by Martin Shaw
Mythologist and wilderness rites-of-passage guide Martin Shaw has been described by Robert Bly as “a true master” and as “one of the very greatest storytellers we have.” Author of the award-winning ‘A Branch From The Lightning Tree: ecstatic myth and the grace in wildness’, he leads the Oral Tradition: Myth, Folktale, and Fairy Tale programme at Stanford University in the U.S., and is visiting lecturer on Desmond Tutu’s leadership programme at Oxford University. Director of the Westcountry School of Myth on Dartmoor, he lived under canvas for four years to get a deeper sense of the pockets of the wild still contained in Great Britain. Martin Shaw presents Mythteller at Hollyhock May 22 – 27, 2015.
Foundational Stones Towards Mythtelling
1. The Wild Crucible of the Psyche
Get out into the mountains and pray and fast. Travel for at least a day to get there. Don’t do this alone, get a trained wilderness rites-of-passage guide to support you. Take four days. Open yourself to the vast story, and in doing so, to the realisation that your psyche is bigger than your body. Get very quiet, shout when you must, fall in love with listening. Listen at the edge of your understanding, and don’t try and ‘figure out’ a damn thing for a long time. Don’t tell folks about what happened for at least a year.
2. Story is a Sharp Knife
A story is a spirit-being, not repertoire, allegory, or a form of psychology. If a story decides to be told by you, then here are a couple of suggestions for establishing a significant level of respect. One, feed it. Literally feed it. Leave it a glass of something lovely – maybe a shot of Ardbeg whisky and an oat biscuit and good honey. Leave it in the same place every time so the stories know where to go to receive the gifts. Building a small wooden story hut with delicate engravings could be a start. Two, study it. Look at as many versions of the story throughout culture as you can find. If it talks about a whale road or a sword fight then go to the ocean or take up fencing – follow its leads. This pursuit is a sign of respect: that you take the story seriously. Just don’t mistake that research or lines on paper as the place where the story really lives. It’s more a gesture of decency and readyness.
If it really wants you to tell it, you should find that you can inhabit the rough characters of everyone in it, including animals. If you can’t, it may be a clue to wait a while. Stories are not about a lightning quick performative rendering: I cooked in one story for fifteen years before I considered uttering a word of it.
If you are telling a story over several days then many Eastern storytellers recommend finishing each day with a scene where all the characters are eating or resting – not in conflict. If you don’t pick up the thread again within twenty four hours then characters from the story start to show up in your everyday world to provoke you into honouring the tale and continuing. This can be mentally distressing; being hounded in this way is very alarming.
When you learn a story word-perfectly you can create a tightrope act of honed image. It can be very beautiful and enjoyable to hear. Some storytellers have made this a true art – extremely moving, at its best incantational. The problem then from another point of view is that you have effectively shut down the response of the story to the telling at that time and in that place. Allowing spontaneity is the movement from the garden to the wild – the place where the story really abides. Your part of the task is the background study, the ritual feeding, and the knowledge of the stories’ bones. But where this lifts into magic is this step into the liminal communitas, where the curious tale itself rolls into the feasting hall.
Get to know your own inner weather – if you are a generally placid, loving sort, then leaving a mug of red beer out for the spirit of Beowulf may be a tricky fit, although at the same time it could bring out depths unimagined. But any audience will sense in a spilt-second any disconnect between you and the textures of the narrative. It’s rather as if a lump like me were trying to wade through the Bhagavad Gita. Stories are not at ‘our disposal’ in this way – that’s a reckless idea.
Recently the storyteller Robin Williamson – Chief Bard of the order of Bards, Ovates and Druids – sat in my house with a harp and talked for six hours straight about the four branches of the Mabinogion. What became clear was how unfitting the word ‘voice’ was for what came out of his mouth. After almost seventy years on the planet, it is at turns raspy, angelic, guttural, cackly and melodic. It makes jumpy turns at very unusual moments. It is a gravel creek bed that the salmon of insight lays its eggs in. The old ones say that the more time you spend in the Otherworld then the stronger your voice is. So for mythtellers, that is the place to go.
