When It Blinks Back
How to begin?
I could start with "once upon a time," the incantation learned early, the wide-angle lens quickly affirming that where and when are now different. Or, instead, the transport through time and space could occur immediately, leaving you unsure of where we are, other than that it is not here. Or then again, I could begin in the here and now, and it wouldn't be until later, looking back, that you would see the unexpected threads glistening in the weave. There are a multitude of methods for beginning, a multitude of templates to follow. I could begin with Tolkien, as many do when it comes to fantasy. I could share the comfort of my father's voice as he read The Hobbit aloud: the gulping whine as he spoke Gollum's dialogue and the boom of Smaug, and later, when I opened the book on my own, my finger tracing the runes and the outline of the Lonely Mountain.
Or I could begin with literary theory. "'The Fantastic' is a name given to a kind of literature, a literary genre," writes Tzvetan Todorov in The Fantastic. But others have pointed out that Todorov's fantastic and what we call fantasy are not coterminous. Farah Mendlesohn's beginning in Rhetorics of Fantasy is more promising: "This book is not about defining fantasy," she writes. Or how about the beginning of Brian Attebery's The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature: "What is fantasy?"
But those beginnings are prologues, the sign of where I come from, not where I am going. Instead, let's begin with Susanna Clarke, the author of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, the 2004 novel about the revival of magic in England during and after the Napoleonic Wars. In particular, let's start with the question of what fantasy can do, which Clarke raised in "Women and Men; Servants and Masters; England and the English," her response to an online seminar about her book. What can fantasy do? "A million things," she says, but in particular:
Firstly fantasy can be about giving power, strength, importance to the small and weak. Thus the smallest, weakest person -- Frodo Baggins to take an example entirely at random -- goes off to fulfil [sic] the Most Important Task. And turns out to be the only person who could have done it. Ditto Stephen Black.
Secondly Fantasy (and SF) can be the opposite of this. Instead of Giving Importance to People, it can Humble People. It can be about turning our view, however briefly, away from ourselves; it can be about glimpsing that human beings are not always, forever, and irrevocably, the centre of the universe.
"Human beings are not always, forever, and irrevocably, the centre of the universe." I read those words every time with the quickened pulse that comes from finding what you didn't know you were looking for. Call it love. Call it the satisfaction of discovering that the shadow beside the door is not the coat rack that logic dictates, but a ghost with logics all its own. What can fantasy do? It can take your breath away. Or at least mine.
The humbling of people in Clarke's novel, as she describes in her essay, comes through a combination of empowering the land itself and writing a "back-to-front story, a story with holes in it through which we can catch glimpses of another, secret story being played out." The main plot of the book concerns two differing magicians, Mr. Norrell, a thorny, difficult man who has developed his magical abilities over years of book study, and Jonathan Strange, a dashing young gentleman whose interest in magic is discovered offhandedly and developed through action rather than contemplation. These two key figures form the obvious opposition within the novel, but there are hints throughout that this conflict is but a minor portion of a larger tale. This comes through most bluntly -- which is not to say inelegantly -- in the story lines that follow the gentleman with the thistle-down hair, a mercurial fairy who both fears Strange and Norrell and ridicules them for their lack of powers. According to the gentleman, even the greatest achievements of the magicians are clumsy play.
This is partly arrogance on the part of the gentleman with the thistledown hair, who in the end suffers for his own ignorance, but he is not far off. While Strange, Norrell, and the other human characters compete for scraps of political power, they are surrounded in the text by the land. Over and over, they have brief glimpses of the landscape around them containing a kind of writing they cannot understand:
Bright yellow leaves flowed swiftly upon the dark, almost-black water, making patterns as they went. To Mr. Segundus the patterns looked a little like magical writing. "But then," he thought, "so many things do."
In a different book, a comparison of leaves, birds, and trees to letters would be little more than metaphor or simile meant to evoke an image of their shapes against the sky or water, but here, these descriptions are among the holes revealing the other, "secret story."
Late in the novel, Strange and Norrell mistakenly imbue Stephen Black, who has been enchanted by the gentleman with the thistledown hair, with the power of the land. For a moment, we glimpse the minds of the hills:
The sun came out from behind a cloud; it shone through the winter trees; hundreds of small, bright patches of sunlight appeared. The world became a kind of puzzle or labyrinth... Suddenly everything had meaning. Stephen hardly dared take another step. If he did so -- if, for example, he stepped into that shadow or that spot of light, then the world might be forever altered.
The bare branches against the sky were a writing and, though he did not want to, he could read it.
Stephen uses this power to overthrow the man with the thistledown hair, but then:
...his allies and servants were growing doubtful. There was a question in the minds of the hills and the trees. They began to know that he was not the person they had taken him for -- that all this was borrowed glory.
One by one he felt them withdraw. As the last one left him, he fell, empty and insensible, to the ground.
We glimpse the minds of the hills, but like Stephen only partly understand. The land extends far beyond the ambitions of any individual, human or fairy, mundane or magical.
Of course, to extend beyond does not mean that the hills do not play into individual ambitions. Stephen's temporary power is incredibly important to his life and to the lives of the other characters. Those ambitions, and the balances of power in which they take place, remain. Instead of being erased, it is as if we have taken three steps back and realized that the detailed figures we were examining occupy naught but a corner of a massive painting occupied by strange landscapes and unknown beings. As in Clarke's Whitbyian Heresy, described in a footnote, we see "that the universe is like a tapestry only parts of which are visible to us at a time." Or, as Strange and Norrell do near the end of the novel, we face a raven so large that all can be seen of it is its eye: "a large, perfectly round, black stone of almost impossible brilliance and glossiness, set into a thin ring of rough stone and mounted upon what appeared to be a black hillside."
And then the raven blinks.
So: I am not interested in definitions. Instead, I am in search of humbling experiences: novels in which the ground leaps up, on its own, to batter me with stones; stories that undercut the rational; stories that seem a little, or a lot, insane; fantasies, surely, and realisms tinged with the fantastic, and even realisms that change their hue when read as if the fantastic is there. Please, rock me on my heels, until I fall like Stephen Black, "empty and insensible, to the ground."