Friday, May 19, 2006

Handing down stories

A few weeks ago, JJC posted on Fairy Mounds and British Literature. At the time I remember thinking that it had been a long time since I'd thought about Welsh mythology -- and that I'd forgotten until I read that post how incredibly interesting I'd found it "back in the day."

Flash forward to nearly a month later. I'm taking a train up the Hudson tomorrow to visit some of my relatives -- including my 8 year old cousin, who's having his birthday party. So yesterday I found myself in one of my favorite places to go -- the children's book store in my neighborhood -- trying to think what book I would have loved at that age.

I settled on Lloyd Alexander's The Book of Three, the first in the Chronicles of Prydain series. Now, I never would have come up with that book as a fulfillment of my birthday present quest had I not discovered the other day (while organizing my files so that beginning this orals thing will be less painful, or at least more organized) a disk with all of my high school papers on it. Slightly painful, of course -- I really thought I knew stuff in those days. It's amusing to look back on oneself as a teenager. However, also in amidst all those papers for religion (ah, catholic school) and history and English classes, I found the paper that (if asked) I would point to as the first time I knew I wanted to go into English. It's this silly thing on Welsh mythology -- as it appeared in Lloyd Alexander's books, and in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and Silmarillion. It's a terrible paper, as far as academic papers go -- but it's clear from the writing (and the length) that I was fascinated.

I still remember reading the Mabinogion the first time, when I was researching, in what had to be the most dry translation *ever* -- I was in love from the first page. It's the story of Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, and how he formed an alliance with Arawn, the King of Annwn, by trading places with him and killing his enemy, Hafgan. It's been ages since I read it, but I still remember tracking down and reading countless encyclopedia articles and books that made references to Arawn, or Annwn -- trying to get a clearer picture of what this Otherworld was imagined to be. Where I couldn't find sources, I would fill in the blanks with my imagination. This being the era of my flirtation with fiction writing (a short-lived but heartfelt affair of my high school years), I remember a number of stories that I wrote about Annwn and its inhabitants -- I even tried to map it, a la Tolkien's Middle Earth map (and more from imagination than from actual sources!).

That paper, and the willingness of my high school English prof. to let me go wild with a project that was clearly too large in scope and far beyond my analytical abilities at the time, is something I can look back to fondly as a first in several regards. It was my first "real" English paper, with research and sources and an "argument" (though it wasn't exactly nuanced!). It was my first foray into medieval works, too, though I'm not sure I knew that at the time, as I was far more interested in the time of the myths than the times in which they were created or written down. It was also the first real research I did. It wasn't highly skilled research by any stretch of the imagination -- but it was the first research I'd done that I was truly passionate about pursuing.

I wrote that paper nearly ten years ago now. I read the books even longer ago than that. But I look back to that moment of discovery -- my first encounter with Annwn in Alexander's stories, and my first quest to track that Otherworld down and explore it -- and I can still feel the thrill I got from the possibilities of that world, and the fun I had in researching it, losing myself in the old stories.

As I hand down Alexander's stories to a cousin that reminds me more than a little of myself at the same age -- I can't help but wonder if this book might one day start a quest for him...and where that quest might lead.


JJC said...

Your post captures so precisely why i love having a nine year old son: I can't think of a better pleasure than warping his world by putting him into the orbit of excellent books. And for nine year olds, there are so many excellent books out there ...

Great post.

anhaga said...

It's funny -- it's actually at moments like that, when I'm talking to my cousin about mythology or dragons or we're reading, that I think I'm going to really enjoy being a parent, should I ever be one.

Those are, somewhat unsurprisingly, also the moments I realize I'm most like my mother...who was the one putting me into the orbit of good books (I love that phrase, btw) when I was a kid. I wonder sometimes if I thank her often enough for that...