Alida Gersie’s Earthtales (review)

412eh8b4itl._sx292_bo1204203200_Alida Gersie’s celebrated Earthtales is, in large part, a collection of traditional tales that have to do with the earth and its creatures. Most are from cultures that have been endangered by the imperialism of Western modernity, which by the same token are cultures with a long history of coping with ecological challenges. Thus they come mainly from Africa and indigenous America and Australia, a few from Asia, just four from Europe.

But. as the subtitle – Storytelling in Times of Change – hints, the book is much more than a collection of tales. The introduction and the sequencing of the stories in seven sections frame the material for use with groups of people who are engaging in some process of change. Alida’s approach to the challenge of environmental crisis is distinctively that of an arts therapist who works with groups. She sees the roots and solutions of our ecological problems as existing in the interface between the psychology of individuals and the necessity of cooperating in some form of community. Storytelling, and storymaking, provides a vehicle to address processes of change at a simultaneously personal and collective level.

To that end, each story in Earthtales is followed by a structure of group activities, including talking, writing, movement, painting, and sound-making. These follow the same design that Alida previously introduced in Storymaking in Education and Therapy: the aim is that through following the exact sequence of activities presented in each structure the group undergo a participatory experience that’s therapeutically analogous to the journey of transformation narrated in the story. The group and its members thereby get the opportunity to experience change right there in the groupwork, which may then carry over into their lives and relational dynamics beyond the group.

The introductions to the seven sections of stories, taken together, outline a metanarrative of group change, from the formation all the way through to the final dispersal of the group. At every stage, Alida emphasises, challenges and pain are to be expected. Even when there is progress and accomplishment, there may be power struggles over leadership, or individuals may drop out, or certain people will carry the dark side of a process that to everyone else seems delightful. The stories are selected to match these stages of group transformation. They’re chosen not on the basis of their entertainment value or because they convey a neat, relevant message, but rather for their capacity to provoke thought, feelings, and change. Many are well suited for retelling by ecologically minded storytellers, but some are perhaps too dark to tell outside a therapeutic context.

Earthtales is the only one of Alida’s books currently out of print, but second-hand copies can be found on Amazon and elsewhere. It’s a book of special relevance to those, interested in stories and concerned about today’s intensifying challenges to environment and community, who have the expertise to hold a group of people undertaking a transformative process.

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Kevin Crossley-Holland’s The Magic Lands

 

41qcjh1n8jl._sx323_bo1204203200_The Magic Lands is the paperback title of Kevin Crossley-Holland’s British Folk Tales. It’s a better title in that the collection covers Irish tales as well as ones from England, Scotland, and Wales.

The Irish stories do tend to stand out in their quirky strangeness and less tidy structure. Tales like ‘The Piper and the Pooka’, ‘The Dark Horseman’, ‘Monday Tuesday’, and ‘The Changeling’ – all of which are proper fairy stories, in which the fairies actually appear, in a setting that seems to be the world in which we live. This in contrast to the kind of stories that in English we call ‘fairy tales’, which only rarely include fairies and are often set in a timeless neverland.

Crossley-Holland includes one Irish fairy tale of that kind – ‘Yellow Lily’ – and some classic examples from Britain, such as ‘The Frog Prince’, ‘Tom Tit Tot’, ‘Mossycoat’, ‘The Black Bull of Norway’, ‘Mossycoat’, ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’, and ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’.

More numerous in British folklore are legends localised in real places. Some good tales of this kind are chosen from Crossley-Holland’s East Anglian home turf, including ‘The Green Children’, ‘The Dauntless Girl’, ‘The Pedlar of Swaffham’, and ‘The Wildman’. Of legends picked from elsewhere, a handful have such sweep and impact as to make them nationally notable: ‘The Lambton Worm’, ‘The Slumber King’, and that celebration of capitalism, ‘Dick Whittington’.

