The books that shape us: 1

The Bride and the Lindorm by HJ Ford

For her anthology The Pleasure of Reading (published in an illustrated edition in 1992, and an expanded edition in 2015), Antonio Fraser asked a wide range of contemporary writers to describe their early reading, and what did (or did not) influence them. Here is how the great mystery writer Ruth Rendell answered the question:

The Draken by HJ Ford"The picture I can still see in my mind's eye is of a dancing, gestulating thing with a human face and cat's ears, its body furred like a bear. The anomaly is that at the time, when I was about seven, the last thing I wanted was ever to see that picture again. I knew precisely where in the Andrew Lang Fairy Book it came, in which quarter of the book and between which pages, and I was determined never to look at it, it frightened me too much. On the other hand, so perverse are human beings, however youthful and innocent, that I was also terribly temped to peep at it. To flit quickly through the pages in the dangerous area and catch a tiny fearful glimpse.

Night Owl by HJ Ford"Now I can't even remember which of the Fairy Books it was, Crimson, Blue, Yellow, Lilac. I read them all. They were the first books I read which others had not either read or recommended to me, and they left me with a permanent fondness for fairy stories and with something else, something that has been of practical use to me as well as a perennial fascination. Andrew Lang began the process of teaching me how to frighten my readers....

"Because I had a Scandinavian mother -- I have to describe her thus as she was half-Swede, half-Dane, with an Icelandic grandmother, born in Stockholm, brought up in Copenhagen -- I was early on introduced to Hans Andersen. I never liked him. He was too much of a moralist for me. His stories mostly carried a message and a threat. Oddly enough, or perhaps not oddly at all, the one I hated the most was the favorite of my mother, who had her stern Lutheran side. This was 'The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf,' which is about ugsome Inger who used a loaf of bread as a stepping stone to avoid wetting her fine shoes at the ford. The rest of course was that she sank down into the Bog Wife's domain, a kind of cesspit of creepy-crawlies, and that is only the beginning of her misfortunes.

The Bridge of Blood by HJ Ford

"I never really wanted to read anything my parents wanted me to read. No doubt this is normal. The exception would be Beatrix Potter, but we grow out of her early and only return to our passion after twenty or thirty years. Does anyone read The Water Babies today? Charles Kingsley is just as improving as Andersen but in a different way. It was social rather than moral evils he pointed out. Andersen never gave a thought to Inger's poverty and deprived childhood. The poor little chimney sweep's boys always excited my wonder and pity. I never imagined I would one day live in a house where, inside the huge chimney, you can see the footholds the boys used to go up with their brushes. The water creatures the metamorphosed Tom encountered started me on a lifelong interest in natural history.

The Princess and the Fox by H.J. Ford

"Two years after Tolkien's The Hobbit was published I read it for the first time. Twenty years later I read it again and experienced just the same feeling of delight and The Lion and the King by HJ Fordhappiness and a quite breathless pleasure. That first time, when I was nine, was also the first time I remember feeling this. It is a sensation known to all lovers of fiction and comes about at page two, when you know it's not only going to be a good one, but immensely satisfying, enthralling, not to be put down without resentment, drawing inexorably to a conclusion of power and dramatic soundness.

"While I was engrossed in The Hobbit I was also reading The Complete Book of British Butterflies, a fairly large tome by the great naturalist F.W. Frowhawk -- what a wonderful name that is, he sounds like a giant butterfly or moth himself. That copy I still have, can see it on the shelves from where I sit writing. I used to collect butterflies, kill them in a bottle containing ammonia on cottonwool and mount them on pins. The disapproval of a schoolfellow, whom I rather disliked but must have respected, put an end to that and I have killed hardly anything since, a few flies, a mosquito or two. Outside the pages of fiction, that is."

The Faithful Beasts by HJ Ford

The drawings today are from Andrew Lang's Fairy Books, published from 1889 to 1910, illustrated by H.J. Ford. I have no idea which particular illustration from the series frightened Ruth Rendell, however!

