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September 2018

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.

Nattadon 2

Nattadon 3

"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.

Nattadon 4

"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.

Nattadon 5

"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.

Nattadon 6

Nattadon 7

"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."

Nattadon 8

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

Flower border

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.

Mist 2

Mist 3

"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.

Mist 4

"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.

Mist 5

Mist 6

"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.

Mist 7

Mist 8

"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.

Mist 9

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

Mist 10

Mist 11

Mist 12

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.


The mystery of storytelling

Woodland border 1

"The mystery of storytelling," writes Ben Okri, "is the miracle of a single living seed which can populate whole acres of human minds. It is the multiplicity of responses which a single text can generate within the mind's unfailing capacity for wonder. Storytellers are a tiny representative of the greater creative forces. And like all artists they should create beauty as best they can, should serve truth, and remember humility, and when their work is done and finely crafted, arrowed to the deepest points in the reader's heart and mine, they should be silent, leave the stage, and let the imagination of the world give sanctuary."

Woodland border 2

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"There are two essential joys in storytelling," Okri continues. "The joy of telling, which is to say of the artistic discovery. And the joy of listening, which is to say of the imaginative identification. Both joys are magical and important. The first involves exploration and suffering and love. The second involves silence and openness and thought. The first is the joy of giving. The second is the joy of receiving. My prayer is to be able to write stories that, to paraphrase T.S. Elliot, can be read so deeply that they are not read at all, but you become the story, while the story lasts. With the greatest writers, you continue to become more of the story long after you have finished it."

Notebooks

''Storytellers ought not to be too tame. They ought to be wild creatures who function adequately in society. They are best in disguise. If they lose all their wildness, they cannot give us the truest joys.''

Stay wild, my friends.

Woodland Border 4

Ben Okri

This post is reprinting from the Myth & Moor archives, first published in 2015. The passages quoted above and in the picture captions are from Ben Okri's "The Joys of Storytelling 1"  and "The Joys of Storytelling 2"  from Okri's essay collection A Way of Being Free (Phoenix House, 1977). All rights reserved by the author.


On the power of beauty

Poets Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner and Aka Niviâna

Rise: From One Island to Another is an extraordinary film project featuring two poets -- Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner from the Marshall Islands (between Hawaii and the Philippines) and Aka Niviâna from Kalaallit Nunaat, Greenland -- using their words to link their homelands, each on the front line of climate change.

Please go here to watch this stunning little film, so rich with the beauty of the language of "sacred rage" that it makes my heart beat fast.

Then go here to learn more about the making of Rise: the ethos, the poem, and the journey.

Just yesterday I read an interview with the great American writer Terry Tempest Williams discussing the power of beauty in a changing world: grounding us, healing us, giving us the courage to keep fighting for our planet.

Black bear (artist unknown)"What I love," she says, "is that, in spite of everything, beauty holds us, in whatever form we seek it. Last week, I was so depressed; I cannot believe what is happening in this country. I’ve been in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem for the last month and the state of Wyoming is now opening permits so that if grizzly bears get outside Yellowstone National Park or Grand Teton National Park, they can be shot. We tried to organize, buy out the permits, 'shoot them with a camera, not a gun.' All this is political, right? And I thought, stop, too much noise. Too much rage. And I went into the park and drove through Willow Flats. On the edge of the Snake River, I saw the willows move. And there in the clearing emerges this immense being -- a grizzly bear. And I thought, first and foremost, above all politics, here is beauty on four legs. I just wept. My heart calmed, my eyes opened, and I found a compassion that I had lost. I went out and sat by the river, and all of a sudden there were millions of caddis flies, about the size of your little finger, a constellation dancing on the surface of the Snake River. Grizzly bears eat caddis flies, and I thought, here, now, this is beauty, this is the strategy for survival. The earth, the world, bears: on some level I truly believe they will survive us. I have to believe in those moments of beauty that take us to a place of transcendence where anything is possible. We have to hold on to that."

I couldn't agree more.

Terry Tempest Williams

I highly recommend Terry Tempest William's new book, pictured above...and all of her previous work. She inspires me constantly.


Why stories are subversive

Thumbelina

From "The Joys of Storytelling" by Ben Okri:

"Storytelling is always, quietly, subversive. It is a double-headed axe. You think it faces only one way, but it also faces you. You think it cuts only in one direction, but it also cuts you. You think it applies to others only, when it maintly applies to you. When you think it is harmless, that is when it springs its hidden truths, its uncomfortable truths, on you. It startles your complacency. And when you no longer listen, it lies silently in your brain, waiting.

Little Red Cap  illustrated by Lisbeth Zerger

"Stories are very personal things. They drift about quietly in your soul. They never shout their most dangerous warnings. They sometimes lend amplification to the promptings of conscience, but their effect is more pervasive. They infect your dreams. They infect your perceptions. They are always successful in their occupation of your spirit. And stories always have mischief in their blood.

