Posts Tagged ‘C. S. Lewis’

The Piper in the Woods

May 12, 2010

“This is the night of revelation. This is the night the dolls wake. This is the night of the dreamer in the attic. This is the night of the piper in the woods.” — Steven Millhauser in Enchanted Night

Spring comes on little goat feet. . . .

If I were a scholar fixin’ to write a research paper, I would like to explore the use of Fauns, Satyrs, and the god Pan in English literature. This is a topic that has long intrigued me. These enigmatic figures dance through the shade and the starry darkness of our consciousness, but what is our fascination with them? Bear with me — no, goat with me — if you will, gentle readers, and let’s embark — embark — on a little walk among the trees. (I’ve just paid about ten bucks to the pun fund — at this rate I’ll be broke by the end of the next paragraph.) I’d like to do a little defining, a little comparing of examples, and finally a little theorizing about our wild friends, the horned pipers in the glens.

Detail from Self-Portrait by Frederic S. Durbin, March 2010.

First, let’s look to J.E. Zimmerman’s Dictionary of Classical Mythology. (This is the dictionary we used in Professor Froehlich’s Greek & Roman mythology class at Concordia, and it’s one of the few books that, as a writer and reader, I would never want to be without.)

Zimmerman tells us that Pan (Greek) is the same as Faunus (Roman).

Pan is the son of Hermes and Dryope. He’s the “Greek god of flocks and shepherds, forests and wild life, and fertility; patron of shepherds and hunters. Part man, part goat, with ears, horns, tail, and hind legs of a goat — playful, lascivious, unpredictable, always lecherous. He invented the flute with seven reeds which he called syrinx after the nymph Syrinx who had been transformed into the reed he cut for his first Pan-pipe. Shepherds loved his reed pipe, and Pan’s musical contest with Apollo is famous. He loved and pursued many nymphs. . . .” Zimmerman goes on to cite ancient sources of Pan references, which include the Aeneid, Herodotus, and Pausanias. “In English literature,” Zimmerman interestingly says, “poems about Pan are more numerous than distinguished; references to him are made by Spenser; Milton; Marvell; Cowley; Wordsworth; Shelley; Keats; Swinburne; Forster.”

So if I were that scholarly type fixin’ to do the research paper, I’d have my work cut out for me, chasing down all those references! Fortunately, I’m just a blog-tender, so I can deal in rumors, unsubstantiated “facts,” opinions, and whims. I can just tell you what I think. And that’s the beauty of a blog, right? We read and write them in order to talk about cool stuff — which, of course, sometimes has great applicability to our lives and our projects and our service, whatever it may be.

When we look up “Faunus” in Zimmerman, we’re told that he’s “Also Pan. God of agriculture, crops, prophecy, fertility, and country life.” The sole reference there is Aeneid vii. With that wording, Faunus sounds a little more staid and sober than Pan — sort of a Pan in midlife, a Pan who has settled down and become somewhat responsible. That may be because Faunus is a family man — er, god. He has a wife (or by some accounts a daughter) called Fauna, also known as Bona Dea or Bona Mater. She’s the goddess of fertility, nature, farming, and animals. “She never saw a man after her marriage with Faunus. Her uncommon chastity brought her rank among the gods after her death. Her followers are called Fauni.”

Note that point: the Fauni (Fauns) are followers of this nice, chaste goddess, not directly of Faunus himself. That may well be why Fauns seem to have a better reputation than Satyrs. C.S. Lewis’s Mr. Tumnus is a Faun. And in my own book The Sacred Woods, my Faun character is indignant when he’s mistaken for a Satyr. [“‘I’d like you better if you’d stop calling me a Satyr,’ said Mr. Girandole. ‘I’ve told you I’m a Faun. Satyrs are a vulgar folk. You won’t see me drinking wine by the skinful.’ / ‘And woman?’ R____ grinned waggishly. ‘You run catch woman?’ / ‘Mind your own business,’ said Mr. Girandole.”]

Well, what about Satyrs, then? Zimmerman reports: the Satyrs (or Satyri) are “sylvan deities that represented the luxuriant forces of nature; attendants of Dionysus.” (Dionysus! Say no more, squire! Eh? Eh?! Dionysus is the god of wine and revelry. [He’s that very same Bacchus, the youngest of the twelve great Olympians.] So the Satyrs were the ones having the keg parties.) “They were known for their orgies and lasciviousness. They looked like men, but had the legs and feet of goats, with short horns on their heads, and their entire bodies covered with hair. Some Satyrs were gods of the woods, and followers of Pan.”

Very interesting, huh? This would require more research, of course — and I may be reading more into the distinction than Zimmerman or any of the mythmakers intended — but based on these dictionary entries alone, it looks like the Fauns were followers of Fauna (the virtuous goddess), and the Satyrs were associated with Dionysus and Pan. Satyrs may also have been hairier than Fauns — hair over their entire bodies, Zimmerman says. So if that painting of mine is right at all, it must be a picture of a Faun, not a Satyr. (Pan also had the ears of a goat, which is overlooked by many artists.)

So much for the definitions: now we know whom we’re talking about; we know what the theme is as we consider the variations.

As soon as we get out of the classical myths and into English literature and into cinema, the lines start to blur, and I think it’s impossible to preserve the distinctions among Satyrs, Fauns, Pan, and Faunus. In Pan’s Labyrinth, for example: the movie’s title says one thing, but I’m pretty sure the Faun says he’s “a Faun.” (But when asked his name, he laughingly declares that he has many, most of them pronounceable only by the trees. That’s one of my favorite lines of the film.)

