The places we've live, and the places we grew up in often have an impact (whether acknowledged or not) on our lives, our relationships, our dreams. . . and the houses we yearn for, whether real or imagined, reveal much about our inner nature. As a folklorist, I'm interested in how the idea of "home'"is expressed in traditional stories; and as a fantasist, in how this translates into modern magical fiction.
Fairy tales, for example often begin with a hero propelled from his or her home by poverty or calamity; and the search for the safe haven of a new home, or the task of restoring prosperity to an old one, is central to such stories. Such tales are rites–of–passage narratives, chronicling a transformational journey from one archetypal life stage to another. Most often, the tale follows a young hero's transition from childhood to adulthood, the completion of the journey symbolized by a wedding at the story's end.
In the modern, simplified versions of the tales popularized by Disney films and children's books, the emphasis is so often placed on the romantic (and wealth accumulating) aspects of the stories that finding 'true love' (with a well heeled spouse) can seem to be what fairy tales are all about. Older, adult versions of the tales, by contrast, are focused on the steps of the hero's passage through a period of upheaval and peril — a period required to test the hero's mettle and provoke growth and self–transformation. Such tales speak to the challenges we face at any time in life (not just in our youth) when circumstances force us to leave home, either literally or metaphorically, setting us on the road to an unknown future and a new identity. Catskin, Donkeyskin, The Girl With No Hands, The Wild Swans, Hans My Hedgehog: these are all rites–of–passage narratives. Each tale begins in a childhood home that has become constricting, even dangerous, and each hero must leave this home behind in order to forge a new life in the adult world. The completion of the hero's task is marked by the traditional rewards of the fairy tale genre: a marriage, a crown, a storehold full of treasure; but the true reward at journey's end is a new–found ability to survive life's trials, transcend its terrors, and determine one's own fate.
The heroes begin in one home and end in another (or else in the old home restored and renewed), but in between these two poles is a crucial period of homelessness. Homelessness is a liminal state rich in opportunities for character change and growth, which has made it a popular plot device among storytellers both old and new. Homelessness detaches the hero from the role he or she has played in the past, strips them of identity, blurs the markers of class or rank, removes usual sources of aid and comfort, and throws them on their own resources. . .a perfect recipe for suspense, adventure, and heroic metamorphosis.
In classical myth, the home was sacred to Hestia, goddess of the hearth and perpetual flame. Sometimes called "the forgotten goddess," Hestia rarely appears in the tales of the gods, and seems to have had few temples or acolytes; and yet she was actually the first of the goddesses, sitting higher in the Olympian pantheon than even Hera (wife of Zeus, goddess of love and marriage) or Demeter (goddess of fertility and the harvest). Although avidly courted by both Poseidon and Apollo, Hestia vowed she would never marry, dedicating herself instead to the management of Mount Olympus, home of the gods. For this, she received the first portion of tribute in the temple rites of all the other gods, and was worshipped at the hearth in the center of all houses and buildings. Each morning began with Hestian prayers as the family fire was stoked for cooking and heating; each day ended with prayers to the goddess as the fire was banked for the night. Unlike the rest of the Greek pantheon, well known for their tempers, jealousies, and quarrels, Hestia was an unusually stable goddess, revered for her gentle, calm, and forgiving nature. But lest we think of her as the Olympian equivalent of a 1950s housewife, limited to home and the service of others, she was also the first builder, the inventor of architecture, and the patron of these arts.
In fantasy literature, as in fairy tales, many stories begin with the loss of a home, and this is precisely what thrusts the protagonists into the world. Some stories, like L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz or J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, rest on the main protagonist's fierce desire to go home again; in others, they must find or create new homes for themselves in far distant lands. In Diana Wynne Jones' Charmed Life, for example, young Janet chooses to remain in the magical world of Chrestomanci; in Pamela Dean's "Secret Country" books, some of the children never return home again; and Austin Tappan Wright's great utopian novel Islandia revolves around a hero pulled between loyalties to his old and new countries. In fiction, as in myth, it's that in–between period of wandering and homelessness that allows for adventure and metamorphosis, propelling characters out of their settled ways of life and into their new roles as heroes. In children's fantasy, many adventures begin when a child's usual home is disrupted — when they're sent off to live with relatives, or transplanted to a summer cottage, or sent off to boarding school, etc. It's interesting to note that a number of these tales — The Owl Service by Alan Garner, for example, or The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken — were penned by writers who grew up in England during the Second World War, a time when children were regularly sent away from home to escape German bombers. Displacement, once again, creates a space that is rich in narrative possibilities, with the added bonus that once the parents are off the scene, the young protagonists are thrown onto their own resources.
What I love best are those fantasy novels where the houses themselves are a source of enchantment, reminiscent of the fairy towers and haunted chateaux to be found in folk tales. The masterwork in this mini–genre is the "Gormenghast" trilogy by Mervyn Peake, in which an entire epic world is created beneath one rambling, crumbling roof, but there are plenty of other fantastical houses I'd also love to have a good wander in: such as Tamsin House from Charles de Lint's Moonheart; or Crackpot Hall from Ysabeau Wilce's Flora Segunda; or Edgewood from John Crowley's Little, Big. In such books, domestic spaces regain their aura of the numinous, connecting us, in our everyday lives, as we sleep and wake and cook and clean, to the realm of the gods, the fairies, the ancestors, and to worlds of magic.
What are your favorite magical houses in fiction, fairy tales, or myth? And what houses haunt you, real or imagined? Here are two of the real houses that I love and often dream of:
First, Kelmscott Manor, Oxfordshire, the country house of William Morris, his wife Jane, and Dante Grabriel Rossetti (Jane's lover) at the turn of the 19th century:
Second, Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex, the country house of the painters Vanessa Bell (Virginia Woolf's sister) and Duncan Grant, in the early half of the 20th century. The house was shared, over the years, with assorted spouses, lovers, children, and Bloomsbury friends...and is now preserved by the Charleston Trust.
The art above is: "Dear Milie" by Maurice Sendak, "Catskin" by Arthur Rackham, "Hansel & Gretel" by Lorenzo Mattotti, "Thumbelina" by Lisbeth Zwerger, "Hans My Hedgehog" by Patricia Mignone, "Cinderella" by Edmund Dulac, a hobbit house from The Lord of the Rings Sketchbook by Alan Lee, and a "Gormenghast" painting by Alan Lee. Portions of the text here are drawn from my article "The Folklore of House and Home" (2008). For more on magical houses, visit Grace Nuth's Domythic Bliss blog. For more thoughts about "home," listen to the beautiful "Homesickness" program on Ellen Kushner's Sound & Spirit radio series.