In Search of Wild Stories

[This fourth blog post from the Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic 2019 is by Ben Holden, a fantasy writer and blogger from the South Pennines who now lives with his wife and son in the North East of England.  Given the visual nature of what he’s written here I thought it best to keep images to a minimum.  The other posts in the series can be found in the category ‘Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic 2019’.]

At the Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic, I spoke about how mass extinction and climate crisis intensify the need to open ourselves to the wild intelligence of place, allowing the rocks, rivers, winds, and wild others to speak through our stories.

In her keynote, Terri Windling spoke about this in depth, and her closing passage stuck with me.

An occupational hazard for the solitary writer is to live in the realm of the mind alone (or the shadowlands of the Internet), and not in the body, the senses, the wild rhythms of the local groundscape we each inhabit, whether rural or urban. For many of us in the fantasy field, the wild world is the very place that we seek to conjure and enter through stories and paintings — and so we must not neglect our relationship with the elemental wild around us. In our kind of work, “magic” is not a metaphor for gaining power, control, or authority, but for our numinous connection with the natural world, and our nonhuman neighbours. It is wild work. It is soul work. And we need wild stories right now, more than ever.

As someone with a desire to write wild stories, I have spent too many hours in the shadowlands of the Internet. I have used it as an anaesthetic for grief and fear, and all the other shadows that live in me.

Well it just won’t do. I need to have more courage. Starting today, I’m going to immerse myself in wild places. An occasional stroll in the woods has not been enough. I need to go deeper.

 

Day 1 – A Hidden Dell

There are three small rivers that run through the woods next to my house. One of these streams possesses hundreds of the moss-covered stones I love so much.

I followed the stream the other day, and found a secluded dell hidden amidst the oak, ash and birch trees, with a pool and a small waterfall.

This is the spot I’ve chosen to get to know in intimate detail. If I immerse myself in this place with enough consistency, then perhaps I’ll find some of the wild source material I’m looking for.

 

Night I – A Moonlit Pool

From high on the slope, the stream is a patch of darkness hunkered in the lesser darkness of the surrounding dell. If it wasn’t for the healthy trickle of water, then that thick vein of shadow could easily be bottomless rift.

As I get down close, things change.

In the pool’s dark surface, the moon is illuminating a procession of clouds, heading north on a steady wind. Water boatmen are gliding across the mottled cloudscape, silver lips encircling the contact points between their feet and the pool’s surface.

There’s a root digging into my chest, so I shift position, and the moon in the river is drawn out into a quivering silver scarab by the turbulence of the falling water, dimming as a veil of clouds draws over it.

When this happens, the silhouetted canopy of ash and oak pushes itself out from the dark of the sky; thousands of shifting leaves, black against the moonlit cloud-curtain.

I lie back on the ground and allow myself to relax into the moment. It feels good to be here, with the stream splashing merrily away.

At the Symposium, Dr Saeko Yazaki was telling me about how Japan is covered in shrines for Kami – nature gods – and how the many numinous pockets of the British Isles felt a little naked without any shrines. I confessed a desire to make a small shrine of my own, as a way of entering into a conversation with my local cosmos.

It is here, on this shelf of slanted rock at the top of the little waterfall, that I will make the shrine.

 

Day II – A River Shrine

In the dappled morning light, I ask the stream for permission to begin the shrine. My question feels empty, so I kneel on the soil, bow my head, and ask again, this time not with words, but with the silent language of my body’s longing to connect – to be engaged in a conversation with this ancient little river.

My rational mind tells me this is somewhat ridiculous – that the stream and its dell have no idea I’m even here. Then I remember how many billions of living organisms reside in a pinch of the soil beneath my feet. Can they feel my body’s weight, or the warmth seeping out of my hands? Can the mycelium sense my footfalls? And what do they tell the trees? Are these grasses, ferns, moss and leaves breathing in my out-breath, or are my exhalations carried away in the breeze? I don’t know what this stream and its dell knows, but I’m going to give it the benefit of the doubt.

