I suppose that is what responsibility is, living up to what you have acquired or experienced. As a storyteller I’ve become burdened at times with having known and observed things relentlessly. It becomes an all-absorbing passion seeing structure, noting performances. There becomes a permanent book-keeper noting and charting, seeing how form becomes, how things are created, how structure can imprison and empower. How freedom comes with letting all of that go, a sublime unconsciousness which is somehow all-knowing. It takes over and the story becomes part of everyone.
To be responsible means not knowing intellectually but embracing all you’ve acquired, honouring it with a depth and profound respect for the Masters before you, and the beginners who will come. You do become aware of a sort of pattern development and this needs to be leant into lest the enjoyment gets lessened. To be jaded is a sign you’ve stopped listening. It is a laziness of attention.
Nevertheless the intensity of enjoyment when a story grips and takes you never lessens. I am still in the foothills of my professional life with gaping examples of Martin Shaw, Jan Blake and Robin Williamson towering above me. Their perfection of speech and delivery owes everything to hours and hours and hours of simple storytelling. It is as if each listener gives the gift of their attention like an angel of a fairy and the wingtips of these beings leave a trace in the teller. In the telling, these accumulated winged awarenesses emerge again, given thermals by the story itself, fly round the room with an intensity that can only accumulate if the essence of story is honoured. If the path is trodden carefully, diligently and being utterly consumed by each telling.
Absorption with storytelling, however, is a great privilege because it demands living at your highest, and widest and worst and scoop up and devour the particles of life that have imprinted themselves on the world’s great tales. If you have not tasted and enjoyed and despaired of these things yourself, the tellings will be hollow and the stories divorced from the fabric of what they honour. There has to be something of yourself in the story – so completely that it is imperceptible to the listener. You cannot act a story or force its consciousness in a way it does not wish. It is a perfect accumulation of all it, you and the audience have ever accumulated and leaning into it with false intention clangs like a warped cymbal. The story must be imbued with experience and at the same time all experience must be taken out so the angel wingtips can emerge unimpeded. I don’t mind that this is paradoxical. I am aiming at a careful treatment of something that should remain mysterious, about which no rules should be made. This is one reason I have yet to attend a school of storytelling, or even a course in fact.
Sometimes the telling can be a challenge. Sometimes the work is too great to be absorbed by this being at this time and so you wait a few years before it can mature, deepen and be coloured by experience. I hope to have read Troyes’ Perceval several times before performing and deepened it with Eschenbach’s Parzival and heard it told by many tellers before I am ready to take on its depth and scope. It is a tale I love with all my heart and with an intensity that it indeed holds clues to the living of life’s mysteries. As wonderfully as the Bible or the Bhagavad Gita, tho perhaps less relentlessly than the latter.
It’s a great gift therefore to see Martin Shaw mastering Parzival and releasing his book The Snowy Tower, which is a poetic treatment of the story. Later next year there’ll be a play in London and if there is any chance of turning up to those auditions, I would love to play Parzival myself.
The stories themselves must become rituals at some point. I remember a visit to the august and great tree Magog at the foot of Glastonbury Tor – over 1000 years old at least and standing by her husband. I began climbing the tree much to the gasps of my fellow travellers. The tree was after all ancient and I probably did not look too steady as I climbed. I sat in the branches of the tree and I wonder if ever before in my life have I felt so held, so warm, so nurtured. It was an infusion of grace which makes you wonder why people bother to visit churches. It was available and deeply satisfying. One month later I become calm and tender as I recall it.
It was only as I began walking down the hill that I realised what I had been doing. In the version that Troyes began, Perceval encounters a boy in a tree who would neither confirm nor deny anything. He just kept moving to the trees upper branches. This sublime symbol seems to speak so much of what Eastern Masters have said of discernment, the sword that distils truth by cutting all perceptual attachment: neither this nor that. Here it is in Perceval beautifully embodied.
So there is deep wisdom in the tales, huge curiosities about the medieval psyche and how much it gives rise to our own and a constant distilling of the essential: what really stands out and is important to us in our age. The climbing of the tree was a physical engagement with the myth, I later realised. It was somehow to receive its blessing more deeply than reading or meditating on it had done. This was not mimicry but enactment of myth, designed to manifest it more deeply. The shamans tell us that a prayer is never only for ourselves but for all beings, so perhaps this was a ritual for this quality to take root and deepen worldwide: of perceptual non-attachment, of a deep livingness that embraces as deeply as it lets go. That it happened spontaneously and without conscious knowledge is perhaps a clue of how myth should be approached, embodied and enacted.
“Myth has no author” as Martin Shaw has said, which seems an appropriate place to end a post that began with responsibility.