Friday, 16 August 2013

The Allure of Fantasy - Jareth and Crystal of Dreams

Down in the underground
You'll find someone true
Down in the underground
A land serene
A crystal moon
It's only forever
It's not long at all
- Underground, David Bowie

I watched Labyrinth for the first time last week, and it strongly affected me. Since then I have watched the whole movie twice more, certain scenes many more times, danced alone in my room to the soundtrack, and raged at the "unfairness" of the mundane world. Normally I am very attune to the magic and mystery inherent in all aspects of the world. But after Labyrinth my desire for fantasy increased to bittersweet intensity, and for a while my "real"  life seemed unsatisfactory in comparison with imagination. I was intrigued by the strength of my emotions - the co-mingled joy and sorrow - the unrequited longing after the fantasy world and the goblin king.

Look at what I'm offering you. Your dreams...

I sought words to describe my state - and Tolkien's words from On Fairy Stories resonated within my mind:
The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords.

Yes, I thought. This is the feeling that burns within me - which I have felt before. It is the mark of Faerie - the longing felt by those who have once crossed into that Other World, and who pine for it on their return to mundane life. Cecilia Dart-Thornton named it Langothe - and anyone who has even briefly entered fantasy, and afterwards felt the "real" world to be unsatisfactory and diminished, will know how it feels - a poignancy of spirit, in which beauty and despair are inseparable.

This feeling may be sparked by different things - a piece of music; a painting; a reflection upon water. I have felt it come upon me when I was looking at The Beguiling of Merlin; reading Ode to a Nightingale; watching the elves in The Lord of the Rings; and at the end of Prince Caspian. All of these things have in common a "light better than any light that ever shone, in a land no one can define or remember, only desire".

Something about Labyrinth made me react the same way. But it was not the labyrinth itself that I desired - nor the company of the grotesque creatures that Sarah meets along the way. My feelings coalesce around Jareth the Goblin King. But why?

Need you ask?

Looking past the obvious - David Bowie's magnetic and mesmerising performance, and Jareth's spectacular appearance (which is undeniably attractive) - the character of the Goblin King seems to personify fantasy, with its capacity for both beauty and darkness. 

He is by times exuberant and dazzling; cruel and tender; careless, entreating and sorrowful. Mercurial and fey, he is archetypal - the trickster, the animus - at once the shadow and the hero.

How are you liking my labyrinth?

I'll leave my love between the stars.

I'll make you a prince. Prince of the land of stench!

The power of voodoo!

He shapes the world of Faerie and creates the story - the labyrinth - through which Sarah can express her heroic journey. He creates "dangers untold and hardships unnumbered", so that Sarah can overcome them. 

She'll never give up!
Won't she?

Within the labyrinth, Sarah undergoes a mythic quest - and on the way learns to find her innate courage, to look beyond appearances, to stop taking things for granted, to resist temptation, to show compassion, to realise her love for her little brother - and to exercise her fantasies. The journey is a universal one of maturation and development. But essentially - Jareth is the storyteller.

Jareth's fascination therefore, is his ability to craft living stories - a fully-realised fantasy world (the ultimate in subcreation, put in Tolkien's terms). Who can help loving a character who bestows gifts of beautiful dreams? In Labyrinth, the fairies do not grant wishes, but the Goblin King is master of wish-fulfillment.

There's such a fooled heart -

- beating so fast 
- in search of new dreams...
A love that will last within your heart.

I'll place the moon within your heart...

Part of the sorrow of Labyrinth has to do with the tragic bind in which Jareth finds himself. The storyteller becomes confined by the story - by "the way it has to be". Despite his capacity and desire to transcend the "villain" role - expressed in the masquerade-dream he crafts for Sarah - despite his dissatisfaction with his goblin subjects, his affection for Toby and his loneliness - his "generosity" drives his inevitable defeat. 

What have you done that's generous?
You asked that the child be taken -

- and I took him.
You cowered before me - I was terrifying.

I have re-altered time.
 I have turned the world upside down -
- and I have done it all for you.
I am exhausted - 
- from living up to your expectations.
Isn't that generous?

This explains the pain in his last song, when Sarah seeks Toby in the "Escher" room. Jareth loves her - believes in her ability to rescue her brother. But he knows that when she succeeds, she will leave the labyrinth. Jareth's grief is his knowledge of the inevitability of Sarah's departure - the finite time she has left in the fantasy world he created for her. 

Your eyes can be so cruel. Just as I can be so cruel.
Though I do believe in you.
Live without your sunlight. Love without your heartbeat.
I - I can't live within you.

