Friday, June 19, 2009

The Door in the Hill, Part One

This has always and continues to puzzle me: If I am such an agnostic, why do I like certain stories about angels? And if I am such a good skeptic, why do I love to read and write about Faerie?

This has been on my mind since I recently read Chris Adrian’s “A Tiny Feast” in the New Yorker, in which Oberon and Titania’s stolen human child is dying of leukemia in a pediatric hospital in San Francisco. Adrian does Faerie very well. This is the description of the Faerie procession from the hospital to their home under the hill. The Faeries in the boy’s hospital room have been mostly invisible until their grief reveals their true otherworldly nature as they troop through the antiseptic corridors and down the elevator and outside the hospital, bearing the body of the changeling.

There was no disguise left to cover them. People saw them for what they were, a hundred and two faeries and a dead boy proceeding down the hall with harps and flutes, crowded in the service elevator with fiddles and lutes, marching out of the hospital with drums. Mortals gaped. Dogs barked. Cats danced on their hind feet, and birds followed them by the dozens, hopping along and cocking their heads from side to side. It was early afternoon. The fog was breaking against the side of the hill, leaving Buena Vista Park brilliantly sunny. They passed through the ordinary trees of the park, and then into the extraordinary trees of their own realm, and came to the door in the hill, and passed through that as well.

As it happens, Adrian is a pediatric oncoloist and student of divinity as well as a fantasy novelist, and his story is full of very closely observed medical detail about the running of the hospital and the details of the boy's chemotherapy, while at the same time chock full of spectacularly imagined, and very real, touches of Faerie. My favorite of these is probably the boy's blanket, Beastie, which is alive.

Adrian's story got thinking, immersed as I am currently in various nonfiction science projects, what it is about this kind of thing attracts me (though not so far to the point of dressing in velvet capes and sporting Elvish tattoos at Cons). I am actually pretty allergic to angel and fairy and dragon schlock. But the fact remains I have published five fantasy novels, three of them written while I was working full time as a science editor.

The angel part is easier to explain. When my childhood faith eroded away to agnosticism, the angels remained. My old UCC beliefs are there, somewhere, like my spiritual appendix, but I have reached a point in my trajectory of belief where I can no longer tell people in good conscience that I am keeping them in my prayers. I can look up into the Milky Way, spread across the desert sky in Utah, and feel wonder and awe and mystery, but it falls short of a view of God that can mesh with everything I accept about how life on Earth came to be, or account for the problem of evil. I Just Don’t Know. And I frankly never saw this not-knowing thing coming.

Reconciling my love of science and fantasy, and my double life as a science editor and fantasy writer, has always been harder, for some reason. But I’ve always like my fantasy grounded with close observation of the natural world and the quotidian details: Merlin’s newspaper. I’m thinking here of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Kingdoms of Elfin (her changeling story, “The One and the Other,” is terrific and T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, E. Nesbit’s “The Deliverers of Their Country,” and Nancy Willard’s essays in The Angel in the Parlor. It’s probably why I care so much more about the contents of Bilbo Baggins’s larder than I do what’s actually being said at the Council of Elrond. I like my fantasy psychologically real and grounded, like fulgerites, those casts of fused sand that lightning sometimes leaves behind in the ground: solid evidence of the ethereal. I like the way Chris Adrian walks me through the ordinary trees of the park, through the extraordinary trees of his realm, until I somehow find myself standing with a hand on the doorknob of a door in a hill, not quite sure how I got there, but glad I came.

For reasons I still don’t understand, science and fantasy are for me both powerful ways of explaining experience and revealing the unseen, and they are daily practices that both rely on the action of my imagination: my ability to see in my mind something I cannot see with my eyes. And maybe I will never explain it to myself any better than that.

(The image is Hume Nisbet's 1908 watercolor, The Fairy Falls.)

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