Wednesday, February 26, 2014


                   TWICE-TOLD TALES

Filthy Marshlander,” someone yelled, as a chunk of pavement flew through the air. Bethany was relieved to see the soldiers close around her.

          “Wait until they get their hot knives into you,” shouted a woman with stumps for hands who was nearly naked in her rags.

The beggars fell back. Had the plan failed?  Stumbling uphill, Bethany felt terrified.

           Then a larger mob surged around them. They poured from the side streets and alleysand wove in and out of the march. Some of them had no legs and scooted along, swinging torsos between their hands, biting at the soldiers’ trousers. Bethany remained untouched, but clawing hands and pummeling stumps disconcerted her guards, who were suddenly tangled up in a whole flock of sheep. They flailed away with their swords but made little headway among frantically bleating sheep and fresh attacks from the beggars.

                        Ram, Bethany worried, where is the ram?

            Was she going to miss her only chance of escape?  These sheep were all ewes, none big enough to bear her weight.  Her guards had their backs to her.  She crumpled to the ground and rolled herself into the middle of the melee. Someone grabbed her from behind. She turned to fight, but it was s person on all fours wrapped in a sheep’s pelt.

                       “It’s me, Opal. Follow quickly. And stay crouched.”

 Opal butted sideways between sheep and beggars.

                      “Here’s our ram — grab on!”

            Bethany confronted the broad shoulders and tossing horns of a very angry sheep indeed. She moved to his side, threw herself on her back, wriggled underneath and with a heave dug her fingers into his fleece and wrapped her legs around him.  Much perturbed, he bucked and flailed, heaving and shuddering to get this wolf dog off him before it could sink its teeth into his belly.  Then a familiar voice commanded him and he thought it best to obey. Surely his shepherd wouldn’t let a wolf devour him from underneath, would he?

          Her mouth was full of stinking fur. The rank smell of sodden pelt and old sheep urine made her want to retch, but she had to hold on. The ram moved purposively forward. His shepherd must be leading him; this was part of her rescue. When the ram’s hoofs pounded on wood, she was jerked upward and fell flat on her back into a wagon bed..”

            This story just “came into my head” one morning as I was wondering how to get my eleven year old hero of The Road to Beaver Mill rescued from her tormenters.  The idea about the flock of sheep provided headlong action and breathless detail — just what I was looking for. It wasn’t until I was proofreading it some weeks later that I realized rescue by sheep hadn’t sprung straight from my own imagination;  It derived from my long-ago reading of the Odyssey, where Odysseus uses it to rescue himself and his band from the Cyclops' caves.

Was I plagiarizing? Only if you want to accuse Homer and  writers through the ages who pass down stories long current in the oral tradition.  That’s the way stories have always been told —memorized from what you hear, with the same essential plot line but variations in detail.  Did you know that until the seventeenth century almost everybody in Europe received stories orally that way, and that literacy wasn’t valued as a necessary accomplishment? Even the New Testament, including Paul’s letters, was written down by small groups of scribes for the purpose of being read out loud  (I have learned all this from my friend Joanna Dewey, who has just published a book on The Oral Ethos of the Early Church)

I have written a couple of books myself on how stories are told and retold through the ages.  These are “archetypal narratives,” with “archetypal” defined as recurrent over a long period of time. The Odyssey, for example, is an archetypal quest narrative where the hero goes on a long journey encountering perils and adventures before he finally reaches home.  It is one of many just like that: recurrent, hence archetypal.  Going in the other direction, the “coming of age” story, about a young person leaving home to seek maturation through adventure,  also an archetypal quest narrative. 

            In my young adult novel, The Road to Beaver Mill   Bethany develops from a stubborn and disobedient child, so self-centered that nobody trusts her with their community’s secrets, to a young person with a sense of responsibility to her people (readers of my Marshlander Series will remember her as Clare's daughter).

      Some archetypal figures derive from a world even earlier than the Achaean Greeks. Artemis, for example, can be traced back to Ishtar,  Goddess of Heaven and Earth, worshipped in Babylonia as The Light of the World, Righteous Judge, Lawgiver, Goddess of Goddesses, Bestower of Strength – aka, the Almighty MOI.

                                                         We know her as Miss Piggy.


                                                       Miss WHO? She’s a WHAT?

     Archetypes retain traces of their original power which we still recognize. I took this photo after a child arranged a marriage between Miss Piggy and my (stuffed) wart hog, who became the parents of Piglet.

   Well well. How could she know that the Syrian Goddess Astarte, a variation of Ishtar, mated with a Boar God? Was it some kind of archetypal memory was welling up in the little girl's head?

  When we encounter a Goddess figure, women often feel her psychological power within ourselves. At the University of Wisconsin I  assigned Judith Wright’s  poem about a powerful Ishtar figure completely at home with all of the aspects of womanhood – menstruation, childbirth, aging, the whole nine yards. Here’s how my students responded:.

“I can relate to the poet’s experience with Ishtar simply through identifying with the poet’s feelings. As a young girl, I dreaded developing a woman’s body. I wished for small breasts and hoped I would menstruate as late as possible. But the time I did menstruate I relented to nature and came to feel comfortable in my changing/new body.”

“However, when Wright witnesses her power of birth, Ishtar feels calm and satisfied being a woman. I anticipate having children with fear, excitement and other emotions that are difficult to identify.  Following the event I can imagine myself as winking at Ishtar.”

As for piglet, I’ll have to conduct further (archetypal) research, but  in the second volume of the Infinite Games Series, The Battle of the Black Fen. watch out for a ferocious boar.


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