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.

A Door in a Wall: Neither Here Nor There

A garden at Aberdour Castle, Scotland

This month, I’m being a bit random, but I think that will be okay because I will use pretty pictures to support my randomosity.  Today’s blog is about the neither-here-nor-there kind of magic.  Luckily for us, it’s a kind of magic that we can all access.

It’s a truth generally acknowledged that every wardrobe could lead to Narnia; every locked gate might one day – mysteriously – be unlocked; every dark forest path holds some fantastic secret just out of sight.

A sunset in Edinburgh

You might also get that feeling that certain times of day are more special.  Photographers do a lot of their best work at sunrise or sunset.  Dawn and twilight produce the best light, a light that makes everything look more wonderful.  That’s a kind of magic, too.  It’s a time-between-times, neither day nor night.

A lost door in the Scottish Highlands

Doors, too, are an in-between.  They are places between places, neither inside nor outside – the connection between the two.  I think that’s why a “door to another world” makes so much sense.  We know the door is meant to take us somewhere.  We know, somehow, that a door is not quite anywhere (unless you count “in the wall” which is just as mysterious and non-place-y as “not quite anywhere”, in my opinion) and so it could lead just about anywhere.

A bendy gate in Prague

And, most importantly, we know that we have to make the choice to open that door, step through, and see what happens.  If you accept the possibility that the door might take you somewhere you didn’t expect to go, that choice is a thrilling one.

Lost in the streets of Edinburgh

I suppose I could get all metaphorical and literary and say that a book is a type of door, and a magical one, at that.  You open it and it takes you somewhere outside of your place and time, all the while acting as a connection between you and both worlds.  But never mind that.  I’m more interested in actual doors.  Because those, to me, are an oft overlooked bit of magic.

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The question, I suppose, is what sort of place do you think each of these doors would lead to?  Each one has a personality, so what kind of world ought to be waiting on the other side?

In St Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna
A bright door in Dublin
An ivy-grown gate near Dunfermline Abbey
Digory stands outside his wardrobe in Belfast, Northern Ireland, ready to try one more time…

Fantasy, Dragons, and a Longing This World Cannot Satisfy

I am hiking somewhere on the magical Isle of Skye, so today’s post is about this world and our search for something beyond it.

If we discover a desire within us that nothing in this world can satisfy, also we should begin to wonder if perhaps we were created for another world.

C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

I have always loved the idea of being created for another world.  It’s not that this world does not satisfy me.  This world is meant to be satisfying to a degree.  If we spent our days dissatisfied, we would be missing out on what this world has to offer.

A tree stump carved into a dragon in Wales.

But sometimes I think about what makes a fantasy novel so enthralling, at least for me.  I read them and I write them.  I enjoy some film versions as well (though tragically few of any worthWhy are fantasy films often so cheesy?).

I think, too, about why dragons are my favorite animal.  A creature that no one living has seen (who will admit it – I will neither confirm nor deny…) is the one I love the most.  What made me graduate from horses, my childhood favorite, to fire-breathing, flying creatures of fantasy?

I think that it has a lot to do with what Lewis is saying, though his quote goes a lot further and a lot deeper.  Many of us are supremely aware of a world beyond this world, the ultimate satisfaction at the end of this life.  That, of course, is the world he is talking about.

But there are other worlds to pursue in the meantime, worlds that I feel we are meant to pursue and create and explore and enjoy.  This world may not satisfy my love of dragons, mystery, and magic on the surface, but I can fall into the pages of a book or step through the looking glass of my camera lens.  Somewhere between the pages, around a secret corner, after a sunset, that’s where my longing drives me and where I find some measure of otherworldly satisfaction.

Why do I love fantasy?  Because there is a longing that nothing in this world can satisfy.  And while there is a greater world, the ultimate, perfect fantasy, that will someday replace this one, until then, there are also stories.

Why else did the Creator make us sub-creators if not to create worlds of our own?

Enter Here for Otherworld: No, Seriously. (This is Why I Love The Mabinogi.)

For the next couple of weeks, I am simultaneously researching for a major essay on Echtra Nera (a super weird, super awesome Irish tale that involves talking corpses, fairy mounds, weird time shifts, and other such delights) and preparing for my twenty minute presentation on Pwyll Pendeuic Dyuet and narrative structure for a postgraduate conference here at Edinburgh Uni.