Watching the movie, the mingled love and pain that Jareth feels echoes in my own heart. But the archetypal, fairy-tale nature of the story extends and amplifies these feelings. As Jareth sings his desolate song - I burn with unrequited love for the heart of Faerie. Just as Sarah cannot stay in the labyrinth, neither can I stay in the fantasy. The sorrow is the unrequited longing for permanence in something that is by nature fleeting. But a mere glimpse of this beautiful world makes me realise the truth of Yeats' "dull world" of the mundane. And so I long for the fantasy even more desperately. In vain. As Jareth knows to his sorrow, no matter how much we wish to live in it, a fantasy is ephemeral as a bubble. 

Before the story began, Jareth knew how it would have to end.
"Give me the child!"
"You have no power over me..."

But there is one thing that one must always remember about the fae-folk. They cannot die. Jareth is defeated, but he changes into an owl. He was only required to be the villain up until Sarah reached the words "you have no power over me". But that was the middle of Labyrinth book. A fairytale does not ever end. Fantasies are blown and burst like bubbles, but Jareth has an inexhaustible store - as numerous as the dreams of a fertile mind. The labyrinth is only part of the infinite world of Faerie - the limitlessness and eternally changing nature is unconstrained. 

Stories continue and are retold and shaped again and again. 

I am fortunate. I am one of those who have access to Faerie - to its glimpses of mystery, heroism, grandeur, beauty and terror. Unrequited desire is the price that I must pay for entering. But I would rather burn forever with the Langothe than live without the glorious, strange and enchanting world.

After watching Labyrinth, let me modify Tolkien's famous words:

"I desired Faerie with a profound desire… the world that contained even the imagination of Jareth was richer and more beautiful, at whatever cost of peril."

This is no ordinary gift...
I'll be there for you
As the world falls down
As the world falls down
Falling in love

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Making Everyday Magic

The magic in this world seems to work in whispers and small kindnesses - Charles DeLint

I made magic today. 

This afternoon, I was walking back home from the library, my arms full of books, listening to the music of Loreena McKennitt and Enya. Nearing the end of an unseasonably warm winter, today felt like late spring - balmy breezes wafted sweet waves of jasmine and magnolia and the savory scent of cut grass, and even the shadows were pleasantly warm. New growth showed on the branches of many trees, presaging fresh green leaves in the near future. As I walked along the ridges of the bay, I looked around, delighting in the beauty of house and garden, wall and verge; and below, the furred green valley and the spread expanse of azure water winged with yachts.  

The harbour on a beautiful late winter day...

It was lucky I paid attention today - otherwise I would have missed my chance.

As I walked along relatively quiet sidestreet, I saw a sign affixed with tape to the wall of a hedged garden. Written and illustrated in rainbow texta, it was clearly a child's masterpiece of commercial art. 

           The best shorever!
KIds Jewelry and
                      Family Shop
                (adult's makeup)          DVDs + CDs

This endearing notice was lavishly illuminated with smiley faces and stars. It took me back to my own childhood "shops", and the huge excitement I felt when some passer-by bought from them - and I wanted to go and make some sort of supporting purchase from this "Family Shop" - to contribute somehow to the children's happy memories.
But the gate was shut, and nothing stirred behind the hedge. The sign was clearly less than a day-old. Had the shop closed early, due to lack of custom?

Rather disappointed, I continued on my way, and turned the corner. Then I thought of something I could do - something BETTER than simply going to the "shop" and buying something. I rested my pile of books on someone's wall, and retrieved my leatherbound and dragon-stamped notebook (which I carry in my handbag always, to capture fleeting poetic inspirations, visions and stories). On one creamy, stiff page I wrote, in my most beautiful script the words "From a Fairy". I illustrated the corner of the page with a faerie face, her hair blown across a night sky spangled with stars and adorned with a crescent moon. I tore the page out carefully. Then I took a couple of dollars from my wallet (choosing my most golden coins), and wrapped them carefully and neatly in the paper, so that the faerie face was the front of a small square package. 

Red Azalea 

Near me an azalea bush rioted over the fence, covered in crimson flowers. I plucked one, and walked back to the house with the sign. I looked around carefully to make sure no one observed me, then tucked the package (fae face uppermost) half-under the sign, lifting a bit of the tape to fix it securely. I then attached the big crimson flower just above, so that the children (or parent) would not fail to see it when they came to look at or take down the sign. 

Children are naturally attracted to mystery and magic.

Then I walked away, filled with delighted imaginings of the reactions of the children when they discovered the "fairy's" present. 

I think I did something truly magical today. Spontaneous, unexpected, and wondrous for the children. I remember how when I was a child myself, I would ask my parents "Did you do this?" when something magical happened, like the tooth-fairy taking my teeth, or Father Christmas coming in the night. And my mother would always arrange it so that she could say with honesty that it wasn't her (I somehow never thought to ask my father - just as well...) The mystery was the heart of the magic. 

So today, as I walked home, I imagined the children asking their parents, imploring (as children do), to be told that the magic is real and to believe, "It wasn't you who put this here was it?"

