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  • Horst Kornberger

The First of Tales

The first of tales is the most important tale of all.

Though we never remember it, it is the one tale we never forget. For it has become who we are. It has shaped us before we have shaped ourselves.

It is the tale of care, told by the mother in the primal language of love; it is her presence and warmth. It is a tale elaborated upon by the father, by brothers and sisters, by family and friends.

It is the long tale told before words, in the vernacular of touch, the texture of skin, the taste of milk, the cocoon of warmth. It is the story expressed through the comfort of closeness, the tone of voice, the mantle of smells; through all the changing moods that mark the seasons of family life. But most of all it is told through the mother, who sifts the coarse world through the gossamer of care.

Ideally, this is the tale that anchors us in the depth of emotion, the bond that weathers all storms. It is the tale of our first love and the blueprint for all other tales to come. It is the first of securities, the most primal of needs. It is the foundation stone on which our edifice of soul is built and it provides the matrix of our future health.

There is research which suggests that severe mental illness such as psychosis is caused by significant neglect during the first year of life. The less severe character disorders originate through abuse in the second year, and the common neuroses have their roots in the years thereafter. Human nature speaks eloquently through the high mortality rate of orphaned babies who receive the trappings of physical care but are denied emotional contact.

In this first tale, love is synonymous with life. The sustained presence of the mother or her substitute during the first years is a great gift. It helps our entry into the world and sets a precedent for our relationship to others and the world. The love received becomes the love we give. Later on the love received supports our interest in the world, our attention to others, our passion for knowledge, our ability to intimately understand, connect and fully penetrate in thought. Here, as in childhood, love makes sense.

The Language of Love

In this first tale the mother herself is the hero, for it takes courage to tell this story properly, perhaps the greatest courage of all. Nowadays the mother is as endangered a species as the child. Without traditional family support, both mother and child suffer from the relentless persecution of love by economic pressure and the constraints of time. The natural environment of mother and child is togetherness, but they are frequently torn apart by the demands of life. The mother often has to pit herself against public opinion and pressure from family and friends.

The mother, and no one more than the single mother, is the hero of our time, the true star in the sky of childhood, the unmatched champion of love. She is the teller of the first and most important of all tales, the creation myths for those in her care.


The Mother Tongue

The expression ‘mother tongue’ is especially apt: language is our second mother. In the care of this mother we imbibe a whole world of nuances, attitudes and ways of seeing that are indigenous to our culture. Language structures our world. It pervades our perceptions with meaning and so shapes the way we see and how we feel about the world. Each language filters reality in unique ways.

Compare the English word tree with its German equivalent Baum. ‘Tree’ is a straight and tall word. It emphasises the trunk. A tree is best looked at from a distance. It can be used for ship masts and long beams. Tree is a slim, thin, longish, almost pointed word. A word that awakens, rises and moves.

‘Baum’ is different. It is comforting and encompassing. Baum is a steady and slow word, suggesting largeness and roundness, perhaps standing by itself on the village square with dense foliage and ample shade. People gather beneath it in the afternoon. The word ‘Baum’ makes lovers carve love-hearts in its bark for it is an embracing word.

The Japanese equivalent is ke (pronounced like king without the ng). Ke immediately reminds me of a well-kept Japanese garden or a bonsai in a formal dining area. It makes me think of haiku, holding its own on a white page, and a couple of masterful brushstrokes at the edge of a Japanese painting indicating not tree, but ‘ke.’

Each language suggests a way of seeing. Languages are intrinsic artworks that shape the world which in turn shapes us.

But languages do more than shape our perceptions. They teach us how to think. Languages are intelligent. As children we partake in their complex meanings long before we can master such meanings ourselves. Language contains intelligent thought like a pregnant mother contains her child. Through language, children use highly developed, complicated and organised intelligence long before they are able to consciously produce it. Language thinks for the child and supports it on the first steps of mental independence. Language is pre-intelligence in its most artistic form.


