Sunday, August 4, 2013

Neil Gaiman at the MFA

Fairy tales, myths and heroes have captured our minds for thousands of years. From Gilgamesh to the Avengers, we've been drawn to epic stories of good versus evil, and thrilled at the fantastic journeys of Odysseus, Arthur and his knights and Huck Finn.

The content of stories and the collective experience they foster were part of the subject matter Neil Gaiman addressed in his lecture titled "Myth, Magic and Making Stuff Up" at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston I attended yesterday.

Gaiman is the current poster child for storytelling today. Rightfully so. Over the past two decades his stories have crossed multiple genres and formats--graphic novel, picture book, television, radio play, and film. With the rise in popularity of fantasy and science fiction, Neil's stories have risen as well.

As he illustrated in the lecture, Gaiman showed that at heart people are captivated by stories. My favorite moment was when he shared a new story he's working on. It will be part of an anthology of retold ancient myths. Tentatively titled, "Freya's Unusual Wedding" it tells one of the famous tales surrounding Thor, the Norse god of thunder; where Thor must dress in women's garments in order to reclaim his stolen hammer and ultimate weapon, Mjollner from the ogre Thrym.

Neil is a great reader.

As he read, the inflection and multiple voices he used showed his love of the characters he created and the joy he had in sharing them with an eager audience. Coming from a background in theatre and oral performance, I could see a little bit of Neil the actor coming through. It was great fun to be part of.

But what is it that makes stories so intriguing? More clever minds than my own have explored this question. Joseph Campbell in The Hero's Journey is one series of note.

I think that a large part of why stories are so important is that we live through them. Gaiman shared a G.K. Chesterton quotation (which by the way is my new favorite), "Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten."

I would take it a step farther to say that all stories, not just fairy tales, are true (i.e. beautiful) in some way because of what we learn from them. We put ourselves in the hero's position and see our lives as a story. One that we hope will have a happy ending.

I also got to ask Neil a question about his newest book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane during the Q & A session at the event. I wanted to know who the Hempstocks are. The mysterious trio of women in Ocean are powerful, enigmatic and at the core of his story.

His answer was clear but vague at the same time. He mentioned that he'd had the idea for the Hempstocks since he was 12 years old. He read a story as a child titled, A Pile of Trouble by 1950's sci-fi writer Henry Kuttner about mutant hilbillies that got him thinking about people who were much older and stranger than they appeared. What if Gram Hempstock really had been around when the Big Bang happened? He also mentioned more scientific possibilities and the almost too obvious female archetypes of maiden, matron and crone.

I found his answer satisfying, but I still felt like there was more than meets the eye. Were the Hempstocks angels? demi-gods? or perhaps the Trinity itself, disguised and living in a old farm house at the end of the road?

But the more I think about it, maybe he really didn't know. It's more likely they are probably a combination of all the above. And from what I've learned about his writing process it's an organic thing, rather than a tightly woven diagram of plot points. He doesn't always know how the story will end when it begins.

I guess I have to learn to be comfortable with the mystery.

After all, what's a good story without it?


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