Sean Kane
Wisdom of the Mythtellers
Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 1994. Pp. 280+. $21.95
Reviewed by Gail Pool

What stands out first in Kane’s book is beauty: an attractive photograph of a Haida totem pole representing the Sea Bear, Tsaghanxuuwaji, holding up stories carved in the images and the world of time and space. The photo bids the reader again and again to feel the sheer power of the message of myth that gives us a different conception of who we are in relation to the world in which we live. But the cover is the only image we see visually, the remainder being represented by “a language that allows all life, not just human life, to participate in the ecology of the earth” (33). What Kane wants us to realize is the enormous loss many human societies have sustained in casting aside the natural realm as if everything can be domesticated in a human-centered universe.

Kane’s quest for a rediscovery of the meaning of myth takes us into a variety of settings. Framing the entire book is a series of myths, principally from the Haida, Australian, Celtic, Welsh, and Greek mythology. Each chapter is introduced by a myth, some as short as two pages (e.g., “Sapsucker,” a Haida story) and others as many as fourteen (e.g., “Branwen Daughter of Llyr,” an ancient Welsh story of marriage, exchange, and war written down as early as the tenth century a.d.). Most of the stories have a full or partial text of the original, some in Greek or Celtic syllabics. Notes to the sources and comments on the translation, reliability, and other details are well done. Rather than clutter the text with note numbers, the author chooses to simply cite the page number in the end notes. The method is somewhat frustrating for those who want to know if any embellishments are being made, so a finger must be kept in the end note section to see if anything further is being said.

The stories are very nicely written and interesting, although readers might find that some of the stories at the start of each chapter are irrelevant to the subject being discussed. The book is divided into chapters: Patterns, Maps, Boundary, Dream, Complementarity, Tradition, and Context, with an Epilogue to complete the text. It is probably best to give an example. In the chapter on maps, the Haida myth opens the idea of how humans create a sense of place. Raven travels from the sea to the sky and back down to the sea, where he finds a house. An elder sits in the house with five boxes, and the elder tells Raven: “Set this one in the water, roundways up, and bite off part of the other and spit it at this” (59). At first the pieces bounce away since Raven does it the wrong way around, but eventually the pieces stick, which is how trees started. “When he set this place into the water, / it stretched itself out. / The gods swam to it, taking their places. / The mainland did the same, as soon as he set it into the water roundways up” (60). The map of the world is not just the offshore islands inhabited by the Haida, but it is of different realms. As Kane explains further on, Raven had traveled from the sky to the world beneath the sea and the place in between. Kane later explains that “When energy or information is borrowed from one world for the sake of another, there is a loss to that providing world. In four of the villages of the Sky People, every person has lost an eye ...It is more ecologically complicated than that, of course. The myth is concerned with a source of fertility and wealth which is found at the bottom of the sea” (69).

The ecological interpretation of Kane’s retold stories flows into the meaning of mythtelling and back again throughout the book. Kane highlights the importance of telling in the chapter on context. He states that “Literature began as an aid to memory, and it continues to serve myth in that role, preserving a few strands of myth from extinction in the way endangered animals are preserved by zoos” (225). He does not wish to blame literature for the synthetic character of myth, but rather to highlight the importance of continuing to tell. What myths reflect are the fragments of meaning, layered one on top of another as the past is replaced by newer forms of meaning. The storytelling act respects a common meaning in another sense because retelling requires community acceptance. But whereas stories resonate meaning in a community sense, novels, by contrast, reflect an individual within a community. Kane’s stress on the importance of voice, context, and meaning can be seen in the fact that his aunt Alice keeps pop­ping up throughout the book. An inveterate storyteller, “Alice Kane speaks of the Irish childhood memories that color the stories she retells-the wash of the tide against the shore, the smell of newly-mown hay, the breeze that rises off the sea ...[which] reverberate within the voice of the storyteller, to be heard as an inter­woven background music to the telling” (190).

Sean Kane’s most analytical chapter highlights allusions to polyphony, consistency, improvisation, and adaptation in storytelling. He has provided stories about stories, using anthropology and classical studies of myth to investigate the kernels of truth about life and the role of nature in human culture. The book would be a good complement to comparative literature, cultural studies or even environmental courses. It might also be read for sheer pleasure while providing insight into how myth can give us a deeper appreciation of nature. The author and publisher are to be congratulated for the presentation and beauty of myth in a variety of settings.