Posts Tagged ‘The Sacred Woods’

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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Crow Apocalypse

January 8, 2010

I’m back. I guess I took a little Christmas/New Year sabbatical from blogging there, and I think it’s been restful. [True story: when I was a kid, for awhile I thought the word “sabbatical” meant the wild, unholy rituals that witches have at midnight in desolate places. So when I’d hear this or that person was “on sabbatical” or “took a sabbatical,” I would think, “Ooh–I thought s/he was Christian” and “Is that something you can declare in public?!”] I’m actually eager to be back on the blogging scene.

First, before I forget, I want to put in a plug here for my friend John R. Fultz. I’ve read some of his stories and know he is an excellent writer of speculative fiction, and he’s a great and gracious moderator of panel discussions. [See the interview with him in a previous entry on this blog.] He has a new dark fantasy comic called SKULLS up on Black Gate‘s website:

http://www.blackgate.com

SKULLS, I’m told, will be updated weekly–every Wednesday–so let’s all check it out! John, is there any recent news on the release of your graphic novel Primordia? I, for one, am “waiting with my neck stretched out,” as the Japanese expression goes.

So, you ask, what have I been up to? During my Christmas holidays, mainly I’ve been working hard on the revisions of my book The Sacred Woods. I was blessed to have some excellent feedback from test readers and from my dedicated and outstanding agent Eddie. So I made myself a master list of changes I wanted to make, and I’ve been working through that list, crossing off things with great satisfaction when I get them taken care of. I think I am just a day or two away from being able to send the manuscript back to Eddie, and I hope he’ll agree that it’s ready to start submitting. It is absolutely true what they say in all the workshops and writing trade magazines: nothing comes out perfect the first time. Leave it for a few months, get some feedback from readers, and your book or story can be improved in dozens of ways. What I’ve been producing these days on The Sacred Woods is very much like the Extended Editions of The Lord of the Rings movies. All the good things that were there to begin with, plus some extra, enriching material. I hope these revisions are making the difference between “pretty darn good” and “out of the park home run.” Heh, heh. It’s my blog, so I’m allowed to have delusions of grandeur here.

This past week also marked the passing of a very dear friend:

Dave (white) and Uni (brown-and-black)

Dave the cat passed away on January 5th. Although he officially belonged to some close friends of mine, we all agreed that he was essentially my cat. He and I were closer than he and his owners were. Because I was on Christmas break, I was able to spend his last few days with him almost constantly. I camped out on the floor next to him, did my revision work at a nearby table, and I was right beside him when he finally passed from this life. He was a truly good cat.

Dave and Uni

Dave and Uni

Anyway, here’s a report on something amazing I saw on December 14th.

It was a Monday morning, and the forecast was for inclement weather (the default of Niigata — I’ve often said that if I were going to write a memoir of Niigata life, the title would be Inclement). So instead of riding my bicycle to the university, I set out walking to the bus, about a 25-minute walk from my apartment. The jet black of a winter night was slowly paling as I locked my door and tramped toward the river. As I crossed Chitose Great Bridge, the sun peered over the horizon behind me. The sky there burst into red flame. (“Red sky at morning, sailors take warning.”) Ahead of me, the sky was dark gray and ominous.

As I crossed over the Shinano River and left the bridge, I froze in my tracks. Above the first main intersection, the power lines were packed with huge black crows, shoulder-to-shoulder, wing-to-wing. I turned my head to right and left. This is no exaggeration: as far as I could see to both sides, about a kilometer in each direction, the rows of crows were unbroken. I was stunned. This was no mere flock of crows: this was more crows than I’d ever seen in my life, all here at once, wing-to-wing on these power lines above me. They cried out in waves of sound that rolled along that vast length, a cold RRAWWK that passed from bird to bird in the way that thunder resounds along the horizon.

I stood on tiptoe and craned my neck, trying to see the end of them, but there was no end: to my left, they stretched to Daiichi High School and beyond. To my right, they seemed to go all the way to City Hall. I paused for a long while gazing up into those glittering black eyes, listening to the rolling waves of their unmusical cries.

When I ducked beneath them and continued on my way, I halted in my tracks again. It wasn’t just one set of power lines. A block later, the next set was equally laden with crows. Again, they stretched from horizon to horizon, with no more than an inch or two between the glistening black bodies. Some wheeled in flight, looking for open places on which to alight.

My gaze jumped ahead. A third set of power lines was thick with crows. And a fourth. I kid you not, the thought that came to my mind was: Is this it? Is this the day it all ends? Does the Lord come back in the clouds? It really and truly looked like something from a movie, something that would be accomplished with CGI imaging. If I weren’t seeing it with my own eyes, I would have thought it looked fake.

And here’s a bizarre detail: on each set of poles, there were six lines, but the crows invariably chose to congregate on just three of them. Three occupied, three unoccupied. I have no idea what that meant.

