Cycles, Gyres, and Yugas, Part 1

Turning and turning in widening gyres

Over the last year, I’ve thought a lot about the idea of cyclical time, time without beginning or end, as opposed to the view time as linear, which implies a start and an ending.

Time as a never ending series of cycles is a core feature of eastern cosmology, but has also shown up in the west.  The Greek deity, Aion, representing “unbounded” time, was associated with the Hellenistic mystery religions.

Time without beginning or end is also feature of more recent western esoteric groups, such as The Golden Dawn, a secret society founded in the 19th century, that sought to restore the knowledge and practice of western mystery traditions. W.B. Yeats was an initiate, and his visionary poem, The Second Coming, (1919) gives a vivid picture of time as a rising and falling series of spirals, or “gyres:”

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The tone of The Second Coming is consistent with all sources, eastern and western, that deal with time cycles. They are unanimous in saying this is the dark time, the Iron Age, the Kali Yuga, and in Buddhist terms, the time of “Five Degenerations.” Continue reading

The White Snake – An Enigmatic Tale from the Brothers Grimm

Illustration for “The White Snake” by Walter Crane, ca. 1886, Public Domain

I once had a professor who made an extensive study of world folklore and said the greatest predictor of success for a fairytale hero is winning the help of an animal guide. Most often, the helpful animals are mammals, like Puss-in-Boots or talking horses.

“The White Snake,” a story from the Brothers Grimm, alters this pattern in startling ways. The helpful creatures are far more primitive, and the hero actually kills his horse – yet things come out right. The story has stayed with me since I first encountered it, as a wisdom tale centered on the theme of knowing the right thing to do at the right time, even when it violates norms and expectations.

Commentary on myth and folktales is a recent tradition that arose after the old ways of absorbing these stories, around hearth and campfire, disappeared. We can imagine earlier listeners holding the stories in imagination, letting the magic sink in over time, as we do with favorite novels and movies. This is a great way to experience a story, and we’re fortunate to have a good eight minute recording of The White Snake, accompanied by the text from the Brothers Grimm.

I suggest you read and listen to the story if you don’t know it, for the rest of this post will simply be my reflections on a few of the key questions The White Snake raises. Continue reading

Truth will out, murder will out – The Two Sisters

“Binnoire,” by John D. Batten, for “English Fairy Tales,” 1898

Our theme, over the next few posts, is folklore and ballads that feature the theme of, “truth will out,”  We begin with a popular Childe Ballad, “The Two Sisters,” that has been covered, under various names, by Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, Pentangle, Tom Waits, Loreena McKinnett, Clannad, Steeleye Span, Gillian Welch, and others.

“The Twa Sisters,” Childe ballad #10, was published as a broadside in Northumbria in 1656. A girl is drowned by her sister over love of the same man. Finding her body, a minstrel makes a harp of her breastbone and golden hair that will only play the tale of the murder. The theme is echoed in Swedish, Norwegian, and Icelandic ballads. There are 21 variants in the British isles, with names that include, “The Miller and the King’s Daughter,” “Binnoire,” “The Cruel Sister,” “The Wind and Rain,” “The Dreadful Wind and Rain,” and “The Bonny Swans.” (1)

Here’s my favorite version, from Jerry Garcia and Dave Grisman at the Warfield Theater in 1992:

From: The Twa Sisters,” Childe Ballads #10C

10C.22 He made a harp of her breast-bone,
Whose sounds would melt a heart of stone.
10C.23 The strings he framed of her yellow hair,
Whose notes made sad the listening ear.
10C.24 He brought it to her father’s hall,
And there was the court assembled all.
10C.25 He laid this harp upon a stone,
And straight it began to play alone.
10C.26 ‘O yonder sits my father, the king,
And yonder sits my mother, the queen.
10C.27 ‘And yonder stands my brother Hugh,
And by him my William, sweet and true.’
10C.28 But the last tune that the harp playd then,
Was ‘Woe to my sister, false Helen!

