something fresh out of the pot this week - from a new book i'm working on - some chunks of story related themes that may prove interesting. Great time in London at Tongue Fu last week, so packed i had to go up three flights of stairs just to get a chair from which to tell my story from (needed seat for frame drum). A great bunch, and a lovely time in the east end - i'll drop some lines about it here soon - it sneaked into this new book.
What is Mythtelling?
I use the word mythtelling rather than storytelling sometimes to indicate that these stories (in book) are more than just folklore – more than the intelligence of the village figuring their place out in the world. Mythtelling has a wider context, that the stories may come from a ridge of mountain, cloud or deity. It’s not meant as a form of pretension, but to highlight this less anthropocentric emphasis.
The first road maps of the British isles used to include detailed sketches and information about forests, lakes, rivers and mountains. They were not just negligible blurs between service stations. I would hope that mythtelling restates that attention within story. That we are not just caught up in the twin-lane highway drama of the human characters, but keep an eye for the lucid twinkles of ravens eye, or the bright sap on the crust of a rowan trees bark. To mention it constantly would make it self-conscious, but it will come up occasionally as a gentle re-orientation.
I have had a long standing involvement with wilderness rites-of-passage work. It involves a protracted fast in a wilderness area with an ear to the visionary – a very old practice on Dartmoor and all over the world. It means my relationship with myth is very specific, rather narrow some could call it. It’s a sympathy with what I call prophetic stories rather than pastoral. Stories that seem to have wet black roots, rather than squeezed entirely into a human anecdote. There are many different definitions of myth - quite opposed to mine, and can be sought out easily.
The Protean Era
With the revival of the storytelling tradition, and a simultaneous focus on the bio-regional, it seems appropriate to recognise that local folklore can be just as nourishing as a plate of fresh vegetables from the garden or a haunch of venison from a nearby forest. It is a form of soul food. This book is about that very thing. Just as the farmers market is growing happily against the onslaught of the supermarket, and allotments have waiting lists for the first time in a generation, I am suggesting that the vitality of localised myth can be just as crucial to the health of our own inner-ecosystem. In this next section I will move between both the gains involved in this immediate knowledge, and acknowledging the wider pantheon of story that is now readily available. It may be a frustration that I will not promote one entirely over the other, but I hope as we go my thoughts will become clear.
Story orientates: and not just to the immediate, geographical landscape but to wider, eternal concerns: concerns of the soul. It’s for this reason we sense the resonance of a Russian epic right down in the gut, we laugh out loud at the bawdy intelligence of a wolverine tale from Labrador, despite having been raised in an different time and space. I would call that nomadic recognition – past the cultural flavours and directly to the energy that lives behind it. It’s the power of truly vital image; we are shot clean of everyday reference and abide in its almost electrical refreshment, that, for a moment, hangs above specific fields of cultural association. However, for most there has not always been such a wide field of reference. Many human groups throughout history, have, for the most part, enjoyed a geographically specific relationship to the stories they tell. Of course a certain amount of cultural diffusion can be present, but is often waywardly pulled into the local over time. This generation spanning, steady telling I would call slow ground. It’s a localised cosmos that roots you steady in it. It confirms you, your thinking, your rituals and your tribe, establishes place, and reveals with a slow drip drip drip, the mythic energies you stand upon.
This slow ground is becoming rapidly fragmented in what many call a Protean age. Proteus is a shape-shifting god of the sea – mutable, able to swiftly change position. With the ludicrously intense barrage of information that we daily face, a kind of mimic of the nomadic leap becomes far more common parley than this slow ground. We multi-task to the last, digesting intestinal-wrecking amounts of stress in the bargain. The TV show, jerkily cutting from camera to camera, illustrates this malaise in a way we all understand. It seems to be revealing some great restlessness of spirit, way down inside.
The Commons of the Imagination
A major factor of nomadic recognition within storytelling – this experience of possibly unknown but somehow emotionally recognised image - is then the move back to slow ground to root it in the discipline of crafting and telling the story. The performative. It re-finds its ground by the labour of telling – it grows roots. It cannot entirely replace the origination point of the story, but stories are living beings, origination points are a birthing but not an ending of it. Slowly the story becomes settled visually in the inner-landscape of the teller and the listeners. That inner-landscape will not be the same for everyone. Although the experience can be very deep, we are seeing different locations, geographies, visual triggers. The image-net is wider. James Hillman talks about “the return to Greece” not as a physical journey to the Mediterranean but as a revival of pantheistic consciousness. That is the trade for learning of these stories. They enter a cross-culture commons of the imagination. They abide not in a particular gully or narrow mountain range (except for a very few listeners) but have ended up in the wide, rainbow’ed vista of collective information. From this commons many apprentice storytellers wander excitedly through, gathering a bulb of Hungarian folklore here, a herb or two from Tibet over there.
