Must We Remain A Nation of Small Ideas?

Ursula K. Le Guin, 1929-2018

Ursula Le Guin died on January 23, at the age of 88. I first encountered her writing in the seventies. After multiple readings of The Lord of the Rings, I was hungry for more heroic-quest fantasy novels. There were plenty of them, but the only one I remember is Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy (1968-1972).

At a time when science fiction and fantasy were viewed as escapist genres, decades before YA become a lucrative fad, and before we knew about Jedi, Ursula Le Guin gave us the coming of age tale of Ged, who becomes a powerful wizard only after learning that his most powerful enemy is himself.

Many of this week’s online tributes and memorials have included excerpts from her acceptance speech at the 2014 National Book Awards Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. It is worth emphasizing this passage from her six minute address:

URSULA LE GUIN: I think hard times are coming, when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom: poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality. …

Le Guin’s call for creative artists, and by extension, all of us, to imagine more life affirming ways to live on this planet underlines the poverty of our current public discourse, which confines our national imagination to ever more narrow ruts. We suffer not from fake news but from trivial news.

The last three administrations have spent $5.6 trillion on warfare since 9/11. We’ve killed more than 200,000 civilians (as of 2015) and lost more than 5,000 of our own troops (as of 2016), but none of us feel any safer. Where is our national debate on what we hope to accomplish and the nature of our exit strategy? It is non-existent. Instead, we argue on Twitter about whether football players taking a knee is disrespectful to troops…

The day Ursula Le Guin died, Amazon opened the prototype of an automated grocery store that doesn’t require cashiers. Two days later I saw the picture of Norway’s prototype, zero emissions, automated container ship, that will be entirely crewless by 2020. Panera and McDonalds are trying out order kiosks that could eliminate cashiers and – the list goes on and on. Where is the national debate on strategies for the near term, when automation eliminates millions of jobs before new technologies open up ways to replace them? That, conversation too, is non-existent. It’s more politically expedient to blame foreign nations and foreign nationals for “stealing” our jobs…

We can think of many more essential debates that are not taking place because of the cowardice of our leaders. Le Guin, of course, would shake her head at the notion that today’s politicians or CEO’s are remotely capable of being “the realists of a larger reality.”

Her legacy is a lifetime of visioning other worlds and other ways of living in this one. It’s up to people who care to move that vision forward. Sadly, it seems increasingly certain that the world we would wish to live in is one more thing that will not be “Made in America…”

Thoughts on Maleficent and retelling folktales

maleficent

Maleficent opens in a world of beauty, threatened by a greedy human king. The visual contrast between human actors and fantasy animation was great enough to take a few minutes for suspension of disbelief to kick in. After that, I was in for the ride, through an ambitiously re-crafted tale of the Disney arch villainess who gave kids of my generation nightmares in Sleeping Beauty (1959). As the poster implies, this movie belongs to Angelina Jolie, whose performance is gripping.

The Sleeping Beauty themes of love and betrayal remain but they manifest very differently in the two Disney versions of the story. Men betray and women love; implicit in Disney’s previous blockbuster, Frozen, the theme is explicit in Maleficent. For now at least, it’s Disney’s key to box office success.

Retelling fairytales with a modern twist is nothing new. Fantasy authors like Nancy Kress, Jane Yolen, Steven Brust, and Roger Zelazny, to say nothing of Neil Gaiman and George R.R. Martin have been doing this for decades. I’m currently reading a 1994 collection of short retold fairytales, Black Thorn, White Rose, edited by fantasy writers, Ellen Datlow and Terry Windling. There are two different versions of Sleeping Beauty. In both, it is the prince who needs to be rescued.

I take this as an inevitable pendulum swing from earlier Disney movies where princesses mostly sat around singing, “Someday my prince will come.” We have to remember that no Disney movie, then or now, is “real” folklore, nor is any work fantasy fiction. By “real” folklore, I mean stories shaped by the collective imagination of generations of members of a culture, region, or tribe. Strictly speaking, any talk of folktales now must be in the past tense. Nowadays the events that might spawn new fairytales, over a generation or two, become headlines or tweets, “details at 6:00,” to be forgotten in a day or an hour.

