The stories we choose

Sleeping Beauty by Mercer Mayer

From "Sharpening an Imagination With the Hard Flint of a Fairy Tale" by Alice Hoffman (author of Practical Magic, Second Nature, The Story Sisters, etc.):

"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 shivered. 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).

Sleeping Beauty by Mercer Mayer

Sleeping Beauty by Mercer Mayer

"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. How could the trivial nature of the here and the now compare with journeys in which heads or hands were suddenly chopped off, bones were tied in silk and buried under trees, foolish brothers became swans, and a traveler might suddenly be beset by cruel spells, horses' heads that could speak and other twists of fate and circumstance?

The Wild Swans and The Goose Girl by Mercer Mayer

"Why such tales should feel more real to me and to most child readers than 'realistic' fare is both a simple and complex phenomenon. Fairy tales tell two stories: a spoken one and an unspoken one. There is another layer beneath the words; a riddle about the soul and its place in the greater canvas of humanity. Surely every child who reads Hansel and Gretel feels that he or she, too, is on a perilous path, one that disappears and meanders, but one that must be navigated, like it or not. That path is childhood: a journey in which temptations will arise, greed will surface, and parents may be so self-involved that they forget you entirely....

The Frog Prince by Mercer Mayer

"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. For me, there was no examined life without an imagined life. Just as a person is more exposed by his dreams than by his casual conversation, the imagination reveals more about one's soul than the concrete. My impulse as a beginning writer was not to write about my own life but to create another life entirely.

East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Mercer Mayer

"I wasn't able to recall how I moved from 'reader' to 'writer' (How did it come about? Why did it happen?) until the day some years ago when I was cleaning out my mother's house because she'd become too ill to live at home. I found a loose-leaf folder in which I had busied myself during grade-school classes by inventing various new identities for myself. Everything about the characters was written down, much like that tried-and-true exercise for writers who wish to create 'real' characters: Write everything down; know the people inside out -- their favorite songs and colors, what they like to eat for lunch, whom they love, where they've traveled, what they yearn for in the future, what they fear most. Know who they are. It seems right that I began my career by creating a series of false identities. Did I have an unhappy childhood? It goes without saying. Did I long to escape it? Absolutely. I did so not by walking out the door, but by reading.

East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Mercer Mayer

"The world of the imagination had the greatest emotional value for me as a reader and writer. What I knew, what I experienced came through those black marks on white paper, and that imagined life seemed much more real to me than the one I had actually led. Eventually, the two bled together; my reading life and my real life became one. I found subtexts not only in the stories I read, but in the lives being lived around me. A description of the here-and-now would not do. Not if there was a soon-will-be and a once-upon-a-time.

"Fairy tales, it is believed, began as stories told by women. They were 'kitchen tales,' remembered and repeated by grandmothers through the generations, later retold and written down by men such as the Grimm brothers, but still called "Household Tales." How marvelous that such fabulous stories had such a down-to-earth name, for that is what they are: Tales meant to reveal the subtext of our households and explain us to ourselves, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, beloved and lover. Real life indeed, although they stray as far from realism as possible."

East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Mercer Mayer

East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Mercer Mayer

The imagery today is by American book artist Mercer Mayer, creator of over 300 books for children. Mayer grew up in Arkansas and Hawaii, studied at the Honolulu Academy of Arts and The Art Student League in New York, and published his first book, A Boy, a Dog, and a Frog, in 1967. Today, he's best known for his "Little Critter" series, and for beautiful fairy tale editions including The Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, Favorite Tales from Grimm, and East of the Sun, West of the Moon.

Beauty and the Beast by Mercer Mayer

 The passage above is from "Sharpening an Imagination With the Hard Flint of a Fairy Tale" by Alice Hoffman (The Washington Post, April, 20004). All rights to the text and art in the post reserved by the author and artist.

Related posts: The books that shape us, Once upon a time, The road between dreams and reality, Fairy tales and fantasy, and Threads and stories.


