“There is not a single homely thing that, looked at from a certain angle, does not become fairy.”
–Hope Mirrlees, Lud-in-the-Mist
I’m about a third of the way into the extraordinary book quoted above. It was recommended to me by four different friends, and I’m finally getting around to reading it. It is truly wonderful. Most definitely it belongs on the “small shelf” of the most treasured books in the library of a serious lover of fantasy. It was written just shy of a century ago, but don’t let that discourage you. Ms. Mirrlees wrote in a clear, elegant, uncluttered style that makes for smooth, pleasant reading. Moreover, she knew how to tell a story; I found myself drawn in at once to the lives and adventures of the Chanticleer family and their associates.
Like so many of my favorite writers, Hope Mirrlees was clearly as enchanted by the natural world as by any fantastical elements of a fairy tale; or rather, she rightly understood just how numinous the created world is, in and of itself. What, she asks, is more magical than a hawthorn tree coming suddenly to life in the spring?
Anyway, her words that I quoted above express, I believe, one of the fundamental concepts upon which any discussion of writing fantasy fiction should be built. Tolkien said essentially the same thing in his essay “On Fairy Stories.” And Leonardo da Vinci reportedly told his art students that they should stare at the cracks in the walls until they saw whole worlds pouring out of them.
Where do ideas come from? How can we write about Faery when we’ve never been there? The ideas are all around us, and I’d contend that we live all the time with one foot in Faery. It’s a matter of knowing how to see, how to listen. Lilacs are blooming just now in the northern hemisphere. Go out and press your nose into their twilight-colored clusters. Drink in that fragrance like none other on Earth. If you would see fairies, they’re dancing there, among those dusky, heart-shaped leaves.
We knew this well as children. Were we not all experts at taking “homely things” and making of them the equipment we needed for our adventures, no matter how fantastic? I recall the rusted wreck of a bicycle that, overturned and stood upon its handlebars and seat, became the wheelhouse of my imaginary “shark-fishing boat”: the bicycle’s tire was the ship’s wheel, and the kickstand was the throttle (its rusty resistance so mechanically satisfying when it was shifted up or down with a grrooiiink!). The bike’s pedals were the winch-crank for raising and lowering the anti-shark cage.
In the movie Dead Poets Society, English teacher Mr. Keating has his students stand, one by one, atop his desk in order to view the classroom from that vantage point–an angle from which they’ve never seen it.
So we, too, if we set out to write fantasy, must stand in places we don’t normally stand. We must look around, and listen to the quietness and the whispers of leaves. Let us remember what we knew before we ever opened a textbook: that the wonders are here, more than any book can contain. Grab hold of one and write about it!