Dancing with Truth

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8 minutes of reading

A review of Martin Shaw, Courting the Wild Twin (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2020).

In contemporary contexts, we probably encounter myth most often when it is paired, unfavorably, with “truth” or “scientific facts.” This happens with some frequency in television commercials or political ads. Something like, for instance, the following:

(Voice-over direction: A deep, gravel-washed voice, approximating Sam Elliot talking about the payload, torque, and towing capacity of a Dodge Ram truck): Myth. John Jacob Jingleheimer Smith wants affordable healthcare for all. Truth. Smith is a monster who will consume the bones of your young and old.

Truth and science we associate with a tangible reality for which there is hard evidence and a chorus of expertise that verifies true beliefs or claims and falsifies mythic beliefs and make-believe. Science is reliable and adult, myth is spurious and childish. The contrasting pairs are everywhere: true versus false; science versus myth; reliability versus wish fulfillment; success versus failure in the world as it really is. The popular Discovery Channel show Mythbusters—the premise of which is to “test” unsubstantiated claims, internet hearsay, or movie special effects, often with explosives—would not be called “mythbusters” were it not for this demystified worldview. Small wonder perhaps that Mythbusters, after fourteen seasons, moved to the Science Channel in 2017.

Most of us in the “modern” world (i.e., industrially driven, economically reductionistic, anthropocentrically extractive cultures) are educated to absorb these connotations: truth and science are good, straightforward, pragmatic, useful, rational guides; myths are fantasies, illusions, misleading distractions, and irrationally wrongheaded. Science is the enlightened future; myth the enchanted past.

I studied religion in an academic context, all the way through to a PhD. Though whether this makes me an expert on religious subject matter is largely unverifiable, it is empirically incontrovertible that the way I came to understand myth didn’t involve the kinds of negative valences I previously described. As I argued in my dissertation (yes, I went back and looked at this underappreciated bit of academic arcana), “Within the discipline of religious studies, the word ‘myth’ carries an entirely different set of connotations: myths are considered powerful stories, valued by the community that tells them, that usually explain the way in which the world came into being and works, and meaningfully orients and integrates people as a community within these larger stories.”[1]

Every culture, I learned—ancient and extant, subsistence-based or technologically steeped—has myths. These are the stories that animate the way we perceive the world; uphold certain kinds of behavior as commendable (taking care of strangers, for example) or abhorrent (being insatiably greedy, for example); and plumb the mysteries of how we as humans are related to other kinds of creatures and the lands we call home. Myths range from grand cosmological narratives that tell of origins (How the hell did we get here and what’s the shape of the world?), to eschatologies that scry the future and give us something to aim for (What will be our just rewards in this life or the next?), to more modest stories told on winter nights about how we disrespect the salmon (or ancestors, or faeries, or spirits, or gods) at our own peril.

Some myths are more useful than others, some more adaptive, some more damaging. Perhaps the hardest myths to recognize are our own.[2]

Yet when we attend closely to myths—and I would argue that we absolutely should—we find that myths cannot be dismissed as mere fantasy. Myths may be told to entertain—myths should be told to entertain—but, if they are worth passing along, they also disclose profound truths that enter the bloodstream. Myths are the deep wells of the unconscious made visible, brought to the surface to dance across the grass in magic slippers before disappearing beyond the hedge. Best pay attention.[3]

Which brings me to Martin Shaw’s book, Courting the Wild Twin, a compact but potent ode to the importance of mythological narratives and archetypes. A primary value of myth, Shaw emphasizes, is the way these stories can work on you over time. A mythological story doesn’t assert a logical statement or proposition, doesn’t tell you directly which path to choose in the woods. Myths may follow a familiar formula (a, b, c), but the best of them fray at the edges because there’s weaving to be done—your threads get knitted into theirs. Dangerous business; necessary business.

Shaw comes boldly out of the gate with the first words of the book:

The business of stories is not enchantment.

The business of stories is not escape.

The business of stories is waking up. (3)

And what exactly are we to wake to? Or putting the question another way: What voices, whose stories, can we no longer hear? The answer has something to do with broken relationships, our diminished conviviality with the earth under our feet. What’s the breadcrumb trail back home? Shaw will throw his lot in with time-honored stories: “Stories worth their salt don’t tell us to get cranked up with either naïve hope or vinegar-tinged despair. Stories tell us to keep attending to the grace” (7).