The eye and ear are different listeners

Snow White by Trina Schart Hyman

In one of the essays published in her seminal book Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood, Jane Yolen explores the metamorphosis of folk and fairy tales from the oral tradition to the printed page, noting that there are strengths in each but also indelible differences:

"The eye and the ear are different listeners. Each storyteller has the ability to select: to select those characters who are just right, to select those details that set the stage, to select the glass mountain that must be climbed, the thorny bush that must be passed or the ring or sword or crown to be won. The storyteller is an artist, and selection is essential to art. There are thousands upon thousands of characters, thousands upon thousands of details, thousands upon thousands of motifs. To know which one to chose requires a kind of magical touch, and that is what characterizes the great storytellers.

Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel by Trina Schart Hyman

"But the eye and ear are different listeners. The modern audience is not the same as the ancient one, and for a good reason. Ancient man took in the world by listening, and listening meant remembering. Thus humans both shaped and were shaped by the oral tradition. The passage of culture went from mouth to ear to mouth. The person who did not listen well, who was tone deaf to the universe, was soon dead. The finest rememberers and the most attuned listeners were valued: the poets, the storytellers, the shamans, the seers. In culture after culture, community after community, the carriers of the oral tradition were honored. For example, in ancient Ireland the ollahms, the poet-singers, were more highly thought of than the king. The king was only given importance in times of war.

"An anthropologist friend of mine once observed that people in preliterate cultures that are still more of the ear than the eye say, 'I hear you,' when they mean they understand something. But we say, 'I see.' We modern listeners see life more clearly through pictures. We trust the picture more than the spoken word. A picture, we are told, is worth a thousand words. In the last century we created the moving picture and credit it, more than anything else, with shaping our children's thoughts.

Snow White by Trina Schart Hyman

Three illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman

"But the eye and ear are different listeners, are different audiences. And the literary storyteller is one who must try to bring eye and ear into synchronization. But it is a subtle art. Just as the art of typography has been called 'the art invisible,' subliminal in the sense that it changes or manipulates a reader's perceptions without advertising its own presence, so, too, the art of storytelling in the printed book must persuade and captivate.

"It must hold the reader as the spoken tale holds the listener."

Snow White by Trina Schart Hyman

I've been focusing on oral storytelling in recent posts -- not because I think that those of us creating mythic fiction and poetry must immediately drop our pens and start performing our work, but because there is much we can learn from this ancient art -- particularly when it comes to stories born in the edgelands between the human and more-than-human worlds.

Little Red Riding Hood by Trina Schart Hyman

Little Red Riding Hood by Trina Schart Hyman


Even David Abram, that great champion of oral culture, doesn't suggest we give up the printed word:

"For those of us who care for an earth not encompassed by machines," he writes, "a world of textures, tastes, and sounds other than those that we have engineered, there can be no question of simply abandoning literacy, of turning away from all writing. Our task, rather, is that of taking up the written word, with all its potency, and patiently, carefully, writing language back into the land.

"Our craft is that of releasing the budded, earthly intelligence of our words, freeing them to respond to the speech of things themselves -- the the green uttering-forth of leaves from the spring branches. It is the practice of spinning stories that have a rhythm and lilt of the local soundscape, tales for the tongue, tales that want to be told, again and again, sliding off the digital screen and slipping off the lettered page to inhabit the coastal forests, those desert canyons, those whispering grasslands and valley and swamps. Finding phrases that place us in contact with the trembling neck-muscles of a deer holding its antlers high as it swims toward the mainland, or with the ant dragging a scavenged rice-grain through the grasses. Planting words, like seeds, under rocks and fallen logs -- letting language take root, once again, in the earthen silence of shadow and bone and leaf."

That's a task worth doing, and the Mythic Arts field is a perfectly good place to do it.

Snow White by Trina Schart Hyman

The imagery today is by American book artist Trina Schart Hyman (1939-2004), born in Philadelphia and raised in rural Pennsylvania. She often credited her mother will instilling her love of stories, especially myths and fairy tales. "I figured out at four years old that somebody had made the pictures in my books," she said, "and though I didn’t know what these people were called, I knew I wanted to be a book illustrator." 

Trina studied at the Philadelphia Museum Collage of Art, the School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and then went on to illustrate over 150 books over 30 years in the field. She received the Caldecott Medal (for Saint George and the Dragon) and was awarded Caldecott Honors three times, among many other honors. Sadly, she died much too young (from the complications of breast cancer), but her work lives on to enchant and inspire new generations of readers.