I take off my boots, socks, and roll my trouser legs up. If I want to become indigenous to this land then I have to be willing to get wet.

It feels a bit rude to go shifting the river’s stones around without first getting to know them, and perhaps, strange as it sounds, asking for permission. Even if the river can’t give me a written notice to validate the rearrangement of its stones, it still feels right to ask.

I take a few deep breaths and look around at the rocks inhabiting the stream.

My eyes fall upon a curved, lichen-speckled boulder, with clumps of grass growing out of it. After spending a few minutes paying attention to the stone, I ask if it would like to be part of my little shrine.

If I were born into a culture that perceived the land as sentient, then perhaps the rock would answer me. But I’m not, and it doesn’t.

I imagine a Native American elder disapproving of my decision to lift this stone from the riverbed when it didn’t give permission. I know I’m disturbing the homes of many small creatures, including the mosses, lichen, slime moulds, beetle larvae and the bacteria that live inside the rock, but screw it. I’m avaricious, like No-Face from Spirited Away, and this is a lovely plump rock that will do nicely in the shrine. I pluck it out from the river bed and shamble over to the waterfall.

An hour later, there is flat base of stones resting on the slanting shelf of bedrock. It’s far squarer than I wanted it to be, which is a little disappointing, since curvature feels essential. I’ll have to use smaller, rounder stones on the other layers. Still, there is an opening at either end of the shrine’s foundations for water to flow through, and it feels good to at least have that.

 

Night II – River’s Voice

No moon tonight.

Everything feels thicker – the sky, the undergrowth, the air, the darkness.

My wife, Laurie, and Robin, my baby son, are both away tonight, and I’m feeling their absence.

I don’t want to do any meditation or experimental exercises – I just want to sit in the river’s company and listen.

I listen as closely as I can, and begin to realise that the river has unpronounceable phonemes. It speaks them three at a time, continually – a babbling incantation that goes on and on. Not even a Mongolian throat singer can do that.

The silver splashes, the under-gurgles and the steady trickle of water flowing through the mouth of the unfinished shrine; together, these water-notes are the river’s voice.

 

Night III

Nothing. Just the slow building of familiarity.

 

Night IV – Speaking in Movement

The river is always in motion, but since coming here I’ve been fairly static, so my work tonight is to move.

I stand up and allow the river’s voice to urge my body into a fluid little dance. Spritely water-notes spill up to me as I sway over the river, then fade, becoming deeper, more subterranean tones as the dense bank comes between me and the water.

This discovery, that simple movement can reveal hidden dimensions of the river, is a reminder that I need to get outside my comfort zone more often.

 

Day III – Shrine Making

I slip into the woods before breakfast and spend an hour building the shrine. Nothing special happens. I just move stones, and the shrine grows. It is starting to take on the curvature I wanted. One more session will do it.

 

Night V – Talking to the River

The practice of speaking out loud to a place is something I’ve tried before and never really managed to get into.

Tonight is different. Once I begin speaking, the words come tumbling out.

I confess to the river that each time I come here, I want something profound to happen – a sublime moment or insight. In speaking this thought, I realise that I’m putting too much pressure on our friendship. We’ve only been getting to know each other for the last week or so. Deep friendship will require patience and consistency.

‘What am I?’ I ask the river. ‘This creature with two legs, a beating heart, a den made of bricks, and bills to pay.’

As I stare at the tumbling stream, I’m re-minded that my body is mostly water. My body and the river’s are made of much of the same stuff! How did I forget this?

The vast community of bacteria living inside me, and the intricate constellations of human cells can all trace their lineage back to the ocean. A common home to a common ancestor I share with every single creature living in this river and its neck of the woods.

I speak these thoughts to the river, and begin to feel more at home. A sense of kinship is growing.

An hour passes, with me babbling on at great length as thoughts and ideas pour out of me, but when it comes time to leave, something strange happens.

As I climb along the slope, the river’s voice recedes, and with it, my ability to speak.

I could force it, if I really wanted to, but I’m stepping into less familiar terrain now, and to speak out loud would feel like going up to a group of strangers in a train station and pouring out my darkest secrets.

