My first term at Corsham Court was spent searching for Narnia. I was at the campus to undertake a masters in Creative Writing and was of the mind that the sixteenth century estate, with its air of waiting history, had no right not to be guarding some secret magic or portal to another world. Driven by this whimsy, I fumbled at the back of ancient cupboards, up twisting flights of stairs, face first into ha-has and down dead-end passages of foliage; in this way covering every available inch of the building and grounds. My hunt was finally rewarded with the discovery of an iron key, the heft of which fit snugly into the palm of my hand but no lock I could ever find. I laid it back to rest in the cupboard where it had been waiting, along with the ladybird stirrings of a dormant childhood excitement.
Adventure has a long history of letting me down. As a lonely country child subsisting on a diet of fantasy, spells would come over me in which I felt that if I was only to rush to the end of the lane or the duck-house at the bottom of our garden then my call to adventure would be waiting. A conviction that would only be disabused by standing, barefooted from the urgency, in the chill mud as our indifferent ducks nattered around me. I’d return to the house haunted by the feeling that my life had been still-birthed.
Disappointment bred desolation and, at last, I shared the despair with my father who told me that I would just have to find the real magic in the world. To my young ears, it felt a cold consolation but, with time, I grew up, or at least older, and became a writer.
Adventure is not random, it arises in certain situations. One of the most common in fantasy fiction is called the ‘Thinning’. This trope describes a world in decline, where heroes are called upon to restore their lessening reality as magic fades and the land sickens, often to the point of becoming a parody of itself.
I write this piece at such a time. Magic is draining from the world at a terrifying rate. Though such spells have their own knowing, the names we have given them are Po’o-uli, Beyşehir Bleak, Bubal Hartebeest, Marquesan Swamphen, Pyrenean Ibex, Chinese Paddlefish, Yangtze River Dolphin and others too numerous to list. These magics have passed from the world forever but others under threat include empathy, inclusion and the embrace of diversity. Not to mention that, in the scrabbling of the right to ‘make American great again’ and establish ‘Empire 2.0’, the West is steadily crumpling into parody.
You need only put an ear to ground to hear the low thunder of bedrock that announces that the gods that have ruled over the Western world in recent centuries are dying, suffocated by their own excesses. Fascism is crawling out from under the bed and into positions of power. Climate scientists are uncertain what course the collapse of ecosystems will follow but can promise that portents are disastrous and may even spell the extinction of all life on Earth. Capitalism and consumerism, raptly, inevitably, proceed to eat along the length of their own tails; for, when humanity grows blind to everything beyond itself, nothing else is left to devour.
Faced with such Thinning, it can be hard to see recourse to anything beyond despair or apathy. Scratch the tissue-thin ideologies that rule our lives and nihilism rears its head from beneath the surface of all things like some Lovecraftian horror. In comparison to such malignant forces, the lives of individuals seem to pale to an insignificance bordering on comic. It’s almost amusing to appreciate that never in all in the dystopian tracts of recent years did anyone ever imagine that the overwhelming response to pending apocalypse would be a profound ‘meh’. Yet, when the narratives that underlie our personal life stories quake and shatter, emotional denial should be of no surprise.
Creators of fiction are no more immune to the wailing and gnashing of teeth than anyone else and in recent months many writers have seen their horror at the headlines lead to a thinning of their daily word counts. Set against the reach of recent events it’s hard to resist the idea that our scribblings count less than ever. Few writers have achieved the enlightened state of divorcing their care from their own success, I least of all, and yet, it is becoming increasingly apparent how little reviews and prizes and book sales really count. When dwarfed against the numbing vastness of the Thinning, none of us appear to matter in and of ourselves. But perhaps, in some small way, our words can. It would be a mistake to wait for Gandalf to carve symbols into our doors or a watery lady to thrust swords into our hands but in the murder of an MP by a right-wing terrorist, or the unmarked starvation of yet another a polar bear, or an unnaturally warm January, the Thinning whispers that the hour of our call to adventure is finally at hand.
For when the gods are dying, we must birth new ones. When magic fades, we weavers of the imagination must reverse the tide. And when people on the precipice fall into apathy, the arts must teach us how to dance, clear-eyed, at the edge of the world.
To say that it behoves writers to hold back such uncannily colossal forces of destruction is a responsibility large enough to be crippling and none of us can expect to engineer any great turning on our own. Yet there is a sense by which just doing what writers do is a beginning in itself.
If we follow the ideas that drive the current Thinning back to their roots we eventually find ourselves in the Enlightenment with its new understanding of the self. The notion of selfhood, of course, originated much earlier but it was this era that took identity and rendered it increasingly discrete. Though the emancipation of women and colonized people lagged behind, Western man increasingly understood himself as separate from body, nature and his fellow humans. This turn of thinking was positive in many regards, giving us advanced philosophies of bodily autonomy, human rights and secular democracy, yet the increasing emphasis on the self also carried the threat of an inward turn that could blind us to the ways in which the self is ontologically dependent on that which lies outside its boundaries. New distances between people, both figurative and literal, began to splinter through society and it was in part the need to bridge these gaps that saw a new aesthetic and moral technology explode in popularity. Its name? The novel.
With its fascination towards the passionate inner lives of characters, the novel both embraced new notions of selfhood while simultaneously closing the gaps they entailed by inviting readers to temporarily dissolve their individuality into the concerns of others. These small acts of literary magic were, arguably, what was later to be referred to by George Elliot as the ‘sympathetic imagination’, as “a mode of amplifying and extending contact with our fellow men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.”1 In this way she, and other writers, aimed to gift the reader the power to better “imagine and to feel the pains and joys of those who differ from themselves”2. The novel, in other words, became a key technology for empathy.
To put it another way, I believe that the spell writers can weave against the Thinning is to remind people what it is to love. Any reader well-versed in fantasy may well cringe at the tired trope in which love is revealed to be the power behind magic, yet this cynicism is misplaced when one of the most troubling aspects of dominant Western ideology is that it has blinded us to love’s very nature. Not only have we been mislead into thinking of it as primarily eros but Capitalism has consistently sold us the misconception that love is an act of seizing hold of another as a possession and that this, in turn, is best achieved through commodity driven self-actualization. In short, that love is an act of buying and owning.
Iris Murdoch offers a truer definition when she writes that “love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real.”3 Little wonder then that it has been perverted and dismissed as a serious force for change when it is the exact antithesis of an era defined by the pursuit of self-interest and the atomisation of people. For love is what happens when we resist the urge to seize the other for our needs and instead open ourselves to the possibility of the other entering and changing us. Love, I would argue, is that same creature as being lost to a good book.
Somewhere in Corsham Court, a key that has no lock lies in an old cupboard alongside an upturned stapler and a piece of blank paper. It feels fitting that I never found where to put it because the doors we writers must now desperately work to open are not those of wood but into the minds of others. For if we can succeed in prising open the insular self then these cracks may yet be enough for magic to seep back into the world.
Alphabetical alchemists, ink illusionists, enchanters of the page, all you minor hedge-witches, our time is now.
This piece will appear in the BSU 25th Anniversary of Creative Writing Anthology
1 Eliot, G. 1856. The Natural History of German Life. Westminster Review, pp 55
2 George, E. 1954. To Charles Bray in The George Eliot Letters Vol. 3 (eds Haight, G.) New Haven: Yale UP. pp 110-11
3 Murdoch, I. 1959. The Sublime and the Good, Chicago Review, 13, 3. pp 51