The following has two parts: one is more abstract/conceptual and the other is more concrete/personal. The place to engage or begin or skip depends on the individual. I recommend going where it feels right. To journey by the path of attraction takes refining and grace. Good stories are guides.
Truth and Integrity of Story: A Rationale for Investing in a “Nonsense Tale”
Some of us believe that stories carry and nurture us close to the essential nature of humans, closer than usually happens through factual data, scientific investigation, and academic theory. For example, if we are made in the image of God, the reach toward the deity pulls us beyond the known and into mystery. In order to lean into the Unknown of our divine inheritance, the movement is by likeness instead of by description. Narrative provides the body around likeness through image and metaphor by enfleshing the fable, parable, myth, and all the relational forms of story. Stories thereby shape our moral sense.
While I was probably attracted to teaching-stories in early days, the real jolt into increased awareness and articulation came in midlife when Gioia Timpanelli modeled the way a story comes uniquely true in each telling. She explained and moreso demonstrated the paradoxical double: telling true to the source and simultaneously true to the self. On a smaller scale than Rumi’s seven forms of discourse interwoven in the Mathnawi [See Alan Williams’ Introduction to Rumi: Spiritual Verses, pages xx-xxix.], Timpanelli’s stories incorporated explanatory moments into the narrative as she sensed it helpful to navigate this double in a particular telling. For example, when telling “Hans My Hedgehog,” she perceived that some of us were not getting the potential from the archetypal image of the hedge; so she shifted into a brief commentary on the hedge as the boundary between the civilized and the wild.
While some persons object to an interruption to the flow of a narrative, Gioia’s commentary on the hedge opened a whole world of meaning for me that greatly enriched the Grimms’ tale. In this model, storytelling mediates the universal origin and the personal/social truth of the moment. The study and experience of varied versions of a story provide illustration of this mediation as will be shown in the following section.
In holding the two poles, universal and personal, stories move in search of the authentic; that is, teaching-stories guide the discovery and development of character that has integrity to the individual and thus provide authority and command toward the person’s destiny. Trying to find authentic source material may lead toward specific texts, but more importantly the searching informs about the genius of mind, soul, spirit, and body. The search takes one forward and back to the garden. In other words, the making and remaking of a story happens under the branches of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Good stories, as stated above, are about moral sense.
An Exploration of Variations of a “Nonsense” Tale
I’ve been looking again (and again many times) at a series of versions of a very special story. I don’t remember when Mom began telling me the story about the story. It might not have been until I’d become a dad myself and was thus drawn to storytelling as it edges into the numinous threshold where the two worlds touch. Becoming a parent blew me away with the wonder of life, way past textbooks and scholarly journals. Also, in more simple logistical terms, storytelling increased the chances of getting an active child to sleep sooner; in deeper levels, story intertwined the spiritual with the material, the divine into the human.
In her later years, Mom told me several times that I was the only one of her five children who remembered the story of Epaminondas, but I don’t remember remembering it. She said she’d first told it to me three decades before I became Dad, when at age six I’d been unconscious in the hospital for three days after falling out of the family car. She said the doctors told her there was nothing else they could do and so she told me the story of Epaminondas. And soon enough I woke up.
Perhaps the compelling return to this story wonders about her choice. It just didn’t make sense that she’d come up with “Epaminondas.” The story often gets labeled “a nonsense tale,” including in its earliest print publication in 1907 by Sara Cone Bryant (Stories to Tell to Children, p. 63). But no one in the family admits to seeing that book or any other of the print publications available in 1953. How strange that she’d pick a nonsense tale! But as I try to explain to my college students when I tell “Epaminondas,” sometimes nonsense leans toward not-yet-sense, and thus we’re provoked to wonder in our drive to make meaning. Stories are the playground of wonder, well told making the invitation for children of all ages.
My wondering about the story might easily have been put to rest immediately if Mom had chosen a Bible story. Jonah from the great fish, Joseph from the well, and Jesus with Lazarus would all fit with the unconscious/hospital situation; abundant Bible stories were within the repertoire in her memory. Yes, her little sermons were to be expected; but where in the world did she come up with Epaminondas? Why would she come up with a story about a boy going to and from grandmother’s house, repeatedly failing to adapt, and ending up stepping in pies?
The puzzle has taken me not toward historical truth but into the wonder of story, into shadows of the unconscious, and the mists of gnosis. The early print version of Epaminondas featured a phrase each time Epaminondas messed up: “You don’t have the sense you were born with!” His mother announces this in dialect and with some variation six times.
When the story was picked up in primers for second and third graders, explicit statement of not having sense was removed, but the main character’s failure to adapt stayed as the primary feature. Depending on the speaker’s telling and the listener’s imagination, consequences for messing up ranged from silly (butter melting on his head) to tragic. In the 1907 first edition (the earliest print version I’ve found), “the puppy-dog was dead” (p. 65); but when the story came out as a separate booklet in 1935, the result of Epaminondas’ failure to adapt was a puppy “almost dead.” The primers left the fate undetermined as the puppy was cooled in the water three times and brought home. When the condition of the puppy is left open, I believe the listener is not so focused on the puppy and his/her moral sense might be nurtured, even if it's inarticulate and semi-conscious. The moral sense has opportunity to grasp the importance of adapting to situational changes rather than following directions in an overly literal manner.
Nobody’s been able to figure out where Mom picked up that tale, but almost 30 years after she’d told it to me in the hospital, Mom was telling it to my three-year-old daughter on October 9, 1982 when I audio recorded it. My daughter’s participation in the telling showed that she’d already heard the story enough times that she anticipated events. Then about ten months after recording Mom telling it, I taped my daughter telling it. Of course, I’ve been telling versions of the story for a long time also. By looking at the variations across three generations and by making comparisons with print versions across a hundred years, we are offered insight about the nature and transmission of oral narrative.
As already noted above, the stuff of “wonder” wants elaboration. Where has it come from and where has it gone? Have smart phones swallowed it? Are we still, as parents, grandparents, and teachers, able to nurture the space that crosses the two worlds?
What about the nature of “moral sense,” especially as it relates to a sense-born-with? In Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, Paul Bloom discusses contemporary research on the moral sense that researchers detect already shown by children in their earliest years. Sara Cone Bryant’s introduction in the 1907 book shows her commitment to supporting children’s moral sense and the way she features “Epaminondas” in doing so:
“It is safe to assume that the child [who applies Epaminondas] will make fewer needless mistakes for a long time because of the wholesome reminder of his likeness with one who [lacks] “the sense he was born with.” And what occurred so visibly in his case goes on quietly in the hidden recesses of the mind in many cases. One “Epaminondas” is worth three lectures” (xxii-xxiii).