Fantasy & the Pre-Raphaelites

Mariana by John Everett Millais

This text of this post comes from a talk I gave at the annual 4th Street Fantasy gathering in Minneapolis, way back in the 1990s, in response to the question: "Who were the Pre-Raphaelites and why are so many fantasy writers interested in them?"

Irish poet William Butler Yeats once said: "I made a new religion of poetic tradition, of a fardel of stories, and of personages, and of emotions, inseparable from their first expression, passed on from generation to generation by poets and painters. I wished for a world where I could discover this tradition perpetually, and not in pictures and poems only, but in tiles round the chimney piece and in the hangings that kept out the draft."  

In Victorian England, a group of idealistic men and women dreamed of creating such an ideal world, spinning their bright, richly colored dreams against the drab, smoky background of the Industrial Revolution. Although they came from different walks of life and different artistic disciplines, today we tend to group all these artists together as the Pre-Raphaelites: followers of an aesthetic ideal that also inspired (and overlaps with) the Arts & Crafts movement. Those of us drawn to their art are often drawn as well to its encompassing vision: the idea that art is not just something to look at, or to find in a book, but is (or can be) a way life — a religion of Beauty, of Romanticism, that surrounds one (as Yeats would say) right down to the tiles round the chimney piece.

 The Forest Tapestry designed by William Morris  Philip Webb and John Henry Dearle  woven at Merton Abbey  1887.jpg

Bird & Pomegranate wallpaper designed by William Morris

The Pre-Raphaelite movement was officially begun in the middle of the 19th century by seven young artists* who were barely into their twenties at the time. Painting, as it was generally taught back then (at London's Royal Academy and other such schools) was bound by a strict series of rules, formulas, and conventions which determined what these artists could paint and exactly how they could paint it. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Millais were at the core of this group of friends who defied the art establishment by exhibiting subversive, scandalous paintings signed with the mysterious letters PRB. The initials stood for the group's nom de guerre: the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. They chose this name because they worshipped early Italian and Flemish art: the art before Raphael. The Brotherhood never set out to mimic the style of this early art; rather, they sought to evoke a similar spirit of freedom and simplicity: primarily by the radical concepts of painting directly from nature, out of doors; and by painting with bright, translucent colors straight onto a white background, rather than with the subdued Academy palette, painted light on dark.

Ophelia by Millais

Ferdinand Lured by Ariel by John Everett Millais, Frederic George Stephens was the model

This hardly seems radical to us today, but when the group began to exhibit such work, the paintings deeply appalled Academy officials and the viewing public. Looking at Pre-Raphaelite art today, what we see are quaintly historic images dripping with romanticism -- but what viewers saw in the waning years of Victorian England was something rather different. The colors these young painters employed were considered vulgarly bright (a number of the paintings have faded with age; we can only imagine their impact now); and, worse, they blythely ignored the prescribed list of "respectable" subjects. Instead, the Brotherhood painted and sculpted images drawn from Celtic legends and English folklore, and poems by Shelley, Keats, and Tennyson; or else they treated traditional subjects in shockingly untraditional ways. Millais' luminous painting of Christ's childhood, for instance, horrified Victorian viewers because it placed a barefoot Christ-child in a common carpenter's workshop.

Isabella (from Keats' ''Isabella  or the Bot of Basil'') by John Everett Millais

Christ in the House of His Parents by William Holman Hunt

The following review from the London Times was typical of the notice they received:

"We cannot censor at present as amply or as strongly as we desire to do that strange disorder of the mind or eyes that continues to rage with unabated absurdity among a class of juvenile artists who style themselves the PRB. These young artists have unfortunately become notorious by addicting themselves to an antiquated style and an affected simplicity in painting which is to genuine art what the medieval ballads and designs in Punch are to Chaucer."

The First Anniversary of the Death of Beatrice by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Though taken aback by the fury of these attacks, the Brotherhood then received a stroke of luck. The influential critic John Ruskin, who admired the young painters' fidelity to nature, wrote to the Times in their defense, concluding that "with all their faults, their pictures are since Turner's death the best, the incomparably best, on the walls of the Royal Academy."

Strayed Sheep by William Homan Hunt

Arthur Huges, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Dicksee

The Wedding of Saint George and Princess Sabra by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Now the tide began to turn. With Ruskin's invaluable (and often meddlesome) patronage, the Pre-Raphaelite style of painting proceeded to change Victorian ideas about art, and to buck the old establishment. Over time, these artists grew famous, wealthy, and became the art establishment themselves, against which the next generation of students (the Modernists) would rebel.

La Pia de' Tolomei (from Dante's Purgatorio) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  The model is Jane Morris

Morgan Le Fay by Frederick Sandys

Although the term Pre-Raphaelite is now applied to a broad spectrum of artists, the original Brotherhood itself lasted only a few years before its querulous members went their separate ways.

John Everett Millais, the most accomplished painter of the group, became a highly fashionable Society artist; the frothy, sentimental canvases of his later years were widely viewed as a betrayal of the cause -- but earned him the money needed to support the many children he had after running away with Ruskin's wife in a widely publicized scandal. William Holman Hunt became obsessed with Palestine, traveling to the Holy Lands to paint religious subjects from life. In this he stayed true to the PRB ideals, painting long hours in the hot desert sun -- and carrying a pistol in his belt (he claimed) to discourage the local bandits. Dante Gabriel Rossetti's work largely abandoned the early PRB ideals: his palette grew darker, his compositions more formal, and he rarely painted out of doors as he focused, almost exclusively, on the female face and form. His lushly allegorical portraits scandalized and mesmerized the Victorian public. Indeed, so popular were Rossetti's ladies, with their wistful gazes and cascades of crinkly hair, that this is the image most people now associate with Pre-Raphaelitism -- rather than the plein air paintings of the original Brotherhood.

