One of the things I love about J.K Rowling is that she really did her homework. Most of the magical material in her books is based on fact – or a least, legitimate occult and mythological sources. Perhaps that is why the boy-wizard books resonated so far beyond their targeted demographic. Something in them rang true – a sound that (for most folks) had long lain silent in the dark corners of their collective unconscious.
Fiction is many things for many people – a fantasy, an escape, a thrill, a terror, an insight into the human condition, and a way to investigate ideas and feelings that might be too scary or too risky to explore in real life.
Ankhie has a friend whose mother told her (on the eve of her wedding) that Anna Karenina would tell her everything she needed to know about marriage. Dark? Certainly. True? Well, it ain’t a classic for nothin’. Adultery and suicide are extremes, well beyond consideration for most people – but that doesn’t make them less real, or less probable under the right set of circumstances. We need this sort of heady fiction – not to know what is true (that territory is claimed, with varying degrees of veracity, by non-fiction) but to know what is possible.
A fiction writer creates a world out of nothing – sounds conveyed by words empowered by ideas fueled by observation imagination and experience. Fiction that lasts makes those transitions seamlessly, and honestly. Most humans are born with excellent bullshit detectors – we know when someone (or something) is full of it. Beautiful words and lyrical phrasing will only get you so far. There must be something at stake for us to care. If the work is, at its core, dishonest, it won’t continue matter to us beyond the last page. Although it might have been entertaining, it is forgotten as soon as it is finished, mentally shredded with other passing distractions.
Next week, the Weiser Book Club on Twitter will be discussing The Secrets of Doctor Taverner by Dion Fortune. The author famously writes in her Introduction:
I do not wish to imply … that these stories all happened exactly as set down, for such is not the case; they are, however, all founded on fact, and there is not a single incident herein contained which is pure imagination. That is to say, while no picture is an actual photograph, no one is an imaginary sketch: they are rather composite photographs, obtained by cutting out and piecing together innumerable snapshots of actual happenings, and the whole, far from being an arbitrary product of the imagination, is a serious study in the psychology of ultra-consciousness.
Fortune was criticized by some of her peers for divulging occult secrets in her novels and stories – because those who knew the facts easily saw past the fictional mask. Those who did not know the truth sensed it, and responded accordingly. Popular in their time, these stories still entertain and inform, many decades later.
Diana L. Paxson – herself a writer of fantasy fiction and a practicing occultist, writes a beautiful foreword to the latest edition of The Secrets of Doctor Taverner in which she reflects upon it as “A Study in Secrets”:
When I consider Fortune’s approach to presenting real magic under the guise of fiction, I am reminded of the meeting at which my editor commented that there were “a lot of rituals in The Sea Star, but they work.” I did not tell him that they ought to, since I had actually done most of them. Fiction, which allows the author to express subjective experience and atmosphere, can often be a more effective means of describing magical operations than a detached description.
I don’t think anyone could have stated it better or with more authority.
Truth doesn’t need to roar, or perform aerial acrobatics to be noticed. Even when flying under the radar, you’ll know it’s there.