Criticism: The Working Language of Good and Evil, Part V

(In Part IV of this series we looked at how sacred language and stories of resolution and wisdom labor to unravel traps that deadly language weaves to catch its victims. Shamanistic or holy storytellers act as repositories of “ways out,” keeping alive important language that tells what heroes or gods have done over the ages to combat monsters, witches, and other evils. Also, good language reveals or explores what is possible. As such, sacred stories, songs, and prayers help maintain the momentum of human culture and progress. Part V is the final segment of this series.)

Ceremonial language intended to heal a victim of a witch attack or related trouble guides the bewitched carefully along established paths to health and readmission to society. The linguistic dance steps undertaken during such ceremonies are as carefully choreographed as those that the witch used to isolate the victim and move her into position for attack. The simple yet elegant language of the Coyoteway curing ceremony is just such an example of carefully choreographed language. A series of chants made on the eighth and ninth days of the Coyoteway demonstrate how deliberately the shaman leads the bewitched out of captivity and returns her to sanity and to her cultural context. The following interpretation of Coyoteway songs are from Karl Luckert’s Coyoteway, University of Arizona Press. For the purposes of restoration, the patient’s “Mind” moves separately from the “I” of the song, the patient. The remainder of this segment of the chant recreates a context for the song’s “Mind” and the “I,” placing them together on holy paths:

With my Mind I walk in the presence of the Sun,
with my Mind I walk, with my mind I walk,
with my Mind I walk, with my mind I walk.
Beneath the Two Rising, with my Mind I walk.
Where White Coyote Medicine is, with my mind I walk.
Where White Air is, with my Mind I walk.

The remainder of the chant recreates a context for the Mind and the “I” of the song, placing them on sacred paths:

On the Path of yellow Cornpollen, with my Mind I walk.
Among Rainbows, with my Mind I walk.
Amid round Corn, with my Mind I walk, with my Mind I walk.

And so on along paths of beauty that wind through the harmonious universe.  Then the song takes the next step, which is to begin reuiniting the patient with his Mind:

I am looking for my Mind in the presence of the Sun,
I am looking for my Mind, I am looking for my Mind,
I am looking for my mind “¦

Next, the “I” in the chant finds “Mind”:

I have found my Mind in the presence of the Sun,
I have found my Mind, I have found my Mind,
I have found my Mind, I have found my Mind “¦

Now that the “I” and “Mind” have found each other, the “I” brings “Mind” back, revives it, and learns to walk with it all over again in increasing wholeness. The chant invokes positive and powerful dieties who surround the patient, and “everything is made Happiness.” The dieties sing for the patient, restoring identity and position in the Navajo Way. The singing penetrates to the “rain behind the Rainbow,” “among ripe plants behind the rain,” “at the roots of Sunshine.” Now that rain has been stimulated at its roots, it begins to fall, cleansing and futher restoring sanity and harmony. The song ends with the chant, “The blessing is given.”

The painstaking steps through which the Coyoteway chant progresses are maintained through nine days of ceremony and one-hundred-and-sixty songs. Step by step, the path to social consciousness is re-established, uniting the patient not only with his Mind but also in harmonious song with Nature and the dieties that have combined to grant the supplicant her blessing of sanity, restoring balance and happiness, which she shares then with the community and world to which she belongs.

Sometimes in folk literature, the object of a witch’s attack is portrayed as an innocent and helpless victim whose only offence is being in the wrong place at the wrong time; that is, she stumbles into the witch’s path or is otherwise targeted for capture by all-knowing and inescapable powers. In some cases this is true, but more usually the sufferer is in some way responsible for her peril. Satanists admit to preying on others by striking at the heart of their intended victim’s personal weaknesses or vices, not by uttering a catch-all formula that affects everyone equally. Commonly, such “Achilles’s heels” are drives and ambitions–hubris, envy, various and assorted lusts–that are themselves characteristic traits of witches. The target, operating under the influence of one of these drives, puts herself in harm’s way or at the very least is perceived as having done so. Children’s naivete and adult ignorance furnish some exceptions, but in such cases the community may share the responsibility for improperly educating its members on the hazards of contact with vindictive and dangerous people, for neglecting to teach the social and personal dangers of transgressing vital communal or sacred laws, or for failing to teach its members the finer points of walking the Earth with respect for all Earth’s inhabitants. In other words, in instances where the community fails to endow its individual members with empowered language, the entire community may suffer the consequences when one of its members comes under attack.

