Seeing green

Wildflower path

Jill Paton Walsh on writing for children:

"I suppose that it is because literature is so abstract that people evince so little common sense about it. For children's writers, like other writers, practice a craft. I don't imagine many people think that a children's doctor need not be so good at medicine as his colleagues, or that a carpenter who  Heidi Reading by Jessie Wilcox Smithmakes toys can manage with shoddy joinery. The truth is that a book which is bad literature just doesn't have much effect of any kind; doesn't work for anyone, young or old. Like any other writer, a children's writer has got to be good.

"It isn't even true that there is somehow a different sort of goodness appropriate to children's books. The problems and the satisfactions of the writer-craftsman working for children are mainstream problems, mainstream satisfactions. I am taking it for granted that an adult writer will seek to embody and communicate adult insights in his books, will not solve problems by talking down to his audience. That being so, one might think that the writer for children has a much greater problem in getting himself understood. But that thought underestimates children, and over-values understanding.

Winding into the woods border=

"One doesn't specially want a child reader to understand intellectually, to (as it were) decode the message in a work of fiction. After all, he doesn't -- God keep us from it! -- have to sit an examination on his reading. It is enough, it is better, if the reader simply experiences a book, simply feels it. And a reader can feel truly on a very partial understanding.

A shimmer of bluebells

"I will instance my own children, watching the televised War and Peace. When Natasha met clandestinely with Kuriagin they became deeply agitated. She couldn't! -- what would happen? -- what about Prince Andre? -- oh dear no! Of course, they couldn't understand the passion that motivated Natasha; they saw it entirely as a question of loyalty. But it is that, among other things. They see only a part of the whole, but what they do see is seen truly, not in distortion.

Following the light

Old oak

"Fully understanding a book is too often like being led forward in front of a pointilliste painting, and shown how the green is made up of spots of pure blue and pure yellow. One 'understands,' but one can no longer see green.

Black dog

"I can do without being understood," Walsh concludes, "as long as the reader sees green. The problem of being comprehensible is an emotional, an aesthetic problem -- that of making the book adequately embody its meaning: that of getting the reader to 'see green' and making the seeing of green, just thus and then, emotionally meaningful. This is the central problem of literary art."

Moss, rock, and bluebells

Queen of the woods

Devon bluebells

Tilly in the springWords: The passages above and in the picture captions are from "Seeing Green" by Jill Paton Walsh, published in The Thorny Paradise: Writers on Writing for Children, edited by Edward Blishen (Kestral Books, 1975); all rights reserved by the author. I recommend seeking out Blishen's book and reading the essay in full. Pictures: Bluebell season in the woods behind the studio. The drawing is an illustration for Heidi by Jessie Willcox Smith (1863-1935).


Lloyd Alexander on blessings in disguise and the value of fantasy

Hillside 1

Lloyd Alexander (1924-2007) was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, served in military intelligence during World War II, studied at the University of Paris after the war, then worked in advertising and journalism (as a cartoonist and layout artist) while launching his career as a novelist. He initially wrote books for adults, but when he finally found his way to children's literature, he had found his true home. Generations have now grown up with his Prydain Chronicles and other extraordinary novels, which are classics of the fantasy field.

"I have to smile, remembering myself as a very much younger man," Alexander recalled in his Newbery Award acceptance speech (for The High King in 1969). "I was still looking for a way to say -- whatever it was, if anything, I had to say.

"Although it didn't feel that way at the time, those years were a blessing, heavily disguised. Or, say, the kind of gift the enchantresses Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch bestow on the unwitting recipient. Perhaps we have to serve an apprenticeship to life before we can serve one to art. We can't begin doing our best for children until we ourselves begin growing up.

Hillside 2

"I still can't say,  precisely what unreasonable reasons brought me to write for children -- beyond saying I simply wanted to. Even though I can't analyze what led me to children's literature, I do know what I found there. For me, a true form of art that not only helped me understand something of what I wanted to say but also let me discover ideas, attitudes, and feelings I never suspected were there in the first place....

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Hillside 4

"At heart, the issues raised in a work of fantasy are those we face in real life. In whatever guise -- our own daily nightmares of war, intolerance, inhumanity, or the struggles of an Assistant Pig-Keeper against the Lord of Death -- the problems are agonizingly familiar. And an openness to compassion, love, and mercy is as essential to us here and now as it is to any inhabitant of an imaginary kingdom."

Which confirms my belief that we need literature now, and especially fantasy literature, more than ever.

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Hillside 7The text above is from Lloyd Alexander's acceptance speech for the Newbery Medal in 1969; all rights reserved by the author's estate.


Running with the wolves

Wolf Warrior by Susan Seddon Boulet

To carry on with yesterday's discussion...

Of all wild stories, the ones involving wolves seem somehow the wildest, for the wolf is an animal who carries our love and fear of wilderness in equal measure. A wide range of wolf mythology can be found around the world wherever wolves have roamed: in some tales they are depicted as culture heroes and loyal companions to the gods; in others they are devilish, destructive figures, enemies of the gods and humankind alike, agents of primal chaos.

Leaping wolf by Jackie Morris

"The tradition of the wolf as warrior-hero is older than recorded history," writes Barry Lopez in his magnificent book Of Men and Wolves. "The legend of Romulus and Remus and other wolf children point up another ancient image, that of the benevolent wolf-mother. The deaths of those taken for werewolves and burned alive in the Middle Ages represent yet another, focusing negative feelings about the wolf.

"I have written about the wolf as a symbol of twilight; other writers have suggested, and I agree with them, that the wolf is a symbol reflecting two human alternatives at war: instinctual urges and rational behavior. In Hesitant Wolf and Scrupulous Fox, Karen Kennerly says the wolf is the creature who is most like us in fable. 'Out of phase with himself,' she says, 'he is defeated alternately by hubris and naivete. He becomes the irreconcilability between instinct and rational thought.' His attempts to live a rational life is defeated by his urge to behave basely. Thus, the human and bestial natures. The central conflict between man's good and evil natures is revealed in his twin images of the wolf as a ravening killer and as nurturing mother. The former was the werewolf; the latter the mother to children, like Romulus and Remus, who found nations."

Pappa Wolf and Tree by Tricia Cline

The wolves of myth, of course, are human creations, and have little to do with the actual lives of wolves living in the wild -- a subject that has been studied extensively by scientists of many different stripes in modern times, and about which there is much we still don't know, or fully understand. Wolf packs are complex, sophisticated systems -- and it seems that every time wolf scholars assert theories about precisely how they work, new data arises to shatter those theories. In a world where we like to map and track and pin knowledge down into cold, hard facts, the wolves elude us, slipping back into dark, starless night of mystery.

This makes them irresistible creatures for writers of "wild stories," and the howling of wolves can be found in many good (and not-so-good) works of fantasy fiction.

Van Tsarevich riding the Gray Wolf by Viktor Vasnetsov

One of my favorite wolf stories is a recent one, The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell. It's an absolutely splendid novel, which I'll let the author describe herself:

"The Wolf Wilder," says Rundell, "is a fairy tale of sorts; in it, two children ride wolves across Russia in the snow. Much of fiction writing involves finding new ways to talk about old desires, and mine is a litany of all the things I dreamt of as a child: snow, knife, skis, wolf, boy. My source-text was the glorious Russian fairy tale, The Tale of Ivan Tsarevich, the Firebird and the Grey Wolf. In it Ivan Tsarevich, the son of a Tsar, is sent to catch a firebird that is eating his father's apples. He comes to a crossroads where a choice is set out: 'Whoever goes to the right shall die. Whoever goes along the Ivan and Grey Wolf by Ivan Bilibin (1876-1942)middle way will have his horse devoured by the grey wolf.' Ivan takes the middle road and, in the blunt diction of fairy tales, the grey wolf does indeed eat his horse, then suggests that Ivan ride on his own back to glory, instead.

