Storytelling: the eye and the ear

The New Book  Cornwall  by Harold Harvey

From Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie and Folklore in the Literature of Childhood
by Jane Yolen:

"Ancient man took in the world mainly 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....

Grandfather"But the eye and ear are different listeners, are difference audiences. And the literary storyteller is one who must 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 the reader's perceptions without advertising its own presence, so, too, the art of storytelling in the printed book must persuade and capitvate. It must hold the reader as the spoken tale holds the listener, turning the body to stone but not the mind or heart."

"The difficulty for me in writing," says Toni Morrison, " -- among the difficulties -- is to write language that can work quietly on a page for a reader who doesn’t hear anything. Now for that, one has to work very carefully with what is in between the words. What is not said. Which is measure, which is rhythm, and so on. So, it is what you don’t write that frequently gives what you do write its power." 

Women reading by Robert Lorusso and José Ferraz de Almeida

In an essay on writing Ann Patchett notes: "One method of revision that I find both loathsome and indespensible is reading my work aloud when I'm finished. There are things I can hear -- the repetition of words, a particularly flat sentence -- that I don't otherwise catch. My friend Jane Hamilton, who is a paragon of patience, has me read my novels to her once I finish. She'll lie across the sofa, eyes closed, listening, and from time to time she'll raise her hand. 'Bad metaphor,' she'll say, or 'You've already used the word inculcate.' She's never wrong."  

Reading Time by Fabio Hurtado

"I've always tried out my material on my dogs first," John Steinbeck once wrote. "You know, with Angel, he sits there and listens and I get the feeling he understands everything. But with Charley, I always felt he was just waiting to get a word in edgewise. Years ago, when my red setter chewed up the manuscript of Of Mice and Men, I said at the time that the dog must have been an excellent literary critic."

Conversation with a Cat by Gina Litherland

Words: The Jane Yolen passage above is from her essay collection Touch Magic (Philomel Books, 1981), which I highly recommend. The Toni Morrison quote is from "The Art of Fiction No. 134" (Paris Review, Fall 1993). The Ann Patchett quote is from "The Getaway Car, " published in her delightful essay collection This is the Story of a Happy Marriage (Harpers, 2013). The John Steinbeck quote is from The Journal of a Novel: the East of Eden Letters (Viking, 1969). Pictures: The paintings are by Harold Harvey, Oszkár Glatz, Robert Lorusso, José Ferraz de Almeida, Fabio Hurtado, and Gina Litherland, invidually identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)


Tunes for a Monday Morning

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I'm about to head up to Sheffield for the second group meeting of the Modern Fairies & Loathly Ladies project, so let's start the week with some fairy ballads drawn from Francis James Child's masterwork: The English & Scottish Popular Ballads, published in five volumes from 1882 to 1898.

Above: "Tam Lin" (Child Ballad #39) performed by Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hammer, from their album of Child Ballads (2013). Some UK reviews remarked on the oddness of hearing a Scottish border ballad sung in American accents, forgetting that these songs travelled across the ocean on immigrant ships and took root in North America (especially in the Appalachian region), where they are now part of the traditional songbook of America and Canada too. This version of the song omits verses explaining that Tam Lin is not a fairy (or "shade") himself, but a human knight in thrall to the Fairy Queen. For the full story, go here.

Below: an Appalachian version of "Thomas the Rhymer" (Child Ballad #37), performed by Scottish folk musician Archie Fisher. The recording is from Big Bend Killing: The Appalachian Ballad Tradition (2017).

Green Woman by Alan Lee

Above: "King Orfeo" (Child Ballad #19) performed by Scottish folk musician Emily Smith. The song can be found on her fine album Echoes (2104).

Below: "Twa Sisters" (Child Ballad #10) performed by English folk musician Emily Portman, from her enchanting album The Glamoury (2010). While there's not a fairy in this ballad per se, the enchanted harp at the end of the song is surely filled with fairy magic.

Fairies of the Wood by Alan Lee

Above, in the Loathly Lady catagory: "King Henry" (Child Ballad #32) performed by the great British folk musician Martin Carthy. The song appeared on his classic album Sweet Wivelsfield (1974).

Below: "The Elfin Knight" (Child Ballad #2) peformed by the Celtic-Nordic group The Boann Quartet. They've released a whole album of fairy music, Old Celtic & Nordic Ballads (2012).