So check your cadence out, your accent, your vocal dance. If young, don’t beat yourself up about it being lively and high: life will rub that off, and there is no need to hurry. Mythtelling points towards the vitality of the elders – keen as us younger ones may be, something unfurls with age that we can’t ignore.
Our voice is part of our own personal ecosystem. Contained within it are differing tribal groups. The cadence of our family and region, inflections brutally introduced by television (even children in Devon now use the syntax of Australian soaps, every sentence ending up high, as if you are asking a question), or words influenced by workmates, travel or university. Within just one storyteller’s voice is a convergence of ancestral, regional and enforced influence.
In this reclamation of the word bard we could continue to work against the worst of its final excesses – to turn again to the deliciousness of local dialect, its burrs and rasps, its odd turns of phrase.
Myths and their oral telling is not middle ground but a different ground – a terrain where the psyche can still be nourished by image, be ablaze with wonder, can be rooted in landscape, can remember the vivid humours of the story it is actually in. This courting of the divine is not just limited to the domestic religions.
3. From the Comparative to the Associative
For the story to enter the room, wildness enters too. The old woman inside the teller holds the bones and the study and the structure together, whilst some raggedy girl waltzes onto the tongue and floods that skeleton with the juice it needs, so that the story can get up and dance. There may be a linguistic wobble here and there, it certainly won’t always be a slick delivery, but that’s not something to worry about. The story is only partially for the human community anyway: we should keep our heads turned in both directions – to edify dark forests and the gush-blood in a lion’s veins. Words from a teller’s mouth can be like the first wandering steps of a fluffy chick or the confident swoops of a bald eagle’s wing – both have their charm to the living world.
This way of telling opens the associative road for everyone present. It stops the story being too hobbled by historical reference and it becomes far more luminous. We are not peering into some other culture at some other time, but letting the story do its work with us here today. If a story is obviously deeply ingrained in a very different culture’s references then it may be wise to leave it alone. Feed it, honour it, learn from it, but don’t try to tell it yet. I am not encouraging a ransacking of sacred stories.
Many anthropological studies focus on the repetitive value of storytelling in oral cultures – this is a hangover from Frazer’s The Golden Bough and agricultural-based renditions of stories aligned to seasonal ritual and stability. However, it doesn’t take long in the company of hunter-gatherer tellers (and yes, there are still a few around) to see how a story can bend, stretch, condense and leap, depending on the mood of story, teller and environment. There is far greater unpredictability.
These roads take us from the comparative to the associative – by that I mean we have stepped out of just a dualistic comparison of images in myths to a varied eruption of information that arises from the condition of our souls, the arching history of art, the crafty intelligence of the wren. Myth no longer lives in academic translations but abides in a multiplicity of association. To make the move from harmony to polyphony is to be nearer our own wild nature, to remove empire’s yoke. It feels clear that this move is a natural return both to the inheritance of the Grail and a boisterous evolution.
4. Place and the Arising of Value
Pull yourself back from the page into the immediacy of where you actually live. Re-consecrate a relationship to the living landscape in front of you. You may want to give this relationship boundaries for awhile. Say five miles. Anyone can find wild nature within five miles of their door if they are prepared to go small as well as big – probably even five yards.
Allow that tempered grandiosity to flood you and decide that you are going to be an apprentice mythteller for the mythologies of place. Be like Parzival, or Finn, or Mimmi le Blanc, and sit under trees and by ghostly stretches of water and listen and watch. Get up close and personal again – face-to-face encounters: don’t rely on any writing, including this, to be a substitute.
When you start to absorb these revealing images – these stories of the waterhole, elder tree or visiting jay – don’t write them down. If you need to remember, walk them into your body, chant them in, dance them in. If a pencil hits paper then use it to draw the story, not to write it. Make a map of events. At small gatherings tell them, and remember, those gatherings don’t have to be for humans. Some of the most joyous tellings can be for granite, wind and swamp.
As soon as the ink hits the line you have altered your relationship to the story. When you tell it you could end up groping for the memory of the linear arrangement of ink on paper rather than the bodily impulses of a truly impacted story. Another esoteric detail – use green ink for the map. Lorca claimed that black scares the little spirit-animals that want to burst through onto the page.
