Sunday, May 10, 2009

(Lost at) Home

Start at the end, like this, with the very last words of The Lord of the Rings:

"But Sam turned to Bywater, and so came back up the Hill, as day was ending once more. And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.

He drew a deep breath. 'Well, I'm back,' he said."

Or like this, with the final words of A Wizard of Earthsea:

"They came in to Ismay harbor on a still, dark evening before snow. They tied up the boat Lookfar that had borne them to the coasts of death's kingdom and back, and went up through the narrow streets to the wizard's house. Their hearts were very light as they entered into the firelight and warmth under that roof; and Yarrow ran to meet them, crying with joy."

A primeval vision for a wandering species: the homecoming on the edge of night, out of great danger back to hearth and food and family. What more could be said? Surely they lived happily ever after and so ends the tale.

But the wisest fantasists have always known that Happily Ever After never really is, at least not fully or for everyone. The power of the best fantasy writing is to challenge and subvert the ideal, to suggest that the ideal is either unattainable or in itself corrupted.

The feminist scholar Kathryn Allen Rabuzzi (who happens to be my mother) mused on this in her book, The Sacred and the Feminine: Toward a Theology of Housework:

"As a child, I loved fairy tales. But I was never satisfied with their endings. What, I wondered, did the characters do when 'they all lived happily ever after?' [...] While this Land of Happily Ever After entraps its victims without regard to sex, traditionally it has been women, more than men, who have been forced to remain there for life...despite its seemingly apocalyptical promise, Happily Ever After turns out to be the realm of domesticity, until very recently a predominantly feminine domain."

So, in fact, Sam is ultimately not back. Frankly, the Shire is a bit boring--there is not much to do there once the gardening is done, the hay brought in, and the pint of ale quaffed. In the appendix, Tolkien writes that, in the year 1482, after the death of Mistress Rose, Sam rides out from Bag End, says goodbye to Elanor at the Tower Hills, and passes over the Sea, last of the Ring-bearers. Come to think of it, neither Merry nor Pippin stay at home either: they are buried beside Aragorn in Gondor.

Nor does Ged, the Wizard of Earthsea, come to rest fully. Le Guin (who should be considered one of the greatest writers of our time, "in genre" or out) is far too subtle for anything so pat. Ged will visit the wall in the dry land again in later books, will lose his powers, talk to dragons, in short, will have all sorts of further adventures. To be fair, at the end of the Earthsea series, Ged has achieved a sort of domestic bliss. (Le Guin, as always, nuances the tale by having the man--Ged--stay at home while the women--Tenar and Tehanu--venture forth to the King's castle.) But, by the close of The Other Wind, Ged is something of an afterthought, watering the cabbages and tending the pear trees at Re Albi--at least, so it seems to me.

No one captured the stultifying nature of Happily Ever After better than Mervyn Peake--Gormenghast, the world-castle, is a home that has devoured its inhabitants. Titus Groan's desperate rebellion, his flight at the end of the second volume, is heart-wrenching because the castle itself is a far more insidious enemy than the vanquished villain Steerpike ever was. Some of the most chilling words I have ever read are those of Titus's mother, the Countess, who embodies Gormenghast, spoken to Titus as he flees:

"But out of the silence that hung at his shoulder blades, he heard her voice. It was not loud. It was not too hurried.

'There is nowhere else,' it said. 'You will only tread a circle, Titus Groan. There's not a road, not a track, but it will lead you home. For everything comes to Gormenghast.' "

The urge to adventure is at least as strong for the female characters in fantasy writing, maybe even stronger given historical constraints in the physical world: Quest beats Nest every time. Sure, Dorothy at the end of The Wizard of Oz cries out how glad she is to be "home again" with Aunt Em, but Baum brought Dorothy back to Oz a half-dozen times in later books. How on Earth could you keep Dorothy down on the farm after she had seen The Emerald City? The answer, of course, is that you cannot.

Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu knows this well in her Zahrah the Windseeker (to be added to the canon alongside the Earthsea books and the Oz books). In the final chapter, after Zahrah has saved her best friend and likely future husband Dari, the wise woman Nsibidi tells her:

" 'When I grew up, I left home. Zahrah, you must know that once a Windseeker learns to fly, he or she is plagued by wanderlust. Rarely do we stay where we were born and raised.' "

Then comes the kick inside:

" 'I [i.e., Zahrah] felt Dari looking at me strangely, but I didn't want to look at him. Still, without looking at him, I could read his mind. I frowned. Why would my best friend think I'd ever leave him and my family?' "

The answer, hinted at in what I hope is just the first of many books about the Windseeker, is that Zahrah will take Dari and her family with her when she heads out in search of Earth. One thing is certain, however: Zahrah will captain the ship.

Here are the final sentences of the book:

" 'I want to learn about Earth,' I said with wide eyes.

Dari sighed loudly but smiled. 'Me too. Today let's just go and sit in our usual tree and watch the sunset.'

'OK, but don't expect me to sit on the lowest branch anymore.' "

There's a Happily Ever After to celebrate!

**Savor these:

**Will Calhoun's "Amara," from his album Native Lands, with Calhoun's photographs of Morocco, captures the driving search for home:

**Paul Klee's "Temple of Longing" (1922).

Klee's epiphany with color came in 1914 on his trip to Tunisia with Macke and Molliet. "Longing" is an adequate but not rich translation of the German original, which is "Sehnsucht." I will re-visit the concept of Sehnsucht many times in this column.

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