I HAVE desired, like every artist, to create a little world out of the beautiful, pleasant, and significant things of this marred and clumsy world, and to show in a vision something of the face of Ireland to any of my own people who would look where I bid them. I have therefore written down accurately and candidly much that I have heard and seen, and, except by way of commentary, nothing that I have merely imagined. I have, however, been at no pains to separate my own beliefs from those of the peasantry, but have rather let my men and women, dhouls and faeries, go their way unoffended or defended by any argument of mine. The things a man has heard and seen are threads of life, and if he pull them carefully from the confused distaff of memory, any who will can weave them into whatever garments of belief please them best. I too have woven my garment like another, but I shall try to keep warm in it, and shall be well content if it do not unbecome me.
Hope and Memory have one daughter and her name is Art, and she has built her dwelling far from the desperate field where men hang out their garments upon forked boughs to be banners of battle. O beloved daughter of Hope and Memory, be with me for a little.
William Butler Yeats, preface to The Celtic Twilight, 1893
The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization, and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world.’ Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations.
Max Weber, 1904-05
Someone had to put a name on it. “The disenchantment of the world” was borrowed by Max Weber from Friedrich von Schiller, a contemporary of Goethe. While Schiller’s disenchantment had more to do with the failings of the French Revolution than anything else, Weber had us post-moderns in mind.
What he meant was that he saw mankind going from having a place in the world to becoming the world. We have inevitably placed ourselves in the centre of the universe by our preoccupations with our own interior universe (and, paradoxically, via science, with the infinite universe which we can only experience as an abstract). We may no longer think the Earth is at the centre of the heavens, but we are certainly, by the burden we impose upon it, the centre of the Earth.
But the disenchantment casts a spell of its own, the spell of the tangible and the scientific, abetting the illusion that a solution can be found by either commercial interest or realpolitik for every problem. This dogma of rationalism and practicality is applied throughout the educational system, and rightly enough, but all too rarely counterbalanced with less structured disciplines, especially the arts.
Human need for enchantment is amply proven by the flourishing of astrology, fairy or dragon-themed self-help books, and any number of modern drives for spirituality to winning the lottery. Superstition, at which we so readily scoff as an avatar of primitive society, is little more than hedging one’s bets, courting luck, scrying the future. Horseshoes, in the words of one philosopher, are wonderful; they work even if you don’t believe in them. Modern enchantment ranges across the spectrum in an incredibly variety of forms.
This diversity, for all that it has in eclectic appeal, exists because we are at the center of it all, no longer part of a system; we create a system around us. A good friend once mused how piquant a situation a fantasy convention could be: all-expenses-paid guests of honour lodged in a luxury air-conditioned hotel, eating takeaway and earnestly discussing the mythical journey. (Only the 20th century is so adept at mixing hermitics and hedonics.)
Our fascination with science inclines us to think that solutions must come from within science, which they doubtlessly will do, in part, but only in part. The essential ingredient revolves around our acknowledgement of the permanent interaction with nature that we have forgotten. Superstition, fairy tale, creation myth, all of these stories, if we take the time to read them between the lines (as we are largely incapable of reading them or hearing them as the first tellers and listeners did) contain clues to that interweaving, from a time when man was part of nature and considered himself so.
Our failings are our strengths; this yearning for something other, which can lead to all manner of excess, can also lead to a recognition of those connections long neglected. How could humans have ever believed witches were real? How was it possible that well-intentioned men of profound and sincere belief actively pursue the condemnation of tens of thousands of women, all individuals with no recourse to justice and no defense? How the order of the world can possibly have appeared to be threatened by these disenfranchised humans on society’s margins seems beyond comprehension today, but the burning of witches stems from the need for superstition coupled with a profound disconnect from the roots of that same superstition. The conjuring up of witches happened when the framework of folklore no longer held its structure, and the elements of folklore were placed at the mercy of the clergy, transforming pious men (it’s unlikely, had women been ordained priests instead of the clergy remaining a strictly masculine province, the witch hunts would never have happened) into well-meaning torturers, judges and executioners. Disequilibrium is always a source of strife, even in realms so ill defined as the fantastical and the irrational.
Progress, as we now know, is a mixed blessing at best, but it is not so much the natural desire and tendency to wish for something better, which needs continual and vigilant readjustment, but our definition of progress. Goodness knows we haven’t been defining it in the sense we understand for very long. Attested in the 14th century, but meaning simply to walk or move forward, by and large reserved for the stately advance of the royal court through the kingdom in England, until the 16th century added notion of progress in the sense of growth or development. (You’ll have to forgive my mild obsession with etymology, but I see each word we use as an entity always moving and changing, crossing cultures, adding meanings like so many stickers on a steamer trunk; to ignore the origin and travels of a word is like imagining a person with no personal history.) The OED reminds us that the word was obsolete in 18th century England, but found fertile ground in the Americas, and was long regarded in Britain as a rough-hewed Americanism, only finding its voice with the social movements of the 1890’s.
The problem with progress is always the same we have with any concept on which we pin our hopes: orthodoxy. Once something is defined, by default all else is placed outside that definition, to degrees varying. Progress is also ethnocentric; no global definition exists, and perhaps the time has come to redefine the term before the spells of disenchantment, to which we have surrendered for so long, leave us lost with no path to follow. What is clear is that there is no going back, (whatever that means) only forward. The signposts are no longer anywhere near; we might need to crane our necks and gaze a little harder between the lines.
This is where writers like Yeats become the spokespeople of the undefined, of the mystical, the sense of connection devoid of focus, the opening of the mind and spirit that is not dogmatized, channeled, authorized or conversely anathematized. When Yeats is telling us curious stories picked up under the thatched eaves of Irish teach ceann tuí, he is helping us explore his soul.
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Nonetheless, magic returning to the past might be symbolized by most two unlikely coincidences, continents apart. Sturm und Drang was already the reaction to the Cartesian rationalism of Neoclassicists extolled by the French intelligentsia, and another almost exact contemporary of Goethe, Grimur Jónsson Thorkelín was booking passage to England. Thorkelín, an Icelandic–Danish scholar, who became the National Archivist of Denmark, had accepted a mission from the Danish government to unearth proof of the origins of the Danes. The new European nation states were all eager to confirm, in history and above all, in fable their ancient, noble and legitimate origins; national storytelling and nation building always advance hand in hand. Thorkelín had been granted a handsome commission by Christian VII of Denmark “to travel through Great Britain, Ireland, and the Isles, for two years in order to collect and record all the extant Danish and Norwegian Monuments, Deeds, and Documents … on his promise to deliver on his homecoming to Our National Archive and the great Library all the Collections he in such manner may procure.” Thorkelín was poking about (apologies for such a casual term to qualify a mission of historical research, but his chances, given the philological precepts of the time, were hazardous and uncertain at best) in the British Museum Reading Room when the word “Danes” caught his eye. The date was October 3rd, 1786, about 2 months into his mission. He went back for another look on the 16th, ordered a transcription made, and did another one himself at a later date. Many years later, back in Denmark, he prepared Beowulf for publication, but his house was burned during The Battle of Copenhagen and twenty years of research went up in smoke. Two transcripts survived, and Thorkelín went back to work, publishing the first full translation of Beowulf in 1815. While rarely mentioned in light of more recent research, (Thorkelín has a bit of a reputation as a fraud as well as a scholar, and his transcription is far from perfect) his work preserves many details that were lost in the 19th and 20th centuries, before the deterioration of the margins of the manuscript was halted.
Left: Beowulf, the first page in Cotton Vitelius A.XV or Nowell Codex. The poem exists in only a single manuscript by an anonymous author, dated around AD 1000, bound into a codex with other manuscripts by antiquarian Lawrence Nowell in the 1560’s. The codex was damaged by fire in 1731, and further deteriorated after Thorkelin made his copy in 1786.
Right: The Siege of Copenhagen, 1813, by Johannes Hermanus Koekkoek, Dutch maritime history artist, 1778-1851. The British battered Copenhagen for over two weeks, from August 16th to September 5th, 1807, destroying the Danish navy during the Napoleonic Wars.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, British officials in the far-flung outposts of Empire building were coming to realize that there was an ancient language in the Indian sub-continent that nobody spoke. Dutifully, they took notes, sent reports and very quickly it became clear that this ancient language held the key to the origins of most of the languages in Europe.
In the words of Sir William Jones in a speech entitled The Third Anniversary Discourse, on the Hindus delivered before the Asiatic Society in Calcutta on February 2, 1786, the exact same year Thorkelín was peering at dusty manuscripts in London, “The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could have been produced by accident; so strong, indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists: there is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothic and the Celtic, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanskrit; and the old Persian might be added to the same family, if this were the place for discussing any question concerning the antiquities of Persia..”
You can imagine the excitement in philological circles. (The term “Indo-European” was coined by English polymath Thomas Young in 1813.) Much energy had been spent to discover the “primordial” or first language spoken by humans (a worrying number of English theologians thought it had to be English), now suddenly the focus shifted from Genesis to the Indus; it was as if 18th-century Europe suddenly discovered Ancient Greek.
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Many things were brewing. An eager horde of philologists was about to be let loose on language’s obscure past, still considered by the likes of Casaubon to have its origins buried in the rubble of the Tower of Babel. As Darwin did for evolution, philologists would do for the origin of species, but for creatures far more marvelous than finches; they would discover the origins and evolution of trolls, giants, monsters, elves and fairies.
The opening of horizons offered by the discovery of Sanskrit and old texts such as Beowulf, the expanded universe of linguistics and philology led directly, through language, to a clearer identification, of those beings found in so much ancient literature – the creatures of fantasy. In a sense, the Enlightenment had largely relegated them to the wings, now they came back in force in their various vernaculars, bearers of the meaning in their etymological genes. The first serious modern scholars of myth, following Schiller’s faded trail, some following dead ends of their own making, such as E. B. Tylor (who, to his credit, did coin the helpful word “animism”), Lucien Lévy-Bruhl or Max Müller, all still prisoners of teleological thinking. Others left a more lasting mark: James Frazer, more through his ambitious collation than his conclusions, Carl Jung, who had more patience with myth than Freud, Joseph Campbell, Andrew Lang (yes, he of the Coloured Fairy Books), F. Edward Hulme, Lewis Spence (despite his slightly worrying preoccupation with Atlantis) and many more.
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The origins of dwarves are lost in time, giants in Norse myth owe a good deal to their Biblical and Classical cousins. Trolls, on the other hand, seem to be homegrown in the boreal woods. Elves, both light and dark, also seem to be Germanic and Norse, despite their shifting nature, and dragons, as we well know, show their scaly snouts everywhere. Teratology applied to literature, the study of monsters or marvels, is a discipline born of our long-standing fascination with the other, with those beings who dwelt on the margins of the ancient world, and now dwell on the margins of our psyche.