Rapunzel by Trina Schart Hyman

Touch Magic by Jane Yolen

The passages above are from Touch Magic by Jane Yolen (Philomel, 1981; August House, 2000), and The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram (Vintage, 1996), both highly recommended. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the authors and the artist's estate.

Related posts: Tough magic, Stepping over the threshold, The Enclosure of Childhood and Words that matter.


An apprenticeship to story

Grey Wethers by Simon Blackbourn

I've been following a thread over the last two weeks leading into the magical heart of story: the stories we tell, the stories we write, and the stories in the land around us. David Abram spoke on the relationship bewtween story and place, Martin Shaw on stories for our time and stories that carry the tang of wild, Robin Wall Kimmerer on listening to the stories the land tells about itself, and David Whyte on finding poetry in close attention to the world around us. Now I'd like to give you one last passage from Martin Shaw's book Scatterlings, describing the path he followed to become the extraordinary storyteller, mythographer and cultural historian of Dartmoor that he is today:

"It was a labour born and rooted entirely in my openings in the wilds," Martin writes. "There were no courses to attend, no elocution lessons, no lines of ink to memorise till I could scattergun the first row with my literary recital of the oral tradition. It just wasn't going to come from there. At least not at first. It had to come from the source: the living world....

Grey Wethers Stone Circle on Dartmoor by Simon Blackbourn

"So, as a young man I took myself out to a little stretch of old-growth wood, mostly oak and elder, and dug in. If myth really was the power of a place speaking, the I had to bend my head daily to its murmurs.

Scorhill Clapper Bridge by Simon Blackbourn

"The vast majority of time I spent over those years outdoors was not in full voice but in listening. A kind of tenderising of the heart. A shaggy equilibrium painfully wrought, where I felt and could maintain the sensation of being flooded by a place. Not an emptying but a filling. And as the weeks would unfold, this roving ecosystem gradually settled in shape somewhat; out of the ravenous floods cascading through my frame, things calmned, and the few same animals, birds, and insects as well as, occasionally, certain regal energies that stand alongside them, started to show up.

On Sittaford Tor by Simon Blackbourn

"The time for this work was usually dusk. I would wait for a frittering of delicate lights to lace the air; they would denote whether it was time to settle back on my goatskins or to cross the rickety bridge and make my way back up the hill to my tent. This kind of vagabond sit took place hundreds of times over those years. I was in the presence of mighty things, and, in their way, they presented me with the big thoughts, over and over.

Zig Zag by Simon Blackbourn

"This is weft and the weave of story for me. The endless lyrical emerging of the earth's tremendous thinking and the humbling required to simply bear witness to it. And the extraordinary day, when for an hour or so you realise that you too are being witnessed. You are part of the big sound. You have pushed the coats aside and walked through the back of the wardrobe.

View from Hound Tor

"When my mouth had chewed on enough silence and my body had located its fragility in the face of winter, when darkness and sorrow had bruised up against solitude, I began to taste, fully, the price of my labour, and slowly I began to speak. And what came was praise.

Dartmoor Pony by Simon Blackbourn

"Inventive speech appears to be a kind of catnip to the living world. Especially prized has been the capacity to name, abundently and gracefully, dozens or even hundreds of secret names for beings you had spent your whole life strutting past, and muttering: willow, holly, bat, dog-rose. They are not their names. Not really.

Sentinels by Simon Blackbourn"So the first big move was not one of taking anything at all -- I'd done that quite successfully my whole life -- but of actually reorganising the detritus of my speech to formulate clear and subtle praise for the denizen I beheld in front of me. Not 'the Goddess of the River' but 'River Goddess.' The moment I squeezed 'of the' into the mix, thereby hovered an abstraction, and the fox-woman fled the hunter's hut.

  Green Curve
  Udder of the Silver Waters
  The Hundred Glittering Teeth
  Small Sister, Dawning Foam,
  On the Old Lime Bank.

This wasn't even particularly imaginative. It wasn't flattery.
And most of all, it wasn't for me. I wasn't comparing myself. It was simply describing, acutely, what I witnessed in front of me. Some things I realised I was never going to behold clearly. I wouldn't have language for butterfly, birch, ivy, and clay. There it is; they remain indistinct. Admired, but indistinct. But, grindingly slowly, some beings made themselves known to me, became a lintel overhead, a den in which I could claim a degree of kinship. Not what I would choose, but what chose me.

