The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There was published in the UK last week and promises to be just as charmingly strange as the first book. I really enjoyed The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland... and am really looking forward to getting to this one!
Catherynne M. Valente has written a great guest post as part of this blog tour, and I hope you enjoy!
Nonsense and Sensibility
In our culture, nonsense is often a derogatory word. “Oh, that’s just nonsense,” the lady sighs, and we know she has no time at all for such rubbish. Nonsense tries one’s patience. It’s foolishness, ridiculous, meaningless.
And of course, it’s easy. Just write down whatever comes into your head and you’re as good as Edward Lear, right? There’s no skill to it. Just throw any old thing at the wall and you’re golden.
Well, the Fairyland books are full of nonsense. And I’m here to tell you, it isn’t easy. If you want high-octane, concentrated, sushi-grade nonsense, you have to work like a frumious bandersnatch. Because nonsense, the kind you find in children’s literature, the kind that sticks in your mind and still makes you laugh decades later, isn’t really nonsense at all.
Any annotated Alice compendium will show you that there was incredible depth in the silliest parts of Lewis Carroll’s tale. They weren’t a lion and a unicorn because that’s a funny, cool image. They were a lion and a unicorn because of the folksong starring those two magnificent and symbolic beasts. And they weren’t just a lion and a unicorn—they were Gladstone and Disraeli, two rival politicians of Carroll’s age. But a child, especially an American child who has probably never heard of either the folksong or the the politicians, sees only something delightful and strange and funny.
This is a hard trick to pull off. But good nonsense must have a foundation of sense to be memorable, to have weight, to press buttons in the reader, even if the reader doesn’t exactly know why. The two Fairyland novels reference all kinds of things: folklore and myth from every corner of the world, Narnia, Alice, The Wizard of Oz, T.S. Eliot, Ingmar Bergman, alchemical theory, Emily Dickinson, Charles Babbage and his Difference Engine, Peter Pan, Shakespeare, and Christina Rossetti, to name a very few. The novels directly engage with the history of children’s literature, its beauties and its troubles, and practically any other literature, film, politics, or fairy tale they can get hold of.
Nonsense is in the eye of the beholder: in The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland, September must face a Sibyl in order to get into the underworld of Fairyland-Below. Is it whimsical nonsense that the Sibyl’s head is surrounded by golden and silver boughs, that she herself is half golden and half silver? That when asked what she wants, the Sibyl proclaims that she wants to live? Well, yes, but it is also a nod to Frazier, author of The Golden Bough, a seminal work concerning ancient kingmaking cycles, and Virgil, author of the Aeneid, whose Sibyl was crowned with silver boughs. It is a wink to Eliot, who was himself winking at Petronius, a Roman author whose Sibyl so famously announced to a group of schoolchildren that she wanted to die. In The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland, The Green Wind is the very mouthpiece of delightful if only loosely coherent verbiage—but he is also firing off some of the oldest rules of dealing with fairies in human storytelling. Mixed in with the garbage pick-up schedule.
Will a child understand that nest of interactions, that conversation between books? Probably not—although a 7th grader asked me this year if I liked The Seventh Seal (a 1957 black and white Swedish film) because in my book, Death plays chess, just like in the movie. I could have hugged him, I was so impressed. Children love nonsense because their whole world is nonsense—they don’t understand the rules yet, they are constantly throwing things at their own walls to see what sticks, adults are always speaking too fast and about things both arcane and fascinating. They like to see their perception of the world reflected in books.
Will adults get it? Maybe. But it doesn’t matter. The rhythm of the language, the vividness of the images, the upside-down logic carries them through, and even pings long-forgotten connections in their minds. Reminds them how The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe ended. Reminds them how odd it always was that Dorothy wanted so badly to go home to her Dust Bowl orphan’s life. Just as you don’t need to read Latin to find Carroll’s endless Latin puns funny, because they are funny in themselves, drawing a veil of joy over the sly play of an author amusing himself. (Hint: in the Latin alphabet, jam begins with an I.)
So if you ask me how to write nonsense, I’ll tell you: it’s never nonsense. It’s madcap, it’s 100 mph manic verbal acrobatics, it’s reading so much for so long, every fairy tale, every magical novel, every scrap of broken Greek (I’m not kidding, that’s what I majored in) I could get my hands on, until what came out of my head when I reached for something light and silly was laced with the stuff of Deep Story, Deep Magic From Before the Dawn of Time, the folkloric building blocks that make the human brain vibrate so strongly that they have lasted thousands of years and show no signs of stopping. It’s foolish, it’s ridiculous—but it’s not meaningless.
It’s nonsense, but it’s also a game I play with my readers. I put my hands over my eyes sense disappears; I pull them back and sense shows its face again. And back and forth we go.
Aye, madness, but there is a method in it.