Two Branches of the Story-Teller’s Tree


For a long time now I have been considering how storytellers try to show the nature of reality.  It seems to me that there are two branches of thought we use.

(I’ll be over-simplifying terribly. Be ready for that.)

One branch of world-building involves treating events and the beings caught in those events as though they were happening in a human family. And families lead to clans.  To nations. Empires. Such stories build their empires, or their pantheons, generation by generation, and keep the hierarchies always firmly structured. By doing so they create a lot of interest – and tension – in the different goals and motivations of the parties involved.

  It seems so natural and so very, very human to structure a reality like that. And, being human, these stories always involve hierarchy.  Without hierarchy, it’s hard to build tension, in world-building.

World-building leads, of course, to plot-building. Oodles of lovely plots.


But there’s another branch on the story-tree.  It involves starting out with things or events just sitting there, like fields of grass or stones.  Found objects. Then it requires observing them: how they change through time into other things.  This seems a colder and drier way to write – at first glance – and less interesting.

But only at first glance.

I have just this morning seen the name Manannan Mac Lir, who is a character in a story I am reading, and I had a moment of dual vision about him.  On the first branch of ‘story’, he is the son of Lir and has all the baggage of family that comes attached to that.  In stories written about families of gods, with their whole pantheons, that can be an overwhelming amount of luggage.  Strife, loyalties, betrayals, loves.  All good stuff for story-making. 


But if I think of the same character-name in the other way –  on what I called the other branch of story-telling – Manannan Mac Lir is the son on Lir, or Ocean, and has been linguistically defined as a part of Ocean.  He is exactly that part of Ocean that involves man and the rest of the mammals, birds, and the other kinds of sea-life. Lir, who is simply Ocean, is a huge and simple fellow. Manannan is the region where the sea meets the shore and where most things happen.  (Manannan became the name of the Isle of Mann. He’s still with us, even without the stories.)  Thinking about this character in a not-particularly human way is not as sterile as it might seem.  It leaves us openings for interesting creatures from coral reefs and stories about them, to tales about voyages by ship.

I picked Manannan Mac Lir simply because I was reading one random book before I sat down to write this.  I could have used Athena, or Odin, if I had to start with a god as a character. I didn’t particularly want to start with a god.  Just happened.

At the moment I seem to be talking about stories of fantasy or old history, but that’s just  because  of the book I was reading when I started thinking.  Empires or hectic family reunions can be written in technological language, too.  A wyrm or a worm-hole may be used to the same purpose in a story, and can be used in either branch of the story-tree.


What I’m trying say is that one way of looking at things is more human-based and the other is more animist.  Animism is a word I picked up through anthropology studies.  It refers to old religions that believe there is life in everything, whether it is animal, vegetable or mineral. Animism is considered by scholars to be primitive.  It was what came before people structured their ideas into charts and categories, and their beliefs turned into pantheons.

Instead of calling it primitive, I like to call animism intimate.  It underlies every interaction of the eye and of the mind as they meet outside reality.  A person may pick up a pebble or a leaf from the ground and say, casually, “This thing speaks to me, somehow.”  And then he or she might put that bit of stuff into a pocket and think about it later.  Maybe draw a picture of it, or write a story sparked by it.  And, of course, I can’t limit the idea to things like pebbles; they  can be CGI, color-altered photos of the event horizon of a black hole.  Harder to stuff into your pocket, but not into your mind.

The meaningful bit to me is that the thing ‘speaks’ to us.  This is a very different sort of interaction than re-creating one more version of the Greek pantheon.  Or Galactic Empire.

(I told you I’d be over-simplifying. I hope you took me seriously.)

Every story worth its salt, (and does sodium chloride ‘speak’ to you?) has both sorts of interaction happening: both the human, hierarchical, and very complex patterns, and the very intimate and primitive reaction of a story-teller’s words describing a field of grass.  To be fair, there are not two separate branches of thought in story-making.  They come together again and again, like a weave.  Like mycelium growing in the ground.  Like neurons.

But story-tellers wind up showing their preferences – or at least their ease with the different strands – in every word they write.  And it has only occurred to me in the last few years that I am, by nature, an animist.  I’ve written three books which are best described as fairy tales, and neither of them have the fairies being a part of any known pantheon or fairy court.  They came out of the ground, like leaves or pebbles, and simply ‘spoke’ to me. I think I lack the necessary part of the brain to keep all that huge cast of characters going.  I’m not an epic-scale writer and don’t aspire to be one.

The writer who comes to my mind as having mixed the two branches of story-telling most successfully is T.H. White, who wrote The Once and Future King.  That huge tome is by no means a perfect book, unless you are describing the first part: The Sword in the Stone.  The Once and Future King is the rambling narrative of an opinionated and troubled man.  And White didn’t care to hide his feelings from the reader. I like that sort of boldness, when the writing is good. 

 I remember that when I first read that huge book I wondered what White had against the people of the Island of Orkney.  His anger against them seemed so outsized.  So much bigger than the island itself.  But the entire thing was so perfectly intimate that I couldn’t put it down. 

White had the entire Arthurian mythos – the Matter of Britain – to anchor his story.  He is still the only one I have read who has made the character of Arthur meaningful to me.  When you come down to it, King Arthur is a very dull character.  It has always been the accessory characters who made that story. 

I think White was more of an animist.  Perhaps that is why I respond to him.  Why he ‘speaks’ to me.

Like a pebble in my pocket.