VOYAGE TO THE OTHERWORLD: THE MASK OF THE MYTH-MAKER
The Book of Taliesin preserves an obscure Welsh poem called Preiddeu Annwfn, a story which might have been composed anywhere from the sixth century to the fifteenth. It tells of a voyage in which King Arthur sailed to Annwfn, the Otherworld, with three companies of warriors. He fought a great battle at a glass fortress, an “elf-castle,” where one of his men was imprisoned. Only seven of the adventurers returned.
The concept of someone venturing into Faerie, or at least coming into contact with something of Faerie, is universal to folk tale, and a constant element in the corpus. I intend to take this story of Arthur, the story of the Rhymer, and the story of the Princess on the Glass Hill as illustrative of how a person interacts with Faerie. I also intend to discuss how Faerie and story or art actually relate, and why each is important to the other and to human existence.
Impressions of Faerie, sometimes vague and contradictory but always distinct, permeate cultures across the world, from the Reeds of Osiris to the Aboriginal Dreamtime, and I think it is safe to say that Faerie is an intuitively human dream. Long before I ever tried to understand what was of Faerie, I knew somehow what an encounter with Faerie felt like.
I have had experiences where I have felt especially close to Faerie. Elves or gods or even the Divine Presence seem nigh. These seem to come most especially at the beginning of a storm, with the darkening of the sky, the rising of the wind, and perhaps the pattering of the first rain. There is an awareness, a mystical perception of symbols and patterns greater than oneself. I had it one night standing on the rooftop of a hotel in Old City Jerusalem as thunder rumbled in the distance. I had it walking in the country and seeing the stars blazoned overhead. I had it sitting by a fountain and just listening to the music of the water.
These are all sensual experiences. I remember when I first read and discussed the art theories of John Dewey, and how illuminating the concept of “ordinary aesthetic experience” was to me. Why do children play in puddles? Why do I have a fascination with mirrors, crystals, and things that deceive the eye? Why do I dislike eating Jell-O but love playing with it in my hands and seeing how it splits and refracts the light? Why is there something satisfying about climbing a tree or digging a hole in the ground? Pure sensory joy.
And somehow that joy is similar to that felt in Faerie, as I now realize. When we come to a Faerie story, in what do we delight? In something unfamiliar—in elves and their riddles, in green suns and talking animals. I believe that when we encounter art which speaks of new sensory experience we are more inclined to notice our own. When we see the possibility that what is might not be, we realize the value of what is. So art in general, but fantasy most blatantly, drives us back to our own reality. We love the aesthetic experience of a tree all the more because we have felt the repulsion of the factory, but also because we have heard of a place where trees grow upside-down. Faerie is described in terms of heightened and unusual sensory experience. They don’t merely have cauldrons in Annwfn—they have cauldrons with pearls around the border. There are castles in the Otherworld, but these have turrets of glass.
The recent popularity of fantasy, which has endured since Tolkien first published The Lord of the Rings, may be said to be a response to the industrialization of society, and the relegation of “impractical” fairy-stories to the nursery. The industrialization of society has removed much basic aesthetic experience from many people. Already most of our “things” are not crafted, but mass-produced. We may spend very little time out of doors. The small, idle pleasures are discouraged in favor of more “useful” activities. In time it may be that some people never know the feel of rain, or grass, or bark, and those stories which remember them are condemned as “escapist.” This world, which is fixed between two realms, as the medievals knew, would sink into Hell.
How do we elude this progression to despair? We have artists, mythmakers, who do not let us forget the importance of the world. They are bold souls, adventurers, like Arthur, or like truth-speaking Thomas the Rhymer, who met the Queen of Elfland, and journeyed in the misty worlds. She called him to serve her for seven years, and in return she gave him a gift of prophecy.
