A language of land and sea

The Fairy Glen 1

From Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey by Madeleine Bunting:

"Every nation has its lost histories of what was destroyed or ignored to shape its narrative of unity so that it has the appearance of inevitability. The British Isles with their complex island geography have known various configurations of political power. Gaelic is a reminder of some of them: the multinational empires of Scandinavia, the expansion of Ireland, and the medieval Gaelic kingdom, the Lordship of the Isles, which lost mainland Scotland, and was ultimately suppressed by Edinburgh. The British state imposed centralization, and insisted on English-language education. Only the complex geography of islands and mountains ensured that Gaelic survived into the 21st century.

"What would be lost if Gaelic disappeared in the next century, I asked, when I visited hospitable [Lewis] islanders who pressed me with cups of tea and cake. There is a Gaelic word, cianalas, and it means a deep sense of homesickness and melancholy, I was told. The language of Gaelic offers insight into a pre-industrial world view, suggested Malcolm Maclean, a window on another culture lost in the rest of Britain. As with any language, it offers a way of seeing the world, which makes it precious. Gaelic's survival is a matter of cultural diversity, just as important as ecological diversity, he insisted. It is the accumulation of thousands of years of human ingenuity and resilience living in these island landscapes. It is a heritage of human intelligence shaped by place, a language of the land and sea, with a richness and precision to describe the tasks of agriculture and fishing. It is a language of community, offering concepts and expressions to capture the tightly knit interdependence required in this subsistence economy.

The Fairy Glen 2

The Fairy Glen 3

"Gaelic scholar Michael Newton points out how particular words describe the power of these relationships intertwined with place and community. For example, dúthchas is sometimes translated as 'heritage' or 'birthright,' but conveys a much richer idea of a collective claim on the land, continually reinforced and lived out through the shared management of the land. Dúthchas grounds land rights in communal daily habits and uses of the land. It is at variance with British concepts of individual private property and these land rights received no legal recognition and were relegated to cultural attitudes (as in many colonial contexts). Elements of dúthchas persist in crofting communities, where the grazing committees of the townships still manage the rights to common land and the cutting of peat banks on the moor. Crofting has always been dependent on plentiful labor and required co-operation with neighbors for many of the routine tasks, like peasant cultures across Europe, born out of the day-to-day survival in a difficult environment.

The Fairy Glen 4

"The strong connection to land and community means that 'people belong to places rather than places belong to people,' sums up Newton. It is an understanding of belonging which emphasizes relationships, of responsibilities as well as rights, and in return offers the security of a clear place in the world."

The Fairy Glen 5

Bunting also notes:

"Gaelic's attentiveness to place is reflected in its topographical precision. It has a plentiful vocabulary to describe different forms of hill, peak or slope (beinn, stob, dún, cnoc, sròn), for example, and particular words to describe each of the stages of a river's course from its earliest rising down to its widest point as it enters the sea. Much of the landscape is understood in anthropomorphic terms, so the names of topographical features are often the same as those for parts of the body. It draws a visceral sense of connection between sinew, muscle and bone and the land. Gaelic poetry often attributes character and agency to landforms, so mountains might speak or be praised as if they were a chieftain; the Psalms (held in particular reverence in Gaelic culture) talk of landscape in a similar way, with phrases such as the 'hills run like a deer.' In both, the land is recognized as alive.

"Gaelic has a different sense of time, purpose and achievement. The ideal is to maintain an equilibrium, as a saying from South Uist expresses it: Eat bread and weave grass, and then this year shall be as thou wast last year. It is close to Hannah Arendt's definition of wisdom as a loving concern for the continuity of the world."

And, I would add, to the Dineh (Navajo) concept of hózhó, or Walking in Beauty.

Lamb nursing in the Fairy Glen

In the Fairy Glen

Words:  The poem in the picture captions is by Kathleen Jamie, from the Scottish Poetry Library.  I highly recommend her poetry volumes, and her two gorgeous essay collections: Findings and Sightlines. The passage above is from Love of Country by Madeleine Bunting (Granta, 2016), also recommended. All rights to the prose and poetry in this post is reserved by the authors. Pictures: The Fairy Glen near Uist, Isle of Skye. 


Rituals of Approach

Nattadon 1

In the previous post today, Susan Cooper touched lightly on the thorny subject of procrastination...and I'm going to go out on a limb here to suggest procrastination is not always bad.

The form of procrastination that Copper describes can, unless it gets out of hand,  be a useful part of the working process, a circling of the water before one plunges in. To push the water metaphor a little further, some of us are divers and some of us inch into a cold pool of water bit by bit -- not because we don't intend to swim, but because that's how we're psychologically built to best handle transitions. The initial shock of a cold plunge invigorates some swimmers, but is uncomfortable, almost painful, to others; and we learn by trial and error which approach works best for us, physically and temperamentally.

Nattadon 2

For me, the slow circling of my writing desk in the morning isn't one of avoidance (though it can be, on a bad day, if I'm not careful), it's simply part of my transition from the everyday world into the cold, clear pool of my imagination. Here's how the work day starts for me, after an early walk up Nattadon Hill with Tilly:

I do a quick tidy of the studio (I like a calm, ordered environment), put music on the stereo (something without words: classical, medieval, music for the Celtic harp or Native American flute), settle Tilly on the sofa with her morning treat (a piece of carrot), pluck a book from the shelves and read a few pages (essays, folklore, poetry), pour a cup of coffee from my thermos (if I haven't already finished it off outdoors), write this blog (as a writing warm-up), turn my connection to the Internet off, and then finally get down to work: generally, like Susan Cooper, by reading over previous pages and notes from the day before, and trying my damnedest to resist editing those pages instead of pushing on into new material. All through this process, I must be wary of the other kind of procrastination, the kind that really is avoidance or distraction: getting overly absorbed in the reading, for example, or hooked by the lures of Internet. That's where discipline comes in: the commitment and professionalism required to keep my transition-into-work process on track.

Anne AndersonI could, of course, simply come into the studio, sit myself down and get right to it -- but I've learned, over all these years, that this is just not the best method for me; I write better, and faster, if I honor the process of transition that suits my creative temperament. My family knows not to disturb me during this process -- even though, to the outside eye, I might not appear to be actually working yet. While I'm not such a fragile flower that I can't get back into my work if an interruption does occur, and of course life is unpredictable, as a general rule I try to sweep unnecessary obstacles from my working day by making my schedule and habits as conducive to the work as possible. Ideally, I want to be challenged by the writing itself, not by the journey it takes to get down to it.

