The Magic of the Ordinary

New York City skyline in the glow of sunset.

Nurtured by books like The Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings, I used to believe that modern technology has no place in literature. Medieval technology such as swords and ploughs, and maybe even Industrial Revolution technology like trains and mills, were acceptable, but nothing later than 1920s-era technology belonged in books.

My logic for this assumption ran deep into my beliefs about stories. I believed that stories were the exclusive realm of the mythical and the wonderful: ancient forests, splendid castles, beautiful princesses, and so on. As an avenue of the imagination, stories should be above the minor, ugly details of life, like technology.

This subconscious assumption ignored the wonderful details of ordinary life which Lewis, Tolkien, Lloyd Alexander, Edward Eager, Edward Ormondroyd, E. Nesbit, and others use. In Lewis’s Prince Caspian, Edmund remarks that being summoned from England by a spell without warning is “worse than what father says about being at the mercy of the telephone.” Ormondroyd uses an elevator as a key part of his Time at the Top

Mentioning current technology also gives stories the precious stamp of regionalism – memorializing a certain place and time so readers can visit it. Now, I love tasting the flavor of past decades through references to slates and record albums.

My assumption also glossed over the very real fact that swords and ploughs, trains and mills were just as boring and ordinary to our predecessors as subways and cell phones are to us. For all their mythology, swords are really just romanticized pieces of metal.

G.K. Chesterton explains this phenomenon of ignoring the romance of the present with reference to modern-day detective stories. He praised detective stories for capturing

. . . some sense of the poetry of modern life. Men lived among mighty mountains and eternal forests for ages before they realized that they were poetical; it may reasonably be inferred that some of our descendants may see the chimney-pots as rich a purple as the mountain-peaks, and find the lamp-posts as old and natural as the trees. (from here)

The storytellers from whom the Grimm brothers gleaned their material wove their tales with commonplace objects. Spindles are immortal because of Sleeping Beauty, but they were as normal as cars or coffee pots to the people who used them daily.

Chesterton’s perspective reveals the amazing possibilities of our world. We don’t need to reuse crowns and Gothic castles to spice up our stories (at least, not all the time). Why not mythologize Brooklyn apartments and Iphones? 

The technology of our day has near-magical capabilities. Google puts a world of knowledge at our fingertips; planes let us fly over thousands of miles in a single day.

With that in mind, I’ve put some story ideas below which realize a few possibilities of modern technology, the way fairy tales used magic rings or carpets:

  • Glitch in one particular Iphone which lets the user call other dimensions
  • Car (specific make and model) with a radio which begins receiving messages for help from another world/time
  • Computer virus which spreads a real, biological virus via the Internet
  • Windmills which were made not to generate clean energy, but to guard against holes in Earth’s magical atmospheric shield
  • Subway train which gets lost and discovers a network of caves full of secrets (treasure, ancient warnings about disasters, lost civilizations, etc.)
  • Stopwatch which begins to count down the days/hours/minutes until the next terrorist attack
  • Energy beings (aliens?) which communicate with the entire country using the powerlines

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s