Sunday, July 5, 2009

Out of the fire

Years ago, I bought this rug from a friend who'd traveled to India. This carpet was handmade in Nepal, if I remember correctly. The phoenix captured me then and never let go, with it's body the color of fire, so vibrant, so full of energy.
My fascination preceded Harry Potter meeting Fawkes or Neil Gaiman's "Sunbird" (Fragile Things), in which an eccentric group of gourmands discover the eternal bird.
The myth of the phoenix, rising from its own ashes, shows up since the dawn of civilization and across cultures. It was said the sun god Helios would stop his chariot to listen to the young bird sing. Tales are found in Egypt, Greece, Rome, Persia, Lebanon, China and more.
Early Christians modified the mythical bird into a story of resurrection. In the National Portrait Gallery in London is a painting of Elizabeth I with a medallion featuring a phoenix rising. It is conjectured that she wore it to symbolize her road to power. You might recall she had a few difficulties left behind by her father Henry VIII and her half-sister Mary.
I've come up with a few modern phoenix stories (Rowling and Gaiman above). Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. Eudora Welty wrote a hardscrabble tale of the regeneration of blacks after slavery in "A Worn Path," which features a protagonist named Phoenix on a recurring journey. Even her apparel is transformative--an apron of bleached sugar sacks and a cane made of an old umbrella.
The British sci-fi show Doctor Who has Time Lords who get transformed over and over. And I can't help but think of the powerful autobiographical work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, in which a horrific childhood is turned into a bright future--much of it beginning with the knowledge and wonder found in books.
So what is it that makes a story, such as the myth of the phoenix, immortal? What plucks such a universal chord? Do you have any thoughts on this or would you like to mention some book you read or wrote that mirrors a phoenix tale? As always, I'd love to hear what you have to say.

15 comments:

Dave said...

I'll have to check out Gaiman's book.

The image is beautiful. Thanks for sharting that. I have an interest in the phoenix too, especially since the town I live in (Ellensburg) has an outdoor wall painting of a phoenix rising. If you google ellensburg and Lynne McCowin and phoenix you could probably find it. My son loves it and we've made up a pretty good story together about him riding the phoenix.

Also, one of the POV characters in my fantasy novel has a boat named Phoenix Rising.

Good to know that you are a phoenix fan too!

Tess said...

I don't know, honestly, why some stories stand the test of time and others don't. Of course, the initial thought is that it has to do w/ the quality of the story or how it appeals to the readers...but I know there are so many great stories out there that never 'make it' and some lousy stories that do.

hmmm...good thoughts here today :D

MG Higgins said...

I think the phoenix mythology is universal because "rebirth" occurs to all of us, all the time. Every time we sink to some emotional depth we rise out of it a different, and hopefully new and improved, person. Flames optional.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Dave: Fragile Things is dark and magnificent. One of my favorite short stories is in it, "Other People." It's a nightmare of a piece and brilliant.
I looked up Ellensburg's phoenix painting. Cool! And I'm thrilled you've incorporated the phoenix in your work. :-)

Tess: My thinking is there must be something in such stories that strikes everybody. The phoenix being reborn out of destruction is appealing, I think, because we all face horrible events sometimes and want to know we can come through.

MG: Yes, that's how I see it, too. I love the "flames optional." It can get pretty hot sometimes!

Robyn Campbell said...

I tried to post under Tess this morning and my computer froze. So now I forgot the greatness I said to you. NOT! :) I think I said "AHHH, fellow Phoenix lover eh?" Then I talked about how I agreed with Tess. I think that certain stories seem endless because they appeal to the masses of every generation. You know, like Black Beauty. Look how many generations of girls have read that book. A book that was originally wrote to be a horse care guide for Veterinarians. I hope I can write one--one day. :)

Sybel said...

My students are always amazed to learn that the phoenix predates Harry Potter! If you're 15, everything happened yesterday.

We start the year with Fahrenheit 451, one of the greatest books of all time, IMHOP (Beatty's lengthy speech in the middle notwithstanding).

Young people are inspired by the hope of rebirth. They've heard of karma (but they have no idea what it means), they see celebs remake themselves, they are changing physically and emotionally every day. Now they ask, Can a civilization be reborn? Can society rebuild itself ethically and morally better than it was?

I love "watching" their brains expand at the seat of the master, Ray Bradbury.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Robyn: I had no idea Black Beauty was written for veterinarians! As a girl, I loved horse books, consumed many of them. I think it's cool your WIP features girls and horses. Gotta be a winner.

Sybel: You have to be the coolest teacher. The kids coming from you classroom get good literature and a moral compass! Rebirth is inspiring--that chance to make it better, to overcome and succeed. Thanks for this.

Barrie said...

Have you read The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler? This discussion about the rising phoenix and why books resonate really made me think of it.

Shelli said...

Its gorgeous!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Barrie: No, I haven't read it, although I've heard it mentioned before. I'll definitely look into it. Thanks.

Shelli: *big smile* thank you!

Suzanne said...

I was just telling a friend about the back story (like ancient backstory) of my books... how the families come from one woman who walked out of the sea at the beginning of time (my novel time)and had two children by two different men even though it was the same pregnancy and those two families become the families in my novels.... and she said "oh, you mean like Leda?" Greek Mythology strikes again. I think we all connect with earthy things, oceans, deserts, birds, flames, winds, air... elements. I can't seem to stop reading the little prince or dandelion wine... both steeped in reality and yet... imagination. I babble....

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Suzanne: Ah, but you babble beautifully. Reading your blog is always such a pleasure.
Your character, who walks out of the sea,fascinates me and most definitely has a mythological feel(I want to read that book).
I'm reminded of a book I love for its sea images: "Away" by Jane Urquhart. Here is a passage: "The sea responded to her rant by turning an odd shade of whitish green and swelling up as if it were about to reveal a hidden volcano, and Mary watched, stunned, as thousands of cabbages nudged one another towards the shore. Soon the vegetables completely covered the new stones while behind them the ocean was divided into bands of color; darks and lights separated by ribbons of glitter. The glitter, it turned out, consisted of a large quantity of silver teapots, so perfectly designed against spillage that they proved very seaworthy..."

M. Dunham said...

You know what's funny - few people write stories with pheonixes, yet it's the type of creature that transcends cultures, much like the dragon. Odd, no?

Suzanne said...

Away I must to buy the book "Away!"

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

M.-- Now you've got me thinking....I've got a dragon in a story but no phoenix, despite my carrying on in this post. Oh what fun that could be!

Suzanne -- Super cool. Much dark and lyric magic to be found in those pages. Hope you can find Urquhart's cuz there is another novel, same title.