My mother read to me each night of my childhood. She read books that I chose and books that she chose. She read her old favorites and she read faddish things and she read children’s books and books for adults. She read me Wind in the Willows and Animorphs and Ramona Quimby and A Christmas Carol and every word of The Lord of the Rings.
My mother worked at a magazine and we didn’t get to see each other during the day or immediately after school; our time with stories was our sacred time. Maybe this is why the language of stories has affected me so phenomenally—maybe this intensely happy association has taught me that stories are my mother and that I am stories, because of course I am my mother. Or maybe rather this easy learning-of-story-language, osmotic, gave me a means of expressing a self which preceded the means.
Whatever the case, I am fundamentally a story person, and recently I have had cause to consider what this means. It has long been plain to me that story people are not alike. That we like books gives us very little in common, less so than liking theater or paintings. There is an observation in Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories” which altered me signficiantly when I read it:
Actually, the association of children and fairy-stories is an accident of our domestic history. Fairy-stories have in the modern lettered world been relegated to the “nursery”, as shabby or old-fashioned furniture is relegated to the play-room, primarily because the adults do not want it, and do not mind if it is misused. It is not the choice of the children which decides this. Children as a class—except in a common lack of experience they are not one—neither like fairy-stories more, nor undertand them better than adults do; and no more than they like many other things. They are young and growing, and normally have keen appetites, so the fairy-stories as a rule go down well enough. But in fact only some children, and some adults, have any special taste for them; and when they have it, it is not exclusive, nor even neccessarily dominant.
I read this essay at twelve or thirteen, and before that point I had not considered that the same thing I had enjoyed as a child was the thing I continued to enjoy as a young teen, nor that others may not enjoy this thing, or enjoy it by the same means. I’ve come hardly closer to understand what exactly that thing is. Recently, however, I’ve begun to develop an idea of how I was experiencing stories as a child, and how this differs from the experience of other story children. These are preliminary thoughts. At the moment, I identify three different methods of experiencing story. In my view, any of these may be applied to any form of story, and children typically read favoring one method strongly over the others. That is to say, children who read using the method of Novel tend to read all stories using the method of Novel.
Novel: involvement / escape / participation in alternate humanity in the lived world
Fairy Tale: a re-experience of the lived world with new, poetic terminology
Myth: a first / prime / original experience of the lived world as poetry
The child who reads using the method of Novel may, as far as I can understand it, be performing many actions with the lived world as she reads—she may be learning or refining feelings relating to lived events. She may be adopting a new habitat, rejecting her lived world. She may be experiencing others’ lived worlds with the intimacy of writing. The novel is a tremendous category of experience which I don’t fully understand and don’t wish to fully understand—I didn’t use Novel as a child and I don’t use Novel now as an artist of novels and stories. Altogether, I would term Novel a human action, something which has to do with a person’s experience of the lived world and the implications those experiences have had and will have on the person’s life in the world (this can refer to much more than her actual choices in and decisions about the lived world, of course; a person’s experience of the lived world may be one of transcendental human empathy).
The child who uses Fairy Tale re-experiences the lived world in new, poetic terms. Let me define my special use of “poetic”: poetic is that which uses language to divide the real thing from its appearance, historical actions, use or role in order to represent the thing or its meaning more accurately. The child who uses Fairy Tale re-experiences her own life and comes to understand the lived world as 1. a space which can be articulated and named 2. a place in which the identity of a thing may be understood both as its appearance in the lived world and as a translated thing in hypothetical events 3. as a place full of things which can be re-created (referred-to, if you like) and remain themselves. The Fairy Tale is a codifying action (the naming of things, research into things) and a mystical action (the thing becomes other than itself and remains itself; the thing can be considered outside the lived world although it is without doubt a thing inside the lived world). Tangentially, it is my opinion that codification is inherently mystical.
The child who uses Myth experiences the act of poetry before she experiences the lived world, or as a ground for her experience of the lived world. To use Myth is to experience the lived world as a story; to assume that every thing and sensation and event in the lived world must be interpreted in the moment of experience as being both real and unreal, literal and symbolic, bound in time and immortal.
To use Myth honestly—to use it as the Mythological Child uses it—you must believe that all things simulate and repeat themselves and that the act of simulation is a real thing being described by its inability to describe itself. That the thing cannot exist fully in any single state of being, and that it tries to remember itself and assert itself impossibly, that in fact the thing appears impossible, is the state of reality for the Mythological Child. Essentially, for the Mythological Child this state is both impossible and true. In a legitimately Mythological myth, we are meant to fully believe that a mummy dressing resurrected the literally real and literally dead Osiris, and also that these things did not happen and there is no such person. In the legitimate myth and in the method of Myth, reality cannot be described using the shapes of the lived world.
The action of Myth is religious—it is reverential and reflexive. It admires the thing and rediscovers the thing. If the Mythological Child becomes a Mythological Adult (and I believe we all do), she will spend her life explaining that “No, I mean it,” even as she says things which she can’t mean because these things are impossible, and to mean is to obscure the thing she perceives.