by Dr.James Maertens, Alferian Gwydion MacLir
Elves and elfin folk having been relegated to children's literature in the nineteenth century, they have typically held out there and prospered. The evolution of Faerie folk in literature over the last half of the twentieth century is remarkable, for the Faeries are no longer confined to the nursery, and children's literature itself is rapidly becoming interesting to adults as "fairy-tales" have grown up into a whole new genre of teen fiction. Indeed, I recently encountered a pair of novels that included magic in a world otherwise scarcely altered from "real history" and it was classified as "teen fiction" for apparently no other reason. Its characters were all young adults - college students and teachers in fact. The Harry Potter novels of J. K. Rowling are the most publicized tip of this iceberg and are notable for defying the adult-child split.
The Harry Potter books bridge the adult-child gap, first of all, in readership. Many adults enjoy reading the books as much as children do, but enjoy them not merely as "escapism" into childhood – they enjoy them as adults for the adult characters. Second, within the fictional world of the Harry Potter novels, readers will encounter adults who believe in magic. Indeed, it is hardly a matter of "belief" or of "faith"; it is simply a matter of experience, and there is no doubt about it. In Harry Potter's world we can see the lure and the dangers of prophets and prophecy. Lord Voldemort, the "Dark Lord" who just won't die, is the shadow-side of all charismatic religious prophets who found their own religious sect. He is cast as so completely evil and destructive that his role as an essentially religious figure might easily be missed. But his followers clearly worship him and consider him infallible, they will do anything in the name of their "Lord." Voldemort doesn't claim to speak for God. In Rowling's world God has been removed from the culture of the Muggles as well as from that of the Wizards and Witches. Yet we can readily see both empty piety and religious fanaticism at work in each of these cultures in Harry's world.
Literary scholars writing about Rowling's books have noted that they appeal on a deep level to the human desire for magic, which is rooted in the longing to come face-to-face with the source of all mystery and existence. Yet that longing is presented as one that cannot be fulfilled in our current materialist reality. This materialist world is cariacatured by the horrid Dursleys – "The worst kind of muggles," as Professor McGonagal says. The Muggle world is almost devoid of moral force of any kind, while the world of magical folk is plagued with it – both the forces of good and the forces of cruelty. It is a fictional view of magical society, but it points tellingly at modern paganism. To the academic pagans may be people who "believe" in magic and revelation, but to pagans themselves they are simply magical folk. There is no question of belief because there is no question of doubt, and one reason the Potter novels appeal so strongly to their mixed audience is that they offer a view of a society that gives adults permission to call themselves witches and wizards without a doubt. The skeptics in Rowling's world are simply wrong.
In an article about the Harry Potter books and their literary cousins, Pat Pinsent, a senior research fellow at Surrey University, points to another aspect of the age dichotomy and the dichotomizing of worlds. She notes that magical fiction aimed at younger children usually includes some sort of transitional episode that provides the reader a way to move from our ordinary world into the fantasy world of magicians. "Interplay with 'our' world seems to mediate the entry of the younger reader into the secondary world and also allows for occasional interaction with the primary world…" (Pinsent 32). In C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, for example, we move from the world of London during the Blitz through the wardrobe into Narnia, the Otherworld, in which the magical action takes place. In J. K. Rowling's Potter books, the end of summer vacation and the beginning of a new school year with the trip on the Hogwarts Express provides a similar transition, though one that leaves the separation between worlds more permeable because it is not the only way in.
Pinsent points out that "High Fantasy" as a genre is usually aimed at an older reader, college students, for example, and treats the fantasy world as an entirely separate place. In this genre, Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea books and J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy are the best among a host of subsequent imitators. Such stories, we might say, actually take place in the Otherworld. But in either kind of fantasy story, the "secondary" world is treated as a realm removed from the adult's world of modern science and technology. Indeed, in many High Fantasy romances, technology is treated as inimical to magic or vice versa. So, we get the ubiquitous quasi-medieval setting of fantasy stories. Even in Rowling, where magical trains and flying cars coexist with owl post and quill pens, the magic of Hogwarts School makes it impossible for modern electronics to work within its grounds. Caroline Stevermer, in her novels, A College of Magics and its sequel, A Scholar of Magics, achieves a similar effect by setting her stories in the early 20th century before the age of electronics, yet she plays with the possibilities of a world that merges technology and magic without discomfort.