You all know I’m not one who can claim to have read widely; but I’d like to examine the treatment of Faun-esque characters in seven works: Steven Millhauser’s Enchanted Night (Crown Publishers, 1999); the movie Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, directed by Guillermo del Toro); two works of Arthur Machen (details to follow); C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia (my Collier/Macmillan edition of the first one of those is copyrighted in 1950; Lewis scholars, feel free to clarify); my own novel The Sacred Woods (me, spring/summer 2009); and Kenneth Grahame’s classic The Wind in the Willows. My theory is that these stories assign to the Pan-like figures one or more of the following roles:

1. beguiler/enchanter

2. messenger/instructor in things magical

3. corruptor/the diabolic

4. helper

5. the Divine

Millhauser’s Pan-type figure in Enchanted Night is of the first type: he pipes in the dark woods on a summer night, and the town’s children are roused out of their dreams. The music lures them into the forest, where they ultimately encounter the man with goat-legs, dancing and dancing, playing his flute. It’s a dangerous scenario, but Millhauser’s piper doesn’t harm the children. He simply enchants them with his music, and they come to listen: “He turns and turns, bending almost to the grass, rising high, a moon-dancer, a flute-dreamer, as the children gather in the clearing to listen to the dark, sweet music of the piper in the woods. They must have this music. It’s the sound of elves under the earth, of cities at the bottom of the sea. In the clearing the children listen, their lips slightly parted, their eyes veiled and heavy-lidded.” When the night is over, “At the first glimmer of gray in the sky, the piper in the woods looks up, bends and spins once more, and breaks off abruptly. In the shocking silence he beckons toward the sky, then turns and vanishes into the woods. The children, waking from their long dream, look around tiredly and head for home.” Millhauser’s piper is mostly the magical allure of a summer night made manifest; Summer Night Itself given a body and a sound. It’s the season that invites: the particular season of life, and the warm, kind season of the year; the moon, the darkness, the fire in the blood, and the imagination it all works to unlock. And what better personification of such a night than a dancing Faun? (As I’ve said before, it was the cover that drew me straight to this book, and the cover with the jacket copy that compelled me to buy it. If anyone out there still hasn’t read it, its season is nearly here again: get it and read it some hot night this summer!)

I would say the Faun in Pan’s Labyrinth fits role #2, that of messenger and mentor in things magical. I wouldn’t quite go so far as to put him in the “helper” (#4) category, because at times he’s downright scary, and I’m not altogether sure he cares about Ofelia or necessarily wants her to succeed — he’s just there to deliver the messages. (Does anyone want to disagree? I realize it’s quite open to interpretation — but he certainly seems heartless and creeps me out in some of his scenes.) He’s there to tell Ofelia what she must and must not do in order to get back to her kingdom beneath the ground. (Maybe deep down he cares, because he does get angry at her when she messes up and almost blows it.) He’s the face and the voice of the magical kingdom deep within the Earth, a kingdom inaccessible to humankind.

For the darkest uses of Pan-like figures I know of, we turn to the Welsh author Arthur Machen (1863-1947). Machen first published a story called “The Great God Pan” in 1890, which he revised and extended into a novella in 1894. It’s readily available today, and for anyone who considers him/herself a serious fan of fantasy or horror fiction, it’s an essential book.

Machen’s Pan may fulfill roles #1 and 2, but for sure he is #3, the corruptor, a totally harmful influence encountered in idyllic woodland settings. I would go so far as to say we can pretty much equate Machen’s Pan with the devil. One character in the novella, delving into the secrets of the Pan-encounters, writes on his manuscript this Latin inscription:

ET DIABOLUS INCARNATE EST. ET HOMO FACTUS EST.

Machen assumes his readers will be able to figure that one out; he doesn’t provide a translation, but I’m pretty sure it means “And the devil is incarnate. And he is made a man.” (Help me out, anyone who really knows Latin! Is that facere, “to do; to make,” or should we be thinking “true; fact”? Either way, we get Machen’s point.)

Encountering the devil in the woods: what early American writer does that make you think of? Hawthorne, right? Beyond the village lies the dark, fathomless woods, which is the abode of witches and the devil.

Pan in The Great God Pan is made all the more horrible by how subtly Machen handles things. We never see Pan in immediate narrative; in fact, a theme of the book is how the human mind cannot handle seeing “the great god Pan” directly. (And in that aspect, one can certainly trace the enormous influence Machen had on H.P. Lovecraft! Doesn’t that sound like vintage Lovecraft? The evil is so horrible that, if you see it, your mind is shattered, and you become a raving lunatic.) In Machen’s book, we glimpse Pan only through suggestions and secondhand accounts — and in a grotesque, ancient carving excavated from the wall of a house that sends a boy (who has earlier encountered a strange man in the woods) into paroxysms of fear. [“The head is pronounced by the most experienced archaeologists of the district to be that of a faun or satyr. [Dr. Phillips tells me that he has seen the head in question, and assures me that he has never received such a vivid presentment of intense evil.]”] Crossing paths with Machen’s Pan leads to madness, obsession, and death. Nor does Machen hesitate to plunge into the sexual associations of Pan-lore. I don’t want to give away the plot to any interested in reading it, so I guess I’ll stop there with my references to this book.

But I have to point you to one more Arthur Machen story, “The White People,” also regarded as one of his greatest works. This tale, rife with all sorts of imagery that was scandalous at the time, alludes to some sort of horrible stone carving, deep in the forest, a secret of secrets that the main character feels she dare not talk about. It’s worshiped by witches and has an extremely malevolent influence. Typical of Machen, we never find out exactly what the carving depicts, except that it’s likely “of Roman origin.” I’ll bet I’m not alone in my certainty that the image is a figure with the face of a man and the horns, ears, and lower body of a goat. It may indeed have been the same figure Machen had in mind when he described the monument stone at the end of The Great God Pan — which bears the words:

DEVOMNODENTI / FLAVIVSSENILISPOSSVIT / PROPTERNVPTIAS / QUASVIDITSVBVMRA

(I’m actually wondering if that’s a misprint in the book; I’d like to add a “B” three letters from the end and make it “SVBVMBRA” — “sub umbra.” Anyone? Help?)