Courting the Wild Twin is diminutive as far as books go (at about one hundred pages, it can comfortably fit in the back pocket of your jeans), but it punches above its weight. A reminder that Shaw is after quality not quantity, each sentence has the resonance of song rather than the mechanics of strictly logical progression. There is, however, a three-part structure that provides a scaffolding: First, an opening salvo on the importance of stories in conveying relatedness and wonder, reminding readers that words “can have fur and light in them.” Next comes the core of the book, which explores the serpentine twists and turns of two ancient tales, both of which involve the leitmotif of a wild twin. Finally, we are given the gift of Shaw’s reflections about the essential value of myth and storytelling for dark times (i.e., now).

If the business of stories is waking up, as Shaw claims, for those of us who may be sleeping, who feel as though we’ve lost our way or that we’re swimming alone, Shaw offers up a mythical archetype from which the book takes its title: the wild twin. According to Shaw, everyone has a wild twin from birth, some shadow that we’ve kicked out into the forest, or a part of ourselves we’ve suppressed in favor of good manners and gentility. He states, “I believe that in the labour of becoming a human, you have to earnestly search this character out, as it has something crucial for you with it. It has your life’s purpose tucked up in its pocket. If there was something you were here to be in these few, brief years, you can be sure that the wild twin is holding the key” (9). The book is about locating this twin and courting it so it will come home, which Shaw insists is a protracted affair. If Shaw stopped there, this courting of the wild twin might have a whiff of the self-help genre to it: an individual’s journey to psychological wholeness or something approximating such wholeness. And though that would have its own value, Shaw pushes further. Courting the wild twin involves individuals, but the exile of the wild twin is a cultural problem, too. In some ways, the wild twin could be considered the wildness of the Earth itself, which is now pushing back (via climate change, scorched forests, and searing droughts, among other shifting baselines) against myths built on human dominion, wanting to be heard.

“Relatedness is how we wake up,” Shaw says; our path back is not through “ownership but connection” (4-5). Stories can be a vehicle for helping us attend to those connections. In particular, Shaw attends to two ancient tales, “The Lindworm” and “Tatterhood,” both of which feature a wild twin. He alternates between excerpts from these stories and his analysis of their contents. But if it is analysis, then it’s a warm-blooded, squirming one, steeped in a sense of storytelling that, I would guess, is lost to most of us. We’re accustomed to twenty-four-hour news cycles. Doomscrolling has replaced the performative and celebratory campfire yarn. Shaw keeps returning to this point: How do we meet the urgent needs of the world and ourselves? Slow down. The marrow of relationships depends on depth, on dwelling with, not wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am encounters.

But how can mythological tales help foster this kind of depth? I, for one, am grateful to those like Shaw who’ve done the storytelling legwork and can explicate the symbolic details in these tales—from the importance of certain colors, to golden balls, to worms, old women, hybrid creatures, flowers, and milk—that would otherwise be obtuse, bizarre, or out of reach. (At least they would be to me.) In Shaw’s hands, the clothes these tales wear point to profound truths about relationships and reconciliation; specifically, “that what we exile must be courted back with beauty, that it must be met with respect, education and imaginative intricacy, and that an alchemy of character is possible when such a journey is undergone” (46).

These tales are full of wisdom about living. In our current moment, as we face a restless Earth and persist in glorifying extractivism as a way of life, Courting the Wild Twin doesn’t offer a perfect antidote or blueprint. What it does offer is an orientation. The book also reminds us that we don’t make this journey alone. It calls not for greater individual heroism, but for a greater depth of love. Our ideological separation from the land—turning living beings into objects, resources, plunder, underlings—is our exiled twin. Court the land back, Shaw advises. Repeatedly, Shaw counsels that this means learning how to listen, “finding out the way the place wishes to be loved, not the way you wish to love it. That’s going to involve diligent listening, repetitious acts and an ever-deepening devotion” (89).

We’ve received the stats. The numbers keep pouring in. Biodiversity loss; population growth; acres of rainforest felled; climate crisis. And yet, by and large, nations fail to act. What accounts for this gap between knowledge and behavior? I think Shaw is circling that missing element. “Climate change isn’t a case to be made,” Shaw avers, “it’s a sound to be heard” (74).