Commonly, shamans or “unwitchers” join their death wishes to the victim’s to turn the witch’s evil back on him. However, this puts the witch in a position identical to the one the victim occupied formerly, with the shaman replacing the witch as the attacker.

Generally, a witch attack may be interpreted thusly: an idle, greedy, or otherwise troublesome person pursues a path of selfish or dangerously curious desires and is confronted by a danger greater than the one harbored in her own character. This dangerous entity either desires to have her for its own or to punish her for her presumtions, thus magnifying its own power. At the point of crisis, the witch’s powerful language blinds its victim with fear and hopelessness; the victim cannot see through the witch’s language to spring clear of the trap. In archetypal ceremonies such as the Coyoteway, a guide undertakes ritural journeys of strong language to retrieve the patient from the trap, employing prayers, chants, medicine, and counseling. Using such language, the guide travels with the patient through points of reconciliation and repentance, revealing and restoring intricacies of relationship the patient has shattered and is incapable of repairing herself or even of seeing the need for repair.

Much room remains in the world’s cultures for stories, songs, prayers, ceremonies and language of all shapes that work at the knots of spellbinding tales like “The Dead Princess.” Older story matter from many sources, whether it’s generally considered great literature or sacred matter or not, ought to be passed around freely. We should preserve and build upon reservoirs of sacred words that not only restore victims’ lives to them and harmony to the world but that also consider the victimizer to avoid perpetuating effects of harmful language. Also, the need exists for stories, songs, prayers, and ceremonies that open ever broadening paths for our cultural, spiritual, and intellectual progressions.

Literature Cited

Favret-Saada, Jeanne. Deadly Words. Translated by Catherine Cullen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Lehmann, Arthur, and Myers, James. Intro. to “Witchcraft, Sorcery, and Other Evil Forces.” In Magic, Witchcraft and Religion: An Anthropological Study of the
. Ed. Arthur Lehmann and James Myers. Palo Alto and London: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1985.

Luckert, Karl. Coyoteway: A Navajo Holyway Healing Ceremonial. Tucson and Flagstaff: The University of Arizona Press and the Museum of Northern Arizona
Press, 1979.

Moody, Edward. “Urban Witches.” In Magic, Witchcraft and Religion: An Anthropological Study of the Supernatural. Ed. Arthur Lehmann and James Myers. Palo Alto and London: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1985. 427-37.

Offiong, Daniel. “Witchcraft Among the Ibibio of Nigeria.” In Magic, Witchcraft and Religion: An Anthropological Study of the Supernatural. Ed. Arthur Lehmann and James Myers. Palo Alto and London: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1985. 427-37.

Straub, Peter. Shadowland. New York: Berkley Books, 1981.

Toelken, Barre. “The Pretty Language of Yellowman: Genre, Mode and Texture in Navaho Coyote Narratives.” Genre 2 (1969): 211-235.

Commentary: Tell Us A Story

Last week I visited Michael Olson’s AP English high school classes in Spanish Fork, Utah. Michael, who also runs The Payson Chronicle, asked that I discuss “the writing process” with his students and talk about tensions that may exist between what the reader got from a story and what the writer intended in writing it. He wanted me to read from my novel, too. I hadn’t stood before young students in years. I’d forgotten how much work it takes to keep a class of kids together, moving in some meaningful direction.

In both classes enough desks stood empty that the room itself seemed to hang between sizes. The students sprawled a-gangle in their seats. The classroom atmosphere reminded me of a teenager’s bedroom, an enclosure filled with draped clothes and tossed comments, all being rapidly outgrown. I liked these kids; I envied Mr. Olson’s good fortune in getting to know them. An unstated quo vadis* hung between us, a specter of my interest in them, one I supposed only I could see. I’ve loved students since my days teaching English 115 and Philosophy 105 at BYU. I miss the whole teaching adventure.