Nattadon 3

I'm not advocating this working method for everyone, of course; I'm advocating that we all find out our own best way of working, and implement it to whatever extent our lives make possible. I'm an inch-into-the-water kind of girl; you might be a diver, or something else altogether. But take heart fellow-inchers: ours, too, is a perfectly valid approach, provided we are clear  about the good and bad -- or perhaps, I should say "useful" and "not useful" -- forms of procrastination. For me, for example, reading a book or journal is useful because the quiet intimacy of this kind of reading serves me in my state of transition, easing me into the quiet Lake of Words I seek to enter -- whereas reading on the Internet, with its mass choir of voices and its speedy, amped-up rhythms, spins me away from my inner Lake of Words and off into other directions. The myriad attractions on-line are tempting -- oh, so tempting! -- but I've learned to limit my time here, especially in the morning during the "ritual of approach" into my writing day.

Nattadon 4

The useful notion of a "ritual of approach" is borrowed from the Irish poet/philosopher John O'Donohue, who discusses the mythic roots of the term in his wise book Beauty: The Invisible Embrace. "Many of the ancient cultures practiced careful rituals of approach," he notes. "An encounter of depth and spirit was preceded by careful preparation. When we approach with reverence, great things decide to approach us. Our real life comes to the surface and its light awakens the concealed beauty in things. When we walk on the earth with reverence, beauty will decide to trust us. The rushed heart and arrogant mind lack the gentleness and patience to enter that embrace."

This is not to imply that the "divers" among us are "rushed and arrogant";  if they are working well, then their rituals of approach are swift, rather than rushed, and they are blessed to have a creative rhythm in tune with our fast-moving times. Inchers often (not always) move at a slower pace, and while that can be at odds with our production-focused world, neither method is inherently "better" than the other. Divers and inchers, we seek the same goal: immersion into the Lake of Story, whose cold, sweet waters sustain us all.

Nattadon 5

But let's speak of the bad side of procrastination for a moment -- for the very same tasks that can be used to inch our way into our work (clearing the desk, clearing the decks, reading, blogging, etc.) can also be used to avoid our work, blocking the "ritual of approach" altogether; and it takes self-knowledge and rigorous self-honesty to know the difference.

If procrastination of the bad sort has become a problem for you...well, you're not alone. Many writers I've worked with over the years, including highly successful ones, have struggled with this; and some are struggling still. The most useful text I know on the subject is Hillary Rettig's very practical book The Seven Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writers' Block. Rettig takes readers step by step through the kinds of fears and toxic belief systems that usually lie at the heart of chronic procrastination, especially targeting the "perfectionist thinking" that seems to derail so many creative folks. 

Nattadon 6

"Perfectionism," write Rettig, "is a toxic brew of anti-productive habits, attitudes and ideas. It is not the same as having high standards, and there is no such thing as 'good perfectionism.' "

These habits, as Rettig defines them, include: "Defining success narrowly and unrealistically; punishing oneself harshly for perceived failures. Grandiosity; or the deluded idea that things that are difficult for other people should be easy for you. Shortsightedness, as manifested in a 'now or never' or 'do or die' attitude. Over-identification with the work. Overemphasis on product (vs. process), and on external rewards."

Nattadon 7

"Grandiosity," says Rettig, "is a problem for writers because our media and culture are permeated with grandiose myths and misconceptions about writing, which writers who are under-mentored or isolated fall prey to. Red Smith’s famous bon mot about how, to write, you need only 'sit down at a typewriter and open a vein,' and Gene Fowler’s similarly sanguinary advice to 'sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead,' are nothing but macho grandiose posturing, as is William Faulkner’s overwrought encomium to monomaniacal selfishness, from his Paris Review interview:

'The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much that he can’t get rid of it. He has no pece until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.'

Nattadon 8

"Many of the famous quotes about writing are grandiose," Rettig continues. "I’m not saying that all of these writers were posturing -- perhaps that’s how they truly perceived themselves and their creativity. What I do know is that, for most writers, a strategy based on pain and deprivation is not a route to productivity. In fact, it is more likely a route to a block. I actually find quotes about how awful writing and the writing life are to be not just perfectionist, but self-indulgent. No one’s forcing these writers to write, after all; and there are obviously far worse ways to spend one’s time, not to mention earn one’s living. All worthwhile endeavors require hard, and occasionally tedious, work; and, if anything, we writers have it easy, with unparalleled freedom to work where and how we wish -- in contrast to, say, potters who need a wheel and kiln, or Shakespearean actors who need a stage and ensemble. Non-perfectionist and non-grandiose writers recognize all this. Flaubert famously said 'Writing is a dog’s life, but the only life worth living,' and special kudos go to Jane Yolen for her book Take Joy: A Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft, which begins with a celebration of the inherent joyfulness of writing. She also responds to Smith’s and Fowler’s sanguinary comments with the good-natured ridicule they deserve: 'By God, that’s a messy way of working.' "

Nattadon 9

I'll let Jane have the final words today, for she is certainly one of the most prolific writers I know, as well as a Master in the fine and worthy art of living a creative life. In this quote, she offers writing advice that is as practical and down-to-earth as it is wise:

"Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise, the muscles seize up."

Succinct and true. And now it's time for me to head on out into the Lake of Story myself....

Nattadon 10

Pictures: Nattadon Hill at dawn. Illustration by Anne Anderson (1874-1930). Words: The passages above are quoted from The Seven Secrets of the Prolific by Hillary Rettig (Infinite Art, 2011); Beauty by John O'Donohue (Harper Perennial, 2005), and Take Joy by Jane Yolen (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). All rights reserved by the authors. A related post: On fear of judgement (and pernicious perfectionism).


Casting Spells

The Alchemist by Edmund Dulac

From "Worlds Apart," a talk by Susan Cooper at Oxford University (1992):

"Writing is one of the loneliest professions in the world because it has to be practiced in this very separate private world, in here. Not in the mind; in the imagination. Elves and Fairies from The Tempest by Edmund DulacAnd I think it is possible that the writing of fantasy is the loneliest job of the lot, since you have to go further inside. You have to make so close a connection with the the subconscious that the unbiddable door will open and images fly out, like birds. It's not unlike writing poetry.

"It makes you superstitious. Most writers indulge in small private rituals to start themselves writing each day, and I find that when I'm working on a fantasy I'm even more ludicrously twitchy than usual. The very first half hour at the desk has nothing much to do with fantasy or even ritual: it's what J.B. Priestley used to call 'sharpening pencils' -- the business of doing absolutely everything you can think of to put off the moment of starting to work. You make another cup of coffee. You find a telephone call that must be made, a letter that must be answered. You do sharpen pencils. You look at the plant on the windowsill and decide that this is just the time to water it, or fertilize it, or prune it. Maybe it's even time to repot it. You hunt for the houseplant book, and look this up, and it says severely that this kind of plant enjoys being pot-bound and should never be repotted. So you turn to the bowl of paperclips on your desk, and find that safety pins and pennies and buttons have found their way in, so of course you really ought to sort out the paperclips....

