Bears With Me

The deep forests of my head are populated by bears. Bears, bears, everywhere.

A bear eating from a tree – as represented by this statue –  is the symbol of Madrid. Quite why I cannot recall. Nor can I remember exactly why Peter Fischli and David Weiss, two Swiss artists, have spent much of their career dressed up as a bear and a rat and wandering about like so. Needless to say, they have: and their work in this mode is, at present, at view in Madrid (in the Reina Sofia). It’s well worth examining.

There are, however, other reasons why bears have crept into my head and pushed their hairy paws through the dustbins of my thought. I travelled to Madrid, of course, to engage in a little research on my longrunning European folktales project. My goal was the papers of Professor Seth Kinloch, the Scottish collector, who lived in the Spanish capital from 1941 to 1972. He too, it seems, was fond of bears – and found plenty of bear-related material to interest him in the wide world of the European folktale. Indeed, he dedicated one of the largest folders in his collection to ‘bear stories’: a folder which contains no less than four hundred tales in which bears, in one shape or another, take an active part.

Why the interest in bears? Was it anything to do with Madrid, his adopted home, or might it have had something to do with the fact that Kinloch, by all accounts, looked somewhat like a bear? One friend described him thus: ‘His panda eyes reminded us that he slept little; his broad and hairy chest reminded us that we ought never to question this way of working’. Kinloch’s physical stature is almost always mentioned: it was impossible to ignore. Whilst we may never know the height of his rival Stanley Pleeber; Kinloch was overkeen in mentioning the fact that he measured exactly seven foot. We also know a strange amount about his eyebrows; one of which he left to his secretary in his will; the other of which followed him, willingly or otherwise, to the grave. Having seen the former – now preserved in the Kinloch archives – I can assure the reader that it is, as eyebrows go, exceedingly ‘bear-like’.

I am neither interested, nor capable, of summarising the function of bears in Kinloch’s collected tales. However, I would like to briefly mention a series of popular Hungarian stories featuring a wandering bear who breaks into the homes of peasants and threatens to eat their children if they don’t tell him a good story. The framing device is, as you can see, not dissimilar to that of the Arabian Nights, except that this bear – unlike the Arabian King – is a harsh critic, and always ends up consuming the kids. Either that, or the beast is a dirty liar and enjoys the stories greatly, only to discover that (despite the opinion of some) Art does not assuage one’s appetite. Wonderful as a good story is, one needs a good square meal to survive.

Should one go the other way, yet, and claim that the bear was correct: that the stories aren’t good enough, what we are left with is a remarkable piece of self-criticism: a set of stories in which the authors regularly remind their readers of the fact that they aren’t much good at what they’re doing. In one sense, this renders the entire series redundant, making it a sort of anti-Arabian Nights – a tribute to the near impossibility of perfect storytelling.

Or maybe bears are just hard to please.

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23 thoughts on “Bears With Me

  1. You may have stumbled upon something there. I believe that the Hungarian words for ‘story’ and ‘honey’ are not outrageously dissimilar, so the whole thing may have been based on a linguistic misunderstanding.

  2. A mind full of bears, you say? Weather it be bears, bears, bears or other such beasts, I can assure you, if you were to take a peek into the forests of any other mans mind you would be sure to find the same; over populated with dirty animals. More specifically that mind belonging to the Artist. The enticing lure of a living imagination expressed from highly frivolous creatures, the Artist with their psyche brimming with animal metaphors.
    Grizzly and truly marvellous.
    No dought you will take no time in putting me straight, being quick to restore confidence of your pure intensions by condemning my ‘perverted’ view on your bear mind.

  3. May I say, on behalf of the bear community, that not all bears are ‘dirty’ – and that some bears, it is said, regularly complain of having ‘humans on the mind’, which other bears consider to be symptomatic of a dank and frivolous imagination.
    On the other hand, I don’t see any reason why I should be hasty to restore your confidence in my pure intensions. Though I have long learned that perversion, in its various forms, is not all it’s cracked up to be, I have never been a runner in the race toward purity. Who would enter a marathon without a tangible finishing line?

