“Once upon a time..” – the magical phrase probably exists in every language of the world. The one I remember is the Spanish version which translates as “There was a time when…”
These formulae of enchantment evoke another kind of time, sacred time, a time before the burden of linear history in which we live out our everyday existence. A time when the world was young, the dreamtime, when our world was still being formed, was fresh and alive and spoke back to us.
In Native American traditions, the story is always told in the present tense, for in entering the world of story, we pass through the narrow gate into sacred time.
Story makes the world new again. The stories of creation, in particular, are told to empower their listeners to participate in that primal act of creation, to escape what Marx called ‘the nightmare of history’ and enable us all to begin ever over again.
Storytelling has a strong element of ritual, as every child knows. In my family we were never banished to bed without a story – although I seem to remember that Beatrix Potter had the power to send my father to sleep far quicker than me. Shaking him awake, with the infuriated cry, “But what happened next, Daddy?” For that is the real power of story, the power of narrative, the drive to know what happens next.
And therein lies our need for story, for the tale provides structure, allocates meaning to what would otherwise seem a dangerously chaotic world.
Bruno Bettelheim in his classic book on fairy tale, “The Uses of Enchantment,” insisted that for fairy tales to achieve their function in the development of children, they need to contain danger, potential if not real violence. Adults in the worlds of the Brothers Grimm were dark and threatening presences and children survived through their wits and above all, through friendship and alliance with each other.
Shakespeare’s worlds of comedy and tragedy both contain a profound threat to social order and the destruction of personal relationships. Even as adults we watch horrified and spellbound as our deepest fears are enacted before us.
Sacred drama to the ancient Greeks was by definition tragedy. We are cleansed, declared Aristotle, by the sensations of pity and fear; pity for the suffering we witness on the stage and fear that those characters could be ourselves. There we see our common humanity before us. There but for the grace of God go I…
All of this is to say that story has the power to heal. Telling the stories of our own lives has become institutionalized in Freud’s ‘talking cure,’ the array of psychotherapies available off the shelf at a price.
But it is the old stories that have the greatest power – for in seeing our reflections in them, we see ourselves as part of the human pattern. Our joys and suffering gain both dignity and perspective in not being especially original. Which is why our favourite stories are always the most deeply familiar. The drama is no less real for having all its elements known.
The ancients set no great store in new stories. They knew, as we still do deep down, that certain stories belonged to certain times of year, that times of darkness need stories of new life and light.
Listen and I will tell you a story…