Of course, this all seems like a snapshot of so much that is wrong with modern life. That the specific and vital becomes the generic and jumbled. As Tom Waits say’s “ a song needs an address”. We en-soul something by naming it, a detail anchors it in more than a floating intelligence. By taking the original localised references out of the story have we somehow robbed it of its soul? Yes and no - I cannot go along with that entirely. I would suggest that what is needed within this collective information is a greater connection to one’s own roots. I would do away with the rainbowed, new age picture of everything as one, and more the image of a sea port, or desert meeting place, or crossroads inn, where cultures and travellers swap stories, recipe’s, opinions, songs - and all leave deepened by the exchange but also confirmed in their own ground.
My concern within myth is that the collective commons is overwhelming the local – we end up with storyteller’s floating several feet above their own ground, constantly enthralled with the exotic, wider picture.
Of course, some stories travel but also have a specificity that locks it into a particular location. In 1284, a man with a brightly coloured coat arrived at the edge of the town of Hamelin. He had an unusual ability; he claimed his pipe could lure all the rats and mice out of the area. For a sum of coin. They agreed and the ‘Brightman’ started to play. From every guttering, shed, woodstore, house and privy came the rats. When all were gathered he turned and walked towards the Weser river, still playing. He then took of his clothes and entered the water. The rats, still entranced, followed him and drowned. Despite the clear success of his venture, the locals reneged on the deal and would not pay. On the 26th June he returned, this time dressed as a hunter with a strange red hat, and started to play again. This time it was not rats but children that followed him, even the mayors daughter. As a flock he led them to a nearby mountain where he and the children were never seen again. Maybe it was the early hour – 7am – but none but a nanny saw them leave, and she alerted the wider community. Despite desperate searching none could be found. A boy that has run back to his gather his jacket was able to lead the adults to a hole in the side of the hill and claimed they had gone inside. The event was documented in town records, and inscribed on the town hall these words:
In the year 1284 A.D.
130 children born in Hamelin
were led out of our town
by a piper and lost in the mountain
Although speculation persists that they were taken for a children’s crusade, or a better economic life somewhere else, or that it is a cover up for a plague that took their lives, all we know is that it was an event that was noted in the records of the day as an actual event, in a specific place. The street the children took to leave the town is still called the Street of Silence, and no music is allowed to be played there. What is fascinating is that the detail of rats do not get mentioned until 1556 by the theologian Jobus Fincelius – rat catchers being very much a character of the era, and possibly a storyteller’s addition. What we can say is that something deeply traumatic happened to the people of Hamelin around the year 1284.
So the grief of the event, and its anchoring within time and space, grounds it still in a particular location. This event in particular alerts us to perennial fears of the brooding wilderness that lurks beyond the ploughed field, and also of ‘Brightmen’ who carry the medicine of animals and music, who abide the other side of the village gates. But many other stories travel and gradually lose the specifics, the place names – or a nimble teller will just swiftly change them to something more local.
Anthropologist’s correctly point out that we miss much local nuance in this wider embracing. How do we grasp the role of the duck in a Seneca love story? Or approach any real knowledge of ritual colours in a Dagara folk tale? Only through a possibly dry academic approach can we get near an appraisal. Well true enough, on one level. If the story is entirely conceptually bound to that tribe or place. But what if it also has a travelling spirit? A sprit that is bound up in the telling of the story, there in the room, more than being entirely anchored in a historical context. That it is a kind of animal.
There is damage in all of this it’s clear. It’s a complex situation, but I believe caution is needed when myth is described as only rooted in history, culture and geography. Myth on a deep level really isn’t all about history, rather a truly animistic present. But we also may relate to a sense of numbness when presented with yet another anthropological marvel of folk tales from some far off place. The sheer velocity of availability dulls the mind. Sometimes, as the poet Olav Hauge reminds us, we just need a sip of water, not the whole ocean.
In all of this scope - of firebird feathers, and Tuvan blades, of African genies and the hooves of Mongolian steeds riding briskly through a star-lit desert - it can be easy to get a little dismissive of the local. Surely nothing of note happened right here? And sometimes that can seem to be the case. We look around at inner-cites, or remote stretches of Lincolnshire fields and think the old stories, if there ever where any, have long fled. But nowhere is bereft of story, if we have some patience and an enquiring spirit. This book is about finding some slow ground for those nomadic leaps to land upon.
I sometimes think of the old East Anglian tale of “The Peddler of Swaffham”: a story of a man’s long journey across half the country because of a dream of fortune, only to find that that the very dream-gold is buried in his back yard. Journeys are good, voyages better, but I write this in the hope we do not neglect the gold that is in on our very doorstep.
Copyright Martin Shaw 2012