from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Monday, 9 June 2014

symbolic truths mark 2

So Richard Dawkins at the recent Cheltenham Literary Festival questioned the usefulness of fairy tales for children (though he wasn't quite as unequivocal in his condemnation of them, to be fair, as some journalists reported). But he did talk of the wisdom or otherwise of letting children read about 'the supernatural'.

The supernatural? What fairy stories are about is a symbolic representation of what it means to be human. They're about that most crucial of human faculties, the imagination.

Where they come from, if you subscribe to the views of depth psychology, is the collective unconscious. This is not 'supernatural', but the bedrock of the human psyche. 

And magic? Oh, allow us a little, Richard, please. A novel is magic. A transporting work of art is magic. A piece of good music is magic – if by magic we mean the ability to transform our state of consciousness, for no matter how brief a period.

Dawkins is a champion of our current rationalist zeitgeist, of a materialist worldview. That is as troubling as his words. We live in impoverished times, in the Western world, in relation to our inner lives. That's the real concern, for me, in what he had to say.

A world that can only value what can be proven to exist by rational assessment, objectively and scientifically verified, is a world with a paucity of imagination. That's a dangerous world. That's a disconnected world. As I have mentioned so many times here, as author Lindsay Clarke says, without imagination, compassion is not possible.

There are, as I have written here before, literal truths and symbolic truths. Each is true within its own frame of reference, and it's as foolish to muddle them up as it is to discount one or the other. Both are necessary for us to live a full, rounded, creative and human life.

What symbolic truths speak to is an inner sense of what we need to know to best live our lives*. We are storymaking animals as far back as we can trace. Stories (and poems, and myths, and fairy tales) all speak of the garnered wisdom of our species in relation to not only physical survival but also the ability to thrive and grow as emotional, psychological, and spiritual individuals with our own unique talents to contribute to our community. They also speak of the gifts and dangers of being a human, being alive. Beneath them resonate archetypes from the great storehouse of the collective unconscious – this is what gives them their power.

What fairy tales offer to a child is a hook for the imaginative nature, so that it may grow and expand; a reassurance that children can and do survive all sorts of upsets and horrors; a reminder that that child's experience has been shared by others; a conduit for the outer and inner worlds to meet and cross-fertilise each other; a roadmap for the journey to adulthood and the particular types of trials and gifts to expect as well as their context in an environment; and a blueprint for the kinds of qualities a child may need to thrive and become an empowered adult. 

And that's not to mention the sheer entertainment value.

* This is in effect the content of my first book, Riding the Dragon – myth & the inner journey (Element 1994).


  1. So, first we have Jeremy Paxman proposing that a Spanish-style Inquisition should interrogate poets about the usefulness and accessibility of their verse, and now we have Richard Dawkins doubting the wisdom of fairy tales and questioning the life-giving and human-defining properties of magic and the imagination. Truly we live in an ultra-rationalist and literally-minded culture.

    Really enjoyed your last post too, by the way.

  2. Yes. I missed Paxman's remarks (only hearing a snippet 2nd hand) or be sure I'd have had a good rant about that!

    Thank you, Robert, for your kind comments - so appreciated.

  3. I was quite disturbed by Paxman's edict. However, very soon afterwards George Szirtes responded eloquently by saying, amongst other things that '...Poetry is an ancient as language itself, and the sense of the poetic precedes language. Animals could be charmed by music; mere drumming can heal the sick. [...] We know that more happens in life than rational statements can account for, and that language is our great makeshift attempt to give some shape to them.'

    That made me feel much better!

  4. Julius, thank you - and lovely to hear from you. Yes, Szirtes article is excellent. Thank you, too, for lifting that wonderful quote out of it.

    Paxman is partly right, in that a lot of contemporary poetry is 'up itself', and there is a swathe of poets who do write basically for other poets - and not surprisingly, in an era that doesn't value or buy poetry.

    But I completely agree with M S Roberts (I think quoted in Szirtes piece), saying that poetry sits somewhere between prose and music, and that we SHOULD have to work at it - it's not like reading a novel. I say something similar in my poetry online course - poetry gives up its essence with further reading and dwelling.

    Hope you're well, and a hug - Rx


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