Giants are in many ways kin to the Aesir, but they are excluded from Asgard. Nonetheless, between the two peoples there is much contact, competition and even romance, the desirability of giantesses precluding any of the grossness of features associated with later giants. Giants possess skills and magic items, and are capable of magical feats themselves. Journeying to Jotunheim, the land of the giants, is a perilous exercise, even in times of uneasy truce. At ragnarok, the giants will attack and destroy Asgard; when the lines are drawn, they are on the side of chaos and destruction. Legendary giants are a mixed lot, always dangerous but occasionally noble, like the Green Knight in the14th century tale of Gawain. By the time they reach folk tales, they range from cannibals (fee fi fo fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman) to relatively benevolent beings, often alone, removed from society because of their size and clumsiness, often designated as inadvertent creators of geographical features.
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A shortlist of giants. From left to right: Búri, the first giant god, grandfather of Odin, licked free of the ice by the cow Auðumbla, from Ólafur Brynjúlfsson’s Sæmundar og Snorra Edda, 1760; Thor, in his goat-drawn chariot, gives the jötnar a taste of Mjölnir: Tors strid med jättarna (Thor’s Fight With the Giants) by Swedish artist Marten Eskil Winge, 1872; Fafner and Fasolt abduct Freya: illustration for “Der Ring Des Nibelungen – Das Rheingold” by Franz Stassen, 1914; There’s a hole here: the gods make good the ransom for Freya, illustration by Arthur Rackham for The Ring of the Niblung: The Rhinegold & The Valkyrie by Richard Wagner, William Henemann, 1910; “I am the giant Skrymir,” illustration by Elmer Boyd Smith from In the Days of Giants – A Book of Norse Tales by Abbie Farwell Brown, 1902; Equal work opportunities: giantesses Fenja and Menja beside the mill Grótti, engraving by Gunnar Forssell, 1893 after a drawing by Carl Larsson, 1886; Trouble in Muspelheim: The Devil Giant with the Flaming Sword by John Charles Dollman, from Myths of the Norsemen from the Eddas and Sagas by Hélène Adeline Guerber, published in London, bu George G. Harrap and Company Limited, 1909; Trouble in Camelot: the Green Knight holds up his own head after Gawain has lopped it off, illustration from the original Gawain manuscript, Cotton Nero A.x, painted by an unknown artist in the late 14th-century. The Green Knight is one of the few mounted (and cephalophoric) giants in legend and folktale; King Arthur battles a clumsy giant: illustration by Walter Crane for The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, published in London by George Allen, 1897; The good giant: “The Giant gives magic gifts to Jack,” illustration by Margaret W. Tarrant, from Mother Goose Nursery Tales, published in London by J. Coker & Company in the 1930’s. The volume contains Jack the Giant Killer, The Three Bears, Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Tom THumb, The House that Jack built, Cock Robin and others.
Dwarves are skilled smiths, living underground or in remote locations, the entrances to their dwellings cleverly concealed as boulders, behind which they can so swiftly disappear as to seem to have themselves turned to stone (a trait they may have passed along to trolls). Their legendary toughness seems to have rendered them immune to change; dwarves in the eddas have much in common with their descendants of folk tale. Dwarves as we think of them now owe as much to mining as they do to myth, the tunics worn by the 16th century miners in Heinrich Groff’s illustrations for La Rouge Myne de Sainct Nicolas de la Croix in the early 16th century might well be straight out of Snow White. Gnomes, with whom dwarves are often associated, or even confused, are much later arrivals on the scene. The first mention of “gnome” is found in Switzerland, in the writings of Swiss alchemist Paracelsus, for whom they are a cthonic symbol, representing the earth in alchemical formulae. Paracelsus, who gave the name pigmaei or gnomi to these elemental earth beings, deriving the name from the 16th-century French gnome, itself descended from Medieval Latin gnomus, possibly from Greek genomos “earth-dweller” or “dwarf-like earth-dwelling spirit.” He said they stood two spans in height.
A delving of dwarves. From left to right: The Dwarf Regin (Sigurd’s foster father) and his helper forging the sword on the anvil. Twelfth-century wood panel from a church in Setesdal, Norway; Dwarves in Greenland, fighting with humans and making war on cranes, from Swedish ecclesiast Olaus Magnus’ Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (History of the Northern Peoples), printed in Rome in 1555; Dwarves making Mjölnir for Thor. “The Third Gift – an Enormous Hammer”, illustration by Elmer Boyd Smithfrom In the Days of Giants – A Book of Norse Tales by Abbie Farwell Brown, 1902; Clearly, the dwarves were soundly rewarded for their toil, for Thor drives the dwarfs out of Scandinavia by throwing the same hammer at them. Watercolor on paper Richard Doyle, 1878; Mime labours to reforge Siegfried’s sword, illustration by Arthur Rackham for The Ring of the Niblung: The Rhinegold & The Valkyrie by Richard Wagner, William Henemann, 1910; The Knight of Sayn and the Gnomes, by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, 1849; Snowdrop and the dwarfs, by John Dickson Batten, 1897; Heigh ho, heigh ho: mining in the Alsace in the early 16th century.
Trolls in the eddas seem to be creatures from beyond society, aggressive predatory females; they may be demonized survivors of a ancient matriarchate, or the expression of all that threatens a highly patriarchal society. They can only be dealt as best as possible with when encountered, they live in the savage part of the ungovernable world and the repressed psyche. In the sagas, they are closer to humans; legends tell for half-trolls, one foot in each world. Still while they have a society of their own, there is little contact between trolls and men. The trolls of folktale have inherited from dwarves their heliophoby; turning to stone with the rising sun seems a relatively late trollish characteristic. Still, traces of elder notions may remain in unlikely circumstances. The tale of Three Billy Goats Gruff, which tells of the defeat of a troll by clever goats, reminds us that the chariot of Thor, who distinguished himself as a fearsome foe of trolls, was drawn by a team of goats. The last word on trolls is the first mention we know of them. When Bragi the skaldic god of poetry encounters a troll-woman in a forest, a telling-game ensues. The troll describes herself in these words: “Trolls call me moon of the dwelling-Rungnir, giant’s wealth-sucker, storm-sun’s bale, seeress’s friendly companion, guardian of corpse-fjord, swallower of heaven wheel, what is a troll other than that?”