Sometimes the kids sat up sharp listening; sometimes their heads sank onto desktops. Some appeared to be out cold, but I learned I couldn’t trust appearances. A student might lie slumped onto her desk like a spruce tree branch overloaded with snow, then she’d spring up suddenly and split the classroom with a question. The rustle of notes passing back and forth underlaid all words spoken aloud like subtext.

I proposed that when it came to storytelling the storyteller ought to allow the audience to play a strong role at times. “A good story should contain some of the qualities of a good stone soup. Do you know the story “˜Stone Soup?'” Some thought they did. They tried to tell it but faltered; they’d forgotten. When I discovered this gaping hole in their education I tried to fill it. College-bound students shouldn’t leave high school without knowing about “Stone Soup.”

Whenever a word or two snagged their interest, questions flew: What? Where? When? Why? How? “How do you know,” they asked, “when to use who and when to use whom?” The question seemed to cause genuine distress. I tried to reassure them. “Don’t worry about it. The English language is evolving, that usage is dying out.” I joked it would be gone in thirty years. “But I notice when you speak you use it correctly,” Mr. Olson said. (Who/whom is one of his pet peeves.) “I’m the last one. When I die, it’ll be gone,” I said. The students weren’t satisfied; I saw in their eyes they still wanted to know what I knew, but I let the matter drop. Let who/whom remain a trick we grammatical nerds keep dark.

“What is “˜archetype?'” “What does “˜esoteric’ mean?” “What does it feel like when you see your book on the shelf at a bookstore?” If I spent an hour answering each of these questions, I imagined I’d still see that look, the one that says, “You’re not telling us everything.” “But why do we have to experience evil?” one young woman asked. This was in the context of archetype and the archetypal story’s engagement of the conflict between good and evil, not only as it plays out upon story battlefields but also as it rages in the hearts of readers immersed in the struggle. How could I demonstrate in a few minutes that even a question like “Why do we have to experience evil?” has a dark and dangerous side?

I couldn’t; I took the easier road. “The cool thing about reading good literature,” I said, “is that you can confront evil in a relatively safe manner, in a text, often in a familiar and secure location, rather than going out and finding evil in more dangerous and unexpected circumstances.” Blank stares. “Where do you read?” I asked. “In my bed.” “In the living room on the couch.” “In the car.” “All safe, comfortable places. If you become frightened, you can stop and find yourself back in familiar surroundings.” An idea struck me. I asked, “Do you read folktales in school anymore?” They shook their heads no. I pitied them for their loss of fundamental narratives, plain yet well turned-language that supports imagination. I told them how, when I was young, I cut my reader’s teeth on such stories as “How Bear Lost His Tale,” Aesop’s fables, Br’er Rabbit tales, etc. Then came a surprise, one that erupted spontaneously in both classes and that snagged my attention. “Did you bring any good stories for us?” they asked. “Tell us a story!” The shine in their eyes was like the glistening of tongues whetted by appetite.

At this point, speaking with them became easier; no longer was there any need to keep them together. At the prospect of hearing a story they all ran up to me in complete attention and we gathered around that linguistic fire ring where people meet to tell and hear stories. I read an old Kalapuya tale, “Coyote Takes Water From the Frog People,” then tales of my own making that I’ve put in my novel, a different one to each class: “The Fox That Was Raised By Dogs,” “Why Is Coyote So Smart?” The subtext stopped rustling. In both classes students’ faces opened like morning glories in the first real sun that had shined into the schoolroom.

Looking back I realize that stories were what these students wanted all along. As a storyteller, I should have known that. I see the undying need for good narratives in my own children, in my fifteen-year-old’s retained interest in bedtime stories, albeit more complex ones that when he was eight. It’s in my eight-year-old’s astonishing appetite for Grimm’s Fairytales and her willingness to engage more complex stories when I read them with her older brother. I hear it in my disabled daughter’s cooed “yes” when I ask if she wants me to read to her. I have my own hunger and thirst after fine narrative, original to my earliest consciousness–the need to engage and be egaged by story that I myself have never outgrown.

