Posts Tagged ‘imagination’

Dark Doorways

May 29, 2009

Updates first: This week I made a good exchange with Emily, the illustrator of “The Star Shard.” I sent her a signed copy of Dragonfly and she sent me a signed print of Minstrels’ Song, the picture of Cymbril, Bobbin, and Argent singing in the wagon bed. (I still believe that’s my favorite of her illustrations for the story, but several are right up there almost even with it.) If anyone else is interested in the artwork for this story, keep watching Emily’s website (see the blogroll at right); I think she plans to make prints available for sale in the near future.

This is not really an update, but I’m on something of an Enya kick lately. I just got her CD The Celts and like it a lot. (When I go to karaoke, which is not often these days, “May It Be,” “Only Time,” and “Orinoco Flow” are in my regular repertoire.) What impresses me about Enya is that she seems to see herself as just one component of the musical tapestry. The instrumental parts are often as important as the vocals; it’s about the whole, not about her being the star.

Third, my current project has now passed the 20,000 word mark (20,450 words as of quitting time tonight; 1,300 new ones today). I’m happy with it; it’s going well, by grace! Looks as if it will probably be a novella — possibly a novel — magic realism for about a teenage audience and upward. No caverns and no balloon craft — I know, that’s weird, right? Don’t ask me anything else, because I never talk much about works in progress — always afraid of jinxing them. [Unfortunately for everyone, I talk endlessly about projects that are finished. Blah, blah, blah, blah. . . .]

Groink. On to the main event: as an intro, I’m going to quote two passages. (In answer to my recent poll, one reader asked for occasional glimpses of works on the drawing board. This is a good chance to deliver just such, because they’re to the point.) These are from my manuscript Agondria, which is currently out under consideration. It’s a bigger story made up of smaller stories. In both of these excerpts, note that the characters are venturing over dark, perilous thresholds into the unknown. . . .

1. From “The Heir of Agondria”:

Beneath the arch, the reek was stronger. Even Ancaea seemed loath to go onward. She glanced at Lorian and paused at the edge of shadow, squinting up the dark track to the next patch of daylight.

“The air is foul,” murmured Iphys, behind Sarath. “There is a part of night that remains here, even in the day.”

“It’s the way of tunnels and caverns,” said Peleagar, his mace upon his shoulder. “They’re dark, and bats foul them.”

Elina, blue-eyed and slight, drew her sword in a slow, ringing glide from the scabbard.

Arlas leaned on his spear. “Should we return, and bring a greater strength of arms?”

Lorian considered, then shook her head. “Until we know what danger may be here, I would not lead our crew into it. Wait here, all of you. I will go a little farther on—“

“No, my Lady.” Ancaea glanced around at the others, and several chuckled. “Do not tell us to wait while you go on, for all will disobey. You must get used to that, before you put on a High Queen’s crown.”

Lorian smiled back. Arms akimbo, she surveyed the other warriors. She started forward, and again Ancaea and Arlas preceded her.


2. From “Lucia’s Quest”:

Hand on her sword-hilt, Lucia could feel the tension of the warriors around her, though all held their peace.

Then, in the rocky vaults ahead, a light began to grow. Red and flickering, it cast wavering shadows over great piers and buttresses of stone.  “Forward,” called Ethani, and the oars dipped again into the waves. Passing beneath a last stalactite-fringed arch, the bireme emerged into a subterranean harbor — a wide, calm lake in the caverns.

An uneven ceiling hung near the limit of vision. All around the harbor at varying heights, tunnels led away into obscurity. Beside these dark mouths, upon ledges beside endless stairways carved into the rock, torches flared. Even as the ship arrived, dim figures were carrying these lights, setting the last of them in place. These shrouded shapes must be the Chalybes, though the firelight did little to illuminate them. They wore black cloaks with peaked hoods, but their white arms protruded from the garments — spindly, sinewy arms so long they nearly reached the floor, the hands doubly broad.

The place was loftier and more terrible than the Temple on Vorcyra, even though Lucia recalled that edifice from her childhood’s perception, which made all structures larger. More frightening this cavern was, for it felt hidden from the sight of the gods, its dark masters a race who held no fear of Olympus or of any mortal army.