Bocca Baciata by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Rossetti was an eccentric, passionate man with great personal charisma, and he drew around him an extraordinary circle of artists, poets, and acolytes whom he fired with his Romantic ideals. The big brick riverside house he rented in London's Chelsea neighborhood was shared with the poet Algernon Swinburne, the novelist George Meredith, Rossetti's patient brother Michael (who often ended up paying all the bills), and a menagerie of pets including peacocks, marmots, deer, armadillos, hedgehogs, a vicious kangaroo, and some rather disgruntled wombats. This was the London of Oscar Wilde's day, when Whistler, or Browning, or shy Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) might drop in for tea and the latest gossip, and Thomas Carlyle's rather shabby figure could be seen strolling along the Thames. In one famous story, the inspiration for the dormouse in the teapot in Alice in Wonderland is said to have come from a pet rodent fast asleep in Rossetti's soup tureen; in other stories, visitors to the house related how Swinburne would go into fits, throwing off his clothes and dancing naked while reciting his poetry.

A drawing of Lizzie Siddal by Dante Gabriel RossettiDescriptions of this lavishly Bohemian household are at odds with the usual image of the Victorians as sexually repressive and morally tight-laced. While it's true that respectable women (like Rossetti's sister, the poet Christina Rossetti) would not have been allowed to frequent the house or take part in the creative camaraderie, these rules did not apply to working class girls -- particularly those who modelled for the painters, considered little better than whores whether they kept their clothes on or not.

One of these models was Elizabeth Siddal, a cutler's daughter from the wrong side of the river with artistic ambitions of her own. "Lizzie," as she was known, is the tall woman with long straight golden hair who sits, sleeps, dreams, and combs her locks in so many of Rossetti's early drawings and paintings. She was his Muse, companion, painting partner...and eventually his wife (much to the horror of his middle-class family).

Drawings of Elizabeth Siddal by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Lovers Listening to Music by Elizabeth Siddal

Growing up poor and female, Lizzie would have had no access to artistic training had she not fallen in with Rossetti and his friends. She blossomed in this company, producing  drawings and paintings which won Ruskin's praise, and financial patronage. To Rossetti's credit, at a time when women's art was severely marginalized he had genuine faith in Lizzie's work and took great pains to promote it -- but she died before her art matured, and little of it survives today. Physically frail, prone to depression, and never certain of Rossetti's constancy, she died of an overdose of laudanum (an opium tincture) after the stillborn birth of their only child. Officially listed as an "accidental death," rumors of suicide were spread; and to this day no one really knows the truth of the situation. Distraught with grief, Rossetti buried his unpublished poems in his wife's coffin, wrapped up in her long gold hair. Years later, in an incident now famous in literary history, he reconsidered this romantic gesture and dug the coffin back up again, retrieving the poems and publishing them. Legend has it that Lizzie's famous hair was just as bright as always.

By this time, however, Rossetti had a new Muse: tall, dark, enigmatic Jane Morris. She too was of working class origins, and the wife of one of his closest friends.

Proserpine (Persephone) by Dante Grabriel Rossetti. The model is Jane MorrisWilliam Morris and Edward Burne-Jones were students together at Oxford University; Rossetti was older, famous now as both a painter and poet, and the younger men idolized his work. They wrote him a letter, and were duly invited to visit Rossetti in his London digs. "Topsy" Morris was a rather bearish young man, blessed with an inherited income and a prodigious amount of energy. Unlike Burne-Jones (known as plain "Ned Jones" then), Morris wasn't much of a painter -- but there was very little else the man couldn't do. Turning his talents to decorative arts, he worked to create a world around him as romantic as any Pre-Raphaelite painting, designing medievalesque furniture (hand-painted by Burne-Jones and Rossetti), tapestries, textiles, ceramics, metalwork, silver-work, stained glass, and anything else that caught his fancy.

Morris was the force behind Morris & Co., a firm dedicated to making and marketing objects of Pre-Raphaelite design. It was Morris's dream to thus bring art into the daily life of the common man; it was his belief that filling a man's soul with beauty was as important as filling his belly with food. Appalled by the cheap ugliness produced by new methods of industrial mass production, Morris championed the beauty of handcraft methods based on medieval craft societies. So strong was this vision that Morris is still a force in British design over one hundred years later: his furniture is treasured by collectors (particularly the famous "Morris chair"), his wallpaper designs are still widely used; his unique wool dye recipes are still followed; his beautiful type designs are classics of the form; and the hand-printed books of his Kelmscott Press sit in museum collections around the world. In addition, Morris was one of the fathers of modern British socialism; and many fine old English houses still exist thanks to the Society for the Preservation of Antique Buildings which Morris founded. This tireless man also wrote popular books of poetry and prose -- including translations of old Icelandic sagas, and magical tales such as Well at the World's End (considered by some literary historians to be the first modern fantasy novel).

The Kemscott Chaucer

Morris' boundless creative energy disguised a complicated private life: his wife Jane and Rossetti had fallen passionately in love. Although famous for his temper, in this regard he seems to have shown an extraordinary patience. Together with Rosetti, he rented Kelmscott Manor in a quiet corner of Oxfordshire; thus the lovers were able to be together without actually breaking up the Morris marriage.