Thrice-told trolls. From left to right, a century and a half of trolls: Troll country: The Tarn and Old Pine Trees, paintings by Norwegian painter Lars Hertervig, 1865; Skogtroll by Norwegian artist Theodor Kittlesen, 1906; The Princess and the Troll by Kittelsen; Swedish artist John Bauer “with his old friend, the great troll Dunseklamp”; Trolls by John Bauer, 1915; Trollhunter, the movie, Norway, 2010.
Elves seem to have changed the most. Both Dökkálfar and Ljósálfar are described in the Poetic Edda, the dark elves live in the earth, and the light elves, “fairer than the sun to look at”, dwell in Álfheimr, or “Elf Home.” The Prose Edda mentions only svartálfar, or “black elves”, whom Snorri calls “pitch-black.” The light elves seem to have been largely absorbed into Christian myth as angels, and disappear from legend, their swarthy kin becoming associated with dwarves and other dwellers in realms under the ground. Grimm has trouble with elves, deciding not to decide, and postulating three types: light, dark and black. Later mythographers are, on the whole, still trying to make up their minds. What is certain is that elves are rare in legends but common in folklore, they are the cradle-snatchers, switching elf-infants for the human babies they so desire to steal; they are the beings met on lonely roads or near howes and fairy mounds, or who dwell in granges, spiteful or helpful, depending on the respect paid them by their chosen landlords. Their realm is adjacent to ours, but hidden; time is not the same there, and elves and other denizens of faërie are commingled. To venture into their realm, and above all to eat or drink what is proffered there, is to remain imprisoned, though there are enterprising and brave individuals who marry elven or fairy princesses. Elves of folklore are the Icelandic Huldufólk, who inhabit the volcanic landscape and who it is unwise to irritate. A later version is Der Erlkönig of Faust; poem that inspired the Romantic concept of the Erlking, not the first time a mistranslation has inflamed imaginations. Elves are never far away; they are just shifting shape all the time. By Shakespeare’s time, elves were diminutive winged creatures that playfully flitted about and lived in flowers. They retained that guise until the Victorian era, and their “rehabilitation” by Tolkien and later fantasy authors. Their immortality, as an exclusive elven trait, is the sign of their co-habitation with humans in a coherent fictional universe; before modern fantasy, time flowed differently for each.
A glimpse of elves. From left to right: Prickly elves from Olaus Magnus’ Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus, 1555; Perilous elves: Engraving of a man jumping after a female elf into a precipice, illustration to the Icelandic legend of Hildur, the Queen of the Elves; Dancing at dawn: Ängsälvor (Meadow Elves) by Swedish painter Nils Johan Olsson Blommér, 1850; Dancing in the moonlight: Älvalek (Dancing Fairies) by Swedish artist Johan August Malmström, 1866; Study for Älvalek; Trouble in the Elf-King’s realm: two depictions of Goethe’s Der Erlkönig, by Baltic artist Julius Sergius von Klever (1887), and by Moritz Von Schwind (1917); The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke by troubled Victorian artist Richard Dadd. He worked on this painting from 1855 to 1864 during his internment at Bedlam. Dadd considered the painting to be unfinished; Victoriana: Oberon and Titania, illustration for A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream by Arthur Rackham, 1908.
Our world is so much richer for all this non-practical information. It may not help us find a parking spot, decent takeaway or a good plumber, but it opens our horizons, both faraway and inside the mind. Mutatis mutandis, everything changes, everything stays the same.
No matter how hard you rationalize, no matter how diligently you apply level-headed rationalism, no matter how doubting your Thomases; no matter how thoroughly you impose practicality; no matter how alluring you make progress; no matter how enlightened your Enlightenment, how industrious your post-Industrialism or scientific your sciences; no matter your download speed, the fantastical refuses to take a last bow and exit the stage. You can’t keep a good troll down.
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We have thoroughly forgotten how to read myth, legend and folk lore, even though much of what we know, or think we know, was coaxed into coherence by the earliest mythographers, who travelled, listened, took notes and collated and arranged until it made some sense – to them.
Take elf-shot, for instance. It’s a charming enough fancy, the idea the malicious edge-of-vision beings shoot arrows into the napes of our necks or the back of our knees, poisoning us with some ill, so we must take to bed, and even wither and die, unless some potion is sought from a witch or a wise woman. The stuff of folk tale and superstition, right? Well, not entirely. We never see the illnesses we catch, no more than the invisible elf-arrow. We seek medical help with a person whose lore is beyond our understanding, who gives us a medicine concocted out of our sight with ingredients we do not necessarily know, to be taken in strict ritual (twice, three times a week; if symptoms persist…). When we catch a cold, we know our defenses are down, our resistance to infection weak. Who is the god of fertility, well-being and health, who keeps us “hale and hearty”? Frey, the elf-god. Of course; the difference is not so much in the substance, but in the storytelling.
Now, I’m not suggesting that we go mix herbs and possibly more unsavoury things for old Anglos-Saxon “salves against the race of elves”, it’s just a reminder that we think we understand our superstitious and primitive ancestors, but it’s likely we don’t. Metaphors are mortal, perhaps nowhere more than in myth and legend.
Left: The Brothers Grimm, Jacob & Wilhelm. Drawing by their younger brother Ludwig Emil Grimm, 1843.
