This may be the Age of Information (or as I prefer to call it, the Age of Data), but we are still storytelling creatures. The longer I live, the more I understand that all the stories I have ever heard are part of me now. “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” “Black Beauty” mingle freely with stories from my family history, both those I witnessed and those told to me and, in turn, form an archeological layer, above which other strata have formed, made up of stories from an adult life mixed now with novels I have read, movies I have seen.
Stories possess a strange yet undeniable power to affect the soul indelibly. In this realm, the power of information pales considerably. Though data can build political and economic fortunes, mere facts leave the spirit hungry. Even the cold hard facts of one’s own life, experiences one has lived through, remain in a kind of bardo, not just the significance but the full impact of them too, frozen in the psyche until they are told as stories. How does storytelling work this magic?
As I write, the conventional answer comes to mind: A story is emotionally engaging; you can feel what the characters in a story feel, see what they see, almost taste what is in their mouths, breathe the air they breathe. But far more interesting to me is the sense that a story is fundamental to consciousness, a form necessary to the development of insight.
In a now famous essay, “The Story Teller,” critic Walter Benjamin mourns the demise of the story in favor of information. “Counsel woven into the fabric of real life,” he writes, “is wisdom.” Mere data are isolated not just from plot and narration but from the intricate natural and social networks in which we live. And the further a fact is divided from the context of earthly existence, the harder it is to understand its significance. Doesn’t it make sense that the psyche seek to mirror and contain the larger kaleidoscope of being? A story is immersed in lesser details, not just ideas or words or numbers or even grand events but also buttons and bread and small pine forests.
Not that stories are always wise. Growing up in Los Angeles, so close to Hollywood, I lived near a conglomerate of storytellers. I acquired the habit early of watching movies with a religious regularity. But love them as I do, I attend the movies with a certain guarded attitude. What are they trying to pull over on us now? As the film industry commands a larger and larger sphere of influence, the word “Hollywood” has come to define a story whose vision of life is delusional.
Delusion, however, should not be confused with the dramatic departures from realism that are part of the storyteller’s art. Having just read Kathleen Ragan’s collection of more than 100 folk tales gleaned from cultures throughout the world, I am mindful of the charm of the unlikely and the fantastic. Ragan chose and collected these tales because their heroes are girls and women. And being a mother, hence reading stories through her daughter’s eyes, she became aware how seldom female heroes appear in most collections of tales that are available to us. As British author Marina Warner, among others, have pointed out, even those with female heroines such as “Little Red Riding Hood” were given to us in bowdlerized versions that left female heroism on the cutting room floor.
In her introduction, to illustrate the necessity of female heroes, Ragan tells a subtle but hair-raising tale about what happens to girls growing up without them. After reading a story to a group of small children, the teacher asked them to tell her whom they identified with in the story. Most of the boys and girls chose the hero, who was a boy. But one little girl did not. Searching the pages of the book until she found a picture of a girl standing in a crowd, she shouted, “There I am!”
I remember an improbable but true tale that was reported in the newspapers a number of years ago, in which a little girl, after being kidnapped and placed in the trunk of a car, managed to pick the lock from the inside; when her kidnapper pulled into a gas station, she released herself. Amazed by her courage and quick-wittedness, a reporter asked her how she knew what to do. “I just asked myself what Nancy Drew would have done,” she said. Indeed Ragan’s purpose, which she states in the introduction and emphasizes throughout the small afterwords she has affixed to each tale, is to present stories that display female heroism, its existence, its range, its marvelous viability against all manner of horrendous obstacles.
In several of the tales--such as one for instance in which a woman, wielding her husband’s sword, slays a giant--girls or young women act in the manner of traditional male heroes. Frequently they outdo the men around them by both their daring and their strength. In a number of stories, the heroine disguises herself as a man, making both the rivalry and the victory more clear. I liked these stories: They recalled a period of my childhood when westerns appealed to me, and slicking my hair back, wearing my blue jeans, I practiced walking like a cowboy.
I was just as compelled by the several stories in which mothers show bravery and wit in defense of their children. Yes, women have clearly been excised from the category of the hero on a white horse. But a more subtle form of prejudice has led to the erasure of the courage women commonly show in the more traditional roles they play such as wives and mothers. As a young mother, I remember thinking if anyone were to threaten my infant, I would tear him (or her) from limb to limb. So it was with the particular kind of satisfaction that I encountered the brave and heroically determined mothers in these tales. Even a wife’s grumbling loyalty to her lazy husband appears here in heroic, albeit humorous, form in “My Jon’s Soul,” when defying Peter, Paul and even Christ himself, an old woman slings a bag filled with her husband’s unworthy soul past the closing pearly gates and into heaven.
And it is not just the circumstances but also the methodology of these heroines, whether they be mothers or wives, brides or independent women, that belongs to a woman’s way of life. Take the real “Little Red Riding Hood,” for instance, known in this book as “Little Red Cap.” After the heroic woodsman cuts the little girl and her grandmother out of the wolf’s belly, the child learns to avoid conversation with wolves, but still another one follows her to her grandmother’s house, knocking on the door with an offer of cake. Both grandmother and granddaughter are too smart for that, but the wolf does not give up so easily. Waiting to devour her in the dark of night when she must begin her journey home, he leaps onto the roof. The grandmother cannily pours the hot water in which she has just boiled delicious sausages into a trough outside, luring the wolf with the aroma, until he falls from the roof and drowns in the hot water.
