Hansel and the trail of stones

 Lorenzo Mattotti 1

From "Hansel," a remarkable essay by poet Richard Siken, which begins like this:

"Why make a map? Why do anything at all? Now how, because hows are easy, series or sequence, one foot after another, but existentially why bother, what does it solve? Well, if you don't need to, don't. Wouldn't that be great? Just don't make anything. The world is full of things already, the world is vast and wide and full of grace, and you will always be given the benefit of the doubt. Except that isn't true now, is it? Fact is, the world is full of things trying to kill you. We do not walk through a passive landscape. Sometimes you need a map to find the food, the hiding places.

"I was a regular-style kid with a regular-style life. Things got bad, sure, but that was later. Grandma had stories about the war -- running, hiding, privation -- but that was later. I would discover that my father could speak German but refused to, was ashamed to -- We're Americans now -- but that was later. This is still the beginning, this is my bedtime, early on. The window is over my bed and there are three trees outside the window, in the yard, the dark woods, well-framed and moving slowly in the breeze. Imagine that the world is made out of love. Now imagine that it isn't. Here is a story where everything goes wrong, here is a story where everyone has their back against the wall, here is a story where everyone is in pain and acting selfishly because if they don't, they'll die. Here is a story, not of good and evil, but of need against need against need, where everyone is at cross-purposes and everyone is to blame. How are you supposed to fall asleep to this?

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"Hard by a great forest lived a poor woodcutter who had come upon such hard times that he could no longer provide even daily bread for his wife and two children. 'What is to become of us?' says the man. 'Early tomorrow we will take the children into the thickest part of the forest and leave them there,' says the woman. The two children, awake from hunger, heard everything their parents were saying. Trust no one. You are expendable. You are a burden. Why would you tell this to your child, who is about to go to sleep? As soon as your eyes are shut, we will begin to plan your demise. If I were you, were smart, I'd stay awake, ever vigilant and terrified. I would look out the window at those three trees and think about those two children. If you know the story, you know that Gretel saves the day, that women have power (mother, daughter, witch) and men (father, son) just flounder about. My father is telling me this story and I am an only child. There is no Gretel. He has no power. I am being warned and there is no out.

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"Gretel begins to cry, but Hansel says, 'Be quiet, don't worry. I know what to do.' And with that he got up, pulled on his jacket, opened the lower door, and crept outside....The moon shines brightly and the white pebbles outside the house glisten like silver coins. Hansel bends over and fills his jacket pockets with them, as many as will fit. Then at daybreak the woman comes and wakes up the children. 'Get up, you lazybones. We're going into the woods to fetch wood.' She gives each one a piece of bread, saying, 'Here is something for midday. Don't eat it any sooner, for you'll not get any more.' Gretel hides hers under her apron so she can carry his. Hansel drops the pebbles from his pockets onto the path.

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"They arrive, middle of the woods, make a fire, rest. Because they can hear the blows of an ax, they think that the father is nearby. It is not an ax, it is a branch that he has tied to a dead tree and that the wind was beating back and forth. After they had sat there a long time, their eyes grow weary and they fall asleep. This is the first iteration. They wake, its dark, they cry, the moon rises, and the pebbles shine, showing them the way. This is my favorite part. It starts and ends here. The pebbles shine, the plan worked, Hansel Triumphant. Lesson number one: Be sneaky and have a plan. But the stupid boy goes back, makes the rest of the story postscript and aftermath. He shouldn't have gone back. And this is the second lesson I took from the story: When someone is trying to ditch you, kill you, never go back.

