The Dark of the Woods: Rites of Passage Tales (Continued)

by Terri Windling

During the winter months, still sequestered in bed, I came across Alan Garner’s strange and brilliant collection of essays, The Voice of Thunder — an autobiographical look at mythology, rural England, and fantasy literature. (Garner, of course, is the author of The Owl Service, Elidor, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and other classics of children’s fantasy.) In this book he examines the things that formed him as a writer and a man. One of these was an intense relationship with the land on which he was born, where Garners have lived for generations: the Alderley Edge in Cheshire, rich in myth and history.Another was the childhood illness which kept him bedridden for several years, bringing him face to face with death. During this time, the boy taught himself techniques (similar to shamanic rites) enabling him to travel outside his body and to alter the flow of time. Garner speaks frankly about his journeys into another world reached through the plaster ceiling over his bed, and speaks of myths studied later in life which gave words to his youthful experiences. "I have often been asked," he says, "whether that childhood made me a writer. If I had not had the encounter with my death and the Damascan road provided by the Edge, would I have been granted the vision needed in order to write?If I had not been born with the stamina of will and the bloody–mindedness required of all writing, should I have meekly accepted the doctors’ diagnosis? All I can say is that many writers have been only children, and have suffered long and life–threatening illness in isolation from human company."

He goes on to speak of a rite–of–passage less individual but equally formative: a childhood spent during World War II, years of blacked–out windows, short rations, shrapnel in the road and bombers overhead. "My wife," Garner writes, "claims to find, in recent children’s literature, little that qualifies as literature. She asked herself why this should be, after a Golden Age that ran from the late Fifties to the late Sixties. And she found that generally writers of this Golden Age were children during the Second World War: a war raged against civilians. The atmosphere these children and young people grew up in was one of a whole communityand a whole nature united against pure evil, made manifest in the person of Hitler. Parents were seen to be afraid. Death was a constant possibility . . .Therefore, daily life was lived on a mythic plane: of absolute Good against absolute Evil; of the need to endure, to survive whatever had to be overcome, to be tempered in whatever furnace was required. Those children who were born writers, and would be adolescent when the full horrors [of the concentration camps] became known, would not be able to avoid concerning themselves with the issues; and so their books, however clad, were written on profound themes, and were literature. The generation that has followed is not so fueled,and its writing is, by comparison, effete and trivial. Susan Cooper, an exact contemporary of mine at Oxford, has said, ‘I know the shape of my imagination, and all its unconscious preoccupations, were molded by having been a child in the war.’ "

There is, unfortunately, truth in Garner’s characterization of much current fantasy fiction, although I certainly hope we don’t require world wars to produce fine writers in the coming generations. What we do need is to remember that fantasy, even more than other kinds of fiction, is a rites–of–passage literature — whether its themes are based on collective battles or on private, individual ones. The best fantasy is rooted not only in myth but in life experience — while the worst draws experience second–hand from film, television, and other books. Our field is plagued with mediocre tales inspired by Tolkien’s masterwork, for example, while ignorant of Tolkien’ssource material — his extensive knowledge of European myths, history, theology and languages, and his experience of two world wars that threatened the land and the life he held dear. Attempting to re–create Tolkien’s world view through, say, a middle class American suburban upbringing, is nothing short of ridiculous — and the painful results are evident on all too many bookstores shelves. As fantasist, we must look to the quests, ordeals and trials that form, as Susan Cooper says, the shape of our own imagination and all its unconscious preoccupations. Through myth, symbol, and metaphor, the fantasist transforms the personal into the universal — creating stories that not only entertainbut provide the mythic tools we need to face the ordeals, the monsters, the wolves, of our modern age.

Illustration by Mark Wagner

While I agree with Garner that surviving a war or a life–threatening disease can serve as a "tempering furnace" to forge a writer’s mythic imagination, rites–of–passage literature can also spring from experiences less extreme but no less profound. One of the most fertile of these for fiction writers is also the most universal: the rite–of–passage that marks the transition from childhood to adulthood. In many tribal societies, this transition is marked by elaborate ceremonies signifying the death of the child–self, symbolically re–born into adult society. The male puberty rites of Aboriginal tribes in Australia, for example, are harrowing.The boys are abducted by older men, carried away from their mothers, who weep and wail over the "death" of their sons. Isolated, the boys endure weeks of fasting, feats of physical endurance, prayer, instruction, and ritual circumcision. "Underlying the Aboriginal world view," notes folklorist Robert Lawlor, "is the belief that people only reach fruition by accepting the risk and adventure of continual death and rebirth. In the Mardudjarra language, the novice murdilya (uncircumcised boy) is named bugundi after being circumcised as part of his puberty initiation. The word bugundiis formed from the combination of bugu, death, and yudirini, both being born and returning.The word bugu is applied to women during pregnancy, childbirth, and menstruation, indicating that women, by their very nature, continually participate in the initiatic experience."

The female puberty rite, by contrast, is less extended and far less arduous, reflecting Aboriginal belief that women participate in the Mysteries naturally throughout the course of their lives whereas men must be laboriously inculcated with this special knowledge. At the onset of menstruation, a girl is secluded in an isolated hut built by her mother or grandmother, and visited by older women who instruct her in women’s rites and traditions. Although there are ritual taboos on what she can eat or touch at this time, the menstrual cycle is not considered unclean by Aboriginal people as it is in other parts of the world (in parts of Africa, Asia, and some Native American tribes) where women "on their moon" are considereda corrupting influence. To the Apaches of North America, by contrast, a young girl’s first blood is a cause for tribal celebration. An elaborate feast and dance ensues, with rituals to petition the spirits to gift the young woman with four basic things: physical strength, good disposition, prosperity, and a healthy old age. The four days of the dance are arduous ones for the young initiate, but she is sustained by the power of Changing Woman (one of the great founders of Apache culture) whom she embodies during the ritual.

Story–telling is a vital part of most indigenous coming–of–age ceremonies, either during the ceremony itself or in the months leading up to it. Both sacred knowledge and tribal ideals concerning the initiate’s role in adult society are imparted through the telling of traditional stories, some of them voiced at no other time. These include stories of young heroes and heroines overcoming obstacles and challenges, as well as cautionary tales (sometimes humorous in nature) outlining the perils of incorrect behavior toward the tribe, the spirits, the ancestors, or the numinous world of nature. Today, the palimpsests of such tales can be found in the adolescent rites–of–passage fiction that makes up much of theYoung Adult Fantasy genre — in which young characters such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, Garth Nix’s Sabriel, and Philip Pullman’s Lyra Belacqua undergo various magical rites of initiation and transformation.