Tales from the Hedge
Tunes for a Monday Morning

From the archives: Twilight Tales

A study for The Mystic Wood by John William Waterhouse

Between the setting of the sun and the black of night, dusk is a potent, magical time, for in its eerie half-light (according to folklore found around the globe) one can cross the borders dividing our mundane world from supernatural realms.

On the Border Betwixt Wood & Hill

When I was a child, I longed to discover a doorway into Faerieland or a wardrobe leading to Narnia...and I actually attempted to find one, in the quiet twilight hour of a certain evening on the cusp of autumn. I remember it still: sitting huddled in the shadows, escaping the chaos of a troubled home, determined to conjure a portal to a magic realm by sheer force of will. I failed, of course. But like many children hungry for a deeper connection with the spirit-filled unknown, what I couldn't find in New Jersey that night I discovered in the pages of fantasy books...and, later, in the study of folklore and a life-time of wandering the landscape of myth.

The Enchanted Forest by John Anster Fitzgerald

My younger self may have been in the wrong place, but I'd instinctively managed to chose the right time, for twilight, according to British and other folk tales, contains powerful magic.

"Anytime that is 'betwixt and between' or transitional is the faeries' favorite time," says painter and mythographer Brian Froud. "They inhabit transitional spaces like the bottom of the garden: existing in the boundary The White Deer by Adrienne Segurbetween cultivation and wilderness. Or at the edges of water, the spot that is neither land nor lake, neither path nor pond. They relish moments of 'flux and flow': the hush between night and day, the times of change between one season and the next. They come when we are half-asleep. They come at moments when we least expect them; when our rational mind balances with the fluid irrational."

In myth, it is rarely easy to cross from the human world to the Otherlands, whatever those Otherlands may be: Faerie, Tir-na-nog, the Spirit World, the Underworld and the Realm of the Dead. Gods and guardians of the threshold are the border guards who will either stamp your passport or block your way -- such as Janus, the god of doorways, gateways, passages, beginnings and endings in Roman mythology; or Cardea, with whom he is often paired, the goddess of door-hinges, domestic thresholds, passageways of the body, and liminal states. According to Robert Graves' mad and brilliant book, The White Goddess, Cardea was propitiated at weddings by lighting torches of hawthorne, her sacred tree, for she had the power "to open what is shut; and shut what is open." (She was thus associated with virginity, virginity's end, and, consequently, with childbirth.)

Drinking from the Fairy Springs

Communing with the Guardian of the Spring

A wide variety of guardian figures around the world (gods, faeries, supernatural spirits) regulate passage through mystic thresholds and access to sacred groves, glens, springs and wells.  Some of them guard whole forests and mountains, while others protect individual trees, Brother and Sister by John B. Gruellehills, stones, bridges, crossings, and crossroads. Myth and folklore tells us these guardians can be appeased, tricked, outwitted, even slain -- but usually at a price which is somewhat higher than one wants to pay.

Sometimes it is the land itself preventing casual passage across mythic boundaries. In the Scottish ballad "Thomas the Rhymer," a river of human blood stands between Faerieland and the mortal world, and Thomas must pay the price of seven years servitude to make that crossing. In the German fairy tale "Brother and Sister," an enchanted stream must be crossed three times in the siblings' flight through the deep, dark woods. They are sternly warned not to stop and drink -- but the brother breaks this magical taboo and is transformed into a deer. In other tales, one princess must climb seven iron mountains to reach the land where her love is imprisoned; another must trick the winds into carrying her where her feet cannot. A magical hedge of thorns is the boundary between Sleeping Beauty's castle and the everyday world, and it cannot be penetrated until time, blood, and prophesy all stand aligned.

In the Land of the Fairies by John Anster Fitzgerald

Lingering at the Crossroads

Trickster is a rare mythic figure who crosses borders and boundaries with ease. In his various guises around the globe (Hermes, Mercury, Loki, Legba, Maui, Monkey, Anansi, Coyote, Raven, Manabozho, Br'er Rabbit, Puck, etc.) he moves back and forth between the realms carrying messages, stealing fire and cattle, making mischief on both sides of the border, dancing in the borderlands between, and (in his role of Psychopomp) leading the dead in their journey to the Underworld or the Spirit Lands.