Since it’s now January 9th, obviously the world didn’t end. But if you were wondering where all the crows in your neighborhood were in mid-December, I think they were at CrowCon in Niigata. I wonder if the con featured a panel discussion on the role of humans in history and literature. Perhaps the panelists debated the issue of whether humans are sometime-allies of crows, or whether they’re simply the ambulatory, unripe stage of delectable carrion.

Quoth the human: “Nevermore!”

Lest this post end on a dark note, here’s another historical photo courtesy of our friend Chris:

Oh, dear. I must have been in about 6th grade. My acne is beginning to blossom. I'm wearing the World's Best Sweater Ever. Mom looks like a startled forest animal. (This is a very unflattering picture of her.) Dad looks disgruntled.

I’m back, and the fun never stops. See you again soon!

Reading and the Full Corn Moon

September 1, 2009

There’s an enormous yellow moon hanging outside my place tonight. The crickets are shrilling in the bushes, and the lone streetlamp in my dark little street is flickering insanely, about to give up the ghost. An inside source tells me the Farmers’ Almanac says our full moon this week is called the Full Corn Moon. (Did you know the full moons all have names?)

So anyway, in the wake of August, when I was working like mad on editing The Sacred Woods, I’m now allowing myself to “be on vacation” for a few days. There are other writing tasks immediately ahead, but I’ve been waiting all summer for the chance to immerse myself in other people’s words for awhile. It’s an indescribably good feeling to get out of the driver’s seat, down off the conductor’s podium, out of the control booth, off the ladder, out from behind the Dungeon Master’s screen — choose whichever analogy you like — and just read for a few days. I really should allow myself to do this more often, because I feel like a dry sponge that’s been squeezed hard, thrust into a bucket of water, and then unsqueezed. Or like, you know how when the ground gets bone dry sometimes in midsummer, and when you pour some water on it, the water just vanishes instantly? That’s what I feel like. It’s so nice to be reading. (Go ahead and laugh! I know pretty much anyone who’s reading this makes time for reading as a matter of course, like eating and brushing teeth. I never claimed to be normal! [And for the record, I do read all the time — just not nearly enough fiction.])

My mom used to have her office in the very center of our house, in what was once the dining room, until the house expanded, and the dining room migrated one room to the south. Mom had two desks and a file cabinet all pushed up together and covered with mountains of books, magazines, papers, and office supplies. The drawers were brimming over, and there was more of the same stuff in cardboard boxes on the floor under the desks. Mom did almost all her actual writing at the kitchen table, but her desk was where her typewriter — and in later years, her word processor — was, so that’s where she’d go to type final drafts, find envelopes, and look up addresses.

But the point I’m getting to is: one of my favorite things about Mom’s office was a very large, framed poster she had on the wall over and beside her desk, dominating the room. I suppose she got it through her work as a librarian and creative program director for the schools — perhaps at some conference. It was a picture of a princess, framed in the window of a high tower. A handsome knight/prince was standing on a ladder leaned up against the tower’s side, and you could tell from the surrounding scene that he’d journeyed through a dark forest and gotten past a dragon to rescue the princess. But she was turned away from him with her nose in a book, and there were books stacked all around her. The poster’s caption proclaimed: “‘I’d rather read,’ she said.”

Isn’t that excellent? I kept that poster, of course, though it’s brittle with the passage of years and locked away in my storeroom in that house. I hope someday to have it out again and on the wall.

So anyway, a few days ago, a good friend asked me if I’d ever read any of the host of stories by other writers that are based on the Cthulhu mythos of H.P. Lovecraft — for example, my friend said, Neil Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald.” I hadn’t read that one; and hearing that it was in one of his collections, I thought, “I wonder if. . . .” So I went over to my bookcase, pulled down Gaiman’s Fragile Things, and lo and behold, “A Study in Emerald” is the first story in it!

To this point, I’d kind of wondered what all the fuss over Neil Gaiman was about. I liked Coraline okay — he was obviously a good writer, but I thought the book was a little uneven, that he’d gotten a bit careless toward the middle. (Several people have told me that the movie is better than the book — I haven’t seen it yet.) I don’t mean to run Coraline down. It is quite clever and nicely done overall, and I always mention it when I’m asked to compare Dragonfly to something. (I actually have very fond memories of reading Coraline. Some friends of mine in Japan had to be out of town for several days because of a death in the family. I was on a summer vacation at the time, and I house-sat for about a week — feeding their cats, watering their plants . . . and reading Coraline. It was an interesting time.)

But I did wonder why we hear Gaiman’s name everywhere, why he can do pretty much anything he wants to do, and why he keeps winning all those awards. Well, now I know! After that story, I decided I had to read the whole collection. I can’t speak for his novels: I haven’t read the ones he’s most famous for. He probably is a genius at longer forms, too, or he wouldn’t be the king of the genre today. But as a short story writer in the field of dark fantasy, I think he may very well be the greatest living practitioner. For the past decade, his stories have consistently won Locus, Stoker, and World Fantasy Awards. The tales he crafts are simply elegant in their craftsmanship and brilliant in their content. They’re unfailingly clear and approachable. You don’t have to “wade through” anything. He has the ideas, the language skills to make things happen, and the reading experience that allows him to pay homage to almost anybody while still producing strikingly original stories.

