England’s Dreaming #3 – Blessed Avalon (and other attractive tourist destinations)

And so King Arthur falls in battle and is spirited away to Avalon, the Isle of Apples, where his wounds will be healed and where he’ll rest until he returns to save Britain in its darkest hour…

Avalon’s just one example of the Otherworld, that strange parallel dimension that’s paradise without being heaven and that exists alongside our own but always just out of reach. It doesn’t work to the laws of physics or governments but the laws of stories and poems, and it’s both an aspirational land of plenty and a place of danger – elves and fairies in the old stories aren’t the neutered children’s characters they became in the Victorian era.

Other than Avalon, which got big because of its Arthurian connection, the best known example of this is Tir na nOg, the Land of Youth in Irish folklore. It would be easy to read it as being an equivalant to Heaven, but then mortals live there and it has its own story-rules that must not be broken… And after all, all the fairies and elves have to live somewhere…

The Wikipedia entry for Shambala, a legendary hidden Buddist kingdom, describes it as being "visionary or spiritual as much as physical or geographic", and that’s a pretty good description of Otherworlds in general. They’re not quite Heaven – they don’t fully exist within a theological context, or their symbolic power has become divorced from religious roots – but they’re not just another knigdom either. In many ways they’re paradise, but on the other hand they can be dangerous – you might not return from them, even if you want to, and if you do escape then you might find things have changed on your return – a hundred years may have passed in the blink of an eye. That beautiful woman or handsome man who invites you to a party? They might not be what they seem…

(And there’s a cautionary tale there if ever I heard one – don’t party with mysterious, dodgy strangers, no matter how hot they are.)

(And if you do find yourself in one of these lands, don’t eat or drink or dance, or you’re never getting away. And don’t accept money, cos the next morning it’ll just be leaves and your bank manager won’t like it. Thomas the Rhymer is an archetype for this sort of situation.)

(Neil Gaiman’s poem Instructions is a good guide.)

But, if you still want to, there are other otherworldly places you could go to, although sometimes you have to fit the job description – Fiddler’s Green is a paradise for cavalrymen and sailors (Neil Gaiman made it a place AND a character in Sandman; its human avatar looked a lot like GK Chesterton), while Big Rock Candy Mountain is an awesome place to go if you’re an American hobo. Cockaigne‘s where you want to go to in the unlikely event that you’re a medieval peasant reading this (and apparently it’s a possible root for the word ‘Cockney‘, although if EastEnders is a representation of earthly paradise then we’re all in trouble).

The Otherworlds are places of different rules and shifting identities – the beautful maiden you end up snogging might become a withered crone halfway through (so, you know, no tongues), and it’s okay to talk to animals because they might talk back, and besides they might not be animals anyway. That liminal identity is mirrored by how you get there – weird things happen at crossroads and at bridges, and maybe the reason midnight is such a mythic hour is because it’s the moment between one day at the next and it’s dark

Over the last couple of entries I’ve tried to draw parallels between old stories and current society, and I guess the obvious connection between the 21st century and the Otherworld is the Internet – it’s all there, shifting identities (are people really the age they say they are? Are they the gender their photo implies? Are they really single?), the timesink aspect, the alternate worlds (World of Warcraft, Second Life), the utopianism (bringing everyone together in a golden age of communication!). There’s also the Trickster element to it all – type ‘French Military Victories into Google and hit ‘I’m Feeling Lucky’ – although that’s not always a postive thing (although it keeps Mythbusters busy debunking all those viral videos). Cyberspace (the term coined by William Gibson to describe the ‘space’ in which a telephone conversation takes place) is as liminal and as untouchable as any Fairyland, but it’s becoming more and more tied to the fabric of The Real World – augmented reality being the latest example of this, and we’ll know we’re up to our necks in the Otherworld when someone starts posting inaccurate augmented reality information to lead people astray…

And maybe this is stretching things (not that that’s ever stopped me before), but the way some tabloids talk about immigration, you’d think waves and waves of mysterious otherworldly beings were coming to the UK from a mystical land, using their strange powers to take all the houses and jobs and benefits… Because they couldn’t possibly be talking about fellow human beings…

(And it’s interesting that people talk about how glamourous celebrities are, given what ‘glamour‘ orginally meant. Remembering that usage puts a whole new slant on celebrity culture, and maybe reality TV is just seen as being a cheap ticket to the Otherworld… Or maybe the Otherworld has just become commodified and packaged and used to sell advertising space.)

So watch your step. There may be another world out there, the world of stories and songs, where strange things happen and you can get into a whole bunch of trouble… Stick to the right path. Don’t go with strangers. Don’t believe everything you hear.

But don’t be fooled into thinking that this is all there has to be.

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