One problem with collections of folktales is that they can be a bit dull on the page, whether because they’ve been put down as transcripts of oral tellings or because they’re written with barebones concision. Crossley-Holland, however, has the good fortune to be a poet. His retellings are invested with a lyrical poise that makes them a delight to read, while remaining simple enough for younger readers. Here’s the first paragraph of the first story in the book, ‘Sea-Woman’: ‘It was an empty, oyster-and-pearl afternoon. The water lipped at the sand and sorted the shingle and lapped round the rock where the girl was sitting.’

A small number of the tales are presented in verse, which helps to vary the texture of the book, but which I found engaged me less. Besides the longer kinds of stories mentioned above, there are short ones, including some that are basically jokes, such as those recounting the deeds of the much-maligned people of Gotham. The Magic Lands concludes with a very simple but profound tale from Ireland, called ‘Butterfly Soul’, which of all the 55 stories in this book is the one I’ve most often retold.

It’s a lovely book. I’d recommend it as the place to start for anyone just beginning to engage with the folktales of the British Isles. And at the back of it you can find all the sources to guide you deeper into the British and Irish legendaria.

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Cecil Collins and the Holy Fool

9780903880640I have a hazy memory, from my early twenties, of attending an exhibition of work by William Blake and also Cecil Collins at the Tate. It can’t have been an exhibition of major works, because what I remember are works on paper: sketches, notebooks, letters, and the like. I’d never heard of Collins before, but what struck me was the visionary quality the two artists shared, and their propensity for writing as well as drawing and painting.

Flash forward to April Fool’s Day 2000, when at a seasonal event at Rocks East Woodland, Kevan Manwaring read out an extract from Collins’s seminal essay ‘The Vision of the Fool’. The event was memorable because it was there that I met my wife. We didn’t speak much on that occasion; the only thing I remember her saying to me was her one-word reply to my enquiry what the novel she was writing was about: ‘Vampires.’ But Collins’s notion of the Fool remained with me also – an archetype he’d divined as symbolising what it means to really be an artist and a spiritual seeker in a materialist age.

It’s extraordinary that most of the Collins essays gathered in The Vision of the Fool and Other Writings were written in the 1940s (two date from the 1960s, and there’s a long, definitive interview with editor Brian Keeble from 1979). Extraordinary because they are so powerfully prophetic of the situation of culture and spirituality many decades later. Collins fingers materialist society in whatever form – capitalist, fascist, communist – as shutting down the reflective inner life that is the wellspring of artistic creativity and the appreciation of beauty. So you have to be a kind of holy fool to go against the grain.

I’m very wary of the term ‘New Age’ because it serves these days mainly as a pejorative frame with which to dismiss from serious consideration (in a Western context) any kind of spiritual endeavour – except Christianity, which gets dismissed for other reasons. But, long before the New Age vogue in the bookshops in the 1990s, Cecil Collins was proclaiming ‘The Artist in the New Age’ in 1965. The roots of his own mysticism and iconography are manifestly Christian, but whereas he describes David Jones as a great artist evoking the dying of a tradition – Christianity as we have known it – he looks forward in his own visionary painting to a necessary rebirth of spirituality, which is characterised more than anything else by the embrace of the divine feminine.

Reading Collins’s essays, I noticed an inspiring resonance with the thinking of Lindsay Clarke as expressed in his essays collected in Green Man Dreaming, which I had the honour of publishing with Awen late last year. They strike me as men on a similar mission, the one seeking to express his spiritual odyssey through painting, the other through writing stories. I commend both books to you with all my heart.

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In the Chinks of the World Machine

805768In the Chinks of the World Machine provides a committed but very readable picture of the achievements of serious science fiction by women at the time of its publication in 1988. Sarah Lefanu was in a privileged position to write such a book, as an editor who’d created new opportunities for women’s SF through the unique SF list she managed at the Women’s Press.

