Little shape-shifters

In the video above, Cornelia Funke (author of The Thief Lord, Inkheart, etc.) speaks about the need for wilderness in children's lives. "Kids are so very good at still being shape-shifters, and shifting into feathers and fur. They still understand that we are connected to everything in this world, and that we are part of an incredibly intricate woven web of life and creatures."

Born in Dorsten, West Germany, Funke began her career as a social worker focused on children from deprived backgrounds; she then became a book illustrator before turning her hand to writing fantasy for young readers. Funke and her family moved from Hamburg, Germany to California in 2005. 

Detail from The Dreaming - T Windling"I'm fascinated by stories that stem from a particular place," she says. "That started with The Thief Lord, which wouldn't have come into being if it weren't for Venice. In the stories I choose to tell, places always play the role of a hero. I have also always been interested in the non-human and our relationship to that – whether plants or animals or imaginary creatures. I'm interested in everything that scratches at and questions the so-called reality that we perceive.

"When I'm standing on the street in Hamburg and there is one of those stepping stones under my feet, which is there to remind me of the Jews that were deported from the house I'm standing in front of, then that hugely scratches at the reality I find myself in at that moment. I might just have come back from a peaceful walk across the Isemarkt market square, for example. It scratches at my reality when a bird flies by me and I imagine how it views reality. It scratches at my reality when someone passes me by who has a different color of skin. How does that change the experience with world? We all know it does.

"It constantly scratches at my reality that we can perceive this world so differently. I find it absurd I'm asked so often why I write fantasy, because I think that reality is fantastic. And the only way to get closer to it is to write fantasy."

Little Shape-shifters - T Windling

"I write stories I love to read myself. And I am profoundly enchanted by children and young readers, by their openness and curiosity, by their will to still ask the big questions about the world: where do we come from? What is this all about? Why is the world so beautiful and terrible at the same time? Children also still understand that we are just part of a huge web and connected to every plant and creature on this planet. They are still shape shifters and go easily into a story, whereas adults often hesitate to allow their imagination to give them feathers and wings."

The Lost Child - T Windling

The paintings and drawings are by me today. They are: A detail from "The Dreaming," three little shape-shifters, and "The Lost Child." The last one was painted for our daughter when she was young and going through a hard time. Every child needs a Guardian Spirit. I know that I certainly did.

The Cornelia Funke quotes are from interviews in Scroll.in (Dec. 2, 2018) and DW (Oct. 12, 2018). The video is from The Wilderness Society (Feb. 17, 2012). All rights to text and imagery reserved by the author, filmmaker, and artist.


The unwritten landscape

Loch Snizort on the Isle of Skye, south-east of Lewis in the Inner Eebrides

I'm still following the thread that began with a discussion of Philip Marsden's The Summer Isles (about the wild western coasts of Ireland and Scotland), then continued on through selkie tales and otter brides and other stories of the Celtic fringe. Today we're up in the Hebrides, on the Isle of Lewis (in the text) and the nearby Isle of Skye (in the pictures)....

In the following passage, Alice Starmore describes the relationship between language and place, and how fragile that relationship is in a rapidly changing world. It's from her beautiful essay "Isabella's Crag: Language, Landscape, and Life on the Lewis Moor":

"Although too insignificant to be named on any map, Creagan Iseabal Mhartainn [Isabella's Crag] is a towering feature of the 'unwritten landscape' -- a rich vocabulary of geographical co-ordinates known, loved and spoken of by generations of the families who spent their summers in the crag's vicinity. Today, I count only a half a dozen people, myself included, who could name that crag and guide you to it. The youngest of us is sixty, so the future of the unwritten language is far shorter than its past: the acumulation of knowledge and respect that engendered it is now de-valued and close to being forgotten, like Isabella herself, for not even the half-dozen knows who she was or when she lived. Yet her modest crag stands as a paradigm for the whole Lewis moor: for its past, present and possible future.

Trees in the ruins of a blackhouse.

"Over my whole career, my greatest and most consistent artistic inspiration has stemmed from the childhood summers I spent on the Lewis moor during the 1950s and 1960s. For six weeks of each year of my childhood, my family moved from our usual home to the àirigh of our ancestral geàrraidh (pasture) on the moor just south of Stornoway. I belong to the very last Hebridean generation to take part in this traditional form of transhumance, for the practice had died out by the end of the 1960s.

"For centuries, the custom of transhumance in Lewis was an essential part of life in crofting villages, as arable land was limited. In order to provide enough fodder for the cattle to survive the winter and early spring, it was necessary to take them away to moorland pastures for the summer months so the village pastures could be harvested for winter feed.

An old croft house on Skye

"This was especially necessary in the Eye Peninsula, also known as the Point, where my family comes from. Point was a well-populated crofting area with virtually no hill grazing in the immediate district due to its peninsular situation. The summer hill grazing was on the far side of Stornoway, which involved a long march with the cattle through the town and then over hill and burn to the àirigh.

"In my parents' youth, the men, women and children and animals walked the many miles to their summer pastures, carrying all their essential foodstuffs, clothing and utensils. This was known as An Iomraich (The Flitting).

Blackhouse door

Spinning wheel

Crofting tools

"By the time I was a child, only the cattle and herders came on foot while we loaded all our chattels, including all domestic pets, in a small lorry hired for the day. We children perched on the top of the load like latter-day dustbowl Okies and headed off to glorious freedom and the joyful company of our little summer community.

"Each village tended to have its own geàrraidh and quite often they were named after the crofting village, such as Geàrraidh Shiadair (Shulishader's Pasture). Others were named after the original long-gone owner of the first àirigh. For example, Àirigh an t-Sagairt (the Priest's Sheiling) was still known long after priests had departed these Presbyterian shores. Many more were named after a feature of the landscape, such as Àirigh a' Chreagain (the Sheilings at the Crag), or sometimes even a measure of distance such as Àirigh Fad As (the Faraway Sheiling).

Ladder to the orchard

 "Place names were of great importance to us; as well as having a romance all of their own, they were a means of communicating where we were going or where we had been on our wanderings. My father would describe the journeys of his 1920s boyhood from Bayble in Point to the very furthest grazing at Loch Dubh nan Stearnag (the Black Loch of the Terns) in the heart of the Lewis moor. After walking twelve miles, they stopped to rest overnight at Àirigh na Beiste (the Animal Sheiling) before going through Àirigh Leitir (the Sheilings on the Slope) and then on to their own pasture called Àirigh Sgridhe at the foot of the Beinn a' Sgridhe in the Barvas Hills.

"My father's journey was epic by Lewis standards, and the pastures he passed through to get there were equivalent to the main towns on a road map. But the unwritten landscape held a treasury of terms with which to describe our journeys. My father could name every little feature he stopped at or passed by. Likewise, we children could tell our parents exactly where we were going, or where we had been."

Cows above Loch Snizort

"Knowing the landscape gave us the freedom of it. Our parents could get on with their day and trust that we would not get lost or drown in the vast network of lochs, burns and bogs that were all ours to explore....We lived on the border between micro and macro -- our detailed observations were balanced against the broad sweep of the open moor. Constant unsupervised exploration, with no time restrictions, allowed our imaginations to run free. We observed facts of nature, but it was also easy to believe in kelpies and shape-shifters when walking the moor in the late evening."

Thistle

Outdoor life on the summer pasture, notes Starmore,

"contributed to an intimate knowledge of the place, its  history, and all the life within it. Though as a small child I was free of the cares of adults, it was obvious that everyone was very happy on the moor, and as the time approached to return home it was difficult not to be sad. Latterly, there were just three families on our pasture and none of us wanted to be the first or last to leave. We therefore tried to co-ordinate our flitting so that we would all leave on the same day. Alexina, the sky reader, gave voice to all our feelings about the geàrraidh when she admitted one day, when we were packing up to go, that she was extremely sad at the thought of 'fágáil an geàrraidh na aonar' (leaving the pasture in loneliness).

"To us it had a spirit, a heart and soul, just as we had ourselves."