The Lone Tree bySimon Blackbourn

"So the first part of my apprenticeship to story began in a tiny stretch of woodland glade -- a corral of about twenty feet -- tenderising my own nature until the beings that wished stepped forward, and gave me the slow and halting opportunity to name just a few of the hundred secret ways they have of being themselves. Maybe four thousand years ago they weren't so secret...

Black-a-tor by Simon Blackbourn

"If I'd believed the propoganda of our times, I would have seen England as too farmed, too crushed-tight with humans and their history, soil too poisoned, forest too hurt and impoverished for such an education -- better to turn to the vastness of Siberia or some other pristine wilderness. Thank God I didn't. The eye of the needle is everywhere, abiding patiently for you to quilt your life to the Otherworld, which is really our deep natural function anyway. Small pockets of absolute aliveness, greenness, riven-deep mystery are all over our strange and bullishly magnificent isle.

Highland Cattle on Dartmoor by Simon Blackbourn

"So my first move towards story was to give one up, beginning the slow move from a society of taking to a culture of giving. The living world was not there for my temporary edification or a transitory backdrop for my 'healing'; it was home. A home that scared me, rattled me, soothed me, shaped me. Without the investment of time and focus, the words I longed to speak would simply be phony on my tongue. The worst aspect of storytelling is when you hear the words spoken but know the teller never took the journey to get them. The teller just squatted by the well and stole the words when one who had made the journey crawled out of the Underworld. 

The Freedom of the Moor by Simon Blackbourn

The North Teign River Flowing Over Dartmoor by Simon Blackbourn

"Well, I sure wasn't much of a teller at that point, but I knew I had river mud on my boots and green vines in the wine of my blood."

* * * * *

Scorhill Tree by Simon Blackbourn

Once again, I have paired Martin's words with Simon Blackbourn's evocative Dartmoor imagery. Simon is a photographer and moorland wanderer who lives down the road from me here in Chagford. You'll find more of his work in this previous post, as well as on his Instagram page. The title of each photograph can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) 

Both words and pictures have caused me refect on my own long apprenticeship to story...which was different to Martin's in many ways, but oddly similar in others. It was not an easy path by any means, but it's brought to place I am now, to hill and hound and husband and family. It gave me the tales I hold, and carry gently, and then pass on.

Sunset at Hound Tor by Simon Blackbourn

Delilah by Simon Blackbourn

The passage above is by Scatterlings: Getting Claimed in the Age of Amnesia by Martin Shaw (White Cloud Press, 2016), which I highly recommend. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artist.

Related posts: The mnemonics of words (Robert Macfarlane) and In the story made of dawn (David Abram).


The tang of fox

The North Teign River by Simon Blackbourn

As must be evident from my last post, I've been re-reading Scatterlings by storyteller, writer, and mythographer Martin Shaw -- and finding it just as rich, insightful, and magical as I did the first time around. Martin, who grew up a stone's throw from Dartmoor, runs the West Country School of Myth on the other side of the moor from us, and is soaked in the mythic history of the West Country through and through. In the pages of Scatterlings, he rambles the moor, shares its lore, and describes an apprenticeship in storytelling that is earthy, tricksy, and rooted firmly in the land. His work is geared to storytellers working in the old oral tradition, but it has much to say to those of us writing land-based fiction and nonfiction too.

Back to the Stone by Simon Blackbourn

The passage from the book that I'd like to share today begins with a story:

"Once upon a time," he writes, "there was a lonely hunter. One evening, returning to his hut over the snow, he saw smoke coming from his chimney. When he entered the shack, he found a warm fire, a hot meal on the table, and his threadbare clothes washed and dried. There was no one to be found.

Nun's Cross Farm by Simon Blackbourn

"The next day, he doubled back early from hunting. Sure enough, there was again smoke from the chimney, and he caught the scent of cooking. When he cautiously opened the door, he found a fox pelt hanging from a peg, and a woman with long red hair and green eyes adding herbs to a pot of meat. He knew in the way that hunters know that she was Fox-Woman-Dreaming, that she had walked clear out of the Otherworld. 'I am going to be the woman of this house,' she told him.

