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  • Yehoshua Paul

1913 - A Prisoner in Fairyland

1913. One year before the Great War. The world is in a good place. In the United States, Woodrow Wilson is elected as president, Grand Central Station reopens as the world’s largest train station, the Federal Reserve is created, tariffs are slashed on global imports and the Philadelphia Athletics win the 1913 Baseball World series, beating the New York Giants 4-1. In Russia, the house of Romanov celebrates the 300th anniversary of its succession to the Russian throne. And in Berlin, in May, the sovereigns of Germany, the United Kingdom and Russia gather for the last time to attend a royal wedding between Princess Victoria Louise of Prussia and Prince Ernest Augustus of Hanover. The next month, the Deutsches Stadion in Berlin is dedicated with the release of 10,000 pigeons in front of a crowd of 60,000. The stadium had been constructed in anticipation of the 1916 Summer Olympics, which were later cancelled.

The world is also full of tension. Socialism is on the rise. Workers in the United States and the United Kingdom are striking demanding better working conditions. Unfortunately, too often the strikes degenerate into riots with people ending up dead. Suffragettes are on the march demanding the right to vote. In the United States, there is a parade in Washington DC. In the United Kingdom, Emily Davison is trampled and dies after running out in front of the king’s horse. And in Norway, women’s suffrage is enacted. Also, the British House of Lords rejects another Irish home rule bill, the Mexican revolution begins, there is a coup d’etat in the Ottoman Empire, the 13th Dalai Lama declares Tibet’s independence from China, the first Balkan War ends, the second Balkan War begins, and the king of Greece is assassinated - not in that order.

Official program for the Woman Suffrage Procession in Washington D.C., March 3, 1913

This was the state of the world when Algernon Blackwood wrote A prisoner in fairyland, a book that explores the hidden cracks in the world through which all of humanity is connected.

Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951) was an English short story writer and novelist, one of the most prolific writers of ghost stories in the history of the genre, and considered by H. P. Lovecraft as one of the modern masters of supernatural horror. In addition to his hundreds of short stories, Blackwood also wrote 14 novels, 2 children’s novels and 7 plays.

Blackwood was half mystic, half outdoorsman. He was a member of one of the factions of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and took an active interest in all things occult or spiritual, such as Rosicrucianism and Buddhism. Blackwood frequently went on retreats where he would ski, mountain climb, or camp in the forest. He felt that a better connection with nature would result in a better connection with the universe, enabling one to see how all living things are intertwined, and this blend of natural with the supernatural is what made Blackwood’s work stand out. One of his best known stories is “The Wendigo” about a group of campers who pitch their tent in a place where another dimension intersects with our own.

A Prisoner in Fairyland is a novel about Henry Rogers, a successful London businessman who after spending twenty years earning his wealth decides to retire and focus his attention on making the world a better place. A chance visit to his childhood home reawakens long-forgotten unconscious memories, which launch a process that allows him to escape in his sleep through the cracks in the world to a hidden cave of starlight. Rogers has no memory of this while awake. He then proceeds to visit his cousin’s family in a remote Swiss village. Whenever Rogers goes to sleep, his cousin’s children’s sleeping selves help his unconscious self escape his body and visit the cave where he can gather starlight and share it with those who need it. The starlight can be used to brighten people’s lives, but a lot is required as the interfering sun burns it away. While asleep he understands the network of light through which all of humanity is connected and through which thoughts can be unconsciously transmitted from one person to another. His conscious self has no memory of these night-time adventures, but the lives of his cousin and their village are slowly transformed for the better.

I started this book with very high expectations because of Blackwood’s reputation as a writer of the supernatural. I was very disappointed. The book attempts to put poetry into prose, and ends up using at least twice as many words as needed. The book’s goal is to provoke wonder and spark imagination. However, the sheer number of descriptive words does the exact opposite, making the book a very tedious read. I frequently had to hold myself back from falling asleep (maybe the goal was for my unconscious self to enjoy the experience). In addition, each chapter begins with a random literary passage (not always in English), and it is unclear how the passage is connected to the chapter. However, even Sir Terry Pratchett had The Colour of Magic and I still haven’t given up on Blackwood as an author. I consider A prisoner in fairyland to be a false start, and next time I hope to pick something better.

The Omer today is foundation in courage. Humanity is going to need its courage in the coming years as the Great War tears the world apart. Algernon Blackwood does his part by (badly) reminding us of a very fundamental truth: we are all connected to one another and to a higher power even as too often our divisions strive to pull us apart. And this connection is what will give us courage and remind us that even though we walk through the valley of shadowy death, we need fear no evil because Hashem is with us. We are never alone.

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