When I was a little girl I filled hours narrating my life to myself in a ceaseless interior monologue. I was always a third-person character in these narratives—“Then she cast a withering glance at her teacher and, holding her head high, swept from the room.” I viewed my every action from the vantage point of an astonished, admiring, detached observer. But as I grew older, I began to develop a vague uneasiness about this sort of unremitting narration of my life inside my head.

I don’t really know what caused the narrating urge. Although my family was by no means a literary one, I suppose that whatever exposure I had to story-telling, whether gossip, reminiscences, Bible reading, or outright lying, might have fostered the narrative impulse. That does not explain it fully, however. I do not know how widespread this phenomenon is among children nor how late it is likely to persist into adulthood. Nor do I know whether other children are as adept at concealing it as I was.

I do have a somewhat clearer idea of why I ousted the narrator from my mind. It happened when I realized that this was not what was going on inside other people’s heads, and what is more, that if they knew it was going on inside mine they would find it queer to say the least, and very probably disagreeable as well. And, too, I began to find that I wanted room for more in there than simply this voice reading (or writing) my life away. I wanted to stuff in algebraic equations and logical syllogisms, Icelandic saga, recipes, songs, and the imprint of important pictures. To concentrate on this, I needed to shut down the voice and concentrate. It was, after all, a relief not to have it harping away, describing my every movement to myself. At various times, primarily highly dramatic moments, it has come back, though with narratives of broader scenes that do not so narrowly focus on one character.

Another phenomenon in my life connected with story-telling is probably a great deal more common than the first. It is the burning desire for a story not to end, for it to go on forever. “And what happened next?” was always my rejoinder to the closing of a story. The story-teller was often annoyed that I didn’t seem properly grateful for what I’d been given. It was not ingratitude at all, of course, but simply an insatiable desire for more, for a fictional world that stretched out as interminably before me as the “real” world.

After I learned to read for myself it was the same thing. When I began to near the end of an absorbing book, I always slowed down, going over every word carefully so as to come to the end more gradually. This phenomenon did not disappear as the other one did, however. First of all, there seemed to be no need to suppress it, since many of my acquaintances felt the same way, and second, it would have been impossible to feel any other way. I remember vividly, for example, my reactions as a graduate student to Tolkien’s Ring Trilogy. After hundreds and hundreds of pages of a world where everything was more—more beautiful, more dreadful, more cozy, more terrifying—than my own mundane experience, I suffered profound withdrawal pangs. Why wasn’t life more like literature?

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What I was dissatisfied with in life was not its ambiguity. Often the people or situations I was most fascinated with in the Ring Trilogy, or any story, were the ambiguous, shadowy ones. Nor did I deceive myself into thinking that “adventure,” i.e., going cold and hungry over mountain passes or being tortured by Ores, was fun. It was just that there were so many possibilities for excitement in Middle-earth, whether over mushrooms or monsters. Life, on the other hand, seemed inescapably boring. I understood fully what a character in one of Goddard’s movies (which I saw during the same year) meant when he spoke of “the movie we would all like to live.”

Now I suddenly hear and read many voices calling for “stories”—stories in politics, stories in psychotherapy, stories in theology, talk of myth and metaphor and parable. I was at first quite expectant, not having heard many good stories lately; but I was to be once more disappointed. For what I had thought of as story was not at all what these voices meant by it. (I had long since given up trying to track down what they meant by myth.)

For example, story is defined by Michael Novak (certainly an honest enough voice in other areas) as “an imagined form linking actions in ordered sequences.” He supplies this as an example of story: “The communists invaded South Viet Nam and have been attempting to undermine an independent government whose sovereignty has been recognized by over sixty nations” (“Story” in Politics, Council on Religion and International Affairs, 1970, p. 18). Now if that is Michael Novak’s idea of a story, God help his children at bedtime. There has never yet been a story in which “government” of whatever political persuasion has been a character, though there are lots of stories about kings and queens, generals and soldiers, camp followers and revolutionaries, even a few about presidents. Novak’s example is no more than an impoverished discursive declarative sentence. A blik does not a story make.