*****

In the east, we have the concept of karma. In the west we have a comforting theme in folklore, that behind even the most dire events and appearances, there’s a harmony, a natural order that tries to assert itself, the way our bodies, if conditions are right, will push out infection.

Now that our body politic is infected by an American president who would destroy the basic concept of Truth and Fact for his own ends, I find it refreshing to dwell on such tales. Weeds break through concrete. In the end, truth will break through lies and corruption.

Notes on Truth, June edition

The Washington Post reports that Special Counsel, Robert Mueller, has assembled a team with expertise in fields ranging from constitutional law to money laundering. This suggests that the just-announced criminal probe of the president for obstruction of justice may be only the beginning.

This is clearly bad news for the president, a congenital liar, and the GOP, which has risen to power by enabling him. Too bad their mothers never told them what mine did – that lies eventually get found out. My mother was not into philosophical subtleties with the truth. When she asked if I’d pulled the head off my sisters doll, I couldn’t duck the question by citing “alternate facts.”

It’s still a tossup whether our Liar in Chief and his minions will manage their corporatist takeover of the government, or whether our constitutional protections will bring them down first.

This effort means much more than simply removing a malignant leader from the helm of our once-great nation. It will be even harder to restore a respect for Truth in the public sphere. Politicians have always lied and voters have always know it it, but in a culture which values truth more than greed, liars are punished when discovered.

The natural world doesn’t care about our opinions. “Truth will out,” as Shakespeare said. Melting glaciers, rising seas, extreme storms, fires, and droughts don’t listen to climate change deniers.

This idea – that natural law wins in the end – brought to mind songs and stories from many traditions that echo that theme. I have only a vague recollection of most of them, but I am motivated to go on a search for two key reasons:

First, the old stories and songs reflect our collective experience, shaped by the wisdom of generations. They are comforting, like stones worn smooth, and it’s good to remind ourselves of what our ancestors knew for generations – lying doesn’t work in the end.

My second reason for digging into these stories is that it is likely a healthier pastime than checking social media morning and night to see what fresh outrage the Republican party has done.

I already have in mind a first example, one of my favorite old ballads that Garrison Keeler once called, one of the gloomiest songs ever written. That makes it just right for one of the darkest times our nation has ever endured.

The Devil’s Sooty Brothers

Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, 1855. Painting by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann

Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, 1855. Painting by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann

“People think stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way round.” – Terry Pratchett

“The Devil’s Sooty Brother” is the catchiest name among a group of tales from the Brothers Grimm about career soldiers who are discharged when they are wounded, or peace breaks out, or for no given reason. They find themselves on the road, with a loaf of bread and a few coins if they’re lucky, and no clear path to making their way in the world.

Most of the best known Grimm tales feature young people – a lad or a maiden, just starting out in the world. In contrast, we imagine these soldiers as middle aged career men, whose services are no longer needed. I thought of these stories when I heard that Oreo, “America’s favorite cookie,” will now be produced in Mexico, where Nabisco expects to save $130 million a year. Six hundred people join the hundreds of thousands before them whose working lives have been disrupted by technical, financial, and social changes that continue to accelerate in speed.

Do the old stories have anything practical to say to 21st century people when the world turns upside down?  Maybe…

These stories have elements in common:

  1. The protagonists are combat veterans. They’ve been around the block.
  2. They take up with shady, trickster-like characters, who take them underground, into the darkness, or other trials.
  3. They either are, or must learn to be, trickier than their tricky benefactors. In modern terms, they need to think outside the box, and there, if anywhere, is the relevance for us now. Circumstances may change, but the value of seeing the world afresh, free from habit and preconception, is probably even more vital now than in the “simpler” times when these tales emerged.

I will consider two of the tales of discharged soldiers that depend on wit. I’ll skip several others that hinge more on religious piety and luck. Piety and luck may pay off in real life, but they aren’t satisfying story elements.

