The Horns of Elfland

I don’t know why I write fantasy.

I mean, I’m pretty sure I write fantasy because as a child I read fantasy. But why was I drawn to fantasy in the first place? When I was a child, all I wanted to read were books about magic. I read Edward Eager, E. Nesbit, J.R.R. Tolkien. I read fairy tales, and the Oz books, and The Once and Future King. Sometimes I would pick up books that seemed to be about magic, and they would not be, and I would get very angry at them. I would feel as though I had somehow been tricked. Bridge to Terabithia and The Witch of Blackbird Pond earned my ire. There was no witch, there was no Terabithia except in the children’s imagination, and what was the point of that? If the magic wasn’t real, I wanted no part of it.

Now, as an adult and writer, I will not write a book in which the magic isn’t real. I won’t promise you magic and not deliver, because that would have made my child-self furious.

But why was I so drawn to fantasy in the first place? Looking back, I can see that my obsession with Narnia, and Earthsea, and Middle Earth, had to do in part with the fact that I was an immigrant. I had lost my country of origin, and because these were the bad old days of an Iron Curtain across Europe, that country was as lost to me as Naria is to the Pevensies after Aslan tells them they must leave. There was no way to go back, not then. And I did not have a magical wardrobe. It also had to do with my sense of displacement — where did I belong? Nowhere in particular. I read books about imaginary countries to belong somewhere. While I was reading, I could pretend, for a while, that I belonged in Prydain or at Green Knowe.

But I loved books about magic happening in the real world as well. I still remember the strange little rhyme that Mrs. Tuggle sings in The Witch’s Sister and its sequels. I adored Carbonel and Mary Poppins and the house with a clock in its walls. Stories about magic happening in our world promised me that it was not as dull and ordinary as it appeared — that our real world had the possibility of magic in it. And I needed that promise, as I think all children do, because despite how we romanticize it, childhood is hard. When you’re a child, the world is large and doesn’t make much sense. Adults are continually telling you what to do. Other children can be cruel.

I even loved books that were what I might call fantasy-adjacent, like The Secret Garden or The Wind in the Willows. They, too, promised that there were hidden powers in the world, although we might not call them magic. The chapter in which Mole and Rat meet the god Pan is still one of my favorite episodes in English literature.

At that point in my life, I wanted to be a witch. When I grew up, I became the closest thing to one, which is a writer. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that witches cast spells: both witchcraft and writing are about using language to alter reality.

In “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien says some people simply have a taste for fantasy, while others don’t — and if they do as children, they will likely have it their entire lives. I’ve found that to be true. I moved from Nesbit to Anne McCaffrey to Isabel Allende without ever losing my love of magic. I still want to know that there are hidden powers and possibilities in the world, behind the facade of the everyday. I want to know that circumstances can change, that wishes can come true, that somewhere out there, someone or perhaps the universe itself loves us.

The title of this blog post comes from a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson:

The splendour falls on castle walls
And snowy summits old in story:
The long light shakes across the lakes,
And the wild cataract leaps in glory.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

O hark, O hear! how thin and clear,
And thinner, clearer, farther going!
O sweet and far from cliff and scar
The horns of Elfland faintly blowing!
Blow, let us hear the purple glens replying:
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

O love, they die in yon rich sky,
They faint on hill or field or river:
Our echoes roll from soul to soul,
And grow for ever and for ever.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
And answer, echoes, answer, dying, dying, dying.

I think there are some people who hear the horns of Elfland, and some who do not. That’s all right . . . not everyone has to hear the same music. Those who hear them are the ones who long for magic, who try the backs of all the wardrobes just in case, who wait for their letters from Hogwarts, who secretly in their hearts believe that there is a deeper, truer life than this one, and perhaps even live as though there were. They make their homes in cottages out of fairy tales, or keep bees, or recite poetry. They talk to cats, and wait for a response. I do think, although this is based on no empirical evidence, only personal observation, that more people nowadays hear the horns of Elfland than when I was a child. There are more books about magic, there is more fantasy in media of all sorts, and that makes a difference. There is also a widespread view that we have lost something essential in our lives — we are losing the environment, we are losing handicrafts and old hobbies, we are even losing community with other human beings, and that loss is being felt. It makes us long for the ordinary magic of sitting under a tree, or weaving a tapestry, or telling stories with friends.

Nowadays, I make magic, or at least I try to. I sit down with pen and paper, or at a computer screen, and I put down words. Hopefully, when you read them, castles will rise above you, hills and green meadows will unroll around you, the sky itself will unscroll its myriad stars. Hopefully you will hear and see and, most importantly, feel my world and its characters. This is what it means to be a spell-caster, a witch or do I mean writer, a wielder of words.

I still hear the horns of Elfland. Nowadays, I try to transmit what they are blowing, to capture their music in my own language. But I know that the music comes from beyond me, as does the magic itself — that I am a sort of translator of what is already there, the underlying magic of reality. I feel it now even more than I did as a child. Adults are not necessarily more obtuse than children — we can also choose to become more sensitive. We can learn to hear the music better. Nowadays, hopefully, the horns of Elfland blow through me as well . . .

(The image is The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania by Sir Joseph Noel Paton.)

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8 Responses to The Horns of Elfland

  1. I love this piece. It also explains why I get so much pleasure out of reading your works. I agree that the tale of mole and rat meeting Pan is awesome. In the true meaning of the word. Awe. I am deeply moved each time I read it. Yes, I have heard the Elf horns and the pipes of Pan and wandered into the wilder woods.

  2. Patrick Murphy says:

    From your way with weaving words you are a very capable witch:-)

  3. Just what I needed to read as I sat down to write this morning. We are spellcasters.

  4. Absolutely beautiful, fellow word witch! I agree completely. How wonderfully inspiring as I get back to work casting spells this morning.

  5. Scott Day says:

    I, too, hear the horns of Elfland, feel the wonder of the other, ache for what seems just beyond my grasp. Stories are the key to this music. I remember being sick with the mumps for several weeks. I read Abraham Merrit’s The Ship of Ishtar and was transformed. The book’s last sentence gripped me. I don’t know why. I suspect my grandmother played a huge role. Whenever I went to her house I would see her reading. Sometimes she would recite poems from memory. The memory of her reading endures.

  6. poxigtheelf says:

    I think of the scene in Ende’s ‘The Neverending Story” when the wicked wolf Gmork utters: “People have begun to lose their hopes and forget their dreams.” Those who eschew fantasy are guilty primarily of this. Here’s to everyone who still hears ‘the horns of Elfland.’ Yet, some still dare to dance to the beat of a different drummer.

  7. For as long as I can remember, I only wanted to read fantasy or stories that featured animals, which could be considered fantasy-esque, too. I personally agree that if you love it as a child, you will continue to do so as an adult, and I started writing it because I loved it so much and there were stories I wanted to read that weren’t out there. I think you are a very capable witch if not one of the best šŸ™‚

  8. I love this essay for more reasons than I can fit into a normal-length reply. The concept I fancy is the idea that magic in fiction should be real. The fiction may or may not be real, the realism is suspect, but the magic and the imagination are the motive force behind the story.

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