Only giants will do

Of Other Worlds

I recently finished reading a small series of essays and stories by C.S. Lewis collected in Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories.

Of particular interest to me was the first essay, “On Stories”, in which Lewis defends the elements of fantasy and sci-fi, myth and fairy-tale, as not merely arbitrarily-chosen story entities, but innately unique and important, as they carry with them all their unique weight, connotations, feelings, etc., which bring about different “kinds of pleasure.”

He mentions talking with a friend about books they had enjoyed as boys. He writes of his friend:

His favourite had been Fenimore Cooper whom (as it happens) I have never read. My friend described one particular scene in which the hero was half-sleeping by his bivouac fire in the woods while a Redskin with a tomahawk was silently creeping on him from behind. He remembered the breathless excitement with which he had read the passage, the agonized suspense with which he wondered whether the hero would wake up in time or not. But I, remembering the great moments in my own early reading, felt quite sure that my friend was misrepresenting his experience, and indeed leaving out the real point. Surely, surely, I thought, the sheer excitement, the suspense, was not what had kept him going back and back to Fenimore Cooper. If that were what he wanted any other ‘boy’s blood’ would have done as well. … Dangers, of course, there must be: how else can you keep a story going? But they must (in the mood which led one to such a book) be Redskin dangers. The ‘Redskinnery’ was what really mattered. In such a scene as my friend had described, take away the feathers, the high cheek-bones, the whiskered trousers, substitute a pistol for the tomahawk, and what would be left? For I wanted not the momentary suspense but that whole world to which it belonged–the snow and the snow-shoes, beavers and canoes, war-paths and wigwams, and Hiawatha names.

He goes on to write:

Jack the Giant-Killer is not, in essence, simply the story of a clever hero surmounting danger. It is in essence the story of such a hero surmounting danger from giants. It is quite easy to contrive a story in which, though the enemies are of normal size, the odds against Jack are equally great. But it will be quite a different story. The whole quality of the imaginative response is determined by the fact that the enemies are giants. That heaviness, that monstrosity, that uncouthness, hangs over the whole thing. Turn it into music and you will feel the difference at once. If your villain is a giant your orchestra will proclaim his entrance in one way: if he is any other kind of villain, in another. I have seen landscapes (notably in the Mourne Mountains) which, under a particular light, made me feel that at any moment a giant might raise his head over the next ridge. Nature has that in her which compels us to invent giants: and only giants will do. … The dangerousness of the giants is, though important, secondary. In some folk-tales we meet giants who are not dangerous. But they still affect us in much the same way. A good giant is legitimate: but he would be twenty tons of living, earth-shaking oxymoron. The intolerable pressure, the sense of something older, wilder, and more earthy than humanity, would still cleave to him.

Near the end of the essay he writes:

Shall I be thought whimsical if, in conclusion, I suggest that this internal tension in the heart of every story between the theme and the plot constitutes, after all, its chief resemblance to life? If Story fails in that way does not life commit the same blunder? In real life, as in a story, something must happen. That is just the trouble. We grasp at a state and find only a succession of events in which the state is never quite embodied. The grand idea of finding Atlantis which stirs us in the first chapter of the adventure story is apt to be frittered away in the mere excitement when the journey has once begun. But so, in real life, the idea of adventure fades when the day-to-day details begin to happen. Nor is this merely because actual hardship and danger shoulder it aside. Other grand ideas–homecoming, reunion with a beloved–similarly elude our grasp. Suppose there is no disappointment; even so–well, you are here. But now, something must happen, and after that something else. All that happens may be delightful: but can any such series quite embody the sheer state of being which was what we wanted? If the author’s plot is only a net, and usually an imperfect one, a net of time and event for catching what is not really a process at all, is life much more? … Art, indeed, may be expected to do what life cannot do: but so it has done. The bird has escaped us. But it was at least entangled in the net for several chapters. We saw it close and enjoyed the plumage. How many ‘real lives’ have nets that can do as much?

In life and art both, as it seems to me, we are always trying to catch in our net of successive moments something that is not successive. Whether in real life there is any doctor who can teach us how to do it, so that at last either the meshes will become fine enough to hold the bird, or we be so changed that we can throw our nets away and follow the bird to its own country, is not a question for this essay. But I think it is sometimes done–or very, very nearly done–in stories. I believe the effort to be well worth making.

He almost makes storytelling seem a tragedy, but a necessary one, like a remnant from the Fall of Man, which perhaps it is. If I may be forgiven for playing with the metaphor, I wonder: are we bird-catching for the beauty of the bird, or for the wish to become the bird? Or to find at least glimpses of the bird we hope is lost within ourselves?

In any case, I loved the essay; it’s worth a read for any authors of fantasy or fairy-tales. And it seems to stir in me a desire to write, not so much fuel for the fire, but the breath that brings it to fury. (Or is that a metaphor too much?)