Updated: May 31, 2021
The impact books have on our lives is not limited to the words written between the covers. Some books inspire new thoughts and send us to unexpected places. Follow me down the rabbit hole in this recurring segment.
On the surface, Clarissa Pinkola Estés’s book Women Who Run With the Wolves is primarily a manifesto for women, a guidebook on how to reject forces that would silence our instincts, and get back in touch with our true nature. She does this by retelling folk lore and myths, then meticulously teasing apart each detail to reveal the wisdom rooted within. This telling is a gift, a permission-slip to trust our instincts and pursue a fulfilling life. Then somewhere along the journey she offered another gift. As the symbols in each story were gradually laid before me like a cypher, something occurred to me. I wasn’t quite sure what it was yet. It was a spark; a mere hint of an understanding. If I wanted it to glow brighter, it would need fuel and a chance to breathe. I would have to follow my intuition rather than overthink it.
I found myself drawn to a book from my childhood, Favourite Tales from Grimm and Andersen. It’s no wonder. Like Estés, the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were academics that collected folk lore and fairy tales, and compiled them into a volume of over 200 stories, in Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Hans Christian Andersen was a world-renowned author known for writing stories specifically for children. His fairy tale The Ugly Duckling features in WWRWW. Estés herself is a collector of stories, myths, and fairytales, dissecting them as an avenue towards deeper knowing.
I revisited those fairytales, and felt much like an adult revisiting a place from their childhood. I not only saw details I hadn’t noticed before, but I recognized a deeper significance, too. The narrative was thought provoking, and the imagery stuck with me for days while I teased apart the deeper meaning. It’s as though I was seeing in colour where I hadn’t before. The spark was growing into a flame.
But why? Why did it take me so long to even consider diving deeper? It’s easy to say something like, “It’s just a children’s story,” but maybe there is more to it than that.
Storytelling is an important part of human experience. It is crucial to our survival. Without the passing on of knowledge, we wouldn’t know which plants were poisonous, or how to treat illness, or how to communicate with each other. The modern error is to assume that a story is merely a form of entertainment. It’s easy to understand how that assumption came to be. Globalization and the internet have changed the nature of storytelling. While myth and folk lore exists to pass on knowledge, inform about the human condition, and instill moral consistency in a culture, much modern storytelling today aims to shock, evoke emotion, and entertain, sometimes with a disregard of the ethical consequence.
That may sound a little heavy handed, and while this is not a discussion about the impacts of media on prejudice and the perpetuation of stereotypes, it diminishes the human condition to state otherwise. Humans are quite good at recognizing patterns, categorizing data, and making deductions about novel situations accordingly. That all said, there’s nothing wrong with entertainment for its own sake. I too enjoy mindless, feel-good, and light entertainment. While there is a difference between entertainment and moralistic storytelling, any content we subject ourselves to can have an influence on our perception of what is normal and acceptable. We may choose to think something is harmless to relieve ourselves of any responsibility for questionable messaging. It is a small leap to then then think of every tale as “just a story.”
I digress. Let’s get back to figuring out how I hadn’t previously appreciated the wisdom embedded in my childhood book of fairy tales.
Growing up I was often told, “You have to know where you’ve been before you can know where you’re going.” That’s what these stories are about. People like the Grimm brothers and Estés recognized the inherent wisdom in these stories, and wrote them down to both preserve and impart their lessons on future generations. Somewhere along the way people started seeing them as “just stories.” This goes hand in hand with some other unfortunate trends. Here in Canada, elders are often not given the same respect they used to. Not so long ago, we used to rely on the generations before us, to lean on a lifetime of experience to help guide our future. Today, there is an excess of information at our fingertips and it is easy to mistake knowledge for wisdom. The constant stream of information perpetuates an impulse to fill every moment, to be increasingly productive, to be informed, to be entertained, but something is missed. If we don’t take time to reflect on our experience, the lessons can become compartmentalized, limited to a narrow knowing rather than spilling over into a deeper wisdom.
I was closer. And yet, there was still something missing. The flame had grown, but was still fragile.
Then it occurred to me. Stories aren’t just about the past imparting wisdom on the present. They are about the future, too. In them, the listener can look ahead and understand what’s possible. She can acquire the courage of a hundred generations, and embark upon her own journey. She can discover her own wisdom in experience, and offer her stories to those that come after her. Like I’m offering this story to you. And maybe one day, you’ll offer your story to me. And these seemingly small acts may make a larger impact, generating a spark that becomes a fire, lighting our way as we add them to the collective wisdom of human history. This is what Dr. Estés is telling her readers throughout WWRWW. Ironically, as in the story of Vasalisa, I had to embark on the journey myself to gain a true understanding.
Whew! I’m glad I made it through that. My inner voice has a tendency to meander. Now I can start overthinking things again. Especially fairytales. I’m thankful for the academic aspect of WWRWW for decoding symbolism in story. I may even understand what on earth was going on in the Charlie Kaufman movie I'm Thinking of Ending Things (2020). If you haven’t yet read Women Who Run With the Wolves, here’s a hint: fairy tale characters often represent different aspects of a person’s psyche.
Is there a story that inspired you and help shape the person you are today? Have you passed your own wisdom onto others? We’d love to hear about it. Comment below, or email us!