If you are another kind of animal then how do you snuffle through the undergrowth of telling the story? Are you lyrical like the willow or resolute and rousing like the oak? Is that voice of yours a generous gurgle or thin and sharp like a buzzard’s beak? Do you pace like low slung jackal or stay very still like a cat in a sun spot? Follow the energies of your own body in that regard, stay authentic.
As a wide-eyed romantic little kid, I liked nothing more than to follow my dad around on one of his long walks. He’s a big walker. So, much of my education in understanding stories relationship to place come from these walks. In a way we were beating the boundaries, establishing that five-mile radius I’m talking about. He would show me an old stone archway, or a particular stretch of lonely beech trees or occasionally, with a long finger, point at far-off Dartmoor. To this day I could walk you the same route down tiny Devonshire lanes, and point out haunted Victorian lamposts, old tribal settlements beneath car parks, hidden trails down to the sea at Babbacombe, and the very bench he and my mother sat on when he proposed marriage. There was an assemblage of the mythic and the anecdotal on these walks that were appropriately intermingled. It was a good mix-up between wild nature and the intricacies of human culture.
Now, myself a father, I walk with my little daughter through the ancient stannery town of Ashburton to the river Ashburn. We drop coins under the bridge for the spirit Kutty Dyer who lives in its most shadowed recess. Or, as a family, we hike up behind the town to the bottom of the south moor. As we gaze up at a pattern of fields and then open moor, stories race down to meet us. All the tapestry of local folklore encircle – women riding in bone carriages, snowy hoof prints way up on the roof of Widdicombe church, elves scaring away property developers.
We arch out and see the rutted tracks that monks took between the four abbeys, the ewes on the lower hills birthing blood-cawled lambs under sullen yellow clouds, honey suckle on the banks of the summering lanes, the tractor sweating hard and pulling trailers mad with hay, flies sucking life from the crescent wound on a felled rabbit’s hind, fist-freezing snow across a corrugated iron shelter filled with mud flecked goats. And underneath it all, the great animal Dartmoor dreams, and sends us its muscled stories. We, gazing safe from behind the farmer’s gate, glimpse our inheritance and are silenced.
So something like that waits for all of us – Blake found it in the east end of London. Get into walking. For my first year outdoors, I would often cover ten to twelve miles a day. It was always interesting. Being unable to drive really helped. Beat your boundary lines, offer your libations. Imagine that we are all going to turn up at your door sometime soon. Take us for a walk, show us the inner-story of the place you live in. All mythtellers know that there will come a point in an evening of celebration and story when the hosts will turn to the stranger and ask them to sing a song from their home place. For the English this can provoke an embarrassed rendition of Monty Python’s “always look on the bright side of life”. We turn the loss into a joke. But what is soaked in the labour of stewarding your place – the ploughing, thatching, crofting, ferrier songs? The songs of the fishermen, leaving before dawn from Brixham harbour? That could be a rich grounding for anyone.
A little warning. Taking all this on can initially create a rather worthy type of character. Wandering around in a jacket made of nettles, shirts dyed in vats of their own urine and muttering songs about Widdicombe Fair to passing cars. A little unreal. It doesn’t have to be that way. That gets polished down over time.
Let’s not give up ambition, or that nutty part of us which loves the smile of another human’s eyes. A little conflict is sexy. But, as Gary Snyder says, be famous for five miles. Be famous to thin stretches of grass between abandoned buildings, be famous to that nest of starlings just over the hill. That’s a kind of feathery heroism, and is a sweet gesture to our desire to be witnessed in this world.
There is no quick route into any of this, and few clear steps. It’s a job for life though, and in times like these, how often can you hear that and believe it?
Mythologist and wilderness rites-of-passage guide Martin Shaw has been described by Robert Bly as “a true master” and as “one of the very greatest storytellers we have.” Author of the award-winning ‘A Branch From The Lightning Tree: ecstatic myth and the grace in wildness’, he leads the Oral Tradition: Myth, Folktale, and Fairy Tale programme at Stanford University in the U.S., and is visiting lecturer on Desmond Tutu’s leadership programme at Oxford University. Director of the Westcountry School of Myth on Dartmoor, he lived under canvas for four years to get a deeper sense of the pockets of the wild still contained in Great Britain.
Join Martin Shaw on Cortes Island, for Mythteller October 21st thru 25th.