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“Myth, Magic, and Making Stuff Up” with Mr. Gaiman

On Saturday, August 3rd, fellow Horn Booker Shara and I had the pleasure of attending Neil Gaiman’s lecture “Myth, Magic, and Making Stuff Up” at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Being a devoted Gaimanphile, I managed to snatch up tickets in the brief hours before they sold out — in April!

Neil’s work — from his epic comic series Sandman to his Newbery–winning novel The Graveyard Book and beyond — is steeped in mythology, fairy tales, and folktales. Who better to speak about myth and magic?

Neil began his speech by saying that when he was a child, he wanted to be either a werewolf or a writer when he grew up. Writer was his second choice; he’s still waiting to turn into a werewolf. Clearly, imagination has been an essential element of Neil’s identity all along.

Neil talked about myths as originating in various religions, but becoming secular as religions change and die out. Fairy tales, on the other hand, began as stories shared among adults, but eventually became unpopular and were passed along to children like out-of-fashion furniture tucked out of sight in the nursery.

What purpose do these stories handed down through generations serve? Fairy tales and mythology, he said, transmit information about specific cultures in specific times and places. But with so many motifs common among stories from around the world and throughout history, they also give us a sense of the universal. Neil feels there’s a Darwinist dynamic at work: as time goes on, only the most effective stories and details survive. Many tales and variations are lost along the way. Old stories evolve and break down into a “compost” that provides inspiration for new stories.

There’s another purpose for myth and fairy tales, as well. Neil cited a G.K. Chesterton quotation (which also happens to be the epigraph for Coraline): “Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

For the second half of his presentation, Neil read “Freya’s Unusual Wedding” (based on a myth recorded in the Poetic Edda), a hilarious in-progress story from his upcoming collection of world myth retellings. While this anthology will not be available until 2015 at the earliest, I can say from this preview that it will be worth the long wait.

Audience questions were perceptive and the answers fascinating. Some highlights: A woman noted the importance of rules in fairy tales and asked Neil to discuss how rules operate in his books. He responded that he imposes strict rules on his characters (and himself), but would prefer not to tell us what they are. After all, that’s the way that life works. Another fan asked whether Neil believes in the mythologies he creates in his writing. He answered that he has to “absolutely believe” while he writes, and that it’s humbling — and at times unsettling — how ardently his readers believe in them.

The hour felt much too short; happily, Neil is both quite busy and quite visible in the media. His latest adult novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Morrow), was published in June, and his next children’s book, an illustrated chapter book entitled Fortunately, the Milk (HarperCollins), is coming this fall. An HBO adaptation of American Gods is in the works. For details on all of his many projects, visit Neil’s website.

Katie Bircher About Katie Bircher

Katie Bircher, associate editor at The Horn Book, Inc., is a former bookseller and holds an MA in children's literature from Simmons College. She served as chair of the 2018 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committee. Follow Katie on Twitter @lyraelle.

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