Henry Justice Ford (1860-1941) was born and raised in London, where his father was a solicitor and the entire family was mad for cricket. (His father wrote books on the subject and his brother played professionally.) He studied classics at Cambridge, received a first-class degree, and then veered into an art career instead, training at the Slade and the Bushey schools of art. In addition to illustrating children's books and classics from the 1880s through the 1920s, Ford also painted historical works and landscapes exhibited at the Royal Academy, designed the Peter Pan costume for J.M. Barrie's first staging of his famous play, and was part of an artistic London set that included Barrie, P.G. Wodehouse, and Arthur Conan Doyle. He settled in Kensington, where he married late in life and had one much-loved adopted daughter.

The Falcon by HJ FordThe passage above comes from The Pleasure of Reading, edited by Antonia Fraser (Bloomsbury, 1992); all rights reserved by Fraser and the Ruth Rendell estate.


Threads and stories

The Stag by Helen Stratton

In her beautiful memoir The Farawy Nearby, Rebecca Solnit examines a crisis-filled period of her life during which she was sent a hundred pounds of apricots from a tree at her childhood home:

A drawing by Helen Stratton"The mountain of apricots that briefly occupied my bedroom floor was so many things besides food," she remembers. "... A gift from my mother, or her tree, they were a catalyst that made the chaos of that era come together as a story of sorts and an invitation to examine the business of making and changing stories and locate the silence in between. 'It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole,' Virginia Woolfe once wrote.

"She contined, 'This wholeness means that it has lost its power to hurt me; it gives me, perhaps because by doing so I take away the pain, a great delight to put the severed parts together. Perhaps this is the strongest pleasure known to me. It is the rapture I get when in writing I seem to be discovering what belongs to what....From this I reach what might be called a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of mine, that behind the cotton wool is a hidden pattern; that we -- I mean all human beings -- are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art.' "

The Little Mermaid by Helen Stratton

"The sudden appearance of the patterns of the world brings a sense of coherence and above all connection. In the old way of saying it, tales were spun; they were threads that tied threads together and from them the fabric of the world was woven. In the strongest stories we see ourselves, connected to each other, woven into the pattern, see that we ourselves are stories, telling and being told. Stories like yours and worse than yours are all around, and your suffering won't mark you out as special, though your response to it might."

Illustrations by Helen Stratton

She Led the Prince Into her Palace by Helen Stratton

"The protagonists of fairy tales and fables embody questions about who we are, what we desire, how to live," Solnit notes a few pages later in the book, "and Drawing by Helen Strattonthe endings are not the real answers. During the quest and crises of a fairy tale the protagonist is nobody, possessed only of the powers of determination, resourcefulness, and alliance, an unconventional estimation of what matters. Then at the end, the story breaks with its own principles and unleashes an avalanche of conventional stuff: palaces, riches, and revenge.

"Part of the charm of Andersen's 'Snow Queen' is that Gerda rescues Kai from a queen and brings him back to friendship in attics, and that's enough. Many Native American stories don't quite end, because the people who go on into the animal world don't come back; they become the ancestors, progenitors, benefactors, forces still at work. Siddhartha is rich, thriving, loved, privileged, and protected, and walks out on all of it, as though the story were running backwards. He's born an answer and abandons that safe port to go out into a sea of questions and tasks that are neverending."

Little Mermaid by Helen Stratton

"What if we only wanted openings, the immortality of the unfinished, the uncut thread, the incomplete, the open door, and the open sea? What if we liked the brothers to be swans and the nettles not yet woven into shirts, the straw better than the gold, the quest more than the holy grail? The quest is the holy grail, the ocean itself is the mysterious elixir, and if you're lucky you realize it before you dock at the cup in the chapel."

The Beautiful Couple by Helen Stratton

Wild Swans by Helen Stratton

From The Children's King Arthur illustrated by Helen Stratton

The Fairy Tales of HC Andersen illustrated by Helen Stratton

The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald illustrated by Helen StrattonThe paintings and drawings today are by Helen Stratton, a prolific artist who published many popular books during England's "Golden Age of Illustration" at the dawn of the 20th century. Stratton was born in India in 1867 (where her father was a surgeon with the Indian medical service), spent her childhood in Bath, studied art in London in the 1890s (where she fell under the spell of Pre-Raphaelitism and Art Nouveau), and then settled in Kensington with her mother and siblings after her father's death. She received her first illustration commission (for Songs for Little People) in 1896 and then worked steadily for the next three decades, producing illustrated editions of Hans Christian Andersen and Grimms fairy tales, The Book of Myths, The Children's King Arthur, Charles Lamb's Shakespeare for Young People, two classic children's novels by George MacDonald: The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie, and numerous other works, as well as collaborating with William Heath Robinson on a lavish edition of The Arabian Nights. Stratton returned to Bath in the 1930s, where she lived until she died, at 94, in 1961.

