Here in Avalon was never supposed to be about fairies. I’d envisioned the novel—a literary thriller about two sisters, one of whom, Cecilia, goes missing after getting involved with a mysterious interactive theatre troupe—as a straightforwardly Gothic cult story: complete with plenty of murders to solve. And, two or so drafts in, it still wasn’t working—or at least not working in the way I wanted it to. The characters weren’t quite coalescing; their motivations weren’t quite making sense; the Avalon itself—the shadowy cabaret troupe at the heart of the novel’s plot—always just beyond my reach, thematically, even as more and more of the book’s scenes were set there. And then a throwaway line in the novel’s third draft changed everything. In a moment of frustration, Paul—Cecilia’s estranged yet maddeningly loyal husband—refers to his wife as “running away with the fairies.” At last, the whole novel—and what I wanted to do with it—made sense.
Here in Avalon was always intended as a kind of conflicted valentine to those moments, those friendships, those relationships, that seem to exist outside reality, or else to transform it. When we are in love; when we are awake setting the world to rights at three o’clock in the morning; when we watch the dawn with friends and chosen family who once were as lost as we were but are now, at yearned-for last, found; when we convince ourselves that at last we have found the right way to live, the right people to live with, that at last we can free ourselves of human strictures and human sins because we have figured out every last certain that nobody else in human history has figured out before—reality takes on a new shape. We are living in a fairy-tale; the whole world seems enchanted. It was a feeling I’d encountered, each time more significantly, so often in my life. I’d felt it in during a transitional time in my early twenties, disillusioned with graduate school and uncertain about my own faith and future, falling under the spell of Sleep No More, a New York-based interactive, site-specific theatrical mashup of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Hitchcock’s Rebecca: which brought a whole ever-closer coterie of fellow obsessives to its shows, attendant bars, and parties. I’d felt it five years later in Venice, when—while researching a travel story—I found myself swept up by a group of wildly eccentric, extravagantly generous regular attendees of the annual carnival. And I’d felt it five years after that, in the wake of a broken engagement: a manic, joyful Christmas season colored by my encounter with the Bruderhof: an Anabaptist, pacifist Christian intentional community. (whose very good culture and politics magazine, Plough, I still regularly write for), whose tagline, another life is possible, I cribbed in its entirety for the Avalon. Each of these communities inspired me; there was a time where I wanted to live my whole life inside those worlds. And yet, in each of these cases, my desire to throw myself into each new community was inextricable from my desire to run away from who I had been before, to leave behind some aching, taxing element of reality I could not stand to confront.
And so fairyland—that liminal space, at once more beautiful than ordinary reality and yet an ultimately lifeless simulacrum from it—became the primary governing metaphor of the novel; the fairy-tale the genre that the novel’s primary characters—each one alienated, lost, and searching in their own way for meaning—take up and wrestle with as they try to work out whether their own lives are tragedies, comedies, or something in between. The cult of the Avalon— and indeed it is a cult, albeit one even its most virulent detractors in the novel cannot bring themselves to wholeheartedly condemn—is deeply indebted to the idea of “fairyland”: that realm of eternal childhood that entices us by offering us an escape from adult life, adult responsibilities, adult routine, even as that escape cuts us off from the most harrowing, and human, elements of reality.
Fairies, after all, are not good or evil, exactly, as far as mythological beings go. Unlike, say, the witch—a mythological figure of wickedness given renewed cultural cachet by her associations with sexualized evil, and with it a kind of imagistic rejoinder to patriarchal authority—the fairy does not necessary stand in direct opposition to the Christian God. Nor is the fairy’s seduction—as opposed to that, say, of the vampire—coded as a sexual one: an enthrallment that shrouds a power exchange in which one figure is destroyed and the other renewed.
Rather, fairies—think Midsummer’s Puck—are often playful, trickster figures; allied not with God or Satan but curiously, almost innocently, outside the binary altogether. If their desire is to steal young humans, as occurs in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the W.B. Yeats play The Land of Heart’s Desire or in my personal favorite, the Scottish ballad and legend “Tam Lin,” it is not because they want to eat them or sacrifice them to Satan, but because they genuinely believe that life dancing under the stars or in the woods is better than the life those foolish mortals live. They promise—and sometimes even deliver—eternal innocence. As the fairy child in Yeats’ play (from which I cribbed a few more of the Avalon’s songs) puts it, beckoning a disaffected bride to join her: “But I can lead you…Where nobody gets old and crafty and wise/Where nobody gets old and godly and grave, Where nobody gets old and bitter of tongue/And where kind tongues bring no captivity’. For we are only true to the far lights/We follow singing, over valley and hill.” The life fairies promise, often, is not one of indulgence or decadence or sexual liberation (think of the devil in The Witch offering his new ward a chance to “live deliciously”), but instead a kind of endless teenage cast party: song, dancing, merriment, beauty, community.
And still, something is missing. Wrapped up with the idea of fairyland is the idea that it is an escape—but also a betrayal, especially for those left behind. Those who go over to fairyland are loved, are missed, are mourned. The fairies may be traditionally coded as beyond good and evil, in a way that other mythological beings aren’t, but that also means they foreclose the chance of ever being truly good—in Christian language, you might say that they don’t have a soul. Their innocence is a rejection of experience: their childhood a rejection of the idea that reality, with all its mistakes and all its disappointments and all its unhappy endings, could ever have in it something worth fleeing fairyland for.
There are—spoiler alert—no literal fairies in Here in Avalon, which is set firmly in the “real world,” albeit a world rendered a little bit more magical by the Avalon’s place in it. But this idea of a place we might long to run away to—and must inevitably return from—helped me to clarify what, exactly, the Avalon was all about, and what Here in Avalon was supposed to be. It’s a story of the moments, the possibilities, the passions, that can take us out of ourselves, and maybe, sometimes, out of the world. But at its core, it’s a story about coming home.