- Lloyd Alexander, Forward to The Prydain Companion
From earliest memory I voraciously sought out and read innumerable fairy tales and medieval romances, and of the books I associate most with the time where I began reading on my own, the three most significant were Tales of King Arthur and His Knights by Sir James Knowles, Saint George and the Dragon by Margaret Hodges and Trina Schart Hyman(one of the few 'picture books' I ever acquiesced to reading), and an obscure, large illustrated collection entitled simply Animal Fairy Tales (which I ,alas, have never been able to find again after my childhood copy was lost during one of my family's frequent moves). This last book in particular evinced several of the innate tastes that shaped and defined my literary tastes, as its contents ran the spectrum from Aesopian fables (which I've always despised) to several retellings of Germanic and Russian folktales (which I adored, especially a complex version of the Beauty and the Beast legend that incorporated Scandinavian elements). Anecdotes concerning talking animals and “green forest” parables, even as a very young child, held no appeal for me, but romances involving heroic knights, precocious princesses, and excursions into Fairy realms “beyond the fields we know” enthralled my imagination from the beginning.
When I was around 7, at a local garage sale, I came across a worn paperback copy of The Hobbit, an event I recall clearly, from the initial attraction to the painting of the dragon on the cover, to the insignificant price my mother actually paid for it (a quarter), even my mother's voicing of bemused surprise at my preference for this book over a cluster of G.I. Joe or Star Wars figurines.. My mother began reading The Hobbit to me during a period of illness sometime later and I ended up finishing the book on my own, unwilling to wait for her bedside attendance.
Around this same time, one of the first video rental stores opened in our town (we were living in Kingston, Ontario then), and once a week I was allowed to pick out a film for myself (on Betamax no less!). Inevitably, I repeatedly rented the same films, compulsively watching them again and again, including The Neverending Story, The Last Unicorn, Ladyhawke, Dragonslayer, and, by far the most often, The Dark Crystal (and, later, Labyrinth). My obsession with these two movies in particular eventually led to the acquiring of one of the most significant and influential books on my life; Brian Froud and Alan Lee's Faeries (more on that a bit later).
As mentioned earlier, I never at any point in my life had any interest in so-called 'children's books' and pretty much from the time I learned to read I began to seek out novels, as opposed to the 'intermediate readers' unfortunately thrust upon young children, especially in school. By the first grade I was well-versed in the worlds of H.G. Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Bram Stoker. However, though pirates and mad Victorian Scientists were all well-and-good, my heart continued to yearn for fantasy. Unfortunately, most of the fantasy I read I found indefinably unsatisfying; there was something superficial, or synthetic, in the majority of fantasy books, a quality I could not define or describe but acutely felt the lack thereof. I knew on some inherent level what I wanted to read - something blending the sense of wonderment, magic and otherworldliness of the better fairytales with the mythic, epic, and sense of genuine history from the Arthurian mythos- but was unable to find it.
It was this same deficiency that distanced me at an early age from the films of Disney. I imagine it must have been a puzzle for my parents that I would eagerly devour Hans Christian Anderson and Perrault while showing no interest, even animosity, towards such animated “classics” like Disney's Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. While I lacked the lexicon to describe it then, it's simple for me to now to ex cogitate how I perceived (and still do) an exiguity of depth, reality and conviction in those bowdlerized, over-sanitized and sentimentalized saccharine banalities (there's a mouthful, but my vitriol towards Disney has been nursed for nigh-on 27 years).
The specific term for the quality I was searching for, indeed on some innate level felt the “need for”,and so frequently and frustratingly eluded me, is 'subcreation', a term coined by Tolkien in his seminal essay 'On Fairy Stories', which I wouldn't encounter until many years later. The only fantasy literature I encountered in my youth, besides folktales and myth, that sufficiently exemplifies this concept was Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain, a series heavily inspired by (but not a retelling of) Welsh myth that I adore to this day. Ironically, Disney attempted an animated adaptation of one of the books in the Prydain series, the Black Cauldron, which ended up as one of their greater failures (there's a very big and amusing story there that involves Tim Burton and The Secret of NIMH, but I'm engaging in enough digressions as it is for this tale). It was not until I was eleven years of age, when my family was living in Pennsylvania, that I first read Tolkien's masterpiece of subcreation, The Lord of the Rings.
