Review of A Story as Sharp as a Knife

In an earlier post, I mentioned that the one artform with the most relevance to games is myth. Here is a review of the book that lead me to that conclusion.

This book is about myth, and how to understand this ancient art form in a time when we are so far from the sort of social context in which myth was the primary way of making sense of the world.

What do you think of when you hear the word "myth"?

Perhaps the most frequent way the word is used in our modern, literate society is to refer to a story that is false, an explanation that is incorrect. This is not the sort of myth to which Bringhurst has devoted over four hundred pages. Another place we might encounter the word is in museum exhibits or books about ancient history, where we read "myths" as the rather fanciful religious stories of those cultures yet to be blessed with a scientific understanding of the world. This sense of the word is somewhat closer to what Bringhurst is concerned with. But there is an important difference.

Myth is a performance art. It is oral poetry, storytelling. When we open a book and read "the creation myth of the ancient Egyptians" what we find is a fossilized skeleton that reveals no trace of its original vitality. As Bringhurst convincingly shows, the art and value of a myth is in its individual, idiosyncratic telling. If we read a summary of a myth and assume that that's all there is to it, we are no better off than someone who tries to understand a masterpiece of jazz improvisation by looking at the song's chord changes. In the case of myth, the story isn't enough - you need a transcription of the artist's actual words, just as you'd need a transcription of the actual notes that were played in a jazz solo. Better yet, listen to a live performance.

As you might expect, however, live performances of mythic storytelling are hard to come by nowadays. We are lucky to find even a faithful transcription of such a telling, as it is a rare anthropologist who has understood the importance of taking precise dictation rather than recording only a summary. One notable exception was the linguist John Swanton, who in 1900 went to live with the Haida people off the northwest coast of Canada and transcribed thousands of lines of oral poetry. Then in the late 20th century, Robert Bringhurst managed to come across Swanton's work.

Bringhurst's background is in poetry, not anthropology. As a result, he has been able to see in these old transcriptions a quality that most others have failed to appreciate. And with his book, A Story as Sharp as a Knife, he provides a means for others to begin to understand what is so great about these classical Haida myths and about all myth in general.

The book's subtitle is The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World, and in it you will find a tour of that world, organized around a selection of about a dozen myths. It's a tour that you may repeat many times, or just skip around to the parts that interest you. The book doesn't set out to prove one particular point, and there is no explicit introduction or concluding chapter to summarize the book for you - the prologue gets you started on a journey, but it doesn't provide a map of what you'll encounter.

Each myth featured in the book serves as the reference material for an investigation into a different aspect of mythtelling. In each section, Bringhurst provides some historical and cultural background, followed by the translated myth transcription itself and an analysis, highlighting certain passages and occasionally bringing in outside connections such as Renaissance painting to compare or contrast with Haida mythtelling traditions. The main chapters of the book are supplemented by an extensive collection of notes, as well as several appendices on language and translation concerns.

Of course, there are plenty of things that the book doesn't do. It doesn't give you a large number of myths, just enough to give you a feel for them. Neither does Bringhurst go into much detail about Haida culture or mythology beyond what is required to understand the particular stories he presents. And while obviously a great deal of research went into writing this book, everything in it is either historical fact or the author's personal interpretation; it is not what you might call a "scientific" book. Not that that's necessarily a weakness, but it would be nice to have further verification of his views through another source or the support of a fleshed-out theoretical framework. What you can expect is to gradually gain a unique appreciation for myth through the experience of reading the book.

Though it is difficult to reduce Bringhurst's investigation into a single question or argument, there are several identifiable threads connecting the many observations and explanations distributed throughout. Some of these are simply context, the stories of villages and mythtellers and anthropologists, together covering the who, where, and when of the subject. The others could be thought of as supporting the main theoretical concern of this book, the what, how, and why of mythology.

One of these threads, answering the question of what is the nature of myth, explains that myths are living things, perpetuated through human minds because they are deeply meaningful. Together, many myths form an ecology, a living mythology, in symbiosis with a human society. This mythological system exists to make sense of the structure and dynamics of the world, how the world works and how it is organized. While it is still alive, every mythology is an ecosystem that continually evolves as individual mythtellers reinterpret the stories in terms of their own understanding of the world. As Bringhurst writes, "A genuine mythology is a systematically elaborated, extended, interconnected and adaptable set of myths. It is a kind of science in narrative form."

Another thread, which deals with how people convey meaning through myth, emphasizes the importance of individual tellings, that the way myths convey an understanding of the world depends on the details of a particular artistic performance. Myths make use of archetypes, themes, plots, and patterns, but these are building blocks - they are not the essential message. What matters is how these elements are connected and arranged to create new meaning: "A story is, in fact, a sentence: a big sentence saying, or revealing, many things that a full list of its components cannot say." When myths are reduced to summaries and stereotypes, as has sadly been the case in a vast majority of anthropological work on the subject, "we lose all the learning and insight, perception and wisdom, that the myth has been used to convey."

