MYTHS FROM THE EDGE OF THE FIRE:
The Eloquence of Initiation
is the title for my first extended course at Schumacher College, November 10-14th (Monday to Friday). For those disappointed to be on the waiting list for my collaboration with Dark Mountain's Paul Kingsnorth the following weekend (Prophets of Rock and Wave), this is a chance to get a side door into some of the action.
Well, being as it has been sometime since my i last wrote, i thought i'd try and craft a decent response to that question. To give a sense of what we will be exploring over the week, with the practical stuff at the bottom. Folks from overseas - THIS is the course of mine that i would recommend, due to it's length. You'll get some bang for your buck for sure. I have more news in the next few days of events in New York, London and..Bridport. So, more soon, promise.
Whatever colour of Englishman you scratch
you come to some sort of crow
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.
So, here’s my first moment of rashness: I suggest the stories we need turned up, right on time, about five thousand years ago. But they’re not simple, neat or painless.
No matter how unique we may think our own era, i believe that that these old tales - fairy, folk tales and myths - contain much of the paradox we face in these storm-riven times. And what’s more they have no distinct author, are not wiggled from the penned agenda of one brain-boggled individual, but have passed through the breath of a countless number of oral storytellers.
Second moment of rashness: the reason for the generational purchase of these tales is that the deepest of them contain not just - as is widely purported - the most succulent portions of the human imagination, but a moment when the 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. We met something mighty. We didn’t just dream our carefully individuated thoughts - We. Got. Dreamt. We let go of the reigns.
Any old Gaelic storyteller would roll their eyes, stomp their boot and vigorously jab a tobacco-browned finger toward the soil if there was a moments question of a stories origination.
In a time when the earth suffers a rapid infusion of disease by our very hands, could it not be the deepest factor of the stories we need is that they contain not just reflection on, but the dreaming of a sensual, reflective, troubled being, whilst we erect our shanty-cultures on its great thatch of fur and bone?
It is a great insult to the archaic, majestic cultures of this world to suggest that myth is a construct of humans shivering fearfully under a lightning storm, or gazing at corpse and frantically reasoning a supernatural narrative. That implies a base line of anxiety not relationship. Or that anxiety is the primary relationship. It places full creative impetus on the human, not 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. Maybe they knew something we have forgotten.
Two routes towards the cultivation of that very dreaming was through wilderness initiation and, by illumination of the beautiful suffering it engendered, a crafting of it into story to the waiting community. Old village life knew that the quickest way to a deep societal crack up was to negate relationship to what stood outside its gates.
Storytellers weren’t always benign figures, dumping sugary allegories into children's mouths, they were edge characters, prophetic emissaries. More in common with magicians. As loose with the tongue of a wolf as with a twinkly fireside anecdote. As we shall explore later in the book, these initiatory times facing the rustle-roar of the autumn oaks or grey speared salmon, had banged their eloquence up against a wider canopy of sound, some of which was still visible in loamy clumps on the splayed hide of their language.
Part of a storytellers very apprenticeship was to be caught up in a vaster scrum of interaction, not just attempting to squat a-top the denizens of the woods. To this day, wilderness fasting disables our capacity to devour in the way the west seems so found of: in the most wonderful way i can describe, we get devoured.
The big, unpalatable issue is the fact that these kind of initiations have always involved submission. For a while you are not the sole master of your destiny, but in the unruly presence of something vaster. You may have to get used to spending a little time on one knee. May have to bend your head.
Without a degree of submission, healing, ironically, cannot enter. It is not us in our remote, individuated state that engenders true health, but soberly labouring towards a purpose and stance in the world that is far more than our own ambitions, even our fervent desire to “feel better”.
So, i claim that the stories are here. And they include all these difficult conditions. That’s the price tag. This is not in anyway to claim redundancy to modern literature, but simply to hold up the notion of living myth.
So the stories are here, but are we?
I think we are losing the capacity to behold them. We see them for sure - our eyes swiftly scan the glow of computer screen for the bones of the tale, we audition them for whatever contemporary polemic is forefront in our minds, and then we impatiently move on. It is not hard then to suggest that we are fundamentally askew in our approach: we are simply not up to the intelligence of what the story is offering. Our so-called sophistication has our sensual intelligence in a head-lock and is literally squeezing the life out of it. When we see something we have stayed pretty firmly in devouring mode, when we behold it, we are in a lively conversation.
