Posts Tagged ‘Narnia’

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.

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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!

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)?

Me Again, Dear Editor

December 27, 2008

Heh, heh — I don’t want to distract anyone from the previous post with my tomfoolery, so if you haven’t read “Thin Walls” yet, click up there on those blue words and read my Christmas recollections. But if you’ve been there and done that, here’s a silly little something that I found — quite literally — at the back of my closet. Today I was putting away my late autumn jacket, since its days of usefulness are gone for another year. (I’m now into my Totally Serious Winter Coat.) And at the back of my closet, behind the hanging shirts . . . no, there was no lamppost, no entrance to Narnia . . . but there was an old corkboard from my previous apartment. And still pinned to the corkboard was this sonnet that I wrote several years ago.

Now, who can tell me what sort of sonnet this is? Is it Petrarchan or Shakespearian? Is it Italian or English? Do they still teach such things in school? The first person to ring in with the right answer gets the privilege of making a request or suggestion for the next posting on this blog — which I may well use, if I in my megalomaniacal dictatorship of this blog see it fit to use. And maybe I’ll knight you.

Anyway, here it is, and it’s a tribute to all of us who collect rejection slips from editors:

“Me Again, Dear Editor”

My novel didn’t grab you by the throat,

Nor did my memoir meet your present needs;

You’ve sent back every story, and I quote:

My articles are “inept from the ledes.”

To place a piece with you seems quite a stunt.

My poetry’s not potent, and I swear

This endless fretting over what you want

Has got me pulling out my thinning hair.

But (lucky you!) my newest work’s complete!

My critics say it’s lacking in suspense,

And characters and story, yet replete

With details that appeal to every sense.

It doesn’t have a strong protagonist,

But find enclosed my latest grocery list.

 

Heh, heh, heh! Well, is this the Third Day of Christmas? May you enjoy talking to the three French hens your true love sent to you. Personally, I’m glad I got my electric carpet out of storage, vacuumed it, and spread it here under my desk. It’s warming my feet as I write these words. And now it’s back to my expansion of “The Star Shard” into a novel to be called The Star Shard. (Notice how I did that with the italics? That’s how to make a novel out of a short story. In case you ever need to know.)