I was recently involved in a Swedish Radio English language recording about the Arthuriad, Glastonbury, and Tintagel. I was speaking from the view of one training in druidry and in particular about the power of stories in our lives. I am studying Ovate Grade with OBOD, am in my 15th year of membership, this is supported amongst other things by degree level training in Life Coaching (including CBT, counselling, NLP).
Being alive is to me about growing and learning, when we stop growing and learning we stop being fully alive. One of the primary mistakes people make about story is to think it’s for children, in reality although they can be a great way for children to learn, they are also wonderful ways for adults to continue learning. It’s more accessible, enjoyable and comfortable to most adults than school environments ever could be. Sitting around with a drink and listening to entertainment, is usually more appealing than being lectured. It’s popular to consider the ways in which we grow emotionally, socially, and mentally; the ideas and rules which guide us, as internalised characters – familiar to many is the Inner Parent who cautions us not to do certain things. I like to consider another character: The Inner Storyteller, who understands the compelling power of a narrative flow; the attraction of archetypes; and their characteristic and typical behaviours. When we are faced with situations we find challenging he can lay out a guiding path for us based on his stories. The more traditional story, folktale, myth, and legend we feed him the better informed he can become. Often the work of feeding the Inner Storyteller, of learning from myth and legend, is done subconciously, whilst the concious mind is busy just having fun enjoying an adventure.
Stories let us test ourselves in new situations, safely, with pain limited to imagination, and sympathy, and with time to reflect on actions and consequences. We are able to explore relationships and their possibilities and their depths and correspondences. Some have very direct lessons, some are more generic.
Igraine’s tale, or that of the Loathley Lady teach us that all is not always what it seems. Many teach us to consider warnings when we are given them and take them onboard. Loathley lady tells us about good relations with our partner: The man is literally a monster, until he learns about treating women well. She, in her turn, becomes a thing of beauty when given her free will. Stories can teach us that though fear is sometimes useful, sometimes we have to face it down and go ahead in spite of it. Tales can teach us, very importantly of the path a situation might take and possible consequences of our actions, beyond those we intend to result. Even when we don’t conciously process these stories their lessons lodge in our subconcious and help guide us in new situations.
They are especially useful if we have things which are too scary to face directly, or too painful to deal with now. Bereavement especially can be supported with story. A story can start the processing of situations for us in our unconcious, letting it move through at it’s own pace, until it’s ready for bringing into conciousness. Sometimes we will hear a story later, when the work is part done, and clearly recognising the parallels to our lives.
Stories are again useful for the subconsious to use as material to work with when in denial, or if we haven’t realised the reality of the situation, even situations which are simply unusual to the subject.
Stories can help us understand that newness. Story helps us put a narrative frame on situations which are too overwhelming for us to deal with alone, when the story provides support. They can make sense of what seem to be scattered, random, experiences which are incoherent. With the recognition of patterns, and glimpses at the shape of narrative flow and the trends, the confusing and erratic events can start to make sense and become comprehensible. With better understanding we can make better choices.
Our Inner Storyteller has a sense of narrative built of the structure of all the stories they’ve been fed (so we have to be careful what stories we feed ourselves). Whether we intend it or not we tend to follow where we think the story goes, in the areas we have choice over. With the areas we don’t have concious choice about, more experience of story allows us to better project where our tale might go and gives us alternatives if we stop to consider all the possible outcomes, rather than just our intended goal. Iit is a classic wisdom that we go where we are looking, but though there is value in focussing on where we want to be that doesn’t mean there isn’t also value in being aware of the possible alternatives so we are prepared if it doesn’t turn out as we expect.
Many people make mistakes through focussing on a goal and committing simple solitary actions which they think are the single essential thing to achieve the goal. Better exploring story, the whole journey to the goal; the possible detours and challenges faced; the journey after the goal; what it is like. Thinking of that important gem of stories: detail, we get to consider more of the likely results of our actions and again are likely to make better choices. It equips us to not be easily deterred if we realise most journeys have challenges and detours, happily ever afters generally follow a number of committed quests followed with a passion, immediacy, and trust, rather than a single entitled step in the right direction.
So that is a part of how I think regular intake of stories keeps some very special parts of us alive and growing. How, in return, do we keep the stories alive and growing? Essentially by listening to tellings of them, and to many different tellings at that. By keeping their tellings alive, and growing, breathing and flexing. If we aren’t a performer ourselves (and not everyone is) then remember: an audience is still important to any storyteller, and attentive ones who value the stories especially so.
