Yesterday evening, I travelled by train to Merthyr Tydfil where I was giving a talk. My lil Smartiepants is still poorly; I’m awaiting a call back from my mechanic to get her fixed. Anyways, on the way out I grabbed ‘The Folklore of Discworld’ by Terry Pratchett and Jacqueline Simpson and thoroughly enjoyed reading it again during my journey there and back again to Merthyr.
‘Some of the things in this book may well be familiar, and you will say ‘but everybody knows this’. But the Discworld series, which on many occasions borrows from folklore and mythology, twisting and tangling it on the way …’
And that is what I love about Mr. P – the way the familiar is just twisted enough to fit into somewhere else, with humour and a sense of ridiculousness, and often with quite a deep perception of how things work on our world, and plenty of chuckles along the way.
‘…there are some things we shouldn’t forget, and mostly they add up to where we came from and how we got here and the stories we told ourselves on the way. But folklore isn’t only about the past. It grows, flowers and seeds every day, because of our innate desire to control our world by means of satisfying narratives.’
And don’t we live, or re-live, our lives by stories, by narratives? When we relate to others what we have done, what we have experienced, what ‘they’ said, or share our thoughts and memories we are relating a story. I know in my day job I often teach in a story-telling kind of way, and I try to tell enjoyable and memorable stories. I love to hear other peoples’ stories too. Stories about us will be passed down through the generations, changing subtly with each re-telling, just as folklore always has done.
And folklore and stories have power, more so than the mundane reality of the truth.
‘But there is the truth, and, then again, there is The Truth, in the face of which truth can only shrug and grin.’
People prefer, generally, to believe the fantastic, and to add mystery to something that is ordinary. And I can relate an example of this in action.
A few years ago, while walking across the old Severn crossing, I fell and hit my temple on the ground. A silly accident, I was bending over my bicycle to see if I could sort out the gears that had stuck in one place, next thing I know my face had made intimate contact with the tarmac of the path. This old bridge is bouncy, especially when heavy lorries shudder their way across, and I think two must have crossed near me at the same time and set up an extra big bounce that unsettled my balance. Once I’d recovered my composure, I could feel my eye swelling and I decided to ride my bike back to my car, load it in and then get home asap, which I did safely..
That afternoon I ended up in A&E having a head x-ray as my eye had swollen shut, I had a wonderful black eye beginning to develop, but the emergency phone advice service insisted I go get my head checked out in case I’d managed to crack my skull. I hadn’t, but by the next morning I had a black eye that was really black and the bruising extended from my eyebrow to below my cheekbone! It was an absolute corker!
Monday morning came, no pain, but the eye was even more spectacularly black than the day before. I had to go to school, and on my arrival the headteacher, chair of governors and other staff were concerned that I shouldn’t be there. I explained that it looked a LOT worse than it was, that there was only a little bit of pain if I touched my temple ‘just there’ and I had had x-rays and was fine.
When I went to my class to do registration, they were shocked with my appearance and asked what was happened. I told them the truth – the fall, the trip to A&E.
Did they want to believe it? No. One 16 year old lad was convinced I’d been out ‘clubbing’ in Cardiff and had got involved in a fight (me? fighting? no way!!! I’m way to gentle and kind for that … I’m very peace-loving). I said, no, I don’t ‘do’ night clubs, nor do I fight. He wouldn’t have it, so I went along with him, making up answers to his questions.
“Who hit you? A man or a woman? Did you know them?” he asked.
“A man, over six foot tall and built like a brick out-house, and I didn’t know him,” I replied.
“What did you do? ”
“I hit him back. I knocked him out.”
“You knocked him out? Really? What happened to him.”
“Yes. Really. He’s still in hospital I think.”
“Wow. Were the police there?”
“Yes, they were.”
“Did they arrest you?”
“No, they saw that he hit me first and I just pushed back in self-defence. They let me go. And he’s not pressing charges as he doesn’t want it known he got knocked out by a woman”.
By the end of the week, there were all kinds of stories circulating about how I got my black eye. I’d been ambushed by a pack of ninjas who I’d fought off but one got a lucky kick in at my eye. I’d got shot by an arrow as I was taking part in a medieval battle re-enactment. A Viking had caught me in his head as I was axe-fighting with him.
I had told each and every pupil the truth, that I’d fallen and hit my head. But not one of them wanted to believe the mundane truth. The wanted The Truth – a story with excitement, mystery, amazing powers or luck or magic.
The first lad accused me, on his last day of secondary school, of lying to him. I said I never had, wondering what he was on about. He said I’d never had a fight in a club (duh!). I reminded him that I had told him the truth, but it was too ordinary for him to want it to believe it to be true. He’d helped make up The Truth and preferred to believe that. He accepted that!
So, there lies the power of narrative, or stories, of words … it can be used for entertainment, for fun, for good things. However, it is used by others for manipulation, deception, to gain power over others and to do bad things. And it can change, and be changed, depending on the point of view of the storyteller, their cultural background, their own beliefs and morals … and we can change our own stories too, which is an entirely different set of ideas!
We may not be able to change the events of our lives, but we can change how we view them, how they affect us, how we feel about them and our reactions to them. In doing so we can change our reactions to similar circumstances that we come across now and in the future, so changing our ‘story’. It’s not easy, it takes a lot of effort and a lot of courage to face these situations, to face our reactions to them, and then to view things in a different way, something I’m learning about in counselling. It’s not easy as the inertia of The Truth as it applies to such situations is great, and the truth may not be apparent as all we have our our memories, emotional responses that memories can trigger in present/future experiences so that we are no longer bound by our old, negative, automatic thoughts and responses. It’s not about making everything in the past lovey-dove, it’s about finding a way to deal with life without automatically blaming ourselves for other peoples attitudes, responses, actions.