Friday, November 10, 2017

Ideas I am Currently Stealing, Part 2 “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains” by Neil Gaiman

“The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains”, available in Gaiman’s third short story collection, Trigger Warning, is my single favorite piece of writing. It is true and hard and painful like peeling off a scab too soon. It is a story that feels written precisely for me in its tone, content, concept, and conclusion. I am still uncertain whether I prefer reading the words myself, or listening to Gaiman’s reading from the audiobook.

Gaiman is difficult for me, in the particular context of this series of articles (his books appear more than once in my list of things to write about). I love his work as much as anything I read, and I almost always want to achieve the same feeling for my readers that I get from Gaiman, but our styles are so different it is hard to know what to take. His prose is elegant and spare, and mine too ornamented to properly emulate him. Still, there is too much I love not to try and find something I can carry off in “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains.”

Fairy magic cannot return what you have lost, no matter what they promise. This is a story about seeking a fairy cave filled with uncounted wealth, but it is really about loss and what comes after, and no magic can un-lose the people we miss most. Of course this idea is not original or unique to Gaiman’s story, but his juxtaposition of inescapable loss with a world where fairies are real and magic waits for those who seek is masterful and poignant.

There is a space between desire and need, and sorrow and hurt lies there. The cost of seeking what is desired but not needed is as close to an overarching theme of this story as I can articulate, and it is an endlessly important idea to remember for a fairy story. When there are bargains to be made with powers that can give you just what you ask for, the space between what you will ask for and what you should ask is vast, and the whole of your life may turn on the mistake. Gaiman writes the rueful understanding that you have made the wrong choice better than anyone.

There is a wonder in empty, wild places, and magic lives where we are not. Neil Gaiman makes me want to travel like no other author. This story will send me to Skye one day, just as “In Relig Oran” will send me to Iona when time and money allow. The beauty and the power of lonely black mountains where people come seldom fills the story from start to finish. Someday I will wring as much wonder from ordinary world as Neil Gaiman; for now, I get half as much from the fantastical as he does from rocks and clouds and rain on the slate ocean.

Old wives’ tales and folk wisdom remain for a reason. The people who live a day’s walk from the cave filled with fairy gold do not go in, do not take the riches that wait for the taking. They know the cost is more than the worth of the money. When magic is near, it leaves a memory, and the old wisdom of people who live at the edge of the commonplace and the fantastic is old for a reason. It lasts because it is needed.

Revenge is not righteous, nor does it liberate. Gaiman knows that killing is still evil when it feels righteous, that it leaves a scar even when we could not do otherwise. Even when we have assured ourselves to a nicety that all we do is justified, the killing stays, and it does not erase a bit of the pain that drove us to begin with.

I look back over this blog as I outlined and as I have written it, and it is full of platitudes and banalities, and I do not know how to say better what I want to mean. I do not fully understand what I am trying to take from “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains.” I cannot say it clearly. I am trying to steal a twist of comfortable pain under my breast-bone, a warmth in my belly, a shiver in my bones. I am trying to recreate the feeling of almost tears that never flow, brought on not by a sadness but by a perfect weight of emotion, by the rightness of feeling just so as I hear the words pronounced.

“The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains” is my favorite story, and I do not understand it, not enough to explain what is so perfect and so painful about it. Not enough to say why is has made a home in the heart of me and will not leave. All I can really say is that you should read it, if you love stories, or words, or beautiful things. Read it, and if you someday read something of mine and think you see the smallest echo of what you find in Gaiman’s story, tell me, and I will count it as a great success.

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