Archive for March, 2009

Boats, Beasts, & Baubles in Books

March 26, 2009

A is for the Argo, the ship in Greek myth that carried Jason and his crew eastward to Colchis, to Aea, on their quest for the Golden Fleece. When I was a college student taking Greek and Roman mythology, our big course project was a “Herculean Labor” which we could design for ourselves — the professor would approve it as long as it was a way of delving deeply into the subject. I was fascinated by the voyage of the Argonauts, so I decided to study every account of their adventures I could find, and then to write (in the same poetic style and meter as the old mythmakers) a missing part of the tale — to fill in a gap left by all the earlier tale-tellers, if I could find one.

Sure enough, I discovered something intriguing: the accounts I read (most of which were based, I think, on the most thorough one by Apollonius of Rhodes) made mention of a people called the Chalybes — a dark, subterranean race who spent their days in caverns of fire and smoke, hammering and smelting. Apparently the Argo docked on their shores for a brief time, but nowhere could I find more detail than that.

Heh, heh — cavernophile that I am, that seemed the perfect point of entry for me. The challenge was more than just writing a harrowing episode for the brave Greeks. One thing the course had taught me was that the classical myths are all interconnected: a stone tossed into one sends ripples through many others. Certain overarching lines of story and theme emerge. Various defining events in the mythologic history are referenced by and shape the tales.

First, the voyage of the Argo seems to have taken place chronologically after the Calydonian Boar Hunt but before the Trojan War. I wanted that fact to be important in my part of the story. I had to be careful about which characters I used and how I used them. They all had to be present on the voyage; I obviously couldn’t use a character who had already died at that point; and I couldn’t kill off someone who appeared later. (And that was a challenge for me, because I knew I wanted to include a giant monster and lots of mayhem — of course. Why else write something, right?)

I had a whole lot of fun with the project, writing the story itself and a paper explaining what I’d done and the choices I’d made. One of my favorite aspects was that the Calydonian Boar’s severed tusk (carried as a trophy by Meleager) played an important role, and that the Argonauts recovered (rising from out of the blood-stained sea) a helm and armor that later passed into the possession of Achilles. This armor appeared in my tale out of bloody water, acquired through heroism and great violence, tragedy, and loss; it later figures largely in the actual myth of the Trojan War, since it’s the armor that Patroclus “borrows” when he’s masquerading as Achilles, which ultimately leads to much more wrath and tragedy.

Incidentally, I recycled and reworked this idea into a part of something I’ve been working on much more recently. So the morals there are to save everything you write and don’t be afraid to play with ideas — you never know when something will come in handy even years down the road.

The “net beneath the trapeze” was that, if I did make a mistake or introduce an inconsistency, that too would reflect the vast body of classical myth. Many of the myths do contradict one another and the chronology gets a bit muddled at times. (One oft-cited example is how Helen of Troy, if she were born when she was supposed to have been, would have been well into middle-age by the time the Trojan War even began. But then again, I noticed in re-reading Genesis lately that Abraham’s wife Sarah, even in extreme old age, was still in danger of being snatched up by kings who didn’t know she was a married woman; Abraham was still passing her off as his sister . . . . which goes to show, I guess, that a good woman is worth protecting and fighting over at any age . . . right?)

Anyway, here’s the next plea for reader contributions, if there are any takers: A is for Argo. Let’s try going through the alphabet again, and let’s do our best to go in order. For each letter, you can name (from some story you like) a vehicle (ship, spaceship, submarine, car, wagon, scooter, whatever) or an animal of some sort (preferably one that characters ride) . . . or (since we may get stuck) some object from a story, such as a character’s trademark prop, favorite thing, weapon, clue, book, etc. Think we can do this?

Have at it!


The Old Well

March 19, 2009

The following is an excerpt from A Green and Ancient Light, an unpublished collection of vignettes which I wrote in the summer of 1990. It has been slightly edited for readability.

The Old Well

Nothing can keep a secret like a well. Nor is anything or anyone half so skilled at dropping hints of the most sinister nature.

You stand in a closet, and everywhere you see light pouring in, seeping through the slatted door. But the old well lets in darkness. The well is a starless universe in the shape of a shaft. A peek inside it is a peek into the Coke-bottle eyes, the tin-can fangs of the Thing That Lives Down There. You see the concave wall of bricks from above. That Thing sees them from below.

He’d be delighted if you’d fall in. That’s what he’s waiting for. He’s sizing up your house, too, or at least the little bit of it he can see framed behind your tiny head when you move the stone. Maybe someday your house will fall in; it’s possible.