Among other things, the old fairytales were full of hints on wise living for those who knew how to listen. Here is one simple list of some of the lessons they taught:

  • Sorrow is real, and so is joy
  • Joy is freely available to all, just as sorrow comes freely to all, whether rich or poor, and without regard to changes in material fortune
  • The world is fraught with danger, including life-threatening danger, but by being clever (always), honest (as a rule, but with common-sense exceptions), courteous (especially to the elderly, no matter their apparent social station), and kind (to anyone who has obvious need), even a child can succeed where those who seem more qualified have failed.

Much as I love them, I don’t find that fantasy movies and novels teach lessons like these in a visceral or unforgettable manner, which leaves us sadly impoverished. Dragons have not gone away – any glance at the headlines makes that clear. What is gone is the wisdom to know how to deal with them.

The Dark Crystal: a movie review

Dark_Crystal_Film_Poster

“Another world, another time. In the age of wonder.”

So begins The Dark Crystal (1982), a movie that pushed the limits of what was possible in animation when it was released 32 years ago. That was the year the Commodore 64 hit the market, becoming the best selling personal computer. Ms Pac-man was the hot new item in digital animation. Pixar, as we know it, was more than a decade away. Jim Henson, who wrote, produced, and co-directed the movie with Frank Oz, used models, puppets, and costumes for human actors to make this extraordinary film, which has largely been forgotten now that we’ve come to take sophisticated animation for granted.

Dark Crystal is a hero’s quest. A thousand earlier, when the three suns of the planet, Thra, came into alignment, the Dark Crystal shattered. At that moment two new races appeared, the evil skeksis and gentle mystics. Jen is the last of the gelflings (or so he thinks), a race wiped out by the skeksis for fear of a prophesy that one of them would be their undoing. As the thousand year alignment nears, Jen’s master, a dying mystic gives him a quest – find the missing shard and heal the crystal before the suns line up, or the skeksis will rule forever.

Dark Crystal: Jen's master gives him a quest

Dark Crystal: Jen’s master gives him a quest

Jen reacts like any fledgling hero at the start of a quest – “But master, I am only a gelfling “ he says. “I am not ready to go alone.” But go alone he does, aided by the ancient seeress, Aughra, who helps him find the shard, and Kira, last of the female gelflings, who joins his quest. In a moment of despair, Jen flings the crystal shard away. Unable to sleep, he mutters, “Master, nothing is simple anymore.” Kira helps him find the shard at “The House of the Old Ones,” where they are confronted by a treacherous skeksis.

The Dark Crystal: Jen and Kira confront a Skeksis at The House of the Old Ones

The Dark Crystal: Jen and Kira confront a Skeksis at The House of the Old Ones

They flee, but the treacherous one surprises them at the Dark Castle where the crystal is housed. He captures Kira and the skeksis begin to drain her life essence, which will prolong their own lives and leave Kira in the state of their other slaves, a mindless automaton. Jen and Aughra help Kira to save herself, the mystics arrive at the castle, the three suns’ come into alignment, and the final confrontation begins.

Prior to Dark Crystal, animation involved full length cartoons, claymation shorts, and The Muppet Show, which ran on TV from 1976-1981. I’m not aware of another full length feature involving such detailed world-building animation before this movie. It feels a little dated now, but then so do movies like Casablanca which stand as classics in their genre. That’s how I think of Dark Crystal. I think it’s required viewing for lovers of animation and fantasy in the movies.

‘On the Supposed Unsuitability of Fairytales for Children” Guest Post by J. Aleksandr Wootton

This is, in essence, a double reblog, in which you will meet two interesting writers in the field of folklore. The first is Benton Dickieson of Prince Edward Island, Canada, who blogs at A Pilgrim in Narnia. The second is the author he presents, J. Aleksandr Wootton, self described “Author, Folklorist, Poet, Book-Worm, Faerie Historian, Cultural Critic, and Virginian.”

Writing on the “Supposed Unsuitability of Fairtales for Children,” Wootton has much to say including a fine summary of a subject I’ve circled about on several occasions, attributes of successful fairytale heroes and heroines:

“The world is fraught with danger, including life-threatening danger, but by being clever (always), honest (as a rule, but with common-sense exceptions), courteous (especially to the elderly, no matter their apparent social station), and kind (to anyone who has obvious need), even a child can succeed where those who seem more qualified have failed.”

Enjoy the websites of both of these folklore enthusiasts.

