Imagine a world where the Gross Domestic Product was eclipsed in our global consciousness by an equally-quantifiable measure such as one of these:
- Regional Genetic Variation: measuring the breadth of genetic diversity within local strains of produce or livestock.
- Total Viable Guilds: measuring the number of guilds within each local human population center that meets a viability standard such as sustaining at least four master craftspersons.
- Local Folklore Vibrancy: measuring the age and yearly engagement levels of oral folklore traditions within local human population centers.
Of any such ways to re-envision our global metrics, the most deeply reformative would be to measure the building of folklore wealth—necessarily a local, land-based, and labor-dignifying commodity that depends upon a score of other community health factors for its vibrancy. Imagine a world that had folklore wealth as its highest collective value—its telos. Such a fanciful exercise is obviously a pointless abstraction at some level. However, what we set out to measure profoundly shapes our visionary horizons and imaginative landscape. Setting such quixotic ideals before ourselves can afford—to anyone willing to give it a try—a glimpse of our situation from outside of the vast “normal” that engulfs us all.
Many old (especially Christian) anthropologies assert that humans are made to become what they most love (Psalm 115:4-8, for example). It follows that a person can deeply influence who they are becoming by cultivating a new set of habitual loves. This works collectively as well as individually. Dreaming of something as absurd and bold as the best possible alternatives to the GDP might help us to capture a few hearts within our emaciated contemporary communities. Short of this, it may aid a few more of us in making the imaginative leaps required to sustain our own searches for any small, real-world reference points from which we can regain lives that pay some attention to human scale and to the particular needs of our immediate neighbors. In our current situations—enmeshed in globally-scaled objectives—it takes farsighted imaginations indeed to seek for a path that we left behind many generations ago.
Older Measures of Power and Value
History easily testifies that economic benchmarks such as GDP were not always the great measure of all things within human communities. As John de Graaf considered in FPR’s “The Promise of the Green New Deal,” the GDP was only born in 1934 as a tool to measure the success of FDR’s New Deal. In contrast, most emperors and kings throughout human history were dependent upon the prosperity and basic goodwill of many small provincial dignitaries who oversaw vastly different local cultures with their own languages, stories, products, and customs. Only a few of the most audacious empires in history attempted the kind of cultural hegemony that we have seen in recent centuries of colonialism and globalization. Even these empires (some of the most ancient within our written records) imagined their highest goods and measured their successes in primarily cultural, religious, and military terms (rather than fiscal), and no cultural power in human history has come anywhere close to the contemporary powers of consumer capitalism, in which the appeals of fast food, soft drinks, cell phones, and entertainment media have led the way in sweeping aside local human infrastructures and cultural goods on an entirely unprecedented scale. Western cultural exports since World War II (such as consumerism, the nation state, and democracy) have leveled local landscapes at a rate that has left far behind even the most zealous colonialists or missionaries of the immediately preceding centuries in terms of the sheer scale of cultural homogenization.
The idea that provincialism is fundamentally opposed to the collective peace and progress of the human race is one of several lies in which we are so deeply embedded that we no longer even notice them. However, human scale (to use Wendell Berry’s term) is entirely compatible with global citizenship. This should be obvious to anyone aware of the Christian telos. Arguably the highest and most universal throne ever claimed—that of Jesus Christ, King of Kings and Divine Son—is inextricably bound up with a beatific vision in which every tribe, tongue, and people is clearly discernible within the homage-paying multitude that cannot be numbered. This vision underlies C.S. Lewis’s observation about particular friends in The Four Loves:
In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s reaction to a specifically Charles joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him ‘to myself’ now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald. … In this, Friendship exhibits a glorious ‘nearness by resemblance’ to heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition which each of us has of God. For every soul, seeing Him in her own way, doubtless communicates that unique vision to all the rest.
Reimagining how we measure the wealth of human communities allows us to consider that thriving local communities might comprise a global ecosystem. This global ecosystem would not oppose all technological advances or global cooperation—although it would certainly reshape the pace and purposes of technology. Even in a world dedicated to folklore wealth, we would still have a need for pilgrimages, migrations, diplomacy, and cooperative work on a global scale.
How Folklore Points Us Back
Measuring folklore wealth and lobbying for its adoption as the key measure of national health would give priority to the factors required for the development and maintenance of folklore:
- Frequent and reliable communication patterns sustained over a defined geographical region for many generations.
- Significant shared labor and leisure times for all classes or subsets of the community to spend listening to and telling stories together in person so that deep repositories of oral tradition are continually being created and maintained.