I tend to avoid discussing Tolkien these days as Peter Jackson's incredibly successful film adaptations have made the books a fixture of pop culture whereas in my teens it seemed something much more personal and private, a conspiratorial joy shared only by the dedicated fantasy literati, arcane and inaccessible to the masses. I must accede more than a little pretension inherent in this view; what to my mind seems a wide gap between those fans of the movie (and recent readers of the books) vs. those of us who 'discovered' Tolkien on our own, as if popularity in some way cheapens the identification of oneself as a “fan”. However, it would honestly be impossible for me to discuss the history of my obsession without explicating the profound influence of Tolkien over the years.
Up to now, I've described, (almost catalogued) a number of significant early external influences (though I've made no attempt to be comprehensive, as such an endeavour could easily fill a novella), but I think it's important to note that it is my strongest belief that such elements are in reality symptoms of my obsession rather than the causes or inspirations. Put simply, it's my supposition that there is some inherent or innate predisposition causing me from the earliest age to respond to the described genre.
I think certain concepts, ideas, even time periods, "resonate" with different people on an instinctive level when they encounter them , speaking to some preconscious inclination that is as individual as it is ineffable. I propound this as the reason some people devote themselves passionately to histories and fiction concerning the Napoleonic Wars, some become Civil War buffs, others spend inordinate hours pouring over the minutiae of 17th century French poetry; something about these subjects uniquely beguiles and transfixes them from the moment of discovery. Tolkien wrote that, growing up, the first time he encountered a snippet of untranslated Anglo-Saxon verse, he "recognized' the language; not that he could comprehend it, inabnitio, rather it evoked some indescribable sense of familiarity and 'lingui-aesthetic" delight from the latent recesses of his soul. It is a sentiment I can completely accredit and sympathize with, not the least because of my own growing love of language germinating concurrently with (and inseparably interwoven) my explorations of folklore.
But, once again, I'm getting ahead of myself.
In truth, the one primary event that focused my attention from medieval folklore and romance in general to The Fair Folk in specific, I've not described here. I'm afraid it's a personal event that I've never felt comfortable discussing, and I've tried putting it to words before, to no avail. Despite it's fundamental import to this dissertation, for now I'm afraid it must remain an unspoken paralipsis.
At around the age of eleven I encountered the two texts that would form the foundation of a new stage in my obsession: the aforementioned Faeries by Froud and Lee, and A Dictionary of Fairies by Katharine Briggs. Besides the sheer exaltation evoked by the depictions within these books of a fantastically alien (yet paradoxically familiar) culture and populace, there was also a very powerful intuition that I was encountering for the first time (without the concession of fiction) the precipice of some “lost history”. I had scratched the surface of a deeper world, either subcreative in origin our paralleled with our understanding of history (and reality), yet either way bespoken of an intricacy and profundity that haunted and captivated me, mind and soul.
This is when I began to research compulsively. I say “compulsively” not simply because the act was (and remains) habitual, moreover because initially, and for many years, my gratuitous reading and note-taking had no discernible purpose or goal attendant. What was previously simply a preferred form of entertainment and aesthetic partiality began to assume the sense of something akin to socio-archaeology.
Thomas Shippey wrote that “All minds possess a drive towards consistency, towards reducing data, events, and characters to some smaller [core] set of principles or categories.” Whether this is a universal truth I cannot say beyond agreeing that it succinctly describes a motivation permeating my own studies. Again, a comprehensive explanation is well beyond the scope of this email; so much so that the best I can reasonably provide is a singular example.
'Goblins' is one of the best-known and notorious classes of Fae, though there exists no standardized definition or description of what specifically characterizes a goblin. Like most faery classifications, it is a vague and amorphous title encompassing a variety of faery creatures from the diminutive, mischievous denizens of the Labyrinth film, to monstrous horrors of British folklore such as Rawhead-and-Bloody-Bones, not to mention the house-spirits and farmyard helpers known as 'hobgoblins' (It is this very inconsistency that led Tolkien to all but abandon the term he employed frequently in the Hobbit, substituting 'Orc', derived from Anglo-Saxon 'Orcneus', mentioned alongside 'Ylfes' in a catalogue of supernatural creatures in Beowulf).
