On stories false and true

Nattadon 1

More thoughts on the nature of story from The Mystery Feast by Ben Okri:

"As this is a celebration of storytelling, it is important to state that stories can also be pernicious. Stories have also been used for evil. They have been used for the denigration, the demonisation, and the extermination of peoples. This is because of the psychological power of stories, their ability to fit in perfectly with our belief brain cells. It is easier to get people to believe nasty things about others if you tell nasty stories about them.

"Stories, used as negative propaganda, have fuelled wars, tribal dissentions, and genocide. False stories use the same laws as good stories, making them readily acceptable to our imagination. The true danger of stories is that they tend to bypass reason. They can bypass intelligence and go straight to the subconscious. Why else have very intelligent people in the past believed such absurd things about other races? The subliminal demonisation in stories and images is one of the roots of racism and sexism. All kinds of outsiders suffer from this cruel misuse of mental association that stories can promote.

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"When they want to destroy a people they begin telling stories about them. Even when negative stories about a people are not believed they still leave an imprint on the underside of the mind, a residuum of doubt, a sinister grain that in time can become an evil pus of perception. Then one day, with the insistent provocation by demagogues, a people might rise up and slaughter those who have been demonised by stories, the 'other.' The ancient Greeks did it with the Persians. The Romans with stories built Carthage into a monstrous foe which must be exterminated, and this culminated in their destruction. They did it with the Africans during the slave trade, the Jews before the Holocaust, they did it with the Tutsis, they did it with black South Africans during Apartheid, and they are doing it now to one group of people or another, and they do it through rumours in the media and with our passive collusion.

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"Whenever we listed to negative stories about others we are contributing to this ongoing preparation for some unforeseen future monstrosity. Tyrants and ideologues use stories; the state uses stories when it wants to bend our inclination towards its secret programs. The Cold War was a time of toxicity of stories. Families use them to create their own myths, sometimes at the expense of other branches of the family. People use stories about their friends.

"Stories can be dangerous because they can be easily misused. The Grimm brothers made step-mothers figures of eternal suspicion. But in the original stories the Grimm brothers drew from, the people who did those terrible deeds were not the step-mothers but the mothers. The Brothers Grimm, rewriting those stories, felt they could not allow mothers to be so traduced. So they traduced step-mothers instead.

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"The law of stories is immortal. Stories invariably reveal their secret truth. False stories in the end tend to evil, toward injustice, toward unfairness. Good stories tend towards clarity and transcendence.

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"Good stories incline towards life, towards the raising of consciousness, a lifting of the heart. They are evolutionary. For good stories point the way upwards. This is their enigma. It is not enough to read or listen to them. We must continually meditate on them to extract their timeless wisdom, their signposts meant to guide us on the secret true path."

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Words: The passage above and the quote in the picture captions are from The Mystery Feast: Thoughts on Storytelling by Ben Okri (Clairview Books, 2015). All rights reserved by the author. Pictures: Climbing to the top of Nattadon Hill on misty, drizzly autumn day -- looking out on Meldon Hill, our village, farmers' fields, and the moor beyond.


Reading, telling, awakening

The Sorceress by Alan Lee

From The Mystery Feast by Ben Okri:

"How do we awaken the imagination? One of the ways, passed down to us with cunning simplicity by our ancestors, is storytelling. But it takes many forms. A painting on a cave wall of a man pursuing a bison is a story. The frescoes of Giotta in Assisi are distilled stories. Stories are interactions between mortality and immortality. When we tell stories some immortal part of ourselves is singing in time. When we tell stories the ages awaken. When we listen to stories our future takes clearer shape. That is because fear comes from unknowing, and stories help us know a little more. The things that the heart knows shine a greater light than the things the head knows.

  Merlin by Alan Lee

"Take the story of The Odyssey, and the twenty-year adventure of trying to get home. It tells us a hundred things, and each moment of the story tells us a hundred more. Why did Odysseus answer 'Nobody' when Polyphemus asked him his name? On one level it is a cunning ruse. On another interpretative level it hints perhaps that we are someone specific and no one. In being no one he could be everybody.

Odysseus by Alan Lee

"What does the story of Penelope mean? Every night she undoes the weaving she did during the day. On one level it is a cunning act of delay, worthy of the wife of Odysseus. On another interpretative level we sense that this is what life does, what sleep does every night, what death does at the end of life.

Penelope by Alan Lee

"Take the story of Cinderella. She is the one who is ignored, who does the hard work of cleaning, while the two elder sisters get to go to the ball. Yet it is her foot that the slipper fits. On one level this is a tale of wish fulfillment. On another level it could be seen as a hint of the rewards of humility. It could also be seen as a parable about those who might inherit the earth, that it is not the showy ones, the evidently beautiful ones, or the famous ones that the true riches of the kingdom come to, but perhaps those who toil unseen. 

"Have you noticed that when someone does something astounding, publishes an important new novel, makes an invaluable scientific discovery, or creates an amazing new work of art, the press always says, 'they came from nowhere'? They didn't come from nowhere. They came from where Cinderella came from, toiling in the unglamorous back rooms of their chosen field, wherever life has led them."

Cinderella by Yvonne Gilbert

The Wicked Step-sisters by Yvonne Gilbert

Simplistic modern versions of Cinderella, focused on rags-to-riches wish fulfillment, miss the point of the story says Okri, the "acres of its possible interpretations."