- Strong shared purposes and desires across all classes or subsets of the community so that heroes, villains, and all other story elements will be identified within the community, translated into folklore and/or mythology, and carried onward for generations of people who will hear and retell the stories.
Folklore is a form of communal wealth that our global consumer culture is incapable of sustaining or producing. It cannot be either created or maintained by a single person, no matter how powerful or gifted they are. We might think of great recent myth makers such as George MacDonald, J.R.R. Tolkien, George Lucas, or J.K. Rowling, but these forms of cultural wealth are far removed from the folklore category. This is not to say that great individuals are not involved in the creation of folklore; Homer probably was a single prophetic artist who moved folklore forward into the realm of myth for an entire people group and even into the realm of a classic that transcended his specific culture. Our own most recognizable examples of folklore in the United States are probably Br’er Rabbit, John Henry, and Paul Bunyan (although the folk roots of Paul Bunyan are contested as possible “fakelore” by some scholars). Commercial and marketing interests quickly distorted most folklore traditions in our country; massive corporations such as Disney continue to make a substantial portion of their entertainment profits from the increasingly unrecognizable residue of what were once folk stories.
Assessing Our Losses in Language
Our relationship to folklore has been reshaped not only by modern mass media, but also by printing and even the invention of alphabets. Beowulf is an example of a manuscript likely to have been the work of a single literary artist who powerfully reworked oral traditions within a freshly Christian context.
In our digital age, we hear a lot about our lost capacities for the sustained attention and contemplative habits that enable a deep enjoyment of books. However, in order to grasp what is being lost in our move from a print culture to a digital culture, we must first recognize what was lost in our transition from oral to written cultures.
Human societies should be able to maintain and enjoy a strong folklore heritage while also enjoying vibrant literary and even film cultures. Granted, there are some mutually exclusive conditions required for communities to consistently develop and enjoy folklore rather than blockbuster films. These different mediums also require radically different forms of attention and human interaction, and they directly compete for limited quantities of leisure time. Nonetheless—as idealistic as it may seem within our contemporary climate—film, opera, theater, and literature of a certain quality should all be possible for a society to enjoy alongside of living folklore traditions. Certainly, many societies existed for long periods of time with lively and well-developed literary, theatrical, and oral traditions existing simultaneously.
However, writing—as a tool for money, power, comfort, and entertainment—has come to dominate our human interactions in ways that we cannot easily see or evaluate from the inside. The invention of the alphabet brought with it tremendous power, and the abuse of this power needs to be reckoned with. About 2400 years ago, Socrates shows us where to start with his prophetic indictment of the alphabet’s invention:
The parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the usefulness or uselessness of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of the written alphabet, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to letters a quality that they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. [That] which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.
Socrates warned that writing would allow people to take mental shortcuts, to be sentimental about the past without really committing its wisdom to memory within their hearts and minds. By writing truths down and placing them in libraries, we will feel that we possess these truths while at the same time being able to entirely forget any part of them that is not immediately gratifying or helpful to us. Written truths will not be truths that are internalized within our songs and stories or embodied in our daily habits and ways of life.
Oral culture and folklore are elemental and holistic in their demands and implications for human relationships. Folk culture reflects our most basic collective insights into our limitations as well as our potential, and it therefore flourishes most among those who live closest to the land. When one generation after another spends countless hours treading barefoot over the same land—drawing their food from the earth as hunters, gatherers, farmers, or herdsmen—and when these same generations of people sit around the same fire to share the same stories—the people, their land, and their stories all become one seamless fabric. This is a fabric that our fathers and mothers were torn out of a very long time ago. As Gerard Manley Hopkins writes in “God’s Grandeur”: “the soil / Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.”
Auditing Layers of Lost Reality
With the erosion of oral culture over millennia, we almost seem to have lost aspects of reality itself—tangible truths that are profoundly difficult to evaluate and articulate. Part of what we have lost is a sense of how alive our world is with many other types of creatures. In a vivid image of what we have lost, C.S. Lewis laments: “I do not think it at all likely that we shall ever see … Cabinet Ministers leaving sandwiches in Hyde Park as an offering for the Dryads” (“Is Theism Important? A Reply,” Socratic Digest, 1952).