A photograph of Jane MorrisIt was about this time that Morris wrote his poem cycle The Defence of Guenevere -- the only clue we have of his feelings about this painful period of his life. His patience paid off some years later when two tragedies drew Jane and Topsy back together: their eldest daughter was diagnosed with epilepsy (untreatable then, and devastating); and Rossetti's mental health (always a bit unstable) began to collapse. Convinced he was stalked by enemies, and haunted by his dead wife's ghost, Rossetti retreated to his Chelsea house -- where he took great quantities of laudanum and wrote plaintive letters to Jane. His other mistress, Fanny Cornforth, looked after him there until the end of his life. A model (and former prostitute), Fanny was considered so vulgar by the Rossetti circle that she was not invited to his funeral, although she'd been the steadiest, truest friend he'd had in those last years.

With Rossetti's departure, Kelmscott Manor became a more tranquil home for Morris, Jane, and their two daughters, Jenny and May (an influential textile artist and designer). Jane eventually bought the house outright and it passed to her daughters after her death.  In Kelmscott churchyard, Morris and Jane are buried in a single, simple grave.

News From Nowhere

Topsy and Ned remained fast friends from their Oxford days to the end of their lives. Shy, lanky Ned Jones evolved into Sir Edward Burne-Jones, a widely celebrated painter of mystical, dream-like imagery. His work, especially, inspired many of the "second wave" of Pre-Raphaelite painters -- such as John William Waterhouse, Evelyn de Morgan, Arthur Hughes, John Melhuish Strudwick, Maria Spartali Stillman, Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale, and Frank Cadogan Cowper.

The Wedding of Psyche by Edward Burne-Jones

The Sea Maidens by Evelyn de Morgan

Burne-Jones had his own flamboyant mid-life love affair, with the fiery Greek sculptor Maria Zambaco (cousin to painter Maria Spartali Stillman): her striking face and long dark hair can be seen in many of his best drawings and paintings. In the end, Burne-Jones reneged on his vow to leave his marriage and returned to his quiet and practical wife, Georgiana, while the angry, heart-broken Zambaco threatened to drown herself in Thames. The Beguiling of Merlin by Edward Burne-JonesTo complicate things further, there is evidence to suggest that Georgiana may have been in love with William Morris, and Morris with her -- but these two, despite their unconventional lives, had been raised with high Victorian ideals. Faithful Georgie remained at her husband's side, enduring Zambaco and her husband's penchant for surrounding himself with pretty young women; Morris remained with Jane, bound by convention, their children, and a mutual affection that had survived many years of trial.

  * * * 

Perhaps it's the drama of these entwined lives, as much as the beauty of the art itself, that makes the Pre-Raphaelites so irresistable to many of us in the fantasy field; we writers love a good story after all. But I think it is also significant that late-19th century Pre-Raphaelites and late-20th century fantasists tend to hold these things in common: a love of myth and mysticism, of Celtic legends and epic Romance, of imaginary worlds and the natural world, of symbolism, metaphor, and magic. There is magic in the Arthurian paintings of Burne-Jones, and the jewel-toned panels of of his Briar Rose series (based on the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale). There is magic in Rossetti's pensive women, in Millais' Ophelia, in Waterhouse's Lady of Shalott. There is magic in Morris' utopian fantasy novels, now classics of our genre.

Briar Rose

The Death of King Arthur by Edward Burne-Jones

The Heart of the Rose by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

In fantasy literature, as in Pre-Raphaelite art, we find a deep nostalgia for the landscapes of the rural past: in the rolling Shires of Middle Earth, the island villages of Earthsea, the unspoiled forests of Narnia, Islandia, and Mythago Wood. As editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden has pointed out, it is probably no accident that the explosive popularity of Tolkien's books and the subsequent birth of the modern fantasy genre occurred at the same time as the growth of the modern ecology movement. In an age of urban expansion and aggressive suburban development, many of us long for simple green fields, clear waters, and the timeless beauty of winding woodland trails -- a hunger fed by journeys through the untamed woods of fantasy.

One hundred years ago, William Morris watched as his beloved English countryside disappeared under rapid industrialization; his art and politics express an impassioned appeal for a rural way of life -- for a return to an idyllic, chivalric medieval past that had never been.

The Lady of Shallot

A study for The Mystic Wood by John William Waterhouse

One final link joins modern fantasists with the unconventional painters and poets who lived, loved, worked, and dreamed one hundred years before us: Like the early Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, before the tides of fashion turned in their favor, fantasists must work outside the approval of the art establishment. Fantasists use themes that are once again considered beneath the notice of serious artists: myth, magic, fairy tales, and stories unabashedly Romantic. William Morris and his followers in the Arts & Crafts movement explored forms derided as decoration, not serious art: ceramics, weaving, embroidery, jewelry-making, furniture, book design, etc.,  just as today we work in forms that are rarely accepted as serious literature: genre fiction, children's fiction, book illustration, and comics.

The Pre-Raphaelites ignored the conventions of their day, and the critics quick to dismiss them. They refused to change their vision to suit the times -- they changed the world around them instead. Perhaps those "tiles around the chimney piece and hangings that keep out the draft" may seem like small, inconsequential ways of going about changing the world...and yet these things still influence the art, the dreams, the daily lives of men and women over one hundred years later. The Pre-Raphaelite vision is still alive to inspire many of us today.

Perhaps some day we'll be able to say the same about the best of the mythic art and fiction created in our own century. In the meantime, we can take heart from the timeless work of the Pre-Raphaelites: from those seven original rebellious young men; from the men and women who followed them; and from all steadfast, visionary souls who have walked this road before us.

