Through the centuries, King Arthur has been known as a man whose sword and kingdom were inseparable from his soul. I’ve read many versions of the legend, because I’ve always had the heart of a romantic. Tolkien’s Aragorn attracted me so much as a child that he and his Andúril pretty much became a part of my own soul. So much romance is associated with the sword! They’ve been in use for millennia, and, worldwide, we’ve been romanticising war for millennia.
When we name a weapon, as we do a ship, we humanize it in some way—recognizing it as having a spirit. For much of history, both ships and swords have been profoundly important as means of achieving and keeping power. Therefore, we honor and respect the names. And there are countless swords of renown. History and mythology give us Charlemagne’s Joyeuse, the Islamic Zulfiqar, and the Heaven's Will of Lê dynasty Vietnam. Sword names are often earned, building stories to hand down through the generations.
Many times, more than people, swords took center stage in the stories which were handed down. And yet, they were not the mainstays of battle. The clank of steel, the snorting of horses, these we expect in battle scenes. But in real life, over most of history, battles were fought by formations of men, and it was pole arms such as the pike that predominated. Any man could handle a pole arm, it didn’t require skill. Swords were for the nobility, and this is why they persevere as symbols of glory.
Across the continents, swords are a symbol of war, destruction, protection. Divine authority. Valor. Justice. When a weapon is a symbol of justice, though, one really needs to question if that perspective might be a bit one-sided.
In some traditions the sword symbolizes purification, the cutting away of unhealthy thoughts, piercing the mystery of ourselves in order to gain the freedom of enlightenment. How does a sword slice away impure thoughts and ignorance? Why use the metaphor of a sword rather than, say, a kitchen knife to rid ourselves of distractions and unhelpful ideas? Well, swords are powerful. They are instruments of death. So I suppose the idea is that swords kill the adversaries: these unwanted thoughts.
Like most of us, I am a long way from enlightenment, but I see that when we do bring ourselves to inner peace we understand that there are no “bad guys.” These are only things that are out of place. In some indigenous traditions, all sickness is caused by something that is where it shouldn’t be. The world doesn’t have to be seen as good versus evil.
The fascination with battle is so deeply a part of us, I don’t think it’s really going anywhere. But we can be aware. We can choose what to focus on. Find a balance. Badass sword-brandishing goddesses have their place, and there is no story without conflict. But there are a zillion things that can go wrong in life; fantasy writers needn’t always fall back on the easy theme of war for meaningful and engaging challenges.
When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace. — Jimi Hendrix
Procedures for outwitting a bully, without becoming one. How to find strength in order to endure a crisis. What it means to cultivate trust and courage. The fact that we are not alone. These concepts are learned and relearned throughout history, perennial reminders as we work together to evolve into a species more refined and compassionate.
Since the days of the first grunts we made as cave-dwellers, our shared arts have helped guide us through hard times. As a species we know how to cope with trials and strife. We’ve learned this, over time. A deep wisdom connects us all, manifesting in music and artwork to mirror our society and inspire in us how to behave. Stories move us, invoking concern for others. Often they help us put our problems in perspective. Frodo has it a lot harder than most people, and as frightening as our world looks sometimes, I sure wouldn’t want to be him.
Good fiction helps to internalize knowledge that we may know is true yet still haven’t grasped in a meaningful way. Matters such as vengeance and jealousy have appropriate responses, but those aren’t always easy to perform. In anxious times, finding hope can be a buggar. Reading gives us practise with these things, and helps us to experience and understand abstract ideas.
To read a story is, in a way, to cheat death. Each fiction lets us live an extra life for a certain amount of time. What an amazing ability to have.
And, of course, stories are fun. That’s important. Offering a certain camaraderie, new experiences and challenging our perspectives, reading expands our imaginations. No matter what genre we choose, the artful positioning of words on the page creates a certain kind of magic. I think everyone can use some magic in their lives.
Look into these eyes and tell me you don’t see it! Look deeply, what do you notice? Regardless which set of eyes you choose, there is something present in these youthful creatures. It exists just as much in their mamas. And, if you look, you can see it in the eyes of the homeless drug addict camped in the park across the street.