Thank you, Mr. Olson’s AP English students, for calling my attention to an important matter I’d overlooked. I learned a storyteller’s lesson from you: If I speak to students again, high school or otherwise, I’ll go better arrayed with stories and do what comes naturally to a storyteller facing a young audience. Inbetween tales I’ll dazzle the class with such esoterica** as what archetype means and when one ought to use who and whom, rather than doing things the other way around. Whatever I think I know about evil, grammar, and how I feel about being an author I’ll let the stories tell, because good stories, even modern ones, contain the stuff of ancient wisdom; they’re much older and smarter than I.

*quo vadis: Latin; literally, “Where are you going?”
**esoterica: mysterious matters

Criticism: The Working Language of Good and Evil, Part IV

(Part III explored the idea that using language in any way is an act, and so barbed or deadly language may threaten or damage the physical or psychological wellbeing of its intended victim as effectively as physical acts do. Language invested with the task of wielding control must be carefully focused. In cultures where witchcraft is an openly acknowledged phemomenon, certain sets of words, followed by unaccountable misfortune, mark an attack. In cultures where witchcraft is not acknowledged, the witch uses perceptive language to find and manipulate the psychological “Achilles’ heel” of his or her victim. An important feature of such language is that it strives to convince its victim that the witch’s proposed course of action is “the only way,” thus sealing off avenues of escape.)

As the language of witchcraft weaves to close corridors of escape, sacred language, including holy words, the language of healing ceremonies, tales of resolution and recovery, and words of comfort and wisdom, labor to unravel the trap and deliver the sufferer. The natural remedy for captivating language is language that creates alternatives outside of the choices established–language that opens up possibilities. But if you are a sparrow, finding such language is difficult. You need the help of a god, a shaman, a priest, a hero, or some other person with “strong blood”–the power to reveal “ways out” you might not imagine or choose for yourself.

An Apache tale recounting the origin of healing ceremonies is one of many that demonstrates how help for sufferers comes from outside (Erdoes 1984:38). Two men become sick but their people can’t help them because no one has ever become ill and no curing knowledge exists. The One Who Made The Earth intercedes, telling one sufferer, “Everything on earth has power to cause its own kind of sickness, make its own trouble. There is a way to cure all these things.” Then come the story’s point: “Now this man understood that knowledge was available.” Four men facing in the sacred directions start chanting. The story tells, “They did not conceive this pattern in their own minds “¦ It was as if the knowledge of what they could chant or sing had suddenly been transmitted to them from outside.”

Whether holy ways or ways out are revealed to a people by gods or by someone with wisdom and prophetic insight, or whether they’re uncovered by a hero who through strength or resourcefulness frees his people from a monster’s tyrrany, freedom and wholeness must be begotten upon the consciousness of entrapped people by someone who knows something and is himself fertile with possibilities. The reservoir of stories recounting what heroes do in archetypal events forms an encyclopedia of ways out. Adding to such a collection and then passing it on helps provide for the health and safety of the culture that inherits it.

As a witch must have an actual subject to speak against and ensnare with words, so also must an unwitcher, shaman, priest, or sacred storyteller have a genuine need that he strives to fulfill with language. Simply having tales, chants, and rituals at hand is not enough, since disembodied from relevant circumstances they are merely generalities without referents.

Barre Toelken notes the marked difference in the way the Navajo storyteller Yellowman spoke his Coyote tales to a tape recorder and the way he performed them for his children (Toelken 1969:221). Toelken says it became clear to him ” . . . that Yellowman sees the Coyote stories not as narratives (in our sense of the term) but as dramatic presentations performed within certain cultural contexts for moral and philosophical reasons” (Toelken:244). Furthermore, Yellowman casts light on the storyteller’s belief in what the need for such stories might be. When Yellowman stressed the sacred nature of Coyote, Toelken asked why, if Coyote is such an important mythic character, does Yellowman tell such funny stories about him?

Yellowman’s answer: “They are not funny stories.” Why does Everyone laugh, then? “They are laughing at the way Ma’i does things, and at the way the story is told. Many things about the story are funny, but the story is not funny.” Why tell the stories? “If my children hear the stories, they will grow up to be good people, if they don’t hear them, they will turn out to be bad.” Why tell them to adults? “Through the stories everything is made possible.”

