thomas kingI‘ve written before about stories being subversive. Now, in the 2003 CBC Ideas/Massey Lectures, Native author and scholar Thomas King shows they are much more than that — they are the very foundation and compass of our culture.

In the first lecture, King tells a story about his (optimistic and self-sacrificing) mother, and about his (enigmatic and thoughtless) father, to illustrate how much these stories have shaped him. Then, shifting perspective, he contrasts the Judeo-Christian creation myth (the story in Genesis of the fall from grace after succumbing to the temptation to eat from the tree of knowledge), with a Native creation myth (the wonderful story The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, which relates whimsically how a woman named Charm worked with the animals she encountered after accidentally falling from the sky to a water-filled planet, to create the Earth on the back of a turtle). Then he explains:

A theologian might argue that these two creation stories are essentially the same. Each tells about the creation of the world and the appearance of human beings. But a storyteller would tell you that these two stories are quite different…The elements in Genesis create a particular universe governed by a series of hierarchies — God, man, animals, plants — that celebrate law, order and good government, while in our Native story, the universe is governed by a series of co-operations that celebrate equality and balance.

In Genesis, all creative power is vested in a single deity who is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. The universe begins with his thought, and it is through his actions alone that it comes into being. In Native creation stories deities are generally figures of limited power and persuasion, and the acts of creation and decision are shared with other characters in the drama.

In Genesis we begin with a perfect world but after the Fall we are forced into a chaotic world of harsh landscapes and dangerous shadows. In our Native story, we begin with water and mud and move by degrees and adjustments to a world rich in diversity, complex, wonderful and complete.

In Genesis the post-garden world we inherit is martial and adversarial in nature, a world at war — god versus the devil, humans versus the elements. In our Native story, the world is at peace, and the pivotal concern is not the ascendancy of good over evil but with the issue of balance and harmony…

Perhaps that is why we (in the Judeo-Christian culture) delight in telling stories about heroes battling the odds and the elements rather than the magic of seasonal change. Why we relish stories that lionize individuals who start at the bottom and fight their way to the top, rather than stories that frame these forms of competition as insanity… Is it our nature? Do these stories reflect the world as it truly is, or did we simply start off with the wrong story? And if we’d started with a different story, what kind of a world might we have created?

And then King hits us with the hammer:  The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.

There’s much more in the lectures, which I’m still working through. You can buy the book, The Truth About Stories, containing the full set of lectures, from House of Anansi. This guy is an amazing story-teller. His message to me, already, and his message perhaps to writers and bloggers all, is to stop preaching, interpreting, proselytizing, advocating, prescribing. Just tell your story. “Don’t show them your mind. Show them your imagination.”

Much to think about. My head hurts.

(Thanks to Chris Corrigan  for telling me about this)

This entry was posted in Collapse Watch, Our Culture / Ourselves. Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Dick says:

    Fascinating. Once again we find ourselves considering seriously the spiritual & mythic sophistication at the heart of cultures that we have attempted systematically & energetically to destroy.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Yeah, our culture is a master of irony, if not much else.

  3. bree says:

    It’s amazing how pervasive the influence of old stories is on our lives the whole way through. There are times when I recognize that my instinctual reaction to things in my life are based on stories I read, or was told, or saw in a movie when I was a child. I wonder what the influence of the media’s stories is on our lives?I’m glad I read this post. It gives me much to think about.

  4. Jon Husband says:

    I have been up all night, not able to sleep, as I have been thinking through the elements of a blog post exploring whether there is a difference between the phrase “the medium is the message” and the phrase “the medium is the meaning” (which just popped into my head last night whilst re-reading Small Pieces Loosely Joined. We have so many more vehicles for “telling stories” now than we had, say, thirty years ago … and we’re beginning to notice how the choice of vehicle engages us (or not), carries the story, and shapes meaning from the message.And then I find this ! Thanks to you and Chris.And … may I use some elements of your post of about two or three months ago regarding the choices of media for the types of communications we want to carry out, in order to facilitate my exploration and illuminate several of the points I hope I can make ?

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Bree: Thank you. I think much of the influence of the media today is due to the fact we have ceded the story ‘playing field’ to them: We simply don’t have the time, skill or sense of priority to tell our children, and others in our communities, stories anymore. We desperately need to fix that. I’m speaking at some upcoming conferences and intend to hone my story-telling skills there, and then practice them on my grand-daughter.Jon: Of course — everything here is Creative Commons. I think McLuhan was being a bit sardonic when he said The Medium is the Message. It’s a wry overstatement about how the medium shapes the message, and can sometimes overwhelm it. What King is saying in a way is that we are the message. When you combine this with my idea (in Myron’s Tale) — When you can’t imagine, you can do anything — the consequences are potent and frightening. The one-way, impersonal, relentless media through which we get almost all of our messages today leave nothing to the imagination — in fact they inhibit imagination. So when those media broadcast a powerful set of messages — images of the WTC destruction plus government propaganda relentlessly linking them to Saddam, for example, we are defenceless against these messages, they literally ‘consume’ us, and we ‘can’t imagine’ how to react other than to be frightened and angry and to smash Iraq. If we instead had an imaginative culture, one where we told each other stories, we would be able to imagine both what it is like to be an Iraqi or a Palestinian suicide bomber, and we could imagine other ways of dealing with their plight, and as a result we could never be consumed by ‘automatic’ paranoid fear and anger, we could never allow the horrors that go on in this world to continue, and we could never start a war.

Comments are closed.