Summer of Faerie: “Debussy’s Afternoon of the Faun: A Prelude” by Emma Fox

Beach roses and the sea

Summer: the smell of pine, sunscreen, and wood smoke, the feeling of the hot sun on your skin and wet grass on your bare feet, the sight of green leaves everywhere. For me, this is the time of greatest freedom and beauty: the season when you can turn on your favorite playlist in the car with the windows down; swim in cool water until your hands and toes are pruny; star-gaze in the warm nights; pick blueberries and bake them into cobbler. I taste sehnsucht when I see blue mist over the sea or hear the weird, chuckling cry of a loon.

This week’s Summer of Faerie post is a fascinating one by Emma Fox. Emma introduced me to the French composer Claude Debussy, a lover of mythology and friend to many Symbolist poets and artists. Her poem was inspired by an image of Debussy and his beloved daughter Emma in a forest south of Paris, taken shortly before their deaths near the end of WWI (see the picture below). Debussy is famous for his orchestral work, “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.” This poem asks, what if he really did see a faun there in the woods?

Claude Debussy and his beloved daughter Emma in a forest south of Paris, taken shortly before their deaths near the end of WWI

Debussy was fascinated the concept of Gesampkunstwerk or “total work of art,” or unifying text, visual art, music, and even movement into one work. In honor of that concept, I recommend listening to “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” as you read this poem (and, perhaps, finding some woods to sit in as you do) – let them take you into this time, this moment, this vision.

Debussy’s Afternoon of the Faun: A Prelude

by Emma Fox

Faun and dancers in the woods
Nymphes et Faunes” by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot

There really was a faun—
I know, because I glimpsed him in the southern forest.
The war had dragged on, at the Somme and at Verdun,
Verdant no longer, but choked
With ragged brambles of barbed wire
The tongues of dragon fire and poisoned fumes
Driving from the woods both deer and dove.

Paris had become a cage for us.
The shuttered shops of the Champs-Elysees
Sagged pale and weary, windows boarded up,
Unable to bear the Arc de Triomphe
Stranded in the star, cut off at the hip
Like the legs of a broken Colossus.

We fled to the forest, my daughter and I.
We galloped on an iron horse to a far kingdom
Where castles rose like broken dreams
From the shrouded groves of memory.
We found a spot between the trees
To spread our blanket and eat apples,
And listen to the language of the birds.

That’s where we saw the faun.
Just his curled horns at first, sticking out from behind a tree—
He slept, unaware of our presence,
His naked chest rising and falling with each breath
And his furred legs nestled in the grass like foxes,
While his bright hooves twitched to a silent tune.

A warm wind stirred the leaves above our heads.
He slept on—dreaming perhaps of virgin groves
And naiads bathing in the stream,
And the music of flutes beneath the stars
In ancient times, long before Caesar
Stormed in with the legions, striking down trees
And strangling rivers with aqueducts.

The faun never woke. We tiptoed away—
Folded our blanket, and walked through the wood
To the station. We were silent the whole journey home,
But in my daughter’s eyes I saw summer leaves and starlight.
And on the iron platform, her buttoned leather shoes
Twinkled, waltzing to some silent melody.

And I knew this afternoon would be the prelude to her song.

Emma Fox

Emma Fox

Emma Fox first met a faun at age seven, when wandering through the Narnian woods. She fell in love with Claude Debussy’s music in high school, eventually leading to degrees in music and art history and a lifelong interest in the intersection of music, art and literature. She now lives in the “Magic City” of Birmingham, Alabama, along with her husband, three book-loving children, and a loyal border collie. Her debut fantasy novel The Arrow and the Crown has received multiple awards, including the Warren S. Katz Award for Juvenile Fiction and 1st Place in Young Adult Fiction from the SCBWI Southern Breeze division. Explore more of her fantasy world and work at http://emmafoxauthor.com/.

Summer of Faerie: “Housing Problems” by AJ Vanderhorst

Spring has fallen upon us all at once this week: gray clouds have melted into clear skies, bright green leaves have filled up the woods, and the temperatures jumped from the 50s to the 80s. For me, this Memorial Day weekend is the real beginning of summer, when lawnmowers roar to life, lilacs fill the air with sweetness, and the heat of the sun fills your winter-harrowed soul.

