Friday, April 1, 2011

Seeing Magic

In reading “On Fairy-Stories,” the concept of recovery, the idea that fantasy, myth, and fairy tales help us in “regaining a clear view […] ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’ – as things apart from ourselves” stood out to me very strongly. While intuitively and from my own experiences, I knew this statement to be true, I became curious as to what it is about these stories which create this effect, how is it that these secondary realities allow us to more deeply experience our own?

This question led to many lines of speculation, some more reasonable than others, the first of which relates to the discussion of adjectives and names. As Tolkien said in Mythopoeia: “trees are not ‘trees’ until so named and seen,” and it is very true that the names and descriptors we give to our world are the lens through which we experience what that world is. However, once those descriptors have been set in place, we become familiar them and expect them to stay relatively consistent, certainly, trees are all a slightly different shade of green, and cheeses all taste pretty different, but the trees are all still mostly green and the cheeses still all taste roughly cheese-like, and so everything grows to seem kind of boring. That’s where fantasy comes in. Through those words, one can give birth to realms with vast new possibilities: purple trees which grow downward, cheeses that will blow your head off, anything else you can possibly dream, and in your mind that world seems pretty cool. So how does that make the real world new and shiny again? Because if you lived in a world were trees grew down and cheese was explosive then this world would start to seem pretty interesting, and when you think about it, that cheese you’re eating is the miracle of life melted there on your chili fries, “a bacterial flirtation with enzymes. The co-mingling of friendly micro-organisms giving birth to curds and whey” (quoted from the show Wonderfalls, what I like to think of, perhaps wrongly, as a kind of modern fairy story.) Point being, when you return to this world after exploring others, you begin to realize that this world is already pretty magical.

Fairy stories also allow us to comprehend how uniquely awesome reality is, in that through imagining these places we have just created a whole… new… world. Various religious philosophies aside, in that moment, we become gods, with all our imaginings being our tiny little minions bent on jumping around to do our bidding. Think about it, you just became God. How does that feel? But actually, being a god is kind of a rough gig, what with maintaining an internally consistent reality and all, and then we understand that managing creation, whether it’s a god or just random chance doing it, is a fairly impressive feat, particularly in a reality which allows for the complexities of innumerable sub-creations, and again we realize that our world is already pretty magical.

These stories also provide us with a sense of connection, first to the sense of wonder which was present at the time of their writing. In the modern age we have ever changing technology and industry which has made humans an incredibly powerful force in the world. We can explain natural phenomena, better protect ourselves from nature’s dangers, and even try to outdo the feats of the natural world, all with our science, and this fact, while impressive, makes humanity a lot harder to impress. In this day and age, I wouldn’t think twice about hiking through a forest, and if I were to see a man on a black horse wearing robes and carrying a sword I would raise a quizzical eyebrow…and then probably call the police. And yet, in reading The Lord of the Rings, I can become wholly invested in the dangers and mysteries of Fangorn, and can fear the Nazgûl like nothing in this world. This experience, Tolkien’s “escape” connects me to the wonder which may have been felt in our own reality in those days when men were not so powerful.

With that thought, came the realization for me that these stories also serve as a point of connection to all of human existence throughout the ages. Given that every story is pulled from Tolkien’s pot of soup which includes an unbelievable number of elements: true events, numerous retellings, political motives and personal biases, historical attitudes, and so forth, every story is a conduit to everything which formed it, essentially, centuries of human experience distilled into narratives which have been told and retold, every time different and every time reflecting a new piece of our collective history.

In this reflection of human existence, fairy tales serve a purpose which is universal to all stories; they are the means by which we create a meaningful representation for all existence. This point is well illustrated in Terry Pratchett’s book The Hogfather, in which a great catastrophe nearly befalls the earth, one which would have meant that the sun would never rise again. When questioned as to what would have happened if this had happened, the main character responds simply that a ball of fire would have become gradually visible every morning. This may seem to be merely a petty semantic distinction, but what truly separates these two events is the meaning which they hold for humanity. The sun is an entity of great importance to cultures across the world, regarded as a life-giving force, its existence as the sun rather than a ball of fire carries with it all the significance with which it has been imbued over time. The same goes for any event in human existence, without the power of story, an event is meaningless and passes away unnoticed forever.