For Yellowman, the Coyote stories are a rainbow of possibilities that he spreads before the eyes of his friends and family members. One implication of such belief is that if Yellowman or someone else did not lay these options out, people might not discover them and the likelihood of their being caught is magnified. Another implication is that if storytellers withheld their stories as a season sometimes withholds rain, they would be responsible in part for the resulting drought of spirit and spirituality.

Criticism: The Working Language of Good and Evil, Part III

(Note: I didn’t plan for this to be a Halloween post but it works as one … so Happy Halloween!)

(Part II discussed how language is action and how dangerous words may threaten others’ wellbeing and cause harm in the same way as do dangerous acts. Such “spells” work on a surprisingly simple and commonplace principle: the effectiveness of wielded language depends on the wielder’s knowledge of his/her target’s susceptibility to “verbal poisons.” Barbed language shot forth from the mouths of angry or frustrated children often flies wide of its mark, though some children do become skilled marksmen. [Part I of “The Working Language … ” may be found here.])

Not surprisingly, adult battles for control of resources and destiny–battles carried out with words–are more intense. Here, years of experience, seasoned fears, and rigid philosophies come into play. Where ambition and fear are, one finds arguments with barbed words. “Everywhere there is social conflict,” say Arthur Lehmann and James Meyers:

people become angry, get insulted, or perhaps become jealous of someone’s success; it is during such uncomfortable times that witches may be found at fault and sorcerers may be called upon for help (Lehmann and Myers 1985:150).

Most people would feel shocked or insulted if it were suggested that their schemes to “get to the top” in their jobs or to “get the best of” a disagreeable neighbor might employ black artistry. Many would be more likely to speak of their behaviors as practical courses for action.

A satanist would agree. “As defined by Satanists,” observes Edward Moody, who interviewed several satanists,

magic itself is a surprisingly commonsense kind of phenomenon: the change in situation or events in accordance with one’s will, which would, using normally accepted methods, be unchangeable. Magic can be divided into two categories: ritual (ceremonial) and non-ritual (manipulative) “¦ The “lesser magic,” non-ritual transactional manipulative magic … is a type of transactional manipulation based upon a heightened awareness of various processes of behavior operative in interaction with others, a Satanic “games people play.” The Satanist in ritual interaction is taught to analyze and utilize the behavioral Achilles’ heels of others for his own purposes (Moody:187).

Moody gives an example of such an interaction: in the case of a Satanist interacting with a masochist, the Satanist assumes the role of a sadist, establishing a dominant and even cruel stance over his “partner” to indulge the masochist’s addictions and thus achieve an objective (Moody:187).

Witchcraft in practice need not manifest in such an extreme manner. In many cultures, inconsiderate and unfriendly behavior is enough to warrant accusations of witchcraft. Among the Ibibio of Nigeria, not openly returning greetings, living alone in an isolated area, enjoying adultery or incest, fixing prices too high, not showing appropriate grief upon the death of a community or family member, or neglect of family members–including aged parents–may be considered symptomatic of witchcraft (Offiong:155). Other cultures not openly acknowledging witchcraft might consider these behaviors mere garden variety selfishness and greed, but in places where witchcraft is an openly acknowledged phemonemon, such acts signify evil intent.

Language invested with the task of carrying out the goals of individuals seeking to amplify their power and prestige must be highly directive. In ceremonies or in common conversation, a witch must act to seal off corridors through which the victim might escape and foil the plan. Since it’s commonly accepted that a witch somehow increases his own power by subsuming the life-force of those too weak to resist, cannibalism and other eating motifs turn up in the language of witchraft legends and folklore. But in order to “eat” his victim, a witch must first “catch” her. Telling an impressionable person a tale like “The Dead Princess” is one way to bring upon the victim the necessary paralysis of spirit. Conducting a ceremony to transfer the soul of the victim to the body of an animal which is then slaughtered and eaten is another way (Offiong:155), but the success of this kind of ritual depends upon the victim’s having first been isolated by the witch’s language. That is, the victim must have been signaled by recognizable words sent in his direction that he is under attack. Nearly all societies acknowledging the existence of witches have such signs. In France, certain sets of words followed by unaccountable misfortune are evidence that a spell has been cast. Likewise, the unwitcher and the bewitched make a display that sends to the witch suspected of casting a spell clear warning of a return attack (Favret-Saada: 1980).

