9/11, Fantasy, and How We Deal With Evil

My theme this month is Instant Plot ideas, but I thought I’d deviate this week.  My post this week falls on September 11th, and I was thinking about how we struggle to cope with evil in this world.    What I believe shocks people most about the event that happened back in 2001 is the sheer villainy required for anyone to voluntarily cause the deaths of so many people.  We have our Hitlers and our Stalins of history, but it’s easy to put those in the past.  They are part of history.  This is still part of our present.

graveyardWhile not everyone ascribes to a set of beliefs in which there is a dichotomy of good and evil, instinctively, most of us still see it in the world.  We can’t help it.  It’s not enough to explain something away by pointing to psychological damage or confusion or perspective differences.  We continually confront evil in the world, even if some of us don’t want to call it that.

This connects, in my mind, to why so many of us write stories, particularly fantasy stories,  and why we are drawn to read them. Within many of those fantasy novels is the great struggle between evil, in some form, and heroism, flawed but irrepressible, and we do not tire of seeing our heroes win.  We read those stories and in some ways, they help us come to terms with what we see happening around us.

A mistake many people make, however, is to view these forays into fantasy as mere “escapism”, as if reading about a world that isn’t “real” makes it somehow irrelevant to real life. The flaw in this reasoning comes when we set up false contrasts between truth vs fiction or fantasy vs reality.  Fiction isn’t the opposite of truth because fiction can reveal truth through its story telling.  And good fantasy certainly isn’t the opposite of reality because it has the ability to use the fantastic elements of its worlds to reveal profound and powerful meaning in our world.  Now, to be fair, many of us do read in order to escape into another world, but we always return to our own and, if the book was good enough, we bring something back with us.

wall of stars washington dc
Here We Mark the Price of Freedom

Tolkien set the standard, but the stories came before him – stories with monsters and dragons and evil knights and wicked kings.  These forces of evil were not “real”, but they represented for their tellers and listeners a reality that was undeniable – Evil exists and we are fighting against it every day.

The most important truth and reality that we can draw from these fantasy villains, however, is that they are temporary forces and they are inevitably the losing side.  A good fantasy novel also  has heroes, and the heroes – at no small cost – are the ones who win in the end.

“Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten” ~ G.K. Chesterton

Now, I am generalizing fantasy novels in this post, since many have deviated from the traditional good vs evil to show less dramatically opposed characters or different scenarios, but I think that the idea is still there – rooted in the genre – and we still read it and write it quite often.  We want to create a believable, shiver-inducing evil because we  want to give our heroes something to defeat.  And through the telling of a “mere story”, we also want to show our readers that evil is a real force in our world, but not the force that wins out in the end, even when it seems like it must. Tolkien called it the “eucatastrophe” of the fairy tale, and there is nothing quite so profound as that sudden turning point from darkness to hope.  It is difficult to cope with the existence of tragedies on any grand scale, and yet our stories include them regularly, because in a story we get to see the ending, and the ending is good.

That glimmer of a picture of how this world’s story will end is nothing if not encouraging.

Just a thought.

Advertisements

A Month of Ireland: The Magic, Faerie-Hunting Cat Named Pangur Bán

Last week I provided a very dark but beautiful bit of poetry about the faeries stealing away a child.  This week, my Irish-themed post has a slightly happier note.  As previous posts have mentioned, there is a cartoon called The Secret of Kells about the writing of the Book of Kells.  In that film is a cat named Pangur Bán, white with one blue eye and one green eye.  Multicolored eyes indicate magic, as we all know.  So today, we will talk more about what it means to have a magic cat.

The original cat Pangur Bán (he was real!) exists for us in the pages of a 9th century Irish manuscript.  An Irish monk reflects on how his own struggle for words compares to the hunting of his “whiter than white” cat.

Messe ocus Pangur Bán,
cechtar nathar fria saindan
bíth a menmasam fri seilgg
mu menma céin im saincheirdd.
    . . .
I and Pangur Bán my cat
Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

The thing about magic cats is they have a tendency to show up in unexpected places.  This Irish cat now lives in my house.

pangur ban white green eye blue eyeThe other thing about magic cats is that they do not see the world the way other cats do.  Pangur Bán’s eyes are her gift and her curse.  She sees our world with her blue eye, the mundane eye.  However, with her green eye, she sees the faeries.

Pangur Bán’s eternal battle with the invisible house faeries has been going on for months now.  She hunts them, chases them, and pounces on them, but our house is overrun.  Fortunately, Pangur Bán refuses to give up, and her hunt for the faeries continues.

