A few years back, after attending a local storytelling festival, I wondered in this post what would happen if I released a story into public domain. I resolved to work up the nerve to let go what some might imagine to be my intellectual property, to “breathe it out” into the common atmosphere, where anybody might breathe it in and make use of it.
Then two years ago, members of that same storytelling festival committee recruited me to participate. I was assigned to write an introduction for the festival, a preamble that would signal to visitors that the storytelling was about to begin. Another purpose for the introduction: To support the opening ceremony during which each of the evening’s participants carried a lit candle into the auditorium as they entered single file. The candles symbolized the intentional passing of stories–heirloom narrative valuables–from generation to generation.
I decided to write a story–a faux folktale–explaining where the old stories came from. It was an interesting process, composing a story that all the cultures involved found acceptable. I had included a reference to the German story about the wolf who ate a family of goats. One of the Navajo committee members asked that I take that out because, as she said, “Navajos can’t hear about bad things happening to their animals.” Navajos, of course, herd goats and sheep.
Through this revising process and that, I worked up a story that all approved of. It’s just a light thing, addressing an audience containing children, meant to support the festival’s theme and to work in the significance of the candles. But the festival committee liked it so much that they used it for two years in a row and plan to use it every year. So my dream of releasing a story into the common narrative environment, free and open to effects of use, came true.
I tell about this here at WIZ because I consider language to be part of the natural world and human language to be something creation has given rise to for purposes perhaps beyond our ken and certainly beyond our grasp. To my thinking, the condition of this planet is deeply dependent now upon the quality of human language giving rise to expression. One of narrative’s most important energies: creating and communicating the range of possibilities from which other beings in the world might choose to create their own prospects.
Here’s the story:
Pass the Flame
A long time ago, a man and woman had many children. They taught their children how to walk, wear clothing, and eat food to stay alive.
But they didn’t know how to teach their children to be wise. So the children made the same mistakes over and over, which caused everyone a lot of trouble.
The man said to the woman, €œThe things we taught our children aren’t enough. We must teach them to be wise. But how? €
€œWe have nothing of ourselves we can do this with, € said the woman. €œWe must look for a way. €
So the man and women set out on a journey. After walking many days, they came to a strange mountain. On one side was a desert with sand dunes. On another side was a tropical rainforest. Yet another side was covered in fir and pine. There was frozen tundra up there, too. The sea lapped at the mountain’s foot. On this mountain, summer, winter, fall, and spring happened all at the same time.
The man and woman climbed the mountain and sat down to wait. €œHow will this place help us? € they wondered.
They saw shapes in the distance moving toward them. The first one was a bear. When the bear reached them, it said, €œI will tell you why I have a short tail instead of a long tail, like I used to have. €
Behind the bear was Coyote.
€œThis is what happened when I stole the sun and the moon, € said Coyote.
Behind Coyote was an Eskimo. €œThis is how mosquitoes came to us, € the Eskimo said.
€œThis is why my tail is bald rather than bushy, like it used to be, € said Possum.
€œThis is why I have big eyes, € said Owl.
€œThis is how I taught Anansi not to be rude to guests, € said Turtle.
€œThis is how me and my blue ox Babe carved the Grand Canyon, € said Paul Bunyon.
€œThis is how I became a spider, € said Arachne.
€œThis is the sad story of how I became a weather cock, € said Half-a-chick.
€œThis is how I tricked Raven into dropping his cheese so that I could take it from him, € said Fox.
€œThis is how I defeated the dragon with my golden reed pipe, thereby saving my sister, € said a boy named Bayberry.
€œThis is how I learned not to speak to wolves in the woods, € said a girl in a red riding hood.
And so it went. After many days, the man and woman were so filled with stories their eyes glowed with light. The animals and flowers and trees and people who had told the stories said to the man and woman, €œNow you have some wisdom to give your children. But for the wisdom to work, your children must in turn tell the stories to their children, and they must tell them to theirs. If they don’t, life will go back to the way it was, with everybody making the same mistakes over and over. €
The man and woman thanked the creatures that told the stories. They went home and told their children all of the wonderful tales they had been taught. When the children heard the stories, their eyes also glowed with light. It was as if someone had touched a burning candle to an unlighted wick in each one, causing wonder and wisdom to leap up like flames.
Tonight, we who have inherited these stories and the love of storytelling honor those who taught us by doing our duty and bringing our tales to you like lighted candles. We invite you to tip your candles toward us so that we may pass the flame.
6 thoughts on “Setting the story free: Words as worldstuff”
I appreciate this sort of tale. Neil Gaiman wrote something similar once as a frame to a story and I thought it was brilliant also. It’s fun to take a step from story to Story and see what there is to see.
That was cool. The kids liked hearing that, they recognized some and wondered at the others.
It would make a good audio clip, too, hint hint.
Great story, but I have to admit that at the top of the post I bristled at the thought of having to change your story to accomodate people, it all worked out wonderful in the end, I’m just a person who has a problem “killing my darlings”
Th., I am irretrievably in love with the folktale’s fire and community circle aspects. Individualism isn’t the only narrative way, nor, at times, is it the best way. Via story, folktales open up Story.
This isn’t to say that the folk story form can’t be subverted. Like many forms of narrative, it can be hijacked in attempts to restrict choices and direct others’ movements. It can be used to strip away Story.
Lora, I might be able to do that, we’ll see.
I’m glad the kids liked it. And “wondered” is just right, just what was hoped for.
Since I was doing this as a community spokesperson, rather than as an artist detailing her own vision, I didn’t have a problem with acting in accordance with others’ wishes. Perhaps this isn’t a good analogy, but if I knew that someone in my ward suffered from an allergy to nuts, I wouldn’t bring anything to a ward party that person might be attending that contained nuts.
If I had my heart set on bringing that dish to the party, I’d find another recipe for it, one that didn’t contain nuts.
Not all Navajos are traditional Navajos, and the impression I have is that many would not suffer much if any discomfort hearing a tale from another country about a wolf eating a family of goats, especially since the story comes out well, and the goats come out well. But having this particular “nut” in this community dish just wasn’t that important. Nothing rested on it; other stories served just as well.