It was only inside the familiar ambit of the dell that it felt safe to speak. The tumbling, splashing eloquence of the river’s voice coaxed out my words, and now that it’s gone, I’ve fallen silent.

 

Day IV – A ‘Finished’ Shrine

I’ve been worrying that the shrine will look ugly when it’s done and will be difficult to finish, but it comes together with ease this morning.

I remove the massive round stone that was sticking out brutishly, and just about manage to lift it onto the shrine’s lid.

It looks like a head now, looking downstream, and its ‘headness’ makes the rest of the shrine look like the squat round body an ancient creature, not quite human. What would happen if I imagined myself into the body of this shrine? What would it see? What would it know? If it could stand up and walk around at night, where would it go, and why?

I want to stay and let the shrine speak, but deadlines are approaching, and I still need to type up my notes for this post, so I greet the shrine with a bow, and head back to the house.

~

My conversations with this little river are changing me.

Its voice guides me in each night and gives me solace, wild dreams, and source material for work.

A place has opened up inside me, from knowing that there is somewhere I can go which invites a conversation with my local cosmos.

I feel anchored. I’ve left the shadowlands of the Internet. I’ve spent many hours in the woods, but now I’ve finally entered them.

And they’ve entered me.

As someone with a desire to write the kind of fantasy which ignites a wild participation in the planet’s story, having tap-roots in the local cosmos feels vital, so I’ll keep going to my little shrine.

The work is just beginning.

Ben Holden

Reflections on the Glasgow Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic

[This is the third blog post stemming from the Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic, which took place in early May (the first and second are here and here). It’s the second ever guest blog post on The City of Lost Books, and is written by Taylor Driggers, who is currently completing a PhD at the University of Glasgow on Becoming Psyche: Quest(ion)ing Myths of the Divine Feminine in the Desert.  Taylor’s own blog, Dancing in the Desert, can be found here.]

Kelvin Hall

Recently I attended the Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic held at Kelvin Hall in Glasgow on Friday, the 10th of May. I was part of a cohort of scholars, writers, industry professionals, and fans who came together with the aim of sharing ideas and discussing our hopes and plans for the Research Centre for Fantasy currently in development at the University of Glasgow. If the presentations and conversations on the day were any indicator, the centre shows some promise of being an indispensable resource, although this will crucially depend on a conscious and sustained effort for accessibility, inclusivity, and material support from the institution.

Of the 5-minute talks that comprised the symposium’s two morning sessions, I was particularly struck by Mariana Rios Maldonado’s presentation on ‘Tolkien, Ethics, and the Other’, Ruth Booth’s discussion of how fandom spaces can build relationships between creative and academic communities, and Dale Knickerbocker’s reflections on fantasy as a tool for teaching ideology. I found that the questions raised by Maldonado’s research are strikingly similar to the ones that drive my own work on fantasy and queer religious imaginaries: namely, can fantasy help us contend with difference? How does the strangeness of fantasy allow us to re-think how we relate to others as radically other and create communities based on non-competitive, non-oppositional, but nonetheless disruptive encounters? These questions implicitly informed many other presentations during the day, including Sally Gales’ discussion of how the concept of ‘dead space’—used to describe abandoned spaces where abandoned people often congregate—informs her dystopian fiction, as well as Francesca T. Barbini’s presentation on her company Luna Press’s commitment to publishing accessible SFF scholarship. Maldonado’s talk in particular stood out to me because of its nuance and its radicalism. Drawing on the work of Jewish ethicist Emmanuel Levinas, her research applies an intersectional analytical framework to Tolkien’s common themes of heroism, evil, death, and free will in a way that deftly complicates the usual talking points about representation in Middle-earth.

