SEVEN TALES AND A FABLE
A reading from the book of Genesis, chapter 2: so the lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib which the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, " This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man..."
The lesson of this reading is, myths are lies . For of course men do not give birth to women. It is women who give birth to men; and so it has always been, for the whole history of the species. The writer of Genesis had what seemed to him good reasons for defying commonsense, in his myth of origins. The fact remains that his account is no guide to the natural world. Human cultures the world over have treasured bizarre stories like this. They are not worthless. Their relationship to the truth is complex, profound - and endlessly fascinating to analysts of the devious history of the human mind. Yet still, myths are lies. We know this, but we forget. Writers who claim to be the modern mythmakers should remind themselves of this, occasionally. If we are the unacknowledged soul-builders of our culture, then we're probably lying too.
When we're children we're taught that 'myths' are obsolete science. For me, the explanation first covered stories about Greek divinities. Later it was extended to a multicultural host of tales about creation, eschatology and personified natural forces -death, time, the soul, earth, wind and fire; an echo... The grown ups tell us that these stories of cannibal fathers and bizarre transformations, were our ancestors' first attempts to decipher natural phenomena. I lost confidence in this explanation, somewhere along the way. So often, as in Genesis 2, it involves a rank defamation of the commonsense of the original audience. Something important is going on, surely. But I have been convinced for many years now, that the myths of whatever culture have always been works of art, bearing the same relation to the community's understanding of the world, as art does today.
Myths of origin, cosmological myths, tell you nothing useful about the material world: and never did. But they are fertile ground for the paleo-psychoanalysts. The writer of Genesis easily gives up his secrets: the envy of the male child, lifelong resentment of the mother's magical power, his feelings of inadequacy and incompleteness... Social mythology -the body of stories sometimes known as legends, and fairytales- is not so docile. These myths are still lies. The history is politically distorted ( Hey, no. That wasn't genocide. No way. Those were DEMONS, not people... I saw the tails!) . But, by our reckoning, this is good science. These countless stories of male suitors, driven to all kinds of desperate excess by the cruel goad of female choice, are in accord with Darwin. Ancient epics of territorial expansion turn out to be truer than anyone believed possible, when archaeology catches up. Folktales, old wives tales, really describe how human society works and what it does. Perhaps that's why they are less interesting to the academics. We have rude jokes (somewhat confused in the retelling) about the prince sticking something into a furry slipper, we have exaggerated feats and far fetched false etymology... But whether the stories have been transcribed straight from the pre-industrial hearth, with scatological humour and obscene puns intact; or whether they have been tidied up for the gentry, the knowingness is the same. Look into these retold tales of marriages and quarrels and unhappy families, and you see the beady eyes of an equal, a peer, another human being, looking right back at you.
It's because I find the society revealed in these stories so familiar, and the artists so alert, that I distrust the proposition that folklore can be "subverted". Ever since folktales were first collected from the oral tradition, and reinterpreted by the literati (when was that? Somewhere around the Euphrates or the Indus, millenia upon millenia ago ) there have been writers who have deliberately worked with this material and this form, for their own aesthetic or political reasons. Thus, in the nineteen seventies, there was an outcry among feminists, against the malignant power of traditional stories like Cinderella, Snow White, The Sleeping Beauty. People rushed to bring out "subversive" feminist fairytales. Children's picture books appeared ( they still do ) featuring princesses who rescued themselves, without waiting for their prince to come; heroic female champions performing astounding feats of strength and appetite. Female-affirming collections were winnowed out from the mass of world folklore, and global-village favourites were consigned to oblivion. (Of all these collections, I recommend The Virago Book Of Fairy-tales, Virago 1990, edited by Angela Carter). Yet Cinderella survives.
I do not regard the subversion attempt as a failure. But I believe that if you examine the record, you will find that the female-affirming stories have always been there. There have always been an energetic minority of dauntless goose-girls and clever princesses: no more, nor less, alive in the tradition in 1975 or a thousand years ago... and there for the same reason. Consciousness of injustice is not a new idea. Nor is the preponderance of male-affirming stories something no one has noticed until now. It is a mistake to imagine that this ancient activity can be used for a purpose that no one has thought of before. The generation of folklore is not something we control. We don't do it, it does us. And as long as human society stays the same -which it does, with staggering persistence- the stories will tell the same tale, in microcosm and in macrocosm.
