What Are We Mything?
When I teach classes on fantasy literature, I often start by having my students read Sigmund Freud's essay "The Uncanny." In that essay, Freud tries to figure out why we respond to certain events with a sort of creepy, uncomfortable fear, the sort of fear you feel when you see a ghost. (Each time I teach his essay, I think of Scooby Doo, shivering and whining until Velma reveals that the ghost is really the caretaker of the dilapidated old estate.) Freud says we feel the uncanny when we experience something that challenges our sense of reality, that makes us think our rational, scientific view of the world is inaccurate. Suddenly, we encounter the supernatural, and we start wondering if we really live in a world that can be explained by the laws of physics. Maybe ghosts do exist after all?
We start wondering if what Freud calls "the old, animistic conception of the universe" is the true one. In that older world view, which we believed in for thousands of years before deciding that the world could be explained rationally, nature is seen as filled with spirit. (The word "anima" is Latin for "soul," and it's where we get words such as animal and animation. Bringing a cartoon Scooby Doo to life involves giving him a soul, of sorts.) But Freud says our culture no longer believes in that view. We no longer believe that dryads live in the trees, or that the sun is a god. That a shaman can climb the world-tree whose branches touch the heavens, or a witch can brew a storm, or a warrior can transform into a bear. We no longer believe in magic. If we did see something magical, a dryad emerging from her tree or a man turning into a bear, we would feel a sense of the uncanny. And we would run away.
Freud is probably right. We would probably react the way Evelyn does in my story, The Thorn and the Blossom, when she encounters something that seems magical. We would go to a good therapist. But I think Freud's essay also misses something: he doesn't recognized that although we might be afraid if we saw an old woman creating a storm by stirring her cauldron, or Apollo walking toward us over the grass, we also long for magic. We want it to be real. When you were a child, didn't you check every wardrobe, just in case it led to Narnia or some other magical country? I know I did. In a deep and fundamental way, we need myth.
People sometimes ask me why I write fantasy, or at least stories with some sort of mythic resonance. The Thorn and the Blossom could be read as a completely realistic story, but I do think it has that resonance. If you read it as completely realistic, you're missing something: the possibility of myth, of a deeper meaning underneath the everyday. That's what myth gives us, and that's why we need it and long for it. A tree, considered scientifically, is a collection of cells that have grown into a particular configuration: it creates oxygen, prevents erosion, and provides wood for furniture. But we don't love trees for those reasons. We love them because they're trees: they arch over us in the forest like the ribs of a cathedral. They make us feel as though we could ascend to the heavens, or as though the soul of the tree, the dryad, might emerge.
Life isn't exactly easy. We experience longing, pain, and death. But I believe that finding the myth, the magic in it, even when it's metaphorical, can help us deal with the difficulty. It can transform the world and give it a meaning it did not have. It can help us see trees, and bears, and even ourselves, differently. It can help us see a magical dimension. In my story, Evelyn eventually has to stop running away from what Freud describes as the uncanny. She has to face her fears and acknowledge her longing. I didn't think about any of this when I was writing the story, of course. It's only later that you realize how much a story reflects what you believe about the world.
I started this blog post with a question that is also a terrible pun: what are we mything? Sorry, it's awful, I know. But it also contains its own answer. I think we are the way Freud describes us: we live in a world where the laws of physics apply, and we've forgotten that there are other ways of perceiving reality. But stories can remind us that once, we believed in beautiful women who could emerge from the trees, and that there was something precious in that belief. Something we have lost, and that fantasy can help us find again.
A wonderful post from a kind and amazing author! My many thanks to Ms. Goss for the visit on the blog and contribution. :)
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