J R R Tolkien

If Maldonado’s presentation provided a fruitful starting point for theorizing about fantasy’s potential for imagining more equitable communities, Booth and Knickerbocker each offered practical approaches to extending this potential to our own working and networking habits. As a fellow southerner from the American ‘Bible belt’, I resonated deeply with Knickerbocker’s exploration of fantasy as a tool for challenging oppressive ideologies in a classroom setting. As with many of his students, fantasy has been one of my primary outlets for questioning the assumptions and beliefs of the environment in which I was raised. Booth, meanwhile, drew on her experiences as both a scholar and writer of fantasy to demonstrate how fandom spaces, though by no means utopian, create exciting opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaboration. As both these presentations showed, fantasy’s ability to foster ‘[communion] with other living things’, to borrow a phrase from Tolkien’s ‘On Fairy-stories’, need not be confined to the private reflections of the reader; it can (and arguably should) also spill over into the public and professional lives of all who engage with fantasy texts. This is the thought that lingers in my mind the most, not only from the morning’s presentations but also from the afternoon discussion of hopes and plans for the fantasy research centre.

Perhaps relevant to my overall impressions of the event is that it occurred during a period of anxiety on my own part about whether I will be able to build a sustainable career in academia. My reflections on it in the intervening days have undoubtedly been coloured by my broader concerns about the institutional structures that govern and shape our research and teaching. To paraphrase words spoken by a colleague during the afternoon roundtable discussion, it’s all very well to speak about fantasy’s potential for inclusiveness of ‘the other’ and its ability to speak to marginal experiences. The challenge is figuring out how we will embody that notion in our professional, creative, and institutional practices. I have been fortunate during my time as a PhD student at the University of Glasgow to be working in a subject area that values and actively cultivates the study of fantasy fiction. Nonetheless, at present, access to academic resources and a research community often come with steep financial barriers of entry, contentions with national borders and immigration policies, and precarious working conditions, and this limits our discipline’s ability to put into practice what many of us preach in our work.

Ursula K Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in 2003 that in the face of capitalist exploitation and homogenisation, ‘fantasists are perhaps trying to assert and explore a larger reality than we now allow ourselves. They are trying to restore the sense—to regain the knowledge—that there is somewhere else, anywhere else, where other people may live another kind of life’. It follows, then, that as writers, researchers, independent scholars, and fans of fantasy, we must also seek to live another kind of life in our everyday, primary world existence. The Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at Glasgow has an opportunity to imagine more equitable and sustainable ways of pursuing academic research, creative work, and public engagement, and to put structures in place to support that work. Judging by the ideas shared at the symposium, there are many reasons to be optimistic about its ability to do this. It will only happen, however, if we are honest about things as they currently stand in the academy, leverage what institutional authority or power we may have to effect change, and collaboratively come together to unbuild the walls that limit access and inclusion.

Taylor Driggers

Antonio Canova

Fantasy Exists Badly: Creating a Centre for Fantasy in Glasgow

[This is the second blog post stemming from the Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic, which took place in early May (the first is here). It’s also the first guest blog post on The City of Lost Books. For that reason I’m delighted that it was written by one of our graduates, Marita Arvaniti, who will be beginning a PhD with us in September this year, on Fantasy in the Theatre. Marita raises some important issues here about the economics of academia, among other things…]

What does Fantasy do? What is Fantasy for?

Those were the two main questions that we were called to answer on Friday, May 10th, in a Kelvin Hall seminar room. We were scholars, young academics, students, writers, editors, and fans, brought together by the morning’s talks and coffee breaks and now ready to tackle the second part of the Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic: the Discussion.

All of us were seated around impromptu cardboard tables (“Imagine a table”, suggested Rhys Williams as we struggled to balance the cardboard on our legs and arm rests, and we did), presented with big sheets of paper and markers, and asked to think and talk creatively about fantasy and the fantastic. It was important that everyone gets to talk, that everyone has a voice, but other than that we weren’t given any guidance. At the end of the talk I sneaked a look around the room to see the many different approaches people had taken to filling out their pieces of paper. Huge blocks of text and carefully bullet pointed lists all seemed miles away from my group’s haphazard collection of thoughts and ideas, thrown slapdashedly onto the page.