A Pilgrim in Narnia

J. Aleksandr Wootton chairs the fictional Folklore Studies department at Lightfoot College, where his research focuses on post-war Faerie. He has authored Her Unwelcome Inheritance, an account of fairy refugees on earth, and has recently published a poetry collection titled Forgetting: Impressions from the Millennial Borderland

For more on his writing, or to contact him, visit www.jackwootton.com.

“On the Supposed Unsuitability of Fairytales for Children”

J. Aleksandr Wootton

Shortly after supporting a local library event promoting fairytale literature, the folklore department at Lightfoot College received an animated communication from a very concerned mother regarding, in short, the “unsuitability of fairytales for children.”As this seems to be a rather widespread idea (I might mention the Daily Telegraph article of February 12, 2012) as well as an oddly long-lived one, I take the liberty of public response.Dear Madame,

Though you may be unaware of it, your email represents sentiments that have…

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More notes from the Wasteland

Joseph Campbell considered the Wasteland and the quest for the Grail that heals it to be a core myth for our time.  During “The Power of Myth” series at the end of his life,  Campbell said the Wasteland results from a worldview that divides matter and spirit.  Referring to the Fisher King’s wound he said:

“the Christian separation of matter and spirit…has really castrated nature. And the European mind, the European life, has been, as it were, emasculated by this separation. The true spirituality, which would have come from the union of matter and spirit, has been killed.” (1)

Generations of western thinkers, culminating in Descartes, built upon the split Campbell cites to elaborate a mechanistic view of nature that made the world ripe for human exploitation.  Results of this world view are visible everywhere, both in the headlines and in the landscape around us.  This part of California, for instance, still bears the scars of hydraulic mining 150 years after the gold rush.

Hydraulic mining along the Yuba river.  Malakofdigginsstatepark.org

Hydraulic mining along the Yuba river. Malakofdigginsstatepark.org

Deliberate exploitation isn’t always the culprit.  We think of Native Americans as attuned with nature, but even they made mistakes.  From AD 900-1150, such a large concentration of Pueblo people lived in Chaco Canyon, NM that they cut an estimated million trees from the surrounding Colorado Plateau.  The resulting erosion, loss of game habitat, and flooding is thought to be one reason why they abandoned the site.  The surrounding landscape, once forest, has been desert ever since.

Pueblo Bonito ruins, Chaco Canyon.  Photo courtesy of Scott Haefner, scotthaefner.com

Pueblo Bonito ruins, Chaco Canyon. Photo courtesy of Scott Haefner, scotthaefner.com

Now that humans have the power to disrupt the environment on a global scale, the question of whether the harm is deliberate or inadvertent may be moot, but serious differences still lie at the heart of competing world views.  Campbell touched on this issue in Creative Mythology, the last book of The Masks of God, a four volume study of world mythology that he wrote between 1962 and 1968.  In this series, he ascribed four functions to myth (2)

  1. The Metaphysical Function: Awakening a sense of awe before the mystery of being
  2. The Cosmological Function: Explaining the shape of the universe
  3. The Sociological Function: Validate and support the existing social order
  4. The Pedagogical Function: Guide the individual through the stages of life

The Grail story resonates on all of these levels, but since I want to consider the Wasteland myth in light of our current environmental crisis, the third and fourth functions have the greatest relevance here.

Campbell points out that humans are born too soon, “absolutely helpless,” and unlike most other animals, learn how to survive from a social group.  Our earliest myths derive from the hunter/gatherer era, “hardly greater than large families, of which every adult member was in possession of the entire cultural heritage.”  

These earliest myths “served a fostering, educative function, bearing the unfinished nature product to full, harmonious unfoldment as an adult specifically adapted for survival in a certain specific environment, as a fully participating member of a specific social group; and apart from that group he would neither have come to maturity nor have been able to survive.”  There was room for diversity, but no one who threatened the group was tolerated.

The next strata of myth emerged when humans settled into agricultural communities, beginning around 7500 B.C..  Villages grew into towns and then into cities and “it was precisely at this point of space and time, in the Near East, and specifically Sumer, c. 3500-3000 B.C., that the evidence first appears among the ruins…first, of a disciplined social order imposed from above by force, and next, of deliberate expeditions of military conquest against neighbors…campaigns of systematic conquest and subjugation.”  The principle here, said Campbell, was “greed for more than one’s share.”

