(post formally called ‘the magic touch’)
I love magical realism, the unexplained sitting side by side with routine, reasoned reality. Perhaps I love it because in truth reality rarely appears very reasonable. My fascination may in part be because that taste of magic fulfills in me a yearning for everyday enchantment, but not too much of it. It’s a bit like a craving for pudding, I never want so so much I can’t taste anything but sugar. I find even a little sweet aids in swallowing more bitter truths, like dark chocolate laced with orange and spice.
It is more though. Fantasy sub-genres allow us to explore fears and hopes that cannot be spoken and to believe in our power to exact change in the world. I’ve used myth in story-weaving workshops for conflict transformation. When the monster is not the other person but an archetype it is far easier to understand and conquer together. When we suspend our disbelief that things can be better and that we can be collective heroes in our stories, we begin to dream and envision. As someone who has been in conflict zones and lives with serious health concerns, I can speak to both the potential and the limits of such imaginings. No, it won’t make everything perfect. It cannot grow back a person’s limbs or bring back those we’ve lost, but it can often reframe troubles or loses and give us hope in our internal power and in something bigger than we are. Some call that power the divine, others say it is nature, the science of ecosystems or the energy of combined humanity. To my mind, it’s a little of all of the above; an expression of the life-force in, around, between and beyond us, and our place within the whole sphere. Magic.
Magical realism and fantasy speak strongly to me because they fit oddly with my own experience. There are things that cannot be explained solely by what is already proven or known. There have been experiences in my life that fit firmly in the category of the uncanny, the strangely synchronized and the beautifully unexplained by logic alone. From time to time I hint at these happenings in my writing. When I read or write fantasy, and magical realism I see people’s quirkiest and most unusual, awe-inspiring or terrifying traits elaborated on. I see too, in the books, films and shows I rate highly, a rationale given to the mysterious and the magical. These may defy mundane logic but they have a logic of their own.
Sister and cross-over genres such as time travel, tap into forgotten or overlooked worlds, giving us a looking glass with which to question and examine ourselves and the world around us. It is within these unknown (or un-nouned) spaces and inverted worlds that we are able to remember and explore things deeply buried in our individual and collective subconscious. It is here we are allowed to be what prejudice, past traumas or social norms have disallowed.
Mainstream history and social commentaries have ever been highly edited and written by survivors; mostly victors. They have traditionally been under the authorship of men. Yet it’s noteworthy that fantasy and time-travel genres today, whatever the gender of their authors, have often had strong female characters and storylines. The late, great Terry Pratchett, J K Rowling, Alice Hoffman, Sarah Addison-Allen, Paul Cornell, Joanne Harris, Deborah Harkness, Phillip Pullman, Diana Gabaldon, Neil Gaiman, Ruth Hogan, Charlaine Harris, Syd Moore, and other diverse authors have written in sub-sections of the fantasy genre. Each has created believable, brilliant, beautifully flawed female characters at the centre of their own narrative. These authors have also posed questions, playfully and/or poignantly about social norms and injustices past and present.
The stories we are told or hear help us learn how to be human. From an early age, they help us define who we are and what our expectations should be. From that perspective both history and conventional fairytale let us down. I’m not sure what a Brother’s Grimm version of Sleeping Beauty tells young people about free will versus coercion. Being kissed by a stranger while unconscious is creepy. As for a prince that doesn’t recognise a girl without her best dress and a fine carriage, he’s not so very charming in my books. Meanwhile, Snow White’s name alone makes her sounds like the child of a white supremacist. Yet beneath the surface, all these stories have something in common when told from a different angle; the exiled, resilient female figure who reclaims her power. Each is close to nature, is an heir in their own right and each redefines their place in the world with the help of friends, their own talents, willpower, and a little spirit or magic.
Back in the everyday world, it is amazing what we do not know or are not told of our own diverse interconnected heritages. The mass movement of suffrage that gained women the vote is largely credited to only one or two of the most influential leaders, downplaying the role of thousands of women and their male allies up and down the nation, along with countless sisters across oceans. We don’t know the heroes and villains in our own tangled family trees.
Go back further, to a time of religious and civil wars when plagues hit the land and many women were widowed or their men off fighting. At this time women were setting up cottage industries, owning and earning their money in the absence of men. At this time ordinary people could not afford doctors, there were no NHS midwives or counseling services. A local woman with the appropriate knowledge and experience was often the only answer available. But in this time of politico-religious conflict, upheaval, fear, superstition, and rampant sexism, independent women were seen as a threat to the status quo. Women with knowledge, whether inherited, experience-based, community or book-learned, were feared. When troubles came these women were blamed.
This was the era of the witch hunts when so many were killed because of gender, age, physical dis/ability, mental health problems, or place of origin. The main reason given was religion. At the time Protestants and Catholics thought one another evil. The Border Clans were the first on the Scotland / England divide to be forced from their land and onto lands of others. Jews were being expelled or killed across Europe. The enslavement and selling of people was seen as legitimate trade. Different peoples were being displaced in or stolen from their homelands. Others were seeking their fortunes in new lands. The ‘New World’ was being discovered by Europe. Deep distrust of difference was widespread. Across oceans, witchcraft was a politically powerful slur to place on someone, one that was hard to fight. Uncounted numbers were persecuted.
It is impossible to know each condemned woman’s belief. Some women seem to have described themselves as ‘cunning women’ from the old English word for wise and owned to the knowledge of such things as healing cures. We’ve assumed them pagan for centuries, but the truth is more complex. At the time the word pagan was often used by some Christians to describe any of a different faith. Now it is used as an umbrella term for a variety of different spiritual paths.
However, according to records of the trials in England and Scotland, most of those accused self-defined as Christian (even after forced confessions). These women may well have been non-denominational, probably preferring to avoid the (male-dominated) churches that were at war and seek knowledge and spirit in the land they lived from and one another. It was still commonplace for church services to be held in Latin, which few spoke or understood. Folklore and older faiths were also woven into the life and fabric of many communities at the time, with older myths entwined with church doctrine. It’s probable those accused and convicted had a mix of cultural and faith influences. The history of those women and of the witch hunts have too long been taken out of broader social context or glossed over in older mainstream records, but legends, myths, and folklore gave birth to fantasy. These days more people are re-examining the available records to find the facts that birth the fiction, altering perceptions along the way.
Telling stories has often needed a pinch of the unreal or mysterious to juxtapose the real and mundane. As an image needs light and shade, so does narrative. There’s so much going on in the world right now, sparking conflict, climate chaos, suspicion, shuttered borders and alienation. It can be hard to have faith in our agency to quel the torrent. Yet I take both solace and strength from the maturing subgenres of fantasy, with their uncanny ability to draw the incredible from a wellspring deep inside us. This encourages many of us to take up our place in the story; to face our ogres and goliaths together as more whole, inquisitive versions of ourselves, whatever our beliefs or ethos, origin, ability or gender.