What should we listen for, then, and who should we listen to? In folklore, ancient stories, oral narratives, indigenous tales, and myth, it is usually the animals who possess the wisdom, who know the way the world should work. (Somehow, with our cleverness, we humans muck things up very easily, take what isn’t ours, chase after self-gain.) And listening, paying attention to “deep down things,” as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it (in “God’s Grandeur”), and patience are good places to begin: “Underneath a motorway there was once a road,” Shaw writes, “underneath the road there was a lane, underneath the lane there was a track and underneath the track there was once an animal path. Hoofprints under the concrete. It is the animal path that wants to walk you back into the ready receivership of contact with your own soul. Very, very little in this book is encouraging the allure of the swift” (89).

Despite the admonition to readers to slow down, Shaw himself remains a busy storyteller. Courting the Wild Twin was released in 2020, but like the album output of an English rock band in the 1960s, Shaw has already published another (All Those Barbarians) and another (Wolferland). He’s got many stories to tell. I’d eventually like to get to them. For now, though, I expect the feral audacity of Courting the Wild Twin will remain with me for some time, doing its work.

Myth may or may not traffic with science; however, mythical stories plunge their hands deeply into the dark waters of truth. As Shaw puts it, “Storytelling is a wild way of telling the truth” (42). Truth is commonly thought of as propositional: if a, then b; w, x, and y add up to z. Shaw guides readers toward a broader understanding, a deeper relation. Truth, if it is to be found, must be wooed, carefully gathered, faithfully sought after, and it may be always slightly out of reach. It is not something collected—it is too wild for that—but something with which to dance. Shaw plays a fine music to get the toes tapping.

[1] G. Van Horn, “Howling about the Land: Religion, Social Space, and Wolf Reintroduction in the Southwestern United States,” PhD dissertation (Gainesville: University of Florida, 2008), 169, https://ufdcimages.uflib.ufl.edu/UF/E0/02/24/28/00001/vanhorn_g.pdf. I bang on a bit more about this point in the dissertation. I focused particularly on the way that myths—rather than being passé stories transcended by modern science—make sense: “Thus, myths ‘make sense’ in at least two ways: they explain why the world is as it is, and they make, or construct, sense; that is, they provide legitimacy for a particular view of the world that is enacted as people live their lives.” The stories we carry around in our heads are potent shapers of landscapes, perhaps more so when we don’t know what we’re carrying around in our heads.

[2] Philosopher Mary Midgley, having done much good and always cogent and persuasive work on this subject, brings together many insights about modern cultural myths in her The Myths We Live By (New York: Routledge, 2004). Her argument about the myth of human supremacy can be found in distilled form in the following article, available on the Center for Humans and Nature’s website: “On Not Needing to Be Omnipotent,” May 24, 2012, https://www.humansandnature.org/to-be-human-mary-midgley.

[3] It is worth pointing out a pair of recent books that also highlight the importance of folklore in shaping our consciousness and ethical engagement with place. Liam Heneghan’s Beasts at Bedtime: Revealing the Environmental Wisdom in Children’s Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018) casts a broad net and gathers in many distinctive insights, while recognizing the indelible impact that children’s fairytales, nursery rhymes, and popular stories can have upon our environmental sensibilities. There is much pleasure to be had in revisiting these tales or discovering them for the first time through Heneghan’s interpretative lenses. The other book, Sharon Blackie’s Foxfire, Wolfskin and Other Stories of Shapeshifting Women (Tewkesbury, UK: September Publishing, 2019), underscores the ever-evolving possibilities of folkloric narratives. Her creative interpretations of time-honored tales from the United Kingdom, Ireland, Europe, and Russia reveal the transformative powers inherent in the tales themselves, as well as those that emerge from the ways we choose to engage them.

  • Gavin Van Horn

    Gavin Van Horn is Executive Editor for the Center for Humans and Nature Press. He is the author of The Way of Coyote: Shared Journeys in the Urban Wilds (University of Chicago Press, 2018), and co-editor of Kinship: Belonging in a World of Relations (Center for Humans and Nature Press, 2021), Wildness: Relations of People and Place (University of Chicago Press, 2017), and City Creatures: Animal Encounters in the Chicago Wilderness (University of Chicago Press, 2015).
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