Act: Inspiration

Keeping the Smoke Hole Open: Excerpt

June 16, 2021

smoke hold coverThe following excerpt is from Martin Shaw’s new book Smoke Hole: Looking to the Wild in the Time of the Spyglass (Chelsea Green Publishing, May 2021) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.

Smoke Hole

By Martin Shaw

Keeping the Smoke Hole Open

In the last hundred years, fairy tales have served hard time in many therapists’ offices.

My work is an attempt to bust them out. Too much crowbarring of symbolic theories creates a breathless, even rather lifeless experience. Not always, but sometimes. I hope I haven’t done that here. My aim is to react to felt experiences within the story, but leave enough space for you to orientate as well. We’ve been doing something like this since we first gathered and told stories at all. Wending our way in. Many of my students will study the cultural life and history that infuse such tales, become scholars of the folk knowledge that can reveal itself through all kinds of discreet details. These stories often have a zip code if you look long enough. The vigorously stripped-back quality of a fairy tale gathers energy around its images; you can picture them clearly because of the light descriptive touch. It’s not always fashionable to say so, but it’s when an image becomes a metaphor that we tend to get really gripped.

Whilst fairy tales and the wider myths are far more than metaphors, if we don’t really grasp metaphor at all, then our current way of life seems all the more unsettling, diminishing, existential.

A good metaphor is something you can hang your heart on.

It can be the difference between life and death, I’m perfectly serious. In working with young people especially, I’ve seen this more than once. Things rarely feel true or correct to me until I witness the metaphor in them. I can’t trust them. Statistics may have their function, but arriving on an hourly basis into our already depleted brain, they make us crazy.

It was during this cocooning period that the relentless power of social media became more apparent than ever – if we’re not terribly careful, it gobbles us up. It has the potential to change our tastes, make us anxious, needy, distracted, not present and, worst of all, have little sense of truth or an integrity of spirit. With the advent of deepfakes and relentless conspiracy theories, we can end up with no sense of what to believe.

When did a tool become a God?

It’s stories, hewn between prayer mat and smoke hole, that used to get us made. Get us useful, productive, curious, proud when we needed, humble when we needed. We knew we were in one. To feel outside a story would have been a tribal punishment, sometimes even a death sentence.

Stories apprehend our deepest feelings and give them expression, even artistry, before they have to become an external crisis. Intricate old-world rituals performed the same task. They regulated the beneath. They made both performative and magnificent the workings of our psyche.

To keep at it: if affairs of the soul are not recognized as such, they inevitably grow to become crisis and circumstance. A desire to lie still and brood could become a teenage suicide when the youth has not been offered the kind of literacy required to approach the dark storm whirling their heart. This is not a trite observation. I’ve earnt the statement. Sadly, in my rites of passage work, I have seen the agonies of such societal flatness again and again, and what it does to young people, what it does to their character, their sense of vocation. If all I were exposed to is what currently manifests as leadership, I’m not sure I’d want to make it to adulthood either. As the debates about transgender, climate emergency, BLM are mercifully given more attention than ever before, I still feel that something is missing in the dialogue, something essential: the old stories.

I want to change the pitch, alter the register, offer a different kind of perspective on the times we’re in.

Most of that gear shift won’t come from yet more conceptual high jinks but from very ancient stories and philosophies. Three stories, in fact, stories you can slip in your pocket. And if you feel bereft of that prayer mat, these three are just enough to start you making a weave. Three strands will do it. May you set out on the most magnificent journey.

More than anything, I wish the book to be an ally rather than a persuader, a courtship not a seduction, a place to gather yourself. It is not good to be walking through these times without a story or three at your side.

I’ve always written for those at a crossroads, and I now find we’re all at one.

No more business as usual.

It’s a time of great paradox: we want to live forever but seem intent on executing the earth. We are technicians of unimaginable advances but are growingly less literate to interpret a way the earth always spoke to us: through myth. I’m wondering if it’s time for us to dig up a little chutzpah and send a voice.

The mess out there is because of a mess in here. Inner and outer talk to each other.
That’s the truth of things.
Let’s get to work.


Teaser photo credit: By LepoRello – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Martin Shaw

Martin Shaw, PhD, is an acclaimed scholar of myth and author of the award-winning Mythteller trilogy, The Night Wages, and Life Cycle, his conversation and essay on the artist Ai WeiWei, was recently released by the Marciano Arts Foundation. Shaw created the Oral Tradition and Mythic Life courses at Stanford University and is the director of the Westcountry School of Myth in the UK. He has been a wilderness rites of passage guide for twenty years. His new book is Courting the Wild Twin (Chelsea Green Publishing, March 2020)

Tags: cultural stories, cultural transformation, inner work, Stories