"She wants to be flowers, but you make her owls. You must not complain, then, if she goes hunting." ~ Alan Garner The Owl Service.
My friend, Jeanne, wrote last week about The Secret Garden & certain passages she found disturbing & it got me thinking, don'tcha know, about the use & misuse of magic in literature. So I've been chewing it over in my mind: What is magic? Is it always bad/good/indifferent? I mean, there's the Harry Potter crowd screaming that the whole series is demonic & goodness knows what else & I gotta say, my issues with Harry Potter are simply & purely that they are bad literature. End of. And the ranters & the screamers, if they've even read the stuff, know zilch about magic if they think Harry Potter is using it. He waves a bit of stick around, puns in Latin & people get all hot under the collar about it when honestly, don't you think the whole exhibition is really rather silly?
I feel the same way about Frances Hodgson Burnet's *magical* elements. It just strikes me as rather silly. Surely no~one in their right mind would believe this stuff? I am probably wrong. See I got raised on a very different sort of *magic*. C.S Lewis skirts around it but never really deals with it. Tolkien gets it but misses his mark. And then there is Alan Garner.
Now to my mind Alan Garner is one of the most brilliant writer's for child or adult of the last 50 years. His writing is terse, succinct, yet loses nothing of tension, atmosphere, or suspense. And he gets *magic*. It is not about waving bits of stick around, about chanting ritualistic phrases [though he wasn't above using them in the Weirdstone of Brisingamen & people should have been worried because he used *real* spells & consequentially refused to write the whole thing ~ just in case...] or funny hats & cloaks of invisibility. It never was & the best fantasy writers understand this. The very best understand something else too; they understand there is both darkness & light ~ & still, it is not about chants or spells but about human nature.
It is easy when an author uses standard fantasy elements to get caught on those & just write the whole thing off as *magic* & therefore *bad* if you're a good little Christian because we're told not to dabble in the stuff ~ & nor we should. There are books out there, written for children & young adults, by practising Wiccans & Pagans pushing their theology on unsuspecting readers & it's not Harry Potter. If you have ever been unfortunate enough to run into the real thing you will understand Harry Potter really is a cardboard weapon. It has no real clout. Magic is a literary device & that is all it is. The real stuff looks very different.
And then there is the other stuff; the stuff that makes my blood run cold, that sends the hairs prickling up my spine & my blood thrumming because it taps into something elemental about human nature. I'm not sure how much or how well I am going to be able to convey what I understand about the proper use of magic, what it is & how it operates but the first thing that strikes me is power. It is as solid & rough as rock. It is not whimsical, flimsy or insubstantial in any way, shape or form. This is because it is firmly rooted in reality & it's foundations are from our oldest literary traditions: The Mabigoni, Beowulf, The Book of Talesin, the skalds of Scotland & Norway, and all those fairy tales that pre~date Christianity.
The second thing I know is that all these old stories were teaching tools. They were the schools of an oral population & they were used by the bards & file to educate people about right conduct. Star & I are reading Beowulf this term ~ & very dull my avid fantasy reader thinks it. She has gone so far as to question my sanity because Beowulf is a very bloody, very gory story full of monsters & cannibalism & if you like fighting, sword play & excitement ~ & of course that is the story. Dig just a little deeper & something far more subtle is at work. This is a teaching story showing how great heroes behave, how fully human beings live out life with bravery, courage, generosity, courtesy...yadda, yadda...and they do so amidst terror & calamity & the uncertainties of life.
And there is the third thing: the best fantasy, or magic, has it's roots deep in another reality, one that used to exist but no longer does, another way of seeing the world, another way of being. Now Tolkien & Lewis understood this intellectually & took full advantage of it. Garner is different. Born in Cheshire Garner was raised amongst a people who still adhered to an oral tradition, who still thought in an older way, still told the old stories & so when he writes of magic he is not using devices; he is calling on the very roots of an authentic tradition. Nowhere is this more evident than in The Owl Service. If you've never read this book you have missed a truly wonderful literary masterpiece!
Superficially The Owl Service is a retelling of the Welsh legend of Blodwedd, the lady made from flowers ~ but it is much, much more than this. The original tale is one of the Mabigoni & very old. That alone gives it the fairy edge of strangeness. It is a tale of adultery & betrayal & there are certainly what one would call *magic* elements. No man could, in reality, throw a spear clean through a rock & into his victim. No woman could be made from flowers or turn into an owl. But what happens if you see these magic elements as symbols, as literary devices to show us aspects of ourselves? All women have dual natures, the sweet, the beautiful, the charming & the cruel, the hunting, the selfish. Men have an innate tendency to be possessive about certain things ~ like their women & children. Civilization might give a more acceptable veneer but scratch the surface & a Neanderthal appears. And what happens when both men & women behave according to their baser natures? See how the story then twists in your hands, just like any good fairy tale should, & becomes something else completely. And what I particularly like about Garner is how one act can redeem the whole ~ & not from the one you expect.
And these stories last because human nature has not changed in all the years since God plonked Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden. There is no difference between David lusting after Bathsheba & Blodwedd wanting a younger, prettier man than the one she had been made for. Fantasy & magic stories were never meant to be understood literally. You can argue this from The Children of Green Knowe to Harry Potter. The magic is only a device. A symbol. A representation of something else. In the worst books magic is a space filler with neither meaning nor substance. In the best it is a sharp sword that cuts through our self delusion & reveals our true natures ~ & having faced our own demons we are left to choose whether we battle them with the courage of the great heroes that litter fantasy stories or flee in cowardly confusion from unpalatable truths. There is no greater literary genre than fantasy ~ something even Shakespheare understood ~ but a discussion of the Great Man's literary sources must wait for another post.