Monday, June 3, 2013

Taliesin: Stories and Shapeshifting

In Celtic lore, the best and most famous of bards is named Taliesin.  The name means "radiant brow" and I'll go into that concept a little further in my next post.  For now, it is important to know this great bard's humble origins, and the symbolism thereof.  As a boy he was called Gwion Bach, and served the Goddess Ceridwen by tending the fires under her cauldron, in which she was brewing a potion of wisdom so potent, that it required a year and a day to reduce to three perfect drops.  These were intended to be imbibed by her ugly son Mofran, so that people would revere him for his great wisdom, rather than revile him for his hideous outward appearance.  Just before the potion was complete, however, the three drops flew from it and landed on Gwion Bach's thumb.  The lad thrust his scalded thumb into his mouth, ingesting the potion, whereupon the cauldron, finally yielding to a year's worth of fire, promptly cracked in two.  Ceridwen was furious.

Gwion Bach fled the goddess, and found he could use his newfound wisdom to turn himself into a hare.  Ceridwen, however, turned herself into a hound and took off after him.  He jumped into a stream and changed into a fish, but she became an otter and the chase continued.  Then he leapt into the air and changed into a bird, but she turned into a hawk and still pursued him.  Finally, in desperation he turned himself into a kernel of grain and hid himself in a pile of grain on a threshing floor, but Ceridwen became a hen and ate him up.

At this point in the story we are introduced to the most important element in the making of a storyteller: wisdom - specifically, the deepest sort knowledge of the hidden machinations of nature and society that the Celts called "awen".  Upon acquiring awen, the first thing our hero learns is how to change his shape.  The forms he chooses - hare, fish, bird, and grain - are meant to embody the four elements: earth, water, air, and the fire of life that is inevitably consumed by the goddess.  As a storyteller, the first kind of wisdom we learn to employ is that of empathy as we mentally change our shapes in order to see the world through the eyes of our characters.

Thus Gwion Bach's fleeing of the Goddess Ceridwen could be seen as the artist's initial "flight" of fancy.  When our creative juices first start flowing, we deftly dodge and weave through our first drafts - character to character, scene to scene, world to world - with a peculiar thrill that is equal parts elation and terror.  Fear and self-doubt chase us, ready to pounce at the end of every paragraph.  Without the discipline, focus, and sense of direction of an experienced storyteller, our endeavors are eventually dragged down and devoured by the primordial forces from whence they came.  This inevitable "death" of our initial fight of fancy need not be the end of our endeavor however, for as the story Taliesin demonstrates, death is nothing more than a profound transformation.  But that will be the subject of my next posting (which will hopefully not take as long for me to get around to as this one).

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Friday, October 12, 2012


The idea that there are certain basic concepts common to all cultures and their stories was first legitimized by the anthropologist Adolf Bastian in the mid-1800s.  In his research of different cultures' folklore he made the distinction between Volkergedanken (or "Folk Ideas") and Elementargedanken (or "Elementary Ideas").  He argued that while geographic location and historical experience might play the greatest roles in creating an individual culture's identity, there are certain physiological and biological mechanisms and functions common to all human beings, and these are responsible for the elements that most (if not all) cultures' myths have in common.  These might include an overbearing father-god who must be, vanquished or atoned with, a distressed maiden or goddess that must be aided through acts of virtue and valor, or a trickster who "cheated" the gods for the benefit of all humankind.

Bastian's research greatly influenced psychologist Carl Gustav Jung who further refined the Elementargedanken into more specific symbols called Archetypes.  Jung viewed these concepts in more mystical terms than Bastian, as etherial figures evolving in humanity's "Collective Unconscious" and making themselves known through dreams and art.  While there are countless archetypal symbols appearing and reappearing in cultures around the world, Jung identified five primary archetypes that function to balance the psyche in much the same way our internal organs function to maintain our physical health:

1) The Shadow: Throughout our developmental years, we learn what we are not supposed to do through a series of traumas coming in the form of punishments or unpleasant consequences.  In order to avoid future trauma, we push certain undesirable impulses and desires down into our subconscious where they ultimately merge into a picture of a "bad" version of ourselves that embodies everything we are not supposed to be.  If our childhood traumas are severe (i.e. extreme abuse, or crippling or horrific accidents) we can dissociate into paranoid delusions where we see this character in our peers, in dreams and visions, or on rare occasions even split personalities that "take over" whenever an event reminds us of past horrors.  Most of us, however, have never had to endure childhood trauma beyond a spanking, overhearing our parents fighting, or receiving a severe scolding, and interact with our shadows only when we encounter some one we "just don't like".

2) The Self: This is the unconscious knowledge of the person we are meant to be.  It is similar to what eastern religions might call our "center" which balances our psyche.  It also aides in a process called "individuation" where we set ourselves apart from our friends and peers.

3) The Anima: The image of the ideal female in a man's psyche.  Most of this imprint comes from the mother, because for the first year or two of life, a child's entire world is his mother.  Men encounter their anima when they fall in love.  On an unconscious level, they recognize something in a woman that reminds them of Mom, which gives rise to an expectation for their wives and girlfriends to fulfill that role and a degree of disappointment when she does not.

4) The Animus: The ideal male in a woman's psyche.  This is tied to her father, but not as closely as the anima-mother relationship, because by the time a girl becomes aware of her father's relationship to her mother and herself she is at a later stage in her development.

5) The Persona:  This is the "mask" we wear when dealing with the world.  It is our own perception of the role we play or wish to play in our society or social group.

As a writer, it is important to realize that our main characters (at least the ones we're satisfied with) come from projections of these parts of our own psyche.  The hero(ine) comes from our Personae, the villain from our Shadows, the hero/heroine's love interest from our Animi, and the guide that sends our protagonist on his or her way (i.e. Obe Wan Kenobe, Merlin, etc.) from our deeper Selves.  One must also remember that our characters all have their own archetypes rising from their own childhood experiences and should behave accordingly.  The villain should embody all the characteristics that the hero detests... but secretly needs!  The love interest should embody a long lost parental figure in some way and give the protagonist the nurture and support necessary to face their adversary.  And any guides (if present) should embody what the hero(ine) could be if only (s)he can complete his/her quest.

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Monday, October 1, 2012

What's My Story?

What gives a story its power?  What makes a it endure through the ages, exciting readers, inspiring thinkers, and even creating new religions in its wake?  Why have some stories stayed with the human race since inception, and while others have disappeared forever?

As an aspiring storyteller myself I've been asking these questions for most of my life.  My journey has taken me through countless books by the likes of Joseph Campbell, Edith Hamilton, James George Frazer, and Robert Graves.  Through the illusory wastes of Los Angeles where I struggled and trained for ten years as a film student and actor.  Through the arrogant intellectual towers of the University of Southern California where I earned a Masters of Professional Writing Degree from working poets, novelists, publishers and humorists.  And finally, through the forests of the Pacific Northwest where, like the shamans of old, I gaze off the edge of the world searching for the hidden dragons of humanity's unconscious depths.  But mostly I just sit around reading and writing because the weather's too bloody awful to do much else!

In this blog, I intend to share on a more or less weekly basis my ongoing discoveries about the nature of stories and storytelling as it has grown and changed and continues to change from time immemorial.  In short, lessons that every writing class should teach, but never actually do.

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