Mirrors & Myths.

20 Jan

This is the creature there has never been.

They never knew it, and yet, nonetheless,

they loved the way it moved, its limber

neck, its very gaze, mild and serene.

Not there, because they loved it, it behaved

as though it were. They always left some space.

And in that clear unpeopled space they saved

it lightly reared its head, with scarce a trace

of not being there. They fed it, not with corn,

but only with the possibility

of being. And that was able to confer

such strength, its brow put forth a horn. One horn.

Whitely it stole up to a maid- to be

within the silver mirror, and in her.

— Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus, II-IV.

One of the great truths about a reading life is that timing matters. When you read something is almost as important as what you read.  Last year, I finally gave up my old standby of reading books in one sitting. What had once been an intense and freewheeling experience was now diffuse and overwhelming. This I justified in many ways: diversity, deadlines, multiple bibliographies, a brain that can never be satisfied with only one of anything. The truth was I simply couldn’t read the way I had all my life any more. It was no longer about the reading, it became about the writing.  To write, one must compress, paraphrase, and excerpt like a librarian on pills. This is as often exhausting and dull as it is exhilarating and refreshing, and books lost their hold upon me.  My nose for them was all nostril and no flair. Where once I had anticipated reading, I now planned it; and in the crossfire I abandoned my visceral love of a good story, the very reason I began this whole writing shebang in the first place.

This past month I have set about trying to recover some of that lost stardust. I read mountains of fiction, usually the most regulated commodity on my reading lists. As with any reader, fiction is my confectionary: curative in small doses, addictive in large. I watched even larger doses of television, to tide over days when the very sight of a book gave me the hives. I did freelance work that was more about a good pitch than a good tale.  I even went dancing. In all, I got me a life. And I detested it. The book that drew me back from the abyss (read in one sitting) was Reckless, by Cornelia Funke. A few weeks later, happily ensconced in my library, I am wondering why this little book managed what so many others could not.

Funke’s ‘Inkworld’ books were skilled at world-building and clumsy with plot; Reckless, weirdly, inverts this equation. The story races along, while the ‘mirror-world’ is drab and populated by stock fairytale types: witches, dwarves, unicorns, fairies, shape-shifters.  The dominant races- humans, and stone-people known as Goyls- are at war. This is the world that Jacob Reckless, our hero, ventures into at age 12. He slips between the worlds for another dozen years; a famous treasure-hunter in one, an absent brother in the other.  Finally, Jacob’s worlds collide, his brother is attacked by Goyls, and Reckless begins. If fur turns to skin, and skin to stone, what remains?

Reckless is an experiment in the tradition of Through the Looking Glass, though it sorely misses the wit and invention of Carroll’s classic. There are no March Hares and singing walruses to be met here, nor do the unicorns declare children to be fabulous monsters. Mirror-worlds have spawned into an enormous sub-genre in recent years, and Reckless is a solid (if not incandescent) sample of the trope. It served, anyhow, to draw me towards an ancient trail, and the road to sanity was littered with glittering mirrors.  Everywhere in my reading, I saw magical mirrors: Denethor’s Palantir; The Mirror of Erised; Lady Shalott, whose mirror crack’d from side to side; Despair of the Endless, locked in her hall of mirrors. Perseus, who turned Medusa’s gaze upon herself; Narcissus, who taught humanity to glance askance. There are enough of them scattered about to garner Diana Wynne Jones’ attention in her Tough Guide to Fantasy Land:

Mirrors are somewhat infrequent, despite the fact that glass is used for windows. Many of them are made of polished metal and are the property of rich people and Enchantresses. Where mirrors exist, of whatever material, they are not commonly used for combing hair. They will be employed for Prophecy or Farseeing, or, less frequently, as the way from our own world to start the Tour, or simply for travel. Glass mirrors are almost exclusively used as a device for spotting Vampires or other Enemies in disguise.

Archduke Wilhelm in his Gallery, Teniers.

Reckless is a novel woven out of fairytales, and Funke is a competent, if uneven, writer.  The tales themselves are familiar from the Grimm Brothers’, and adults seeking a new skew on old favourites are probably better off with an Angela Carter anthology or Sherri Tepper’s Beauty. Yet, even read as a novel for the Percy Jackson generation, Reckless reeks of squandered potential. This might improve in later novels, as Jacob ventures towards unchartered fairytales, from the wild reaches of Russia to the mystic isles of the Celts. I love The Once and Future King almost as much as Ms. Funke claims to, and the memory of T.H.White is enough to seduce me into yet another Arthur-myth. When I read Funke’s next book, however, I’ll re-read Gind, the other children’s novel woven out of fairytales I read in 2010.

