Saturday, 7 February 2009
another essay, and Dark is Rising and Greenwitch
This is The Language of the Night, the book of essays by Ursula K Le Guin that many of you have been asking me about. I have the 1979 edition, which is trade paperback. I'm not sure if it is still available, I don't think so, at least according to Amazon.com, it is only available used. This book has a collection of essays and speeches given by Le Guin over her early career as a writer, because of course she has continued to write these past 30 years since this book came out!
I have been reviewing - or rather, writing about - the essays in her book, in some of my posts this month, because each one is so important to understanding why we all (or most of us in the book blogging community that I have met) read fantasy. In the wider world, of course, we are reading a genre that is treated as only slightly above horror, and barely tolerated as literate, never mind as great literature. This despite the efforts to recognize within the fantasy and science fiction book world excellence in writing. She extends this to children's literature as well. Le Guin addresses all of these concerns in her essays. She also talks about the act of writing. She writes about writing, and reading, and what we find when we go on a voyage into these books. Because I love fantasy first and foremost, her books seem to talk directly to me, affirming to me what I have long ago thought in my heart about fantasy, and what I discover in my soul every time I venture into a fantasy book.
Here is what I discovered in today's essay, "The Child and the Shadow". I read this over a toasted bagel with cream cheese, and a cup of tea, and about half-way through the essay I realized I had eaten most of the bagel without tasting it, because there was so much other food for my mind in the essay.
She opens with a quick retelling of one of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales, about a man and his shadow. The essay asks, Is it appropriate for children to read? Because society - parents,school boards, etc, are always asking what is 'good' or 'appropriate' for children.
She writes about the Andersen story: "I don't know. I hated it when I was a kid. I hated all the Andersen stories with unhappy endings. That didn;t stop me from reading them, and rereading them. Or from remembering them.....so that after a gap of thirty years, when I was pondering this talk, a little voice suddenly said in my left ear, "You'd better dig out that Andersen story, you know, about the shadow.
At age ten I certainly wouldn't have gone on about reason and repression and all that. I had no critical equipment, no detachment, and even less power of sustained thought than I have now. I had somewhat less conscious mind than I have now. But I had as much, or more, of an unconscious mind, and was perhaps in better touch with it than I am now. And it was to that, to the unknown depths in me, that the story spoke; and it was the depths which responded to it and, nonverbally, irrationally, understood it, and learned from it.
The great fantasies, myths, and tales are indeed like dreams: they speak from the unconscious to the unconscious, in the language of the unconscious - symbol and archetype."
Isn't that somehow perfectly said? As if Le Guin herself had bypassed all the reasons why we should read fantasy, and said why we do read it - because it speaks to something deep inside us, the place in our hearts and souls that other books that are 'reasonable' and 'good' for us don't reach. I think the idea of morality is very important, and Le Guin goes on to make a much deeper connection between fantasy and morality in this essay: she says that instead of dividing good from evil, that we must learn, what our souls know, that good and evil are intertwined. Not mixed, but rather, in order to live a whole life, we must face the darkness in ourselves, in order to contain that darkness. If we don't face it, we become lonely, because we are cut off from our deepest source of creativity and understanding about the world. If we do face it, we show the world that evil can be contained in ourselves, and we show the way for others - for children, in our stories, how to do this. How to face our shadow, and win. She also makes the important statement that we can't cut off the shadow, we can't forget about it, or ignore it; it just grows stronger, until we, the conscious self, becomes the shadow of the Shadow, which is now corrupted with the evil we wouldn't admit to. It's not easy to say, I can be like her - the worst crimes committed, but if we can find a way to acknowledge the seed of the idea might possibly exist in us, no matter how dark, we are saved.
So how do we find our way to our shadow? "How do you get there? How do you find your own private entrance to the collective unconscious? Well, the first step is often the most important, and Jung says that the first step is to turn around and follow your own shadow."
And children, I believe, instinctively know this. Le Guin makes this point again and again: they see with an uncluttered mind, uncluttered with reason, logic, all the ways adults use to stop themselves from seeing. Even if the child doesn't understand all the facets of the story, they instinctively know it's true in its depths. Not just the battle between good and evil, which we all face every day as adults, but how we live our lives. They know if someone or something is true. So my favourite Andersen tale,
is one that I have both feared, dreaded and loved dearly. All at the same time. As an adult, I can acknowledge that the Snow Queen lives in me, that I have the fearsome and awesome capability to freeze my emotions if I have to, in order to survive. If I am in danger of doing this, my dreams tell me - I'll dream I'm in the arctic, or ice or snow is all around me. And the way home for me is to love, is to feel again, to be passionate. So, fairy tales are true. How did my child-self know all those years ago? The fairy tale is my guide and my instruction home again. So is The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, so is Beauty and the Beast, so are the best fantasy books and fairy tale books and our cultural myths we tell. Le Guin says fairy tales give children the chance to see yes, the world is full of danger, and yes, there is a way to survive. We do have to be careful with children, to not shatter them with too much knowledge too early. What we can show them, she says, is this: "And it seems to me that the way you can speak absolutely honestly and factually to a child about both good and evil is to talk about himself. Himself, his inner self, his deep, the deepest Self. That is something he can cope with; indeed, his job in growing up is to become himself.....He needs to see himself and the shadow he casts. That is something he can face, his own shadow, and he can learn to control it and be guided by it......