Sheep by the loch

A sheep trots after the herd

For those of us writers and illustrators drawn to pastoral works of fantasy, set in magical lands full of rolling fields and farms, great swathes of ancient woodland and fishing villages nestled by the sea (Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea Cycle, Patricia McKillip's Riddle-Master Trilogy, Diana Wynne Jones' Dalemark Quartet, Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Pyrdain, etc.), it is both inspiring and instructive to read about historical and contemporary life in the remote regions of the world we inhabit, and the ways that landscape, language, and folk tradition shape the people and the stories that emerge from them.

Many writers live far from such rural spaces themselves. Can we conjure pastoral landscapes and people convincingly from writing rooms in modern cities or the suburbs, out of lives mediated by computer screens, not wind and rain and the cycles of the wild earth? I believe we can. That is what imagination and the writing craft are for. We're not social realists, we're fantasists. We tell the truth, like poets, but we tell it slant -- we clothe it in symbol, archetype, and metaphor. But if we are to write or illustrate fantasy well we must do the work of understanding the classic tropes we use as best we can. Through reading. Through research. Through curiosity and sensitivity about lives and traditions far different than our own. Through building a relationship to the wild wherever we are. Know the place and the land on which you are rooted, and then move outward from there.

The long road home

Disappearing into Faerie

Words: The passage above is from "Isabella's Crag" by Alice Starmore (EarthLines magazine, May 2012); highly recommended. All rights reserved by the author. Pictures: The Isle of Skye (2017), south-east of Lewis in the Inner Hebrides. The final photograph, of Howard and me, was taken Ellen Kushner. You can see Alice Starmore's photographs of the Lewis moor here, from her lovely exhibition "Mamba."


On J.M. Barrie and Peter Pan

J.M. Barrie & Michael Llewelyn Davies

Charles Dickens once stated that Little Red Riding Hood was his first love, and if only he could have married her, he would have known perfect bliss. For me, my first love was Peter Pan -- that charming, exasperating rascal of a boy, killer of pirates and intimate of fairies. But in my generation, we first encountered Peter as portrayed by the actress Mary Martin (in a televised version of the stage play Peter Pan), which created a certain gender confusion. Was Peter a boy (or girl) I had a crush on, or the dashing figure that I wanted to be myself? Play-acting the role of Wendy was boring, too much sewing and mothering of Lost Boys;  play-acting Peter was so much better, strutting and scheming and  fighting pirates. I dreamed of flight, and fairy dust, and Indian drums sounding in the woods; and insisted on leaving the bedroom window cracked in case Peter should appear....

Peter's creator, Sir James Matthew Barrie, died on this day in 1937. Today's post is dedicated to Barrie and to Peter, two boys who never grew up.

Captain Hook and Peter by PJ LYnchJ.M. Barrie was already a well-known novelist and playwright when he sat down to write his first and only play for children, which he completed and offered to the theater producer Charles Frohman in the spring of 1904. It was unlike anything that had ever been presented to children on the London stage before, but Frohman loved it -- except for the title, which Barrie obligingly changed from The Great White Father to Peter Pan, the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up. ("Great White Father" is what Peter is called by Tiger Lily and her companions.) Although it had roots in the British pantomime tradition, Peter Pan was a wholly original concoction blending pirate stories, desert island stories, Indian adventures and fairy tales, all wrapped around a satire of family life in Edwardian London. Frohman took an enormous commercial risk in backing a play of over fifty parts and of actors wired to soar above the stage. No one knew if this preposterous play would work, especially its anxious author. On opening night, Barrie was ill with nerves, holding his breath at the critical moment when Peter asks the audience to clap their hands if they believe in fairies. What if no one clapped at all? But the audience responded with such wild applause that the actress playing Peter burst into tears.

Peter Pan by Alice B. Woodward

The opening of the play in December 1904 is now reckoned as the date of Peter's birth, for it marks the emergence of Peter as we know him, sword in hand and Tinker Bell at his side. Yet he really first appeared two years earlier in Barrie's adult novel The Little White Bird. The novel's narrator is a crusty bachelor who lives close to London's Kensington Gardens, where he meets a small boy and establishes an intense relationship with him. He charms the boy with stories about fairies, and about a run-away baby named Peter Pan who lives among the birds and fairies on an island in the Serpentine Lake.

From JM Barrie's Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens illustrated by Arthur Rackham 2All babies were once birds, he tells the boy, and they still possess the power of flight. Parents, he warns, must keep their windows shut so that their babies don't fly off at night. Peter Pan is a baby who once heard his mother talk about the life he'd lead when he was grown, prompting him to fly to Kensington Gardens in order to avoid this fate. In the Gardens, he's neither bird nor baby but a creature who is "betwixt and between," glorying in his independence, determined to never grow up. Eventually, however, he tries to go back home, only to find that he's left it much too late. His mother has another baby now, and the nursery windows are firmly locked.

The Little White Bird, like most of Barrie's work, drew inspiration from the author's own life. He too lived close to Kensington Gardens, where he walked with his enormous St. Bernard dog, and where he first became friends with three little boys: George, Jack, and Peter Llewelyn Davies. Barrie held the boys spellbound with tales about magical goings-on in the park at night, when fairies emerged from the hollows of the trees, leaving messages for the boys to find. The first "Peter" in these stories was the real baby Peter, flying off from the Llewelyn Davies nursery to join the fairies' revels at night -- but soon a separate character emerged of the fairy-child Peter Pan, who had once been a human baby, but now lived in the wilds of the park. Barrie was an intensely autobiographical writer, mining his own life for story material to a degree that alternately charmed and exasperated the friends and family members who found themselves rendered into novels and plays. Thus to understand Peter Pan, we must take a closer look at his creator and his complicated relationship with the Llewelyn Davies family.

Baby Peter Flies Over London by Arthur Rackham

Born in Kirriemuir, Scotland in 1860, James Barrie was the frail, unprepossessing seventh child in a family of ten. His father was a hand-loom weaver, and although the family was far from affluent, they were comfortable, and good educations were provided for the Barrie boys. The eldest son, Alexander, graduated from Aberdeen University with first-class honors in Classics; and the next son, David, a brilliant boy, was expected to do even better. James, however, was a dreamy child more interested in games and Penny Dreadfuls (adventure comics) than excelling in academics. David was the acknowledged star of the family -- but when David was thirteen and James was six, David died in a skating accident. Their mother never recovered from this blow, and James spent the rest of his childhood trying to replace the boy she'd lost. He distracted his mother by begging for stories about the Scotland of her childhood (and would later make a good living turning these stories into articles and books). David remained enshrined in memory as the perfect child who never aged or disappointed. "Nothing that happens after we are twelve matters very much," J.M. Barrie wrote many years later.

Yet the years from ages thirteen to eighteen seem to have been the happiest of Barrie's own life, when he left his home and grieving mother to attend Dumfries Academy. Though Dumfries was co-educational, Barrie lived in a masculine world of sports, games, and intense friendships with other boys. He was small and thin, but good at football, cricket, fishing, and other sports, and especially at games of make believe involving pirates, bandits, and other stock characters from the Penny Dreadfuls. These games evolved into a Dramatic Club, establishing Barrie's life long devotion to the theater. He wrote his very first play for the club, a melodrama called Bandelero the Bandit.

J.M. BarrieBarrie knew from quite an early age that he wanted to be a professional writer, but his mother had other plans for him. He was to follow the path that David would have taken to a career in the ministry. Barrie dutifully went off to earn his M.A. at Edinburgh University, where he was miserable. He had been popular among the boys in Dumfries, but at university he was at a loss. He was an odd looking young man, barely five feet tall, and appeared much younger than he was. The women ignored him, and the men embarrassed him with coarse talk about the opposite sex. Barrie retreated into solitude, turning shy and reticent, which were traits he'd retain even when he'd become the most successful writer in Great Britain.

