The Flat-Heeled Muse
April 1, 1965
The muse in charge of fantasy wears good, sensible shoes. No foam-born Aphrodite, she vaguely resembles my old piano teacher, who was keen on metronomes. She does not carry a soothing lyre for inspiration, but is more likely to shake you roughly awake at four in the morning and rattle a sheaf of subtle, sneaky questions under your nose. And you had better answer them. The Muse will stand for no nonsense (that is, non-sense). Her geometries are no more Euclidean than Einstein’s, but they are equally rigorous.
I was aware of the problems and disciplines of fantasy, but in a left-handed sort of way; because there is a difference between knowing and doing. Until I met the Muse in Charge of Fantasy personally, I had no hint of what a virago she could be.
Our first encounter was relatively cordial and came in the course of working on a book called Time Cat. I suspect I learn more from writing books than readers very likely learn from reading them, and I realize now that Time Cat is an example of a fantasy perhaps more realistic than otherwise. Basically, only one fantastic premise moved the story: that Gareth, a black cat, could take the young boy Jason into nine historical periods. The premise included some built-in and plausible hedges. Boy and cat could talk together during their journeys — but only when no one else was around to overhear them; after their return home they could no longer speak to each other, at least not in words. They enjoyed no supernatural protection or privilege; what happened to them, happened — indeed, if Gareth met with a fatal accident, Jason would be forever marooned in the past. They weren’t allowed to interfere with or change the course of history, or do anything contrary to laws of the physical world and their personal capacities. Jason was a boy and Gareth was a cat.
Within those boundaries, the problem became one of straightforward historical research, with some investigation into how cats were regarded in various eras. Ichigo, the boy emperor in the Japanese adventure, really existed. His wanting to dress kittens in kimonos was valid; there was an extravagant preciousness in the Japanese court of that epoch, and historical records state that such things happened. In other adventures, only slight accommodations made it acceptable for Jason and Gareth to be where they were, doing what they were doing.
The creation of a fantasy that starts from the ground up is something else again. Melancholy men, they say, are the most incisive humorists; by the same token, writers of fantasy must be, within their own frame of work, hardheaded realists. What appears gossamer is, underneath, solid as prestressed concrete. What seems so free in fantasy is often inventiveness of detail rather than complicated substructure. Elaboration — not improvisation.
And the closer a self-contained imaginary world draws to a recognizably real one (Tolkien’s Middle Earth instead of Carroll’s Wonderland) the more likely its pleasant meadows are to conceal unsuspected deadfalls and man-traps. The writer is wise if he explores it thoroughly and eliminates them. His world must be all of a piece, with careful and consistent handling of background, implements, and characters.
I began discovering the importance of consistency as a result of some of the research for Time Cat, originally planned to include an adventure in ancient Wales. Surely everyone cherishes a secret, private world from the days of childhood. Mine was Camelot, and Arthur’s Round Table, Malory, and the Mabinogion. The Welsh research brought it all back to me. Feeling like a man who has by accident stumbled into an enchanted cavern lost since boyhood, both terrified and awestruck, I realized I would have to explore further. Perhaps I had been waiting to do so all these years, and some kind of moment had come. In any case, I replaced the Welsh episode with an Irish one and later turned all my attention not to the beautiful land of Wales I knew in reality, but an older, darker one.
My first intention was to base a fantasy on some of the tales in the Mabinogion, and I started research accordingly. However, I soon found myself delving deeper and deeper into the legends’ origins and significance: searching for what exactly I didn’t know — to the despair even of the librarians, who must be among the most patient people on earth. A historical-realistic approach did not work. Unlike the Irish and Norse, the Welsh mythology has been irreparably tampered with, like so many pictures, old and new, cut apart and pasted every which way.
Sifting the material, hoping to find whatever I was groping for, I accumulated box after box of file cards covered with notes, names, relationships, and I learned them cold. With great pains I began constructing a kind of family tree or genealogical chart of mythical heroes. (Eventually I found one in a book, already done for me. Not the first book, but the fifteenth!) Nothing suited my purposes.
At that point, the Muse in Charge of Fantasy, seductive in extremely filmy garments, sidled into my work room. “Not making much headway, are you? How would it be,” she murmured huskily, “if you invented your own mythology? Isn’t that what you really want to do?”
She vanished. I was not to see her again in her aspect as temptress, but only as taskmistress. For she was right.
Abandoning all I had collected, I began once more, planning what eventually became The Book of Three. My previous labor had not been entirely in vain; it had given me roots, suggestions, possibilities. In addition, I was now free to do as I pleased. Or so I thought.
True enough, the writer of fantasy can start with whatever premises he chooses (actually, the uncomplicated ones work best). In the algebra of fantasy, A times B doesn’t have to equal B times A. But, once established, the equation must hold throughout the story. You may set your own ground rules and, in the beginning, decree as many laws as you like — though in practice the fewer departures from the “real” world the better. A not-very-serious breach and the fantasy world explodes just as surely as if a very real hydrogen bomb had been dropped on it. With inconsistency (so usual in the real world), the machinery moving the tale grinds and screeches; the characters cease to be imaginary and become simply unreal. Truth drains out of them. Admittedly, certain questions have to be begged, such as “How did all these people get here in the first place?” But they are like the axioms of geometry, questioned only by metaphysicians.