'Goblin' is, structurally, a diminutive form of 'Gobel', from the Anglo-French 'gobelin' (Middle Latin gobelinus), which in itself is derived from Gob, or Ghob, an earth-spirit or elemental. 'Gob' is actually interchangeable with 'Hob' via initial vowel mutation which characterizes the Celtic language family. “Gob” in turn comes from the German “gobold”, later “kobold”, also appearing with an endless variety of suffixes, such as the 'galgenmannlien' in southern Germany. 'Kobold', however, is a germanicization of the Greek 'kobalos', a tutelary household spirit related to the Lares of ancient Rome. In Greek, though, the very closely constructed word 'koba'los' means “rogue”. The kobold or kobalos further enters Anglo-Saxon lore as 'cofgodas', or 'room-gods'.
In Britain, however, 'goblin' is a later term brought over by the Normans, applied to creatures more commonly called 'bugs'. Briggs has entries for “bugs, bogans, boggarts, bogies, bugganes, and bug-a-boos” among others, all obviously interrelated and analogous, but with ill-defined distinctions and relations to one another. Is a bogle a type of bug? Are boggans and buccanes different names for the same creature? Why does a brownie turn into a boggart? Moreover, how are bugs related to goblins?
Approaching the dilemma linguistically, however, one finds that 'bug' can be traced back to early Cornish 'Bucca', from a Celtic root often erroneously translated simply as 'goat' or 'he-goat'.
(These kind of over-simplifications are all too common with dictionaries, dealing with ancient languages, whose definitions tend to gloss over the myriad of complex associations inevitably attached to any word. As Tolkien once put it (I'm paraphrasing from memory), there is a tendency to view words simply as bricks for use in building sentences, but they are in fact stalactites, the visible tips of a great mountain of history and stories all of which remain and affect its genealogy. For example, the Bosworth-Toller translation of the line in Beowulf “onband beadrune” is “unbound the war-secret”, which is an all-but meaningless phrase. Literally, it means “unbound the battle-rune”. To take a concept so complex and intriguing as the term “rune” and reduce it to simply “secret” is to rob the phrase of the vast amount of imagery and powerful insinuations it evokes. )
In ancient Cornish legend, one finds tales of two spirits, the Bucca Gwiddon ('white' or 'good') and the Bucca Dhu ('black' or 'evil', pronounced 'doo', thus 'bug-a-boos'). The double c suggests the word is of non-Brythonic origin, probably from Scandinavia originally by way of “*pukel”. The White Bucca originally had fertility associations, and offerings of fish led to some later (probably erroneous) association with the sea, while the Black Bucca was from the earliest associated with the Cornish tin mines.
Working backwards from Cornish 'bucca', one finds the Welsh “bwca”, which in turn enters Britain and Irish myth as “pooka/phouka”, later “Puck”, (popularized by Shakespeare and Kipling as the mischievous, shapeshifting prankster also known as Robin Goodfellow). Welsh also provides “bwcan”, which enters British folklore as “boggan”, and Irish and Scottish lore as “buachan”, which in turn enters Northumbrian tales as “buggane”. The later British “bug” is simply a rendering of “bwg”, with regional dialects shifting the vowel sound to 'bog', and adding an endless variety of diminutive suffixes such as “boggle, boggart, and bogie” (and this in turn survived as the nursery spirit known to this day as “The Bogie-Man”).
From all of these twisting and convoluted threads one begins to dimly perceive and conceptualize an archetype, a history leading indirectly back to a single, definable concept, or in this case, two interrelated concepts
Cafgodas literally took the form of small wooden idols that sat above the hearth and were the protectors of the home. It is easy to imagine, then, as mining culture grew, especially the Laurium silver mines near Athens, that this particularly hostile and dangerous work would inspire the people to bring protective spirits with them, likely in the same form of small wooden idols that protected them at home. With the treacherous nature of minework, however, these cafgodas must have seemed much more temperamental and prone to maliciousness. Meanwhile, the cafgodas traditions make their way into Germanic folklore (kobolds), most likely through Hellenic (and later Roman) colonizers, ambassadors, and even conquering armies. From there the tradition spreads west into Gaul (gobelins), thought at the same time comes to Norse and Scandinavian folk-belief, where it is confused or amalgamated with the 'pukel-men'. The pukel-men were ancient Anglo-Saxon idols, small, squat, and misshapen, often fertility spirits with exaggerated and grotesque features, carved out of wood much like the cafgodas (and obviously similar in intent). Here , however, we see the origin of the visuals commonly associated in modern times with the goblin archetype. Norse traders and ravagers bring the pukel-men into Britain, where it's adopted into Celtic culture and, in the line of progression already outlined, eventually leads to the various sub-classes of bugs, pookas, bwcas, and buccas. And then, after the Norman conquest, the alternate word 'Goblin' comes to Britain. The Celtic division of 'bucca gwiddon' and 'bucca dhu' directly parallels the later medieval division of goblins and hobgoblins, both coming from the varied associations starting with cafgodas (and even those are likely borrowings from a much older tradition, lost in the mists of time).