Ethani gave an order, and again the rowing ceased. Behind, a second gate groaned shut within the tunnel, as mighty and ponderous as the first. When silence reigned again, Ethani paced forward along the deck, hands on her waist, her cloak trailing. The firelight limned her bronze helmet with its tall comb of dyed and stiffened horse-mane. The Vorcyrans flanked her. At the bow they halted and waited, searching the shadows.

. . .

Ethani turned her rain-gray eyes on Iloni. As the leader of this quest, appointed by the Oracle, it was Iloni’s place to speak.

Taking and expelling a deep breath, Iloni moved another step closer to the prow. “Hail, Chalybes!” she cried, her clear voice ringing into the vaults. She spoke in Anren, the language of Vorcyra, Shandria, and the lands to the west, a tongue generally understood upon the rims of Middlemere. “Hail, sons of the Earth, lords of fire and iron! We come to you with honor and reverence for the great King Agetychus, whose name we know: may it please the Sea and the Rock that he still rules here, and shall till the mountains fall!”

The echoes of her brave shout faded. Stillness returned. Iloni’s Shandrian helm turned right and left as she scanned the cavern. She drew breath for another cry, but Ethani laid a hand on her arm. “It was well-spoken,” the captain murmured. “Let them see that we can wait as well as they.”

And well we may wait until the mountains fall, thought Lucia. The silence was oppressive, disheartening. She had the sudden notion that the indistinct figures might be no more than wraiths, the ghosts of a people long dead, with no more power to answer than the stones.

But at last, from a balcony at the head of a steep stair, one of the smith-folk replied in a voice dry and cracked, also speaking in Anren. “A fair speech, seafarer. Agetychus reigns indeed, and has for fourteen lives of the kings and queens under the sun.”

. . .

“It gives us joy,” Iloni continued, “to know that he who was mighty in our grandmothers’ days is mighty still. We have brought him rich gifts, beseeching one kindness in return.” Iloni spread her arms, bowed her head, and knelt on the deck. Ethani and Lucia mimicked the obeisance, though Lucia sensed it ill-pleased the captain to kneel.


The Doorway

The Doorway

Back in my junior high days, my Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set came with a playing module called “Descent into the Depths of the Earth.” It had me hooked with its very name. What could be more appealing than that? That is the essence of fantasy role-playing . . . and, in a broader view, the essence of fantasy reading, isn’t it? — the question of what lies beyond the dark portal ahead — of what’s around the next corner or just past the circle of torchlight.

Westering LightIt occurs to me that the passage of dark doorways is a primary element in the vast majority of these stories we hold so dear. Sometimes it’s a literal door, and literally dark. Sometimes it’s a figurative doorway, and the “darkness” is rather the mist of the unknown. Let’s consider a few examples, right after the following pertinent side note.

Traditional Japanese Noh play often deals with ghosts and the supernatural. The Noh stage doesn’t use painted flats or furniture; it’s very austere. But an essential element is the placement, along one runway leading to the main platform, of three small pine trees. These are set in a staggered line. They’re not all equally distant from the viewers; and this variance of depth represents an open passage into the spirit world.

I won’t even mention the authors and titles: you know them.

Max wears his wolf suit, and that night in his bedroom, a forest grows. He sails away through a year and a day to where the wild things are.

Children who don’t want to go to bed are given the chance, instead, to fly with a mysterious boy out the window into the starry night, all the way to Neverland.

The one good thing about being sucked up by a tornado is that it might plunk you down unharmed into the land of Oz and take out a major bad witch in the deal. (What darker doorway can there be than the dirty, freight-train-roaring, snakily-writhing, unpredictable, unstoppable vortex of a twister? Those things are the nightmares of kids growing up in the Midwest. You may run and you may hide, but you can’t take your house with you: it’s either in the tornado’s path or it isn’t.)

Alice slides and tumbles down a rabbit hole to Wonderland.