John Meluish Strudwick and Maria Spartali Stillman

The Deceitfulness of Riches by Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale

Footnote: The original seven members of the Brotherhood were: James Collinson, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Michael Rossetti, Frederic George Stephens, and Thomas Woolner.

Pictures: The art above is identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the pictures to see them.)

Words: This article originated as a talk given at the 4th Street Fantasy convention in Minneapolis (at the request of Steven Brust). It subsequently appeared in Realms of Fantasy magazine, 1997, and The Journal of Mythic Arts. To learn more about the Pre-Raphaelites, I recommend these sites: The Pre-Raphaelite Society, The William Morris Society, the online archives from the Tate's Pre-Raphaelite Visions show (2004); plus these wonderful blogs: The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood and The Kissed Mouth.


The Animal Helpers of T.H. White

Young Arthur by Alan Lee

From "The Beast in the Book" by Ursula K. Le Guin:

"T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone, though about King Arthur, is crowded with animals. In the first chapter King-Arthur-to-be, currently known as the Wart, takes out a goshawk, loses him, and meets Merlyn's owl Archimedes.

Merlin and Archimedes by Dennis Nolan"Oh what a lovely owl!" cried the Wart.

But when he went up to it and held out his hand, the owl grew half as tall again, stood up as stiff as a poker, closed its eyes so there was only the smallest slit to peep through...and said in a doubtful voice:

"There is no owl."

Then it shut its eyes entirely and looked the other way.

"It's only a boy," said Merlyn.

"There is no boy," said the owl hopefully, without turning round.

"Merlyn undertakes Arthur's education, which consists mostly of being turned into animals. Here we meet the great mythic theme of Transformation, which is a central act of shamanism, though Merlyn doesn't make any fuss about it. The boy becomes a fish, a hawk, a snake, an owl, and a badger. He participates, at thirty years per minute, in the sentience of trees, and then, at two million years per second, in the sentience of stones. All these scenes of participation in nonhuman being are funny, vivid, startling, and wise.

Merlyn by NC Wyeth

"When a witch puts Wart into a cage to fatten him up, the goat in the next cage plays Animal Helper and rescues them all. All animals rightly trust Wart, which is proof of his true kingship. That he goes along on a boar hunt does not vitiate this trust: to White, true hunting is a genuine relationship between hunter and hunted, with implacable moral rules and a high degree of honor and respect for the prey. The emotions aroused by hunting are powerful, and white draws them all together in the scene of the death of the hound Beaumont, killed by the boar, a passage I have never yet read without crying,

"At the climax of the book, Wart can't draw the sword of kingship from the stone anvil by himself. He calls to Merlyn for help, and the animals come.

Young Arthur by John Lawrence & Dennis Nolan

"There were otters and nightingales and vulgar crows and hares, and serpents and falcons and fishes and goats and dogs and dainty uincorns and newts and solitary wasps and goat-moth caterpillars and corkindrills and volcanoes and mighty trees and patient stones...all, down to the smallest shrew mouse, had come to help on account of love. Wart felt his power grow.

"Each creature calls its special wisdom to the boy who has been one of them, one with them. The pike says, 'Put your back into it,' a stone says, 'Cohere,' a snake says 'Fold your powers together with the spirit of your mind' -- and:

The Wart walked up to the great sword for the third time. He put out his right hand softly and drew it out as gently as from a scabbard.

Merlin by Frank Godwin & The Sword in the Stone by Walter Crane

"T.H. White was a man to whom animals were very important, perhaps because his human relationships were so tormented. But his sense of connection with nonhuman lives goes far beyond mere compensation; it is a passionate vision of a moral universe, a world of terrible pain and cruelty from which trust and love spring like autumn crocus, vulnerable and unconquerable.

Merlin & Arthur by Scott Gustafson

"The Sword and the Stone, which I first read at thirteen or so,  influenced my mind and heart in ways which must be quite clear in the course of this talk, convincing me that trust cannot be limited to humankind, that love can not be specified. It's all or nothing at all. If, called to reign, you distrust and scorn your subjects, your only kingdom will be that of greed and hate. Love and trust and be a king, and your kingdom will be of the whole world. And to your coronation, among all the wondrous gifts, an 'anonymous hedgehog will send four or five dirty leaves with some fleas on them.' "

Owl and Hare by Jackie Morris

The Sleeping Earth by Catherine Hyde

Words: The passage above is from Words Are My Matter: Writings About Books & Life  by Ursula K. Le Guin (Small Beer Press, 2016); all rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: The art above is by Alan Lee, Dennis Nolan, N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945), John Lawrence, Frank Godwin (1889-1959), Walter Crane (1845-1915), Scott Gustafson, Jackie Morris and Catherine Hyde. The images are identified in the picture captions. All rights reserved by the artists.

Further Reading:  T.H. White by Sylvia Townsend Warner, The Goshawk by T.H. White, and H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. A previous post on White: "T.H. White: a rescued mind."
 


The stories that shape us

Ponies 1

"As a child I preferred fairy tales to all other stories," says novelist Alice Hoffman (in a short essay for Waterstones). "Fairy tales seemed to trust that even as a child I could understand major concepts of good and evil, fear and cowardice, and distinguish the difference between the truth and a lie. Children realize that there are beasts who wish to do good in the world, and adults waiting in the woods who may be dangerous, and paths that should be marked, whether by bread crumbs or tears, so that we can find our way home again. In the world of fairy tales, the amazing is recounted in a matter of fact tone. One ordinary day there is a knock at the door, a rose that refuses die, a spindle that must be avoided at all costs.