Stories grow of their own accord. As stories are told by people in a society they are subjected to changes. It’s like evolution, little changes happen, they grow. Some may say – so write them down to keep them pure. This is useful for recording one form of the story, but the living story is a changing thing, just like people. If they are told by a teller who has connection with the story then the changes are in keeping with it’s spirit and help keep it strong and fresh. Sometimes variations happen just for one telling, when this happens it will often turn out there was a member of the audience who needed to hear it told that way for their own growth. (Stories volunteer themselves unexpectedly into sets on these grounds too).
Writing down a story to record it does two main things: it nails it to one set telling, typical of it’s time and it’s teller, the subtle influences of the moment are made stronger. This need not be a problem so long as the reader reads many different versions of the story. More troublesome is that it records that version as a “True and Correct” version of a tale and some will inevitably then misunderstand and challenge that other versions cannot also be true. This is especially dangerous when it may have been conciously manipulated for political and personal ends. At this point a story can be soured or wounded, it can become less capable of healing, or even likely to do harm.
I know of at least one storyteller who objects to Lancelots inclusion in the tale of Arthur. Lancelot was added to a story of an English hero, by a French author, at a time when England and France were mostly at war. Lancelot is a Frenchman who cuckolds the English hero and shows his English woman to be faithless. Even his name is a crude joke on his prowess. His and Guineveres romance bears a strong resemblence to Tristan and Isolde, a far less political tale. It appears it may have been welded on for political effect, doing a disservice to both tales. Can you be sure Lancelot isn’t just a piece of propoganda rather than an original part of the tale?
This is where folk legends can really struggle with being written down. With tales being spoken and passed from teller to teller variations happen and chinese whispers can impact singular tellings from time to time such that they are further from a typical telling of the tale. When this happens the core narrative and the archetypal roles, (the inner storytellers of the storytellers if you like), will pull the oral tradition back onto course. What is told is more likely to end up ringing true with our subconcious, more likely to reflect classic and typical challenges and roles. A living story becomes something which has many many different true versions, some similar, some more disparate. Any erratic extreme version of the story is likely to have less impact on the whole so long as there are many versions, as it is further from the psychological core of the story, just so long as it isn’t written down and consequently repeated more often than it’s siblings.
Not that I would want to stop people writing stories down, I would just urge everyone to remember that written down it’s a snapshot of a how a story was once upon a time; it is not in itself then a living growing tale; and remember that it takes many different snapshots to really get close to a proper idea of what the original looks like and moves like.
Living stories are likely to be far more powerful in connecting us to archtyes, speaking to the collective unconcious and awakening our own sense of narrative.
So I believe being fully alive is to be continually learning and growing, and that stories are a superbly fashioned tool to support this. I think of stories as something we all benefit from having in our lives more. In our modern lives we search for them in films and TV, and sometimes we find an outstanding show which somehow has more resonance than others, often this is because it is connecting in the way traditional storytelling does. Sometimes it can be less potent thanks to the processes of production and polish, creating distance from the teller and tale, but the best directors don’t let the distance show and produce very moving films. To my mind though a good storyteller and willing ears, and an imagination that is allowed to exercise itself fully with whole other worlds on a regular basis will always make for tales with more immediacy, connection and potency to heal us.
Through story we live wider lives than the practical surroundings allow, we practice for the rest of our existance and we inform our future, there is a simple caution for those keen to fill their heads with all and every story.
Since we tend to follow the paths we are most familiar with we also need to be careful of what stories we feed ourselves. As with food the modern world provides options which are not necessarily healthy or beneficial to us.
Too many tragic romance novels and a young woman is not only more likely to end up in abusive relationships, but once there her narrative will tell her that her role is normal and to stay and suffer. To many action films based on hostility and aggression: then that can become the default method of communication and response. But sit down and listen to a great telling of “The Maiden Wiser than the Tzar”, or “Black Bull of Norroway” and you are more likely to expect of yourself clever lateral thinking and a determination to strive honestly and skillfully to achieve your goals. From many traditional tales also comes the learning to love, appreciate and value what you already have even whilst you strive to improve your lot.
I love, appreciate and value the massive pool of stories our combined cultures have already produced, I hope I never run out of stories to feed to my Inner Storyteller, and that I never stop learning, after all what more is there. I am very lucky that my partner is a professional storyteller
(The Travelling Talesman*) but that aside I would still urge anyone and everyone to regularly give their time and energy over to listening to good storytellers telling great tales. Who knows how you’ll benefit from it, and if nothing else you’ll enjoy being entertained honestly and well.