It’s an old shamanistic art, the art of the fay, taking people away through a story to sojourn in Other Worlds and (unlike some fairies) bringing them back, bedraggled, teary, but safe, to Thisworld.
My first teachers were fantasy writers – C. S. Lewis, Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman, Ursula Le Guin, Robin Hobb. Reading the visionary poets Blake, Shelley, Coleridge, Baudelaire, and Rimbaud, provided intimations otherworldly visions might be real and imagination was a channel to the Divine.
Studying philosophy and literature, not just reading but practicing Husserl’s epoché and Rimbaud’s ‘systematised disorganisation of the senses’, I experimented with intoxicants at festivals, night clubs, parties on the tops, beaches, local woodlands. I gained my own visions of the Otherworld. Some hair-raisingly beautiful, others confusing, odd, downright uncomfortable, some terrifying, mortifying.
The day I ended up on a rock at the end of the world staring into the abyss, unable to decide whether to live or die (I might have died or gone mad if three beings I now know were fay hadn’t brought me back), I decided my journey was at an end and tried to slam the doors of perception shut.
The result was a year of anxiety and panic attacks – terror of the world(s) I’d shut out intruding on this one. I managed to scrape through the third year of my degree, saved by writing a dissertation on the Sublime, which was based on my experience of sublimities undoing my mind and gained me a first.
Studying for my MA in European Philosophy I caught a glimpse of a way of understanding my experiences. In Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy I came across the notion of Dionysian ecstasy giving birth to Apollonian visions, only I hadn’t been seeing dancing satyrs…
Searching for a deeper understanding of how we envision and imagine Other Worlds I started studying Blake’s conception of the Imagination at PhD level. My lack of funds and growing intuition Imagination cannot be conceptualised led me to abandon my studies and return to working with horses.
I loved the horses, but the force that led me to Other Worlds would not leave me alone. Whilst working as a groom in Hertfordshire I started writing stories about otherworldly encounters. I conceived an idea for a fantasy novel and eventually gave up my equine career, moving back in with my parents and taking a less demanding job in a supermarket to make this my focus.
During this period I discovered polytheism – that people worshipped the old gods and worked with spirits. Failing to connect with the Graeco-Roman deities I discovered Britain has its own. Finally I met Brigantia, goddess of the North, Belisama, goddess of the Ribble, Maponos, ‘the Son’ and Matrona, ‘the Mother’, who have altars at Ribchester. Yet it wasn’t until I met Gwyn ap Nudd, a ruler of Annwn/Faery, our ancient British Otherworld, read the fairylore that my experiences made sense.
Gwyn taught me how to journey to Annwn/Faery with intent and come back with stories of my own. He became my patron and I his awenydd and I have served him ever since. When we first met, his condition of traveling with him to the Otherworld was that I give up my ambition to become a professional fantasy writer. This was tough at the time but worth it for the wonders he’s shown me, which lie beyond the limited stretches of my own mind and the pastiche of the fantasy world I created.
For nearly five years I didn’t dare to so much as open a fantasy book. Then my mum told me about some new novels by Robin Hobb about dragonkeepers and I was soon stuck in, reading them and the final trilogy about Fitz and the Fool, before returning to the whole series again. Then re-reading Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea quartet, then all the Dragonlance books by Weiss and Hickman.
When I consulted Gwyn about whether he minded I received the gnosis he’d led me to those Other Worlds.
Why, then, did he ban me from becoming a professional fantasy writer? I’ve been reflecting on this question a lot over the past year. I think one of the reasons was that when I was writing fantasy I was locked in a world that was a projection of my thoughts rather than truly engaging with Other Worlds.
Also, there are differences between the Otherworld(s) of our world myths and the Other Worlds of fantasy. The Otherworld(s) of our many traditions, such as Annwn, Helheim, Hades, even Heaven and Hell, are intrinsically connected with our lives in Thisworld, on this Earth, and are places where our gods, spirits, and ancestors reside. Fantasy worlds are Secondary Worlds with their own Otherworlds. They are not where we live, their laws differ, and our souls won’t go there when we die.
That is not to say those Other Worlds are not real and do not have lessons to teach us. I’ve had dreams and visions where persons from novels have appeared as real as gods. I’ve learnt more about the nature of magic from the wizards of Earthsea and Krynn than from any modern grimoire; of devotion, sacrifice, the undoing of time and space, the sundering and making of worlds.
In contrast the magic of Thisworld and our Otherworld(s) is subtle. Centuries of Christianity have cut us off from the gods and spirits of the land beneath of our feet and our immanent Otherworld(s), denying them as devils, and rationalism and science have denied their existence entirely. Thus it’s become easier to sojourn in Other Worlds comforted by the premise they are only fantasy.
The popularity of the fantasy genre is evidence for the intrinsic yearning of our souls to visit the Otherworld. How many people long to meet with gods and experience magic but don’t dare take that first step because they’re afraid of stepping outside the limits of reality imposed by rationalism?
I’m slowly beginning to perceive why Gwyn banned me from becoming a professional fantasy writer. He wants me instead to open people’s eyes to the magic of this land and of Annwn – the Deep, its hidden depths; to the voices of the gods, dragons, giants, witches, who reside there. I’m being led to fantasy writers again as visionary teachers because of their mastery of the craft of storytelling.
It is my task to create a vision of Thisworld and Annwn as beautiful, enticing, and heart-rending as theirs to entice people away from the restrictions of rationalism and the lies of capitalism to encountering the magic within the land and the Otherworld and to living lives enriched by myth.
It’s a big task. And not one I’m certain I’m able to achieve. But, like the persons in the books who continue to haunt me, I’d rather die trying to fulfil a near-impossible task than surrender to the powers who deny our gods, steal our magic, suck out our souls, thrive on us being mythless and lost.