Fantasm

In the wake of failure I dreamed of fantasy.

I fell headfirst from the pages of my linear algebra textbook into another classroom. It reminded me of calculus, but was of no building I’ve ever stepped foot in: the walls were white and discolored at the edges, darker greys and burnt yellows that made the corners stretch into oblivion. Low white tables sat in clusters of four or five around the room, but I was the only student held between its four walls. And hanging at its front, two large projector screens hung, covered in a PowerPoint slide as simple as text and a link.

But I said I dreamed of fantasy, and here the portal lay.

“This is how we know calculus has existed for thousands of years!” was the sparse caption on the slide, and reaching my hand out–for I was not the one at the computer, itself hidden from my sight–I pressed my hand to the screen, the letters appearing on the back of my hand, and it gave a bit beneath my fingers, as screens are likely to do. And then the world gave a bit, edges breaking apart and twisting into abysmal passages as new colors rushed in, a collection of dots and pixels that slowly realigned itself into another world.

I stood on a bridge. A rather large bridge, it stretched the size of a basketball court from side to side, and end to end ran at least three or four times that length. It was also a rather old bridge, built of wooden planks now weathered into a delightful cascade of brown, every inch worn down beneath the oppression of thousands, if not millions of marching feet. The rails were sparse, of the same old, greying wood, only waist high, and I knew without looking that it stood on thin wooden poles that stretched deep beneath me to a land richer than I could ever imagine–and too far away to not feel terror if I should steal a glance.

At the closer end of the bridge was what I had come to see. The bridge fanned out into a valley as verdant as the word defines, a dozen shades of green grasses, bushes, and low trees filling it up in perfect symmetry as it wrapped around a chasm, framed by a mountain in the background that rose high with beards of mist stirred slowly by its ancient breathing.

In this chasm there was a scant wooden frame, and there, three great stone carvings. At their top ends they were all the same: great, light grey stone balloons, as if they had been filled with helium and hung attached to the trellis only to keep from blowing away. But underneath there was something more: a tail grew down from each balloon’s bottom, the stonework seamless as each string twisted around and through the others, falling ever toward those unnamable depths I had mentioned before. The curvature was exquisite, the geometry non-Euclidean. In this tangle of stone as ancient, perhaps, as humanity–if not more ancient than that–I saw path integrals and the derivatives of composed functions, there were conic sections and complex mappings, there was wonder and amazement and longing to understand how such a sculpture had come to exist.

And then I tired of trying to understand and I turned away. I felt like I must be in some island nation, given the intensity of the sun and the humidity in the air, and so I began venturing across that great bridge upon which I had found myself.

I came at last to–to what? Are there human words enough to describe this place? The colors were vermillion and violet, gold and magenta and fuchsia, orange and absolute crystalline clarity that has all the playing of light but none if the ethereality, only that impermeable jewel-like quality.

That is what this world was: a land composed of jewels, rich and lustrous, scintillating beneath a sun held above an enchanting haze that turned the sky into a cloudy morass of opalescent grey and white and even purer white. The dredges of sunlight seeped through this mass, however, and all the world sparkled in colors too boggling to capture entirely: there was ruby and topaz, quartz as bright as day and as pink as roses, there were diamonds and tourmaline and sunstone.

But if all that had been all, it would have been wondrous but of no great consequence. The ground–shining with the smooth glow of all these jewels fastened into each other, forged from each other–twisted and coiled around itself like the fronds of an intricate coral, and here and there, where the ground appeared–at a distance–to dip down into a pool or an ocean, there was a greater glistening, as though the light had decided suddenly to slow down, to hang suspended in the air, tired from racing across the galaxy and ready to relax and linger once and for all. And I was not certain if these supplicating lights were water or the sunlight glaring off the jewel-encrusted ground I wandered upon.

The path I followed curved, though level all the same it remained, and I heard sudden squawking–the first blemishes of sound upon this brilliant plane. And there, sitting along the solid, softly flowing light, there were three birds: the third in line flew off as I stumbled to a stop, and the other two turned back and fluttered their wings in warning. These were birds of no sort seen on earth: they had the bills of flamingos, so black they shined like amethyst, the short legs of ducks, and the feathers of peacocks in show–but their colors were as rich and sanguine as the ground they perched upon, and I wondered briefly before I backed away if their feathers were at all feathers or simply tricks of this gemstone light…

J.R.R. Tolkien, in the essay “On Fairy-Stories,” tells us the cornerstone of fantasy is sub-creation: the enactment of a Secondary World. But fantasy is neither travel tale nor dream, as has been this exploration… Another critic of the fantastic, Farah Mendlesohn, classifies four types of fantasy, the first of which is portal fantasy–in which we enter the world of the fantastic, and the portal of dreams is an allowable entrance.

She speaks more so of style and form than does Tolkien: his intent is more rigorous, more personal. What do we gain from Fantasy? Why do we read it? What is its value among the classics, both passed down from antiquity and penned today?

He paints us a picture of Fantasy: that first plunge into a Secondary World, that broadening–by force or wit–of the imagination. He sings of Recovery: the moment when seeing the world anew through fantasy brings us back to better appreciate the world which we’ve been given in our daily lives. Next comes Escape, freeing us from the binds in which we willingly intertwine ourselves, and finally is Consolation: the sudden joyous turn that sets the world right in the end, the fulfillment of destiny, the oft-awaited Happy Ending.

This dream delivered me unto fantasy, but there the fable stops. This Cyclopean sculpture of calculus from the dawn of time could not recover my struggling love for mathematics. This enchanting, prismatic landscape could not recompile my code, stripping away stray bits of memory-stopping data until every experience is as fresh and new as this hyperbolic shoreline. No dream from which we wake is ever a lasting escape, and what consolation is there when we return to a world no different than before?

No, I suppose this was not fantasy. It was only a dream.

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