What all of these fictional creations reflect is the essential difficulty in fitting magic into the worldview and cosmology of our scientific age. These authors must find a way to get around science and its technology because the dominant myth of science itself insists that magic is not real. Reality is defined as consisting of only those things which can be explained in materialist terms and verified through repeatable experiments. This is the reason why children's fiction, and even "high fantasy" for adults is labeled dismissively as "escapist." The assumption is that people read this sort of story to escape from "reality." I believe it was Tolkien himself who defended against the charge of "escapism" noting that the modern world was a good place to escape from, given its horrors.
The charge of "escapism" - like that of "romanticism," "idealism," and "utopianism" - is a charge that parallels and feeds off the charge of "childishness.". The rhetorical equation of materialism with adult thinking is even, oddly, applied to Academia itself where students are said to graduate "into the real world" as if Academia were itself a fantasy land. It is a peculiar attitude but one that can be understood if we remember that Academia is a social institution used to indoctrinate children into the world of adulthood. Academia (for the students) is a liminal passage between the fantasy land of childhood into the world of muggle common sense and industrial activity. One is expected to focus on material realities, once one has made the passage through school. Schools thus become something like the magic wardrobe of Narnia, only in reverse, and operating only in one direction.
It has long troubled me that our culture has chosen to relegate imagination to the world of childhood. Wordsworth and Blake both observed this cultural shift in the early 19th Century when they wrote of the babe who comes into the world "trailing clouds of glory" and subsequently feels the "shadows of the prison house" descend as our culturally constructed "mind-forged manacles" become the badges of adulthood. The Romantic poets, and after them Dickens in his novel Hard Times, all suggested that our Utilitarian notions of education were designed to beat our children into submission and break them of "Fancies." The poet Coleridge wrote of our "willing suspension of disbelief" when reading fiction, and this, it seems to me, could be a guide for modern druids.
Druidry does not embrace the fairy-faith literally. Some druids do, but not Druidry as a whole for it covers such a wide spectrum. There is no support for literalism when there are no holy scriptures. But belief in the Otherworlds and the folk of Faerie are approached with a willing suspension of disbelief which can lead to experience, and through experience to understanding. Druidry is not about belief, but about trusting one's own senses and inspirations. Individuals experience revelations and theophanies, but do not become elevated to the role of "prophet" in the Biblical sense. In a sense, prophecy has been democratized. Every druid is free to pursue conversations with the Divine, however he or she experiences it and personal revelations are respected – not taken on faith as objectively true, but accepted as mythically true. True for the psyche.
Such a decentralized and democratized sort of religious experience is set against a powerful and organized educational system. One can see this portrayed in satirical lines in Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, when Harry's aunt and uncle, the Dursleys try to beat the magic out of him through emotional abuse that would be criminal outside of a fairy tale. Uncle Vernon, derides Hogwarts (which is nothing if not permissive, despite all its rules) and praises "Smeltings" his alma mater, where the boys spend a good deal of time beating each other with sticks.
The truth of modern education may be much more subtle and complex, but the effect is much the same. Even though our culture has been highly secularized and liberalized over the past century, the basic structures of coercion are still in place: structures that use education to force children to stop believing in fairies, ghosts, dragons, Santa Claus, or imaginary friends, and instead devote their energies to correct spelling and learning mathematics. If a child grows up with "imaginary" companions and sees Faerie folk or has other psychic talents, she is thus forced to stop having faith in herself and instead place her faith in adult authorities. Rowling's books appeal to us so powerfully, in part, because she shows us this coercion and also shows children and adults who escape it and end up waging war against it in its most archetypal form in the person of Lord Voldemort.
So, we druids are placed on the horns of a dilemma: as adults do we reject the claims of materialist science to comprehensively explain everything that is real, or do we reject Faërie as the product of pre-scientific thinking that is as far distant from modern ways as headhunting or the wicker man? Given our education and conditioning, the complete rejection of science's explanatory power is nearly impossible, and would, it seems to me, be foolish. The Druidic approach to a two-horned dilemma is to find the way between the horns. The way requires us not so much to redefine science as to redefine adulthood. To do so we do well to look to our ancient ancestors.
