Tunes for a Monday Morning
Down by the riverside

Into the Woods, 25: The Forest of Stories (Part III)

Library Lions by Graeme Base

In his memoir The Child That Books Built, Francis Spufford quotes this wonderful description of a library from Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes:


The Library by Jessie Willcox SmithThe library deeps lay waiting for them. Out in the world, not much happened. But here in the special night, a land bricked with paper and leather, anything might happen, always did. Listen! and you heard ten thousand people screaming so high only dogs feathered their ears. A million folk ran toting cannons, sharpening guillotines; Chinese, four abreast, marched on forever. Invisible, silent, yes, but Jim and Will had the gift of ears and noses as well as tongues. This was a factory of spices from far countries. Here alien deserts slumbered. Up front was the desk where the nice old lady, Miss Watriss, purple-stamped your books, but down off away were Tibet and Antarctica, the Congo....

But Bradbury, notes Spufford, "writes as if stories burst out of their library bindings on their own. I never found that. For me, they had to be stalked, sampled, weighed, measured, sniffed, tasted, often rejected. There were so many possibilities that the different invitations each book made would have blended together, if they had been audible, into a constant muttering hum. To hear the separate call of a book, you had to take it up and detach it from all the other possibilities by concentrating on it, and giving it a little silence in which to work. Then you learned what it was offering. Be a Roman soldier, said a book by Rosemary Sutcliffe. Be an urchin in Georgian London, said Leon Garfield. Be Little Boy Reading a Book by William Henry HuntMilo, 'who was bored, not just some of the time but all of the time,' and drives past the purple tollbooth to the Lands Beyond. Be where you can hear cats talking by tasting the red liquid in the big bottle in the chemist shop's window. Be where magic works easily. Be where magic works frighteningly. Be where you can work magic, but have to conceal being invisible or being able to fly from the eyes of the grown-ups. Be an Egyptian child beside the Nile, be a rabbit on Watership Down, be a foundling so lonely in a medieval castle that the physical ache of it reaches to you out of the book; be one of a gang of London kids playing on a bombsite among the willowherb and loosestrife, only fifteen years or so before 1972, but already far, far in the past. Be a king. Be a slave. Be Biggles. All this was there in the library basement, if you picked up the books and coaxed them into activity, and uncountably more besides....When I made my choice, and walked back up to the Ironmarket from the library to the bus stop, I knew I might have melancholy tucked under my arm; or laughter; or fear; or enchantment.

Sunday Afternoon, Interior With Girl Reading by Michael Peter Ancher"Or longing. My favorite books were the ones that took books' explicit status as other worlds, and acted on it literally, making the window of writing a window into imaginary countries. I didn't just want to see in books what I saw anyway in the world around me, even if it was perceived and understood  and articulated from angles I could never have achieved; I wanted to see things I never saw in life. More than I wanted books to do anything else, I wanted them to take me away."

Spufford was eight when he read Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy for the first time, paging quickly through Pippin and Merry's adventures in order to "get back to Sam and Frodo and the ring. I identified their journey as the story." Later, he says, "I discovered and cherished Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea novels. They were utterly different in feeling, with their archipelago of bright islands like ideal Hebrides, and their guardian wizards balancing light and dark like yin and yang. All they shared with Tolkien was the deep consistency that allows an imagined world to unfold from its premises solidly, step by certain step, like something that might really exist. Consistency is to an imaginary world as the laws of physics are to ours. The spell-less magic of Earthsea gave power to those who knew the true names of things: a beautifully simple idea. Once I had seen from the first few pages of the first book, A Wizard of Earthsea, that Le Guin was always going to obey her own rules, I could trust the entire fabric of her world."

The Reading Boy by Joshua ReynoldsYet the books that Spufford loved best were those "that started in this world and took you to another. Earthsea and Middle Earth were separate. You traveled in them in imagination as you read Le Guin and Tolkien, but they had no location in relation to this world. Their richness did not call to you at home in any way. It did not lie just beyond a threshold in this world that you might find if you were particularly lucky, or particularly blessed.