"The hunter's life changed. There was laughter in the hut, someone to share in the labour of crafting a life, and, in the warm dark when they made love, it seemed the edges of the hut dissolved in the vast green acres of the forest and the stars.

Christmas Day Rainbow by Simon Blackbourn

"Over time, the pelt started to give off its wild, pungent scent. A small price, you would think, but the hunter started to complain. The hunter could detect the scent on his pillow, his clothes, even his own skin. His complaints grew in number until one night the woman nodded, just once, her eyes glittering. In the morning she, and the pelt, and the scent were gone. It is said that to this day the hunter waits by the door of his hut, gazing over snow, lonely for even a glimpse of his old love.

Dartmoor Hawthorn by Simon Blackbourn

"We are that hunter, socially and, most likely, personally. The smell of the pelt is the price of real relationship to wild nature: its sharp, regal, undomesticated scent. While that scent is in our hut there can be no Hadrian's Wall between us and the world.

"Somewhere back down the line, the West woke up to the Fox Woman gone. And when she left, she took many stories with her. And, when the day is dimming and our great successes have been bragged to exhaustion, the West sits, lonely in its whole body for her. For stories are more than just a dagger between our teeth. More than just a bellow of conquest. We have turned our face away from the pelt. Underneath our wealth, the West is a lonely hunter.

Dartmoor Pony by Simon Blackbourn

"Around halfway through the last century, something wonderful happened. Mythology and faerie tales regained a legitimacy amongst adults as a viable medium for understanding the workings of their own psychological lives. By use of metaphor, tales of sealskins and witches' huts became the most astonishing language for what seemed to lurk underneath people's everyday encounters. The use of metaphor granted greater dignity and heightened poetics to the shape of their years.

"What was the glitch that lurched alongside? A little too much emphasis on these stories as entirely interior dramas that, clumsily handled, became something that removed, rather than forged, relationship to the earth. The inner seemed more interesting than anything going on 'out there.' We and our feelings still squatted pretty happily at the center of the action. There was not always that sharp tang of fox.

Resting by Simon Blackbourn

"When the Grimms and others collected folktales, they effectively reported back the skeletons of stories; the local intonation of the teller and some regional sketching out was often missing. Ironically, this stripped-back form of telling has been adopted into the canon as a kind of traditional style that many imitate when telling stories -- a kind of 'everywhere and nowhere' style.

Bog Cotton on Branscombe Loaf by Simon Blackbourn

"Now, while it's certainly true that there are stories designed for travel, for thousands of years even a story arriving in an entirely new landscape would be swiftly curated into the landscape of its new home. It would shake down its feathers and shape-leap a little or grow silent and soon cease to be told. No teller worth his or her salt would just stumble through the outline and think it was enough; the vivid organs would be, in part, the mnemonic triggers of the valley or desert in which the story now abided. This process was a protracted courtship to the story itself. It was the business of manners.

Scorhill Stone Circle by Simon Blackbourn

"Oral culture has always been about local embedding, despite the big human dilemmas that cannot help but sweep up between cultures. This may seem an unimportant detail when you are seeking only to poke around your childhood memories in a therapist's office, but it falls woefully short when this older awareness is reignited -- the absence of wider nature becomes acute, the tale flat and self-centered.

"I don't think we have the stories; the stories have us. They charge vividly through our betrayals, illicit passions, triumphs, and generosities. Pysche is not neatly contained in our chest as we scuttle between appointments; we dwell within psyche: gregarious, up close, chaotic, astonishing, sometimes tragic, often magical.

Dartmoor Foal by Simon Blackbourn

"Well, something piratical is happening. It is time to rescue the stories, rehydrate the language, scatter dialectic inflection amongst the blunt lines of anthropological scribbles, and muck up the typewriter with the indigo surge of whale ink. We're singing over the snow to the fox-woman."

As, indeed, we are -- in hedgerow storytelling and nature writing; in mythic arts and land-based fantasy fiction; in paint, puppetry, music and other mediums; in creative forms of environmental activism; and in the stories we craft of our lives.