 

The Pangur Bán of the 9th century hunted mice, so says the poem, but he, too, was a magic cat.  He had the ability to inspire his master to write. It is through observing his cat that the anonymous Irish monk is able to conclude:

pangur ban

He fesin as choimsid dáu
in muid dungní cach oenláu
du thabairt doraid du glé
for mu mud cein am messe.
                   . . .
Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.

(Translation by Robin Flowers)

The Irish monks of this man’s time were facing many years of darkness – literary darkness, that is. They are responsible for preserving much of the early literature that we value so much today. They were writers and readers, lovers of books, masters of their craft of illumination. You know a true book-lover when he not only writes the book, but he is driven to make it beautiful.

This poem is so especially beloved not just because it is such a strange little bit of writing tucked in the margins of a manuscript.  It also shows us just a glimpse of man’s thoughts aside from his long hours of writing down and preserving valuable texts.  Over a thousand years ago, a man sits at his desk and struggles to find inspiration and to use just the right words.  Another translation of the first verse by Seamus Heaney:

Pangur Bán and I at work,
Adepts, equals, cat and clerk:
His whole instinct is to hunt,
Mine to free the meaning pent.
How many times has any one of us sat in front of a blank screen or stared at a page, pen in hand, and struggled to free the meaning trapped in our thoughts?  If we could just find the right words, the story would come to life.
Pangur Bán may seem to be no more than a small white cat, but this cat has managed to travel through time to tell a very simple, but universal story of the writer’s experience.  A magic cat, indeed! Although the author of this poem is nameless, he has given us a name to remember.  It seems, thanks to his cat, he found his words, after all.
pangur ban cat rabbit friends
Pangur Ban makes friends with the evil Bella Bunny.

A Month of Ireland: The Faeriescape

It’s March, St Patrick’s month, so why not do a few posts on Ireland to celebrate?  I personally have a heavy dose of Northern Irish on my mother’s side (as I discovered when I found her maiden name on nearly every tombstone of a church in Portadown).

And of course, there’s the fact that I am very, very fond of early Irish literature. So was the poet William Butler Yeats, who, aside from poetry, wrote a book called Celtic Twilight, which explores the existence of faeries (Yeats was a believer) and their connection to Ireland.  Yeats’s fascination with Irish magic came through into his poetry as well. I’ve always enjoyed one in particular, haunting and mysterious, about a child being lured away by the faeries.  When I was in Ireland, I was amazed at the enchanted landscapes that we passed through.  It was much easier to see why Yeats was so convinced that faeries lived in the forests.

So, to start the month of Ireland off right, a poem about faeries and some lovely pictures.

(And for a real treat, listen to Loreena McKennit’s version of this poem set to music!)

misty mountains ireland

“The Stolen Child”

WHERE dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats;
There we’ve hid our faery vats,
Full of berrys
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

pond portadown ireland

Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim gray sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And anxious in its sleep.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

tree tunnel northern ireland

Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car,
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;
Leaning softly out
From ferns that drop their tears
Over the young streams.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

mountain of mist northern ireland

Away with us he’s going,
The solemn-eyed:
He’ll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal chest.
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand.

~ William Butler Yeats

Faith and Faerie: Reflections of Another World

When I was asked to do a devotional for today’s post, I really didn’t know which direction to turn.  For someone who loves fantasy, the works of Lewis are an obvious choice for an intertwining of faith and faerie. But Lewis’s brilliance has its sources, and I thought that perhaps one of Lewis’s favorite writers, George MacDonald, would be of service in this discussion, as well.  In Mere Christianity, Lewis says:

If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.

mist irelandAs Christians, we know that “another world” is the heavenly kingdom, but as we are, for now, separated from that future dwelling, we are left with promises and our imagination.  For many of us, exploring and creating fantasy worlds can temporarily satiate the driving need to find “another world” to which we truly belong.  But Faerie Lands can play the role of more than just escapism; they can both act is a reflection of Reality and become that faintest of connections to “another world” which compels us forward in our walk toward it.

The fantasies and faerie worlds that we construct, no matter how wonderful, are still impermanent.  The kind of fantasy that MacDonald, Lewis, and many others strive to write is a kind which attempts to draw us out of our immediate Reality and take us to another world, but only temporarily.  Then, like a mirror, these worlds begin to reflect our Reality in a different form, and we can’t help thinking that some of these enchanted landscapes seem very familiar. Inexorably, we are drawn back into our own world, but when we return, we understand something of our world better, while the yearning for another world remains, perhaps stronger than ever.reflections isle of skye loch

MacDonald says in Phantastes:

Why are all reflections lovelier than what we call the reality? – not so grand or so strong, it may be, but always lovelier?  Fair as is the gliding sloop on the shining sea, the wavering, trembling, unresting sail below is fairer still.  Yea, the reflecting ocean itself, reflected in the mirror, has a wondrousness about its waters that somewhat vanishes when I turn towards itself.  All mirrors are magic mirrors.  The commonest room is a room in a poem when I turn to the glass.

castle scotland craigmillarA beautiful reflection is exactly what MacDonald strives for in his depiction of Faerie Land.  With lush descriptions, strange and surreal, whimsical and lovely, MacDonald draws his wandering hero into the depths of Faerie and compels us along with him.

