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February 2014

Stepping into the unknown

Carrying her Train (from The Happy Prince) by Charles Robinson

From "Escaping Into Ourselves" by Susan Cooper (Celebrating Children's Books, 1981):

"Perhaps I speak only for myself, perhaps it's different for other writers; but for me, the making of a fantasy is quite unlike the relatively ordered procedure of writing any other kind of book. I've never actually thought: 'I am writing fantasy'; one simply sits down to write whatever book is knocking to be let out. But in hindsight, I can see the peculiar differences in approach. When working on a book which turns out to be a fantasy novel, I exist in a state of continual astonishment. The work begins with a deep breath Beauty and the Beast by Charles Robinsonand a blindly trusting step into the unknown; I know where I'm going, and who's going with me, but I have no real idea of what I shall find along the way, or whom I'll meet. Each time, I am striking out into a strange land, listening for the music that will tell me which way to go. And I am always overcome by wonder, and a kind of unfocused gratitude, when I arrive; and I always think of Eliot:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time....

"One of the best 'realistic' novelists (how I hate labels -- but there's no way round them) said to me once, cheerfully rude, 'Oh, you fantasy people have it so easy, you don't know you're born. If there's  The Happy Prince by Charles Robinsona problem in your plot -- bingo, you bring in a bit of magic and the problem's gone.

"No, no, no, fantasy doesn't work that way; anyone cherishing such theories is bound for trouble. If he or she tries to sail our perilous seas in such a ship, he is likely to end up with a book which may be beautifully written, hugely entertaining, full of bits of magic -- but which somehow isn't fantasy. True fantasy is John Masefield's The Box of Delights, or Alan Garner's The Owl Service: books which cast a spell so subtle and overwhelming that it has overpowered the reader's imagination, carried him outside all the rules, before he has noticed what is happening. To some degree I doubt whether Masefield or Garner or the rest knew what was happening either; they simply heard the music, and employed all their considerable talent to write it down. You can't write fantasy on purpose. Like poetry, it is a kind of happy accident which overtakes certain writers before they are born."

Casting a Spell by Charles Robinson

The Lion in Love by Charles RobinsonThe pictures above are: "Carrying her Train (from The Happy Prince)," "Beauty and the Beast," "Hans in his Garden (from The Happy Prince)," "Casting a Spell," and "The Lion in Love" by Charles Robinson (1870-1937). He was the son of an illustrator, and his brothers Thomas Heath Robinson and William Heath Robinson were also illustrators.

Re-shaping reality

Nattadon Rainbows

From an article on fantasy literature for children by Lloyd Alexander (The Horn Book magazine, 1968):

"All art, by definition of the word, is fantasy in the largest sense. The most uncompromisingly (shall I say sordidly?) naturalistic novel is still a manipulation of reality. Fantasy, too, is a manipulation, a re-shaping of reality. There is no essential conflict or contradiction between literary realism and literary fantasy, no more than between science and humanism. Technical details aside, most of the things you can say about fantasy also apply to realism. I suppose you might define realism as fantasy pretending to be true; and fantasy as reality pretending to be a dream.

"Of course, for practical reasons -- and librarians and teachers understand these better than anyone -- we are obliged to catagorize and separate. Like it or not, we become specialists. The best we can do is make sure we are not nearsighted specialists. We can always keep in the back of our minds the idea that whatever our specialty, it is still an integral part of the whole. Literature for children is not a quiet backwater, but a current of the mainstream."

Nattadon Rainbows 2

From Ursula K. Le Guin's acceptance speech for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature (received for the third of her "Earthsea" books, The Farthest Shore, 1973):

"We who hobnob with hobbits and tell tales about little green men are used to being dismissed as mere entertainers, or sternly disapproved of as escapists. But I think perhaps the catagories are changing, like the times. Sophisticated readers are accepting the fact that an improbable and unmanageable world is going to produce an improbable and hypothetical art. At this point, realism is perhaps the least adequate means of understanding or portraying the incredible realities of our existence. A scientist who creates a monster in the laboratory; a librarian in the library of Babel; a wizard unable to cast a spell; a space ship having trouble getting to Alpha Centauri: all these may be precise and profound metaphors of the human condition. Fantasists, whether they use ancient archetypes of myth and legend or the younger ones of science and technology, may be talking as seriously as any sociologist -- and a good deal more directly -- about human life as it is lived, and as it might be lived. For after all, as great scientists have said and as all children know, it is above all by the imagination that we achieve perception, and compassion, and hope."

Nattadon Rainbows 3

From Alison Lurie's collection of essays on children's literature, Don't Tell the Grown-ups (1990):

''The great subversive works of children's literature suggest that there are other views of human life besides those of shopping malls 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.''

Nattadon Rainbows 4

From Andre Norton's The Book of Andre Norton (1975):

"There is no more imagination-stretching form of writing, nor reading, than the world of fantasy. The heroes, heroines, colors, action, linger in one's mind long after the book is laid aside. And how wonderful it would be if world gates did exist and one could walk into Middle Earth, Kavin's World, the Land of Unreason, Atlantis, and all the other never-nevers! We have the windows to such worlds and must be content with those."

