To mark the release of Nancy K. Wallace’s incredible Among Wolves (available for £1.99 here or here in the US!), a book of searching for myths and legends, Nancy has written a post on legends and a childhood filled with fairy cakes, gumdrop trees and ladies in the attic…
I’m not sure who coined the above phrase but to me it conjures up all that I hold dear about fantasy, for legend always holds some element of truth. It offers the reader some small possibility that substantiates the impossible and leaves us wondering and dreaming about ‘what ifs’.
I first discovered fantasy as a child, listening to the Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald, snuggled between my mother and older siblings at bedtime. My mother loved books and shared her own personal favorites with us. At the age of five, I truly believed that in my house, just as in Princess Irene’s castle, I, too, would discover a beautiful grandmother spinning in my attic, freely distributing lots of love, sage wisdom, and of course, snacks! I was just as sure that goblins inhabited the abandoned coal mine in the ravine at the edge of our acreage and studiously avoided it at dusk.
My mother encouraged my flights of fantasy, baking tiny cakes for the fairies on Midsummer’s Eve. We carefully placed them on leaves along with acorn caps of berry juice. They were always gone by morning! Miraculously, a gumdrop tree appeared in our woods every spring before the leaves were out. None of my friends believed me until I had a sleepover to prove them wrong. We tramped through the woods in damp sneakers and pajamas at dawn to find the Gumdrop Tree laden with moist sugary candy. My credibility was restored! I suspect my older sister, Ann, was responsible but what a gift my family gave me – my childhood was magical!
I discovered Tolkien in high school, latching onto Middle Earth as though I were coming home. Here were my elves, dwarves, heroes, and princesses, all in one trilogy! I was elated! But the story permeated my being. It wrenched my heart and I had to ration my re-readings. In college, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Tolkien’s essay ‘On Fairy Tales’. He never accepted Coleridge’s ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. He was a proponent of ‘sub-creation’, asking writers to become architects of secondary worlds that a reader’s mind could enter. Belief in that sub-creation marks a literary work for success or failure since the spell is broken when disbelief occurs.
I was fascinated by the fact that Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were friends and met regularly as The Inklings to discuss their work. Can you imagine being privy to their conversations? These two brilliant writers had very different styles but were united by a love of fantasy and legend.
Tolkien also believed that fantasy ‘is founded upon… recognition of fact’. A professor so knowledgeable in mythology, legend, and languages recognized the importance of grounding his tales in the finite while also invoking the infinite. He advocated happy endings, providing the reader with ‘a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears’. He continues to say, ‘The Evangelium [Vitae] (Latin: The Gospel of Life) has not abrogated legends: it has hallowed them.’
Perhaps it is that sacred aspect of legend that appeals most to us, as it touches a place deep inside us – a universal yearning to believe in something more. To be remembered, both fantasy and legend must touch our souls and illicit a response. Whether we experience anger, tears, or laughter, the best stories change us. We are enriched by having read them and, perhaps, we catch a glimpse of the infinite between those pages that keeps us coming back for more.