After enjoying several creative collaboration projects with other writers for Thanksgiving and late winter, I wanted to do something fun for this summer. I toyed with a few ideas, but finally settled on a project called Summer of Faerie that was born from my love for fantasy and fairy tales. 

For this Summer of Faerie project, I gave some fellow writers from The Habit the following prompt, inviting them to contribute: 

  • Short, prose fairy tale retellings
  • Faerie/fairy tale-themed poetry
  • Creative nonfiction about fairy tales in general

I had three suggestions for these works: 

  • Consider focusing on something other than romance.
  • Consider mythologizing your own region through this work – how can your hometown or city be just as magical as a castle on a mountain or tower in the wilderness?
  • Consider how we can meditate on the Gospel through thinking about fairy tales. G.K. Chesterton argued that “conditions” of fairy tales teach us a “The Doctrine of Conditional Joy” that parallels the truth of the Bible: “A lamp is lit, and love flies away. A flower is plucked, and human lives are forfeited. An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone.” (I’m quoting his weird and wonderful essay, “The Ethics of Elfland,” in his book Orthodoxy.)

Several writer-friends responded to the challenge, and the contributions so far have dazzled me. One of the first contributors was AJ Vanderhorst, who just released an amazing novel, The Mostly Invisible Boy. Enjoy!

Housing Problems

by AJ Vanderhorst

Hands holding teeth

Two parents with too many hobbies. Two parents with four crazy, precocious boys. We overlooked the low sales price. We overlooked a lot. We were a little desperate, well, more than a little. We needed someplace big and HOA-free and durable—and fast.

The missing background didn’t bother me at first and I’m a journalist at the Kansas City Star. At least I used to be. Go on, laugh. These things have a way of creeping up on you.

The house’s previous owner, a genial, raisin-skinned gentleman who gave you the impression of holding nothing back, told us the sprawling four-story place was built in 1915. We believed him. Not that we cared, because the house was gorgeous. Dwell Magazine with vintage swagger. You felt taller just standing in the shade of its colonnades. 

By the time I got around to checking, the origin story proved impossible to verify. No records on micro-fiche. No permits at KC Planning & Development—not that they looked very hard. For a while I dug around in the basement, hoping to find old documents in a forgotten corner. Believe me, there were plenty of those. 

Forgotten corners, I mean.  

When we knocked down nonstructural walls, which happened a couple times as we got moved in, I’d scan each yellowed page of newsprint while the kids sifted dust for arrowheads and shark teeth. Nothing.

Sometimes the clue you need is staring you in the face. In this case, the clue was: nothing. Absolutely nothing. 

Plenty of dirt on everyone else though. One rabbit trail through KC history gave me an inside track on the next door neighbors. They’d been accused of witchcraft in 1740, which, reading between the lines, was code for “really big jerks we don’t want at the barbecue.” That family is still here and they’re still obnoxious and I can totally see it. 

In 1911 someone’s rooster got blasted with a shotgun and buried in concrete for crowing at 4:59 instead of 5 am. I can’t help feeling neighborhood news has become a lot less interesting.

In the more recent past, I learned how mob “Boss Tom” Pendergast got his claws in the KC Code Department—and made it so crooked that today it still can’t stop citing and snickering long enough to look you in the face. 

But I found nothing on our cavernous brick house. Only the growing feeling, as I walked its wide staircases and traced the shadows of its vaulted ceilings, that it wasn’t normal. Which was fine at first. Because downtown thought our family, with its size and irrepressibility, was pretty weird too.

I formed a theory that an exasperated realtor had pulled the 1915 date out of thin air and slapped it on his deed of sale. There were no records of the behemoth’s original use. No tales of mobs it’d outlasted with its quintuple-thick walls. No reason given for its many secret crawl spaces. The deep gouges in its irreplaceable timber floors. Or its poured concrete roof. 

At the time, my most intriguing find was a sentence from an 1875 account of Kansas City’s stockyards: “The beef barons shipped their assets on the hoof, and herds of cattle, sheep and pigs overran the West Bottoms daily. This was a stark contrast to the more exotic, costly creatures that were rumored to arrive on the riverfront under cover of darkness.”

The “news” story gave me a prickly feeling behind my eyes. The feeling was hard to pin down as it scurried along my bones. I labeled it curiosity and tried to forget it. Curiosity isn’t usually so nagging. It doesn’t usually cause you to turn on extra lights and stay up late at night. 