  4. Glad to hear a man who knows the difference between a bear and a bear.

    Just out of interest, from one animal lover to another, where are you in this forest of yours? What is it with the forest thing?
    You say you have an interest in old foke tales and maybe fairy tales, is that correct yes? Forests always seem to be stages for acts of mischief in all the stories i know of. Magical, dark places, where you would only dare stroll into if either you’re a foolish virgin, a brainless, all-cock knight or a beasty yourself. Which you be?

  5. I am the forest, the foolish virgin, the brainless knight and the bear all rolled into one. As are we all. Show me a place in the world that isn’t a stage for acts of mischief; or a mind that isn’t crawling with strange folk and fairies.
    But I am also a critic, which means I’m armed with a hunting knife, ever chopping at the restless vines which block my uncertain progress.

    I am not interested in the fantastic for it’s own sake. I am in essence a realist, who understands that reality is fantastic.

  6. Now we are getting into the fantasticus; a realist? Really?
    Is that an over-all ambition, or just a hobby?

    Going on what I have read on this sight of yours..
    I would not want you to think me just plain rude, but seriously;
    Do you truly judge yourself to be looking and to listen a good measurement more outside of yourself?
    Where do you get your sense of reality from? If your intensions are not even aimed at some kind of purity, where do you envisage your finishing line, if it is what you are running at?

    Are you so sure you being a realist isn’t in fact more like you being an escapist?
    Creative, intelligent minds are for colourful questioning not for manipulation, wouldn’t you agree? All minds should strive to remain open not laboured over being walled off in their imaginary play pens.

    You can not make a cheese sandwich into a ploughman’s just by licking it, you know what I’m saying?
    Nor do I…
    I am no realist.
    I like a good sandwich.

    Hey, I don’t claim to know you, so maybe you are as realist as it gets.
    I would not dare a claim to be a realist, too many of them about. They do not tend to serve any decent sandwiches at they’re realist jamborees (bloody triangular quarters). Consider myself as much of a beasty as you be; just a splash better and a smidgen worse. But being a realist you have probably assumed that already.

    I might be so bold as to state that we are indeed all critics!
    (mumbling under breathe, but loud enough for you to read)–Knife wheedling twat..

  7. This isn’t right. A critic would use an axe or a hatchet in the forest — like the woodchopper.

    How did machetes and the jungle get into this? There’s no bears in the jungle — except the sweet little sun bear (also called the “honey bear”, Georgy) — and Kipling’s Baloo.

  8. The realist sandwich is tastier than you think, Elis. You’ve clearly been buying yours from the wrong store – like many of your words. You’ve already given us ‘sight’ for ‘site’, ‘dought’ for ‘doubt’, ‘foke’ for ‘folk’ and ‘twat’ for ‘lovable old fool’. Truly you do live in fantasy land. As for ‘some kind of purity’, I’ll take that, but it won’t be the same kind of purity that others are aiming at.

    Domino, I don’t remember mentioning a machete. An axe or hatchet originally leapt to mind, but humility forced me towards a mere hunting knife. You are probably right to wonder, however, how many of the elements above ever entered this discussion. I am similarly confused: if not lost in the forest.

  9. I had to just assume you meant machete. Hacking vines with a hunting knife — that would be very slow-going indeed.

    Meanwhile, your wit isn’t so rough hewn. Look at Elis: he’s all in ribbons.

  10. Ladies and gentleman, please. Let’s all focus on the sweet little sun bear and forget whatever differences we may or may not be able to express adequately.

  11. I may be a bit slow sometimes, but I was not intending to, or aware I had offended anyone
    I’m not much of a fighter.

    Apologises if anything I have said seemed out of order.
    So easy to take written words the wrong way when you don’t know who’s talking.

    I’ll introduce myself better another time maybe.

  12. Couldn’t read it, because the writing was so very tiny, so had to take it round to a little friend of mine. His tiny blinkers and no trouble.

    Have you ever tried cheddar tea?

  13. Was that my story? A story within a story: my favourite. And I like the way it ended with a question – no doubt a rhetorical one, since it is common knowledge that everyone drinks cheddar tea at least four times a day.

    Perhaps we should put the comments for this post aside for now. I’m not sure this blog can deal with the shock of having twenty-two comments on one post. It’s used to about two.

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