But as with all reflections, there is a place where they join with Reality.  We can be in one and touch the other.  MacDonald’s Faerie Land is not meant to stand entirely apart:

As through the hard rock go the branching silver veins; as into the solid land run the creeks and gulfs from the unresting sea; as the lights and influences of the upper worlds sink silently through the earth’s atmosphere; so doth Faerie invade the world of men, and sometimes startle the common eye with an association as of cause and effect, when between the two no connecting links can be traced.

From the very beginning, Faerie is intertwined with our world.  It reflects our own world, but it also connects us to another.  It both satisfies and increases our longing for that Other World that we know exists.  And so, if this fantasy world as MacDonald portrays it – a reflection of Reality and an echo of something greater beyond it – if this is not only accessible, but ever-present, then we might begin to realize that its higher Form, that Other World that we all long for, is also in our midst.  The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, tangible, glorious, the source of all deep magic, drawing us further into it.

This is why I find Faerie and fantasy so beautiful and so satisfying: they have the ability to reflect our Reality while simultaneously summoning forth faint, but glorious images of the true Other World.  The best Faerie stories form a connection between us and what we were made for.

Matching Wits With a Goblin King: The Hollow Kingdom, by Clare Dunkle

In keeping with the main theme for this month, I am reviewing another lesser known fantasy novel that more people should read.  Really.  You should read it.

Last week, I focused on pure fantasy, a story in another world with its own magical system and culture.  This week, my chosen novel is much closer to home.

Fairytales hold a certain fascination for authors who want material for telling stories.  Telling old stories in a new way has been popular for a very long time, of course, but lately, it seems like there are more versions of Cinderella and Snow White than we could ever possibly need. Ever.

One storyline that has come up a few times in various stories and poems is the goblin and the princess, or some variation thereof.  George MacDonald’s book, of course, uses this motif.  The story comes in many forms, but the general idea is that goblins or something similarly wicked living under ground come out at night and try to steal away a child from its parents or a girl for a bride.  One of two endings is expected: either the child/girl is rescued by someone cleverer than the goblins or, in a darker turn of events, the goblins succeed and their quarry is never seen or heard from again.  While not speaking of goblins in this case, I always think of Yeats’s Stolen Child:

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

The dark, unsettling fear of something out in the darkness in the forests and under the hills that can simply creep out and steal the unsuspecting, whether by force and trickery, has haunted more than one culture and inspired more than one story. The Hollow Kingdom is exactly that sort of book, with goblins hunting in the darkness and a heroine trying desperately to outwit them, but this tale is delightfully unexpected in its outcome.

Kate and her sister Emily move in with their great-aunts on family land after the death of their father.  Their uncle, who is in charge of Kate’s inheritance until she comes of age, is an unpleasant individual and their aunts are very mild mannered, but Kate and Emily settle in as well as they can and try to make a life at Hallow Hill.  When strange things start happening and the goblins begin to appear when the sun goes down, Kate discovers that unless she is very, very clever, she will be claimed as a bride for the goblin king, Marak, and locked in his kingdom underground for the rest of her life.

The story that follows is filled with bizarre magic, and, with the trap closing inexorably around her, Kate fights blindly against an enemy she does not understand.  Her only hope is to convince her uncle that goblins are real, but her uncle has an agenda of his own.  And besides, what rational person believes in goblins?

Dunkle draws on old stories to create an ancient world under the wild hills of the 19th century British countryside, and she fills the woods and hollows with goblin magic.  Once Kate is in the goblin king’s sights, she becomes increasingly entangled in his world and out of step with her own.  The landscape above the goblin kingdom becomes only slightly less surreal than the world beneath.

Hollow hills, perhaps?

My favorite thing about this story is not necessarily that it is an unexpected take on the goblin-stealing-girl storyline.  I love the characters.  Kate is plucky and generally a sensible girl.  Her sister Emily is far too curious and fearless for her own good and finds the goblins more interesting than frightening.  Throughout the story, the strange, magical creatures Dunkle introduces as secondary characters are what make the story truly engaging.  Even the doors have character (read it to find out what I mean).

Retelling old tales is not a bad thing, if it’s done well.  Old motifs can be reworked in an endless number of ways.  What makes a book stand out is when it takes a good, old story and leads its readers on a very different road.

Don’t step out the door when the sun goes down…