Centre: Banteay Srei Temple, Angkor. Sanskrit Carving c.967
Right: Ólafur Brynjúlfsson’s Sæmundar og Snorra Edda, 1760. The Ólafur Brynjúlfsson manuscript contains material from both the Eddas, Elder and Younger (or Poetic and Prose, as you prefer), as well as the most extraordinary illustrations. The original is in the Royal Danish Library in Copenhagen.
You can read Red Riding Hood as a circadian myth. As a sun symbol, she is eaten by the wolf (but only enveloped, eaten means hidden from sight, arrested in her course, held in darkness) and released by the huntsman (cutting her out brings the dawn; the huntsman (or woodcutter) is a solar figure, who has all the attributes). But would it have been understood as such? Or was it a simple cautionary tale or a metaphor of puberty by the time the Grimms got to it, with the multiple questions answered by the wolf a typical story-teller’s building of suspense? The truth is, we don’t know. But, we are still, as children and as adults telling it to children, enchanted.
It is almost as though, as we drag our suitcases of knowledge towards the destinations of our aspirations, boarding the Progress (direct, we hope; not too many stops), so many eager voyagers, we tend to lighten our luggage of the things we think we no longer need (unless we’ve simply forgotten it on the quay in our haste to board.)
Of course, this is an illusion; allegory, metaphor, fable, apologue, and mythos weigh nothing, in fact, they lighten our steps. Myth always contains a measure of truth. That measure of truth has a name: Enchantment.
I would throw my lot in with Kleist; we must eat again of the tree of knowledge to regain innocence, but I can’t subscribe to the inherent eschatology. It’s not a sub-chapter of the last chapter of the Earth, but a personal footnote of abandonment of the self-consciousness imposed by psychoanalysis and science to rediscover the grace offered by enchantment. Enchantment is not an exterior force, it is the conjunction of shamanism, Platonism and a walk in the woods. Enchantment is in our perception, interior and intangible, not hidden under moss or behind the trunk of a tree. The consequences, though, are real and measured by the damage done.
The 18th and 19th centuries saw the romantic rediscovery of folk and fairy tales, fueled by changing attitudes toward history and national identity, propelled forward by philology and archaeology. War and the advent of modernism put an end – temporarily – to that particular Golden Age. Magic, though, is resilient.
It seems the need for enchantment far outweighs any movement to replace it with the rational and the reasoned. Discussing the pros and cons of enchantment is an empty exercise, which has been conducted many times; the campaigns against enchantment throughout history are too many to count, but the result is clear enough. Enchantment escapes all attempts to organize and dogmatize, it is as ever-changing and fleeting as a will-o’-the-wisp, eluding convenient defining, when diligently stamped out, always arising elsewhere. The only way to enchantment is the path less traveled; the well-trod roads do not lead there.
And where is all this wandering going? Well, mainly nowhere, because that’s what wandering is all about. Somewhere along the way, though, signs and clues, like so many fallen leaves, odd pebbles or broken shells accumulate, and you arrive wherever it is on the road that you feel you have enough of them – or you never do, and keep walking.
What is clear, though is that we need enchantment, and if we cannot find it where we used to, in the meaningful irrationality of myth, then we look for it where we shouldn’t: in science, in progress, in Barnum effect on the horoscope page, and gather clues that lead us away from nature and humans, not toward them. We are geared to read meaning into things, it’s the way we are, and personally, while a stock market graph might resemble the silhouette of a mountain range, I prefer to read the weather in the latter.
It’s a pirouette, I know, and an unfair comparison, but we tell stories because we need stories. Enchantment and disenchantment are the two sides of a coin spinning in the air. The richness – or paucity – of these stories depends on us; we need to keep our wits about us.
So where have the storytellers gone, the ones who ensure that we continue to intuitively understand the language of myth? They are no longer telling thrice-told tales around the fireside, they have migrated to fiction and fantasy, pulling up their tents planted in the land of folklore a few centuries ago, and moving off into new country, whose horizons they define as they go. That’s why I wanted to ask an author to share in this exercise in parallax, from a different point of view, gazing out over the same landscape.
To my delight, the author accepted. Here are her thoughts.
THE DISENCHANTMENT OF THE WORD
AND MY SOMEWHAT RAMBLING RESPONSE TO IT
This is a topic that demands a rainy night, a table, and coffee mugs and friends huddled around it. Maybe some good ginger cookies with that. Well, tonight I have all that, with the exception of friends present. It’s just me and the computer screen and the rain on the office window. If John and I had a table and two cups of coffee between us, this is a discussion that would go far into the night!
Ah, would that it could.
I’ve written this essay about twelve times now. Twice I’ve written an email to John to tell him that I can’t write this essay, that when we talk about enchantment or disenchantment, my thoughts fragment into a snowstorm of ideas, and arguments, and contradictions.
But I’m willing to give it one more try.
So. In no particular order. No five paragraph essay this.
First of all, here’s a question that I love to ask children. Eight or nine year olds are the best, but sometimes I can ask a fourteen year old and get an intriguing answer.
“Have you found your magic yet?”
Some of the children, unfortunately, will already have been disenchanted. Disenfranchised. They are certain that magic is as imaginary and unreal as Santa Claus or the Green Man. If you leave one of those kids with me long enough, I can sometimes revive them. But it takes some work. It doesn’t happen inside a house or in front of a computer screen. It doesn’t even happen with a book and a cup of tea in front of a fireplace, though that is a different and altogether lovely sort of enchantment.
It happens out in the world. It doesn’t have to be the forest primeval. You can find the magic in a farm or a rooftop garden. John, I believe, finds it in mossy old stones touched and purposed by humans and on wild beaches and in the trunks of very old trees. There is enchantment in rusty tractors, and magic in a bird’s nest with empty shells in it. Magic in a row of radishes sprouting in dark wet earth. There is magic in puppy breath. There is magic in my mother’s old sewing machine and in my dad’s carved meerschaum pipes.