With their bards and poets, so beloved and revered, our ancient ancestors did not exclude imagination from adult consciousness. This way of thinking was not "childish" but simply a different definition of what it means to be adult. In this ancient way, an adult may have to deal with responsibilities and knowledge the child does not possess, but doing so does not mean giving up poetic imagination and the power of myth. Nor does it mean confusing poetry and myth with skeptical questioning of facts. Adulthood means understanding that there are different kinds of truth and that neither the poetical nor the empirical should always occupy a privileged position. Moreover, I would like to think that our druid ancestors understood clearly that religious thought is poetical thought.
An adult may indeed need to be more cautious and skeptical than a child. As Blake understood, this is a by-product of age and experience. Certainly adults should not be simply credulous, but that doesn't mean losing all their innocence either. From what I have observed, not very many children are wholly credulous or wholly innocent, for that matter. They may have undeveloped powers of discrimination between truth and lies, but then so do most adults in our current society. We might put it more positively and say that children often have a higher capacity for faith and trust. Children usually know who can be trusted too, but they also like to play. One of the reasons for adult credulity today is that we are taught so little about the imagination and how it works. For the most part, ignorant of the imagination, and untrained in how to use it actively, adults are as easily manipulated by propaganda and advertising as children are, conditioned to respond with neither imagination nor scientific reason. Taught to think of myths and fantasies as the stuff of childhood, today's adults are easily caught in the net of myths created to keep vested interests in power.
Many of the myths that go unexamined today come from the Bible and the teachings of the Christian churches. The reason for this state of affairs is that when imagination and myths were thrown out with the bathwater, Christianity saved itself as the dominant religion by insisting that its myths were no such thing, but were accurate accounts of historical events. The claim has worn pretty thin by this time, but it has served well to maintain such corrosive myths as the privilege of patriarchy, the divine right of kings, and a whole host of petty tyrants or prophets claiming to be the mouthpiece of God. The threat of being abducted by Faeries was abolished in the Early Modern period, but the threat of Hellfire and damnation has been passed on to the present day among considerable numbers of believers.
Scientists, ever since the Enlightenment, have argued that what is needed to counteract the myths of religion and the fanaticism that goes with it is more science and more reason. Indeed, this argument has been advanced since the ancient Greek philosophers. I wish to propose that we can understand the world of Faerie, as well as expose the folly of religious fanaticism, not by trying to stamp out imagination but rather by improving our knowledge of how it works. To do so requires the modern druid to learn that scientific discourses are just that - discourses. Myths are discourses too – that is, a certain way of describing our world. Science is not the same as myth (as is sometimes suggested), nor are myths reducible to science, but each can be understood as a kind of language. Scientific discourses have their own poetics and vocabulary, their own metaphors. Both the Logos of science and the Mythos of poetry are equally valuable for the insights they give into the universe and the human soul and their value can only be fully comprehended when it is realized that neither can be reduced to the other and that both discourses only point to truths that are beyond all language and signs.
I love a good story. The Bardic ideal can teach us to love our myths and legends, our visions, and revelations. It can also teach us not to confuse legend with history as too many of our religions do. Religious experience cannot be securely built upon the false notion that someone else's revelation is literal history, or that myths and legends are a substitute for understanding our true history. While history is the bailiwick of adults, and literature is more accessible to every age group, I should not wish to make the mistake of equating a historical view of the world with adulthood and a literary or mythic view with childhood. If Druidry is to have an influence on our ideas of education, let it be to teach children and adults more myths, and more history, and to understand their particular kinds of truth.
We learn much about imagination and the Otherworld from depth psychology, particularly in the ideas of Carl Jung. The Otherworld, the Sea of Stories, is our own Unconscious soul. But Jung himself arrived at his understanding of psyche by turning to literature. Follow me now into that realm. Suspend your disbelief and consider some works of our modern bards.