"What I remember most clearly is one line. 'The grey wolf said, 'Get on my back and hang on tightly': and the wolf carried him off 'just as if he were on a swan's back.' That line reverberates with desire, both childlike and adult. It captures the doubleness of innocence and experience in fairy tales -- as Carol Ann Duffy writes in her poem 'Little Red Cap': What little girl doesn't dearly love a wolf?

"Shape-shifting wolves have always had cultural bite. The very first transformation scene in Ovid is also one of the earliest fictional accounts of lycanthropy, and was always the story in the Metamorphoses that I, as an unpleasant child, loved most. King Lycaon murders a hostage sent from Epirus, cooks his limbs 'still warm with life, boiling some and roasting others over the fire,' and serves it to Zeus as a feast that doubles as a taunt. In vengeance, Zeus strikes his palace with lightning and sends Lycaon out into the wild. 'There he uttered howling noises, and his attempts to speak were in vain. His clothes changed into bristling hairs, his arms to legs, and he became a wolf. His own savage nature showed in his rabid jaws.' Transformation, in Ovid, is a kind of truth-telling.

Riding Riding Hood by Gustav Dore

"Wolves offer a straightforward kind of truth, too," Rundell continues. "In Charles Perrault's 1697 version of Little Red Riding Hood; girls who get into bed with strange men don't survive. The wolf, for Perrault, is an entirely unsubtle stand-in for human lust. Angela Carter took Perrault's stories and inverted them; the result was The Bloody Chamber. Carter's world transforms the tradition of captured, passive girls; instead, it is delicious and dangerous: all dirt and diamonds, dust on mirrors, girls with architectural cheekbones and red cloaks. The young women in her tales are their own fairy godmothers. Her Red Riding Hood, faced with a wolf in the bed, 'burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody's meat.' Elsewhere, Carter wrote: "I really do believe that a fiction absolutely self-conscious of itself as a different form of human experience than reality (that is, not a logbook of events) can help to transform reality itself. 'Fairy tales remind us that we are so very hungry; the human appetite for other humans is insatiable, and Carter embraces hunger. A little bit of something wild does you good.' "

(I recommend reading Rundell's article, "The Greatest Literary Wolves," in full.)

Little Red Riding Hood by Adrienne Segur

My other favorite wolf story of recent years is Sarah Hall's finely-crafted novel The Wolf Border, about the re-introduction of wolves on a vast estate on the border of Cumbria and Scotland. This is a contemporary, largely Realist story with one slight fantasy element: in Hall's fictional world, the Scottish Referendum of 2014 has ended with Scottish independence. I admit that it took me a while to warm to the novel's protogonist, zoologist Rachael Caine, a damaged and damaging character -- but that, it turns out, is the point of the book. Rachael's emotional journey, paired with the saga of her wolves, is beautifully rendered, and I loved this book without reservation by the last page and journey's end. 

Unlike the wolves of fantasy, Hall's wolves are never more or less than animals, fulfilling naturalist Henry Beston's vision that "the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth."

Wolf photograph by Cole Young

Wolf Thoughts by Jackie Morris

This is not to disparage the wolves of fantasy literature, whose stories satisfy in a wholly different way: they are metaphorical tales exploring our relationship with the wild (for good or ill), and they work on us the way myths and fairy tales work on us: indirectly, symbolically, poetically, and below the level of conscious thought.

"Fantasy," explains Ursula Le Guin, "is a different approach to reality, an alternative technique for apprehending and coping with existence. It is not antirational, but pararational; not realistic but surrealistic, a heightening of reality. In Freud's terminology, it employs primary, not secondary process thinking. It employs archetypes, which, as Jung warned us, are dangerous things. Fantasy is nearer to poetry, to mysticism, and to insanity than naturalistic fiction is. It is a wilderness, and those who go there should not feel too safe....It is a journey into the subconscious mind, just as psychoanalysis is. Like pyschoanalysis, it can be dangerous; and it will change you."

Zar by Igor Oleinikov

The best wolves in fantasy are the ones that haunt your dreams when the book is done: Nighteyes in the Farseer books of Robin Hobb; the feral wizard-wolf at the heart of The Book of Atrix Wolfe by Patricia A. McKillp; the motorcycle-riding shapeshifters in The Evil Wizard Smallbone by Delia Sherman; the wild wolf-raised heroine of The Firekeeper Saga by Jane Lindskold; the mysterious Stephen, raised by wolves, in Alice Hoffman's darkly romantic Second Nature; the deliciously sinister Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken; or the frightening yet alluring beasts in Angela Carter's "The Company of Wolves" (and the movie made from it).

A list of good "wolf fantasy" would also surely have to include: Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George (winner of the Newbery Medal); Wolf  by Gillian Cross (winner of the Carnegie Medal, based on Little Red Riding Hood); Children of the Wolf by Jane Yolen (based on a real-life "feral children" tale), A Companion to Wolves by Sarah Monette & Elizabeth Bear; and The Sight by David Clement-Davies (told from a wolf pack's point of view). Please recommend other wolf tales I haven't mentioned here in the Comments.

Pope Tricksie and the Wolves by Tricia Cline

Chiara Baustista

Wolf people by Susan Seddon Boulet & Kirill Chelushkin

Barry Lopez points out that benevolent wolves are more common in modern literature than they were in ancient myth and legend:

"I think, somehow, that looking for the wolf-mother [or -father, or steadfast companion] is the stage we are at now in history. If we go back to the time of Lycaon and follow the development of the wolf image through the Dark and Middle Ages to the present, the overriding impression is that of a sinister creature. But [now], whether out of guilt or because we have reached such a level of civilization as to allow us the thought, we are looking for a new wolf. We seem eager to be corrected, to know how wrong our ideas about wolves have been, how complex the creature really is, how ultimately unfathomable. What we are looking for, I think, is a way to return mystery to the animals, and distance and selfhood, and thereby dignity.

"Almost like errant children, we seem to want forgiveness from the wolves. And I think that takes great courage.

Wolf Boy by Danielle Barlow

"It may be reasonable to expect most people to dismiss the notion of a nurturing wolf as a naive person's referent," Lopez adds, "but that doesn't seem wise to me. When, from the prisons of our cities, we look out to the wilderness, when we reach intellectually for such abstractions as the privilege of leading a life free from nonsensical conventions, or one without guilt or subterfuge -- in short, a life of integrity -- I think we can turn to wolves. We do sense in them courage, stamina, and a straightforwardness of living; we do sense that they are somehow correct in the universe and we are still at odds with it.

"As our sense of sharing the planet with other creatures grows -- and perhaps that is ultimately the goal of natural history -- the deep contemplation of wolves may be seen as part of an attempt to nurture the humbler belief that there is more to the world than mankind."

Perhaps that is the ultimate goal of Mythic Arts as well.

Tales of the Firebird by Gennady Spirin

The Wolf Border and The Wolf Wilder

Little Evie in the Wildwood by Catherine HydePictures: The art above is: "Wolf Warrior" by Susan Seddon Boulet, a leaping wolf on gold by Jackie Morris, "Papa Wolf & Tree" by Tricia Cline, "Van Tsarevich Riding the Gray Wolf" by Viktor Vasnetsov, "Ivan & the Wolf" by Ivan Bilibin, "Little Red Riding Hood" by Gustave Doré, "Little Red Riding Hood "by Adrienne Segur, a grey wolf photographed by Cole Young, "Wolf Thoughts" by Jackie Morris, "Zar" by Igor Oleinikov, "Pope Tricksie & the Wolves" by Tricia Cline, "What to do with all this love?" by Chiara Baustista, "The Dreamcatcher" by Susan Seddon Boulet, "Wolf" by Kirill Chelushkin, "Wolf Bloy" by Danielle Barlow, "Tales of the Firebird" by Gennady Spirin, bedside reading, and "Little Evie in the Wildwood" by Catherin Hyde. Words: The passages by Barry Lopez are from his ground-breaking book Of Wolves and Men (Scribners, 1978); the passage by Katherine Rundell is from her article "The Greatest Literary Wolves"  (The Telegraph, September 2015). Both are recommended. All rights to the art and text above are reserved by the artists and authors.


