There was once a wild thing that was lost….
I last saw him in the fall, some early blazing sunset of crimson when my legs still carried the skin memory of classroom carpets and little plastic trucks. The world was much more magical then. There was a magic in the uncertainty of not knowing what was so, or how things worked. Without answers, all questioners are left to create.
Notice that I said “create”, not “hypothesize”, for hypothesis is the offspring of science, and science is about finding answers. Nor is that to make science wrong and magic right. Science carries its wonder in the form of the answers; magic in its wondering questions. Two different flavours, depending on your appetite.
And magical thinking…it’s an eternal preserve of youth, of those wild creatures we used to have and be before we civilized ourselves with adulthood, and set aside our childish things.
The trigger for this latest ramble? I finished reading Neil Gaiman’s “Stardust” in all of its glorious melody. And I found I had to switch my entire way of being to get into it, to pick a time and a place when I knew I would have no other distractions. The short attention spans and busy times of adulthood have a cost in our appreciation of formidable language. At best, we can skip off the surface like a fast-moving schooner or a hapless meteorite, but by gods, once you’ve broken through, the letters and images and feelings just flow around you like an ocean of warm honey.
If you haven’t read “Stardust”, do so, and I won’t spoil anything major, but the notion, just the whole premise of the back of the book, stirs old feelings. A star falls from the sky, and a young man embarks on a journey to retrieve it for his young lover. But to get it, Tristan must cross into the land of Faerie, a parallel world where the star is a beautiful woman, now separated from her thousands of brothers and sisters who wander the night for eternity.
Yvaine, the Star, can never go back to them – “stars fall. They don’t go back up again”, she remarks – and so no matter the outcome, she is assured to live forever on Earth in the Faerie world, looking up from great distances. Tristan, for his part, leaves behind his family – a father, mother, and sister – who love him dearly, and whom he loves in return, but not as much as the adventure on the other side of the wall.
It’s a world of transfiguration and magical objects, of sky galleons and unicorns, nothing in and of itself unique to Gaiman by any stretch, nor is it simply the meter and flourish of his words that’s gripped me. Too much analysis becomes dissection, and kills the thing it aims to study in the process. This is the sum total process of the experience that I’m talking about.
That experience took me somewhere beyond the book and the story, to something close to infant memory. I remember a thick quilt of deep blue, like twilight sky, painted with big yellow stars and crescent moons with smiling, sleepy faces on them. And I remember as a child being taken out at night to look up at whatever faint stars managed to pierce the light shield of our cities. I remember not being sure of what they were, but looking at them and thinking about the images on the quilt.
Not long after – maybe a little too early – my mom, who worked as a library clerk, brought home a kid’s book on space. I learned that science had found the stars to be giant burning balls of hydrogen that were billions of miles away, and that they were, in fact, not “diamonds in the sky’, but more massive than hundreds of Earths put together. This, I learned, was what the stars really were. Armed with this knowledge, I shared with my classmates, only to be ridiculed. “That’s dumb,” said one kid named Ryan. “Stars are pieces of planets. My dad told me so!”
And I never forgot that, because it meant I was so much smarter than that kid. I had read the book! I knew what he didn’t, thanks to my Mom. In the time afterwards, anytime I’d see that quilt, I’d notice the smiling star-faces and crescent moons, and the pleasant, comfortable feeling that came from seeing those familiar forms, and then remember “Oh, that’s not what stars actually are”, and the feeling would go away. An early victim of the Curse of Knowledge.
What if stars were people? An absurd question, but in Faerie they are and, thus, valid to ask. On this side of Wall, the town in the ordinary world that borders the other land, they’re just elements, no spirits, no consciousness. In the real world – our world – everything is just something that happens, with no meaning or significance. A star falls out of the sky and it’s just a rock smoldering inside a crater, if it even makes it to earth.
Faerie is where so many of our wild selves went, one day, long ago, the parts of us that came up with their own answers to our questions about what the world was. The parts of us that invented the universe in our own image.
One night, when we were all too young, not long after fact replaced story, they stole out of our homes, like jealous and heartbroken cats that run away after the arrival of a new baby. They crept through the village, past the guards, and bolted through the hole in the wall into the wild, leaving us to discover their departure only too late, to wonder at their adventures and worry about their survival. And we’re left to wonder about it for so long afterwards, well into the conventional drab routine of adulthood. That may be an accidental reason why so many of “Stardust”s pages just sigh with longing.
But what a wild thing I used to have, and be, that primal quality of a five year old living his life in ignorance, coloring his pages with crayons and getting lost in his own limbic imaginings. And after all these long years of adulthood concerns, of money and entrepreneurship, of services to render and bills to pay, I had wondered where he had gone.
“Stardust” helped me see that that part of me is still alive and well, roving out there in the forests, the mountains, and the skies of that other world, of Faerie.