Thursday, 21 November 2013

The Black Dog - Magic and the Real World

As you know I am active on the Magic Realism Facebook Group as well as on the Magic Realism group on Goodreads. It is the fate of all people interested in magic realism to be endlessly discussing the definition of magic realism. One of the recurring debates is whether we “white westeners” can really write magic realism. We are so out of touch with our magical roots, that we are playing at magic realism, whereas other cultures still have magic at their centre. There is a lot to say for that point of view. And sometimes I do indeed feel a fraud.

But then I think about my childhood and I realise that in some ways I too grew up in a world infused with magic. I went to a small Church of England school, where I learned the bible stories, which were then reinforced by what I learned at Sunday School. My childhood faith was profound and I believed in a world in which angels and devils existed in equal quantities.

But there was also another magical world that was part of my childhood, one which had its roots in pre-Christian tradition. There was for example the story of the Black Dog. The dog was said to have eyes of fire and be huge in size. It was a supernatural beast, the sight of which foretold death. A hound of hell. Those of you familiar with British folktale will know that the black dog appears all over the British Isles and probably dates back to the days of Herne and the Wild Hunt. Alan Garner features the Hunt in his Brisingamen books. Our town had its own black dog, which sometimes could be seen on Sudeley Hill. Perhaps it is not by accident that hill is also the location of a prehistoric trackway. As children my sister and I believed in the black dog, so much so that on one occasion my sister became hysterical when she thought she saw it at the window. That was about fifty years ago now.

I haven’t heard talk of the black dog for many years. But that doesn’t mean that the myth has died, merely that it has morphed. What you get now in Gloucestershire and indeed in other areas where the black dog once roamed are sighting of big cats – usually described as black, presumably pumas. Take this account on the BBC – 38 sightings of big cats were reported to the Gloucestershire police in four years, and no doubt many more went unreported. I even know someone who claims to have seen the beast. What is going on here? Is it that we are trying to apply a modern realist interpretation (escaped captive animal) to ancient magic?  Maybe you only have to scratch the surface of modern realism to find the magical hiding underneath.

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