Last Sunday, I attended a storytelling workshop with the wonderful Welsh storyteller Michael Harvey. It was a very enjoyable and useful day. I learned a lot. If you have the opportunity to see Michael perform or to attend a workshop he is leading, I recommend that you seize it.
The event was organised by Lichfield Storytellers. And very well organised it was. They have my thanks and admiration. It must have been a nightmare to negotiate the sticky web of social distancing guidelines and facemask rules, the slippery weave of laws and recommendations, to create an opportunity for people to gather together and share stories in a way that felt safe, sensible and respectful of whatever boundaries and feelings those attending might have around the pandemic, public safety, personal freedoms, rights and responsibilities. Michael and Cath Edwards from Lichfield Storytellers led the day with such calm confidence, quiet humour and a certain lightness of touch that we soon became accustomed to the strange new rules, the 2 metre markers on the floor, the ever present bottles of hand sanitiser, the signs and symbols of this odd new world that we are creating and were able to settle down and begin to engage with the work of the day. There is a blog itching to be written about signs, symbols and how cultures are created. But that is not the work I wish to do today. Not exactly.
The subject of the workshop was Myths and how we might go about telling them. Which meant that we also had to glance against the issue of why we might choose to tell them at all. Myths are a particular category of story. They are the stories about the Gods and Goddesses. Stories that explain the why and the how things got to be the way they are in this wild world we inhabit. They are BIG stories. Important stories. They are the bones on which we hang the flesh of our cultures.
The workshop focused on tools and techniques we might use to approach the telling of these tales rather than engaging in the philosophical debate of why we might choose to tell them at all, but Michael made it very clear from the start that telling a myth is not something that you can go about lightly. If you attempt to do so, it will turn round and bite you, punish your lack of preparation: you will stumble and fail. If you wish to entertain the thought of telling a Myth, you must show appropriate respect. You must court the Myth, spend Time in its company, explore its landscape, its hidden corners, bring it gifts and offerings, prove your commitment to its beauty and charms. Michael showed us some ways that we might do this. Sometimes we worked alone, sometimes in pairs, sometimes in groups. We were fortunate that the weather beings smiled upon our strange activities and we were able to work outside in glorious sunshine. Social distancing didn’t feel difficult in such easy circumstances.
Another thing Michael pointed out, fairly early in the day, was that, in the communities where these Myths were first told, everyone hearing them would know the story well. They would have heard it a thousand times, been told it by their mothers as they lay in their cradles, listened to it all their lives. These stories would be part of the shared fabric of their lives, a vital part of the cultural blanket they pulled tight around themselves on cold nights to remind them who they are, a communal pot that fed them all together. When they gathered to hear them told, the endings held no surprise, there was no surprising twist in the plot, no big reveal. Everybody knows how the story unfolds. The audience is not there for novelty or entertainment. It’s not like going to the cinema. There is something else going on. Something bigger. Something about a shared experience. Something about establishing a shared cultural commons. Something about reaffirmation.
So, what, asked Michael, is the role of the storyteller in such circumstances?
He suggested that the storyteller has to find a way to breathe life into the Myth by the way in which they tell the tale. A skilful teller can illuminate shadowy corners, reveal the colours in a magpie’s feathers, describe the beast in such detail that it leaps out and bites you anew. Suddenly, the Myth echoes through your own life, scenes from it unfold at the supermarket check-out, the Gods begin to stride through the events of your own days.
Having spent the last year with Dr Martin Shaw at the West Country School of Myth, I was familiar with the concept that the business of hearing Myth involves a process of interweaving, of laying the Myth upon the ground of your own life, a back and forth shuttling that serves to fashion a tougher, richer, more robust fabric upon which to stitch the tapestry of your days. Martin Shaw asks his students to “make your life a prayer mat.” By which, I think, he means: take yourself seriously, give the events of your life proper consideration. Holding them up to the lens of Myth is a powerful way in which to do this. Make your own life Mythic. It is by living the Myths that we come to understand them.
Back in the workshop, I had chosen to work with a Norse myth, The Mead of Poets, which I had found in Neil Gaiman’s recent paperback “Norse Mythology.” The story tells of how the Gods created a magical liquid that, when drunk, bestows upon the drinker the ability to write beautiful poetry, tell wonderful stories, to become one who conveys knowledge. A few things struck me about the story: First, that the Norsemen of old understood their myths to be the storehouse of knowledge. Stories were not just entertainment for children. Poetry was not idle daydreaming. They took their Myths very seriously. For them, Valhalla was a real place and Odin could really turn up at your village disguised as a tall, cloaked stranger. Second, they conceived their Gods not as all-knowing and perfect, but as tricky, fallible beings who were powerful, dangerous and not to be entirely trusted. You needed to keep your eyes open and your wits about you when the Gods were around. The Mead of Poets is a long, complex tale involving a number of different types of beings. Gods, giants, dwarves, and humans all have their parts to play. And it is notable that a drink that is the source of knowledge and beauty is created as a result of acts of deceit, betrayal, murder, seduction, lies and foul play. The people who listened to this Myth, who held it as their understanding of how the way things are the way they are, the bones of their universe, these people saw life as complex and layered, full of difficult choices. For them there was no notion of a perfect, flawless state of celestial bliss. No Heaven. No Nirvana. No escape. These people understood the universe to be a place where people and Gods make mistakes, behave badly, take actions that may be morally dubious but seem necessary at the time. No simple right and wrong here. No easy choices. They knew that Life often throws up situations where Good acts have Bad consequences, where there is no way to act that does not cause pain. The Myths of the Norsemen gave them an understanding of life that had a richness and complexity far beyond the comic book image of the wild, beserker Vikings pillaging and raping their way around the world.
So, I have been wondering, what are the Myths that form the backbone of our modern world? What are the stories upon which we hang the heavy flesh of our so-called civilisation?
And what happens if a culture has no Myths of its own to tell?
Can a culture that isn’t even aware of its own Myths, cannot point to the stories that the people living within it hold to be shared and true, and therefore is unable to explore and examine them, really consider itself to be “civilized?”
Are we living in a culture that is so atomised and divided that it no longer has any shared Myths and is so lacking in self-awareness that it is unaware of the dangers inherent in such a situation?
And what is the role of the storyteller and poet in such a culture?
My friend Leon Cossar, who I met as a fellow student at the West Country School of Myth, made the following observation on a Facebook post:
Where a culture is dearth of a mythic relationship and kinship with a place that gives meaning and ground to stand upon in troubled times they’ve already lost the battle.
They don’t know what they’re fighting for anymore.
They will make it personal and fight each other because everything has become about the individual.
They will think it’s about material things or free speech.
But they weren’t happy when they had all the things and if they had free speech they wouldn’t know what to say or who they were ostensibly speaking on behalf of…
So when they speak their words float – you can’t hear the silence behind them or see the ground in which they grew. There’s no dirt on them.
I think that it’s time we took off the gloves and started digging. Time we got a bit of dirt under our fingernails.
September 2020 CE