Do we need a new story for the world? Or a new song?
“A dangerous monster threatens our community. One man takes it on himself to kill the beast and restore happiness to the kingdom…” This is one of the three archetypal stories that John Yorke identifies, underpinning all of the stories that we tell.
But are the archetypal stories that are lodged deep in our psyches part of the reason we are where we are now? Are they responsible for the expectation that a hero will come to save us, when it is only by coming together that we will be able to thrive together? How do we transition to a new story, as many people are saying we need to? And is it in fact a new story that we need? Or a new song?
Rebecca Solnit, in her essay ‘When the hero is the problem’, points out how we ‘are not very good at telling stories about a hundred people doing things.’ She writes of how this is a problem for society, particularly when it comes to fighting dangerous monsters such as climate change. Or now, Covid-19.
The reason for the prevalence of the lone hero story, she explains, goes back to our hunter-gather days. Solnit references Ursula K Le Guin’s essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” where Le Guin describes how the stories of the women sitting around the fire wresting a wild oat seed from its husk couldn’t compete with the story the hunter tells of killing the mammoth. So arose the Story of the Ascent of Man the Hero. It already seemed to Le Guin in the 1980s that the story of the mammoth hunter was approaching its end, and that “some of us out here in the wild oats, amid the alien corn, think we’d better start telling another one, which maybe people can go on with when the old one’s finished.”.
In this in-between time, when we are waiting ‘to come out the other side’, if we are fortunate enough to be safe and well and are not occupied at the frontlines of helping others, perhaps it is an opportunity. An opportunity to take the time to sit by our hearth and reflect on what the wild oat story would be that we can start to weave together. How can we celebrate those qualities that are found at the hearth, those tending and nurturing qualities? Rediscover those qualities in ourselves, if they have become buried under our own personal mammoth hunter story, as we’ve sought to fit into this society around us? Acknowledge our interdependence with the world of which we part?
And in doing so, our minds might wander and wonder whether it is not in fact a new story that we need, but a new song.
In turning over in my mind what the story of the wild oats would be, I found it difficult to imagine what the narrative construct of this be (perhaps being too bound by the archetypes). It was images that came to mind.
Images of collecting the wild oats, how the sun felt on our faces that day, how the earth felt beneath our feet. How we find the wild oats, growing where our mothers had found them, and their mothers before that. How we give thanks with words whose vibrations are carried through the soil to the roots of the plants, and carried upwards by the winds to help seed rain clouds. How we gently pick the plants, just enough for us, and create space for the new plants to grow. How we place them in baskets that we have woven by the fires. How we return to our hearths, and sit and pluck the oats from their husks, creating a pile of glistening grains, from which we make flour and then bread, and share that which nourishes us, and which has nourished us in its making.
And so it arises that perhaps we should not think in terms of creating a new story of the wild oats. But a new song. A song which is collective, and is joyful in the singing, and can also acknowledge the sorrow of the world, but in the singing of it brings us together in the present. A song which connects us with the earth. And so it becomes that, in the singing, we are already creating the new world, the new song, that we want to be part of.
I don’t think it is by accident that song has emerged a powerful unifying force in these past weeks – from singing from balconies to people joining their voices together in online choirs.
As we move forward, let us continue to consider what it would mean if we would sing into being a new song for the world – and what that would sound like.
 John Yorke’s recent book is ‘Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why we Tell Them’. The other two archetypes are: Our hero stumbles into a brave new world. At first he is transfixed by its splendour and glamour, but slowly things become more sinister’ and ‘When a community finds itself in peril and learns the solution lies in finding and retrieving an elixir far, far away, a member of the tribe takes it on themselves to undergo the perilous journey into the unknown.’