What is this that you can see, which gives the gaze power, and the soul depth? Why, stories, of course! Every creature carries in its DNA the stories of those relations who came before. Many years ago, humans began to write some of these stories down. And do you know what? Fantasy was among the earliest genres to exist and to have importance.
Within any genre there is a wide variation, but fantasy is a genre capable of far more than silly fluff. Since the dawn of human language, fantasy stories have been shared and handed down orally in order to entertain and to share knowledge. Vitally important to human survival, these teachings instructed the people in their day-to-day lives through the times in which there was no distinction between ordinary and spiritual.
These stories involved magic and the impossible. That doesn't make them completely untrue and it certainly doesn’t make them valueless. Fantasy, when it sticks, becomes mythology. Myths often have shadowy origins due to the centuries of retelling, but even if the story came from the star people, one of the star people had originally told it. Over time archetypes and beliefs incorporated into these tales developed into mythologies which help define a culture. One of the important teachings these stories have always offered is the idea of multiple perspectives.
In modern times fantasy writing has value because it helps train our brain to see the world from various directions. A wonderful vehicle for escape from reality for a while, fantasy fiction even so is one of the most instructive genres regarding the ordinary reality in which we live.
Literary style fantasy, stories which are not plot-driven, but focus more on the writing itself, is usually more demanding of its readers. There is no spoon-feeding going on in this type of writing. The reader must engage, and be on the alert for subtle erudition.
A great example of this sort of writing, in my opinion, is the satire of Terry Pratchett, the author of the Discworld series. I’ve only discovered him recently, but that’s a story for another day. Here is my review of The Color of Magic, the first written in this forty-odd book series.
In order to appreciate the fantasy genre, it helps to understand that non-reality is as important and forthcoming as the reality in front of one’s nose. Good fantasy has as much to do with ordinary reality as any book does. Most fantasy authors have a great deal to say about the world in which we live.
Digging in the garden can be satisfying. Meditation gives relief from stress. Right now we each need to do what we can to take care of our health and well-being. But this is not enough. For our own sanity, we need to do more.
The coronavirus is a scary monster of a virus. Some have lost their loved ones. As social animals, we face the lonely dismay of isolation or the stress of returning to work. There are postponed dreams and diminished celebrations of life's milestones.
We have serious problems in the world right now, and for many of us, anxiety caused by the pandemic makes it more difficult to endure the voices of those who can only say “what about me?” We must all look beyond our personal pain, our social agendas. In America, our ship is sinking. There are priorities we can’t ignore. We have the power of the vote, and we must use it to save our country, as distasteful as the choices may be for some of us.
These are tough times. Our civilization seems to be sliding backward. Not only are we under attack, we are faced with our own ugliness. But disease must be seen before we can work to heal it. Racial inequality has always been a part of the US. We all know that. Classism also. In modern history, a decline started in the early 1980s when the country fell into the hands of major corporations. Also during that time police received qualified immunity.
We’ve seen racism and abuse magnified in these last several years. Many of us had no idea of the scale of the ignorance and hate that is still rampant in the 21st century. Witnessing this is painful. I saw my own family members racially profiled by police a few years ago, and yet didn’t recognize the extent of pervasiveness of the problem in our modern era. It has been brought to light. We all see it now. It is a time for personal reflection.
What must we do? I read an interview with the Seattle Peace Bus guy which inspired me. He said that we must truly listen. Hear people when they tell you they are oppressed. He said nobody has ever been angry about being listened to. He’s right. As far as possible, listen to others. Listen to those you disagree with, even the ignorant. Peace is found by modeling respect.
Focus on solutions rather than the problems. My friend Lisa and I were talking the other day about how we humans need so desperately to evolve. She pointed out that nature puts pressure on species to do so. It's easy to see that this is what we are experiencing right now. As humans we have developed certain responses over many years. We have caused our own problems. We can solve them. Are we going to learn and grow? Are we going to evolve? It’s time to use our critical thinking skills in combination with our hearts. We know what our issues are, now we need to focus on solving them.