Red Riding Hood by G.P. Jacomb Hood"It was the melding of the magical and the everyday that was most affecting to me as a reader, for the world I lived in seemed much the same. Anything could happen. People you loved could disappear, through death or divorce; they could turn into heroes or beasts. Such stories are perhaps the original stories, tales told by grandmothers to grandchildren from the beginning of time, an oral tradition later captured in print by authors such as Perrault and the Grimms.

"I began to read novels that, like the great traditional fairy tales, incorporated the real and the magical. Every child reader knows that magic equals power and possibility. It is the recourse of the young, the neglected, the orphaned, and the brave. Why are children attracted to magical literature? Magic contains a story within a story, the deepest truth within a thrilling tale. A child can build his or her own understanding through the symbols and language of magic as if connecting with a secret code."

Ponies 2

In a longer piece for The Washington Post, Hoffman also discussed the importance of fairy tales in shaping the particular contours of her imagination:

"I read fairy tales early on. They terrified, delighted, disgusted and amazed me. They were far more grown-up than any other children's books I read, scarily so at times. Like most children, I could feel the disturbing aspects of the stories even if I couldn't intellectually understand or articulate their underlying meanings. Still, I knew. I thrilled to them. I learned. Everything in them rang true: the unspoken sexuality  (a woman loves a beast, a girl is nearly eaten by a wolf, a frog wishes to be the husband of a princess), the violence (bad mothers, absent fathers, foul murders), the greed (the house of candy, the cage of gold). I didn't realize it, of course, but the tales were allowing me to examine fear, anxiety, desire, sorrow. It was a dangerous world, but truer to reality than anything else we were allowed -- those safe books with their happy endings....

Ponies 3

Ponies 4

Ponies 5

"My initial exposure to storytelling, even before I read fairy tales, came from the stories told to me by the most down-to-earth woman I knew -- my grandmother. The two of us might have been in the market or on the subway, we might have been walking down Jerome Avenue or drinking tea with cubes of sugar in her overheated apartment, but we were also in Russia. We were dropped into her childhood, stuck in a snowstorm, running for our lives. When I heard about the wolves that howled all night, about the rivers where the ice was so thick it didn't melt until May, about men who worked so hard that they sometimes slept for a month in the winter, like bears, I was hearing the deeper truth of my grandmother's life, the complex universe that she carried with her, a very personal once-upon-a-time. This was the beginning of my life in the world of storytelling. And, perhaps, it was not unlike the very start of storytelling itself.

Ponies 6

"Do people choose the art that inspires them -- do they think it over, decide they might prefer the fabulous to the real? For me, it was those early readings of fairy tales that made me who I was as a reader and, later on, as a storyteller."

Ponies 7

Ponies 8

Words: The Alice Hoffman quotes above are from  "The Rules of Magic" (Waterstones, March 6, 2015), and an older piece on fairy tales first published in The Washington Post (alas, I no longer have the date). The quotes in the picture captions are from a wide variety of sources including Jane Yolen's Touch Magic and Marina Warner's Once Upon a Time, both of which I recommend.  All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The photographs are of Dartmoor ponies grazing on our village Commons. (Tilly is very good with these wild pony herds: she loves to watch them but doesn't chase, and she always keeps a respectful distance. ) The illustration is "Little Red Riding Hood" by G.P. Jacomb Hood (1857-1929). 


The Muse of Fantasy

Cold Wind by Rovina Cai

From "The Flat-Heeled Muse" by Lloyd Alexander (1924-2007):

"The muse in charge of fantasy wears good, sensible shoes. No foam-born Aphrodite, she vaguely resembles my old piano teacher, who was keen on metronomes. She does not carry a soothing lyre for inspiration, but is more likely to shake you roughly awake at four in the morning and rattle a sheaf of subtle, sneaky questions under your nose. And you had better answer them. The Muse will stand for no nonsense (that is, non-sense). Her geometries are no more Euclidean than Einstein’s, but they are equally rigorous."

Fake It Till You Make It by Rovina Cai

"The less fantastic it is, the stronger fantasy becomes. The writer can painfully bark his shins on too many pieces of magical furniture. Enchanted swords, wielded incautiously, cut both ways. But the limits imposed on characters and implements must be more than simply arbitrary. What does not happen should be as valid as what does. In The Once and Future King, for example, Merlyn knows what will happen in the future; he knows the consequences of Arthur’s encounter with Queen Morgause. Why doesn’t he speak out in warning? It is not good enough to say, “Well, that would spoil the story.” Merlyn cannot interfere with destiny; but how does T. H. White show this in specific detail? By having Merlyn grow backwards through time. Confused in his memories, he cannot recollect whether he has already told Arthur or was going to tell him. No more is needed. The rationale is economical and beautiful, fitting and enriching Merlyn’s personality.

"Insistence on plausibility and rationality can work for the writer, not against him. In developing his characters, he is obliged to go deeper instead of wider. And, as in all literature, characters are what ultimately count. The writer of fantasy may have a slight edge on the realistic novelist, who must present his characters within the confines of actuality. Fantasy, too, uses homely detail, but at the same time goes right to the core of a character, to extract the essence, the very taste of an individual personality. This may be one of the things that makes good fantasy so convincing. The essence is poetic truth."

