Having promised myself I would write at least one blog post every month starting this January, I’m obviously not doing that well seeing as this is my first post. I suppose I wanted to write something grand, profound, funny, deep, meaningful, or clever (though preferably some or all of those things!). I suppose I fell into the trap of wanting to do too much at the outset, forgetting that if I do at least one post a month, I have at least 12 opportunities this year to say Important Things (minus the two I’ve missed so far). Of course, with any blog, the assumption is that what we have to say is worth saying, worth reading, and possibly worth spreading – again with the grand intentions that are completely disproportionate to the fact that I have virtually no experience of this kind of thing anyway. Anyone who knows me at all will appreciate my propensity towards biting off more than I can chew – this blog is no exception, so I may as well bite the bullet, put away my insecurities about whether people will like/appreciate/agree with/judge what I write on my little virtual soapbox, write what I want to write, and see if people want to read it.
Having said all that, the reason I’m writing this at all today is because I finally feel like I’ve found something worth writing about – something “worthy” of my first blog post (a dubious honour if ever there was one!). The inspiration was an event by the Oxford Literary Festival which I attended last night, with Joanne Harris, Ben Okri, and Kevin Crossley-Holland talking about storytelling and its importance, as well as telling a few of their own. I have always been fascinated by myths and legends ever since I was very little – Helping Hercules (Francesca Simon) was probably the first encounter I had with mythology, but the thing that really grabbed me was the tales of King Arthur a few years later. I’m still trying to work out why I love his story so much, but simply can’t pin it down. I love the idea that he might have been real, that underneath the layers of stories constructed over the millennia, there was actually a real man, a real King.
I “found” King Arthur through Kevin Crossley-Holland’s trilogy (The Seeing Stone, At the Crossing Places, and King of the Middle March), where the stories of two young boys called Arthur are woven together, the ordinary Arthur de Caldicot and the fantastical King Arthur (or is it the other way round?) living lives that look uncannily like one another. On my first encounter, thought it was an incredible story, but as I read more, and go back to the books, the mystery deepens, and it becomes so much more than just the story I read as a child. While there is nothing to compare to a good storyteller, to be able to return to the same words years later is an incredible thing, as the story not only teaches you anew what you learnt the first time, but shows itself to you a little more, when you’re older and understand more of the world. As much as I love reading new books, it is the familiarity of my favourite stories that gives me the real pleasure, learning new things from the same words, feeling new things for the characters as their hearts soar and break, and seeing through the veil between the worlds of reality and dreaming not necessarily better, but differently.
This “divide” between dream and reality was one of the topics of conversation at last night’s event – for a long time I assumed that the two were separate, mutually exclusive, completely different. The truth of it is far more interesting, though, and is something I’m only even vaguely approaching now. Stories transcend this divide, blurring the lines we think we have sorted, the line our parents draw when we have a bad dream and they want us to go back to sleep. Joanne Harris said that stories help us see the world as it is, see that monsters are real even if they don’t have wings and spikes or breathe fire, that strangers can be both good and bad, that looks can be deceiving, and the end is never quite where you think it is. In short, stories are more real than reality (her words, not mine!). This heightened reality is certainly less dull than the mundane existence we think we are used to, but stories in turn serve to increase our own awareness of the world, to heighten our own reality and to make us see past the ordinary things and into what makes life truly incredible. A phrase that springs to mind on this point is one I first heard in a lecture, describing how we should see “other” musical cultures – to see the familiar in the exotic, and the exotic in the familiar. This, I think, sums up the point of stories, why we tell them, why we listen to them, and why we remember them. We may think we’ve never met a witch or slain a dragon, but I suspect we all know someone who knows more than we think is possible, or have overcome something in the face of doubts from those around us.
Stories keep the fantastical alive, and constantly renew that possibility of the world being more than the four walls we inhabit, the mundane trudge from getting up to going to bed. After all, why shouldn’t the fantastical world be real? Why should children give up the hope of getting their Hogwarts letter on their 11th birthday? Why shouldn’t the penny you pick up off the street be lucky? Why shouldn’t there be true love?
Stories are the stuff of life, the world out of the corner of your eye, the thread that runs through human history. To tell stories is to be human, to remind ourselves that there is something bigger than us, whatever you choose to call it, that calls our hearts and minds to look beyond what we can see. The veil may never lift, but the more we look, the more we see. That’s why I get excited about stories.