Reclaiming the fire and sorcery

Dartmoor ponies 1

Dartmoor ponies 2

To end the week, here's one last passage from The Mystery Feast by Ben Okri:

"In ancient Africa, in the Celtic lands, storytellers were magicians. They were initiates. They understood the underlying nature of reality, its hidden forces. The old Celtic bards could bring out welts on the body with a string of syllables. They could heal sickness with a tale. They could breathe life into a dying civilization with the magic of a story. To a thriving civilization, they could bring transformation and the potency of myth. In the old days kings and leaders, warriors and knights listened to epic tales and drew from them courage and inspiration.

P1490742

"The historian deals with the past, but the true storyteller works with the future. You can tell the strength of an age by the imaginative truth-grasping vigour of its storytellers. Stories are matrices of thought. They are patterns formed in the mind. They weave their effect on the future. To be a storyteller is to work with, to weave with, the material of time itself.

"A nation is shaped by the stories its children are told. A nation is sustained by the stories it tells itself. The good stories can liberate its potential, or help it face the dragons of its evils.

Ponies 1

"Storytellers, reclaim the fire and sorcery of your estate. Take an interest in everything. You cannot be a magician in stories if you are not a magician in life. Go forward into the future, but also return to the secret gnosis of the bards.

P1490698

"As the world gets more confused, storytellers should become more centered. What we need in our age are not more specialists and spin-doctors. What we need are people deeply rooted in the traditions of their art, but who are also at ease in the contemporary world.

P1490713

P1490714

P1490715

"We need storytellers who weave their tales with far-seeing eyes, and multi-dimensional hearts. Not those who dabble, who turn out mere words for pay or fame.

P1490717

"Storytellers are the singing conscious of the land, the unacknowledged guides.

3

Pony

"Reclaim your power to help our age become wise again. "

P1490754

P1490756

Words: The passage above IS are from The Mystery Feast: Thoughts on Storytelling by Ben Okri (Clairview Books, 2015). The quote in the picture captions is from "The Joys of Storytelling 1," published in Ways of Being Free by Ben Okri (Phoenix House, 1997). All rights reserved by the author. Pictures: Our local herd of semi-wild Darmoor ponies, grazing on O'er Hill.

 


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.

"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 6

Nattadon 7

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 illusion 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.


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

Woodland border 3

"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.


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.


Why we need fantasy

From Billy Popgun  illustrated by Milo Winter


The following passage by Lloyd Alexander (1924-2007) comes from an essay published in The Horn Book fifty years ago, yet I'm struck by how relevant it still seems to be today:

"Anyone close to children -- librarians, teachers, maybe even parents -- knows they do not hesitate to come out with straightforward questions. I am beginning to learn this for myself, although the process has been a little backwards: Instead of getting to know children first, then writing books for them, the opposite is happening. It is only recently  I have had some happy occasions to meet real live children. And not only in schools and libraries. At home I often discover a few hanging around the kitchen or perched on the sofa, swinging their heels. We talk awhile, they tell me what a hard day they had, I tell them what a hard day I have had -- there's really not much difference. But they constantly surprise me. The other afternoon one little girl asked, 'What would you rather do: be a millionaire or write books for children?'

"I gave her an absolutely honest answer. I said I would rather write books for children.

From Through the Looking Glass illustrated by Milo Winter

"Of course, I added, if someone felt inclined to give me a million dollars tax-free, in all politeness I could not refuse.

"But my answer was truthful. And I believe any serious, creative person -- and this includes teachers and librarians, for I have learned how really creative they are -- would have said the same. Because -- despite our status-oriented society, our preoccupation with 'making it,' with staying young forever, buying safe deodorants and unsafe automobiles -- I think something new is happening.

"Whatever our individual opinions, I think each of us senses that as a people we are in the midst of a moral crisis -- certainly the deepest of our generation, perhaps of our history. Few of us are untouched by a kind of national anguish. And it hurts. But if we felt nothing, if nothing moved or troubled us, then I feel we would be truly lost. For isn't anguish part of growing up? Without knowing grief, how can we ever hope to know joy?

