Stable, local, human communities accumulate folklore over generations. This is a form of wealth that we are no longer capable of producing, valuing, or enjoying. Modern nation-states* no longer have the stable local communities or the value systems required for folklore creation and maintenance. It is well worth considering the many profound values offered by a growing store of folklore as well as the way that a human life is shaped when it is lived in pursuit of this form of wealth.
Folklore cannot be produced and maintained by any single person, no matter how powerful or gifted they are. It requires whole human communities with each of these qualities:
- Frequent and reliable communication patterns sustained over a defined geographical region for many generations.
- Significant leisure time for all classes or subsets of the community to spend listening to and telling stories together in person so that deep repositories of oral tradition are continually being created and maintained.
- Strong shared purposes and desires across all classes or subsets of the community so that heroes, villains, and all other story elements will be identified within the community, translated into folklore and/or mythology and carry these clusters of meaning and value onward for generations of people who will hear and retell the stories.
Human communities can value and produce many other types of stories, such as literature (great books) or entertainment (theater and film). However, folklore is radically different from even the most beloved classics of a literary culture, whether we are talking about the sacred writings of a community or simply the “great books” that become enshrined within the halls of education. Even more removed from folklore are the pop songs, comic books, TV shows, and blockbusters of our modern entertainment industry (or the opera, ballet and theater of earlier eras). While some communities within our modern society still have urban legends that develop, almost all other forms of story-telling or myth-making have been commodified or monetized by TV, Hollywood, Disney, celebrity culture, or pulp fiction.
It may be possible for human societies to maintain and enjoy a strong folklore heritage while also enjoying vibrant literary and entertainment cultures. However, there are clearly some elements of mutually exclusive conditions required for communities to consistently develop and enjoy folklore vs. blockbuster films. These different mediums require radically different forms of attention and human interaction, and they also directly compete for limited quantities of leisure time.
The products of folklore have been made very profitable by companies such as Disney and many others. However, folklore as a living practice within a community has never been connected to money or power. Can you imagine the originators of Br’er Rabbit or Robin Hood stories giving a fig about the opportunity to influence the high and mighty of this world? There is a kind of wealth reflected in these stories that cannot be easily given to anyone or easily taken away. Ever since the rise of capitalist economies, we no longer measure wealth in the most substantial or communal of categories. In a strange and vivid little image of what we have lost, C.S. Lewis laments that our society will never see “Cabinet Ministers leaving sandwiches in Hyde Park as an offering for the Dryads” (source here). Imagine if all economic and political energies focused entirely on goals such as:
- Depth and vibrancy of local folklore traditions.
- Rich genetic variety within local strains of produce or livestock.
- Or any quantifiable measures of shared spiritual lives and collective empathy across various classes and subcultures within local communities.
Societal values or objectives such as these would radically raise the bar on our ideas of progress and would require very different personal and collective commitments and decision-making criteria. Of all such standards, measuring the health of a rich local folklore is arguably the most meaningful single indicator of a society’s true wealth. This is because the growth of folklore and myth require so many other factors in order to develop: many generations of stable food supplies, predictable family structures, substantial leisure time spent physically together swapping stories that reflect and maintain shared value systems across various social classes.
We have lost the capacity to create and to enjoy folklore because, for many generations now, we have relied upon the written word and because we have pursued money over the ties of family and local community. Our loss of substantial time spent together in conversation and story telling has radically changed the nature of human society and individual experience. After many centuries of writing (and now well beyond the printed age and into the digital age), it is impossible for us to understand the extent of our isolation from each other and from the physical places that we inhabit. When one generation after another spends countless hours standing barefoot on the same piece of land and when these generations of barefoot people sit around the same fire to share the sames stories, the people, their land, and their stories all become one seamless fabric. This is a fabric that our fathers and mothers were torn out of a very long time ago. Writing as a tool for money, power, comfort, and entertainment has come to dominate our human interactions in ways that we cannot see or evaluate from the inside. About 2400 years ago, Socrates made this prophetic point in his dialogue with Phaedrus (written down, ironically, by Plato):
The parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the usefulness or uselessness of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of the written alphabet, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to letters a quality that they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. [That] which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality. [Translation by Benjamin Jowett (with a few of my own minor clarifications into more contemporary language).]
What would it look like to live a life committed to the restoration of stable local cultures capable of multi-generational creation and enjoyment of rooted oral traditions? I have no idea. It is almost certainly not a goal that any one individual could take up in any meaningful way. It is a goal that would require a community and the commitment of multiple generations. Nonetheless, I pray for the vision to somehow be included in such a work. I have no expectation of being able to see the thing of which I wish to be a part, but I pray that I might still, in some small way, be a part of it. This is not an opposition to writing or to the digital age. I love both alongside oral culture without any sense of contradiction. However, I am saying that our sense of value, proportion and priority are tragically damaged and distorted in ways that must be healed.
There is one more aspect to this vision that is even much more difficult to articulate. God’s entire creation participates in God’s own bright and fiery life of love, and all of creation also participated in human life as human life is made in the very image and likeness of God. I believe that spirits frolic, dance, and sing with every star, sand grain, leaf, ant, and asteroid in this cosmos-temple. When Job 38:7 speaks of how “the morning stars sang together,” I take that very literally.
