27 October 2008

The De-Familiarization of the Everyday

The allure of fantasy and metaphysical fiction might be attributable to, among other features, the de-familiarization of the quotidian. In such works, the everyday becomes extraordinary: the mythopoeist looks at the normal through such kaleidoscopes of insight that ordinary surroundings scintillate out of recognition. And yet, this very estranging process is what gives us back our daily lives made fresh, washed clean, given depths of eternal light.

The Christian story, or the “One True Myth” is often disguised and, therefore, transfigured. C. S. Lewis said that one of the side effects of Aslan’s appearance in Narnia (which, he claims, was due to no intention of his own; Aslan just came bounding into the story of his/His own accord) was to take the Gospel out of its Sunday-School context and sort of surprise children with its fresh, applicable, heart-rending reality. Stripped of stained glass, it can really shock. Or, rather, stripped of flannelgraphs and saccharine clichés, it can really live. The common appearance of elements of the “Christian myth” is another side of this process. In “Star Wars,” there’s a virgin birth. In “The Matrix,” Lord of the Rings, “Beauty and the Beast,” and so many more, the hero dies and rises again. An atoning sacrifice by an innocent character on behalf of someone else is perhaps almost the one theme of literature and film.

The final result is to give us back our routine details glittering with the magic that was always there, but had dulled with daily handling and the dust of familiarity. It washes off the common fingerprints. In Beauty by Robin McKinley and in both Phantastes and Lilith by George MacDonald, libraries become wonderlands: magical, endless wildernesses where others’ adventures are your own. McKinley’s Beast owns a fabulous library containing all the books ever written and all the books that ever will be written, in which (presumably) you can read your own future. I have Jules Verne, Ray Bradbury, George Orwell, William Golding, and Aldous Huxley: prophets of our trajectory. MacDonald’s Anodos whiles away weeks of his visit to fairyland just reading: living secondary lives in delightful snippets shorn off of MacDonald’s prolific, prodigal imagination. Winged women find babies in the woods, and talk of earthly romance makes them wild with melancholy desire; a mirror shows an enchanted maiden to a student of alchemy and magic; and I look freshly at marriage and mirrors over the edge of the book. In the Harry Potter series, teachers and lectures are thrilling, dangerous adventures—and the mentor relationships are admirable and enviable. In the Inheritance trilogy, Christopher Paolini reminds us of the power of words, and through that, of the potential meaning of any household object once you understand its real essence. Here are examples of ordinary objects that take on mythical significance in fantasies: Knives, spoons, cups, swords, thread, shoes, rings, jewels, maps, streets, doors, clocks, houses, trees, telephones, bullets, and pocket-handkerchiefs. These will never be just the same again, but shot with something more than mundane light.

Perhaps someone can write about how the visuals arts and music perform the same transformation in manners specific to their own media.


Doug P. Baker said...

"[A reader] does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted."--CS Lewis

First time here. Interesting post. I'll come back to see what else you have posted.

Rosie Perera said...

Iambic Admonit wrote "Perhaps someone can write about how the visual arts and music perform the same transformation..."

You've talked about two different kinds of transformation, the everyday being made extraordinary, and the "Christian myth" being retold in ways that make us recognize it afresh for the extraordinary that it is.

There are tons of examples of visual art taking the biblical concepts and presenting them in fresh ways. Yes, the annunciations, and crucifixions and pietàs can start to look all alike after a while. But great art can cause us to stop and see something we'd never seen before or imagine it in new ways.

Visual art can also imbue the ordinary, everyday parts of God's creation (birds and trees and rocks and ponds) with magic.

Incidentally, here's a great short piece written by a Christian friend of mine about finding magic in the forest with her little girl:

Dinosaurs in The Garden of Eden: Teaching Your Child Respect for the Environment