The Nightingale by Edmund Dulac

"Finally guilt drives you to the manuscript -- and that's when the real ritual begins. (I should go back to the first person, because in this respect everyone is different.) I have to start by reading. I read a lot of what I've already written, maybe two or three chapters, even though I already know it all by heart. I read the notes I made to myself the day before when I stopped writing -- those were the end-of-the-day ritual, to help with the starting of the next. During this process I've picked up one of the toys scattered around my study, and my fingers are half-consciously playing with it: a smooth sea-washed pebble from an island beach, a chunky ceramic owl from Sweden, a little stone wombat from Australia. I read the last chapter again. I wander to a bookshelf and read a page of something vaguely related to my fantasy: Eliot's Quartets, maybe, or de la Mare's notes to Come Hither. I have even been known to blow bubbles, from a little tube that sits on my desk, and to sit staring at the colors that swirl over their brief surfaces. This the moment someone else usually choses to come into the room, and I can become very irritable if they don't appreciate that they are observing a writer seriously at work.

The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen illustrated by Edmund Dulac

"What I'm doing, of course, is taking myself out of the world I'm in, and trying to find my way back into the world apart. Once I've managed that, I am inside the book that I'm writing, and am seeing it, so vividly that I do not see what I am actually staring at: the wall, or the typewriter, or the tree outside the window. I suppose it is a variety of trance state, though that's a perilous word. It makes one think of poor Coleridge, An illustration from The Tempest by Edmund Dulacwaking from  an opium-induced sleep with two hundred glowing lines of Kubla Khan in his head, being interrupted by a person from Porlock when he'd written down only ten of them, and finding, when the person had gone, that he'd forgotten all the rest. Trance is fragile.

"The world of the imagination is not fragile, not once you've reached it, but because it is set apart, you can never be sure of reaching it. It seems very curious to be standing here in the university which tried to teach me reason, and confessing to uncertainty and superstition of a kind which would have appalled my tutor. Reason, however, is singularly unhelpful to a novelist except in a few specialized situations, like the matter of chosing a publisher, or arguing points of English grammar with a copy editor. The imagination is not reasonable -- or tangible, or visible, or obedient. It's an island out in the ocean, which often seems to retreat as you sail toward it. Sometimes it vanishes altogether, mirage-like, and nothing can be done to bring it back into reach. This produces a bad day during which you write nothing of value and have to wait until tomorrow and start again.

Prospero and Miranda by Edmund Dulac

"We cast spells to find our way into the unconscious mind, and the imagination that lives there, because we know it's the only way to get into a place where magic is made."

Cinderella by Edmund Dulac

Pictures: The fairy tale illustrations above are by the great Golden Age book artist Edmund Dulac (1882-1953). Born in Toulouse, France, he moved to London in 1904, and became a naturalized British citizen in 1912. Words: The passage quoted above is from "Worlds Apart" by Susan Cooper, from her essay collection Dreams and Wishes (Margaret K. McKelderry, 1996). All rights reserved by the author.


Kith and Kin

Wind in the Willows

To end a week focused on the theme of "home, place, and connection to the land,"  I'd like to re-visit a post from 2015 that seems particularly germane, discussing home, homelessness, and the places that call to us in myth, fiction, and the real world....

Today, I'm thinking about the ways that some people's lives are defined by attachment to the place they come from, whereas others (in increasing numbers) live uprooted from their original place, or un-rooted in any place at all. The world has always had its wanderers, of course -- but the balance has shifted in modern times, with more of us in motion than staying put. As we move, and move, and move again, can Treasure Islandwe genuinely root ourselves in each new place, learn the language of each land's flora and fauna, its myths and folklore, its unique spirit? Or are we doomed to transient, restless lives in which the voices of the land, of the plant world and our animal neighbors, are ones we can no longer hear?

In discussing the Aboriginal culture of Australia, which, like most indigenous cultures, is deeply rooted in their sacred landscape from birth until death, Jay Griffiths writes:

"From song, from dream, from elements of earth and water, spirit-children are imminent in the land. They are left there by the Ancestors of the Dreaming, who sang their way across the land, leaving an imprint of music like an aural footstep. And sometimes a woman who has already physically conceived a child chances to step in that same footstep, and, if she does, part of the song and the spirit-child leap up into her so she feels a quickening, sharp as an intake of breath at a kick within, sweet as a night surprised by song. Sometimes it is the father who, seeing something unusual -- a particularly large fish or an animal behaving strangely -- may know it as an indication of a spirit-child. Or a man walking by a lake may find a spirit-child jumping into his mind, which he will send in a dream to his wife, inseminating the spirit-child within her. Then the Lawmen, the knowers of the songline which the mother or father was on, can tell which stanzas of the song belong to that child, its conception totem and, in that sinuous reflexivity of belonging, its quintessential home.

Winnie the Pooh

The Land of Oz

"To be born," notes Griffiths, "is, in Latin, nasci, and the word is related to natura, so birth, nature, the laws of nature and the idea of an essence are related. It is as if the language itself has embedded birth in the natural world. In the Amazon, people say childbirth should always take place in forest-gardens so that the condensed energy of the plants can nourish the child. In New Guinea, future generations are called 'our children who are still in the soil' and when I was in West Papua, the western half of the island, I was told that in the Dani language the expression for digging potatoes is the same as that for giving birth to a child. Women say they can sometimes hear the unearthed potatoes, which are always handled gently, calling out to them, the land singing things into being to be mothered into the world.

"Legends of childhood across the world suggest whole landscapes lit with incipience. Everywhere is potential, beginningness. It may be the inheld energy of an acorn or the liquid and endless possibilities of water; it may be the fattening of a potato in the secret earth or the leaping of a salmon that is the child Taliesin -- in whatever form it takes, the land itself is kindling children.

The Once and Future King

Worm Ouroboros

Narnia

"In indigenous Australian culture," Griffiths continues, "there is a common idea that the land is a mentor, teacher, and parent to a child. People talk of being 'grown up by' their land; their country as kin. So do English-speakers -- without quite realizing it. A child may be looked after by its 'kith and kin,' we say, as if both terms meant family or relations. Not so. 'Kith' is from the Old English cydd, which can mean kinship but which in this phrase means native country -- one's home outside the house -- but no one I have ever met has known that meaning. This sense of belonging has nothing whatsoever to do with a nation state or political homeland, but rather with one's immediate locale, one's square mile, the first landscape that we know as children. W.H. Auden wrote of this as 'Amor Loci,' the love of his childhood landscape. Kith kindles the kinship which children so easily feel for the natural world and without that kinship, nature also loses out, bereft of the children who grow up to protect it."

