Last week I finally had the opportunity to see the new Pixar movie ‘Brave’. The following day while at work, a friend asked what part of the movie I felt was the most impressive. He was referring, I knew, to the digital animation for which Pixar movies are famous. I think I said something about the impressive work the animators did with the endlessly curling hair of the main character, Merida, and left it at that. The truth would have been somewhat harder to explain.
I am often struck by how little the art of storytelling has changed in the course of human history. Strip away the little details like previews, popcorn and stadium seating and we are still left sitting together in a dark place listening to a storyteller work his or her magic by the flickering light of a fire.
I imagine the primary goal of the storyteller has changed very little over the centuries as well. However clever the speaker or precise the computer modeling, the ultimate goal of the storyteller must be to vanish while the audience becomes one with the story. This lofty goal has become, I believe, increasingly difficult to achieve.
As the technology of storytelling becomes increasingly sophisticated, so to does the audience grow more jaded and easily distracted. Sometimes, the mechanics of the art-form can actually distract from the story. Our modern storytellers strive to make the experience more realistic by bombarding us with technological gimmickry but all we’ve ever needed was a good story.
A well told tale will draw us along until we find that one thing: a character, situation or locale that feels familiar enough to make it all seem real. As much as I love the artistry that goes into a good movie, I crave that moment when it all just falls away and the story is all that matters.
As I watched ‘Brave’, that moment came as the heroine found herself standing within a ring of ancient stones, her frightened horse stamping his hooves, unable or unwilling to join her within the circle. For a few moments I forgot that I was watching a movie generated by pixels on a screen and was transformed from viewer to participant. I could certainly understand Merida’s unease as I recalled my own encounters with the Stone Circle.
Change Your Fate
The landscape of Western Europe and the British Isles is littered with the relics of the ancient peoples who passed that way long before the written word. In my visits to Ireland I’ve noticed that every farmer’s field seems to contain some treasure of the past. Ring Forts, Passage Tombs, Dolmen and Standing stones, they rise up out of the earth as neglected monuments of a vanished age. Yet none are as mysterious as the Stone Circles.
Composed of upright megaliths (sometimes weighing several tons and transported from miles away) most Stone Circles date from a period between 3,000 and 5,000 years ago. The stones were typically placed along astronomical alignments with natural or manmade features on the horizon that correspond to the rise or fall of the Sun, Moon or particular stars on certain days of the year (typically a solstice or equinox).
‘Brave’ takes place in 10th century Scotland and it is a credit to the screenwriters that their characters appear to know as little about these stones as we do today. The people who built these monuments vanished thousands of years ago, most likely absorbed into the Pictish and Celtic tribes that moved westward across Europe and the British Isles. By the 10th century only legends remained. Yet as we are reminded throughout the movie, “Legends are Lessons” and there are as many legends about Stone Circles as there are Circles themselves.
The Circle presented in the movie is modeled after the Callanish Stones, a huge complex that stands on an island off the coast of Scotland. In some legends Callanish was a portal for the “Shining Ones” to re-enter our world on certain nights of the year. Older still are the tales that speak of the stones as a gathering place for those who would welcome the re-birth of the Cailleach – the old woman of the moors, a bringer of life and harbinger of change in Scottish mythology (and here I am forced to think of the ‘witch’ whom our young princess meets after passing through the stones and into the mysterious woodland beyond).
I have not been fortunate enough to visit the Callanish Stones. I have walked among the giants that ring Newgrange, the smooth stones of the Druids Circle in Kenmare, the wonderfully craggy stones of the Drombeg Circle and several others I couldn’t name. While each Circle is unique, they share among them an uncommon energy which defies measurement but is present nonetheless. It is a connection between a people now long gone and the universe (seen and unseen) in which we all live and die. It was this power that I felt again for a brief moment while sitting in a theater watching Pixar’s latest offering. An echo of the otherworld. A reminder of my own small place in an ancient story.
The Stone Circles and other relics of the past represent the legends passed down to us by the greatest storytellers of all time. Without words or music or digital animation, the Stone Circle still touches something hidden deep within our psyche, a racial memory of an earlier time when we had a more direct connection to the living Earth.
By stepping into the Stone Circle and embracing the energy that still flows there after all these centuries, we are transformed from mere audience members into active participants in that grand epic. The story is in the stones; give yourself over to the same throb and pulse of the living world that our most ancient ancestors sought to share. Be brave and change your fate!