There’s a lot of work to do. But there are millions of us now awake and wanting to help. The feeling of helplessness can be vanquished by taking one small step. We will evolve together.
The Daisy Chain
Scruffy grey grass and leftover scrub covered the hillside where the forest had been. Grimbaud’s greed had taken every one of the trees. Among the stumps grew daisies, and children of the serfs had come to gather them, and to search for morels.
The boy, half grown, squatted with his sisters on the ground still damp from snow. They’d collected plenty of flowers to flavor the summer’s pottage. They hadn’t had much luck with the morels. This was a sad thing, for children in their locale wanted mushrooms. Never having known the luxury of choosiness, they welcomed anything which would add interest to potato gruel. Their world was a terrible place. All who could sit upright worked the daylight away, day after day, living in squalor while the profits went to Grimbaud, who by tyranny and by sorcery had the entire countryside under his thumb. Although too young to know any other life, the children heard their parents whisper in bitter remorse during the watches of the night.
Nature has arranged the world in such a way that the oppressed live closer to the truth, as they are the ones who find joy in the smallest of things. The children had paused their labors as the sun came out between the clouds, and they’d gathered around the eldest’s sister’s knees to laugh and string together daisies stem-by-stem. The boy’s awkward hands made a mess of things, but his crumpled handiwork grew as long as what his siblings made because he was stubborn against defeat. Usually the little peasants only gossiped, but on this day the subject of their hopeless lives came up. They didn’t know much about life, but they knew they would always be too small to remedy the cause of their discomfort. Eadie, the unstable, the one with melancholia, remarked that little things could change their world too. The boy pulled the first blossom in his chain through a slit in the last stem, and as he did so, he had a thought about what he might do with this daisy necklace.
The woman’s age and illness and the brutishness of life had nearly finished her, yet she lay alone in her final hours because the strict demands of Grimbaud’s iron fist forced all her family to the fields. She no longer feared the promised journey before her, she only waited for the passage because she was tired, too tired to care. The boy pushed the door aside, allowing twilight to fill the house where she lay. She saw his shadowy form approaching, saw his face as he lit the candle, but there was no recognition, no surprise that he would miss his daily blackbread to give her this visit. He smiled at her, and brushed the hair from her forehead. He placed the wilting loop of daisies around her neck and sat to hold her veined and bony hand. With her other hand she reached to feel the flower necklace. She smiled.
The old woman lived another day because of the boy’s kindness, long enough to murmur something into the ear of the young witch Margaret who came to soothe her with a drink of dwale. Margaret’s eyes opened wide.
“Ranulf yet lives!” the girl repeated. The frail woman nodded, and then took her last breath.
Later that spring, Margaret and some elder members of her tradition laid out a magick circle in the nighttime woods and performed a ceremony of calling. They wore a design of daisy wheels upon their aprons, a protection to confound unwanted company. Hard work, it was, their summoning ritual. All the night through these women sweated, danced and conjured. And Ranulf came. He strode forth from the direction of the hazel thickets. And when he came, the women welcomed him, and fed him, and asked him to do away with Grimbaud. The man Grimbaud had dehumanized himself over the course of a full twoscore years, spiraling downward in decency until he was hated even by the kind-hearted. It was his life against the welfare of the populace.
Ranulf the hermit had long been presumed dead. Half a generation had grown old since he had last been seen in the village. Yet many of the elders owed their lives to Ranulf and his herbal vapors, salves, and potions. They feared his name and loved him all at once. The witches implored him, and he listened. With aster and wolfsbane he concocted a poison hashish so profoundly magickal that one bite would kill the man. He gave a block of this confection to the young maid who sold tarts of coney at the market and sent her to peddle it, among her other wares, in front of Grimbaud’s gate. She was there right in time to meet the man as he rode in from the hunt, just as arranged.
Only it wasn't Grimbaud who snatched the hashish away from the girl, laughing and ignoring her quiet protest, it was his companion, the house chamberlain. The two men rode on through the gate, haughty, arrogant, and busy with their idle talk. The chamberlain absentmindedly shoved the brick of herbal resins down into his purse before they alighted at the main door and disappeared within.