No. I’m not talking in metaphors or similes or other literary devices. I’m telling you something that is true.
And you know it’s true, on some level that makes you uncomfortable to admit it. But it’s dark outside and rainy and I have a hot cup of tea and a cat on my lap between me and my keyboard. So just this once, let’s talk about it.
Have you found your magic yet?
No. I’m not going to prove it to you. I’m not even going to tell you what it is. It’s mine. And I feel no need to justify it.
Because just as all fantasy and SF writers know that ‘Any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic’, ‘Any magic that can be proven turns into science.’
Demanding that magic ‘prove’ itself by the scientific method is as unreasonable as proving the power of love or psychology. Claiming that enchantment and science are mutually exclusive is a peculiar restriction that, to me, has no logical basis. It rather reminds me of people who insist that e-books will make paper books vanish!
So, there’s the rub that I encounter in my daily life. There’s a terrible restriction in the flow of what we are allowed to have. There is a strong tendency, at least here in the US, to believe that you have to choose. Science. Religion. Enchantment. Take your pick.
Divesting youth of enchantment is seen as a necessary step in their growth. At what age were you told that there was no Santa Claus? And why was it so essential that you be told this? When did the tooth fairy stop leaving some silver coins under your pillow? When was your four-leaf- clover dismissed as ‘silly superstition’?
And above all, why?
You don’t have to give any of it away. I can solder an electronic circuit, go to Mass on Sunday, and cure your wart by buying it from you for a piece of silver. My parents gave me all those things, and never asked that I surrender any of them for the sake of another.
Here’s a true story. I lived for a time near a satellite tracking station called Chiniak on the Island of Kodiak, Alaska. One year I was there, they began to have problems with the equipment. Unexplained glitches that happened. A number of the men working there were of Hawaiian ancestry, and they actually brought in a sort of shaman (I apologize that I don’t know the correct term) who advised them to pour a circle of salt around the facility. They began to do this, but of course, that takes a lot of salt and time.
In the meanwhile, another expert was brought his. His scientific analysis was that the electrical grounds, the earths for the facility, were inadequate. His advice? Salt the earth around the grounds for better conductivity.
And so the problem was solved by a convergence of science and magic. Very tidy, I’ve always thought. No one had to be wrong. No one had to surrender power.
Go back to the question I love to ask kids. “Have you found your magic yet?”
There are kids who come to a complete halt when I ask them, “Have you found your magic yet?” The question implies that if they haven’t yet, they will. They can. That I expect them to. It gives permission. And some will tell me, immediately, what their magic is. “Birds pay attention to me.” “I can make the wind blow.”
And some children almost immediately become testy if not angry. “There’s no such thing as magic!” they assert, as if I’ve insulted them. As if I’ve stolen some piece of adulthood they’ve gained, simply by asking such a thing. And if I’ve asked it in the hearing of adults, some will immediately step forward to correct me before I corrupt their child. “What are you talking about?” one step-mother asked me. “Magic isn’t real!”
(‘What fairy tale did you step out of?” I wanted to ask her.)
A number of essays back, John made a point about children and drawing. All kids can draw. Until someone tells them they can’t, that it’s done wrong or not good enough. At that point, lots of them stop drawing and never begin again.
And so it is with our enchantment. It exists for us, unless someone tells us that it can’t, or it’s wrong, or it can’t be proven.
What if you gave yourself permission, for one day, to believe that you have magic? What if you allowed that gift to exist alongside science, religion and the internet, without constructing conflicts and contradictions?
So, while I don’t require you to admit that I have found my magic, I invite you to think, “Perhaps that means it’s not too late for me to find my magic.”
I’ve wandered very far from the essay I thought of was writing.
But in the limits of time between the chapters that I should be writing, I would like to follow especially one of the very intriguing statements that John made: “We have inevitably placed ourselves in the centre of the universe by our preoccupations with our own interior universe.”
Wow, have we ever. The internet is, of course, the first thing that leaps into my mind.
But let me back up a little bit before I dive into that.
Each of us creates our own reality. When I was a kid, I used to spend time wondering about how each of us really sees the world. As in, literally, ‘sees’. Is my ‘green’ the same as yours? There are no words that would let us know, for every word that relates to ‘green’ is also subjective. Perhaps if I wired my brain to yours, I would discover that your lawn is my scarlet and your evergreens are actually evermaroons. (I’m not talking rods and cones in your eyeballs here, but your subjective experience, of course.) I’d wonder if time passes the same way for each of us. Is your subjective minute the same as mine? Sometimes my minutes go really fast, and somehow I become out of sync with everyone else’s world, and I’m late for an appointment. (This often happens to me when I go into a forest. Time moves differently. I think I’ve gone for an hour’s walk, and come back to find that dinner is over and people have moved into their evening of television. Or, stranger, I hurry home, only to discover that while I’ve been gone for hours, only an hour has passed for the people I left in the house. Did I cross a border into that fey land where time moves differently? Should I care if I have?)
I’m already wandering away from what I thought I was going to say.
Our personal universes include our private codes of right and wrong, our acknowledgement or denial of a divine presence, an assumption of where we fall in the social hierarchy and all the pieces that form our identity. We create that ‘normal’ like a suit of armor that we live within. For some of us, it includes racial, ethnic, gender or national identity. We are, each of us, a little castle on the hill and some of us have very narrow drawbridges regulating who we allow in and what we accept as the way it ‘ought to be.’ Some of us deny science. Some of us deny spirituality. Most of us fall somewhere in between on that spectrum. Some of us admit enchantment. Some few of us not only admit it, we court it and cherish it and nourish it.
