Tuesday, 30 November 2021

Returning to Faerie


Faerie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons; it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.” (JRR Tolkien "On Fairy Stories")

Faerie is a place where that direction is North if you want it to be North. Where time is not merely relative but could be random and or even a choice. Faerie is a place where you are what you say you are, where magic is needed to navigate. And where peril lurks in every seemingly innocent corner, where your words hold more than mere communication but shape you and the world around you. This is Xanth. 

In this world, something’s name matters beyond mere identification. And while there is a true name to everything, those mundane names we choose for ourselves, or have thrust on us, still have power. If I call you a pig, and I have power, then you become more hog-like. And if you adopt the name Wolf, you must be ready when the pack leader arrives. Faerie is not a place where magic exists, Faerie is a place that is magic. It is not shaped by physics and geology (or even economics and sociology) but by the intersection of our magics, of the things we call ourselves, the names we give to others, our beliefs, loves and rages. There is truth but it is your truth, my truth, the tree’s truth. And power lies in understanding these truths. 

If you find yourself in Faerie, and we all do in the end, you are in a place where nothing much makes sense, where like the White Queen, you can believe impossible things, where sitting on a rock without its consent offends the rock. In Faerie, streams might run uphill because that is what their spirit desires. Tomorrow that same stream might sit motionless as if in a grand sulk, maybe a creature upset it by saying it should run downhill. In Faerie most of us are lost. 

Not just lost because you don’t know the way – after all if I say that way is North, it is North – but lost because there is no anchor for your being. Everything you say is contrary, everything you do has a consequence, you have no right to truth or science or heavenly guidance. Navigation requires a negotiation with every path (you may say it is headed North but you need also to persuade the Eastward-heading path of this truth), each encounter demands an accommodation with another’s understand of the real. Open that door and walk through without agreeing first that it will take you into the inn? You may end up in a tea shop. Or worse, a prison cell. 

Once upon a time humans understood this magic. We looked at a wood and didn’t see just trees, birds, moss and mushrooms. We saw the whole wood, we saw its spirit and the spirits of the trees, birds and mushrooms. And the wisest among us saw still further, they saw the weave of the world, the way in which all things are interconnected, how the intersection of these things, their actions, their choices, creates events. We better understand love, pain, anger, even death as part of a universe than as specific events that happen to individual things. 

At some point, perhaps that time we foolishly call The Enlightenment, humans walked away from magic and walked towards a world of certainty. A world where truth is given to us in the pages of a science book, a world where directions are definite, and where rocks don’t get upset if you sit on them. Now a glimpse into tomorrow tells us that uncertainty is returned. Not that rocks are upset, but we’ve discovered that what we call things, and what things call themselves, matter more than we thought. Our passage through life is shaped again by the way in which different truths intersect rather than by a proscribed set of precise names. 

The result is that we have taken a step into Faerie. Nothing is certain, nobody can be trusted, things aren’t what they seem. It is again a world of peril where each direction, each event and every encounter must be negotiated. We have, however, forgotten how to navigate in Faerie resulting in lost folk, angry folk and a dangerous spirit. To move on we need to relearn the old ways. Or turn away from magic again.

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