Of course, all the varieties, misconceptions, and amalgamations of these types cannot, or at least to my mind, should not be reduced or ignored completely in the desire for clear systematization or one sacrifices the unique and sui generis character of the myriad fae entities; a pooka may be related to, but should not be reduced to simply a analogy of a brownie. Optimally one must find a satisfying compromise between the two contrary impulses, the one desiring clear, simple-as-possible classification, the other appreciating the colour and individuality of the endless variations on a theme. This is a delicate balance and ineffectively done can lead either to the mass confusion of a work like Anna Franklin's Encyclopedia of Fairies (wonderful in its scope but impractically obtuse), or, to the other extreme, the “Dungeons and Dragons-syndrome” (closely related to the “Star-Trek Syndrome” regarding alien life forms), wherein entities are stripped of their ipseity and glorious idiosyncrasies and reduced to bland, banal carapaces force-fit into puzzle pieces.
However, I believe the amount of compromises needed to still present a coherent taxonomy is substantially reduced in direct relation to the amount of research done.
Earlier I mentioned that my love of languages developed concurrently and is inextricably connected to my research into faery lore, which is likely blatantly apparent in my etymological exposition regarding goblins. This is philology, separate from 'linguistics', which concerns itself solely with the form and structure of languages, and even further removed from 'literature', of which the Oxford English Dictionary says: “ The full glory of [literature] broke in England with Edmund Spenser”, i.e. 1579. Not only does this dismiss the majority of the works forming the basis of my research, but it also exalts a work that I despise and is in itself a bastardization of everything I love (but this is typical of so-called 'literary circles', the same ones that cannot understand Tolkien and moreover are completely at a loss when dealing with works such as Beowulf or The Prose Edda. 'Literature' ends up being defined as what's understandable and convenient and anything beyond the limited imagination and dullness of critics is ignorantly dismissed). Contrarily, philology is ambiguously but appropriately defined as
“1. The study of literary texts and of written records, the establishment of their authenticity and their original form, and the determination of their meaning”; and, my personal favourite; simply “3. The love of learning and literature”.
Significantly, the “father” of modern philology was folklorist Jacob Grimm, one of the “Brothers Grimm” whose names are now synonymous with fairy tales. Indeed, perhaps ironically, the word 'faery' itself is ultimately derived from Latin 'fata', 'fate', which in turn derives from Latin 'fari', 'to speak' (lit. 'that which is spoken'). This seems to me far more than coincidence.
Grimm's view of philology was that it in essence dealt with 'national culture', believing that language and legend were intertwined and interdependent. Philology carries with it the feeling of intimate involvement with history, provoked by the acute awareness of the shaping of the present by the past; the stalactites of words again, but also the creation of nation-states by language-separation (e.g. Dutch and German), the growth of national myth from forgotten history (as with the Finnish Kalevala), but perhaps as much as anything the fastening down of landscape to popular consciousness by the habit of naming places.
This last point is surpassingly relevant to my references to a 'sense of a lost history', for nowhere is this presentiment discerned more intensely than in a topographical survey of the British Isles. Here one finds an endless trove of forgotten and fragmented myths surviving only as place-names, endlessly tantalizing and frustrating as they bespeak of legends and tales long since obscured by the mists of time. Ireland, a country who has held on to it's myths with more devotion than any other, wonderfully has its dinnseanchas, a manuscript comprising some 176 poems (plus a number of prose tales and commentaries), cataloging the mythic origins associated with it's landscape, but tragically no such cipher exists to reveal the secrets of Wayland's Smithy, a prehistoric barrow not 30 miles from Oxford that is now more than a thousand years old. 'Wayland' no longer means anything at all to the English people, only the name survives now and the solitary hint of the legends once surrounding it is in a single line from King Alfred's translation of Boethius, wherein he interjects the outcry: “ Hwaet synt nu thaes foremeran ond thaes wisan goldsmithes ban Welondes?” ('What now of the bones of Wayland, the goldsmith pre-eminently wise?').