"I wanted there to be a chance to pass through a portal, and by doing so to pass through rusty reality with its scaffolding of facts and events into the freedom of story. I wanted there to be doors. If, in a story, you found the one panel in the fabric of the workaday world that was hinged, and it opened, and it turned out that behind the walls of the world flashed the gold and peacock blue of something else, and you were able to pass through, that would be a moment in which all the decisions that have been taken in this world, and all the choices that had been made, and all the facts that had been settled, would be up for grabs again: all possibilities would be renewed, for who knew what lay on the other side?

"And once open, the door would never entirely shut behind you either. A kind of mixture would begin. A tincture of this world's reality would enter the other world, as the ordinary children in the story -- my representatives, my ambassadors -- wore their shorts and sweaters amid cloth of gold, and said Crumbs! and Come off it! among people speaking the high language of fantasy; while this world would be subtly altered too, changed in status by the knowledge that it had an outside."

The Books of Magic, Volume 1 by Charles Vess

A detail from Tom Sawyer by Jeffrey T. LarsonBin Ramke reminisces in his poem"Chivalric":

Here is the past: One was once a boy
and read books and could not pronounce
the most engaging words and read
in silence under blankets. Here   
one was not like oneself or was
quiet and wrong and did not know
the words nor how to ask, who
to ask. Nor why. Boy’s books with flags.
Everyone’s born to the language; anyone
can say something. For instance,   
knight banneret, that’s what she called him,   
having no use for him after history,   

she thrust him into the operatic night:

                                         A woman's hand rose
above the surface of the lake and caught   
the glistering sword, and slowly   
descended into the boy’s refuge,   
his astonishment, so foreign, so little like home...

"Storytelling draws on the magic of language to created Elsewheres," says Maria Tatar (in Enchantment Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood). "Writers use a linguistic sleight-of-hand to take an attribute, attach them to new objects, and create enchantment."

Captivated by Adolphe Alexandre LesrelTatar quotes this passage from J.R.R. Tolkien's famous essay "On Fairy-Stories":

The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make things light and able to fly, turn grey into yellow gold, and the still rock into swifter water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both. When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood we already have an enchanter's power -- upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our mind awakes.

"Magic happens," says Tatar, "when the wand of language strikes a stone and makes it melt, touches a spindle and turns it into gold, or taps a trunk and makes it fly. By drawing on a syntax of enchantment that conjures fluidity, ethereality, flimsiness, and transparency, writers turn solidity into resplendent airy lightness to produce miracles of linguistic transubstantiation. 

"What is the effect of that beauty? How do readers repond to words that create that beauty? In a world that has discredited that particular attribute and banished it from high art, beauty has nonetheless held on to its enlivening power in children's books. It draws readers in, then draws them to understand the fictional worlds it lights up."

Study at a Reading Desk by Lord Frederick Leighton

This is one of the many reasons, I believe, that the best of the books published for children and young adults have devoted adult readers too (despite the baffled surprise this seems to incur in certain literary quarters).  Beauty is to our age, Shirley Hazzard once said dryly, as sex was to the Victorians: a subject we don't talk about, except in the most superficial of terms. And yet we need beauty, and wonder, in our lives -- especially now, as a balancing corrective to a culture addicted to novelty and awash in irony and detachment. As the Irish poet/philosopher John O'Donohue wrote in his insightful book Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, "When our eyes are graced with wonder, the world reveals its wonders to us. There are people who see only dullness in the world and that is because their eyes have already been dulled. So much depends on how we look at things. The quality of our looking determines what we come to see."

With beauty and wonder scorned in so many of stories now told to adults (in books, in films, on television), no wonder it's to fantasy and to children's fiction that so many of us turn.

Evening Reading by George Pauli

Reading Aloud by Julius LeBlanc Stewart

C.S. Lewis once wrote: "When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret, and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up."

Farmer Sitting at the Fireside and Reading by Vincent van Gogh

“When we are young," muses Louise Erdrich (in The Plague of Doves), "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.”

We build ourselves through the stories we imbibe, both consciously and unconsciously...and it's in the latter realm that danger arises if we're not wary. 