You and your best friend take a kind of morbid delight in watching that covering stone from day to day, because you know — you know — it moves periodically. It slides just the smallest fraction of an inch during the night, during the dew hours. When you find it, that cover is allowing just an insinuation in, just the merest shadowy film of darkness up along the corner of the stone. Just enough darkness for the slugs to see by as they slowly, methodically measure your house after moonset.

Where do slugs go in the daytime? Whom do they work for? You and your friend get three guesses.

You keep moving the stone back into place whenever you can; you always peek down there, and that Coke-bottle glitter never bats an eyelash. The Thing sees you whenever you come. He has nothing but time. He waits.

Boy, are you and your friend relieved when your dad decides to fill in the old well. You’re relieved, and a little sad. A ton of bricks, a half-ton of earth rains in and closes the door, closes the shiny glass eyes forever. The irrelevant capstone is the last to fall.

You walk back and forth over all that’s left of the Thing’s pit: a shallow depression in the grass, just at the corner of the confident new sidewalk. This hollow will never cave in, not ever, because it’s packed full and tramped down hard.

You’re old enough to help plant the flowers that grow over his grave.

Your legs are too long to let you hear his last whispering sigh.


Fun, huh? By the way, not long after I wrote this, I discovered an old Algernon Blackwood story called “The Other Wing,” which develops a similar theme — growing up, crossing the threshold out of childhood, and the bittersweet losses that brings. I highly recommend Blackwood’s story, along with Steven Millhauser’s “Flying Carpets” (same theme again), which can be found in The Knife-Thrower and Other Stories.

Here’s another invitation to unlock the treasure-vaults of your own tales and memories, dear readers! Share with us, if you will, your descriptions and recollections of those nooks and crannies in your childhood that didn’t feel quite right to you. Was it a closet? — a back stairway that always seemed a little too dark? — an attic, perhaps? — a lonely stretch of road? Was it a time of day? An abandoned house two streets over? We’ve still got more than half a year till Hallowe’en — let’s all do our part to tide one another over!

(Mis)conceptions: The Almost and the Art

March 12, 2009

Do you remember a time when, as a child, instead of running for a dictionary, you were content to decide for yourself what new words meant? Or more likely, the tendency began long before you could read. I remember deciding once that the strange new word “nevertheless” meant “We’ll see about that.” I thought that must be the case, since the people who said “nevertheless” were usually villains — evil sorceress stepmother queens and the like — who were bent on mocking and spiting the main character who seemed for the moment to be getting the upper hand.

Another example: in My Fair Lady, Eliza sings “All I want is a room somewhere, far away from the cold night air.” For a long time (and I was very little), I believed she was singing, “All I want is a room somewhere, far away from the Lon Ponzair.” In my mind, the Lon Ponzair was a shadowy prince who dressed in black robes, carried a scimitar, and rode a dark horse through desert places. Naturally Eliza — or any sensible girl — would want to be far away from him!

Same song: she sings “Lots of chocolates for me to eat; lots of coal making lots of heat.” Because of her cockney accent, I thought the words were: “Lots of chocolates for me to eat; lots of cows making lots of meat.” (Well, I grew up in a farming community. . . .)

One of the stories I wrote when I was about ten involved a guy driving a Jeep. I thought the word “neutral” as it related to gear shifts meant “neither slow nor fast” — not taking sides, you know, like Switzerland — so I wrote this sentence:

“The engine purred into neutral, and the Jeep sped off at half speed.”

For decades afterward, to the end of his life, my dad would sometimes gleefully call out, “The engine purred into neutral!”

As a toddler, apparently I would spontaneously make up songs and sing them around the house. My mom would write them down, and three of them are preserved for posterity (don’t worry, I’m not going to subject you to all three — just the one that’s pertinent). Here’s one (it’s short):

“Hee hee hee went the blue little thing;

Ho ho ho went the orders;

And so that’s the way it glees.”

Yes, that’s the whole song. What’s interesting to me now about that is that I was using language almost completely for the sound and the pleasure of the words, the way they felt, not for the meaning. We could invent all sorts of meanings for the text, but I doubt there was much of one, even in my child’s mind. I suspect that the words simply felt good. It’s a happy song. Everyone’s laughing — the fantasy creature, even the authority figure; and the last line seems to express general optimism and contentment. (I remember my dad commenting that orders don’t usually go “Ho ho ho.” He had a good point. As with the engine purring into neutral, he would also sometimes shrug and say, “That’s the way it glees.” Later in life, he would mix it with Robert Burns and say, “That’s the gang it glees.”)

In a poem once I used the word “fernwise,” which isn’t in any dictionary:

“. . . Traveling fernwise the whispering hedge,

Finding dream paths at the shadow’s edge.”

I used the word to have at least a threefold meaning: in the direction of ferns (as in “clockwise”); in the way or manner of ferns; and with an awareness or knowledge of ferns. A Japanese colleague asked me, “Can you do that?”