With the ancients—pagan and Christian—God’s entire creation participates in God’s own bright and fiery life of love. This participation of all creation in the life of God is described by C.S. Lewis “as a dance, a festival, a symphony, a ritual, a carnival, or all these in one” (Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature). Humans—because of their communion with all living things from animals to angels—move near the center of this dance as those projecting the image of God throughout the rest of creation and as those containing or reflecting all of this as a microcosm within their hearts. As human life pulses like the drum beat, countless spirits frolic, dance, and sing with every star, sand grain, leaf, ant, and asteroid in this cosmos-temple. When Job 38:7 describes how “the morning stars sang together,” ancients understood this literally.
Oral traditions have long testified to these truths. C.S. Lewis wrote in a letter to Arthur Greeves on June 22, 1930:
Tolkien once remarked to me that the feeling about home must have been quite different in the days when a family had fed on the produce of the same few miles of country for six generations, and that perhaps this was why they saw nymphs in the fountains and dryads in the woods—they were not mistaken for there was in a sense a real (not metaphorical) connection between them and the countryside. What had been earth and air, and later corn, and later still bread, really was in them.
We of course who live on a standardised international diet (you may have had Canadian flour, English meat, Scotch oatmeal, African oranges, and Australian wine today) are really artificial beings and have no connection (save in sentiment) with any place on earth. We are synthetic men, uprooted. The strength of the hills is not ours.
Scottish Presbyterian minister and Bible translator Robert Kirk (1644 to 1692) in his short treatise on “The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies” (1691) corroborates this idea that only those who have lived long on the land have any sense of the layered lives connected with it. Kirk, in addition to being a scholar trained at St. Andrews and Edinburgh, a master of Celtic tongues, and the author of the Gaelic Psalter (1684), also possessed the second sight and became the subject of a wild fairy story after his own alleged disappearance at the end of his life. As Kirk recorded (quoting a letter by Lord Tarbett to the Honorable Robert Boyle, Esquire),
Several did see the second sight when in the Highlands or Isles, yet when transported to live in other countries, especially in America, they quite lose this quality, as was told me by a gentleman who knew some of them in Barbados, who did see no vision there, although he knew them to be seers when they lived in the Isles of Scotland.
Distinguished Notre Dame professor and philosopher David Bentley Hart references this passage at length in a piece that he wrote for First Things:
One aspect of Kirk’s investigations I find especially interesting is the purely autochthonous quality he ascribes to the second sight. Once removed from his native heath, says Kirk, a prophet loses the virtue that allows him to see the other world, and he becomes as blind to preternatural presences as any other mortal. He is like Antaeus raised up off the earth. Not only is every fairy a genius loci, every seer is a vates loci with a strictly limited charter. And the reason it pleases me to learn this is that it allows me to offer a riposte to an English friend of mine—a famous theologian whose name (which is John Milbank) I should probably withhold—who has quite a keen interest in fairies, and who regards it as a signal mark of the spiritual inferiority of America that its woods and dells, mountains, and streams, are devoid of such creatures.
In proof of this, he once cited to me the report of some English traveler in the New World who sent back a dispatch from Newfoundland (or somewhere like that) complaining that there were no fairies to be found in these desolate climes. But, ah no, I can say (having read Kirk), of course some displaced sassenach wandering in the woods of North America would be able to perceive none of their ethereal inhabitants, as any faculty he might have had for seeing them would have deserted him. And, anyway, anyone familiar with the Native lore of the Americas knows that multitudes of dangerous and beneficent manitous haunt or haunted these lands. They may lack some of the winsome charm of their European counterparts, not having been exposed to centuries of Greco-Roman and Christian civilization; and they may therefore be somewhat more Titanic than Olympian in their general character and deportment; but they certainly do not merit disdain or a refusal to acknowledge their existence.
Hart strongly suggests that human communities somehow “domesticate” or otherwise influence the local spirits and stories over the course of generations. This may evince some cultural prejudice as well as a legitimate understanding of the many New Testament passages such as 1 Peter 3:22 that speak of the ways in which all “angels, authorities, and powers have been made subject to [Jesus Christ].”
As someone who grew up in an Asian culture during my childhood—listening to shamans chanting loudly through séances by night while following water buffaloes and swarms of dragonflies through the rice paddies by day—I know something of oral culture firsthand. The oldest son of a Presbyterian minister, I’ve ended up in recent years standing (for as many holy day as I can manage) within the liturgies of the Orthodox Church, singing and chanting along, very ineptly, with long verbal litanies that have slowly reached their current ripeness over many millennia.