Perceptiveness, cleverness and intelligence count for more than brute strength. Brute strength, however, should not be confused with bestiality. In the world of folk tales, despite Little Red Cap’s harrowing experience, beasts and birds, spiders and trees are more frequently allies than enemies. The young wife who slays the giant is helped by a robin who whispers to her that a good blow to the giant’s toes will do the trick. In another story, a dog enters a conversation with an old woman and saves her life with what he tells her, and in still another, a spider weaves a dress for a little girl whose widowed mother is too poor to feed her. The natural world sustains and can even become the source of erotic love, as when a young woman falls in love with a prince locked inside the body of a pigeon.
Though many of these heroines are as strong as men, a lack of great physical prowess stops none. They are wont to call on another skill that has traditionally belonged to their gender: the ability to form and rely upon a web of connections with others. Not only nature, but mothers, fathers, grandmothers, friends and, in one case, the entire village come to their aid.
Yet paradoxically--and this in a realm of paradoxes--these heroines are willing to eschew the advice and even the wishes of almost anyone, staying loyal to their own visions in the face of all opposition and every word of advice, no matter how reasonable. Tied to this willingness to defy received opinion, they frequently possess an almost clairvoyant prescience. In tale after tale, the heroine is warned that she should give up all hope, but she proceeds nevertheless, driven by an astonishingly lucid vision of a happier outcome than the dire one predicted for her.
Off she goes intrepidly, with a courage all the more impressive because she knows the odds are arrayed against her. In her introduction, Ragan tell us that, following her daughter’s wishes, she decided to leave out stories in which the heroine dies at the end. I’m sorry she did. I would have liked to see tragedy in this collection, to learn how, in this magical world, failure and death are treated.
Ultimately, though, it is the magic of the stories that was a revelation to me. As I came of age, more novels and stories written by women and fueled by female characters began to appear. Like many women of my generation, I was enthralled with “The Golden Notebook,” the massively realistic novel by Doris Lessing, which portrayed, as seemingly never before, the texture of contemporary women’s lives. Later there would be novels and stories by Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Jane Smiley--the list is long and familiar. Each widening of the aperture has been thrilling. Now flawed though it is (but more of that later), this collection opens the gates of perception still further. Until I spent time in the magical realms of these tales, I was not aware of still another form of discrimination women have suffered, to be treated as lesser citizens here.
The deprivation, I realize now, is not insignificant, for my sojourn in this world of flying heads and monkey suitors and cruel tyrants has changed me somehow, as only the best literature can. These tales have led me behind the veil of reason, into the unknown, the uncharted, a world with a parallel logic residing somewhere in dark matter, of which, after all, 90% of the universe is made.
And the phantasmagoric is almost always chimerical. In the introduction to his collection of Italian folk tales, Italo Calvino, invoking the “complex and unknown forces” that determine our lives, describes “the infinite possibilities of mutation” that belong to folklore. If this is a world that is unbridled and mercurial, these are also its virtues. The violence here is lined with an unpredictable justice, the fabric of a wisdom woven in hard times; in this region, peasants prevail over tyrannical kings, the poor become rich, the outcast and maligned are revered as leaders.
And what is the difference between these victories and a happy Hollywood ending? The answer lies in the fabric from which the story has been woven, the lives of those who do the telling. Popular as movies are, storytelling is by far the more democratic form. It is not the powerful who tell these tales but the disenfranchised. For these mouths to invoke the unpredictable is less to numb than to level. The story, as Sartre writes in his biography of Genet, is “freedom confronted by fate,” and the genius of the storyteller is “the way one invents in desperate situations.”
I found this apt quotation from Sartre in Carolyn Heilbrun’s “Writing a Woman’s Life,” in which she later renders the extraordinary insight: “Women come to writing . . . simultaneously with self-creation.” This also can be said of readers or even listeners. The stories we remember most, the ones that really move us, draw us in because they resonate with some perhaps only half-realized valence of our lives and hence participate in the creation of character, an ever-present and a mysterious alchemy. I, for one, am glad for the mystery. Mystery has far more largess than advice, which I suspect is why stories serve so much better in the alchemy of souls.
And this is my chief objection to the collection, the blunt interpretations that follow each tale. The book would be so much better without them. Only occasionally bridging gaps in the reader’s cross-cultural knowledge, which would have been far more helpful, these little afterwords are irritating. At times the editor makes dubious and insensitive comparisons between a European women’s life and the life of a villager in Africa or Asia. Where she is sententious--"A good education can be vital to protect one’s interests"--or pointing out the obvious--"What a tough and quick-witted old woman this is!"--her message works to narrow rather than widen the arc of those thousand tendrils of apprehension, dream and imagination that naturally grow from every telling.
I hope this book becomes a classic and that another edition is issued without these comments. A richer, more thoughtful introduction would be welcome, but let the stories stand on their own. Trust that when the heroism of the reader is added to the transformative magic of the stories, this will suffice.