If someone were to ask me what my books have in common, I might say this: they end up wandering into the mythic woods. Beyond the Door and the paperback of The Peculiars share the same birthday, March 18, 2014. And while I didn’t plan for this double birth, I can’t help looking to see what features the two share.
Beyond the Door starts in a normal home, on a normal day, but normal doesn’t last for long. One of the central characters is the Greenman. Half-man, half-tree, his shape shifts with the seasons. In our front yard we have seventy year old Carolina poplars. I can see them from my writing window. Their bark is rough and ridged, and if you look carefully you can see faces in knot holes. But I first met the Greenman when I was visiting Oxford. In an old church, I looked up and there was a face looking down at me, a face with leaves for hair and vines coming out of his nose.
The Greenman isn’t the only shapeshifter in my book. There’s Balor the one eyed and Gwydon the wolf who was once a story teller. Shapeshifting involves risk. It’s crossing a boundary, and there is no promise of return. Shapeshifters are always marked. Think of Merlin teaching the young Arthur. In T.H. White’s Once and Future King, Arthur learns about the world by becoming various animals. And it changes him. He’s more insightful. But insight can open us to pain. He’s able to identify in ways he never could before. Think of a selkie, seal-woman. She can reclaim her skin and return to the sea, but she leaves part of her heart on shore. Forever. The werewolf, knows the loneliness of night. He fears who he becomes. Split between two worlds, between two natures he wonders which is his. It’s the question we never escape, who am I?
At times, we are afraid to learn the answer.
In The Peculiars, Lena embarks on a journey to discover if her long fingers and inflexible feet mean that she’s different on the inside as well. And there are rumors of goblins. Her father may have been one. One of the questions rattling around in my head when I wrote Peculiars was: do we become our parents? Sometimes that’s a good thing, but if our parents are goblins it may not be. And we all have goblins in our family tree.
You see, myth adds subtext to a story. It leads the reader into primal woods where others have traveled before. The writer and reader join a conversation that has been whispered for centuries: where did we come from? Where are we going? Is the world a safe place? This is the territory of writers. The deep place we must be willing to travel with each of our characters. How do we know when we’ve entered the territory of myth?
Author Robin McKinley says: “But myth, to some extent, is where you find it; and you know when you've found it by the way it goes right through you -- like the first heavenly, shocking mouthful of ice cream on a hot day, or falling in love. Whew. Zowie. I always want my stories to be cracking good stories; but I always hope that for some readers there's a resonant depth to them too.”
And Neil Gaiman adds to the conversation with “…sometimes the best way to show people true things is from a direction that they had not imagined the truth coming.”
So what does myth whisper to me? I’ve made a list of some of things I’ve learned from writers like Neil Gaiman, Susan Cooper, Jane Yolen, Lewis and Tolkien:
The inside is often so much larger than the outside
Like Bilbo Baggins, we are all more than meets the eye
There is no easy way out of the maze
We can fight dragons and win
The world isn’t tame
The things we fear are often the wrong things
“It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
What truths have you learned from myth?