SUPERNATURALS IN FICTION by Mary Austin 1920
Join my Facebook Group
See also The Paranormal and Supernatural - 400 Books on DVDrom
THE mind of man is a very curious place. It is a place in which it appears entirely logical to turn the professional ghost raiser, at a dollar a ghost, over to the police, and the same evening pay two dollars to see the Ghost of Hamlet's Father walk, by way of uplift. It is a place in which one may be nourished on tales of Talking Heads and Magic Carpets, and look with deep suspicion on the time- and space-exceeding marvels of modern invention.
There never was an age that spent so much intellectual ingenuity as this one in proving that there never were and never could be any sort of beings but men. But among the stories most enjoyed by human kind and longest in circulation, about one character in every five is a Supernatural, or one in every five incidents originates in a supernormal contrivance or attribute. Measured against the history of human society, any doubt that the world is crammed full of non-human, unordinary beings, is almost as new as electricity. The farther back you go into good and popular fiction, the fewer humans, the more gods, genii and fairy godmothers, the more elixirs of life and instantaneous transportations.
After an examination of the world's fiction which has been enjoyed long enough to be called classic, one inevitably concludes that if a story is to survive more than four or five generations, a liberal proportion of its elements must be non-natural.
Begin, for example, with Cinderella, beloved of the world's childhood: There is Ella herself, the proud sisters, who for structural purposes are to be treated as one, the stepmother, and the Prince. And for supernaturals, there are the Fairy Godmother, the pumpkin coach, the magic transformation, three to four of the humans. Aladdin gives us five humans against the Slaves of the Lamp and the Ring and innumerable magic happenings, and this proportion holds throughout that universal favorite The Arabian Nights Entertainment. In the story of Joseph, making one element of all eleven brothers, and three of all the dreams since they figured on three occasions, we still have only five to three in favor of the natural. In the Iliad and the Odessey we have the whole Olympian family so placed in juxtaposition to Trojans and Greeks that their mutual contacts furnish practically the entire machinery of the story.
So the proportion stands until after the collapse of Greek culture, when story making suffered an eclipse for several centuries. It did not rise again until the commonality had provided itself with a complete new set of Supernaturals, saints, angels, the whole Heavenly Host. Within the next five or six centuries the body of European fiction was increased by the addition of the Scandinavian, the Gaelic and British story cycles, each with its appropriate cast of superhuman characters. Apparently there were no important fictional inventions for some twelve or fifteen centuries except where Supernaturals could be found upon which to hang them.
It was the Greeks, however, who gave us the clue to the inevitableness of the not-man elements in every really treasured man story. They had to be there to satisfy man's invincible desire to see the wheels of the universe go round.
That is an academic and wholly unreliable bias which explains the long life of the Joseph and Aladdin and Ulysses tales on the ground that they were literature. It would be far truer to say that they became literature as a result of being liked: for whatever the ethnologists say of the origin of these stories, there is no doubt whatever that they have been popular.
Tales of Troy existed generations before Homer enclosed them in the clear amber of his verse. It is the best stories of any age that get the attention of the best stylists of that age. Few people read the original Mallory nowadays, but any one who will take the trouble to compare that version of the King Arthur legends with a modern Tennysonian rendition, will see the process of decanting a popular story from the "literature" of one age to another visibly going on. The test of a really popular story is the number of times it will survive such rebottling. The point at which these metamorphoses inevitably stop is the point at which the Supernaturals are turned out of it. Because, as the Greeks discovered, the Supernaturals are necessary to make the story hang together.
I do not suppose that, at the time Greek literature was at its best, the Greek authors believed in their Olympians any more than Will Shakespeare believed in the ghost of Hamlet's father. But the Greeks, like ourselves, had a hankering to have the Universe explained. They must know why, as well as how, things happened. And, as knowledge then stood, without the intervention of the gods the story would not hang together.
Precisely as we moderns go peering and poking under the dramatic and spectacular phases of the European war, to put our finger on the forces that would make it seem less of a delirious nightmare, so the Greeks and Trojans must have sought for some sort of reasonableness under the monstrous folly of a ten years' struggle. Clearly, something bigger than Greeks or Trojans had been at work here. Otherwise there was no logic or dignity in human living. Why should an Achilles sulk or Ulysses waste himself at the court of Circe? Happily there were the Olympians with a known propensity for meddling in human affairs.
Unfortunately for Greece, however, the shoving of responsibility back upon the gods reached a point just a little beyond the capacity of the average intelligence to follow. As soon as the gods began to stand for abstractions, in the mind of the Greek writers, they ceased to be interesting to Greek audiences.
