Wendell Berry and the Romanians: Story and Place

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In The Myth of the Eternal Return, Mircea Eliade tells the true story of a folklorist who schlepped around Romania collecting ballads and folk stories in the 1930s. He was especially taken by a ballad about a young shepherd who had the misfortune of having a mountain fairy fall in love with him. He was already betrothed to a village girl, however, and had no interest in the fairy. The fairy was insanely jealous, but the young man would not be moved; he loved his village girl and was determined to marry her. So the day before his wedding, the fairy pushed him off a cliff.

Shepherds from the village found him at the bottom of the ravine and carried his broken, lifeless remains back to the village. When his fiancée saw them, she burst into a long, emotional lament full of mythological references reaching back before the beginnings of history, as if her sorrow were the oldest sorrow in the world. That lamentation forms the main body of the ballad.

Part of the folklorist’s job, of course, is to try to figure out where such stories and ballads come from. This one, the villagers told him, was very old, passed down for who knew how many generations. But the folklorist kept asking, and somebody remembered that the fiancée in the ballad—the one who sang the original lament—was still living in the next village up the road. So maybe it wasn’t as old as all that, the villagers agreed.

“Wait a minute,” I can picture the folklorist saying. “You’re saying that the whole thing with the mountain fairy happened just up the road?”

“That’s right.”

“And it happened recently enough that the fiancée in the story is still alive?”

“That’s right,” said the villagers. “She’s the one you ought to talk to if you want to know more about the ballad.”

So the folklorist did. He traveled to the next village and there he found a woman in her late fifties or early sixties who said, yes, she was the fiancée from the ballad.

“So what happened?” the folklorist asked.

“Well, it was about forty years ago,” the woman said. “I was engaged to be married, but the day before the wedding, my fiancé fell off a cliff and died.”

“Fell off a cliff?” the folklorist said. “You mean was pushed off a cliff? By a mountain fairy?”

“Oh, I don’t know about any fairy,” the woman said. “I’ve heard about her in the ballad, but before that, all I knew was that he fell off a cliff and died the day before we were supposed to get married.”

“But what about the long, soulful lament with all the mythological references?”

“I mourned him,” the woman said. “It was a sad thing, losing a fiancé the day before the wedding. But I couldn’t have made up all that business that’s in the ballad. I was a simple village girl. I did the regular mourning that you would expect, but then I tried to get on with my life.”

After talking with the woman, the folklorist headed back to the first village. “Hey, I talked to the woman in the ballad,” he told the villagers. “She said there wasn’t any fairy. She said her fiancé just had an accidental fall the day before their wedding.”

“Pitiful, isn’t it?” said one of the villagers, shaking his head and clucking his tongue. “The poor woman was so crazed with grief that she couldn’t even remember the fairy who pushed her fiancé to a horrible death.”

There are about fifteen things I love about that story. One of the biggest is the villagers’ vision of the world they inhabited. “You think these are podunk villages?” they seemed to be saying to the folklorist. “Oh no, friend, there are big things afoot here in these villages—more than meets the eye. And these peasants here—they’re full participants in the eternal.” They believed that their mundane world interpenetrated with a world of transcendence.

In his Port William novels, Wendell Berry is doing something very similar to what those Romanian villagers were doing with their story of the jilted fairy. Berry writes of a forgotten little place, and in so doing demonstrates that there are vast things afoot—much more than meets the eye.

Certain religious traditions speak of “thin places”—places on earth where the veil between the seen and the unseen is particularly thin, where mortals are more likely to see the goings-on of the spirit world. Perhaps those Romanians viewed the fairy’s cliff as a thin place. The point of Wendell Berry’s whole project, it seems to me, is that every place, if you settle down and look at it, if you pay attention, is a thin place. After he finished his education in California, Wendell Berry moved back to the Kentucky County where both sides of his family had lived for five generations, and he said, “I’m going to keep looking at and listening to this place—this landscape, these voices, these folkways, these old stories—until it gives up its secrets.”

I’m not trying to be especially mystical here. I think I’m talking about a pretty straightforward truth that Christians claim to believe. C.S. Lewis put it this way in an oft-quoted passage from “The Weight of Glory”:

It is a serious thing to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.

There are no ordinary people.

You have never talked to a mere mortal.

Nations, cultures, arts, civilization these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.

The job of a storyteller, you might say, is to make thin places, places where we can see truer things than we normally see in the world around us.  To do that requires that we pay attention to the world as we find it. We need to look and keep looking, confident that the truth will tell itself.

Big, eternal truths are pulsing and surging just below the surface of things, forever threatening to bust through. And the surface of things is scarcely adequate to conceal them.

Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.


19 Comments

  1. CyndaP

    “But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” Oh my, the weight of that statement hit me right between the eyes. Forgive me, Father.

  2. Jonathan

    Good stuff!

    You’ve ended your blockquote too soon. The CSL quote ends at “everlasting splendors,” not “all politics.”

  3. Dave Bruno

    Appreciate this session very much. It was one of the main take aways from Hutchmoot for me to mull over. Thanks for your (and Andrew’s) insight!

