To the Pure all Things are Pure

Or, to be less poetic, Who you are will direct what you see.

Some years ago I was in a storytelling workshop where we analyzed and discussed a Native American tale.

In it a girl sleeps beside a lake no one is supposed to visit alone.  A snake comes out of the lake and impregnates her.  When her pregnancy begins to show, the other villagers drive her into the wilderness. It is there that Lightning, the shining daughter of the old man of the mountain, finds her and brings her home.

The girl ends up marrying Lightning’s brother, Thunder, and after the young woman has his baby she wishes to take the child back to her village to show him off.

When she returns she tells the villagers who had been so unkind about her new family. They are fearful of her powerful new relations, but she tells them not to be afraid, because they are all family now.

It was a fabulous example of how much story can be crammed into few words (the original was less than half a page), and we spent a fair amount of time with it, discussing images, motifs and how one might learn to tell the story.

My favorite part of it all was the ending, I felt it was a wonderful picture of forgiveness and reconciliation.  I thought it was beautiful how the girl was able to forgive her home village and be happy after her tragedies.

I said so, and another woman present looked at me as if I had three heads.

That’s not the way she saw it at all.

“I thought it was about getting revenge.  You know, ‘Don’t be afraid of the storm’ so they’ll be careless and get zapped by it.”

And I’m sure I gaped.

6 thoughts on “To the Pure all Things are Pure

  1. Huh. That’s interesting. Reminds me of times I’ve used archaic words for things without even thinking about it (comes of reading too much British literature), like saying, “She gave him a queer look.” And then people called me on it, snickering. I’ve had people give me alternate interpretations of my stories, too. And I was shocked, because I hadn’t meant it that way at all. But that’s the realm of the reader, isn’t it? Everybody filters through their own life experiences.

  2. @Kessie I do that too, and sometimes I huff at the ignorance of people to have such narrow definitions. Then I ran into an old acquaintance who makes it some sort of point to speak archaically. I repented at once. His manner seemed so affected I was unnerved and had to remind myself to be polite.

    Sort of refined my view of myself– made me want to at least try to not be inaccessible on-purpose.

    @ Becky I learned enough over the weeks to trust she came by the attitude honestly.

    re: redemptive analogy, not so much. The offspring from the giant serpent were a writhing mess of little snakes that were killed with a stick. The child she took back was her son with Thunder.

    (A literal “son of thunder…”)

  3. If this is the original wording of the story you read (or close to it), I can see how the woman would interpret the story as a tale of revenge rather than forgiveness. The last bit of the middle paragraph, “after the young woman has his baby, she wishes to take the child back to her village to show him off,” seems to indicate less-than-pure intentions. Believing that she went back to reconcile, not to intimidate, takes a leap of faith in the storyteller, who we must assume has written the absolute truth regardless of any apparent inconsistencies.

    This is a good example of how much can be said in very little space, but it’s also a good example of why every word counts in short stories. Using ones with iffy connotations, like “show off,” will create misunderstandings. I was also momentarily confused by the last paragraph: “When she returns she tells the villagers who had been so unkind about her new family…” The word order can cause a reader to attach the “about” phrase incorrectly to “unkind” instead of “tells.” So it sounds like she goes back to meet “the villagers who had been so unkind about her new family,” when the sentence really meant to say that “she tells the villagers…about her new family.” In a longer story or novel, there would be plenty of time and space to correct any ambiguities like this, but when a few sentences is all you’ve got, you have to either compose every one with the utmost care or depend on your audience to read very carefully and critically. Unfortunately, in today’s world of Tweets and headlines, most won’t.

  4. Interesting observation, T.K.

    Unfortunately I can’t say how close my words are to the original, since this is a reproduction long after the original exposure. I tried to keep most of the images as I remember them, but it’s my language and way of telling.

    You are right though– I read tales as being pretty straightforward (despite inconsistencies) because I’ve always interpreted them as outside the question of the unreliable narrator (I’ve read so many illogical tales that I hold them all pretty loosely).

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