Jane Elliott Interview: “Rumplestiltskin”

Michael: Johannes and I teamed up again this time with some questions for Jane Elliott about her Reckoning 2 story, “Rumplestiltskin”.

Johannes: Can you tell me of the power of naming things?

Jane: I think the obvious answer is that naming a thing reveals it. There’s a lot of folklore around naming and claiming that names have power. Revealing your true name gives another person power over you. In this case, our names represent our vulnerability. We have to be seen to be named.

The more difficult answer about where the story came from has to do with the idea that our world has grown exponentially. Globalization and field specialization have made human community and human knowledge larger than any individual can hold. When the world was a village of 100, I imagine it felt easier to know things. To know what we stood for. To know what was safe. We all specialized in the sphere that sustained us. We knew the names of the plants around us and which people at the watering hole could be trusted with our children.

Often, in our world of global competition, I feel lost at sea. I don’t know what to look at, so I don’t know how to begin to address my own fears. This mystery cloaks the important issues. It keeps me afraid.

My story is clearly over-simplified. However, I think there’s a comfort in isolating one thing and naming it. For a moment, at least, it can become either good or evil. I see this as the first stage of understanding. I don’t want to live in a black and white world, and I don’t believe in dichotomies, but I do want to explore my own values. I want to explore the issues and try names for them and get curious about whether, in my ideal world, they exist. In what form should they exist? Why do they exist now?

In exploration, I might create 100 names for the same thing. I’m not the same person I was when I wrote this story, and I wouldn’t write the same story now. The exploration, the naming, has changed me and my understanding of the world. The power, in this case, is profoundly personal. It’s not about power over something, but power within oneself to grasp and adapt and challenge and grow.

Johannes: Yours is a dark story, one that draws from a million visions of foodless, desertful futures. How come/why did you want to write such a future?

Jane: I don’t know if I did want to. People tell me that hopelessness isn’t useful. It’s what people who benefit from the current system want smart, aware individuals to feel. Such a paralyzing emotion makes us ineffective. All the same, I can’t fault anyone for feeling despair in the process of examining our present. Nor do I think it’s useful to deny any of our feelings. These are our instincts. They show up to tell us something.

It’s true that we can’t live in despair. Despair admits defeat, but we have to look into our worst fears or suffer through consequences of a life unexamined. I think a 3 page story is the perfect vehicle for examining this kind of darkness. Any longer, and we couldn’t hold it, but at 3 pages, we can bear to look. The hope is that we can take an honest look at the worst, so that we can come back to the world and work with a sense of urgency and purpose.

Michael: This story takes a folktale and moves it back away from the sanitized bedtime story realm of Disney, back even past Grimm and into a territory I might call primal. How do you think the role of folktale and myth in humanity’s definition of itself is changing as we move forward? Where do you see your own writing falling in that process?

Jane: Mythology shifts to reflect the stresses and obsessions of a culture. When we examine the stored wisdom of our ancestors, their tales have a repeated warning against human pride. They divide the earth into distinct realms, and humans who reach beyond their realm toward godhood always suffer for it.

In Western culture’s modern era, our tales have shifted away from maintaining any complex or subtle balance. Our current folktales seem to engage almost exclusively in the narrative of good vs. evil, as though such a dichotomy really exists. Our children grow up believing their greatest purpose is to become super heroes. But super heroes are humans at their worst. They’re prideful and violent and model reaction rather than thoughtful action. In other words, as a species, we have come to believe so thoroughly in our own supremacy that we have replaced the gods of our ancestors’ lore.

I think the role of folklore and myth has always been to reflect our understanding of ourselves. We use stories to demystify, to problem solve, to reinforce cultural values, to sooth. They are an outgrowth of our collective consciousness, so perhaps the question isn’t, what role does folklore play, but, how can we actively read folklore in order to reveal ourselves and meaningfully reflect on our values. At their best, I think that’s what these re-tellings do. They name and question the values that made them.

Johannes: What’s your favourite fairy tale, and why?

Jane: If I named one here, it would be a lie. I love the repeating narratives and the ways that folktales reflect the cultures that created them. I love the way they change to reflect changing value systems and depending on who is telling the story. I can’t isolate a particular story from that tradition.

Michael: These are great answers! As honest and unflinching as your story. Thank you very much.

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Author: Jane Elliott

Jane Elliott is a writer and sixth grade English Language Arts teacher. She works in a teeny tiny town in Oregon, and grew up in an even smaller town on the Oregon coast. You can find more of her work in Daily Science Fiction and Crossed Genres magazines.

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