What makes a story sacred?
I’m pondering the situation, in that others find RJ Stewart’s tale of Merlin’s return as meaningful while I do not. I admit that the ritual work it depicts — integrating slain soldiers into the Otherworld — is meaningful work. But why isn’t the telling?
There are several principals involved. One involves good storytelling — in that you must show, not tell. Myths often depict a series of actions, for example; the motivations are left up to the listeners to figure out, if they indeed wish to. Of course, there are exceptions, but most myth doesn’t opt for the psychological realism of the modern novel. It’s not about realism.
For me, sacred story is one that leaves space — for wandering, for imagining, for exploring truths and realities. Jeannette Winterson’s works read to me as sacred story, as well as that of “magical realists.” I’ve had moments with Charles de Lint, Ursula Le Guin, Gita Mehta’s “A River Sutra,” even Patricia McKillip. Certainly Monique Wittig’s Les Guérillères.
And it’s perhaps the last that gives me my basic principle for sacred storytelling: “There was a time when you were not a slave, remember that. You walked alone, full of laughter, you bathed bare bellied. You say you have lost all recollection of it, remember… You say there are no words to describe this time, you say it does not exist. But remember. Make an effort to remember. Or, failing that, invent.”
Yes, it’s “telling” the reader, but it’s doing so in the language of poetry, which seems to transcend the whole notion of pedantic-telling. It leaves room for imagination, room for you to spin the details, the meaning in your own life. “Merlin’s Return” just doesn’t have those qualities, at least in my reading of it.
Sacred storytelling merges, on many levels, with the art of poetry. It uses language — often repetition of themes as well as phrases and sounds — to beguile the mind out of its normal state. Note the repetition in Wittig’s famous passage, and how it lulls the mind.
I admit that I have an inherent bias against Stewart’s story in part because I’m sick to death of Merlin and medieval-type settings. Granted, there are times I like these familiar settings, but I’ve just been over-exposed through the years. However, “cliche” isn’t alien to sacred storytelling; the presence of the familiar is actually a key for the listener. What makes it something other than cliche is the feeling that there’s always something valid in the experience, whether it’s a fresh perspective or an old memory.
End of the day: the style of writing wasn’t poetic enough to appeal to me and I just don’t like Merlin stories. Your sacred storytelling perspective may vary. 🙂