Today we welcome L Jagi Lamplighter, a writer of fantasy and children’s stories. When not writing, she reverts to her secret ID where she lives in fairytale happiness with her husband, writer John C. Wright, and their four delightful children Orville, Ping-Ping, the Cherubim, and Justinian the Elf King. Jagi’s latest release, The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin is a YA fantasy series, described as “Harry Potter for girls with angsty romance”.
All About The Magic Or the Gosling of the Golden Creek Vs. The Unicorn Pooper-Scoopers
Beside the road leading to my street, there is a small pond. This pond is the favorite nesting place of a flock of Canadian geese who like to walk out in the street. The other day, I found myself sitting and waiting for the geese to depart, so I could drive home without running over them. As I watched the birds waddle by, I thought of people I knew who had expressed hatred for these creatures that stop traffic and leave goose droppings all over the sidewalk and golf courses. Their hatred added to my impatience.
After all, I wanted to get home. I had things to do, man! But then I remembered something. As a child, I had loved these birds. Why? Because at the gateway to the local county park was a river. Canadian geese used to nest on the river bank. If one was lucky, if one came at just the right time, one might catch a glimpse the tiny goslings paddling behind their august parents. These adorable creatures were the only baby wild animals visible to us as children. Seeing these little beige and yellow bundles of fluff lit our hearts. It was as wondrous as magic!
When had I lost the magic? Was it familiarity that had bred such contempt? I saw them all the time, now, so the magic had fled? This thought led me to the following question: If flocks of unicorns roamed my hometown, would the magic go away with them, too? Would I be sitting here wishing the herd of unicorns would just get off the road? And then it struck me. The difference between my current thought about unicorns and my childhood memory was like the difference between urban fantasy and stories of wonder. In a story of wonder, ordinary creatures, such as Canadian geese goslings, became objects of awe and magic. In an Urban Fantasy, people argue about who was responsible for scooping up the unicorn poop.
Before I go on, I should clarify: I am a big fan of urban fantasy. This insight is in no way meant to detract from the delight of reading about a tarnished pixy with tattered wings, a base-playing goblin, or an elf in a fedora asking questions and taking names. However, there are much better writers, here at Magical Words, than I for giving advice about writing good urban fantasy. So, I will concentrate on the subject of how to bring that childhood sense of wonder back to our stories.
If Urban Fantasy is about the magical in a mundane setting, Stories of Wonder are about mundane things in a magical setting. The first drags fairytales, folk lore, and mythology into our world, kicking and screaming. The second lifts us out of our ordinary daily life and into the extraordinary. So, how does one capture this magic when writing? How do we portray pixies up close without tarnishing their wings? How do we become familiar with unicorns and yet not grumble about how irksome it is that they have been eating our flowers? How do we turn the geeseholding up traffic back into creatures of enchantment? The key is to look around and imagine what the world would be like if it were alive…and it loved us. The marvelous world in stories of wonder is not always friendly. It can be grumpy, or angry, or tricky. It can be dangerous, sometimes terrible. But, underneath, there is a sense of something wonderful, something precious, something that makes you catch your breath from joy. If that is lacking, it is not a Story of Wonder.
So, how is it done? By looking around and imagining what the things we see would be like—if they just happened to fall into fairyland. The small stone pump house on the corner becomes a home for tiny folk who peek their little whiskered snouts around the edge of the door and peer at us with very large black eyes. Little doors into the crawl spaces of an attic become gates that transform those who pass through, so that they can fly, or turn invisible, or talk to fish. Misshapen tree trunks, with a horizontal section low to the ground, become riding trees that can pull up their roots and run though the forest during the mysterious cusp of twilight. Go ahead, try it. Pick a perfectly normal object in your environment and think about what it might be if you suddenly discovered it was a friendly visitor from the Court of Oberon. (Feel free to note your discoveries in the comments section.)
The next question one might ask is: Who does this well? Whose writing can we look to as an example? In my humble opinion, I believe the mistress of writing wonder is British author, Barbara Sleigh. (Who is that, you ask? If you missed her in your childhood, I am so very sorry! I will introduce you now, as I first met her.) Once, in the long ago dream time, I attended an old elementary school that had a marvelous library. This library was not as libraries are today—filled with new books all shiny with bright picture on their dustcovers, all published in the last twenty to thirty years. This library was filled with old books. I wouldn’t be surprised if a book bogie* had lived there as well. One day, while peering into the shadows of the dimly lit stacks, I found a slim volume I don’t think anyone else had ever checked out. It was Kingdom of Carbonel by Barbara Sleigh. It would be years before I met anyone else who had read this book. And more years before a friend traveling to England finally brought back the first book, Carbonel, for me. But these two slim volumes, in their own quiet way, remain among the most magical I have read. (I may not be the only author who has felt this way. These books were written in England in the 1950s. The villain is referred to as You-Know-Who, and there are characters with names like Tonks and Pettigrew. So it is possible that another author, far better known than I, once fell under their spell a well.) The fantasy in the books is low key. The children need to deal with mundane issues such as chores, being home in time for supper, and finding enough money to cross town by bus. Yet the magic, when it comes, seems all the more wondrous for its unexpectedness. There is a talking prince of cats, a flying rocking chair, and a cantankerous witch who is losing her powers. Yet, there is so much more. Only a step away from the roofs of mundane England is the Country of Cats, another land that the children glimpse but briefly. And when they need magic to speak with animals, they are given a prescription that causes the clerk to scratch his head and then climb up on a ladder to draw liquid from the large red bottle propped as a display in the window of the chemist’s shop. (There is even an amusing sub-plot for the poor clerk, who accidentally licks his finger after pouring out the liquid and believes himself to be going mad when he begins to understand the speech of worms and bugs.)
In this bestowing of magic to ordinary things—roofs, rocking chairs, and window display bottles—there is the curious wonder that comes from peeking into another world not meant for human kind, a world to which the children can only be temporary visitors—and yet when they leave, we know that they have been changed forever and will never again be quite as other people are, that they will always be something more.
And isn’t that, really, why we read? So we, the reader, can enter a magical kingdom that gives us a glimpse of something beyond the ordinary, beyond the world we know, in the hope that we, too, will emerge from the book changed, having been made better by the experience, so that we, too, will never again be quite as mundane as we were before? So that, while others sit in the road grumbling about being held up by “rats with wings”, we alone will behold the majesty of the graceful dancers of the sky, who once were the goslings of Golden Creek.
* — creature said to haunt libraries and help children find the perfect book.
Who is your favorite weaver of Stories of Wonder? What ordinary objects would you like to see woken to fairy life by the breath of enchantment?