Anyway, he does provide the translation this time: “To the great god Nodens (the god of the Great Deep or Abyss) Flavius Senilis has erected this pillar on account of the marriage which he saw beneath the shade.”

Now let’s move on to role #4 and fill our lungs with fresh air. Narnia! Faithfulness and friendship! The Faun Tumnus is a definite type 4, the helper. So is Mr. Girandole in The Sacred Woods. Like Tolkien’s Elves, like Mr. Spock the Vulcan, like some instances of the new face of the vampire in popular culture, benevolent Mr. Girandole represents a solid ally who is a little better than we are in nearly every way — stronger, wiser, older, more capable — and yet vulnerable and all too human in some surprising ways. Unlike type #1, which tantalizes us with unfulfilled — or only momentarily fulfilled — longing; and unlike type #2, which is only an interface with Nature for us, the kindest Fauns usher us not to destruction like the #3’s, but to a better state.

Heh, heh! I realize I left Mr. Tumnus out in the cold and am not really talking about him at all — maybe some of you Narnia fans can help me out with him.

But that leads us to #5: Kenneth Grahame’s Faun-like figure in his mysterious and perplexing chapter “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.” It’s been noted by scholars that this chapter seems somehow incongruous with the rest of The Wind in the Willows — what’s it doing here? And yet what I hear again and again from people who have read the book is, “That’s my favorite chapter.” Here, an unquestionably Faun-like presence is called “the Friend and Helper.” Without doubt, the presence is referred to in terms of holy awe: “Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror — indeed, he felt wonderfully at peace and happy . . . some august Presence was very, very near.” The characters see the baby otter sleeping in peace and contentment between the hooves of the Piper, and then: “‘Afraid?’ murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. ‘Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet — and yet — O, Mole, I am afraid!'” (Like Aslan this Piper is: not safe, but Good.)

Ooh! Ooh! Something just now occurred to me! Look at the Kenneth Grahame quote! I would bet money that it’s no accident Grahame wrote “It was no panic terror.” Are you aware of the fact that our English word “panic” comes from — yes, you guessed it — the name of Pan? My Webster’s dictionary says of “panic” that it’s from the Greek panikos, literally “of Pan”: “of, relating to, or resembling the mental or emotional state believed induced by the god Pan.” What Arthur Machen creates in The Great God Pan could hardly be any more authentic or true to the ancient Greek concept!

So what is the appeal? Why do these figures haunt and inform our literature? Well, here are my theories: at their worst, they give an embodiment to terrible forces beyond our control — the Unknown, the Evil, the destroying impersonal onslaught of Nature. And they provide a not-quite-human face for the worst elements in us ourselves. Lust and debauchery . . . in this way, I think there may be some connection between Satyr myths and werewolf legends. Jekyll and Hyde. “We have met the enemy and they is us.” They give a face to the Forest, to its mystery and allure — and in this way, they may be related to the figure of the Green Man. At their most benevolent, they represent that holy awe we feel when experiencing Creation as God made it: the green spaces where we can practically hear Him breathing . . . where we are afraid, and yet not afraid . . . not of the Piper at the gates of dawn.

Advertisements

From the Places Where They Played

July 18, 2009

Today was one of those days when I just never quite got to writing. I had the Neo and the notes out, and I worked through some scenes in my mind; but I just didn’t write. I’ll chalk my foot-dragging up to one third laziness, one third caution [treading very carefully this close to the end of the story, not wanting to rush], and one third reluctance to finish — writing this book has been so pleasant that I’m sad to reach the end . . . but not really, and not for long — it’s good to get things finished. I’m estimating there are about three major scenes to go before the end. (Which probably means there will be five or six. Or ten?)

Concerning writing days, I’m a notoriously slow starter. I’ll do any number of things before I get around to writing: oversleep, dust some obscure shelf somewhere in my apartment, ride my bike to the store (the day never really begins for me until I’ve been outside), file some piece of paper that’s been waiting in some pending pile for too long, stare out the window, check e-mail, read some long-forgotten files in “my documents,” notice a book on my shelf that I really want to read soon, review my story notes, chew my fingernails, eat lunch, make coffee, take a long walk, open the refrigerator for no reason, lie down on the floor for awhile. . . . But once all the grains of sand build up to the point at which everything overbalances and the poles reverse [What kind of metaphor was that?! I don’t think that was legal, even with an artistic license.] — once that happens, then I’m scary. It’s like in the movie Troy, when Achilles gives Odysseus a good-sporting jibe for taking his sweet time in getting to Troy, and Odysseus says something like, “I don’t care whether or not I’m there for the beginning of the battle, as long as I’m there for the end!”

Be There For the End — See It Through — Go the Distance — those should be our goals as writers (or in doing whatever we do). Remember why the “Dead Poets Society” is called the “Dead Poets Society”? — It’s because the members are committed to living out their lives as poets. Poetry is a path that you must live to the end, and not turn aside. You’re finally really a poet-all-the-way when you’re a dead poet, when you’ve lived deeply and drunk life to the lees.

Anyway — I have to quote here from a comment that came into this blog last week, because it’s so well said that I wrote it out on a little piece of paper to keep in my “great quotes about writing” notebook. It’s from Catherine, who I’m quite sure will be writing professionally in the near future.

Last week, Catherine wrote:

“The settings and the music, especially, remind me of some idealized time in the past, when everything was wonderful except for what wasn’t; a time that I can only return to if I have a character whose life envelops me so completely that I can’t look out the window without seeing her through the trees.”