Tilly at the window

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).

What love means

The door into the woods

Love means to learn to look at yourself
Illustration by Honore AppletonThe way one looks at distant things
For you are only one thing among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills.
A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.
Then he wants to use himself and things
So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.
It doesn't matter whether he knows what he serves:
Who serves best doesn't always understand.

- Czeslaw Milosz, 1911 - 2004
("Love," The Collected Poems of Czeslaw Milosz, translated from the Polish by Robert Haas)

Among the roots

Illustration by Richard Doyle

Walter CraneA certain day became a presence to me;
and there it was, confronting me - a sky, air, light:
a being. And before it started to descend
from the height of noon, it leaned over
and struck my shoulder as if with
the flat of a sword, granting me
honor and a task. The day's blow
rang out, metallic -- or it was I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what I knew: I can.

- Denise Levertov, 1923 - 1997
(''Variations on a Theme by Rilke," Breathing the Water)

Standing in the glow of ripenessThe illustrations above are by Honore Appleton (1879-1951), Richard Doyle (1824-1883), and Walter Crane (1845-1915). This one's for Howard, with love.

Tunes for a Monday Morning


Today's music comes from four extraordinary singers of Portuguese fado: a genre of songs expressing feelings of love and saudade (or longing), sometimes called "the Portuguese blues." We often listen to fado in our house, but it has particular poignancy for me right now because Howard is in Portugal for the next six weeks. (He's teaching Commedia dell'Arte and mask theatre, once again, at the drama academy in Porto). Tilly is bereft without his presence...and if she could sing, she'd be singing fado at this very moment.

The song above is "Meu Amor Marinheiro," performed by Carminho (Maria do Carmo Carvalho Rebelo de Andrade), an exceptionally talented young fadista from Lisbon. She's released two well-received albums so far: Fado (2009) and Alma (2012).

Youth is not a requiste of fado, however, where many of the finest voicest are richly tempered by time and experience. Below is Mísia (Susana Maria Alfonso de Aguiarin), one of the great fadistas of the last twenty years. Mísia, who comes from Porto, champions a literary form of fado using lyrics drawn from the poetry of writers both contemporary and historic. The song below, "O Manto da Rainha," comes from her 2011 album, Senhora da Noite, with texts written exclusively by women poets and fadistas.


No posting of contemporary fado can overlook the great Mariza (Marisa dos Reis Nunes), born in Portuguese Mozambique and raised in Lisbon. Ever since her recording debut in 2001, she's been a leading figure in the "New Fado" movement, and she's certainly the best known of the fadistas internationally. The video below (which plays images of Portugal's folkloric past against its multi-cultural present) is for the song "Rosa Branca," from her beautiful seventh album, Terra (2008).

And last:

Ana Moura (from Santarém, Portugal) is a "New Fado" singer known for her collaborations with musicians from different genres, ranging from jazz to pop to hardcore rock-and-roll. In the video below, she brings a fado style to her rendition of "A Case of You" by Joni Mitchell. (For a taste of Moura singing fado, go here.)

If you'd like a little more fado this morning, you'll find two exquisite songs here.

In praise of the sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky

The Fairies in Kensington Gardens by Arthur Rackham

"I believe in aristocracy -- if that is the right words and if a democrat may use it. Not an aristocracy of power, based on rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all nations and classes, and through the ages, and there Looking Very Undacey Indeed by Arthur Rackhamis a secret understanding between them when they meet. They represent the true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos. Thousands of them perish in obscurity, a few are great names. They are sensitive for others as well as themselves, they are considerate without being fussy, their pluck is not swankiness but the power to endure, and they can take a joke."

- E.M. Forster (1899-1970)

"To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion; to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich; to listen to stars and birds, babes and sages, with open heart; to study hard; to think quietly, act frankly, talk gently, await occasions, hurry never; in a word, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common -- this is my symphony."

- William Ellery Channing (1818-1901)

And a Fairy Song by Arthur Rackham The three paintings above are by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939).

Winter rains

Nattadon Hill

Gratitude to Mother Earth, sailing through night and day —
and to her soil: rich, rare, and sweet
in our minds so be it

Nattadon Hill

Gratitude to Plants, the sun-facing light changing leaf
and fine-root hairs; standing still through wind
and rain; their dance is in the flowing spiral grain
in our minds so be it

Nattadon Hill

Gratitude to Air, bearing the soaring Swift and the silent
Owl at dawn. Breath of our song
clear spirit breeze
in our minds so be it

Nattadon Hill

Gratitude to Wild Beings, our brothers teaching secrets,
freedoms, and ways; who share with us their milk;
self-complete, brave, and aware
in our minds so be it

Nattadon Hill

Gratitude to Water: clouds, lakes, rivers, glaciers;
holding or releasing; streaming through all
our bodies salty seas
in our minds so be it

Nattadon Hill

Gratitude to the Sun: blinding pulsing light through
trunks of trees, through mists, warming caves where
bears and snakes sleep — he who wakes us –
in our minds so be it

Nattadon Hill

Gratitude to the Great Sky
who holds billions of stars — and goes yet beyond that –
beyond all powers, and thoughts
and yet is within us –
Grandfather Space.
The Mind is his Wife.

so be it.