Barrie obliged his parents by completing his degree, but returned home still determined to be a writer, landing a job with the Nottingham Journal and sending submissions off to the London papers. The St. James Gazette began to publish Barrie's stories of Scotland in his mother's day, and with this slim encouragement he moved to London at the age of 24. He went with little money and few contacts, and yet within a very few years Barrie's work was appearing regularly in the top newspapers and journals in the country. He published three books about old Scotland -- Auld Licht Idylls, A Window in Thrums, and The Little Minister -- which turned into surprise best-sellers, elevating him in literary circles and opening society's doors. Barrie's boyhood idol Robert Louis Stevenson proclaimed him to be a writer of genius, and Barrie's circle of friends now included Thomas Hardy, Henry James, William Meredith, Arthur Conan Doyle, and P.G. Wodehouse.

From Peter Pan in Kensington Garden illustrated by Arthur Rackham copy 2

Barrie then turned his hand to writing plays, scoring successes with Ibsen's Ghost and Walker, London. He loved the theater -- and he also loved to flirt with the pretty starlets of the day, although he never went beyond flirting until he met a young woman named Mary Ansell. Mary's career on the stage was undistinguished but she was lively and intelligent, and as the two grew close, the London society papers predicted an engagement. Mary waited while Barrie dithered about her. He worried that he was unsuited to marriage -- as a child he'd even had nightmares about it -- and the notes in his journals from the period show a man who is wracked with doubt. He loved Mary, but did he love her deeply? Was he capable of a steady, adult love? He worried that the answer was no, but hoped that the act of marriage would mature him -- so he proposed to Mary, married her in Scotland, and took her off on a Swiss honeymoon. The honeymoon was not a success, and Mary later referred to it as "a shock." Barrie's biographers suspect (as did many of his friends) that the marriage was never consummated -- for he seems to have been an entirely asexual man, incapable of physical passion. In a journal entry recorded during his honeymoon he makes this note for a scene in a future play:

Wife-Have you given me up? Have nothing to do with me?
Husband calmly kind, no passion & c. (à la self)

When the couple returned to London, Mary busied herself with their new house and dog, while Barrie retreated into his study and got back to work. He produced new stories, new plays, a sentimental biography of his mother -- and then began Tommy and Grizel, considered by many to be his finest novel. It's the tragic story of Tommy, a writer, who is married to his childhood friend Grizel. The marriage is not a happy one, for there's something vital lacking in Tommy -- he cannot love Grizel, or anyone else, in a physical way (or so the text implies without stating his lack of sexuality directly). He's not like other men, Tommy tries to explain, he's really just a boy who has never grown up. Barrie writes, "She knew that, despite all he had gone through, he was still a boy. And boys cannot love. Oh, is it not cruel to ask a boy to love?"

Peter Pan by Scott Gustafson

As Barrie's biographers have remarked, one can only imagine what Mary thought when she read passages like this in print, realizing that anything she said or did might be turned into story material. But if Mary minded, she didn't show it. She carefully, dutifully kept up the public appearance of a perfectly normal marriage. There were compensations. She was wealthy now, and her husband was a celebrated man. If she didn't have his passion, and couldn't have his children, at least she had as much of Barrie's affection and attention as he had to give until, in 1897, she began to lose even that.

Arthur Llewelyn Davies and sonsFor it was in 1897 that Barrie became acquainted with the three little boys in Kensington Gardens: five-year-old George, four-year-old Jack, and baby brother Peter, who came to play in the park each day attended by their nanny. They talked about cricket, pirates, and fairies; he dazzled them by the way he could wiggle his ears; and before long, Barrie was meeting up with boys on a regular basis. He had always found it easier to make friends with children than he did adults. They didn't mind his moods, his long silences; they enjoyed his black humor and quirky stories, and accepted him as an overgrown boy rather than as one of the grown-ups.

On New Year's Eve, the Barries attended an elegant dinner party where Barrie was seated beside the beautiful wife of a young barrister. He soon discovered, to his astonishment, that this was Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, the mother of his friends George, Jack, and Peter -- while she discovered, with equal amazement, that the mysterious man who could wiggle his ears was the famous author J.M. Barrie.

Sylvia and Michael Llewyln DaviesSylvia was no stranger to fame herself, for her father was George du Maurier, illustrator for Punch magazine and author of the novel Trilby (which introduced Svengali to the world); her brother Gerald was a well-known actor; and her husband Arthur was the son of John Llewelyn Davies, a prominent theologian. Sylvia was charmed by Barrie's enthusiasm for her beloved boys, and invited him to visit them at home -- which he promptly did, reappearing there with increasing regularity.

Soon Barrie was a fixture in Sylvia's household -- to the chagrin of her husband Arthur, who could not fathom why this strange little Scotsman was so constantly underfoot, and of Mary Barrie, disconcerted by this new focus in her husband's life. Neither Arthur nor Mary had cause to believe that Sylvia and Barrie had embarked on an affair (and Mary, especially, knew how impossible this was), but the intensity of Barrie's interest in Sylvia's boys raised more than a few eyebrows. Sylvia, however, found nothing strange in it. Completely in love with her handsome husband, she saw nothing compromising in accepting Barrie's friendship, and nothing odd in his devotion to her darling sons. She pushed Arthur's objections aside, and Arthur learned to hold his tongue, accepting Barrie's presence in their lives with as much stoicism as he could muster. Barrie's wife, for her part, made a point of befriending Sylvia and coped as best she could with the awkward fact that her husband was engrossed in the lives of another woman's children.

The question inevitably rises in relation to Barrie's involvement with the Llewelyn Davies boys whether he was a pedophile, or had repressed pedophilic tendencies. Nico Llewelyn Davies, the youngest of the boys, when asked about this after Barrie's death, dismissed the idea categorically. "I don't believe that Uncle Jim ever experienced what one might call 'a stirring in the undergrowth' for anyone -- man, woman, or child," said Nico. "He was an innocent -- which is why he could write Peter Pan." Writer Andrew Birkin, who spent three years researching Barrie's life for his BBC television program The Lost Boys, interviewed many who had known J.M. Barrie and conducted an extensive correspondence with Nico. Nothing he read or heard indicated that Barrie had a sexual interest in the boys. "Barrie was impotent, it's fairly clear," says Birkin (on the DVD edition of his program). "That was the tragedy of his life. Had he not been impotent, I think he would have been a womanizer — he was always falling in love with his leading ladies over the stage lights. The suggestion that he was somehow pedophilic with these boys doesn't really stand up to close examination."

George  John  and Peter Llewyn Davies

In 1900, Sylvia gave birth to Michael, who would grow to be Barrie's favorite of her sons — but for now it was still George, the eldest, who was the child closest to his heart. Barrie's novel The Little White Bird (1902) is transparently based upon his relationship with George. Captain W., the novel's protagonist, meets a charming little boy in Kensington Gardens, and he sets out to win the affections of both the boy and his beautiful mother.

Barrie and his dog PorthosLike much of Barrie's fiction, the novel is too sentimental to suite most modern tastes (though saved by the delicious bite of Barrie's humor), and the intensity of the narrator's obsession with the boy makes for uncomfortable reading in our less innocent age. But this tribute to children and childhood was exactly suited to the temper of its day. "To speak in sober earnest," proclaimed the London Times, "this is one of the best things that Barrie has written….If a book exists that contains more knowledge and more love of children, we do not know it." George was proud of inspiring the novel (even though it earned him teasing from his school fellows), and Sylvia loved it. What Arthur and Mary felt about the book is not recorded.

In 1903, Sylvia became pregnant with Nicholas (called Nico), her fifth and final child. The day before Nico's birth, Barrie started work on Peter Pan. Unlike baby Peter in The Little White Bird, this Peter would be an older boy who lived in distant Never Land (called Neverland or Never-never Land in some editions), where he'd have the adventures that Barrie had so often play-acted with Sylvia's children. Barrie set the first scene in the Darling house on a shabby street in Bloomsbury -- "but you may dump it down anywhere you like," he wrote, "and if you think it was your house, you are very probably right." The beautiful Mrs. Darling was modeled on Sylvia, and the perfidious Mr. Darling, rather unfairly, on Arthur. Barrie later explained to the Llewelyn Davies boys that Peter was made "by rubbing the five of you violently together, as savages with two sticks produce flame. That it is all he is, the spark I got from you."

Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens illustrated by Arthur Rackham

Other sparks came from Scottish fairy stories -- which Barrie would have heard or read in his youth, particularly as he was a fan of the writer and folklore enthusiast Sir Walter Scott. The fairy stories that he drew upon, however, weren't sugar-sweet Victorian confections about tiny butterfly-winged sprites, but older, darker stories about the dangerous fairies of the Scottish folk tradition. In these tales, seductive, heartless fairies lure children into the fairy realm, an enchanted world that lies at the heart of the woods, or underneath the Scottish hills. Time passes differently in that realm. A single night spent with the fairies might be a hundred years in human time -- so when the children go back home again, their parents are dead and gone.

Peter Pan by Michael HagueIn changeling tales, the fairies snatch infants and pretty children from their beds, whisking them off to fairyland as pampered pets, companions, or slaves. Sometimes a fairy is left behind, glamored to look like the stolen child: a bad-tempered, sickly, hungry creature who is a plague to the human parents. The lost children in changeling tales don't always find their way back home. Sometimes they stay under the hills, losing all memory of the mortal world -- just as John and Michael Darling forget their parents while living in Never Land.

Barrie's Peter Pan is human-born, not a fairy, but he's lived in Never Land so long that he's as much a fairy as he is a boy: magical, capricious, and amoral, like the fairies of the old Scots tradition. He's a complex mixture of good and bad, with little understanding of the difference between them; both cruel and kind, thoughtless and generous, arrogant and tender-hearted, bloodthirsty and sentimental. He is a classic trickster character -- kin to Puck, Robin Goodfellow, and other delightful but exasperating sprites of fairy lore. He's a liminal creature, standing on the threshold between fairy and child, mortal and immortal, villain (when he lures children from their homes) and hero (when he rescues them from pirates).

Peter Pan and Captain Hook by Michael Hague

Peter's last name derives from the Greek god Pan, the son of the trickster god Hermes by a wood nymph of Arcadia. Pan is a creature of the wilderness, associated with vitality, virility, and ceaseless energy.

Peter playing the pipes by Michael HagueIn the ancient writings of Servius we find this detailed description: Pan is "formed in the likeness of nature with horns to resemble the rays of the sun and the horns of the moon; his face is ruddy in the imitation of ether; he wears a spotted fawn skin resembling the stars in the sky; his lower limbs are hairy because of the trees and the wild beasts; he has the feet of a goat to resemble the stability of the earth; his pipe has seven reeds in accordance with the harmony of heaven; his pastoral staff bears a crook in reference to the pastoral year which curves back on itself; and finally he is the god of all nature." Pan's young namesake does not have goat legs or horns, but he does ride on the back of a goat, and he plays the pan-pipes, an instrument Pan invented from hollow reeds.

Like Peter, the god Pan is a contradictory figure. He haunts solitary mountains and groves, where he's quick to anger if he's disturbed, but he also loves company, music, dancing, and riotous celebrations. He is the leader of a woodland band of satyrs -- but these "Lost Boys" are a wilder crew than Peter's, famed for drunkenness, licentiousness, and creating havoc (or "panic"). Pan himself is a distinctly lusty god -- and here the comparison must end, for Peter's wildness has no sexual edge. Indeed, it's sex and the other mysteries of adulthood that he's specifically determined to avoid. ("You mustn't touch me. No one must ever touch me," Peter tells Wendy.)

Wendy by Scott Gustafson

Barrie added three girls to Peter's story (over the Llewelyn Davies boys' initial objection): Wendy Darling, the fairy Tinker Bell, and the Indian princess Tiger Lily. "Wendy" was a nonexistent name at the time. It came from a child named Margaret Henley who referred to Barrie as her "friendy" -- but she couldn't pronounce her "f"s and "r"s, and so the word came out as "Wendy". (Due entirely to Barrie's play, Wendy soon became a popular name for little girls.) Tinker Bell was originally called Tippy in the earliest drafts of the play, and Tiger Lily's tribe is called the Piccaninnies -- a name mercifully left out of modern renditions. (Barrie's Indians are fantasy Indians, "savages" imagined by Edwardian children, and have as much to do with actual Indians as Nanna the dog has to do with actual nannies.)

Captain Hook comes directly from the make-believe games that Barrie played with George and his brothers, as well as from the pirates in the Penny Dreadfuls that Barrie loved as a child. Hook was first portrayed on the London stage by Gerald du Maurier (Sylvia's brother), who brought such menace to the role that children were carried screaming from the stalls. "How he was hated," recalled his daughter, the novelist Daphne du Maurier, "with his flourish, his poses, his dreaded diabolical smile! That ashen face, those blood-red lips, the long, dank, greasy curls; the sardonic laugh, the maniacal scream, the appalling courtesy of his gestures." Hook's villainy was never entirely played for laughs -- he was allowed to be a truly menacing figure, saving the role from pure camp and adding gravity to Peter's story.

Captain Hook and the Crocodile by David Wyatt

While Barrie was busy with the enormous task of making this extravagant fantasia work on stage, Arthur Llewelyn Davies made a sudden move and relocated his family to Berhamsted, twenty-five miles away from London. Barrie still came to visit them, but he could no longer be a daily presence. Instead, he wrote wistful letters to the boys as he hovered anxiously around the theater, watching his actors learn to fly and Peter Pan come to life. Peter himself was played by a young starlet (Nina Boucicault in the first London production, Maude Adams in New York) -- largely because of labor laws preventing child actors from working after 9 pm, but also because of the British pantomime tradition in which the Principal Boy was always played by a girl. Great secrecy surrounded the Peter Pan rehearsals, which of course made the press and the public all the more eager to learn what Barrie had up his sleeve. 

On opening night (December 27, 1904), Sylvia and the boys came into town to accompany the nervous author to the theater. Back in New York, producer Charles Frohman waited to learn if he had a hit or a disaster. Finally a cable came. Peter Pan was an overwhelming success. The critics were charmed, and (more importantly to Barrie) an audience full of children had been enthralled. So many little children were injured, however, by going home and jumping from the furniture that he hastily rewrote the opening scene to explain that fairy dust was required to fly.

The announcement of the first performance of Peter Pan

With this new success, Barrie was busier than ever. He visited Sylvia and the boys as often as his schedule would allow -- but the family was happily settled in Berkhamsted, and Barrie was busy back in London with new stories, new plays, and a variety of political and charitable causes.

Then, in 1906, disaster struck. Arthur was diagnosed with cancer, requiring an operation that would remove half of his jaw and palate. Barrie was immediately at his side, dropping everything to put himself at Arthur's assistance, as well as quietly picking up the cost of his expensive medical treatment. When the operation was completed, Arthur's face was a ruin and he could barely speak. Barrie remained posted at his bedside -- nursing him, reading to him, conversing with him (as Arthur slowly communicated by writing). Arthur found Barrie kinder and wiser than he expected, and the relationship between the two men changed. When Arthur came home from the hospital, Barrie was a welcome (and necessary) presence in the household. The two families spent their summer holidays together, and everyone insisted that Arthur was getting better, but by autumn the tumor had spread, and by the following spring, Arthur was dead.

The Lost Boys by Trina Schart HymanArthur left little money behind, so now Barrie took over the family's support. He had earned a small fortune from Peter Pan and insisted it was theirs as much as his. Sylvia brought the family back to London, to a house near Barrie and Kensington Gardens. "And here, I think, Sylvia did succeed, gradually, in regaining something of the zest for life," wrote Peter Llewelyn Davies, years later, about his mother. "The boys were a fond amusement and distraction for her, relatives came frequently, and the dog-like J.M.B. still living at Leinster Corner and in constant attendance… Everything must have been done, by all who had the care of us and above all by Sylvia herself, to shut out the imp of sorrow and self-pity from our young lives."

From Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens  illustrated by Arthur Rackham

Daily life went on. Barrie continued to write, and Peter Pan continued to cast its spell, becoming the most famous of Barrie's works. The tale of Peter Pan as a baby, originally published in The Little White Bird, was now available in a separate children's book edition, called Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, with illustrations by Arthur Rackham. The script of the play was published under the title Peter Pan, the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up; and eventually Barrie novelized the story of the play in a book titled Peter and Wendy. He ended this volume with a brand new scene in which Peter comes back to Wendy's window years later, and discovers she is all grown up. The little girl in the nursery now is Wendy's daughter, Jane. The girl examines Peter with interest, and soon she's off to Never Land herself where her mother can no longer go, no matter how much she longs to follow.

Flying Above London by Scott Gustafson

Meanwhile, Barrie's relationship with the Llewelyn Davies family took its inevitable toll on his marriage, and he learned that his wife was having an affair with a young writer named Gilbert Cannan. He begged Mary to break it off, but this she had no intention of doing. Cannon had pledged to marry her, and she wanted a divorce. Barrie disappeared to Switzerland while the scandal raged in the London papers, then returned to London in October for the ordeal of the divorce proceedings. Two days after the case was over, Sylvia collapsed at home. Now she, too, was diagnosed with cancer, in a form impossible to treat. As was the practice of the time, she was not allowed to know how ill she was, though as the illness went on and on and on, she suspected that she was dying. She remained in bed until the following spring, seemed to be improve a little in the summer, and insisted on taking her sons on a fishing holiday to Devon. While the boys fished, she grew weaker and weaker. The children were not told she was dying. She passed away on August 27th, with her mother and Barrie in the room, and Barrie was left to break the news to the boys as they returned from the river.

Barrie now assumed all responsibility for the boys. The elder three were at Eton by this time, where their school fees had long been paid by Barrie, but Michael and Nico remained at home supervised by their nanny, Mary Hodgson, with Barrie living close by. Barrie was now an extremely wealthy man and he lavished money on his young wards -- on clothes, books, sports equipment, and extravagant summer holidays; nothing was too good for them that might the ease the grief of losing their parents. Michael was the most like Barrie of all the boys -- a dreamy, fey, creative child, and Michael was as excessively attached to Barrie as Barrie was to him. At Eton, Michael wrote to Barrie every day. There were more than two thousand letters between them -- most of them later burned by Peter (the family archivist), who was embarrassed by their sentimentality.

Arthur Rackham  from JM Barrie's Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

Barrie's literary star continued to rise, and he was awarded a baronetcy in 1913 in recognition of his status as one of the best loved authors in Britain. George started university that year, where he remained on close terms with his guardian, but Jack, who was in the Navy now, and more independent than his brothers, resented the dominant role that Barrie had taken in their lives. The following year, Barrie took all of the boys except Jack to Scotland for a fishing holiday (Jack was on a ship in the North Atlantic), and it was there that they learned the news that England was now at war with Germany. George and Peter, like so many young men, immediately signed up to defend their country, and by December George's battalion was posted to the Western Front. With The Little White Bird packed in his kit-bag, he departed for the trenches of France, sending fond and cheerful letters back to Barrie and urging him not to worry. In March, George sent a letter from the Front saying, "Keep your heart up, Uncle Jim, & remember how good an experience this is for a chap who's been very idle before. Lord, I shall be proud when I'm home again, & talking to you about all this. That old dinner at the Savoy will be pretty grand…." By the time the letter reached London, George Llewelyn Davies had been shot and killed.

Captain Hook & Peter by Scott Gustavson"I have lost all sense I ever had of war being glorious," Barrie wrote in one of his last letters to George, "it is just unspeakably monstrous to me now." Sylvia's brother Gerald (the original Captain Hook) also died that year in the mud of France; and Charles Frohman drowned shortly thereafter in the sinking of the Lusitania. Barrie despaired, fearing the war would swallow everything and everyone he loved -- but peace was declared before Michael came of age, and Jack and Peter came safely home. Peter never fully recovered from horrors he witnessed at the Front; he struggled with depression for the rest of his life, and died by suicide many years later. For now, however, life went on. Jack married a girl he'd met while stationed in Scotland. Nico, the youngest, left home for Eton. Michael started at Oxford University, where he cut a dazzling figure. His close friend (and probable lover) Roger Stenhouse introduced him into Lytton Strachey's Bloomsbury set, where Strachey pronounced him "the only young man at Oxford or Cambridge with real brains." Michael was handsome, brilliant, a gifted writer, and seemed to have the world before him. And just before his twenty-first birthday, he drowned in a boating accident.

Peter Pan in Scarlet by David WyattLike his mother, undone by the death of her son David, Barrie never fully recovered from Michael's loss, particularly since it came on the heels of losing Arthur, Sylvia, George, Gerald du Maurier, and Charles Frohman. He aged visibly, and for a long while barely had the will to go on living. But go on he did, supported by his affection for his three remaining "Lost Boys," and eventually for their children too -- a brand new audience to charm with stories of pirates, Indians, and fairies. He continued to write, to socialize, to travel, to stay active in charitable and political causes, until he died in 1937, with Peter and Nico at his bedside. "To die will be an awfully big adventure," Barrie once wrote in the voice of Peter Pan. In his will, he left the Peter Pan royalties to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children.

When Barrie commissioned the Peter Pan stature by Sir George Frampton that stands in Kensington Gardens to this day, he hoped it would allow Peter to be remembered long after his play was forgotten. But one hundred years later, Peter is just as popular as ever, and there are few children who don't know his story -- through picture books, or the Disney animation and other films, if not directly from Barrie's play or the pages of Peter and Wendy.

Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens by Sir George FramptonPeter's story has inspired several works of fiction for both children and adults (see the Further Reading list below), and Barrie's life has inspired two dramatic productions: the excellent BBC television series The Lost Boys, and the film Finding Neverland.

Finding Neverland is a charming but heavily fictionalized concoction, playing fast-and-loose with the facts of Barrie's life in order to tell a simpler, more romantic story. Here, Arthur is conveniently dead before Barrie meets Sylvia, and Sylvia's mother is turned into a villain, attempting to keep Barrie and Sylvia apart. The boys are reduced from five in number to four, and are portrayed as older when they first meet Barrie. (In real life, Peter was just a baby.) In the film, it's Peter (not the eldest, George) who is portrayed as Barrie's special friend; and Peter again (not the middle boy, Michael) who shares Barrie's dreamy temperament and interest in writing. The biggest change is that handsome, charismatic Johnny Depp plays the part of the Scottish playwright, depicting him as a gentle, fey dreamer, rather than the odd little sharp-edged man that he actually was. But the movie has moments of magic, the period sets and costumes are lovely, and overall it is worth seeing, provided it's taken with many grains of salt.

Peter Pan by Charles VessAndrew Birkin's television series The Lost Boys, on the other hand, is specifically based on the known facts of J.M. Barrie's life, drawn from a vast array of surviving journals, correspondence, manuscripts, and photographs, as well as extensive interviews with those had known James Barrie. The last of the Lost Boys, Nico Llewelyn Davies, read and advised on Birkin's script -- and when the final production was broadcast, Llewelyn Davies phoned up Birkin in tears, "undone," he said, by the way actor Ian Holm had turned into his Uncle Jim. (The series is available on DVD, and I highly recommend it. I also recommend Birkin's web site, where he generously makes a treasure trove of Barrie material -- journals, letters, story notes, photographs, etc. -- freely available to fans and scholars.)

James M. Barrie was a boy who couldn't grow up, and out of this conundrum he gave us Peter, the boy who wouldn't grow up -- a character so vivid, so universal, and so emotionally true that he seems to belong to folklore now, not to one author's imagination. One hundred years later, children still dream of flying off with Peter to Never Land, where they'll never bathe, or eat broccoli, or (the worst fate of all) have to turn from children into grown-ups.

Some years ago I knew a little boy who referred to adults, like me, as human beings. "Aren't you a human being too?" I asked.

With a look of scorn for the stupidity of my question, he answered, "I'm not a human, I'm a child."

