Sunday, May 28, 2023

Two books featuring magical children in beech trees and invisible dragonfly wings

I finished reading George MacDonald's At the Back of the North Wind (1870) today, that is to say, May 27. In the last few chapters, the main character, a rather otherworldly little boy named Diamond who has lived in London for almost the entire story, relocates to the countryside and acquires the habit of climbing up into "a great beech-tree." When the narrator first meets Diamond (Chapter 35, "I Make Diamond's Acquaintance"), he is sitting at the foot of the beech and later climbs "into the leafy branches." In the next chapter we see him climbing it again, and one of the other children asks, "What are you always going up there for, Diamond?"

Also in Chapter 35, just before he climbs the beech, Diamond describes his encounter with what must surely have been a dragonfly:

"What did the boy and girl want with you, Diamond?" I asked.

"They had seen a creature that frightened them."

. . .

"And what was it?"

"I think it was a kind of angel -- a very little one. It had a long body and great wings, which it drove about it so fast that they grew a thin cloud all round it. It flew backwards and forwards over the well, or hung right in the middle, making a mist of its wings, as if its business was to take care of the water."

All three children are recent transplants from London and have apparently never seen a dragonfly before. Apparently some children do find them frightening; I recall some scientist (Feynman?) telling the story of how he, armed with his scientific knowledge that these insects are harmless, was the only one of his peers not to be afraid of them. (The reason for Diamond's own fearlessness is quite different: "Because I'm silly. I'm never frightened at things.") Note how Diamond emphasizes the indistinct blur of the dragonfly's rapidly moving wings.


After finishing At the Back of the North Wind, I had a stack of eight or nine books on my desk, candidates for what I should read next, ranging from Captains Courageous to a new-to-me translation of Virgil to a commentary on the Shiva Sutras. The one I ended up choosing, more or less at random, was an English translation of The Life of Elves (2015) by Muriel Barbery, an author I knew nothing about. (I had picked it up at a used bookstore because the French approach to faery is interesting to me vis-à-vis Joan of Arc and her reputed faery connections.) Here's how it begins:

The little girl spent most of her hours of leisure in the branches. When her family did not know where to find her, they would go to the trees, the tall beech to start with, the one that stood to the north above the lean-to, for that was where she liked to daydream . . . .

Right there in the first two sentences we have another little child who spends her time in the branches of a great beech! On the very next page we learn that she, too, is rather otherworldly, and this is explained with what is apparently a reference to the indistinct blur of a dragonfly's beating wings:

Only the eldest auntie, by virtue of an abiding penchant for anything that could not be explained, thought to herself that there was something magical about the little girl; but one thing was certain, that for such a young child she bore herself in a most unusual way, incorporating some of the invisibility and trembling of the air, as a dragonfly would, or palms swaying in the wind.

On the next page after that, we learn that this (as yet nameless) girl is also, like Diamond, unusually fearless:

[She] sensed the nearby presence in the mist of an invisible creature, and she knew more surely than the existence of God proclaimed by the priest that this creature was both friendly and supernatural. Thus she was not afraid.

This intuition that the unknown creature is "both friendly and supernatural" parallels Diamond's assumption that the dragonfly, so frightening to the other children, must be "a kind of angel."

At this point I decided I had better try to find out something about who this Muriel Barbery was before reading any further. I had the odd idea that she might have a thing or two in common with George MacDonald -- Muriel is as Gaelic a name as MacDonald, for starters. I didn't find much of interest, except the unexpected fact that she was born in Morocco. She "left her birthplace with her French parents when she was two months old," which I suppose means she is ethnically French; on the other hand, Barbery surely has reference to the Barbary Coast and the Berbers. It is only a coincidence, of course, that in the Bible Bar- appears as a patronymic prefix identical in meaning to Mac-.

The biographical detail that really caught my attention, though, was her birthdate: May 28, 1969. I started reading her book about half an hour before midnight on May 27 -- a very near miss on the part of the sync fairies!

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