- Where Magic Begins
Once upon a time, I say, and the small bodies around me go limp with expectation. Like a familiar chant, the words make an automatic magic, taking us to the edge of a dark wood, a place of many names, frightening and exhilarating. It is Dante's dark wood, the wood beside which Chaucer's personae lay down to dream, the walled garden of Guillaume de Lorris, the heavenly region where the Pearl poet dreamt, the Den in which the dreamer watched the Pilgrim's Progress, and the glade where Robin Hood's Marian wore the disguise of a peasant girl in the defiance of her father's world.
The enchanted forest, locus amoenus, the sacred wood, the jolly greenwood, Wonderland. There was a year of my childhood when I cared for nothing else, when I read all the magical literature for children I could find. That year I found The Secret Garden and fell forever under the spell of that abandoned spot of cultivated wildness which had the power to change sallow, joyless children into beautiful, ecstatic creatures. Years later, in my hidebound adolescence, I saw a movie called The Enchanted Cottage and had a dim but moving memory of the Garden. In the movie two cruelly plain and embittered people, forsaking and forsaken by the world, are magically transformed in the cottage—by love—into beautiful people. Half this wonderful old black and white film is in soft focus: the characters fairly glow with inner light. I suppose it was made in the 1940's, when people could still be "resplendent."
Looking back I realize that what stirred me was the presence of both romance and magical transformation, that the two presences became allied forever in my girlish mind, and in fact, that an important lesson of our culture was encoded therein. Moreover, that what was exciting about the presentation was the way it moved adroitly between "fantasy" and "reality," playing with the categories until the benighted viewer was [End Page 4] pleasantly unsure of which was which. Were the man and woman beautiful only to each other? Would an outsider, pathetically out of love, see their real faces? Which were their real faces?
It is this toying at the edge, this sense of the boundary, which made the fantasies I loved in childhood both appealing and valuable, because it is precisely at the place where the two worlds meet that they have significance for each other. The best books were the ones that lingered there, and returned there, that made the boundary their point of reference, and these were best because, unfailingly, they illuminated the real world. The world I was stuck in.
On the other hand, the fantasies which are presumably not about the real world never interested me much. George Macdonald's The Golden Key, for example, is a pretty confection, but the world it describes is too much a world unto itself, with its own inhabitants, its own probabilities and logic, its own time and space. It never escapes its own scheme; for me it will always remain a sodden accounting of fairyish details. Once the boy stops gazing into the forest which fringes Fairyland and approaches the rainbow, the book loses it magic for me. W.H. Auden, in an Afterword to the tale, rebukes the critics for their "habit of 'symbol hunting'": "But to hunt for symbols in a fairy tale is absolutely fatal. In The Golden Key, for example, any attempt to 'interpret' the Grandmother or the air-fish or the Old Man of the Sea is futile: they mean what they are."1 The only way to read a fairy tale, he says, is to throw yourself in, to give yourself over without hanging onto your own world, with its petty system of meaning. But aëranths and beautiful young-ancient women and men do not move me unless they impinge on my world, and the events of The Golden Key resolve nothing for me. If the symbolism is inaccessible, who cares? It's not even infuriating that Mossy, the boy, gets the key, while the girl Tangle waits for him to complete his...