One of the most consistent themes that is present in almost everything I write is that of human beings’ relationship with the rest of the natural world, and the disasters that can occur, to us, and to that world, whenever we see ourselves as separate from it, as being above it or outside it, or able to manipulate and control it. The theme of human hubris, I suppose, which is a theme that goes right back to Ancient Greek drama, and even further back than that, to many of the myths and folk tales that rose out of the lives and experiences of our even more ancient nomadic ancestors. This was first made evident to me over twenty years ago when I found myself working on something that not only altered dramatically the kinds of things I wrote about, but the whole way in which I wrote about them, that gave everything I wrote afterwards a kind of singleness of purpose that has led in a kind of direct through-line to the writing of “The Hunt for the Great Bear”.
At the time I was earning part of my living creating and performing one-man shows for children, touring them to schools and libraries. I based these shows on existing stories and myths – Sindbad the Sailor was one, Jason and the Argonauts was another – and they were intended primarily as pieces of interactive entertainment, a hybrid of drama, slapstick and storytelling. It was when I was casting around for another story to turn into one of these performances that I came across a book of folk-tales and myths from South America. As I read them I realised that what was central to these apparently simple tales of animals and people was not only a deep and intimate knowledge of the natural world and its creatures, but the knowledge too that human beings had become separated from that world and had lost something because of it. And the plots of many of the stories were a record of how that separation came about, through human greed, or stupidity, or pride. I was thrilled by this discovery. Here was a way of writing about something I was deeply interested in, something I’d long felt it was important to write about, without sounding as if I was preaching from a soapbox. By dramatising these stories, I felt I could write something of significance about what I felt was our increasingly wanton destruction of the natural world, and in a way that was dramatic, poetic, and entertaining.
The piece I eventually wrote became more than another one-man show. It needed a cast of characters to really bring it to life, so I wrote a sixty minute play but which still retained a strong storytelling element. By chance I learned of a competition initiated by the poet Ted Hughes which was calling for just that kind of work, The Sacred Earth Drama Competition, so I entered the play and it won, and was subsequently published by Faber. It was my first real success, not only because it won the competition, but because I’d discovered this new way of writing, both structurally and thematically. And it’s that new way of writing, which is rooted deeply in myth and folk-tale, that I’ve worked at ever since.
In The Hunt for the Great Bear, the ecological disaster which is implicit in many myths and folk tales has actually happened and the characters are living through the result of that disaster. The sense of loss they carry with them throughout the novel is an acknowledgement of this. As one character puts it: “Only the bad time left and everything gone from the world. People and animals and plants. Everything froze over. Only a few splinters left, scraps of skin walking around and shivering in the cold. That’s us, all that’s left, living in the bad time.” It is in their very awareness and struggle for understanding, through the telling of their own myths, that their true humanity lies. And that same awareness and understanding in us, if we pay close attention to those old stories, may yet prevent the disaster from taking place.