What Remains to be Regained
So what would it look like in our time to commit to the restoration of stable local cultures capable of the multi-generational creation and enjoyment of rooted oral traditions? Only a fool would claim to know. It is not a goal that any one individual can take up in any meaningful way. Only slow communal shifts and substantial commitments across multiple generations would move such a project forward. Nonetheless, I pray for the vision to somehow be included in such a work without having any expectation of being able to see the thing of which I hope to be a part.
This prayer does not place me in any opposition to writing or to the digital age. I love both alongside oral culture, with a sense of critical limits but not of contradiction. I recognize my embeddedness and dependence upon a system and social order that is deeply alienated from many aspects of what is required for the creation and enjoyment of folklore. Nonetheless, I pick through the fragments that do surround me with gratitude, and I seek to inhabit the world in a way that honors these pieces. Dwelling within cultural fragmentation increases my longing for a worldwide measure that would recognize communities with a depth of local folklore and would lift them up as exemplars.
This hope is easily criticized. If a nation ever replaced the pursuit of financial gain with the pursuit of folklore wealth, would they not be hopelessly weakened and handicapped within the competitive global marketplace? Nevertheless, local culture, we will learn eventually, is not expendable, and it has real value in terms of sustaining productive communities. In “The Work of Local Culture,” Wendell Berry writes:
This loss of local knowledge and local memory—that is, of local culture—has been ignored, or written off as one of the cheaper “prices of progress,” or made the business of folklorists. Nevertheless, local culture has a value, and part of its value is economic. This can be demonstrated readily enough.
For example, when a community loses its memory, its members no longer know each other. … And this is our predicament now. Because of a general distrust and suspicion, we not only lose one another’s help and companionship, but we are all now living in jeopardy of being sued.
… For another, the pattern of reminding implies affection for the place and respect for it, and so, finally, the local culture will carry the knowledge of how the place may be well and lovingly used, and moreover the implicit command to use it only well and lovingly. The only true and effective “operator’s manual for spaceship earth” is not a book that any human will ever write; it is hundreds of thousands of local cultures.
In this same essay, Berry recalls a “battered galvanized bucket” that has hung on a fencepost for “something like fifty years” gathering leaves and bugs and slowly filling from the bottom up with “several inches of black humus.” At the same time, this bucket has collected colorful stories from his family, going back generations. Berry points out that the goodness of the black humus is something that takes time and that comes naturally when nothing interferes. The surrounding forest simply does “the most momentous thing I know, the greatest miracle that I have ever heard of: it is making earth.” Our local communities, however, are no longer capable of making this rich black earth. We have rearranged everything so that stories no longer collect and pile up and gradually become local wisdom. This failure will eventually undo any nation, because national strength is primarily a product of strong local communities.
Our lives depend upon the restoration of intergenerational stability within our local communities as a norm that is loved and nurtured. Moreover, our recent obsession with measures such as GDP not only undermines our own wellbeing but threatens our relationship with our entire cosmos. Peter Pan is being a brat when he claims: “Every time a child says, ‘I don’t believe in fairies,’ there is a fairy somewhere that falls down dead.” Passages such as this caused C.S. Lewis to prefer the name Longaevi (“longlivers”) to the name Fairies, with an entire chapter in The Discarded Image about how we must “go to the texts with an open mind and learn from them what the word fairy meant to our ancestors.” Lewis does not think that fairies die when we fail to believe in them. It may be more accurate to say that we die. Lewis describes the value of fairies in this way:
In a sense, if I may risk the oxymoron, their unimportance is their importance. They are marginal, fugitive creatures. They are perhaps the only creatures to whom the Model does not assign, as it were, an official status. Herein lies their imaginative value. They soften the classic severity of the huge design. They intrude a welcome hint of wildness and uncertainty into a universe that is in danger of being a little too self-explanatory, too luminous.
In his classic “On Fairy Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien agrees. He makes it clear that “elves are not primarily concerned with us, nor we with them.” Nonetheless, their realm offers literally everything back to us who have lost communion with our own world:
Faerie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.
Folklore gives the world back to us, teaching us that we are not capable of seeing and receiving the world on our own. It takes the wisdom and love of generations to unlock our hearts and to open our eyes to the wealth that we share in the earth beneath our feet.
Acknowledgements: My particular thanks to these three people for encouraging the reading and thought behind these reflections. Michael Hornbaker provided insightful feedback (including the insistence that folklore creation depends as much on the sharing of manual labor as it does upon the sharing of leisure). Hannah Hake persisted in the most attentive and thoughtful questions through multiple conversations, helping me immeasurably to clarify my thoughts and claims. A generous editor tightened my thinking and my care in communicating.