That describes so well the writing process when it’s working (for the kinds of stories, of course, that so many of us love)! If you get a character who’s absolutely real to you, and if you immerse your imagination in a setting that evokes that yearning for a remembered time that maybe you never actually lived through (because it’s been improved by your memory and the passage of years), then I think you’re well on your way to creating something extraordinary. Catherine, I’m in awe of how well you’ve summed this up! We’ve talked before about that C.S. Lewis concept of the longing we sometimes feel that does not have its fulfillment in anything we live through from the cradle to the grave — yet still we feel that yearning: and logically, when there is a yearning, there is the corresponding satisfaction of the yearning [there is food for our hunger, there is sleep for our tiredness, there is companionship for our loneliness, etc.] — and therefore, the longing that has no fulfillment in this life is a powerful indication of the existence of Heaven — of more to the picture than we presently see.

Hope Mirrlees explored that idea (indirectly) in Lud-in-the-Mist, and I think a lot of the other great stories do it, too.

A time in the past, when “everything was wonderful except for what wasn’t” — such is also true of the present, of the mundane — right now in our lives, everything is wonderful except for what isn’t. (When we’re older, these will be the times we look back to with our wistfulness and see all the magic that is here!) Yet a great deal of what is really true and what is beautiful seems to come into focus only when we’re well past it on our careening ride into the future. So, I think, so many of us writers look to our childhoods for the clarity and the perspective that makes a worthwhile story. Not that we always write directly about the things we did and thought then; but that we revisit something of what we felt and perceived in those distant days and shine a light on it through the filter of our experiences since then.

Here’s from Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees:

“In [man’s] mouth is ever the bittersweet taste of life and death, unknown to the trees. 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.”

Memory and hope, the two wild horses that drag and thrash man like a pair of Untowards — these, writers, are two of our most important tools. Bring them to bear!

When I was born, the road I lived on didn’t have a name — it just had a

Old Oak Road, looking north from in front of my yard

Old Oak Road, looking north from in front of my yard

 rural route number. Little by little, the city limits of Taylorville drew closer, and eventually the talk was flying fast and furious of naming the road. The default, front-running name was “Glen Haven Drive” — not because of any careful thought on anyone’s part, but because there is a Glen Haven Cemetery at the first bend in the road. My two childhood neighbor-friends and I intensely disliked that idea, because for one thing, who wants to live on a street named after a graveyard? For another thing, we didn’t like the sound of “Glen Haven” — it seemed ill-suited to a country road in central Illinois. So we thought about it for awhile and came up with “Old Oak Road,” because the road does have an abundance of old oak trees, particularly along its inhabited stretch, before it gives way mostly to fields farther north.

Following some advice from our parents about how to go about getting support for our idea, we boys took a petition up and down the road for the various homeowners to sign if they liked our name. (I don’t remember how old we were; I want to say I was about 9 or 10, which I think is pretty close.) Our dogs also came with us, as they did pretty much wherever we went on our bicycles or on foot; and when they encountered the homeowners’ dogs, they all went through the standard dog protocol of barking furiously at one another.

So our signature-gathering typically went like this:

“Hi! We’re BARK BARK BARK BARK to get BARK BARK BARK BARK BARK if you BARK BARK BARK BARK BARK.”

Sometimes the homeowners had questions, such as:

“What BARK BARK BARK BARK BARK BARK BARK?”

Old Oak Road, looking south from in front of my yard

Old Oak Road, looking south from in front of my yard

Most often, they just signed the petition so we’d take our dogs and go. Then came a city council meeting at which the issue was debated (without dogs); and by, as I recall, a fairly narrow margin, we were awarded our tree-loving, heritage-rich name, and there were three happy little boys who got to live on a road that they’d named. I wish I had here in Japan the picture my mom took of us three kids with the road sign, but you’ll have to settle for the one I’ve got.

the corner of Lincoln Trail and Old Oak Road

the corner of Lincoln Trail and Old Oak Road

 

Abraham Lincoln might conceivably have passed within sight of this oak in my front yard, since his law circuit would have taken him along this route between Allenton and Taylorville.

Abraham Lincoln might conceivably have passed within sight of this oak in my front yard, since his law circuit would have taken him along this route between Allenton and Taylorville.

Anyway, that story is the background for telling you about a long poem my mom wrote shortly thereafter. Her poem was titled “Old Oak Road,” and it began with the creation of the world . . . yes, those six days when everything came ex nihilo by the spoken word of God. She traced the history of that region through the time of the undisturbed trees and the animals . . . to the long ages of the moccasined feet . . . to the coming of the white man . . . to the days when Abraham Lincoln rode along the dirt path there and saw the oak trees . . . to the era of the burgeoning community of Taylorville . . . and so at last to the time of the three boys with their bikes and dogs, who gave the road its name.

Yes, my two friends and I were the culmination of history! We all used to laugh together (Mom, too) about the grandiosity of the poem. It’s never been published except in a volume of my parents’ writings that I printed and bound as a surprise for them a long time later. But Mom did capture a certain intangible something there . . . some echoes of the fulfillment behind the yearning.

One quote from the poem that I’ve often used is this:

“Something whispered in their ears — something spoke from out of time . . . / From the places where they played. . . .”

Mom understood that the “places where we play” in our earliest years become for us a sacred well-spring, from which we draw water for various purposes all our lives. In most of what I do even now, the road and the oaks are whispering still.

And finally, one of the main places we played as kids was the barn behind my house. It’s described best in that same story, “Glory Day,” that I quoted from in the previous post. I promise not to do this every week, but let’s go there one last time. Again, there’s nothing fictional about this except the name “John.”

