The Wind in the Leaves, Part 2: The Land

DISCLAIMER: Before going any further, I’d like to qualify why I’m writing about this subject. To be clear, I’m not someone who writes novels, I’ve never attempted to write a novel or even a short story. As a creative, I’m a musician who writes song lyrics; I also have a little experience in writing poetry. But, apart from a few prose articles in journals, I’ve never published a story in my life. So how come I believe I have something worth saying about creating narrative?

I’ve studied and taught courses on medieval Welsh texts for some time now, particularly the symbolic narratives of The Four Branches of the Mabinogi. In different ways, I’ve studied the mechanics of symbolic narrative and how myth works. This series of posts is simply another way of talking about myths and how we use them. Please don’t read this as advice on how to write a novel. For that, please ask a novelist, someone who’s actually done it.

But for those of you interested in how  we can consciously use myths, please read on. From that viewpoint, it’s very valuable to look in detail at how a symbolic narrative is put together, something I do have an understanding of. These posts will certainly be useful to those wishing to write in a particular way, but for actual advice on the craft of novel writing, as I said, go see someone who actually knows.

Go talk to some real novelists, like the Brontes (you may need a medium.)

So, having defined the limits of my expertise, lets move on.

The question that underlies these posts is: what does it mean to make conscious use of myth? What does that look like in practice? Although there are numerous ways into the topic, it may be best to begin with the author’s role before looking at that of the audience. Although I’ll be focussing on myths evoked through narrative here, this also applies to any kind of art that seeks to evoke myth.

How do you construct a narrative that has the potential to evoke a mythic response? Notice I’m only claiming potential here. There is no real certainty that you can evoke a mythic response in an audience, fundamentally because myth is something that happens within the audience’s experience, not within a text. The only thing an author can do is try their best to understand the audience they wish to create for, to uncover their dreams and find out what gives their lives meaning.

An author could begin by asking what is their chosen audience’s general culture? What do they believe in? For this series of posts, lets assume the chosen audience is interested in what we might call deep ecology. On a mundane level they are environmentally aware, support sustainability and respect nature. On a deeper level they believe that human consciousness should, in a perfect world, be deeply embedded in nature. Within this particular culture, these values make up a myth often referred to simply as The Land.

Thomas Cole, The Oxbow, (1836).

The Land is a myth that draws on some very old cultural strands, often pagan in orientation, and mostly delivered to our age through 19th century Romanticism. Today, this myth expresses a yearning for connection with something felt to be lost in modern culture: a nativeness, a wildness, an honouring of an ancient human perspective that sees itself as part of Sublime Nature, not above or separate from it. The Land often has an Eden-like quality. It’s the Promised Land we modern humans have left behind, yet can perhaps still return to.

But to return implies some kind of redemption, and in the myth of The Land, that redemption begins with an acknowledgment of the problem: humanity has divorced itself from the symbiotic network of natural consciousness. Our consumption-driven culture is self-destructive, creating a society that degrades the subtle psychic connection to the rest of planetary life, divorcing us from our life-supporting environment, leaving our natural souls to wither in the glare of a dead, technological light. Modern, main-stream consumer culture (which has the same traits all over the planet, East and West) drives us not only to reject our connection to this greater planetary Soul, but essentially undermines our original, natural humanity.

In that sense, The Land expresses an existential crisis, one reinforced by the environmental realities of the modern era. If climate change research shows us anything, we are fast approaching an ecological disaster that threatens life as we know it. In the myth of The Land, this ecological disaster is a symptom of our disconnection from the spiritual ground of our being, the Living Earth. This myth therefore encompasses not only a crisis in individual, but also in collective existence.

There is far more that could be said about this myth. We could even go so far as defining its variations within smaller sub-cultures. But for the time being, let’s stick with this basic outline and consider how we could create a vessel, a narrative form for this myth. At this early stage, keep in mind that for the author, the myth will be contained within the written text, interwoven with and underlying the story they create, but for the audience it will only ever be something that’s evoked within them. For all of the author’s careful intentions, the audience will always have their own understanding of the text and the myth it evokes.

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