The Lord of the Rings and the other mythological works of Professor Tolkien have given all of us a doorway into the world of Faerie that is perhaps not fully appreciated even by his fans. Tolkien considered that what he was writing was a "Faerie tale" in the most serious sense of the term. Not a children's nursery story, but a serious engagement with what centuries of our ancestors have taken for granted - a parallel world to our own accessible through forms of altered perception. Professor Tolkien restored Elves, those creatures of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic myth to the place of dignity and awe which they once occupied in the minds of mortals. His Elven races are very like the Irish Tuatha Dé Danann. There are glimpses of their ethereal power in key moments in The Lord of the Rings. When the Elvish prince Glorfindel confronts the Nazgûl to rescue Frodo, the hero sees the Elf revealed in his inner spiritual being - a being of light and power on a plane hidden within the material world of ordinary appearances. Even in a less altered state of consciousness, Frodo and Sam see the Elves in the Woody End of the Shire, shining with a faint luminescence. Their meeting with Galadriel in Lothlorien is sublime.
The Elves are indeed the Shining Ones, and Tolkien in the Silmarillion explores the ways that this immortal race is related to the Valar, the pantheon of creative spirits who shape the world. To a student of Celtic myths, it is quite apparent that Professor Tolkien was familiar with the cosmology of ancient Irish and Welsh culture. The Valar and the Elves are able to come and go from the Undying Lands in the Uttermost West, beyond Numenorian Atlantis. Dying in Tolkien's middle Earth, as in the old tales of the Welsh Bards, involves traveling across the Western sea into the setting sun. Yet it is not an unalterable ending to existence, but rather a transition, a new life in a place where nothing grows old, as in the realm of Annwn encountered in the story of Pwyll. Everyone in that world is young and unaging, untroubled by disease, though not entirely by evil schemes. Some of these folk of the Otherworld wish eventually to return to a mortal life, even some beings of fairly high rank, such as Rhiannon, for example in the Welsh Mabinogi. In The Silmarillion we have the example of the Maia Melian who marries Thingol Greycloak, an Elf-prince, and the Maia known to Men as Gandalf and to the Elves as Mithrandir.
The similarities between Tolkien's body of inspired legend and the older inspirations of the medieval and ancient Bards are many. The whole genre of fantasy has flowered into a stout branch of literature over the past half century, arguably the dominant evolving literary form. This fantasy movement has given us a renaissance of Faerie tales and is historically contingent with the renaissance of Druidry. These stories are, as Tolkien intended his to be, our myths in an age that seems to have forgotten the point of myths. These literary productions have further given birth to films and video games with their computer generated graphics, a cultural phenomenon which again seeks to fill the vacuum of myth. The masters of CGI are among the modern bards, weaving images, archetypes, daimons, and myths for the imagination.
We've mapped the world and television has brought it into our living rooms. Far-off lands have been drained of their fabulous quality, reduced to "cultures" that can be quantified by political and social sciences, by geography and anthropology. Even the Moon and the planets have become dull facts through the lenses of science so that the whole concept of immediately accessible Otherworlds seems impossible to reconcile with our scientific cosmology and view of Earth. When searching for that place where the soul goes after the death of the body, or from which the soul comes at birth, science gives us precious few places to look anymore, except to the distant stars and galaxies.
When our paleolithic and neolithic ancestors thought of the Otherworld as under ground, this was reasonable. Burying the remains of the dead would naturally suggest that their souls too lived on under the surface of the earth and the discovery of marvelous systems of caverns gave credence to the idea that there might be secret entrances to this world inside the Earth. Alas, modern speleologists and geologists have rather put the fun out of that theory, although it still could capture the imagination of fantasy fans as recently as in the Pellucidar novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. This is because the idea of an Underworld has profound symbolic value. That inner world of the Hollow Earth is our own daimonic unconscious, that place within ourselves from which goblins emerge along with frightening visions, images, and urgings. Similarly, the Celtic legends of the undersea Otherworld represents that place of alternative reality beneath the normal surfaces of life. The Earth, the Sea, the Sky, the human Face – all are apparent surfaces behind which lies a hidden reality.