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"My father is reading me this story and sometimes its just a story and other times it is his story, his history, he is sharing a sadness with me, an unfairness done to him that he cannot express, or it is the story of Exodus, or of World War II. My father creeps me out because he is telling me too many stories all at once and I do not believe he is innocent , or pure of heart, and I want pebbles. I want a lower door. They walked through the entire night, and as morning was breaking, they arrived at the father's house. Stupid, stupid kids. "

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A little later in his essay, Silken writes:

"There are many definitions for poetry that are useful. I like 'Poetry is language that does more than one thing' and 'Poetry is the residue of a life lived.' I use words like pebbles, like residue. You are are in terrible danger. Grab your pebbles and go. Make a trail away from doom and don't look back. It works better than I thought it would. I also believe that anything can happen in words. The teller decides. I took it to heart. A spell, an incantation, a cake recipe. There is a bomb inside you. I can say that. It might be true. The Dalai Lama says we are born in bliss and Jesus says we are born in sin. I say, even if you do not believe in God, you must believe we are born into narrative, one foot in front of the other, things happening after other things. And since you are always moving forward -- pushed, pulled, or just strolling along -- you might as well take note of how and where you're going. Many writers can point to an event in their lives where they gained permission to write. The story of Hansel (and Gretel) gave me a mandate to write, to describe the terrain, for myself as well as for anyone who might want to, need to, follow."

You'll find the Siken's essay in Brothers & Beasts: An Anthology of Men on Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer, and I recommend reading it in full.

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The striking Hansel & Gretel pictures today are by Italian graphic artist Lorenzo Mattotti, created for an illustrated edition of the story originally published in France. (A later English edition, with text by Neil Gaiman, appeared from TOON Graphics in 2014.) Mattotti studied architecture when he was young but ended up in the comics field instead -- making his name with such works as Fires and Labyrinthes from the 1980s onward, and winning an Eisner Award for his Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde in 2003. He also illustrates children's books (Pinnochio, Eugenio, The Pavillion on the Links, etc.), and is internationally renown as a magazine and fashion illustrator. Born and raised in Lombardy, Mattotti now lives with his wife and family in Paris.

In the video below, Neil Gaiman talks about working on the English edition of Mattotti's Hansel & Gretel, and the dark side of fairy tales.

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 Lorenzo Mattotti 11Words: The passage above by Richard Siken is from Brothers & Beasts, edited by Kate Bernheimer (Wayne State University Press, 2007). The poem in the picture captions is from The First Four Books of Poems by Louise Glück (Ecco, 1999). Pictures: The drawings above are from Hansel & Gretel, a graphic novel by Neil Gaiman & Lorenzo Mattotti (TOON Graphics, 2014) -- with thanks to Charles Vess for introducing me to it. All rights to the text and imagery in this post reserved by their respective creators.


Giving back

Rowan tree in autumn

I'm working on a long post for tomorrow, so for today just this:

"The effort to know and care for and speak from your home ground is a choice about living as well as about writing. In that effort you are collaborating with everyone else who keeps track, everyone who works for the good of the community and the land. None of us is likely to fulfill the grand ambition of Joyce's young artist, Stephen Dedalus, to forge in the smithy of our souls the conscience of our race; but we might help to forge the conscience of a place, and that seems to me to be ambition enough for a lifetime's labor. Trees tap into the soil, drawing nourishment and returning fertility. Capturing sunlight, breaking down stone, dropping a mulch of leaves, replenishing the air, trees improve the conditions for other species and for the saplings that will replace them. So might writers, through works of imagination, give back to the places that feed them a more abundant life. "

- Scott Russell Sanders ("Writing from the Center")

Oak elder in autumn

The pictures today: Tilly under rowan and oak on an early morning walk on Nattadon Hill, brushing past rosehips and under the oak boughs. Bracken turns orange and gold all around us. Blown like a seed from New York to Boston to the Arizona desert and rooted at last on a green hill in Devon, this is the place that I strive to give back to, in stories and paintings alike.

Rosehips by Nattadon leat

Black dog under the oak boughsWords: The passage above is from "Writing from the Center," an essay in Scott Russell Sander's collection of the same name (Indiana University Press, 1995). The poem in the picture captions is by Denise Levertov (1923-1997)  from This Great Unknowing: Last Poems (New Directions, 1999).  All rights reserved by Scott Sanders and the Levertov estate.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Awake  Awake by Marry Waterson

Today, music from four different counties, illustrated or animated in four different ways....

Above, a charming video with paper cut art and simple animation by Marry Waterson, an artist & musician from the famous Waterson family of folk musicians in Yorkshire. The song is "Awake, Awake," performed by Cumbrian folksinger Maz O'Connor on her debut album, This Willowed Light -- which makes Waterson's use of William Morris' "Willow" design in the video rather clever. "Awake, Awake" is a traditional folk song also known as "The Drowsy Sleeper" and "The Silver Dagger." There's another fine version of it sung acappella on the Full English album, which I also highly recommend.