Our conversation started with a joke. According to our team the thing that fantasy both does and is for was “mental acrobatics”. But the joke soon took  on a life of its own as we started to realize its potential. Fantasy makes us perform mental acrobatics every time it presents us with an impossible situation, helping our mind think and move in ways that we are not used to in our everyday life. Fantasy exercises the imagination, makes us more flexible by presenting us with unimagined possibilities that attack the perceived realities of our world that are filled with inequality and hate. Fantasy is also playful: a genre, a mode that has inspired great parodies of itself and nurtured authors like Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett. Even Tolkien, who protested silliness or buffoonery, has, we decided, ‘something of a B-movie quality about him,’ and where his imitators went wrong was in ignoring that.

In the end, my favourite view of Fantasy as we discussed it is the quote that gives this blog post its title: Fantasy exists badly. It exists as a joke, as a B-movie, as a formulaic sword and sorcery novel, as an all-white, all-male club. It also exists as the antithesis to itself, an oxymoron (I’m sure no other fantasy scholar has made that comment) that was able to provide the ground for the likes of Ursula K. Le Guin, Nalo Hopkinson, Ellen Kushner, N. K. Jemisin, and Kai Ashante Wilson to thrive.

Fantasy exists badly. With that in mind we moved to the second issue we were called to discuss: What Should a Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic Do? And this, dear reader, is where this blogpost becomes less of a paean and more of a cry.

The sad truth is that the truth is sad, to paraphrase Lemony Snickett, and in this, as in all academic conversations I take part in these days, it all boiled down to this: more funding. Paid internships, paid positions in the University for Grad students and PhDs, paid initiatives that will help us all come together and create a centre for fantasy and the fantastic in this wonderful city that a lot of us desperately want to call home. Because the ideas were there. The will was there, driving us all forward to put down suggestions ranging from the idealistic to the pragmatic, from whimsical dreams of the university providing Rob Maslen with a group of (paid) flying monkeys à la the Wicked Witch of the West to serious requests for the one thing that’s not in our power to offer: more funding.

Fantasy academia relies heavily on the force of its cult status, kept alive by the love of people willing to give up their time freely and consistently. It is, for many of us, a passion made into a career, the official endorsement we needed to keep spending our time reading books about dragons, orogenes, witches, and fairies. Sadly, we’ll do it for free.

T

This is not to say that things aren’t changing. If anything, my writing of this blogpost and taking part in that wonderful conversation in Kelvin Hall proves it. Opportunities such as this amazing Symposium would have been impossible last year, perhaps unthinkable the year before that. But as a graduate of the MLitt Fantasy course who has to watch as some of my most brilliant classmates and friends received rejections despite their brilliant proposals, and deal with my own rejection and what that means for the future of my PhD, I am worried whether that change will come fast enough to help any of us, or whether we’ll do the job that’s in front of us for free, out of a passion that might sustain the mind but will definitely not pay the rent.

Fantasy exists badly and so, for the moment, does fantasy academia. But with this Symposium came an unmistakable hope for change, and a momentum that will drive us forward, if we let it.

Marita Arvaniti

Fantasy at Glasgow: A History

Brian Froud

[Thanks to the astonishing Dimitra Fimi we had a magnificent Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic at the Kelvin Hall in early May. Speakers included Dimitra Fimi, Rhys Williams, Brian Attebery and Dale Knickerbocker, as well as Francesca Tristan Barbini of Luna Press and writers, artists, academics and fantasy activists from across Scotland and beyond, all gathered together to think about what we might do with a Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic here in Glasgow. Our keynote was the inspirational Terri Windling.

Here is the introductory talk I gave at the Symposium. More material from the event will be appearing on this blog in days to come. I hope these posts will give those of you who couldn’t come a sense of being part of the conversation; please join in if you feel so inclined. It won’t be ending any time soon!]