German mercenary pikeman. Wikimedia Commons

German mercenary pikeman. Wikimedia Commons

In our title story, The Devil’s Sooty Brother, (Grimm Tale #100), Hans, a hungry and penniless out of work soldier, meets the Devil in the woods. This Devil is a dark trickster and initiator rather than a personification of evil. If the soldier agrees to the terms of a seven-year contract, he’ll be set for life.  If he violates the terms, he will die, and presumably, be stuck in hell. Continue reading

Where did this come from?

notebook

A few days ago, looking for a piece of scratch paper, I picked up a 5″ x 8″ spiral notebook from a desk in the back room. I flipped it open to some curious notes on fairytales – and I cannot remember where they came from. Not from any book I possess, nor from any lecture I remember. Did they come from a blog post? And if so, why did I take the time to jot down two pages of notes without bookmarking the post?

The words were those of a writer who said, “I am eager to show what fairytale techniques have done for my writing and what they can do for yours.”  This is curious, because most of what followed – the “four elements of traditional fairytales” that he or she discussed violate the usual advice given in writing books and seminars.  Here the four elements as I recorded them.

1) Flatness – flat characters (no psychological depth), which allows depth in the reader’s response. Eg., the child who escapes monsters does not grow up to be a neurotic adult. Also, few fairytale characters are named.

2) Abstract –  Few details given. Fairytales tell, they seldom show.

3) Intuitive logic –  “nonsensical sense”  This happened then that. Causality not shown. Events may not be connected except by narrative proximity. But inside that disconnect resides a story that enters and haunts you deeply. Details of fairytales exist apart from “plot” and are a “violation of the rule that things must make sense.” Dreamlike.

4) Normalized magic:  breaks the notion that the more realistic a story element, the more valuable.

All four of these points are accurate statements of fairytale characteristics. The idea that they hook the listener’s imagination to “fill in the blanks” may help explain why fairytales make far better oral narratives than literary fiction.

At the same time, I can’t think of any published fiction that follows such a structure, least of all modern fairytale retellings. For one thing, since the 19th century, psychologizing has been a favorite pastime for almost all lovers of folklore.

The unknown author of these notes made a few more statements I wrote down:

“Every since I was a child, I have been happiest living in the sphere of story.”  ( me too!!!)

“Trickery is the instinct to know when something is wrong.”

“I will end by saying that story is what makes us human.”

Whoever the unknown author is, you have my thanks (a second time) for your most stimulating thoughts on a genre I love!

Thoughts on Maleficent and retelling folktales

maleficent

Maleficent opens in a world of beauty, threatened by a greedy human king. The visual contrast between human actors and fantasy animation was great enough to take a few minutes for suspension of disbelief to kick in. After that, I was in for the ride, through an ambitiously re-crafted tale of the Disney arch villainess who gave kids of my generation nightmares in Sleeping Beauty (1959). As the poster implies, this movie belongs to Angelina Jolie, whose performance is gripping.

The Sleeping Beauty themes of love and betrayal remain but they manifest very differently in the two Disney versions of the story. Men betray and women love; implicit in Disney’s previous blockbuster, Frozen, the theme is explicit in Maleficent. For now at least, it’s Disney’s key to box office success.

Retelling fairytales with a modern twist is nothing new. Fantasy authors like Nancy Kress, Jane Yolen, Steven Brust, and Roger Zelazny, to say nothing of Neil Gaiman and George R.R. Martin have been doing this for decades. I’m currently reading a 1994 collection of short retold fairytales, Black Thorn, White Rose, edited by fantasy writers, Ellen Datlow and Terry Windling. There are two different versions of Sleeping Beauty. In both, it is the prince who needs to be rescued.

I take this as an inevitable pendulum swing from earlier Disney movies where princesses mostly sat around singing, “Someday my prince will come.” We have to remember that no Disney movie, then or now, is “real” folklore, nor is any work fantasy fiction. By “real” folklore, I mean stories shaped by the collective imagination of generations of members of a culture, region, or tribe. Strictly speaking, any talk of folktales now must be in the past tense. Nowadays the events that might spawn new fairytales, over a generation or two, become headlines or tweets, “details at 6:00,” to be forgotten in a day or an hour.