Wild stories

Wild companion

Winged deer tapestry

The Bumblehill studio

While the world of human affairs goes on its noisy, alarming way, I return again and again to the woods and hills behind my studio. To moss. To mud. To the dark, damp mulch of leaves carpeting the forest floor. To the strength of granite and the swift ways of water. To the prickly beauty of holly and gorse. To the patience of seed and bulb and skeletal trees...all waiting, like me, for the spring.

I keep leaving my desk, Tilly close at my heels, crossing from the imaginary landscapes of writing or reading to a world I can touch, and smell, and taste: to the old stone wall at the edge of the treeline, and pathways trodden through bracken by ponies and sheep. To streams filled with rain, bogs thick with mud, fields that glitter with morning frost. To the cold winter wind. To discomfort. To pain. To joy. To the things that are real.

An occupational hazard for the solitary writer is to live in the realm of the mind alone (or the shadowlands of the Internet), and not in the body, the senses, the wild rhythms of the local groundscape we each inhabit, whether rural or urban. For many of us in the fantasy field, the wild world is the very place that we seek to conjure and enter through stories and paintings -- and so we must not neglect our relationship with the elemental wild around us. In our kind of work, "magic" is not a metaphor for gaining power, control, or authority, but for our numinous connection with natural world, and our nonhuman neighhbors. It is wild work. It is soul work. And we need wild stories right now, more than ever.

Wild words

"I have a sense," writes Kate Bernheimer (author & editor of The Fairy Tale Review) "that a proliferation of magical stories, especially fairy tales, is correlated to a growing human awareness of separation from the wild and natural world. In fairy tales, the human and animal worlds are equal and mutually dependent. The violence, suffering, and beauty are shared. Those drawn to fairy tales, perhaps, wish for a world that 'might live forever.' My work as a preservationist of fairy tales is entwined with all kinds of extinction."

Edmund Dulac illustration

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"Writing," says Sylvia Linsteadt, "is my way into the heart of the world -- its wildness, its strange magic, its beauty, its terrors, its sadness, its joy. Metaphor (a favorite of mine) is an act of shape-shifting, of remembering that each thing is hitched to the next in the great cyclical transformation of energy, from sun to seed to doe to cougar and back to worm; the line between ourselves and the wild world is thin indeed. Writing (thick with metaphor) is the means through which I can praise the wild mystery of this world, and also explore its unseen realms -- the realms inside the hearts of bears and granite stones and buckeye trees; the lands just the other side of the moon and the fog, the lives of men and women long ago or just around the corner. If I were buckeye tree, then writing would be the buckeyes that fruit at the ends of my limbs come late August. In other words, writing is the thing made in me from all the waters and winds and soils and stories that come through my five senses (or six), and it feels very inevitable, like the buckeyes at the end of summer.

Kay Nielsen illustration

HJ Owen illustration

"Also, I have always been an avid reader," Sylvia continues; "especially as a child I devoured books that told of magical worlds and lands, lady-knights and healers, the everyday peasant life of Old Europe (especially Scotland & Ireland), talking animals, caravans of camel nomads, druids, long adventures on horseback. Such books literally shaped and changed my life. They informed the way I see the world today -- as a place much more mysterious and full of wild magics than we tend to believe, where everything is alive and everything speaks. So I write because writing is even better than reading in the sense that you really get to go to those places in your imagination, and give them to other people. The stories we tell ourselves and each other form the world in which we live."

Edmund Dulac illustration

Our task, as David Abram sees is, "is that of taking up the written word, with all its potency, and patiently, carefully, writing language back into the land. Our craft is that of releasing the budded, earthly intelligence of our words, freeing them to respond to the speech of things themselves -- the the green uttering-forth of leaves from the spring branches. It is the practice of spinning stories that have a rhythm and lilt of the local soundscape, tales for the tongue, tales that want to be told, again and again, sliding off the digital screen and slipping off the lettered page to inhabit the coastal forests, those desert canyons, those whispering grasslands and valley and swamps."

 "Storytellers ought not to be too tame," Ben Okri agrees. "They ought to be wild creatures who function adequately in society.  They are best in disguise.  If they lose all their wildness, they cannot give us the truest joys."

Edmund Dulac illustration

Jay Griffiths adds: "What is wild cannot be bought or sold, borrowed or copied. It is. Unmistakeable, unforgettable, unshamable, elemental as earth and ice, water, fire and air, a quitessence, pure spirit, resolving into no contituents. Don't waste your wildness: it is precious and necessary."

Adrienne Segur illustration

Illustration by Adrienne Segur

Wild storiesWords: The passage by Sylvia Linsteadt is from an interview by Asia Sular (Woolgathering & Wildcrafting, Sept. 2014), which I recommend reading in full. Kate Bernheimer's quote is from the Introduction to her anthology My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales (Penguin, 2010); Ben Okri's quote is from his essay collection A Way of Being Free (W&N, 1997);  Jay Griffith's quote is from Wild: An Elemental Journey (Penguin, 2007). All three books are recommded. All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: My quiet hillside studio on a rainy day -- with the hound, works-in-progress, old fairy tale books, and bits of the wild slipping in from the woods.


Fairy tales and fantasy, when the need is greatest

The Cock and the Fox by Milo Winter

"In an age that seems to be increasingly dehumanized, when people can be transformed into non-persons, and where a great deal of our adult art seems to diminish our lives rather than add to them, children's literature insists on the values of humanity and humaneness."  - Lloyd Alexander

Two illustrations for Alice in Wonderland by Milo Winter

"The great subversive works of children's literature suggest that there are other views of human life besides those of the shopping mall and the corporation. They mock current assumptions and express the imaginative, unconventional, noncommercial view of the world in its simplest and purest form. They appeal to the imaginative, questioning, rebellious child within all of us, renew our instinctive energy, and act as a force for change. This is why such literature is worthy of our attention and will endure long after more conventional tales have been forgotten." 

- Alison Lurie (Don't Tell the Grown-Ups)

Alice in Wonderland by Milo Winter

"The fairy tale, which to this day is the first tutor of children because it was once the first tutor of mankind, secretly lives on in the story. The first true storyteller is, and will continue to be, the teller of fairy tales. Whenever good counsel was at a premium, the fairy tale had it, and where the need was greatest, its aid was nearest."

- Walter Benjamin ("The Storyteller," Selected Writings: 1935-1938)

Thumbelina & The Wild Swans by Milo Winter

"This is the thing about fairy tales: You have to live through them, before you get to happily ever after. That ever after has to be earned, and not everyone makes it that far."

- Kat Howard (Roses and Rot)

Belling the Cat by Milo Winter

"If you read fairy tales carefully, you’ll notice they are mostly about people who aren’t heroes. They don’t have special powers, or gifts. Often they are despised as stupid, They are bullied, beaten up, robbed, starved. But they find they are stronger than their misfortunes." 

