Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Beyond the Fields We Know

Spring has arrived; the cherry tree outside the store has suddenly blossomed with an almost audible pop, the sunlight has a brighter softer quality, and the rains fall gently on the patient thirsty earth. So let us leave the dreary monsters of March and turn to lighter, sweeter things.

Among the tangled wilderness of my bookshelves there is a tiny garden of Spring books: delicate books of fancy and fantasy that you may have missed in your travels. I’d like to point them out to you, if I may.

Our first blossom is Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner (Host of NPR’s “Sound & Spirit”). Published in 1990 and based on the ballad and folklore surrounding the 13th century True Thomas, this novel is a beautiful and lyrical book. It tells the story of Thomas’ love affair with the Queen of Elfland, his sojourn in Fairy, and the bittersweet consequences thereof. Told from the perspective of Thomas and the mortals that he leaves and returns to, this is an elegant, gentle book about love and music and truth.

Little, Big by John Crowley is a big magical hedge maze by turns playful, enchanting, elusive, and maddening. It follows several generations of the Drinkwater family as they live in, and try to understand, the great Tale that envelops them. The action is subtle (or if you like: slow), the plot is complex and inconclusive, but the writing is beautiful and catches the reader up in the joy, the terror, and the wonder of magic intersecting with the ordinary world. Little, Big is a dream: strange, half-remembered, but somehow feeling so right.

Like the fairy fruit that beguiles its eponymous city, Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrless is strange and sweet, and tastes of the forbidden. Despite the best efforts of its respectable citizens, Lud borders the Land of Faerie. They refuse to talk of the strange happening in the graveyard, they will not acknowledge their magical neighbors, and they've certainly outlawed the mysterious fruit. Still the fruit comes and with it a joyous, frightening enchantment. Written in a flowing 19th century style (it was written in 1923), Lud-in-the-Mists concerns itself with love and art, life and hope, and the intrusion of the romantic into the prosaic. Mirrless writes, "the written word is a fairy" and in her hands that is perfectly true.

If – in this little metaphor of mine – the other books I’ve mentioned are gorgeous Spring flora then Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart is an overlooked pebble that, when examined, turns out to be a tiny sparkling diamond. Set in an “ancient China that never was” it follows Number Ten Ox and Master Li Kao as they search for the Great Root of Power. Simply told and full of mystery, adventure, and humor, it is a perfect leisure novel. It is charming and witty, exciting and beautiful, full of real joy and sorrow, redemption, forgiveness, bawdy jokes and lovely poetry, and the happiest of happy endings.

Finally, in the middle of this garden of fancy, we come to the great spreading tree that is Lord Dunsany. Lord Dunsany (rhymes with “rainy”) was a prolific writer of the early 1900’s whose craft ranged from dream-like fantasies to horrific mysteries to cozy humor. In the Land of Time and Other Fantasy Tales is a capital introduction to his work, including nearly the whole spectrum of his writing. The book opens with the “The Gods of Pegana”, a majestic mythology that reads like a pagan Old Testament. There are several of his best fantastical stories like the lyrical “Idle Days on the Yann” and the sad tale of “the Wonderful Window”. The travel-tales of Mr. Jorkens are funny and rousing and comfortable. “The Two Bottles of Relish” is a slow-burning murder mystery with a chilling ending that is both stunning and obvious. Triumphantly the collection ends with “The Pirate of Round Pond”, a defiant salute to wicked boys. Lord Dunsany collaberated with W. B. Yeats and Lady Gregory. He was a major influence on Tolkien, Poe, Lovecraft, LeGuin, Gaiman, Arthur C. Clarke, and many others. It is partially from his seeds that the garden of Fantasy grew. Read him and find out why.

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