Gratus of Wootten Major
There and back, again?
I used to be in the habit of drawing a map of a fantasy world. Over the years, even into my adult life, when nobody was in the house and I was free, I would sit down to draw this map of an imaginary world. And, while I never had any preconceived notion of what I wanted to draw, thinking always that I was drawing from unbridled creativity, I’ve ended up drawing a very similar world over and over again.
There would be a coastal town near the edge of civilization; a large sea would be to the east. Traders would dock their ships in infrequent intervals bringing spices and goods from far away places. There would be a lighthouse on a cliff. To the north of the town was an impassable mountain range. Very few had ventured into the bitter cold and dangerous rocks. Nothing known ever came from those mountains. To the south was a road that led to civilization — larger towns with more regulated lives.
But to the west was a forest. And the forest was mystical. People didn’t venture into it in fear of fantastical beasts, demonic beings, and the spirit of the forest itself.
Having drawn the map I would recline and imagine myself to be an inhabitant of that town. I would always be a type of ranger or scout, who would live near the western edge of town. My “job” would always be as someone whose duty was to explore the western forest. I would venture into it to find magical herbs and other fantastical materials, explore if any dangers were lurking there that would affect the town in the near future, and on occasion accompany anyone wanting to travel through the forest to the other side of it. I found deep satisfaction in indulging in this fantasy.
This recurring fantasy of mine never had any context until I read Tolkien’s Smith of Wootton Major, both the story and the essay.
The mystical forest to the west was the land of Faery, in Tolkien’s language, but essentially the mystical world that we have in all cultures— Vrindhavan, El Dorado, Yggdrasil, etc.
Drawing the map was like a subconscious compulsion. Being who I am, I had no idea of how to travel to the fantastical world, and drawing the map was a type of catharsis, an illusory way of finding my way back to that place. And the subsequent imagination of a ranger, who, courageously and frequently, entered the woods, was a type of projection, as I would like to be this person who can travel into these woods — like Shamans, Ayuhuasceros, and Yogis. Even my recent preoccupation with finding and visiting ancient forests, while mostly attributable to having read The Hidden Life of Trees, can also be ascribed to my desire to escape from the mundane world of reality to the mystical land of Faery.
To be perfectly transparent, I have no idea how to travel to the land for Faery — I don’t have Smith’s fay star. While, like probably everyone else, I have had dreams with vivid lucidity, where I traveled far, in both time and space, and experienced things, only to awaken to a reality that seemed less real than the dream that had just passed, I have no tried-and-true method of willfully entering this state. But I feel, that in this North America that I live in now, the land of Faery is more important than ever.
The land of Faery is no fantasy. Tolkien takes pains to clarify that it is a serious and perilous place. Scientific realism can call it hallucinations and illusions, but it is a place of real mystery. And Hobbits don’t venture there.
Today, my children grow up raised by Disney, and their sense of mystery is reduced to Elsa’s magic and Captain Sparrow’s swagger (wasn’t Guybrush Threepwood so much more endearing?). Scientific realism, and the capitalist engine that fuels it, turned our world into a utilitarian toolbox — forests are a source of wood for manufacturing, animals are livestock, plants are for consumption etc. It has robbed us of magic — which is nothing more than a sense of wonder, awe, and humility. In this spiritually barren world it is more important than ever to find a way back to the mystical land of Faery, to a world filled with real magic. And when we return from our voyage to the land for Faery we will still have a to pay our bills and show up to work on time, but we will not only have found a reason to live, but a reason to be alive.
Having read Smith of Wootton major provided me with “scientific” insights into my map as well. The town was my conscious self. The sea was my subconscious emotional self. The mountain range the deep unconscious. The forest was something else, which even now, I don’t quite understand.
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