Sara Maitland recently wrote in The Guardian (5th March 2015): “I believe that most of us have a deep yearning for the magical, for a secret ‘otherness’, for an environment flowing with abundance – not just with nature but with super-nature too”. To that end, she urged the trustees of Wayford Woods, near Crewkerne, not to do away with the minor local tradition of installing “fairy doors” in the tree trunks of these ancient woodlands. The doors, she argued, were a sign of childhood wonder, which ought to be cherished rather than outgrown. We must be allowed to dream of other worlds than this.
Yet as Maitland would be the first to concede, and gladly too, this world is downright astonishing, strange, bizarre, weird, and indeed uncanny – and all of that at its most fundamental and elementary, before we start dreaming anything. Moss Witch and Other Stories celebrates birds, geology, matter and antimatter, the uncertainty principle, speech, light, genetics, the distances of the stars, memory, mathematics, mosses, and dark matter and energy. Each of these manifestations of Nature gets its own story (some, like mathematics, get several). Between the short fictions are interchapters, in which specialists in these fields speak with Maitland of their conversations and shared projects, and explain difficult ideas in more detail.
It has to be said that some of these pieces do not seem to work well as fictions. They suffer from the same sort of worthiness as certain other recent cultural events, such as the film Still Alice (which dramatized what it means to have Alzheimer’s); or Dundee Rep’s collaboration with Graeae and Derby Theatre’s able-bodied and disabled actors in a version of Lorca’s Blood Wedding. Art is often damaged when it espouses causes in this way. To say that is not to deny skill to such performances and fictions, nor to deny them a unifying artistic impulse. Rather, it is to say that these works become merely illustrative and expository, exemplars of good and well meant non-artistic intentions. Art is thereby reduced to a means to a didactic end. Art’s distilled state, however, is objective, as a free standing end in itself.
Hence it is that, in some of these tales, Maitland cannot forbear doing as Christopher Nolan also did in his newest film Interstellar. The viewer’s dread that at some point we would be subjected to an explanation of key concepts (the besetting sin of much science fiction) was justified deep into the film. Maitland too, spoils her desired effects when characters discuss abstruse scientific ideas in ways people so rarely do in real life. For strange to say, explanations like this do not excite wonder, but simple irritation at their woodenness. They are inartistic, where we had hoped for literary art.
None of this means Maitland cannot tell a story. Far from it: she can, and repeatedly does. Her best pieces break free of exposition. What does she break free into? The fabulous, as it happens; or the parabolic; or the weird tale; or analogy and allegory. Most of those species of fiction – the fable, the parable, the analogical and the allegorical – have long and dignified pedigrees. The weird tale, a more modern phenomenon, comes closest to presenting the gratuitous uncanny. Maitland wants to intimate that our most appropriate perception of nature is just this, its uncanniness, behind which is secreted an Otherness toward which the truest homage is awed belief. This is a respectable stance. Her manipulated characters, however, are marionettes; and amount to little more than illustrations of this kind of deeply held conviction.