Ancient cultures, such as the Egyptians, the Native Americans and the Celtic, seemed to prefer a more imaginative, non-directed type of thinking. These cultures accepted that dreams and visions have a meaning, and they found ways to bring these gifts into the community, either through rituals or through stories, music and poetry. In their acceptance of this more imaginal consciousness, they established cultures that lived in harmony with the world around them. Each tribe and each person knew his/her/its place in the cosmos and this made for the harmony and balance that is so sorely lacking in our 'most violent' of cultures.
There is an old Seneca story that speaks to the heart of this matter, for the Native American tribes lived constantly in the presence of stories.
Long ago, there were no stories in the world. Life was not easy for the people, especially during the long winters when the wind blew hard and the snow piled high about the longhouse.
One winter day a boy went hunting. He was a good hunter and managed to shoot several partridge. As he made his way back home through the snow, he grew tired and rested near a great rock which was shaped almost like the head of a person. No sooner had he sat down than he heard a deep voice speak.
"I shall now tell a story," said the voice.
The boy jumped up and looked around. No one was to be seen.
"Who are you?" said the boy.
"I am Great Stone, " said the rumbling voice which seemed to come from within the Earth. Then the boy realized it was the big standing rock which spoke. "I shall now tell a story."
"Then tell it," said the boy.
"First you must give me something," said the stone. So the boy took one of the partridges and placed it on the rock.
"Now tell your story, Grandfather," said the boy.
Then the great stone began to speak. It told a wonderful story of how the Earth was created. As the boy listened he did not feel the cold wind and the snow seemed to go away. When the stone had finished the boy stood up.
"Thank you, Grandfather," said the boy. "I shall go now and share this story with my family. I will come back tomorrow."
The boy hurried home to the longhouse. When he got there he told everyone something wonderful had happened. Everyone gathered around the fire and he told them the story he heard from the great stone. The story seemed to drive away the cold and the people were happy as they listened and they slept peacefully that night, dreaming good dreams. The next day, the boy went back again to the stone and gave it another bird which he had shot.
"I shall now tell a story," said the big stone and the boy listened.
It went on this way for a long time. Throughout the winter the boy came each day with a present of game. Then Great Stone told him a story of the old times. The boy heard the stories of talking animals and monsters, tales of what things were like when the Earth was new. They were good stories and they taught important lessons. The boy remembered each tale and retold it to the people who gathered at night around the fire to listen. One day, though, when the winter was ending and the spring about to come, the great stone did not speak when the boy placed his gift of wild game.
"Grandfather," said the boy, "Tell me a story."
Then the great stone spoke for the last time. "I have told you all of my stories," said Great Stone. "Now the stories are yours to keep for the people. You will pass these stories on to your children and other stories will be added to them as years pass. Where there are stories, there will be more stories. I have spoken. Naho."
Thus it was that stories came into this world. To this day, they are told by the people of the longhouse during the winter season to warm the people. Whenever a storyteller finishes a tale, the people always give thanks, just as the boy thanked the storytelling stone long ago.12
Are we thankful, like the young Indian boy, for the stories our culture tells us? Do these stories teach us important lessons? I believe the answer to both questions is no; first, because most of the stories the media creates no longer spring from the imagination, but rather deaden it, and second, because we no longer trust stories to teach us anything. Our culture does not value the bard or the storyteller as a teacher; so many people do not take the 'lesson' of the good story to heart. We have lost touch with our child-like imagination, which can see worlds in a drop of dew or hear music in the fall of a leaf. We do not let the world tell us stories anymore, and we are afraid to listen to what our imaginations whisper in the night.
George MacDonald is the writer that many of our best modern fantasy writers revere as their mentor. He wrote, in the 19th century, stories and plays for the 'childlike'. He often wrote about what he called 'the fantastic imagination' and he insisted that, while this imagination was attuned to certain 'natural laws', there was no set and final meaning in stories he wrote. The story contained a meaning only if the listener perceived one. But he always hoped to awaken something in his readers, something that was akin to what happens when we hear beautiful music.
The best thing you can do for your fellow, next to rousing his conscience, is - not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him; or say, to make him think things for himself. The best Nature does for us is to work in us such moods in which thoughts of high import arise. Does any aspect of Nature wake but one thought? Does she ever suggest only one definite thing? Does she make any two men in the same place at the same moment think the same thing? Is she therefore a failure, because she is not definite? Is it nothing that she rouses the something deeper than the understanding - the power that underlies thoughts? Does she not set feeling, and so thinking at work? Would it be better that she did this after one fashion and not after many fashions? Nature is mood-engendering, thought-provoking. . .
rouse the something deeper than the understanding - this is what the
imagination and dream-creating function of the soul does for us. That is what stories are meant to do!