- Amanda Craig (In a Dark Wood)

The Tortoise and the Hare by Milo Winter

"People who’ve never read fairy tales have a harder time coping in life than the people who have. They don’t have access to all the lessons that can be learned from the journeys through the dark woods and the kindness of strangers treated decently, the knowledge that can be gained from the company and example of Donkeyskins and cats wearing boots and steadfast tin soldiers. I’m not talking about in-your-face lessons, but more subtle ones. The kind that seep up from your sub-conscious and give you moral and humane structures for your life. That teach you how to prevail, and trust. And maybe even love." 

- Charles de Lint (The Onion Girl)

From Aesop's for Children by Milo Winter

From Aesop for Children by Milo Winter

The art today is by the American illustrator Milo Winter (1888-1956).

Born in Princeton, New Jersey, Winter trained at The School of the Arts Institute in Chicago, and illustrated his first children's book (Billy Popgun) at the age of 24. He lived in Chicago until the 1950s, and in New York City thereafter, illustrating a wide range of books for both children and adults -- including Gulliver’s Travels, Tanglewood Tales, Arabian Nights, Alice in Wonderland, Twenty Thousand Leagures Under the Sea, The Three Muskateers, Treasure Island, A Christmas Carol Aesops for Children, and  Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales.

Two illustrations for Billy Popgun by Milo Winter

The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse by Milo Winter


Death in Folk & Fairy Tales

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

Once upon a time there was a poor tailor who could barely feed his twelve children. When the thirteenth was born, the distraught man ran out to the road nearby determined to find someone to stand as godfather to the child. He knew of no other way that he could provide for his newborn son. The first person to pass was God, but the poor tailor rejected him. "God gives to the rich and takes from the poor. I'll wait for another to come." The second to pass was the Devil, but the poor tailor rejected him too. "He lies and cheats and leads good men astray. I'll wait for another." The third man to pass was Death, and the poor tailor considered him carefully. "Death treats all men alike, whether rich or poor. He's the one I'll ask."

Godfather Death by John B. GruelleNow Death had never been asked such a thing before, but he agreed at once. "Your child shall lack for nothing," he said, "for I am a powerful friend indeed." The years went by and he kept his word. The boy and his family lacked for nothing. When the boy finally came of age, his Godfather Death appeared before him. "It is time to establish you in the world. You are to become a great physician. Take this magical herb, the cure for any malady of this earth. Look for me when you're called to a patient's bed. If you see me at its head then give them a tincture of the herb and your patient will be well. But if you see me at the foot, you'll know it is their time to die. Your diagnosis will always be right, and you will be famous around the world."

And so it was. The young man became the most famous doctor of his time, and his fame spread far and wide until it reached the ears of the king. The king lay sick in his golden bed and he summoned the tailor's son to him. But when the young doctor arrived at last in the richly appointed bedchamber, he saw that the king was gravely ill and that Death stood at his feet. Now this king was much beloved and the young man wanted to cure him very much. He quickly instructed the court attendants to turn the bed the opposite way, and he then restored the king to health with a tincture of the magical herb. Death was not pleased. He shook his long, bony finger at his godson and said, "You must never cheat me again. If you do, it will be the worse for you."

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

The young man took this warning to heart and did not cross his godfather again -- until the king's daughter fell ill and he was summoned back to the palace. This was the good king's only child. He was desperate to see her well. "Save her life," said the king, "I shall give you her hand in marriage." The doctor went to the lovely maiden's bedchamber, where Death was waiting. He stood at the foot of the princess's bed, ready to take her away. "Don't cross me again," his godfather warned, but the doctor was half in love already. He ordered the princess's bed to be turned and he gave her the herbal tincture.

The princess was healed immediately, but Death reached out a cold, white hand and clamped it on his godson's arm, saying. "You'll go with me instead." He took the young man into a cave, its wall niches covered with millions of candles. "Here," he said, "are candles burning for every life upon the earth. Each time a candle grows low and snuffs out, a life is ended. This one is yours." Death pointed to a candle that had burned down to a pool of wax. "Please," his godson begged, "for many years I was your faithful servant. Please, Godfather Death, won't you light a new candle for me?" Death gazed at him remorselessly. The candle sputtered and flickered out. The young doctor fell down dead.

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

This story, titled Godfather Death, comes from the German folk tales of the Brothers Grimm. It can also be found in variant forms in a number of other countries as well -- such as The Shepherd and the Three Diseases from Greece, The Just Man from Italy, The Soul-Taking Angel from Armenia, The Contract with Azrael from Egypt, Dr. Urssenbeck from Austria, and The Boy With the Keg of Ale from Norway. It's one of a number of folk and fairy tales in which Death is personified: sometimes as a frightening figure, sometimes as a compassionate one, and sometimes as a matter-of-fact man or woman with a job to do.

There are many tales in which Death is out-witted, such as Jump In My Sack from Slovenia -- in which a young man pleases a powerful fairy who offers him two magic wishes. He asks for a sack which will suck in whatever he names, and a stick that will do all he asks. These wishes are granted, and the young man uses the sack to bring him meat and drink, until he comes to a great city and falls in with a group of gamblers. Death (or the Devil, in an Italian version of the tale) is among the gamblers in disguise, amusing himself at the gaming table by luring men to financial ruin and then collecting their souls when they are driven to suicide. The young man sees through Death's disguise. He orders the sack to suck Death up, then orders the stick to beat him soundly. At length Death begs for mercy, promising the young man whatever he wants. The young man asks for the restoration to life of all his gambling friends, and then orders Death to leave at once and to stay far away from him. But many years later, old and ill, he has second thoughts about this bargain. He now uses the sack to call Death back, and is grateful to be led away.

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

In a number of tales Death is outwitted and banished with dire consequences. The old, the ill, and the fatally wounded do not die, but linger in agony until finally the importance of Death's role can no longer be ignored. In a Spanish tale, an old woman traps Death in her pear tree and will not let him go until he promises to never come back. The woman's name is Tia Miseria (Aunt Misery), and as long as Death keeps his promise to her, we'll have misery in the world. In a similar tale from Portugal, Death outwits the old woman in the end -- but finds her so shrewish, he promptly brings her back to her house and flees.

Some tales feature a Godmother Death, such as versions of the stories told in Slovenia and Moravia, and across the sea in America's Appalachian Mountain region. The depiction of death as male or female depended on the culture, the times, and the storyteller, but examples of both are widely found in folk tales the world over. In Death and the Maiden, a story known in both folk tale and folk ballad form, the interaction of a male Death figure and the well-born young woman he's come to claim has an almost seductive quality. She tries to bargain for her life, offering up her gold and jewels, as he gently explains that she must go with him that very night. In some pictorial representations of the story, Death is portrayed as a knight clad in black; in others, more frighteningly, he is a skeleton in knightly clothes. (Franz Schubert drew on this tale for his lovely Quartet in D Minor: Death and the Maiden, composed in 1824.) In a Turkish fairy tale, The Prince Who Longed for Immortality, a male Death figure is pitted against the Queen of Immortality. They wager over who will get the hero by throwing him up in the air. In a story from northern Italy, Death is portrayed as a lovely young woman. She's an unwelcome guest in the palace when her true identity is revealed (as she takes the handsome young king away) — but a welcome guest in the cottage of a poor, old woman who's been waiting for her.

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

In early medieval representations, Death was usually masculine: powerful, pitiless, omnipresent. Clad in black, he was the Grim Reaper who cut men and women down in their prime, prince and poet and pauper alike. In the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, we find more examples of Death as a woman — such as Donna La Morte in Petrarch's famous poem, "The Triumph of Death," who appears suddenly all "black, and in black" to claim the life of a young noblewoman. The Dance of Death (or Danse Macabre) first appeared in the middle of the 14th century as the Black Death ravaged its way across Europe. The Dance of Death originated in the form of a Christian spectacular play, performed in churchyards and cemeteries among charnel houses and graves. Death appeared here as masked, skeletal figures intent on leading away a series of victims (twenty-four in number) from all classes of society. The victims would protest, offering reasons why they and they alone should be spared, but in the end all are danced off to the grave while the fiddlers play. This was paired with sermons stressing that death could strike anyone at any time, exhorting the audience to prepare themselves and live free of sin.