We are imperfect souls who cannot yet reach Heaven, but through Faerie we can at least escape Hell. So when Thomas comes up from the shadowlands, his face is shining like that of Moses descending Sinai or Percival from the sanctum of the Grail. In a sense he has tasted the Divine; he lives still, but he is forever changed. He has come to what theologians call Natural Revelation through Faerie.
My favorite fairy tales are northern, such as the story of the princess on the glass hill. The youngest son, Boots, who spends his days sitting in ashes, is sent with his brothers to guard a field. An earthquake comes and his brothers flee, but Boots remains and meets a magical stallion with harness and armor of brass, which he tamed. In succeeding years it brought him trappings of silver and of gold.
The king of that land had placed his daughter on the top of a mountain of glass, and he decreed that only the knight who could climb the mountain could have her for his bride. So she sat there on a throne, with three golden apples on her lap. All the knights and princes tried, along with Boots’s two brothers, but could not advance more than a yard up the slippery slope. Then a knight in armor of brass came and went a third of the way up the hill before turning and retiring. The princess thought the knight so beautiful that she threw one of her apples down to him. On the second day a knight in silver did the same, getting two-thirds of the way up the hill before leaving, and the princess threw her second apple to him. On the third day a knight in gold rode all the way up to the top of the hill and took the third apple from the princess’s lap.
The king wanted to know who had taken the apples, and so ordered every man in the kingdom to appear before him and see if he could produce the apples. The two brothers were last, but they could show the king no apples, and the king in despair asked if there was anyone left. They were forced to mention Boots, who sat in the ashes. The boy was called for, and he took the apples from his pocket. Then he tore open his sooty robes, revealing golden mail underneath, and the knight and the princess were married.
This story is ordinary in a sense, and yet it has such extraordinary elements that it cannot literally belong to anything but a fairy tale. There is something aesthetically pleasing about the ideas of a glass hill, golden apples, and shining armor. But this is an ordinary young man in a quite ordinary agricultural setting. The boy who plays in the cinders must remove his dirty rags to show the brilliance of the elf-hauberk, and yet both mail and rags exist, and both make the story what it is: a bridge between the Primary World and Faerie.
Arthur is the only one of the three protagonists I have mentioned with a real “quest.” One of his noble followers has been captured, and now he and his warriors must journey into Faerie to retrieve him. It is literally a storming of the Otherworld. The Rhymer, on the other hand, is forced into his journey. He is a nobleman who captures the attention of the Queen of Faerie, who enters Faerie not as a conqueror but as a guest, is witness to strange things, and leaves forever changed by its gifts. And Boots, least likely of all, is an ordinary boy who has the bravery to tame the enchanted horse and become something altogether unnatural and beautiful.
Whether it is the noble warrior, Arthur, in his white dragon-ship Prydwen, staring across the golden waters to the hyaline palaces and white kine of the Otherworld; or the visions of the mystic, Thomas the Rhymer, as he restlessly walks hidden paths; or simply Boots, who stumbles across enchantment in the most ordinary of settings; all stare into Faerie, catching a glimpse at once of the darkness and also the reflection of the sun below the horizon. The mythmaker of today is not someone who plays with mere paste, and still someone more than a gemcutter—he is an Arthur, who seeks answers in the Otherworld; he is a Thomas, who sings forever of his travels in other lands; and he is a Boots, the unlikely character who is carried away by his own dreams, and seizes the golden apples.
It is not elitist, I think, to say that only some can perceive Faerie. They are not all artists, but artists are often the most conscious—and it is we, who can see, who are doing what we feel instinctively is a duty: to share the blessed things we find in that land. We must give as we have been given. Some will not listen, and not all of us who love Faerie can step through the hawthorn into the Otherworld, but we may at least sing of that land as we bend behind the ploughshare.
For now we are called to linger in the shadows, where night is master for a time. But we do not need to wait always under shade of the iron machinery of the world. The moon and stars are there, more potent and more real for all their being distant, and we may linger in their light, until we receive summons to climb the mountains of the dawn.