Metamorphoses

I recall the first line of Ovid’s Metamorphoses as being “Now I will tell of things that change.” But I just looked it up, and in the first translation that Google offers, it’s “Of bodies chang’d to various forms, I sing.” Either way, the Roman poet Ovid saw all of classical mythology as being about change . . . the changing of one form into another.

Heh, heh — maybe it’s appropriate that I’m writing this posting on the night of the full moon. A friend back in my hometown also informs me that the almanac calls this one in particular the “Full Wolf Moon.” So go ahead, change into a wolf or whatever if you’re so inclined. I’ll just go on talking.

I’m thinking about how that element: change — underlies such a huge number of the stories we love. In Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, Max wears his wolf suit, and it’s his room that changes, with a forest growing up around his bed, and so begins his journey to the place of the Wild Things.

In my novel version of The Star Shard, I titled one chapter “Metamorphoses,” because I noticed how some lesser transformations in the tale reflect the big transformation that’s the core of the story: namely, Cymbril getting older; Cymbril coming to a deeper understanding of who she is, to a state of greater strength and confidence, to an increased awareness of how she fits into the world — and of the beauty of the larger picture.

From that first moment in the theater here in Niigata, when I was watching the Peter Jackson version of The Fellowship of the Ring, I was absolutely captivated by the opening narration, the very first words we hear in the film:

“The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost; for none now live who remember it.”

[That's an accurate quote: I just checked it.] From that first decision made by the filmmakers, I was hooked. I knew this was going to be something great. Peter Jackson and company understood that The Lord of the Rings, too, is a story of change. The Third Age of Middle-earth is passing; the Fourth Age is dawning. The time of the Elves is drawing to a close. The day of Men is at hand. And in such hours of transition, when all hangs in the balance, the deeds of the smallest persons can shape the fate of all.

One of the things that gives Tolkien’s story so much richness is the fact that Middle-earth doesn’t have the smell of new plastic about it, as if it were just unpacked from the box carried home from Best Buy. Middle-earth is an ancient place, a land of memories and scars, of wars and old wounds, ruins and marshes filled with the dead. “Much that once was is lost.” Alas, my memories of the book are foggy (it’s been about thirty years since I read it), but in the films, we’re constantly reminded of the declining of the world, of the loss of much that used to be better.

Elrond doubts that any hope can come from Men. “The blood of Numenor is almost spent” . . . and Elrond was there to witness personally the failure of Isildur to destroy the ring. Elrond doubts (at first) that Aragorn can rise to the challenge of being King, since “He turned from that path long ago.” Aragorn himself (in the movies) wonders if he’s up to the task.

And how about Theoden? The filmmakers take pains to show us his insecurities, that he feels himself to be a sorry latter-day scion of much greater forebears.

Tolkien’s Elves think of their whole history in Middle-earth as “The Long Defeat” — sometimes gaining little victories over evil, but steadily sliding downhill, the Shadow steadily growing. And isn’t that reflective of our real lives in this world, when everyone speaks of how bad it’s all getting?

Probably the saddest story I’ve ever written is “A Tale of Silences,” published in the January/February 2006 issue of Cicada. Set in a rural mountain village in Japan in 1970, it tells of an old man named Jii. Early on, we learn that the building of a new dam is going to flood the area, and the village where Jii has lived his entire life will cease to exist. The story chronicles his last year in the village, as he moves into the winter of his life. Jii is a widower, and somewhat alienated from his son, who has left the village and embraced more modern values. Here’s a passage from the story describing Jii’s observation of his son, Masashi, who has come to visit:

“Masashi was one of only three in his high-school class who had survived the war. Now, at forty-two, Masashi had sunglasses hanging from his collar, one earpiece tucked into the front of his shirt. He looked out of place sitting in his city clothes on the worn tatami floor beside the dim wall panels, like a bright tennis ball that had bounced into an old garden. He was no longer the color of the village.”

