(This was the first idea for our blog. It obviously didn’t last. But it’s also a good reminder that thinking and writing, and even reading, takes time, failure, editing, and sometimes even time off. Take them for what they are.)
I was just reading W. H. Auden’s poem “The Quest,” which tells this very existentialist, very abstract version of a quest romance in a series of 20 sonnets, and it reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s new children’s book, “Instructions.” Which do you think gets the genre of quest romance better? I honestly don’t care what you think, since I’m pretty sure I have this figured out, but this is our first post, so humor me. – Joel
It comes down to how each poet appeals to the “universal” aspect of romance, whatever it is that keeps romance attractive as a genre and that makes people look to it for archetypal meaning. Gaiman works on this directly through a kind of impersonal abstraction. They are “Instructions,” applicable to anyone, even when absolutely particular: Why the youngest princess? What silver fish? Do I have a sister?
The details don’t refer to anything other than the distant memory of similar stories, and that distance is part of why anything in a fairy tale seems magical in the first place. In Faerie, things can be significant without having any particular significance. They suggest stories, histories, dangers, and wonders without needing to elaborate them or even always having one, the way ruins are Romantic without and even in spite of knowing their actual history.
And Gaiman’s poem is wonderful to me because he’s been able to distill that sense in this poem without ever breaking the trance. He’s told an entire quest arc, from the small house to the tower and back again, without ever telling us a particular story. We’ve been on a romance completely in potential form, and that potential (for wonder, for danger, for adventure) is always more powerful than any given example of romance.
For Auden, though, the quest structure looks like a way to tell a number of stories of disillusionment as if diffracted through various “universal” stages of a quest story. But, in the end, do we need these moments of the quest (some of which I can’t even really think of as part of the generic “universal” like “The Average” or “The Useful”) to tell us something “archetypal” about the experiences he’s describing? Or is it just a clever way to make the kind of suffering he describes seem more expansive, something that can be experienced in similar ways by different people? If it does something more than the little I suspect it really does, perhaps it’s in the vague hope and promise offered in “The Garden.” But, if so, I’m not sure how that’s still a quest romance. Isn’t that pastoral, which (we both know well) pops up in romances, but only for a moment before it’s back to the quest for something more. If a quest ends in a garden, the quest has been forgotten, and the questers feel, like Auden says, “their center of volition shifted” to something else, something perpendicular to the quest that won’t be found through adventure and wandering desire. Is that, in the end, Auden saying that such quests will always end sadly or even tragically, at least in terms of the quest? Gaiman would probably say such a person simply hasn’t really heard the instructions well enough, hasn’t understood that what drives such quests forward isn’t a goal, whose absence constantly seems to invoke the sadness in Auden’s poem. (And absence is obviously painful for Auden, but not for Gaiman, who follows it.) Gaiman’s instructions, even if they are ultimately escapist, are a way to avoid that sadness, or, better, to find wonder in a kind of quest that can only be failed by leaving the wandering path, not by never achieving a goal.
I agree that Auden’s poem is pessimistic, and that Gaiman’s is lovely. The more I read “The Quest,” the more insufferable I find it – every line makes absolute but uncareful demands. Every time I listen to Gaiman’s “Instructions,” I feel like waking up from a nap and reading again.
I wonder, though, if we can’t make more sense of Auden’s poem by refining the issue a bit. You treat these poems as an abstraction of the quest romance, and so the issue at stake is one of universality vs. particularity: Auden has condemned the particular to the wandering wood (or, at best, the escapism of “The Garden”), whereas Gaiman frees us to “Trust your story.” What if, instead, we were to follow Gaiman’s lead and read these poems as competing instructions – not simply as archetypal instructions for readers of quests, but instructions about instructions, and the way the unfolding of tales reveals our child-like relationship to them?
Auden’s poem seems to me really about the clues and signs that reveal the Quest to those who never knew, or thought, they were on one in the first place. He also begins at “The Door,” but where Gaiman commands us to open it, with an admonition to good children – “Touch the wooden gate in the wall you never saw before. Say please” – Auden begins with the ethical “enigmas” and “rules” that keep stepping out of doors only, like Alice, to make us cry. This is awful, but it’s not exactly disenchanting because we don’t know yet that we are on a quest, or that one is even possible. It is with “The Crossroads” (the only non-sonnet in Auden’s sequence) that we are presented with decisions as journeys, and with how child-like readers are inclined to take them. Children desire to be grown-ups (“The Traveller”) and to see nature as necessity (“The City”), an approach to adventuring that leads necessarily to the temptations of the urban dead-end. As a moral or psychological metaphor, this seems like little more than Vanity Fair, but anyone who has seen “Adventures in Babysitting” or “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” knows Auden is getting at something fundamental about the way the afterlife of romance can be easily abused by modern appeals to children and generic formulae.
Gaiman doesn’t give us such formulae at all but instead, as you note, a recipe for wonder that comes itself from the wandering path. Here, I think Gaiman’s idea of “trust” is important. “Ride the white eagle, you shall not fall”; approach the castle with the three sisters, “but do not trust the youngest.” In part, we are being called to the wonder of wandering because things themselves are wonder-ful. Some things are to be trusted, some are not – but that this is an open question means the very nature of individual experience is to be, itself, a Quest. We know it when we get home because things feel a little smaller. But how do we know it’s not because we’re a little bit older, and things simply aren’t as they used to be? How do we know when to “trust our story,” and when to ask the precise question that will free the oarsmen in the boat? If we have learned to ask such questions, is it because we have learned the wonder of the Quest, or because we’ve become adept at the codes – say, of video games?
Auden puts the question cynically: “And how reliable can any truth be that is got / By observing oneself and then just inserting a Not?” (“The Way”). I don’t think this is what Gaiman’s “Instructions” amount to, as he seems to see the quest romance as the great “yes.” But I think it’s interesting that Auden’s archetypes of the Quest – “The Useful,” “The Way,” “The Lucky,” “The Hero” – show up as different ways of construing its instructions after children, in search for a more universal necessity, have encountered “odd” towers. Auden’s message seems to be that there are different kinds of trust, and that these only expose themselves to us in the process of the Quest, not as its pre-requisite. “The over-logical,” once turned into stones by witches, can become the “standing stones” by which “the blind can feel their way” – a quest motif that seems to relish in its wandering, not in terms of its end but its costs. The everyday “hero” seems like a merely “cagey” grocer to those who question him, but the major difference between him and “those who’d never risked their lives at all / Was his delight in details and routine” – like mowing the lawn, pouring liquids, and looking at clouds through “bits of coloured glass.”
In the end, it’s hard to escape the most intellectually annoying difference between Auden and Gaiman: the Fall. I think Auden savors the particularity of wandering, but for him, the wandering will always begin and end at “The Garden,” which is far from a pastoral escape in that it’s full of children making “earnest” in their seven deadly sins. Why then do we need instructions? For Auden, those sorry little bastards have already started making instructions for themselves at the Tree of Knowledge before ever pushing open the garden gate, and we need the Quest to pull them up short and reveal those instructions for what they are. For Gaiman, instructions encourage children that they will never “lose face” by trusting others and themselves, because he trusts them.