- Gary Snyder (after a Mowhawk prayer)

Water 5

To which I add: Gratitude for all the things that help us through these long, hard winters: warmth and light, friendship and art, good talk, good music, good books, good dreams, good single malt whiskey (hey, whatever it takes). Gratitude for the storms that shake us, and the sweet calm after. Gratitude for it all.

The value of rest

After the storm 1

"We who have lost our sense and our senses -- our touch, our smell, our vision of who we are; we who frantically force and press all things, without rest for body or spirit, hurting our earth and injuring ourselves: we call a halt.

"We want to rest. We need to rest and allow the earth to rest. We need to reflect and rediscover the mystery that lives in us, that is the ground of every unique expression of life, the source of the fascination that calls all things to communion.

"We declare a Sabbath, a space of quiet: for simply being and letting be; for recovering the great, forgotten truths; for learning how to live again."

-- from "Only One Earth," published by the U.N. Environment Programme, Earth Day, 1990

After the storm 2

After the storm 3

After the storm 3


The earth now lies through nights drenched
in the still dark benediction of the rain
and dusky houses and branches stand out bleak
each day in mist, in white, and in the rustling wet.
All, all is rich and restful, with heavy
and secret and rich growth finding its way
through warm soil to every leaf and shoot
and binding everything – near, far – mysteriously
with moisture, fruitfulness, and great desire
- till one clear afternoon suddenly we see
the glistening grass, the tenderly rising grain
and know that life is served by rest.
How could I ever have thought of summer
as richer than this season’s mystery?

- N.P. Van Wyk Louw (South Africa, 1906-1970)

After the storm 5

Gradually returning to oneself....

Flaming June by Fredrick Lord Leighton

For everyone who has been overworking lately, or trying to handle too many Big Life Things at once (including extremes of winter weather), I offer this lovely poem about weariness and restoration from the late (and much missed) Irish poet, philosopher, and Catholic mystic, John O'Donohue:

A study for the Briar Rose series by Sir Edward Burne-JonesA Blessing for One Who is Exhausted

When the rhythm of the heart becomes hectic,
Time takes on the strain until it breaks;
Then all the unattended stress falls in
On the mind like an endless, increasing weight,

The light in the mind becomes dim.
Things you could take in your stride before
Now become laborsome events of will.

Weariness invades your spirit.
Gravity begins falling inside you,
Dragging down every bone.

The tide you never valued has gone out.
And you are marooned on unsure ground.
Something within you has closed down;
And you cannot push yourself back to life.

You have been forced to enter empty time.
A study for the Briar Rose series 3 by Sir Edward Burne-JonesThe desire that drove you has relinquished.
There is nothing else to do now but rest
And patiently learn to receive the self
You have forsaken for the race of days.

At first your thinking will darken
And sadness take over like listless weather.
The flow of unwept tears will frighten you.

You have traveled too fast over false ground;
Now your soul has come to take you back.

A detail from the Briar Rose series by Sir Edward Burne-Jones xTake refuge in your senses, open up
To all the small miracles you rushed through.

Become inclined to watch the way of rain
When it falls slow and free.

Imitate the habit of twilight,
Taking time to open the well of color
That fostered the brightness of day.

Draw alongside the silence of stone
Until its calmness can claim you.
Be excessively gentle with yourself.

Stay clear of those vexed in spirit.
Learn to linger around someone of ease
Who feels they have all the time in the world.

Gradually, you will return to yourself,
Having learned a new respect for your heart
And the joy that dwells far within slow time.

A study for the Briar Rose series 3 by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

The art above: "Flaming June" by Fredrick Lord Leighton (1830-1896), two color studies  and a drawing for the "Legend of the Briar Rose" series by Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898), and a detail from one of the completed "Briar Rose" panels (bottom right).

Tunes for a Monday Morning

Today, three songs by Vandaveer, an alt-folk band from Washington D.C. whose music is in heavy rotation in my studio lately. I love these guys.

Above: a dark, stylish video filmed for their dark, stylish version of the folk song "Pretty Polly" -- recorded for Oh, Willie, Please (2013), a fabulous album of traditional folk murder ballads.

"The macabre has long held uneasy sway over the human condition," the band's founder, Mark Charles Heidinger, explains. "From ghost stories to creation myths, from CSI to Shakespeare, from cable news voyeurism to Edgar Allan Poe, subjects of death, murder and all things ghastly have fascinated and frightened for centuries. Songs are no exception. From Old World roots to more recent incarnations in America, the murder ballad has traversed, shapeshifted and persevered. Despite our collective desire to be good and virtuous, people do very bad things. And then we sing about them."

Heidinger and singer Rose Guerin explain the project further in the atmospheric little video below.

And third: the video for "Dig Down Deep," a gorgeous song written by Heidinger, from their 2011 CD of the same name.

This last one goes out to all of you who have been as inundated with snow this winter as we've been indundated with rain here in Devon.