Understanding History & the Malleability of Stories

Originally created for Widdershins Stories on June 11 as a blog post and since transferred over here after we moved the website to a landing page.

All stories are deeply entrenched in the beliefs, values, worldview, and historical placement of the author. An obvious fact for us all I think, but one that comes up with particularly apparent stamps when you look at folklore, myth, and other older stories that this podcast finds a home with. In our current timeline, we are in the midst of a great “waking up” and calling out of racial injustice in the United States (see my last blog post for more information and resources) which has always been there unless you were able to turn a blind eye. When we thought about this idea we wanted to read the tale of Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving as we thought it would be particularly poignant. However, upon trying to read and record the podcast, we realized that we couldn’t share this story because while the one trope of traipsing off to fairyland to sleep for a night only to wake up 20 years later and everything has changed is what we wanted to get across, the actual story as told by Irving is full of some of the very things that are now at the forefront of everyone’s mind and we would be falling right back into the trap of history yet again.

Many works are a product of their time and their author’s beliefs: look at Lovecraft, Shakespeare, and for some more recent events, Rowling. They highlight the imprint of the author on the story and how their individual prejudices and perspectives shape and mold the characters, world, and narrative. You may think back to Lovecraft and recall the eldritch horrors that have continued in many forms of art and storytelling to this day, but those concepts and horror behind them originated from his xenophobia and racism. Shakespeare has some pretty horrendous displays of racism and sexism in his work yet the story of Romeo and Juliet is timeless. Rowling was once praised as a progressive hero but not that neoliberal mentality is stale and unchanging with the times and being called out for bigotry and outdated information. I frankly could go on with many a beloved author, but that is not the point.

Irving is much the same-in Rip Van Winkle. The short story is set in pre-Revolutionary War times with a layabout main character, Rip, who immediately upon introduction is seen as the victim of his relentless wife’s verbal battery (he is the henpecked husband we are made to empathize with). As he wanders off into the woods one day to avoid her endless barrage, he heads to a place only witches and Indians are (the big bad “evil” places he emphasizes through his racism and religious prejudice), meets a mysterious troupe and drinks until drunk, falling asleep for 20 years. When he wakes up, the Revolutionary War has come and gone, his wife is dead and children grown, and once proven not to be a lunatic, he is lauded by the village men who wish one day to also get a drink of that special draught to avoid their wives. I was honestly shocked, it had been ages since I’d read it—although when I think back I am uncertain if I ever read it at all. The story of Rip Van Winkle is so ingrained into our common knowledge I think you’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t know the tale-or at least the trope.

That is the power of stories, though. The imagery, the narrative arc, the tropes, the characters-they can all have a life of their own outside their immediate encasement in book and page. Before we had written stories we had oral traditions where storytellers would change the stories to fit the audiences to better engage with them. Our books, our printed stories, are records of a time. They are an imprint of a moment with the concerns of the age laid out by a biased author (for what author can be unbiased? we are all flawed humans). I think something beautiful comes as these stories adapt. It is one of the reasons I love Angela Carter’s take on Grimm tales, although even those are painfully outdated. There is a lot to be said in this realm with fanfiction and new takes and lenses on artistic works-again look to Rowling and the Harry Potter fandom now.

It is impossible to try and erase the past. It is always there and informs the present. However, we should learn from it and take what we have learned both as a individuals and as a society to challenge these troublesome works, narratives, and beliefs. Another excellent example is the statues being torn down right now of Confederate soldiers and Columbus. That doesn’t erase their history, but by removing the statues we are stopping the glorification of what they did. It is the same with stories. Ideas once out cannot be bottled back up. I know that many authors try to prevent this (see example: Anne Rice versus the fandom of her works back in the 90s-give it a Google), but it is practically impossible.

So what do we do? Well, at the very minimum, on this podcast we are not going to share stories that have these blatant tones to them. The tale of Rip Van Winkle has aged poorly and does not need to be read and performed by us as put down by Washington Irving. Both because there are many other tales in other cultures that have the same themes, but also because we don’t need to keep perpetuating these ideas by breathing life into them. We also won’t be sharing stories that are not ours to tell whether from a marginalized and underrepresented culture or from a perspective that must be voiced by one who lived it.

We can still ponder the implications of what it means to think someone who seems to sleep for a short time only to wake up and find everything is different. How does that relate to us now as a society where we have people suddenly face-to-face with an issue (racism) that they have been able to put to rest because it does not affect them? What does it say that this has been happening all along but for many is a “sudden” topic that appears to have sprung up over night while others are stating how it has been there this whole time? The ideas are out there to ponder and play with-to stretch and pull in different directions and see how it can fit onto different topics and times. That is the gift of stories.


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