The power of stories

From Old Fairy Tales illustrated by Virginia Frances Sterrett

I'd like to share a second passage from Why You Should Read Children's Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise by Katherine Rundell which seems particularly germain today:

"In 2016, my understanding of the world I lived in was upturned: by Brexit, Trump, a sweep across Europe towards nationalism and insularity, terrorist attacks. In the immediate aftermath, adult literary fiction did not help: I couldn't make it work.

Blondine Sees the Castle by Virginia France Sterrett"It was reading through the prism of children's fiction that brought back my faith in what books can do: because what helped were the old narratives, told for the benefit of children and adults and anyone who would listen: Icelandic folk tales, Grimm. They said that this, though it felt like an ending, was not: there has always been vaunting ambition, bitter acrimony, misunderstanding, hunger for power, folly, kindness, passion. Fairytales have already recorded, in their sideways way, all of human vice and yet not fallen silent in despair.

"I still believe -- most days, most of the time -- that stories have power. I believe, like Aristotle, that fiction can put forward truths, via narration, which cannot be baldly stated by abstract theoretical language. There are ideas in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland that I could no more summarise than I could sing you all the parts of a hundred-instrument symphony: fiction resists reduction. Fiction can't, by itself, right the world. But I believe, still, in the wild and immeasurable value of pouring everything you think good or important into a text, that another may draw it out again: what Elena Ferrante calls 'a fishing net that captures daily experiences, holds them together imaginatively, and connects them to fundamental questions about the human condition.' "

Old French Fairy Tails illustrated by Virginia Francis Sterrett

In his remarkable essay "The Power of Stories," Scott Russell Sanders speaks of the ways that stories create, sustain, and mediate our sense of community:

Leger Meets the Wicked Princess by Virginia Frances Sterrett"They link tellers to listeners, and listeners to one another. This is obviously so when speaker and audience share the same space, as humans have done for all but the last few centuries of our million-year history, gathered around fires or huddled in huts; it is equally if less obviously so when we encounter our stories in solitude, on the page or screen. When two people discover they have both read Don Quixote, they immediately share a piece of history....Strangers who discover their mutual devotion to fairy tales or gangster movies or soap operas or Shakespeare's plays become thereby less strange to one another.

Violette Takes Refuge from the Wild Boar by Virginia Frances Sterrett"Frank O'Connor went so far as to declare that 'the one subject a storyteller must write about' is 'human loneliness.' Whether or not stories speak to it directly, they offer us a relief from loneliness, by revealing that our most secret feelings and thoughts do not belong to us alone, by inviting us to join the circle of readers or listeners. The strongest bonds are formed by sacred stories, which unite entire peoples. Thus Jews rehearse the events of Passover; Christians tell of a miraculous birth and death and resurrection; Buddhists tell of Guatama meditating beneath a tree; the Hope recount the story of their emergence from the earth; the Aborigines repeat in song the primal deeds of their ancestors."

Tanglewood Tales illustrated by Virginia Frances Sterrett (1921)

But the power of stories, Sanders reminds us, can also be used with malign intent:

"As we know only too well, sacred stories may also divide the world between those who are inside the circle and those outside, between us and them, a division that has inspired pogroms and inquisitions and wars.

The Broom Was on Fire at Once by Virginia Frances Sterrett"There is danger in story, as in any great force. If the tales that captivate us are silly or deceitful, like most of those offered by television or advertising, they waste our time and warp our desires. If they are cruel they make us callous. If they are false and bullying, instead of drawing us into a thoughtful community they may lure us into an unthinking herd or, worst of all, into a crowd screaming for blood -- in which case we need other, truer stories to renew our vision. So The Diary of Anne Frank and Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz are antidotes to Mein Kamp. So Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and Toni Morrison's Beloved are antidotes to the paranoid yarns of the Ku Klux Klan. So the patient exchange of stories between people searching for common ground is an antidote to the hasty sloganeering and slandering of talk shows....

Cadmus and the Dragon by Virginia Frances Sterrett

"We are creatures of instinct, but not solely of instinct. More than any other animal we must learn to behave. In this perennial effort, as Ursula Le Guin says, 'Story is our nearest and dearest way of understanding our lives and finding our way onward.'

From Old French Fairy Tales illustrated by Virginia Frances Sterrett"Skill is knowing how to do something; wisdom is knowing when and why to do it, or to refrain from doing it. While stories may display skill aplenty, in technique or character or plot, what the best of them offer is wisdom. They hold a living reservoir of human possibilities, telling us what has worked before, what has failed, where meaning and purpose and joy might be found.

