Wednesday, 23 February 2011

While You Were Sleeping...

Here in my hometown
things are not as I knew them.

How I long to be
in the place where the axe shaft
moldered away into dust.

Ki no Tomonori,
poem 991, cca 900 A.C.
(translated by Helen Craig McCullough)

In a comment (scroll down the page) to one of our more popular recent posts, a kind reader brought to our attention a lovely short story, A Sonata ("The Sonata"), by √Črico Ver√≠ssimo, a famous Brazilian writer.
It seems it hasn't been translated into English so far, but it is a sad love story that transcends time/space.

And English-speaking readers will be familiar with Washington Irving's short story Rip van Winkle, published in 1819.

Of course, modern fiction involving some sort of so-called "time travel" - which has become an impossibly trite and banal term by now - is abundant and proliferating at an alarming rate. (It wouldn't be alarming if all stories were as sensitive and well-written as The Sonata, but they aren't.)

All too many writers simply follow the scent of money - and money is currently heading towards anything that has to do with the possibility of transcending the ultimate barrier: Time. Or, more accurately, timespace.
It is the vogue of the times, and it says a lot about our world in A.D. 2011.

But as lovely - or ridiculous - as our modern stories may be, it is the old folk tales about seeming temporal displacments or anomalies that interest us here.

Most educated readers will have heard or read about such folk tales.
The specifics may vary, but the main scenario is practically the same:
a person - usually a man - falls asleep or strays off the beaten path, only to find out upon his return to his native village that all the people he knew have been long dead because decades - in some cases, centuries - have passed while he was napping.

Here is a version of a famous Chinese folk tale from the 9th century, at the latest, known as the Ranka, or The Rotten Axe Handle (and retold by the Japanese poet Ki no Tomonori in the poem above)

Wang Chih was a hardy young fellow who used to venture deep into the mountains to find suitable wood for his axe.

One day he went farther than usual and became lost. He wandered about for a while and eventually came upon two strange old men who were playing Go, their board resting on a rock between them.

Wang Chih was fascinated. He put down his axe and began to watch.
One of the players gave him something like a date to chew on, so that he felt neither hunger nor thirst.

As he continued to watch he fell into a trance for what seemed like an hour or two. When he awoke, however, the two old men were no longer there. He found that his axe handle had rotted to dust and he had grown a long beard. When he returned to his native village he discovered that his family had disappeared and that no one even remembered his name.

(Taken from here.)

here's another version of it, with more - but not irrelevant - emphasis on the game of Go.

What makes this particular strand of fancy especially interesting is that cultures all over the world - cultures unrelated to each other - know of such stories.
Yours truly, who is no expert on comparative literature, knows of a Vietnamese, a Finnish, and a few German
folk tales involving this type of experience, notably Peter Klaus, the Goatherd of Sittendorf (scroll down and risk being captivated by many other, unrelated, gems on the page).
What's interesting about the Peter Klaus legend is that, like in the Chinese story, the goatherd is also seduced by a game. (BTW, you'll find web accounts of this story that claim that the village of Sittendorf mentioned in the tale is fictional.
It is not fictional; it very much exists, even today!)

And that's not mentioning tales like the story of Honi "the Circle-Drawer" (HaMa'agel), mentioned in various ancient Judaic sources, including the Talmud, but too ambiguous to be discussed at length here.

Yet seldom is the question raised: how on earth did they - our mostly illiterate and presumably very earth-bound farming distant ancestors - come up with such a preposterous idea for a story, anyway? And not just one community, but communities all over the world?

You see, collective - folk - imagination doesn't work as an individual's fancy.
By its very nature it is much more coherent. An individual's "flight of fancy" must be accepted and validated by the collective imagination - by others in the community - to live on (and grow, as it usually happens) as a folk tale, whereas individual writers are accountable to no one (except, nowadays, to disgruntled Amazon reviewers, but I digress...).

Of course this doesn't mean that the subject of any given folk tale or legend must have been directly observed by other people; or that folk tales purport the factual truth (as opposed to some sort of archetypal truth).
But the subject matter does have to have a primal attraction, the origins of which are usually lost in time, for it to catch on; and it has to have some sort of validity for it to continue - even if it is validated by the common experience of mere un-knowing, or ignorance, if you prefer.

Many evolutionary sociologists and other related species would have you believe that our ancestors didn't understand anything whatsoever, and were afraid of absolutely everything.

Were they?
How did they survive for so long, then?
Fear and ignorance may provide
a convenient flippant explanation for every "irrational" belief under the sun (provided the recipients do not put too much thought into it), but they do not constitute a particularly good defense strategy in the wild, certainly not long-term.

Observation does.

To make an already all too long a story somewhat shorter: every legend, every folk tale contains a grain of truth observable by a community, no matter how distorted it becomes over time.

In this case, the truth - simple but not small - may be
the nobly humble acknowledgement that not everything real is readily comprehensible to the rational mind.

P.S. Due to temporal constraints (ha!) this post remains to be properly edited. Do come back. :)

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