In “Chapter XXIII: The Elements and Their Inhabitants,” Manly P. Hall discusses the beings that are said to inhabit invisible realms associated with the four elements: earth, air, fire, and water.
Just as visible Nature is populated by an infinite number of living creatures, so, according to Paracelsus, the invisible, spiritual counterpart of visible Nature (composed of the tenuous principles of the visible elements) is inhabited by a host of peculiar beings, to whom he has given the name elementals, and which have later been termed the Nature spirits. Paracelsus divided these people of the elements into four distinct groups, which he called gnomes, undines, sylphs, and salamanders. He taught that they were really living entities, many resembling human beings in shape, and inhabiting worlds of their own, unknown to man because his undeveloped senses were incapable of functioning beyond the limitations of the grosser elements.
The association of the beings to the elements are as follows:
Gnomes inhabit the elemental sphere of earth
Undines inhabit the elemental sphere of water
Sylphs inhabit the elemental sphere of air
Salamanders inhabit the elemental sphere of fire
It is important to note that these elemental spheres are not the elements we find in our physical world, but exist beyond our perceived reality. This is why elementals can only be perceived when humans are in states of heightened or altered consciousness.
Many of us have been introduced to these elementals through literature and the arts. Hall mentions a few examples.
Literature has also perpetuated the concept of Nature spirits. The mischievous Puck of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream; the elementals of Alexander Pope’s Rosicrucian poem, The Rape of the Lock; the mysterious creatures of Lord Lytton’s Zanoni; James Barrie’s immortal Tinker Bell; and the famous bowlers that Rip Van Winkle encountered in the Catskill Mountains, are well-known characters to students of literature. The folklore and mythology of all peoples abound in legends concerning these mysterious little figures who haunt old castles, guard treasures in the depths of the earth, and build their homes under the spreading protection of toadstools. Fairies are the delight of childhood, and most children give them up with reluctance. Not so very long ago the greatest minds of the world believed in the existence of fairies, and it is still an open question as to whether Plato, Socrates, and Iamblichus were wrong when they avowed their reality.
It would be about 25 years later than when Manly P. Hall wrote this text that J.R.R. Tolkien would publish his famous trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. This would become the quintessential example of elementals in modern literature and a source of inspiration for generations. It would appear that interest in elemental beings has not waned, but increased.
I suppose the best way to end this post is to quote Gandalf from The Fellowship of the Ring as he describes how astounding he finds the earth elementals: “Hobbits really are amazing creatures, as I have said before. You can learn all that there is to know about their ways in a month, and yet after a hundred years they can still surprise you at a pinch.”
This volume is shorter than the previous two, but the quality makes up for the quantity. It contains four tales:
Calliope—A fable about a muse enslaved by a writer needing inspiration.
Dream of a Thousand Cats—A story about the power of collective dreaming told from a feline perspective.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream—An exploration of Shakespeare’s classic work that blends the boundaries of imagination and reality, and how that affects the creative process.
Facade—A sad tale about the masks that we wear to hide our true selves from others.
The last section of this book includes something that, as a writer, I found very interesting. Gaiman pulls back the curtain to give us a glimpse at the magic of his creative process. The last section is a script of “Calliope,” complete with marginalia that provides wonderful insight into the process of creative a graphic story, essentially the nuts and bolts and schema of how the piece is constructed. It is a treat for all you writers and artists out there.
One of the themes explored in “Dream of a Thousand Cats” is the power of dreams to create and shape our reality. In the beginning was the word, or more appropriately put, the thought, the idea, the dream. We cannot manifest anything unless we can first see it within our mind’s eye.
Dream! Dreams shape the world. Dreams create the world anew, every night.
. . .
I do not know how many of us it will take. But we must dream it, and if enough of us dream it, then it will happen. Dreams shape the world.
In “Facade,” there is a very moving section where Urania has a conversation with Death about the masks that we wear, and how we stubbornly cling to these old images of ourselves, even when we know they are no longer true or healthy.