The book comprises two parts. The first presents an overview of the depiction of women in SF and the ways in which women writers, mainly from the 1970s onwards, have revolutionised the possibilities on that score. Part 2 studies in detail the work of four key writers: James Tiptree, Jr (aka Alice Sheldon), Ursula Le Guin, Suzy McKee Charnas, and Joanna Russ.

Russ is the presiding spirit of the book. Lefanu rates her significance very highly, both as novelist and as critic, and explains how her writing aims to shock, to provoke, to wake people up from their assumptions – and to leave them, not with answers, but fretting about what they’ve read. At the opposite pole, among the many writers discussed in Part 1, is Marion Zimmer Bradley, whose attempts to tackle feminist themes miss the point, Lefanu argues, and leave women where they already are.

Lefanu’s terms of evaluation are largely political; she mentions points of aesthetics as and when they’re instrumental to political effect. But I was pleased to see her bracket Tanith Lee with Angela Carter as a writer doing a similar kind of work and just as good, despite the one being branded a genre writer while the other is lauded as a major literary figure. There’s good discussion of the theme of feminist utopia, e.g. Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time and Sally Miller Gearheart’s The Wanderground, and the rather scarier societies in Charnas’s Motherlines and Walk to the End of the World.

Lefanu’s book concerns a conversation among women, whether they be novelists or critics. The short shrift she gives to male writers’ reactions to Russ’s seminal essay ‘The Image of Women in Science Fiction’ (1971) give fair warning of the moral risk of making any critical comment in this context if you happen to be a man. If I were to hazard any criticism it would be to challenge the treatment of Le Guin. Lefanu critiques her work more harshly than that of the other major writers examined, because of her tendencies to use male protagonists and to sustain the sensibilities of the bourgeois novel. For sure, it makes good thought experiments, to imagine more severely alternative societies, such as Charnas’s, say, in which there’s no place for men, but I think Le Guin deserves a bit more praise than she gets in this book for her commitment to the possibilities of transformation of existing society, and for the humane sense of compassion engendered by the sensitivity of her prose.

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Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination

41lvkovsv3l-_sx331_bo1204203200_The monochrome cover of Dark Horizons is very dark, and its subtitle is Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination, but the agenda of editors Raffaella Baccolini and Tom Moylan in this collection of essays is as much about utopia as dystopia. Moreover, there’s a recurring understanding, as I have long believed, that the utopian impulse needs to be concerned more with processes of change than with template visions for a better world.

From the real-life totalitarian ‘utopias’ of the Third Reich and the Soviet Union emerged an anti-utopian animus, which may have had a compassionate humanist motivation in such classic texts as Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but has since the 1980s been coopted by conservative, capitalist interests that seek to rule out of court any possibility of utopian progress. In science fiction we find this reflected by the displacement of utopian thought experiments by the rise of cyberpunk and other dystopian visions of the future extrapolated from the alarming trends of our time.

A pivotal discrimination by the contributors to Dark Horizons is between dystopias that are by default anti-utopian, in that the dark future always already exists as a conflict-laden setting for exciting amoral storylines, and ‘critical dystopias’ in which a utopian impulse is embedded as some kind of vector of resistance and the protagonist’s desire for change is left unresolved at the end to allow us the possibility of hope. It’s noticeable that many of the exemplar texts of this latter form are by women, for example Ursula Le Guin’s The Telling, Marge Piercy’s Body of Glass, and Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis.

That the fake capitalist utopia of the free market is not the end of history is even more evident today than it was in 2003 when Dark Horizons was published. Several of the contributors to this book – who include such luminary critics as Darko Suvin and Phillip E. Wegner – suggest we may be entering a time when the creative possibilities of the critical dystopia are exhausted and there will be new impetus towards the writing of ‘critical utopias’ in which the pathways of positive change may be explored. I hope they’re right. The novels of Kim Stanley Robinson are rightly noted as the vanguard of such a development.