The Lord of the Rings

Novelist Alan Garner's "kith" is in Cheshire in north-west England, where Garners have lived for centuries. As a descendant of rural craftsmen, he was the first of his family to attend a private grammar school and then go on to Oxford University. "My family," he writes (in The Voice That Thunders), "was, in the abstract, delighted that I was going to 'get an education,' just as I might have been going to get a car. For them it was a concrete object. None of us was prepared for its effect. That deep but narrow culture from which I came could not share my excitement over the wonders of the deponent verb. To them, it was an attack on their values, an attempt to make them feel inferior. A shocking alienation resulted, which we could not resolve."

At the end of his education, Garner sits on a stump by an old stone wall (built by his great-great-grandfather, Robert Garner) and ponders his future. His education has made it impossible for him to live as his father and grandfather lived, but the strength of his kith-ties makes the life of an Oxford don, living far from the soil of Cheshire, impossible too. What is the answer?

Moon of Gomrath

"It was staring me in the face. It was Robert's wall. On it was carved his banker mark, the rune Tyr, the boldest of the gods. When the Aesir went to bind Fenriswolf with the rope Gleipnir, which was made of the sound of a cat's footsteps, the beard of a woman, the roots of a mountain, the longings of a bear, the voices of fishes and Nordic rune marksthe spittle of birds, Fenris would not allow himself to be bound unless one of the Aesir put his right hand in  Fenris' mouth as a token of goodwill. Only Tyr was willing to do so. And when Fenris was bound, and helpless, he bit Tyr's hand off at the wrist, which is still called the wolf's joint. But had Robert known this? Was it a part of the Craft and Mystery of his trade? Or was it simply that an arrow is easy to carve? Yet he had got the proportions of it right; and we are all left-handed.

"I loved Oxford, but it was not the wall. The wall was mine. Oxford was not mine. The rune was mine. It claimed me. Whatever it was that I was going to do with my life, it would have to be done here. This was my unique place. I owned it, and it owned me. There is no word in English to express the relationship. In Russian, the word is rodina; in German, Heimat. And there, on the tree stump, by my great-great-grandfather's rune and wall, I saw my rodina, my Heimat. This is what I must serve, as no one else could. This is the integration of my divided selves....So, after a period of reflection, at three minutes past four o'clock on the afternoon of Tuesday, 4 September, 1956, I began to write a novel, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, and I have been writing ever since."

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen

Pyrdain

The Kingkiller Chronicle

For writers like Garner, with a deep sense of belonging to an ancestral landscape, the creation of art rooted in and expressive of that landscape can be an almost sacred calling...but what about the rest of us in this fast-paced, foot-loose, transient world: immigrants, exiles, travelers, nomads, incomers of one form or another?

Tove Jansson's Moomin ValleyKatherine Paterson addressed this question in her essay "Where is Terabithia?":

"Flannery O'Connor, whose words about writing have meant a great deal to me, has said that writing is incarnational. By incarnational we mean that somehow the word or the idea has taken on flesh, has become physical, actual, real. We mean that the abstract idea can be percieved by the way of the senses. This immediately makes fiction different from other kinds of stories. The fairy tale begins, 'Once upon a time,' thus clearly signaling its intent to escape the actual and the everyday, but a novel takes its life from the petty details of its geography, history, and culture.

"This is one of the reasons that writers like Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty and William Faulkner move us so powerfully. Their roots are planted very deep in a particular soil, and they grow up and reach out from that place with a strength unknown to most writers. It is also the reason why a writer like Pasternak would refuse the Nobel Prize rather than leave Russia. For Russia, despite her terror and oppression, was the soil from which his genius sprang, and he feared that if he left her, he would leave behind his ability to write.

The Eight Realms

The Magicians

"What happens, then," asks Paterson, "to a writer without roots -- who is not grounded in a particular place? When I was four years old, we left 'home,' and I've never been back since. Indeed, I couldn't go back if I wanted to because the house in which we lived was torn down so that a bus station could be built on the site. Since I was four, I've lived in three different countries and seven states at about thirty different addresses. I was once asked as part of an imaginative exercise to remember in detail the house I had grown up in. I nearly had a mental breakdown on the spot. But the fact that I have no one place to call home does not make me feel that place in fiction is unimportant. On the contrary, it convinces me that I must work harder than any almost any writer I know to create or re-create the world in which a story is set and grows if I want to make a reader believe it."

Tamora Pierce's Tortall & Garth Nix's Old Kingdom

Earthsea

Islandia

Many of us today have no kith, no rodina, no alia (to use the Islandian term), no ancestral place. Or we had one once, but lost it long ago. Or we've been transplanted into new soil, our roots still shallow, our claim still tenuous. Or we are homesick for a home we never actually had; for the idea of home, and of truly belonging.

VandareiThat's how it was for me for many years, until I crossed the ocean to Devon and, to my eternal surprise, its rain-drenched hills whispered in my ears: Welcome home. You've come at last. We've been waiting and waiting, and now you're here. Until then, I'd found my home in the world only in the pages of certain books, and in the earth-colored tones of certain works of art: in Earthsea and Islandia, Rhyhope Wood and the farmyards of Hed, among Burne-Jones' briar roses and Arthur Rackham trees with goblins stirring at their roots. Those imaginary lands are as precious to me now as they were in my kithless, unmoored youth, and they formed me as much as any "real" place. They are real places. Or rather, I should say that they are true places, which is even better; and which, of course, is precisely why I able to take shelter inside them. Some kiths exist in the physical world, and some only in the imagination. But all of them are real. All of them matter. All of them place us, nourish us, and give us the stories we most need.

Now, as a writer and artist myself, my aim is to fashion, as Anais Nin once put it, "a world in which one can live"... out of words and paint, out of myth and life, out of rain, wind, earth and flame. I want to tell stories born of my love for Devon, but also for the Arizona desert and the lands I wandered during the homeless years: Narnia, Gramarye, Dorimare, Eldwold, Prydain, Dalemark, the Earthsea Archipelago, Vandarei, Tredana, the Old Kingdom, Dorn Island, and so many others. Most of all I, too, want to create landscapes and storyscapes so real, so vivid, so true that they might whisper in a weary traveler's ear:

Welcome home.  You've come at last. We've been waiting and waiting, and now you're here.

Hed & Dalemark

Sherwood Smith's Sartorias-deles

Philip Pullman's Alternate Oxford

Delia Sherman's New York Between

Jane Yolen & Adam Stemple's Shifting Lands

Map titles are in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) A related post, On Loss and Transfiguration, looks at the ways "loss of home" has shaped several writers of classic children's fiction.