When I pointed out that one day he would grow up to be a human too, he shook his head and insisted, "No. I'm going to stay a boy."

J.M. Barrie would have perfectly understood the desire to stay a child forever -- and advised him to keep his window open, so that Peter Pan could find him.

Peter Pan in Scarlet by David Wyatt

Credits: The art comes from a variety of sources and is credited in the pictures captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see the captions.) All rights to the art and text above reserved by the artists and author.

Some further reading, nonfiction: J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys by Andrew Birkin (Yale University Press reprint, 2003), J.M. Barrie: The Man Behind the Image by Janet Dunbar (Collins, 1970), The Peter Pan Chronicles by Bruce K. Hanson (Carol Publishing, 1993), "The Boy Who Couldn't Grow Up: James Barrie" by Alison Lurie (in Don't Tell the Grown-ups, Back Bay Books reprint, 1998), Barrie: The Story of J.M.B. by Denis Mackail (Ayer Co. reprint, 1977), Gateway to the Modern: Resituating J.M. Barrie, edited by Bold & Nash (Scottish Literature International, 2014). and Letters of James M. Barrie by Viola Meynell (Norwood Editions, 1942).

Some further reading, fiction: Peter Pan & the Only Children by Gilbert Adair (Dutton, 1988), Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry (Disney Editions, 2004), The Lost Girls by Laurie Fox (Simon & Schuster, 2004), Second Star to the Right by Mary Alice Kruesi (Avon, 1999), Peter Pan in Scarlet by Geraldine McCaughrean (Oxford University Press, 2007), After the Rain by J. Emily Somma (Daisy Books, 2003), and Wendy by Karen Wallace (Simon & Schuster, 2004).


Life as bird

Arthur Rackham 1

In his introduction to Beasts at Bedtime: Revealing the Environmental Wisdom in Children's Literature, Irish ecologist and poet Liam Heneghan writes this touching passage about the imaginative connection between children, birds, and animals:

Arthur Rackham 2"Newly arrived in the United States and setting foot on the red soils of Georgia for the very first time, Fiacha, our eldest and then a three-year-old, perched himself on top of a fire ant mound. It's a rare child who makes that mistake a second time since fire ants sting ferociously. We had moved into a small ranch house a few miles from the campus of the University of Georgia in Athens, where I was to work for four years. The house was aesthetically unremarkable. There were parched lawns to the front and rear, both of which hosted innumerable fire ant mounds. In the front yard, right outside the door, grew two desiccated shrubs. What that neighborhood lacked in conventional wildlife it made up for with feral dogs. They howled all night and packed together in the morning, leisurely hunting the neighborhood for those who, like me, were foolish enough to go walking in the early hours. It was in this unpromising location that Fiacha -- an Irish name that means 'raven,' and whose second name is Daedalus, the father of Icarus -- became a bird.

Arthur Rackham 3

"The care and feeding of a bird who is morphologically and physically human, though psychologically somewhat avian, is not an entirely trivial undertaking. While he was in motion, there was little inconvenience to us -- he simply flapped his featherless wings as he migrated from place to place.

Arthur Rackham 4"He was something of a restless bird: now in the living room, now the kitchen, and now perched in his bedroom. Whenever and wherever he perched, the primaries on his wings would tremble, occasionally he would ruffle the length of his wings, and, at times, he would fold them back and tuck them close to his little body. We learned to live with the concerned glances of strangers. Feeding time could be a little strenuous, although we could entice him with shredded morsels that he would grab by his 'beak' and toss back into his mouth. Sometimes he would disappear from the house, and after those initial panicked occasions where we searched high and low for him, we knew he could be found sequestered in one of those forlorn-looking shrubs in the front yard. He would cling to a lower branch, peering out at the world through the patchy foliage. At least he was safely out of the reach of the packs of dogs and of the fire ants.

"In those early years, we read a lot about birds, looked at a lot of birds, and drew a lot of birds; and by sketching birds on folded pieces of paper and then cutting them out, we made innumerable models of birds. It lead to a later interest of his in dinosaurs, then aircraft, then military history, after which there was another thousand twists and turns in his interests. That bird now studies philosophy, but he remains an avid birder. He admitted to me recently that he occasionally writes with a quill. To this day if you look at him long enough, you may still spot his flight feathers flutter ever so slightly, even on windless afternoons."

Arthur Rackham 5

Heneghan goes on to explain that Beasts at Bedtime was written for the parents, teachers, librarians and guardians of children who might think they are birds:

Arthur Rackham 6"It's possible, of course, and not at all uncommon, that your child might assume themselves to be a cat or a dog; this is a book for those families also. It's also for the family of a child I've learned of recently who alternates between a crocodile, a rhino, and a snake. When she was quite young, a friend imagined herself to be a gorilla. A child of another friend thinks he is a deep-sea shrimp that scares predators who get too close by squirting out a glowing substance. He alternates this with being a porcupine. You should give this child wide berth....

"Some children do not identify with being any animal other than the higher primates they already are. The stories that I write about here will be instructive to guardians of these children also, for it is a rare child who is not already inclined to nature.

"Central to the task of caring for your little creature is to create the most nurturing environment for them. This, quite obviously, is not as simple as attending to their peculiar physical needs. It requires a careful tending to their spirits. This later task can be assisted by the stories you tell and read to them. To help with the task, this book is intended to illustrate the thematic richness of children's stories. There is a surprising depth of environmental information in many of the titles that children find immensely appealing." 

Arthur Rackham 7

Heneghan's text covers pastoral stories, wilderness stories, urban stories, and "children on wild islands" -- ranging from fairy and folk tales to Peter Rabbit and Pooh -- and then onward to White's Forest Sauvage, Tolkien's Middle-Earth, Le Guin's Earthsea, and much more. I loved re-visiting favorite tales through the eyes of an ecosystem ecologist, and heartily recommend this charming, informative, bird-filled and beastly book.

Arthur Rackham 8

Beasts at Bedtime by Liam Heneghan

Arthur Rackham 9

Words: The passage quoted above is from Beasts at Bedtime: Revealing the Environmental Wisdom in Children's Literature by Liam Heneghan (University of Chicago Press, 2018). All rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: The illustrations above are by the great Golden Age book artist Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), from editions of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens by J.M. Barrie, The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, Aesop's Fables, and Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

Related posts: Kissing the Lion's Nose (on children and animals) and Finding the way to the green (on children and nature).


Fantasy in Times of Crisis

For those who missed yesterday's online Fantasy Symposium, here's the recorded version.

I thoroughly enjoyed discussing our field with five colleagues whose works I admire so much (plus our excellent moderator, Gabriel Schenk) -- despite the gremlins in the broadband wires who kept bouncing me off of Zoom. I was forced to flee the studio mid-symposium, run down the hill, and hook up to the broadband in our house...but fortunately, that did the trick! 

Howard took the photo below before it all started. Coffee in hand on the studio steps, I was feeling quite relaxed at that moment, little knowing there were gremlins ahead....

Many thanks to all of you who took time out of your day to join us live on Zoom and YouTube. Although I still prefer real gatherings to virtual ones, it's good to keep the conversation going any way we can during these challenging times; and it was wonderful to be connected to so many fantasy readers all around the world. I hope we can do more things like this again.

Terri Windling at the Bumblehill Studio, by Howard Gayton


Today!

Symposium-2020

Today I am taking part in the Symposium on Fantasy Literature sponsored by the good folks who run the annual "Tolkien Lectures" at Pembroke College -- which is Tolkien's old college at Oxford University. The symposium is online, it's free, and all are welcome. More information can be found here.

The Symposium takes place on Zoom (register here) from 4:00 to  5:30 pm British time (11 am – 12:30 U.S. Eastern time). It will also be broadcast live on YouTube -- so if Zoom reaches its limit of attendees, you can head over there.

The other speakers are Kij Johnson, Adam Roberts, Lev Grossman,  V.E. Schwab, and Rebecca F. Kuang, and I'm honored to be among them. Our topic for discussion is a timely one: the importance of fantasy literature in times of crisis.