But these stories i speak of are not being brought slowly into our bodies, wrought deep by oral repetition. We have lost a lot of the fundamental house-making skills for how to welcome a story. When we can’t do this, the most chaotic mimics claim invasion.
Around half way through the last century, something wonderful happened. Mythology and fairy tales re-gained a legitimacy amongst adults as a viable medium to understand the workings of their own psychological lives. By the development of metaphor, tales of sealskins and witches huts became the most astonishing language with which to apprehend much of what seemed to lurk underneath their everyday encounters and decision making. It granted greater dignity and heightened poetics to the often fragile 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”. Us and our feelings still squatted pretty happily at the centre of the action. This is not an indigenous perspective on the purpose of story.
When the Grimms and others collected their folktales they effectively reported back the skeletons of the stories, the local intonation of the teller and some regional sketching out was often missing from the tale. 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.
Now whilst it’s certainly true that there are stories designed for travel, for thousands of years even a story arriving in a entirely new landscape would be swiftly curated into the bog lands and granite outcrops of its new home. It would shake down its feathers, shape-leap a little, or go quiet and would soon cease to be told. No teller worth their salt would just stumble through the outline and think it was enough, the vital organs would be the mnemonic triggers of the valley or desert it now abided in. This was a protracted courtship to the story itself.
Oral culture has always been about local embedding, despite the big human questions that cannot help but sweep up between cultures. These are details that may seem unimportant when only seeking to poke around your childhood memories in a therapists office, but they start to fall woefully short when this older awareness as story as hinge between village and forest is reignited - the absence becomes acute, the tale flat and anthropocentric.
I don’t think we have the stories, these stories have us. They charge vividly through our betrayals, illicit passions, triumphs and generosities. Psyche is not neatly contained in our chest as we scuttle between appointments, but we dwell within psyche: gregarious, up-close, chaotic, astonishing, sometimes tragic, often magical.
Well, something piratical is happening. It is time to rescue the stories.
re-hydrate the language, scatter dialectical inflection amongst the blunt lines of anthropological scribbles, muck up the typewriter with the indigo surge of whale ink. We’re unlocking the cage.
MYTHS FROM THE EDGE OF THE FIRE: The Eloquence of Initiation
10 to 14 November, 2014
With Martin Shaw
Guest contribution from Paul Kingsnorth
The great old stories always did something more than just soothe a troubled brow.
They were provocative, mysterious, wild and deep. They insisted on a relationship between people and place, animal and dream. They were often introduced as a counterbalance to wilderness initiations designed to enable the skills of someone aspiring to be a true human being: a noble task, and not easy.
The cry for new stories, stories that apprehend the challenges of our time, has never been so strident as it is now. Over the week we will work with the notion that the stories we need now arrived, perfectly on time, about five thousand years ago. And that these stories could be central to the major conversations of our time: the re-building of culture, the ecological imagination, the capacity for paradox.
How can the storyteller deepen these great issues? We explore the role as well as the stories.
How could we bring a wider understanding of myth into our own lives?
What is this ancient alignment between land and tale?
Man-booker nominated author, and co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project, Paul Kingsnorth will offer a session giving a contemporary enquiry into these questions.
This is an experiential course. Alongside the exploration of the stories (fairy, folk and Gaelic), you will have the experience of learning to tell some of them yourself, whilst also deepening those tales by time in the brooding woods and mossy grandeur of a Devon autumn. You will see how, for thousands of years, myth-tellers served as a hinge between the pastoral function of the village, and the prophetic energies of the forest. For the first time at Schumacher College, Martin will provide practices that have been used by the Bardic culture of Britain and Ireland for many thousands of years.
This course is for …
Thinkers, makers, academics, poets, ecologists, farmers, storytellers in the broadest sense of the word. It will be in turns playful and intense, challenging and soulful, bringing to bear two decades of Martin’s work with wilderness rites-of-passage and myth.
Course fees include accommodation, food, field trips, materials and all teaching sessions.
Tel: +44 (0)1803 865934
Fax: +44 (0)1803 866899
copyright Martin Shaw 2014