Below, a touching video by graphic artist & filmmaker Monkmus, from Los Angeles, for "I Will Follow You Into the Dark" by the American indie band Death Cab for Cutie, from Bellingham, Washington. I love the story (life-affirming and heart-breaking all at once), and the whole notebook/sketchbook theme.

Below, a thoroughly delightful stop-motion animation by artist Sydney Smith & filmmaker Jason Levangie, both based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The song is "Horska," exuberantly performed by the Gypsy jazz band Gypsophilia, also from Halifax. It's Smith & Levangie's second collaboration with the band; the first was "Agricola & Sarah" in 2009.

And to end with, a lovely little piece of black-and-white animation by Esteban Diácono, who comes from Córdoba, Argentina, and is now based in Buenos Aires. The music is "Slowly, Slowly Comes the Light" by Ólafur Arnalds, from Mosfellsbær, Iceland.

This one, so simple and yet so beautiful, just lifts my heart.


Recommended reading and viewing

The Wire Fence

In several posts over the last couple of weeks we discussed the history of the Enclosures here in Britain (in which millions of acres of Common land were transferred into private hands for the profit of the few), and how this affected folkloric traditions dependent on the Commons and communal ways of living.

The selling off of the UK's public lands, resources, and services continues to this day, of course. I recommend "Pete," a short video by Matt Hopkins that has just been posted on the Aeon Magazine site, looking at the loss of communal spaces and affordable housing in London -- and how this effects young people, including those making attempting to make their living in the arts. Which is never easy at the best of times....

Real England by Paul Kingsnorth, one of the founders of The Dark Mountain Project, is well worth a read on the subject of modern Enclosures too.


The borders of language

In the video above, "Between Two Worlds," the wonderful Bill Moyers (whom you may remember from his program on Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth) interviews a friend of mine from back in my Tucson days: Luis Alberto Urrea, who now lives with his wife and children up north, in Illinois. Born in Tijuana, Mexico, Luis writes about the U.S./Mexico border region better than just about anyone, forming that work into fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, all of it highly recommended. (You'll find a discussion of his luminous novel The Hummingbird's Daughter in this previous post.)

In featuring this interview, I don't want to veer our exploration of borders into the contentious realm of immigration politics -- an important topic in its own right, but one that falls beyond the purview of this blog. Rather, what I want to spotlight here are the ways that writers (and other artists) use their gifts in response to the world around them: whether it's Elif Shafak telling stories of  her Turkish childhood, or Miquel Angel Blanco preserving the old lore of Spain in his library of trees, or Rachel Taylor-Beales reinterpreting selkie myths to reflect on modern tales of exile and displacement, or Jackie Morris following a falcon's journey to the human world and back into the wild.

As writers and artists we use words and paint (among other materials) to witness and re-create the world -- whether we do this directly as journalists and creators of Realist works, or indirectly (but subtly and deeply) through the symbolism of Fantasy and Mythic Arts.

Grand Canyon Prayer Tower, Arizona by Stu Jenks

In his 1998 essay "Nobody's Son," Luis had this to say about the border-crossing nature of words themselves:

"Home isn't just a place, I have learned. It is also a language. My words not only shape and define my home. Words -- not only for writers -- are home. Still, where exactly is that?

"Jimmy Santiago Baca reminds us that 'Hispanics' are immigrants in our own land. By the time time Salem was founded on Massachusetts Bay, any number of Urreas had been prowling up and down the Pacific coast of our continent for several decades. Of course, the Indian mothers of these families had been here from the start.'

Miller's Spiral, Pima County, Arizona by Stu Jenks

"Forget about purifying the American landscape," Luis continues, "sending all those ethnic types back to their homelands. Those illegal humans. (A straw-hat fool in a pickup truck once told my Sioux brother Duane to go back where he came from. 'Where to?' Duane called. 'South Dakota?')