Criticism: The Working Language of Good and Evil, Part II

(Part I introduced the idea that in the course of exerting control some persons may use manipulative language, including language formed up as narrative, to achieve their ends. Language framed to control another blinds its target to everything except what the attacker wishes him/her to see. Such “deadly words” may trap, bring a range of illnesses upon, or “kill” their intended victim by creating an illusion of limited options. Part III may be found here.)

How is it that words–incorporeal entities that they are–may threaten another’s wellbeing? Jeanne Favret-Saada, who studied witchcraft in the Bocage region of France, said the most important truth she learned in her research was that words and acts are the same. “Now witchcraft,” she says,

is spoken words; but these spoken words are power, and not knowledge or information. To talk, in witchcraft, is never to inform “¦ For a single word (and only a word) can tie or untie a fate, and whoever puts himself in a position to utter it is formidable. Knowing about spells brings money, brings more power and triggers terror … (Favret-Saada:9-10).

How does language achieve these affects? The answer may be surprisingly simple.

When an angry child shouts, “I hate you!” the speaking of such words is an act of self-defense and perhaps hate. Shot at a vulnerable target, these words may do damage if their intended victim believes he or she is, indeed, hated, and if it matters. A discerning person might recognize that actually in speaking these words the child is attempting to wield power. The child speaks the words I hate you to defend herself or get back on her feet–she’s struggling for control of the situation. In this imposition of will, she shoots arrows of language and unwittingly attempts a primitive spell. It’s a spell because it is an attempt to gain the upper hand through wielded language. It’s primitive because in this case the spell is cast wildly, usually without knowledge of the intended victim’s susceptibility to the poison on the words’ barbs. Knowledge of the victim’s susceptibility to verbal poisons is essential for acquiring control; it’s what informs the spell’s word choice.

Another reason such spells are primitive is because phrases like “I hate you” and “I wish you were dead” aren’t spoken to mean exactly what they say. During a momentary flare-up of emotions where a child reacts to a sudden, short-lived, and common frustration, these words mean something more like, “Stop making a fool of me, I can’t bear it,” or “Stop preventing me from doing what I want to do.” The fact that parents, the usual targets of such darts, don’t sicken with sorrow or die mysteriously afterward relates to their knowledge that the child doesn’t really want them dead. Such words shot forth without skill or real intent fly wide of their apparent marks–and so they may be intended to do.

Of course, some children do become skilled marksmen, having learned early the advantages of manipulative language, and some parents do sicken and die physically, psychologically, or both. Even simple language in the mouths of the immature is activity with varying capacities for power; that is, even simple language is action taken and not commentary upon action or mere information. Because language does things to and for us, it’s a potent element of the animation of our species. As the physical acts of a person may injure another or help another to safety, so may language work either for the good or the evil, for the health or the sickness, and for the wholeness or the fragmentation of an individual and of his or her society.

Criticism: The Working Language of Good and Evil, Part I

(Note: This is the first post in a five post series about harmful and healing language. The original paper, written for a folklore class taught by N. Scott Momaday at the University of Arizona, has been edited for space and content. Works cited will appear at the end of the last post. Part II may be found here.)

To begin with a story:

A flock of sparrows came upon a palace on which a deep silence lay. They flew over to see what was wrong. The frightening silence made some birds nervous. One cried, “Something terrible has happened! If we get close it might happen to us!” His words went unheeded. The sparrows descended upon the palace to find everyone asleep.

“A curse! A curse! Let’s get away, or we’ll be cursed, too!” “Hush!” said the others. “What’s that noise?”

They listened. They heard a voice wailing, “Woe is me! Woe is me!” The sparrows flew to the sound and found the king crying in his chamber.

One sparrow flew off seeking the source of another sound. He found the queen pacing up and down, wringing her hands. Seeing the bird the queen said, “Little sparrow! Do you wonder at my despair?” She told the bird her infant daughter, Princess Rose, had died, and everyone but the king and queen had succumbed to a spell.

The sparrow told his companions what he’d learned. They decided to help the king and queen, but to do so they had to seek aid from a wizard. It was said of this wizard that he granted favors but always exacted payment in return.