A Lady Reading by Gwen John

A Young Girl Reading by Michael Peter Ancher

We in the West, says Rebecca Solnit , "have been muddled by Plato's assertion that art is imitation and illusion; we believe it is a realm apart, one whose impact on our world is limited, one in which we do not live. Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me, my mother liked to recite, though words hurt her all the time, and behind the words the stories about how things should be and where she fell short, as told by my father, by society, by the church, by the happy flawless women of advertisements. We all live in that world of images and stories, and most of us are damaged by some version of it, and if we're lucky, find others or make better ones that embrace and bless us." (The Faraway Nearby)

Solnit expresses so beautifully the very thing that I have long been trying to do as a writer, editor, and painter: I want find better stories, make better stories, stories that will "embrace and bless" the readers who find them.

I think that's what we're all doing here in the mythic arts field, writers and readers alike, in our many different ways.

Man Reading (Portrait of Gustaf Dalstrom) by Frances Foy

Whilst Reading, a Portrait of Sofia Kramskoya, the Artist's Wife by Ivan Kramskoi

The "books and reading" art above is: "The Library Lions" by Graeme Base (Austrlian), from his book Animalia; "The Library" by Jessie Willcox Smith (American, 1853-1935 ); "Little Boy Reading a Book" by William Henry Hunt (English, 1790-1864);  Sunday Afternoon, Interior with Girl Reading" by Michael Peter Ancher ( (Danish, 1849-1927); "The Reading Boy" by Joshua Reynolds (English, 1723-1792); "The Books of Magic, Vol. 1" by Charles Vess (American); a detail from "Tom Sawyer" by Jeffrey T. Larson (American); "Captivated" by Adolphe Alexandre Lesrel (France, 1839-1929); "Study at a Reading Desk" by Lord Frederick Leighton (English, 1830-1896); "Evening Reading" by Georg Pauli (Finnish, 1855-1935); "Reading Aloud" by Julius LeBlanc Steward (American, 1855-1919); "Farmer Sitting at the Fireside and Reading" by Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890); "A Lady Reading" by Gwen John (Welsh, 1876-1939);  "A Young Girl Reading" by Michael Peter Ancher ( (Danish, 1849-1927);"Man Reading," a portrait of Gustaf Dalstrom, the artist's hysband, by Frances Foy (American, 1890-1963);  and "Whilst Reading," a portrait of Sofia Kramskoya, the artist's wife, by Ivan Kramskoi (Russian, 1837-1887).

All the works quoted from above are highly recommended: The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading, a charming and poignant memoir by Francis Spufford;  Something Wicked This Way Comes, the classic novel by Ray Bradbury; Bin  Ramke's 1999 poetry collection, WakeThe Enchantment Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood by the great fairy tale scholar Maria Tatar;  J.R.R. Tolkien's essay "On Fairy-stories," published in his collection Leaf by Niggle (it can also be read online here, and my memoir-ish essay about the essay is here);  John O'Donohue's insightful examination of beauty in life and art, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace; Louise Erdich's fine novel The Plague of Doves; and Rebecca Solnit's gorgeous new memoir, The Faraway Nearby.

Comments

The best books are the ones that you discover when you are young, that grow with you and within you, budding and leafing and flowering in your mind, drawing you back to them again and again. As your experience of life broadens and deepens so does your understanding of the story. The best books are the ones you never tire of, no matter how many times you read them.

What a feast, Terri! What a cabinet of spices! As a writer of fantasy novels I am almost guaranteed to accept the premise that this genre has become one of the safe havens for beauty in the literary world. And oh how I agree that in this modern cynical age we are embarrassed by beauty and have 'banished it from high art'. I once said something like this in a comment on one of your earlier blogs and met with some disagreement, so it's gratifying to know that I share my view with others, more important and better qualified than me, such as Shirley Hazzard.

I think this loss of of beauty is prevalent in so many disciplines; I know for example if it's announced that a building has won a top prize for architecture then in all probability it will be a nightmarish tangle of concrete, glass, steel and plastic in which no human being should ever have to live or work.

