In Which Our Heroine Gets Stuck In Magic and History (Again)

30 January 2004

First things first: if you are making a risotto with gorgonzola, what goes with it? Mushrooms are an acceptable answer. Walnuts are also an acceptable answer. As are other kinds of mushrooms. What is not, however, an acceptable answer, is more gorgonzola!

Oops.

Well, it was edible. Just a bit...flavorful.

Next thing: the Strib ran an editorial column yesterday that really, honestly competes for the dumbest thing I've ever read on the Strib editorial page. And thanks to the wonders of the internet, I can share it with you! This guy's thesis, for those of you who don't care to waste your time, is that we're losing our "sense of loss" because little kids can watch old television programs in which the stars are dead. "If you grew up with Captain Kangaroo, can you imagine watching his show and not really caring whether he was alive or dead?" he demands. Makes kids sound like heartless little bastards, until you consider the alternative: fresh mourning from every four-year-old every time a rerun shows Mr. Hooper? Not being able to see Madeleine Kahn perform anything ever again?

(This guy doesn't seem to understand the Muppets, in fact, have died, and so have the humans on Sesame Street. He used Sesame Street as an example of not dealing with mortality. What a buffoon.)

So...I'm just wondering. Does this guy weep afresh every time he remembers Voltaire is dead? Does he beat his breast and tear his hair outside theatres performing plays by Euripides, Shakespeare, Rostand, Ibsen? That's what art is for, jackass: accomplishments that can stand apart from their creators. Our favorite artists can be dead or alive, saints or jerks, one-hit wonders or consistently brilliant. They can be beautiful or ugly. They can smell like roses or the porta-johns at the State Fair. They can be pleasant dinner company or awkward mumblers. It's not about them.

(This reminds me of what Timprov said at lunch on Wednesday: that the people whose work he dislikes the most are the ones who would, under fast-penta, admit that they do it to try to make themselves look good.)

What really struck me as monumentally stupid about this article is that the most affecting deaths of my childhood, the ones that made me really understand loss before I had much of it in my own life, were not the deaths of living, breathing people. They were the deaths of characters. Of Beth, of Florian, of Arthur.

Of Walter.

Yesterday I said I was going to write about how Rilla of Ingleside messed me up forever, but I'd intended for it to go the other way around -- I wanted to talk about Mary Poppins first. So keep this in your mind: Walter. It'll be important later.

I was thinking about the Death of the Magic again, because of Karina rereading the Dark Is Rising series. The Death of the Magic is the end of several children's fantasy novels -- the theory being that you have to grow up and live in the real world, sans magic. It's at the end of Prince Caspian, when Peter and Susan don't get to come back to Narnia; it's at the end of Mary Poppins, when Mary Poppins leaves the Bankses alone. It's at the end of Peter Pan, too, when Wendy and Michael and John have to leave Peter and Neverland and come home and grow up. It's lots of places, in lots of forms.

The Death of the Magic is the biggest lie fantasy has ever told me.

Keep in mind, I trusted fantasy a lot as a child. I still do. I trust fiction, but fantasy and SF resonate most with me; the things they tell me about the world and its wonders are my things. I don't know how much truer they are than the things other genres come up with -- they certainly contradict each other often enough -- but the way they speak is a way I can hear clearly.

But the Death of the Magic is a lie, and if anybody ought to know it's a lie, it's fantasy writers. These are people who get paid to make up -- let's not forget our core Brustian theory here -- things they think are cool. Granted, they might not get paid as much or as often as they would hope; and I'm not saying that being a fantasy writer makes everything else in your life nifty and problem-free. I am saying that this is one of the big things people tell you you can't do, it isn't practical, the odds are against you, do you know how many people want to publish books?, no one will be interested in what you have to say anyway.... Magic is often (though, thank God, not always) used to symbolize creativity in speculative literature, and the people whose books get published obviously didn't give up on it and Grow Up And Live In The Real World. So I really wish they'd stop telling kids that's how it's supposed to be.

Lewis had, I suppose, some kind of excuse: he could claim that the older kids were supposed to get to know the wonder of Aslan/God in their own world, so it was more the shifting than the death of magic. I guess. But Mary Poppins: no such luck. And then I got to thinking: people who have seen the movie and not read the book might think MP's departure isn't a Death of the Magic ending at all.

Here's the thing: the movie, for all its costumed delight, is a mid-twentieth-century American movie. Its plot arc is for the family to become what was considered functional. The hard-working father spends more time with his children; the mother is not so caught up in her Cause. The family is nuclear, happy, no longer invaded by the other, able to delight in friendly daily Poppins-esque magics like kite-flying together.

But the book is not nearly so...treacly. (Don't get me wrong, I love the Sister Suffragettes song. Still.) It's an Edwardian family, this Banks family: there will be another nanny. The parents will continue with their separate lives, separate from each other and from the children, because that's what upper-class Edwardian families did. Because this movie-ending image of the two parents and the shiny-faced children flying kites together owes a lot more to Levittown 1955 than to London 1910. And that, I think, is why the book's sequels were not filmed even though the movie was successful and a well-loved classic and etc. etc. etc. The movie's story arc was closed, and MP's gentle magic of laughter and fun could make a place in the family without her personally being there.

The MP of the book, on the other hand, is not even remotely gentle. She is stern, almost like a nanny taken from the Sidhe: not evil, but not always kind. Able to show the children wonders daily, but not so much daily wonders. Her place in their lives is not really something their parents can ease into. So when she leaves, it's a Death of the Magic ending for Jane and Michael. Until, of course, the sequels -- which work in their original historical context quite well, and which would have felt gratuitous in the mid-century movie version. Because the book really can't be separated from its historical context without changing it a lot.