It's because of the hero's "goodness of spirit, her kindliness, her toughness, her quiet initiative, because of all these things and more, which the tale only hints at, that Cinderella is the most deserving of the sisters. She earns her glory by her toil and her spirit, and not by the appropriate size of her feet. In this story her feet are merely the symbol of having walked the right path."

For more on the history of the Cinderella tale, see "Ashes, Blood, & the Slipper of Glass."

Cinderella and her Prince by Yvonne Gilbert

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Pictures: A detail from "The Sorceress,"  "Merlin," "Odysseus," and "Penelope and the Suitors" by Alan Lee; plus five Cinderella  illustrations by Yvonne Gilbert.   Words: The passage above is from The Mystery Feast: Thoughts on Storytelling by Ben Okri (Clairview Books, 2015). All rights reserved by the artists and author.


The story instinct

Mist 1

From The Mystery Feast by Ben Okri:

"There is nothing that expresses the roundedness of human beings more than storytelling. Stories are the highest technology of being.

"There is in story the greatest psychology of existence, of living. Indeed there is in story something semi-divine. The nature of story itself is linked to the core of creation. Story belongs to the micro-moment after the big bang. It belongs to the micro-moment after the 'let there be light!' act of creation.

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"We live in a time in which we are being told that the main things of value are the things of science and the things of technology. Our lives are being compressed into this technological reality. But it is worth remembering the many-sidedness of being human. Great evil befalls us when we restrict ourselves to just one side of our being.

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"It is important that we don't become machines, that we don't become computers. We contain machines. We contain computers. We contain all of nature, the seas, the mountains, the constellations, and the nearly infinite spaces.

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"At the heart of all science -- its experiments, its theories, its mathematics, its discoveries, its interpretations -- is the story instinct. The scientific mind would be impossible without the story DNA, without the story-seeing brain cells. The mind's aspects do not operate in isolation. Every human being immersed in the cyclorama of reality is implicated in the cosmic story-making nature of reality. Maybe this story-making quality of reality is what constitutes the heart of our existence.

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"At every moment we are in a micro or macro 'once upon a time' sea of existence. In every moment we are part of the infinite sea of stories that the universe is telling us, and that we are telling the universe.

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"Maybe this story-making quality of being is the principle magic as well as the principle illustion of our lives."

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Words: The passage above is from The Mystery Feast: Thoughts on Storytelling by Ben Okri (Clairview Books, 2015), a lovely small press booklet which I highly recommend. The poem in the picture captions is "Why We Tell Stories" by Lisel Mueller (Poetry magazine, July 1978), who is one of my all-time favorite poets. All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Our hill on a misty autumn morning.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Curlew

Hudson Records has just released Northern Flyway, a brilliant new album that is perfect for lovers of folklore, myth, and Mythic Arts. Here's the description:

Northern FlywayHumans have always looked to the birds. In mythology, they are carriers of souls, messengers to the gods, our familiars. In ecology, they are our measure, our meter, they mark the seasons…

In 2017 Jenny Sturgeon (Salt House, Jenny Sturgeon Trio) and Inge Thomson (Karine Polwart Trio, Da Fishing Hands) wrote and created Northern Flyway -- an audio-visual production exploring the ecology, folklore, symbolism and mythology of birds and birdsong. Northern Flyway premiered to a sold-out audience at The Barn (Banchory) in January 2018, and a CD of the songs was recorded at Mareel, Shetland, over four days in early February 2018.

The music draws on the extensive field recordings of birdsong expert Magnus Robb, Sturgeon͛s background as a bird biologist and Thomson͛s home turf of Fair Isle, Shetland. The songs combine vocal and instrumental composition, interviews, sonic experimentation and lush and varied bird song from the northern hemisphere. Themes of human and avian migration, the seasons͛ cycle and humanity͛s relationship with nature resonate through this multi-dimensional work. Alongside Jenny and Inge, Northern Flyway also features singer/multi-instrumentalist Sarah Hayes (Admiral Fallow, Rachel Newton Band) and vocal sculptor/beatboxer Jason Singh (Follow the Fleet, Tweet Music).

Video above: "Curlews" by Northern Flyway.

Below: "Rosefinch" by Northern Flyway, performed backstage in Mareel.

Gannet

Above: "The Gannets" by Northern Flyway.

Below: "The Eagle" by Northern Flyway.

Magpie

Above: "Huggin and Munnin" by Northern Flyway.

Below: Northern Flyway's Inge Thomson joins Karine Polwart and Steven Polwart on "Ophelia," from Laws of Motion -- another beautiful new release from Hudson Records. Inge is part of the Modern Fairies multi-media arts project that I'm involved in right now. All of her work is imbued with magic and a love of nature, and is thoroughly enchanting.

Illustration by Angela Barrett

Related Monday Tunes posts: Music for the Birds, Karine Polwart's "A Pocket of Wind Resistance," Salt House, Hanna Tuulikki's "Away With the Birds," Sam Lee's "Singing With the Nightingales," Classical Music Inspired by Birds, Going to the Birds. Illustration by Angela Barrett.

For more information on the myths & folklore of birds, see this previous post: When Stories Take Flight.