What makes me hug myself with glee is the fact that the parents will have no idea. And this genuine confusion and wondering will be picked up by their children, who will know their parents are mystified, and will draw their own conclusions. Maybe they will keep the note, and remember, even when they are older, as a magical mystery that was never solved. 

Maybe they will as adults spontaneously decide to "make magic" for another child.

I was a real fairy today. And that's how I will ever be remembered by those children. Making magic is a wonderful thing. I feel it won't stop here...

Perhaps I'll become a fairy-godmother. Who knows? 

Saturday, 29 June 2013

How to make a Fairy-tale Bed

Oh night thou was my guide
Oh night more loving than the rising sun
- The Dark Night of the Soul

The Princess at the Curtain, by H.J. Ford.

I have found that inspiration comes to me in most beguiling form at night. So it is that many of my most beautiful imaginings are night-visions - developed in the day - but engendered in the darkness and stillness of deep night. At those times - when no sound is heard throughout the house but my own breathing; when my family sleeps, and when I look out across the harbour and see the lights shining - and listen to the elements outside - at those times my inner self starts to speak, and in the stillness I hear. 

I've learned to listen to that night-voice. It tells me true. And thus my story begins. 

It happened last night, around midnight: I had been sitting up late, writing and listening to music. After I at length turned off my light, I opened my casement window and sat for a while just smelling the sweet scent of water falling in grey curtains onto the harbour, which could dimly be guessed at from the ferry moving like a point of light across the water. I could taste the freshness of the air, and from the dark tree beside my window, the dripping from the myriad shadowy leaves made percussive music that eased my heart. 

Rain on leaves is a musical and soothing sound.

I found myself wishing that I could sit by the window all night - that I didn't have to retreat to the stillness and silence of my bed... I imagined myself making a bed by the window out of cushions, and sleeping there all night. It's the sort of thing my child-self had often thought: "I'll do that one-day when I'm older". And I thought - yes! - I will do this. Is there any earthy reason why I should not try it? To be sure, I might sleep uncomfortably; my bed might collapse in the wee-small hours of the night; I might wake with pains and stiffness - but what are those risks beside the allure of breathing the breath of the wind all night?

What child does not dream of sleeping out under the sky?

So I turned on my lamp and set about constructing myself a bed. Actually, "nest" is perhaps a more appropriate word. 

Near the window my otherwise square bedroom bulges outwards into a semi-circular nook with leadlight casements all around. That's where I sit and write, and right now it contains an easy-chair, a folded-easel covered in artificial flowers and scarves, and over a dozen fairy-books, which I have been consulting in my writing. What better material to construct a magical nest, than fairytale books?

If someone sleeps in a bed made of fairytale books, the stories whisper in their ears all night and bring enchanted dreams... 

I arranged the books past the seat of my chair, like precious bricks to give my nest structure. Then I went to my bed and stripped it of its coverings - I folded my quilt and stuffed it, with one of my pillows, between the books, then bound them all together to the chair with a blanket. I then took my second blanket to sleep under (since the night air was cool) and covered it all with my Botticelli covering. I turned off the light, made sure my writing book was beside the nest, and snuggled down, looking out at the rainy night and the darkly luminous sky. I was lulled to sleep by the music of many waters - the sea, the rain, and divers other secret tricklings and patterings. 

I slept beneath a sky both glowing and dark.

This morning I awoke without an ache, and spent a long time gazing out meditatively at the overcast, azure-shadowed harbour, until in the distance I saw the grey sky and sea draw together - and the rain began again.

A harbour dawn - the borders between the sky and sea begin to blur.

Cast your eyes on the ocean
Cast your soul to the sea
When the dark night seems endless
Please remember me
- Dante's Prayer, Loreena McKennitt

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Wondrous Strange

"'Tis wondrous strange, the like yet never heard of." - Henry VI

HMAS Wyeth by Tom Kidd

Yesterday, just before sunset, I was sitting at a bus stop, waiting to be picked up after a delightful library trip. Beside me on the seat I rested a large and bulging bag of books - the results of my day's profitable prospecting for stories. Since my kind and lovely driver was a little late, I passed the time observing the passers-by, and by gazing at the relucent, luminous clouds in shades of rose and pale peach. The clouds, (whose beauty no one but myself appeared to mark), seemed the perfect setting for uncommon and fantastic flights - for hot air balloons, and sky-squid; perhaps a Pegasus with snowy wings tipped with sunset gold. All manner of strange and wonderful things, I thought, could be found within the glowing arches of the clouds.