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On the other hand, if what one wants is a political story, heaven knows there is no dearth of them these days. For months we had the continuing saga of Watergate spun out for us daily in all imaginable mediums—print, sound tape, television. Sometimes it seemed like a tawdry soap opera and at other times like a Greek tragedy in slow motion. The plot was dictated by the multifold ramifications of evil, one lie building upon another, until the structure’s height could not be supported by its base and down it crashed, with agonizing slowness, like a fall in a dream. There was a strong undercurrent of Elizabethan correspondences—ill health mirroring internal decay, blocked blood passages as the body politic stagnates. The story of the century on a cosmic scale.

Harvey Cox, always one to get in on the ground floor, raises one’s expectations to a fever pitch in the first chapter of The Seduction of the Spirit. He actually has some idea of what a story is and tells one. He doesn’t reveal himself as a particularly great story-teller, but at least it is a story, however truncated. One eagerly turns to chapter two, ready for the next exciting installment, only to find that chapter one was only a come-on, a gimmick. For now we must wade through the same old warmed-over neo-bourgeois sociological anthropology. An upper-middle-class travelogue about (among other things) story-telling cultures.

Sam Keen, lately embraced in ecclesiastical circles as a quasi-theologian, is also partially responsible for the revival of interest in stories, but again for the sake of something other than the story itself. This time it is story-as-therapy. (Who will free us of these utilitarians!) One can applaud some of his reasons for this enterprise, for example, the desire to break free of psychological metaphors that have imprisoned us in a Freudian three-storied universe. However, Keen does not take storytelling seriously enough; he insists on seeing it as a mere tool. Although he presses all the “primitive” buttons for which his audience has learned a positive response (scenario of tribesmen hunkered around a fire, of Israelites relaying tradition), this is a facile, and ultimately patronizing, way of reading our twentieth-century consciousness back into that tribal circle.

Pre-technological cultures probably took their stories both a great deal more and a great deal less seriously. They were either a matter of life and death or a matter for laughter, but never a means by which to explore one’s subjectivity. They had a real and objective life independent of the whims of narcissism. Keen’s psychodrama technique seems as irresponsible as dabbling in diabolism and the interpretations as predictable and banal as black magic usually is. Such irresponsible play-acting sometimes has dire consequences. Anyone who is unimpressed with this argument should perhaps read Hamlet. If one would use a play to catch the conscience of a king, or even just your ordinary neurotic, he must be prepared to accept the consequences.

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What accounts for this narrative impotence among contemporary theologians? When they are pulled towards the story as toward a magnet, why do they continually stop short?

The trouble is primarily theological. Novelists are having no trouble at all writing on religious themes; in fact, they are concerned with scarcely anything else, except sex. But theologians, who cry up the idea of story in every new issue of various journals, cannot get it together to tell one.

One need only go back to the great demythologizing dictums of the 1930s to locate the castration of the theological imagination. God knows it is not the story we are interested in, poor primitive thing; it is the great idea behind the story. One hears the echo of his high school English teacher—“Now what does this story mean? What is the theme, the message?” (And somewhere from a dark corner the irrascible, irrational, and largely unnoticed voice of Barth protesting: “It’s not my story. I didn’t make it up. I don’t have to apologize for it; I only have to tell it.”) And we have been ripping away the leaves, ripping away the petals in order to get to the unripened ovary of the kerygma ever since. Small wonder it has not borne fruit.

When we began to awaken to our folly, there was a great outcry for “myth.” (Put the myth back in Christmyth.) Learned men nodded knowingly at humankind’s “need” for myth. Myths are somewhat like vitamins, which Larousse’s Gastronomique calls “ineffable substances.” They are necessary for good mental health. Therefore the theologians, taking a cue from Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, have decided that it is all right to administer periodic doses of myth to the masses, at least until they can learn to live without it or until some synthetic substitute is developed. What is particularly ridiculous about this theological stance, however, is that the Grand Inquisitor has been left talking to himself. No one is any longer interested in his make-believe myths, to be applied like an old-fashioned poultice to the aches and pains of the human soul.

