To open Edinburgh Napier’s 2015 Edinburgh International Book Festival blog, an event that took myth and storytelling as its starting points. John Burnside and Jón Kalman Stefánsson explored their own work, and asked why authors turn to older cultural forms for inspiration. With the event sponsored by the Icelandic Literature Centre there was an international dimension to proceedings, though the themes were universal. Summer 2015 has blessed the Book Festival with some fine weather and the tent was warm and busy on a Monday afternoon. Panellists and audience were all in a suitably relaxed and festive frame of mind, and the event was well received.
That’s not to say the wasn’t an edge to some of the discussion. Stefánsson outlined the presence of social inequalities in Icelandic traditional stories, reflecting the uneven experiences of men and women through periods of the country’s history. The role of mediums was discussed, with their apparent ability to communicate with deceased family members. The Edinburgh audience was given a window onto a foreign land, yet one which illustrates cultural practices that may not be too far removed from those closer to home.
As the discussion evolved, it became apparent that stories, books and literature were being presented as forms of salvation: pathways on which to consider a better life and a better world. As children we have literature through which to view, compare and assess our own development. As adults, writing (and perhaps reading) each book is a chance to ‘find out if God exists’, to explore the natural state of the world around us. As Stefánsson pointed out, modern technology and comfort has taken much of the cruelty out of nature in the cold, harsh climates of the north, and yet cruelty still exists between people. The link to nature continued, with Burnside seeing an opportunity to ‘reclaim’ a pagan culture through literature, respecting the natural environment by imbuing it with a life force that has been stripped away through a (mainly Christian based) cultural development. In this way stories bring us closer to the fields, rivers, rocks and animals around us, prompting connections in ways that would serve the world well if its political leaders took them on board. The upcoming Paris climate change summit was cited as a chance to see if our leaders are capable of taking such messages on board.
The breadth of the discussion demonstrated the importance of myths and stories in our everyday lives and our grander plans. From the experiences of childhood to the future of the planet there is a truth in myth that would serve us well to pay it some heed. Perhaps it is through stories that we may find a shared culture across national borders, at just the time when Scotland is adjusting its sense of self, its connection to both the past and to the future. The local audience left with much to ponder.