Language as Story

Language longs to be elaborate and detailed, alive and complex. A long sentence is already on the way towards story. It carries a momentum that demands more. Thus it is good to follow sentences to the full expression they yearn towards, and take care in their formulation. It is empowering to express oneself clearly and much joy can be had from the artistic use of words. Language is the soul out loud, the open space for feelings to air themselves and the platform for meanings to meet and converse.

The language we use is a story in itself, so let us take care of it from the beginning and tell it in the right way. Like a good story, language must avoid abstraction. In childhood all abstractions are strangers. They act like alien intruders in the soul, burdening the child as with heavy lumps of undigested food. Children cannot deal with them. Intellectual content is as foreign to a child’s soul as it is to a good tale.

A passage in A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh illustrates this well.

‘I say, Owl,’ said Christopher Robin, ‘isn’t this fun? I’m on an island!’

‘The atmospheric conditions have been very unfavourable lately,’ said Owl.

‘The what?’

‘It has been raining,’ explained Owl.

‘Yes,’ said Christopher Robin. ‘It has.’

‘The flood-level has reached an unprecedented height.’

‘The who?’

‘There’s a lot of water about,’ explained Owl.

‘Yes,’ said Christopher Robin, ‘there is.’

There’s no need to be that kind of owl. Be wise rather than clever. This does not mean you have to simplify language. Your language can be as full-bodied, complex and alive as you like. The child revels in learning language from this artistic, imaginative and ensouled use.


The Childhood of Language

Children with brothers and sisters are lucky. Siblings are reliable company. They are our first community and the perfect opportunity to learn the human trade of give and take, closeness and distance. The mothering tongue also provides us with siblings — the hums and songs, play-languages and nursery rhymes that populate our early years, as playful as any brother or sister.

The hum comes first. Born at the same time as we are, she is our delicate twin-sister (the ruffian nursery rhyme is older brother). The hum continues the music of the womb. It is the softest of all songs, the swaddling clothes woven from the mother’s voice. It envelops the child like a cocoon, soothing its entrance into the world of sound. The hum is the first music, a primal song in which mother and nature still coincide. Like a slow, warm, steady cradle it calms the baby into contentment.

Hums belong to the first of tales, the tale of care. They weave babe and mother into one undivided whole and then flow into the lullaby. The lullaby is more of the world, and soon grows into little ditties and songs.

During the early years songs are best sung by the mother or father or other members of the household, for their main purpose is the assurance of human presence.

Not so long ago singing had a continuous presence in human life. It was part of almost every human activity. Mothers hummed and sang. Men and women worked to the rhythm of ploughing, sowing and harvest songs; scything songs and milking songs. Each trade and guild had its songs. Songs were woven into the stitches of the cobbler and the weaving of women; the carvings of woodcutters and the whip of horsemen. There were songs for the morning and for the evening, for summer and autumn, winter and spring. Every festival fostered song and every church and temple, synagogue and mosque was a place for music.

In childhood, hums and songs are soon followed by finger plays and rhyming games. Rhymes like ‘This little piggy went to market’ are learned on the mother’s lap. Being together turns into doing together, and language is joined by touch and tickle. Movement and language coincide and in turn stimulate the brain.

Nursery rhymes have already jumped from the mother’s lap. They are more adventurous siblings than finger plays. They don’t need to be learned, they are already known. Children meet them like old possessions or long-lost friends. They are playmates made of language. Through them an ancient layer of language echoes in modern form. They are a version of the old magical invocation. Even today they act like spells, charming us forever. They seize us the moment we hear them and they never release us. When we have long forgotten other verse we still know them by heart.

Nursery rhymes are little rituals chanted in groups, compelling us to move and dance and step and clap. Rhythm, repetition and rhyme prevail over meaning. And yet they are also miniature tales, stories provided by language itself. Each is an embryonic myth, a long-lost knowledge encoded in pictures. They are our first poetic experience, our opportunity to dance with the genius of English from little stories into the ballroom of larger tales. These rhymes belong to Story Medicine. They are primal medicine, like good food and joy. Nursery rhymes are indeed the nursery of all other tales; they are the stories we start with.


Excerpt from The Power of Stories by Horst Kornberger

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