The plotless novel, and stream of consciousness I'm sure could be beautiful, in fact I'm almost convinced of it, but... I wonder how many people who pick up 'Ulysses', for example, actually manage to read it to the end. I suspect the percentage is tiny and of those that do, I wonder how many are studying it as part of a degree and have no other choice.

in the earlier blog comment I made, I said something like it was time to abandon the 'Shock of the New' and embrace the 'Shock of the Beautiful' because in this world where beauty has become an embarrassment it really would be a most terrible and terrifying shock.

You'll get no argument from me. I totally agree with you on the need for the "shock of the beautiful."

I think too many kids are being led to over-value superficial aspects of beauty (the airbrushed photographs of half-starved models whose only purpose is to shill products to them), while at the same time they're so unfamiliar with deeper, soul-centered concepts of beauty as to be shy of, embarrassed by, or even frightened of them. As a culture, we have some educating to do. And what does that better than a good story?

Thank you, Terri, I value the fact that you agree. And you're so right about half-starved models! What sort of world do we live in when people who look ill and malnourished are seen as objects of beauty? I wonder what those Renaissance artists, who seemed to positively revel in flesh and all its curves, would have to say!

They'd be baffled!

Regarding James Joyce, I do find beauty in Joyce's use of language, but I'm lukewarm about his books. I just don't love them. Knowing about his life, and the cavalier way he treated the women whose help allowed him to succeed, gets in the way for me when I'm reading his fiction. I suppose it shouldn't, but it does.

Did you ever encounter the PJF? The group of writers who called themselves the Pre-Joycean Fellowship? The name is a riff on The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who felt that art took a wrong turn around the time of Raphael. The PJF writers didn't all *hate* Joyce, but felt that fiction had taken a wrong turn in those years...particularly as the PJF was started in the 1980s, the decade when Gordon Lish style minimalism was everywhere, and "snapshot / slice-of-life" stories with no plot or ending. (The basic New Yorker story of the day, in other words...thank heavens they are more varied now.) The PJF was standing up for character, plot, and structure -- lone voices in the wilderness!

But this was all in America (the influential editor Gordon Lish, the PJF, etc.) and may not have registered over here in the UK.

...."Nothing there!" said Peter, and they all trooped out again - all except Lucy. She stayed behind because she thought it would be worth while trying the door of the wardrobe, even though she felt almost sure that it would be locked. To her surprise it opened quite easily, and two moth-balls dropped out." Of course, Lucy entered, and went deeper and deeper into the wardrobe, for, as C.S Lewis knew, there is depth to be had through portals, and beauty, mystery, fear, revelation, and redemption. Writers do that--enter and go deep.


Striking Rock, Melting Stone

"Magic happens when the wand of language strikes a stone and makes it melt. . . .”--Maria Tatar, Enchantment Hunters

Which word struck the stone first--
Mama, Dada, or the one called Please?
After that, we watched the stone sweat,
beads of gray moisture running down its face
like a woman in her forties, menopausal, aching
with memory, with longing, with regret.

But when the melt came, stories flooding out
like lava, covering up the old passageways,
making new ones, none of us remembered
how it felt sweating, only how it felt
being released.

©2013 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

I know what you mean about Joyce. Some of his early work is outstanding, and his poetry is achingly beautiful at times, but 'Ulysses' leaves me cold. It can also very difficult for me to divorce the work of an artist/writer from their behaviour. In fact I'd go further than that and say that their politics can also destroy any chance of enjoyment for me. Sometimes it's best not to know!

I haven't heard of the Pre-Joycean Fellowship, but they sound like my sort of people. If their writing is as beautiful in literary terms as the work of the pre-Raphaelites is in art, then they must be truly outstanding.

ah my soul is warmed by the fire of wonder & magic in all your posts Terri but this one is a beauty, truly a portal that passes "through (this) rusty reality"

So true.

Wow. This is thought-provoking and amazing.

And it reminds me of this quote from The Bonesetter's Daughter by Amy Tan:

“What do you think was the first sound to become a word, a meaning?...I imagined two people without words, unable to speak to each other. I imagined the need: The color of the sky that meant 'storm.' The smell of fire taht meant 'Flee.' The sound of a tiger about to pounce. Who would worry about these things?