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The novelist Walker Percy says the Christian storyteller is “like a man who finds a treasure buried in a field and sells all he has to buy the field, only to discover that everyone else has the same treasure in his field and that in any case real estate values have gone so high that all the fieldowners have forgotten the treasure and plan to subdivide” (Katallagete, Fall, 1970, p. 11). I propose then that we shut down the mining operation on this particular vein of supposed gold. After all, the operation is bankrupt. The backers have cashed in their chips and there wasn’t enough there to redeem them. Bultmann’s image of contemporary man has been challenged by the poet Robert Duncan as “too hygienic and highminded.” He reminds us—and we remember with a rush of relief—“that theologians … aren’t all religion, are they? Saints, for instance.… But what saints and most religious lives—the intense ones—show us are people who live what all the rest of us see meaning in, see through …” (A Meeting of Poets and Theologians to Discuss Parable, Myth and Language, The Church Society for College Work, 1968, p. 14).

What I would like to try, in place of the old sanitized demythologizing or the new synthetic remythologizing, is a much older notion, almost lost to us who are sunk up to our very noses in the quicksand of subjectivity. It is the old metaphor of the author and the play. What if it is not we who are writing the story at all, putting in cameo appearances at appropriate intervals for our cultural myths, like pulling out the turkey at Thanksgiving and the Advent candles at Christmas, but what if we are being written, narrated into existence by something much realer than ourselves? What if it is the “myth” that is real and we are the mere reflection of reality, being the metaphor that only points to meaning?

One could, of course, go back to Plato to locate this idea, but I would rather not. Plato is, for us, so safe and categorizable. We nod and say, “Oh yes, Platonism. I’d recognize it anywhere.” Besides, Plato’s Forms are much too deistic and do not push and shove the shadows sufficiently. Instead, let us consider an ill-assorted gaggle of relatively recent writers who have suggested this idea to us.

The first, Robert Duncan, anticipated the outbreak of utilitarian Christian story-tellers by a few years when he criticized such exploitation by saying: “In the tribute poets pay, after Dryden [the demythologizer of Shakespeare], to deliver over their art to the consensus of reasonable men, poetry, like the universe of rationalist science, ceases to be primal Creation and becomes a commodity, a material for human uses and self-development” (A Meeting …, p. 41). In other words, we have created the illusion that myth is primarily functional, that it is a tool we can use to integrate our personalities, to be O.K. And though some aspects of myth may still be hissing and bubbling down in the dark recesses of our unconscious, we will eventually dredge it all up into the landfill of sanity. The concept that we ourselves are being used by myth seems beyond our imaginations. To continue with Duncan:

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The operations of allegory and metaphor case to be magical and become manners of speaking plays of wit, and the sense of historical events themselves cease to be thought of as informed by a creative intent, to be read as omens and portents, showings forth of meaning within meaning, intent within intent, of a momentous design in which men in their acts participate and to which they contribute, in terms of which men know or do not know their roles [A Meeting …, p. 41; italics mine].

But we are forever bumping up against the stage furniture, something that we cannot see but that nevertheless will not yield to our hypotheses. And instead of recognizing that the chair leg that has just confronted us in such a painful fashion is real, we simply rearrange the furniture of our mind to exclude that particular chair leg. Duncan again, zeroing in on Christian religion:

And many Christians have twisted the poetry of the Bible in vices of interpretation to see the divine as conforming to our highest ethical precepts, and, where their humanitarian ideals were strong, come to apostasy when faced with the immovable reality of Jehovah who declares Himself a God of Jealousy, Vengeance and Wrath. Reason falters, but our mythic, our deepest poetic sense, recognizes and greets as truth the proclamation that the Son brings that just this Wrathful Father is the First Person of Love [A Meeting …, p. 38].

Thus we have at least two generations of theological schizoid apostates: their reason demands the renunciation of an irrational God, yet they cannot bring themselves to renounce him, so strong is the enchantment of the story. In order to relieve this unbearable tension, they set about blocking out their roles so as to avoid crashing into the stage sets to which they refuse to grant credulity. Miracles are unaccountable; therefore we will take no account of them. We will rewrite the story (as many have done before us) to suit ourselves. But the rewriting of the story simply becomes (as it did before) part of the story. Bultmann is our new Chronicler. Or to let Duncan finally speak through a poem (in his volume Roots and Branches) in the guise of Bobbin, an elf-shadow, about the limitations of humans:

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Yet whenever they see us

we must look like men,

for men see not what things are but what

they are in things. The world changes

dark to light as their eyes change.

Next in my cloud of witnesses is C. S. Lewis, with his use of fantasy as a means of making myth lucid, or rather of jolting our preconceived world view off its precarious pedestal so that we can at least be open to other possibilities. One of his strategies in The Great Divorce is to out-materialize the materialists, certainly a proper undertaking for a story-teller. In Lewis’s fantasized Heaven, it is the recently arrived mortals who are phantasmagoric and insubstantial. The very heavenly grass is like spikes to their feet. Drops of water spray are like bullets. One can see through them, but not through the creatures whose natural habitation is heaven.

One of these fully realized creatures attempts to explain the nature of “myth” he is now experiencing to a new arrival who is interested only in the “meaning” and not in the “thing itself’: “Hitherto you have experienced truth only with the abstract intellect. I will bring you where you can taste it like honey and be embraced by it as by a bridgegroom” (The Great Divorce, 1971, Macmillan, p. 43). The recalcitrant Episcopalian, a member of the Theological Society, resists, however, and for the old familiar reasons: “These great mysteries cannot be approached in that way. If there were such a thing … quite frankly, I should not be interested in it. It would be of no religious significance. God, for me, is something purely spiritual.”

It is against this disembodied ontologizing that Lewis protests again and again. If creation is to be redeemed, then it must be thoroughly redeemed, not just its meaning. Resurrection without a body is a hollow victory. Likewise myth has a reality that we, in our present state of incompleteness, catch only glimmers of. As Ransom in Perelandra confronts the guardian gods of Malcandra and Perelandra he recognizes them as Ares and Aphrodite:

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In the mind of the fallen Archon under whom our planet groans, the memory of Deep Heaven and the gods with whom he once consorted is still alive. Nay, in the very matter of our world, the traces of the celestial commonwealth are not quite lost. Memory passes through the womb and hovers in the air. The Muse is a real thing.… Our mythology is based on a solider reality than we dream: but it is also at an infinite distance from that dream [Perelandra, Macmillan, 1968, p. 201].

In fact, so far removed are we from the basis of myth, so blind, that all we can pick up are random threads that lead from one story to another. Yet Lewis has a “suspicion that what was myth in one world might always be fact in some other” (Perelandra, p. 102). Ares and Aphrodite are real, much realer than you or I could ever hope to be. At any rate, Lewis sees us as poor, insubstantial stage-blusterers when we claim that the author of the play in which we are merely characters is less real than we are, that we are writing a play in which he is a character.

My third witness, Muriel Spark, is much harder to catch hold of since she does not explain or theorize as do the previous two. Yet her story, The Comforters, is unsettling and frightening and brings us back to where we started from. In this story the heroine, Caroline, through some quirk of clairaudience, hears a typewriter and voices recording her life. It is not a mystery story wherein the whole point lies in doing away with the mystery, in explaining “away” the psychic phenomenon, but it is a mystery story in that the voices and the typewriter are never explained. They simply cease when the story comes to an end, after having recorded that part of Caroline’s life. No one else hears the voices or the typewriter, so of course they think the whole thing is merely a mental aberration, even though the typewriting voices record not only events in which Caroline is involved but also events concerning people she does not even know about until the entire story is complete. She finally explains the phenomenon this way: “ ‘But the typewriter and the voices—it is as if a writer on another plane of existence was writing a story about us.’ As soon as she had said these words, Caroline knew she had hit on the truth” (The Comforters, Avon, 1965, p. 68). Her fiancé, of a much more mundane mentality, attempts to record the voices:

“If the sound has objective existence it will be recorded.”
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“This sound might have another sort of existence and still be real.”
“Well, let’s first exhaust the possibilities of the natural order—”
“But we don’t know all the possibilities of the natural order” [p. 70].