And here we come around to Walter's death again.

For any of you who are reading the Anne of Green Gables series now and don't know how it turns out, I'm sorry to have a spoiler for you. These books are over eighty years old, though; I think if there's a spoiler statute of limitations, they've passed it. (Yes, and Rosebud is the sled and Darth Vader turns out to be a good egg in the end, though let's not focus too hard on how good. Sorry, sorry.)

For those of you who haven't read the series and don't intend to, let me sum up. You start with Anne as a main character at (I believe) twelve years old. She loves puffed sleeves and other fashion cues that tip you off: this book is set around the turn of the century. You follow her through her life until her children begin to take center stage. The final book of the series, Rilla of Ingleside, is set during the First World War. And Anne's second son, the poet Walter, the one with sensibilities and talent, is killed in the war.

Now, Walter was always my favorite, and I thought he would have been a million times better for Faith Meredith than his stupid older brother Jem. (I approved of Faith Meredith.) But it wasn't his death that upset me so much. It was his death in the First World War. History came in on my fiction with a crash. History got connected to all the fiction that's set in this world. Before Rilla, historical books with wars in were a separate category in my brain from historical books without. I could read an Edwardian novel without seeing WWI looming over the characters' young adulthood. I could believe, with the characters, that they would have a normal time in which to court each other, to pick occupations, to settle down; that a vast majority of the boys would reach 40 alive and unscarred. I could read books set in the '20s and '30s without making the leap to the Second World War.

Now...and by "now," I mean since I was 11...I can't. Michael Banks, Michael and John Darling, those nice Edwardian little boys, in my head grow up and go to the trenches and get trench fever if they're lucky and mustard gas if they're not. John and Roger Walker of Swallows and Amazons are clear in my mind, too: John's in the British Navy like his father, Roger's in the RAF, during the Second World War. They'd pretty much have to be. History got stuck together for me. And it all hurts the same, Walter's death that Montgomery wrote out and the bitter wartime uncertainty of the characters the other authors didn't take into their respective adulthoods. I think a lot of the more na´ve types of parent, children's author, and children's librarian, would like to set children's books in an untouchable, ahistorical history: of course this is an historical novel, but that doesn't mean you need to worry about the characters' futures. I can't think about it like that any more. This is one reason it's hard for me to recommend books to my cousin who doesn't like "scary things" happening in books: they're everywhere. You can't escape them.

This also colored my perspective of speculative, particularly fantasy, novels. World War One is what I think of whenever fantasy characters are fighting their Final Battle -- I think, yes, we had a war to end wars, too. That was several wars ago. And that's not the grown-up me talking -- the grown-up me is actually much more optimistic. This is the 11-year-old me, stubborn and belligerent and mad as hell at history. Mostly I'm mentally 12 years old, but on occasional bad days I revert to a jaw-jutting eleven. It is no coincidence that Charlotte and Miri are twelve in Fortress of Thorns, when they start fighting the Grey Place in organized earnest; it is also no coincidence that they're 11 in the prolog, when they find out what it is they have to fight.

I feel like Gene Wilder in "Young Frankenstein," only with history instead of destiny: "History, history, no escaping that for me...."

Anyway, anyway, anyway. I thought the ending of The Belly of the Bow wasn't going to shock me, when I read the author's note on making the bows, because I've read Iain Banks, which one was it, Use of Weapons, or maybe Against a Dark Background? It was a good one, whichever it was, but not what one would call cheerful. But The Belly of the Bow got me in the viscera anyway, even though I saw the general visceral area coming. Ah well. After that experience, I'm eager to read the next one, but just as glad it's still at Stella's. I'm going to take a break with my author copy of Challenging Destiny and with Fragments of Lappish Mythology and give my stomach a rest, I think. With hopes that Lars Levi Laestadius is not so gruesome as Ms. Parker; though of course mythology does get pretty bloody as well. And will probably require more notes taken. That's all right.

It's a note-y book so far, certainly, and it's making me holler with indignation: this book is translated from the Finnish. So there are all sorts of references that are driving me nuts knowing I can't get to them: "...also some research problems which are associated with Laestadius's name. These include the escatologically oriented Shouters movement of the Finnmark Sami, which was a strong influence behind the Kautokeino ecstasy of 1852...." And then I'm hollering, yaaaarg! What? The Saami had a Shouters movement? There was a Kautokeino ecstasy in 1852? Why don't I know these things? I mean, a Shouters movement: how could this fail to be interesting? And yet I know that it would take an almost incomprehensible stroke of luck for me to find out anything at all about any of this, because mid-19th century Finnish/Saami religious movements apparently don't fascinate everyone else in the English-speaking world the way they fascinate me.

Learning Finnish cannot possibly be the only solution here. It really, really cannot. At least, I'd better hope not.

So. Mark and I are going down to Omaha tonight for Kari's baby shower and Grandpa's birthday party, and we won't be back until Sunday night. And I won't have access to my usual e-mail in that time, only my hotmail. So if you want to take the chance to get caught up on e-mail you owe me and know that I won't shoot it right back at you, this is the weekend for you. And if you think you might have an emergency and you don't know my hotmail, just ask.

We're going to Omaha in stealth mode (which is why I'm announcing it on the internet, of course): that is to say, I'm not calling anyone outside the family and telling them I'm coming and asking if we can hang out. Most of my friends from Omaha don't live there any more, anyway, so it's only a few people I'll be neglecting. And we really don't have time this time. It's not like we'll be lolling around the folks' house eating bonbons and reading movie magazines, unless that's what Grandpa wants to do for his birthday. We have serious family partying to do. I'll see you with it Monday morning.

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