The Sick Prince by Helen Stratton

The Tombs by Helen Stratton

The Woodcutters by Helen Stratton

The Wild Swans cover art by Helen StrattonThe passage above is from The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit (Viking, 2013), which is highly recommended. All rights reserved by the author.


A trail of stories

The Arabian Nights illustrated by Charles Folkard

Following up on yesterday's post: Another reason we hunger for narrative, writes Scott Russell Sanders in "The Power of Stories," is because stories create community.

Ottoman Wonder Tales illustrated by Charles Folkard"They link tellers to listeners, and listeners to one another," he says. "This is obviously so when speaker and audience share the same space, as humans have done for all but the last few centuries of our million-year history, gathered around fires or huddled in huts; it is equally if less obviously so when we encounter our stories in solitude, on the page or screen. When two people discover they have both read Don Quixote, they immediately share a piece of history....Strangers who discover their mutual devotion to fairy tales or gangster movies or soap operas or Shakespeare's plays become thereby less strange to one another.

"Frank O'Connor went so far as to declare that 'the one subject a storyteller must write about' is 'human loneliness.' Whether or not stories speak to it directly, they offer us a relief from loneliness, by revealing that our most secret feelings and thoughts do not belong to us alone, by inviting us to join the circle of readers or listeners. The strongest bonds are formed by sacred stories, which unite entire peoples. Thus Jews rehearse the events of Passover; Christians tell of a miraculous birth and death and resurrection; Buddhists tell of Guatama meditating beneath a tree; the Hope recount the story of their emergence from the earth; the Aborigines repeat in song the primal deeds of their ancestors.

Ottoman Wonder Tales illustrated by Charles Folkard

"As we know only too well, sacred stories may also divide the world between those who are inside the circle and those outside, between us and them, a division that has inspired pogroms and inquisitions and wars. 

From British Fairy Tales & Folk Tales illustrated by Charles Folkard

"There is danger in story, as in any great force. If the tales that captivate us are silly or deceitful, like most of those offered by television or advertising, they waste our time and warp our desires. If they are cruel they make us callous. If they are false and bullying, instead of drawing us into a thoughtful community they may lure us into an unthinking herd or, worst of all, into a crowd screaming for blood -- in which case we need other, truer stories to renew our vision. So The Diary of Anne Frank and Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz are antidotes to Mein Kamp. So Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and Toni Morrison's Beloved are antidotes to the paranoid yarns of the Ku Klux Klan. So the patient exchange of stories between people searching for common ground is an antidote to the hasty sloganeering and slandering of talk shows."

From British Fairy Tales illustrated by Charles Folkard

 "We are creatures of instinct," Sanders writes later in the essay, "but not soley of instinct. More than any other animal we must learn to behave. In this perennial effot, as Ursula Le Guin says, 'Story is our nearest and dearest way of understanding our lives and finding our way onward.' Skill is knowing how to do something; wisdom is knowing when and why to do it, or to refrain from doing it. While stories may display skill aplenty, in technique or character or plot, what the best of them offer is wisdom. They hold a living resevoir of human possibilities, telling us what has worked before, what has failed, where meaning and purpose and joy might be found.

Cinderella by Charles Folkard

"At the heart of many a tale is a test, a puzzle, a riddle, a problem to solve; and that, surely, is the condition of our lives, both in detail -- as we decide how to act in the present moment -- and in general, as we seek to understand what it all means. Like so many characters, we are lost in a dark wood, a labyrinth, a swamp, and we need a trail of stories to show us the way back to our true home."

