Dreams and Visions of the Night

“Piers Plowman,” considered by many to be one of the greatest works of medieval English literature, tells the story of a series of dreams experienced by Piers (Peter) the Plowman. This image is the only known depiction of Piers and shows him dreaming; the manuscript comes from the late 1300s and belongs to Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

Dreams and visions while sleeping have long fascinated us. Modern psychologists use dreams to help us unlock the mysteries of our inner emotional life: what frightens us, what do we yearn for, how do we see ourselves in relation to those around us, who is important to us and why. To ancient and medieval people, dreams were glimpses into the future and ways to travel far without leaving the comfort of our beds.

In Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights, Marina Warner tells us that “Oneiromancy, or divination through dreams, was a practice throughout the ancient world and cultivated in Egypt: Joseph interprets dreams in both the Old Testament (Genesis 40-41) and the Koran (Sura 12).” Many features of dreams–suddenness and vividness, fragmentation, episodic structures, displacements in time and space, instability of bodies–are common throughout fairy tales and legends of all people.

In stories such as the Arabian Nights, fairy tales, or Piers Plowman, dreams can reveal something true that is happening now or is about to happen. Dream experiences can actually take place and dreamers can awake with a new ring or some token that convinces them that the dream experience actually happened.

The interaction and interrelationship of reality and dreams is explored in modern films as well as legends or tales. Marina Warner suggests that both The Matrix (1999) and Inception (2010) depict one dream world inside another “until the notion of verifiable reality disappears into an abyss of multiple reflections.”

We sing with children, “Row, row, row your boat… life is but a dream,” but dreams can illuminate aspects of our lives that would remain otherwise dark, unexplored, unacknowledged–and therefore all the more powerful over us. I know that if I focus on the emotional content of my dreams — rather than the surface elements that are not always recognizable — that I can appreciate and come to grips with something my sleeping mind is struggling to grapple with. By dreaming and by acknowledging our dreams we can be free of those dark forces and choose our own paths forward.

NOTE: I just had a great conversation about writing with Rachel Hardcastle on her podcast. See it here.

Napoleon of Notting Hill

G.K. Chesterton published “The Napoleon of Notting Hill” in 1904.

Picture a London in the future where democracy is dead. A little government minister with virtually no experience governing is made King. The boroughs are suddenly declared separate kingdoms with their own city guard, banner and gathering cry and the capital is plunged into a strange type medieval warfare. Then Notting Hill declares its independence?

When G.K. Chesterton wrote his classic Napoleon of Notting Hill in 1904, the Russo-Japanese War was just beginning and the first ever New Year’s Eve celebration in Times Square was held. Edward VII sat on the British throne. But it is a book surprisingly relevant to the contemporary world. The book revolves around loyalty to the local and taking our neighbors seriously; it is an early demonstration of the axiom, “Think globally, act locally!” But this loyalty to our neighborhood is far from the cries of “America first!” that involve turning our back on the rest of the world. It is our loyalty to our neighborhood that forces us to realize our interdependence on the rest of the world and how each neighborhood needs the others if any are to flourish. Need a good book this summer? Pick up this one!

Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday is credited with inspiring the conversion of C.S. Lewis to Christianity and Michael Collins to the cause of the Irish Republic. It also was one of Neil Gaiman’s inspirations for Neverwhere.

Balrogs … and “Less is More!”

One artist’s depiction of the Balrog confronting Gandalf in “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien

Recently in my Tolkien Literature Reading Group, one of the members asked me what I, “as a writer,” thought about a certain scene in The Lord of the Rings. I think it was the scene where Gandalf confronts the Balrog in Moria. Tolkien simply says that the Balrog “was like a great shadow, in the middle of which was a dark form, of man-shape maybe, yet greater” with a mane, a sword, and wings. Gandalf defies it, claiming his status as “a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor.” Tolkien doesn’t bother to tell us what the source of this Secret Fire is nor what the flame of Anor is. Each reader is left to imagine the details of the Balrog; it was only in the various film interpretations of the LOTR that viewers were passively fed the Balrog’s details because film required the visual presentation of the Balrog in all its fearsome glory.

I realized that Tolkien, in that particular scene and in many others as well (once I thought about it), did not say nearly as much as most readers think he does in terms of description and detail. He writes JUST ENOUGH and then lets us — each reader — fill in the details. That way each of us is more invested in the scene, in what happens, and in what results come of it. We supply our own vision of beauty and ugliness, what is frightening or comforting, what propels or inhibits the characters.

Too often writers supply too much — too much description, too many motivations, too many words. We need to trust readers more to fill in these details themselves. We overwrite. We over-describe. We need to allow the reader(s) to contribute their own efforts to fill in the gaps and make the scene more compelling. All too often, this is what happens anyway: we can describe a character’s exact appearance, down to the last detail, but the reader will recreate them in whatever way seems appropriate to that reader in order to make the character “beautiful” or “sneaky” or whatever the character’s most important trait is. (I remember that I first read The Hobbit immediately after finishing The Wind in the Willows and I have always pictured Bilbo as a rather large frog wearing Victorian clothes in many scenes, simply another version of Mr. Toad.)

Allowing the reader to contribute to the scene not only makes the scene much more effective but helps us writers to become better writers as well. It might seem lazy to say less about a character or a scene but it actually forces us to be more thoughtful and concise. It makes us think about what is really important about the scene or character and drop anything extraneous.

THAT’S the hard part!