“The demand for ‘originality’ – with the implication that the reminiscence of other writers is a sin against originality and a defect in the work – is a recent one and would have seemed quite ludicrous to poets of the Augustan Age, or of Shakespeare’s time. The traditional view is that each new work should be a fresh focus of power through which former streams of beauty, emotion, and reflection are directed. This view is adopted, and perhaps carried to excess, by writers like T.S. Eliot, some of whose poems are a close web of quotations and adaptations, chosen for their associative value; or like James Joyce, who makes great use of the associative value of sounds and syllables. The criterion is, not whether the associations are called up, but whether the spirits invoked by this kind of verbal incantation are charged with personal power by the magician who speeds them about their new business.”
Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mind of the Maker
I’m spending a good portion of my time lately reading elementary and middle-school books as I think about and plan for homeschooling my daughter, and I picked up one this week that’s about fifth-grade level called Half Magic, by Edward Eager. I hadn’t heard of this before, but the cover illustration looks like the ones on Eleanor Estes’ family comedy books for about the same age range, but this one has a bit of magic in it and name checks fantasy books like E. Nesbit’s The Enchanted Cottage. Anyway, that’s by the by.
Today I came across a couple of pages where the four children (ages about six to thirteen or so) head to the movies. The book was written in 1954, but set 30 years earlier, which makes it take place in the mid-1920s. I just found this humorous depiction of kids going to the movies in around 1924 to be pretty hilarious and also probably fairly accurate. For reference, Jane is the oldest, Mark is second at age 11 (if the other ages are given, I’ve overlooked them), then Katharine, and Martha is the youngest. The story takes place in Toledo, Ohio, which is middle America at its most middle American.
After lunch, it was time to choose what movie to see.
The children did this by first making a tour of all the movie theatres in town and looking at the pictures on the outside. A time of argument followed. Mark liked Westerns and thrilling escapes, but Martha wouldn’t go inside any theatre that had pictures of fighting.
Jane and Katharine liked ladies with long hair and big eyes and tragic stories. They wanted to see a movie called Barbara LaMarr in Sandra. Mark finally agreed, because there were a lot of pictures outside of a man who wore a moustache, and that meant he was the villain, and that meant that somebody would hit him sooner or later. Martha agreed because all the other theatres had either pictures with fighting or Charlie Chaplin.
All of the four children hated Charlie Chaplin, because he was the only thing grown-ups would ever take them to.
When they came into the theatre Barbara LaMarr in Sandra had already reached its middle, and the children couldn’t figure out exactly what was happening. But then neither could the rest of the audience.
“But, George, I do not seem to grasp it all!” the woman behind the four children kept saying to her husband.
The four children did not grasp any of it, but Barbara LaMarr had lots of hair and great big eyes, and when strong men wanted to kiss her and she pushed them away and made suffering faces at the audience with her eyebrows, Jane and Katharine thought it was thrilling, and probably quite like the way life was, when you were grown-up.
Mark didn’t think much of the love blah, but he watched the villain getting more villainous, and the hero getting more heroic, and patiently waited for them to slug it out.
Martha hated it.
That was always the way with Martha. She wanted to go to the movies like anything until she got there, and then she hated it. Now she kept pestering the others to read her the words and tell her what was happening (for in those days movies did not talk).
“It is important,” the man in the grey suit interrupts. “Someone needs to tell those tales. When the battles are fought and won and lost, when the pirates find their treasures and the dragons eat their foes for breakfast with a nice cup of Lapsang souchong, someone needs to tell their bits of overlapping narrative. There’s magic in that. It’s in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different, and it will affect them in ways they never can predict. From the mundane to the profound. You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift. Your sister may be able to see the future, but you yourself can shape it, boy. Do not forget that.” He takes another sip of his wine. “There are many kinds of magic, after all.”
– Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus
“Stories have changed, my dear boy,” the man in the grey suit says, his voice almost imperceptibly sad. “There are no more battles between good and evil, no monsters to slay, no maidens in need of rescue. Most maidens are perfectly capable of rescuing themselves in my experience, at least the ones worth something, in any case. There are no longer simple tales with quests and beasts and happy endings. The quests lack clarity of goal or path. The beasts take different forms and are difficult to recognize for what they are. And there are never really endings, happy or otherwise. Things keep going on, they overlap and blur, your story is part of your sister’s story is part of many other stories, and there is no telling where any of them may lead. Good and evil are a great deal more complex than a princess and a dragon, or a wolf and a scarlet-clad girl. And is not the dragon the hero of his own story? Is not the wolf simply acting as a wolf should act? Though perhaps it is a singular wolf who goes to such lengths as to dress as a grandmother to toy with his prey.”
– Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus