Recently I attended an oral arts lecture and left with a renewed appreciation of the power of story. While this lecture focused on the oral art of storytelling the same truths can be made to apply to the written word, either read or spoken. Stories have healing power when there is a deep conviction in the value of what is told. They purvey culture and morality and help to develop character in numerous ways. A story can bring about an existential shift in the listener as well as the teller. They contain truth but differ from advice in that, as Alice Walker said “Once you get them, they become the fabric of your whole being” But there is a cost. Stories ask that you pay something extra, like an initiation into the mysteries.
A story is an entrance into something beyond the ordinary and entrancing to the willing and open mind. They cast a spell, a good spell, or a GOD spell which is the gospel and that is only a story to be told while we sit for a spell. To be entranced by a story is to be delivered into the story where we become an integral thread in the tapestry rather than a passive participant. Intellectual or emotional Passivity is not a virtue to the story-minded.
I recall my own childhood when as a small boy my father would animate a clown made of circles of mismatched cloth with a little brass bell on his conical cap and a painted on face. He, that is my father made that clown dance and jingle but most of all he made it speak. I knew all along the voice belonged to my father so there was no deceit to it, anymore so than there is deceit to Santa Claus. Imagination is never deceitful. But even though I knew the reality I suspended that belief and chose to make-believe along with my father and through that shared suspension of belief my father and I brought a stuffed clown to life, infusing it with life energy. In the realm beyond midnight where dreams freely mingle with reality life is much more fluid and more easily shaped. My stuffed clown, a sort of puppet became a poppet for the sympathetic magic of make-believe to act through and at various times, through that magic I was healed, consoled, bemused, enlightened and always enchanted and entranced. Maria Tatar used the phrase Enchanted Hunters. I call it simply childhood to which a healthy helping of make-believe is central. That clown, my clown was a toy but the magic works just the same as in stories, after all what is a toy if not a prop for the theater of make-believe.
Just as a theatrical play begins when the lights go down and the curtain is drawn, so too does a story begins. There is a moment when the listener turns inward entering into a trance state where the real world of the exterior diminishes and we become aware of how vast the interior, imagined world can really be. This is the rabbit hole into which Alice stumbled and the underworld journey of Odysseus, which is really the same journey played out on different levels of awareness. Alice (or Odysseus) must pass through the underworld of her own psyche so that she find the dimensions of her emotional existence before reemerging into the “real” world. After this initial journey, and only after may she pass back into the mythic underworld upon simple self reflection, by looking inward, as if through a looking glass. This may seem a difficult concept to grasp and to an adult it is, but to a reading child, or to the child-mind the concept is easily recognized. Children’s literature and stories excel at delivering this curious, often revelatory mystery wisdom because of their precise use of vague language. It is the same language the mystics use to conceal wisdom to important to be given away freely. Rememeber, stories ask that we pay a little something extra.
In closing, let us consider this and how it impacts our view of the importance of the imagination. The Greek’s valued imagination and lavished attention on hunchbacked dwarf storytellers and on blind, cantankerous old philosophers, all except for the Spartans who dashed the skulls of any imperfect child against the rocks. Today we remember Athenian philosophers and a Thracian Hunchback named Aesop. But where is the Spartan literature and who are their philosophers? In Sparta we find only harsh reality run amuck. Theirs was a world with no make-believe! With no light to illuminate the imaginitive spirit the Spartans simply passed into darkness leaving behind only cold stone relics of thier fleeting physical conquests.