The Wilderness of Story
Why the Story Commons?
We live in times of unprecedented ecological and imaginal change. For aeons we in the Western world have lived with stories of progress, development and vanquishment, cutting paths through wilds alive with monsters. Yet today our footsteps themselves are the monsters, and our wilds are complex, rich communities in the midst of utter devastation. As we struggle to process this conceptual change, we seem to be becoming more and more a polarized life form, in part grasping at the elusive security of progressive vanquishment, in part trying to reforge our collective stories before there is no life left.
Whether it is too late for us to return our imaginations to thinking-with the earth’s complexities, none of us can say. But one thing we can do is to look to our history of story, for stories, particularly those which have been told over and over around fires and hearths, cribs and deathbeds, in forests and on sofas and in kitchens, are still wild. The stories that we have told together – if not at the same moment, but via multitude voices across history, those Little Red Riding Hoods and Cinderellas that have been sung in chorus through time and space have a power to look right through history to the essence of wilderness behind and within.
Just what is wild about those stories? With myth it is perhaps easier, but it is hard to see much energy in stories of princesses and ball dresses, of restoration and redemption via the perfectly timed arrival of the prince. Contemporary movements are rejecting fairy tales as the very opposite of what our young people need, negotiating as they are with the grim reality of a patriarchy that is eating away the planet. Yet what people often don’t realize is that fairy tales are never single, simple, or, despite the promise of their opening, “once” upon a time. They are, as Jack Zipes has put it, “historical prescriptions, internalized, potent, explosive” (Art of Subversion, 1982). Unlike the works of our copyrighted contemporary culture, stories that have been told over and over might be called non-possessed stories. They are imaginative creations that have become multi-dimensional by their multiple tellings, wild because, like living organisms, they contain within them thousands of variants of their own selves. That is why the stories like these are called tales of the folk – they can and they should belong not to any particular individual or corporation, but to our multitudes, or rather – to themselves.
What is the relevance of these collective stories? Like myths, fairy tales and folklore hold resonances of a world-view that acknowledges the sacred 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. Yet fairy tales are also fluid and multi-layered, and bear the weight of modern as well as pre-modern cultures. Shapeshifting stories like Beauty and the Beast and The Frog Prince show a world where it is a curse to take the form of an animal, in contrast to Indigenous cultures, in which becoming an animal is more often the transformation that releases bonds or restores selfhood.
In Western society, we have grown up with the collective sense that we have lost the stories which re-embed us into the diverse and multiple world in which we exist. 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. Stories, as David Abram has put it, were once road maps which told us how to live well upon the Earth. Not only have we forgotten how to read these maps, but we are with, ruthless effectiveness, decimating the time, space and lifeforms those maps were once able to take us to.
Yet that does not mean that we are locked out of story. We still have access to tales that were told for, and created with, the wider Earth community, myths, folklore and fairy tales of our land and cultures that contain with them traces and echoes of the maps they once were. In the heritage of Angela Carter, authors today are doing wonderful work re-telling fairy tales with twenty-first century ecological and feminist values. Yet this work is often single – created by a single individual, and responding to a single version of the story. In parallel with this, I believe that another way to understand the wild imagination that still surrounds us is to return stories to community. We can begin to return our traditional tales to the complex context and diverse community of narratives from which they arose – understanding that the Cinderella we know is one of a thousand of versions of a similar pattern, and that Little Red Riding Hood has a hundred different forms and variants through forests across the world. And, secondly, we can return our storytelling capacity to an embeddedness within our community, stepping away from the concept of the lone genius, into a space where storytellers speak with and for community, and imagination is an organ which animates our embedded existence.
I’m Joanna Gilar. I have a PhD in ecological storytelling and fairy tales from the University of Chichester. Since my PhD I have worked with Dr Sharon Blackie at the Hedge School and witnessed her astonishing work on the development of the mythic imagination. For the Hedge School I developed an online course, The Fairy Tale Atlas, which explores the magical and ecological history of fairy tales.
Immediately upon finishing my PhD I became pregnant with my son. Having a child, it slowly and viscerally became obvious to me just how dispossessed our society is of community stories. Watching my son begin to explore his world, I physically felt within my own body the absence of stories I could tell him to introduce him to the plants and animals of our landscape. I also grieved for the ritual-like times in which these stories could be told to him to introduce him to the human – and non-human peoples with whom he lives. I can’t give my son what no longer exists. But I started the Giant’s Garden – a community foraging and storytelling project – to explore the possibility of speaking and creating around these spaces of story absence, and seeing what can be found.
Having juggled these projects – and motherhood - for the past three years, I wanted to forge a space to bring them together. But more than that, I wanted to use my experience and my background to create a space in which our rapidly evolving, crisis-enduring global and local communities are invited into story. Too often 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.