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

In Italy in the following century, death spectacles were more elaborately staged. As Charles B. Herbermann and George Charles Williams describe them (in the Catholic Encyclopedia): "After dark a huge wagon, draped in black and drawn by oxen, drove through the streets of the city. At the end of the shaft was seen the Angel of Death blowing the trumpet. On the top of the wagon stood a great figure of Death carrying a scythe and surrounded by coffins. Around the wagons were covered graves which opened whenever the procession halted. Men dressed in black garments on which were painted skulls and bones came forth and, seated on the edge of the graves, sang dirges on the shortness of human life. Before and behind the wagon appeared men in black and white bearing torches and death masks, followed by banners displaying skulls and bones and skeletons riding on scrawny nags. While they marched the entire company sang the Miserere with trembling voices."

Death in the Rider Waite tarot deckThere are many pictorial representations of the Triumph of Death and the Dance of Death, such as the woodcuts created by Hans Holbein in 1538. Holbein's series begins with the Creation, Temptation, Expulsion, and Consequences of the Original Sin, resulting in Death's entry into the world. The fifth woodcut depicts the dead as skeletons in a cemetery, cavorting with musical instruments. The subsequent images show various figures being danced to their graves, from a high-born Pope to a lowly Beggar. The final images show the Last Judgment, and the triumph of God over Death. Death also appears as a skeleton in the earliest extant Tarot cards, which first appeared in Italy and France in the 14th century. Use of the cards was limited then because each deck had to be painted by hand. With 16th century printing techniques, their use became more widespread. In the Marseille deck from this period, Death is a genderless, skeletal figure, holding a scythe and standing on a field of bones. The better known Rider Waite Tarot deck (illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith) dates back only to 1910, but draws on symbolic imagery from an earlier period. Here, Death appears as a skeletal knight, dressed in black armor, seated on a white horse. This imagery echoes Holbein's woodcuts, and Albrecht Dürer's 16th century engraving "Knight, Death, and the Devil."

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

My friend and colleague Midori Snyder is a writer who has worked with the folklore of death in several ways ( in her elegiac faery novel Hannah's Garden, her children's story "Jack Straw" [read it online here], and in a novel-in-progress based on an Italian fairy tale),  so I asked her for her thoughts on the subject:

"There are many characters in folklore associated with death," Midori responded, "various death-announcers and death-dealers, but I would suggest that they are not actually Death figures, as in a Mr. or Ms. Death personified. Morrigan, the Irish goddess of War, for example, revels not only in the glory of war but also its violence and carnage: the taste of fear, the scent blood, the dying moments of warriors on the battlefield. Flying above the battle in the form of a black crow, she is a figure of Fate, like the Valyries of Norse myth, foretelling who will live and who will die...but she is not Death herself. The various incubi and succubi of European folk legend are death-dealers, in their actions are fatal to the luckless mortals who get tangled up with them...but they aren't Death, either. Their interest is in specific individuals (generally those who catch their sexual interest), whereas Death is an equal opportunity killer. Death takes the child, the adult, the old, the young, the strong, the weak. Death doesn't discriminate, but moves over everything in a constantly shifting, unpredictable pattern. That is what is so terrifying, the way death resists being slotted into a known plan. All we know is that it will happen -- but never when and never how. Tales such as Godfather Death, or the medieval Dance of Death, specifically addressed this idea and this terror -- as opposed to folklore's other death-dealing creatures, who select very specific victims. Edgar Allan Poe's frightening story 'Masque of the Red Death' plays with the idea that one imagines one can foretell and identify Death, and therefore keep him/her out. And what is chilling in the tale is the sheer ease with which Death infiltrates the masque with the rest of the revelers."

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez 10

"I've also been thinking about the differences in those stories where the dead live in an alternate world to ours," Midori continues. "The Greek god of the Underworld, Hades, is not a Mr. Death figure, but, rather, he is the King of the Dead, content to rule over the souls who have come to him instead of going out and nabbing them himself. Likewise in the Christian tradition, where those who die are 'born to eternal life' in heaven or hell, Christ isn't a Mr. Death, and neither is Satan (especially if one thinks of Dante's image of him, frozen in a bed of ice), although both have something to say about dead souls in the afterlife.

"When we look at myth, specifically at that cycle of tales in which death is brought into the world (often by a bumbling Trickster figure), death is rarely personified. It moves like a force of nature, invisible and ubiquitous. Death happens. But in folk and fairy tales, death acquires a face, a figure, a point of consolidation -- which allows the protagonist of the tale, when confronted with his or her mortality, to recognize the moment at hand. The personified images of Mr. or Ms. Death are generally of the wanderer, the traveler, the one not bound by place or position. The very anonymity and flexibility of personified Death insures the equality with which death meets us all...high and low.

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

"Death is also a mirror reflection of ourselves. In medieval and Renaissance pictorial representations, Death often wears a tattered, mirror version of the clothes his victim wears. It is, after all, for each of us, our Death that we meet, no one else's. In the stories where he appears, Mr. Death is a reflection -- a concrete, externalized image of the protagonist's death. And therefore his/her appearance has something to say about the character whose death it is that has arrived. From the Grim Reaper of medieval legend to the elegant young stranger in Peter Beagle's story 'Come Lady Death' or the 'woman in white' in Bob Fose's All That Jazz, from Shiva with her voluptuous form and deadly arms to Johnny Depp in Jim Jarmusch's haunting film Dead Man, Death appears in a variety of guises but also functions differently as a narrative sign. Coyote's death in Trickster myths, for example, is experienced (and read) very differently than the death proffered by the skeletal knight who comes to take the Maiden away. The first is read as temporary, because Coyote always come back to life -- while the other is frighteningly permanent. The skeleton reflects what the Maiden will become. Indeed, what we'll all become."

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

Death is a frequent theme in fairy tales -- as well as the stark realities of death's aftermath, for many stories begin with the death of one or both of the hero's parents. Fairy tale historian Marina Warner points out that death in childbirth was far more common in centuries prior to our own and the prevalence of step-children and orphans in fairy tales reflected a social reality. Many of these tales (in their pre-Victorian forms) were exceedingly violent, including those gathered by the Brothers Grimm in editions published for German children. Though the Grimms are known to have edited their fairy tales with a rather heavy hand, stripping them of sensuality and moral ambiguity, they had no such qualms about leaving much of the worst violence intact. (Indeed, as scholar Maria Tatar has noted, in some stories they beefed it up.) Murder, cannibalism, and infanticide are staples of the fairy tale genre. From Bluebeard with his chamber of horrors to the goodwife in The Juniper Tree who decapitates her inconvenient step-son, death is a very real threat in the tales -- yet it does not always have the last word. In Fitcher's Bird (a Bluebeard variant), the heroine not only outwits the wizard who aims to marry then murder her, but she's able to bring the hacked-up bodies of her predecessors back to life. The step-son in The Juniper Tree returns to earth in the form of a bird. Cinderella's dead mother returns as a fish (in the oldest, Chinese version of the story), a cow (in a Scottish variant), or a tree (in the version found in Grimms), watching over her daughter and whispering wise words of advice.

