On Mythmoot IV and moments of wonder

A week ago I returned from Mythmoot IV (the semi-annual conference hosted by Signum University) exhausted and emotionally overwhelmed but totally inspired by my experience and motivated for the future. As the growing round-up of post-conference blog posts linked at the bottom of this post will testify, it seems that everyone else feels the same way. I’ve been to every Mythmoot so far but I keep hearing how there was something special about this particular weekend, and I can only concur.

Maybe it was the slightly extended time-frame, the adept organization, or the location at the National Conference Center which evoked something of a disorienting cross between a rabbit warren, the Overlook Hotel, and a painting by M.C. Escher (but did feature fantastic staff, a hobbit-like amount of food, and comfy fire pits). Maybe it was the trickle-down influence of our incomparable leaders and plenary speakers – Corey Olsen, Sørina Higgins, Verlyn Flieger, and Michael Drout especially. Maybe it was the fact that Signum held its first official graduation ceremony, complete with the assigning of a Quest (or aventure) and a ceremonial Elven spear (cold Aiglos, of course). Maybe it was that we’ve mostly all known each other for five years now and so that awkward ice had been well and truly broken long before. I’m sure it all of the above. In any case, when Mike Drout asserts that Mythmoot stands out among the many conferences I’m sure he has had the privilege to attend, I think we have to believe him.

Inspired by the conference’s theme of “wonder,” discussed in a VIP panel and highlighted in Flieger’s plenary talk, many of the post-conference reactions have featured the various attendees’ lists of wondrous experiences as encountered in life and art. As Flieger succinctly put it, “Your wonder is not my wonder” and yet there can be joy in sharing with each other those times in our lives when we’ve touched the marvelous and tasted that indescribable thing that leaves us wanting more. Wonder, we concluded, can come in many forms. C.S. Lewis described sehnsucht, or what he called Joy, as a longing which is in itself desirable. Tolkien gives this longing visual and spatial metaphors, relating it to the melancholy call of the Sea or the remoteness of far-off mountains. The Romantics tried to grapple with the unknowable nature of the numinous while the writers of Gothic literature described an invigorating kind of terror. In fairy tales wonder derives from the curious mix of the magical and the mundane. Though we may come to understand how wonder was encountered, the wonder itself is by its nature indescribable. Though it may be evoked it words, wonder can never be fully explicated, only experienced. In sharing our experiences of wonder we can perhaps only hope to understand each other a little better, though this by itself is a worthy goal. But perhaps occasionally by luck — if luck you call it — we might stumble upon or even introduce a shared wonder. This, remember, was Lewis’ definition of philia, or friendship: “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself…”

And so here, my friends, are some of my wonders…:

  • Having The Chronicles of Narnia read aloud to me by my Dad
    • He started with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, moved on to The Horse and His Boy (because I loved animals) and then continued in whatever random order struck his fancy.
    • The vague wondering whether the wardrobe in his bedroom where we read the books had a back to it…
  • One of the quirks which most people find out about me eventually is that I have no sense of smell (seriously) but I’ve always felt that I could almost smell the salt air of the Sea. Sea-longing is real.
  • The strange mix of temperate climate and semi-tropical vegetation in the forests of Snowdonia in Wales.
  • My first reading of Watership Down in sixth grade was, in retrospect, my first encounter with true mythopoeic sub-creation though I didn’t have those labels at the time. All I know is that I came away from that book profoundly moved and changed. In the narrative of my life it prefigures Tolkien in helping me realize and define my literary interests.
  • Riding up the side of a mountain in Honduras while standing in the open back of a pick-up truck. None of the resulting photos do it justice.
    • Later that day we danced in the mountain-top church while overlooking the view of the valley.
  • The intoxicating blend of religious mysticism and occult alchemy in poems like Eliot’s The Four Quartets.
  • The first revelation of the Opera House in the season 1 finale of Battlestar Galactica, especially this music cue.
    • Edit: Come to think of it, on the rare and notable occasions that BSG strays into the realm of wonder it often features Bear McCreary’s incredible score breaking the fourth wall – All Along the Watchtower, Gaeta’s song, and Kara’s piano-playing also spring to mind.
  • “The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing — to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from — my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.” – C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces
  • Seeing astonishingly talented people be talented on stage – Hamilton, The Lion King, certain productions of Shakespeare, etc.
  • Those who were born to dance.
  • A day or so after arriving in Ireland for my Mom’s 60th birthday the two of us went for a walk from our guest house into town, leaving behind those other lazy bums we had brought with us. We were joined by two friendly dogs from a neighboring field who proceeded to escort us down the lane and into town.
  • The moment when reading certain critics like Michael Ward on C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, John Granger on J.K. Rowling’s alchemical symbolism and ring-composition, or Tom Shippey on Tolkien’s philological foundations when everything clicks into place. Great criticism can be almost as wondrous as the primary text itself.
  • Those films where every element (plot, character, dialogue, editing, music, camera) works as a unified piece as in many of those written and/or directed by Charlie Kaufman, the Coen Brothers, Kubrick, Wes Anderson, Tarantino, and Paul Thomas Anderson.
  • Anything to do with Peter Pan but especially Barrie’s Peter and Wendy novelization and the 2003 movie.
  • Damon Lindelof’s two staggeringly ambitious TV series, LOST and the recently-departed The Leftovers, leave me with a wealth of choices but standouts include his masterful and disorienting cold-opens, Desmond and Penny’s phone call in “The Constant”, the LOST season three finale “Through the Looking-glass”, any of the Matt Jamison episodes, and Kevin Garvey’s season two hotel-based dream quests. No writer has given me more pleasure in the simple (yet ever-elusive) act of trying to figure out what it all means. Oh, and the raft-launching. The raft-launching most of all.
  • “The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”
    ― T.H. White, The Once and Future King
  • In that vein, the way old narrative traditions like myths and fairy tales and Arthurian legends survive and evolve and can always be made new.
  • The way Madeleine L’Engle captures the aliveness of the material universe, from the movement of planetary bodies to the microscopic mitochondria.
  • Moments of sublime terror as in Kubrick’s The Shining, the novella The Yellow Wallpaper, and the children’s collection Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
  • Edit: How could I forget Oxford’s dreaming spires?
  • One more for Ireland: Stumbling upon an abandoned and mostly-ruined castle. Only €2 to the local farmer to pay a visit.
  • There are too many moments from Doctor Who to mention so let’s pick out some highlights, one per new series Doctor:
    • I read the Doctor’s “that’s who I am” speech from “Rose” during my thesis panel at Mythmoot. He makes the very gravity that grounds us each day sound alien and, well, fantastic. The 1996 TV movie (which was intended to serve as a back-door pilot) begins with the Doctor in voice-over: “It was on the planet Skaro that my old enemy the Master was finally put on trial.” This is exactly what “Rose” doesn’t do. Russell T. Davies grounds his pilot in the experience of Rose herself and her world of “people and cars and concrete,” gradually introducing her to wonder along with the audience.
    • The Doctor’s description of Gallifrey. – “Gridlock.”
    • The Doctor meets the Curator. – “Day of the Doctor.”
    • The moon is an egg.” – “Kill the Moon”
  • You knew we had to finish with Tolkien, right?
    • My relationship with Tolkien is an ever-expanding series of encounters with wonder starting with my Dad insisting we see The Fellowship of the Ring in the theater (and yes, those movies are wonderful in their own way) to me demanding that he dig out his 1970’s paperback editions of The Hobbit and LOTR the next day; endless re-reads of the books themselves while continuing on to his still-being-published background, ancillary and minor works; reading the work of and eventually studying with incredible scholars such as Shippey, Flieger, and Olsen.
      • My poor mother had to contend with this odd teenager begging for obscure books of literary criticism about this baffling fantasy tome. Not that I knew anything more about literary criticism than she did. I mostly followed my gut instinct which fortunately steered me well. I could smell that Tom Shippey (a talking-head on the extended edition film DVD’s) knew what he was talking about, and so I gradually moved away from the devotional-style Tolkien books found in Christian bookstores to the more intellectually stimulating and ultimately satisfying scholarship.
    • At age 15 I would stare at the map of Beleriand in The Silmarillion, determined to figure out how it related to the map in The Lord of the Rings. I found the text of “On Fairy-stories” online, printed the entire thing and put it into a binder, and pored over it, determined to follow its argument (apparently I didn’t yet know of the existence of the Tolkien Reader). With no guide to help me I was not equipped to understand either and yet I plunged recklessly ahead. Books, Tolkien told us, should both allow for and encourage growth.
    • Westra lage wegas rehtas, nu isti sa wraithas, “a straight way lay westward, now it is bent.”
    • Pippin’s attempt at describing Treebeard’s eyes.
    • The journey through the Paths of the Dead (perhaps, for me, the films’ biggest disappointment).
    • Frodo’s dream of the utmost West in Bombadil’s house and its echo at the very end.
    • The sound of distant of horns at sunrise.
    • “At last the three companions turned away, and never again looking back they rode slowly homewards; and they spoke no word to one another until they came back to the Shire, but each had great comfort in his friends on the long grey road.”

More Mythmoot IV Recaps & Experiences of Wonder:

If you know of any other blog recaps or reactions to Mythmoot IV let me know in the comments and I’ll add them!

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About Katherine Sas

I graduated from Messiah College in 2009 with a B.A. in English Literature. I'm a student of all things arts and humanities, in particular Tolkien, the Inklings, and the fantastic and imaginative tradition in storytelling.
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6 Responses to On Mythmoot IV and moments of wonder

  1. Tom Hillman says:

    I love the Doctor meets the Curator — the moment I heard that voice — and the video of people reacting to it is as perfect an illustration of our theme as I can imagine.

    And the thing about the Sea, is that if you’ve spent enough time beside it on a summer’s evening as the shadows grow long across it, you know the gates of Faerie stand open.

  2. Thank you for this! Wow, our tastes in wonder really overlap a lot. I greatly enjoyed reading your list. Cheers.

  3. Pingback: My greatest wonder – Idiosophy

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