Journey to the West, one of the ‘four great novels of the Chinese canon’, is most often attributed to Wu Chengen. Author and title requisite for fiction these days, most take for granted that indeed, he is the one who penned the story. Wu is, in fact, the person who collected, collated, fit, polished, and presented in finished form the myriad pieces of the magnificent tale of Sun Wukong, Sanzang, and their quest for the holy sutras. The original story having undergone thousands of iterations by street corner storytellers, the result is a narrative that holds its history in episodic rather than escalating form.
But this simple transition in the evolution of storytelling in China, from oral to written tradition, is but one minor—and late—step in the history of storytelling as a whole. Before street corner storytellers were bards, and before bards, shamans, and before shamans simple gossip over the campfire—thousands and thousands of years of human culture and existence covered in this simple statement. Tracing story and myth all the way back to its roots, another observation can be made in the manner in the evolution of stories: humanity’s subservience, or lack thereof, to nature. From the Paleolithic to the Mesolithic, Neolithic to the Bronze, Iron to the Information Age, humanity, an idea in this context identified by the West, has shifted its stance on the power of the Earth and its inherent forces. Where once gods inhabited every rock and shadow, it was whittled down to a pantheon, and from the pantheon, distilled into one ruling god, and from one god to the belief mankind holds its fate in its own hands. Science fiction the mode of discourse which most obviously represents the latter, we are left with scraps and tatters of what remains of the former. Enter Sean Kane’s Wisdom of the Mythtellers (1998).
Researching a limited sample but researching it in depth, Wisdom of the Mythtellers brings (back) to light an age of storytelling that ebooks, audiobooks, and printed stories threaten to extinguish. Working with what material survives, Kane surveys the stories and myths of the Australian Aborigines, Native Americans (mostly Pacific Northwest), Greeks, and Celts to identify what distinguishes their mode and mindset from the modern. A rash of perennial knowledge arising as a result, Kane makes the argument that despite advances in technology and knowledge, mankind’s relationship with nature should remain fundamentally the same, including the respect inherent to any egalitarian relationship and imbuing the sacredness necessary to preserve this cultural ideal through time.
At one point Kane notes that the eras humans and proto-humans have seen “serve to affirm the distinctiveness of the mythtelling traditions they frame, reminding us that human dialogues with the earth and sky vary with the relationship humanity has with its environment.” (24) Thus, along with presenting the real material the ideas are based on, Kane makes a case for re-impregnating mankind’s thoughts with a certain sense of spirituality—not in any faith-based sense, rather in the importance and power of nature in our lives. A re-sacralization, it takes the research of Eliade, et al and adds an agenda. Most modern media approaching this area from an angle of environmentalism (it is, after all, the easiest to quantify), Kane’s work strikes from a unique side, in turn not only reminding us of our past, but creating a picture that includes the future, as well.
In the end, Wisdom of the Mythtellers is superb material that balances extended excerpts from Greek, Celtic, Australian Aboriginal, and Native American myth with a post-modern mindset regarding the value and significance of nature in the individual and society. The importance of perennial wisdom perhaps the concept with the strongest guiding hand, what Kane presents is a touching view of the past that engenders significant discussion . (If any post-graduate student of literature is writing a thesis on contemporary fiction attempting to re-sacralize nature, this text would make excellent reference material.)