The Dark Crystal

“Another World, Another Time… In the Age of Wonder. A thousand years ago, this land was green and good, until the Crystal cracked. For a single piece was lost; a shard of the Crystal. Then strife began, and two new races appeared: the cruel Skeksis… the gentle Mystics.” (photo from The Dark Crystal)

Puppeteer Jim Henson (1936-1990) was born in Greenville, Mississippi on September 24. He created the Muppets, including Kermit the Frog, and Bert and Ernie, entertaining and educating generations of children via the daily TV show Sesame Street. He also oversaw The Muppet Show and several Muppet movies. But his non-Muppet feature, The Dark Crystal, was a stunning visual adventure into a fantasy world previously unexplored.

The Dark Crystal’s theatrical release in 1982 was overshadowed by competition over the Christmas of that year, including Tootsie and the already massively successful E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. In 2008, the American Film Institute nominated this film for its Top 10 Fantasy Films list.

I always liked the Dark Crystal story line and the characters. It is a classic fairy tale in the style of the original un-sanitized Brothers Grimm collection; in fact, it was Henson’s intention was to “get back to the darkness of the original Grimms’ Fairy Tales”, as he believed that it was unhealthy for children to never be afraid. When he was conceptualizing the evil Skeksis, Henson had in mind the Seven Deadly Sins, though because there were 10 Skeksis, some sins had to be invented or used twice.

I remember the day in May, 1990 of Henson’s funeral at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. All the Muppet characters attended and sang a medley of Henson’s favorite songs. Life magazine described it as “an epic and almost unbearably moving event.”

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.