The Bumblehill Studio Newsletter
The "wild time" of the sickbed

Once upon a time

Flower border

Yvonne Gilbert

The calendar turns, the lock-down rolls on, and time is going funny on us. It feels like we've been in lock-down forever; and it also feels like it hasn't been long at all, surely not six weeks since the UK lock-down began on March 23rd.

I've been thinking about the way time warps in so many fairy stories and myths. When we enter a story, and enter enchantment, we are in a place of profound uncertainty where even the steady ticking of the clock is something we cannot take for granted. Jay Griffiths wrote about this, I recalled, in her engrossing book Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time; so I pulled my copy down off the shelves and flipped through its pages until I found the following passage:

Yvonne Gilbert"Myth and stories across the world have a profound relationship to time. They enchant time, they represent its ambiguity and enigma. As western folktales begin Once Upon a Time, so Aboriginal Australian myths begin with a nod at time, thus: 'In the Dreamtime, when the earth was young....' 'In the time when the dreaming began, a time when there was neither birth nor death', or 'In the earliest days when time began'. Among the Iraqw of Tanzania, there are many 'once upon a time' openings for stories, often beginning bal geeza which literally means 'first days'. In Navajo myth and ritual, past, present, and future are interchangeable. The Achuar, a tribe of the Jivaro peoples in Ecuador, start their myths thus: 'A long time ago, a long, long time ago...', and tell their stories in the imperfect rather than in the cut-off perfect tense, ending the story in 'now'. Again, there is no absolute and simple break between now and then. There is a blurred border like a frayed cloud, not a separation of time but the difference of two modalities.

Yvonne Gilbert

"Storyteller Michael Meade begins an Irish myth thus: 'Once upon a time, or below a time, or not, there was in Ireland a king named Conn Mor....' Another begins: 'There are five directions. East, where the sun rises. North, where there is trouble. South, where you may find a friend. West, where all that begins, ends. And the fifth direction; the place where stories come from and where they say Once Upon a Time....'

Yvonne Gilbert

"Mythic stories talk time out of mind, charm and trick time, clogging or stretching it: fables make time fabulously paradoxical, a stubborn blot on the face of clock-time but true to the time of the psyche, where past, present and future are kaleidoscoped. Time can run anti-clockwise so the youngest child succeeds where the oldest fails, the dawn can be wiser than the dusk and birds can tell the future. Certain periods of time -- three days, a year and a day, seven years and a hundred years -- are enchanted. In these archetypal tales all over the world, 'sensible' time disappears into a wrinkle; a person dips into a fairy hill or disappears for a night with dwarves, but on their return finds that, Rip Van Winklish, a hundred ordinary years have passed. The dwarfish figures which inhabit so many tales are themselves squashed time, at once close to children, but yet grumpy old men, close to the underground past, but able to offer clues to the future; compressed and animated, like cartoons of time. Spellbound by a story, time stops for a child.

Yvonne Gilbert

"The Inuit tell tales which begin 'long ago, in the future,' which is a beautiful expression of mythic time playing trickster to linear, logical conceptions. But all fairy tales play with time, from 'Once upon a time' to 'lived happily ever after.' Once tells of a past eternal, but the eternity it refers to is also a charmed present, just at one remove from now. French folk tales can begin 'Il y a une fois,' meaning some time ago, while il y a actually means 'there is.' This is the eternal-present tense, an enchanted present-continuous, a time in the past that still exists. The present, 'now and ever after,' is the present continuing, life everlasting, and even though the individual action is narrated and complete -- 'that's all folks' -- yet life goes on, ever after, back in the now....

"Mythic stories face death, time's most ferociously fearful aspect, and charm the sting out of it for this reason: the individual tale ends, myths imply, so the individual life story must end in death, but the life of the species lives from ever-before to ever-after. The consolation of life's continuing is most explicit in this Aboriginal Dreamtime myth: 'And so death comes, but life always returns.' Their transcendence of death is achieved in part by the archetypal nature of the characters of myths and folk tales; the totemic Dreamtime figures, the Jack and Jill of folk tales, even the Everyman of Morality Plays. Further, the tales themselves become 'immortal,' living stories retold from generation to generation in an oral culture, from ceilidh to corroboree." 

Yvonne Gilbert

Jeanette Winterson notes that as Western clock-time and lives speed up, urged ever faster by the restless, relentless gods of productivity, profit, and technology, this speed seeps into our narrative arts; and she makes a plea for letting fiction (and life) unfold at a more natural pace. 

"Nobody would expect to play a piece of music at twice the speed of the score and be able to enjoy it. Yet, in literature this is happening all the time. The reader chooses the pace without taking the trouble to first pick up the rhythm. To get used to a writer's rhythm, to move with a writer's own beat, needs a little more time. It means looking at the opening pages carefully. It can be helpful to read them out loud. Much of the delight everyone gets from radio adaptations of the classics is a straightforward delight in pace. The actors read much more slowly than the eye passes, especially the eye habituated to scanning the daily papers and skipping through the magazines. It is just not possible to read literature quickly. Neither poetry nor poetic fiction will respond to being rushed....

"It seems so obvious, this question of pace, and yet it is not. Reviewers, who can never waste more than an hour with a book, are the most to blame. Journalism encourages haste; haste in the writer, haste in the reader, and haste is the enemy of art. Art, in its making and in its enjoying, demands long tracts of time. Books, like cats, do not wear watches.

"Over and above all the individual rhythms of music, pictures and words, is the rhythm of art itself."

Yvonne Gilbert

This is something I've been thinking about, as time moves along so strangely during the surreal days of a global pandemic. There is much that I miss about the pre-pandemic world, but not its frantic pace. If and when the lock-down eases, I want a different relationship to time itself. I want to move in accord with nature, which is to say: with my own best natural rhythms. I want to live in art time, story time.

I want to live my life in enchantment. 

Yvonne Gilbert

The imagery here today is by the award-winning artist and illustrator Anne Yvonne Gilbert. Raised in Northumberland (in north-east England), Gilbert studied at Newcastle College and the Liverpool College of Art, and has worked as an illustrator and graphic artist since the late 1970s. She has published many beautiful children's books; provided cover art for fantasy classics by Diana Wynne Jones, Ursula K. Le Guin, Peter Dickinson, and John Crowley, among others; and designed everything from album covers to postage stamps -- working primarily with colored pencils and inks. Please visit her website and illustration blog to learn more.

Yvonne Gilbert

Words: The passages by Jay Griffiths is from Pip Pip (HarperCollins, 1999); the passage by Jeanette Winterson is from Art Objects (Random House, 1995). All rights reserved by the authors and artist.

A note on punctuation: As an American living in the UK,  I never know whether it's best to use standard American or British punctuation and spelling here (such as the difference in where periods are placed in relation to quotation marks). I quote a lot of passages from UK texts, yet I still work as an editor in the US publishing industry and am personally most comfortable with the American style. As a result (as long-time readers know), I go back and forth between the two in a highly confusing manner. Today, I've retained the British punctuation in the text quoted from Jay Griffiths' Pip Pip, as her style of writing is unique and I didn't want to mess with it.