"At the heart of many a tale is a test, a puzzle, a riddle, a problem to solve; and that, surely, is the condition of our lives, both in detail -- as we decide how to act in the present moment -- and in general, as we seek to understand what it all means. Like so many characters, we are lost in a dark wood, a labyrinth, a swamp, and we need a trail of stories to show us the way back to our true home."

From Old French Fairy Tales illustrated by Virginia Francis Sterrett

The art today is by American illustrator Virginia Frances Sterrett (1900-1931), who was born Chicago, but raised in Missouri after the early death of her father. She studied briefly Old French Fairy Tales illustrated by Virginia Sterrettat the Art Institute of Chicago, receiving a full scholarship when she was just 15 -- but had to leave when her mother grew ill and she took on sole support of her family. She worked in Chicago's advertising industry, and obtained her first book commission at the age of 19: illustrating Comtesse de Ségur's Old French Fairy Tales for the Penn Publishing Company in 1920 and Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tanglewood Tales in 1921.

At the same time Virginia's own health was failing and the diagnosis was grim: tuberculosis. The family moved to the warm, dry climate of California, but her health grew worse and worse, and she entered a sanatorium in Pasedena at age 24. She continued to work, but her output slowed, and her third book, The Arabian Nights, was not published until 1928. She was working on her last commission, Myths & Legends, when she died in 1931.

Illustration by Virginia Frances Sterratt

Words: The passages quoted above are from Why You Should Read Children's Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise by Katherine Rundell (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019) and "The Power of Stories" by Scott Russell Sanders, published in his essay collection The Force of Spirit (Beacon Press, 2000). Both books are highly recommended. All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures:  The art above is from Old French Fairy Tales by Comtess de Ségur and Tanglewood Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne, illustrated by Virginia Frances Sterrett. The picture titles can be found in the picture captions. (Hold your cursor over the images to see them.)


We are storied folk

Nattadon at dawn

"I write to tell stories," says Finnish author Eppu Nuotio. "I believe that there are some professions in the world that will last forever: doctor or nurse, teacher, builder, and storyteller. I write also to become myself, more so day by day. Writing is a way to shape the visible and invisible, in myself as well as in the world."

Here on Nattadon Hill, dawn shapes the visible and invisible...

Nattadon 2

telling stories of light and shadow.

Natadon 3

Tilly translates the land's stories for me. She is a trickster, a boundary crosser, moving between the human world and the numinous landscape, its language formed of light, rain, scent, and time.

Nattadon 4

 "Love and translation look alike in their grammar," notes the Spanish-Argentian poet Andrés Neuman. "To love someone implies transforming their words into ours. Making an effort to understand the other person and, inevitably, to misinterpret them. To construct a precarious language together."

Nattadon 5

Each morning, Tilly and I walk the land and construct a language, a story, all our own.

Nattadon 6

"We are storied folk," states anthropologist Arthur Kleinman. "Stories are what we are; telling and listening to stories is what we do."

Nattadon 7


Stories with mischief in their blood

The Wind in the Willows illustrated by Inga Moore

Storytelling is a subversive occupation, says Ben Okri:

"It is a double-headed axe. You think [the story] 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 mainly 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.

A spot illustration by Inga Moore"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. 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.

"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-allegiance 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 Wind in the Willows illustrated by Inga Moore

The most memorable stories reflect something of ourselves, Okri adds. We live our lives on this side of the mirror,

"but when joy touches us, and when bliss flashes inside us briefly, we have a stronger intuition. The best life, and the life we would really want to live, is on the other side of the mirror -- the side that faces out to the great light and which hints at an unexpected paradise. The greatest stories speak to us with our voice, but they speak to us from the other side."

The Wind in the Willows illustrated by Inga Moore

Alison Lurie points out that the some of most subversive stories of all can be found in children's literature. So many of the classics, from Alice in Wonderland to The Hobbit,

"suggest that there are other views of human life besides those of the shopping mall and the corporation. They mock current assumptions and express the imaginative, unconventional, noncommercial view of the world in its simplest and purest form. They appeal to the imaginative, questioning, rebellious child within all of us, renew our instinctive energy, and act as a force for change. This is why such literature is worthy of our attention and will endure long after more conventional tales have been forgotten."

The Wind in the Willows illustrated by Inga Moore

The Wind in the Willows illustrated by Inga Moore

In Why You Should Read Children's Books Even Though You Are So Old and Wise, Katherine Rundell writes:

"A lot of children's fiction has a surprising politics to it. Despite all our tendencies in Britain towards order and discipline -- towards etiquette manuals and school uniforms that make the wearers look like tiny mayoral candidates -- our children's fiction is often slyly subversive. 