But the story appeared next to an ad for “MAGIC medicinal TONIC for the FORTIFICATION of boys, girls and calves.” So I felt justified in dismissing it, or trying to. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I know this was my first mistake. Snobbery toward old news—news I stupidly wrote off because I could associate it with hoaxes.

Before everything happened, people often asked me for advice (free of course) about buying and fixing up old houses. Now, as the sun hangs in the middle of the sky and cocktail hour approaches, I know what I should’ve told them:

“Yeah, remodeling physical history is a nasty beast. But let’s step back. How old is the place? Is it too big? Just…Way. Too. Big? In a strange Hitchcockian way that gnaws at you slowly, offending your sense of proportion? Are there too many fireplaces? Do the quiet, twisting hallways send centipedes down your spine?”

That’s all the free advice I’d offer. But if they could afford to pay me for my time…and my scars…and my abrupt career change, I’d say:

Dragons. It just might be dragons. So point me in their direction and get out of the way. 

Business card for a Dragon Agency

AJ Vanderhorst

AJ Vanderhorst is a husband, dad and author who loves barbecue, as do all right-thinking people. His relationship with monsters is long and complicated. Visit him online at ajvanderhorst.com.

Wars and Weddings

Summer is in its noon. This season, midsummer, was always the most heavenly time for me. New England is steamy with humidity on sunny days and rumbles with thunderstorms at least once a week. The lilies are opening up like small trumpets, pink tea roses bloom in my mom’s garden, and every weekend, the highways glimmer with the red taillights of families going to or from the beach.

In my childhood, mid-July was the climax of the year: swimming among the water lily pads in the kettle ponds of Cape Cod, hiking and catching salamanders in the green mountains of New Hampshire, and backpacking in the blue wilderness of Yosemite. 

A few months ago, I was musing about story climaxes and happy endings. My favorite stories ended happily, usually in one of three ways: with a war (or at least a battle), a wedding, or both. (To be precise, the war is often the climax, and the wedding is the happy ending.)

  • WeddingLast of the Really Great Whangdoodles, Half Magic, Jane Austen, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Shirley, The Sherwood Ring, Time at the Top, Ella Enchanted, The Farthest-Away Mountain
  • WarThe Hobbit, Harry Potter, The Battle for the Castle, A Wind in the Door, The Great and Terrible Quest
  • Both The Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games, the Prydain series, The Fairy Rebel

Wars and weddings make excellent climaxes/endings: the violence and suffering of war resolves itself in victory, and the pain and desire of love are resolved in marriage. I think there’s a deeper reason why these events make good endings, though: they point us towards the true end of the world.

Christians believe that history is teleological, or has a purpose and and ending (instead of being random, meaningless, or endless). The telos or purpose of history is the fulfillment of God’s judgement and redemption. God created humans to be in an intimate relationship with Him, but when the first man and woman sinned (broke God’s law), humanity separated from God. Jesus Christ’s death on the cross paid the price for sin and allowed humans to be reconciled to God. At the end of the world, that reconciliation will be complete, and those who believe in God will enter heaven to be with Him forever.

The end of the world includes the end of a War that has raged throughout history, the battle between Satan and the armies of God. It will conclude with a Wedding, the marriage of the Lord Jesus Christ and His Bride, the Church. 

I think every story that ends with a war, a wedding, or both foreshadows the reality of the last days. The War will be greater and more terrible than the flood that destroyed the old world – but it will end with victory. The Wedding will be more glorious than a summer sunset. Believers will cross the edge into eternity, where worshipping God is truly our happy ever after.

Revelation 21:1-4 – “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

Happy endings anticipate eternity. When a good book or series ends with “happily ever after,” readers can imagine the victory and marriage continuing in perfect joy, without having to watch the problems that are inevitable in a fallen world.

Not all good books end with wars and weddings – or, the war and the wedding are not the whole resolution. Some end with new beginnings, like Anne of Green Gables or Hannah Coulter. Others end with homecoming, like The Hobbit. Some end with a joyful death, like Les Miserables. I think all these happy endings are wrapped up in our yearning for heaven: the Homecoming, the Rescue, the beginning of the delicious mystery of Eternity.

A few years ago, one of my favorite English professors warned us about climax seasons. He said times of greatest joy and fulfillment – such as our wedding days – can also carry the greatest grief and yearning. Climaxes remind us how much we yearn for the true Happy Ending.