The sparrows sought out the wizard and told him what they’d found. “And you wish me to return life to the Princess Rose,” he said. “I will do it. But you must agree to sacrifice something for it. Will you give up your wings?” “No!” cried the sparrows. “Without our wings, we can’t fly.” “Will you give up your feathers?” the wizard asked. “No!” said the sparrows. “Without our feathers we’ll freeze in the winter!” “Will you give up your song?” asked the wizard. “Yes!” said the sparrows. “That will be our sacrifice.” “It is done,” said the wizard. “Return to the palace.”

The sparrows returned to find everyone still asleep. Just as they began to think they’d been tricked, a child’s voice cried out. Immediately, everyone awoke.

Suddenly a change came over the sparrows. Their bodies flattened, their feathers changed to skin, their beaks softened into wide mouths. Where there had been chittering sparrows perched on walls there now squatted croaking frogs. Which is why frogs croak and hop. To this day they try to sing but can only croak. They try to fly but can only hop.

This is a condensed version of “The Dead Princess” from Peter Straub’s pop-horror novel, Shadowland. In Staub’s novel, an evil magician tells this tale to his evil-resisting young apprentice. As fairytales go, this story is unusual, because while the princess and kingdom are restored to life, the story lacks the traditional happy ending. Its only intent appears to be to emphasize the helplessness of the sparrows, whose transformation into frogs seems to serve no purpose but to bring the wizard’s power and treachery into sharp relief. Other than being powerless and perhaps meddling creatures the sparrows did nothing to earn such severe punishment. They are not, for instance, gluttonous or proud creatures that are transformed into animals personifying those vices. Their metamorphosis into frogs strips away life as they knew it. Is the point of “The Dead Princess” to emphasize that asking a wizard for help is perilous business? Maybe, but such a moral is arguable, because appealing to someone who can get things done seems to be the natural course open to the sparrows once they decide to help, especially given the castle’s magical circumstances.

Furthermore, the tale itself gives no warning of the wizard’s treachery, and so, no real basis for judging the sparrows’ choice to petition him. It isn’t unusual to have to pay for services; that isn’t a clue. Straub’s tale stated, “One thing everybody knew about the wizard was that while he was fair, he always made you pay for any favor he did you” (Straub 1981:199). Yet the wizard’s behavior toward the birds is definitely not fair.

Part of the story’s unsettling effect lies not in the tale itself but in the context of who’s telling the story to whom. In the novel, the master of Shadowland, a treacherous wizard, appraises the fairytale wizard’s character for the young apprentice to whom he’s telling the story. Herein lies the story’s power: the wizard frames the tale as a way of forcing the apprentice to see only what he wants him to see. Later, when the young apprentice asks the magician to help save the life of a friend, the magician asks, “Your wings or your song?” Given the referrent, this question attains instantly the power of threat. Through the language of “The Dead Princess,” the magician attempts to limit his apprentice’s options, thus controlling his actions. The either-or language of the dilemma “Your wings or your song?” is a linguistic and logical structure used commonly to achieve this effect. As the poor sparrows are trapped by their sympathy for others, many listeners, identifying with the well-meaning, sympathetic, yet spellbound sparrows, will share in their peril.

This fearful, deadly language that brings paralysis upon its target or blinds her to everything except what the attacker wishes her to see, is the essence of witchcraft. Such language manipulates others’ wills in order to magnify the speaker’s own power and generate what he believes is greater control over his own destiny. Such language may trap, bring a range of illnesses upon, or “kill” its intended victim for the wielder’s personal gain, making possible the satisfaction of various excessive ambitions. It twists words, passages of sacred text, pieces of ritual, and other words spoken in good faith, thus removing people from sacred and social contexts. It is the language of psychological and physical violence.

Commentary: Mormon Sensibility

Ben Huff wondered here why so few of his fellow Mormons felt as drawn as he did to peak-of-season blackberries growing wild where his stake center’s parking lot ended and the forest began.

I remember blackberries: we had snarls of them on our land in Virginia. The berries grew plump and shiny on generousities of the southern summer, and late in the season we kids browsed lazily on fruit as big around as the last joint in our thumbs. Elderberries, hickory nuts, and wild plums flourished on our five acres, along with red clover and honeysuckle. We cracked the hickory nuts then dug out the woody meat with sticks or with grimy fingernails. I pulled apart clover and honeysuckle blossoms, searching out nectar with the tip of my tongue. I got mere wisps of flowery essence, but the high notes of such raw sweetness rang my tongue to its roots.