"The humanoids are pretty bad, but how will we get rid of all those pesky foreign words debilitating the United States?

"Those Turkish words (like coffee). Those French words (like maroon). Those Greek words (like cedar). Those Italian words (like marinate). Those African words (like marimba).

"English! It's made up of all these untidy words, man. Have you noticed?

"Native American (skunk), German (waltz), Danish (twerp), Latin (adolescent), Scottish (feckless), Dutch (waft), Caribbean (zombie), Nahuatl (ocelot), Norse (walrus), Eskimo (kayak), Tatar (horde) words! It's a glorious wreck (a good old Viking word, that).

The Folly Atop The Biscuit, the Mustang Mountains, Arizona by Stu Jenks

"Glorious, I say, in all its shambling mutable beauty. People daily speak a quilt of words, and continents and nations and tribes and even enemies dance all over your mouth when you speak. The tongue seems to know no race, no affiliation, no breed, no caste, no order, no genus, no lineage. The most dedicated Klansman spews the language of his adversaries while reviling them."

Without Bozette, Dripping Springs, Arizona by Stu Jenks

"I love words so much," Luis concludes. "Thank god so many people lent us theirs or we'd be forced to point and grunt. When I start to feel the pressure of the border on me, when I meet someone who won't shake my hand because she has suddenly discovered I am half Mexican (as happened with a landlady in Boulder), I comfort myself with these words. I know how much color and beauty we Others add to the American mix."

Wupatki Flame Spiral, Arizona by Stu Jenks

Over here in the old world of Europe, it's both easy and fashionable to look down one's nose at the crass racism of Little Sister America...and yet the immigration and refugee crisis unfolding on European borders is not so very different.

In Britain, as in America, there are those demanding that "they" be sent back where they came from (whoever "they" may be, Syrian children or Polish carpenters); and there are those reaching out a helping hand; and there are those going about their daily lives pretending none of it is happening...not necessarily due to hard-heartedness, but, sometimes, to sheer exhaustion from what their daily lives entail.

Gidleigh Church, Gidleigh, Devon by Stu Jenks

East of Merrivale, Dartmoor, Devon by Stu Jenks

A question that often arises in our various discussions on this blog is: What, as artists, can we do about _____ ? Whatever _____ may happen to be: displaced people fleeing war and poverty, hungry families in Foodbank queues here at home, vanishing animal habitats, oceans ailing...forests falling to the ax...and on and on and on. I have no simple answer, for it's a question I still ask myself, in one way or another, almost every damn day. But what I do know is this:

I believe that the ability to create (in any form, whether at the desk or easel -- or in the kitchen, the garden, the community hall) -- is a gift, and gifts are meant to be passed on. They are meant to be used, to be of use, and that's a geis, a wyrd, I do not take lightly.

Some of us use our gifts in the direct service of activism; others, in the indirect service of creating "beauty in a broken world" (to use Terry Tempest William's phrase), as a means of lifting hearts, mending spirits, and reminding us of what we're fighting for. Either way, it is important, I think, to be mindful of what we're putting out into the world. Art can envision, conjure, build, bind, heal, witness, dignify, and illuminate.  It can also destroy, distract, diminish, deflect, justify, obfuscate, and lie.

"I don't think writers are sacred," Tom Stoppard once said, "but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you might nudge the world a little..."

And so it bears thinking about just what direction we are nudging it in.

West Kennet Long Barrow by Stu Jenks

Scorhill Stone Circle, Dartmoor, Devon by Stu Jenks

Like Luis Urrea, Terry Tempest Williams is a writer skilled in placing "the right words in the right order," such as these, which are tacked above my desk:

"Bearing witness to both the beauty and pain of our world is a task that I want to be part of. As a writer, this is my work. By bearing witness, the story that is told can provide a healing ground. Through the art of language, the art of story, alchemy can occur. And if we choose to turn our backs, we've walked away from what it means to be human."

Tintagel Castle, Cornwall by Stu Jenks

The beautiful art here, as you may have recognized, is by the Tucson-based photographer Stu Jenks. The top five photographs were taken in northern and southern Arizona; the lower seven in Devon and Cornwall while he was visiting us in 2013. Please go to Stu's blog to learn more about his art, music, and books.