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

Another good example is the story of Snow White. Our heroine is not merely sleeping but dead, in the early versions of her tale: displayed in a glass coffin, her form incorruptible, like a saint's. The necrophilic overtones of the story are most evident in a 16th century Italian version called The Crystal Casket. In this tale, the heroine is persuaded to introduce her teacher to her widowed father. Marriage ensues, but instead of gratitude, the teacher treats her step-daughter cruelly. An eagle helps the girl to escape and hides her in a palace of fairies. The step-mother then hires a witch, who sells poisoned sweetmeats to the girl. She eats one and dies. The fairies revive her. The witch strikes again, disguised as a tailoress with a beautiful dress to sell. When the dress is laced up, the girl falls down dead -- and this time the fairies will not revive her. (They're miffed that she keeps ignoring their warnings.) They place the girl's body in a fabulous casket, rope the casket to the back of a horse, and send it off to the royal city.

Photograph by Daniel VazquezThe casket is soon found by a prince, who falls in love with the beautiful "doll" and takes the body home with him. "But my son, she's dead!" protests his mother. The prince will not be parted from his treasure; he locks himself away in a tower with the girl, "consumed by love." Soon he is called away to battle, leaving the doll in the care of his mother. The queen ignores the macabre creature -- until a letter arrives warning her of the prince's impending return. Quickly she calls for her chambermaids and commands them to clean the neglected corpse. They do so, spilling water in their haste, badly staining the maiden's dress. The queen thinks quickly. "Take off the dress! We'll have another one made, and my son will never know." As they loosen the laces, the maiden returns to life, confused and alarmed. The queen hears her story with sympathy, dresses the girl in her own royal clothes, and then, oddly, hides the girl behind lock and key when the prince comes home. He immediately asks to see his "wife." (What on earth was he doing in that locked room?) "My son," says the queen, "the girl was dead. She smelled so badly that we buried her." He rages and weeps. The queen relents. The heroine is summoned, her story is told, and the two are now properly wed.

Author and fairy tale scholar Veronica Schanoes notes, "Many fairy tales and myths concern the fantasy that if you love someone enough, you can bring them back from the dead. In fairy tales, that effort is usually successful and the wish is fulfilled: Sleeping Beauty wakes up; Snow White revives; the older sisters in Fitcher's Bird are resuscitated; the heroine recovers her prince in East of the Sun, West of the Moon; etc. But in myth, the stories tend to be more poignantly about the limits of human love and its inability to defeat death: Gilgamesh can't bring back Enki; Achilles can't bring back Patroclus; Theseus cannot rescue Pirithous; Orpheus fails; and even though she is a goddess, Demeter's love for Persephone can only bring her back part-way."

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

The fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen often touch on the subject of death, but the ones that address the subject directly are among his most pious and sentimental, better suited to Victorian tastes than they are to ours today. One of the more interesting of them is The Story of a Mother, in which Death knocks on a woman's door and takes her beloved son away. The distraught woman determines to follow, and makes her long, weary way to Death's realm. There, she finds a greenhouse filled to the bursting with flowers and trees of all kinds -- each one representing a single life somewhere on earth. When Death arrives, she tricks him into giving back the life of her son -- but Death shows her the future and the terrible life her child will lead. She knows then that his death is god's will, and a mercy, and she is at peace.

Andersen's very best tale about death has deservedly become a classic. The Nightingale is the story of a Chinese Emperor and a bird with an exquisite song. The Emperor dotes on the bird for awhile, then replaces the humble, faithful creature with a golden mechanical replicate...until the night that Death comes for him, squatting heavily on his chest:

Opening his eyes he saw it was Death who sat there, wearing the Emperor's crown, handling the Emperor's gold sword, and carrying the Emperor's silk banner. Among the folds of the great velvet curtains there were strangely familiar faces. Some were horrible, others gentle and kind. They were the Emperor's deeds, good and bad, who came back to him now that Death sat on his heart.

"Don't you remember?" they whispered one after the other. "Don't you remember—?" And they told him of things that made the cold sweat run on his forehead.

"No, I will not remember!" said the Emperor. "Music, music, sound the great drum of China lest I hear what they say!"

But nothing will drown out the whispers. The Emperor's mechanical bird sits silent, for there is no one to wind it up. Then the real nightingale arrives, having heard wind of the emperor's plight. He sings so beautifully that the phantoms fade and even Death stops to listen. The nightingale bargains for the emperor's life, and Death departs.

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

Death underlines the magical stories that make up The Arabian Nights, for it is the reason Scheherazade spins her tales: to save herself and her sister. "There's something almost Trickster-ish about Scheherazade," Midori points out. "She uses storytelling to keep death at bay -- but she does so by never finishing the tale in the morning, where its conclusion might signal the arrival of her own promised death. Instead, she leaves off at a cliffhanger, which requires yet another night to finish -- and then promptly starts another tale before the night is over. The moment of completion (the rehearsal of 'death') does come -- but in the middle of the night, which enables her to resurrect herself in another tale before the sun rises. So it's as though each story produces its own moment of death, followed by a new work that resurrects the storyteller. It's like trickster's death in the Coyote stories, a death that is never final. He's always returning, repeating a movement between death and creation."

It fairy tales, too, death is not always final; it's sometimes an agent of change and transformation. Sleeping Beauty in her death-like sleep, Snow White in her glass coffin: this is a mere rehearsal for death, and out of it new life is created (literally, in the case of Sleeping Beauty, who gives birth to twins as she lies asleep and wakes as they try to suckle). In Trickster myths, the connection between death and life, destruction and creation, is usually made clear; but in fairy tales too, death is not always an ending, or at least not just an ending. It can have within it the seeds of new life, of change, of transformation — which is what these tales, at their most basic level, are so often all about.

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

"Death in folklore, when not associated with the more violent sorts of death-dealers, is generally rather ambiguous," Midori concludes, "which is of course the nature of death itself. At some point we must accept and embrace it, because it is the fate of us all -- yet we resist it (at least at certain times in our lives) because of its finality. Death figures in folk and fairy tales allow us to personalize our contact with death long enough to confront it, to argue with it, to pit our wits against it . . . and perhaps, if we are lucky, to finally make peace with it."

This is fertile ground for fantasy writers, some of whom have already made good use of it: Ursula K. Le Guin in The Farthest Shore, Jane Yolen in Cards of Grief, Rachel Pollack in Godmother Night, Neil Gaiman in his Sandman comics, etc.. But there's still much territory to explore as the fantasy genre ages and matures... and as we fantasy writers and artists age and mature along with it.

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

For an excellent discussion of death in fantasy literature, I highly recommend "Imagined Afterlives," a new essay by Katherine Langerish.

The marvelously macabre photographs today are by the American photographer Daniel Vazquez, who lives and works in the Bay Area of California. Please visit his "American Ghoul" website and Instagram page to see more of his stunning work (and to purchase his prints).

Photograph by Daniel VazquezPictures: The photographs above are by Daniel Vazquez; all rights reserved by the artist. The illustrations are: "Godfather Death" by Johnny B. Gruelle (1880-1938) and the Death tarot card by Pamela Colman Smith (1878-1951). Words: Many thanks to Midori Snyder for her contribitions to this essay. (Go here to read some of her own essays on myth and folklore, highly recommended.) All rights to the text above reserved by the authors.


Children, reading, and Tough Magic

Seymour Joseph Guy

From Touch Magic: Fantasy, Folklore and Faerie in the Literature of Childhood by  Jane Yolen:

"The great archetypal stories provide a framework or model for an individual's belief system. They are, in Isak Dinesen's marvelous expression, 'a serious statement of our existence.' The stories and tales handed down to us from the cultures that proceded us were the most serious, succinct expressions of the accumulated wisdom of those cultures. They were created in a symbolic, metaphoric story language and then hones by centuries of tongue-polishing to a crystalline perfection....

"And if we deny our children their cultural, historic heritage, their birthright to these stories, what then? Instead of creating men and women who have a grasp of literary allusion and symbolic language, and a metaphorical tool for dealing with the problems of life, we will be forming stunted boys and girls who speak only a barren language, a language that accurately reflects their equally barren minds. Language helps develop life as surely as it reflects life. It is the most important part of the human condition."