At the forest’s edge, sassafras mixed it up with the greenbriars. The bright green of briar cane and the sassafras’s earthy scent infuse memories of my Virginia childhood to this day. The same with sweetgum trees, Liquidambar styraciflua. When I come across these living fossils growing in Utah, such as at the eastern end of BYU’s Harris Fine Arts Center, I crush their leaves and rub the fragrant oils on my skin. The scent triggers not only memories but excites another way of being, one where my senses engage me more fully.

As Ben wondered about his Mormon comrades’ seeming indifference to ripe blackberries, I’ve wondered why I’ve never seen anybody else stop to smell sweetgum leaves. One answer: Nobody knows what they are. But the question arises, when one watches many Mormons stroll past any Nature: Do they even notice it? Or is there something about Nature and how it engages the senses that some Mormons find distracting and uncomfortable?

I was not born in the LDS church. My mother attended meetings for some years when I was a child but I didn’t become active until I was twelve. I was baptised at sixteen, the age at which my father, who never became a member, finally allowed it. Some would think this disadvantaged my spiritual life, but my deep involvement with the flora and fauna surrounding our house fostered the development of native intelligence and initiated me into realms of sacred relation where scripture, when I began noticing it, found fertile ground for its broadcast seeds, mustard and otherwise.

Years later when I met Arthur Henry King at BYU, he asked right off, “Do you write verse?” When I said yes he requested some. At our next meeting to discuss my poetry, he asked, “Were you brought up a Mormon? I am asking you these things because you are wild, you haven’t been tamed yet. That’s not to say that you should be tamed and it isn’t “˜wild’ in a bad sense. Your sensibility is wild for a Mormon.” With Arthur King (also a convert to the church), as well as other BYU professors, I spent the next several years not taming, but disciplining this sensibility. I’m still schooling it–dressing and keeping it, if you will.

At the time, Arthur’s appraisal blessed me. Try as I might I had never gotten down the Mormon rhetoric and world view as I imagined I ought to have done. My brand of spirituality, established, perhaps, during my pre-Gospel, tick-infested, blackberry-stained, greenbriar-snagged, turtle-hunting and snake-charming days, refused to blossom as a rose when I came to BYU, though I studied and prayed for righteousness. Arthur’s words that day, and those he offered over the next several years of our association, helped ease the tension between my blackberry patch soul and the surrounding rose garden of conformity that asserted itself against wilderness with hypertrophied blossoms.

In his lecture, “The Discipline of the Mother Tongue,” Arthur King said:

The whole of our life has to be creative. There is no such thing apart as “˜creative literature’ from this point of view. Whatever you write, may be creative or not creative, according to your testimony. Either we live creative lives in which we speak creatively, or we live uncreative lives in which we do not speak creatively. And from the whole of society in which we live there is tremendous pressure on us to live uncreatively, to live without effort, to live passively, to enjoy ourselves at the least expense. These are the major drugs of society. Drugs are to be defined, not fundamentally as things that do you “˜physical’ harm–because it may be possible to invent drugs that do not do you physical harm–but as things that do you mental and moral harm. All of us in this room are taking drugs to some extent. These are the influences in our society which prevent us from living vigilantly, vitally, creatively, and therefore speaking, and writing and reading creatively. There is only one ultimate defense, and that is the gospel.

Blackberries grow for the having in thorny riots at the edges of cultivated areas. Scriptures and other spiritual matter also bear patches of wild fruit at the edges of and extending beyond paved spaces and cultivated gardens of conventional religious belief. What causes some Mormons to go straight to their cars at the end of church without so much as a glance at the wild blackberries? Do Mormons really want to try them, but does something about the berries’ dark shine, about their choice of unmanaged habitat at the edges of well-worked ground, make Mormons suspicious that curiosity about how blackberries taste is some form of sin? Do our cultural drugs, whatever form they take, prevent our seeing them? Do we not speak of them in our literature because wild blackberries grow without bidding beyond the garden walls of rose-dazzled cities of God?