Scorhill Stone Circle by Simon Blackbourn

I Am Sheep by Simon Blackbourn

Lone Tree at Fox Tor Mires by Simon Blackbourn

The very beautiful art today is by Simon Blackbourn, who lives and works here in Chagford. He has spent the last ten years immersing himself in Dartmoor, photographing its colours, shapes, textures and moods, its trees, rocks, bogs, rivers, wildlife, and weather. To me, this is the perfect pairing with Martin Shaw's words, for both of them illuminate the soul of the moor through the mediums of language and light.

To see more of Simon's photographs, please visit his Instagram page. The title of each piece here can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images.) 

Brent Tor by Simon Blackbourn

View from Greater Rocks, Hound Tor by Simon Blackbourn

The passage above is by Scatterlings: Getting Claimed in the Age of Amnesia by Martin Shaw (White Cloud Press, 2016), which I highly recommend. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artist.

Related posts: A skulk of foxes, Fox stories, and Making sense of the more-than-human world.


The stories we need

River 1

From Scatterlings by Martin Shaw:

"We hear it everywhere these days: time for a new story -- some enthusiastic sweep of narrative that becomes, overnight, the myth of our times. A container for all this ecological trouble, this peak-oil business, this malaise of numbness that seems to shroud even the most privileged. A new story. Just the one. That simple. Painless. Everything solved. Lovely and neat.

River 2

"So, here's my first moment of rashness: I suggest that the stories we need turned up, right on time, about five thousand years ago. But they're not simple, neat, or painless. I also think this urge for a new story is the tourniquet for a less articulated desire: to behold the earth actually speaking through words again, more than through some shiny, new, never-considered thought. We won't get a story worth hearing until we witness a culture broken open by its own consequence.

River 3

River 4

"No matter how unique we think our own era, I believe that these old tales -- faerie tales, folktales, and myths -- contain much of the paradox we face in these storm-jagged times. And what's more, they have no distinct author, are not wiggled from the penned agenda of one brain-rattled individual, but have passed through the breath of countless number of oral storytellers.

River 5

"Second thought: The reason for the purchase of these tales is that the deepest of them contain not just -- as is widely reported -- the most succulent portions of the human imagination, but a moment when our innate capacity to consume (lovers, forests, oceans, animals, ideas) was drawn into the immense thinking of the earth itself, what aboriginal teachers call 'Wild Land Dreaming.'

River 6

"We met something mighty. We didn't just dream our carefully individuated thoughts: We. Got. Dreamt. We let go of the reins.

River 7

River 8

River 9

"Any old Gaelic storyteller would roll his eyes, stomp his boot, and vigourously jab a tobacco-browned finger toward the soil if there was a moment's question of a story's origin.

River 10

"In a time when the land and sea suffer by our very directive, could it not be that the stories we need contain not just a reflection on, but the dreaming of a sensual, powerful, reflective earth?

River 11

"It is an insult to archaic cultures to suggest that myth is a construct of humans shivering fearfully under a lightning storm or gazing at a copse and reasoning a supernatural narrative. To make such a suggestion implies a baseline of anxiety, not relationship. Or that anxiety is the primary relationship.

River 12

"It places full creative impetus on the human, not on the sensate energies that surround and move through them. It shuts down the notion of a dialogue worth happening; it shuts down that big old word animism.

River 13

"Maybe the ancient storyteller knew something we've forgotten."

River 14

Scatterlings by Martin Shaw

Words: The passage above is by Scatterlings: Getting Claimed in the Age of Amnesia by Martin Shaw (White Cloud Press, 2016), which I highly recommend. The poem in the picture captions is from Secrets from the Center of the World by Joy Harjo of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation, the new U.S. Poet Laureate, with photographer Stephen Strom (University of Arizona Press, 1989). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: The Chagford stretch of the River Teign, as it runs from the heights of Dartmoor to the sea.

Related posts: Trailing stories (with Martin Shaw), The love of poets, Working with words, and The storyteller's art.


Carrying stories

Ponies

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,

Drawing by William Heath Robinson"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.

Ponies 2

"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.'

Ponies 3

"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."

Ponies 4

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.

Ponies 5

Ponies 6

 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.

Ponies 7

Ponies 8

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.

Ponies 9

Ponies 10

* 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).