The Princess and Curdie illustrated by Charles Folkard

The paintings today are by Charles Folkard (1878-1963), who was born in south London and worked as stage magician before turning his hand to design and illustration. He created Britain's first daily newpaper cartoon strip (The Adventures of Teddy Tail), but he's best known today for his long career as a children's book illustrator, producing sumptuous editions of fairy tales, nursery rhymes, Aesop's Fables, Alice in Wonderland, Pinnochio, The Princess and Curdie, and numerous other classics. Folkard died at the age of 85, still painting right up to the very end.

British Fairy Tales & Folk Tales illustrated by Charles Folkard

The Old Fashion Picture Book illustrated by Charles FolkardThe passage above is from "The Power of Stories" by Scott Russell Sanders, published in his essay collection The Force of Spirit (Beacon Press, 2000), which is highly recommended. All rights reserved by the author.


The hunger for narrative

Arabian Nights by Edmund Dulac

In his great essay "The Power of Stories," Scott Russell Sanders explores ten primary reasons for telling and hearing stories. The first reason on his list is a simple one: Because they entertain us.

"Why else," he asks, "do we trade them so avidly, in myths and folktales, in poems and songs, movies and plays, novels and yarns, and countless other forms? Children tell stories spontaneously, exuberantly, even before they have enough words to fill out their sentences. Anyone who has made up a story for a child , or read one from a book, only to have the child beg for it again and again, night after night, knows that the need for story goes deep in us. Scheherazade kept a sultan from putting her to death by telling him stories, always breaking off in the middle of a plot at bedtime, leaving him eager for the next installment. You do not have to be a child or a bored sultan to hunger for stories, of course, nor a captive to be saved by them. We all hunger for narrative, from the simplest anecdote or joke to the most convoluted saga, as we hunger for bread or companionship or sunlight; and we all may be fed, and even restored, by a tale that speaks to our condition."

Arabian Nights by Edmund Dulac

Sanders goes on to note: "In all its guises, from words spoken and written to pictures and musical notes and mathmatical symbols, language is our distinguishing gift, our hallmark as a species. We delight in stories because they are a playground for language, an arena for exercising this extraordinary power. The spells and enchantments that figure in so many tales remind us of the ambiguous potency of words, for creating or destroying, for binding or setting free. Italo Calvino, a wizard of storytelling, described literature as 'a struggle to escape from the confines of language; it stretches out from the utmost limits of what can be said; what stirs literature is the call and attraction of what is not in the dictionary.' Calvino's remark holds true, I believe, not just for the highfalutin modes we label as literature, but for every effort to make sense of our lives through narrative."

The full essay can be found in Sander's essay collection The Force Spirit, and is highly recommended.

Arabian Nights by Edmund Dulac

The art today is from a 1911 editon of The Stories of the Arabian Nights, illustrated by Edmund Dulac.

Arabian Nights by Edmund Dulac

Arabian Nights by Edmund Dulac

Arabian Nights by Edmund Dulac

Edmond Dulac was born and raised in Toulouse, France, where he spent two miserable years studying law before embracing art as his true vocation; he then studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Toulouse and the Académie Julien in Paris before moving to London in 1904. Obtaining his first illustration commission (for Charlotte Brontë's  Jane Eyre) at the age of 22, Dulac went on to become of one of the greatest book illustrators of his day, while also collaborating on various theatre projects (usually with his friends W. B. Yeats and Thomas Beecham) and becoming an expert in postage stamp design. He spent the rest of his life in England (changing the spelling of his name from Edmond to Edmund), became a British citizen in 1914, and continued to create his exquisite illustrations right up to his death in 1953.

Arabian Nights by Edmund Dulac

Arabian Night by Edmund Dulac

Arabian Nights by Edmund Dulac

Arabian Nights by Edmund DulacThe passage above is from "The Power of Stories" by Scott Russell Sanders, published in his essay collection The Force of Spirit (Beacon Press, 2000); all rights reserved by the author.


Spinning stories with Scheherazade

Scheherazade and the Sultan

"What's your story?" asks Rebecca Solnit in her exquisite memoir, The Faraway Nearby, which I've recently re-read. "It's all in the telling. Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice. To love someone is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story.

Drawing for The Arabian Nights by Kay Nielsen"Which means that a place is a story, and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller's art, and then a way of traveling from here to there. What is like to be the old man silenced by a stroke, the young man facing the executioner, the woman walking across the border, the child on the roller coaster, the person you've only read about, or the one lying next to you in bed?