Walter Firle

Eastman Johnson &Michael Peter Ancher

Emile Vernon

Izsák Perlmutter & Knud Eric Larsen

"In fantasy stories we learn to understand the differences of others, we learn compassion for those things we cannot fathom, we learn the importance of keeping our sense of wonder. The strange worlds that exist in the pages of fantastic literature teach us a tolerance of other people and places and engender an openness toward new experience. Fantasy puts the world into perspective in a way that 'realistic' literature rarely does. It is not so much an escape from the here-and-now as an expansion of each reader's horizons."

Carl Larsson

Florence Fuller

 "A child who can love the oddities of a fantasy book cannot possibly be xenophobic as an adult. What is a different color, a different culture, a different tongue for a child who has already mastered Elvish, respected Puddleglums, or fallen under the spell of dark-skinned Ged?"

Boy Reading by Thomas Benjamin Kennington & Charlotte J. Weeks

Boys reading, vintage photograph

Clark Kelley Price

Gilbert Young

Dorothea Lange

"Just as a child is born with a literal hole in his head, where the bones slowly close underneath the fragile shield of skin, so the child is born with a figurative hole in his heart. What slips in before it anneals shapes the man or woman into which that child will grow. Story is one of the most serious intruders into the heart."

Tatiana Deriy

Tatiana Deriy

Honor C. Appleton & Mary Cicely Barker

John Weiss

Children’s books change lives. Stories pour into the hearts of children and help make them what they become.Denise Holly Ulinskas

"We have spent a good portion of our last decades erasing the past. The episode of the gas ovens is closed, wrapped in the mist of history. It is as if it never happened. At the very least, which always suprises me, it is considered a kind of historical novel, abstract and not particularly terrifying.

"It is important for children to have books that confront the evils and do not back away from them. Such books can provide a sense of good and evil, a moral reference point. If our fantasy books are not strong enough -- and many modern fantasies shy away from asking for sacrifice, preferring to profer rewards first as if testing the faerie waters -- then real stories, like those of Adolf Hitler's evil deeds, will seem so much slanted news, not to be believed.

Rebecca Kinkead

Adelaide Claxton

"Why do so many fantasies shy away from Tough Magic? Why do they offer sweet fairy dances in the moonlight without the fear of the cold dawn that comes after? Because writing about Tough Magic takes courage on the author's part as well. To bring up all the dark, unknown, frightening images that live within each of us and try to make some sense of them on the page is a task that takes courage indeed. It is not an impersonal courage. Only by taking great risks can the tale succeed. Ursula Le Guin has written:

"The artist who goes into himself most deeply -- and it is a painful journey -- is the artist who touches us most closely, speaks to us most clearly.' "

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Words: The quotes above are from Jane Yolen's influential book Touch Magic (Philomel, 1981; August House, expanded edition, 2000), which I highly recommend. This text has also appeared in a previous post: "Breathing in the world," August 15, 2013. All right reserved by the author.

Pictures: Artists are identified in the picture captions.


Working with words

Pony 1

Pony 2

"Where words and place come together, there is the sacred,"  writes Kiowa poet and novelist N. Scott Momaday. "The question 'Where are you going?' is so commonplace in so many languages that it has the status of a universal greeting; it is formulaic. There is an American folksong that begins:

Well, where do you come from, and where do you go?
Well, where do you come from my cotton-eye Joe?

"The questions are so familiar that they are taken for granted. But their implications, their consequent meanings, are profound. In the deepest matter of these words are the riddles of origin and destiny, and by extension the stuff of story and ritual. I belong in the place of my departure, says Odysseus, and I belong in the place that is my destination. Only in this spectrum is the quest truly possible. The sense of place and the sense of belonging are bonded fast by the imagination. And words, in all their formal and informal manifestations, are the best expression of the imagination.

Pony 3

Pony 4

Pony 5

"Linguists have long suggested that we are determined by our native language, that language defines and confines us, " he notes. "It may be so. The definition and confinement do not concern me beyond a certain point, for I believe that language in general is practically without limits.

"We are not in danger of exceeding the boundaries of language, nor are we prisoners of language in any dire way. I am much more concerned with my place within the context of my language. This, I think, must be a principle of storytelling. And the storyteller's place within the context of his language must include both a geographical and mythic frame of reference. Within that frame of reference is the freedom of infinite possibility. The place of infinite possibility is where the storyteller belongs."

Pony 6

Pony 7

Pony 8

Pony 9

In an earlier interview, Momaday stated:

"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."

Pony 10

Pony 11

Pony 12

Pony 13

Like Momaday, I believe that words have a magic and a power of their own, which those of us working in mythic arts and the fantasy field would be wise to remember. A good fantasy novel is literally spell-binding, using language to conjure up whole new worlds, or to invest our own with magic. The particular power of fantasy comes from its link with the world's most ancient stories, and from the author's careful manipulation of mythic archetypes, story patterns, and symbols.

A skillful writer knows that he or she must tell two stories at once: the surface tale, and a deeper story encoded within the tale's symbolic language. The magical tropes of fantasy, rooted as they are in world mythology, come freighted with meaning on a metaphoric level. A responsible writer works with these symbols consciously and pays attention to both aspects of the story.

Pony 14

The second pony

Hillside with ponies

In her fine book Touch Magic, Jane Yolen writes: "Just as a child is born with a literal hole in his head, where the bones slowly close underneath the fragile shield of skin, so the child is born with a figurative hole in his heart. What slips in before it anneals shapes the man or woman into which that child will grow. Story is one of the most serious intruders into the heart."

I believe that those of us who use the magic of words professionally should remember how powerful stories can be -- for children especially, but also for adults -- and take responsibility for the tenor of whatever dreams or nightmares we're letting loose into the world. This is particularly true in fantasy, where the tools of our trade include the language, symbolism and archetypal energies of myth. These are ancient, subtle, potent things, and they work in mysterious ways.

Tilly 1

Tilly 2Words: The first passage by N. Scott Momaday is from The Man Made of Words: Essays, Stories, Passages (St. Martin's Press, 1997); the second passage is from Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets by Joseph Bruchac (Sun Tracks/U of Arizona Press, 1987). The poem in the picture captions is Momaday's "The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee" (Tsoai-Talee being one of Momady's own names), from In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961-1991 (St. Martin's Press, 1991). All rights reserved by Momaday and Bruchac. 

Pictures: These photos come from a pony encounter on our hill at the end of February, before the health crisis that confined me to bed in early spring -- I've only just remembered them, which is why I am posting them now. Tilly is very good with these free-roaming Dartmoor ponies; she knows not to hassle or startle them...though sometimes they startle her.

The power of language: Go here for previous posts on the subject, featuring Ben Okri, Jeanette Winterson, Jane Yolen and others; here  for a short article by John Kelly on the rat-slaying poetry of the Irish bards; and here  for an exploration of another form of language: the howling of wolves.


Myth & Moor update

Tolkien at Oxford

Re-posting this in case anyone missed it:

I will be delivering the 4th Annual Tolkien Lecture at Pembroke College, Oxford University this Thursday at 6:30 pm. The Pembroke Fantasy lecture series "explores the history and current state of fantasy literature, in honour of JRR Tolkien, who wrote The Hobbit and much of The Lord of the Rings during his twenty years at the college." The lecture I'll be giving is Tolkien's Long Shadow: Reflections on Fantasy Literature in the Post-Tolkien Era. Admission is free, but you need to register for a ticket and space is limited. Go here for further details.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

I am taking a short break from Myth & Moor this coming week to deal with other pressing matters, and to prepare for Oxford. May 30th is a holiday here in Britain, so the Hound and I will be back on Tuesday, May 31st.

