a good novel requires an understanding of narrative structure and the rules of grammar (whether you then choose to follow them or break them). Alan Garner, as always, says it beautifully: ‘The purpose of the storyteller is to relate the truth in a manner that is simple: to integrate without reduction; for it is rarely possible to declare the truth as it is, because the universe presents itself as a Mystery. We have to find parables; we have to tell stories to unriddle the world … The job of a storyteller is to speak the truth; but what we feel most deeply cannot be spoken in words. At this level only images connect. And so the story becomes symbol; and symbol is myth.’