Going, Going, Gone With the Wind
January 12, 2016 § Leave a comment
Traditional lore has been a bit of an obsession for me. Call me a connoisseur, a collector, even, of legends and folk tales, mythological epics and fairy tales from several cultures. I have read anthologies of tales that are Indian, Buddhist, Persian, Arabian, Italian, Greek, German, Norse, Irish, Welsh, Russian, Latin American …and now, Native American as well.
The key to connoisseurship is discrimination. I don’t love every legend alike: I have my favorites and my pet dislikes. What makes a legend a satisfactory addition to my private mental collection? A bunch of factors.
First and foremost, it has to be a great story to recount. I don’t care what my listeners think about it: I, the raconteur, need to relish telling the story, with twists and turns, long pauses or suddenly quickened tempo, low whispers or raised voices, narrowed brows or widened eyes, plenty of human drama and sufficient opportunity to embellish with details. The plot should neither be too complicated, nor too straightforward: it should be just right.
Next, I wouldn’t go so far as to say every good story should have a moral, but certainly, for me, every good story must hint tantalizingly at some hidden meaning. At the end of such a tale, the audience must lapse into reflective silence for a while, each lost in thought, making sense of what they just heard.
Then, I like my tale to be uniquely representative of a cultural context, but simultaneously, thematically linked to similar stories in other cultures, reminding me both of the rich heritage of a nation and the essential oneness of all nations. I like turning such tales around in my mind, spotting connections, noting departures, wondering how the tale went from one place to another, or why the same tale might independently be conjured up by two absolutely god-like but tragically anonymous people sitting a million miles from each other in space and time.
Finally, the tales I like best are those that make me wonder about the circumstances under which they came into being, the circumstances under which they spread and mutated and thrived. The best traditional lore (for me) is steeped and entrenched in history: arising out of history and transforming through historical time, it is a piece of living history.
Exactly where does this collection of Native American tales rank on my scale? Not at the very top, I’d have to say. Out of the 100+ tales in the book, I found barely a dozen worth adding to my list of tellable tales. The plots were rather straightforward, the meaning not particularly hard to discern. Of course the old familiar universal themes were there: great floods, fertility sacrifices, the passing of the seasons, the mystery of conception and paternity. But it all felt too raw, not put together with finesse and artistry. It was Roland Barthes, in a book I reviewed recently, who said that mythology was a second order system, that derived from and built on metaphors and meaning fragments. If so, the mythology I admire most are a third order phenomenon, built on more elemental mythological material that serve as building blocks for later craftsmen to shape into sophisticated, powerful tales that barely reveal their origins. In the smooth narrative and plot structure of the Urvasi-Pururavas story of the Vikramorvasiyam, if you listen carefully, you can distinctly hear the primeval echoes of the proto-story somewhat clumsily laid out in the Rg Veda. Similarly, the stories of the Navaho, the Iroquois, the Cheyenne or the Chippewa, are just faint echoes in the wind, waiting to be the background music for a captivating song that hasn’t yet been composed.
The worry, of course, is that these echoes will subside into eternal silence before they can inspire that song.