Sunday, 27 October 2013

The Great Bridge Builder

Part Two

Voyage to the West


It chanced on a time that Elwe, lord of the Teleri, came alone to the starlit wood of Nan Elmoth, and there suddenly he heard the song of nightingales. Then an enchantment fell on him, and he stood still; and afar off beyond the voices of the Iomelindi he heard the voice of Melian, and it filled all his heart with wonder and desire. He forgot then utterly all his people and all the purposes of his mind, and following the birds under the shadow of the trees he passed deep into Nan Elmoth and was lost. But he came at last to a glade open to the stars, and there Melian stood; and out of the darkness he looked at her, and the light of Aman was in her face.

She spoke no word; but being filled with love Elwe came to her and took her hand, and straightaway a spell was laid on him, so that they stood thus while long years were measured by the wheeling stars above them; and the trees of Nan Elmoth grew tall and dark before they spoke any word ...

And of their love came into the world the fairest of all the Children of Illuvatar that was or ever shall be.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion
(Apologies that Blogspot and myself have failed to access accents, 'characters' or symbols :-0 )
The English poet, David Gascoyne (1917-2001), suffered greatly, like many artists and creative types, from a deep sense of alienation and separation. For him, there existed an unbridgeable gap between the often mundane nature of daily life, and the insights poetry had given him into a deeper, richer, yet seemingly unattainable way of living and being.
Like Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy in Prince Caspian, this dislocation was exacerbated by memories of Gascoyne's younger days, when a heightened, charged, more intense mode of awareness had frequently appeared on the brink of making itself manifest in his life:
"There seem to have been certain evenings in those days," he writes in his Journal 1936-38, referring to his teenage years, "when I was a prey to a particular kind of excitement that I would give much to recapture now. The shadows in doorways, the empty spaces of windows took on their greatest power of suggestiveness. An imperceptible smell of sulphur in the air. How finely attuned the nerves were to the least possibility of the miraculous. It seemed that at any moment one was going to be able to walk right through the screen of surface appearances, as through a mirror, into a strangely violent but exalted world of poetry and revolution."

This theme of heightened modes of awareness, or levels of perception, seems to have found particular resonance, throughout the centuries, in the Celtic imagination. Saints and mythological heroes, the stories tell us, set sail into the sunset, seeking out the Otherworld, a luminous zone of transfiguring clarity, known by a host of names: Tir-na-Nog, The Isles of the Blessed, The Lands of the Young, The Isle of Avalon, and many more.
The voyage to the west unfolds, more often than not, in tiny coracles without oars. The Saints and heroes place themselves unreservedly in the hands of God, venturing across the waves towards the western rim of the world and whatever (or whoever) may lie beyond.
On other occasions, in Celtic legend, the individual stumbles upon the Otherworld suddenly and unexpectedly, on the way home from a country fair, perhaps, or from visiting friends in a neighbouring town. Pwyll, King of Dyfed is drawn into it in The Mabinogion via his encounter with a mysterious pack of hounds - white with blood-red ears - while out hunting one day. In all these cases, as with Elwe in the passage from The Silmarillion above, the everyday world - what Gascoyne calls the 'screen of surface appearances - shatters like glass and is instantly forgotten, superceded by the wider, deeper reality of the world on the far side of the mirror.
So, we can ask ourselves - and begin to write from, maybe - the extent to which we have discovered imaginary worlds or kingdoms on the flip side of our own quotidian lives. If we feel that we have already made the discovery, then when did this extra dimenson spring to life in our minds and hearts? Was it when we were children and experienced a natural and easy sense of enchantment with the world around us? Or was it later - when we joined the world of work, perhaps, and felt subconsciously compelled to construct an alternative pole of imaginative reality? Or when we baceme parents ourselves and found the miracle of life such a stimulus to our latent creative faculties that we were forced again - rom deep inside ourselves, - to forge a zone of mental 'free play' of our own?
If, on the other hand, we feel that we do not have access to anything resembling a private 'Narnia', then what do we think our ideal setting or milieu might look, feel, taste and smell like? How would we imagine it?
Where are we? Are we standing on a rocky, precipitous ledge, for instance, with hawks and kestrels wheeling overhead? Or are we sitting in a secluded dell - under the shade of a great oak tree - sunlight slanting down through gold and russet leaves?
Or do sites of natural beauty leave us cold? Perhaps we are more attuned to the hubbub of the city and the whirl and rush of life at the heart of intense, bustling streets and squares?
What goes on in our secret world or kingdom?
Whatever it is. Wherever it is.
What is it that gives it its magic and makes it a place of refuge, hope and inspiration for us?
It is worth noting, as a warning and aside, that the Otherworld is by no means an unreservedly pleasant place. Like the 'Zone' in Andrei Tarkovsky's film, Stalker, it is an ambiguous realm, with a penchant for tricks, deceptions, shape-shifting gods, goddesses and demons, sudden mists and blinding, overpowering lights. A sense of uncertainty and apprehension seems part and parcel of the mystery. Its challenging and perplexing nature acts almost as a guarantee of authentic, otherworldly experience. As with Julie Carlton, in the first draft of my work-in-progress, All Saints:
No, she decided, she wouldn't turn around and look at her visitor. That was the last thing required. She'd stay where she was - as still as a statue - safe and sound on top of the tower.
'As long as I look ahead and nowhere else,' she said to herself, 'then nothing bad can happen.'
But there was nothing to see - no trees beyond the battlements, not hills nor shapes of other buildings - only the level floor of mist, as if this spirit and she were tucked away in some secluded nook overlooking a world of spectral white.
How do we begin to connect these apparently diametrically opposed worlds - the everyday and the otherworldly?
It is the response to this gauntlet that forms the next part of our Inklings Imaginative Writing journey.




At 28 October 2013 at 00:07 , Blogger Stephen Winter said...

At all times it is possible to find the wonderful in the ordinary. Sadly, also, to make the wonderful, banal. Thank you for your reminder that the wonderful can also be a place of danger and requires a cultivation of wisdom in order to travel through it safely. Maybe the banal just requires less effort.

At 29 October 2013 at 13:56 , Blogger John Fitzgerald said...

Thank you very much Stephen. Yes, I've often felt a kind of craving, or even a lust, in my life for the extraordinary or the magical. It's taken ages and ages for me to even begin to come to anything resembling a sacramental or incarnational approach to reality, where different worlds and levels interweave and inter penetrate. 'Only through time,' as T.S. Eliot reminds us, 'can the timeless appear' (can't remember exact quote but you'll know what I mean :-) All the very best, John.


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