No sort of literature can go on for very long, produced outside the popular concept. When there were no more credible Olympians, and the laws of social evolution had not been offered in their places, there was nothing left but an unrelated jumble of incident. The end of the Greek gods was also the end of Greek fiction.
A few centuries later, the rise of Christianity with its collocation of Blessed Personages gave a new lease of life to the story-telling instinct. By the introduction of St. Anthony, the Virgin, or, saving their presence, the Devil, any sort of a story could be rendered logical and sound. For nearly ten centuries longer the world was a place about equally inhabited by humans and non-humans, who got on fairly well together.
But with the spread of modern education the number of Supernaturals who could be credibly introduced into adult fiction, shrunk to the few who still gathered under the wing of Romanism. After the Reformation the Devil himself lost dignity.
Dante and Milton, each in his way did what the Greek Dramatists had done for popular story making, and put an end to the use of the Christian Supernaturals as protagonists in fiction, by taking them out of the region of popular concept. From that time there was nothing left but your honest ghost to loose the springs of human action.
Though he has changed his character, the ghost is still so popular in story that even our remote and sophisticated Henry James could not forbear his own particular Turn of the Screw, and I have always believed that if Mr. Ibsen could have named the deus ex machina of his masterpiece, The Ghost of Oswald's Father, instead of the Law of Heredity, he would have made a much more popular business of it.
I have omitted the Christs out of their historic location in the cycle of Supernaturals, because, curiously, the Christs seem to have no sequence in time. Always there have been Christ stories, but whether they occur B. C. ten thousand or A. D. one, they differ only in details. All the other Supernaturals shape their behavior to the time in which they appear, but the Saviors of men have one story and one common behavior.
Considered as literary phenomona this is very interesting. All the god and devil stories appear to be efforts to explain the gaps and inconsistencies of human destiny. All the Christ stories are designed to close the gap between the Great God and Man.
We seem to have thought of as many ways of accounting for drouth, disease, sudden wealth and even death as there are tribes of men to think of these things. But in no land have we been able to think of more than one way of being reconciled to the Heart of the Universe. There have been as many Saviors as there have been people to need saving; but there has never been but one Christ plot. The only way we are able to imagine the world being saved is for a man to pay down himself on behalf of a protesting and unappreciative people.
Consider our own supreme achievement in this line, the story of Jesus. Could any fictionist who ever lived have invented anything with so wide an appeal and so long a hold on time? Its humans are so very human and its Supernaturals so far beyond the tarnish of "natural" evidence. We think sometimes that modern psychology has disposed of the "voices" and "visions" that very sparely characterize this story. But who will undertake to set a date at which we shall positively prove that there are no such things as angels, and that men may not return from the dead?
Actually, as a very little inquiry among your neighbors will convince you, the number of people who believe that there are no other sorts of personalities than ours within the range of our environment, is small. And when you think of the democratic spiritual significance of the Jesus story, who, even at the present rapid progress of democracy, can set a term to its sufficiency?
So it appears that, for the most precious things we have our relation to the Infinite and to one another, as these are expressed in story form, we are still tied up to the Supernatural, at any rate for another thousand years or so.
There is something diverting in all this, and something infinitely consoling. It goes to show that at bottom the human mind is absolutely convinced that life is not the haphazard affair it seems. There is an answer to the riddle, a string somewhere that if properly grasped will pull the whole business into order and beauty. The varied company of Supernaturals that have figured in our fiction are but the masks of a reality felt and appreciated but not known. And because these Supernaturals stood for the really vital things in human story, the rise of the modern novel, constructed wholly within the scope of things recognized as "natural," could not occur until we had developed a philosophy of social evolution.
The beginning of the movement to turn the Supernaturals out of fiction was noticeable almost as soon as the Anglo-Saxon strain began to make itself felt in European literature. It showed itself as a disposition to invest the supernatural element in powers more than in personages. Magic came to take the place left vacant by the gods, the genii and the saints. In place of Hermes and St. Anthony there were Merlin and Morgan le Fay.
We had Faust, who acquired his super-normal powers in exchange for his soul, and Cagliostro who got his from nobody was quite certain where. Later we have Svengali and Sherlock Holmes as the most popular figures of current fiction.
Examine any "six best sellers," and the compelling characteristic of half their heroes, you will find, is the ability to make the unusual happen unaccountably. The explanation of just how it did happen is the obliging author's effort to save our face. It is the marvel which really interests. And if you doubt that the Supernatural has, though disguised, a hold upon our best literature, ask yourself what you will find in modern English fiction which for chances of longevity can be set beside The Brushwood Boy and They.
