Some years ago, when I was a Man Booker judge, I had a running scrap with one of my fellow judges, David Baddiel. David and I got on well (we all did that year; we even went on holiday together) and shared many similar tastes. But where he and I disagreed was on the subject of realism. “It’s fairy tale” was one of David’s most biting criticisms of any novel, to which my riposte was: “And what’s wrong with that?”
This was good-humoured inter-colleague banter but there was a seriousness in my words. Take opera, ballet, classical music, drama, poetry — take almost any medium you like — and you will find unapologetic representations of fairy stories. Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera, Hansel and Gretel, Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker or The Sleeping Beauty, Spenser’s The Fairy Queen, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest, Keats’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci or the many poems about the Sidhe by W. B. Yeats — all admired and respected by adults. So why, then, in the world of novels is it only in children’s literature considered really respectable to speak of fairies or magic?
There are a few allowed exceptions. Lolly Willowes, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s superb novel about a witch has lately come back into fashion, especially among younger readers. Penelope Fitzgerald’s understated novels often have an element of the other-worldly slipped subtly into the fabric of the more quotidian plot; indeed, this is essential to the ending of her masterpiece, The Gate of Angels, where a supranatural element is brilliantly and suddenly invoked. Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, or her still more original Piranesi, have been rightly lauded. But, for the most part, anything to do with witches, wizards, ghosts, spirits and fairies is considered at best whimsy, at worst tosh.
But why? Why is this subject, which former ages embraced as representing time-honoured intangible aspects of life beyond our everyday experience, now ignored or despised?
My first novel, Miss Garnet’s Angel, drew on the very old tale — part-Jewish, part, very likely, Zoroastrian — of Tobias and the Angel, and I wove it into a contemporary drama in which the Archangel Raphael makes a transforming appearance. The fact that the book was set in Venice threw a camouflaging mist over this element. Since then, and throughout my career as a novelist, following many years working as a Jungian analyst, I have deployed the mythical, fabulous and supernatural in my books. But while readers have apparently warmed to this theme, and indeed ask for more, in reviews, even the most favourable, this aspect is overlooked, as if to even mention the subject is to be somehow tainted with the unrespectable.
My latest novel, The Gardener, received praise for its psychological rendering of characters and its treatment of post-referendum Britain, but no single review touched on the fact that the ancient landscape, in which the book is set, appears to be the domain of another world and at the heart of the book there is a scene which depends upon this factor. It was as if by politely ignoring the subject they were doing me a favour, sparing me some unliterary egg on my face.
I believe this loss to fiction is part of a larger loss which is concurrent with the undeniable increase of the reign of those grim twin isms, reductionism and materialism. We once inhabited a world that was animate, in which humans were creatures who not only perceived but were themselves perceived. To live in this world meant to live among vital elements that were beyond our human control, that could not be corralled by human will, or predicted or captured by desire.
Whether or not Shakespeare believed in fairies is irrelevant. He had within his repertoire a living concept of fairies with whom, or through whom, he could dramatise the irreducible folly of humankind. “Lord, what fools these mortals be,” Puck observes. When, in the same play, Duke Theseus superciliously pontificates about the spurious nature of the imagination, a faculty which in his view is allied only with poets and madmen — and which he rubbishes since it “bodies forth the form of things unknown” — he does so to an audience who has just been witnessing, in the form of the fairies, the power of the so-called “unknown” to disrupt, disarray and revitalise human life (the joke, set up by his author is that Theseus himself is a creature of myth).
Earlier cultures were more extrovert than ours, so those invisible realities that we have internalised, and tend to treat as at best poetic metaphors, at worst psychiatric conditions, were habitually expressed as externalised presences, imaginative forms of invisible truths. Shakespeare still lived in a world where “the real” was not confined to the tangible or the testable. A dream, a wish, an impulse, and instinct — these are all “realities” despite their insubstantial nature. We don’t question the reality of a dream — or if we do, we are more likely to be questioning something like the integrity of the reporter of the dream. We might question the dream’s meaning, but that is another matter. Nor do we question the reality of, say, fear, or joy, or embarrassment — we might suggest it is irrational or inappropriate but again, unless the person reporting these emotions is a liar, fear or joy is a potent reality for the subject who experiences it, whatever the cause.
Let us assume, then, that angels, fairies and gods are those traditional aesthetic forms that have traditionally served to stand for the rarer aspects of life that are intuited and are both real and impalpable — reality being only partially confined to what can be empirically verified. The philosopher and psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist persuasively argues for a world in which all matter, together with all the multifarious forms of life, is conscious — consciousness not being substantially comparable in degree or effectiveness (as he puts it, the fact that the mountain behind his house doesn’t shop at Sainsbury’s or drink a beer in the evening does not logically make it less conscious than you or me). But nonetheless, in his view, consciousness runs, to use Wordsworth’s terms, “through all things”.
Whether or not fairies, gods and angels exist is not the point. Fairies, gods, and angels can, and should be, thought of as manifestations of the mysterious untold aspects of a world whose multiple facets are not easily apparent to us but nonetheless have salience, responsiveness and place — an argument made enchantingly by the philosopher and theologian David Bentley Hart, who shares many of McGilchrist’s ideas. To see the world as made up of dimensions other than ours, and possibly more vital and responsive than ours, is not merely a modest but a quite rational perspective.
It seems to me odd that while we accept, for example, the reality of the Higgs Boson, so far radically unavailable to our ordinary perception, we laugh off the reality of these other invisible forms, which have been convincingly attested to and certainly respected, if only as powerful images, by people of acknowledged genius. At the very least, they represent states of intelligence beyond the ordinary order available to our circumscribed and culturally limited perception. A hidden layer, or layers, of the world responsive to us foolish mortals, that may react and respond surprisingly to us, in ways both beneficent and malign.
McGilchrist’s originating thesis is that we have allowed the deconstructing, limiting and over-explanatory left hemisphere to overtake and dominate our culture, which has left us lonely and unwitnessed in a seemingly dead world. His claim is that the brain’s right hemisphere, which uncritically absorbs and intuits experience, which doesn’t dismiss or judge but sees out the corner of the eye rather than with a narrowing squint, has had a diminishing influence in our culture, with the result that the culture has lost its way, and we in it.
So that the world that once, for all its many dolours, seemed in Matthew Arnold’s words “so various, so beautiful, so new” is now also in his words “a darkling plain, swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight”, not because the nature of the world has changed but because the nature of how we perceive it has changed, and so radically and dispiritingly. And with that shift has died a loss of wonder, a loss not simply of religious awe, but, what might be worse, the range of the aesthetic palette. If, as I passionately do, you believe that the arts expand experience and thereby enlarge meaning, then we need a wider range not a narrower one to work with. There may or may not be fairies at the bottom of my own garden. But they may, by the perspicacious, be found at the bottom of my fictional garden, and I don’t apologise for one moment for that.