The barn had always called and whispered to John. If the fields and woods were sacred, then the barn was the chapel at the center of it all. It was entirely wooden, built eighty or ninety years ago. Though it no longer housed horses (Dad had sold Banner to a friend shortly after John was born), it was full of the memory of horses: ancient gray carpets of well-trampled manure and straw on the stall floors, the teeth-marks where horses had gnawed at the boards, and in one trough where mama cats sometimes had their kittens, there remained part of a salt-block for horses to lick — it shone in the dimness like a chunk of snow that never melted.

My barn: this photo was taken by my Cousin Steve either when I was a baby or before I was born; the barn as seen here is in slightly better shape than it was during most of our "glory days."

My barn: this photo was taken by my Cousin Steve either when I was a baby or before I was born; the barn as seen here is in slightly better shape than it was during most of our "glory days."

A central concrete walkway separated the lower floor into two rows of stalls. Those on the north were dark rooms with doors that closed, and where toadstools sprouted in the cool half-light. Virginia creeper thickly blanketed the entire north face of the barn outside, from the ground to the high hay-door. The vines’ roots sealed shut various hatches and trapdoors, and framed the windows that were open, so that what light entered was a green glow among fringes of bobbing leaves.

 

The south stalls were more open and airy, their walls mere rail fences that only rose chest-high. More of the outer wall on that side was missing, so that the sun had free access to bake the floor in shifting patches. Insects droned in and out; up under the rafters, mud daubers built nests resembling panpipes. Riots of foxtail and burdock, timothy and poison rhubarb spilled in through gaps near the foundation like crowds of clamoring fans desperate for glimpses of the inner world.

1968: That's me, with the barn in the background. That's a good friend of our family's, and I think that's her horse, not Dad's.

1968: That's me, with the barn in the background. That's a good friend of our family's, and I think that's her horse, not Dad's.

The wide main door on the west always stood open and could no longer be closed, its rollers rusted, its planks in the grip of maples that had grown up along the walls and become, with their counterparts on the north and east, a natural, supplemental framework, steadying the aged structure against the winds. At the barn’s east end, a ladder climbed to the hayloft.

 

The hayloft occupied the whole upper story, the roof arching high above its hay-littered floor like the keel of an overturned ship. Wooden beams transected the space in struts and arches. Birds nested in the eaves. The loft still saw active duty — the tenant farmer from up the road stored his hay bales there in stacked banks that rose to the upper braces. He would remove them a few at a time as needed, so that their cliffs changed as the seasons unfolded. But John and his friends considered the bales to be their own private set of giant building blocks. They could be positioned into tunnels and fortresses — hot, itchy, pitch-black crawlspaces delightfully scented of alfalfa and timothy. Bound at times into these hay-block walls were long, papery snake skins.

The loft was the perfect place for the long, aimless conversations of boyhood — the plans, the fancies, the arguments, the make-believe. And when no friends were available, it was the place to read. John sat in the open hatchway on the west, his feet dangling above the ground far below, and read Lovecraft and Dunsany and The Martian Chronicles.

And so the barn was. It was the best. Suggestion for comments: how about describing that place you played as a child, when summers went on forever, and you could read all day with impunity?

1968: Mom and me in the field. What, am I EATING the corn we're gleaning?!

1968: Mom and me in the field. What, am I EATING the corn we're gleaning?!

Something Like a Dragon

June 19, 2009

By grace, 2,015 words written on the new book today! Whenever I throw word counts around, it’s not my intention to boast. And sheer numbers of words, of course, mean nothing: enough monkeys with enough typewriters could bang out an enormous number of words. I mean only 1.) to demonstrate that there is forward progress, and 2.) to establish credentials. What gives me the right to hold up my head and talk about writing as if I know something is not the things I’ve published: it’s the fact that, today, I’ve been walking the walk, with my fingers on the keys, choosing certain phrases over certain other phrases, figuring out how to get a little more of the story out of the excavation site without damaging it too severely. So the book is on track and moving ahead nicely. (Or, as Spock says in the recent excellent film: “Thrusters on full.”) Soli Deo gloria! [The story is told that J.S. Bach wrote that phrase on every manuscript when he composed music: Soli Deo gloria — Glory to God alone.]

That “excavation” theory of writing is set forth clearly by Stephen King in his On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. I think he’s exactly right. How about this [my own variation]? — “Writing is bagging the smoke.” It’s attempting to throw a curtain around the misty shape that coalesces — just for a moment — within your reach. If you can get the curtain around it, you can preserve it (or at least its shadow) in a fixed form for yourself and others to enjoy. If you can’t, it’s gone again, because it’s always drifting, always changing, like the clouds in a summer sky. Ooo, I like that! (This cloud motion theory explains why, if you would tackle the same idea at different times of your life, you’d get significantly different stories.) Though you may not believe it, I am still on topic here. . . .

So it’s high time we talked about that dragon! To refresh your memory, and so that you don’t have to go back to a previous post to see the poem in question, here again is “Glory Day.” (The term “Glory Day” refers to the Fourth of July, which for me has always been a symbol of the height of summer . . . the time of freedom and imagination, the season “better-than-which-it-does-not-get.” I wrote this poem at some point during my college years. Specifically, I remember that I wrote it on a 5th of July, the day after Glory Day, sitting on a folding chair facing north across the field between my house and Chris’s house, in the shade of the maple trees at the northeast corner of our yard, with the barn directly behind me. The barn is gone now, but most of those trees are still there.)

“Glory Day”

We found the old cat one hot Glory Day

In the steamy weeds, swelled to twice his size;

Green glory thunder echoed in his eyes

As we laid him out where the smell of hay

And green maple shadows would make the flies

Forget him; and watching the heat waves rise

From the wind-mirroring beans we covered him with clay.