"And then I realized what the first word must have been: ma, the sound of a baby smacking its lips in search of her mother's breast. For a long time, that was the only word the baby needed. Ma, ma, ma. Then the mother decided that was her name and she began to speak, too. She taught the baby to be careful: sky, fire, tiger. A mother is always the beginning. She is how things begin.”

Indeed!

Thank you, dear.

Waving hand here as a card-carrying PJF member! Which Terri knew, of course. In fact I believe she edited all of us.

Jane

Jane and Terri, this sounds fascinating. Do you know if any work by PJF members is available in the UK? If so I can get my partner Clare - who works in Waterstones bookshop- to get me some.

It seems strangely conflicted that there is an embarrassment about embracing beauty in a culture that seems to be all about externalities and appearances...on the one hand is this harsh and stifling set of guidelines about what constitutes physical beauty, while on the other are the gatekeepers of art, afraid to let their vulnerability--their willingness to be moved and be creaturely--show. Well into adulthood I was always searching for that portal to another world, a door in the tree...but I came to see that the enchantment that I felt was just around the next corner was actually right here in front of me, woven through and through the natural world and the breathing earth, which is where the stories came from in the first place.

Definitely thought-provoking and amazing... and reminded me of a stone I used to have from Greece. It was a tumbled limestone - tumbled in the ocean - it had the shape of a seal and at the place where the mouth would have been, there was a small, round indentation. When it rained or was very humid, the stone sweated and drooled! I usually keep stones for years and years, but this one is lost to me, unofortunately.

I so agree, Carmine.

Try Jane's "Briar Rose," and "Freedom and Necessity" by Stephen Brust & Emma Bull, which were both written in the PJF days.

Well said, Carmine.

It's often the case that when a society represses or is conflicted about something, that very same thing pops up in unhealthy, obsessive ways. Shirley Hazzard's reference to sex and the Victorians is a good example. Straight-laced Victorian society was famously repressed sexually, and yet at no other time in history has London had so many brothels, and such wide-spread child prostitution. Likewise, our current media-driven society is uncomfortable with complex, artful, spiritual, soul-centered, heart-on-your-sleeve concepts of beauty -- yet we're obsessed with surface appearance to the point that people are literally cutting up their bodies (through plastic surgery) to fit in to a fleeting ideal. Someday people will look back on this insanity (I hope) with the same horror that we look back on Chinese foot-binding.

Our culture's attitude towards food is another example. In America, we have such a strange, obsessive relationship to it: making a fetish of extreme skinniness and the moral virtue of strict dieting, on the one hand, while restaurant portions get bigger and bigger, and so does the population. Whereas in France (for example), there's no quasi-Puritanical morality attached to food consumption -- food is widely, passionately valued for it's pleasure-giving qualities and it's place in communal/family life. There's nothing repressive or conflicted about French cultural attitudes toward food. And the problems of eating disorders and obesity there are a fraction of the size of ours in America...or the growing problem here in the UK.

Just to latch onto a snippet, I paged through Lord of the Rings to get back to Merry and Pippin - for me, theirs was the critical story, of finding friends in the trees, of bearing troubles always with an eye to escape, and returning home different, but capable of still being home. Carved, not broken.

About James Joyce, I enjoy him in short forays into his work, and his odd remnants of sheer poetic prose, but in Dodie Smith's lovely smart "I Capture the Castle," the father is modeled after James Joyce. I reread "I Capture the Castle," more often than I reread James
Joyce.

A nice observation. I read Lord of the Rings so long ago and so often afterwards that
some part of me lives in Middlel-earth.

Thanks again, Terri. I have had a rough time over the last several days, ugly things. It is good to slip into beauty and those who care and share this. There can be ugly things in the woods and those books meant for the steely mind, not the imagination, but here I am surrounded by all things healing and lovely.

I didn't know the father was modeled after James Joyce! I adore that book.

Sending you beautiful thoughts from Dartmoor to combat the ugliness....

The character's process of breaking words and visions up and reassembling them is so like Joyce, I just assumed so.

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