"We tell ourselves stories in order to live, or to justify taking lives, even our own, by violence or by numbness and the failure to live; tell ourselves stories that save us and stories that are the quicksand in which we thrash and the well in which we drown, stories of justification, of accursedness, of luck and starcrossed love, or versions clad in the cynicism that is at times a very elegant garment. Sometimes the story collapses, and it demands that we recognize we've been lost, or terrible, or ridiculous, or just stuck; sometimes change arrives like an ambulance or supply drop. Not a few stories are sinking ships, and many of us go down with these ships even when the lifeboats are bobbing around us.

The Tale of the Third Dervish by Kay Nielsen

"In The Thousand and One Nights, known in English as The Arabian Nights, Scheherazade tells stories in order the keep the sultan in suspense from night to night so he will not kill her. The backstory is that the sultan caught his queen in the embrace of a slave and decided to sleep with a virgin every night and slay her every morning so that he could not be cuckolded again. Scheherazade volunteered to try to end the massacre and did so by telling him stories that carried over from one night to the next for nights that stretched into years.

The Tale of the Young Thief by Kay Nielsen

"She spun stories around him that kept him in a cocoon of anticipation from which he eventually emerged a less murderous man. In the course of all this telling she bore him three sons and delivered a labyrinth of stories within stories, stories of desire and deception and magic, of transformation and testing, stories in which the action in one freezes as another storyteller opens his mouth, pregnant stories, stories to stop death.

The Favorite Wife Smuggles a Young Man into the Harem in a Box by Kay Nielsen

"We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or to hate, to see or to be blind. Often, too often, stories saddle us, ride us, whip us onward, tell us what to do, and we do it without questioning. The task of learning to be free requires learning to hear them, to pause and hear silence, to name them, and then to become the storyteller. Those ex-virgins who died were inside the sultan's story; Scheherazade, like a working-class hero, seized control of the means of production and talked her way out."

The Arabian Nights by Kay Nielsenx

The paintings and drawing here are by the great Danish artist Kay Rasmus Nielsen (1886-1957), best known for East of the Sun, West of the Moon and other lavishly illustrated fairy tale editions. These pictures were created sometime around 1917 for an edition of The Arabian Nights translated by Arabic scholar Arthur Christensen...but the project never came to fruition and the paintings remained unknown and unpublished until after the artist's death.

The Paris Review has just published a short article on Nielsen on their website, with a number of his gorgeous fairy tale illustrations. (I feel a childlike delight in the serendipity of the posting, which appeared on my birthday.) You can learn more about his fascinating but tragic life in "From Fairy Tales to Fantasia," an article of mine in the Journal of Mythic Arts archives (2001).

The Tale of the Second Dervish by Kay Nielsen

For Arabian Nights illustrations by a range of other artists, see Maria Popova's "A Visual History of the Arabian Nights" (The Atlantic, 2012).

And to learn more about Scheherazade and her tales, I recommend Marina Warner's excellent book Stranger Magic: Charmed States & the Arabian Nights (Viking, 2013).

The Lovers Perish in the Fire by Kay NielsenThe passage above is from The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit (Viking, 2013), all rights treserved.


On illness, 2: The Nights to our Days, the Roots to our Trees

The Buried Moon by Edmund Dulac

I'm going to continue posting on the subject of illness this week, not only because it's been a personal preoccupation in the last few months, but also because this side of life, too, has its myths, its folklore, its cycles and seasons; and even the healthiest among us will come to know its terrain as the story of our lives unfolds. It's a subject, however, that I'm well The Tempest by Edmund Dulacaware makes some people deeply uncomfortable, and if you're one of them and prefer to return to Myth & Moor next week, you have my blessing.

One of the most interesting books I've read on this subject (and I've read many) is The Alchemy of Illness by Kat Duff, who shares my own interest in the folkloric, philosophic, and cultural ideas that quietly inform our daily lives, whether we're consciously aware of them or not; and who also finds parallels between illness and tales of descent into the Underworld of myth.

