Articles by, about, or with Rafe Martin

“Why Folktales?”, by Rafe Martin

This article originally appeared in the January 1999 edition of Storytelling Magazine

Sometimes people ask me—“Why are folktales important? Why should they be shared, retold, recreated, put in books today? Are they just remnants of outdated cultures, quaint and charming stories of little current relevance? Why do you so often write recreations of folktales, anyway?”

My answer is that folktales, perhaps better called traditional tales, return us, not to the literal world but to the imagined one. They are doorways into a constant realm of universal dreaming through which archetypes may be embodied, characters and roles and life paths explored.

They are old, as the psyche is old, as the imagination is; old and enduring. The patterns of cause and effect, good and evil which run through these old tales underlie all cultures, underlie even the current dream of unbounded technological accomplishment and success. Folktales, the unauthored, cumulative recasting of many generations’ experience explores the old, that is, fundamental areas of ourselves, areas so common they remain at the bedrock of our humanity.

And because they are old, they are mature. Honed by centuries of telling and retelling they have become concise models of narrative, real building blocks of the imagination. Worn to the nub, all superfluity washed away, they retain a consistency of their own. In them only what needs to happen, happens. And yet, the promise of that happening fulfills our dreams.

For what folktales give us, is a language of wish-fulfillment. In these stories we can make what we wish to happen finally happen. In the mind. In the imagination. We can see and feel core places that we may have to strive all our lives to bring into actual being. But in the folktale it is completed and we live and feel it, too, in the unique terms of our own images. A kind of promise of fulfillment, of a destined, some-day-to-be fulfillment is made temporarily real. In a Cinderella tale for example we can experience justice—see good rewarded and evil punished. When was the last time reading the newspaper brought that? How could it? Our daily news is built on tales of injustice. That is the world. But not the world we wish for. Traditional tales put us into a real human world; not the literal one, but one we really wish might be. That wish is part of our truth as human beings. If we lose it we lose a deep part of ourselves, the very part, perhaps, that motivates our constant effort to improve society and recreate the world to accord with wish—to bring into being a world of integrity and equality. Traditional tales keep the flame of such possibility alive.

Fiction, however, turns us to the literal characters and places of the outer world. As for movies they do that always and completely so. The literal streets, cars, houses, pollution of our daily world are all there, as are the literal faces and mannerisms and voices of this or that character, this or that actor.

But in folktales the smoke curls yet from the cottage beside the sea. There the fisherman’s wife still explores the parameters of greed through the grace of the flounder. The little parrot still flies through smoke and fire to fulfill the one little task she has envisioned for herself and the Rough-Face Girl, after torments, at last weds the Invisible Being. Ships set forth on the blue sea and the wolf prowls the green forest. The soul’s stories, the ones always needing to be enacted within the imagination, are brought to life. To retell them is perhaps as primary an act of the imagination as the constant repainting, by traditional peoples and, at one time, by all our ancestors world-wide, of cave walls and petroglyphs. It has the tone of ceremony.

Folktales, traditional tales, are the eternal literature of humanity. They speak not to reason, logic, fact and that jumbled pile of one-time events we call history, but to the portals of dream. They speak to creative powers lying dormant and unrecognized, unconjured, unprotected, as devastated as wilderness; to wild territories of our own being. They speak to what is not, yet must always be.

And they do it in language that is clear, finely honed, precise. Behind the words on the page one hears the echo of an actual, human voice. The characters, too, are simple and clear, the kind that a single narrator could have brought to life. They are the elemental beings of our own psyche—the disguised yet spirited prince or princess, the tyrannical king or queen, the animal-helper, the wise old woman or man to name a few. Implicit in all such tales too, is the nurturing presence of human community and all the social contexts of told stories. The tales arise from a time when, if you wanted to hear a tale, you had to join with others and share the experience in common in a social, communal event. This is so entirely unlike the experience of reading a book as to be almost unimaginable today. When reading one can stop and start as one chooses. One can pick up one book, put it down, begin another. One remains always in control. The told tale reminds us of a more complete participation, in which the imagination and long-held, stable traditions and entire communities of people all joined in the act of restoring and being restored by, the tale.

