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. 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.
"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.
"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."
The poet does this, yes, and the poetic fiction writer, and especially, I believe, the poets and fiction writers working in fantasy and 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.
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.
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.
Winterson's essay can be found in her collection Art Objects (Jonathan Cape, 1995), Le Guin's in her collection The Language of the Night (The Women's Press, 1979). All rights reserved by the authors. Photographs: Words in the wild.