Gind, by Harini Srinivasan, is a travelogue set against the backdrop of the Ramayana. It’s the story of a journey that three brave vanaras, two fierce (if dim) rakshasas, and one languid gandharva make across the length of the subcontinent. The only human in the story- the rotund sage Agastya- wanders about being either dire or obscure, and has become so powerful as to be immortal (and terribly imperious besides). The story begins when the gallant Gind and his father, Karuppan, set across India to escort a princess back to her homeland: all the ruckus kicked up by Ravana’s desire for Sita, we are told, has made for dozens of displaced and kidnapped princesses whilst the rakshasas figure out which princess it is their master wants.

The three vanaras begin their epic trudge from the deep south, winding their way across the teeming forests and rivers of India, at a time when everyone else is intent on going the other direction.  They reach the Himalayas in time to aid Hanuman in his quest for Sanjeevani, are rewarded with a quick flight to-and-from Lanka, and finally wind up in Tibet. Along the way, they meet Sugriva’s vanara armies and innumerable imaginary beings; pishachs and kinnaras, yetis and yalis. Unlike Funke’s turgid world, Gind fairly overflows with life, flora and fauna alike.  Gind is treasure trove, in short, for a collector of curious beasties, which is all one can truly ask of a good fairytale.  Mrs. Srinivisan has a fresh, funny take on an ancient story, a deft hand with description and nonsense verse, and her book shakes the cobwebs out of the Ramayana very effectively.  Gind is proof, in keeping with White’s legacy, that some stories stay evergreen simply because every generation rewrites them.

****

The above was originally published over at mylaw.net. In the spirit of full disclosure, let me add here that I grew up pilfering from Harini aunty’s bookshelves. I tried most desperately, thus, to err towards understatement. This proved impossible. All I can say in my defence is that Gind and I were fortuitously met. Finally, since I can’t let Carroll go past without purloining some verse, here is ‘The Barrister’s Dream’ from The Hunting of the Snark. Fans of the Agony in Eight Fits might want to skip ahead to mylaw’s updated Snark and celebrate India’s Republic Day on 26th Jan.

They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care;
They pursued it with forks and hope;
They threatened its life with a railway-share;
They charmed it with smiles and soap.

But the Barrister, weary of proving in vain
That the Beaver`s lace-making was wrong,
Fell asleep, and in dreams saw the creature quite plain
That his fancy had dwelt on so long.

He dreamed that he stood in a shadowy Court,
Where the Snark, with a glass in its eye,
Dressed in gown, bands, and wig, was defending a pig
On the charge of deserting its sty.

The Witnesses proved, without error or flaw,
That the sty was deserted when found:
And the Judge kept explaining the state of the law
In a soft under-current of sound.

The indictment had never been clearly expressed,
And it seemed that the Snark had begun,
And had spoken three hours, before any one guessed
What the pig was supposed to have done.

The Jury had each formed a different view
(Long before the indictment was read),
And they all spoke at once, so that none of them knew
One word that the others had said.

“You must know —” said the Judge: but the Snark exclaimed “Fudge!”
That statute is obsolete quite!
Let me tell you, my friends, the whole question depends
On an ancient manorial right.

Henry Holiday

“In the matter of Treason the pig would appear
To have aided, but scarcely abetted:
While the charge of Insolvency fails, it is clear,
If you grant the plea `never indebted.`

“The fact of Desertion I will not dispute;
But its guilt, as I trust, is removed
(So far as related to the costs of this suit)
By the Alibi which has been proved.

“My poor client`s fate now depends on you votes.”
Here the speaker sat down in his place,
And directed the Judge to refer to his notes
And briefly to sum up the case.

But the Judge said he never had summed up before;
So the Snark undertook it instead,
And summed it so well that it came to far more
Than the Witnesses ever had said!

When the verdict was called for, the Jury declined,
As the word was so puzzling to spell;
But they ventured to hope that the Snark wouldn`t mind
Undertaking that duty as well.

So the Snark found the verdict, although, as it owned,
It was spent with the toils of the day:
When it said the word “GUILTY!” the Jury all groaned,
And some of them fainted away.

Then the Snark pronounced sentence, the Judge being quite
Too nervous to utter a word:
When it rose to its feet, there was silence like night,
And the fall of a pin might be heard.

“Transportation for life” was the sentence it gave,
“And *then* to be fined forty pound.”
The Jury all cheered, though the Judge said he feared
That the phrase was not legally sound.

But their wild exultation was suddenly checked
When the jailer informed them, with tears,
Such a sentence would have not the slightest effect,
As the pig had been dead for some years.

The Judge left the Court, looking deeply disgusted:
But the Snark, though a little aghast,
As the lawyer to whom the defense was entrusted,
Went bellowing on to the last.

Thus the Barrister dreamed, while the bellowing seemed
To grow every moment more clear:
Till he woke to the knell of a furious bell,
Which the Bellman rang close at his ear.



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