As Jii interacts with various people in the community (including Mizusawa, who has come home emotionally crippled from the war in Manchuria; and Shimo, a strange, silent youth who is feared and disliked by most of the villagers for his habit of peering into their windows at night), he comes to a slow acceptance of time’s inevitable march and the beauty of life’s tapestry.

In the end, living with his son’s family in Tokyo, Jii finds a simple joy in his woodcarving and time spent with his grandson:

“Jii did not care for the noise and the hurry in the streets. He missed Iwano’s smoking and Mizusawa’s stories of privations in Manchuria, stories that seemed to keep back as much as they revealed. He would have preferred a stand of bamboo to the overgroomed park that he could see now outside his window, a place where trees were imprisoned like zoo animals and people crowded on weekends, gulping at the air,  faces turned optimistically toward the sun.

“Yet even here, amid the gentle kindness of Masashi and his wife — here, with Makoto tugging at Jii’s sleeve, so eager for his stories and his attention, Jii found the tale still unfolding, heard most plainly in silences. At times, he was sure he could smell something like mountain air wafting in, unexpected and welcome — the clean, moist exhalation of ferns, cedars, and the rich carpet of all things once alive — though perhaps it was a trick of the breeze in the park, brushing past some brave, fragrant, leafy thing.”

This story was written at a time when I was facing the mortality of my parents. They’d gotten old and sick, and I was realizing that before long, no matter how you did the math, I wouldn’t be the kid anymore, with parents to come home to on holidays. I remember one night when it especially came home to me; I was back from Japan for a summer visit, sleeping in my old bed. My room there was adjacent to the bathroom, and I remember that night being deeply affected by the difference in the sound of my dad’s urination when he got up to relieve himself in the dark hours. Dad had always peed like a pirate, his stream a resonant booming in the bowl, on and on, endless and reassuring. That night it was a paltry, halting trickle. It was as if dark years slid onto me from every corner of that aging house, years on years, stacked and compressed, and now weighing me down. I remember my parents coughing in the dark, coughing with chronic smokers’ hacks. I remember listening to the sounds of mice chewing and scrabbling in the closets. And I lay there in the dark, in my old familiar bed, at the bottom of a well of years. Hadn’t it just been days or weeks before that I’d been a teenager, worried about high-school classes and my girlfriend and whether or not I’d ever get published? Now my parents were old and frail, and the walls were full of mice.

“Change and decay in all around I see,” says the hymn “Abide With Me”: “Oh, Thou Who changest not, abide with me.”

Therein lies the comfort: if the underpinning is solid, the surface changes aren’t so bad. In fact, they can be beautiful. A common fault of beginning writers’ fiction manuscripts is that they don’t want their characters to have to experience change — not too much, anyway. Certainly nothing painful. But it’s change that makes a story.

A good friend of mine recently observed that we have to seize happiness and drag it out of the dark that surrounds us. Or, as Blake wrote, we have to “build a Heaven in Hell’s despite.” It’s doable, since we have an ultimate home beyond all change, won for us by Christ.

Ours is not to fear the changes, but to celebrate the hour. “The world is changed”: but to change is to be human. Observe the changes, and let them become stories.

Sail out in this full moon’s light through a year and day, wearing a wolf suit, to where the Wild Things are. Consider this final quote, particularly in the light of who said it:

“Think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy.”

                                                                           — Anne Frank

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6 Responses to “Metamorphoses”

  1. fsdthreshold Says:

    I’m saying this in a comment so as not to interrupt the flow of the post itself: the latest from my agent is that he likes The Star Shard, but he wrote me a letter detailing two major concerns and seventy-one minor ones. So it’s temporarily back to the drawing board. Before the story goes on to the editor, I’m addressing the concerns, most of which are spot-on accurate. There are a couple instances in which I disagree and will not be making the suggested changes. I’m grateful for the input of an industry professional. The book will be better because of his careful reading.

