August 10, 2011


When I purchased Neil Gaiman's American Gods from Moser--the nearest Austrian book seller with a respectable English language selection--I figured that at 640 pages it was sure to last me through the end of the festival. Alas, as is so often the case with a good read, I sped through it in about half the time I expected and was left with nothing to help pass down time in rehearsal or to settle my body and ready my brain for dreaming at bed time. So--after hemming and hawing a little over whether or not it was worth it to shell out 12 or 14 euros on another novel when I could get the same one for about 5 bucks cheaper in the states--it was back to the bookstore for me.

The book I ended up chosing was a bit of a gamble. The Magicians by Lev Grossman had been recommended as a good read on NPR, but you never know with fantasy--sometimes books that come highly recommended turn out to be cheesy or trite or just another "page turner" with a cliff hanger at the end of every chapter (I HATE books like that). Still, Gaiman had put me in the mood for magic so I caved in and spent the dough. So far it seems like a semi-grownup version of Harry Potter--a brilliant loner gets whisked away to a secret University of Magic where he begins to study the mysterious craft of wizardry--but I admit I've already been sucked into the story enough to wonder what is going to happen next.

Today in rehearsal we spent the majority of time working on The Incredible Flutist--a wonderful ballet suite by Walter Piston. Unsurprisingly, there is a long section in the middle that features our principal flutist playing a mysteriously plaintive and yearning melody. I have at least 3 minutes of rest at this point and picked up my book to help pass the time and happened to jump in at a section where the main character is learning to cast his first spells. The process is difficult and painful for him, but he is progressing, and enjoys the sensation:

He could sense his words and gestures getting traction on the mysterious magical substrate of the universe. He could feel it physically. His fingertips got warm, and they seemed to leave trails in the air. There was a slight resistance as if the air was getting viscous around him and pushing back against his hands and even against his lips and tongue...

The music was a perfect soundtrack for this portion of the story. It enhanced the sense of awe and beauty surrounding the process of making magic and breathed life and color into the story's atmosphere. It also evoked memories of times I had fantasized about discovering my own long-hidden aptitude for the magical arts and escaping or transcending the cruel world through some flourish of mystical charm.

I think it was sometime during elementary school that my dad started reading fantasy novels to us. We'd be on the long drive to Grandma Rick's house and he'd pull out The Man Who Was Magic (boy, I wish I could read that book again!), and read a few chapters to keep us kids from fighting with or annoying each other. I don't remember any specifics of the story, just that it transfixed and lulled me into a world of innocent wonder. Later The Hobbit became a regular bed-time classic and, when I was old enough, I finally dared to pull the first book of The Lord of the Rings from the shelf and join Frodo on his quest through Middle Earth. I was in middle school at the time and Dad's hard-cover edition of the trilogy--with its thick black cover, fold-out maps, gold lettering, and evil-looking emblem on the front--seemed just about as magical as a book could get. I'd spend hours hidden away in my room or in little blanket-made back-yard tents enraptured with Tolkein's world of hobbits, wizards, elves and terrifying dark riders.

I was a nut for fantasy. I Learned, along with my sisters, to write in dwarf Runes, found enchanted landscapes out in the woods, and when teased at school I'd envision myself transforming into a bird or a unicorn and taking off into some wild magical yonder...leaving my tormentors standing on the sidewalk gaping wide-eyed at my new and fantastic form.

I'll bet most of us have had such fantasies...have on occasion (when no one else was looking) tried to move pencils with our minds, searched for faeries in the woods, or dreamt of meeting a mysterious stranger who would say "The time has come for you to learn the truth..." and then spirit us away on a quest to save some mortally threatened land just beyond the scope of our known dimension. Whether or not this ever actually happens to anyone is immaterial. I believe in the value of imagination. I treasure the beauty it introduces into our material reality and exult in the brilliant and innumerable worlds it allows us to enter...just beyond the threshold of dream and within the soul of forever.

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