"Into the Woods" series, 45: Elemental Magic
Life, art, and surrender

The magic of words

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In her essay "A Gift of Wings," Jeanette Winterson gets to the core of what makes Virginia Woolf's work so compelling, and in doing so she evokes the magic inherent in the arts of writing and reading themselves.

"Unlike many novelists, then and now, she loved words," notes Winterson. "That is she was devoted to words, faithful to words, romantically attached to words, desirous of words. She was territory and words occupied her. She was night-time and words were the dream.

"The dream quality, which is a poetic quality, is not vague. For the common man it is the dream, if at all, that binds together in a new rationale, disparate elements. The job of the poet is to let the binding happen in daylight, to happen to the conscious mind, to delight and disturb the reader when the habitual pieces are put together in a new way.

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"Above all, credulity is not strained. We should not come out of a book as we do from a dream, shaking our heads and rubbing our eyes and saying, 'It didn't really happen.' In poetry, in drama, in opera, in painting, in the best fiction, it really does happen, and is happening all the time, this other place where, as strong and compelling as our own daily world, as believable, and yet with a very strangeness that prompts us to recall that there are more things in heaven and earth and that those things are solider than dreams.

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"They may prove solider than real life, as we fondly call the jumble of accidents, characters and indecisions that collect around us without our noticing. The novelist notices, tries to make us clearer to ourselves, tries to set the liquid day, and because of this we read novels. We do hope to see ourselves, as much out of vanity as for instruction. Nothing wrong with that but there is further to go and it is this further than only poetry can take us. Like the novelist, the poet notices, focuses, sharpens, but for the poet that is the beginning. The poet will not be satisfied with recording, the poet will have to transform. It is language, magic wand, cast of spells, that makes transformation possible."

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The poet does this, yes, and the poetic fiction writer, and especially, I believe, the poets and fiction writers working in the field of Mythic Arts. Casting spells with language and telling tales of transformation are, after all, the very point of this alchemical genre in which elements of poetry, prose, myth, fairy tale, and dream are carefully combined, turning lead, and straw, and language, and life itself into pure gold.

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As Ursula Le Guin said in her essay "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie" (in a passage I quote often, because it's just so true):

"Fantasy 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. And their guides, the writers of fantasy, should take their responsibilities seriously....A fantasy is a journey. It is a journey into the subconscious mind, just as psychoanalysis is. Like pyschoanalysis, it can be dangerous; and it will change you."

Powerful word magic indeed.

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Returning to the essay "A Gift of Wings," Winterson describes Virginia Woolf as a writer who "is not afraid of beauty. She is as sensitive to the natural world as any poet and as physical in response as any lover. She is not afraid of pain. The dark places attract her as well as the light and she has the wisdom to know that not all dark places need light. She has the cardinal virtue of critical courage."

That, I believe, is what we, too, must strive for. The love of words shared by all good writers and all good readers is the magic that will show us how.

A Gift of Wings

Winterson's essay can be found in her collection Art Objects (1995), Le Guin's in her collection The Language of the Night (1979). And speaking of the magic of language, I highly recommend Lisa Stock's photography series "The Nourishment of Words." It's simply delightful.



The funny little guy,
long nose, eyes-a-squint,
puts his hand on the wheel.

"It's all in the wrist,"
he says. Perhaps he meant wits.
One long pull, the wheel turns.

The strands of scratchy
piss-colored straw are caught
in the turning.

They begin to shimmer, than shine,
roll into tight coinage,
fall clanking to the ground.

If only the turning of words
into story brought that much gold,
the world would honor its tellers.

Anon might have become rich
or Trump a finer speaker,
and a better human being.

©2015 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

Really love this post,I run out of words to keep saying how much I enjoy your blog! x Angela

Oh, how I agree. Wonderful post. Thank you,

Thank you so much for today's post and also yesterday's. As a writer who loves to read fantasy, I'm still hoping someday to be able to write it, too.

oh gosh Terri these photos are deep magic and the words... and the links... oh just everything... thank you!

Jane, all of your poetry moves me but your fairy tale poetry just makes me enormously happy. No one writes fairy tale poetry better than you, absolutely no one. This is wonderful, with a wry twist that I wasn't expecting! What a lovely treat to find here. Thank you!

While I do in theory support your wise practice of taking occasional 'offline' weeks, Terri, I have to admit that my days feel unbalanced without my dose of myth & moor. It's good to have you back!

Thanks Cynthia Rose--made me smile on a difficult (stupid) day. No big problems, just a series of small annoyances. I handle big stuff with ease.

"She was night-time and words were the dream." What an amazing way to describe Woolfe's writing.


Love your photographs, TW. The juxtaposition of the the dead leaves and fragments of printed text is such a profound and poignant metaphor for the relationship between the human presence and the natural world. A more cynical artist would've placed - or found - a rusted beer-can in the leaves... or the torn edge of some garish billboard sign. Your message is more timeless and reassuring... and one that Virginia Woolf would've found encouraging.

The Ursula Le Guin quote is perfect. (And, "pararational" is a word I've personally been searching for!) Thanks so much for sharing it. And thanks for continuing to create your beautiful blog. For those of us who live in a more dry, dusty (and paved) environment, it's a like a long, cool drink of water.

Thank you for writing this amazing blog. I am an Artist and singer-songwriter from Hong Kong (all the way around the globe!). My work is about meditation and spirituality, and I love using wood and natural materials for my artwork and even music. I came across your blog a while back when i was researching for ravens and their significance in mythology. I love your blog :-) Please do check out my work if you ever get a chance to :-) Warm greetings from Hong Kong, AMA

"If only the turning of words
into story brought that much gold,
the world would honor its tellers."

Oh, if only! It seems to be getting harder and harder for fine storytellers to make a living doing the work that we, as a society, need them to do.

A wise, arch, and timely poem.

Thank you for your kind words, everyone. I enjoyed making these photographs, using bit of texts that I save up for my collages. There may be more...

Welcome, Ama! I very much enjoyed exploring your site and discovering your beautiful, fascinating work. Thank you for joining us here on Myth & Moor!


Isn't it just?

Thanks Terri! Every morning I get up with a coffee in my hand, and the first thing I do is to enter your site! How lovely to have someone like you in this world who writes from the soul~ Thank you for sharing all your wisdom :-) xo AMA

Perhaps that's why I love this site so much, it is a small but vibrant world that honors its tellers. Thank you Jane and Terri both!

When I was a teenager, I started writing poetry because I felt it was the closest I could get to magic. Still feels like that. Thank you for another wonderful post, Terri.

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