"Illness," Duff writes, "is an upside-down world, a mirror image reversing the assumptions of our normal daily lives. I think of it as the underside of life itself, the night to our days, the roots to our trees. The first thing that happens when I get sick, even before physical symptoms appear, is that I lose my normal interests. A kind of existential ennui rises in my bones like floodwater, and nothing seems worth doing: making breakfast, getting to work on time, or making love. That is when I know I am succumbing to the influence of illness, whether it is a minor cold or a life-threatening case of dysentery. I slip, like fluid, through a porous membrane, into the nightshade of my solar self, where I am tired of my friends, I hate my work, the weather stinks, and I am a failure."

Leonore by Edmund Dulac

"Under the sway of illness," Duff continues, "people, like food, lose their appeal. Simple tasks, such as getting dressed, making meals, or returning phone calls, become difficult, onerous duties we avoid whenever possible. Our tolerances shrink to a narrow span; the juice is too sweet, the refrigerator too loud, the sheets too cold. I used to enjoy listening to the radio while working at my desk, but once I got sick, I could not stand the noise; I felt crowded and exhausted by it. That is why sick people spin cocoons around themselves; I often imagine myself wrapped like a mummy in a thick, fluffy blanket that filters out the invasive noise and smells of daily life.

"We shut the door, pull the shades, and unplug the phone when illness strikes, slipping away from the outer world and its material seductions like a boat drifting out to sea. The detailed terrain of our usual lives fades into a thin line between the vast indifference of sea and sky in the underworld of illness. We have nothing to say or do and want only to be left alone."

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Edmund Dulac

"There is, perhaps rightly so, an invisible rope that separates the sick from the well, so that each is repelled by the other, like magnets reversed. The well venture forth to accomplish great deeds in the world, while the sick turn back into themselves and commune with the dead; neither can face the other very comfortably, without intrusions of envy, resentment, fear, or horror. Frankly, from  The Bells by Edmund Dulacthe viewpoint of illness, healthy people seem ridiculous, even a touch dangerous, in their blinded busyness, marching like soldiers to the drumbeat of duty and desire.

"Their world, to which we once belonged and will again, seems unreal, like some great board game that could fold up at any minute. Carl Jung reported that when he was recovering from a heart attack, the view from his window seemed 'like a painted curtain with black holes in it, or a tattered sheet of newspaper full of photographs meaning nothing.' He despaired of getting well and having to 'convince myself all over again that this was important.' We drop out of the game when we get sick, leave the field, and desert the cause. I often feel like a ghost, the slight shade of a person, floating through the world, but not of it. The rules and parameters of my world are different altogether.

"Space and time lose their customary definitions and distinctions. We drift in a daze and wake with a start to wonder: Where am I? On a train to San Francisco or at Grandmother's house? Maybe both, for opposites coexist in the underworld of illness. We are hot and cold at once, unable to Prospero and Miranda by Edmund Dulacdecide whether to throw off the blankets or pile more on, while something tells us our lives are at stake. Sometimes I feel heavy as a sinking ship, and other times light as a spirit rising from the wreckage. Our worlds shrink down to the four walls of the sick room, then entire universes unfurl themselves in the dust.

"Time stretches and collapses, warping like a record left in the sun. After living with epilepsy for several years, Margiad Evans wrote, 'Time has come to mean nothing to me: in certain moods it seems I slip in and out of its meshes as a sardine through a herring net.' Ten seconds seems like an hour of torture in acute pain, while a whole lifetime can be squeezed into a few moments as we wake from sleep or fall in a faint. Past and future inhabit the present, like threads so tangled the ends cannot be found. There have been times, in that liminal realm between waking and sleeping, when my life appeared before me in the shifting patterns of a weaving pulled by the corners, or the flickering reflections in an oil slick. What has been and what could be stand side by side without distinction; strange things seem connected."

The Sleeve of Night by Edmund Dulac

"Defying the rules of ordinary reality, illness shares in the hidden logic of dreams, fairy tales, and the spirit realms mystics and shamans describe. There is often the feeling of exile, wandering, searching, facing dangers, finding treasures. Familiar faces take on the appearance of archetypal allies and enemies, 'some putting on a strange beauty, others deformed into the squatness of toads,' as Virginia Woolf noted. Dreams assume a momentous authority, while small ordinary things, like aspirin, sunshine, or a glass of water, become charged with potency, the magical ability to cure or poison."