Related posts: Kith and kin (on "place" in myth, life, and fantasy literature) and Shaking up the world (on Trickster tales).


Home again, home again

The signpost to our hill

I'm back from a series of travels and adventures, and have many things to tell you about...but first I must catch up on all that I missed at home and work while I was away, and reassure my anxious Hound that I'm not heading off again anytime soon. As I unpack my bags, sweep the dust from the studio, and prepare to dive back into E.M. Taylormy manuscript-in-process, I've been re-reading these bracing words from Ben Okri's The Mystery Feast:

"In ancient Africa, in the Celtic lands, storytellers were magicians," he says. "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.

"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."

Sniffing the bluebell scented air

Okri then challenges us to be these kinds of storytellers today:

"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.

Bluebells under a mossy oak

Bluebellls on the forest floor

"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.

Animal Guide on the border of Faerie

"Storytellers are the singing conscious of the land, the unacknowledged guides. Reclaim your power to help our age become wise again."

That's a difficult challege, admittedly; but these are difficult times. And we all have our part to play, no matter how small, no matter how quiet the stories we tell.

Bluebells in a pickle jar

The Studio Muse at work

Thoughts on Storytelling

Drawing by E.M. Taylor (1909-1999)


The subversive art of fantasy

The Juniper Tree by Laura Barrett

Snow White, Rose Red & The Snow Queen by Laura Barrett

From "It Doesn't Have to Be This Way" by Ursula K. Le Guin:

       "The test of fairyland [is that] you cannot imagine two and one not making three but you can easily imagine
       trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail."
       - G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

"The fantastic tale may suspend the laws of physics -- carpets fly; cats fade into invisibility, leaving only a smile -- and of probability -- the youngest of three brothers always wins the bride; the infant in the box cast upon the water survives unharmed -- but it carries its revolt against reality no further. Cinderella by Laura BarrettMathematical order is unquestioned. Two and one make three, in Koshei's castle and Alice's Wonderland (especially in Wonderland). Euclid's geometry -- or possibly Reimann's -- somebody's geometry anyhow -- governs the layout. Otherwise incoherence would invade and paralyze the narrative.

"There lies the main difference between childish imaginings and imaginative literature. The child 'telling a story' roams about among the imaginary and half-understood without knowing the difference, content with the sound of language and the pure play of fantasy to no particular end, and that's the charm of it. But fantasies, whether folktales or sophisticated literature, are stories in the adult, demanding sense. They can ignore certain laws of physics, but not causality. They start here and go there (or back here), and though the mode of travel may be unusual, and the here and there may be wildly exotic and unfamiliar places, they must both have a location on the map of that world and a relationship to the map of our world. If not, the hearer or reader of the tale will be set adrift in a sea of inconsequential inconsistencies, or, worse yet, left drowning in the shallow puddle of the author's wishful thinking.

Little Red Riding Hood & Hansel and Gretel by Laura Barrett

"It doesn't have to be the way it is. That is what fantasy says.

"It doesn't say, 'Anything goes' -- that's irresponsibility, when two and one make five, or forty-seven, or whudevva, and the story doesn't 'add up,' as we say.

"Fantasy doesn't say, 'Nothing is' -- that's nihilism. And it doesn't say, 'It ought to be this way' -- that's utopianism, a different enterprise. Fantasy isn't meliorative. The happy ending, however enjoyable to the reader, applies to the characters only; this is fiction, not prediction and not prescription.

The Frog Prince & The Bremen Town Musicians by Laura Barrett

"It doesn't have to be the way it is is a playful statement, made in the context of fiction, with no claim to 'being real.' Yet it is a subversive statement.

"Subversion doesn't suit people who, feeling their adjustment to life has been successful, want things to go on just as they are, or people who need support from authority assuring them that things are as they have to be. Fantasy not only asks 'What if things didn't go on just as they do?' but demonstrates what they might be like if they went otherwise -- thus gnawing at the very foundation of the belief that things have to be the way they are. [...]

Alice in Wonderland (a limited edition concertina book) by Laura Barrett

"Upholders and defenders of the status quo, political, social, economic, religious, or literary, may denigrate or diabolize or dismiss imaginative literature, because it is -- more than any other kind of writing -- subversive by nature. It has proved, over many centuries, a useful instrument of resistance to oppression.