I hope you can join us.

Tolkien's old college at Oxford

The sponsors are inviting donations for The Society of Author’s COVID-19 Crisis Fund, which responds to the loss of income many writers have faced as a result of the coronavirus. (Please don't worry if you've lost income yourself and can't.)  My apologies if this is the first you've heard about this event. I've been passing the word on Facebook and Twitter, and didn't even realize I'd failed to mention here. Mea culpa!


Telling the holy

Woodland gate

I keep returning to "Telling the Holy," Scott Russell Sanders' fine essay on myths and sacred stories from around the world. Each time I read it I find new things to ponder, and today it's this:

"Mystery is not much in favor these days. The notion that there are limits to what we can do, what we can know, limits to our dominion, does not sit well with kings and queens of the hill. Humility and reverence, we hear, are the attitudes of cowards. Why worship a force we can't measure on a meter? Why tell stories about a power we can't photograph? 

"Flannery O'Connor once revealed to a correspondent that her 'gravest concern' was 'the conflict between an attraction for the Holy and the disbelief in it that we breathe in with the air of the times.' I feel that attraction for the holy, and my throat, too, burns with the air of disbelief.

The windy road

"When the novelist Reynolds Price published his translation of stories from the Bible in a book called A Palpable God, he prefaced it with a long meditation on 'Origins and Life of Narrative,' in which he sought to explain why a cultivated person in our secular age might still take seriously these tales of the holy. The 'first -- and final -- aim of narrative,' he argued, is 'compulsion of belief in an ordered world.'

"Of course it would be reassuring to believe in an ordered world, say the sceptics. But what if the universe is chaotic, a hazard of bits and pieces, and our tales of order are but soothing lullabies we sing against the darkness?

Into the greenwood

"That line of reasoning leads to what I think of as the killjoy of sacred stories: they must be false because they are comforting. They are not, in fact, all comforting. Many are frightening. In myths, gods appear and disappear, play tricks, throw tantrums, devour the innocent and reward the wicked, bewilder the most patient seeker. The holy is often a holy terror. Still, the killjoy critique is forceful, as Reynolds Price acknowledged: 'Human narrative, through all its visible length, gives emphatic signs of arising from the profoundest need of one fragile species. Sacred story is the perfect answer given to the world to the hunger of the species for true consolation.'

"Mustn't so perfect an answer be an illusion? Not necessarily, Price added, 'for the fact that we hunger has not precluded food.' Water is nonetheless real for slaking our thirst, lovemaking nonetheless real for meeting our desire. I do not doubt the sun, even though it warms me and lights my way. Yes, tales about the holy may satisfy our craving for consolation, but that proves nothing about the truth of the tales or the reality of the power.

By the leat

Wild daffodils

"The order we glimpse through myth is one that we did not create, that we cannot alter, that we can never fully grasp, and that we ignore at our peril. The achievements of science delude many into thinking that we have graduated from nature, that we can understand everything, that we can change or scorn conditions as we see fit, that we are bosses of the universe. Among those who resist this delusion of omnipotence are a number of scientists. The physicist Charles Misner, for example, has articulated a humbler view:

"'I do see the design of the universe as essentially a religious question. That is, one should have some kind of respect and awe for the whole business, it seems to me. It's very magnificent and shouldn't be taken for granted. In fact, I believe that is why Einstein had so little use for organized religion, although he strikes me as a basically very religious man. He must have looked at what the preachers said about God and felt they were blaspheming. He had seen much more majesty than they had ever imagined.'

Bluebells and barbed wire

By "mystery," Sanders clarifies, 

"...I do not mean simply the blank places on our maps. I mean the divine source -- not a void, not a darkness, but an uncapturable fullness. We are sustained by processes and powers that we can neither fathom nor do without. I speak of that ground as holy because it is ultimate, it is what makes us possible, what shapes and upholds everything we see. The stories I am most interested in hearing, reading, and telling, are those that help us imagine our lives in relation to that ground."

And so am I. But for me, a certain kind of fantasy literature approaches the same ground as myth and sacred stories, albeit from a slantwise direction. Fantasy of this sort (Tolkien, Lewis, Garner, Le Guin, McKillip, Holdstock, Crowley, de Lint, Yolen, and numerous others) is all about mystery, and the magic inherent in life itself: the "processes and powers that we can neither see nor do without."

In our own myth-drenched, poetic, elvin-crafted way, we are telling the holy.

Wandering

Basket of nettles

Sanders goes on to say:

"By telling the holy, we acknowledge that life is a gift. In fact, the whole universe is a gift. From where or what, and why, we cannot know. All we do know is that it issues forth, moment by moment, eon by eon, ever fresh, astounding in its richness and beauty. None of this is to gainsay the pain, the suffering, the eventual death that awaits all created things. But we measure that pain and suffering, we mourn that death against the sheer exuberant flow of things."

I want to work from that exuberant flow; to write of strange, improbable things that contain some kernal of truth within. I want to choose the winding road through the fernie brae that leads to mystery, wonder, and "miraculous grace" (to use Tolkien's phrase).

That is the road, I whisper to Tilly, where thou and I maun gae.

Look out post

Telling the holy

The quoted passage above is from "Telling the Holy" by Scott Russell Sanders, published in Wonder and Other Survival Skills, edited by H. Emerson Blake (The Orion Society, 2o12). The poem in the picture captions is from Even in Quiet Places by William Stafford (Confluence Press, 2010). All rights reserved by the authors. 


Signs of spring

Foal 1

Here's the first foal to be born to our local herd of Dartmoor ponies this year. We're so lucky to be in lock-down in Devon, where sights like this lift my heart. I send it out in the hope it will lift yours too.

Foal 2

Foal 3

"They are the ones who never pass a secret place in the woods without a stare of curiosity for the mystery implied in all its mounds and hollow, who still turn corners with a lift of expectation at the heart. And to be a writer of fantasy, one must be among those few -- those fortunate few; for, to produce a work that answers all the demands of fantasy, is to suddenly turn the corner which does at last show something strange and wonderful waiting to be seen, and -- most gloriously -- to know that long-ago sense of yearning at last fulfilled."

- Mollie Hunter 

Foal 4

"Someone needs to tell those tales. When the battles are fought and won and lost, when the pirates find their treasures and the dragons eat their foes for breakfast with a nice cup of Lapsang souchong, someone needs to tell their bits of overlapping narrative. There's magic in that. It's in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different, and it will affect them in ways they can never predict. From the mundane to the profound. You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone's soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words."

- Erin Morgenstern

Foal 5

Foal 6

''And I think that now, in our age, in the mid-ocean of our days, with certainties collapsing around us, and with no beliefs by which to steer our way through the dark descending nights ahead -- I think that now we need those fictional old bards and fearless storytellers, those seers. We need their magic, their courage, their love, and their fire more than ever before. It is precisely in a fractured, broken age that we need mystery and a reawoken sense of wonder. We need them to be whole again.''

- Ben Okri

Foal 7


Nature, gnomes, and the power of story

Illustration by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

Michael McCarthy begins his beautiful book The Moth Snowstorm with these arresting two sentences: "In the summer of 1954, when Winston Churchill was dwindling into his dotage as British prime minister, the beaten French were withdrawing from Indochina, and Elvis Presley was beginning to sing, my mother's mind fell apart. I was seven and my brother John was eight."