Imposed social orders are not inherently bad, says Campbell.  Despite romantic fantasies of the noble savage, few people really want to live in caves or give up such boons as advanced medicine, arts, spirituality, and transportation, to say nothing of indoor plumbing.  Like conventions in writing, music, or painting, cultural conventions may spark creativity when they are new and later stifle it as they atrophy.

“The Waste Land, let us say then, is any world in which…force and not love, indoctrination not education, authority not experience, prevail in the ordering of lives, and where the myths and rites enforced and received are consequently unrelated to the actual inward realizations, needs, and potentialities of those upon whom they are impressed.”

This was the situation when the European Grail myth emerged; the first written version was composed in the 12th century by Cretien de Troyes at the very time the inquisition began.  The Grail legend served as a counterpoint to the institutional church; the tale can be read as the map of a quest for personal realization, safely couched in a story of ladies and knights.  In the earliest versions, the Grail was not the cup of the last supper but a stone or a large stone dish, which like the philosopher’s stone of alchemy, granted the heart’s deepest desire.

Even at our remove from the middle ages when the stories emerged, the Grail remains one of our living myths, at least if you pay attention to popular fiction and movies.  Think of The Da Vinci Code, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and even Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Pythons on the quest: at the lair of the Killer Bunny

Pythons on the quest: at the lair of the Killer Bunny

As much as the population of the middle ages, we are, in the words of 19th century poet, Matthew Arnold, “Wandering between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born.”  The Grail continues to speak to such eras, especially one in which the Wasteland is not just the metaphor of an inner desert, but a world in which that desert is visible around us.

The Grail remains a shining image, never quite clear, but unforgettable, of the kind of life and world we seek among the confusion of possible futures.  At the end of “The Power of Myth” series, Bill Moyers asked Joseph Campbell what the myth of the future might be.

“You can’t predict a myth anymore than you can predict what you’re going to dream tonight,” Campbell replied (3).  “Dreams and myths come from the same place.”  Then he went on to say, “The only myth that’s going to be worth thinking about in the immediate future is going to be one that is talking about the entire planet.”

Earth from space

“You don’t see any divisions there of nations or states. This may be the symbol of the mythology to come. That’s going to be the country we are celebrating.” – Joseph Campbell, 1987″

Next:  Some people who are already question for the Grail.

Yule ~ The Beginner’s Guide To The Wheel Of The Year

Just in time for the solstice, here is another of Lily Wight’s wonderful “Wheel of the Year” posts, with beautiful illustrations and commentary on the Celtic and Nordic stories surrounding this ancient holiday. Enjoy her post and enjoy the return of light!

Lily Wight

Updated 18/12/2014

     There are four Solar Quarter Days (two equinoxes and two solstices) on The Wheel of The Year calendar.  Yule or The Winter Solstice is celebrated during a twelve day period from December into January.

     Yule commemorates the demise and rebirth of the sun’s powers because The Wheel continues to turn and daylight hours begin to lengthen again beyond The Shortest Day.

     The name “Yule” is thought to derive from the Old Norse ” jólnar”  – a collective term for the gods or “Yule Ones”.   Jólfaðr (Yule Father – interchangeable with All-Father) is one of many names attributed to Odin.  In Old Norse poetry names and terms for Odin are frequently synonymous with celebration and feasting.  Odin The Gift-Giver is undoubtedly the origin of our Santa Claus.

     The Midwinter period between the last harvest (Samhain)…

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Neil Gaiman on libraries, reading, and daydreaming

Neil Gaiman, 2007, CC-BY-SA 2.0

Neil Gaiman, 2007, CC-BY-SA 2.0

Neil Gaiman visited China in 2007 for the first ever, party-approved, Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention.  He asked a top official what had changed; in the past, these genres had been disparaged.  The official said his government had realized they were good at making other people’s inventions, but they didn’t invent or imagine new things themselves.

“So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google,” Gaiman explained, “and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.”

Gaiman told this story while giving the 2013 Reading Agency annual lecture on the future of reading and libraries.  The Reading Agency is a British charity that supports libraries and literacy programs, with the mission of giving everyone “an equal chance in life by helping people become confident and enthusiastic readers.”  Another story Gaiman told underscores the importance of the Agency’s efforts.  In New York, he once attended a talk on private prisons – one of America’s growth industries.  In trying to predict the need for future facilities, prison industry officials have developed a simple algorithm based on one key factor – the percentage of 10 and 11 year olds who can’t read.

