Land of the Happy Dead

Recently I have been enjoying one of my most beloved literary/spiritual subjects, fairy tales. Readings on the subject by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien bolster my innate passion for the genre and have me considering the way I experience, not just literature, but nature, music, and relationships. It is so refreshing. This wave of inspiration comes at a time when my summer pleasure-reading is Celtic Myths and Legends by T.W. Rolleston, and my dinner prep, reading-out-loud selection is Lilith by George MacDonald. Today I am particularly struck by the intersection of these two pieces of literature within the context of Lewis/Tolkien fairy tale conceptions (with a Shostakovich coda).


First Rolleston:
A great battle with the Danaans at Telltown then follows. The three kings and three queens of the Danaans, with many of their people, are slain, and the children of Miled—the last of the mythical invaders of Ireland—enter upon the sovranty of Ireland. But the People of Dana do not withdraw. By their magic art they cast over themselves a veil of invisibility, which they can put on or off as they choose. There are two Irelands henceforward, the spiritual and the earthly... Where the human eye can see but green mounds and ramparts, the relics of ruined fortresses or sepulchres (sic), there rise the fairy palaces of the defeated divinities; there they hold their revels in eternal sunshine, nourished by the magic meat and ale that give them undying youth and beauty; and thence they come forth at times to mingle with mortal men in love or in war. (pp. 136–7)

And now MacDonald:
[The confused Mr. Vane finds himself suddenly in another world with Mr. Raven.]
    I suppose I looked discomfited.
    "Perhaps it may comfort you," said the raven, "to be told that you have not yet left your house, neither has your house left you. At the same time it cannot contain you, or you inhabit it!"... "That tree stands on the hearth of your kitchen, and grows nearly straight up its chimney," he said.
    "Then, if I walk to the other side of that tree, I shall walk through the kitchen fire?"
    "Certainly, you would first, however, walk through the lady at the piano in the breakfast-room. That rosebush is close by her. You would give her a terrible start!"... "If you could but hear the music! Those great long heads of wild hyacinth are inside the piano, among the strings of it, and give that peculiar sweetness to her playing! —Pardon me: I forgot your deafness!"
    "Two objects," I said, "cannot exist in the same place at the same time!"
    "Can they not? I did not know! —I remember now they do teach that with you. It is a great mistake —one of the greatest ever wiseacre made! No man of the universe, only a man of the world could have said so!"... "There! I smell Grieg's Wedding March in the quiver of those rose-petals!"
    I went to the rose-bush and listened hard, but could not hear the thinnest ghost of a sound; I only smelt something I had never before smelt in any rose. It was still rose-odor, but with a difference, caused, I suppose, by the Wedding March. (pp. 21–23)

The unseen kingdom: frightening in its closeness, its illusiveness, and the desire it has the potential to awake in anyone. Often this heavenly place is removed from the mortal world by sheer distance: Valinor, Mount Olympus, the Utter East, Paradisio, Valhalla. How much farther it would seem to view the crumbling dolmens of Ireland and to know that just beyond hearing, beyond sight or sense, right where you stand in fact, dance and sing and live forever the Children of Dana. It's nearness is a constant reminder of our separation from it, a continual reminder of our desire and loss. How sweet it would be to see things as they are, as they truly are. Myth has such a way of penetrating deeply and immediately into our most human desires, straight to eternity.

                                                         Thou, silent form! dost tease us out of thought
                                                         As doth eternity...

J. Duncan

Like the sad peacefulness of Irish ruins, another "silent form" is air, this invisible stuff we constantly breathe, swat, pass, snort, push aside. I don't particularly think about it all that often. But how heavenly then to hear music hovering in the air! to part the curtain, to cleave a momentary cleft through the hanging but silent potential and into somewhere wonderful! The air I breathe carries within its vibrating molecules the passions and hopes and follies of all humankind. It seems to hint at what is behind the Biblical "Land of Milk and Honey" – not merely a place where there is an abundance of food, but a place where one could potentially swim in nourishment. With music, one can literally breathe artistic nourishment as it physically dances upon ears like the People of the Sìdhe frolic upon their mounds!

For me, Shostakovich particularly embodies the Otherworld in his music. The last movement from his String Quartet in D Major, Op. 83 embodies this sneak-peek into the Land of the Danaans. I hear the subtle unzipping of the invisible barrier, the riotous frivolity of the gods, at once frightening and beckoning and foreign, and the quiet return to silence and stasis, not to ignorance but to a longing for the place where flowers smell like music and two objects can occupy the same space. Enjoy and have a great Day of Odin!

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