Going to ground

Ponies 1

Here in Chagford, surrounded by woodland and moorland, by rain-soaked hills and fields full of ponies and sheep, we tend to live half-a-step removed from the pace and preoccupations of modern life.

Ponies 2

Time itself moves different. The lanes to the village are winding and narrow, slowing cars down as they make the approach, or stopping them altogether when sheep, cows or ponies drift onto the road. Village shops are small, service leisurely as neighbors chitchat over the counters (while city folk check their watches impatiently). Internet and mobile phone services don't always work here, and the rest of the world can seem very far away....

Ponies 3

Ponies 4

Ponies 5

But it's not, of course. The relentless stress of political turmoil reaches us here in Brigadoon too. And it has been relentless -- in Britian, in America, on the streets of France and Italy and Hungary and around the world. So many people shouting. So few people listening. The polar ice caps quietly melting away all the while.

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In response, I find myself "going to ground," and I mean that literally: going out to the hills to find solace and strength, to find calm and clarity. At such times, I believe, we need art more than ever. So I turn to nature, and I turn to stories, for guidance. For insight. For healing.

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"A people are as healthy and confident as the stories they tell themselves," says Ben Okri. "Sick storytellers can make nations sick. Without stories we would go mad. Life would lose its moorings or orientation....Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart larger."

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"Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines," Jeanette Winterson concurs. "What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination."

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The late, great Lloyd Alexander also spoke about truths best conveyed through magical modes of storytelling. " 'True to life' may not always be true enough," he said. "The difficulty is perhaps in confusing truth with objectivity. By its very nature, art can never be objective. Try as we might, we can't 'tell it like it is.' We can only tell it the way it seems to us. And this, of course, is what we must do -- in realism or in fantasy -- if we hope to create anything of durable value. We have always needed good art to sustain us, to strengthen us, even to console us for being born human. Where better can we learn to see through the eyes of others, to gain compassion, to try to make sense of the world outside ourselves and the world within ourselves?"

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"To open our eyes, to see with our inner fire and light, is what saves us," says Chickasaw poet and novelist Linda Hogan. "Even if it makes us vulnerable. Opening the eyes is the job of storytellers, witnesses, and the keepers of accounts. The stories we know and tell are reservoirs of light and fire that brighten and illuminate the darkness of human night, the unseen."

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If you, too, are struggling with your creative work during this unsettled time, this is what I advise:

First, do whatever you need to right now to find hózhó (balance), stillness, center ground. Once you've found it, or even a whisper of it, then take a deep breath. Let it out. And begin. No matter what medium you are using to weave new stories, remember that this is good work to be doing. The world needs more light, more beauty, more wonder. More compassion for the Other. More understanding of the darkness.

Together, we'll light a path for those coming after. Breathe deep. And again.

And begin.

Ponies 14

Ponies 15

The text above is adapted from a piece posted in 2016, with new photographs and poetry. The poem in the picture captions is from Long Life: Essays & Other Writings by Mary Oliver (Da Capo Press, 2004); all rights reserved by the author.


Wild daffodils in the woods

Wild daffodils

Hound and daffodils

Spring is truly here, at long last. The earliest flowers in our garden have done their work to wake the land from sleep: the primroses and grape hyacinths, the purple aubretia climbing up the stone walls, the columbines that have seeded themselves and will soon run riot on the hillside. The cherry trees are preparing to bloom, with the apple and plum trees to follow. The woods behind the studio are golden with wild daffodils, which in turn will give way to the smaller pleasures of cranesbill, sicklewort, and bluebells.

Picking wild daffodils

The movement of the landscape through its seasons reminds me of the energy and vitality to be found in cycles and circles...and as someone who works in the narrative arts, I find that I need that reminder.

Drawing by Helen StrattonNarrative, in its most standard form, tends to run in linear fashion from beginning to middle to end. A story opens "Once upon a time," then moves -- prompted by a crisis or plot twist -- into the narrative journey: questing, testing, trials and tribulations -- and then onward to climax and resolution, ending "happily ever after" (or not, if the tale is a sad or ambiguous one). In the West, our concepts of "time" and "progress" are largely linear too. We circle through days by the hours of the clock, years by the months of the calendar, yet our lives are pushed on a linear track: infant to child to adult to elder, with death as the final chapter. Progress is measured by linear steps, education by grades that ascend year by year, careers by narratives that run along the same railway line: beginning, middle, and end.

But in fact, narratives are cyclical too if we stand back and look through a broader lens. Clever Hans will marry his princess and they will produce three dark sons or three pale daughters or no child at all until a fairy intervenes, and then those children will have their own stories: marrying frogs and turning into swans and climbing glass hills in iron shoes. No ending is truly an ending, merely a pause before the tale goes on.

Daffodils

As a folklorist and a student of nature, I know the importance of cycles, seasons, and circular motion -- but I've grown up in a culture that loves straight lines, beginnings and ends, befores and afters, and I keep expecting life to act accordingly, even though it so rarely does. Take health, for example. We envision the healing process as a linear one, steadily building from illness to strength and full function; yet for those of us managing Drawing by Helen Strattonlong-term conditions, our various trials don't often lead to the linear "ending-as-resolution" but to the cyclical "ending-as-pause": a time to catch one's breath before the next crisis or plot twist sets the tale back in motion.

Relationships, too, are cyclical. Spousal relationships, family relationships, friendships, work partnerships: they aren't tales of linear progression, they are tales full of cycles, circles, and seasons. The path isn't straight, it loops and bends; the narrative side-tracks and sometimes dead ends. We don't progress in relationships so much as learn, change, and adapt with each season, each twist of the road.

As a writer and a reader, I'm partial to stories with clear beginnings, middles, and ends (not necessarily in that order in the case of fractured narratives) -- but when I'm away from the desk or the printed page (or the cinema or the television screen), I am trying to let go of the habit of measuring my life in a strictly linear way. Healing, learning, and art-making don't follow straight roads but queer twisty paths on which half the time I feel utterly lost...until, like magic, I've arrived somewhere new, some place I could never have imagined.

Guardian hound

I want especially to be rid of the tyranny of Before and After. "After such-and-such is accomplished," we say, "then the choirs will sing and life will be good." When my novel is published. When I get that job. When I find that partner. When I lose ten pounds. No, no, no, no. Because even if we reach our goal, the heavenly choirs don't sing -- or if they do sing, you quickly discover it's all that they do. They don't do your laundry, they don't solve all your problems. You are still you, and life is still life: a complex mixture of the bad and the good. And now, of course, the goal posts have moved. The Land of After is no longer a published book, it's five books, a best-seller, a major motion picture. You don't ever get to the Land of After; it's always changing, always shimmering on the far horizon.

