Why the Story Commons?
We live in times of unprecedented ecological, social and imaginal change. For aeons, the Western world has depended on stories of progress and development. In colonial Western narratives, we have forged paths through monstrous wilds and brought civilization to unknown worlds. Yet now, we realize, it is our own footsteps which are the monsters. Our progress has been a behemoth of social and cultural devastation, and our wilds are complex, rich communities in the midst of obliteration. As we process this conceptual change, white Westerners often seem to be becoming more and more a polarized people, in part grasping at the elusive comprehension of progressive civilization, in part trying to reforge our broken stories before there is no life left.
Why do fairy tales matter? The stories we have told for comfort and joy may seem facetious and irrelevant as instability rises and the Earth burns. But when we are reeling from the changes around us, it matters to find common spaces of imagination from which we can initiate - and share - in change. In Western culture we no longer have a matrix of shared myth, but we do have a matrix of fairy tales. At a coffee shop, in a bar, in the schoolyard, I can open the topic of Cinderella and know that I am traversing common ground. Given that we live in a capitalist culture in which stories are produced and fed to us so that we may feed back money, these old stories, stories that have lived long before their money-making productions and will live long after them, stories that contain smoothed generations of telling and have evolved from the DNA of a thousand thousand speakers, these old stories matter. They are, it may be argued, common thought ground in which we can remediate our relationship between imagination and world.
We can’t remediate anything, though, unless we restore their ground. Cinderella may be a widely understood archetype, but she is also a broken one. She is like an alphabet whose letters have been forgotten, all but one, and that one is repeated over and over, to try and invoke what it no longer knows. While her alphabet may once have been locally distinct, each letter arising from a culture and a localized world, in today’s globalized society, there is no excuse for not knowing her names. Her pattern – ATU 510A, girl with guardian (or “persecuted heroine”, if you want her nineteenth century name), has been told in nearly every country across the world, from Zimbabwe to Korea, Finland to Russia, Ireland to Iran. Yet overwhelmingly, in the popular imagination, Cinderella is white, blonde, with blue eyes and a blue silk dress. Despite the rich plethora of resources on the diversity of the Cinderella story to be found online, and the number of award-winning picture books of Cinderella stories from across the world, this broken letter is who she is to our image search and in too many of our children’s dreams. Sleeping Beauty? In an old Egyptian version, explored by Heidi Ann Heiner, she is a beautiful woman who falls into sleep when carding flax. The prince who wakes her makes love to her and then scorns her. When he desires her again, she demands that, before he can marry her, he must be paraded through the streets as dead, and buried in her garden, from where she uncovers him and acknowledges his love. Not only does this old Egyptian story make clear that our favourite fairy tales are not necessarily the provenance of Western Europe, it also throws into question the idea of Sleeping Beauty as the archetypal passive heroine, waiting to be rescued by the prince.
As tellers and story-wielders today, instead of using contemporary databases to pick and choose stories that spark our interest from cultures we cannot understand, now is the time to challenge and recontextualize the familiar tales still alive to our children and our communities. What meaning does Cinderella have if we keep repeating one single, frozen version of this story to today's globalized world, and what meaning might she have if we instead read and tell her with humility, with an attempt at understanding her context, her imaginative community, and her thousand variant complexities? And of course, the stories that have become our favourites once held company with thousands of others, now largely forgotten. What happens to these frozen stories if we return them to their company, both acknowledging their geographical variants and paying attention to the forgotten cousins of their own culture?
It matters to work with the diversity of fairy tales. First because the building blocks of imagination we give to our children are the way they create their worlds, and if those building blocks are meagre and deficient, then so will be their world. Secondly, because, I would argue, fairy tales are, at their centre, impulses towards a diverse world. As Jack Zipes has put it, fairy tales are “historical prescriptions, internalized, potent, explosive” (Art of Subversion, 1982). Each teller imbues a story with the ethics and values of their own society, making stories palimpsests of our cultural history. So our fairy tales – at least the ones that society has allowed us to remember - are sexist, racist, anthropocentric, bearing the layers of our toxic patriarchal history. Princesses need to be rescued by princes. Marriage is a synonym for happy ending. Dragons are fought, villains are vanquished, evil and good are wrapped in inextricable binary chains, and, if you are unlucky enough to take the shape of an animal, your happy ending comes only when your curse is broken and you are returned to the supreme shape of humanity.
But what is so fascinating about fairy tales is that there are other layers. Why is it possible to take the shape of an animal in the first place? Like myths, fairy tales and folklore hold resonances of a world-view that acknowledges the living complexity of the entire world. Animism – the attribution of awareness and agency to the more-than-human world – is a given. In a fairy tale, you are as likely to be addressed by a wolf – or rose bush – as by a fellow human. To dialogue with a frog may save your life, and to take the skin of a stag is as easy as drinking from a stream. What David Abram describes as “the intensely participatory, or animistic frame of mind that shaped us for 95% of our cultured experience within the biosphere” (Becoming Animal, 2011) is the unquestioned matrix of the fairy tale world. And, despite its overlay of patriarchal anthropocentrism, this is a world embedded in a complex, shimmering web of reciprocity. What matters in a fairy tale trajectory is not the goal, but attention to the journey. It is those wondering walkers, those who notice an injured frog by the side of the path, who are willing to shake apples from an overladen tree, comb the hair of an old hag or share their bread with a river; these are the ones who walk carefully within the labyrinth of the interconnected world, and, by doing so, find the fountain of life that will restore it.
In his article "Storytellling and Wonder", David Abram talks about wonder tales as having originally had utterly practical purpose. Like the Aboriginal Song Lines, he suggests, they were “the living encyclopedias of our oral ancestors, dynamic and lyrical compendiums of practical knowledge” teaching us “how to live well in this land without destroying the land’s wild vitality.” Today, we no longer have a myth-life, a set of living stories which allow us to live well with world, we have a fragmented, ragged, confused set of badly remembered tales. We do not have a culture which knows how to story with the Earth, nor do we have the right to cherry pick and decontextualize narratives from the Indigenous cultures which do. If stories were once road maps as to how to live well on Earth, we have not only forgotten how to read these maps, but we are, with ruthless efficiency, decimating the time, space and lifeforms that they were once able to lead us to.
Yet that does not mean that we are locked out of story. In the heritage of Angela Carter, authors today are doing wonderful work re-telling fairy tales with twenty-first century values. Yet this work is often single – created by a single individual, and responding to - and assuming - a single, European version of story. As storytellers across the world are doing, I'm interested in what might happen if we step away from the concept of the single story, into a space where storytellers speak with community, for diversity, and imagination is an organ which animates our multiple, embedded existence.
Too often, today, we feel locked out of narrative, witnessing untold horrors on the news and in the political sphere, and escaping these by consuming mass-produced stories made to entertain, but not necessarily to help us digest. Fairy tales are the perfect example of stories that should belong to us. They are forums for community mediation and vessels for collective transformation, and I started the Story Commons to explore what happens when we take them back. As the world slowly breaks down around us, we will continue to find our lives changing beyond recognition. As long as it’s still possible to wonder at a blade of grass, or to attend to the miraculous capacity of our own breath, then we have the capacity to continue. And stories have always been bearers of that wonder.