I am always delighted to encounter an author who seems to understand the nature of the Otherworld. The 2005 debut novel of Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, is a superb example, all the more perhaps because she doesn't reproduce the Otherworld of Celtic myth but creates something quite new and different in her alternative England of the Napoleonic period. Clarke's vision of Faerie and "the King's Highways" that can lead into it from every mirror if you know the right spells, resonates perfectly with the Otherworld of Celtic myths. You don't really have to travel to get there – it is always just through the forest, or into a doorway in some hillside. Like Alice's Wonderland, you can get there through the Looking Glass, and like C.S. Lewis's Narnia, you can stumble into it by passing through an old wardrobe in a strange old house. It is a feature of the modern world that antique pieces of furniture begin to assume the role of the Otherworld doorway. Yet Carroll and Lewis do some damage to Faerie by trivializing it this way and relegating it to children, excluding adult participation for the most part.
The world of wizards and witches created by J.K. Rowling has much in common with the children's literature genre too, and continues the tendency to "modernize" it. One charm of the Harry Potter novels is that Rowling presents us with a Faerie realm inhabited by other mortals and just hidden down the alley behind an obscure pub in London, or in a house that no one ever notices. Hogwarts school, the setting for most of the action in these books is somewhere in the Scottish Highlands (near Glencoe, as I've been told on good authority). If you don't see it, well that's because it's bewitched and you aren't meant to see it. Rowling represents in this invisibility something that druids, witches, and wizards have long understood – that seeing the Otherworld requires that we look for it, that we cultivate awareness and actually see.
Rowling's world of muggles and magical folk contrasts those who can enter Faerie and those who can't see it. Or perhaps one should say, those who refuse to see it. The Hidden Folk are hidden but noticed more often than muggles would care to admit. In some of the old Irish tales one does feel that the Tuatha Dé Danann and their decendants have hidden their kingdoms and the entrances to them. Rowling's wizarding world is a notably updated Faerie realm. Though its fashions are still a bit medieval, it is no longer the unruly place governed only by the whims of kings and queens. Nowadays, Faerie has a Ministry of Magic that not only attempts to impose restrictions on the worst behavior of its denizens, but also acts as a liaison to the officialdom of the muggles which functions only by virtue of not believing in magic. The Ministry also spends a great deal of time keeping the Faerie world of the wizards secret, forever casting memory spells on the poor muggles who accidentally see something they shouldn't. Rowling cleverly creates her Ministry of Magic as an explanation for why so few people seem to run into Elves and Leprechauns these days, and indeed why just a century or two ago the general populace stopped believing in magic.
Notice, in Harry Potter's world, however, what sad creatures the Elves are. Reduced to obsessive-compulsive slaves to the wizard folk, and seemingly without any culture of their own, the House Elves are all we see of that noble race. Goblins have been domesticated too, into accountants and bankers. It is that sort of tongue-in-cheek inversion and parody that lends so much humor to the Harry Potter books, but I find it disappointing too. One appreciates the allusions to real Faerie lore but misses its flavor and complexity. House Elves are a made-up classification that conflates Scottish Brownies and English Elves.
Brownies are like the Tomten of Scandinavian legend, with whom we are more intimately acquainted in Minnesota. They seem to derive great pleasure from helping people tend their farms and houses. They aren't servants but are helpful creatures with such a charitable nature that we selfish and grumbling humans can hardly understand it as informed by free will.
Such beings are what we call "helping spirits." These sorts of Faerie folk are a far cry from either the proud Eldar of Tolkien's Middle Earth or the Tuatha Dé Danann of Irish lore. In the Irish Faerie lore, one feels that the descendants of the original Tuatha Dé Danann, like most descendants of great founders, were diminished and became a bit down-at-heel. They are the yeoman and craftsman class of Elvish folk, as often as they are the "Gentry" - more humble, despite their magical powers, but always tricky. Leprechauns, for example, however powerful by our standards, are, after all, shoemakers. Of course it wasn't above Gwydion and Lleu and Mannawyddan to make a living as shoemakers. Craft and the creative arts are the very essence of magical power and even lords and ladies of Faerie understand this. Certainly the Dwarves do.