But it saddens me to say that I’ve met a number of people who admit no enchantment at all in their personal world. No magic, no mysticism, no spirituality. No God, no Satan, no djinn, no faeries at the bottoms of their gardens. Elves, dwarves, unicorns, trolls, little gods who live by springs. Don’t be silly! They’ve never thrown spilled salt over their shoulders.
Who lives in their world? Only people and those lesser moving sacks of meat, animals. Trees are only alive to them in that they need water and grow. It is very strange to me that some of them are readers of fantasy. They do not allow the possibility of enchantment to enter into their day to day lives, and if I mention it in mine, I am gently (or sometimes scoffinlgy) corrected. How can an adult, rational human being with a Western education believe such silly things?
Yet they all fall victim to the largest enchantment of our time. In the armor of what they believe the world to be, they venture out, to do battle with those who do not admit their reality.
You know I’m talking about the internet.
We now live in a time when we are communally creating an electronic world where we humans live and play and work and humans are the centre of that creation. It’s not just the multiple-player on line games that are human centered worlds. It’s not just Second Life, which ten years on, is still going strong for some people. It’s ALL of it.
And that world is entirely human.
No dogs allowed. No deer, no grass, no mosquitoes, no cold germs. Only people. Only human thought and only human interaction. Nature is carefully framed and bounded as jpgs, gifs and tifs.. Cats wear hats and say funny things. The natural world is admitted only through a human-centric filter. It’s a place where if something goes wrong, the only possible culprit is a human being.
Every day I venture out into that human centered world. And every day I think that we’ve done a rather poor job of creating a new reality.
And there is no enchantment there.
How I want to be able to say that.
But it’s not true.
The enchantment of that world is more enthralling (think of what that word really means!) than even Forest. More engulfing than Story. Made by humans, tailored to humans, it calls us back, over and over, the Sirens on the rocks. I’ve seen marriages founder because a person forsook home and family to join comrades on a World of Warcraft foray. “I have to go. They won’t survive without me.” Parents game on while a child starves in a crib..
In a world made by humans for humans, the enchantment is so powerful.
All the social media and blogs that we create imply that by posting about a situation, something is changed. Writing it down makes it important and posting becomes an important incantation. We joke about it, but how many of us can ignore a statement we disagree with on the internet? Or refrain from ‘liking’ one that resonates with us? At the end of the day, how many of us go back to our Facebook to gauge the reactions we’ve received, or wander back to that discussion on Reddit or Twitter to add a final comment? We get that tiny feeling of accomplishment from doing so. Earn a new badge on this site, become a Top reviewer on Amazon, pass that milepost of having 1000 followers on Twitter! Such magical achievements.
It’s the magic mirror from which we cannot look away. We can command our own reflection there, to be whoever or whatever we wish to project. The pool into which Narcissus looked has nothing on the internet. Choose your avatar. Become.
I am as guilty as anyone. Thirty years ago, I spent virtually no time online. Dial-up was plenty fast enough for me, and the wading pool of AOL offered me all the on line interaction I wanted or had time for.
Now, in addition to my real world of family, farm, pets and household tasks, I belong to a virtual world that is just as demanding. Nay, more so. My family knows better than to charge into my office and tug at my sleeve when I’m writing. Well, at least the members who walk on two legs and have been around me more than ten years know that! But email, twitter, and Instagram know no such boundaries. If I do not silence them, they intrude, and they intrude twenty-four hours a day, for some of my virtual world is based in Europe and some in Asia and some in Australia. Literally at any hour of the day or night, if I permit it, my phone and computer emit nagging little chimes that alert me that someone in my electronic universe wants a portion of my attention. Facebook. Two websites. Instagram. Twitter. Tumblr. Vine. Yes, all of those, and probably a few more I can’t conjure up just now.
How real is that enchantment?
There is no denying that it’s a mesmerizing creation. Cell phones in laps under the table’s edge in restaurants enchant us. Imaginary friends that exist as avatars on a screen beckon us away from family dinners and conversations in cars. Here are John’s trolls, come to life and power and threatening the pixel bridges that people try to build. “Don’t feed the trolls!” we are cautioned, and we all know what happens when we break that cardinal commandment. Imagine a world where trolls can work voodoo. You can call it online bullying if you wish. The trolls can attack a teenager in a chewing, biting horde. Others gather, just as crows come to a calling of a murder that wishes to mob an owl. The pecking and the biting are ceaseless until it ends in a suicide. All accomplished with an intangible electronic touch.
Minor gods thunder their blogs across the firmament. The powerful are fully as cruel and callous as the old gods of Olympus. Disagree and you may be held up to lashing mockery. Hellhounds and Harpys cannot compare to the wrath of thousands of posts and emails raining upon you and cascading off the screen into your ‘real’ life. Offend badly, and you can be banished into the netherworld, ‘unfriended’ or banned from your ISP. Venture into the sites forbidden to good people, sites where you think you will get something for nothing, and the dwarves of greed will plunder your identity and infiltrate the machine on your desk with spyware or a virus.
Witch hunts? Salem can’t begin to compete.
Are there light elves here? Posting pictures of kittens or sharing their photographs and art and stories, perhaps there are. They are like brownies, doing good work without being noticed. They are funding causes by asking all to contribute a little to equal up to a lot. They are reposting pleas for help to find stray dogs and runaway children. They click a little smiley face under a comment you’ve made. It’s not all bad out there, as long as you stay on the paths that wind through those groves of data and users. Remember the old magic. Never tell a stranger your true name, for it can give him great power over you.
John writes “Enchantment escapes all attempts to organize and dogmatize, it is as ever-changing and fleeting as a will-o’-the-wisp, eluding convenient defining, when diligently stamped out, always arising elsewhere.”
