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Forgotten Heroines

FEARLESS GIRLS, WISE WOMEN AND BELOVED SISTERS: Heroines in Folktales From Around the World. \o7 Edited by Kathleen Ragan (W.W. Norton: 450 pp., $29.95)\f7

June 21, 1998|SUSAN GRIFFIN | Susan Griffin is a poet and a writer. In 1992, her book "A Chorus of Stones" was a jury finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. This year Copper Canyon Press will publish "Bending Home," a collection of her poetry written over the last 30 years

This may be the Age of Information (or as I prefer to call it, the Age of Data), but we are still storytelling creatures. The longer I live, the more I understand that all the stories I have ever heard are part of me now. "Little Red Riding Hood," "Goldilocks and the Three Bears," "Black Beauty" mingle freely with stories from my family history, both those I witnessed and those told to me and, in turn, form an archeological layer, above which other strata have formed, made up of stories from an adult life mixed now with novels I have read, movies I have seen.

Stories possess a strange yet undeniable power to affect the soul indelibly. In this realm, the power of information pales considerably. Though data can build political and economic fortunes, mere facts leave the spirit hungry. Even the cold hard facts of one's own life, experiences one has lived through, remain in a kind of bardo, not just the significance but the full impact of them too, frozen in the psyche until they are told as stories. How does storytelling work this magic?

As I write, the conventional answer comes to mind: A story is emotionally engaging; you can feel what the characters in a story feel, see what they see, almost taste what is in their mouths, breathe the air they breathe. But far more interesting to me is the sense that a story is fundamental to consciousness, a form necessary to the development of insight.

In a now famous essay, "The Story Teller," critic Walter Benjamin mourns the demise of the story in favor of information. "Counsel woven into the fabric of real life," he writes, "is wisdom." Mere data are isolated not just from plot and narration but from the intricate natural and social networks in which we live. And the further a fact is divided from the context of earthly existence, the harder it is to understand its significance. Doesn't it make sense that the psyche seek to mirror and contain the larger kaleidoscope of being? A story is immersed in lesser details, not just ideas or words or numbers or even grand events but also buttons and bread and small pine forests.

Not that stories are always wise. Growing up in Los Angeles, so close to Hollywood, I lived near a conglomerate of storytellers. I acquired the habit early of watching movies with a religious regularity. But love them as I do, I attend the movies with a certain guarded attitude. What are they trying to pull over on us now? As the film industry commands a larger and larger sphere of influence, the word "Hollywood" has come to define a story whose vision of life is delusional.

Delusion, however, should not be confused with the dramatic departures from realism that are part of the storyteller's art. Having just read Kathleen Ragan's collection of more than 100 folk tales gleaned from cultures throughout the world, I am mindful of the charm of the unlikely and the fantastic. Ragan chose and collected these tales because their heroes are girls and women. And being a mother, hence reading stories through her daughter's eyes, she became aware how seldom female heroes appear in most collections of tales that are available to us. As British author Marina Warner, among others, have pointed out, even those with female heroines such as "Little Red Riding Hood" were given to us in bowdlerized versions that left female heroism on the cutting room floor.

In her introduction, to illustrate the necessity of female heroes, Ragan tells a subtle but hair-raising tale about what happens to girls growing up without them. After reading a story to a group of small children, the teacher asked them to tell her whom they identified with in the story. Most of the boys and girls chose the hero, who was a boy. But one little girl did not. Searching the pages of the book until she found a picture of a girl standing in a crowd, she shouted, "There I am!"

I remember an improbable but true tale that was reported in the newspapers a number of years ago, in which a little girl, after being kidnapped and placed in the trunk of a car, managed to pick the lock from the inside; when her kidnapper pulled into a gas station, she released herself. Amazed by her courage and quick-wittedness, a reporter asked her how she knew what to do. "I just asked myself what Nancy Drew would have done," she said. Indeed Ragan's purpose, which she states in the introduction and emphasizes throughout the small afterwords she has affixed to each tale, is to present stories that display female heroism, its existence, its range, its marvelous viability against all manner of horrendous obstacles.

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