Place-names give suggestive clues, capturing fitful and bedeviling glimpses in the dark, riddles of the past. Northwest of Oxford, across the river Evenlode, stands a Roman-Celtic villa, excavated in 1865, distinguished by the remains of a fourth century tessellated pavement in a myriad of colours. The nearby village is called Fawler. To most people, including it's inhabitants, this name now means nothing, but once it was 'Fauflor' (a spelling recorded in 1205), and before that, in Old English, 'faeg flor' ('the coloured floor'). There's little doubt that the village was called after the distinctive pavement, so the villa was still visible when the Anglo-Saxon invaders came. Why, then, did they not occupy the villa, but chose to live instead on an undeveloped site a few furlongs off? Perhaps they were afraid; there was another “faeg flor” in Anglo-Saxon record, in the great hall of Beowulf, haunted by the monster Grendel.
In the introduction to his 1851 translations of Asbjornsen and Moe's famous collection of Norse fairy tales, Sir George Dasent wrote that the reader “must be satisfied with the soup that is set before him, and not desire to see the bones of the ox out of which it has been boiled.” But I cry foul. The bones have always been far more interesting to me, much more than the thin broth, watered down by the misinterpretations and distortions of time. Where Dasent (quite arrogantly I think) entreats the reader to be a passive observer, I would much rather play archaeologist, reconstructing the beast from the clues left behind in the fossilized bones.
So my research continued through most of my teens, as I spent innumerable hours at libraries, filling spiral notebooks and shoe boxes full of index cards. As is easily inferred from my previous emails, my dissatisfaction with modern fantasy led inevitably to older sources, working backwards, as it were, from Tolkien. Dictionaries of Celtic myth and encyclopedias of European folklore were supplemented with explorations of the worlds of Eddison, Morris, and Dunsany, until I eventually moved on to surviving Medieval and Dark Age manuscripts. After a time, though, I learned to mistrust translations, too often perpetrated by people without a proper understanding of the cultural contexts and philological complexities of languages belonging to a world so far removed from our own, distanced not simply by Time but also by a worldview and psyche alien to most twentieth-century mindsets.
The poets who sang 'Beowulf', for example, did not see the world like us, but “saw in his thought the brave men of old walking under the vault of heaven upon the island earth (middengeard) beleaguered by the 'Shoreless Seas' (garsecg) and the outer darkness, enduring with stern courage the brief days of life (laene lif), until the 'Hour of Fate' (metodsceaft), when all things should perish, 'light and life together' (leoht ond lif samod)”
The gulf between this perception of life; surrounded by a hostile world & very real supernatural forces, most of which you could at best only avoid or temporarily appease, your life bound by 'Fate' and the concept of “Free Will” extending no further than the resolution to face the inevitable with calm resignation; and that of a twentieth century writer employed by Penguin or Dover or their scholastic institution, is almost insurmountable, leading to the gloss of “onband beadurune” as something as banal as “unbound the war secret”.
However, translation was only the first obstacle. The true bane of my research quickly became Christianization, as most (almost all) surviving texts, whether the Cymric 'Mabinogi', the Irish 'Immrama', or the Norse Eddas. These were transcribed long after they left the oral tradition by clerics who more often than not felt the need to “correct” the pagan theology as presented. Gods were turned into saints or devils, monsters were given geneologies tracing them back to Cain, & idyllic otherworlds were remade as purgatories or hells. In some cases, such as the Voyage of Mael Duin (Immram Curiag Mael Duin, later rewritten as The Voyage of St. Brendan), the additions are glaringly obvious addendums; in others (such as the Leabhor Gabhala Eireann) the tales are bastardized almost beyond recognition, with only hints remaining of the original inspirations.