He’s absolutely correct.
© Robin Hobb, February, 2016
 Comfort and convenience were the leitmotiv of the economic surge in 1950’s America, invested in products that shortly after conquered the modern world through vigorous export and glamorous advertising, defining modernity as well as our aspirations for the future.
 (pronounced choh-kee-un-tee)
 It is one of those ironies of history that it be the British who destroyed the first modern translation of Beowulf; had it not been for Thorkelín’s dogged abnegation, much of our knowledge of the original would have been lost.
 From Winfred P. Lehmann, A Reader in Nineteenth Century Historical Indo-European Linguistics,1967.
 “polymath”, now there’s a terms we don’t see much any more. An opsimath is someone who acquires learning late in life, and a philomath just likes studying.
 Considering that Sanskrit had been patiently waiting to be “discovered” for well over 2000 years, the word does feel very recent. Persians considered themselves to be Aryans, or Indo-Iranians. Darius the Great stated that he was of Aryan descent. According to many Indian historians, there was never a division between Aryans and Dravidians; the word ‘Arya’ simply meant noble in Sanskrit. Sanskrit’s roots may be even older than previously estimated. The site of Dwarka, dated from approximately 7000 years ago (there is much controversy over the date), has been excavated under the sea beside the Great Rann of Kuchh where the ancient Sarasvati River (mentioned in the Vedas and long thought to be mythical, but which may have actually existed) emptied into the Arabian Sea. The Harappan Civilization may be the last of the Indus Valley Civilizations. If so, the Vedas depict a far more ancient history than the migration of Aryans in 1500 BC. Trade existed between Mesopotamia and Harappa, as well as with Africa. The “Aryan vs. Dravidian” notion was also a handy tool used by the British to divide and rule India during Colonial times; archaeology and Empire often go hand in hand, and myth and history have much in common. In other words, it’s complicated.
 The world has some 5000 languages, fruit of 200 or so unrelated groups. Somewhere between 60 and 80% of the world’s population speaks only one.
 Müller, who caught a philological flu of his own, qualifying myth as a “disease of language.” In his view, primitive peoples were incapable of allegory and understood all myth in a literal sense. He coined theories with such imaginative names as the Bow-wow theory (early language based on the sounds made by animals), the Pooh-pooh theory (emotional onomatopoeia), the Ding-dong and Yo-he-ho theories. Mercifully, they have been forgotten.
 I have decided to definitively adopt Tolkien’s spelling. (I still recall getting the word wrong in a spelling test in elementary school – the fault of Thorin & Co.)
 The Younger Edda is the work of a proto-Grimm scholar, who collated, organized and welded disparate material into a whole. Studying Snorri’s Edda engages the reader in the near-impossible task of separating the euhemerist reflections of the educated Christian lawyer and historian from the material he was dealing with.
 The Green Knight’s verdant countenance has caused much head-scratching in scholarly circles, even Tolkien called him “a most difficult character.” He may be a knightly version of the wose or wildman, but his exact origins steadfastly remain a subject of conjecture.
 No ne knows exactly where the phrase is from. Even in 1596 English dramatist Thomas Nashe wrote, “O, tis a precious apothegmaticall Pedant, who will finde matter inough to dilate a whole daye of the first inuention of Fy, fa, fum, I smell the bloud of an Englishman …”
 The Anglo-Saxon word for giant is “ent”, a term Tolkien put to good use.
 It would be tempting to blame the disproportionately high number of garden gnomes in Switzerland on Paracelsus, or search for covert alchemical symbolism in Swiss gardens… Gnomes owe their popularity to 19th and early 20th-century retelling of folk and fairy tales.
 Snorri’s description of Bragi the Old, from the Skáldskaparmál, the second part of the Prose Edda: “How should one periphrase Bragi? By calling him husband of Iðunn, first maker of poetry, and the long-bearded god (after his name, a man who has a great beard is called Beard-Bragi), and son of Odin.”
 The exact translation of the troll-woman’s speech is much debated. Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur’s translation (1916) is as follows: ‘Trolls do call me Moon’s . . . . . . of the giant, Storm-sun’s (?) bale, Fellow-in-misery of the sibyl, Warder of the circled ring-earth, Wheel-devourer of the heaven. What is the troll but that?”
 Invariably, there is a time of reckoning in these tales; the worlds of faerie and human can exist in proximity to each other, but the two cannot truly mix.
 Immortality and its practical implications has been a theme much neglected by Tolkien scholars.
 No one ever questions why the unnamed heroine wears a red “riding” hood; though this may be an alliterative addition in English; in the first recorded version by Charles Perrault in 1697, “chaperon” means simply a hooded cloak. Grimm entitled the tale Rotkäppchen in 1812. A fascinating version is retold by Andrew Lang in the red fairy Book. In this tale, called The Story of Little Goldenhood, which Lang borrowed from Affenschwanz Et Cetera: Variantes Orales de Contes Populaires Francais Et Etrangers (1888) by folklorist Charles-Marie Marelle, the wolf’s jaws are burned by the heroine’s enchanted golden hood.
 Heinrich von Kleist: On the Marionette Theatre, 1810
 Shamanism very likely influenced Platonism via Orphic myth. Orpheus certainly did get around.
I am now deeply in debt to Robin Hobb for her wonderful and insightful text, and besides being honoured that she considered my request. I also hope that it may one day find its way into posterity. Authors of fiction are so busy exploring the secret paths of the worlds they have created that they rarely seem to have the time to write about the road travelled.
The illustration of the Sanskrit inscription is used without permission, I am happy to replace it with another image or credit the photographer (if he or she can be located).