Folklore is a natural secretion of human society. It should take its place among the chemicals that soothe and reassure: a booster for our reward supply when times are hard. It often seems that its chief function is to save the appearances -an expression used by mediaeval astronomers, to describe their increasingly frantic attempts to square the observed movement of the planets and stars, with the system of concentric spheres approved by the ideological state... Folklore keeps the poor comfortable and the collective conscience sedated. It keeps the young men dutifully hacking away at those brambles, and it warns young women never to be too bold. It gives hope to the goose-girls and courage to beleaguered stepchildren. It gives each of us what we most need.
No one knows the myths and legends of their own culture. We are too close to the screen, it is hard to get a clear look at the necessary lies on which our own lives depend. In our time there has been an explosion of popular print fiction, not to mention the taped, filmed, televised, digitised forms. Should we call this whole seething mass our folklore? I'd be inclined to say yes. But there are also the conservers and the imitators. When I was a child, I read every rainbow volume of Mr and Mrs Lang's collections, their fairytales and their -frequently terrifying- Myths and Legends of many lands. I read relatively modern stories by George Macdonald, Edith Nesbit, and Oscar Wilde; and assimilated the concept of the artificially pre-industrial 'fairytale' as a distinct form, that could be used like a metre in poetry, like an old song. Best of all, I had the stories that my father told me...
When I was a child, my father told a long series of stories, based on a tale that has been known throughout Europe -at least- for many hundreds of years. It's the one about the girl who is born after seven sons, and on the day of her birth, the seven sons vanish, accidentally cursed by their father. She grows up, discovers the truth and sets out to rescue her brothers, who have been turned into crows. ( The Virago collection has this story from Morocco, called Wudei'a Who Sent Away Sudei'a; the girl who banished seven ). Our family epic cycle was known collectively as The Three Crows, because my little sister couldn't remember so large a number as seven; and the adventures of the girl and her enchanted brothers were endless. My father had three daughters, at this era, and no sons. Perhaps that was why he found himself telling us a story of Absent Brothers. But by a strange coincidence, when I started to write my own 'fairytales', many years later, my theme was the same. In the days when I first wrote these stories, I was ( I still am, ) a heterosexual feminist, trying to 'save the appearances' for my sexual orientation, in unpromising circumstances. Almost all these imitation fairytales tackle the problems of men, through male characters seen -as the storyteller hopes- from the inside. How does it feels to be the prince in one of those brutal breeding-programme trials...? There's the prince who has to learn to rule himself, instead of ruling others, the way his father did. The prince who has to give up his only love (and guess who that might be) in order to save the people... And so on. These are not model pre-industrial pastiches. My princes have jet transport and motor cycle bodyguards. My princesses have fairy godmothers and suffer trial by magic, but they watch tv and they live in the global village. Some of the jokes are dreadful. But what really startles me is the way my preoccupations have stayed the same. Time and again, I've picked up one of these stories over the years, revised it with a ferociously heavy hand - and discovered that in the end, the story remained exactly as it was. There was nothing I wanted to switch around, nothing different I wanted to say. Twenty years ago, I set out to rescue my brothers. And nothing has changed, in my life or theirs. La lutte continue.
My seven year old son is scathing about myths. It's a literary form he seems to despise. He brought home a reading book of Native American lore, last week. He couldn't get through a sentence without breaking off to make withering comments about the stupidity of it all... I temporised, explaining to him that it's the nature of science to start off with the wrong answers. Knowledge grows from one approximation to another. You start by saying turtle squished a lot of lightning into a ball and threw it into the sky. Then somebody comes along and says that's stupid: and while they're explaining why it's stupid, a better idea of what the sun might be is born. I said to him don't you see, in this part about the animals deciding how to divide time between day and night, the story isn't really about that. It's about having a meeting, and how life goes better when people co-operate together. Well, I apologised for the Irquois. Let the tradition of storytelling apologise for me. Each of us lives in a separate secret world of beliefs. Myths, about the nature of things and of human society, are a leakage from all the hidden reservoirs. Perversely we value them, as we value human individuals rather than the biological norm, not for their truth, but for their differences. It's the flight at midnight people remember, and the glass slipper; not the breeding-programme instructions. I may grandly claim that I set out to rescue my brothers: but in the end I'm doing the same as my father, and the old lady who invented that dippy nonsense about Big Turtle. I'm trying to entertain: to string together images that will catch your eye, and sparkle in your mind.