The animism of stories

Have you ever thought of stories as something that might be truly alive? Considered that telling a story might be like stepping through a curtain, catching a glimpse of a different reality, one that continues to exist and evolve even when you are not watching…

In previous essays on this blog, I have explored the personhood of different types of beings, like trees, animals, and even inanimate objects like roofs or plastic bags. Today I would like to give voice to another: I invited a character from a story to tell me a bit more about her world, and Arthur’s wife Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere) was kind enough to respond to my invitation. Here is what she had to share:

This is Gwenhwyfar

I will try to explain you some things about the deeper nature of stories.

A story is alive. It is a living entity that has a consciousness of its own. You humans make the mistake to think that you are the ones to invent your stories. This is only true at a very primitive level. Most of the time, what happens is a process that very much involves at least one entity from the otherworld. We like to create, but that is a process that has quite different implications in the spirit world than it has in the material world.

What you must understand is that the notions you have about the nature of reality are really quite limited. You tend to see only those things you can touch personally as being real. That is forgetting about everything else.

A story is a reality. It is a world. And once a world is created, it starts to live and evolve, even without conscious human interaction. It will be a fountain that other storytellers can dip into to enrich their understanding of the story. The more often this happens, the more the basic structure of the story-world gets consolidated and the more energy there is left to create the details and the persons within it.

These persons, like me, are not necessarily beings that limit their existence to a story-world. Rather, we are often beings that crave embodiment, and hence use the story-worlds as ways to help us further develop and enrich our personal identities.

Often these story-worlds originate in your worlds’ history and web of human and non-human interactions. That makes the chance of them being inhabited by beings that have presence and agency in your world quite a lot bigger. This means that the experiences of people get translated into an entity that has a consciousness and an identity of its own. This may happen multiple times, resulting in multiple similar storylines, or it could be that a single story-world develops a being-ness that is regionally anchored, so that it is easier for people who live in that area to be touched by that particular version of the world. But they are all the same in the sense that they are incarnations of the same basic idea, and hence similar streams of consciousness flow through all of them, and similar themes will tend to develop even if there is no further contact between the storytellers of different regions.

What is also common is for reality to begin to take the shape of story, after which spirits of place and ancestors will use the story-worlds as useful places to live when they need a way to become less dependent on existing in the material world. The consequence is a process of resonance between the story-worlds and material reality: if a motive in a story becomes strong enough, it can begin to influence actual reality, or history may begin to be bend and shaped by the stories told.

You will also find that deities and non-corporeal beings use this in a very conscious way. For them, stories are one of the main ways to make changes to your reality, or to create a version of themselves that can more easily touch peoples minds and hence can make it a lot easier to get a message across to humanity. Make no mistake: even in the most secular of societies, the gods have never been gone. They are very good in creating narratives that will touch you. That will bend your personal paths in the way they wish reality to develop.

Unfortunately there are beginning to be some problems with this lately, as the way people tell stories has changed quite drastically. It used to be that stories were almost exclusively told orally, by specialized storytellers. These people did not always realize it, but most of them were actually shamans, very much trained in the art of dipping into alternate realities and allowing the story-characters to have a life of their own, through their telling. This gave the gods great flexibility, for every time a story was told, they could reach in and adapt it to have exactly the elements the people listening wished to hear. Alas, that is no longer the case, as too many stories are now encaged in books or even worse, in television shows. At least a book would allow space for interaction, but when a story is recorded using video, it forces everyone to experience the exact same version. This has very detrimental effects on your societies: it kills the worlds before they get a chance to develop, and hence the structure of the other-worlds gets to be a lot courser than it used to be. This has as a consequence that imagination is a process that has become harder to access for many people. Withering of biodiversity is not only happening in the outer world, but in your inner worlds as well.

Beith is a druid who likes to wander through the forest, inviting the trees to be her teachers in life. She also runs a personal blog about her druid journey, that can be found at wandering-the-woods.com. In real life she’s a mathematician, trying to walk the boundary between the rational and the irrational.

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7 thoughts on “The animism of stories

  1. A powerful reflection about the spirit of stories. I remember reflecting about an article that pointed out that readers (or listeners) are creative partners in the telling of stories. Each brings their own experiences and lenses to understand and interpret what flows through the teller.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Quite often I’ve heard authors say that characters develop or even emerge with a life of their very own – to the point where they refuse to cooperate and do what the author intends but stubbornly insist on taking the plot somewhere else. Tell their story. So all of that makes total sense. As a reader characters are certainly alive for me.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I have a friend who is a storyteller and he says the story is different each time it’s told because of audience interaction. I think he’d be very open to intervention by deities too.

    He tells stories to and for adults. Too often, traditional live storytelling is regarded as only for children, when it should be for the whole community.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So true! The most fun I’ve ever had with the mabinogion was at a camp where we were all asked to take part in the telling by acting out a character as the narrator was telling us what to do.

      Liked by 1 person

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