There was lightning low in the sky away

Off, and a distant rumbling down the road;

The Virginia creeper whispered to the wagon

It covered like time-snails’ tracks, the old load

Of bricks for building; something like a dragon

Crawled south in the blur of wheat’s golden sway

When we buried a tomcat on Glory Day.

 

That’s sort of a sonnet: it has 14 lines. But look at the strange rhyme scheme: ABBABBA ACDCDAA. In a departure from normal sonneting (sonneteering?), I compressed the part before the break and expanded the part after the break. See the overlapping effect in what’s normally the first eight lines (now seven)? — ABBAABBA has become ABBABBA. With that overlap, and by carrying that A-rhyme through as I did, I was trying to emphasize unity, that all these elements of the poem are inextricably woven together (“seamless throughout,” like that garment the soldiers didn’t want to tear but cast lots for instead).

In other words, the dead cat is the dragon. The beans, the heat waves, the maple shadows, the creeper, the tracks of time-snails: all these are the dragon, and they are the thunder, and the thunder is the cat, and the dragon is the image of the invisible wind mirrored in the beans that sway. All these things are part of growing up on a farm, where death and life are bound up together; where life bursts from the soil every spring . . . where fragile green things grow from the cracks of old dead fence-posts . . . where everything goes to sleep in the winter, blanketed with snow . . . and where there’s always the smell of something dead wafting from behind some hedgerow (“In ahind yon oul fail dyke / I wot there lies a new slain knight. . . .”) Moreover, it’s all bound up in “Glory Day,” the A-rhyme, the phrase found in the title and in the first and final lines of the poem. “Glory” is freedom and celebration and fireworks in the sky; it’s wonder and youth and being alive, learning and growing; but it’s also a word lodged in the Beyond, isn’t it? Believers in Christ live in “the hope of glory.” We speak of “the glory to be revealed in us.” . . . “We have beheld His glory.” . . . “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” . . . We often set “glory” as the condition opposed to the here and now: there are those of us alive now, and there are “the saints in glory.” So it’s a loaded word — and, I hope, a loaded poem.

Thank you to everyone who put forth a theory as to what the “something like a dragon” is! I appreciated them all, and every one of them was a good answer. A couple of you “went public” and gave us your ideas in official comments; a couple more slipped them to me by e-mail. Your theories about the dragon included:

a rumbling train, the sounds of its progress echoing the thunder;

a row of hills undulating in the distance;

a river, stream, or the Flatbranch Creek;

and even the “raccoon lugging a knapsack” from Maxine Kumin’s “The Presence”!

One might also say a tractor — a solitary tractor crawling across the distance in the vastness of a field can take on a mystical aspect. All these answers are good, and all can be right together.

As for me, I wasn’t thinking as literally as you all were. For me, the dragon isn’t necessarily anything physical or material. It’s more an abstract concept, suggested by those amazing and unsettling shadows the wind leaves in grain fields, which motif I’ve used again and again in my writing. [From my poem The Horror in the Wind: “The wind in shapes / and shadows masks / the dreadful footfalls of the gods.” And from “Seawall”: “Across the slopes, the wind stirs the green asili stems in vast wandering arcs, as if unseen creatures larger than dragons are playing there.”] Jesus mentions this phenomenon, too, doesn’t He, when He’s talking to Nicodemus?

The dragon-like thing crawls south. For me, south is the direction “toward warmth, toward imagination, toward enchantment.” South is the “good” direction. At that time in my life, “north” meant college and cold, hard work and the big city; “south” meant home and freedom.[Treebeard has the line in the LOTR movies about how he’s always enjoyed walking south, because it always feels like he’s walking downhill. I hear you, ‘Beard!]

My intention in this poem, then, is that on the day when all these elements are present: the green, the tree shadows, the dead cat needing to be buried, the heat waves, the passage of time, the thunder — on this day, the wonder and terror and joy and grandeur almost manifest themselves in a tangible shape. That thing crawling south is wonder itself. It’s the shape of something that has no shape; it’s the expression of something that cannot be expressed. (Heh, heh! Sounds like I’m talking about Arthur C. Clarke’s Monolith!) All you can do is get the general idea.

Whew! That’s more than anyone ever wanted to know about “Glory Day”!

I was thinking about this use of a dragon to represent something abstract and larger, and it occurred to me that animals — in particular, big animals — are sometimes used this way. It seems to be an ancient and fundamental device.

I need to quote again from my story “A Tale of Silences,” which appeared in Cicada, January/February 2006. This tale is set in a mountain village in Japan in 1970, about 25 years after the war. The main character is an old man named Jii who has lived all his life in the village, which is now slated for obliteration through the construction of a new dam which will flood the area. The story tells of Jii’s last year in the village.

One night, he is awakened in total darkness by strange sounds, and he realizes a bear has gotten into his house and into the very room where he’s been sleeping. For a long time he lies there, not daring to move, and eventually the bear (for reasons unknown) goes away. Jii ponders what this encounter has meant. Here’s the excerpt:

As Jii sawed, chopped, and bundled sticks, he watched the forest, wondering if his bear would return. At times he was sure he could feel eyes upon him, peering from the underbrush. Once he thought he heard husky breathing nearby, but it might have been a breeze in the pine branches. And once, just as a broken limb he’d sawed off dropped into the decomposing leaves, he saw a bear on the next ridge. It was black against the dull sky and huge, bigger than any he’d ever seen. Slowly its head turned in his direction. When the eyes found him, Jii was somehow sure this had been the bear in his house. It gazed at him for a long time, then ambled into the trees.

Later, at dusk, the bamboo swayed in the wind. Sipping hot tea, Jii watched from the window. He envisioned human figures coming and going among the grove’s shifting shadows: himself and Fusa, sometimes middle-aged, sometimes young, once hand-in-hand for the first time. . . .