The Fairy Queen by Alan Lee

The drawings above are by my friend and neighbor Alan Lee, a man who certainly knows a thing or two about fairies. For more on fairies in legend, lore, and literature, go here. For the history of Child and his ballads, go here. And for literary interpretations of the ballads (in novel, short story, and picture book form), go here.


Reclaiming the fire and sorcery

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To end the week, here's one last passage from The Mystery Feast by Ben Okri:

"In ancient Africa, in the Celtic lands, storytellers were magicians. 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. To a thriving civilization, they could bring transformation and the potency of myth. In the old days kings and leaders, warriors and knights listened to epic tales and drew from them courage and inspiration.

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"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.

"A nation is shaped by the stories its children are told. A nation is sustained by the stories it tells itself. The good stories can liberate its potential, or help it face the dragons of its evils.

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"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.

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"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.

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"We need storytellers who weave their tales with far-seeing eyes, and multi-dimensional hearts. Not those who dabble, who turn out mere words for pay or fame.

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"Storytellers are the singing conscious of the land, the unacknowledged guides.

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"Reclaim your power to help our age become wise again. "

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Words: The passage above IS are from The Mystery Feast: Thoughts on Storytelling by Ben Okri (Clairview Books, 2015). The quote in the picture captions is from "The Joys of Storytelling 1," published in Ways of Being Free by Ben Okri (Phoenix House, 1997). All rights reserved by the author. Pictures: Our local herd of semi-wild Darmoor ponies, grazing on O'er Hill.

 


On stories false and true

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More thoughts on the nature of story from The Mystery Feast by Ben Okri:

"As this is a celebration of storytelling, it is important to state that stories can also be pernicious. Stories have also been used for evil. They have been used for the denigration, the demonisation, and the extermination of peoples. This is because of the psychological power of stories, their ability to fit in perfectly with our belief brain cells. It is easier to get people to believe nasty things about others if you tell nasty stories about them.

"Stories, used as negative propaganda, have fuelled wars, tribal dissentions, and genocide. False stories use the same laws as good stories, making them readily acceptable to our imagination. The true danger of stories is that they tend to bypass reason. They can bypass intelligence and go straight to the subconscious. Why else have very intelligent people in the past believed such absurd things about other races? The subliminal demonisation in stories and images is one of the roots of racism and sexism. All kinds of outsiders suffer from this cruel misuse of mental association that stories can promote.

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"When they want to destroy a people they begin telling stories about them. Even when negative stories about a people are not believed they still leave an imprint on the underside of the mind, a residuum of doubt, a sinister grain that in time can become an evil pus of perception. Then one day, with the insistent provocation by demagogues, a people might rise up and slaughter those who have been demonised by stories, the 'other.' The ancient Greeks did it with the Persians. The Romans with stories built Carthage into a monstrous foe which must be exterminated, and this culminated in their destruction. They did it with the Africans during the slave trade, the Jews before the Holocaust, they did it with the Tutsis, they did it with black South Africans during Apartheid, and they are doing it now to one group of people or another, and they do it through rumours in the media and with our passive collusion.

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"Whenever we listed to negative stories about others we are contributing to this ongoing preparation for some unforeseen future monstrosity. Tyrants and ideologues use stories; the state uses stories when it wants to bend our inclination towards its secret programs. The Cold War was a time of toxicity of stories. Families use them to create their own myths, sometimes at the expense of other branches of the family. People use stories about their friends.

"Stories can be dangerous because they can be easily misused. The Grimm brothers made step-mothers figures of eternal suspicion. But in the original stories the Grimm brothers drew from, the people who did those terrible deeds were not the step-mothers but the mothers. The Brothers Grimm, rewriting those stories, felt they could not allow mothers to be so traduced. So they traduced step-mothers instead.

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"The law of stories is immortal. Stories invariably reveal their secret truth. False stories in the end tend to evil, toward injustice, toward unfairness. Good stories tend towards clarity and transcendence.

"Good stories incline towards life, towards the raising of consciousness, a lifting of the heart. They are evolutionary. For good stories point the way upwards. This is their enigma. It is not enough to read or listen to them. We must continually meditate on them to extract their timeless wisdom, their signposts meant to guide us on the secret true path."

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Words: The passage above and the quote in the picture captions are from The Mystery Feast: Thoughts on Storytelling by Ben Okri (Clairview Books, 2015). All rights reserved by the author. Pictures: Climbing to the top of Nattadon Hill on misty, drizzly autumn day -- looking out on Meldon Hill, our village, farmers' fields, and the moor beyond.