After a long voyage to the Island of Tangerina, Elmer Elevator walks along the coast until at last he locates the string of ocean rocks described by the cat, and he leaps across them one by one to Wild Island.

Lucy pushes her way through the coats in the wardrobe, and what does she find?

At King’s Cross Station, Harry finds his way onto a train platform that isn’t supposed to exist, and the train departs from there.

Beneath the Paris Opera House stretch flight after descending flight of stairs, dungeon after dungeon, down to a subterranean lake, and a boat, and beyond that. . . . (I’m just now realizing what an influence this book had on Dragonfly. I read it just before or after I came to Japan, at the end of my college years — immediately preceding the writing of Dragonfly.)

The Sumatra makes a long sea voyage for reasons unknown even to her captain, and within a perpetual fog bank she reaches an island bisected by a cyclopean Wall . . . and in the Wall there is a colossal gate. . . .

The U-33 limps along with her seething, conglomerate crew to the beachless, cliff-walled island of Caprona.

Before the coming of the white man, two Mandan Indian youths wander into a cave, become hopelessly lost, and eventually emerge into the Lost Land, a valley world beneath the desert, where prehistoric life still thrives in all its carnivorous glory.

When Ray Kinsella takes the suggestion of a disembodied voice and carves a baseball field out of his corn field, a magical world emerges from a door that is not dark, but whispering and green. (This one’s quite a reversal: build the door yourself, and they will come. This story appealed to me so much because I’d grown up knowing that cornfields were doorways into Faerie.)

Professor Challenger leads his expedition up the side of a South American plateau, at the isolated top of which is — you guessed it — a primordial world untouched by the passage of time.

In Jules Verne’s book, our intrepid heroes descend into the crater of Mt. Sneffels, an inactive volcano, following the promise made by an earlier explorer that they can “reach the center of the Earth. I did it.”

Burroughs again: the mole machine burrows into the ground, gets out of control, and takes its two occupants down, down, down to Pellucidar, at the Earth’s core.

The airship Hyperion braves the snows and storms of the frozen north to reach Astragard, a lost paradise of warmth and green growing things, populated by a colony of Norsemen.

Gandalf realizes at last the trick to the inscription above the gates Narvi made, and the wonder and terror of Moria is unlocked.

In my own stories:

Ren climbs the bell rope of a church steeple at the hour when the full moon is passing overhead; and so he comes to the frozen realm within the lunar shell. (“Ren and the Shadow Imps,” Cricket, October 2003 – January 2004)

The nameless narrator undertakes a journey no living person has ever attempted: to climb down the trunks of the mighty trees to a place described only in myth — the Place of Roots. (“The Place of Roots,” Fantasy & Science Fiction, February 2001)

And so it goes. And so our childhood games involved imaginative forays into these otherworlds, always beyond a dark door of one sort or another.

It’s impossible to show this correctly in movies. When it’s done in cinema, the world completely changes around the child, and he’s in another place, with a different landscape, with 100% visual realism. But that’s not how it works, is it? When we’re really playing as children, we don’t actually leave our mundane surroundings. We can still see them as they are; but they become charged with a special significance, a symbolic meaning. The living room wall remains a wall, but it is also a cliff wall; the carpet remains a carpet, but it is also a perfectly rectangular bed of molten lava. How marvelous it is that these things can carry so much enchantment! They can, because we have passed through those dark doorways into the lands of shadow and wonder, silhouette and dream.

My cousin Phil and I used to play Journey to the Earth’s Core at Grandma’s house. The space behind the sofa was always the entrance crater. At times we would even force parents, aunts, uncles, and Grandma to watch this as a play: the scientists would clamber up the rocky sofa, surmount its summit ridge, and descend, descend, into the infinite depths behind it. And they would emerge into the world at the Earth’s center, where recliner chairs were great boulders, where closets were cavern mouths, and where, yes, carpets were pools or beds of lava that must not be stepped into if one valued one’s life.

So . . . questions for discussion [and you’re by no means required to comment on all three — or any]:

1. What are the elements of a good passage to an Otherworld? (In a good story, what aspects or conditions are present to make it “work,” to make the passage feel right, plausible, and attractive?)