Caroline, a recent Catholic convert, is at first inclined to think she has merely gotten involved in the novel of “a writer on another plane of existence.” She is thus determined to assert her free will, to act oppositely from the voices’ descriptions of her future activity. Yet her every attempt to do this is foiled. The story is inexorable:

Her sense of being written into the novel was painful. Of her constant influence on its course she remained unaware and now she was impatient for the story to come to an end, knowing that the narrative could never become coherent to her until she was at last outside it, and at the same time consummately inside it [p. 196],

I do not think that Caroline’s experience is really all that rare. Who knows what unarticulated currents of story run through the lives of children, only to be dammed up because they do not run in culturally sanctioned channels? Or in what perverse ways they are rerouted to the detriment of both the person and his society? Yet how often does the overwhelming sense that our lives have dramatic form sweep over us, especially when we feel one chapter ending and another beginning? Perhaps for those of us who have led disjunctive lives, the sense of discrete, episodic stories is stronger, more apparent. However, while we are still “inside” the story, we perceive its coherence dimly, which is why it is dangerous not to take it seriously, or to take it seriously in the wrong way.

I have proposed that the way of thinking about ourselves as characters in a story might be a necessary way of reorienting ourselves to reality. Certainly if we perceive of ourselves as both character and author, serious problems could result. I believe this is the way Charles Manson probably saw himself—the ultimate unrestrained existentialist (see the book on Manson, Helter-Skelter). If, on the other hand, we see ourselves to be characters within the story but not the Creator of it, then we can fully enjoy our creatureliness, and await with expectation (and sometimes dread) the next development of the plot. We can, in Duncan’s words, “open ourselves to myth [so that] it works to convert us and to enact itself anew in our lives.”

The Mind’s Eye, Or Words And Sounds

Fashions in children’s literature since 1776 have changed almost as often as fashions in adult literature. And the trends in the two have not always followed the same pattern. What were children reading when our nation was founded? During colonial times didacticism certainly motivated adults writing for children. Then imagination and fairy tales gained prominence but disappeared until the 1950s in favor of realism. Now, as seen by the publication of such books as Mr. Death by Anne Moody (Harper & Row; see “Books” for a review of that and two other children’s stories about death), realism seems to be regaining ground.

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In colonial America the Puritan influence was reflected in the religious nature of children’s reading matter, for example, the Bible and The New England Primer. But young people have always liked adventure stories, and religious strictures could not keep them from enjoying works written for adults. The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift were just such books. Children undoubtedly read these great stories and simply skipped the parts that did not interest them.

Children’s books in the nineteenth century were often highly didactic; that is, they instructed the young in proper values. Books were produced by the hundreds in which good always triumphed over evil. Many a little girl identified with the heroine in the Elsie Dinsmore series by Martha Finley (1828–1909), who clearly was the chief moralist of the period. The pinnacle of didactic writing was unquestionably reached in William H. McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers (1836–7), which taught reading for the sake of patriotism, industry, and good citizenship.

Didacticism gradually gave way to a more imaginative form of writing that grew out of the popular fairy-tale collections of the Grimm brothers and the original creations of Hans Christian Andersen. A hundred years ago virtually every child was familiar with tales like “Hansel and Gretel” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Clement Moore wrote a Christmas poem in 1822 that children still love, “The Night Before Christmas.”

Other authors, such as Louisa May Alcott and Mark Twain, brought a new dimension to children’s literature with more realistic, life-like stories. Who could forget the March family? And what little boy who has read Twain’s stories has not wished he were Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn?

In the later nineteenth century, novels especially suited for children began to appear, such as Robert L. Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. They met the needs of young readers for adventure and excitement.

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By the early twentieth century the market was flooded with literature for children, most of it mediocre. To encourage better writing, the American Library Association in 1922 established the Newbery Award. One of the all-time favorite Newbery winners is Esther Forbes’s Johnny Tremain (1943), the realistic story of a crippled apprentice and his involvement in revolutionary activities in Boston during the 1770s.

Some twentieth-century works can justifiably be called “modem classics” because of their continuing appeal. Examples of these include A.A. Milne’s books about Winnie-the-Pooh, E.B. White’s touching story of friendship entitled Charlotte’s Web, Pamela Travers’s account of the magical nanny Mary Poppins, and The Little House on the Prairie, a series by Laura I. Wilder that drew upon her own childhood experiences. C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and J. R. R. Tolkien’s Hobbit are outstanding pieces of modem fantasy that appeal to both children and adults.

Whether a child loves adventure tales, fairy stories, or realistic novels, a book should expand his understanding of reality, exercise his imagination, and encourage him to love the sound and sight of words.

CHARLENE PIERARDCharlene Pierard is assistant branch librarian at the Vigo County Public Library, Terre Haute, Indiana.

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