“Dangerous and absolutely dark” is the way Joseph Campbell describes the sacred caves of France and Spain. These were the mythic wombs where man first sought to return to the place of creation. It is no wonder then that so much of the art found within, mankind’s first art in fact should be so full of life and energy. There is a frantic quality to the paintings, as if herds of wilds animals thunder across the stone landscape but they do not exist independent of other wild animals. They mingle together in a confused state that brings to mind nothing short of the chaos of first creation. In these sacred caves we find not only life depicted but creation itself issuing from the depths of that impenetrable darkness rushing towards the light. What drew these first artists into the darkness and the unknown? We may never know the answer but as one who has descended into similar darkness of other caves and penetrated into the mysteries, which is not to say made to understand them only to have entered into them I have my theory.
Caves breath, exhalation and inhalation occur with the same regularity as for humans only the breath comes from the earth itself. Certainly ancient man viewed such places as the mouth of a living earth. At a time before patriarchs made God male, even before the eponymous Earth mother existed; there was the earth as living entity. In time these caves became the sacred vulva of fertility and the hell mouths of medieval legend but at the beginning when the art was created the earth was sexless and indefinite. Man was only starting to define his surroundings and abstracts like man, woman, god and mortal did not yet exist.
Why you may ask do I run so far afield from children’s literature with conjectures about the nature of mans mythological connection to caves and the emergence of art? What do these have to do with children or their literature? Children’s literature, folk and fairy tales to exist under the same roof, sharing the same purpose which is to enlighten. Myths likewise exist for this purpose. They are the distant ancestors of the folk and fairy tales which would in time evolve into children’s literature. Because of this we can understand child culture to be myth culture. Indeed children through the workings of their unfettered imagination live surrounded by the stuff of myths. When a child considers Benjamin Bunney or Dorothy flying off to Oz or Harry Potter descending into the chamber of secrets they do so through faculties made possible with mythic understanding. Children read the universe through encoded symbols that descend from a mythic image vocabulary. Thes aforementioned characters are both real and not real but this inconsistency is of little concern to the child. The importance lies in what the stories say to the reader, or at a very young age the listener, this is the heart of mythic understanding. What’s more, as any reader be he a reader to a child or for personal consumption will attest the power of reading is strongest at the cusp of darkness. For children this is bedtime reading. You may try it yourself.
Take any book which speaks to you, one which you find moving in some way and that is more than idle entertainment. Read it by the light of day and then read it at night in a room dimly lit, or by candle light. This forces us to read in a manner that is removed from modern understanding. By bringing some measure of darkness around us we bring with it the mystery that the dark has always held over us. What is read will seem different and you will discover that it is much easier to fall into the story when the lights are low, and much more straining to come out of it. So why a discussion of caves, of art and of ancient man?
By reading in the dark or by reading to children at bedtime, just before the darkness of sleep comes we are closest to what ancient man experienced so long ago before entering into the dark of those caves. They sought to discover something just as the reader discovers something. That something was the essence of the imagination, teh seat of all creativity and the spark of spiritual yearning. Only when we are subsumed by that which is “dangerous and absolutely dark” can we hope to enter into the sacred space necessary for gaining the greatest understanding from what dwells within. This is the deepest of deep reading. The ancient cave of Lascaux, or those around the world like it are suddenly not so very different from the books we read as children or too children and their effect on mind is more similar than we might imagine. I offer for consideration this thought. The caves our ancient ancestors entered were turned into art and thus were made the eariest picture books. Through the complex interplay of symbolism and depiction those early artists were able to induce a shift in awareness which lead to a yearning for deeper understanding. Today the child asks for one more story before bed. Is it so far of a stretch to think that once upon a time these caves existed as places of story and that parents took their children into the darkness just as we take our own children into darkness safe in their beds. If this seems difficult to grasp consider this.
Among all the images in the caves; the very recognizable animals, the hybrid creatures which would be familiar to Max on his Wild Rumpus or the mysterious mythical beasts that appear time and time again in everything from fairy tales to Harry Potter we find the curious presence of hand prints. Who they belonged to will remain a mystery. But look closely. There on the wall you will see it. A print that is smaller than the rest, perhaps a child whose hand was only turning the page of his own bedtime story so many thousands of years ago just before the darkness of sleep overcame him or her.