Looking from a Certain Angle

“There is not a single homely thing that, looked at from a certain angle, does not become fairy.”

–Hope Mirrlees, Lud-in-the-Mist

I’m about a third of the way into the extraordinary book quoted above. It was recommended to me by four different friends, and I’m finally getting around to reading it. It is truly wonderful. Most definitely it belongs on the “small shelf” of the most treasured books in the library of a serious lover of fantasy. It was written just shy of a century ago, but don’t let that discourage you. Ms. Mirrlees wrote in a clear, elegant, uncluttered style that makes for smooth, pleasant reading. Moreover, she knew how to tell a story; I found myself drawn in at once to the lives and adventures of the Chanticleer family and their associates.

Like so many of my favorite writers, Hope Mirrlees was clearly as enchanted by the natural world as by any fantastical elements of a fairy tale; or rather, she rightly understood just how numinous the created world is, in and of itself. What, she asks, is more magical than a hawthorn tree coming suddenly to life in the spring?

Anyway, her words that I quoted above express, I believe, one of the fundamental concepts upon which any discussion of writing fantasy fiction should be built. Tolkien said essentially the same thing in his essay “On Fairy Stories.” And Leonardo da Vinci reportedly told his art students that they should stare at the cracks in the walls until they saw whole worlds pouring out of them.

Where do ideas come from? How can we write about Faery when we’ve never been there? The ideas are all around us, and I’d contend that we live all the time with one foot in Faery. It’s a matter of knowing how to see, how to listen. Lilacs are blooming just now in the northern hemisphere. Go out and press your nose into their twilight-colored clusters. Drink in that fragrance like none other on Earth. If you would see fairies, they’re dancing there, among those dusky, heart-shaped leaves.

We knew this well as children. Were we not all experts at taking “homely things” and making of them the equipment we needed for our adventures, no matter how fantastic? I recall the rusted wreck of a bicycle that, overturned and stood upon its handlebars and seat, became the wheelhouse of my imaginary “shark-fishing boat”: the bicycle’s tire was the ship’s wheel, and the kickstand was the throttle (its rusty resistance so mechanically satisfying when it was shifted up or down with a grrooiiink!). The bike’s pedals were the winch-crank for raising and lowering the anti-shark cage.

In the movie Dead Poets Society, English teacher Mr. Keating has his students stand, one by one, atop his desk in order to view the classroom from that vantage point–an angle from which they’ve never seen it.

So we, too, if we set out to write fantasy, must stand in places we don’t normally stand. We must look around, and listen to the quietness and the whispers of leaves. Let us remember what we knew before we ever opened a textbook: that the wonders are here, more than any book can contain. Grab hold of one and write about it!

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8 Responses to “Looking from a Certain Angle”

  1. Gabe Says:

    You mentioned the hawthorne tree! I believe the book is enchanting you in just about the same way it enchanted me. This is a “spring book,” to complement your “October books.” I love the part about the long tunnel of hedge trees and the opening at the end. A doorway into another world, but really “just” a doorway to some other “natural” place.

    Filmmaker and animator Hayao Miyazaki, apparently, got angry at his animators once. His animators didn’t know how to make Carcifer (?), the salamander/sentient burning coal of _Howl’s Moving Castle_ really come alive. Miyazaki couldn’t believe how many of them, apparently, hadn’t ever seen real flame. “Go out and build an actual fire for once,” he cried. “Actually look at the flames.”

  2. Eunice Says:

    Beautiful! You remember clearly what I remember dimly. You experience daily (or try to) what comes to me only in flashes, unbidden, unbiddable. Have you any idea how privileged you are to be gifted with the faerie sight? Thanks for being a writer!

  3. fsdthreshold Says:

    Gabe,
    That’s a great Miyazaki story! (I assumed that character’s name was “Calcifer,” but that’s just from hearing it in Japanese–I haven’t seen the English version.) But anyway, your point is well-taken: modern society has simply gotten so far removed from the natural world that it’s often scary. If a housefly gets into my university classroom, some of my students teeter on the verge of panic–it’s clear that some of them have never seen a real live housefly.

    Eunice,
    Thank you for that encouraging comment! I think the “trying to” part is significant. I believe that, with practice, writers can reacquaint themselves with their “child’s eyes” for seeing the world.

  4. fsdthreshold Says:

    I just checked the book. It _is_ “Calcifer.”

  5. Nicholas Says:

    Reminds me of something C.S. Lewis once wrote: “[When a boy reads of an enchanted wood] it stirs and troubles him. . . with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth. He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.”

  6. Mike Tresca Says:

    Well said! It reminds me of the lesson learned from Pearls Before Breakfast: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/04/AR2007040401721.html

    “The poet Billy Collins once laughingly observed that all babies are born with a knowledge of poetry, because the lub-dub of the mother’s heart is in iambic meter. Then, Collins said, life slowly starts to choke the poetry out of us. It may be true with music, too.”

  7. Tandemcat Says:

    Lovely explication of fantasy. I have to read that book! I’ll think of these thoughts as I lead my merry band of tandem riders out on the trail this weekend!

  8. Ide Cyan Says:

    You should read Mirrlees’s other novels, which are also concerned with fantasy, though they’re not inside the genre exactly. (And are alas a whole lot harder to find than Lud-in-the-Mist.)

    Take the preface to Madeleine: One of Love’s Jansenists, for instance. In it she writes, of the meeting of Life and Art in fiction:

    “The other way [to achieve it] is to turn from time to time upon the action the fantastic limelight of eternity, with a sudden effect of unreality and the hint of a world within a world.”

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