Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Goblin Market

I've been re-reading Ursula K. LeGuin's magnificent Earthsea trilogy, and I am remembering why these early, "classic" works of high fantasy had such a hold on my mind when I was young. 

And it's made me realise something. I've finally figured out what the problem with the internet is.  

The internet is a strange and dangerous place, the most ephemeral, almost fey and imaginary land, as devious and perilous – and as enticing – as any old Celtic underworld full of changelings, baffling oracles, capricious gods and deceitful fairies. For us mortals, it is a realm of wonders and secret knowledge but hemmed about with dangers, of false turns and dead ends and shifting pathways, illusions and misdirections. And it is populated with a race of tricksters who might tell you the simple truth to a plain question, but at any moment and for reasons unknowable, might also lead the unwary traveler into a trap, a spiral of deception and disinformation.

And don’t forget that the place itself, its very nature, is inhuman and a danger, quite apart from what dwells there. Innocent people have become ensnared in it, forgetting family and work and the smell of the fresh air and the feel of the sun, and finally forgetting even themselves, in its delightful glamours. Its twists and turns, with its little sparks of light, lead us further and further down its branching, twisting passages, until we have forgotten why we entered, and lost track of the movement of time.

Who has gone into it and not betimes waked, as if from a strange trance, in which the very room we sat in has faded into distant shadows, to find in what seemed like only moments that hours have passed and the daylight gone.

But the same impulse drives us to return to it as pushed the old heroes to climb down into those cold stone passages, not seeking treasure, but knowledge and wisdom. Somewhere, we feel, in that vast labyrinth is the thing we are looking for, that we may have looked for all our lives. And we can become enchanted by it, returning to it helplessly again and again, forsaking everything merely human and natural, obsessed with finding that one thing, certain we will recognise it even if we don’t know what it is.

And it is true, there is treasure in it, but it is often disguised as a plain old bit of stone on the floor, something we would pass without a glance in our rush to grasp some pretty, glittering thing.

The old and the wise and the simple, the shepherds and woodsmen and goose-wives, those whose lives are already complete and rooted in reality, with good, hard work to do and children to raise, who sleep sound from sunset to dawn, know enough to stay away from it, to ignore its shimmering enticements. But the young and dissatisfied, the city-dwellers who have lived all their lives hemmed about by pretty distractions, who don’t know the real or recognise a fairy glamour, are drawn to it like magpies to bottle tops.

And like those old Celtic myths of an undying land full of heroes and fey wise-women, the internet lasts forever. It is in one sense the most deceitful and changeable place, but at the same time also as immutable as diamond. Whatever is placed there for safekeeping is there forever.

But it is possible, with the right understanding, to go into it and come out again with something useful, though perhaps not easily and not often. I’ve never known anyone with a stern enough will to use it without any ill effects – and it seems particularly to drain and weaken the faculties of the will. It affects also the person’s ability to trust his own knowledge, however sure it was at the start. He will go in thinking clearly and knowing how to tell truth from falsehood, but the longer he is there the more its charms work upon his trust in himself. The more he will think he has been deceived in the past, and all his knowledge is vain. This is the first part of the enchantment.

An intelligent man attends to his work and his family and his life, and he deals with the enchanted lands as he would with any other mortal peril; only if he must. But if he must, there are certain wards and rhymes and charms to bring with him, certain disciplines of the mind he must know to be safe. He must know the rules; never to eat or drink anything, never to join in the dances. He must train his mind and will as he would his arms and back for work. And above all, he must know who he is and remember why he came there. There will be times when he must will his eyes not to see the fairy enticements, and restrain his hearing to reject the snippets of songs and bells and flutes that would lure him off his path. He must train his mind as he would a hunting dog not to run off chasing sounds and lights.

As we know from all those old tales, it is a rare man who can do these things. Most of the time the stories are tragedies in which simple men are caught and lost, never to come out in the lifetimes of his family, remembered sadly as just another fool snared by the enchanted and deceptive fairy snares. Perhaps he would emerge again a hundred years later, forgotten by everyone, a stranger in his own home.

With clasping arms and cautioning lips, 
With tingling cheeks and finger tips. 
“Lie close,” Laura said, 
Pricking up her golden head: 
“We must not look at goblin men, 
We must not buy their fruits: 
Who knows upon what soil they fed 
Their hungry thirsty roots?” 
“Come buy,” call the goblins 
Hobbling down the glen. 

“Oh,” cried Lizzie, “Laura, Laura, 
You should not peep at goblin men.” 
Lizzie cover’d up her eyes, 
Cover’d close lest they should look; 
Laura rear’d her glossy head, 
And whisper’d like the restless brook: 
“Look, Lizzie, look, Lizzie, 
Down the glen tramp little men. 
One hauls a basket, 
One bears a plate, 
One lugs a golden dish 
Of many pounds weight. 
How fair the vine must grow 
Whose grapes are so luscious; 
How warm the wind must blow 
Through those fruit bushes.” 
“No,” said Lizzie, “No, no, no; 
Their offers should not charm us, 
Their evil gifts would harm us.” 



Anonymous said...

Thank you. I live with a toe in fairyland anyway. This makes perfect sense to me. Though it doesn't mean I will have any immunity, hopefully it will help keep me on my guard. But Oh! Those fairy flutes!

Anonymous said...

Sorry. That last was from Chloe

MARIA said...

What a beautiful conundrum you created for yourself and those who meet you in fairy land.

I consult you too frequently, I admit. Here is a gem, I would like to argue. But did I need to find it now?

If the world was ending before I read of it on the internet I expect I would notice.
The traffic accident, that is the Church, must be prayed for with eyes fixed ahead on the road.

Back to work I go.

May God Bless you.

thetimman said...

Lovely post.