Nevertheless, this is all elementary, and to continue my own tale, it quickly became apparent that all this research must be leading to some unforeseen goal, as yet unascertained. At that time in my life I was intent on becoming a comic book artist as a career, and the compulsive note-taking was simply a mad hobby, with no realistic applications I could imagine. But the sheer volume of research soon eclipsed that of any single work on the subject I could find, and like many writers, I think the first notions of forging some sort of book out of it arose simply from the lack on the market of exactly the kind of book that I wanted to read/own. I first began to conceive of amassing some sort of comprehensive encyclopedia, but the format seemed far too limiting, simply a dry presentation of information without the aspects of a created reality that I wished to convey. In the end it was primarily three specific books that led to my final epiphany: 'The Tough Guide to Fantasyland', 'Dictionary of the Khazars', and 'House of Leaves'.
'The Tough Guide to Fantasyland', by Dianne Wynne-Jones (best known, by me anyways, as the author of Howl's Moving Castle), is a bitingly-satirical 'tourist guidebook', using this setup to explore, expose and parody the over-used tropes and clichés of the post-Tolkiensian fantasy genre.
(As an aside, of the innumerable multi-volume fantasy series in the last 30 or so years directly and obviously “inspired” by Tolkien, from George R. Martin to Terry Goodkind, by far the worst and most derivative is Terry Brook's 'Sword of Shannara' series, which is not only a blatant imitation in plot, characterization, and theme, but an imitation that is offensively devoid of depth. However, there is a curious phenomenon I've experienced repeatedly over the years whereupon while browsing the shelves of various bookstores I've frequented, when I pass over the Shannara books, out of the corner of my eye I initially read the title of the first volume as “The Sword of Shanana” (say it aloud), causing me to turn and stare until I correct myself. I am now convinced that in some alternate universe, perhaps hidden somewhere in the stacks of Lucien's library in The Dreaming, there is actually a book called “The Sword of Shanana” that is infinitely more original & entertaining.)
Though Wynne-Jones' intent with 'The Tough Guide to Fantasyland' is satire, the presentation is wonderful, creating a sense of interaction between the reader as 'tourist' and the otherworld, & the books almost absurd practicality and matter-of-factness only increases the conviction of the book's reality.
The other two books mentioned, 'A Dictionary of the Khazars' and 'House of Leaves', while less obviously connected to the subject matter, share in their unique method of presentation which demands involvement from the reader and a format that illustrates their respective sub-created worlds in a manner akin to a non-fiction scholarly work.
'A Dictionary of the Khazars', by Milorad Pavic, is a brilliant faux-encyclopedia that is the imaginary accumulation of knowledge concerning the Khazars, a culture who resided in a small area of Eastern Europe during the 7th and 9th centuries and then mysteriously disappeared. Referring to itself as a “lexicon novel”, it is divided into three parts, each representing the legends and rumours concerning the Khazars from the point of view of one of the three major Western Religions; Christian, Judaism, and Islam; with clues to the actual fate of the Khazars hidden throughout the cross-referenced dictionary entries and alternate version of the tales. Each group purports that the Khazars eventually converted to their religion & were absorbed into their cultures, but the “truth” is buried, as each side has only part of the answer. To complicate matters further, two different version of the “Dictionary” were published: a male and a female edition, almost identical except for a discrepancy of one paragraph that is crucially different.
'House of Leaves', on the other hand, is a twisting labyrinth of a book; fascinating, unsettling, and ultimately terrifying; the purest and most effective work of Lovecraftian horror I've ever encountered.
(I first encountered House of Leaves just a year after finishing art school at the age of 20. I am willing to boast that I am not an easy person to scare; I was raised on horror films during their apex of the '80's, with the Elm Street series as significant a part of my childhood as Saturday morning cartoons. By the age of 7 I had seen, among many others, such films as The Shining and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which I watched with little more than detached interest. Though I love the genre, I could easily count on one hand the few films that were at any point actually able to elicit any emotional response, an actual reaction of tension and lingering fear. The amount of literary horror fiction to do the same is equally limited. All that said, I admit unashamedly that House of Leaves scared me to the bone. Not that instant shock attended by a rush of adrenaline, but a lingering, pervasive, subversive fear that clawed at the back of my mind and played with the edges of my imagination, so that I had to sleep with the lights on and begun, for a time, obsessively-compulsively checking closet doors to make sure they were shut.)