I don't want to live after. I want to live now, moving with, not against, life's cycles and seasons, the twists and the turns, the ups and the downs, appreciating it all.

Hound at the woodland's edge

Today, I walked among spring's first flowers, chose a few to bring back to the studio -- where they sit on my desk in a pickle jar, glowing as bright as the sun and the moon. At my desk, I work in a linear artform, writing words in a line across a ruled page -- and the flowers remind me that cycles and seasons should be part of the narrative too. Circular patterns. Loops and digressions. Tales that turn and meander down paths that, surprise!, are the paths that were meant all along. Stories that reach resolutions and endings, but ends that turn into another beginning. Again. Again. Tell it again.

Once upon a time...

Wild daffodils on my desk

Words: The wondeful poem in the picture captions is from Bitter Angel by Amy Gerstler (North Point Press, 1990); all rights reserved by the author. Pictures: The fairy tale drawings are by Helen Stratton, a British illustrator born in India (1867-1961). Photographs: A coffee break in the woods behind the studio, with hound and daffodils.

Related posts: Storytelling and Wild Time, The Wild Time of the Sickbed, and On Time, Technology, and a Celebration of Slowness.


There is no time for despair

Bumblehill Studio 1 This post first appeared on Myth & Moor in 2016. Alas, it's still relevant today....

When the news is grim, and the clamour of the Internet is harsh and cacophonous, I find it grounding, healing, and necessary to turn away from keyboard and screens, and be fully present in the tactile world: in the morning light sifting through the studio, in the rising of the wind through the trees behind, in the words slowly forming in ink on fresh white paper spread out on my wooden desktop.

Drawing by Arthur RackhamInstead of flicking through Web pages, imbibing the Internet's manic energy and then coming offline feeling fractured and spent, I pull books from down the shelves and turn their rustling pages at a measured, more human pace...and my soul unclenches. My attention deepens. Something vital in me is quickened back to life. And yes, I am using a keyboard now to share these thoughts with you online, but it's not a full rejection of the Web I am after in my life. It's proportion and balance.

The Internet is a useful communication platform, and an increasingly important one...but books, oh, books are more than paper and ink. They are powerful medicine. Real books, I mean. Physical books, sitting on the dusty shelves of my studio and surrounding me like old friends, dog-earred and battered with love and use, their pages thick with margin notes and underlines. How could I ever doubt that art matters? Words have saved me over and over. Words are saving me right now. Books are what I turn to when the world grows dark, and they never fail to give me strength.

Bumblehill Studio 2

This morning, for instance, Ben Okri asks me:

"What hope is there for individual reality or authenticity, when the forces of violence and orthodoxy, the earthly powers of guns and bombs and manipulated public opinion make it impossible for us to be authentic and fulfilled human beings?"

I've been asking myself the same question all week.

"The only hope," he answers, "is in the creation of alternative values, alternative realities. The only hope is in daring to redream one's place in the world -- a beautiful act of imagination, and a sustained act of self becoming. Which is to say that in some way or another we breach and confound the accepted frontiers of things."

Bumblehill Studio 3

Then Rebecca Solnit joins the conversation:

"Cause-and-effect assumes history marches forward," she notes, "but history is not an army. It's a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension. Sometimes one person inspires a movement, or her words do decades later, sometimes a few passionate people change the world; sometimes they start a mass movement and millions do; sometimes those millions are stirred by the same outrage or the same ideal, and change comes upon us like a change of weather. All that these transformations have in common is that they begin in the imagination, in hope."

"To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic," adds Howard Zinn. "It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places -- and there are so many -- where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction."

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Barry Lopez pulls me out of a Western-centric point of view, reminding me of the things I share in common with people the world over:

"I believe in all human societies there is a desire to love and be loved," he says, "to experience the full fierceness of human emotion, and to make a measure of the sacred part of one's life. Wherever I've traveled -- Kenya, Chile, Australia, Japan -- I've found the most dependable way to preserve these possibilities is to be reminded of them in stories. Stories do not give instruction, they do not explain how to love a companion or how to find God. They offer, instead, patterns of sound and association, of event and image. Suspended as listeners and readers in these patterns, we might reimagine our lives. It is through story that we embrace the great breadth of memory, that we can distinguish what is true, and that we may glimpse, at least occasionally, how to live without despair in the midst of the horror that dogs and unhinges us."

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Terry Tempest Williams concurs, and affirms the role that artists play in the transmission of such stories:

"Bearing witness to both the beauty and pain of our world is a task that I want to be part of. As writers, this is our work. By bearing witness, the story that is told can provide a healing ground. Through the art of language, the art of story, alchemy can occur. And if we choose to turn our backs, we've walked away from what it means to be human."

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Then Toni Morrison takes me firmly by the shoulders and sends me back to my desk again:

Troubled times, she says, are "precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.

"I know the world is bruised and bleeding," she adds, "and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge -- even wisdom. Like art."

Like art indeed.

Bumblehill Studio 8

Studio Muse with Bone

Decoration by Arthur Rackham

Words: The first five quotes above are from the following books, all recommended: A Way of Being Free by Ben Okri (Phoenix, 1998); Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit (Nation Books, 2005); You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train by Howard Zinn (Beacon Press 2002), About This Life by Barry Lopez (Vintage, 1999), and A Voice in the Wilderness: Conversations with Terry Tempest Williams, edited by Michael Austin (Utah State University Press, 2006). The Toni Morrison quote is from her essay "No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear" (The Nation, March 2013). The quotes in the picture captions come from a variety of sources, each identified with the text. All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The drawing and painting above are by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939). The photographs are from my studio cabin, perched on a Devon hillside at the edge of a small wood. They were taken in the spring and autumn of 2016, but little has changed in the workspace since then.


The truth of fantasy

The Fairy Scribe by Alan Lee

From "Perilous Realms: A Colloquy" by Lloyd Alexander:

"The pitfall in writing fantasy is not adding enough realism. Fantasy deals with the impossible, not the illogical. Creating a secondary world where the impossible becomes ordinary does not carry with it a license to do as one pleases. In conception, and in its deep substructures, the fantasy world must, if anything, be more carefully rationalized than the real world.

"The real world, as we all know, sometimes to our bewilderment, is often illogical, inconsistent, a kind of elaborate random walk. In fantasy, magical elements have to make sense in their own framework. The goal, of course, is to make fantasy seem absolutely real and convincing. This statement applies not only to setting but to characters as well. The writer may populate his imaginary world with all manner of imaginary creatures, human or otherwise. But within that world they must be as carefully observed as in any work of realism. They must have weight, solidity, dimension. Their fantastic condition must speak to our real one.

