What the Storyteller Knows (Grey Heron Nights 12)

Yes, there’s some overlap in these recent posts; after all, I’m making it up as I go along. Each early morning with a notebook brings a new set of reflections to add to the soup. Dream-makers, memory-keepers, storytellers – in a sense, they’re all part of the same thing. But they each have different gifts, and each of those gifts is critical at this time in its own unique way.

I’ve never been a traditional ‘performing’ storyteller, but stories are both my life and my work. My work, because now I’m primarily a writer, and also because, once upon a time, my work in the field of psychology was founded primarily on techniques of mythmaking and narrative. And stories are my life, because I couldn’t imagine it without them – yes, I do believe all that malarkey about the mundus imaginalis I’ve been writing all these years: that stories, archetypes and images have a life of their own, outside of us. That the other world they occupy interacts with our own everyday world, and that much richness, guidance and wisdom is to be found there. That there are reasons why we love certain stories, and why certain stories sometimes happen to find us, just at the right time. Yes, I’ll happily admit to being a story mystic, just as someone once called me a ‘land mystic’. The right stories can illuminate things in us which are hidden, and bring to life things which are torpid.

But the best stories, the truest stories, aren’t the ones which merely educate us about some aspect of our own character which was previously unknown to us (I guess I’m at an age when I’m finding all that stuff increasingly uninteresting – inside our own heads really isn’t where the treasure lies) but those which help mediate our relationship with the world. The best stories are those which help us to navigate our path through this fragile, fertile Earth, and our relationships with the nonhuman others who inhabit it along with us.

I’ve recently been rereading the curious but brilliantly researched book Dreamtime: Concerning the Boundary Between Wilderness and Civilisation, by German cultural historian Hans Peter Duerr. One of the reasons I love Duerr’s book is that in it, he also addresses a subject dear to my own heart: the fact that nothing is apparently allowed to originate from outside us any more – instead, everything from dreams (as I discussed in a previous post) to stories must surely originate inside our heads. Where else is there that has any volition or meaning? And so what out ancestors used to think of as the things of the Otherworld have now been reduced merely to aspects of human psychology. ‘Civilization, becoming increasingly complex,’ Duerr writes, ‘… encountered the things of the other world by inhibiting, repressing and later by “spiritualizing” and “subjectivizing” them. … That which was outside slipped to the inside … Nothing is allowed to be outside any more, since the mere conceptualization of the outside is the true source of anxiety.’

In this same thread, Duerr also writes of the boundary between civilisation and wilderness, and suggests that women, since ancient times, have been especially capable of situating themselves on that boundary, and of crossing over the line from time to time. We are edge-dwellers indeed, then. He writes, for example, of the hagazussa, a female spirit in Nordic mythology who sat on the hag, the hedge which straddles the line between the Otherworld and this. But now, he says, the hedge on which the hagazussa once sat has solidified into a wall which has come to define and represent the boundary of reality. Beyond the hedge, we are told, is nothing more than make-believe. In contrast, once upon a time any human who wanted to ‘live more consciously’ in this world had to pass beyond the hedge, to leave the safety of the village and its human culture, and to roam the forest as a wolf, or a wild person. They had, he suggests, to ‘experience the wilderness, their animal nature, within themselves.’

And I believe that this is one of the principal and most ancient functions of folk tales and fairy tales: to help us to navigate our relationship with what we (inaccurately) perceive to be ‘outside’ us; to come to terms with the wild which is beyond us, so that we can also come to terms with the wild which is inside us. And so that we can learn that the boundary which we perceive between ourselves and what is ‘other’ isn’t actually a boundary at all. Above all, so that we can come to understand that we ourselves are just as ‘other’ as the others.

We see these ideas most clearly, perhaps, in stories of shapeshifting, and especially in stories about animal brides and bridegrooms. For every frog that is kissed and turns into a prince, for every human that once was a prince but has been transformed into a beast, for every fox wife or swan maiden, there is a negotiation which must take place – a negotiation which requires us to break through that boundary which we’ve come to perceive between human and other-than-human.

These are the things that the true storytellers and mythtellers know. They know that the stories have a life beyond us and, if we are open to them, can enter into relationship with us. They’ll guide us, illuminate us, inspire us. And they know that the truest stories are those which bring us outside the confines of our own heads, and back into the vibrant, diverse life of the places we inhabit and the lands we come from.

We need stories now more than we’ve ever needed them before – but we need the right stories. It doesn’t much matter whether they’re old or new, but we need the stories which weave us back into the fabric of the world, and which illuminate for us the weft of our own profound belonging.

Art by Maggie Taylor

7 thoughts on “What the Storyteller Knows (Grey Heron Nights 12)

  1. Oh, how I treasure the storytellers, precious few as there are currently in our Western Culture. Thank you, Sharon for shining your light! I hate to think how many storytellers are going wasted by our distracted and pre-occupied world! I am part of an emerging community here in this tiny town in the Shasta Valley of the way north and wildest part of California. A town called Montague. We are making the clarion call for the ‘new villagers’. Let us begin again!

  2. Storytellers are essential. They both connect us with our past and reconnect us to today and envision the future.

    We heard a wonderful interpreter and storyteller this morning connect us to the history of a lowland “plantation” — he brought the reality of what that was like for the enslaved people who lived there in 1860 to life. (He was a history/theater person, by background, we learned).

    It wasn’t that long ago that I had a colleague block the word “enslaved” from my interpretive sign for our Hunt family cabin at the botanical garden where I used to work.

    So I was glad to see, at this county-owned place, saved by historic preservation efforts and transferred to the county, to have such wonderfully evocative interpration of Gullah/African American history in the outskirts of Charleston, SC, both in signs and words.

    Actually a bit remarkable, and reassuring, in the climate of our current discourse in the US.

  3. Storytellers are magic, whether they bring us to realizations about the past, connect us with the present, or envision the future.

    We experienced an experienced storyteller this morning who brought mid-19th century lowcountry reality to life – a “plantation” with 86 enslaved people who made life possible for a few years for the “owner” of the land. Remarkable, because the excellent interpretation was in in a county facility, in the Deep South of the U.S. Times are changing.

    All is not lost here.

  4. I think I have resonated with this Grey Heron post more than any other so far – and I am loving them all!

    I think that the move to locate everything in our own heads/minds is a move to reduce The Other, the mystery, to manageable (and safe) proportions. It is reductionism in the true sense of the word.

    I agree that women, who in many religions, (including those of The Book e.g. Judaism), are seen as closer to the Mystery, are able to cross those liminal boundaries. There is a natural and necessary crossing back and forth that is different each time because it changes from experiences gained from each crossing.

  5. I love your posts Sharon. You awaken me! I am a performing storyteller in Belgium, Flanders….and the good thing is…storytelling is really getting popular. I love the fairytales because of the magic and the symbolism and prefer more and more to tell my stories for groups of women to empower them and to feel that we are all connected Stories heal and connect. I just subsribed for Voices of the Well. Looking forward to this adventure!

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