What do rituals have to do with the wilderness of stories? A story is not a ritual, and a fairy or folktale is a thing that is a told, not a thing that is done. Yet in the conversation about giving these stories their place in community, rituals play a role, both in terms of memory and possibility.
Consider fairy tales, for example. In 1928, the Russian scholar Vladimir Propp wrote the following:
The compositional unity of the wondertale lies neither in the specific features of the human psyche nor the peculiarities of artistic creation; rather, it lies in the reality of the past. What is now recounted as a story was once enacted or represented, and what was not enacted was imagined. (Propp, Theory and History of Folklore, 1984).
Working with the Slavic tales of Baba Yaga and Russian heroes, Propp came to believe that these stories were originally enacted rituals in which we learnt to meet the numinous Other; initiatory rites of passage where a young person left home, entered the wilds, encountered the possibility of their own death and the complexity of their own otherness, and returned an adult.
A similar idea was expressed by French philosopher Mircea Eliade:
Though in the west the tale has long since become a literature of diversion… its content proper refers to a terrifyingly serious reality: initiation, that is, passing, by way of a symbolic death and resurrection, from ignorance and immaturity to the spiritual age of the adult. The tale takes up and continues ‘initiation’ on the level of the imaginary. (Eliade, quoted in Davidson and Chaudhri, 2003.)
Contemporary fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes follows these ideas, believing that the fairy tale offers “revelation of cultural patterns of ritual initiation and worship,” and was “first a simple, imaginative oral tale containing magical and miraculous elements and was related to the belief systems, values, rites and experiences of pagan peoples.” (Zipes, The Irresistible Fairy Tale, 2012).
In one of his first works, Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion, he discusses the evolutions of Little Rid Riding Hood which, he argues, has evolved in the last 200 years from a rite of passage story into a cautionary tale of obedience. In earlier versions, Zipes points out, the story was very different – there was no injunction, no punishment and no “huntsman” to do the rescuing, rather, the young woman encounters the wolf and navigates her own safe return, and it is a tale about “a girl who crosses the border between civilization and wilderness and goes beyond the dividing line to face death to life” (Art of Subversion, 1982) which, with great likelihood, was once not simply a story, but a way of becoming grown.
While Zipes is one of the most respected fairy tales scholars around today, he has plenty of detractors, specifically those who argue that the fairy tale genre is not even particularly old, but was developed as a specific response to the social and cultural conditions of sixteenth century Italy. It may be that these ideas are simply a romantic idealization of the Pagan prehistory of the fairy tale. Because we’re talking about the history of these stories before there was written history, it is very likely that we will never know.
Each of us, storytelling in our multitude of ways, has to come to our own conclusion about the nature and purpose of these stories. But let’s consider, for a moment, the significance of the theory. When we speak today of the fairy tale, we speak of that which is not – a fabula, a fantasy, the very opposite of that which is real. The ideas of Zipes, Propp and Eliade not only suggest fairy tales were once enacted by community, but also that they worked as mediators between the human-built and managed world of the village, and the multiple and complex more-than-human world beyond that. In other words, we might say, rather than being unreal, they worked to introduce us to the complex real that existed beyond the “artificial” world of the village. Fairy tales were not an inflated encounter with our own imaginations, they were the collective use of our imaginations to negotiate with the complex, life-death, multiple reality of the world, in which human demands, beliefs and expectations are only one stream of the million needs that exist upon and within our planet.
At the very least, then, as the world around us seeks to disencumber itself from the fantasy of anthropocentric superiority, we should deal with these stories and their place in our communities with creative humility, and offer them the right not just to be told, but also to be enacted, experimented with and re-created. Today we live in a world with a stormy and deeply unstable relationship to spirituality, where we try and balance multi-faith respect with a need to bring through our shifting conception of the necessary wild not simply into our intellect but into our gut, body and soul. As we navigate a desire for shared numinous experience that expresses a relationship to the wild, many of us feel barred by unwillingness to act with naivety and nostalgia (when we look to the histories of our own culture) or cultural appropriation (when we look to others). Yet, there are magic-makers in this world who have found their way to navigate with deep respect and care between the paths, and who work with – and offer to others – visions of the live pulse existing in our ancient and endlessly unfolding story. It is not impossible, and we have an urgent need to try. And when working with these unfolding, non-possessed stories, I believe that we could do worse than look to the world of the fairy tale; one that is already open to revisionings, can readily carry the weight of our shifting values with good humour, and always ready to (re)play.
Common rites are an inspiration, support and performance space for the co-creation of embodied stories and narrative rites. We also offer regular rituals designed to explore the relationship between human communities and wild stories.
Watch this space for more information and the date for the first Story Commons rite.