Moor Pony Foal, Dartmoor, Devon by Stu Jenks

Tilly Windling-Gayton with Daffodils, Nattadon Woods, Chagford, Devon by Stu JenksBetween Two Worlds appeared on American Public Television in 2012, and can be found online in the Moyers & Company archives. The passage by Luis Alberto Urrea comes from his essay collection Nobody's Son (The University of Arizona Press, 1998).  The quote by Tom Stoppard is from his play The Real Thing (1982). The quote from Terry Tempest Williams comes from an interview in Listening to the Land: Conversations About Nature Culture and Eros by Derrick Jensen (Chelsea Green, 2004); you can read a longer passage from the interview here.  All rights to the video, text, and imagery above are reserved by their creators.


Just stories

The Reader in the Forest by Robert Henri

I'm afraid that the post I'd been planning for today, on the folklore of Devon, has been delayed while I track down a book I need to complete it. In the meantime, I'd like to re-visit this marvelous TED talk by Elif Shafak (below), filmed in 2010, which addresses the power of storytelling, the magic of circles, and both the strengths and limitations of identity politcs -- an  issue that many writers from different cultures and social classes continue to wrestle with today.

"I started writing fiction at the age of eight," Shafak said in World Literature Today, "not because I wanted to become a novelist (I didn’t even know there was such a possibility, such a way of living) but because I was a lonely and hopelessly introverted child, on my own most of the time, observing things and people from an unbridgeable distance. There was a gap between my inner space and the outside world; a gap that I was painfully aware of. Books saved me. Books held my pieces together. Books loved me. And I loved them in return. I loved them with my entire soul."

The painting above is "The Reader in the Forest" by Robert Henri (1865-1929)


Tunes & Words for a Monday Morning

It's been another week of news that pushes us daily closer to despair, from the tragedies in Nepal and off the Italian coast to the horrific scale of police violence against nonwhite Americans, while political campaigners in both the UK and US studiously avoiding speaking civilly, seriously, and honestly of anything that truly matters. So I am pushing back against hopelessness by sharing some of my favorite videos from this year's Bioneers conference -- words rather than music today -- although also a little music to get us started from the conference's opening ceremony. Bioneers, based in New Mexico, is a nonprofit organization founded by Nina Simons and Kenny Ausubel, bringing Illustration by Charle Vessscientists, scholars, artists and activists together to "highlight breakthrough solutions for restoring people and planet."

As an American living abroad, I find it both sad and painful that my country is primarily known outside its borders through facile Hollywood representations, and for the darker, nuttier, Fox-News-amplified side of American life (and foreign policy) -- whereas those of us who have lived there know that the other side of America is equally strong: the land of civil rights, gay rights, passionate feminism, proud union men and women on the picket lines, and a bred-in-the-bone tradition of volunteerism; a land of organic farms and alternative communities and tireless activists on behalf of the North American wild; a land of kind, open-hearted, and generous people from a dizzying number of ethnic backgrounds and cultural traditions. The three speakers here come from my America, not the media's: the leftist, progressive American tradition that formed me; the beautiful, vast, diverse, and deeply complicated land that I still love, warts and all.

Above: Opening music and a few wise words from Native American flutist R. Carlos Nakai. He's from Tucson, and his music never fails to make me homesick for the desert.

Below: Writer, educator, and activist Terry Tempest Williams, from Utah, discuses "A Love That is Wild." She says, "Finding beauty in the broken world is creating beauty in the world we find," and this is so very true.

Above, Robin Wall Kimmerer, biologist and author of Braiding Sweetgrass, discusses "Mishkos Kenomagwen: The Teachings of Grass." Kimmerer is the director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment in Syracuse, New York.

Below, educator, activist, and author John A. Powell discusses the need for "Beloved Community." Powell is the head of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California, Berkeley.

Illustration by Charles Vess

"If we are going to address these issues around climate change, food, health, each other," says Powell, "we have to  not only think about how we're related, we have to structure our societies, we have structure our policies, we have to tell our stories, we have to engage a practice that acknowledges our deep connection and our relationships with each other."