Elves do work for a living, but have what seems to us an aristocratic culture, much as we believe the ancient Celts to have had such a culture. Artisans, farmers, and workers support the warriors, poets, judges, wise men and women, healers, and lords – what we would call the professional class. Critics of literature may call this representation romantic or even reactionary. One of the criticisms one can make of Tolkien's storied world is that he never shows us much about Elvish classes. They all seem to be warriors or poets as the mood strikes them, but none of them seem to be growing the food, making the beds, or doing the washing up. Hobbits have their gentlemen of independent means, living off inheritance or dragon gold, but there are plenty of farmers, millers, and publicans doing the work of the community. Dwarves do practically nothing but work, taking a break from their crafts only to have the occasional war. Perhaps Rowling was thinking of the traditional view of "the Gentry" when she relegated the washing up and cooking to the House Elves. It is a joke, yet creates a dynamic that is interesting too, in that the wizards (who are mortal) are the masters over Elves, rather than their respectful pupils.
Hints of Elves and Otherworlds appear again and again in modern fantasy. I will mention the works of just a few more authors. Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman each weave the theme of the Otherworld into a more modern setting, not the medieval romantic setting of so much fantasy. Gods and Goddesses, Elves and the rest interweave in alternate Oxfords or Americas and planets with doorways between them. The Divine is portrayed with gritty and sensual realism, rather than as a world filled with gold and silver cups and plates. In his novel Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman represents Faerie as alive and well underneath London and other big cities. In American Gods, he presents a dark comedy of the old gods living among us. The comic fantasist, Terry Pratchett has written a number of brilliant novels that both parody and faithfully represent the strangeness of the Otherworlds. Of particular interest is Wee Free Men, in which the Otherworld of Faerie is explored quite seriously but with Prachett's characteristic comedy. Here the traditional Scottish Brownies and Cornish Pixies are combined in the "Pictsies" who are the wee men painted in blue tattoos and devoted to thieving and brawling. The Nac Mac Feegle, as they are called, also turn out to be helping "spirits" of a sort for the hags and witches of Discworld.
R. J. Stewart is among the many authors who have, over the past three decades, articulated a direct engagement with Otherworld beings. For Stewart the process seems to require deliberate work , the "underworld initiation." In most of these books, a distinction is made between literary imagination and active imagination. The writing of literature is active imagination for the writer, but it may only be passive consumption for the reader unless a form of deeper engagement accompanies reading. Reading about Faerie encounters is not the same as having them, obviously, and authors such as Stewart, Stepanich, and Hawkins have contributed to a growing literature of instruction in the techniques of imagination to contact Faerie folk.
For Patrick Harpur, by contrast, such daimonic encounters are abundant and spontaneous rather than the offspring of "shamanism" or special techniques. Harpur notes the hazard inherent in attempting to subject daimons to logic. One can really only speak from one's own experience. I myself did not engage in any shamanic workshops or have the guidance of mentors along this path apart from work with OBOD. I was talking to Elves long before I became a druid. Indeed, that is one of the things that led me to OBOD. For many years Elves have accompanied me in life and intruded on my quiet moments. I seldom see them or hear them when I am occupied with other people, but then that's the very nature of the Otherworld. One doesn't find the open door until one has been separated from one's hunting companions.
The result of this fact of the Otherworld encounter is that it is very hard to substantiate the experiences with witnesses. McManus offers some stories in which two or more people witnessed Faeries together at the same time. Unfortunately, that doesn't do us much good from the standpoint of empirical evidence. One can talk about other people's experiences, but in the end, even if we get together and share these experiences, we must mostly rely on our own point of view. As Harpur suggests, Daimonic Reality is not objective, but a shifting vision that adapts to our own imagination.
Thus, the Otherworld and people's entry into it is highly subjective. The old tales represent the doorways to Faerie as objective things, but you will notice that it is usually only the hero of the story who sees the way in or sees his Faerie bride emerge from the lake. Sometimes a whole warrior band or a pair of knights might pass through the gateways together, but this is pretty rare. More typical is the moment when mist falls and the warrior band falls asleep, leaving Pwyll alone to confront Annwn. The reason for this literary motif is that, as McEowan suggests, the doorway to Faerie is the human mind. We do not actually pass through an objective physical doorway as they tend to suggest in fiction and films; rather, our state of consciousness and perception alters to give us a look, to extend our senses into another layer of the cosmos that we don't ordinarily see. The Otherworld is not "invisible" as is so often said, but is a kind of additional dimension that requires more than two eyes. We do not "enter" the Otherworld. We are always already there.