Paler each day, the sun sought to warm the land by showering more and more thin light, the last of its summer store. It sparkled from the few sere leaves, blazed on the streams, and suffused morning mists like a golden forgetfulness. Jii felt an urgency in the clamoring light; soon all the bears would go into their dens. Before they began their long sleep, and all the land with them, something must be done. Some secret, Jii began to think, must lie hidden near at hand, some riddle of dying leaf or unturned stone that, if solved, would bring peace and clarity. He became convinced that the bear had come to call him out before the valley was lost, to awaken him from his den in the deep years, to lead him to an answer for which he did not quite grasp the question. All he knew, as surely as he knew the sun sank earlier each evening behind the purple height, was that time was running out.

Later, Jii again encounters the bear up close:

The great bear had come — the mountain’s nushi. As if sunlight were shining on his back, Jii felt a comfort, his fear melting away. The terror of the nushi’s first visit was gone, but still Jii could not turn around. A sense of his own insubstantiality kept him unmoving, as if to stir in the nushi’s presence might cause him to dissolve in light. He lowered his head, filled at once with weariness and a peace he had not known since childhood — the earliest days and nights of consciousness, the only time in mortal life that one rests completely. Sinking to the floor before the nushi’s gigantic paws, Jii slept.

Do not fear, said a voice to him in his dreams.

This Japanese concept of a particular area’s nushi  or “lord” — the guardian and master of a certain mountain, forest, or river — has to some degree been introduced to western audiences through the film Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke) by Hayao Miyazaki, in which the Shinto gods of the forested mountain take the forms of gigantic animals.

It’s interesting, this manifestation of things powerful and divine in the forms of animals. . . .

In Lord Dunsany’s The Book of Wonder, I recall that one of those haunting, enthralling black-and-white pictures shows a pathless forest, and the hind parts of some huge, bear-like animal just visible as the creature passes behind a tree. I don’t have access to my copy of the book right now — anyone out there with a copy, can you confirm this memory? I was intrigued by how the artist chose to depict only part of the animal — and not the head.

In my own first, unpublished novel The Threshold of Twilight, I included a great Well called Twilintarn, which was a point where worlds intersected. Some tremendous, powerful Presence moved over the water there — the Keeper of Twilintarn — so terrible that to see it directly was death, as some unfortunate villains found out. From the glimpses we get of the Keeper, it seems to be a four-footed animal, though of colossal proportions.

In that same book, there is a wild Stag running through the fantasy world: a noble animal which is the embodiment of our own world, this one in which we live. Yes: in that world, our world runs around as a wild Stag. If the Huntsman with his black arrows kills the Stag, our world will perish. And already as the story begins, the Stag is wounded, its steps faltering.

How about Melville’s Moby-Dick? Isn’t the white whale really more than a whale? Doesn’t it represent something bigger?

Lurking in the shadows behind the Old Testament are Leviathan and Behemoth. Both halves of the world have their dragons, some good, some bad. Looming large in my childhood was King Kong: an animal of gigantic size, ruling his lost island of wonder. It’s not a stretch to say that Kong is a symbol of what is wild, free, beautiful, and should not be touched by humankind.

And then there’s Aslan, a lion and the Lord. There are humans and humanoids in Narnia; C.S. Lewis might easily have given his Christ figure a human shape, but he did not.

Back to that picture from The Book of Wonder, of the great beast moving among the trees, and only its hindquarters visible. . . . Since childhood, I’ve been intrigued by the passage in Exodus 33, in which Moses has asked to see God’s glory. God reminds Moses that no one may see God’s face and live, but He offers this alternative:

Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”

I quoted here from the New International Version. I checked four or five different translations of the passage. A couple say God’s “back”; one said “from behind”; and two used the phrase I remember hearing/reading as a child: God’s “back parts.” As a wide-eyed child thinking of this encounter, I always imagined that “back parts” sounded more like part of a quadruped than a human figure. (Yet God has a “hand,” too, that He puts over Moses’s eyes.) It’s pointless to read too much into “back parts,” which is only a translation. [Hey, you guys who have studied Hebrew — I know there are at least two of you! — This would be an excellent time to help us out!]

But what is clear is that Moses had a “Glory Day” experience here! We can’t see the face of God . . . or that of the Keeper of Twilintarn. Jii’s bear comes to him in the pitch blackness. We can’t see the wind, but we see its shadow in the grain, and we feel its power. We can’t clearly see what crawls south, but we know it’s something like a dragon, anyway! We behold God’s glory, and we press on toward glory. And we write, attempting to throw the sheet over the ghost.

Grrooinnkkk! Hey, it’s Midsummer’s Eve this week! There may be Good Folk dancing in your garden! When the Eve falls precisely is a matter of which you prefer and when the weather is best: I’d place it on Saturday night or Sunday night if you prefer the solstice, or Wednesday night if you want to go with the eve of the birth of St. John the Baptist.

Grrooiinnkk again: Are you ready for this? My agent has given me the green light to make this announcement. Through the outstanding work of my amazingly incredible agent, we have found a publisher for The Star Shard as a book! Though some details are still being worked out, and more revision is coming, Houghton Mifflin has graciously agreed to give the book a home.

So it’s truly a happy Midsummer’s Eve, and Soli Deo gloria!

Parallels

May 24, 2008

When C. S. Lewis was beginning to make the transition from unbelief to belief in Christianity, reportedly one of the primary avenues for him was the mythological connection. Lewis found Biblical stories irritating in what they asked listeners to accept and believe, but very similar stories in other ancient myth cycles didn’t bother him in the least, though they were also accepted and believed by other groups of people in other times — rather, these other cycles appealed to him. Noticing this, Lewis’s friend J. R. R. Tolkien said something to the effect of, “Well, Christianity is just another mythology — only it’s one that happens to be true.” And (again, so I’ve read) a light began to glow for Lewis.