And that's where we come in, as Mythic Artists: telling stories. For the land and for each other. Stay strong.

Art above: Sonoran Desert drawings by Charles Vess


The beautiful place we call home...

The video above is "Dartmoor Timelapse," created by landscape photographers Alex Nail and Guy Richardson.

The year-long project, they explain, "ran from March 2013 to March 2014, with the goal of capturing the changing face of Dartmoor through the seasons. This 7 minute short film takes the viewer on a journey covering Dartmoor’s most iconic tors, villages, rivers, woodland and prehistoric sites. The film is comprised of over 13,000 images selected from over 30,000 stills and represents many hundreds of hours out on the moor and in post-production. The longest night sequences are captured over a 3 hour period whilst the shortest sequence lasted just 6 minutes. The result is a captivating film of Dartmoor's magical landscape."

If you're here in the West Country, you can see photographs from the project at the on-going Dartmoor Timelapse exhibition in Princetown.

The Dartmoor pictures below are my own, taken 0n a winter walk with Howard, Victoria, and Tilly between Christmas and New Year's Day. Our route was a disused railroad track above Princetown that's been turned into a hiking trail, a stretch of high moor that is oddly beautiful in its bleakness at this frozen time of year.

Dartmoor walk 1

''Home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answered to, in the strongest conjuration.'' - Charles Dickens (Martin Chuzzlewit)

Dartmoor walk 2

Dartmoor walk 3

"The ache for home exists in all of us; the safe place we can go, and belong, and never feel questioned for who we really are.'' - Maya Angelou

Dartmoor walk 4

''What should I do about the wild and the tame? The wild heart that wants to be free, and the tame heart that wants to come home. I want to be held. I don't want you to come too close. I want you to scoop me up and bring me home at nights. I don't want to tell you where I am. I want to keep a place among the rocks where no one can find me. I want to be with you.'' - Jeanette Winterson (Lighthousekeeping)

Dartmoor walk 5

Dartmoor walk 6

''Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.''  - James Baldwin (Giovanni's Room)

Dartmoor walk 7

Dartmoor walk 8

''Find your place on the planet. Dig in, and take responsibility from there.'' - Gary Snyder (Turtle Island)

Dartmoor walk 9A related post (and landscape video) from the other part of my life: "To the Desert."


Why we need fantasy

Girls Combing the Beads of Goats by Richard Doyle

"Dealing with the impossible, fantasy can show us what may really be possible. If there is grief, there is the possibility of consolation; if hurt, the possibility of healing; and above all, the curative power of hope. If fantasy speaks to us as we are, it also speaks to us as we might be."  - Lloyd Alexander (1924-2007)

"Fantasy is escapism, but wait.... Why is this wrong? What are you escaping from, and where are you escaping to? Is the story opening windows or slamming doors? The British author G.K. Chesterton summarized the role of fantasy very well. He said its purpose was to take the everyday, commonplace world and lift it up and turn it around and show it to us from a different perspective, so that once again we see it for the first time and realize how marvelous it is. Fantasy -- the ability to envisage the world in many different ways -- is one of the skills that make us human."  - Terry Pratchett

In Fairyland by Richard Doyle

In Fairyland, an Intruder by Richard Doyle

"From their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions, fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives, they continually cope with frustrations as best they can. And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things."   - Maurice Sendak (1928-20012)

"When we are children, we have a tranquil acceptance of mystery which is driven out of us later on, by curiosity and education and experience. But it is possible to find one's way back. With affection and respect, I disagree totally with Penelope Lively's conviction about the 'absolute impossibility of recovering a child's vision.' There are ways, imperfect, partial, fleeting, of looking again at a mystery through the eyes we used to have. Children are not different animals. They are us, not yet wearing our heavy jacket of time."  - Susan Cooper

To hear Lloyd Alexander, Terry Pratchett, Maurice Sendak and Susan Cooper speak about fantasy, imagination, and their work, follow the links above. Aleep in the Moonlight by Richard DoyleOther quotes on fantasy can be found here, here, and here. For quotes about fantasy in books for children: "The Forest of Stories" Parts I, II, and III. The illustrations above are by Richard Doyle (1824-1883).