Tricksters, Lewis Hyde points out, "are the lords of in-between. A trickster does not live near the hearth; he does not live in the halls of justice, the soldier's tent, the shaman's hut, the monastery. He passes through each of these when there is a moment of silence, and he enlivens each with mischief, but he is not their guiding spirit. He is the spirit of the doorway leading out, and of the crossroad at the edge of town (the one where a little market springs up). He is the spirit of the road at dusk, the one that runs from one town to another and belongs to neither. There are strangers on that road, and thieves, and in the underbrush a sly beast whose stomach has not heard about your letters of safe passage....

 Tumble of Stones

"Travellers used to mark such roads with cairns," Hyde continues, "each adding a stone to the pile in passing. The name Hermes once meant 'he of the stone heap,' which tells us that the cairn is more than a trail marker -- it is an altar to the forces that govern these spaces of heightened uncertainty, and to the intelligence needed to negotiate them. Hitchhikers who make it safely home have somewhere paid homage to Hermes."

The Twilight Path

The White Stag by Jane Baynes

Many fantasy novels grow from the desire to go beyond the fields we know or to find the hidden door in the hedge. Unlike Tolkien's Lord of the Rings or Le Guin's Earthsea books, set entirely in invented landscapes, the protagonists of these tales cross over a border, or through a magical portal, traveling from our world to a strange Otherland. This device was used most famously in C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (and his other Narnia books), but also in Andre Norton's Witchworld series, Pamela Dean's Secret Country books, Joyce Ballou Gregorian's Tredana trilogy, Charles de Lint's Moonheart, Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials (although Lyra's Oxford, or Will's, aren't exactly our own), and numerous others. There are also tales in which movement across the border goes in the opposite direction, spilling magic from the Otherworld into our own, such as Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood series, Patricia McKillp's Solstice Wood, and William Hope Hodgson's The House on the Borderlands (1908). In his classic novel The King of Elfland's Daughter (1924), the great Irish fantasist Lord Dunsany focused on the borderland itself: the tricksy, shifting landscape squeezed between the mortal and magical realms...a device that was then irreverently updated by Bordertown, one of the earliest series in the "urban fantasy" genre, with its motorcycle-riding and rave-dancing elves, humans, and halflings in a crumbling city at the edge-lands of Faerie.

Border-crossing works of fantasy fiction

Magical Realist works on the mainstream shelves also make use of border-crossing themes. Rick Collignon's The Journal of Antonio Montoya, Pat Mora's House of Houses, Alfredo Vea Jr.'s La Maravilla, Kathleen Alcala's Spirits of the Ordinary, and Susan Power's The Grass Dancer are all extraordinary books where the membrane between the worlds of the living and the dead is thin and torn; as is Leslie Marmon Silko's wide-ranging refutation of borders, The Almanac of the Dead.  In Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water, Trickster crosses easily from the mythic to modern world; while in Antelope Wife by Louise Erdrich these worlds are stitched together in the intricate patterns of Indian beadwork.

Young Woman with Deer by Katerina Plotnikova

As myth, folklore, and fairy tales remind us, the border between any two things is a traditional place of enchantment: a bridge between two banks of a river; the silvery light between night and day; the liminal moment between dreaming and waking; the motion of shape-shifting transformation; and all those interstitial realms where cultures, myths, landscapes, languages, art forms, and genres meet.

The Enchanted Stream

Betwixt and between

Stepping over the border

We cross the border every time we step from the mundane world to the lands of myth; from mainstream culture to the pages of a mythological study or a magical tale. As a folklorist and fantasist, I cannot resist an unknown road or an open gate. I'm still that child at twilight on an autumn eve, willing magic into existence.

Following the Animal Guide, for safe passage through the borderlandsWords: The quote by Brian Froud is from a conversation I noted down when I was editing his book Good Faeries, Bad Faeries (Simon & Schuster, 1998). The quote by Lewis Hyde is from his excellent book Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, & Art (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1998). Pictures: Art credits can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights to the text and imagery above is reserved by their respective creators.

Comments

Hi Terri

This post is breathtaking and fills me with that wonderful haunting sense of mystery and narrative that comes with twilight . I am drawn to twilight and its haunting landscape with various stories embedded in its earth and creatures. While living in New England, I came across a book of local stories and folklore. One story was about woman who talked to crows and flew with them at dusk. Of course, she was a shape-shifter and much more, a witch who had survived the 17th century trials and persecution of women who dared to defy society, social norms and its moral tyranny. According to the legend, she had an outspoken tongue, a beautiful face and shape along with a fervent passion for a young man of the Puritan community. She seduced him and was punished for her amorous crime as well as being suspected of dark magic. When they placed her in the pillory, she escaped by transforming herself into a crow. And there the story ends but in a way still continues. This poem is based on that tale and also dedicated to the beautiful crows that land on my roof, occasionally riled up or just silent, iridescent guardians of the coming twilight or morning.


Corvidae

Nothing is unreal as long as you can imagine like a crow”
Munia Khan

A crow arrives on my roof
riled-up. Her carping tongue
rather poignant. Something in the desert twilight
will not come or begin. Her partner or the rain.
Either way, she knows I understand -- when
long ago, I landed in the village stocks
for my affair and feminist tongue. A dark night's stay
on the lip of a wilderness. The Summer air

was salted with thirst, and I did not linger
to watch morning come or hear the wash women
gossip about a young man
who had bookmarked his bible
with fragrant herbs from my yard. Whose whispers
flickered with a lover's heat.

When the sun rose, the last shadows of the last
hour departed, they found him fingering
the black feathers of a bird -- just a few
scattered near the pillory. Her molted plumage
the same color as my hair
and perfumed with lavender, the most intimate plant
in my garden.
________________________________

Again, thank you for this!
Take care
Wendy

Next time I see thd lavender in my Scottish garden I will say to myself "it is the most intimate plant there." Thank you for that, dear Wendy, and the crow bits. I have been writing raven poems myself.

And Terri, I don;t remember this posting before. Must think some more on it.

Seems so relevant with border crossings today.

Jane

Lords of the in-Between

Not the border guards,
lazy in their hate,
Scratching themselves like dogs
in the garden, fouling it.

Not the bureaucrats
in their high castles,
afraid to look down upon the streets
fearing the fall.

The true Lords of the In-Between
are the children, ready to step
on the lines, on the cracks,
breathe the space between dreams.

They are Loki in his human form,
black-feathered Raven,
Anansi Spider dancing along
the world wide web.

We grow old and do not dream.
We nap our little lives away
who once looked in the crow’s dark eye,
and saw a galaxy of expanding stars.

©2018 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

Thanks so much Jane

for taking the time to comment on this poem and share your perspective. I deeply appreciate. Personally, I think Lavender is one of the loveliest of plants with soothing qualities, fragrance and certain intimacy that underscores its botannical magic. I also love the corvids, there something intense, wild and sly about those birds.

Take care
Wendy

Hi Jane

he true Lords of the In-Between
are the children, ready to step
on the lines, on the cracks,
breathe the space between dreams.

They are Loki in his human form,
black-feathered Raven,
Anansi Spider dancing along
the world wide web.

So beautifully and truthfully defined! Yes, children are the guardians and keepers of the gate to the "inbetween". They have the magic power of boundless curiosity and imaginative flexibility to explore, allow the spiritual and emotional magic in and out. Praise to Raven and spider who help to allow them to fly and weave their webs of
intricate wonder and belief. And today, it happens on the internet as well as in the playground or the woods.

As always, your poems penetrate and haunt in the best possible way. And I agree totally, we once did look "into the crow's dark eye and see a galaxy of expanding stars". What a gorgeous way of defining that perception.

Take care
Wendy

Jane, this poem is wonderful, as all of yours are. Would it be possible for me to share it on my weblog with credit to you and any links you wish? I hope you don't mind me asking, it's okay to say no :-)

Wonderful post! Thank you for all the thought and work that must have gone into it.

What a wonderful story. Like you I immediately thought of "what happened next?" I love how you have answered it, I love your poem deeply, it is so lush and masterful.

Hi Sarah

I am so glad you enjoyed the poem and the story on which it is based! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, I deeply appreciate them!!

Take care
my best
Wendy

Sarah--it is one I am sending out to journals and they do not accept anything on internet stuff. I am pushing it putting it here. I have no idea how open your weblog is. So I'd rather not. Any poem I put on my FB oage and say: Share it widely is fine. This one is not. Thanks for asking.

Jane

Taking that to heart, Wendy.

Jane

When I was a kid, my best friend and I signed a pact together that the first one of us to find a magical land would tell the other and no one else :) One of the first urban-y sort of liminal books I read was "War For the Oaks". I haven't checked out the Borderlands stories---must do that!

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