Gaiman spoke at length of fostering not just the ability to read, but the love of reading.  There are no bad authors or bad books for children, he said.  Adults can destroy a child’s love for reading by giving them “worthy-but-dull books…the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian “improving” literature. You’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant.”  Everyone is different and will find their way to the stories they like and need.

Because written fiction, as opposed to television or movies, requires our imagination to turn the authors words into a vivid world, we return to our own world as a slightly different person, with an awareness of other points of view.  Reading fosters empathy, Gaiman said, and:

“Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals…You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this: the world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.”

In his inspiring lecture, Gaiman talked at length of his love for libraries and how critical it was for his own development to have supportive librarians at the small library near his home while growing up – librarians who simply wanted books to be read and showed him how to use inter-library loan when he finished all the local books on vampires, ghosts, and witches.  When government officials close libraries as cost saving measures, “they are stealing from the future to pay for today.”

Gaiman expressed what he believes to be our responsibilities to children and to our future.  Reminding the audience that everything made by humans begins with imagination, we have a responsibility to use and foster our imagination of a better world than the one we found.

Gaiman ended with a quote from Albert Einstein.  When asked how to foster intelligence in children, the great scientist said, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”

Stardust: a movie review

Stardust-3-NCGZF0OUJX-800x600

One day while Neil Gaiman was driving in England, he noticed a wall by the side of the road and imagined Faerie on the other side. He conceived the story of an American author visiting Britain who would discover the wall. Shortly after this, on the night he received a literary award, Gaiman saw a shooting star, and the idea for Stardust was born.

Stardust was first released as an illustrated series in 1997 and then as a novel in 1999, which won an award from the Mythopoetic Society.  A movie version in 2007 received favorable reviews.  After my recent review of Gaiman’s 2013 novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I realized I’d never seen the Stardust movie.  It’s available for rent on iTunes, and I highly recommend it.

Stardust gives us the wall, a wonderful metaphor for much of human culture, erected to keep us out of Faerie, the realm of imagination, heightened emotion, wonders, terrors, true love, and our true selves.

Responsible citizens don't cross the wall.

Responsible citizens don’t cross the wall.

Tristan Thorn (Charlie Cox), a young man who lives in the town of Wall, is a classic dummling.  He’s a klutz who can’t keep a job and is infatuated with Victoria, a girl who won’t take him seriously and whose finance delights in tormenting him.  Yet Tristan’s father, who has been over the wall, says that might be a good thing – most people who find it easy to fit in “lead unremarkable lives.”  Then he tells Tristan the secret of his birth on the other side of the wall.

Tristan and Victoria see a shooting star fall into Faerie.  Still infatuated, Tristan vows to bring the star back to win her hand in marriage.  He forces his way through the wall to begin his search, but he is not the only one who saw the star.

The murderous sons of a dying king in the realm of Stormhold set off to find the star when their father vows that the one who finds it will be his heir.  And Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), senior member of a trio of witches joins the hunt – when stars fall to earth, the witches cut out their hearts and eat them, a little at a time, to preserve their youth and beauty.

Tristan reaches Yvaine the star (Claire Daines) first. Still intent on winning the hand of Victoria back in Wall, he uses a Faire chain to compel her to follow him.

Yvaine and Tristan

Yvaine and Tristan

At first they bicker constantly, but their time on the road and helping each other survive attempts on their lives creates a bond of friendship and finally love between them. Ever the dummling, Tristan is the last to realize this, but is helped when he finds a mentor.  Robert De Niro, in a virtuoso role as Captain Shakespeare, the gay captain of a flying steampunk pirate ship, teaches Tristan to fight, Yvaine to dance, and with a parting gift of  wisdom, whispers to Tristan, “She is your true love.”

Captain Shakespeare at the helm

Captain Shakespeare at the helm

As with any good dummling story, the ending of Stardust will leave you happy.  Though rooted in the sensibility of a modern coming of age tale, with elements of character development that the old traditional stories lack, Stardust fits Tolkien’s paradigm of the classic fairytale – the wonders and terrors we mortals encounter when we venture into other worlds.

Faerie whispers to us in sunlight, in starlight, and in our dreams.  Those intimations may be what make us most truly human.  No wonder we have an endless appetite for wonder tales, and Stardust is one that thoroughly satisfies.