'House of Leaves' was written by Mark Z. Danielewski, older brother to the musician Poe (she actually released a concept album based on House of Leaves entitled 'Haunted', which is what originally led me to read the book). House of Leaves intertwines several narratives, the main being the manuscript of a man with the unlikely name of Zampano. The conceit of the book's format is that it is composed of the loose notes and manuscripts of Zampano, collected, organized, and edited by a young man named Johnny Truant who found them in the old man's apartment after his unusual death. Zampano's book is a highly detailed examination of a documentary film called “The Navidson Record”. It explores and describes the film, while indulging in numerous critical studies and vast amounts of annotations and notes. Within some of those annotations, Johnny Truant, over the course of the work, chronicles his experiences while reading the manuscript and the ways it affectsand eventually consumes his life, driving him insane.
“The Navidson Record” itself is the story of a just-retired photojournalist's documentary chronicling his family's move to a small country house out on Ash Tree Lane, beginning as a rather mundane and domestic home movie, but quickly spiraling into the uncanny, starting with the discovery that the house is somehow larger on the inside than on the outside. Doorways begin appearing on walls where there were none before, leading into the dark hallways of a labyrinthine underworld whose architecture constantly shifts. Interspersed with the description of the film are a number of digressions on psychology, science, and mythology.
These two stories are further complicated by a series of codes hidden throughout the text; taking just the capitalized letters of one section, or the first letter of every other word in another section, one finds numerous disturbing hidden messages. There is even one section of text that turns out to be arranged in Morse code. Beyond that, the book's index contains a series of letters to Johnny Truant from his mother who’s resided in a mental institution since he was a child after trying to kill him. The letters, which fluctuate in coherence, imply that she may have actually succeeded in killing Johnny, and he is merely a figment of her imagination. But there are also hints that Zampano himself may have created Johnny and his mother as a fictional editor for his work. Moreover, in the description of the Navidson record, Navidson himself is described as reading a book called House of Leaves, in one crucial scene, and Johnny encounters people who have already read his manuscript presumably while he was still in the course of putting it together.
'House of Leaves' constantly disrupts any safe ideas about reality and the overall experience of the book is unnerving and disorientating.
Both Pavic and Danielewski's books are examples of that unusual subgenre of fiction known as 'experimental novels', a term and concept originating, ironically enough, with Laurence Sterne's 18th century “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman”, a book I've adored since early adolescence, not the least because the title character is the only one in fiction I've encountered besides Sir Tristram de Lyonesse to share my name. “Tristram Shandy” starts off a Dickensian autobiography, but the narrator continually gets sidetracked by tangents, anecdotes, and stream-of-consciousness ramblings that by the end of the book he still hasn't finished telling the story of his birth. All of this is punctuated by missing chapters, unusual arrangements of texts, strings of asterisks, and a whole subgenre of mishaps involving the engravings. It is a book about chaos, and it presents it in undiluted form.
(Another significant example of “experimental literature” is James Joyce's “Finnegan's Wake”, perhaps the only 20th century English novel that requires a substantial amount of translation from it's readers, and begins with the end of a sentence, the beginning of which the book ends with, making the story truly circular.)
The format of the experimental novel appeals to me for many of the reasons I've stated above: it alters the relationship between a book and the reader, it plays with perceptions and expectations, & it uses this new analog to create an interactive reality. All of which were related to pushing the idea of subcreation, and coalesced in my mind as I figured out exactly the book (well, “books”, actually, there are 3 volumes) I wanted to write.
It was around 2002 that the ideas I had for the book(s) finally coalesced. Unfortunately, this was not simply a distillation of the research I'd done up to that point, rather my conception for the book would require roughly another decade of work.
Though I can clearly envision how the volumes will be constructed and what they entail in my mind, it is exceedingly difficult to concisely describe (hence the serialized length of these emails). Thus I'm afraid this final email on the subject is at best a bit rambling and disjointed, though hopefully in the end I can, at least in part, convey an over-all picture of my intentions.
The conceit of the work is that it is mainly culled from the discovered travel journals of three Victorians who entered and explored the Otherworld in the late 19th century. Each character is an amalgamation of fictional and historical personae, the first based in part on Mr. Vane from Lilith & Rev. Robert Kirk (author of The Secret Commonwealth), with elements taken from George MacDonald himself and Charles Dodgson aka Lewis Carrol; the second is loosely based on Ada Lovelace, the so-called “Countess of Numbers”, daughter of Lord Byron, with elements taken from Christabel LaMotte, a poetess from the novel Possession by A.S. Byatt; & the third based on Don Jamie, a character from Arturo Perez-Reverte's The Fencing Master, with elements taken from Guillermo Del Toro and the Greek writer Theophrastus.