From Aesop's Fables  illustrated by Milo Winter

"In the past, we have always been able to find technical or technological solutions to our problems. They have been external problems, for the most part, yielding to external solutions. And so we are not quite used to problems demanding inner solutions. In an article on fantasy literature, Dorothy Broderick points out that the English have dealt with fantasy more comfortably than we have in America and comments that perhaps, since England is so much older a nation, the English have had time to ask Why? instead of only How?

"It is true that we haven't had long years of leisurely speculation. But, ready or not, the time for us is now. A dozen Whys have been put to us harshly and abruptly. And searching for the Why of things is leading us to see the purely technological answers are not enough.

"We have machines to think for us; we have no machines to suffer or rejoice for us. Technology has not made us magician, only sorcerer's apprentices. We can push a button and light a dozen cities. We can also push a button and make a dozen cities vanish. There is, unfortunately, no button we can push to relieve us of moral choices or give us the wisdom to understand the morality as well as the choices. We have seen dazzling changes and improvements in the world outside us. I am not sure they alone can help change and improve the world inside us.

From Nights With Uncle Remus illustrated by Milo Winter

"We are beginning to understand that intangibles have more specific gravity than we suspected, that ideas can generate as much forward thrust as Atlas missiles. We may win a victory in exploring the infinities of outer space, but it will be a Pyrrhic victory unless we can also explore the infinities of our inner spirit. We have super-sensitive thermographs to show us the slightest variations in skin temperature. No devices can teach us the irrelevance of skin color. We can transplant a heart from one person to another in a brilliant feat of surgical virtuosity. Now we are ready to try it the hard way: transplanting understanding, compassion and love from one person to another.

From Nights with Uncle Remus illustrated by Milo Winter

"To me, one of the clearest reflections of this changing attitude is a growing appreciation of fantasy in children's literature. The climate for fantasy today is vastly different from what it was twenty, even ten years ago, when the tendency was to judge fantasy as a kind of lollipop after the wholesome spinach of reality -- a tasty dessert, but not very good for the teeth.

"Now I think we see fantasy as an essential part of a balanced diet, not only for children but for adults too. The risks of keeping fantasy off the literary menu are every bit as serious as missing the minimum daily requirements of thiamine, niacin, and riboflavin. The consequences are spiritual malnutrition."

Five decades on, these words are still true. We still need fantasy. We still need folk tales, fairy tales, mythic fiction, magic realism and other forms of fantastical literature to help us "explore the infinities of our inner spirit," and re-imagine the world.

From The Wonder Garden illustrated by Milo Winter

The art today is by American illustrator Milo Winter (1888-1956).

Born in Princeton, New Jersey, he trained at The School of the Arts Institute in Chicago, and illustrated his first children's book (Billy Popgun) at the age of 24. He lived in Chicago until the 1950s, and in New York City thereafter, illustrating a wide range of books for both children and adults -- including Gulliver’s Travels, Tanglewood Tales, Arabian Nights, Alice in Wonderland, Twenty Thousand Leagures Under the Sea, The Three Muskateers, Treasure Island, A Christmas Carol Aesops for Children, and  Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales.

To see more of his work, go here.

From Nights with Uncle Remus illustrated by Milo Winter

From Nights With Uncle Remus illustrated by Milo Winter

The passage above is from "Wishful Thinking - Or Hopeful Dreaming?"  by Lloyd Alexander (The Horn Book, August 1968). All rights reserved by the author's estate.


Making sense of the more-than-human world

The Winter Guest by David Hollington

From The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World by David Abram:

"A story must be judged according to whether it makes sense. And 'making sense' must be here understood in its most direct meaning: to make sense is to enliven the senses. A story that makes sense is one that stirs the senses from their slumber, one that opens the eyes and the ears to their real surroundings, tuning the tongue to the actual tastes in the air and sending chills of recognition along the surface of the skin. To make sense is to release the body from the constraints imposed by outworn ways of speaking, and hence to renew and rejuvenate one's felt awareness of the world. It is to make the senses wake up to where they are."

After the Prophet by David Hollington

Central image from Debt of Love by David Hollington

"Caught up in a mass of abstractions, our attention hypnotized by a host of human-made technologies that only reflect us back to ourselves, it is all too easy for us to forget our carnal inherence in a more-than-human matrix of sensations and sensibilities. Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth -- our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese. To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn these other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence. We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human."