The modern problem novel at which every earnest fictionist tries his hand, is the Homeric Epic with its undashed attempt to explain the incidental in man's life by means of the fundamental.
And by just as much as the modern Homer is obliged to refrain from personifying his fundamentals, making laws and abstractions of them instead of Olympians, he restricts his audience to those who are as familiar with laws and abstractions as the ancient Greeks were with their gods.
If you doubt that the non-human elements, which we no longer call supernatural, but agree on as superusual, are still formative in our written fiction, you may easily discover how large a part they play in the tales we tell informally to one another.
I do not refer to the healthy appetite for horror among the unlettered, with its train of "hants" and Walkers of the Night, but to the sort of incidents that any of your acquaintance might easily tell you out of their own lives, or their friends'. Ask, for example, for what the next ten persons you meet honestly believe to be genuine stories of any of the following:
The presentiment. The message from the dead.
The "psychic" communication.
You will probably find that the hunch is more widely believed in than any saint or genii ever was, is much more of a factor in private behavior than any social precept ever succeeded in being.
The hunch is no doubt a universal experience, the core of all the guardian angels, saints and "familiars" known to story. Having outlived all these avatars, it remains in possession of the field.
Remains also the fact that we do not know any better than we did before, what a hunch really is.
A hunch is something that seems to tap you on the shoulder of your sub-conscious being and advise you that a certain line of conduct is the most advantageous for you to take. If it pleases you to call it St. Joseph or the spirit of your dead grandmother there is no proved reason why you shouldn't.
The presentiment probably belongs to the same class of experiences as the hunch. It needs only to be accompanied by a strong faculty for vizualization, or for auto-suggested sense perception of any sort, to become "clairvoyance," "audition" or "vision." As such it might take the place of the Voices, Annunciations and Spirit Warnings of the past. But still we do not know how we happen to have presentiments.
It also seems likely, from what we know of psychology at present, that communications from the dead or from living people at a distance, have common psychic elements. Most people have, or think they have, experiences that come under one or the other of these two classes. Although all the great spiritual leaders of the past attributed these experiences to Beings — Jesus spoke of them as Spirits, Joan of Arc believed them to be Saints and Angels, and Luther reports conversations with the Devil — it is not the fashion to do so now except in very limited circles.
What has happened, however, is that as we have discarded one personal hypothesis after another, there is a growing disposition to treat the experiences which gave rise to the ideas of gods and devils as veridical, worthy of serious attention.
The mind of man is, as I have remarked, a curious place. Shadows of all the great inventions, telegraphy, telephony, wireless, airships, submarines, have flitted through its dim regions since the beginning of time. Always they have come in the guise of imagined persons or powers. Hypnotism, auto-suggestion and thought transference figured in fiction long before they put on mortar board and gown.
When you come to think of these things, fiction seems the truest science in the world, the truest knowing. Once men told stories of amulets and magic formulas. Then there was a period when amulets and formulas were despised as childish and incredible. Now we understand that the powers did not reside in the charm but in the user, the power of auto-suggestion. Now educators use both medal and formula as aids to the self-residing power.
In regard to all these experiences are we going through similar phases which give rise to the assumption of beings not ourselves? Shall we come to a realization of these experiences as extensions of ourselves and our own powers far beyond our former limited conceptions of ourselves? Is the hunch not so much the advice of a friendly and communicable outsider, as an accidental use of a poorly developed faculty? Do the dead really send us messages, or have we some rudimentary sense by which we become faintly aware of a world filled, as we have always believed it, with other Beings.
Then there are the Christ stories: all the saviors of mankind, Buddha, Prometheus, Quetzacoatl. Why do we never change the pattern in all these reincarnations? Is it because there is something about the pattern as inevitable as the sum of the other two angles in a right angled triangle? Is it possibly, because there isn't any other pattern whereby men may be saved?
I have been thinking of these things rather frequently since the war, seeing men on all sides seeking for a new expression of reality.
I have asked what a fictionist might have to contribute, and I am struck as never before with the prophetic power of fiction in the realm of things that matter most to people at large. I have seen it point the direction of man's exploration of the material universe, the lands under the rim of the sea, the flying carpet through the air. I do not know any reason why fiction should prove any less the prophet in the realm of the spirit. Could we, indeed, have such an appetite for fiction if it were not the first course of the final truth?
It gives at least, a new zest to reading, to think that this might prove to be the case.
For a list of all of my disks and ebooks (Amazon and PDF) click here