Alice and the Caterpillar by Laura Barrett"Yet as Chesterton points out, fantasy stops short of nihilist violence, of destroying all the laws and burning all the boats. (Like Tolkien, Chesterton was an imaginative writer and a practicing Catholic, and thus perhaps particularly aware of tensions and boundaries.) Two and one make three. Two of the brothers fail the quest, the third carries it through. Action is met with reaction. Fate, Luck, Necessity are as inexorable in Middle-earth as in Colonus or South Dakota. The fantasy tale begins here and ends there (or back here), where the subtle and ineluctable obligations and responsibilities of narrative art have taken it. Down on the bedrock, things are as they have to be. It's only everywhere above the bedrock that nothing has to be the way it is.

"There really is nothing to fear in fantasy unless you are afraid of the freedom of uncertainty. This is why it's hard for me to imagine that anyone who likes science can dislike fantasy. Both are based so profoundly on the admission of uncertainty, the welcoming of unanswered questions. Of course the scientist seeks to ask how things are the way they are, not to imagine how they might be otherwise. But are the two operations opposed or related? We can't question reality directly, only by questioning our conventions, our beliefs, our orthodoxy, our construction of reality. All Galileo said, all Darwin said, was 'It doesn't have to be the way we thought it was.' "

The Mad Hatter's Tea Party by Laura Barrett

The magical imagery today is by Laura Barrett, an artist specialising in silhouettes and monochrome patterns. Based in South East London, she illustrates books (in both traditional and unusual forms), creates designs for a wide variety of clients, and makes animations and large-scale illustrations for graphic installations and exhibitions.

"My work is often narrative based and inspired by the darker side of folk and fairy tales," she says, "as well as traditional Scherenschnitte (paper cutting). I like to explore these themes through the use of silhouettes, which I create by drawing with a graphics tablet in Adobe Illustrator. Working digitally allows me a great deal of flexibility whilst retaining a hand crafted quality."

Visit her website & shop to see more of her work, or go here to learn more about the artist's creative process. You can also follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

Pop Up Fairy Tale Book by Laura Barrett

Pop Up Book by Laura Barrett

Fairy Tale cards by Laura Barrett

The passages above are from "It Doesn't Have to Be the Way It Is," published in No Time To Spare by Ursula K. Le Guin (Houghton Mifflin, 2017). All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artist.


Why we need fairy tales

Lisbeth Zwerger

From "Why We Need Fairy Tales: Jeanette Winterson on Oscar Wilde":

"Reason and logic are tools for understanding the world. We need a means of understanding ourselves, too. That is what imagination allows. When a child reads of a Nightingale who bleeds her song into a rose for love's sake, or of a Selfish Giant who puts a wall round life, or of a Fisherman who wants to be rid of his Soul, or of a statue who feels the suffering of the world more keenly than the Mathematics Master who scoffs at his pupils for dreaming about Angels, the child knows at once both the mystery and truth of such stories. We have all at some point in our lives been the overlooked idiot who finds a way to kill the dragon, win the treasure, marry the princess.

"As explanations of the world, fairy stories tell us what science and philosophy cannot and need not. There are different ways of knowing."

To read the full essay, go here.

Lisbeth Zwerger

The illustrations are by Austrian book artist Lisbeth Zwerger, for Wilde's The Canterville Ghost and The Selfish Giant. Zwerger, based in Vienna, has illustrated many exquisite volumes for children, ranging from fairy tales to classic stories by Lewis Carroll, E. Nesbith, and L. Frank Baum. She was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Medal for her contribution to children's lierature in 1990. Her work has been collected in The Art of Lisbeth Zwerger and Wonderment, both published by North-South Books.

Lisbeth Zwerger

"Fairy tales or imaginary tales by poets/writers appeal to me much more than traditional/collected tales," says the artist. "The reason for this preference is the literary language. It's not just the content, but it´s actually the specific language that draws me into a story."

Lisbeth Zwerger

The passage above is from an essay by Jeanette Winterson, published in The Guardian (October 2013).  The poem in the picture captions is from Poetry (March 2010).  All rights to the text and art above reserved by the authors and artist.