To escape


I have a stack of lovely books awaiting me, but what I wanted to share today was a small passage from Ursula Le Guin's Tales From Earthsea. I have been reading my way through this series (which until now had escaped my notice), as I finish up semester work and set myself up for a quiet summer.

I've written before of my love for the old stories, the well-told stories, myths and fables and magic. I love to drift into those worlds and then stay a while, feeling the strength of my convictions well up inside me -- that it is good to be close to the earth, to live simply, to do good to those around you, to care for growing things, plant and animal, to accept responsibility, to know when silence is best and when to listen. I've always thought that the stories we tell can hold that knowledge -- the knowledge that needs no ornate language, no elaborate explanation -- only the conviction of experience and something else, something deeper that moves away from the one and understands the many.

So I love these new stories and I also loved what Le Guin wrote in preface to them:

All times are changing times, but ours is one of massive, rapid moral and mental transformation. Archetypes turn into millstones, large simplicities get complicated, chaos becomes elegant, and what everybody knows is true turns out to be what some people used to think.

It’s unsettling. For all our delight in the impermanent, the entrancing flicker of electronics, we also long for the unalterable. We cherish the old stories for their changelessness. Arthur dreams eternally in Avalon. Bilbo can go “there and back again,” and “there” is always the beloved familiar Shire. Don Quixote sets out forever to kill a windmill... So people turn to the realms of fantasy for stability, ancient truths, immutable simplicities.

And the mills of capitalism provide them. Supply meets demand. Fantasy becomes a commodity, an industry.

Commodified fantasy takes no risks: it invents nothing, but imitates and trivialises. It proceeds by depriving the old stories of their intellectual and ethical complexity, turning their action into violence, their actors to dolls, and their truthtelling to sentimental platitudes. Heroes brandish their swords, lasers, wands, as mechanically as combine harvesters, reaping profits. Profoundly disturbing moral choices are sanitized, made cute, made safe. The passionately conceived ideas of the great storytellers are copied, stereotyped, reduced to toys, molded in bright-coloured plastic, advertised, sold, broken, junked, replaceable, interchangeable.

What the commodifiers of fantasy count on and exploit is the insuperable imagination of the reader, child or adult, which gives even these dead things life — of a sort, for a while. Imagination like all living things lives now, and it lives with, from, on true change. Like all we do and have, it can be co-opted and degraded; but it survives commercial and didactic exploitation. The land outlasts the empires. The conquerors may leave desert where there was forest and meadow, but the rain will fall, the rivers will run to the sea. The unstable, mutable, untruthful realms of Once-upon-a-time are as much a part of human history and thought as the nations in our kaleidoscopic atlases, and some are more enduring.

We have inhabited both the actual and the imaginary realms for a long time. But we don’t live in either place like our parents or ancestors did. Enchantment alters with age and with the age.

We know a dozen different Arthurs now, all of them true. The shire changes irrevocably even in Bilbo’s lifetime. Don Quixote went riding out to Argentina and met Jorge Luis Borges there. Plus c'est la même chose, plus ça change.