Fairy Queen by Alan Lee

Fairies in the Wood by Alan Lee

"Sheer inventiveness can be amusing, entertaining, even dazzling, and I don't mean to downgrade it. The danger is that too often it can turn into sheer gimmickry. Choosing the wrong form is, I think, probably the biggest risk in any kind of creation. Fantasy, however, seems to offer special temptations. To the unwary writer it promises such fun and freedom, great soaring flights of unbounded imagination. This promise can turn out to be a siren song. Before listening to it, the writer would be well advised to ask, Why fantasy instead of some other form? Unless fantasy is the best and only way a writer can express what is deepest in his mind and heart, the writer should consider some other mode and spare himself, and his readers, much labor and grief.

Fairy hounds by Alan Lee

"This is not to say that writers of realism have it ay easier or are any less vulnerable to dangers. If a work of fantasy can fail through lack of realism, a work of realism can fail can fail through lack of fantasy. In this case I use the word fantasy in the sense of transformative imagination. Realism is not reality. The magic of realism is that it can seem to be real life, more real even than life itself. But this marvelous illusion comes from the transformative imagination of the writer -- imagination that shapes, manipulates, and illuminates. Without it the work is only a play of surfaces.

" 'True to life' may not always be true enough. The difficulty is perhaps in confusing truth with objectivity. By its very nature, art can never be objective. Try as we might, we can't 'tell it like it is.' We can only tell it the way it seems to us. And this, of course, is what we must do -- in realism or in fantasy -- if we hope to create anything of durable value.

"We have always needed good art to sustain us, to strengthen us, even to console us for being born human. Where better can we learn to see through the eyes of others, to gain compassion, to try to make sense of the world outside ourselves and the world within ourselves?"

Indeed.

An illustration from Merlin Dreams by Alan Lee

The glorious drawings in this post are by my friend and village neighbour Alan Lee. He's known best as the illustrator of J.R.R. Tolkien's books, and for his Oscar-winning design work on the Lord of the Rings films -- but he's also created art for numerous other beautiful editions, including Black Ships Before Troy and The Wanderings of Odysseus with Rosemary Sutcliffe, Merlin Dreams with Peter Dickinson, The Moon's Revenge with Joan Aiken, Faeries with Brian Froud, and stunning editions of The Mabinogion and Ovid's Metamorphoses.

"I spend as much time as I can sketching from nature," he says. "Dartmoor contains such a rich variety of landscape -- as many boulders, foaming rivers, and twisted trees as my heart could ever desire. When I look into a river, I feel I could spend a whole lifetime painting that river, from source to sea, and nothing else."

To learn more about Alan's work, go here. You can also follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

The Sorceress by Alan Lee

The passage above is from "Perilous Realms: A Colloquy" by Lloyd Alexander (1924-2007), published in Inncocence & Experience: Conversations and Essays on Children's Literature,  edited by Harrison & Maguire (Lothrop, Lee, & Shepard Books, 1987). All rights to the art and text in this post reserved by the artist and author.


Where the wild things are

Charles Vess

From "Turning Our Fairy Tales Feral Again" by Sylvia V. Linsteadt:

"Humans are storytelling creatures. We need story, we need deep mythic happenings, as much as we need food and sun: to set us in our place in the family of things, in a world that lives and breathes and throws us wild tests, to show us the wildernesses and the lakes, the transforming swans, of our own minds. These minds of ours, after all, are themselves wild, shaped directly by our long legacy as hunters, as readers of wind, fir-tip, animal trail, paw-mark in mud. We are made for narrative, because narrative is what once led us to food, be it elk, salmonberry or hare; to that sacred communion of one body being eaten by another, literally transformed, and afterward sung to.

The Winter King by Charles Vess

"The narratives we read, and watch, and tell ourselves about the relationship between humans and nature have cut out the voices of all wild things. They’ve cut out the breathing world and made us think we are alone and above. If these narratives don’t change -- if the elk and the fogs don’t again take their places and speak -- all manner of policies, conservation efforts and recycling bins won’t be worth a damn. We live in a world where, despite our best intentions, the stories we read -- literary, fantasy, science fiction, mystery, horror, poetry -- are almost wholly human-centric. Wild places and animals and weather patterns are stage sets, the backdrop, like something carved from plywood and painted in. They have no voice, no subjective truth. In our dominant narratives, we are not one of many peoples -- grass people, frog people, fox people -- as the Hupa Indians of the Klamath River region say. We are the only people.

Charles Vess

"This makes sense on one level, as we live in a world in which we believe the only things that are truly and wholly animate are ourselves. Mostly all of what we have been taught is predicated on this assumption. On another level, this is complete lunacy, complete insanity. At what point did we loose the sense of stories and myths actually arising from the world around us, its heartbeats, its bloodflows, its bat-eared songs?"

''Charles Vess

"At some point, one asks, 'Toward what end is my life lived?'" writes Diane Ackerman (in The Rarest of the Rare: Vanishing Animals, Timeless Worlds). "A great freedom comes from being able to answer that question. A sleeper can be decoyed out of bed by the sheer beauty of dawn on the open seas. Part of my job, as I see it, is to allow that to happen. Sleepers like me need at some point to rise and take their turn on morning watch for the sake of the planet, but also for their own sake, for the enrichment of their lives. From the deserts of Namibia to the razor-backed Himalayas, there are wonderful creatures that have roamed the Earth much longer than we, creatures that not only are worthy of our respect but could teach us about ourselves.”

Charles Vess

"Storytellers ought not to be too tame,"  Ben Okri advises in his inspiring essay collection A Way of Being Free. "They ought to be wild creatures who function adequately in society. They are best in disguise.  If they lose all their wildness, they cannot give us the truest joys."

Charles Vess

"When we walk, holding stories in us, do they touch the ground through our footprints?" asks Sylvia Linsteadt. "What is this power of metaphor, by which we liken a thing we see to a thing we imagine or have seen before -- the granite crag to an old crystalline heart -- changing its form, allowing animation to suffuse the world via inference? Metaphor, perhaps, is the tame, the civilised, version of shamanic shapeshifting, word-magic, the recognition of stories as toothed messengers from the wilds. What if we turned the old nursery rhymes and fairytales we all know into feral creatures once again, set them loose in new lands to root through the acorn fall of oak trees? What else is there to do, if we want to keep any of the wildness of the world, and of ourselves?"

Charles Vess

"The word 'feral' has a kind of magical potency," said T. H. White (in a letter to a friend, 1937).

And it does indeed.

Charles Vess

The gloriously wild art here is by Charles Vess, of course -- one of the great storytellers and mythic artists of our age. Charles and I grew up together in the fantasy field in New York City in the 1980s; he now lives and works in wild hills of rural Virginia. I particularly recommend his extraordinary illustrations for the new complete edition of The Books of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (Saga Press, 2018) and Drawing Down the Moon: The Art of Charles Vess (Dark Horse Books, 2009), and his various collaborations with Charles de Lint and Neil Gaiman, in addition to all his other gorgeous books and comics.

