This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Storytelling


This post is a continuation of the last (1). During his experimental year of radical wilderness solitude in Patagonia, Robert Kull maintained a journal. The complete journal was 900 pages long, and he had not only to review it but also to write an edited version. Both the original writing and the editing involved a careful process of selection. Even the original entries told only “one among many possible tales”. Kull says: “I have, though, both in the original journal entries and in the editing process, tried to tell my truth as I lived it”. He is very conscious of the way in which “the magic of words”, and cultural expectations about narratives, including the motif of the ‘hero’s journey’, can come between the experience and the record. These considerations influence what he brings back from his year, and what we can learn from it. I feel moved by, and respectful of, the way he works through these concerns.

“In the journal, a saga of physical adventure and spiritual transformation runs parallel to and weaves through the drifting account of daily life – the autobiographical quest of the hero. This is a recognized, even expected, storytelling mode for someone spending a year alone in the wilderness, and I could have enhanced the heroic saga during editing. But instead I’ve allowed that tidy narrative to remain interrupted over and over by the unruly wildness of the ‘hero’s’ soul.

“In the messier story, the hero’s cultural ideals of personal success, social progress, and free will are questioned in view of the cyclic storms of depression, rage, fear, and doubt about his place in society and a felt lack of spiritual development. Despite differences in theology, moral orientation and self-discipline, the man in that pedestrian tale may have more in common with St. Augustine and his surrender of personal agency to Divine Will than with the stereotypical self-oriented striving of modern culture’s secular hero.

“My goal in the wilderness was not to conquer either the external world or my own inner nature, but to give up the illusion of ownership and control and to experience myself as part of the ebb and flow of something greater than the individual ego. But the goal of attaining enlightenment was elusive – except when it was not. Through a shift in consciousness, my quest came to an end as I realized there was nowhere to go and nothing to get. The notion of a holy grail out there – or even within – was illusory, and what I was seeking I always already had: I was not a special hero, but simply a speck of life like all other specks – unless I was not. Personal agency always reasserted itself, and these two aspects of my being struggled and then tentatively began to dance together.

“Stories of spiritual seekers or solitaries in the wilderness are often portrayals of heroic adventure. It’s difficult not to slip into this mode, but I’ve tried. We already have enough of such writing, and in its most blatant form it’s little better than checkout-counter publications flaunting the amazing lives of superhuman ‘stars’. When I read such stories and compare them to my own actual life, I feel diminished. ‘That’s not how my life is. What’s wrong with me?’ I’m also pulled out of my own life and into vicariously living the imaginary life of another. What I offer instead is a more human account so perhaps we can wander the spaces and silences of wilderness solitude together.” (1)


(2) Robert Kull Solitude: Seeking Wisdom in Extremes – A Year Alone in the Patagonian Wilderness Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008


Extract in which Ursula K. Le Guin looks at the creative evolution of her six Earthsea books. The focus is on new perspectives in the fourth book, Tehanu.

“In Tehanu, Tenar is brushing her hair on a windy dry morning, so that it crackles and makes sparks, and the one-eyed child Therru is fascinated, seeing what she calls ‘the fire flying out all over the sky’.

“At that moment, Tenar first asked herself how Therru saw her – saw the world – and knew that she did not know; that she could not know what one saw with an eye that had been burned away. And Ogion’s words – ‘they will fear her’ – returned to her, but she felt no fear of the child. Instead, she brushed her hair again, vigorously, so the sparks would fly, and once again, she heard the little husky laugh of delight.

“Soon after this scene, Tenar herself has a moment of double vision, seeing with two different eyes. An old man in the village has a beautiful painted fan; on one side are figures of lords and ladies of the royal court, but on the other side, usually hidden against the wall:

Dragons moved as the folds of the fan moved. Painted faint and fine on the yellowed silk, dragons of pale red, blue, green moved and grouped, as the figures on the other side were grouped, among clouds and mountain peaks.

‘Hold it up to the light’, said old Fan.

She did so, and saw the two sides, the two paintings, made one by the light flowing through the silk, so that the clouds and peaks were the towers of the city, and the men and women were winged, and the dragons looked with human eyes.

‘You see?’

‘I see,’ she murmured.

“What is this double vision, two things seen as one? What can the blinded eye teach the seeing eye? What is the wilderness? Who are the dragons?

“Dragons are archetypes, yes; mind forms, a way of knowing. But these dragons aren’t St. George’s earthly worm, nor are they the Emperor of China’s airy servant. I am not European, not Asian, and I am not a man. These are the dragons of a new world, and the visionary forms of an old woman’s mind. The mythopoeticists err, I think, in using the archetype as a rigid, filled mold. If we see it only as a vital potentiality, it becomes a guide into mystery. Fullness is a fine thing, but emptiness is the secret of it, as Lao Tze said. The dragons of Earthsea remain mysterious to me.”

(1) Ursula K. Le Guin Earthsea Revisited In Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition London: Gollanz, 2018 Illustrated by Charles Vess.

Earthsea Revisited is a printed version of a lecture delivered in 1992, in which Ursula K. Le Guin described the lifelong revisioning of gender and culture which changed her approach to storytelling. This evolution moved her decisively away from the traditional, masculine, ‘hero’s journey’ framework with which she started. Books of Earthsea brings together all six books, with additional stories and authorial reflections from different periods. Some of this work has been familiar to me for a long time, and some is new. I found it helpful to have all of the material collected in one volume.



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