The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction (2016)
SOME THINGS I BELIEVE
Some Reflections on Myth (with Several Digressions onto Gardening, Comics and Fairy Tales)
As a writer, and, more specifically, as a writer of fiction, I deal with myth a great deal. Always have. Probably always will.
It’s not that I don’t like, or respect, mimetic fiction; I do. But people who make things up for a living follow our interests and our obsessions into fiction, and mostly my interests have taken me, whether I wanted them to or not, into the realm of myth, which is not entirely the same as the realm of the imagination, although they share a common border.
I remember finding a copy, as a small boy, of a paperback Tales of the Norsemen and delighting in it as a treasure, reading it until the binding broke and the pages flew apart like leaves. I remember the sheer rightness of those stories. They felt right. They felt, to my seven-year-old mind, familiar.
“Bricks without straw are more easily made than imagination without memories,” said Lord Dunsany.
He was right, of course. Our imaginings (if they are ours) should be based in our own lives and experiences, all our memories. But all of our memories include the tales we were told as children, all the myths, all the fairy tales, all the stories.
Without our stories we are incomplete.
THE PROCESS OF composting fascinates me. I am English, and share with many of my countrymen an amateurish fondness for, frankly, messing around in gardens: it’s not strictly gardening, rather it’s the urge that, last year, meant I got to smile proudly at the arrival of half a dozen exotic pumpkins, each of which must have cost more than twenty dollars to grow and each of which was manifestly inferior to the locally grown produce. I like gardening, am proudly no good at it, and do not mind this at all.
In gardening, the process is most of the fun, the results are secondary (and, in my case, usually accidental).
And one learns a lot about compost: kitchen scraps and garden leftovers and refuse that rot down, over time, to a thick black clean nutritious dirt, teeming with life, perfect for growing things in.
Myths are compost.
They begin as religions, the most deeply held of beliefs, or as the stories that accrete to religions as they grow.
(“If he is going to keep killing people,” says Joseph to Mary, speaking of the infant Jesus in the apocryphal Gospel of the Infancy, “we are going to have to stop him going out of the house.”)*
And then, as the religions fall into disuse, or the stories cease to be seen as the literal truth, they become myths. And the myths compost down to dirt, and become a fertile ground for other stories and tales which blossom like wildflowers. Cupid and Psyche is retold and half-forgotten and remembered again and becomes Beauty and the Beast.
Anansi the African Spider God becomes Br’er Rabbit, whaling away at the tar baby.
New flowers grow from the compost: bright blossoms, and alive.
MYTHS ARE OBLIGING.
When I was writing Sandman, the story that, in many ways, made my name, I experimented with myth continually. It was the ink that the series was written in.
Sandman was, in many ways, an attempt to create a new mythology—or rather, to find what it was that I responded to in ancient pantheons and then to try and create a fictive structure in which I could believe as I wrote it. Something that felt right, in the way that myths feel right.
Dream, Death, Delirium, and the rest of the Endless (unworshipped, for who would want to be worshipped in this day and age?) were a family, like all good pantheons; each representing a different aspect of life, each typifying a different personality.
I think, overall, the character that people responded to most was Death, whom I represented as a cheerful, sensible sixteen-year-old girl—someone attractive, and fundamentally nice; I remember my puzzlement the first time I encountered people who professed to believe in the characters I had created, and the feeling, half of guilt and half of relief, when I started to get letters from readers who had used my character Death to get through the death of a loved one, a wife, a boyfriend, a mother, a child.
(I’m still bewildered by the people who have never read the comics who have adopted the characters, particularly Death and Delirium, as part of their personal iconography.)
Creating a new pantheon was part of the experiment, but so was the exploration of all other myths. (If Sandman was about one thing, it was about the act of storytelling, and the, possibly, redemptive nature of stories. But then, it’s hard for a two-thousand-page story to be about just one thing.)
I invented old African oral legends; I created cat myths, which cats tell each other in the night.
In Sandman: Season of Mists I decided to tackle myths head-on, to see both how they worked and how robust they were: At what point did suspension of disbelief roll over and die? How many myths could one, metaphorically, get into a phone booth, or get to dance on the head of a pin?
