Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Among the Dangs” is an argument for the primacy of story among humanity’s ways of knowing and for the primacy of the vatic teller among the world’s knowers and tellers. The story suggests that the data of the modern social scientist is not wisdom, that advanced civilization does not satisfy, and that the persistent ritual of primitives who know what they want can lead man, through the habituation of doing, to spiritual understanding. The “Dangs make no separation between fact and fantasy, apparent reality and visionary reality, truth and beauty,” suggesting a connection between them and a more romantic stage of civilization that modern man has fallen away from—much to the chagrin of such thinkers as Matthew Arnold, William Butler Yeats, and W. H. Auden as well as George P. Elliott. The Dangs’ seemingly “mindless holding of the same position hour after hour” and the monotony of their melodies can blot out the noise, however unique, of modern delusions and can make the prophet aware, through subtle rhythms, of the mystic truth.

The Dangs, so improbably helpful to the intruder, are so cast to call attention to the limitations of advanced society’s assumptions and values; their behavior also represents an educational philosophy—help the willing to find the way by patience and flexibility—from which any society could benefit. There is also in the story a chastening of blind belief in uninterrupted progress. Because the religious knowing pictured here depends on a creative interaction between the individual and the whole society, when the individual flags in his pursuit of the truth and steps down to lesser values, the society may have to wait for another generation to produce a new performer. To be “among the Dangs” is to be within the possibility of integrity; to leave is to impede the best hope.