Urania: But it’s also my face. You see. Sometimes I have to look normal, and then I grow faces. But they dry up, and fall off, but I couldn’t throw them away. They’re part of me. So I hang on to them. I . . . I’m probably not making much sense.
Death: No. You’re making sense. You people always hold onto your old identities, old faces and masks, long after they’ve served their purpose. But you’ve got to learn to throw things away eventually.
I know so many people like this, who desperately hold on to some image of who they once were. But I suspect it may even run deeper than just nostalgia for the glory days. I suspect that some people don a mask or a face, and after a while, that face that they put on, becomes who they are. Our faces and masks can change us, for better or for worse. If we keep putting on the cheerful face in spite of adversity, we eventually become a positive person. Conversely, if we wear the mask of gloom in spite of the positive things around us, eventually we become that dark, sad person which was initially just our mask.
Over the year, I’ve shed many faces and grown new ones. As I write this, I cannot help but wonder what my mask will be in my later years: the wise old man, the nurturing grandparent, or the curmudgeon throwing shoes at neighborhood dogs. I suppose we cannot predict the masks we will grow. The faces we develop stem from the situations we have to “face.” Anyway, time to bring myself back out of this rabbit hole.
Thanks for stopping by and sharing in my musings. I hope you have a blessed day.
I’ve read this play several times and have seen it performed more times than I can recount, but I still enjoy it every time. And reading it again this time was no exception. It’s fun, witty, and never gets old. Anyway, I figured for this post I would take a look at Puck as a manifestation of the trickster archetype.
Tricksters are archetypal characters who appear in the myths of many different cultures. Lewis Hyde describes the Trickster as a “boundary-crosser”. The Trickster crosses both physical and often breaks societal rules. Tricksters “…violate principles of social and natural order, playfully disrupting normal life and then re-establishing it on a new basis.”
When Puck (also known as Robin Goodfellow) first appears in Act II, one of the fairies immediately recognizes him as the trickster.
Either I mistake your shape and making quite,
Or else you are that shrewd and knavish sprite
Call’d Robin Goodfellow: are not you he
That frights the maidens of the villagery;
Skim milk, and sometimes labour in the quern
And bootless make the breathless housewife churn;
And sometime make the drink to bear no barm;
Mislead night-wanderers, laughing at their harm?
Those that Hobgoblin call you and sweet Puck,
You do their work, and they shall have good luck:
Are not you he?
Thou speak’st aright;
I am that merry wanderer of the night.
I jest to Oberon and make him smile
When I a fat and bean-fed horse beguile,
Neighing in likeness of a filly foal:
And sometime lurk I in a gossip’s bowl,
In very likeness of a roasted crab,
And when she drinks, against her lips I bob
And on her wither’d dewlap pour the ale.
The wisest aunt, telling the saddest tale,
Sometime for three-foot stool mistaketh me;
Then slip I from her bum, down topples she,
And ‘tailor’ cries, and falls into a cough;
And then the whole quire hold their hips and laugh,
And waxen in their mirth and neeze and swear
A merrier hour was never wasted there.
But, room, fairy! here comes Oberon.
(Act II: Scene i)
One of the powers of the trickster is the ability to change form. When Puck encounters the troupe of unskilled actors gathered in the woods, he decides to use his shape-shifting ability to taunt the actors.
I’ll follow you, I’ll lead you about a round,
Through bog, through bush, through brake, through brier:
Sometime a horse I’ll be, sometime a hound,
A hog, a headless bear, sometime a fire;
And neigh, and bark, and grunt, and roar, and burn,
Like horse, hound, hog, bear, fire, at every turn.
(Act III: Scene i)
It is important to point out that the trickster, although sometimes playful, is also something to be feared. The trickster’s pranks can often lead a person into a dangerous situation.
Up and down, up and down,
I will lead them up and down:
I am fear’d in field and town:
Goblin, lead them up and down.
Here comes one.
(Act III: Scene ii)
The trickster is definitely one of my favorite archetypal characters, and I find myself connecting to manifestations of the trickster whenever he appears in a book. And Puck is such a great incarnation of the trickster. He is, without question, my favorite character in this play.
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