Four days later, Grimbaud and a handful of his cronies went down to the cowshed to inspect his new bulls. The man raised the countryside’s most vicious and tenacious dogs and his bulls never failed to be large and powerful. He owned the local bull ring and his name was known to every gambler on the continent. On this day he had three fine bulls in his stable, one a gigantic yellow with a broken horn. That animal looked mean. The chamberlain was one of those who accompanied Grimbaud that afternoon, and while they were observing the yellow bull, he got an idea. He pulled the forgotten hashish from his purse, and for the amusement of the others he broke bits from the block, chanting, “He loves, me he loves me not,” with each chunk of resins he threw to the bull, until he had tossed all of it forth. The men laughed as the bull ate up the herb.
A while later the bailiff called the men back into the barn, because the yellow bull foundered and drooled and threw itself against the stall. Rather than have any concern, the men laughed and placed bets about the creature’s outcome. The more the pathetic animal groaned and flailed, the harder the men laughed, patting one another on the backs and wiping their tears. At last Grimbaud fell into a fit of laughing so long and so hard that it took his breath away entirely. He died there on the cowshed floor, amongst the straw and the dung. There was more joy than sorrow upon the news of his demise. None mourned the passing of Grimbaud, who had lived only to enrich himself and who found joy in the suffering of others. Laid in his grave the man was of more use to the world, his remains improved the soil and eventually nurtured the daisies which grew upon the mound.
What is this darkness attached to my feet—and could I be a frog? This confusing world places the unknown in my path all the time. Shadows and mysteries are part of life, often accompanied by pain and frustration. But unlike the baby in the photo, I have the wisdom of my age to illuminate the shadows for me.
This week I could have used that wisdom to recognize the signs, to see it coming. But I didn’t. I’d set out to write another book review. It was all good fun. I picked out a fantasy written by a famous author known for the lyrical beauty of her work. Coffee in hand, cats crowded on my lap, I leaned back in happy anticipation. I liked the feel of this book already. But my joy faded quickly, and then I fell.
Even with the benefit of experience, things come full circle to show me that I am a child. In this instance, I endured a short dark night of the soul. Had this been a book I found by chance somewhere, when done I would have reviewed it as constructively as I could, given it three stars, and moved on. After all, this author has obvious skill and there is a lot about the story that I do love. But this is a five-star author. Everybody loves her work. The public, the literary critics. What is wrong with me?
My darkness grew. I sought the comfort of dear friends. This helped me to put the book in perspective. It’s okay if my opinion goes against the grain. Some light crept back in, enough for me to write the review.
But the next day, I fell apart. In the black, foulest part of my depths, I was completely broken up. What hypercritical thinking I have! Who am I to criticize a successful, popular author. Am I that insecure? And this isn't the first time. I’ve gone to the book store and cried my way home. What is wrong with me? I sank deeper and down.
Across the cultures of the world are teachings about what happens to the human soul during times of challenge and the resulting growth. In most instances there are allusions to destruction of our old ideas and the rebirth of our capacity for thought. This week, I was dismembered by gremlins or maybe hell-hounds. Torn apart; I was done. I meant it. That’s it. No more writing. No more fooling with an activity that’s obviously way too much for me. I’m an embarrassment. An utter idiot. From now on I’ll just watch TV and eat chips, and sleep. I reached the point that, in childbirth, they call the transition. It’s the hardest part of labor, but it signals the birth is near. It's when moms tend to yell, “I’ve changed my mind, I don’t want to do this!”
And yet, here’s the part I should have seen coming, because this isn’t the first time I have ridden this pony. As soon as I made the declaration, “I’m done!” the optimist I am, hopping in on lucky rabbit feet, lifted my inner lamp, inspired, probably, by a kind word from my son. Judging myself so harshly was doing me no good. The silly rabbit got me to remember that I can catch the thoughts that trouble my mind—pull them right out of the air and examine them. I can clap my hands and break them into harmless pieces. Often it’s the thoughts that need to be broken to pieces, not the person.
