Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.

1.08.2016

American Heroes Don't Need Magic


I was forever changed when I discovered the fantasy genre in middle school. For one, I went from being a sufficient, mildly-interested reader to a true bibliophile. It's when books became magical for me. I was so obsessed that fantasy was all I would read for the rest of my teen years. I avoided particularly anything forced or assigned as much as possible (I became very good at paying attention in class well enough to ace the tests based on what was said without touching the books under discussion) while devouring 2-3 books per week of my own choosing. That might be exaggerating the literal case slightly--I read enough assigned work when needed to get by, enjoyed science fiction, comic books, and dabbled in Stephen King by the end of high school--but I still remember the oral book report I tried giving in front of my peers in 8th grade on Tolkien's Silmarillion, since he was the only fantasy author on the list of approved classics and I'd read his other books. (It did not improve my social standing.) Without fantasy books, I'm sure I wouldn't have majored in English and ended up a librarian.

Though I read much more widely as an adult, to this day nothing gives me quite the same feeling as a truly magical fantasy. It's simply a different emotional experience. I know others have the same experience from other genres, settings, and eras of escapist adventures--James Bond spy thrillers, swashbuckling pirates, pulp action, romance, space epics, superheroes, and on and on. For me it has always been mythical sword & sorcery magic that does the trick more than anything else.


So I find the article below particularly resonant. I realized long ago that British fantasies are different than American fantasies. They feel more timeless and enchanting and, well, magical. They have a depth and weight, an innate, easy linguistic and cultural heritage that is simply absent in similar stories from the U.S. There are, of course, exceptions, but it stands as a general rule.

As an American I particularly appreciate the way the article looks at the influence of U.S. folklore. All of our heroes are larger-than-life individuals accomplishing things alone that joint efforts and cooperative societies can't. It's that idea of the American Dream, that through hard work each single person can achieve anything. It's been our narrative from the earliest stories referenced below--Daniel Boone, etc.--to current politics--Donald Trump is going to single-handedly "make America great again." It's the underlying structure of so many of our movies and entertainment offerings. My favorite example, because it came at a formative time for me and from the much romanticized Reagan era, is the movie Die Hard. A lone cowboy type operating alone--the police, FBI, and other formal "heroes" of the system are not only incompetent, they actually get in his way and help the bad guys--is able to overcome overwhelming odds, insurmountable numbers, careful planning, and loads of technology, all through his inherent wits and grit (he's the only one tough enough to run barefoot across broken glass, for instance). The same idea lies behind the narrative catchphrased as "The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."

Though surely influenced by the folklore (I love that movie), I've never been quite that brand of American. My taste in books would seem to confirm it.

Why the British Tell Better Children’s Stories

The small island of Great Britain is an undisputed powerhouse of children’s bestsellers: The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, Winnie-the-Pooh, Peter Pan, The Hobbit, James and the Giant Peach, Harry Potter, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Significantly, all are fantasies. Meanwhile, the United States, also a major player in the field of children’s classics, deals much less in magic. Stories like Little House in the Big Woods, The Call of the Wild, Charlotte’s Web, The Yearling, Little Women, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer are more notable for their realistic portraits of day-to-day life in the towns and farmlands on the growing frontier. If British children gathered in the glow of the kitchen hearth to hear stories about magic swords and talking bears, American children sat at their mother’s knee listening to tales larded with moral messages about a world where life was hard, obedience emphasized, and Christian morality valued. Each style has its virtues, but the British approach undoubtedly yields the kinds of stories that appeal to the furthest reaches of children’s imagination.

It all goes back to each country’s distinct cultural heritage. . . .

America is peculiar in its lack of indigenous folklore, Harvard’s Tatar says. Though African slaves brought folktales to Southern plantations, and Native Americans had a long tradition of mythology, little remains today of these rich worlds other than in small collections of Native American stories or the devalued vernacular of Uncle Remus, Uncle Tom, and the slave Jim in Huckleberry Finn.

Popular storytelling in the New World instead tended to celebrate in words and song the larger-than-life exploits of ordinary men and women: Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Calamity Jane, even a mule named Sal on the Erie Canal. Out of bragging contests in logging and mining camps came even greater exaggerations—Tall Tales—about the giant lumberjack Paul Bunyan, the twister-riding cowboy Pecos Bill, and that steel-driving man John Henry, who, born a slave, died with a hammer in his hand. All of these characters embodied the American promise: They earned their fame. . . .

“Kids think through their problems by creating fantasy worlds in ways adults don’t,” Griswold says. “Within these parallel universes, things can be solved, shaped and understood.” Just as children learn best through hands-on activities, they tend to process their feelings through metaphorical reenactments. “Stories,” Griswold noted, “serve a purpose beyond pleasure, a purpose encoded in analogies. Story arcs, like dreams, have an almost biological function.”

It turns out that fantasy—the established domain of British children’s literature—is critical to childhood development. With faeries as voices from the earth, from beyond human history, with a different take on the meaning of life and way of understanding death, Bateman says there’s wisdom in recognizing nature as a greater life force. “Pagan folklore keeps us humble by reminding us we are temporary guests on earth—a true parable for our time.” . . . 

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