The story was inspired loosely by something the Abbé Mugnier had once said—that he believed that there was a Hell, because it was church doctrine that there was a hell. He was not required to believe that there was anyone in it. The vision of an empty Hell was one that fascinated me.
Very well; Hell would be empty, abandoned by Lucifer (whom I represented as a fallen angel, straight out of Milton), and as prime psychic real estate would be wanted by various factions: I culled some from the comics, took others from old myths—Egyptian, Norse, Japanese—added in angels and demons and, in a final moment of experiment, I even added in some fairies, and was astonished to find how robust the structure was; it should have been an inedible mess, and instead (to keep the cooking metaphor) seemed to be a pretty good gumbo. Disbelief continued to be suspended and my faith in myth as something fundamentally alive and workable was upheld.
The joy of writing Sandman was that the territory was wide open. I wrote it in the world of anything goes: history and geography, superheroes and dead kings, folktales, houses and dreams.
MYTHOLOGIES HAVE, AS I said, always fascinated me. Why we have them. Why we need them. Whether they need us.
And comics have always dealt in myths: four-color fantasies, which include men in brightly colored costumes fighting endless soap opera battles with each other (predigested power fantasies for adolescent males); not to mention friendly ghosts, animal people, monsters, teenagers, aliens. Until a certain age the mythology can possess us completely, then we grow up and leave those particular dreams behind, for a little while or forever.
But new mythologies wait for us, here in the final moments of the twentieth century. They abound and proliferate: urban legends of men with hooks in lovers’ lanes, hitchhikers with hairy hands and meat cleavers, beehive hairdos crawling with vermin, serial killers and barroom conversations; in the background our TV screens pour disjointed images into our living rooms, feeding us old movies, newsflashes, talk shows, adverts; we mythologize the way we dress and the things we say; iconic figures—rock stars and politicians, celebrities of every shape and size; the new mythologies of magic and science and numbers and fame.
They have their function, all the ways we try to make sense of the world we inhabit, a world in which there are few, if any, easy answers. Every day we attempt to understand it. And every night we close our eyes, and go to sleep, and, for a few hours, quietly and safely, we go stark staring mad.
The ten volumes of Sandman were my way of talking about that. They were my way of looking at the mythologies of the last decade of the twentieth century; a way of talking about sex and death, fear and belief and joy—all the things that make us dream.
We spend a third of our lives asleep, after all.
HORROR AND FANTASY (whether in comics form or otherwise) are often seen simply as escapist literature. Sometimes they can be—a simple, paradoxically unimaginative literature offering quick catharsis, a plastic dream, an easy out. But they don’t have to be. When we are lucky the fantastique offers a roadmap—a guide to the territory of the imagination, for it is the function of imaginative literature to show us the world we know, but from a different direction.
Too often myths are uninspected. We bring them out without looking at what they represent, nor what they mean. Urban legends and the Weekly World News present us with myths in the simplest sense: a world in which events occur according to story logic—not as they do happen, but as they should happen.
But retelling myths is important. The act of inspecting them is important. It is not a matter of holding a myth up as a dead thing, desiccated and empty (“Now, class, what have we learned from the Death of Baldur?”), nor is it a matter of creating New Age self-help tomes (“The Gods Inside You! Releasing Your Inner Myth”). Instead we have to understand that even lost and forgotten myths are compost, in which stories grow.
What is important is to tell the stories anew, and to retell the old stories. They are our stories, and they should be told.
I do not even begrudge the myths and the fairy stories their bowdlerization: the purist in me may be offended by the Disney retellings of old tales, but I am, where stories are concerned, cruelly Darwinist. The forms of the tales that work survive, the others die and are forgotten. It may have suited Disney’s dramatic purposes to have Sleeping Beauty prick her finger, sleep and be rescued, all in a day, but when the tale is retold it will always be at least a hundred years until the spell is broken—even if we have long since lost from the Perrault story the prince’s cannibal mother; and Red Riding Hood ends these days with a rescue, not with the child being eaten, because that is the form of the story that has survived.
Once upon a time, Orpheus brought Eurydice back alive from Hades. But that is not the version of the tale that has survived.