Bridge Encounter by Rovina Cai

"Fantasy presents the world as it should be. But 'should be' does not mean that the realms of fantasy are Lands of Cockaigne where roasted chickens fly into mouths effortlessly opened. Sometimes heartbreaking, but never hopeless, the fantasy world as it 'should be' is one in which good is ultimately stronger than evil, where courage, justice, love, and mercy actually function. Thus, it may often appear quite different from our own. In the long run, perhaps not. Fantasy does not promise Utopia. But if we listen carefully, it may tell us what we someday may be capable of achieving."

The Chase by Rovina Cai

The wonderful imagery here is by Rovina Cai, from Melbourne, Australia. Born in 1988, she studied at the University of Melbourne, and at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Her publications include illustrations for Tintinnabula and Singing My Sister Down by Margo Lanagan, the Wayward Children series by Seanan McGuire, and Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë.

"My work is often inspired by the past," she says; "from myths and fairy tales to gothic novels, these stories resonate with me because they bring a little bit of magic and wonder to the present day."

Please visit Cai's website to see more of her work.

Tom  Thom by Rovina Cai

The passages above are from "The Flat-heeled Muse" by Lloyd Alexander, published in The Horn Book (April, 1965). All rights to the art and text reserved by the artist and the author's estate.


The words that matter

Charles Robinson

“For adults, the world of fantasy books returns to us the great words of power which, in order to be tamed, we have excised from our adult vocabularies. These words are the pornography of innocence, words which adults no longer use with other adults, and so we laugh at them and consign them to the nursery, fear masking as cynicism. These are the words that were forged in the earth, air, fire, and water of human existence, and the words are: Love. Hate. Good. Evil. Courage. Honor. Truth."

 - Jane Yolen (Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood)

Aesops illustrations by Charles Robinson

"Storytelling, like rhetoric, pulls us in through the cognitive mind as much as through the emotions. It answers both our curiosity and our longing for shapely forms: our profound desire to know what happens, and our persistent hope that what happens will somehow make sense. Narrative instructs us in both these hungers and their satisfaction, teaching us to perceive and to relish the arc of moments and the arc of lives. If shapeliness is an illusion, it is one we require -- it shields against arbitrariness and against chaos’s companion, despair. And story, like all the forms of concentration, connects. It brings us to a deepened coherence with the world of others and also within the many levels of the self.''

- Jane Hirshfield (Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry)

The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen illustrated by William Heath Robinson

"Words are intrinsically powerful. And there is magic in that. Words come from nothing into being. They are created in the imagination and given life on the human voice. You know, we used to believe -- and I am talking about all of us, regardless of our ethnic backgrounds -- in the magic of words. The Anglo-Saxon who uttered spells over his field so that the seeds would come out of the ground on the sheer strength of his voice, knew a good deal about language, and he believed absolutely in the efficacy of language. That man's faith -- and may I say, wisdom -- has been lost upon modern man, by and large. It survives in the poets of the world, I suppose, the singers. We do not now know what we can do with words. But as long as there are those among us who try to find out, literature will be secure; literature will be a thing worthy of our highest level of human being."

N. Scott Momaday (Survival This Way: Interviews with American-Indian Poets)

William Heath Robinson

The art today is by brothers Charles Robinson (1870-1937) and William Heath Robinson (1872-1944), who were raised in a family of artists in Finbury Park, north London. 

The Little Mermaid by William Heath Robinson


Letters, words, stories

Drawing by Chris Riddell

''Stories, like people and butterflies and songbirds' eggs and human hearts and dreams, are also fragile things, made up of nothing stronger or more lasting than twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks. Or they are words on the air, composed of sounds and ideas -- abstract, invisible, gone once they've been spoken -- and what could be more frail than that? But some stories, small, simple ones about setting out on adventures or people doing wonders, tales of miracles and monsters, have outlasted all the people who told them, and some of them have outlasted the lands in which they were created.''

- Neil Gaiman (Fragile Things)

"A story is not like a road to follow...it's more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you."

- Alice Munro (Selected Stories)

"I spent my life folded between the pages of books. In the absence of human relationships I formed bonds with paper characters. I lived love and loss through stories threaded in history; I experienced adolescence by association. My world is one interwoven web of words, stringing limb to limb, bone to sinew, thoughts and images all together. I am a being comprised of letters, a character created by sentences, a figment of imagination formed through fiction."

- Tahereh Mafi (Shatter Me)

Drawing by Chris Riddell

The drawings today are by the great Chris Riddell: illustrator, author, former UK Children's Laureate, and a tireless advocate for the importance of stories and art.


True names

Tilly on Nattadon

Continuing our discussion of the "language of place" with another passage from Robert Macfarlane's fine book Landmarks:

"The extraordinary language of the Outer Hebrides is currently being lost. Gaelic itself is in danger of withering on the tongue: the total number of those speaking or learning to speak Gaelic in Scotland is now around 58,000. Of those, many are understandably less interested in the intricacies of toponymy, or the exactitudes of what the language is capable of regarding landscape. Tim Robinson -- the great writer, mathematician and deep-mapper of the Irish Atlantic seaboard -- notes how with each generation in the west of Ireland 'some of the place-names are forgotten or becoming incomprehensible.' Often in the Outer Hebrides I have been told that younger generations are losing the literacy of the land....

Tilly and the pony

Dartmoor pony

"What is occurring in Gaelic is, broadly, occuring in English too -- and in scores of other languages and dialects. The nuances observed by specialized vocabularies are evaporating from common usage, burnt off by capital, apathay and urbanization. The terrain beyond the city fringe has become progressively more understood in terms of large generic units ('field,' 'hill,' valley,' 'wood'). It has become a blandscape. We are blasé about place, in the sense that Georg Simmel used the word in his 1903 essay 'The Metropolis and the Mental Life' -- meaning indifferent to the distinction between things.

