The Radical Power of Storytelling
The business of stories is not enchantment.
The business of stories is not escape.
The business of stories is waking up.
Imagine, if you will, looking up into the dark and naming a star. You could be crouching in the moonlight outside a Dordogne cave, or peering up from a balcony in west London in the middle of a party as the music pumps, pumps, pumps. But for some reason we commit to gazing. And something happens when we, maybe rashly, give ourselves utterly to the turbulent luminosity of the universe. We start to gabble in love speech.
So there you are, looking at the star.
You could call it something like:
Flint of Whale Bone
Dream Coin of the Moon
Pale Rivet of the Sun’s Own Spear
White Bridle of the Black Riders
This condition of wondering is still absolutely intact in us. It is. Amongst the loaded shopping trolleys of Walmart and Tesco, the fluorescent tech hubs, flicker-screens and finger-beckoning apps, it’s still there. This raw, imaginative, holy thing.
There’s an audacity to it, but it’s what we’ve always done. We did it on the plains of South Dakota, we did it in the muddied byres of Shropshire, we did it on the vampiric tips of snowy Carpathian Mountains. And here’s the thing: we did it to claim not ownership but connection. There’s a swoon in this, a bearing witness, a startled affection growing to an awe. There is no flag planting, no home improvement planned, just giddy, magical naming. And maybe the star just named itself and used us to do it. Maybe it spoke through us for a moment. There’s a health to this.
Much has been written about the human impulse to daub its spray on every living thing, to bellow the decree of its franchise, but what happens when the earth itself gives a little pushback? When it’s not us lacing a brocade of dominion-speak into a voidal dark, but that actually the words themselves may be the return journey of longing from the thing itself. That there’s a scrummage of inspiration that is not only human. This is a reality that has been articulated from Amazonia to Renaissance Italy, from the Yakut to the Aborigine. That words can have fur and light in them. Words can constrict, words can liberate.
Bad storytellers make spells.
Great storytellers break them.
This, now, is mostly an era of spell-making. Of tacit enchantment, of stultified imaginations and loins inflamed by so much factory-fodder lust, our relationships malfunction in their millions. We are on the island of the Lotus Eaters, curled up in the warm sleepy breeze of a Russian fairy tale as the robber steals away the Firebird. How do we wake up?
I will give you a little plot-spoiler right here. Sounds so very deceptively simple. The secret is relatedness.
Relatedness. Relatedness breeds love, and love can excavate conscience. Conscience changes the way we behave. Relatedness is how we wake up. But I am going to take a long and sometimes diffuse route to say it in the fashion that such a notion deserves. As I will repeat before the end of this book, be skeptical of the quick route. It’s truly what’s got us into a thousand unruly messes. And not the kind the poets praise.
There are stories about living without relatedness. They don’t tend to end well. Without relatedness we dwell in a place the Inuit call the Moon Palace. The Moon Palace is a place that appears perfectly safe: we have a great view of the earth and its goings-on, but we touch nothing. We can spend years and years up there. Heartbreak will get us there. The cool of the Moon Palace is a very dangerous place to be. Likely there comes a point where you want to come back down. The old ones say the earth is only three steps down from the Moon Palace, but we have to keep our eyes open as we descend. If we are unconscious we become spiders that cause webs to trap everyone around us. In other words, we cast spells.
The three steps down from the Moon Palace are instigated by longing to connect, for heat, opinion, passion, the dusty market square of life. Relatedness is the way back, but doing it with awareness.
So. I want to know if the earth will still reveal its secret names to us. The only way we can know is if we as a culture take those three steps.
This is a book that makes a case for a world that still seeks our eyes on it. Our admiration. Our care. Our artfulness. And from that comes a particular kind of hope.
Amongst the clear-eyed of us, hope is becoming a word laced with some doubt, and rightly so. At least from a certain point of departure. When I speak to the climatic conditions of our time through the voice of a pundit, philosopher, attender to the seemingly divinatory crackle of “the facts of the matter,” I feel a blue note of utter sorrow that I can’t come back from. But I do not choose to look at the conditions of our times only through those prisms; there is another, more ancient device. Story.
Of course, myths speak of the endings of things, of any number of ruptures and rebirths, and are often thoroughly drubbed with grief and the tragic. Ragnarok or Revelation is always at hand. Some beast is always slouching towards Bethlehem. Everything falls apart. The child crawls into the snow and is not seen. But over time a shoot will emerge from a heap of ashes. A girl will walk back from the forest speaking a language no one has ever heard. This is less optimism, more observation.
I should reveal my hand here.
I don’t believe our prayers always land this side of the river. I believe in a receiver. Even though what may wind its way back to us is in some costume we never expected. Stories can actually be a kind of praying, a back-and-forth between us and the earth and its myriad dimensions. This is absolutely not the same thing as a wish list to the heavenly.
If you think you’ve only got yourself for company, you are on the quick road to crazy.
I’m not telling you what to pray to, the celestial-or-otherwise shape of the thing, but find something to adore and keep talking to it. It’ll regulate anxiety at the very least. It won’t remove grief, not useful remorse, but the grind of chronic or acute fear can find its expression as an alchemical progression, not a final destination.
Stories worth their salt don’t tell us to get cranked up with either naive hope or vinegar-tinged despair. Stories tell us to keep attending to the grace. Keep an eye on the miraculous. It is not for us to blow the candle out; only the gods can do that. You simply don’t do that as a storyteller. You have corrupted yourself at that point, broken covenant with magical possibility. You have forgotten your tribal function, your metaphysical directive.
So for a moment, I ask us to entertain possibilities, that’s all. Put down the podcast or latest gut-churning piece of will-draining bad news, and let’s crouch by the fire in the old way that is forever new. Somebody wants to talk to you.
This excerpt from Courting the Wild Twin by Martin Shaw (Chelsea Green, 2020) appears by permission of the publisher.
Martin Shaw, PhD is an acclaimed scholar of myth and author of the award-winning Mythteller trilogy, The Night Wages, and Life Cycle, his conversation and essay on the artist Ai WeiWei, was recently released by the Marciano Arts Foundation. Shaw created the Oral Tradition and Mythic Life courses at Stanford University and is the director of the Westcountry School of Myth in the U.K. He has been a wilderness rites of passage guide for twenty years. His new book is Courting the Wild Twin (Chelsea Green Publishing, March 2020)