Fairy tales hold special significance in that they are removed from the restrictions of this reality, stepping outside this creation into their own, allowing the meaning of those events they illustrate to stand out more starkly, highlighting our own reality against a backdrop of one which we will never experience except in our minds. So, consider… as a free-thinking entity within this reality, we have created a means of representing the vast expanse of that reality in a meaningful fashion, and not only that, but also a subsidiary means of stepping outside of reality in order to parse together all the little bits of meaningfulness in a way which is even more meaningful upon placing it back into this reality. Lest I need to reiterate: the world…it’s pretty magical.



  1. Perfect example from Hogfather. Pratchett has a very deep understanding of the importance of stories. Even if his early work was consciously intended as something of a critique of Tolkien, he thinks of story in much the same way.


  2. On your idea that stories help us connect to history:
    It seems that the need for escapism and this rejuvenation of magic has a fairly cyclical past; there are points in human history when a society as a whole decides it needs some mythology or fantasy and an explosion of worlds results. Society then realizes that it is drifting a bit too far and snaps itself back.
    For example, right now the Harry Potter craze has created its own self-contained world-within-a-world that other authors are desperately trying to imitate, and that the public keeps buying into. It exploded from the relatively mundane world of the 90s, when there was a cultural reset to the mundane.
    As you pointed out, these stories give us a connection to our own past, when There Be Dragons, sea monsters roamed the Atlantic, and the gods walked in mortal form to ensure we were properly mindful of etiquette. Every so often, humanity feels the need to be reminded of this. My question would be how conscious humanity is of this need, though; is it an instinctive reaction, or do societies recognize when they are swinging too far in one direction or another and actively work to correct it?
    -Prashant Parmar

  3. The idea that a change of scenery (imagining a different world) makes us appreciate our normal world can be true, but surely some stories can make the real world seem bland. Then again, that dynamic is not unique to stories/fantasy. Physically traveling to a place with different sights, sounds, and smells can have the very same effect. Once upon a time one did not need to travel quite so far to experience that, before the onset of large-scale cultural homogenization thanks in large part to mass communications, industrial agriculture/food preparation. Story-telling often serves as a means for people to define who they are and impart meaning to what they do.

    You mention two aspects of fantasy—creating it (becoming God) and participating in someone else’s created fantasy. How do these two activities differ regarding what they do for us? Surely, our enjoyment of The Lord of the Ring’s and Tolkien’s realization of it carry different motivations and meanings.

    Storytelling may be nearly as old as language itself. Why are people driven to tell fantastic stories, and not just recount actual witnessed events and why do we want to listen to them? Why isn’t a highly entertaining, complex, and richly layered true story the same? Is it different if we don’t know that it is true?

    -Jason A Banks

  4. Interesting post! I have two quick points of comment:
    1. I agree that all stories are reflect history. When we write fiction, we imbue it with everything we’ve learned; that, in turn, has been imbued with all of the biases, opinions and learning of the people who taught us and the people who wrote the books we learned from… It’s an interesting thing to think about. Is it reading too much into a book if we look for real-world parallels within the sub-creation rather than simply accepting its reality and deciding how that changes our opinion of our own? It seems to me that there’s a difference between the two.
    2. On a similar note, whether magic in a secondary reality (a fantasy story) increases our ability to see the magic of our primary reality. I find that premise a little more difficult to accept. My evidence is totally anecdotal, but I know that I read fantasy specifically because I’m interested in the idea of a world other than our own—how it would function, what values its citizens would have, etc. I don’t normally come away from a book about a world with exploding cheese more appreciative of the cheese I have. Just food for thought. (No pun intended.)

    --Micah Sperling