The imagination is the capacity to invoke in your mind the image or idea of something not actually present. The art of fantasy, for me, is the art of invoking the image or idea of something that never existed and never could exist. For it to be true fantasy, that denial of the possibility of the thing’s existence seems to me essential, otherwise fantasy becomes something else – religious faith, perhaps. At the same time, if it’s good fantasy it needs to make the impossible seem possible, breaking down to some extent, for a time, our understanding of the distinction between what’s true and what’s false, or between what’s reasonable and what’s clearly arrant nonsense. Fantasy is the art of lies breathed through silver, as C S Lewis put it – though he was thinking of myths at the time. It makes lies beautiful; it makes lies breathe; and that can be both a good thing and a danger to all who get caught up in it.

Annibale Carracci

What is possible changes over time, and differs between cultures. Cultures too change, making the past an alien country whose inhabitants found many things plausible which to us are completely absurd. It’s essential, then, to study fantasy historically. That’s been a driving force of my approach since I first got the chance to teach a Masters course in fantasy, as Visiting Professor at the University of St Thomas in St Paul, Minnesota, between January and April 2004. After that I came home and set up an Honours course at the University of Glasgow called ‘The Fantastic History of the Twentieth Century’. It proved at once that the appetite for fantasy was strong among undergraduates, at least; we’ve had to set a cap on numbers every year since it was founded.

Aristodemo Costoli

This appetite was noticed by my colleague Alice Jenkins, who urged me to think of setting up a Masters programme in fantasy. I was reluctant at first because of the cost in terms of workload. At the time I was the only member of staff in the English Department who admitted to an interest in fantasy on my webpage, so I would have to devise and deliver the programme more or less by myself. But I went ahead in 2015, encouraging my lovely colleagues in Creative Writing to offer a workshop suitable for Fantasy Masters students, picking out already established courses from across the university – such as the Children’s Literature courses offered by my good friends in the School of Education, Evelyn Arizpe and Maureen Farrell – as suitable options to sit alongside the two core courses I had put together.

Arthur Rackham

I also worked hard to set up events and bring speakers to the programme. Over the four years of the course’s existence these have included the following: Ben Smith and Jon Oliver, Head of Books and Commissioning Editor at Rebellion publishing. The authors Julie Bertagna, Hal Duncan, Kij Johnson, Kirsty Logan, Claire North, Christopher Priest, Arianne ‘Tex’ Thomson and Neil Williamson. The academics Jennifer Attebery, Andrew Butler, Edward James, Will Slocombe and Anna Vaninskaya. Events have included two separate workshops with Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman and Terri Windling, under the rubric ‘Reimagining Fantasy’. An evening festival of music, light and dramatic performance, ‘Night at the Museum: Fantasy Scotland’, which involved around 50 volunteers – many of them past and present students from the Fantasy programme – and brought around 800 visitors to the Hunterian Museum. Our now annual GIFCon conference (Glasgow International Fantasy Conversations, for those who don’t know), of which this year’s is the third instalment. And the appointment of Brian Attebery as the world’s first Leverhulme Visiting Professor in Fantasy (thanks for coming, Brian, and for speaking here today!).

Kinuko Y. Kraft

The numbers on our MLitt have been high for an Arts programme at that level; around 20 a year, over half of whom are international. Alice Jenkins, now our Head of School, has created two new posts in fantasy – the first such posts in history, I think – which brought us the talents and energies of two world-class scholars, Rhys Williams and Dimitra Fimi. And the programme has attracted interest from around the world, simply by virtue of being the only dedicated graduate fantasy programme in existence.

Shaun Tan

Has the time come to think of branching out? Of seeing how the art of the impossible enables us to understand the world differently? How might the impossible itself – the concept of what could never exist in the past or the present – point the way to new ways of seeing and doing things in the future? What, as Rhys is always asking us, are the affordances of fantasy?

François Schuiten

We’re meeting here today to think about the activities, the thinking and the research that might help us address these questions. And we’re also here to ask a follow-up question. What might a Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic do for us? What might we want it to do? We’d like to respond to these questions with your help, as representatives of many academic disciplines, many kinds of work in the world, many kinds of creativity. We’d like to begin the process of putting together what we’re calling a Manifesto for Fantasy and the Fantastic.

Welcome to Fantasy at Glasgow. It’s a pleasure and a privilege to have you at this symposium.

Gustave Doré