I am not going to allow conditions which I don’t understand or can’t control to darken my mood and dominate me. There is always something I can do. In this case, I can learn from others. Like the baby in the photo, I have the wisdom of the ages available to help illuminate the shadows for me. I have a lot to learn. But I have a lot to say along the way.
My sister was a magical creature. If ever a human embodied the spirit of a unicorn, Crista did. A traditional unicorn is wild and fierce in spirit, fragile yet ultimately unconquerable. Crista had these qualities. I witnessed the sorrow which resulted from her pureness of heart.
As a young girl, Crista stumbled into the fantasy genre through her love of horses. Having read nearly every horse story in existence at the time, she brought home a copy of A Horse and His Boy, of the Chronicles of Narnia. This led to The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and on from there.
My sisters and I spent most of our childhood outdoors, with me, the little one, tagging along behind. We also read a lot. I tried to do everything they did, which meant that I found myself in the worlds of fantasy literature at quite a young age. I read all sorts of children’s classics, but fantasy novels stood out as my favorites.
As I grew older I became more and more aware of one troubling thing. Every flight of fancy featured knights or soldiers, and the culmination of the plot was almost always a battle. Even the Harry Potter series, when it came out, built up, after a few volumes, towards a final battle.
Warfare is the keystone of our history as a human species. We are a warlike animal. Armed combat is the basis of our world view and our economy. The hostilities of war invade our language. Of course we will feature battles in our stories, it only makes sense.
But if the glory of battle is the entertaining force in all our fiction, how are we ever to evolve beyond our barbaric shame? War is something to be ashamed of. Certainly those heroes who protect us deserve our gratitude. We have to defend our countries, because war does exist, and probably will in the foreseeable future. Yes, those who defend us against a true threat deserve our sincere gratitude and should be honored. But should they be glorified?
Having a sister who is a beautiful unicorn creature does something to you. I too, have always had a heart that longs a bit too much for a perfect world. When I was ready to write my own fantasy story, I knew it could not include war. I do read stories about knights. I enjoy films which feature warlike peoples. But I challenged myself to write a fantasy in which there is no concept of war. No cannons, no castles. No killing as problem-solving, no battles as excitement.
After I finished writing Aru’s Realm, I wanted to find similar stories because that’s what they say you should do. In searching for a fantasy without war, the classic story The Last Unicorn came up several times. Although millions of readers and film-goers love Mr. Beagle’s tale, I had never heard of it. I spent the eighties living in log cabins and what-have-you, usually without electricity. Somehow, I missed it.
The Last Unicorn is a story wild and fierce in spirit. Here is my review of this fantasy novel. The tale doesn’t feature any battles, largely because it has a short and simple storyline. I love the book so much I bought a copy. The Last Unicorn and my own Aru’s Realm represent the beginning of my personal collection of war-free SciFi/Fantasy. Both books are in a literary style. I’m sure there are heavily plot-driven fantasies without a war theme.
We think of life as a battle. We want our young girls to see themselves as warriors, strong and proud and ready to defeat all threats. This is a result of centuries of oppression. But I so look forward to when we can be strong and proud and don’t feel the need to display a threat to others in order to be cool. When we don’t need armor. When we don’t need war.
For many of us, especially for those staying home in order to care for our communities, a sense of idle powerlessness has taken hold. Life is confusing right now. How do we gain some control? I don’t have the answer to this, but Teddy Roosevelt did.
“Do what you can, with what you've got, where you are.” Theodore Roosevelt passed along these words in his autobiography. It’s good to recall them in May 2020.
In the midst of all this crushing trauma, the frustration and the sorrow, do what you need to do to take care of yourself. It helps no one to suffer in misery. Nobody on this earth right now who possesses a soul is absolutely happy. But it is OK to be happy, and to enjoy your day. Feed your spirit. Today this may mean for you to do absolutely nothing. Tomorrow it may mean taking one small step towards feeling less helpless.
