1546 - 1551 "Whereof ... the fabulouse poetes reporteth Venus to be engendered."
Even before it ever occurred to me that there was a separate category of human being known as a writer, capital "W," I have had a passion for dictionaries. I have a substantial shelf full of them— several regarding English, my own mother tongue, a Latin Dictionary bought in Argentina on the cheap as the spine reads upside down, an Anglo-Saxon one, Welsh, several French, Spanish, Español-Español, Portuguese, one of the language of southern Bénin, Fongbe, several Thesaurae, and so on. On its own shelf sits my beloved OED, Oxford English Dictionary, albeit the condensed one—two large volumes in a case with a drawer at the top for a magnifying glass so that one can read the diminutive print.
It turns out I am not alone; and at least in one instance I know of, former teacher and Anglo-Irish poet, Paul Muldoon, reads the dictionary the way some other readers course through a novel. Thus, I see no reason not to feel perfectly justified in consulting the OED on the subject of the fabulous in literature. Define your terms.
Now, one of the interesting things about the OED is that it lets you know when the word and a particular definition entered the language; so in the case of Anglish, we go back to 1546 where, says the OED, "fabulous" refers to the quality of fable, legend and myth.
But hang on. Within that innocent definition and the others which follow, and persistent in its presence over the centuries, slinks the insinuation of exaggeration, tarting up of the bare truth, even lies. Is this simply the distrust of the storyteller, of the teller of tales, from the Boy who cried Wolf through Scheherazade who saved her own life by distracting her potential executioner with her storytelling prowess? Is it the satirical zest and mockery of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales? the double-edged survival of the court jester? It's only a story. A "story" lacks good burgher propriety, the practicality of those who keep our society dulled and on course. Oh, well, one can always relegate those fables, those preposterous impossibilities to the realm of children, to fairy tale.
"But what foles do fable, take thou no hede at all." (1553)
Let's get one thing over with right now. What I am not talking about is that semi-literate charge, "fake news." A teller of tales, a spinner of fable and myth, may share a superficial tinge of untrustworthiness (even be justly accused of flattery as in the case of the jester) with those accused of spreading false information; but the storyteller is no enemy, rather part of, language and artistic tradition. And truth. Those who inveigh against the dissemination of uncomfortable fact as responsible civic discourse—and who consequently construct propaganda and damaging untruths—those kept prevaricators know nothing of the function of storytelling or art or the artfulness of language. Their lies are bald, venal, ugly, and without craft.
What is that old nostrum, variously ascribed to G.K. Chesterton and Albert Camus—fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth? G.K. Chesterton did say that good fiction reveals the truth about its hero(es); and bad fiction, the truth about its author(s.) The spinners of politically expedient nonsense, as above, reveal themselves to be ignorant and parsimonious of both humanity and wit. The spinners of the fabulous can restore our soul—all right, I'll say it— and both reveal the soft white underbelly of worldly phenomenon while giving us the courage to face it. Perhaps even inspire the beginnings of a solution.
From Bruno Bettleheim's The Uses of Enchantment, to, once more, G.K.Chesterton's two short essays, "The Dragon's Grandmother" and "The Red Angel" in Tremendous Trifles (1909) to a more exhaustive study by J.R. Tolkien's On Fairy Stories, the message regarding the fabulous which has been banished to the world of children's literature is the same.• No, these stories are not "safe"; they are scary or, at the least, unsettling. But they are not bad for us. Other than the psychic advantages of the fairy tale as Bettelheim and others have justly claimed, however, magic as a solution, a strategy, is not for grownups. No more fable-ing, please.
But how many among us presumptive grownups have not read of Tolkien's Bilbo Baggins and the world of the Lord of the Rings? Though I am one of those who find the Harry Potter series a bit lackluster, there are quite a few grownups who have been reading those books behind plain brown covers. Why? The common response is "escape," "escapist," but why not turn on the TV like a normal person and tune out, or surf the net or zone out on Facebook? Might I suggest there is a hunger for an antidote to the dreary social realism of MFA'd fiction, bad Raymond Carver imitations, that focus on the eternal adolescence of the worried well, the puerile obsessions and "issues," of the bourgeoisie (and that of their authors)? Honestly, I don't know whether to blame MFA programs or the sad state of the Anglosphere at the moment, the former being a symptom of the latter perhaps; but there is something quite puritanical about barring the fabulous from our adult lives.
The confusion on how to handle the fabulous—indeed, the human imagination—is not new to humanity. From witchcraft trials to the censoring and jailing of artists and writers today—and tight-sphinctered and unpleasant as those art-fearing Puritans I allude to may have been—we may have to go back to Plato, who wished to ban all poets from his New Republic, because they messed with his orderly philosophical, truth-seeking mind. And his well-oiled nation-state (there goes "truth," out the window!). Yet the philosopher himself, was said by Gale (in 1669) to "hide his choicest opinions, under the figure of some Fable..lest he should...displease the fabulous people." So, then, there is language for those who who are educated and tempered by philosophical training and another language for those who are superstitious and simple, who have untrained minds?
Just keep the poets out. No Homer. No Aeneid. No Shakespeare. God forbid, no Chaucer, no Neruda, no,nonononononono! We all know what the Russians did to their writers, poets or no--Mandelstam, Vassily Grossman, Nabokov, Akhmatova... The monster of the fairytale, so threatening to the child but so easily subdued by that child's imagination, has become the literalist's monster incarnate—the imagination itself. For, unlike the out and out social critics with whom one might debate or simply lock up in the slammer and throw away the key, the unpredictability, the wide-ranging inventiveness of the creative mind cannot be so easily tamed by authority.
(To be continued...)
* To quote: "Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of the monster. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of the monster. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon. Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear. When I was a child I have stared at the darkness until the whole black bulk of it turned into one black giant taller than heaven. If there was one star in the sky it only made him a Cyclops. But fairy tales restored my mental health, for next day I read an authentic account of how a black giant with one eye, of quite equal dimensions, had been baffled by a little boy like myself (of similar inexperience and even lower social status) by means of a sword, some bad riddles, and a brave heart."