This is a little early for the season, but anyone would do well to get Fragile Things ready for reading in October. I’m sure I’ll talk about this again as the long-shadow season draws nearer, but my all-time favorite Hallowe’en short story is Richard Laymon’s “Boo!” I think I now have a second-favorite. (Laymon’s is still the best — I don’t know how a story could be any more perfect than that one.) In the second position is Neil Gaiman’s “October in the Chair” (which, incidentally, he dedicates to Ray Bradbury).

And I’m not saying that’s the best story in the collection. Every one of the stories I’ve read so far has been astonishing, and they’re not all the same. This is a collection of tales that have been award-winners in the years they were published, so you’re reading the best of the best. I emphatically recommend it.

But I’ve made one more reading discovery which, for me personally, is even greater. I’ve also found another book which goes onto my small, small shelf of the absolute best. I haven’t loved a book this much since Millhauser’s Enchanted Night. And the book is:

The Summer Book, by Tove Jansson. I’ll quote the back flyleaf: “The writer and artist Tove Jansson (1914-2001) is best known as the creator of the Moomin stories, which have been published in thirty-five languages. The Summer Book was one of ten novels that she wrote for adults. It is regarded as a modern classic throughout Scandinavia.”

It’s been translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal, with a foreword by Esther Freud. Another good friend gave me this book as a Christmas present several years ago, and I’d been saving it. (Aren’t books just the most wonderful presents you can give or get? We used to put up a sign in our bookstore window every December: “It isn’t Christmas without a book.” Okay, don’t think too hard about the theology of that ad. But you know I’m right.)

Now let me quote from the front flyleaf: “An elderly artist and her six-year-old granddaughter while away a summer together on a tiny island in the gulf of Finland. Gradually, the two learn to adjust to each other’s fears, whims, and yearnings for independence, and a fierce yet understated love emerges — one that encompasses not only the summer inhabitants but the island itself, with its mossy rocks, windswept firs, and unpredictable seas.

“Full of brusque humour and wisdom, The Summer Book is a profoundly life-affirming story. Tove Jansson captured much of her own experience and spirit in the book, which was her favourite of the novels she wrote for adults.”

It was first copyrighted in 1972 and orginally published in Swedish as Sommerboken.

(Interesting aside: the best movie I saw this summer was also a Swedish film. That’s a whole other topic. If anyone wants to know the title, let’s take it up in the comments section. This has really been the Summer of Sweden!)

Anyway, The Summer Book, on just about every page, has me laughing out loud, crying (yes, literally), and shaking my head in wonder and awe. It’s about all the things I love most: the magic of childhood and the imagination, the beauty of nature, and the love between people. I deliberately held off starting this book until after I was done with The Sacred Woods, because it’s also about those very same things and features a grandparent and grandchild. If I’d tried to read this as I was writing, I think it would have influenced me in the wrong ways. (They’re very different stories.) I won’t start telling you about my favorite scenes — because the whole book is my favorite scene. This is one I’ll want to revisit again and again and again.

So. . . . Yes, I’m reading Gaiman and Jansson simultaneously. Believe it or not, this works wonderfully for me. The two books are completely different from each other, and I love the variety. I’ll read a Gaiman story, then go back to Jansson to see what Grandmother and Sophia will do next. Back and forth, back and forth: it’s a vacation, it’s an education, it’s an unforgettable summer experience.

Yes, SUMMER, I say! Fall does not begin until the 23rd of this month, so we have a full three weeks of summer left. For me in my Japanese university schedule, it’s right now midsummer: my holiday is August and September. So let’s not go thinking of fall yet: we’ll do that with a passion in October.

Finally, here’s an insight into line-editing which seems edifying and amusing. This is from The Sacred Woods. Here’s the unedited passage:

“[Character A]’s gaze was dark with worry. He seemed to sniff the air as he trotted toward me. With a tense expression, he waited for me to speak.”

Edited version:

“His gaze dark with worry, [Character A] trotted toward me.”

I eliminated a “was.” Forms of “to be” should always be highly suspect — not that we can’t use them, but they tend to get overused. In the context of this scene, sniffing the air didn’t contribute anything, and seeming to sniff the air is just dumb: you can tell if a person is sniffing the air or not. Since his gaze is already “dark with worry,” we don’t need that “tense expression.” And waiting for [me] to speak is unnecessary, because it becomes obvious when [Character B] is the first person to speak. We’re left with one lean, vivid sentence featuring an action verb.

That’s how I spent my August. And now I’m reading. Happy Full Corn Moon! (As for comments, this might be a good time to let us know what you’re reading in this last golden month of summer. I know Marquee Movies is off to rescue Bilbo and see him safely home. . . .)