2. Are there stories anyone cares to tell about your own childhood imaginative forays into Otherworlds? (Or those of your kids, if you’re a parent? Are you now being forced to watch intrepid scientists climbing the stone-strewn sofa to get at the fathomless depths behind it?)

3. Are there other good fictional examples I missed (or covered inadequately)?

Golden String

January 7, 2009

The title (above) comes from the William Blake lines I quoted in the previous posting. Here they are once more:

“I give you the end of a golden string

Only wind it into a ball:

It will lead you in at Heaven’s gate,

Built in Jerusalem’s wall.”

He’s talking about the imagination.

I saw some fairly good films over the holidays:

Charlie Wilson’s War was better than I’d expected, as was The Spiderwick Chronicles. I really enjoyed Hairspray — anything involving Christopher Walken is worth watching. I didn’t care for The Prestige. But the movie I want to talk about that really impressed me is one that I’m guessing a lot of people missed — which is partly why I want to talk about it:

Tideland (2005) was directed by Terry Gilliam, and it was written by Gilliam and Tony Grisoni. It’s based on a novel by Mitch Cullin.

I have no intention of giving away the plot here, but one reviewer referred to it as a gothic Alice in Wonderland (and in fact, in the opening moments, we hear the lilting voice of a young girl reading from Alice in Wonderland in a Texas accent — there are all sorts of deliberate, conscious references to Alice in this story).

Another reviewer described Tideland as “a poetic horror film,” and I think that’s accurate. Warning: although it has a child protagonist, the film deals with extremely dark subject matter and adult themes, so don’t go gathering your kids and popping Tideland into the DVD player to watch with them. Unless you have some pretty sophisticated kids.

What I like so much about the movie (aside from the haunting musical score, the skillful use of the stark, rural Texas landscape, and the brilliant writing, direction, and acting) is that it’s essentially a story about the imagination — particularly childhood’s imagination. It’s a fascinating study of how a child’s imagining transforms the grim circumstances she’s in, and how it makes them — at least for a short while — not only bearable, but eerily beautiful.

As we watch the film, we worry about the main character, Jeliza-Rose (who, I understand, is 11 in the novel, and the actress playing her was born in 1994, so was about 10 or 11 when the film was made — though I had the impression while I was watching it that she was several years younger than that). We are terrified for her — we hold our breath as she innocently makes her way through the unthinkable situation life has thrust upon her, as she interprets reality in her own way.

But at the same time, we can’t help but be drawn into Jeliza-Rose’s world; we can’t help but recognize its haunting, aching, restless, nostalgic, wistful beauty. Though most of us had childhoods a lot tamer and safer than hers, the filmmakers manage to capture something intrinsic to all childhoods, something universal about being eleven.

If you’re not too squeamish, and if you have a stout spirit, I recommend Tideland. It’s one of those films that leaves you not quite the same as you were (in a good way). It makes your canopy of experience a little richer — and may deepen your understanding of the role of imagination in helping us along on life’s journey.

Nor does imagination necessarily involve a complete break with reality. Although Jeliza-Rose is the most imaginative character in the story, she is also the most clear-headed and sensible: in an early scene, she prevents her father from burning down their apartment building.

Anyway, I think we can expect great things of Canadian-born Jodelle Ferland, who plays Jeliza-Rose.

Follow the golden string! Keep winding it into a ball! And thank Heaven for the capacity to build worlds of our own choosing — and for the child that is still, on good days, within us all.

Crouching Meaning, Hidden Meaning

July 26, 2008

Some years ago, a friend of mine, a native speaker of Japanese, was frustrated after a tough English test, and he said, “In Japanese, words just mean what the dictionary says they mean. In English, you always have to use your imagination.”

I thought that observation was so true — and so (unintentionally) laudatory of the English language — that I wrote it down. Probably every writer in the world would say this about his/her own mother tongue, but it seems to me that English is simply made for art. There are so many possibilities for expression — as painters-with-words, we have palettes that are miles-wide. In English poetry, a single word can resonate with two, three, or four different meanings at once, maybe more.

