The Magic in Conor's World: NEART

There are many trends in modern fantasy today that seek to divorce the story from any known "magic" or "wonder" in this world. The creation of fantastical worlds with strange gods and goddesses has much to say for itself, but one of the marks of true fantasy, at least according to Tolkien and Lewis, is that one still needs a strong connection with the world we live in to be credible. And now, there are very popular fantasy novels that seek to provide magic to a godless world. Again, it makes me wonder if the authors haven't strayed a bit from what true fantasy should provide.

It's different in Conor's world. His world is our world. We recognize it because, after all, we live in it. But there is magic and wonder here, much more than we realize. How can that be? It's my belief that magic and wonder weren't inventions of human imagination; rather, they existed alongside humanity and every once in a while interacted with the human species. Conor is a boy on the cusp of manhood, like millions of others in the good old USA today. He's Catholic but not overly religious though he is firmly rooted in that faith. He gets caught in a cosmic struggle of good and evil and needs to figure out what's happening. Abbot Malachy helps him understand. In Conor's world, in our world, there are no parallel universes, no multi-verses, there is only us--and something more. The Abbot constantly tells Conor to "look at the mountain behind the mountain" to find out where true reality is.

What in the world does that mean? Well, it's a Celtic idea actually. The Celtic word for it is neart. It's the real reality beneath the reality. Take a look at how modern Celtic poet Kathleen Raine describes neart in her poem, "The Wilderness." (Click on poem to view in right sidebar.)

This great Scottish/British poet, Kathleen Raine, captures well what another great English poet, Gerard Manly Hopkins, did when he wrote, "The world is charged with the grandeur of God," and though the world has tried its best to darken that truth, "for all this, nature is never spent/There lives the dearest freshness deep down things." That's what the Celtic concept of neart is; that and glimpsing the 'bright mountain behind the mountain." And though there is the Dark, the Night, and all things Evil, there are no strange gods to oppose it. There is only the Holy Ghost which "over the bent world broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings." Clear and present Goodness, that fights the Dark, the Night, the Evil. And all humans have the choice as to which side to belong.

In other words, the magic stuff is there; it's just deeper. And to touch it you have to go deeper as well. What freaks Conor out is that he is given the ability to see more deeply and he doesn't know what it means. Ancient gods and goddesses, fallen angels, strange creatures keeping company with modern twenty-first century humanity seems impossible until one looks more deeply. As he discovers who he is, abilities come to him--magic to us--but innate now in him, because he is discovering the true reality that underlies all things.

The most important thing to understand about neart is that it is dynamic. Supernatural force or power pervades everything. The druids knew this and it was the source of their power. When Christians came they realized that it was the One who pervades everything that enervated Creation. For instance, when Aunt Emily pronounces a prayer of protection ( a lorica) over Conor, she binds him with the neart or creative power coming from the Trinity (another name for the One). Some might see that as magic--but for her, she was just using her God given powers to tap into the creative energy of Creation. The Celts deeply believed this, and so it was natural that I would put the concept of neart in the novel as the source of magic or supernatural power. Lots more to say about this, particularly about the difference between magic and miracle, but that's for another page, and another day.

What I find cool about Conor's world is that it's ours. That means that my love for fantasy, my wish to touch something magical, my desire to see a more beautiful, more complete world, is possible outside of books. All I have to do is see the bright mountain behind the mountain. I've done that a couple of times. Maybe that's all we get to do as human beings. But it makes me want for more. So go for it Conor! Don't let glimpses of the real world be enough. Seek what's real, find yourself, and change the world so that all of us can see and experience the grandeur of creation.

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The Wilderness

I came too late to the hills: they were swept bare
Winters before I was born of song and story,
Of spell or speech with power of oracle or invocation,

The great ash long dead by a roofless house, its branches rotten,
The voice of the crows an inarticulate cry,
And from the wells and springs the holy water ebbed away.

A child I ran in the wind on a withered moor
Crying out after those great presences who were not there,
Long lost in the forgetfulness of the forgotten.

Only the archaic forms themselves could tell!
In sacred speech of hoodie (hooded crow) on gray stone, or hawk in air,
Of Eden where the lonely rowan bends over the dark pool.

Yet I have glimpsed the bright mountain behind the mountain,
Knowledge under the leaves, tasted the bitter berries red,
Drunk water cold and clear from an inexhaustible hidden fountain.

-Kathleen Jessie Raine