Are you already wondering what I mean by “the veil”? Whether you’ve read my essays before or not, you likely have a suspicion. Do I have a ghost of a chance at keeping you reading if I admit that the answer is a bit metaphysical? At least till I’ve made my case? That’s the spirit!
It’s really not such strange talk for us, is it? We writers attach the numinous to the act of writing all of the time, even if it’s tongue-in-cheek. We speak of being touched by the muse, or hearing our characters speak to us, or capturing an idea before it gets away.
I’m not really going to ask you to take too great a leap from there. Rather, we’ll just be going one. Step. Beyond! (Any Madness fans? No? Ahem. Sorry.)
Déjà Vu, Too?
“At first the beauty of the melodies and the interwoven words in the Elven-tongue, though he understood them little, held him in a spell. Almost it seemed that the words took shape, and visions of far lands and bright things that he had never yet imagined opened out before him; and the firelit hall became like a golden mist above seas of foam that sighed upon the margins of the world.” –Frodo Baggins, experiencing Elven singing in Rivendell (from The Fellowship of the Ring, by J.R.R. Tolkien)
My wife and I recently attended a one-man show called The History of Ireland Through Music, by Colm Keegan. During one of the more mesmerizing songs I glanced at my wife. She looked entranced. The lyrics were in Gaelic, a language neither of us knows. At the song’s end we made eye contact, and she whispered, “Had a bit of déjà vu, there.” I’d sensed something spooky-cool about it, too.
The moment reminded me of Frodo’s experience in Rivendell. So during the ride home I asked her about it. She told me it was a fleeting dreamlike feeling, almost like a glimpse at a past life experience.
I’m guessing most of us have these incidents. Some are more powerful than others, but not everyone is interested in examining them. They can be easily dismissed as simple trick of the brain, or synapses misfiring.
I, on the other hand, am fascinated by them. Because those moments of déjà vu—particularly the ones that feel like glimpses into a past life—are as close as I can come to describing my initial encounters with my story world. I hadn’t written fiction in many years, but day after day, session after session, this historical world opened before my waking eyes in a very dreamlike fashion. Characters came to me fully-formed, as if I’d known them all my life. The landscape was as familiar as my neighborhood, but I knew I’d never been there. The story unfolded for me as if I’d become its cosmically assigned scribe. Again and again I found myself asking, “Where is this stuff coming from?”
It was startling and yet spooky-cool. And addicting.
After over a decade of writing, I’ve since spent so much time in my story world that the startling aspect has worn off. But to this day, the spooky familiarity remains. My best story epiphanies continue to be the ones that feel like they’re retrieved from a glimpse into someone’s past life experience.
Or maybe I’m experiencing them myself by stepping beyond the veil.
Tolkien to the Choir
“I said to him once: ‘You broke the veil, didn’t you, and passed through?’ which in fact he did and to which he readily admitted. No wonder, therefore that he could recapture the language of faërie.”—Tolkien student and collaborator Simone d’Ardenne
Before I’d fully committed to writing about this topic, I wondered if those of us who write speculative are more receptive to the inclusion of a spiritual or metaphysical component to storytelling. I decided it’s likely more prevalent than that. After all, I suspect even the most ardent plotters among us have had instances of wondering, “Where is this stuff coming from?”
Before my wife’s déjà vu, I’d recently read an essay by Verlyn Flieger that had me considering the phenomenon. Faërie: Tolkien’s Perilous Land, establishes Tolkien’s well-documented belief in a metaphysical plane, adjacent to but separate from our waking reality. As it pertains to the reader, Tolkien coined the phrase, “Faërian Drama,” or “Fantasy with a realism and immediacy beyond the compass of any human mechanism. As a result, their usual effect is to [push the reader] beyond Secondary Belief.” (By Secondary Belief, I think he’s referring to what most of us call suspended disbelief.) He goes on to assert: “The experience may be very similar to dreaming. But in a Faërian Drama you are in a dream that some other mind is weaving, and the knowledge of that alarming fact may slip from your grasp.”
Tolkien speaks of storytelling’s capacity to be “a potion too strong” for the reader, causing us to give it over to “Primary Belief, however marvelous the events.” Thereby allowing us to see truths that lie beyond the veil.
“’They do not fear the Ringwraiths, for those who have dwelt in the Blessed Realm live at once in both worlds. And against both the Seen and the Unseen they come to have great power.’
