Contemporary storytellers sometimes regard it as odd a storyteller to retell ancient or traditional tales. Or at least, the lack of knowledge of traditional tales, whether Hansel and Gretel; Odysseus and the Cyclops; Joseph in the many-colored coat; and Jesus with the fishes and loaves, seems to be remarkably forgotten among people who write. I was at a writer’s group where I used these words for a quote:
My beloved is clear-skinned and ruddy,
Preeminent among ten thousand.
His head is finest gold,
His locks are curled
And black as a raven…
The reader who read this story found this a deeply affecting quote. And indeed, I was not hurt that she did not recognize it, telling her simply that it was from the Song of Solomon. Yet it was only later that I was forced to inform her: the Song of Solomon is a book in the Bible. I think she was rather hurt, and perhaps I should have known better to show it to her: she was very secular and perhaps a religious vocation on this instance was inappropriate. It was at this same group, another year, that I was revealed to be the only person who could recite the entirety–or almost that–of the old children’s story Hansel and Gretel.
I am not sure I fully understand the modern taboo on these ancient stories, but it is real and I find it disturbing. Of course, I must admit something: I am not Orthodox as Jews go and I really don’t take these stories literally myself. I believe they are edifying spiritually, morally, and culturally, but whether there ever was, say, an Abraham who sacrificed his son Isaac to God, I do not know. To me the meaning of the story remains the same regardless, and although it might be a tangle to justify all of why, I still believe in the God. Part of how I came to this conclusion was that as a child I was told that only one form of spirituality (fundamentalist Protestantism) was legitimate, and the older I got the less happy I was with that. Nonetheless, it was not really the stories at fault but the theology. Though hardly loose and liberal, the Conservative movement in Judaism gives me a happy place for my mind and heart.
Anyway, the problem with the modern story–so I hear from people better up-to-date than I am in literature–is that authors try to write like Hemmingway. What they don’t understand is not the greatness of Hemmingway but its idiosyncrasy–that it can’t be replicated. A great deal of what is written in his name is dull beyond belief. It is possible–I don’t dispute it–to write bad Shakespeare or bad Dickens, too–but that is why a writer must capture their own voice, and not merely create a facsimile of others. To tell a great story, a great tale, takes effort, a honing of the muses.
Yet if a tale is unique, it still supposes a subtext. A story set in the here-and-now, in contemporary times, is like a melody without any accompaniment. A song in which older melodies are taken into account can be a symphony, a blending of views into a common choral composition. As Bernstein, I believe, told the young-and-musical-at-heart in his rendition of Saint-Saens: Carnival of the Animals, symphonies quote one another, even satirizing each other. Similarly, the referencing of Homeric mythology was key to understanding the Puritan Milton’s epic Paradise Lost. Folktales, pagan mythologies, and Biblical tales strike me as having a simple power to inspire mortals searching this world for meaning.
I suppose the supply of stories a person could pillage for their work could expand eastward, even, to the Buddhist Monkey or Hindu Mahabharata. I haven’t seriously attempted much commentary on these Eastern passages, but I might someday. I hope nobody counts this as treasonous to my cause–the Jewish people and their God. Forever, I want the words to be chiseled on my heart:
“Do not urge me to leave you,
To turn back and not follow you.
For wherever you go, I will go;
Wherever you will lodge, I will lodge;
Your people my people, your God my God.
Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.
Thus and more may, the LORD do to me
If anything but death parts me from you.”
In America, there is always a balance between public good and private faith. Yet I believe this semi-public profession of faith adds something to the public discourse, as does my private view that traditional storytelling belongs at the center of what makes America great. I know that speaking of America as “Great” looks bad in the current era, but I believe that the separation of Church and State was meant to strengthen and not diminish the practice of religion. So it is that I hope that when a young mother is with a child she will not be reluctant to tell her the story I heard before kindergarten even, Hansel and Gretel.