In most indigenous cultures (including those of pre-Christian Europe), stories were preserved and passed on via oral transmission, not the written word. Such stories, David Abram notes, were often bound to the places where they were told,
"attuned in countless subtle and complex ways to the specific topography, textures, tones, and rhythms of the local earth. Moreover, traditional oral tales commonly hold, in their layered adventures, specific information regarding local animals and plants (how best to hunt particular creatures and how to prepare their skins for clothing or shelter; which plants are good for treating particular ailments; how to prepare them in poultices, or as potions...), as well as particular instructions regarding the forms of ritual blessing necessary to ensure a liveable life in that region.
"And why is oral culture so deeply place-based? Well, because there's simply no way to remember many of the old stories of a nonwriting, oral culture without now and then encountered the sites -- the waterholes, forested mountainsides, clustered boulders, and tight river bends where those storied events once happened or are felt to have happened.
"For most of us today, born of a highly literate civilization, printed books are the primary mnemonic -- the primary memory-trigger -- for activating the accumulated knowledge that's been stored up by our ancestors over many generations. We turn to books when we wish to recall some of the old stories or to access the practical knowledge those stories hold. Yet for communities without any highly formulized system of writing -- for cultures without books -- the animate, expressive landscape itself carries the stories. Only by encountering over and over again those clustered boulders, the mouth of that deep cave, the cliff-edge vista or wooded peninsula or mist-covered swamp, are we continually brought to recall the storied events that happened there and the detailed ancestral knowledge stored in those stories.
"Similarly, when we hear the yip-yipping of coyotes or come on the tracks of a grizzly by the half-eaten carcass of a spawned-out salmon, we can't help but recall yet another tale in which that bushy-tailed trickster, or old Honey-Paws, or perhaps even the Salmon of Wisdom figures as a central character. For in the absence of books, the animate, expressive terrain itself is the mnemonic, or memory-trigger, for remembering the oral tales.
"For this reason, the old, oral-tradition stories tend to be deeply entangled with the phythm and pulse of particular places. Although its sometimes hard for highly literate folk to sense, there's an indissoluable rapport between an indigenous storyteller and the lilt of the local land; he may feel that, by intoning a tale, he is translating secret or sacred matters overheard from the speaking earth. That is how Sean Kane puts it, in his wonderful book Wisdom of the Myth-tellers: 'Myth, in its most ecologically discreet form, among people who live by hunting and fishing and gathering, seems to be the song of the place to itself, which humans overhear.'
"Or as Martin Shaw insightfully frames it [in Scatterlings]: a really fine storyteller, by the eloquent practice of her art, is carefully echoing signals emanating from the expressive terrain around her; the teller is participant in a subtle process of echolocation, by which the deep earth speaks, and listens, and returns to itself, nourished."
David is troubled by the way our digital and print-based culture has severed these kinds of stories from their natural settings:
"If the strongest tales are best understood as the place speaking through the teller, well, writing down those tales would seem to interrupt this direct transmission. For the written stories can now be carried elsewhere, and within a short time they can be read -- by mutiple others -- in distant cities and even on distant continents. Since the story no longer neatly matches the contour of the strange new terrain where its being read (since it cannot aptly echo, or invoke, the many-voiced landscape that surrounds the reader wherever she finds herself) the tale now seems to float free of the ground. Soon enough, all of the place-specific savvy contained in that tale, regarding the precise song for calling a particular creature or the precise technique for harvesting certain vision-inducing herbs, is forgotten." *
But other writers are exploring the ways written text might be crafted so as to echo the power of the old oral tales: through the rhythms of the language, integrity of intention, and a careful attention to place -- even when, as in fantasy fiction, that place is an imaginary one. Here in the fantasy field especially, full of novels and stories deeply rooted in folklore, magic, and the mythic landscape, I believe it is possible for writers, too, to participate in the "subtle process of echolocation" ... and not only possible, but timely and necessary for those concerned with our culture's fractured relationship to the natural world.
Ursula K. Le Guin once said:
"The proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us."
Fantasy literature, like the old oral stories, can hold powerful "medicine," and speak across the liminal space between the human and more-than-humen world.
Patricia J. Williams writes (in The Rooster's Egg):
"From time to time, I try to imagine a culture ... in whose mythology words were conceived as vessels for communications from the heart; a society in which words are holy, and the challenge of life is based upon the quest for gentle words, holy words, gentle truths, holy truths. I try to imagine for myself a world in which the words one gives one's children are the shell into which they shall grow, so one chooses one's words carefully, like precious gifts, like magnificent gifts, like magnificent inheritances, for they convey an excess of what we have imagined, they bear gifts beyond imagination, they reveal and revisit the wealth of history.
"How carefully, how slowly, and how lovingly we might step into our expectations of each other in such a world."
I try to imagine such things too. And to turn these ideas into stories.
* For a more detailed discussion of this thesis, see David Abram's first book, The Spell of the Sensuous.
Words: The Abram quote is from his introduction to Scatterlings by Martin Shaw (White Cloud Press, 2016). The Le Guin quote is from her essay "The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction," published in Dancing at the Edge of the World (Tor Books, 1997). The Williams quote is from her book The Rooster's Egg: On the Persistence of Prejudice (Harvard University Press, 1997). The poem in the picture captions is from The Branch Will Not Break by James Wright (Wesleyan University Press, 1992). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Photographs of Dartmoor ponies and their foals on our village Commons, and a drawing by William Heath Robinson (1872-1944).