I still remember these words from an interview with Charles published in 2006, which seem even more germane today: "What I get mostly from the news," he said, "is that nobody wants to pay attention to what anyone else believes or thinks, everyone wants to think that they know the only true story. The world seems to be getting very violent about 'I'm right and you're wrong, and you're going to go to hell if you don't believe what I believe.' To me, that is probably the biggest problem in our contemporary world. I think that using fantasy and mythology you can show that there are thousands of different stories and all of them are true. If you can get someone to accept that, then it's an easy step for them to accept others who are totally different, with a totally different mythology, with a totally different set of stories. They come to see that others' stories are just as valid as their own."

Please visit Charles' website to see more his art, and read his posts on the Muddy Colors illustration blog to learn more about the thoughts behind it.

The Books of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin, illustrated by Charles Vess

Books illustrated by Charles Vess

Old friends (photo by Howard)

Words: The passage above are from "Turning Our Fairy Tales Feral Again" by Sylvia V. Lindsteadt (written for The Dark Mountain Project, reprinted in Resilience, March 2103); Rarest of the Rare by Diane Ackerman (Random House, 1995); and A Way of Being Free by Ben Okri (Phoenix, 1998). The T.H. White quote is from White's Letters to a Friend (Putnams, 1982). The Charles Vess quote is from an interview with the artist in the International Conference for the Arts Journal (2006). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: (1) She Came Out of the Forest Like a Ghost. (2 ) A sketch for The Winter King. (3) A sketch for The King of the Summer Country and His Bride of Flowers. (4 & 5) Illustrations for Medicine Road by Charles de Lint.  (6 & 7) Illustrations for The Cats of Tanglewood Forest by Charles de Lint. All rights reserved by the artist.

Photographs: (1) The new edition of The Books of Earthsea, Saga Press, 2018. (2) The hound contemplating Drawing Down the Moon, Instructions, A Circle of Cats, and The Cats of Tanglewood Forest. (3) Charles and me on the Isle of Skye, June 2017.


Working with words

Pony 1

Pony 2

I'm preparing a post on our last Modern Fairies session in Newcastle, planning to post it later this week. In the meantime I'd to revisit this piece on the magic inherent in words, as this was a subject that came up in discussions with the songwriters on the Modern Fairies project....

"Where words and place come together, there is the sacred,"  writes Kiowa poet and novelist N. Scott Momaday. "The question 'Where are you going?' is so commonplace in so many languages that it has the status of a universal greeting; it is formulaic. There is an American folksong that begins:

Well, where do you come from, and where do you go?
Well, where do you come from my cotton-eye Joe?

"The questions are so familiar that they are taken for granted. But their implications, their consequent meanings, are profound. In the deepest matter of these words are the riddles of origin and destiny, and by extension the stuff of story and ritual. I belong in the place of my departure, says Odysseus, and I belong in the place that is my destination. Only in this spectrum is the quest truly possible. The sense of place and the sense of belonging are bonded fast by the imagination. And words, in all their formal and informal manifestations, are the best expression of the imagination.

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"Linguists have long suggested that we are determined by our native language, that language defines and confines us, " he notes. "It may be so. The definition and confinement do not concern me beyond a certain point, for I believe that language in general is practically without limits.

"We are not in danger of exceeding the boundaries of language, nor are we prisoners of language in any dire way. I am much more concerned with my place within the context of my language. This, I think, must be a principle of storytelling. And the storyteller's place within the context of his language must include both a geographical and mythic frame of reference. Within that frame of reference is the freedom of infinite possibility. The place of infinite possibility is where the storyteller belongs."

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In an earlier interview, Momaday stated:

"Words are intrinsically powerful. And there is magic in that. Words come from nothing into being. They are created in the imagination and given life on the human voice. You know, we used to believe -- and I am talking about all of us, regardless of our ethnic backgrounds -- in the magic of words. The Anglo-Saxon who uttered spells over his field so that the seeds would come out of the ground on the sheer strength of his voice, knew a good deal about language, and he believed absolutely in the efficacy of language.

"That man's faith -- and may I say, wisdom -- has been lost upon modern man, by and large. It survives in the poets of the world, I suppose, the singers. We do not now know what we can do with words. But as long as there are those among us who try to find out, literature will be secure; literature will be a thing worthy of our highest level of human being."

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Like Momaday, I believe that words have a magic and a power of their own, which those of us working in mythic arts and the fantasy field would be wise to remember. A good fantasy novel is literally spell-binding, using language to conjure up whole new worlds, or to invest our own with magic. The particular power of fantasy comes from its link with the world's most ancient stories, and from the author's careful manipulation of mythic archetypes, story patterns, and symbols.

A skillful writer knows that he or she must tell two stories at once: the surface tale, and a deeper story encoded within the tale's symbolic language. The magical tropes of fantasy, rooted as they are in world mythology, come freighted with meaning on a metaphoric level. A responsible writer works with these symbols consciously and pays attention to both aspects of the story.

Pony 14

The second pony

Hillside with ponies

In her fine book Touch Magic, Jane Yolen writes: "Just as a child is born with a literal hole in his head, where the bones slowly close underneath the fragile shield of skin, so the child is born with a figurative hole in his heart. What slips in before it anneals shapes the man or woman into which that child will grow. Story is one of the most serious intruders into the heart."

I believe that those of us who use the magic of words professionally should remember how powerful stories can be -- for children especially, but also for adults -- and take responsibility for the tenor of whatever dreams or nightmares we're letting loose into the world. This is particularly true in fantasy, where the tools of our trade include the language, symbolism and archetypal energies of myth. These are ancient, subtle, potent things, and they work in mysterious ways.

Tilly 1

Tilly 2Words: The first passage by N. Scott Momaday is from The Man Made of Words: Essays, Stories, Passages (St. Martin's Press, 1997); the second passage is from Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets by Joseph Bruchac (Sun Tracks/U of Arizona Press, 1987). The poem in the picture captions is Momaday's "The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee" (Tsoai-Talee being one of Momady's own names), from In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961-1991 (St. Martin's Press, 1991). All rights reserved by Momaday and Bruchac. Pictures: A magical encounter on our hill. Tilly is very good with these free-roaming Dartmoor ponies; she knows not to hassle or startle them...though sometimes they startle her.

The power of language: Go here for previous posts on the subject, featuring Ben Okri, Jeanette Winterson, Jane Yolen and others; here  for a short article by John Kelly on the rat-slaying poetry of the Irish bards; and here  for an exploration of another form of language: the howling of wolves.