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Myths and Legends of the Pacific

Generated by pixel @ 2018-06-13T16:10:03.112717When it comes to myths and legends of Australasia, A.W. Reed is a ubiquitous author – and equally ubiquitous as his own publisher. Myths and Legends of the Pacific extends his range across the whole of the Pacific, covering nearly all the main archipelagos of Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia. Conspicuous by its absence, as usual, is New Caledonia.

Although a Hawaiian story is included about the fire goddess Pele, and a Maori one about the Sky Father and Earth Mother, and a Tongan one about the culture hero Maui, most of the 23 stories in this collection have the feel of folktales. They are localised tales about ordinary women and men – and animals – to whom extraordinary things happen. They are lively and entertaining and could be used by storytellers with little need for adaptation. Other than the name of the archipelago each story comes from, the book provides no apparatus of sources. No doubt, through Reed’s redaction, some of the tales’ cultural specificities have been smoothed away to make them palatable to young Western readers and listeners.

You could weigh into the politics of appropriation about that if you wanted, but they are good stories nevertheless, and they convey a sense of the commonalities of island life across the vastness of the Pacific: canoes, palm trees, birds, fishing, thatched buildings and woven mats, the sea and its creatures and shores provide the essential building blocks of plot. The human communities are inseparable from the natural world they inhabit. In one way or another, all of these tales are ecological stories. Yet it’s the truly extraordinary, the supernatural, that gives so many of them their frisson of interest – whether it’s a giant bird or reptile, redolent of vanished species, or the recurring legend of ‘fairy’ people who were there before the islands’ present inhabitants, or motifs of miraculous transformation or communication between human beings and animals or the elements or otherworldly beings.

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Mary Magdalene, the Movie

mm11Mary Magdalene has always seemed special. It’s difficult to fit together the different resurrection appearances of Jesus into a coherent narrative, but one thing is clear in the Easter story as I received it: Mary Magdalene is the first person to see him.

The new film Mary Magdalene by Garth Davis makes her even more special. Sometimes it sticks too zealously to the screenwriting doctrine of the ‘hero’, the single protagonist who drives the story; hence the dropping of John the Beloved as a significant character, leaving a simple binary conflict at the end between Mary and Peter. But I loved the way Mary is played (by Rooney Mara) as possessed from the start by an intense longing for God. Her love for Jesus as a man, her loving closeness to him, is inseparable from her being the first of his disciples to comprehend the nature of his calling.

One gets from the New Testament an idea that the Holy Spirit was sent after the ascension of Jesus to heaven. But surely the Spirit has always been among us. What comes across in this film is that Mary is moved by the Spirit from the start. For me the most moving moment was at the Last Supper, when Jesus and Mary, after a pre-supper chat, move apart to walk around the two ends of the table and then sit down side by side in the space left for them at the centre. It’s as if they’re equals. This moment bespeaks the equality of man and woman, yes, but I think it goes beyond matters of gender – to imply a kind of equality, in potentia, of each one of us with Jesus; that we are all called to be sons and daughters of God, that we may all carry the divine within us.

A corollary is just after the crucifixion, when Mary, without hesitation, forgives Judas Iscariot – as if she is divinely empowered to do so. She does this wordlessly, with her eyes, hands, and forehead. There’s a similar sense of such embodiment of spiritual processes in the way that healing is depicted – most dramatically when Jesus lies in full-length contact with the body of Lazarus in order to bring him back from death, and is left utterly drained, as if he’s almost given his life to do this. It graphically conveys the interpenetration of matter and spirit.

The climactic scene, in which Mary argues the Kingdom of God is within us while Peter argues the Kingdom will come with Christ’s return, seemed a bit on the nose and, again, too keen to sustain Mary as the ‘hero’. But, delving into Wikipedia when I got home, I discovered that there exists a ‘Gospel of Mary’, which contains just such an argument between Mary and Peter. Just as in the film, Peter asks why they should accept the authenticity of what Mary claims Jesus has said to her. The first six pages of this Gospel manuscript are lost. Scholars have speculated that these missing pages may have narrated a post-resurrection encounter in which Mary received the teachings she now shares.

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