The Entomologist's Dream by Edmud Dulac

Later in her wise book, Duff notes: "The traditions of white Western civilization have taught us to ignore and deny the sensations, instincts, dreams, and revelations our bodies continually generate to maintain a life-sustaining equilibrium. Now that I am sick, I am appalled to think that I used to respond to tiredness by pushing through it like a bulldozer to get my work done, or swim the full mile no matter what. Our determined efforts to pursue abstract goals and ideals, be it success, enlightenment, social responsibility, or even health, lead us dangerously astray, producing an intoxicating high and false pride that immediately collapse under the onslaught of illness. 'Insidious thing, pride,' wrote Laura Chester during the throws of lupus, 'to assume you are better, better, better...putting down others in order to feel secure, better than, more righteous, but what a fragile security we build for ourselves, out of sticks and straw, for the first and second little pigs.'

"There is nothing like a serious illness to blow down our fragile houses of sticks and straws. Standing amid the rubble of their lives and thoughts, people with serious illnesses undertake the task of building a new house, a new way of living, one that holds closer to the ground of being, the feedback and teachings of their bodies and souls."

Death Visits the Emperor by Edmund Dulac

"Illness is the shadow of Western civilization, the antithesis of the rampant extraversion and productivity it so values. As we attempt to exile disease from our world, it persists to haunt us with an ever-menacing guise, and we need it all the more to be whole, to save us from the curse of perfectionism.

"So certain realities remain to plague us. The best of people get sick, and many of those who do all the 'right' things stay sick or die, while others recover for no apparent reason. Epidemics come and go. As soon as we find the cure for one, another arises. We would like to think we can banish disease with rest, exercise, diet, medicine, prayer, or positive attitudes, but few so-called cures are reliable enough to trust, as anyone who has been sick a while can tell you. They're good ways to live, in sickness or health."

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Edmund Dulac

The Alchemy of Illness by Kat Duff

The passage above is from The Alchemy of Illness by Kat Duff (Pantheon, 1993), all rights reserved by the author. The paintings are by the great Golden Age illustrator Edmund Dulac (1882 - 1953).

On Illness, Part 3 is here.


There and back again

Woodland reverie

Thank you for your patience (and all the kind messages) while I've been out of the studio due to health issues. It's good to be stepping gently back to life and work again, and I'm hoping to resume my regular posting schedule now, health and strength permitting. I'm not exactly dancing on tables yet, so work will be a little slow for a while -- but slow is better than the alternative. Between my health problems and Tilly's operation, what a strange and difficult summer it has been. But the Great Wheel turns and now it is autumn, a new season and a new beginning.

In folkloric terms, September and October mark the end, not the start, of the Celtic year...but this is also the time when a new school year kicks off for children all across the Western world, thus the sense of autumn as a time of fresh beginnings tends to linger after childhood is done. At least that's how it feels to me as the weather grows crisp, the leaves begin to turn, and the blackberries ripen in the fields: a fresh start for the whole of our Bumblehill household. May creativity flow, energy quicken, and the harvest be abundant for you and your loved ones too.

Faeries and berries by Arthur Rackham

Ripening blackberries

A new season beginsThe painting of faeries and berries is by Arthur Rackham, from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.


Casting Spells

The Alchemist by Edmund Dulac

The text below comes from "Worlds Apart," a talk by Susan Cooper at Oxford University (1992). I am re-posting it today in honor of the lovely students in the Children's Book Writing & Illustrating MA/MFA program at Hollins University in Virginia.

"Writing," says Susan Cooper, "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 DulacThe art above is by the great Golden Age illustrator and designer Edmund Dulac (1882-1953). Born in Toulouse, France, he moved to London in 1904, and became a naturalized British citizen in 1912.