Well, I’m in excellent company. Shakespeare made up a great many of the words he used. They cannot be found in any earlier texts, and many of them are now in our dictionaries.

We have a beautifully rich vocabulary to draw upon. By all means, let’s plumb its depths, get to know it, and use it all we can. We’d all be surprised at the words we have at our disposal. But at the same time, let’s not be afraid to use what we know to extrapolate — to fill in the holes — to create the words that should be there but aren’t yet. Fantasy writers do it all the time, much to the consternation of our electronic spell-checkers.

Is “hobbit” a word? Well, now it is — just check out the Oxford English Dictionary. I know people who freely use the word flayrah.

If anyone’s inclined to comment, this would be an excellent time to tell us your stories about your misconceptions and creative uses of the language when you were a kid — or older, if you’re brave enough. Or do you know of or use any words which aren’t yet generally acknowledged? Tell us, tell us!

So have fun with English, multidimensional creature that it is. Enjoy it in all its richness, and you don’t have to stay inside the lines when you color.

But it probably is safer to stay far away from the Lon Ponzair.

Two Wild Horses

March 4, 2009

“In [man’s] mouth is ever the bitter-sweet taste of life and death. . . . Without respite he is dragged by the two wild horses, memory and hope; and he is tormented by a secret that he can never tell.”  — Hope Mirrlees, Lud-in-the-Mist

Memory and hope, two wild horses, dragging us without respite. . . . The taste of life and death always in our mouths, bitter and sweet. . . . The reason Lud-in-the-Mist belongs on our small shelves of the ten or so greatest works of fantasy is because Ms. Mirrlees understood: she truly got what it is that makes us human. Her book is full of that agonizing, ecstatic interrelationship of time, nature, and us feeling mortals.

Memory: from our earliest years, are we not filled with nostalgia for the past? Are we not haunted by things which were but no longer are? As we age, memories pile upon memories, the falling of golden leaves. These shape our identities; they are treasures which give us pain and strength. Perhaps there is no strength without pain, in the same way that our growing bones hurt before they lengthen. And when we try to envision Heaven, do we not search among the troves of our memories, seeking out those moments which, in the gentle rounding of time, seem to have been far better than the ordinary days in which we now find ourselves?

Hope: from our earliest years, do we not choose to live, when we close our eyes or gaze into the distance, in the realm of what we fancy will be? Hope colors all that we do, for we look to the light of possibility that shines just ahead of us, glowing in the open door. In a little while — so we tell ourselves — when the seasons change, when we reach the clearing or the landing, all will be better, and there will be again something like the joy of the golden moments that are gone.

I can’t help thinking of the last line of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

So we are odd creatures, trapped in our freedom, hurt by our joys and rejoicing in our hurts. “For the great Gaels of Ireland are the men that God made mad: for all their wars are merry, and all their songs sad.” We ride our carriages pulled by Untowards; we are made full only by what lies behind and by that unknown country ahead.


Updates on The Star Shard: my agent is enthusiastic about the revisions, and he is sending it on to the book editor who has expressed a strong interest. That editor, if he is equally excited about the rewritten draft, then will have to convince his fellow decision-makers of the book’s potential. So — there are hurdles yet ahead, but right now, things are going well! Many prayers. . . .

Finally, I referred several postings ago to a contest held by Cricket in which they encouraged their readers to try writing poems/songs the Urrmsh might sing. [The Urrmsh are a race of beings in my story “The Star Shard” which is being serialized in Cricket Magazine right now.] The winners of that contest have been chosen, and the editors have graciously allowed me to read them. The work is absolutely amazing, and again, I can’t describe the feeling of having young people all across the nation writing poetry based on these characters in this story. They turn their poetic spotlights not only onto what is made clear in the story, but also into the dark corners; they delve into the parts of the greater tale that lie beyond the borders of the pages. One, for instance, explores the journey of the Urrmsh toward their present state; one focuses on the romance between Cymbril’s parents. I see Cricket‘s wisdom in launching the contest precisely when they did, when just enough has been revealed to give the poets maximum grist.

A fascinating thing I’ve noticed about the poems is that the poets seem most drawn to the conflict Cymbril feels — should she go or should she stay? How can she move forward? How can she say goodbye to the Rake and her friends there? What lies ahead?

And does that sound familiar? Does it sound like the opening number of this post? Cymbril, too, is “dragged by the two wild horses, memory and hope.”

I believe all the winning poems will be published in an issue of Cricket coming up soon — start watching with the April 2009 issue, in which “The Star Shard” will come to its end. They really are beautiful, outstanding pieces.

“Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us: but unto Thy name be glory given.”