"Mary Poppins, for instance, is a precursor to the hippy creed: anti-corporate, pro-play. Mr. Banks (the name is significant) sits at a large desk 'and made money. All day long he worked, cutting out pennies and shillings...And he brought them home with him in his little black bag.' An illustration for E Nesbit's The Railway Children by Ing MooreEdith Nesbit was a Marxist socialist who named her son Fabian after the Fabian Society; The Story of the Treasure Seekers contains jagged little ironical stabs against bankers, politicians, newspapers offering 'get rich quick' schemes and the intellectual pretensions of the middle class.

"And the same is true across much of the world; it was Ursula Le Guin, one of the greatest American children's writers, who said this: 'We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable -- but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.' Children's books in the house can be dangerous things in hiding, a sword concealed in an umbrella.

"Children's books are specifically written to be read by a section of society without political or economic power. People who have no money, no vote, no control over capital or labour or the institutions of state; who navigate the world in the knowledge of their vulnerability. And, by the same measure, by people who are not yet preoccupied by the obligations of labour, not yet skilled in forcing their own prejudices on to other people and chewing at their own hearts. And because at so many times in life, despite what we tell ourselves, adults are powerless too, we as adults must hasten to children's books to be reminded of what we have left to us, whenever we need to start out all over again." 

The Secret Garden illustrated by Inga Moore

The Secret Garden illustrated by Inga Moore

But there is also danger in stories, cautions Scott Russell Sanders,

"as in any great force. If the tales that captivate us are silly or deceitful, like most of those offered by television or advertising, they waste our time and warp our desires. If they are cruel they make us callous. If they are false and bullying, instead of drawing us into a thoughtful community they may lure us into an unthinking herd or, worst of all, into a crowd screaming for blood -- in which case we need other, truer stories to renew our vision. So The Diary of Anne Frank and Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz are antidotes to Mein Kamp. So Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and Toni Morrison's Beloved are antidotes to the paranoid yarns of the Ku Klux Klan. So the patient exchange of stories between people searching for common ground is an antidote to the hasty sloganeering and slandering of talk shows....

"We are creatures of instinct, but not solely of instinct. More than any other animal we must learn to behave. In this perennial effort, as Ursula Le Guin says, 'Story is our nearest and dearest way of understanding our lives and finding our way onward.' Skill is knowing how to do something; wisdom is knowing when and why to do it, or to refrain from doing it. While stories may display skill aplenty, in technique or character or plot, what the best of them offer is wisdom. They hold a living reservoir of human possibilities, telling us what has worked before, what has failed, where meaning and purpose and joy might be found. At the heart of many a tale is a test, a puzzle, a riddle, a problem to solve; and that, surely, is the condition of our lives, both in detail -- as we decide how to act in the present moment -- and in general, as we seek to understand what it all means.

"Like so many characters, we are lost in a dark wood, a labyrinth, a swamp, and we need a trail of stories to show us the way back to our true home."

The Secret Garden illustrated by Inga Moore

The lovely art today is by Inga Moore, who was born in Sussex, raised in Australia, and returned to England when she reached adulthood. She worked as an illustrator in London until the economic downturn caused her to lose her home there -- a fortunate loss, as it turns out. She relocated to the Gloucester countryside, discovered this rural corner of England to be her heart's home, and produced the remarkable illustrations for The Wind in the Willows and The Secret Garden for which she is now justly famed. You can learn more about the artist here

The Secret Garden illustrated by Inga Moore

The Secret Garden illustrated by Inga Moore

Words: The passages quoted above are from A Way of Being Free: Essays by Ben Okri (Phoenix House, 1997); Don't Tell the Grown-ups: The Subversive Power of Children's Literature by Alison Lurie (Little Brown, 1990), Why You Should Read Children's Books Even Though You Are So Old and Wise by Katherine Rundell (Bloomsbury, 2019), and The Force of Spirit: Essays by Scott Russel  (Beacon Press, 2000) -- each one of them highly recommended. All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Illustrations for Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows and Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden by Inga Moore, plus one illustration for E. Nesbit's The Railway Children. All rights reserved by the artist.


For the storytellers

Leat

"Stories, like people and butterflies and songbirds' eggs and human hearts and dreams, are also fragile things, made up of nothing stronger or more lasting than twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks. Or they are words on the air, composed of sounds and ideas-abstract, invisible, gone once they've been spoken -- and what could be more frail than that? But some stories, small, simple ones about setting out on adventures or people doing wonders, tales of miracles and monsters, have outlasted all the people who told them, and some of them have outlasted the lands in which they were created."

Neil Gaiman (Fragile Things: Short Fictions & Wonders)

Leat 2

Oak and words