History and story both were more or less imported into Middle English from the same Old French root, and the division between them has always been very porous. Thus, John of Trevisa, in his 1387 translation of Higden’s Polychronicon, calls Herodotus “þe writer of stories,” and John Gower, in Confessio Amantis (composed around the same time), writes of “an old histoire, / The which comth nou to mi memoire.” The line of separation remains unstable today, as seen in the uneasy usage of “story” to refer to journalists’ writing: supposedly the first draft of history, but also accounts designed to delight and to teach.
Before the newcomers’ story and history, Old English had spell, which simply meant a tale. Beowulf’s adventures were artfully recited with woven words: “Ond on sped wrecan spel gerade, wordum wrixlan.” And the deeds and teachings of Jesus were told in good spells, or gospels. Eventually, as story displaced spell from this usage, spell itself came to mean “incantation,” a set of fantastical words that could shape reality.
History, story, spell—there is in this etymological record a fable on the relationship between the human mind and the cosmos. However much we dislike the epistemological mess, facts are not, and have never been, perfectly distinguishable from fiction. For our species, interpretation is not so much applied to reality as bound up with it. Time and space may consist of nothing more than one meaningless random event after another, but we cannot make sense of the universe except through the filter of intelligently designed plots, satisfying character arcs, and comprehensible narratives. Stories, creations of fancy, then end up remaking the world.
Neuroscience tells us that our memories and perceptions are nothing like raw digital photography files, with a matrix of sensors dispassionately recording every bit of light in a moment, but more like the sensationalistic accounts penned by partisan hacks, where the story doesn’t so much emerge from the facts as determine which facts are even noted. Our minds discard features that don’t fit a chosen narrative, exaggerate elements that confirm the story we already believe in, fabricate out of whole-cloth details that don’t exist but ought to, and with each recollection, our memory is retold, respun, rewoven. There may or may not be some evolutionary advantage to this narrative bent in our cognition—though any explanation in that vein would simply be more just-so stories.
But do not dismiss narratives as lies and forgeries, corruption of “objective” chronicle, mere fantasy. True to the newer meaning of spell, our stories tell the world how to be.
The planet is at the mercy of our history, our story, our spell.
Out of mere stories, we construct our identity, at the individual as well as the collective level. Each of us is like a hero from the ancient epics: we’re born into ignorance, like Adam or Gilgamesh, devoid of names and stories, minds blank slates; then gods and demons, in the form of our parents and teachers, guide us through the reed-strewn shore and carry us across the tempest-tost sea, gifting us our first memories. These first stories, our personal mythos, then come to define us. The way we were loved channels how we love; the way we were hurt frames how we view pain. Layer by layer, story by story, we build the self from scars and calluses left by mentors, friends, lovers, monsters we meet in the course of our odyssey, on our journey west; and later, as we strive through the dark wood midway along life’s journey, we realize—as mortality finally sinks in—that we’ve also become outsize figures to those who come after us, to be incorporated into their stories as heroes and villains. We narrate our self into being, fill our soul with a breast-hoard of stories, and ultimately find solace in our spell-shroud as we decline into senescence.
It’s no different at the level of families, clans, tribes, cities, states, nations, creeds. We fool ourselves into thinking that a people is defined by blood, language, land—but ultimately, the only thing that creates or unites a people is a story, a foundational mythology retold and renewed and rewritten and recast and recommitted to, generation after generation, an ongoing process of determining who we are and how we’re different from all other peoples across time and space. We may even corrupt Durant a bit and say that a great civilization is not conquered from without until the people have lost faith in their own story.
We live by stories, and for stories we die. Stories have brought down empires, liberated the enslaved, driven out conquerors. But they also have a sinister power, more apparent over time as they have grown ever grander and more totalizing. Those who believe in a story begin to believe also that everyone else must believe in that same story, that the One True Story is self-evident, the Truth that others must be taught, converted to, and eventually compelled at the point of sword to accept. (Ironically, it is often some form of “freedom” that the zealots wish to force upon others.) Deus vult, Manifest Destiny, the white man’s burden, the pursuit of happiness, dictatorship of the proletariat . . . stories, beautiful or despicable, have ravaged lands, slaughtered millions, erased bloodlines, memories, tongues, pantheons. Stories have drained seas and melted ice caps, thickened the air and punched holes in the sky. Stories have launched a thousand ships and may yet launch a thousand nuclear missiles. The planet is at the mercy of our history, our story, our spell.
As tensions rise around the world and extremism and conspiracy theories proliferate, it’s hard not to think that we’ve lost control of our narrative, become trapped in the arc of history just as our capacity to inflict death and destruction on all in the service of realizing our stories has risen to an apocalyptic apex. But we are a story-born, spell-bound species, and there is no way out of our hell except more stories. The only comfort I can offer is that the book before us appears to still have blank pages, and the next chapter has yet to be written. May we all get to tell the story we want to tell.
Orion‘s Summer 2022 issue is generously sponsored by NRDC.