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Layers of Meaning and Truth

Fifteen years or more ago I wrote an essay called "Turning Myth Into Truth" where I explored a few of the ideas set down in these notes. The time seems right to dive a little deeper....

I often get asked, especially by young children, "Is that story true? Did Coyote really fall down and go splat and make Crater Lake? Did Bear really go flying over Mount Shasta?"

My usual response goes something like this: "Yes. The stories are true, and this is why. If you want to believe that Coyote and Bear did those things, that’s fine. But that’s not the truth of the story. The plot of a story is a vehicle to get us somewhere. And where we arrive at is the truth. Coyote falling down is only a little bit about making Crater Lake. It’s mostly about falling in love and getting dumped. Bear flying over Mount Shasta is just partly about creating the Big Dipper, it’s mostly about not giving up. Bear saying, "I can fly if I want to fly" sounds a lot like the Little Engine saying, "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can."

The plot is what guides us through the story. The truth is what we learn from the journey. Even stories we make up take us to where the truth is, and they have plenty to teach us about being alive, about helping us understand ourselves and those around us, helping us to participate in our world rather than intrude upon it. These are the truths of the stories, and because of that, ALL of the stories are true."

This nearly always satisfies adults, and with some tweaking in the wording, can also satisfy most young children who usually want a yes or no answer.

Most native languages in my home area of southern Oregon and northern California have no word which literally means story. A more accurate translation for the word might be teaching or wisdom. Different words are used to describe tribal events or various histories.

The native stories are rarely religious but always spiritual. This allows the story to exist on its own outside religious rules, and explore and embrace the entire range of human emotions and experience. Coyote’s sexual antics and the deepest spiritual values of the people can exist side by side in the same story without being in contradiction. Perhaps humor is the glue. This is certainly what allows a court jester or fool to insult a king in front of the people. As long as there is truth in there somewhere, the jester escapes unscathed. In more recent times, we know that jester as Mark Twain or Lenny Bruce -- there is a long list here from an old tradition.

In stories, people’s moral convictions guide them through the layers of meaning, and eventually to a truth that speaks clearly to their own sensibilities, even if the plot might startle those same sensibilities. Hearing such stories told well makes one feel completely human. There is truth in this.

When I was in college I took a class called Bible as Lit, and the Bible was taught just as the title implied, as literature. One-third of the students dropped the class right off. They were the literalists who were there not to explore the layers of meaning and truth in some of the world’s best stories but rather to "prove" the literal "truths" of the events of the Bible and convert the class to their religious thinking. Finding themselves outnumbered by hopeless English majors beyond the grasp of salvation, they quickly abandoned ship. The class taught me to dive past history and plot and dogma into the depths of truth. One of the questions on the final exam was wonderful. It simply asked for an essay explaining why Biblical scholars wince when asked, "What does it say in the original?" After finishing the essay I remember scribbling in the margin, "By the way, I have a signed, first edition." Seems Mister Coyote has been in my neighborhood for quite a spell.

I avoid adding "morals" to any story, or attaching titles to stories like "How the Chipmunk Got His Stripes" or "How Crater Lake Was Made". These seldom reflect the various meanings of a story, and I have more effective ways to dramatize my native relationships with critters and places.

Any good story has many layers of meaning, and it is the art of the storyteller to keep as many of these layers alive in performance as possible so that each person in the audience -- no matter how diverse an audience’s range of age and experience -- has something to relate to in the story. To reduce a story to a moral reduces the story to a single meaning and is an insult to an audience. What meaning each audience member gets from a story is as true and valid as any this storyteller has to offer, and who am I to say they are wrong? I let the story speak for itself, and any good story, if told well, will do just fine on its own. If the meaning of a story cries for an explanation then the story is weak and needs attention. A little trail-work in the depths of the story might clear the path toward finding and experiencing the truth.

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