Once committed to his imaginary kingdom, the writer is not a monarch but a subject. Characters must appear plausible in their own setting, and the writer must go along with their inner logic, Happenings should have logical implications. Details should be tested for consistency. Shall animals speak? If so, do all animals speak? If not, then which — and how? Above all, why? Is it essential to the story, or lamely cute? Are there enchantments? How powerful? If an enchanter can perform such-and-such, cm he not also do so-and-so? These were a few of the more obvious questions raised by the Muse, now disguised behind steel-rimmed spectacles. Others were less straightforward.
“This person, Prince Gwydion,” she said, “I presume, is meant to be a heroic figure. But what I should like to know is this,” she added in an irritating, pedantic voice. “How is he different from an ordinary human being?”
I replied that I was prepared to establish that Gwydion, though not invincible, had a somewhat longer life span, greater strength and physical endurance. If he had powers of enchantment, these were to be limited in logical ways. I admitted, too, that he would nonetheless get hungry, thirsty, and tired.
“All very well,” she said. “But is that the essential? Is he a human being with only a little more capacity? You must tell me how he is truly and rationally different.”
I had begun to sweat. “He — he knows more? Experience?” I choked. “He sees the meaning of things. Wisdom.”
“I shall accept that,” she said. “See that you keep it in mind.”
On another occasion, I had-planned to include a mysterious and menacing portent in the shape of a dark cloud. The Muse, an early riser, prodded me awake sometime well before dawn.
“I’ve been meaning to speak with you about that cloud,” she said. “You like it, don’t you? You think it’s dramatic. But I was wondering if this had occurred to you: you only want a few of your people to see the cloud, is that not correct? Yet you have already established a number of other characters in the vicinity who will see it, too. An event like that? They’ll do nothing but talk about it for most of the story. Or,” she purred, as she always does before she pounces, “did you have something like closed-circuit television in mind?”
She clumped off in her sensible brogans while I flung myself from bed and ripped up all my work of the night before. The cloud was cut out.
Her subsequent interrogations were no gentler. Perhaps I should have foreseen all her questions and spared myself much revision.
In defense, I can only say that I must often put something on paper and test the idea in practice. I did, gradually, grow more aware of pitfalls and learned to distinguish the telltale signs of mare’s-nests.
The less fantastic it is, the stronger fantasy becomes. The writer can painfully bark his shins on too many pieces of magical furniture. Enchanted swords, wielded incautiously, cut both ways. But the limits imposed on characters and implements must be more than simply arbitrary. What does not happen should be as valid as what does. In The Once and Future King, for example, Merlyn knows what will happen in the future; he knows the consequences of Arthur’s encounter with Queen Morgause. Why doesn’t he speak out in warning? It is not good enough to say, “Well, that would spoil the story.” Merlyn cannot interfere with destiny; but how does T. H. White show this in specific detail? By having Merlyn grow backwards through time. Confused in his memories, he cannot recollect whether he has already told Arthur or was going to tell him. No more is needed. The rationale is economical and beautiful, fitting and enriching Merlyn’s personality.
Insistence on plausibility and rationality can work for the writer, not against him. In developing his characters, he is obliged to go deeper instead of wider. And, as in all literature, characters are what ultimately count. The writer of fantasy may have a slight edge on the realistic novelist, who must present his characters within the confines of actuality. Fantasy, too, uses homely detail, but at the same time goes right to the core of a character, to extract the essence, the very taste of an individual personality. This may be one of the things that makes good fantasy so convincing. The essence is poetic truth.
The distillation process, unfortunately, is unknown and must be classed as a Great Art or a Major Enchantment. If a recipe existed, it could be reproduced; and it is not reproducible. We can only see the results. Or hear them. Of Kenneth Grahame — and the same applies to all great fantasists — A. A. Milne writes: “When characters have been created as solidly . . . they speak ever after in their own voices.”
These voices speak directly to us. Like music, poetry, or dreams, fantasy goes straight to the heart of the matter. The experience of a realistic work seldom approaches the experience of fantasy. We may sail on the Hispaniola and perform deeds of derring-do. But only in fantasy can we journey through Middle Earth, where the fate of an entire world lies in the hands of a hobbit.
Fantasy presents the world as it should be. But “should be” does not mean that the realms of fantasy are Lands of Cockaigne where roasted chickens fly into mouths effortlessly opened. Sometimes heartbreaking, but never hopeless, the fantasy world as it “should be” is one in which good is ultimately stronger than evil, where courage, justice, love, and mercy actually function. Thus, it may often appear quite different from our own. In the long run, perhaps not. Fantasy does not promise Utopia. But if we listen carefully, it may tell us what we someday may be capable of achieving.
Lloyd Alexander’s fifth book for children, The Black Cauldron (Holt), is a continuation of The Book of Three and will be reviewed in the June Horn Book. His adult books include Fifty Years in the Doghouse (Putnam) and Park Avenue Vet (Holt), a collaboration with Louis J. Camuti; and he has contributed to several magazines, among them McCall’s, Harper’s Bazaar, and Contemporary Poetry. He is the translator of the French poet Pal Eluard and has translated Jean-Paul Sartre’s Le Mur and La Nausee. Mr. Alexander, his wife, Janine, and their five cats live in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania.
From the April 1965 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.