  4. Allison @ The Autumn Rain

    Thanks, Jonathan. I’m new to The Rabbit Room, although I’ve been hearing about it online for years. (What took me so long, right?!) Looking forward to the sequel to this post. O’Connor and Robinson are two of my favorites.

  5. Jamin Garoutte

    My brother & I are working together to create some stories that we can leave as a legacy for our families, and we were so bummed to have missed out on Hutchmoot (Next time, Gadget… Next time!).

    After reading this post, while thinking about the story we are working on, a whole host of childhood memories were suddenly unlocked for me—this is incredible considering how much I’ve spent the last few years wondering what ever happened to all of my childhood memories. These memories, and the very real world involved in them, contain so many things hidden to the everyday eyes we see the world with, things that we used to see or imagine when we were younger.

    Thank you so much for posting this… Gives me a new direction to start thinking and pursuing in my writing, not to mention helping me recover my long lost childhood!

  6. Chris

    Great post Jonathan. I love the idea that the world is throbbing with eternal significance all around us. Heaven is not “up there” somewhere, it is just beyond the veil in front of us.

  7. Becca

    Jonathan, before I read this, there is something I need to know. Is Jesus going to use it to keep me from running away from home, living out of a van in Nashville, and attempting to sustain my meager life by the sale of woven hemp jewelry?

  8. glen

    – have been snooping about the rabbit room for a month or so – finding it much needed and beneficial encouragement to my journey as an artist.

    – thoroughly appreciated the virtual CD launch of Jason Gray’s latest work – it hit some very pertinent places in my heart and life. thanks!

    – just started reading Alistair MacCleod’s book of short stories “As Birds Bring Forth The Sun And Other Stories” – can recommend it highly – a very accomplished writer touching those currents and eddies of story and place.

  9. Jen

    Thank you so much for posting this…. I heard good things about this session, but I couldn’t figure out how to be in two places at once! : )

    I can relate to what Becca said. Talk about planting yourself and being a “keeper” (as Sarah Clarkson put it in another Berry-centric post) always makes me wonder about those of us who feel a tension between two places, like we’re not where we belong. Is it possible to physically be in the “wrong place”? How do you know the difference between boredom/wanderlust and a real need for change? Does that even make sense?

    Don’t mind me… I’m thinking out loud because this is where I am. Looking forward to part two… Flannery and Marilynne!

  10. Evan

    Jen, I totally understand what you mean.
    I walked away from Jonathan and Andrew’s talks with the understanding (especially from Berry’s comments) that you shouldn’t move to a place just to find a new story, experience another “thin place”– instead you should enjoy where you are, experience the “thin place” of home.
    But does that mean never moving? And what is home?
    As a person who has lived in 3 different countries and various cities in Texas, I have many homes, many places I see the eternal at play. And I sometimes wish to travel and experience such life everywhere, but I also recognize that you can’t always go abroad and go deep at the same time. Often its one or the other. To truly know a place, you must give it time. And that’s the hard part.

  11. Margret

    Love this whole post so much, just as I love all of the offerings in this venerable place. What I most prize from today’s offering is this, “Pitiful, isn’t it?” said one of the villagers, shaking his head and clucking his tongue. “The poor woman was so crazed with grief that she couldn’t even remember the fairy who pushed her fiancé to a horrible death.”

    All of Heaven’s best to you and yours,
    Margret

  12. whipple

    Thanks so much, Jonathan. This comes as a huge encouragement right now.

    I’m slap in the middle of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and I couldn’t agree more.

  13. Loren

    I love that image of the “thin places” where Heaven is straining to break through. It reminds me of a believer being sensitive to the Holy Spirit. Last night I emailed a friend some information she was hoping to send to her daughter. She let me know today that she tried to send it and it wouldn’t go, even after cutting-and-pasting. “Is this just not the right time, Lord?” she prayed. And felt strongly that it wasn’t. I love her sensitivity to Him to know that perhaps even a glitch in email is Heaven speaking.

  14. Leanne

    I loved this session at Hutchmoot and it’s good to see it here.

    (I have no memory of hearing the folklore story about the mountain fairy though…was I just spacing out or is that added here? Great story.)

    The notion that “vast things are afoot,” along with the great Lewis passage…wow. That’s a perspective that would change a lot of my day-to-day experiences if I fully embraced it. Thanks for the challenge (again).

  15. Denise Marie Siino

    This post certainly puts a different spin on the “bad” things that happen in life. It’s a matter of perspective, for sure, and the different perspectives make great storytelling. Thanks for the reminder.

  16. Leanne

    Okay, I have to comment again. I read this post this morning, then went to work. I work as Special Ed Instructional Aide, and I couldn’t stop thinking about this whole concept. “You have never talked to a mere mortal.” This felt especially poignant today as I helped a little girl with her math worksheet. She is disabled, with a lot of physical and cognitive challenges. And all I could think as I spent time with her today was, “This is no mere mortal.” Add to that the new Slugs and Bugs song that was running through my mind, “God made you special, and He loves you very much” and it was all I could do to keep from bursting into tears of wonder, joy, sadness, hope. Thank you again, Jonathan.

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