Still, why should we care whether the imagination is nourished or not? Isn’t it time to grow up? To get real and let all this old stuff go? Ah, but it is not out of logic and reason, as useful tools as they may be, that we actually create our lives but, rather, out of wish and dream. If the imagination is undeveloped how can a life be dreamed well? To dream, to imagine is the beginning of creating. We dream our self-image, dream our careers, dream our possibilities for love and family. Our maturation and inner growth is a kind of redreaming, a revisioning of possibility and reality. Out of these dreams our actual life unfolds. And more. The airplane, telephone, computer, all of it, everything not of Nature, began as a dream in the mind. Now it is real. Out of the imagination comes our real life.

Traditional tales are food for this imagination. They nourish and develop it by getting us to see what cannot be seen outside the tale. They let us see the interplay of causes and effects. The king’s son wandering the earth returns the salmon to the water. The princess, lost in the wilderness, shakes the heavy apples down from the burdened tree, releasing the branches. From such kind deeds benefits will flow. How we limit this process by calling it simply, “values”. In traditional tales we explore the dynamics of compassion and selfishness as well as other fundamental areas of our own nature. We become the good and evil characters, the animals, cities, forests and seas. They are our nature made visible as in dream. And things impossible to touch outside of dream can again enter our waking lives—shadows, memories, aspirations, possibilities, a sense of connection to an old, true, always real world in which humans and animals do converse freely and the wolf is our brother, the raven our sister, the eagle our mother.

Folktales are soul’s nourishment; are food. Without them we are never quite ourselves, never who we might have been. And they must be recast in words. Only then can they come alive in our own interior images, only then can they live, becomes us, enter our bloodstream, hearts and bones and empower our lives.

The relationship between the human mind and folktales may be reciprocal. Perhaps the tales are a kind of wildlife of the psyche, capable of roaming, foraging and reproducing, of living their own lives, in a tentative way, without us. Perhaps they wander, in somewhat differing form, through plant and animal, and other non-human minds. Perhaps they were in the mind of the earth itself before other life-forms began. Perhaps, they predate, in their essence, the green earth itself. Perhaps, to them, mind is a doorway and body a vehicle for the reenactment of story.

Then, do we imagine stories? Yes. But they also are the dream dreaming us.

Could we live without them? As we could live without love, without the earth, skies, and trees if absolutely necessary. But such a life would be a kind of prison is, in fact, what we mean by “hell.” If imagination is possibility, a starved imagination implies a pinched, starved, and diminished life; a trapped and truncated one. We suffer from lack of imagining.

Which is why I choose so often to work with traditional tales. They teach us how to imagine. It is why they are the foundation of children’s literature. In childhood the imagination is such a primary sense it must be trusted. As children what do we know except what we observe and feel and imagine. The street beyond our door—where does it lead? We imagine it. Where do our parents go, what lives do they live when they walk out the door? We must imagine it. We imagine mountains and seas, the moon and Mars, the past and future, the mind and life of a bug, a bird. As children we trust what we imagine because it is our primary way of knowing, a kind of intuiting. It is how the world comes to us. Perhaps it is the basis of what adults call, “faith.”

In part this is why the invasion of the imagination by expensive and so, exclusive, special effects as well as by heavily merchandized correlations of story and toys is so disturbing. It is a kind of literalizing of the imagination when we need to find and trust it most. If that doorway is closed too early a barrenness sets in. The places of the imagination with their own dark forests and clear ponds and our potential journeys there, never form. The newspapers abound with awful proof of such loss of interior, soul, possibility, and hope.

There is an early, romantic poem of Yeats’ titled “To the Realists” which goes like this:

Hope that you may understand!
What can tales of men that wive
In a dragon guarded land,
Paintings of the dolphin-drawn
Sea-nymphs in their pearly wagons
Do, but awake a hope to live
That had fled with the dragons.

This was written in 1914. It seems terribly truer now. What can be done? Being limited by time, talent, vision and will, by culture and genes we each try to do the little things we can. One little thing is simply to let old tales live.

The twenty-five hundred year old Buddhist tale of “The Brave Little Parrot” (which I recently turned into a picture book for G.P. Putnam’s Sons), suggests that little things can have large effects, effects which neither logic nor reason could predict. In that tale a little parrot struggles to sprinkle drops of water on a raging forest fire. It seems hopeless. Yet in the end it changes everything.

Is this a false hope? A foolish and naive one? Or are such whispers from the imagination, faint embers of an old world buried in our childrens’ tales, among the few things we can still reasonably trust to light our way, even today?

Read and share old tales. Think about them and recreate them. And see.

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