Or Fantasy, Reality, and the Places They Choose to Meet
You wouldn’t likely recognize the name Laurie Battle, but you’d be familiar with her work. Laurie has managed Tolkien Enterprises through thick and thin, storm and fair weather, for the last three decades, and probably knows more about the ins and outs of Tolkiendom than most.
So, of course when she replied enthusiatically to my slightly timid request concerning the eventual possibility of maybe considering the idea of one day doing a guest newsletter, I was delighted. Laurie has written about magical borders, clearly demonstrating that myth is never wholly a question of geographical boundaries.
This is a stock device of the fantasy genre, of course, but I’m a total sucker for it. So many of modern culture’s ills seem to flow from a relentless onslaught of too much that is too noisy and too shallow coming at us too fast from too many directions. Every now and then we need to step out of the fray for some quiet, a breath of fresh air, and a nourishing draught served up from a deep well.
Since the great Pan expired, and through the roar
Of the Ionian waters broke a dread
Voice which proclaimed “the Mighty Pan is dead.”
How much died with him! false or true—the dream
Was beautiful which peopled every stream
With more than finny tenants, and adorned
The woods and waters with coy nymphs that scorned
Pursuing Deities, or in the embrace
Of gods brought forth the high heroic race
Whose names are on the hills and oe’r the seas.1
“Faërie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.”2
Fantasy holds the power to let us see the essence and possibility of things. Used wisely, it can bring a spark of the sacred into daily life and inspire our actions.
and slumber streams from quivering leaves
nectar delicately mixed with delights3
Kingsfoil may be fictitious, but the magic of plant lore is real. When my son was a child we used to gather mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) on our hikes in the Berkeley hills and put it under our pillows to induce magical dreams. Plantain (Plantago major, P. lanceolata), noted for its healing properties for both external and internal wounds and mentioned by Chaucer and Shakespeare in their writings, spills out over the sidewalks where I walk my dog most afternoons. So does mallow (Malva sylvestris), which yields up a mucilaginous goo that is excellent for sore throats and coughs (the marsh variety, Althaea officinalis, which doesn’t grow in the wild here, forms the basis for real marshmallows). The dandelion plant (Taraxacum officinale), so pervasive it pops up through sidewalk cracks, has so many nutritional and healing properties that it challenges the idea of what constitutes a weed. From a naturalist’s standpoint, manicured expanses of green lawn seem like the true alien invader.
Had in her sober livery all things clad;
Silence accompanied; for beast and bird,
They to their grassy couch, these to their nests,
Were slunk, all but the wakeful nightingale;
She all night long her amorous descant sung;
Silence was pleas’d: now glow’d the firmament
With living sapphire; Hesperus, that led
The starry host, rode brightest, till the moon,
Rising in clouded majesty, at length
Apparent queen unveil’d her peerless light,
And oe’r the dark her silver mantle threw.4
The trick lies in what we do with the bounty we find there. The crossing from fantasy to reality is more perilous than it might seem, as forces cloaked in many guises are out to manipulate our behavior toward myriad ends. Myth and symbol are used to hawk everything from material goods to rationales for going to war.
“Fair is foul and foul is fair,” Shakespeare’s witches warned. Emotions and the imagination are easily stirred up, but, while thoughts are free, actions bring consequences. Life in the nuclear age requires that civil society find a way to effectively harness the dragon of Chaos (which will always be with us, and which is not inherently destructive). Everyone has a role to play in accomplishing this feat.
Words Abraham Lincoln spoke almost 150 years ago are as timely and relevant today as they were during the dark days of the U.S. Civil War, and they have widespread applicability:
“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”5
The better we understand fantasy, the better equipped we will be to make realistic choices that serve our enduring best interests.
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.6
Portals—magical places that mark a boundary between everyday life and the realm of Faërie—are a well-known fantasy motif. Cross the threshold, the idea goes, and you’ll step into a different world. If we clear our vision and fine-tune our senses, perhaps we’ll recognize these places when we happen upon them.
Magical borders can be found everywhere. Here are a few I’ve found in my back yard of Northern California.
The Wilds of California
No California city is far from wild areas that resemble the habitat of otherworldly beings. Woodland glades, mountain meadows and lakes, hidden canyons and lush streams invite the wayfarer to step off the beaten track and tarry awhile.
The mountain was a sacred site for native Americans for thousands of years before Europeans arrived on these shores. Creation myths of the local Miwok tribes held that the First People, animal and nature divinities who later created humans, were formed on the mountain at the dawn of Time. The name “diablo” (devil) arose from an incident in the early years of the 19th century when Spanish troops from San Francisco were pursuing escapees from the Catholic mission system. A group of natives was cornered in a thicket near the base of the mountain, and they mysteriously vanished. One account held that an elaborately dressed medicine man appeared in their midst and frightened off the pursuers. The thicket was given the name “Monte del Diablo” after the incident, and the name became attached to the mountain.
Tales of an earthly paradise laden with gold at the far western reaches of the Known World date back to a popular series of Spanish novels written in the early 1500s by Garci Ordóñez de Montalvo. The early European explorers sailed right past San Francisco Bay, most likely because it was shrouded in fog and the safer route lay west of the Farallon Islands 27 miles out from the coastline. Spain and England staked claims in Northern California land two centuries before the entrance to the bay was finally discovered in 1775. It was given the name Golden Gate in 1846 after Europe’s Golden Horn, the harbor of Byzantium. Two years later, real gold was discovered in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Berkeley’s pathways appear unexpectedly as you walk down perfectly ordinary-seeming streets, offering the allure of a secret shortcut—as if you’ve stumbled upon a real-time game of Chutes and Ladders. They connect the long and winding roads that run over the city’s hilly terrain, and are an eclectic blend of sidewalk meets nature trail. An unconfirmed rumor has it that the city has lost count of how many there actually are because a few of the wilder ones have never settled into fixed locations.
With thanks to Terrell, Sean and Titania (all of whom assisted me in various ways to get all this together).
7. Thoreau, Henry David, Walden, excerpt from “Sounds”, 1854
All photos © Laurie Battle / Terrell Cunningham
If you wish to contact Laurie, you may do so at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you feel like brushing up on your Chinese, here is a recent interview done for swissinfo.ch.
SWISS DESIGN IN HOLLYWOOD
We had a wonderful time in Valencia at the exhibition; more news on that (and a very special visit to a very special museum) next newsletter.
I always enjoy having an illustration of mine on a CD cover. Two Worlds is just out from Waerloga Records. “Adventurous dark fantasy music, cinematic and utterly powerful” is just what it is – 2 CDs, with nearly 120 minutes of music. I’ve known one of the artists, Anabasis, for many years now. (And it’s got some nice artwork on it. Buy it. Now.)