The books of magic
(by Roger Zelazny)
once stopped in an odd little establishment in Ensenada,
down in Baja, where a hindu gentleman was selling tiny gold-plated orchids. He
explained that they were real flowers, and that a process existed for plating
them with that shiny metal without ruining their forms. Unable to resist, I
said, "Sort of liking gilding the lily, huh?" But his knowledge of the
language had not progressed to the point of catching bad deadpan humor, and he
responded, "No! No! Is not lily! Is orchid!"
Neil Gaiman does not really need an introduction. It
would sort of be like-never mind.
He writes the
award-winning SANDMAN series and is co-author with Terry Pratchett of the novel
Good Omens which I have recommended to many and do yet again.
I first met Neil at an
autographing session in Dallas. Most recently, I spent a pleasant evening with
him and Steven Brust at the World Fantasy Convention in Phoenix, where we spoke
of many things and I was reminded of something an older writer had told me long
ago-namely, that editors only think they're buying stories, that what they
really buying is the way a story is told. Look at Nick bantock's fansinating
Griffin & Sabine, where the medium is 95% of the enchantment.
Neil Gaiman is such a
medium specialist. While his tales are gripping, moving, there is in particular
the way of his stories to consider. I'm always fascinated by his point attack
and by the angles from which he views his people, settings, situations, actions.
it's his approach that I study as much as the ideas he employs. And in the case
of The Books of Magic I am again fascinated. The time he has chosen for his
subject the tale of initation, the story of the magician's journey from
innocence along the road to power.
The four volumes of
The Books of Magic, herein gathered, are a wonderful romp which i have read both
backwards and forwards. In that they worked well for me in either direction, as
well as in several odd shufflings of the deck, I feel free to talk about them in
a variety of ways-none of which can really "give away the plot."
because it's no that sort of story. While there is a storyline from which events
depend, it is also a thematic tale, and I can talk about it at this level,
choosing examples from wherever I would, without doing harm to anyone's reading
Open Joseph Campbell's
Hero with a Thousand Faces to the Table of Contents and skipping over the
Prologue wherein he will speak of the monomyth in general terms, we come to Part
I, "the adventure of the Hero," which is divided into four chapters:
"Departure," "Initation, " "Return," and "The
Keys." In that Campbell is examining the archetypes of all mythology here,
and looking to describe a rhythm common to heroic fiction, I thought to hold it
up next to The Books of Magic to see how Neil's story compares with the hero's
journey in world mythology at large.
Looking at the first
volume as representing "The Departure," we se that it is indeed
characterized by the five features Campbell discussed. The "Call to
Adventure" comes simply enough in the midst of Timothy's mundane activity,
skateboaring. The "Refusal of Call" follows immediately, as Timothy
flees the Stranger, Dr. Occult, and Mr. E - whereupon Constantine stops him,
offering the classical "Supernatural Aid" by turning his yo-yo into a
owl/familiar. "The Crossing of the First Threshold" then takes him on
a journey back through time to beginnings. Then comes "The Belly of the
Whale," the return to the center of things - the
self-sacrificialexperience, the learning of the price - which begins in the
Looking on Book II as
a continuation of "The Belly of the Whale," let us hold Book III up
against the "initiation" chapter. Campbell's breakdown here is
"The Road of Trials," "The Meeting with the Goddess, " Woman
as the Temptress," "Atonement with the Father,"
"Apotheosis," and "The Ultimate Boon."
All of these are
encountered in Fairyland, with Titaniaas the goddess and the temptress, the
father as the sleeping king under the mountain, and the apotheosis of sorts
occuring on the receipt of the boon.
I won't even try to
match things up for the final Book of Magic. I will simply point out for
homework that Campbell's next chapter, "The Return," contains the
following sections "Refusal of the Return," "The Magic
Flight," "Rescue from Without," "The Crossing of the Return
Threshold," and "Freedom to Live."
This is one way to
look at it. Sure, all of those things are there. It does not matter one whit,
though, wheter Neil cleverly synthesized the piece out of Campbell or whether
crafted a tale drawing upon similar sources so that such a thoroughgoing
analysis must necessarily apply. Either way, the result is a work worthy of
One might remark on
the sense of humor exhibited in Book III, where the hero and his companions are
hanging around Baba Yaga's house, or the tangential nature of the future
according to Book IV, or the blackness at the beginning of the universe. or at
its end, view everything between as a cosmic day, and reduce all of the action
to a solar myth; or, as I did earlier, one might play the sequence backwards,
beginning with the playing-card archetypes and winding up regarding the Fall as
an Ascension; or -
From a mundane
standpoint, one might merely observe that Neil has arranged appearances here by
every major occult figure in DC's history, to the possible end of introducing a
new series character. And I do wonder whether Timothy will be back.
It is more that a
clever story, however. It is rich and it is resonant. Like all good writing it
causes the mind to wander of down byways by arousing speculations and leaving
them to simmer. Why is Dr. Occult's female side so strong? What wonders will
emerge from the mundane egg? What lock will Timothy's key one day fit? I like
this allusiveness, this senses of depth. It entertains and engages me to see so
much contained between these covers.
And Neil is fortunate
here in having such interesting and talented colleagues as John Bolton, Scott
Hampton, Charles Vess, and Paul Johnson rendering his visions into vivid images.
And while people seldom comment on lettering because its job is generally to be
unobtrusive, they also, for the same reason - habit - may not always note ts
subtle shifts in such places as the Museum of Ghosts sequences or Zatara's poem
or the dialogue at Baba Yaga's or its alternation in various of the future
sections - or simply not wonder why certain words get the bold-face treatment.
Todd Klein's sure hand is a definite part of the magic here.
Neil Gaiman is a
writer I have resolved to watch, and so far the effort has never failed to
return more than the price of admission to his worlds. Yes, I have enjoyed this
story in many ways. It has been a journey worth taking. To say more would be to
dip it in molten metal. Sweet dreams.