Among other things, the old fairytales were full of hints on wise living for those who knew how to listen. Here is one simple list of some of the lessons they taught:

  • Sorrow is real, and so is joy
  • Joy is freely available to all, just as sorrow comes freely to all, whether rich or poor, and without regard to changes in material fortune
  • The world is fraught with danger, including life-threatening danger, but by being clever (always), honest (as a rule, but with common-sense exceptions), courteous (especially to the elderly, no matter their apparent social station), and kind (to anyone who has obvious need), even a child can succeed where those who seem more qualified have failed.

Much as I love them, I don’t find that fantasy movies and novels teach lessons like these in a visceral or unforgettable manner, which leaves us sadly impoverished. Dragons have not gone away – any glance at the headlines makes that clear. What is gone is the wisdom to know how to deal with them.

Another note on tricksters

Groucho

I want to argue a paradox…that the origins, liveliness, and durability of cultures require that there be space for figures whose function is to uncover and disrupt the very things that cultures are based on. – Lewis Hyde

It has always made sense to me that the 1920s, 30s and 40s, when times were hard for so many, gave birth to our great movie tricksters: Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, The Marx Brothers, and The Three Stooges. Their send ups of the 1%, among other things, are still hilarious. Where are their equivalents today?

My self-imposed moratorium on negative blog themes has passed. As I caught up on news I had kept at arms length, I found myself thinking often of trickster stories. In part because they are funny, and most of the news is not. And partly because the folly of tricksters has a sacred dimension while the folly of our headline makers is often just foolish.  If you invite the Three Stooges to lunch and serve pie, the outcome is fairly certain. I read that the Georgia legislature voted to allow patrons to carry guns into bars; the result is likely to be just as predictable, but without the catharsis of laughter.

stooges pies

In his introduction to Trickster Makes This World (1998), Lewis Hyde emphasized several key points:

1) Tricksters both make and violate boundaries and live in relationship to them. Where there are no boundaries, trickster creates them, as in several Native American creation myths where Coyote makes the land and separates it from the sea. Where there are cultural boundaries, tricksters blur or invert the distinctions: right and wrong, friend or foe, male or female, living or dead.

2) Tricksters are usually on the road, and this makes them outsiders.
Through most of human history, solitary travelers have been rare. Until the last century, most people lived and died close to the area where they were born. Nomadic people travelled as tribes or clans, but Hyde says trickster is “the spirit of the doorway leading out, and of the crossroad at the edge of town. He is the spirit of the road of dusk,” who may pass through city and town but only to “enliven it with his mischief.”

charlie chaplin and dog

Hyde points out that although there is an abundance of clever women who know how to be deceptive in world mythology, they are seldom full-time tricksters. Once the evil is vanquished, the curse lifted, they tend to settle down. Coyote and Loki do not domesticate, and the older cultures who gave us these stories would have had trouble imagining a woman who opted for a solo life on the road.

3) Tricksters are liars and thieves, but they are not petty criminals.
Tricksters steal things like fire and cattle, and according to Hyde, are often honored as creators of civilization. “They are imagined not only to have stolen certain essential goods from heaven and given them to the race but to have gone on and helped shape this world so as to make it a hospitable place for human life.”

We cannot be too doctrinaire about these things, for there is a distinction between “large” stories, like creation myths, and “small” folktales, where trickster sometimes steals cattle for himself. When he does so, however, in tales like “The Little Peasant” from Grimm, it is usually a case of swindling a swindler, or people who are dishonest and greedy to start with.

For obvious reasons, trickster isn’t welcome in corporate boardrooms. Like Robin Hood, he is into redistribution of wealth. He’s the patron of whistle blowers everywhere, and will gladly gum up the machine when it is no longer serving the greater good.

Perhaps that is why we need him now more than ever. We don’t even have to do anything. Hermes travels as fast as thought. For good and for ill, trickster is already here.

Chaplin modern times