Sometimes it’s best to focus on the little things, for part of the day at least. If the weather’s not so great, a little yoga or jump rope, a bath, some tea, and a good book. Whatever one does to pamper oneself, even in some small way.
If you are not an essential worker, and this includes parenting, you probably have time on your hands. How you fill your time is your choice. Perhaps daydreaming is your way. It’s perfectly all right to lay around and regret the fact that humans don’t have tails. (And why don’t we have tails, anyway? A nice rat-like tail would go perfectly with the human body.)
This is a great time to get all those projects around the house done, the ones which don’t require outside help. Or you might be driven to start that novel at last, or finish up the art project. But at this time we are sheltering from a hail of assaults. Our health is at risk, our country is infested, people and our environment are suffering. Things will be better again. We will help make that happen. But right this very minute, it’s also perfectly OK to read books, watch movies, and play games with friends online.
You will never control all the events that happen to you. But you have a great deal of influence over your own thoughts, and even more command of your actions. Be kind to your future self, and Future You will know that you did your best at the time.
“Life is what we make it, always has been, always will be.” –Grandma Moses
Here are some random helpful links:
Put your computer to work helping scientists research in order to fight coronavirus (This is a known site.)
Source for TR quote: https://suebrewton.com/tag/do-what-you-can-with-what-you-have-where-you-are/
When I was eight I was inspired by this line which I loved from a US patriotic song: “O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain!” I could see those mountain majesties in my mind and I wrote a story about them.
The Purple Mountains probably wasn’t a very good story. I recall the little book made of folded and stapled paper, and the mountains in colored pencil on the front, but I don’t remember the story at all.
What remains in the files of my mind is the premise. Distant mountains, purple in the haze, turn out to actually be that color. The foliage, the slopes themselves, everything purple.
At the same age, I loved to draw horses. But horses are difficult to draw well. It’s the legs, and especially the hooves. It’s tough to make hooves look believable unless you really know how. And, anyway, what I most loved to draw was the tack. The saddles, bridles, fancy martingales, and, of course saddlebags, these are so much fun. So, of course, I drew horses that had bodies long enough to accommodate five or ten saddles. A better result for my efforts.
My brain is full of imagery and strange ideas. I grew up thinking I was a misfit but eventually I realized I do fit into society. I’m an “artist type.”
My writing is, naturally, full of imagery too. When I write it feels as though I'm painting. At the same time I have the impression that I'm chipping away at the story like a sculptor--rather than building up a story, I'm revealing to myself what already is there.
I think life is like that. We build up our personalities over time, dabbing on a little color here, carving a few ridges there, and as we reach a certain age we can truly see what we are working with. By the time we are old there will be a few bits that have been repaired. That’s why elders have so much character. And isn’t that largely what the story of life is about? Character.
Be proud of who you are. Be proud of your color, your age, your differences. We can all be proud of ourselves and supportive of others.
Traditional tales teach us how to behave. Long ago we figured out that some things are better to learn from a story than life experience.
These stories tell us, clearly, that we live for a purpose.
They give context about things we need to know deep inside, such as our connection to others; and that the blood of mother earth is the lava, it is the water, and that it is our own blood.
When we started writing stories down, we lost something. Traditional tales, handed down, these were alive. Fluid and flexible, the narration would vary with the teller, and with each time the story was recounted. Often the meat of the story could change with the times, but the bones of it stayed firm in tradition, phrases and ideas repeated by generations. The spirits of the story inhabit the storyteller, looking out of the eyes, manipulating the body. This is a timeless connection.
But the printing press was a marvelous thing. When books became available to many, across cultures and across the miles too, it opened up the world the way the internet has connected us today.
Without the miracle of printed words, I never would have known Cervantes. I fell in love with him when I was eleven or twelve. I had a copy of Don Quixote de La Mancha. It was so old, I thought it must be an original translation. There wasn’t internet in those days. How could I know the story was written at the dawn of the seventeenth century?
Don Quixote remains my hero, and I’m not embarrassed to say so. To do what feels right, and to live true, no matter the fashion—Alonso may have been out of his mind, but then that’s the point, isn’t it. Madness is relative.