The other thread, of why myth takes the form it does, contrasts myth - oral narrative poetry - with other art forms such as verse poetry or prose. Bringhurst makes the point that myth can only thrive as myth in an oral society, one without writing. Verse poetry may also exist in oral societies, but only in those that make their living through agriculture rather than hunting. "Humans, as a rule, do not begin to farm their language until they have begun to till the earth and to manipulate the growth of plants and animals." The argument there is that the structure of mythic poetry has a spatial quality reflecting the irregular order of the forest rather than the uniform repetition of the cultivated field reflected in verse poetry. Myth can be very musical in its own way, but as a music of thoughts and images rather than sounds.

That last thread helps explain why historically so many anthropologists have misplaced the significance of the myths they encountered. As members of an industrial, literate society, they were ill-equipped to understand story in the same way as their hunter-gatherer subjects. Words simply do not have the same role or meaning in oral societies as they do in literate ones. According to Bringhurst, "In a self-sustaining oral culture, faith, hope, and even charity are invested very differently than in cultures that are learning or have learned the use of writing. A shift from oral to written culture affects the functioning of memory, the understanding of truth, and the place of voice and language in the working of the world. It affects not just the meaning of words but the meaning of language itself. It affects the meaning of meaning."

If only those anthropologists could have read A Story as Sharp as a Knife before they went forth to capture the traditions of those people who had yet to be enveloped into industrial global culture! Time warps aside, those of us in the 21st century now have an excellent opportunity to acquaint ourselves with the mythic mindset through Bringhurst's book. When you first start reading the actual myths, you will likely feel somewhat out of place, getting used to the translations, the unfamiliar storytelling style, and the initial strangeness of the stories themselves for those unaccustomed to Haida mythology and culture. But as you become more familiar with the style and learn how to appreciate the myths through Bringhurst's insightful analysis, they become quite enjoyable in their own right.

The book is not dense, but it is long and there is plenty of material to chew through. There's such a variety of ideas to absorb that you'll likely want to spread out your reading of it, enough to appropriately digest each topic. It is a thoughtful book that paces out its most fascinating bursts of insight such that the interested reader will remain eager all the way through its four hundred pages of discussion. And by the end of it you'll have developed a new appreciation for myth and oral storytelling, and perhaps even an interest in discovering more about this often neglected subject.

In other words, read it! :D


Aaron Miller said...

I believe there are two ways to communicate and learn truth: fact and myth. Myths relay truth in figurative form, usually to comment on or explore something that requires a degree of abstraction. Science (the deductive study of facts) cannot answer every question.

I took a folklore class in which we discussed the importance of retelling in oral stories. I agree that it's important, but oral tellings are not the limit of myth. Mythology is not limited to live storytelling, nor is it limited to stories involving gods or spirits. Myths can take the form of any art, though not all art is myth.

Sadly, modern society is marked by skepticism. The Scientific Revolution was not, as it is often touted, the beginning of science or even careful methodology. It is, however, when the idea arose that nothing can be accepted as true until it has been tested in a lab and published in an academic journal. It's the beginning of the idea that knowledge can only be acquired through one way. And it's the cradle of the idea that mythology and religion are at odds with science... that stories have no place in the discerning of reality.

axcho said...

I agree with what you're saying, but I'm not sure if "myth" is the right word to use as the counterpart to "fact". Perhaps it is.

I still contend that myth as in "oral narrative poetry" has particular relevance to games. Other art forms may convey mythology, but modern society has since twisted those forms such that they are hardly useful models to study. I'd think that going directly to the actual art and poetry of a truly mythic culture would be most effective.

I disagree with your use of the word "skepticism". In my view, skepticism is essential and helpful in maintaining the integrity of both myth and fact. The way I understand the word, it has nothing to do with favoring fact over myth.

Son of Bryce said...

I didn't know that anthropological research was so 'scientific'. Dry & data-driven. I don't think it's necessarily the data that's important, but rather the story that can be told. An image of the past -- waiting to be painted. That's what I would be looking for if that was my field.

One thing that I imagine with myth telling is that the story will always change from one person to the next. People will forget details and emphasize the parts that they like the most. And as accurate and factual as science is, it falls victim to this as well. There's just a lot more paper involved.

You make me wonder what role games play within these types of societies. Are games in such societies just for fun, or do they have a mythical relevance?

Kreeslak said...

Wow axcho...
i reached you looking for velociraptor and deinochus references
and look what a great surprise:
A juicy blog about many interesting things.

By the way im' ordering one used book right now.

I think any wise mind will appreciate myths not only for their amusement transcription. If everybody knew that moder society movies and literature its barely based on 3 old protomyths, they would bother to appreciate any new myth source.

axcho said...

Awesome, I hope you enjoy the book. I think there are a lot of reasons for a wise mind to appreciate myths. ;)

Velociraptors are excellent, as well.