On the road in Northern Ireland, an old shell of a house caught my eye. I love these ghosts of the past. There are stories here.

Needless to say, I’m enjoying myself immensely.  A bit of Irish and a bit of Welsh and my day is set.

Today, I am focusing mainly on Pwyll and my presentation for the coming week.  Pwyll is the first of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, a group of Welsh tales written in the Middle Ages with roots from a bit earlier, though we aren’t quite sure how early (lots of debate going into that particular subject, but I try to stay out of it).  My favorite thing about the stories are the stories themselves.  Yes, I appreciate the history and the language and everything that influenced the creation of these tales, but I enjoy diving into a good narrative more than I like chopping it up and investigating it in little pieces to prove things about early Welsh myths and culture and such.  I don’t think that literary analysis should be so clinical, I suppose, until you’ve learned to love the story itself.

The other day, my Welsh prof lent me a translation of the Four Branches that I’d never seen before and it took my breath away.  Because this wasn’t just any translation; it was also a picture book!  And who doesn’t like a good picture book?

I haven't yet been to Wales, but the hills in Scotland are certainly inspiring in their own right.

You see, one thing that the Welsh (and the Irish) enjoy doing in their old tales is including place-names.  They put incredible events, epic battles, magical beings right in their own remarkable countryside, very specifically named.  No surprises there.  One look at an Irish landscape and you can almost see Nera joining the band of mysterious warriors as they enter a fairy mound on Samain night…

In Bollard’s translation of the Four Branches, he has pictures by photographer Anthony Griffiths of all the various place-names mentioned in the tales.  Hills and rivers and ancient ruins color the pages.  Instead of a remote story from a distant land, you are transported to somewhere very real.  Pwyll didn’t happen upon Rhiannon on some nonexistent, nondescript hill; it happened on a real hilltop called Arberth and you can go to it today.  Will you see a wonder when you sit atop it?  Only one way to find out!

Not a Welsh Otherworld waterfall, but certainly magical.

Pictures of waterfalls that are said to lead to the Otherworld…. of the castle where Bran watched the incoming Irish fleet whose king would ask for his sister’s hand and thereby begin a series of epic and tragic conflicts… of a sunset at the spot where the seven survivors of Wales would have feasted in timeless merriment for 80 years…

How wonderful to read a story and not just imagine how it would have been, but see where the writers envisioned the tales unfolding!  How fabulous to imagine finding that waterfall that they practically signposted for us and taking a look behind it!

And this is what I am being ‘forced’ to study?  I accept!

I just need to get to the summer so I can take a trip to Wales…

Arawn, king of an Otherworld palace, guided Pwyll through the woods to his court. Pwyll spent a year there, ruling in Arawn's stead, before his battle with Arawn's greatest enemy...

The Door, the Gate, the Arch: A Lesson in Trying the Lock

Along the road in Edinburgh

I have a rule.  When I see a door or a gate in an appropriately mysterious/magical setting, I must see if it opens.  And if it does, I must step through, even if it is only for a moment.  I was out on a walk with a friend in the streets of Edinburgh this past weekend and had to explain my reasoning behind this.  I think my friend now understands and I hope that you will too.

If you’ve read The Silver Chair, you remember how Eustace and Jill are running from a pack of fiendish little school children and they come upon a door in the garden that is always locked.  They tried it anyway.

And if you’ve read the book, you know exactly what trying it anyway meant for them.

The ruins of St Anthony's Chapel in Holyrood Park

A door in a wall, a gate in a hedge, or an archway leading into a quiet, green garden always seem to me to be filled with potential.  They might just lead to a road, a garden, or some other simple, natural place, but I always think that one of those doors might, at that exact moment in time, be something a little more special and could actually open up on someplace a lot more magical.  If Aslan called you to Narnia and you ignored the chance he gave you because the door was clearly locked, wouldn’t that be a sad, sad thing?

Near New College, Edinburgh

A door, or gate, or arch is by its very nature a passage from one place to another.  With just a little magical help, one of those passages could become a portal to somewhere beyond this world.  I imagine that in every door’s heart is that secret hope that it might become more than just a way to get from one normal place to another.  What gate wouldn’t want to lead someone to another world?

So when I see a door in a wall that looks locked, I give it a little push.  I try the gate.  I step through the arch.  These things are filled with possibilities and they should never, ever be ignored.

At Aberdour Castle