May 30th is also the date of the annual Two Hills Race here in Chagford, a gruelling route up and down two steep hills, with brambles and a bog in between. Our nine-year-old friend Fynn has decided to run this year to raise money to support wounded veterans. If you can spare a few pennies to pledge to this young man's heart-felt cause, it would encourage him greatly (and make those of us who care for him very happy too). The site takes Paypal and credit cards in any currancy, and even very small amounts are welcome. More info here.

Have a good and creative week.

At the gateIllustration by Arthur Rackham.


The magic of moor and hill

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"I think that in my heart I have always believed in fairies," writes Elizabeth Goudge in her autobiography, The Joy of Snow; "not fairies as seen in the picture books but nature spirits whose life is part of the wind and the flowers and the trees. Born in the West Country, and returning to it in middle life, how could I do anything else? But alas, I have never seen them.

"William Blake saw fairies, but he was a unique person, and so was a Dartmoor friend of mine who used to see them, and how I envied her! But if I did not see them I could feel how magic ran in the earth and branched in one's veins when one sat down. The stories that some of my Dartmoor friends told me would be laughed at by most people, but they were sensible persons and they did not laugh. I think that probably the one among my friends who experienced most was the one who said the least about it, Adelaide Phillpotts, Eden Phillpotts' daughter. She lived for years upon the moor and she loved it so deeply that she was not afraid to spend whole nights alone on the tors; but she is a mystic and mystics seem always unafraid. Her book The Lodestar is full of the wild spirit of the moor.

Faery King & Queen by Alan Lee

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Cowslip faery by Brian Froud"The friend who saw fairies, when she first went to live in her cottage on the moor, was visited early in the morning by a little old woman, wearing a bonnet, who walked quietly into the kitchen where she was preparing breakfast. Friendly and smiling the old woman refused breakfast but sat down to chat. She wanted to know exactly what my friend intended to do in the garden. What flowers would she have? What vegetables? She had very bright eyes and nodded her head in approval as they talked. She seemed a happy old woman, very much at home in the kitchen, but when my friend turned away for a moment she found on looking around again that her visitor had left her. She was never seen again and when the neighbors were questioned they denied ever having seen such an old woman in the village.

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"Another friend was driving back to her home on the moor one summer evening when she found herself in the most beautiful wood. She had no sense of strangeness but drove through it entranced by the loveliness of the evening light shining through the trees. Coming out of the wood she found herself at home, put the car away and went about the normal business of the evening, and only gradually did she remember that her road home lay through an open stretch of moorland. There was no wood there; not now. The next day she went to see an old man who had lived all his life on the moor and told him what had happened. He nodded his head. 'I know the wood, ma'am,' he told her. 'I've been there myself. But only once. You'll not see it again. It's only once in a lifetime.' "

Fairy Folk by Arthur Rackham

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Although Goudge never saw fairies herself, she did have a mystical experience in Devon:

"My mother and I had a cottage in an apple orchard at the edge of a village," she explains, "and behind the cottage, between the orchard and the village, there was  a steep hill. To the right, Dartmoor was visible, but otherwise the place was a little valley in the hills that had a magic of its own. There were a few other small dwellings besides our own, an old house behind a high wall, a farm and some cottages, and so strictly speaking the place was not a lonely one, and yet, because of its particular magic, it was. Especially in the early morning and especially after a snow-fall. There is something very lonely about a deep snow-fall and Devon snow, because the average rainfall is high, is almost always deep. One is walled in and cut off. The world seems very far away and the heart rejoices.

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"In spring, in Devon, there is often a sudden late snow-fall taking one entirely by surprise. I remember once seeing irises and tulips with their bright heads lifted above a deep counterpane of snow, and boughs of apple blossoms sprinkled with sparkling silver. But the snowfall [on this occasion] was earlier in the year. There were only the low-growing flowers in bloom in the garden and they were all buried out of sight. There had been no wind in the night, no suggestion that the last snow of the year was falling, and when I drew the curtains early in the morning I was astonished to see the white world. And what a world! I had never seen a snow-fall so beautiful and I was out in the garden at the first possible moment. The snowclouds had dropped their whole treasure in the night and were gone. The huge empty sky was deep blue, the air sparkling and clear. The sun was rising and the tree shadows lay blue across the sparkling whiteness. The whole world was pure blue and white and it seemed that the sun had lit every crystal to a point of fire. There was a silence so absolute it seemed a living presence. And then came the singing.

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And a Fairy Song by Arthur Rackham

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"It was a solo voice, ringing out joy and praise. One would have said it was a woman's voice, only could any woman sing like that, with such simplicity and beauty? It lasted for some minutes, and then ceased, and the deep silence came back once more.

"I stayed where I was, as rooted in the snow as the trees, but there was no return of the singing and so I went back to the cottage and mechanically began the first task of the day, raking out the ashes of the dead fire and lighting a new one. The light of the flames helped me to think. None of us, in the little group of dwellings in the valley had a voice much above a sparrow's chirp. No one in the village that I knew had a voice like that. It was war-time and visitors from the outside world seldom came. Even if by some extraordinary chance some great singer had descended upon us, what would she be doing struggling down the steep lane from the village in deep snow at this hour of a cold morning? And wouldn't I have seen her? I could see both lanes from the little terrace outside the cottage and had seen no one. There were only two explanations. Either I was mad or I had heard a seraph singing. Later when I took my mother her breakfast I told her of the singing. She looked at me and, as usual, made no comment whatsoever.

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"And so, for some years, I inclined to the former view and told no one else about the singing. And then, one day after the war had ended, a very sensitive and sympathetic cousin came to visit us and told me about a holiday he had had in the wilds of Argyll. He had always wanted, he said, to talk to someone who had heard the singing and at last he come upon an old crofter who could tell him about it. The old man had been alone in the hills when he heard a clear voice, unearthly and very beautiful, singing in the silence. He could see no one, he could distinguish no words in the singing and the song was one he did not know. He tried to hum the air and my cousin tried to write it down, but they neither of them made much of a job of it. 'You never heard it again?' my cousin asked and the old man said, like the old countryman who was in the wood only once, 'No, never again.'

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The Fairies' Tiff with the Birds by Arthur Rackham

"My cousin told this tale so beautifully that I was too awed and shy to tell him, then, about my own experience. Besides, the great paean of praise I had heard in the snow seemed at that moment a little theatrical in comparison with the soft unearthly singing in the hills of Argyll. But, some years later, I did tell him. He was very kind, and he did not doubt my sincerity, but somehow I seemed to see at the back of his mind the figure of a stout opera singer from Covent Garden who had somehow, even in war-time and deep snow, got herself hidden behind the fir trees at the corner of our Devon garden.

'It does not matter. I remember that singing every morning of my life and I greet every sunrise with the memory. The birds, who had been singing so riotously, had been chilled to silence by that snowstorm. I have decided now that she, whoever she was, sang their dawn-song for them."

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Chagford viewed from Nattadon Hill

Three books by Elizabeth GoudgeWords: The passage by Elizabeth Goudge is from The Joy of Snow: An Autobiography (Hodder & Stoughton, 1974); the poem in the picture captions is from Marrow of Flame by Dorothy Walters (Poetry Chaikhana, 2015); all rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: "King & Queen of the Faery Hill" by Alan Lee, "Cowslip Faery" by Brian Froud, and three fairy pictures by Arthur Rackham. The books in the last photograph are Linnets and Valerians, The Little White Horse, and Island Magic by Elizabeth Goudge; the quilt was made by Karen Meisner. Related posts on Devon folklore: Tales of a Half-Tamed Land, The Wild Hunt, and Following the Hare.