The Rapture/Wake Up by David Hollington

"The practice of realignment with reality can hardly afford to be utopian. It cannot base itself upon a vision hatched in our heads and then projected into the future. Any approach to current problems that aims us toward a mentally envisioned future implicitly holds us within the oblivion of linear time. It holds us, that is, within the same illusory dimension that enabled us to neglect and finally to forget the land around us. By projecting the solution somewhere outside of the perceivable present, it invites our attention away from the sensuous surroundings, induces us to dull our senses, yet again, on behalf of a mental idea.

"A genuinely ecological approach does not work to attain a mentally envisioned future, but strives to enter, ever more deeply, into the sensorial present. It strives to become ever more awake to the other lives, the other forms of sentience and sensibility that surround us in the open field of the present moment. For the other animals and the gathering clouds do not exist in linear time. We meet them only when the thrust of historical time begins to open itself outward, when we walk out of our heads into the cycling life of the land around us. This wild expanse has its own timing, its rhythms of dawning and dusk, its seasons of gestation and bud and blossom. It is here, and not in linear history, that the ravens reside."

Healing Place by David Hollington

The marvelous art today is by British painter David Hollington. He studied at Harrow School of Art and at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design in London, and is now represented by The Rowley Gallery.

"Animals and birds are messengers, healers and protagonists within the narrative structure of my paintings," he says. ""I feel closely connected to forms of Shamanism where a channel is opened between the human world and the world of animals. I can't control this process when I am drawing, objects that are undetermined, shift and change shape until I begin to understand what the message is that I am receiving. At this point a key animal will appear and take the lead, this will be one of my trinity - the fox, the hare or the owl (often white). Once the animal or bird has taken the lead it will engender the possibility of including a mortal or god, sometimes a Hindu or Celtic deity. Then the tone of the painting will crystallise, this can take a considerable time, sometimes months, but once it does I begin to see in colour and feel the time of day the story is taking place."F

Follow this link to read his wonderful meditation on the fox in folklore, literature, and art.

Medea by David Hollington

The Garden by David Hollington

Words & Pictures: The passage above is from The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram (Vintage, 1996), a book that has had a strong impact on my work since I first read it upon publication, and that I return to often. I highly recommend it, along with David's follow-up book, Becoming Animal. The titles of David Hollington's beautiful pictures can be found in the picture captions. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artist.


Harvesting stories

Flowers and hills  Corrary Farm

From Words Are My Matter by Ursula K. Le Guin:

"Gary Snyder gave us the image of experience as compost. Compost is stuff, junk, garbage, anything, that's turned to dirt by sitting around a while. It involves silence, darkness, time, and patience. From compost, whole gardens grow.

"It can be useful to think of writing as gardening. You plant the seeds, but each plant will take its own way and shape. The gardener's in control, yes; but plants are living, willful things. Every story has to find its own way to the light. Your great tool as a gardener is your imagination.

Corrary Farm

"Young writers often think -- are taught to think -- that a story starts with a message. That is not my experience. What's important when you start is simply this: you have a story you want to tell. A seedling that wants to grow. Something in your inner experience is forcing itself towards the light. Attentively and carefully and patiently, you can encourage that, let it happen. Don't force it; trust it. Watch it, water it, let it grow.

Polytunnels  Corrary Farm

Organic vegetables

"As you write a story, if you can let it become itself, tell itself fully and truly, you may discover what its really about, what it says, why you wanted to tell it. It may be a surprise to you. You may have thought you planted a dahlia, and look what came up, an eggplant! Fiction is not information transmission; it is not message-sending. The writing of fiction is endlessly surprising to the writer.

Corrary Farm  turf-roofed office

"Like a poem, a story says what it has to say it the only way it can be said, and that is the exact words of the story itself. Why is why the words are so important, why it takes so long to learn how to get the words right. Why you need silence, darkness, time, patience, and a real solid knowledge of English vocabulary and grammar.

"Truthful imagining from experience is recognizable, shared by its readers."