Fantasy is the language of the inner self."
Anyway, that's why I forgot what I was eating for breakfast, because her essay swooped me away into my deeper self, where I remembered that going within is the most important journey each person makes, and necessary to the well-being of the world. So, what is your favourite Andersen, or other, fairy tale? Is there a relation between that story and you?
So, with all that in mind, how does a classic children's fantasy series measure up?
The Dark is Rising and Greenwitch, books 2 and 3 in the Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper. This is a fantasy series written for children, and won two Newbery Awards - for The Dark is Rising volume, and The Grey King.
I read Over Sea, Under Stone last year, and my review is here. The next two volumes are even better.
Dark in Rising introduces Will Stanton, and what happens to him on his 11th birthday. It is a true fantasy story, filled with Old Ones, magic, items to find, protecting the world from Evil, and in this book, the wonder of a Christmas with the Stanton family with their 10 children. This is a classic book of good vs evil, with a delicious sense of danger and malevolence that I love: 'And then in a dreadful furious moment, horror seized him like a nightmare made real; there came a wrenching crash, with the howling of the wind suddenly much louder and closer, and a great blast of cold; and the Feeling came hurtling against him with such force of dread that it flung him cowering away.'
I love this bit, which Cooper does in all the books: weave in a bit of local lore, that grounds the books in Cornwall (Over Sea) or The Thames Valley (The Dark is Rising), using existing magical lore to deepen the connection of how to find your way in the land of magic and dream:
"Here," Old George said, appearing suddenly at Will's side as they all pushed the cart out of the gate. "You should have some of this." He thrust forward a great bunch of holly, heavy with berries.
"Very good of you, George," said Mr. Stanton."But we do have that big holly tree by the front door, you know. If you know anyone who hasn't -"
"No, no, you take it." The old man wagged his finger. "Not half so many berries on that bush o'yours. Partic'lar holly, this is." He laid it carefully in the cart; then quickly broke off a sprig and slipped it into the top buttonhole of Will's coat. "And a good protection against the Dark," the old voice said low in Will's ear, "if pinned over the window, and over the door." Then the pink-gummed grin split his creased brown face in a squawk of ancient laughter, and the Old One was Old George again, waving them away. "Happy Christmas!"
This book is filled with danger, and evil, and goodness, and light, and those that stand eternal guard against the dark. It's a wonderful story, and I really enjoyed it. I also really wanted to go and put some holly and berries over my doors and windows!!
Greenwitch brings together the children - Jane, Barney and Simon Drew from Over Sea, Under Stone, with Will from The Dark is Rising. They are again in Cornwall, and they are brought there under the guise of a week's holiday in April (a school break time in England). Really, they are looking for the Grail, which at the end of Over Sea, Under Stone had been placed in a museum. It has been stolen, and Merriman, the Old One who is the Merlin-like figure of aid to Will in the stories, knows they have a small window of time to find it before it is lost forever. Being the Grail, it is indispensible in the fight against evil. This story took a while to find a balance; it read more like an adventure in the Enid Blyton style, then when it was involving Merriman and Will, suddenly it had the more mythic overtones that The Dark is Rising contains. Over Sea, Under Stone had the same juxtaposition of adventure fun with mythic overtones. Cooper is a good enough writer that she in the end pulls it off, and Greenwitch works on a much deeper and better level than Over Sea, Under Stone does.
I think this is because Greenwitch is based on a Cornwall ritual of making an offering to the sea. Whether this is based on a real Cornwall ritual, I couldn't say, but it feels like once upon a time, it could very well have been done. It is very simple, the creation of statue of branches - for those who know their trees, rowan and hawthorn especially are used. How the Greenwitch figures in the story, I don't want to give away, but I do want to say that this is again a magical story, with old magic and Wild Magic, which are two different things. I like this too, that there are different kinds of magic in the world. It works especially because what Jane does crosses the divide between the Wild Magic and Old Magic, something no one else is able to do because it doesn't come from knowledge, but understanding, and sympathy. So often, the greatest fantasy stories are about this act of sympathy - remember, Bilbo doesn't slay Gollum when he has the chance, and so he saves the world. What Jane,Simon, and Barney do, make up the bulk of the story, and it is believable in the way adventure stories must be for children, as well as full of wonder, as magical stories must be. Will and Merriman are more watchers, seeking the Grail specifically; I think their story is the whole of the 5 books put together. I think Cooper put ordinary children into a mythic story to see what would happen, and it is fun, exciting, and dangerous, just like the best stories for children are.
"Barney felt again the power and the nastiness that had leapt at him from the canvas he had seen the man painting in the harbour; up on this ceiling too he saw the particular unnerving shade of green he had found so unpleasant out there. He said suddenly to Simon, "Let's go home."
"Not yet," said the dark man. He spoke softly, without moving, and Barney felt a chill awareness of the Dark reaching out to control him."
Very highly recommended. I have to buy the last two in the series, and that will be later this month. I have to know how it ends!