  2. Chris Says:

    I love change. I used to think it was a bug I picked up from hanging with a bunch of journalism majors in college. Those people seemed to want everything to change all the time if only because it meant a “better story” for them.

    Currently in the U.S. we are watching the world implode on us. I have no doubt it will get bad for me as well. It is, however, darkly exciting. Like watching really nasty clouds brew up on the horizon.

    I know that before the end of this change, many of us, myself included, will long for the “old order”, but one thing I’ve noted in my life is that for some strange reason change seems to hit on a massive scale for me “on the 8’s”. 1978 my world turned upside down when I was told my dad was transferred and we’d move in 1979 to a wholly new town. 1988 I was struggling in grad school, running out of money, starving and had my power shut off, 1999 my first postdoc ended and I had nothing in the future. But in all those cases “On the 9’s” things wound up coming around to a good result. 1979 I moved to a new town and ultimately made great friends, 1989 I had lost significant weight (owing to the starvation) and got my first “real” date with the woman with whom I’ve been for the past 20 years (this year!) and 1999 I moved to my “spiritual homeland”: Boston (now to get back to Boston!)

    The change was always painful, but not always bad in how it shook out.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a glass-half-empty kind of person, because I think _that_ makes for a better story.

    When you mentioned metamorphoses, Fred, my first inclination was to think of Kafka’s Metamorphosis instead!

    Maybe this year I am become a giant roach-like insect trapped.

    Half the fun is watching the clouds roll in.

  3. Nicholas Says:

    Deep and sobering contemplations, and well put.

  4. Marquee Movies Says:

    This isn’t a direct response to your blog, though it was fascinating to read, as usual – I just like the word Metamorphosis for a specific reason. Many, many years ago, I was watching a TV show called Fame. Near the end of the episode, a male student at this high school was called upon by a teacher to use the word “metamorphosis” in a sentence. While the student hemmed and hawed, the images we were seeing changed to another student (from the same school) who was walking out of her house wearing very constrictive, dark, and conservative clothes. (Her story arc had been about she and a strict parent trying to find a middle ground about rules of the house, I think.) As soon as the girl turned the corner, out of sight of anyone in her house, she began running, and joyfully peeling off one piece of clothing after another, running pell-mell until she was wearing a very light and breezy (and probably risque) outfit. As she reached this final outfit, which was also quite colorful (i.e., like a butterfly), we heard the voice of the student who had been asked to use metamorphosis in a sentence. As the girl continued running in her new bright clothes, we heard in voiceover, “I never metamorphosis I didn’t like.” That was one of the first and still best examples I’ve ever seen of visuals and audio from different areas being used at the same time to complement each other. Still knocks me out to think about it.

  5. Gabe Dybing Says:

    “… like a bright tennis ball that had bounced into an old garden.”

    Man, you are brilliant! You know just how to say it.

    In awe…

  6. mileposter Says:

    This is a well-put entry, covering a lot of territory. Other responders have pointed out some of its excellencies.

    For me, it brought back more personal memories. I, too, slept some nights in that house in Taylorville, and one night, in one of those bedrooms, I came to one of those stark realizations–I was deeply in debt, paying for my return to college to get a teaching degree and enter a new area of endeavor. I was facing a big change, which would be on a small salary, and I was terrified. I didn’t get much sleep that night.

    That was over twenty years ago, and I could write a book about how that change worked out. Suffice to say that, after another big change, I am now a bus driver again (which is what I was before I went back to college), and working with kids at the same time: driving a school bus, still teaching two kids, plus tandem cycling and youth activities at my church.

    There’s another Taylorville connection besides that night at Fred’s house. When I first started Mileposters, I packed up that first tandem (which by now has been replaced by nine others!) and went west to visit Fred. We made a ride on the Lincoln Prairie Trail, from Taylorville to nearby Pana. It was the last time I saw Fred in person. That picture may appear below. If it doesn’t, then you can go to the Mileposters site, where it’s on the MORE page:
    http://mileposters.net

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