Another difficulty with the Otherworld is its illusive quality, its inherent ability to disguise itself. I was recently re-reading Kenneth Grahame's delightful Wind in the Willows, the adventures of Mole, Rat, Badger, and Toad in a natural world that is brilliant with beauty and poetry. Grahame might be accused of anthropomorphizing Nature, even sentimentalizing it, but The Wind in the Willows has a particularly sublime moment in the central chapter titled "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn." In that chapter, Rat and Mole are afforded a vision of the god Pan, who is referred to as "the Helper." What is particularly interesting about this passage in the book is not only the accurate way the author describes the sudden onrushing emotion of the numinous, but also that afterwards the God gives Rat and Mole the gift of forgetfulness. The experience of the Divine is so beautiful and overwhelming, Grahame asserts, that were we to retain the full memory of it, we would spend the rest of life grieving and in a state of loss.
There is deep wisdom disguised as a children's book. For it speaks to the child who is father of the man, the inner child who is the Mabon, the bearer of wisdom and the key to the mysteries. That blessing of forgetfulness is something that every one of us experiences every morning when we wake from our dreams and find that even the most powerful often fade away leaving nothing but the vague sense that there was something powerful there. In our sleep we experience deep and powerful emotions, passions. The same is true in spontaneous experiences of Faerie. If we retain the experience fully, we run the risk of falling into an endless longing like that of Keats's noble knight in his poem "Le Belle Dame sans Merci." To hear the piper's music and to see his face is potentially overwhelming to the psyche. It has the potential to utterly disrupt our ordinary lives. The sojourn in the Otherworld has to end and fade in our memories, partly or completely, for us to go on with our difficult duties in mortal life. The difficulty is that we cannot know when we have had these experiences and forgotten them; when the Deities have blessed us with forgetfulness. That is a dimension of mystical experence, and particularly Faerie experience that, understandably, is seldom reported, for there is little to report other than a vague feeling that something big happened, and the aftertaste of loss.
Dreams, visions, and the spirit-quests of shamans are each doorways into the Otherworld and ones that can sometimes give entry in a very vivid way so that it seems that the body has gone along with us, and for all we know it has. Astral traveling is another such method, as is the "rising on the planes" and "pathworking" of the Hermetic tradition. In each of these methods, however, it is the imagination that is the vehicle and instrument. It is both the doorway and the key. Kabalistic Serphiroth, Tarot cards, animal totems, may all aid our imagination to open and unlock the doors of perception, as William Blake put it.
But these are not primary; they are secondary vehicles and guides. We must train ourselves to remember our experiences in the Otherworlds and we must train ourselves to cope with the potential grief at having to return to our mundane avocations. It is when we fail to face the return to our mortal lives that we risk becoming prophets or religious fanatics. Overwhelmed by the flow of Awen, we imagine that we are unique mouthpieces for God. To the extent that paganism embraces polytheism, this problem might be reduced. There is no single God one can claim to represent. However, polytheism could also exacerbate the problem if people are willing to flock to the mouthpiece of any god or goddess. If pagans start taking revelations too literally, there is even greater potential for factionalizing and in-fighting.
While finishing this paper, I watched a television documentary about the Mormons and their prophet Joseph Smith. Mormonism is a very young religion, only about 150 years old at present. The emergence of a new prophet in the wilderness of America in the nineteenth century and the production of a compelling legend and book galvanized and magnetized thousands of converts. It remains to be seen whether Druidry and its many authors can create that sort of religious devotion. I rather hope not. Druidry is, faor the most part, devoted to democracy and individual conscience, not to patriarchal authority and prophesy. When it comes to Faerie communication, I would hope it is obvious that one would be foolish to suppose every person encountered in Faerie is either reliable or trustworthy. Just as when speaking with ordinary strangers, one needs to be skeptical and back off if the other person starts telling us to do things that are immoral, illegal, or unethical. Similarly, if anyone sets himself or herself up as spokesperson for Elves or nature spirits, we ought to greet them with caution as they can only be speaking for a particular segment of the Faerie folk. There is no way to measure or judge the authority of such seers, or to what extent their visions or messages are colored by the lenses of their own wishes and desires.
