Into the Woods, 25: The Forest of Stories (Part III)
Tuesday, July 23, 2013
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 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 Milo, '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.
"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."
Yet 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."
Bin Ramke reminisces in his poem"Chivalric":
she thrust him into the operatic night:
"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."
Tatar 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."
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.
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."
“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.
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.
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, Wake; The 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.