In this climax season (of the year, if not my life) of summer, I yearn for the end of the War, the Wedding, the Homecoming, and the New Beginning. And the happy endings of the books I love remind me that it is coming soon.

Songs of Summer: Yearning for Purpose and Community

In L.M. Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon, Emily’s gruff teacher shuffles through her poetry with a critical eye and sarcastic asides. “Ode to Winter – the seasons are a sort of disease all young poets must have, it seems,” he remarks.

If delight in the seasons is a disease, I’m not sure I want to recover. The music of spring, summer, autumn, and winter fascinates me. When I was younger and obsessed with summer, I felt the year was a great wheel that reached its joyous climax in midsummer before turning back down to autumn.

I’m only two and a half years out of school, and I still analyze each year separately. Each summer since college has brought its own blessings, challenges, and questions of yearning.

How Yo You Fully Live? Yearning for Purpose

The first summer after college, I had just gotten my first job. Every day, I thanked God that I found work that used my writing skills – but sitting alone in a cubicle in a dead-silent office all day was hard. I was lonely and bored.

Is this what real life is like? I asked myself. Did all my teachers in school inspire me to change the world and follow my heart just so I could tap away at a computer for the rest of my life?

One weekend, I went with some friends to a lake house in the mountains. We slathered on cool-smelling sunscreen and played catch in the blue shallows under the hot July sun. After a while, I sat on the warm wooden dock to listen to my friends talk and watch the others laugh and splash in the game.

How do you fully live in this world? I kept pondering. Is this how you do it – work a boring job all week so you can have fun on the weekends? 

For all the life principles Sunday School and my parents taught me, I couldn’t figure it out. How does God want us to balance pleasure and pain? Should we (American Christians, in my case) try to make money to donate to good causes and enjoy, or become foreign missionaries and live on beans? Should we pursue work that’s interesting, noble, or lucrative?

I couldn’t answer these questions under the hot July sun, or through that long year. In retrospect, I think God was teaching me to seek Him, not just a lifestyle or a calling that was labeled and packaged with a bow. The words of Ravi Zacharias helped with my questions about pleasure and pain:

Anything that refreshes you without distracting or diminishing or destroying your final goal is a legitimate pleasure.

“How do we fully live?” is a question to ask every day, not just once. However, if my final goal is to glorify God, I should enjoy pleasure that refreshes me on the way and persevere through pain. But my gaze needs to stay firmly on Him.

How Can I Participate in Community? Yearning for Fellowship

My second summer out of college was possibly the happiest of my life (though that summer after kindergarten with the slip n’ slide was pretty great). I had just changed jobs and now had kind, thoughtful coworkers who I could actually see and talk to, interesting work, and a gorgeous New England town of cobblestone streets and a blue harbor to explore.

In this new place and new commute, I ached to invest in friendships and meaningful work. How do you participate in community? I wondered, especially toward the end of last summer. Outside of the microcosmic bubble-worlds of high school and college, how do you build relationships and find good causes to join in? After some research and seeking, I found a Christ-centered, vibrant church and joined a small group and a ministry.

Those two weekly church events were torches through that fall and dark, cold winter. Some nights, I arrived breathless and feeling as though burning frost was eating away my skin. Some nights, swan’s-feather snow and icy highways kept me at home. But the nights I could go were feasts of fellowship: warm, encouraging, funny, and fascinating. 

My small group read through the Book of Acts and watched the drama of the fledgling Church unfold, marveling at Peter’s new wisdom in the Spirit, of Paul’s perseverance for the church. The ministry group centered on carrying the light of grace and hope into some of the darkest places I know of.

How do you participate in community? is a question is one to ask in every season of life, not just once, but I began to discover that loving friendships and worthwhile work (especially ministry) go together. Striving side by side is the best way to find the intimacy of understanding and trust – easier and more lasting than building relationships on conversation alone.

This Summer

This summer is slipping past like a dream, and it’s different from the last two: I don’t know that there’s a central question yet, other than how can I find joy in a season of waiting? 

Even as I worry about every unknown, I remember how lovingly God has shepherded me through post-graduate life. I need to learn again the simple trust of abiding. And, in the meantime, attend to my summer adventure bucket list before these golden days are gone.