As a native English speaker, I’m forever applying imagination to my communication in Japanese when I don’t know the right word for something, and it either draws blank stares or cases of rolling-on-the-floor-laughing-out-loud. Once I was trying to express “turtleneck sweater,” and I had no idea what it was called in Japanese, so I said it literally — and boy, did people laugh! In English, our names for many objects tend to be descriptions of those objects made from combinations of words (phone + book = phonebook). But in Japanese, there’s much more often one specific word for every single concept. (You have to learn the word for “phonebook” — you can’t get by with combining “phone” and “book.”) Another time, I said, literally, in Japanese “chicken sandwich” — and people rolled on the floor again, because they pictured a clucking, full-feathered chicken thrashing between two pieces of bread. The special word for it in Japanese is, very specifically, “chicken-meat sandwich” — which gets no laughter at all.

But anyway, we live in this glorious language in which a word can have more scintillating facets than a jewel. Here’s an illustration from my book Dragonfly (hey, this is a blog, okay? — people expect you to talk about yourself!): the Untowards are teams of just-barely-domesticated (or maybe not) goat-like creatures. As large as horses, the Untowards are highly intelligent, wild as Faery, and when they’re hitched to a wagon, they buck and scramble and dance. Surging, rebounding off each other and off whatever may crop up along the roadside, they seem determined to tear the harness and the wagon into pieces and careen away in opposite directions. Yet somehow, they end up together at the journey’s end, with the wagon (usually) still intact. They’re called Untowards because, 1.) they’re difficult to guide, manage, or work with, as expressed by the English word “untoward”; 2.) a second meaning of “untoward” is marked by trouble or unhappiness; unlucky; not favorable; unpropitious — as reflective of the feelings any sane person might have when boarding a wagon about to be dragged away into the night by Untowards; 3.) they seem not to be heading in the right direction at all, and not interested in doing so: “un-toward” — not at all toward; 4.) but ultimately, they ward you unto your destination — they are “unto-wards.”

Thanks, folks! You’ve been great! I’ll be here all week.

Okay, here’s a more recent example that most people haven’t heard. In The Fires of the Deep (the book set in the dark underground world), a village is called a “paling.” There’s Lodin Umbir Paling, Sand Paling, Bridgend Paling, Dunsan Paling, Lost Echo Paling . . . you get the idea. That’s a purposefully-chosen word that indicates the Hurlim people’s relationship with their vast, lightless, silent, largely empty environment. In the subterranean realm, the darkness — or rather, the obscurity, since there is no light, and hence no “darkness” — is absolute and ubiquitous. It’s called Lachii, which means everything beyond what you can see; it is synonymous with “infinity” and “eternity.” The sea which has no farther side known to mortals is the Vooren Lachii.

Anyway — where people gather and live, there is a tiny, tiny circle of sound and motion in the Lachii — a “paling of the darkness,” in a light/dark analogy: only a paling or dimming of the dark, because the dark doesn’t go away; the dark is supreme. But people, in their little communities of warmth and activity, temporarily push the darkness back a little.

“Paling” also has the meaning of a stake or post, and by extension, a fence or perimeter you might build out of such stakes. Again, a good name for a community in the Hurlim world — a place where humans have staked out a small plot of ground.

Finally, “pale” has the meaning of a zone of influence — and so, in this story, a place where people exert a bit of control, for a time, over the eternal Lachii.

Okay, one final example, from a poem of mine written years ago, titled “I Am Looking at Lilacs”: in one pair of lines, I talked about “Traveling fernwise / The whispering hedge.” Fernwise can mean both “in the direction of ferns,” as in “clockwise” — and “with a knowledge of ferns, a wisdom born of ferns,” as in “streetwise.”

So — this could be the springboard for a great list. Has anyone else got good examples? No, no, they don’t have to be from my oeuvre! They might be from your own, or from the vast world of stories out there. Can you think of a wording that has stuck with you, an instance of a writer using a word to do amazing double- or triple-duty?

Words are fun, and they can wear many hats. We live in this language that always forces us to use our imaginations.