Wonderful and strange are naturally paired in my mind...
This thought, like a sudden breeze, sent the hot-air balloon of my mind careening in a new direction. It was the word strange that struck me, or rather my natural pairing of the word strange with wonderful. It made me realise that the word held particular evocative attraction for me; that I use it often with particular relish, and indeed that I have for a long time unconsciously considered the word strange in the light of a particular compliment, a distinction not awarded to words often used as synonyms of "strange"; like "odd", "weird", "peculiar", "different" or "eccentric". 

The Hunt in the Forest by Paolo Uccello. One of my favourite paintings, for its very strangeness. The endlessness of the forest, and the silent, frantic hunt, inspire me with a great sense of mystery and excitement. 

Why should that be, I wondered? What was the difference? In my mind, while these words can in most situations be used interchangeably, strange has a particular savor of mystery and fantasy.Intrigued, I considered the evocative imagery I associated with the word strange and its synonymy, in the hopes of coming to an understanding of my fascination with it. But first I examined how I felt about words like "odd", "weird" and "peculiar".

This four-eared cat is "odd".

This surrealist painting is odd and unsettling and intriguing.

When I think of "odd" I have an unsettling feeling; as though the word describes a quality of something lacking or a quality of having something that one shouldn't have; a dissociation from context, alienation or an unexpected wrongness. I think of surrealist paintings; of cats with four ears and six-legged calves; of pink elephants dancing in a living room. Dreamlike, it is similar in feeling to "peculiar", which in my mind describes anything in Alice in Wonderland, similar to "curious and curiouser". 

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland  are definitely peculiar.

The words "weird", "bizarre" and "eccentric" have different imagery with which they are associated. For "weird" I think of witches on a dark moor, singing and wailing in a disturbing cadence as they concoct foul brews. For "bizarre" I think of garish haute-couture and Dr Seuss, and a colourful market where anything and anything can be purchased.  While my imagery for "eccentric" includes ingenious mechanical contraptions of dubious practical use but great aesthetic appeal; fabulous and sometimes incomprehensible costumery; essentially anything steampunk. 

The weird sisters, gesticulating on the moors as they perform their rites beneath the  awesome sky...

Bizarre haute-couture.
Glorious steampunk eccentricity.

None of these above words have any particular inherent negative connotation in my mind (except the mildly disturbing association with "odd"), and they could be used in a complimentary context (as in, "the dashing and eccentric Lady Thimblespoon was renowned for her explorations through the glowing caves of Sky Patagonia in her incarnadine dirigible", or "the flickering candle light cast a weird light onto the seer’s face and gave her eyes a powerful and terrifying flicker, as if they hid secrets behind a rippling curtain of light"). However, while the words have great evocative potential, I do not think they possess the magic fascination and attraction of strange.

Strange is mystery and power.

In this enchanted forest, who knows what strange things lurk in the shadows and the mist?

There is great beauty in the strange...

When I think of something strange I see in my mind the red, blue and yellow scales of a wild serpent-god, with folded wings glinting with golden highlights, slithering in jungle shadows, under leaves of brilliant green. I think of a deep pool of dark water, and fantastical shapes moving in the depths. I think of the false-eyes on a caterpillar; of the shining blue iridescence of beetles' wings, and the shimmering, multitudinous legs and red lanterns of deep-sea creatures. I think of things that move on the edges of awareness, between seen and unseen, where the imagination is most feverishly creative. There is something dark and splendid about strange - something wild and mysterious. It holds the possibility of beauty incomparable, and at the same time fear. Fear of the monster that is as much the potential of the strange as is the beauty. There is something uncontrollable, awe-inspiring about strange.

Is this ghostly bride a friend to humankind, or foe? Is her visage ghastly or palely, peerlessly beautiful?  Her presence in the wood is strange - has she come to deliver a message from beyond the veil of death, or is she bound to wander here unceasing, mourning what is past?

This being is strange and monstrous, but with a beauty about it too - like the beauty of twisted roots that blindly tunnel ever downward, in the damp dark dirt, seeking water far underground.

That explains why some phrases using the word "strange" are so evocative and so full of poetic potential. "Strange and marvelous", "rare and strange", "on stranger tides", "strange but true", "strange flowers of reason", "tis wondrous strange"... all of these phrases just seethe with imagery and a creeping sensation of mystery and the fantastic.

She found me roots of relish sweet,                  
  And honey wild, and manna dew,          
And sure in language strange she said
  “I love thee true.”   - La Belle Dame Sans Merci         

In a way, strange is connected to magic and old beliefs; to other worlds and to times where people were more aware of mystery. The etymology of the word traces a history back to the 13th Century - rooted in French and Latin, it meant "from elsewhere, foreign, unknown, unfamiliar" before it meant "queer and surprising". Perhaps this explains the otherworldly association? What is Faerie but elsewhere to everywhere? What is mystery but "the unknown"; the never-quite-knowable? 

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rare and strange.

- The Tempest (illustration by Edmund Dulac)