"It is not, on the whole, that natural phenomena and entities themselves are disappearing; rather that there are fewer people to name them, and that once they go unnamed they go to some degree unseen. Language deficit leads to attention deficit. As we further deplete our ability to name, describe and figure particular aspects of our places, our competence for understanding and imagining possible relationships with non-human nature is correspondingly depleted. The enthno-linguist K. David Harrison bleakly declares that language death means the loss of 'long-cultivated knowledge that has guided human-environment interaction for millennia...accumulated wisdom and observations of generations of people about the natural world, plants, animals, weather, soil. The loss [is] incalculable, the knowledge almost unrecoverable.' Or as Tim Dee neatly puts it, 'Without a name in our mouths, an animal or a place struggles to find purchase in our minds or our hearts."

Dartmoor ponies

One question I've been pondering lately is: How can fantasy writers use the metaphorical language of our form to strengthen our relationship to place, and to ameliorate the "language deficit that leads to attention deficit"? How do we re-enchant the land, in art and actuality?

I'm working on some answers to those questions; and when I'm ready, I'll post them here.

 

Dartmoor ponies

Dartmoor ponies

Dartmoor dog

Words: The passage by Robert Macfarlane is quoted f rom Landmarks  (Hamish Hamilton, 2015; Penguin Books, 2016). The poem in the picture captions is from The Cloud Collector: Poems & Tale in Scots & English by Sheena Blackhall (Lochlands, 2015). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Tilly encounters Dartmoor ponies on the hill behind our house.


The mnemonics of words

Scorhill

Following on from last week's discussion of the language of place, this week is devoted to Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane's extraordinary book on the subject:

"Ultra-fine description operates in Hebridean Gaelic place-names," writes Macfarlane, "as well as in descriptive nouns. In the 1990s an English linguist called Richard Cox moved to northern Lewis, taught himself Gaelic, and spent several years retrieving and recording place-names in the Carloway district of Lewis's west coast. Carloway contains thirteen townships and around five hundred people; it is fewer than sixty square miles in area. But Cox's magnificent resulting work, The Gaelic Place-Names of Carloway, Isle of Lewis: Their Structures and Significance (2002), runs to almost five hundred pages and details more than three thousand place-names. Its eleventh section, titled "The Onimasticon,' lists the hundreds of toponyms identifying 'natural features' of the landscape. Unsurprisingly for such a martime culture, there is a proliferation of names for coastal features -- narrows, currents, indentations, projections, ledges, reefs -- often of exceeptional specificity. Beirgh, for instance, a loanword from the Old Norse, refers to ' a promontory or point with a bare, usually vertical rock face and sometimes with a narrow neck to land,' while corran has the sense of 'rounded point,' derived from its common meaning of 'sickle.'

Dartmoor sheep

Scorhill

"There are more than twenty different terms for eminences and precipices," Macfarlane continues, "depending on the sharpness of the summit and the aspects of the slope. Sìthean, for example, deriving from sìth, 'a fairy hill or mound,' is a knoll or hillock possessing the qualities which were thought to Looking into the Faery Hill by Alan Leeconstitute desirable real estate for fairies -- being well-drained, for instance, with a distinctive rise, and crowned by green grass. Such qualities also fulfilled the requirements for a good sheiling site, and so almost all toponyms including the word sìthean indicates sheiling locations. Characterful personifications of place also abound: A' Ghùig, for instance, means 'the steep slope of a scowling expression.'

"Reading 'The Onomasticon,' you realize that Gaelic speakers of this landscape inhabit a terrain which is, in Proust's phrase, 'magnificently surcharged with names.' For centuries these place-names have spilled their poetry into everyday Hebridean life. They have anthologized local history, anecdote and myth, binding story to place. They have been functional -- operating as territory markers and ownership designators -- and they have also served as navigational aids. Until well into the 20th century, most inhabitants of the Western Isles did not use conventional paper maps, but relied instead on memory maps, learnt on the island and carried in the skull.

A tributary of the Teign

"These memory maps were facilitated by first-hand experience and were also -- as Finlay [MacLeod] put it -- 'lit by the mnemonics of words.' For their users, these place-names were necessary for getting from location to location, and for the purpose of guiding others to where they needed to go. It is for this reason that so many toponyms incorporate what is known in psychology and design as 'affordance' -- the quality of an environment or object that allows an individual to perform an action on, to or with it. So a bealach is a gap in a ridge or cliff which may be walked through, but the element beàrn or beul in a place-name suggests an opening that is unlikely to admit human passage, as in Am Beul Uisg, 'the gap from which the water gushes.'  Blàr a' Chalchain means 'the plain of stepping stones,' while Clach an Line means 'rock of the link,' indicating a place where boats can be safely tied up. To speak out a run of these names is therefore to create a story of travel-- an act of naming that is also an act of wayfinding.

Scorhill

"Angus MacMillan, a Lewisian, remembers being sent by his father seven miles across Brindled Moor to fetch a missing sheep spotted by someone the night before: 'Cùl Leac Ghlas ri taobh Sloc an Fhithich fos cionn Loch na Muilne.' 'Think of it,' writes MacMillan drily, 'as an early form of GPS: the Gaelic Positioning System.' "

Dartmoor sheep

Dartmoor cows

The history and significance of place-names in land-based societies is something that those of us writing mythic fiction would do well to bear in mind -- whether we're working with myth or folktales born from a specific landscape, or creating an imaginary one.

