I'm afraid it's another post pulled from the archives today (first posted in 2013), as I'm having a week in which the time and spoons for all I need to do is in short supply. I do like re-visiting these old posts, though, and seeing the different kinds of conversations they spark a few years down the road. Which reminds me that I must also apologize for taking so long to respond to comments. I am reading all the comments (and poems!) as they come in, and will go back and respond properly just as soon as pressing work deadlines ease. In the meanwhile, I'm so grateful to all of you here who keep the discussion going. It's what makes this blog feel like more than just mine; it is made by a whole community.
The passage below is from "Why our future depends on libraries, reading, and daydreaming," a lecture by my old friend Neil Gaiman (we grew up in publishing together) in which he argues not only for the value of reading, but also for the value of stories often dismissed as "escapist."
"Fiction can show you a different world," Neil says. "It can take you somewhere you've never been. Once you've visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different. And while we're on the subject, I'd like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it's a bad thing. As if 'escapist' fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in. If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn't you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with (and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.
"As J.R.R. Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers."
In her lovely biographical essay "Spells of Enchantment," fairy tale scholar Helen Pilinovsky Oxgaard notes that there are many kinds of children who need escape, even those who don't come from particularly troubled homes:
"Fairy tales, fantasy, legend and myth...these stories, and their topics, and the symbolism and interpretation of those topics...these things have always held an inexplicable fascination for me," Helen writes. "That fascination is at least in part an integral part of my character — I was always the kind of child who was convinced that elves lived in the parks, that trees were animate, and that holes in floorboards housed fairies rather than rodents.
"You need to know that my parents, unlike those typically found in fairy tales — the wicked stepmothers, the fathers who sold off their own flesh and blood if the need arose — had only the best intentions for their only child. They wanted me to be well educated, well cared for, safe — so rather than entrusting me to the public school system, which has engendered so many ugly urban legends, they sent me to a private school, where, automatically, I was outcast for being a latecomer, for being poor, for being unusual. However, as every cloud does have a silver lining — and every miserable private institution an excellent library — there was some solace to be found, between the carved oak cases, surrounded by the well–lined shelves, among the pages of the heavy antique tomes, within the realms of fantasy.
"Libraries and bookshops, and indulgent parents, and myriad books housed in a plethora of nooks to hide in when I should have been attending math classes...or cleaning my room...or doing homework...provided me with an alternative to a reality I didn't much like. Ten years ago, you could have seen a number of things in the literary field that just don't seem to exist anymore: valuable antique volumes routinely available on library shelves; privately run bookshops, rather than faceless chains; and one particular little girl who haunted both the latter two institutions. In either, you could have seen some variation upon a scene played out so often that it almost became an archetype:
"A little girl, contorted, with her legs twisted beneath her, shoulders hunched to bring her long nose closer to the pages that she peruses. Her eyes are glued to the pages, rapt with interest. Within them, she finds the kingdoms of Myth. Their borders stand unguarded, and any who would venture past them are free to stay and occupy themselves as they would."
The exquisite mythic sculpture above and below is by Adrian Arleo, a ceramic artist in Lolo, Montana. "For over fifteen years," says Arleo, "I've been creating sculpture that combines human and animal imagery in a variety of ways. Some of these works elude to a relationship of understanding or connection between the human and animal realms. In others, the human figures possess animal faces, limbs, or other features in a way that reveals something hidden about the character or primal nature of the person.
"The Honey Comb sculptures are another variation on blending the human form with elements from nature. What appeals to me about the quality of this material is its appearance of simultaneously growing and deteriorating. I also like the way the wax approximates the material created by bees, enabling the work to be visual, tactile, and appealing to the sense of smell, like fresh honeycomb. On the flip side, the work might suggest the swarming, stinging insects that create this beautiful material. As with many things in life, beauty and the grotesque can cohabitate."
The passage by Neil Gaiman is from a lecture delivered to The Reading Agency at the Barbican in London (October 14, 2013), subsequently printed in The Guardian (October 15, 2o13). Follow the link to read it in full. The passage by Helen Pilinovsky is from an essay published in The Journal of Mythic Arts (2001). I recommend reading both essays in full. All rights to the text & imagery above reserved by the authors & artist.