’I thought that I saw a white figure that shone and did not dim like the others. Was that Glorfindel, then?’
‘Yes, you saw him for a moment as he is upon the other side.’”—conversation between Frodo and Gandalf (from, The Fellowship of the Ring)
Even within his fiction, Tolkien’s characters often glimpse beyond the veil. He often refers to the hidden but true and extraordinary nature that surrounds us and is buried within us.
Tolkien also speaks of stepping beyond the veil as a writer. This particular bit strikes a chord for me: “They [story elements] arose in my mind as ‘given things.’ For it is not of course writing, but a sort of realized drama.”
From my first reading of Tolkien at age eleven I found his world familiar. I was prompted to venture beyond Secondary Belief. I Saw truth. I felt it in my bones. This was long before I knew much of European history, or legend and myth. Let alone knowing anything of Faërian Drama versus fairy tales.
Metaphysical or Intracranial?
“The world is, of course, nothing but our conception of it.”—Anton Chekhov
I’m sure there are many of you who felt no such realization, nor even any familiarity, upon experiencing Middle-Earth. I’m also sure many of you who’ve come to similar realizations or truths didn’t necessarily find them in secondary worlds, or historical ones. Some may not have found them even on earth, or among humans.
And I’m sure no few of you will roll their eyes when talk of Fae realms, or enchantment, or alternate universes, or even a transformed state of consciousness arises. But think about it. I’m no expert on the subject, but can you think of any human culture in history that had no such aspect to their systems of belief? Maybe there’s some common basis for the phenomena.
Maybe there’s a parallel realm, or unseen beings surrounding you right now. Or a potential altered state or higher consciousness you’ve thus far only glimpsed. Or ancestral memories stored in our every cell, accessible only through dreaming or some form of entrancement.
Or maybe it’s just all in our heads.
Freud said our conscious mind occupies slightly less than half of our brain’s potential. I’ve heard other numbers. Former WU contributor Meg Rosoff once claimed our subconscious was 90% of our mental capacity. There may be dispute about fixing a percentage on it, but there doesn’t seem to be any dispute that the subconscious is vast, mysterious, and largely untapped. So perhaps finding access to that vast, mysterious realm—the one lurking, hidden from our workaday perception in spite of being between our ears—explains what Tolkien refers to as “the veil.”
Maybe rather than a portal to a parallel universe, it’s nothing more, and nothing less, than accessing a veiled consciousness and capacity.
The Benefits Beyond
I have often written here about immersion in story—my ardent love of finding it as a reader, how it inspired my aspiration to write, and my desire to offer it as a storyteller. I’ve come to believe that story immersion is just another form of—or maybe it’s better to call it another means to—stepping beyond the veil.
Maybe it’s why Tolkien resonated for me. When his work nudged me to step beyond Secondary Belief, I found recognition. I found truth.
Which prompted me to seek it again, at first through my reading choices and then beyond that. I firmly believe this phenomenon is at the core of my writing journey. I was subconsciously seeking when I sat and wrote those first few lines. I Saw a glimpse, and I sought it again. And again. And, if practice at this doesn’t necessarily make perfect, it certainly yields greater success, if only through the sheer volume of attempts.
Flieger calls Faërie Tolkien’s Perilous World. It may indeed be perilous. Particularly for the characters found there, but also for those of us unwilling to accept what we find. I would suggest that resistance to seek or to dwell beyond the veil is widespread. And, for me, that’s a bit sad.
For me, my quest to step beyond the veil has yielded many rewards. I won’t lay claim to wisdom or to keener perceptiveness than those unwilling to entertain the concept. But because of my quest, I have gained an enhanced assurance, and a broadened outlook on life.
I have Seen there is light that does not come from the sun.
I Know there is strength in us that goes beyond the absorption and burning of nutrients.
Whether it’s metaphysical or intracranial, I believe that a soul-level breakthrough is possible for each of us, and it can be found on our writing journey.
For me, stepping beyond the veil causes my fears to fall away. When I am able to go beyond, however fleetingly, the absurdity of my doubt is exposed. After all, regardless of its acceptance upon this mundane plane, how can I doubt my revealed truth?
So you made it through? I suspect that means you’ve Seen or sensed your own truth. Or, you kept going because you hoped I’d get beyond wack-a-doo pseudo-science. Tell me in the comments whether you found a semblance of truth or just a wack-a-doo.
[Image is Welcome to Bag End, by Jeff Hitchcock @Flickr]