Last week I went to Port Townsend, Washington, for some “executive training,” since I’ve taken on full management responsibilities at the paper where I work — the revenue side as well as the content side. During our session, each of the participants was invited to make a one sentence statement about what makes us tick. I did not miss a beat: I am a Storyteller. I live and breath Story. I love to read them, I love to hear them, I love to tell them, especially in writing. I am enough of a romantic to feel myself, in some special, magical moments, to be in one.
The Olympic Peninsula is spectacular, classic Pacific Northwest landscape and I reveled in driving through the mist shrouded forest in the rain. I drove in silence, except for the whap-whapping of the windshield wipers and the hum of tires on wet pavement. And I pondered the matter of Myth. Myth has a couple of different meanings. One is something that is false, not true, a pernicious kind of cultural lie. The other, grander meaning — which demands a capital “M” — recognizes Myth as the stories a people tell to explain and culturally understand nature, history and the way humans behave. Sometimes there’s a fine and blurry line between mere myth and Myth. You recognize the Right Stuff when you see it.
I believe that when we distill out the essence of the project we are engaged in at The Running Iron Report, we get down to the creation or, perhaps better, the discovery of a Mythology that can help us find our way through the disorienting cultural and social maelstrom, the oscillations of the late-stage Empire. This is not an effort to “live in the past” but rather to find ways to apply timeless verities in a world that seems to have become unmoored from connections to culture and place. For as our own Craig Rullman observed in his post on Peter and the Farm:
…notions of code, responsibility, and honor in both the Iliad and the Odyssey remain practical and urgent in their value — thousands of years and thousands of miles from their origin.
How can this be? How could tales wrought in the age of bronze or of iron still resonate in the age of the silicon chip? Such questions have been asked before. The 20th Century English war poet, novelist and memoirist Robert Graves recalled in Goodbye To All That how a professor of Anglo-Saxon expressed disdain for his own subject, stating that it had no value in the modern era, in the wake of the industrial slaughter of the First World War, which bade fair to destroy the soul of Western Civilization. Graves, a veteran of the trenches of the Western Front, vehemently disagreed. The ringing of Mythology of Beowulf held more resonance for him and his warrior peers than the “modern” novel.
“Beowulf lying wrapped in a blanket among his platoon of drunken thanes in the Gothland billet; Judith going for promenade to Holoferne’s tent; and Brunanburgh with its bayonet-and-cosh fighting — all this came far closer to most of us than the drawing-room and deer-park atmosphere of the 18th Century.”
Beowulf remains practical and urgent, thousands of years and thousands of miles from its origin.*
The cultures that resonate most powerfully with me — from the Norse and the Celts, of Europe to the First Peoples of North America, and frontiersmen from North America to Africa to Australia and New Zealand — were all storytelling cultures. The oral tradition persisted deep into the modern era and survives today, even in the era of cable TV and smartphones. Even the writing produced by the modern storytelling cultures is infused with the oral tradition, from the bush balladeers of the Australian Outback to today’s Cowboy Poets.
They were also self-consciously heroic cultures. The aspiration to a heroic life is not much in vogue these days, in an anti-culture of hip irony that also valorizes victimhood and perceives the vigorous assertion of right and liberty as “threatening.” But I do not much fear that notions of code, responsibility, and honor will disappear. We crave them too deeply. When we nourish them with Story, they grow.
* The Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf is a magnificent thing. Read it aloud, preferably around a fire with your thanes, loud enough for the neighbors to wonder what the hell is going on.