Why we need stories, part 2

Wildflower path

Wildflower path 2

"When we are young, the words are scattered all around us. As they are assembled by experience, so also are we, sentence by sentence, until the story takes shape.”  - Louise Erdrich (The Plague of Doves)

The Princess and the Fox by Warwick Goble

Wildflower path 3

"Certainly, as a reader, I had always discovered the deepest truths in fiction; it was through reading novels that I learned about the world, a world not only of fact but of imagination and emotion."
 - Alice Hoffman

Wildflower path 4

The Princess and the Pig by Warwick Goble

''If you are concerned for the future of our civilization, there is no more cheering sight than a boy or girl who is lost in a book. It's an image I cling to, in moments of depression: the absorbed child, reading.'' -  Susan Cooper (Dreams and Wishes)

Wildflower path 5

Wildflower path 6

"I have loved books all my life. There is nothing more beautiful in our material world than the book."  - Patti Smith (Just Kids)

The Frog Prince by Warwick Goble

Just Kids by Patti Smith

Just Kids by Patti SmithThe poem in the picture captions is from Alive Together: New & Selected Poems by Lisel Mueller. The Alice Hoffman quote comes from an interview. The books from which the other quotes are drawn (Erdrich's novel, Susan Cooper's essay collection, and Smith's memoir) are all highly recommended. The art is by Warwick Goble (1862-1943).


From the archives:

Churchyard 1

Daffodil King by Walter Crane

I'm hunkering down to catch up on work and correspondence today, so here's a post from the archives that seems worth a revisit, addressing as it does some of the topics we've been discussing of late....

"The beauty of the earth is the first beauty," writes Irish poet and philosopher John O'Donohue, whose wise books I return to again and again. "Millions of years before us the earth lived in wild elegance. Landscape is the first-born of creation. Sculpted with huge patience over millenia, landscape has an enormous diversity of shape, presence, and memory. There is poignancy in beholding the beauty of landscape: it often feels as though it has been waiting for centuries for the recognition and witness of the human eye. In the ninth Duino Elgy, Rilke says:

Shakespeare's Garden illustrated by Walter CranePerhaps we are here in order to say: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window...
To say them more intensely than the
Things  themselves

Ever dreamed of existing.

"How can we ever know the difference we make to the soul of the earth? Where the infinite stillness of the earth meets the passion of the human eye, invisible depths strain towards the mirror of the name. In the word, the earth breaks silence. It has waited a long time for the word. Concealed beneath familiarity and silence, the earth holds back and it never occurs to us to wonder how the earth sees us. Is it not possible that a place could have huge affection for those who dwell there? Perhaps your place loves having you there. It misses you when you are away and in its secret way rejoices when you return. Could it be possible that a landscape might have a deep friendship with you? that it could sense your presence and feel the care you extend towards it? Perhaps your favourite place feels proud of you. We tend to think of death as a return to clay, a victory for nature. But maybe it is the converse: that when you die, your native place will fill with sorrow. It will miss your voice, your breath and the bright waves of your thought, how you walked through the light and brought news of other places. Perhaps each day our lives undertake unknown tasks on behalf of the silent mind and vast soul of nature. During its millions of years of presence perhaps it was also waiting for us, for our eyes and our words. Each of us is a secret envoi of the earth.

Churchyard 2

Churchyard 3

Churchyard 4

"We were once enwombed in the earth and the silence of the body remembers that dark, inner longing. Fashioned from clay, we carry the memory of the earth. Ancient, forgotten things stir within our hearts, memories from the time before the mind was born. Within us are depths that keep watch. These are depths that no words can trawl or light unriddle. Our neon times have neglected and evaded the depth-kingdoms of interiority in favour of the ghost realms of cyberspace. Our world becomes reduced to an intense but transient foreground. We have unlearned the patience and attention of lingering at the thresholds where the unknown awaits us. "

"'We are here to abet creation and to witness it, to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed,"  Annie Dillard concurs. "Together we notice not only each mountain shadow and each stone on the beach but we notice each others beautiful face and complex nature so that creation need not play to an empty house.''

Churchyard 5

From A Flora Fantasy in an Old English Garden illustraed by Walter Crane

Tilly among the dafsPictures above: Daffodils in the village churchyard, and Tilly among the wild daffodils in our woods, spring 2013. The illustrations are by Walter Crane, published in Flowers from Shakespeare's Garden (1909). The John O'Donohue quotes are from Beauty: The Invisible Embrace (2004), the Annie Dillard quote is from an article in Life Magazine (1988), and the Robert Macfarlane quote is from The Old Ways (2012).