(Fairy tales, as G. K. Chesterton* once pointed out, are not true. They are more than true. Not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be defeated.)
SEVERAL MONTHS AGO I found myself, somewhat to my own surprise, in a distant country attending a symposium on myths and fairy tales. I was a featured speaker, and was told that I would be addressing a group of academics from all over the world on the subject of fairy tales. Before this, I would listen to papers being delivered to the group, and address a roundtable discussion.
I made notes for the talk I would give, and then went along to the first presentation: I listened to academics talk wisely and intelligently about Snow White, and Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood, and I found myself becoming increasingly irritated and dissatisfied, on a deep and profound level.
My difficulty was not with what was being said, but with the attitude that went along with it—an attitude that implied that these tales no longer had anything to do with us. That they were dead cold things, which would submit without resistance to dissection, that could be held up to the light and inspected from every angle, and would give up their secrets without resistance.
Most of the people at the conference were more than willing to pay lip service to the theory of fairy tales as stories that had begun as entertainments that adults told adults, but became children’s stories when they went out of fashion (much as, in Professor Tolkien’s analogy, the unwanted and unfashionable furniture was moved into the nursery: it was not that it had been intended to be children’s furniture, it was just that the adults did not want it any longer). “Why do you write with myths and with fairy tales?” one of them asked me.
“Because they have power,” I explained, and watched the students and academics nod doubtfully. They were willing to allow that it might be true, as an academic exercise. They didn’t believe it.
The next morning I was meant to make a formal address on the subject of myth and fairy tales. And when the time came, I threw away my notes, and, instead of lecturing them, I read them a story.
It was a retelling of the story of Snow White, from the point of view of the wicked queen. It asked questions like, “What kind of a prince comes across the dead body of a girl in a glass coffin and announces that he is in love and will be taking the body back to his castle?” and for that matter, “What kind of a girl has skin as white as snow, hair as black as coal, lips as red as blood, and can lie, as if dead, for a long time?” We realize, listening to the story, that the wicked queen was not wicked: she simply did not go far enough; and we also realize, as the queen is imprisoned inside a kiln, about to be roasted for the midwinter feast, that stories are told by survivors.*
It is one of the strongest pieces of fiction I’ve written. If you read it on your own, it can be disturbing. To have it read to you by an author on a podium, first thing in the morning, during a conference on fairy tales, must on reflection have been, for the listeners, a rather extreme experience, like taking a gulp of something they thought was coffee, and finding that someone had laced it with wasabi, or with blood.
At the end of a story that was, after all, just “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” an audience of several dozen people looked pale and troubled, like people coming off a roller coaster or like sailors recently returned to land.
“As I said, these stories have power,” I told them as I finished. This time they seemed far more inclined to believe me.
ALL TOO OFTEN I write to find out what I think about a subject, not because I already know.
My next novel will be, for me, a way of trying to pin down myths—modern myths, and the old myths, together, on the huge and puzzling canvas that is the North American continent.
It has a working title of American Gods (which is not what the book will be called, but what it is about).
It’s about the gods that people brought with them as they came here from distant lands; it’s about the new gods, of car crash and telephone and People magazine, of Internet and airplane, of freeway and mortuary; it’s about the forgotten gods, who were here before Man, the gods of Buffalo and Passenger Pigeon, gods that sleep, forgotten.
All the myths I care about, or have cared about, will be in there, but there in order to try and make sense of the myths that make America.
I have lived here for six years, and I still do not understand it: a strange collection of homegrown myths and beliefs, the ways that America explains itself to itself.
Maybe I’ll make an awful mess of it all, but I can’t say that worries me as badly as I think it ought to. I look forward to putting my thoughts into some kind of order. I look forward to learning what I think.
ASK ME WITH a gun to my head if I believe in them, all the gods and myths that I write about, and I’d have to say no. Not literally. Not in the daylight, nor in well-lighted places, with people about. But I believe in the things they can tell us. I believe in the stories we can tell with them.
I believe in the reflections that they show us, when they are told.
And, forget it or ignore it at your peril, it remains true: these stories have power.
This was first published in Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art #31, winter 1999, although I actually wrote it as a speech in 1998, which I delivered at the Chicago Humanities Festival.