Friday, 1 May 2009

The Ascent of Story - Lucy Coats


"Imagine, if you will, a handful of families in Africa at the very beginning of the Human Race," said the BBC trailer. So I did. Inconceivable, really that that small group should have engendered the billions who live on the earth today. But it set me to wondering (as I occasionally do) about another thing entirely. Who told the first story? And when? We know that our early ancestors were certainly artists--the evidence is there in the caves of Lascaux and elsewhere. We know that the 'dreaming tracks' of the Aboriginal Australians go far far back in the history of mankind, mapping the land and territory in song lines--the rhythms of which correspond exactly to the walking pace of a human being. But story. Formal story. How did that happen? I am no anthropologist, and don't pretend to be. I have only my (fertile) imagination and my knowledge of a fair few world myths to go on. But one thing I am utterly sure of is this: that the first stories were told to make sense of the frightening world in which our ancestors lived, and the cataclysmic events around them. How to encompass the fear of an African storm with its terrifying dark sky full of fire and noise? How to tame the power of an all-destroying flood? Why, make it manageable by setting it within the bounds of story. We started telling stories to come to terms with the world around us. And if all story started in the heart of Africa with that same handful of families, then it is hardly surprising that we find the same mythical story themes in every culture. They are, most possibly, hard-wired into our DNA at the deepest level.

The most ancient stories not only make sense of the world, they also give us clues to pre-historical events, set out taboos and ways to behave (or not behave) and much more. They give us all the potential to share what Joseph Campbell called 'those fixed stars, that known horizon'. Myths--whenever they started--are one of the most important repositories of knowledge we possess, and every child, in every culture, should have access to a wide spread of them as part of their education. Most British schools teach Greek myths as part of KS2, and this is very good. Certainly my book Atticus the Storyteller's 100 Greek Myths has been a perennial favourite since its first publication in 2002, and the recent popularity of the Percy Jackson novels mean that Greek myth is thriving as never before. But what I find incomprehensible is that the majority of our schools are not encouraged within the curriculum to explore the myths of this land. Most children know about King Arthur from one source or another--and nothing wrong with that, except that he and his knights of the Round Table are the creation of a 12th century historian and a 15th century jailbird, stemming from the romance tradition of the medieval minstrels. But of the orally handed down pre-Christian epics of Cuchulain and Finn MacCool, Pwyll and Llew and Mabon, almost nothing is known by the average schoolchild in the UK, because there isn't the time for teaching it. This is, in my opinion a disgrace, and I do my best to counter it with every visit I make to a school, hoping to make a difference, and the children always respond with huge interest. This is a drop in the ocean, but I do not despair. There is always room for hope. The rise of fantasy novels since JRR Tolkien has meant that both modern children's and adult literature is full of clues to these things. The myths of this land of ours are there for the finding--and in my case, there for the retelling. Writers will go on plundering the mythical treasure chest, and reshaping its contents to suit the conditions of the modern world. Even if we no longer need to make sense of the thunder by telling fantastical tales about it, the parallel evolution of story and humankind is not finished yet, and it never will be as long as there are ears to listen to all the infinite number of tales there still are in our future lives. Do you think that our small handful of ancestors in Africa could ever have imagined such a thing?

6 comments:

Mary Hoffman said...

Excellent post Lucy. But I must protest that "jailbird"! The divine Thomas was so much more than that.

Lucy Coats said...

He was, of course MUCH more than that and indeed a 'verray parfit gentil knyght'in many ways--I was being just a little facetious, which was probably wrong of me. My first introduction to him as the author of the Arthurian stories was through Cynthia Harnett--one of my favourite children's authors. Perhaps I should write about her in my next post--so many people seem never to have heard of her books now. They set history alight for me, and made it real.

John Dougherty said...

"what I find incomprehensible is that the majority of our schools are not encouraged within the curriculum to explore the myths of this land"

Would that that was all that was incomprehensible about the school system! But I couldn't agree more with you on this point: No time for myths, but let's teach them to Twitter...

Do you know the band Show of Hands, and their song Roots? "Without our stories or our songs/How will we know where we come from?"

bookchildworld said...

You're so right about this. I was thinking in perpelxity the other day that there seem to be no British/ English myths. But it seems we just don't know about them. It's odd, Britain is obviously full of stories, rich in them, and yet where are the indigenous ones, indeed?

AnneR said...

It's true, most of us don't know many British myths. Yesterday, a French MA student showed me a book she was writing about - a children's book written in French which was a version of a Scottish legend (one that I had not heard before). How ridiculous is it that French children can read our myths and British children can't?

Lucy Coats said...

Thanks for the quote, John--no I don't know them, but they're obviously sensible singers to write that. And I also wish that that was the only incomprehensible thing....

Leila--they are all there for the finding. You just have to know where to look.

Anne--Yes. Ridiculous is the polite word. I've been beating a quiet drum about this for years. Maybe I need to shout louder (when the asthma permits!).