Although I will, cautiously, admit to speaking to Elves, I would be very hesitant to suggest that what they have communicated has any sort of authority or objective value. I greet it with skepticism myself. Susan Greenwood, in her anthropological work The Nature of Magic, identifies magical consciousness as a particular state of being, a state of Mind, certainly, but also I should say, a state of Soul.
It seems to me that, as druids, we do well to listen to people who talk to Faerie beings, and to those who think they were Fay in a past existence, even winged flower fairies at the bottom of their gardens. We should not be too quick to dismiss them as "fluffy bunny" pagans. After all, Harvey turned out to be a Pooka. When we react to such claims as if they are childish excesses of imagination, or indeed as if they are a confusion of religion and fantasy role-playing games, we are rejecting the very texture of imagination that characterized the ancient Bards we supposedly revere. Moreover, our connection to Faerie or Spirit ultimately rests on our recognition that we ourselves are among the spirits that animate the cosmos.
To conclude, let me attempt to tie up some of the threads of thought I have presented herein. Perhaps foremost in my thesis has been to urge a middle ground between credulity and skepticism, a middle way that adjusts our thinking away from the dominant either-or paradigm of Western philosophy and science. This rationalist mentality insists that statements are either true or false. Such thinking, fostered by Academia, needs to be abandoned. The middle way of Druidry allows us to embrace the Bardic imagination, not as a source of empirical facts to set in opposition to science, but as a process of active imagination, imaginal truth, and myth.
Additionally, the word myth needs to be reclaimed along with the word magic and Faerie. We need to take it seriously and clarify that we are not talking about categories of truth and falsehood. Myth occupies a middle land between such polarities, not as a rival claim of authority, but as useful and positive source of truth when not taken literally. At the same time we are reclaiming the term "myth," we also do well to expose the abuse of literalism.
One way to do so is to positively embrace literature and story as examples of a non-literal way to understanding ourselves and the world. When approaching literature, we can especially attend to fantasy as a modern form a myth, bearing in mind at the same time that the business of books has commodified and commercialized storytelling. We do well when we seek out the Awen in written stories as well as those told orally beside the hearth.
Lastly, I think again of the fate suffered by the Mormons and even the Freemasons in America. In that fertile new ground, the mysticism and secret societies of our European ancestors flourished, and despite modernity and industrialism, the land still inspires its own wild magic. Yet groups that have publicly promoted their private revelations, such as the Mormons, have been met with brutal violence and persecution in American culture. Times have changed, to be sure, but there are still dangers. Those following private revelations are considered a threat – not least because all parties take their revelations and myths literally. The Abrahamic religions take their own revelations literally, as absolutely true, and have trouble tolerating those who refuse to believe literally. Moreover, their adherents are usually experiencing their revelations vicariously, through books and stories rather than through their own active imagination. A true understanding of imagination and revelation must lead to tolerance of the beliefs of others. It will surely love books, but it will not idolize and fetishize them.
Ridicule, intolerance, and disapproval are not the only dangers for magical folk, however. So is allowing ourselves to slip into lazy credulity. The denizens of Faerie have been long regarded as inherently untrustworthy, often dangerously misleading. There is no question that entering Faerie is perilous. These days one is likely to get the impression they are all beneficent beings helping us to evolve into a New Age, a new evolutionary stage. Faerie is not safe, anymore than this world is safe, and its peoples should not be trusted without due examination. It is a realm where the rules we hold so dear are easily and often turned on their heads and madness is only a step away, particularly if we take what we see and hear literally. Yet every religion that has ever existed had its roots there – in the revelation of things normally unseen and the appearance of the shining ones in one form or another, whether gods, angels, animals, trees, burning bushes, or mists upon a lake. Druidry, I would suggest, is a spirituality of childhood and childlikeness. I mean this in an entirely positive sense. May we walk lightly, tell stories, enjoy the sensation of wonder in nature, and never forget to embrace our own child-nature by remembering to laugh at ourselves and play.