“We get to direct people; we get to give them waking dreams. We get to take them places, do magical things to their heads, and, with any luck, send them back to the day they came from slightly changed, and not the person that they were when we got our hands on them and said, ‘I want to tell you a story.’” – Neil Gaiman on writers
Last week I indulged in something that I have not done in a very long time – I delved into a fantasy story.[i] A fairytale, even.
I’ve been making a concerted effort over the past year or so to follow the book world more closely and keep up with at least a portion of the books that critics and bookish folk are raving about. My to-read list includes The Lowland, The Goldfinch, and Longbourn, for instance, all of which I’m very excited to read (when I finally get my hands on them; I’m miles down on the waiting lists for these and several more at the library).
This resolution has expanded my literary horizons significantly and exposed me to some authors and books that I probably never would have picked up on my own, which has been wonderful. With the flood of best-books-of-the-year roundups and gift guides, my reading wish list has swelled even more. A friend and I were talking about how useful these lists can be in expanding our literary comfort zones, and how much we love the excitement of discovering a new author, book, or series we love.
I think that excitement goes two ways: while I love reading and potentially loving new authors, investing so much time in new and different books makes returning to old favorites that much more comforting. Sometimes, after reading the latest Zadie Smith novel, I really just want to curl up with characters and a narrative that I know I will enjoy. That familiarity is so welcoming; it’s like a literary home. (See also: Harry Potter)
For me, that familiarity usually means one of two things – Jane Austen or a bit of magic, swashbuckling optional. The books that usually get passed over in “best of” lists and college courses because they are not “literary” enough. I didn’t realize how much I missed those “non-literary” elements until I picked up Gregory Maguire’s novel, Lost. Maguire takes well-known fairytales (the Wizard of Oz, Cinderella) and injects them with historical and political threads. I’m not a huge Maguire fan – I love his ideas but often find their execution convoluted. (I think that Parke Godwin’s Sherwood was a much more successful and enjoyable union of fantastic and historic.) And Lost has proven to be no exception – Maguire plays with Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and A Christmas Carol, never really deciding between the three. Oh, and Jack the Ripper. But even amidst that confusion, the story was enough to transplant me from my surroundings and make me realize that I miss fantasy.
My reading heritage is really one of Greek mythology, King Arthur, Narnia, Harry Potter, and Middle Earth. That never really left me, even when I pursued other areas of literature in college. I still love those same stories, and I love to study the historical and cultural contexts of their telling and retellings. But there’s part of me that also likes to believe that there really were such figures as King Arthur and Robin Hood, that a wardrobe could open up to another world, or that maybe Hobbits and Elves do exist hidden from view.
That’s what Lost reminded me of most. There’s a gorgeous passage in which Maguire’s protagonist, Winnie, is reflecting on the London she knew as a girl. It is, like my own, a very literary London:
“It seethed with that vitality particular to stories. The swallow in her bird’s-eye view circled about in haphazard fashion, admiring her ur-London. It included Primrose Hill, where the Twilight Barking of One Hundred and One Dalmatians started. Here was a street in Chelsea called Cherry Tree Lane, along whose sidewalks the perennial English nanny-goddess Mary Poppins hustled her charges. Here was Paddington Station, in whose airy concourse a bear called Paddington had been lost, then found. Here was Kensington Gardens, Rackham’s bleak version, with sprites and root goblins just out of sight, and Peter Pan, the original lost and abandoned child, a baby dressed in oak leaves, still crouching there even when thousands of mourners were depositing floral bouquets at the death of Princess Diana.
London was a trove of the magic of childhood, for anyone who had read as obsessively as Winnie had before the age of twelve. Pull back just a bit, and more of England became implicated: a bit of river out toward Oxford, on which a rat and a mole were busy messing about in a boat. Peter Rabbit stealing under some stile in the Lake District. Somewhere on this island, was it in Kent, the Hundred Aker Wood, with those figures who have yet to learn that sawdusty toys die deaths as certainly as children do. The irrepressible Camelot, always bursting forth out of some hummock or other. Robin Hood in his green jerkin, Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, and just underneath it all, places only slightly less England, the dreary improbabilities of Alice’s Wonderland, the bosky dells of the theocracy of Narnia, the wind-tortured screes and wastes of Middle Earth.
…And magic England was endlessly reinvented, modern masters like Philip Pullman and Sylvia Waugh and J.K. Rowling piling it on with their daemons and their Mennyms and their Muggles. All those books with side-by-side worlds, forever springing leaks into one another.”[ii]
I love this description. It’s beautiful, and it reminds me of one of the reasons I am so drawn to England and to fantasy in general – the sense of worlds just out of reach, constantly overlapping and “springing leaks” into our own, that makes us believe in something more than what we can see. And I think that’s important; why else would these stories be passed down and reinvented, some for thousands of years?
In my mind, they don’t just tell us about magic. They tell us about our need as humans to invent and to imagine something more, to hold onto stories and make them mythical in our estimation. That, to me, is worthy of recognition and study.