Saturday, September 8, 2012

Fairy Tales, Wandering in the Woods, Writing a Novel

I've been thinking a lot about fairy tales lately, mostly because I'm trying to write one, a fairy tale, something modern and ancient at the same time, inspired by Robert Graves and Neil Gaiman, John Crowley and C.J. Cherryh. There are rules, you know. Games and Riddles, balances struck, a tally of your misdeeds, a record of your mortal ignorance. An example of mortal ignorance: there are a million ways to write the word 'fairy', and all of them mean the realm of Fairy, and the individual creatures which are known as fairies, who live in the realm of Fairy. Oy. And in the first draft writing of this blog I've used many versions of the word. Which, you know, may be the right way to do it, since the realm and its citizens have been described as eternally changing and nearly impossible to catalog and comprehend. I'll do my best here to maintain the use of one version, the one spelled like this: F A I R Y.

I like rules and order, almost to the point where I'm crippled, unable to act. Which might make me a poor candidate for writing a fairy tale. Or not. Maybe I'm the just right person to do it. So far I can't make my main character, Finn Pomeroy, break any rules, so he's wandering through Fairy threadbare and practically shoeless. Ages pass him by while he's in there searching for something he can't remember losing--his son. Maybe he shouldn't have eaten those griggling apples.

What I mean is, I can't make Finn manipulate the rules to his advantage. The rules are like this: be tricky, be clever, take one apple from here but leave a surrogate, replace it with something no one will notice 'til it's too late and you're out of Fairy, who cares if the horse goes hungry? Bad doings with the fairies evolved into deals with the Devil. You know that, right? Don't make bargains with fairies. Don't eat their food or drink their wine, it'll trap you in Fairy forevermore. Don't take money or gold from them, it'll turn into useless piles of leaves, stones, or acorn caps. Don't get involved in Fairy wars or politics. Sometimes fairies like to recruit mortals into their ranks to add a bit of brute strength. Don't fall in love with a fairy. You'll wither away as it stays young eternally, or it'll have a hollow back, or an appetite for its lover, or it'll live underwater and not teach you how to breathe there. Terrible fate.

It goes like this: do this for me and I'll do this for you. But they don't tell you how your task will be impeded, compromised simply by agreeing to undertake it. You must deliver flowers to a beautiful woman and the fairies will make her love you. But your very gaze kills anything you look upon, including flowers, including the woman you love. Something like that, right? Or they turn you into a trout for fishing in their pool and your father hooks you and serves you up on a plate with fennel and potatoes and eats you with gusto, and every night for years your mother, who relished the trout dinner as well, leaves a candle lit in the window to aid your return, and wakes with worry and wonder, desperate in the middle of the night to know where you are, why you left and never came back.

Something leads you away from home. It's how all the stories start, isn't it? War, Love, Defamation of Character, simple Curiosity, Search for True Lineage. Something leads you into the woods, a flash of light, a white cat, or butterfly, or rabbit, or something more rare, a glimpse of some unidentifiable but rare creature, a beautiful man or woman, a sharp noise, or a cry for help. Something leads you beyond the barrier between home and not home. You push through a hedge, jump over a ditch or a creek, clamber through a baling wire fence, peek your head into a cavity chewed or clawed out of a massive tree, and you find yourself Elsewhere. There's a fox wearing a jeweled stag beetle as a crown, a cardinal that's half albino, under a woodpile behind your neighbor's house you know you'll find unusual insects that avoid gardens and porch lights, if only you could explore without getting caught.

Elsewhere, green and fresh, quiet as an empty church and foreign. You're alone in a clearing and the trees and the sky seem to keep their distance. You turn around and nothing seems right. Why didn't you keep track of yourself? Why didn't you make note of landmarks or walk in a straight line at least? At least then you could have just turned around and walked straight back home. Why did you eat those griggling apples? A few days ago my son and I were chasing a butterfly, a cabbage white, along the margin of a woodlot and I thought to myself, well, this is the beginning of a story. If we are pulled into the woods by this butterfly we enter Fairy. Silly, I know, but where else do stories begin? Where do they come from if not a place in the mind a lot like the margin of a wood lot, where you're chasing a butterfly?

I've wandered into woods, following a hawk's flight or a snake's silent glide through oak duff. I've strayed from paths, got lost and lost again, clambered out of the edge of a woodlot into the lawn next door to my childhood home , impossible to believe I could be disoriented so long so close to where I started. Once I found a pond, a deep one, with pine trees on the bottom still festooned with Christmas tinsel--cover for bluegills and other pan fish. I only found it once, I should have marked my way. I found a clothes drier in the middle of the woods. I found a clearing glittering with green glass, Rolling Rock bottles shattered against a cinder block. I watched a murder of crows hassle a barred owl 'til it exploded from an evergreen a mere arm's length away from me. Did I piss myself? Damn right I did, with sheer excitement and wonder. It's a rare privilege to be so close to spectacles and mysteries like these.

But I never saw a fairy in all that time, on all those adventures. I returned home safely after every excursion into the woods, and injury free, barring a few nettle stings or scraped hands. I often felt a great surge of something, disappointment, maybe, when I lurched through the undergrowth back into my yard, and everything was exactly as I left it, safe, slightly cluttered, and sometimes unmowed. Home in all it's common glory. I also frequently felt exhilarated after these long, solitary adventures in the woods. Fresh and ruddy, burr covered and sweaty, made new by this effort and exploration. Changed. But never abducted, never glamoured by a cow eyed fairy. It might be said that I was dazzled, though, that I didn't come out of the woods unscathed, because while I was there I was alone with my own mind, and stories rattling through it, and the names of trees and wild things blazing as I recognized them. Is there such a word as scathed? Because I was that, abraded by tree branches and wonder, altered, made new by curiosity and the magic of the stories I knew and the stories I made up.

There is a kind of magic in the world still. In books. In the woods. Even though it might not be a good idea to match wits with a fairy or eat their food, it is never, ever, a bad idea to let the world work its wonder on you. It's hard sometimes. But you can start by reading a really good story. I'll suggest a few for you: Mythago Wood, by Robert Holdstock, Stardust, by Neil Gaiman, Little Big, by John Crowley, The Dreaming Tree, by C.J. Cherryh, and The Riddle Master of Hed, by Patricia McKillop. God, yes, read her, and do it now. And then there are some surprisingly good magical realism stories that aren't exactly fairy tales but are tales full of wonder, like Shoeless Joe, by W.P. Kinsella, Light Boxes, by Shane Jones, and In Watermelon Sugar, by Richard Brautigan.

And try this, too. Get a nature guide and wander with it wide open, with one eye on the page and the other on the catalog of wonder before you. Learn the names of trees, butterflies, birds, flowers. Learn how to identify them. Then, when you drive, or walk in a park, or visit distant relatives, you can name them to yourself to pass the time, or share these words with young people and other uninitiated masses. You become the fairy, and your glamour opens eyes. This is real magic you're practicing. You'll never be the same. You'll be in a state of amazement for all time.

1 comment:

  1. Oh Michael - your creativity is inspiring!! May some of it rub of on me...I think you might like "Wild Play - Parenting Adventures in the Great Outdoors" by David Sobel. It's definitely a non-fiction work, but oozes with the idea that it is important to take young children outside and facilitate the wonder that nature brings. Love!