"Invented names are a quite good index of writers' interest in their instrument, language, and ability to place it," says Ursula Le Guin. "To make up a name of a person or place is to open the way to the world of the language the name belongs to. It's a gate to Elsewhere. How do they talk in Elsewhere? How do we find out how they talk?"

Perhaps by knowing the land they walk. Which begins with knowing our own.

Dartmoor sheep

Scorhill

Words: The passage by Robert Macfarlane is quoted f rom Landmarks  (Hamish Hamilton, 2015; Penguin Books, 2016). The passage by Ursula K. Le Guin is quoted from her essay "Inventing Languages," in Words Are My Matter (Small Beer Press, 2016). The poem in the picture captions is from The Bonniest Companie by Kathleen Jamie (Picador, 2015). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures:. There is a mismatch of words and photographs in this post, I'm afraid, for my own recent journey north took me only to the Isle of Skye and not to the Lewis moor. The photographs above are of our moor, Dartmoor, near Scorhill, a bronze age stone circle. The illustration is "Looking Into the Fairy Hill" by my friend & neighbor Alan Lee. It's from his now-classic book Faeries, with Brian Froud (Abrams, 1978); all rights reserved by the artist


A vision of Middle-Earth

Cover art by Alan Lee

I have time for only the quickest of posts today, so I'd like use that time to direct your attention to a lovely BBC piece on my friend and neighbor Alan Lee: "How Do You Draw Tolkien's World?" -- in which he speaks about the newest Tolkien volume, Beren and Lúthien, among other things.

"I first encountered  The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings when I was eighteen," Alan told me once (for an article I wrote some years ago). "It felt as though Tolkien had taken every element I'd ever want in a story and woven them into one huge, seamless narrative. And, even more important for me, he had created a place -- a vast, beautiful, awesome landscape -- which lingered in the mind long after the protagonists had finished their battles and gone their separate ways."

Yes, that's it exactly.

Fairies of the wood by Alan LeeArt above, by Alan Lee: The cover painting for Beren and Lúthien; and an unrelated drawing, "Fairies of the wood," that I particularly love. All rights reserved by the artist.


The writer as wizard

Bluebells 1

Today, another passage from Ursula K. Le Guin's "Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?" to discuss; and this time it is one that you might find a bit more provocative (especially for readers who love the Harry Potter books):

Fiction writers, says Le Guin, "are slow beginners. Very few are worth much until they are thirty or so. Not because they lack life experience, but because their imagination hasn't had time to compost it, to meditate on what they've done and seen and felt, and to realize its value may lie less in its uniqueness than in its giving access to an understanding of the shared human condition. This requires imaginative work; and [realist] autobiographical first novels, self-centered and self-pitying, often suffer from lack of imagination.

Bluebells 2

"But many fantasies, works of so-called imaginative fiction, suffer from the same thing: imaginative poverty. The writers haven't actually used their imaginations, they don't make up anything -- they just move archetypes around in a game of wish fulfillment.

3

"In fantasy, since the fictionality of the fiction -- the inventions, the dragons -- are right out in front, it's easy to assume that the story has no relation at all to experience, that everything in a fantasy can be just the way a writer wants. No rules, all cards wild. All the ideas in fantasy are just wishful thinking -- right? Well, no. Wrong. It may be that the further a story gets from common experience and accepted reality, the less wishful thinking it can do, and the more firmly its essential ideas must be grounded in common experiences and accepted reality.

Bluebells 4

"Serious fantasy goes into regions of the psyche that may be very strange territory to the reader, dangerous ground; and for that reason, serious fantasy is usually both conservative and realistic about human nature. Its mode is usually comic, not tragic; that is, it has a more-or-less happy ending but, just as the tragic hero brings his tragedy on himself, the happy outcome in a fantasy novel is earned by the behavior of the protagonist. Serious fantasy invites the reader on a wild journey of invention, through wonders and marvels, through mortal risks and dangers -- all the time hanging on to a common, everyday, realistic morality. Generosity, reliability, compassion, and courage: in fantasy these moral qualities are seldom questioned. They are accepted, and they are tested -- often to the limit, and beyond.

Bluebells 5

"The people who write the stuff on book covers obsessively describe fantasy as 'a battle between good and evil,' but in commercial fantasy the battle is all; the white wizards and the black magicians are both mindlessly violent. It's not a moral struggle, just a power struggle. This is about as far from Tolkien as you can get.

Bluebells 6

"But why should moral seriousness matter, why do probability and consistency matter, when it's 'all just made up'? Well, moral seriousness is exactly what makes fantasy matter. The made-up story is inevitably trivial if nothing real is at stake. That's my problem with Harry Potter; all the powerful people are divided into good ones and bad ones, all of whom use their power for mere infighting and have nothing to do with people without power. Such easy wish fulfillment has a great appeal to children, who are genuinely powerless, but it worries me when adults fall for it. In the same way, the purer the invention, the more important its credibility, consistency, and coherence. The rules of the invented realm must be followed to the letter. All wizards, including writers, are extremely careful about their spells. Every word must be the right word. A sloppy wizard is a dead wizard. Serious fantasists delight in invention, in the freedom to invent, but they know that careless invention kills magic. Fantasy happily flouts fact, but it is just as concerned with truth as the direst realism."

Bluebells 7

Bluebells 8

Words: The passage above is from "Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?" by Ursula K. Le Guin, a talk for the Portland Arts & Lectures series, October, 2000, published in The World Spit Open (Tin House Books, 2014).  Pictures: Walking the bluebell path.