In folklore, mythology and fantasy, and real or acted-out rites of passage, the boundaries where worlds meet are variously considered volatile, dangerous and rich in possibilities. Why is a bride carried over the threshold? Yes, it’s traditional, but it harkens back to the notion that a doorway was a dangerous boundary.
Myths and superstitions have flourished around the doorways, thresholds, crossroads, the littoral between ocean and beach, the lines where forests and meadows meet, dusk and dawn, and other dividing lines between realities.
You’ll find these “uncertain places”—as Lisa Goldstein calls them in her fantasy by that name—referred to as “neither here nor there” and “betwixt and between.”
In his groundbreaking The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell writes that in the hero’s journey, “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” Strategic points in this journey occur where worlds and realities meet.
Even in a contemporary fantasy such as the Harry Potter series, the magic of Hogwarts is distinguished from the unknown and potentially darker magic of the forest. However, as Luke in Star Wars and Harry in Rowling’s series learn, the hero doesn’t grow within, much less advance on the physical part of his/her journey without going into the swamp, the dark forest, or the unknown world outside the city gates.
Magical realism usually focuses upon the boundaries between the worlds of the known and the unknown. The stories combine the natural and the supernatural in a straightforward manner and without commentary or judgement as equally real. Characters dance back and forth across the “uncertain places” as the stories progress.
In a fantasy novel, the characters approach and enter supernatural worlds while noting they’re stepping into realms that are acknowledged as magical, different or strange. In a magical realism novel, events or places that readers may consider supernatural are, by contrast, accepted by the characters as no more or less real than the everyday science and technology world in place at the time when the novel is set.
Gloria Naylor’s novel “Mama Day” is a perfect example of the juxtaposition of realms. Her first novels, The Women of Brewster Place and Linden Hills took a realistic approach. However, in writing Mama Day, Naylor said, “I needed to find a way structurally to have you walk a thin line between that which is real and that which is not real.”
New York City in this novel represents the real. The fictional Willow Springs, on an island near the Georgia and South Carolina border represents what—in our consensual everyday reality—is not real. Writing in Challenging Realities: Magical Realism in Contemporary American Women’s Fiction, Maria Ruth Noriega Sanchez says that Naylor’s novel is an “extraordinary exploration of the intangible and the power of belief that brings into question the limits or reality and truth.”
Naylor’s approach to magic in Mama Day can be seen in my favorite passage from the novel: “She could walk through a lightning storm without being touched; grab a bolt of lightning in the palm of her hand; use the heat of lightning to start the kindling going under her medicine pot. She turned the moon into salve, the stars into swaddling cloth, and healed the wounds of every creature walking up on two or down on four.”
If this were written in a realistic novel, Naylor would have produced something more like this: “She could purportedly walk through a lightning storm without being touched; imagine grabbing a bolt of lightning in the palm of her hand; or appear to use the heat of lightning to start the kindling going under her medicine pot. In her dreams, she turned the moon into salve, the stars into swaddling cloth, and healed the wounds of every creature walking up on two or down on four in her mind’s eye.”
Realism demands the qualifying words and phrases. Magic realism omits them and keeps the reader guessing and unsettled about what is really happening in the uncertain realms that are betwixt and between.
In this passage from Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, “Her body was giving off so much heat that the wooden walls began to split and burst into flame,” the reader finds no “as if,” “as though,” or other qualifiers to indicate the event is figurative—because it isn’t. How you react to that as a reader depends on how you see the world and/or on how well the author has enchanted you to see things differently while reading the book.
In Mark Helprin’a Winter’s Tale, Peter Lake is riding Athansor, a guardian angel in the form of a horse: “They got up steam and proceeded calmly to the north – where there seemed to be no people, but only mountains, lakes, reedy snow-filled steppes, and winter gods who played with storms and stars.” Here again, the winter gods are mentioned as matter of factly as the mountains and lakes.
When initiates go through a ritual, they begin with the everyday world and end up transformed in some way. The place where these two stages meet is often called “liminality.” Here the initiate is not quite who s/he was and not quite who s/he will become.
Early studies in this area were done by Arnold van Gennep, who coined the word, in his 1909 book Rites de Passage. Folklore, myth, fairytales and stories following the “hero’s journey” typically involve plots and scenes that are similar to rites of passage. The protagonist is buffeted by storms, monsters, magic forces, conscious landscapes and other dangers during his/her physical and inner journey to the intended destination.
Magical realism lives at that liminal point, leaving the reader with one foot over the threshold and one foot in the comfortable world s/he knows. Unsettling as this can be, that’s the genre’s greatest strength—a cauldron of worlds where stories simmer and readers become part of the spell.
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This post is part of the Magical Realism Blog Hop. About twenty blogs are taking part in the hop. Over three days (29th – 31st July 2015) these blogs will be posting about magical realism. Please take the time to click on the button above to visit sit them and remember that links to the new posts will be added over the three days, so do come back to read more.The button should go live on or after 12:01 a.m. July 29th.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” a magical realism novella folk magic in the Jim Crow era of the Florida Panhandle where granny and her cat take on the Klan.