Little shape-shifters
Tell all the truth but tell it slant

Fantasy and poetic truth

Nattadon path

From "The Flat-Heeled Muse" by Lloyd Alexander (1924-2007):

"The Muse in charge of fantasy wears good, sensible shoes. No foam-born Aphrodite, she vaguely resembles my old piano teacher, who was keen on metronomes. She does not carry a soothing lyre for inspiration, but is more likely to shake you roughly awake at four in the morning and rattle a sheaf of subtle, sneaky questions under your nose. And you had better answer them. The Muse will stand for no nonsense (that is, non-sense). Her geometries are no more Euclidean than Einstein’s, but they are equally rigorous."

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As a woman who roams the woods of Devon in scuffed old walking boots, I love the idea that the fantasist's Muse wears sensible shoes. I can picture her clearly: bramble-torn sweater, skirt damp from the river, mud on her cheek and moss in her hair...and okay, I admit that's a description of this writer too, but never mind...because Alexander is making a serious point here about the craft of writing fantasy. The magic, he says, isn't made out of moonbeams and gossamer wings; it comes from what's real and earthy and true:

"The less fantastic it is, the stronger fantasy becomes. The writer can painfully bark his shins on too many pieces of magical furniture. Enchanted swords, wielded incautiously, cut both ways. But the limits imposed on characters and implements must be more than simply arbitrary. What does not happen should be as valid as what does. In The Once and Future King, for example, Merlyn knows what will happen in the future; he knows the consequences of Arthur's encounter with Queen Morgause. Why doesn't he speak out in warning? It is not good enough to say, 'Well, that would spoil the story.' Merlyn cannot interfere with destiny; but how does T. H. White show this in specific detail? By having Merlyn grow backwards through time. Confused in his memories, he cannot recollect whether he has already told Arthur or was going to tell him. No more is needed. The rationale is economical and beautiful, fitting and enriching Merlyn's personality.

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"Insistence on plausibility and rationality can work for the writer, not against him. In developing his characters, he is obliged to go deeper instead of wider. And, as in all literature, characters are what ultimately count. The writer of fantasy may have a slight edge on the realistic novelist, who must present his characters within the confines of actuality. Fantasy, too, uses homely detail, but at the same time goes right to the core of a character, to extract the essence, the very taste of an individual personality. This may be one of the things that makes good fantasy so convincing. The essence is poetic truth.

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"The distillation process, unfortunately, is unknown and must be classed as a Great Art or a Major Enchantment. If a recipe existed, it could be reproduced; and it is not reproducible. We can only see the results. Or hear them. Of Kenneth Grahame -- and the same applies to all great fantasists -- A. A. Milne writes: 'When characters have been created as solidly...they speak ever after in their own voices.'

"These voices speak directly to us. Like music, poetry, or dreams, fantasy goes straight to the heart of the matter. The experience of a realistic work seldom approaches the experience of fantasy. We may sail on the Hispaniola and perform deeds of derring-do. But only in fantasy can we journey through Middle Earth, where the fate of an entire world lies in the hands of a hobbit.

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Blackberries and pink campion

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"Fantasy presents the world as it should be. But 'should be' does not mean that the realms of fantasy are Lands of Cockaigne where roasted chickens fly into mouths effortlessly opened. Sometimes heartbreaking, but never hopeless, the fantasy world as it "should be" is one in which good is ultimately stronger than evil, where courage, justice, love, and mercy actually function. Thus, it may often appear quite different from our own. In the long run, perhaps not. Fantasy does not promise Utopia. But if we listen carefully, it may tell us what we someday may be capable of achieving."

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Go here to read Alexander's essay, "The Flat-heeled Muse," in full. It is a delight.

The muse of fantasy wears sensible shoes

Words: The passages above are from "The Flat-heeled Muse" by Lloyd Alexander, published in The Horn Book (April, 1965). The fairy poem in the picture captions is from Poetry (November 2019). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: An encounter on our morning walk.

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