‘Beren now, he never thought he was going to get that Silmaril from the Iron Crown in Thangorodrim, and yet he did, and that was a worse place and a blacker danger than ours. But that’s a long tale, of course, and goes on past the happiness and into grief and beyond it—and the Silmaril went on and came to Earendil. And why, sir, I never thought of that before! We’ve got—you’ve got some of the light of it in that star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on. Don’t the great tales never end?’
‘No, they never end as tales,’ said Frodo. ‘But the people in them come, and go when their part’s ended. Our part will end later—or sooner.’
‘And then we can have some rest and some sleep,’ said Sam.
Postmodernism has its flaws. And a lot of them. In fact, postmodernism generally annoys me—I often feel, rightly or wrongly, that postmodernists are missing the point. But postmodernism has made contributions, particularly to our understanding of how stories affect us.
Postmodernists emphasize the existence of “metanarrative”—that is, stories that explain other stories. Often, they appear in the form of a worldview. Postmodernists tend to see metanarratives as dangerous, however—“control stories” whose object is to control not only other stories, but also other people. To many postmodernists, every belief system is “narrative,” and therefore untrue. Gene Edward Veith, in his book Postmodern Times, criticizes this view: “Truth-claims are defined as fictions.”
Yet, contrary to postmodernist beliefs, narrative and fiction are not the same thing: rather, fiction is a subset of narrative. Witnesses narrate what they experienced to a jury. The jury does not believe they are lying merely because they tell truth in the form of a story. As my former apologetics professor said, “The difference between a story and obituary is narrative. Obituaries list the bare facts and usually do not connect them.” Narrative is about connection, not control.
Similarly, metanarratives help us to make sense of individual stories. They lie at the back of the mind, influencing how we see the individual facts of our lives. For Christians, the Bible provides our main metanarrative—that of the world’s creation, man’s fall, and God’s plan of redemption.
Humans are story-telling creatures. To use J. R. R. Tolkien’s terminology, we exercise our prerogative of “sub-creation” when we tell stories. God authored the world, and we author smaller worlds. Yet these worlds, whether written down or passed by word of mouth, can lie at the back of the mind, affecting how we see our world. They are not full metanarratives, but they help explain life at a different level. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien repeatedly shows how backstories—neither metanarratives, nor simply history, but rather a form of myth—can continue, after a fashion, into the present. In his phial Frodo carries the light of Eärendil’s star.
Jim Ware’s recent novel, Stone of Destiny, brings backstory to mind, although his backstories are of a different sort than Tolkien’s. Stone of Destiny is based around the Irish legends about the Lia Fail, ancient Ireland’s kingship stone at Tara. Young Morgan Izaak and his friend, Eny Ariello, learn of the legends as Morgan is struggling to find a cure for his cancer-stricken mother. When Morgan’s efforts with alchemy prove inadequate, he turns his attention to the Lia Fail, having been told by Madame Medea that only its power can make his powder work. But Madame Medea is not who she seems, and Morgan’s willingness to trust her risks the safety of many other people—including his friend, Eny.
The book has its flaws. For one, while Morgan is clearly intended to be the book’s main character, his struggles often fade into the background while Eny is off having her own adventures. Also, partly because the novel unfolds mainly in our world (California, to be exact), its balance of legend with Christianity—a challenge in any event—sometimes tips in the wrong direction. Overall, Ware avoids preachiness, but he does not always succeed. Ware’s struggles bring to mind Tolkien’s avoidance of allowing his Middle Earth legendarium to coincide with Christianity. I personally believe that—depending on the tone an author wants, of course—that a melding of the two is possible. But it is difficult. And, as wonderful as Ware’s dependence on legend is, sometimes he includes too much legend and too little action.
All that being said, Ware reveals an understanding of how stories shape our lives. Both of Eny’s parents—one of Spanish descent, the other Irish—have their own story cycles. And both sets of stories not only shape Eny, but also prove vital in the struggle to understand what is happening around them.
Storytelling. It’s something of a lost art. In a culture that has transitioned from oral tales to printed books to computer screens, storytellers are rare. Most of the storytellers I’ve found exist within the pages of–you guessed it–printed books. People don’t have time to tell stories. Many of them aren’t sure how.
Storytelling isn’t simply about passing on words. A printed page can do that (and ought to). Rather, storytelling is about connection–connection not only between people and the story, but between the people themselves. Do you have children, or know some? Take a story, even one you’ve read, and tell it to them. The best way to connect people is not through classes in social skills. Rather, connection comes through shared interest in something bigger than you both.