During the past year, I’ve started reading the Bible in a new way. Always before in life, I’ve read the Bible in bits and pieces — “lessons” — usually determined by the church’s lectionary calendar or the appointings of this or that devotional booklet. But it dawned on me that, as one who places such value on Story, I ought to explore the aspect of Scripture as Story. That is, I ought to see what might be seen from reading entire books in order, watching the events unfold naturally and cumulatively. One of my favorite college profs liked to point out that “history = His Story.” The Bible we have today looks like a book. It’s bound like a book. It fits into our bookcases. Maybe we keep it there. But oddly, we don’t usually read it like a book, starting at the beginning of a story and seeing where it leads us, appreciating the characters, what they do, and what happens to them.

I can see you all shaking your heads and slapping your foreheads, thinking, “Duh! It’s taken you more than four decades to get around to this approach?” Well, well, whatever. We’re never too old to learn. So anyway, I started with the four Gospels. I read John, then Luke, then Matthew, then Mark. Then I went back to square one and read through Genesis. (A pace that works for me is reading a chapter almost every night. If I’m too busy some nights to read a chapter, I don’t get down on myself. The book has been around for a long time — I know it will still be there the next night.) Then I went on into Exodus, and that’s where I am now, in the midst of the plagues upon Egypt. (It’s really making me want to rent The Ten Commandments, which I used to watch every year on TV when I was a kid. One network would put it on at Eastertime to compete with Jesus of Nazareth on the other network. I wanted to watch The Ten Commandments for the seventh or eighth time, and my parents wanted to watch Jesus, so we’d do a lot of switching back and forth whenever a commercial came on on one network. [Yes, in those days, homes usually did have just one TV set. . . .] How many of you used this line with your parents on a school night? — “Just let me stay up until the parting of the Red Sea!” — Bring back any memories? I won’t ask how many of you played The Ten Commandments on school recess. My friends and I did . . . probably convincing the playground teachers that we were insane. Of course, we’d conditioned them: in the years before The Ten Commandments, we played Planet of the Apes.)

Boy, do I digress! Here’s the point I set out to make: I’ve been noticing a fascinating parallel between Genesis/Exodus and Homer’s Odyssey. Let’s compare the Biblical Jacob with Odysseus. Jacob’s name means “He Grabs the Heel,” because he came out of the womb grasping the heel of his brother Esau. We’re told that Esau was a great hunter, a man of the open country, but Jacob was a quiet man who stayed among the tents. The Trickster is a common figure in world mythology, and I’d venture to say that Jacob is the closest figure the Old Testament gives us to The Trickster. He uses his head. He’s shrewd. He’s not above doing things that are, frankly, out-and-out dishonest. He skillfully gets his brother’s birthright. He deviously (in cahoots with his mother) gets his aging father’s blessing that was meant for Esau. He does something so tricky with the livestock that even I’m not sure I understand what he did, but he greatly increases his herds at the expense of his uncle and father-in-law Laban.

Odysseus is wily, too. That tricky hollow Horse was his idea. And how about how he gets his captured men out of the cave of Polyphemus, the Cyclops? After he’s blinded the Cyclops, he has his men cling to the bellies of the sheep as they leave the cave. Polyphemus touches each passing body and feels only the fleeces of sheeps’ backs. Isn’t that eerily close to that stunt Jacob and Rebekah pull in Genesis 27, when they put goatskin on Jacob’s smooth arms so that his father Isaac, nearly blind in his old age, thinks he’s feeling the hairy arms of his firstborn Esau? Odysseus is always coming up with clever ways to have his cake and eat it, too. He wants to hear the Sirens’ song, but he knows hearing it can be maddening and fatal, so he has his men lash him securely to the mast so that he can’t jump into the waves, no matter how enchanted he becomes. The men all plug their ears, and their captain alone gets to hear the alluring song. And when he comes home, he doesn’t do so with a fanfare; he comes home in disguise at first to see how things are going in Ithaca. It’s only when he can “scour the Shire” in one fell swoop that he reveals himself.

Then there are the gists of the stories themselves. Odysseus is proud of himself for that Horse innovation, and his hybris offends the gods. Poseidon decides to teach him a lesson; and thus, the Odyssey: it takes Odysseus ten years to get home — ten years, in which he’s tried and tested and subjected to all sorts of things before he comes again, at last, to Ithaca and his beloved Penelope. [He does some slaughtering of rivals who have moved in and are attempting to take over.]

Genesis/Exodus is also a coming-home story. It seems so easy for the sons of Israel to run down to Egypt again and again when they need to buy grain during those years of famine. Then they take up residence down there, and then they become slaves, and then God sends Moses to deliver them. But on the way home, they grumble and lose faith . . . and so Exodus becomes an Odyssey. The children of Israel have to wander for forty years in a wilderness that was so easily crossed before. But when they’ve learned their lesson, when they know that God is God, the promised land awaits. [Like Odysseus, they shed quite a bit of blood to reclaim the land.]

What’s all this doing in a discussion of the writing life? The point is, it pays to notice connections. There are truths, elements, and patterns that resound throughout history, throughout cultures, throughout diverse media. Look for the patterns. You’ll be a better writer for it.

I’ll go one final step and suggest that we pull back with our “Google Earth” buttons — zoom way back outward from Genesis/Exodus to look at the Bible as a whole. The entire Bible is a coming-home story: human beings wander away from God on a long, dark path, and God brings them home. Homecoming, reconciliation, redemption . . . all themes to keep in mind when we write our magnum opuseseses. They make great stories because they reflect the greatest story.