by Unsettling Wonder
Not long ago,the ever-astonishing Jane Yolen left a striking comment on my personal blog, and I feel that it deserves wider circulation. So here it is, with my own comment on her comment after, for your reading and thinking pleasure. In reply to my article ‘mythically speaking’, Jane wrote:
I think there are three places I would send people who are at the beginning of a search to find NOT a definition of mythic arts (that way madness lies) but perhaps some of the borders of that faire countrie. And they are:
1. Terri Windling’s blog Myth and Moor which sometimes conflates fairie with woodlore and minstrelsy with folk tales and Dartmoor ponies with the horses of the fairy queen;
2. Parabola Magazine which was begun by Joseph Campbell and P. L. Travers (yes, of Mary Poppins fame but also a well known folklorist manque) in which international poets and tale retellers mix with mythic mutterings and reports of the oddities of worship, and
3. Heidi Heiner’s Surlalune website, where you should mostly ignore the questions on her q&a part of the site since a lot of it is from students wanting answers to thesis topics, and go to the meat of her meaning where she explores well known tales and their variants.
But this is only the beginning of course. Along the way you might look at Angela Carter, Maria Tater, Jack Zipes, Marina Warner, websites of people like Midori Snyder and Katherine Langrish. Oh it is the long twisty road into fairy, full of briars and Briar Roses, and beyond. Oh, and Jung and (God help us) Bettleheim’s “The Uses of Enchantment” with a HUGE grain of salt at hand. And Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stores” essay. And all of Lang’s Color Fairy Books. And maybe even the essay that begins my collection “Favorite Folktales from Around the World.” That may take you several years and you will still be on the first steps of the journey.
There’s a couple thoughts I’ve got about this that I’d like to add to—extrapolate from, rather—Jane’s comment. Let me start with a question that it raised for me, and perhaps raised for you as well: What distinguishes the mythic artist from any other artist?
This is a somewhat more useful question than trying to define the mythic arts as such, as Jane notes—the mythic arts are at their root the work of mythic artists, involving a frame of mind as much as an aesthetic. I’ve pondered this question a lot lately, and I think it comes down to this:
The role of an artist is to ask questions, to interrogate, their own time—to descend with the mind into the heart and rediscover the world without the trappings and scaffolding of spin and rhetoric and fashion. Those questions are then articulated through the medium of a particular artistic tradition—whether it’s modern dance, or formal poetry, or traditional Norwegian fiddle, or whatever. The mythic artist is distinguished in that the tradition they use is the tradition of folk narrative and wonder-tale. They enter into that particular, ancient artistic tradition with whatever medium, or combination of media, they’re inclined towards.
So the demands of the mythic arts are, consequentially, akin to any other art. And like any other art, the mythic arts are won only through much toil. If you’ve ever thought that writing fairy tales was easy, amputate the thought at once. Remember what Jane says here: after years of study you’ll have only just begun your journey into mythic thinking and mythic knowledge.
Because what’s required is enthusiasm for the subject matter, yes, but more importantly a ferocious, even insatiable curiosity. I’ve always believe that if we’re going to practice an art form, we have an obligation to study that form as widely and deeply as we can—not necessarily getting a degree in it, but constantly self-educating. This is something we can do whether we’re in a degree programme or not—whether we’ve finished our formal study or are just beginning, whether we’ve been artists for decades or days. An inquisitive mind, and the desire to learn new things for their own sake is a hallmark of any artist; for the mythic artist, this curiosity should, I think, embrace the whole remit of folklore and folk culture. What that means, practically, is reading folklore collections and retellings widely. So basically I’m giving you that excuse you were looking for—that Katherine Briggs book you saw in the second-hand bookstore? Go buy it right now. I’ll wait.
But I do think Jane’s absolutely right about the very large handful of salt. Keep that at the ready, not just when reading Bettelheim and Jung, but when reading just about anyone else, too—any secondary literature. Fashions in criticism change as quickly as in accessories for teens; today’s dogma is tomorrow’s heresy, and then reinstated with more nuance and caution the day after tomorrow. This is a necessary part of academic process, but if you’re not getting paid to perform said process, don’t get bogged down in it. Your main concern is how the folktale unwinds itself in your head. Study hard and long, yes, but do your darnedest not to become a pedant solely. The point of your study should always be to nurture your imagination, not smother it in mounds of theory. Because the greatest skill a mythic artist can learn is a sense of wonder.