Hidden within the books are the eventual fates of these characters and the story of how the journals came into the hands of the “editors”. Interspersed with the first-hand accounts from these three are a number of essays and critical studies on diverse subjects like witchcraft and magic, Jungian symbolism, religious perceptions of the Fae throughout the ages, etc., by a variety of fictional “experts” (based on prominent Folklorists of the 20th century), and many notes and annotations by the editors.
Early on I knew the scope of the work was well beyond a single book and hence, as mentioned previously, I began dividing it into 3 volumes, each exploring a different area of the Otherworld corresponding to the myths and folk beliefs of a specific European cultural group; from Tir na n'Og, Annwn, Avalon and Lyonesse, to Royaume des Fees, Carabas, Syrie, Arcadia, and Phaiakia, to Alfheim, Jotunland, Dacia and The Thrice-Tenth Kingdoms. The books are combination travelogue, gazetteer, socio-cultural study, idio-linguistic grammar, taxonomy, bestiary, and botanical treatise.
There is a passage in Neverwhere wherein Door gives a brief description of London Below:
“There are little pockets of old time in London, where things and places stay the same, like bubbles in amber...There's a lot of time in London, and it has to go somewhere - it doesn't get used up at once.”
This is a wonderfully apt epitomization of how I picture the Otherworld, albeit on a much grander scale. Pocket realms frozen in time, interconnected across a vast alternate world that mirrors our own but is defined by a different set of natural laws. Halfway between the domains of dreams and death, Faery is a world of symbolism, synchronicity, and the manifested collective unconscious. Its relationship to time is particularly complicated, with certain events perpetually repeating themselves, played out against the change of seasons. Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood & Lavondyss also informed my conception of the Otherworld; the deeper one travels into it, the more ancient forms of the myths encountered, with the primordial or ur-myths dwelling deep in the heart of the Forest Primaeval.
Like Tolkien, idiolinguistics has long been a secret vice of mine, and I have created 3 languages for the Otherworld that play a specific part within the book. The first, the main language of the elves, sidhe, and fata, is based on Old Irish, Scots Gaelic, Welsh, and Finnish. The second is the Dwarrow-tongues, which are based on Old Norse, Gothic and Old High German. The third is the goblin tongues, which are actually a group of pidgins or creoles. As custodians of the goblin-market, goblins are the most widely-traveled of the Fae, and need use of a simple language for bartering and riddling. Hence the goblin tongues have elements of Cockney rhyming slang, Victorian Thieves' Cant, “low” Middle English, and random dirty words culled from every European language imaginable.
There is also an ancient tongue, Draconian, based on Sumerian, Greek, and Latin. It is not spoken, but like the relationship of Latin to modern day science, it is considered the language of wisdom, learning, and knowledge. Dragons themselves, while exceedingly rare, play an incredibly important part in the Otherworld, their presence always felt on the periphery. There is an old French poem I read in my teens that I have never been able to find again, but which contained the line “this world is but the dream of dragons”, a phrase that has always stuck with me since. I imagined that an appropriate creation-myth in Faery would be that the word is literally a great dragon who coiled up upon himself to sleep (Ouroboros), and his dreams created the worlds upon him. This not only gives explanation to the fragmented realms that make up the Otherworld (each is a dream of the dragon), but also allows me to add some Lovecraftian elements to the Otherworld, as the wakening of the Dragon Ouroboros would be an apocalyptic disaster akin to the wakening of Cthulhu in the Mythos. The dragons, hence, are the oldest inhabitants of the Otherworld, and if faeries were brought to life out of the dreams of humanity, than the dragons likely were brought to life out of the dreams of the thunder lizard kings that ruled the earth in pre-history.
In a perfect world, with unlimited resources at my disposal, I could acquire the services of my favourite contemporary fantasy artists to illustrate these volumes – Brian Froud, Tony DiTerlizzi, Paul Kidby, Mike Mignola, Charles Vess, Alan Lee, etc. But as this project remains to my own sufficiency’s, I have set myself to the task of sole illustrator. However, as in the writing of the work itself, I've done this under the contrivance of a number of pseudonymous artists.