The Legend of Rosepetal

"Stories, as can be seen from my choice of associate images, are living things; and their real life begins when they start to live in you. Then they never stop living, or growing, or mutating, or feeding the groundswell of imagination, sensibility, and character.

The Seven Ravens

"Stories are subversive because they always come from the other side, and we can never inhabit all sides at once. If we are here, story speaks for there; and vice versa. Their democracy is frightening; their ultimate non-allegience is sobering. They are the freest inventions of our deepest selves, and they always take wing and soar beyond the place where we can keep them fixed.

The Tortoise and the Hare

"Stories are subversive because they always remind us of our fallibility. Happy in their serene and constantly-changing place, they regard us with a subtle smile. There are ways in which stories create themselves, bring themselves into being, for their own inscrutable reasons, one of which is to laugh at humanity's attempt to hide from its own clay. The time will come when we realize that stories choose us to bring them into being for the profound needs of humankind. We do not choose them....

The Swineherd

"In a fractured age, when cynicims is god, here is a possible heresy: we live by stories, we also live in them. One way or another we are living the stories planted in us early or along the way, or we are living the stories we planted -- knowingly or unknowingly -- in ourselves. We live stories that give our lives meaning or negate it with meaninglessness.

The Swineherd

"If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives."

The Swineherd

Pictures: The paintings above are by the great book artist Lisbeth Zwerger, who lives and works in Vienna, Austria. She has illustrated many editions of fairy tales and children's classics, and her work has been collected into two fine books: Wonderment and The Art of Lisbeth Zwerger. All rights reserved by the artist.

Words: The passage above is from "The Art of Storytelling I," from A Way of Being Free by Ben Okri (Phoenix House, 1977). All rights reserved by the author.


The gift blocked up

Oak

From The Gifts of Reading by Robert Macfarlane:

"Great art 'offers us images by which to imagine our lives' notes Lewis Hyde in his classic 1983 book, The Gift, '[and] once the imagination has been awakened it is procreative: through it we can give more than we were given, say more than we have to say.' This is a beautiful double-proposition: that art enlarges our repetoire for being, and that it further enables a giving onwards of that enriched utterance, that broadened perception.

"I was given a copy of Hyde's The Gift -- and I don't have that copy any longer, because I gave it to someone else, urging them to read it. Gifts give on, says Hyde, this is their logic. They are generous acts that incite generosity. He contrasts two types of 'property': the commodity and the gift. The commodity is the acquired and then hoarded, or resold. But the gift is kept moving, given onwards in a new form. Whereas the commodity circulates according to the market economy (in which relations are largely impersonal and conducted with the aim of profiting the self), the gift circulates according to the gift economy (in which relations are largely personal and conducted with the aim of profiting the other). In the market economy, value accrues to the individual by means of hoarding or 'saving.' In the gift economy, value accrues between individuals by means of giving and receiving. This, for Hyde, is why gifts possess 'erotic life,' as property: when we give a gift, it is an erotic act in the sense of eros as meaning 'attraction,' 'union,' a 'mutual involvement'....

White pony

"I am particularly moved by his deep interest in what he calls 'the gift that, when it comes, speaks commandingly to the soul and irresistibly moves us.' The outcome of a gift is uncertain at the time of giving, but the fact that it has been given charges it with great potential to act upon the recipient for the good. Because the gratitude we feel, and because the gift is by definition given freely, without obligation, we are encouraged to meet it with openess and excitement. Unlike commodities, gifts -- in Hyde's account and my experience -- possess an exceptional power to transform, to heal and to inspire."

Sheep

Sheep

Lewis Hyde's The Gift was a seminal book for me when I first encountered it as a young writer, forming the way that I think about art: as a passing of gifts through the world, through time, and through the generations. I write and paint to make a living of course, to put food on the table and keep a roof overhead, but for me the first and most important impulse in the art-making process is, as Pablo Neruda once said, " to give something resiny, earthlike and fragrant in exchange for the gift of human brotherhood" ... to which I would add the gifts of sisterhood, and of a deeply cherished relationship with nature and the more-than-human world.

In a previous post on gift exchange I noted:

"Making art is a form of gift-giving, made wondrous by the way that some of our creations move outward far beyond our ken, gifting recipients we do not know, will never meet, and sometimes could never imagine. And I, in turn, have received great gifts from writers, painters, musicians, dramatists and others who will never know of my existence either, and yet their words, images, or ideas, coming to me at the right time, have literally saved me.

"The paradox inherent in making art, of course, is that it's an act involving both giving and receiving. Like breathing, it requires both, the inhalation and the exhalation. We receive the gift of inspiration (inhale), give it shape and form and pass it on (exhale)."

