Thursday, 1 November 2012

"Instructions" by Neil Gaiman

My posts have followed the junction between society and technology for a while, so I would like to put in something poetic. My choice is by Neil Gaiman.

If you don't know his name, you may know some of his books, graphic novels, or screenplays. The novel American Gods won the Hugo and Nebula awards. (If you follow the science fiction or fantasy genres, you will know the awards). According to that Wikipedia article, it will be made into a television series for HBO. His children's novels Coraline and Stardust were made into movies. His graphic novel project, The Sandman, grew to ten volumes over seven years of effort. It was a New York Times best-seller, and yet is worth reading.

The only work of Neil Gaiman that has disappointed me was the script he co-wrote for the film Beowulf. The seal of death on that project, as far as I am concerned is that the film's director "did not like the poem, but enjoyed reading the screenplay." That implies, of course, that anyone who did like the poem, as I do, would hate the screenplay.

What I enjoy in Gaiman is that myth seems to be a language to him, rather than a decoration. He creates new myths and alludes to old ones to speak about human nature and the universe. His poem "Instructions" shows how this works.

Instructions

by Neil Gaiman
Touch the wooden gate in the wall you never
saw before.
Say "please" before you open the latch,
go through,
walk down the path.
A red metal imp hangs from the green-painted
front door,
as a knocker,
do not touch it; it will bite your fingers.
Walk through the house. Take nothing. Eat
nothing.
However, if any creature tells you that it hungers,
feed it.
If it tells you that it is dirty,
clean it.
If it cries to you that it hurts,
if you can,
ease its pain.

From the back garden you will be able to see the wild wood.
The deep well you walk past leads to Winter's realm;
there is another land at the bottom of it.
If you turn around here,
you can walk back, safely;
you will lose no face. I will think no less of you.

Once through the garden you will be in the wood.
The trees are old. Eyes peer from the undergrowth.
Beneath a twisted oak sits an old woman. She
may ask for something;
give it to her. She
will point the way to the castle.
Inside it are three princesses.
Do not trust the youngest. Walk on.
In the clearing beyond the castle the twelve
months sit about a fire,
warming their feet, exchanging tales.
They may do favors for you, if you are polite.
You may pick strawberries in December's frost.
Trust the wolves, but do not tell them where
you are going.
The river can be crossed by the ferry. The ferry-
man will take you.
(The answer to his question is this:
If he hands the oar to his passenger, he will be free to
leave the boat.
Only tell him this from a safe distance.)

If an eagle gives you a feather, keep it safe.
Remember: that giants sleep too soundly; that
witches are often betrayed by their appetites;
dragons have one soft spot, somewhere, always;
hearts can be well-hidden,
and you betray them with your tongue.

Do not be jealous of your sister.
Know that diamonds and roses
are as uncomfortable when they tumble from
one's lips as toads and frogs:
colder, too, and sharper, and they cut.

Remember your name.
Do not lose hope — what you seek will be found.
Trust ghosts. Trust those that you have helped
to help you in their turn.
Trust dreams.
Trust your heart, and trust your story.
When you come back, return the way you came.
Favors will be returned, debts will be repaid.
Do not forget your manners.
Do not look back.
Ride the wise eagle (you shall not fall).
Ride the silver fish (you will not drown).
Ride the grey wolf (hold tightly to his fur).

There is a worm at the heart of the tower; that is
why it will not stand.

When you reach the little house, the place your
journey started,
you will recognize it, although it will seem
much smaller than you remember.
Walk up the path, and through the garden gate
you never saw before but once.
And then go home. Or make a home.
And rest.
One myth alluded to in this poem is a Russian story about a cannibalistic witch, Baba Yaga. In it, the heroine helps a gate, a tree, and a cat who later save her life. It matches even more closely a Norwegian story, "The Giant Who Had No Heart in his Body." (Its full text is here). During his quest, its hero helps a raven, a salmon, and a wolf, and each of them later help him.
if any creature tells you that it hungers,
feed it.
If it tells you that it is dirty,
clean it.
If it cries to you that it hurts,
if you can,
ease its pain.
If you do this,
When you come back, return the way you came.
Favors will be returned, debts will be repaid.
He needs their help because "hearts can be well-hidden." (Truer words were never written). The form of that help is also mentioned.
Ride the wise eagle (you shall not fall).
Ride the silver fish (you will not drown).
Ride the grey wolf (hold tightly to his fur).
These are almost exactly the creatures featured in the Norwegian story.

The Ferryman is Charon. The river he takes you over is the Styx, which separates the living and the dead. He demands payment from those whom he ferries, and is often not to be trusted.


 The twisted oak? The oak was sacred to the gods of sky or thunder throughout ancient Europe: to Zeus in Greece, to Thor in the Northlands. The name of the oak formed part of the name of a druid among the Celts. It carried the sacred mistletoe that still works a kind of magic on New Year's Eve. The woman below the tree must be a wise woman, spirit, or even goddess.


Three princesses, twelve months. Three and its multiples have magic. How many stories (starting with Cinderella) have three princes or princesses?


"Diamonds and roses that tumble from your lips...." I do not know where the tumbling roses come from, but diamonds from the lips feature in James Thurber's book The Thirteen Clocks. I know that Gaiman has read this book because he wrote the introduction in the edition that I have of it and calls it "the best book in the world."
There is a worm at the heart of the tower; that is
why it will not stand.
 In the King Arthur stories, Merlin tells Uther Pendragon something very similar to this. Two dragons sleep under the castle he is trying to build. The dragons emerge, a white dragon and a red, and battle to the death. This is a sign of Uther's own death. However, before he dies, he fathers Arthur.

The "wild wood" is life. It is the wood in which Lancelot lost his mind. It is the wood in which Dante lost his way. It is filled with our collective dreams in Robert Holdstock's excellent novel Mythago Wood. Making our way through this wood demands courage, courtesy, and knowledge.

"Instructions" was first published in the book A Wolf at the Door. In 2010, it was published as an illustrated book.

5 comments:

  1. Gareth, have you ever read anything in the WSS on Goodreads?

    ReplyDelete
  2. I looked and found goodreads. What is Wss?

    ReplyDelete
  3. The WSS was/is a Shibboleth. You have managed to help create a rather bizarre synchronicity-petite, what I have come to call a fushigi from something I read by David K. Reynolds. I will be blogging the fushigi. Your post here connected by proximity of time and subject to some posts in The Weekly Short Story Contest and Company thread in Goodreads. If you had read the threads then the fushigi wouldn't exist.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. For the curious and mildly masochistic, I finished blogging the 'list' fushigi here:
      2012.11.03 — Will the Listing Never End? A List of Listing Fushigi*.

      Delete
  4. Diamonds and roses is a French fairy take of Charles Perrault. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diamonds_and_Toads

    ReplyDelete