Blending nature writing, ecological history, and memoir, The Moth Snowstorm is narrated in a lucid prose that makes my heart sing even though the story it tells is filled with loss: of family, of innocence, of the natural world McCarthy once in knew in the Wirral near Liverpool. His mother, Norah, had trained as a teacher; his father, Jack, was largely away at sea. When Nora's mind "began to fray" under the weight of her troubles, the stern Canon at their Catholic church recommended her removal to a mental institution, from which (as was usual in those days) no one expected her to return. In fact, she came home just a few months later -- but by then McCarthy's bossy aunt Mary had sold off her sister's home, and taken her two young nephews in charge. John, the eldest, responded to the dramatic break-up of their family with rage and tears, while Michael retreated into indifference. He writes:

"At seven years old, I was not in the least bit concerned that I had lost my mother. How bizarre that seems, written down. Many years on, when I began to talk about it, to try to sort it all out, I learned that this was a Coping Strategy. Golly, I thought. Did I have a Coping Strategy? All I remember having is nothing. Being not bothered, not in the slightest, that she had gone away with no promise of return; and this attitude slumbered inside me through childhood, adolescence and long into manhood, until my mother died, my mother with whom I had by now built bridges and come to adore before all others...and the life I had blithely put together on top of the gaping cracks, pretending they were not there, began to unravel and I set out on the long road to somewhere else."

Illustration by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

Aunt Mary and her husband lived in the suburbs. In a nearby garden was a buddleia, and on a late summer morning young Michael found it entirely covered with butterflies: red admirals, peacocks, small tortoiseshells, and painted ladies.

"I was mesmerised. My eyes caressed their colours like a hand stroking a kitten. How could there be such living gems? And every morning in that hot but fading summer, as my mother suffered silently and my brother cried out, I ran to check on them, never tiring of watching these free-flying spirits with wings as bright as flags which the buddleia seemed miraculously to tame, to keep from visiting other flowers, to enslave on its own blooms by its nectar's unfathomable power. I could smell it myself, honey-sweet, but with the faintest hint of a sour edge. Drawing them in, the wondrous visitants. Wondrous? Electrifying, they were. Filling the space where my feelings should have been. And so through this singular window, when I was a skinny kid in short pants, butterflies entered my soul."

Mary obligingly bought him a guidebook to butterflies, and his interest grew from enthusiasm to obsession. Reflecting on this many years later, McCarthy accepts the strangeness of the circumstance, "that it was in a time of great turmoil, involving great unhappiness, that I first became attached to nature; that while my boyhood bond with my mother was being rent asunder, I was preoccupied with insects.

Two illustrations by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

Illustration by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

"I might have become a lifelong butterfly obsessive," McCarthy adds, "narrowly and compulsively  preoccupied to the exclusion of all else, like Frederick Clegg in John Fowles' The Collector, had not my mother show me a way to a wider world."

Two illustrations by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

Illustration by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

Norah was released from the mental hospital that autumn, but it was more than a year before the family had a home of their own again. To mark this new beginning, McCarthy's mother, a devotee of literature, gave him a book. 

"It was a Christmas present that year, prompted I imagine by my butterfly enthusiasm; but whereas Mary might have found me another book on Lepidoptera, Norah chose something else, and I wonder now what sure instinct led her to this, the first real story I encountered, with fully formed characters and a narrative; for I engaged with it at once.

The Little Grey Men"It was an epic, in the old-fashioned, precise sense of the term: a long account of heroic adventures. But it was not large-scale, in the way that The Iliad and The Odyssey are large-scale epics, mainly because its heroes were gnomes. It was called The Little Grey Men, and its author signed himself merely by initials, BB; his real name was Denys Watkins-Pitchford, although it was years before I found this out.

"I was from the first page lost in the world of its principal characters, Dodder, Baldmoney, and Sneezewort (all named after rather uncommon English wild flowers). They were very small people, between a foot and eighteen inches tall, with long flowing beards; Dodder, the oldest, had a wooden leg. But they were different from the sort of gnomes you might expect to come across in the genre of High Fantasy which has so obsessed us in recent years, in Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings and their imitators. They had no magical powers. They were grounded not in fantasy but in realism. Although they were able to converse with the wild creatures around them -- the author's one concession to the idea of gnomic difference -- they lived, and struggled to live, in the world just as we do, concerned about finding enough food and keeping warm. But there was more: they were a dying race. They were last gnomes left in England.

Two illustrations for Little Grey Men by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

"I remember the shiver I experienced when I first read those words. I think it was an inchoate sense, even in a boy of eight, of the transfixing nature of the end of things. It was clear that they could not survive the creeping urbanisation and modernisation of agriculture which even then was starting to spread across the countryside. They were anachronisms. The world had moved on from them: like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, their time was done. So much the braver, then, their decision to undertake a great adventure, to make an expedition to find their long-lost brother Cloudberry -- ah, Cloudberry! So sad! -- who had never returned after setting out one day to discover the source of the small Warwickshire river, the Folly Brook, on the banks of which they lived, in the capacious roots of an old oak tree.

An illustration for Little Grey Men by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

"I was wholly captivated by their quest, and by its unexpected denouement; I was likewise captivated by Down the Bright Stream, the sequel, which I asked for and was given for Christmas the following year. (In the second book, the gnomes' existential crisis reaches its climax; they address it in a most original way, ultimately successful.) But I took in more than the story. I internalised, at first reading, the milieu in which the adventure took place. It was the very opposite of the milieu of The Lord of the Rings, with its dark lords and wizards, its fortresses and mountains, its vast clashing armies; it was merely Warwickshire, leafy Warwickshire, Shakespeare's country, and the Folly Brook, with its kingfishers and otters and minnows,  and its kestrels hovering above,  a small and intimate and charming countryside with its small and intimate and charming creatures, vivid in their lives and their interactions; and I fell in love with them, and I fell in love with the natural world.

"I went beyond butterflies to the fullness of nature."

An illustration for Little Grey Men by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

I have long believed that stories, particularly fantasy stories, are a powerful way to engage children with nature. Through the wonder at the heart of the tale, we find the wonder at the heart of the world. I didn't know The Little Grey Men when I was a child, but other books had the same effect on me -- from Beatrix Potter's Lake District farms and Johanna Spyri's Swiss mountaintops to the enchanted vistas of Lewis and Tolkien, and, later, of Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander, Diana Wynne Jones, Patricia McKillip and Ursula Le Guin, among others. While McCarthy was drawn to the "realism" and intimacy of The Little Grey Men, reflective of the countryside he knew in the England of the 1950s, I grew up in the rapacious urban and suburban development of east coast America in the '60s and '70s, and preferred stories that took me to other worlds -- where landscapes were vast, majestic, unfenced, unpolluted, with nary a car or strip mall in sight. In real life I hustled through time-fractured days mediated by cars and buses, subways and trains; but in fiction, I moved at a walker's pace through Middle Earth, Eldwold, Prydain, Dalemark, Tredana, Islandia and the Earthsea Archipelago; and those long journeys immersed in the natural world were just as vital as the adventures themselves. Can the forests and fields of imaginary lands nurture a connection to, and even a love for, the flora and fauna and the waterways and the ground underfoot that we see everyday? I believe they can. And more than that, in this time of ecological crisis, I believe that they must.

What are stories that made that connection for you, fantasy or otherwise? And were the landscapes as important to you as the characters and the unrolling plot? I'm curious to know your thoughts.

Illustration by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

Words: The passages above are from The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy (New York Review of Books edition, 2015), which I highly recommend. All rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: The art above is by Denys James Watkins-Pitchford (1905 -1990), a naturalist, teacher, book illustrator, and author of children's fiction under the pseudonym BB. He won the Carnegie Medal for Children's Literature in 1942.


Coming up this month....


Eclipse by Jeanie Tomanek

This event kicks off the new "Book Talk & Tea" series, sponsored  by The Friends of Chagford Library and curated by Susan Harley. These monthly events will feature Sunday afternoon talks by a range of fine authors and book artists. There will be tea, cakes, books to browse and buy...so please if you're anywhere near Devon please come join us in support of books, community, the power of stories, and the importance of rural libraries.

In this talk, I'll discuss the importance of adapting ancient tales for modern times, and how such stories can help us navigate the many challenges we face today. While ecologists speak of "re-wilding" the land, I believe in also "re-storying" the land, reclaiming the tales that connect us to natural world and re-shaping them for a modern age.

When: Sunday, 26 January, at 3 pm

Where: Jubilee Hall, Chagford

Tickets £5, available from Sally's Newsagents in Chagford Square, or online here.

The beautiful art above is by Jeanie Tomanek.