Howard in the yurt cafe  Corrary Farm

Welcoming committee

Words: The passage above is from "Making Up Stories," published in Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life & Books by Ursula K. Le Guin (Small Beer Press, 2016). The poem in the picture captions is from Circles on the Water by Marge Piercy (Knopf, 1988). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Corray Farm on Scotland's west coast, near Glenelg, photographed on our trip north in June: polytunnels, turf-roofed office, Howard reading in the yurt cafe, and the four-footed welcoming committee.


The stories that shape us

Ponies 1

"As a child I preferred fairy tales to all other stories," says novelist Alice Hoffman (in a short essay for Waterstones). "Fairy tales seemed to trust that even as a child I could understand major concepts of good and evil, fear and cowardice, and distinguish the difference between the truth and a lie. Children realize that there are beasts who wish to do good in the world, and adults waiting in the woods who may be dangerous, and paths that should be marked, whether by bread crumbs or tears, so that we can find our way home again. In the world of fairy tales, the amazing is recounted in a matter of fact tone. One ordinary day there is a knock at the door, a rose that refuses die, a spindle that must be avoided at all costs.

Red Riding Hood by G.P. Jacomb Hood"It was the melding of the magical and the everyday that was most affecting to me as a reader, for the world I lived in seemed much the same. Anything could happen. People you loved could disappear, through death or divorce; they could turn into heroes or beasts. Such stories are perhaps the original stories, tales told by grandmothers to grandchildren from the beginning of time, an oral tradition later captured in print by authors such as Perrault and the Grimms.

"I began to read novels that, like the great traditional fairy tales, incorporated the real and the magical. Every child reader knows that magic equals power and possibility. It is the recourse of the young, the neglected, the orphaned, and the brave. Why are children attracted to magical literature? Magic contains a story within a story, the deepest truth within a thrilling tale. A child can build his or her own understanding through the symbols and language of magic as if connecting with a secret code."

Ponies 2

In a longer piece for The Washington Post, Hoffman also discussed the importance of fairy tales in shaping the particular contours of her imagination:

"I read fairy tales early on. They terrified, delighted, disgusted and amazed me. They were far more grown-up than any other children's books I read, scarily so at times. Like most children, I could feel the disturbing aspects of the stories even if I couldn't intellectually understand or articulate their underlying meanings. Still, I knew. I thrilled to them. I learned. Everything in them rang true: the unspoken sexuality  (a woman loves a beast, a girl is nearly eaten by a wolf, a frog wishes to be the husband of a princess), the violence (bad mothers, absent fathers, foul murders), the greed (the house of candy, the cage of gold). I didn't realize it, of course, but the tales were allowing me to examine fear, anxiety, desire, sorrow. It was a dangerous world, but truer to reality than anything else we were allowed -- those safe books with their happy endings....

Ponies 3

Ponies 4

Ponies 5

"My initial exposure to storytelling, even before I read fairy tales, came from the stories told to me by the most down-to-earth woman I knew -- my grandmother. The two of us might have been in the market or on the subway, we might have been walking down Jerome Avenue or drinking tea with cubes of sugar in her overheated apartment, but we were also in Russia. We were dropped into her childhood, stuck in a snowstorm, running for our lives. When I heard about the wolves that howled all night, about the rivers where the ice was so thick it didn't melt until May, about men who worked so hard that they sometimes slept for a month in the winter, like bears, I was hearing the deeper truth of my grandmother's life, the complex universe that she carried with her, a very personal once-upon-a-time. This was the beginning of my life in the world of storytelling. And, perhaps, it was not unlike the very start of storytelling itself.

Ponies 6

"Do people choose the art that inspires them -- do they think it over, decide they might prefer the fabulous to the real? For me, it was those early readings of fairy tales that made me who I was as a reader and, later on, as a storyteller."

Ponies 7

Ponies 8

Words: The Alice Hoffman quotes above are from  "The Rules of Magic" (Waterstones, March 6, 2015), and an older piece on fairy tales first published in The Washington Post (alas, I no longer have the date). The quotes in the picture captions are from a wide variety of sources including Jane Yolen's Touch Magic and Marina Warner's Once Upon a Time, both of which I recommend.  All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The photographs are of Dartmoor ponies grazing on our village Commons. (Tilly is very good with these wild pony herds: she loves to watch them but doesn't chase, and she always keeps a respectful distance. ) The illustration is "Little Red Riding Hood" by G.P. Jacomb Hood (1857-1929).