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Killer Trees with Icy Fangs Roasting on an Open Fire

Wednesday, December 24th, 2008 | Posted by James Enge


Virginia: Please snap out of it. The world is drenched in things that don’t exist. I could mention the evergreen genre of “what I shoulda told him was…” conversations, or all those stories about “the fish (or the mastodon or the mating prospect) that got away.” But just because it’s fresh in my mind–and seasonal, too–I’d rather discuss the Attack of the Glittering Trees.

A few nights ago an ice storm swept over the Great Black Swamp (where I live). It was kind of a weird storm: there was warmish rain right before the temperature dropped steeply, so the ice was dripping, heavy, weighing down everything with a thick bright glaze. The ice started to rip branches off trees. A heavy one smashed through a skylight in our basement. (I know that sounds weird, but we really do have skylights in our basement.) Another one hammered on the roof of my daughter’s room. One gave a glancing blow to the living room window.

Clearly the shiny trees were angry and were trying to kill us. When my son tells people about it he always starts by saying, “There were three direct assaults on the house itself…”

How much of this is true? you may be asking. All of it–except the most important part. The trees weren’t really trying to kill us. But it felt that way. Every time something hit the roof we jumped a little.

Fiction isn’t creation; it’s sub-creation (to borrow from Tolkien–not for the last time). We make our stories out of stuff we’ve lived or stuff we’ve found or heard about. So what kind of story can we make out of the Attack of the Glittering Trees?

At least two kinds. One is a realistic story where people get freaked out by events that are happening mostly in their own minds. Take a slab of Northanger Abbey, slap new names on the characters and give them cell phones, then show it to the beta-readers. (If they’re not impressed, explain to them that the point is that there’s no point. That always works.) The other story is a fantasy where the trees really are malefic.

Both approaches (despite my snark) are clearly valid, but the shrewd reader will have already guessed which appeals to me more. There are two reasons why I think fantasy is a good way to treat material like this.

One reason is that fantasy speaks to the direct living experience of that moment, and many moments. We live in a sea of daydreams and speculations and unfulfilled wishes and unrealized fears, and just because they don’t ever become part of consensus reality doesn’t mean they aren’t an important part of our subjective reality. Realism can’t treat these adequately because, like Toto, it is always dragging us away to look at the man behind the curtain. Realism isn’t fantastic enough to represent the reality of inner life.

The other reason is something I hesitate to bring up, because it may sound a little paranoid. But, in fact, the universe is trying to kill me, and you too. What’s more, it’s going to succeed. You know it; I know it. That reality shapes our lives even if we try not to think about it. But if we never think about it, we don’t really understand the shape of our lives. It’s easier to confront the idea of death in a story, cloaked with images, and a swarm of glittering trees (surrounding a house where the lights go out one by one) is as good an image as any for the death that awaits us all. By thinking and feeling our way around it we are learning to confront something which is very hard to confront. The menace of the trees is a glittering lie; inside the lie is a dark enduring truth.

This is a gloomy subject for Christmas Eve–smack in the middle of Hannukah, only a couple days after the sun begins its long journey toward the north. But it’s wholly appropriate for the holiday, because that it what these days really mean: we light candles because there is so much darkness; we celebrate love and life because there is so much hatred and death. And we tell stories of the impossible because we live in dreams and someday we know we will wake up.

So: light and life and love to you in these days and in the days ahead. And watch out for those trees.

5 Comments »

  1. Brilliant post James. “fantasy speaks to the direct living experience of that moment” couldn’t be more true, and your example illustrates it perfectly.

    Comment by Bill Ward - December 24, 2008 4:04 pm

  2. Thanks! Although, as a commenter pointed out on my blog, a lot of fantasy doesn’t pass this test. (Maybe it’s worthwhile for other reasons, though; I’m not saying everyone has to be infected with the same idea.)

    Comment by James Enge - December 25, 2008 11:34 pm

  3. […] of RAK in a minute. Reading James Enge’s last post on fantasy and realism led me to further thoughts on the same… for example I don’t […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive - December 29, 2008 8:56 am

  4. […] http://www.blackgate.com/2008/12/24/killer-trees-with-icy-fangs-roasting-on-an-open-fire/ […]

    Pingback by Free SF Reader - March 17, 2010 8:48 am

  5. […] http://www.blackgate.com/2008/12/24/killer-trees-with-icy-fangs-roasting-on-an-open-fire/ Posted by Blue Tyson 3.5, study, t non-fiction, z free sf Subscribe to RSS feed […]

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