Sheep

Path

And yet somehow over the last few months, I seem to have lost the knack of breathing: the natural and mostly unconscious cycle of in and out that sustains my life. I was working...writing...but the work didn't flow. My regular morning posts for Myth & Moor slowed down to a trickle, then stopped altogether. My inbox filled with unanswered mail as my ability to communicate -- the very thing I've built my life and career upon -- seemed to vanish altogether. I can point to particular reasons why: Exhaustion. Medical problems, both time-consuming and worrying. Too many demands upon my time and attention, and too few spoons to distribute among them. The weariness of spirit caused by the constant assault of the daily news since the Brexit vote and the American election. It was all of those things and none of those things. I hadn't gone to ground intentionally; I kept trying to speak, and found myself dumb -- which is not a comfortable situation for a professional writer, a creature with language at her core. As novelist and poet May Sarton once wrote:

"The gift turned inward, unable to be given, becomes a heavy burden, even sometimes a kind of poison. It is as though the flow of life were backed up."

Cow on the hill

What has changed, then, since the silent summer months, allowing me to return to work and resume this blog?

This, too, is mysterious. Perhaps it's simply the turn of the season: the air growing crisp, the leaves turning gold, the reminder that nothing in nature stands entirely still. Perhaps it's just the need to breathe out after holding my breath for too damn long. Perhaps it was a visit by two old friend, writers themselves, pulling me back to the literary world. Perhaps it's the way that the things that serve to frighten us into paralysis -- whether medical issues or other life challenges -- eventually grow familiar, become the things you simply cope with, learn to fold into your days because you must...and life goes on...and the birds still sing...and the hound still wants her afternoon walk...and you find yourself speaking, once again, hesitantly at first, and then just a little louder...re-finding the words...re-finding yourself...until one day your fluency in your life's language returns.

Cow on the hill

Braising on oak leaves

"The earth offers gift after gift," writes Kathleen Dean Moore, "life and the living of it, light and the return of it, the growing things, the roaring things, fire and nightmares, falling water and the wisdom of friends, forgiveness. My god, the forgiveness, time, and the scouring tides. How does one accept gifts as great as these and hold them in the mind?"

By noticing them. By honoring them. By holding them close when the world goes dark, and passing them on when the light comes back.

Climbing the hill

The door of my studio stands open. Myth & Moor is back on schedule again. Autumn is here. I am moving forward, and I suddenly have so much to say.

Reaching the top

Moore  Hyde  & Macfarlane

Credits: The passages quoted above are from The Gifts of Reading by Robert Macfarlane (Penguin Books, 2016); The Gift by Lewis Hyde (Vintage, 1983); and Wild Comfort by Kathleen Dean Moore (Shambhala, 2010). The May Sarton quote is from her novel Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing (W.W. Norton, 1975). All rights reserved by the authors. Three related posts: Gift Exchange (and the making of art), Doing It for Love, Knowing the World as a Gift.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Rowan berries

"When you tell a story or sing a song, you are the vehicle by which a tribe comes through you, and all your ancestors come here to help you..."

Above: "Go Away from My Window" performed by Iona Fyfe, from Aberdeenshire. Variants of this traditional song have been collected in northern Scotland and the Appalachian mountains of America. This version appears on Fyfe's gorgeous debut album, Away from My Window (2018).

Below: "Botany Bay" performed by Kelly Oliver, from Hertfordshire. This version of the ballad was collected by folk revivalist Lucy Ethelred Broadwood (1858-1928). It will appear on Oliver's third album, Bedlam, due out this month.

Above: "Chuir M’Athair Mise dhan Taigh Charraideach (My Father Sent Me to the House of Sorrow)" performed by The Furrow Collective: Lucy Farrell, Rachel Newton, Emily Portman, and Alasdair Roberts. This one's a waulking song from the Isle of Skye in the Inner Hebrides. It can be found on the quartet's second album, Wild Hog (2016).

Below: "A’ phiuthrag ’sa phiuthar (O Sister, Beloved Sister)" performed by Julie Fowlis, from North Uist in the Outer Hebrides. It tells the story of a young woman's search for her sister, stolen away by the sìthichean, or fairy-people. The song appears on Fowlis' latest album, Alterus, and features vocals by Mary Chapin Carpenter. The lovely animation is by Eleonore Dambre and Dima Nowarah.

Above: "The Outlandish Knight" (a variant of "Lady Isabela and the Elf Knight," Child Ballad #4) performed by Kate Rusby, from Yorkshire. The song appeared on her eleventh album, Ghost (2014).

Below: "False Light," a contemporary song in the ballad tradition by The Willows, from Cambridge. "It was written," they say, "after many misty walks around Wicken Fen, near to Ely. We love the folklore around these old tales surrounding the area, where atmospheric ghost lights, know as false lights, would lure people off the path, within the marshy reeds.”  The song will appear on their third album, Through the Wild, due out in November.

Tilly under the rowan  a tree beloved by the fairiesTilly under the rowan, a tree beloved by the fairies.