05 June 2017

Wonder Invoked -- On the Uses of Enchantment



Trying to find my room on day one of Mythmoot



The theme of the most recent Mythmoot --  held just this past weekend in the Khazad-dûm-like corridors of the nevertheless comfortable and welcoming National Conference Center, where the fish entrees were always, fittingly, tasty --  was 'invoking wonder.' To be honest, my eye is a bit jaundiced when it comes to themes, which inspire me to think of (un-)motivational posters about the unstoppable power of one's dreams. But I am too much of a romantic to be anything but an easy prey to cynicism.

And yet I knew exactly where the fair folk of Mythmoot were coming from when they spoke of the importance of wonder and the first moments in their lives that they could recall experiencing it. For me that moment came in or just after September 1966, when I heard the words "Space, the final frontier...." for the first time.  There was something about the music and the way William Shatner said these words that moved me, that opened vistas of space and time for me the way the words "Eala Earendel, engla beorhtast" did for Tolkien, and "Balder the beautiful is dead, is dead" did for C. S. Lewis.

Many years later, in an interview after Kirk died in Star Trek: Generations, William Shatner said of the moment of Kirk's death on screen that Kirk "faced death as he had faced all those aliens, which was a mixture of awe and wonderment...." Shatner also said that it did not come through on the screen. It did for me. It was perfectly clear to me, just as the sense of awe and wonder with which Kirk approached "all those aliens" always had been. There were quite a few such moments over the years. There was "second star on the right and straight on till morning at the end of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country; there was Kirk's "young, I feel young" at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.


But for me perhaps the most evocative is that sine qua non of Shatner imitations, that speech both famous and infamous, as beloved as belittled, from the episode Return to Tomorrow:



For me, and for my memory, wonder began here. But it's come in a thousand different forms since then, in experiences as well as in books.

  • That beautiful late summer afternoon over two decades ago, as our boat approached the harbor. The was setting sun before us, and the land's violet shadow reaching out towards us. It was drowsy and balmy and I was standing by the transom to enjoy the breeze. My eyes were unfocused but looking over the side at the swells we were soaring through. Then something else moved that wasn't the water. Beside us a humpback whale crested the surface to take a breath. I gasped. Somewhere in my mind the crew of The Pequod were shouting "she breaches", but all I could do was gape. By the time I was able to say anything to the others on board, who were all in the cabin, the whale was gone. 
  • "And as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns. In dark Mindolluin's sides they dimly echoed. Great horns of the North wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last." (If you don't recognize these words, you're surely reading the wrong blog.)
  • Five years have past; five summers, with the length
    Of five long winters! and again I hear
    These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
    With a soft inland murmur.—Once again
    Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
    That on a wild secluded scene impress
    Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
    The landscape with the quiet of the sky. (Wordsworth, Tintern Abbey)
  • Every night in a chill Vermont winter, with the snow crunching beneath our feet as Argos and I walked past the dark wood, as the trees popped in the frigid air, and the luminous green curtain of the Northern Lights swayed and shimmered around us.
  • The day I saw an eagle lazily pivot 360 degrees on a wingtip, as if he were doing it just because he could.
  • "It may be laid down as a general rule that if a man begins to sing, no one will take any notice of his song except his fellow human beings. This is true even if his song is surpassingly beautiful. Other men may be in raptures at his skill, but the rest of creation is, by and large, unmoved. Perhaps a cat or a dog may look at him; his horse, if it is an exceptionally intelligent beast, may pause in cropping the grass, but that is the extent of it. But when the fairy sang, the whole world listened to him. Stephen felt clouds pause in their passing; he felt sleeping hills shift and murmur; he felt cold mists dance. He understood for the first time that the world is not dumb at all, but merely waiting for someone to speak a language it understands. In the fairy's song the earth recognized the names by which it called itself" (Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell).
  • Whenever I discover the joy of silence, sitting by my window with a book, listening to the birds singing and the wind in the leaves of the oak trees.
  • That day underwater in Bonaire, as I looked down at my buddy 30 feet below me, and watched his bubbles rise towards me; and when they came within a couple of feet, I realized I could see my reflection in their surface.
  • The description of the history of the dragon's hoard in Beowulf.
  • The adagio of BWV 1060, especially this version
  • How even now, eleven years after she died, I can still feel the softness and warmth of my mother's hand in mine.
  • The still, small voice that comes after the earthquake, the fire, and the whirlwind.
  • The morning star.
  • The Sea, 
  • And the Sea,
  • And the Sea.
I could easily keep going with this list, since the things on it, and a hundred other things like them, and still others of a joy or sorrow too private to tell, are the things that help me keep going. That's what wonder does. It beckons me onward and bids me hope. Following isn't always an easy thing for me. My eyes tend to look back and rest on the things that went wrong. By all rights I should have turned into a pillar of salt long ago. Yet maybe there's a place where wonder can help to balance past and future. It's a hope like this that has always made me so fond of one particular poem in The Lord of the Rings. Even as a child reading this book for the first time, and knowing nothing of what it's talking about, this poem about wonder moved me. Whether that makes my soul old or prophetic, I don't know. 
I sit beside the fire and think
of all that I have seen
of meadow-flowers and butterflies
in summers that have been; 
Of yellow leaves and gossamer
in autumns that there were,
with morning mist and silver sun
and wind upon my hair. 
I sit beside the fire and think
of how the world will be
when winter comes without a spring
that I shall ever see. 
For still there are so many things
that I have never seen:
in every wood in every spring
there is a different green. 
I sit beside the fire and think
of people long ago
and people who will see a world
that I shall never know. 
But all the while I sit and think
of times there were before,
I listen for returning feet
and voices at the door.

8 comments:

  1. Very moving, Tom, which does not surprise me. I have been thinking along similar lines, only trying to reach back and back to the earliest moment of literary wonder. But as I cannot actually remember the moment I first learned to read, I settled on the time I got my first library card. It was an old, small-town library, but I actually got to choose my own books, and that card catalog led me to many a wonder...
    I've often wondered what it was about The Hobbit that drove me to ''borrow' my sister's Lord of the Rings, and I think it was Thorin's last words: "There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world. But sad or merry, I must leave it now. Farewell!" Like Bilbo, I cried. And stole The Fellowship of the Ring from my sister's bedroom as soon as I could.

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    1. Thank you, Kate. I don't remember learning to read either, but I remember -- prompted by your comments -- learning to write my name, and how that felt. It was like I was becoming more than I had been. I can almost see the unruly scrawl on the paper. Of course this is helped by the fact that my handwriting is still an unruly scrawl.

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  2. Nicholas Palazzo05 June, 2017 22:52

    The wonder that fills Tolkien's world is a great and terrible thing. I always see therein, hope for a world less bleak, a life less cold, if I could only summon up the courage to chase after it. "A fool's hope..." as it were.

    This weekend I saw magic everywhere I looked. In the spoken word, the artist's pencil, the dancer's feet, the scholar's mind, and the friend's heart. Once again, that terrible hope was kindled in me. Do we dare follow it?

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    1. Wonder is great and terrible. When listening to Verlyn Flieger talk about wonder, I was thinking about the moment at Dunharrow where Merry looks up at the mountains and feels overwhelmed by the 'insupportable weight of Middle-earth'. That paragraph begins with wonder and ends with dread, but it's the same continuum.

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  3. I'm very late to this one, Tom, but I'm finally here and it's a really lovely reflection. I don't have much to say about it except that it moved me, and I want to make a point to start noticing more of the everyday kind of wonders that you included a few of on your list.

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    1. Thanks, Shawn. There's no schedule here. We're on Lothlorien time.

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