God made many kinds of living creatures, and they all can be blessed (or harmed) by the life that humans take up (or forfeit) as God’s image bearers and priestly officiants within this loud and swirling temple throng that inhabits God’s creation. These spirits are typically not concerned or obligated in any conscious way by human life (or even by the life of God their maker, given that we’re in a fallen world). Often the disinterest that these other creatures show toward everything that we think is central to our human lives is the greatest gift that these creatures can offer to us. In any case, consciously interested in humanity or not, these many spirits are all bound up with us mortals in ways that run deeper than anything known by even the holiest saints and angels.
Humanity has always known these truths within our oral traditions. We inhabit a world of many spirits, and we know this very well within our folklore. Distinguished Notre Dame professor and world-renowned philosopher David Bentley Hart wrote about this world of spirits in “The Secret Commonwealth” (First Things, 2009). He describes a fabled pamphlet publication by a Scottish Presbyterian minister and Bible translator Robert Kirk (1644 to 1692). In addition to being a scholar trained at St. Andrew’s and Edinburgh, a master of Celtic tongues, and the author of the Gaelic Psalter of 1684, Reverend Kirk also possessed the second sight and wrote a short treaties on “The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies” (which I have read for myself). David Bentley Hart writes:
One aspect of Kirk’s investigations I find especially interesting is the purely autochthonous quality he ascribes to the second sight. Once removed from his native heath, says Kirk, a prophet loses the virtue that allows him to see the other world, and he becomes as blind to preternatural presences as any other mortal. He is like Antaeus raised up off the earth. Not only is every fairy a genius loci, every seer is a vates loci with a strictly limited charter. And the reason it pleases me to learn this is that it allows me to offer a riposte to an English friend of mine “a famous theologian whose name (which is John Milbank) I should probably withhold” who has quite a keen interest in fairies, and who regards it as a signal mark of the spiritual inferiority of America that its woods and dells, mountains, and streams, are devoid of such creatures.
In proof of this, he once cited to me the report of some English traveler in the New World who sent back a dispatch from Newfoundland (or somewhere like that) complaining that there were no fairies to be found in these desolate climes. But, ah no, I can say (having read Kirk), of course some displaced sassenach wandering in the woods of North America would be able to perceive none of their ethereal inhabitants, as any faculty he might have had for seeing them would have deserted him. And, anyway, anyone familiar with the Native lore of the Americas knows that multitudes of dangerous and beneficent manitous haunt or haunted these lands. They may lack some of the winsome charm of their European counterparts, not having been exposed to centuries of Greco-Roman and Christian civilization; and they may therefore be somewhat more Titanic than Olympian in their general character and deportment; but they certainly do not merit disdain or a refusal to acknowledge their existence.
Kirk and Hart both make it clear that a profound relationship exists between the land that human families inhabit and the storied forms of life that share this land with us. Beyond this, Hart strongly suggests that human communities somehow “domesticate” or otherwise influence the local spirits and stories over the course of generations. Hart says that North American fairies “may lack some of the winsome charm of their European counterparts, not having been exposed to centuries of Greco-Roman and Christian civilization.” This may include some cultural snobbery but may also be mixed with a profound understanding of the many New Testament passages such as 1 Peter 3:22 that speak of the ways in which all “angels, authorities, and powers have been made subject to [Jesus Christ].” Paul and all of the apostles inhabited a world permeated by diverse spirits and all deeply intertwined with the will of God for His image bearers.
As someone who grew up in a largely pagan and premodern Asian culture (throughout my childhood listening to shaman and séances working and chanting loudly through the night while following the water buffaloes through the rice paddies and swarms of dragonflies by day), I know just a little about oral cultures. The oldest son of a Presbyterian minister, I’ve ended up standing (for as many holy day as I can manage) within an Eastern Orthodox Church reciting very long verbal liturgies that have developed very slowly over millennia.
I certainly have no idea what I am doing or how to apply any of this for anyone else. However, it has been a great personal blessing to me as I have seen pieces of the human story come together for me more clearly across time and place. Therefore, I’ve shared these thoughts, and I do commend a life lived with a desire to grow in respect for stories and for their vital places within specific human communities.
Peter Pan is not an example of folklore (but of literary culture), and Peter is wrong when he claims: “Every time a child says, ‘I don’t believe in fairies,’ there is a fairy somewhere that falls down dead.” However, I do think that every time a family sits down together to the table in their home, there are a few unseen creatures who care enough to pause and to either laugh or cry over every word that is said.
* Nation-state: this is a term coined by historians to describe a radical reorganization of human communities within modernity that represented unprecedented power structures and value systems. Historians continue to dispute exactly how nation-states came into existence, but there is wide agreement that nation states represent a cataclysmic and a relatively recent development in the rules and structures by which humans live and work together. In many ways, nation-states throw an invisibility cloak over the systems of empire and economic domination that drive the stories of interactions between human communities across time.