When you write a lot for a long time, eventually you learn a very important thing: why you’re writing.
I was thinking about just this issue recently: why do I write? Of course I write because I love writing, the way a dancer loves dancing — it’s a continual dance of the mind, and on days when I don’t write, I feel almost disoriented, not at all myself. I get angry with the world, on days I don’t write. And I write because I want to be read. I want to talk to people, tell them something. I want to communicate.
What I want to tell them is that the world is enchanted, and enchanting. I want them to see what I see: the beauty, the tragedy, the grandeur of this world of ours. Of our lives, even in their smallest moments. I want to show them enchantment. I want them to see the magic. Which is, I suppose, why I write and work in the mythic arts.
I first encountered this word in the work of Terri Windling, who was editing the Journal of Mythic Arts at the time. Unfortunately, the journal itself is no longer being updated regularly, but you can read its wonderful Archives online. What are mythic arts? To explain that, I have to go back a bit.
There are various ways that human beings tell stories. Some of these ways are myths, legends, fairy tales, and history. Myths are stories of the gods. Legends are stories of heroes who have almost-godlike powers. Fairy tales are stories of ordinary people who encounter magic, who venture into or are impacted by fairyland. We separate out history from these categories because it is supposed to be “true,” but as J.R.R. Tolkien points out in “On Fairy-Stories,” history is often more truthy than actually true, and the farther back we go, the more it includes material that comes from myths, legends, and even fairy tales. Modern realistic fiction is fantasy (because all fiction is fantasy — Emma Bovary did not actually exist) that partakes of the truthy quality of history. Realistic fiction is another way we tell stories — a very modern way. The European novel as we know it (novel meaning new, not that old mythic, legendary stuff) dates only to the seventeenth century, although it dates back much farther in Japan.
Something important happened in the nineteenth century: realism and fantasy split off from one another. That split had started at least a century earlier — in Maria Edgeworth’s The Parent’s Assistant, a book for children old enough that Jane Austen would have been familiar with it, she prides herself on not including any fairy stories, which are bad for children in the way sweets are bad for them. It’s already clear from Edgeworth’s introduction that there is reality, and there is fantasy, and never the twain should meet. At least not in the imaginations of children, because they might become confused — they might expect castles and ogres and princes, whereas such things do not exist. So says Maria Edgeworth.
This movement to separate fantasy and reality, but also realism and fairy tale, continued into the nineteenth century, and by the end of the century it was very clear that there were the respectable novel and short story, and the considerably less respectable forms of fairy tale, myth, romance (in the old sense of an adventure story), ghost story, etc. By the twentieth century, they occupied different publishing niches, different shelves in the bookstore. As they still do.
The problem of course is that realism isn’t truth — it’s truthy. And myth and legend and fairy tale also contain truth, in a different way — not by pretending to be true, but by embodying deeper widsom about the world and ourselves. They allow us to tell different kinds of stories that are not accessible to us through realism. For example, The Wind in the Willows contains the very deep, very true, truth that animals have lives apart from our own, consciousnesses we don’t necessarily understand. It’s taken science until — well, now, to understand that truth. We are still exploring it scientifically, but it was there all along in myths and fairy tales. We just stopped listening, and in the meantime, a lot of animals got treated very badly.
Here’s the thing: talking about conservation will not save the badgers of England. If anything will save them, it will be the way people feel about Mr. Badger. We are human beings, and we make decisions based not on logic or rationality, however much we may think we do (deluded as we are about ourselves), but on emotion. And what creates emotion? Story.
If we are to be good, decent human beings, who do not destroy each other or this beautiful world of ours, we must learn that animals can teach us, that trees have wisdom, that kindness and generosity can make you a princess. We must also learn that there are ogres out there, and weapons to fight them. We must learn this in childhood, and we must learn it again (because we are forgetful and must continually be reminded) in adulthood. The mythic arts teach us the deeper truths we must learn, about the world and each other.
And that is the reason I write what I write. I sometimes say that I want to re-enchant the world, but by re-enchant I mean not make enchanted but reveal the enchantment that is already there. I feel as though I see a deeper truth: the world as it is, and as it could be for us if we, in our human folly, did not separate ourselves from the deeply real, did not pave over it with concrete (and the concreteness of our realism).
I’ve been told that what I write is too fantastical, too romantic. But I write about the reality I see. Maybe I just see reality a little differently? What I see is that so much of what we make is truthy, not true. Realism, not reality. We need to reach deeper, go down to the deep wells of story. That is the well I want to draw from.
Down there, the water is cool and dark, and it is the only thing that, ultimately, will quench your thirst. That is why I write.
(I was walking through the forest when I found what I think is an old church baptismal font. There, under the trees, it seemed to symbolize a different sort of baptism . . .)