The power of legends

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Detail of Maori structure at Te Puia.

Silk’s Post #116 — I’m writing this from my Bayswater balcony overlooking Auckland, NZ across Stanley Bay. Travel is an inspiration for writers. I’ve been journaling on this trip to corral that inspiration for future stories, and when I sat down to write this post, I had a blinding flash of the obvious about why travel is so stimulating to a storyteller.

Now, by “travel”, I don’t mean just moving from Point A to Point B. We all do that every day, on trips to familiar destinations near and far. By “travel”, I mean taking a journey, exploring, discovering a new place you’ve never been before. It’s a process that requires being present, being curious, observing, learning and understanding.

When I travel to a new place, I automatically go into discovery mode. How is this place different from what I’m familiar with? How is it the same? It’s like an intellectual game of compare and contrast.

Perhaps when we travel we’re exercising ancient survival skills. How can I make my way in this new place? Stay safe? Establish my territory? Communicate? Find food, clothing and shelter? When you’re a stranger in a strange land, you need to be aware of everything, because your life may depend on it.

It may seem a bit dramatic in the tourism context, but travel during the greater part of the human race’s history all took place before this planet became a global village. I think these discovery instincts are buried deep in our DNA.

That’s why travel is so stimulating to writers. Once we’re familiar with a place, get into our comfort zone, complacency sets in. It’s when we’re dropped into a new environment that we become fully alert. Our five senses wake up. We notice everything in vivid detail, the way children do. The stimulation of discovery travel is like plugging a writer’s brain into a 220 volt electrical socket. The synapses start firing and sparks fly. Imagination and inspiration go into overdrive.

But it doesn’t stop with the five senses. The discovery instinct wants context and history – wants to understand a new place beyond what can be observed in the here-and-now.

How did this place get this way? Where did these people come from, and when, and how? What challenges did they face? How did they survive? Why did they settle around this harbour, this forest, this valley, this mountain? Who were their friends and enemies? Who conquered them, or was conquered by them? What did they create? What did they believe? How did their culture evolve?

Even further back: how did the land itself emerge? What were its cataclysms? What about its geology? Its flora and fauna? Its bounty and its hazards? James Michener had a long and prolific career out of writing stories that answer questions like these (many of them set in the South Pacific).

I can’t claim to be a devoted student of human or natural history – or geography, geology, sociology, religion or culture. I doubt my research for writing would ever approach the virtual research industry that must have been needed to support the foundations of Michener’s epic stories.

But, after all, history – whether written or oral – is essentially storytelling. Every time you combine a “fact” with a storyteller, you end up with an interpretation from the storyteller’s perspective. History, as they say, is written by the victors. It’s not a science.

That’s why, for me, the most powerful form of storytelling is legends. These are histories – often originating in the earliest days of cultures around the world – that record events, celebrate deeds, interpret natural phenomena, perpetuate and evolve spiritual beliefs, teach the rules of culture, and seek to explain human beings to themselves.

One illustration of the power of myth and legend that’s especially relevant to writers is the persistent pattern of storytelling. As Helga pointed out in a recent post, Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers, is a classic treatise on the hero’s journey pattern.

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Maori carved figure at Te Puia.

We spent yesterday at Rotorua, an important Maori locale in a volcanic region that has powerful geological symbols, including hot springs and geysers. Of course, we only got the 2-hour tourist view of this vibrant culture, which is rich in legends. Now I’m hungry for more.

Every culture has its creation legend, and while they come in many flavours they also tend to follow a common pattern. These usually feature the agency of an all-powerful, creative being – an animal, a bird, a god, a mystical presence. Creation usually happens in a meaningful sequence: first the world “stage” is set, then humans enter the scene. The creator then bestows some gift of power on the first people along with responsibilities or challenges. Finally, the creator gives them rules to be broken at their spiritual peril. (Following or breaking of the rules is often the subject of post-creation legends).

Could there be a more compelling, or universal, urge – the need to explain where we came from? Many other myths and legends of widely divergent cultures around the globe also have parallels, often in stories that teach how humans should behave. How each culture frames its stories tells a lot about what makes them different, and what makes them the same. Legends are like weathervanes that point to how each culture was shaped.

Now that we live in the era of science, these legends may seem outmoded – primitive stories to explain the inexplicable. Things that science is now busy explaining “correctly”. But legends are more than literal histories. They’re cultural artifacts, full of the wisdom of human survival.

For a traveller on a journey of discovery – whether a physical trip, or one of research and imagination – there are powerful truths in legends that illuminate a new place and bring it to life in full colour. It’s something a writer should pay attention to.

Legends acknowledge things that science and modern views of “reality” ignore, or can’t explain.

Call it magic.

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Pohutu and Prince of Wales Geysers.

 

 

4 thoughts on “The power of legends

    • Powerful stuff, isn’t it? I love finding the parallels between legends of different cultures. One that I love is the witch of the woods figure in different Native American folklore such as Dsonoqua in Coast Salish legend and U’tlun’ta (or Spearfinger) in Cherokee tales. Both figures haunted the forest and killed their human prey when they found a lone wanderer, especially a child. My theory is that the fear of these witches, no matter how their legends began, was used by mothers to warn their children not to stray into the woods away from the camp. Sometimes a legend’s purpose is highly practical!

  1. Silk, this sounds like the trip of a lifetime! I am so intrigued at how New Zealand works on your imagination and how it feeds your writer’s brain. (Witness your side-splitting sentence ‘like plugging a writer’s brain into a 220 volt electrical socket’.) NZ is rich when it comes to legends and myths. I agree they are at the root of who we are and where we came from. I can just see how being surrounded by these mythical Maori structures and figures might have a role in your future writing. Thanks for sharing these great photos!

  2. I’m drawn to myths for my stories, but I’m not a good traveler. I think I was inadvertently brought up to be a stranger in a strange land (too long a story for here) so I look at cherished myths and ask, ‘What aren’t they telling us, and why?’ Travel doesn’t stimulate that for me, I don’t know why, and I wonder if it’s a gender thing. In my personal experience, women I know seem to be drawn to travel more than men. Ideas don’t come to me when I’m on someone else’s turf, but my wife always wants to be somewhere else. I think Helga said that part of a wife’s job is to get her husband out of the house.

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