The Big Idea: Catherynne M. Valente
Going to the underworld is a staple of storytelling and myth, so it’s no surprise that Catherynne M. Valente took September, the heroine of her New York Times bestselling novel The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, into a strange and weirdly wonderful underworld in its followup, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There. But of course, there’s more to the story than simply going under.
CATHERYNNE M. VALENTE:
Every hero, sooner or later, goes to the Underworld.
Odysseus, Dante, Orpheus, Rama, Coyote—the whole Campbellian deck of cards. Sometimes it’s the land of the dead and sometimes you have to go see the demon-king to get your girl back, but to get through your story, you gotta go underground.
And so does September.
The very axiomaticness of the Underworld interests me and excites me as a writer. I like to wander around with a big stick, poking at the basic building blocks of myth, tipping them over to see what’s underneath, how strong they are, how they got there to begin with. If there’s a Big Idea that unifies all the Fairyland novels to come, it would be Taking It Seriously Like Whoa. All the tropes of fairy tales and quests and folklore and portal fantasies and old school children’s books. Add complexity. Add emotional crunchiness. Add poking with a big stick. Simmer for five books.
From the moment I ended the first Fairyland book I knew that in the second, September would be going to the Underworld, to Fairyland-Below. She originally came to Fairyland on a Persephone visa, after all. It was always waiting for her. She returns to Fairyland a year older, a teenager—and with growing older comes understanding that for every act there are consequences, that no story ends neatly with all’s well that ends well, that the trouble with growing a heart is that it can be used against you. September’s sacrifice of her shadow in the first book is the root of the second—her shadow has grown up, too, given herself a name, and become Halloween, the Hollow Queen, ruler of Fairyland-Below. And she is stealing shadows from the world above.
Shadows belonging to, among others, a Wyverary, a Marid, and an old enemy.
Katabasis is a fancy Greek word for what happens to Persephone: she goes to the Underworld and returns. Inanna does it too—she gives up all the things that define her and goes to meet her sister, her other self, in the land of the dead. To some extent all otherworlds are also underworlds: Narnia and Wonderland and Oz and Dictionopolis and Hogwarts. Underworlds are not just dark and mysterious places, reversals of our own world, they are testing grounds. A brave child leaves the world they know and understand and travels to a place where the rules do not apply, where there are monsters, where the things a child fears are made literal. This is why the capital of Fairyland is Pandemonium—Fairylands are by definition underworlds. Fairies were always devils when they weren’t ghosts—of past cultures, of human wishes, of a lost and mostly fictional state of wild and uninhibited natural soul. Fairyland-Below is the underworld of an underworld. As a certain Wyverary says, “It’s underworlds all the way down.”
But it’s not enough to just ship September underground to dance Inanna’s jig with her shadow-self—not with this big stick just lying here. What I wanted was an underworld that didn’t really know or care that it was an underworld. The Other doesn’t see itself as Other. It is its own Self, with the same fears and taboos and journeys. The scary place that everyone avoids is just a place, different, strange, but its own country with its own troubles. Fairyland-Below is a huge nation, as big as Fairyland-Above, and the shadows Halloween steals are just as alive as the people they were attached to. The trouble with growing a heart is complexity—nothing is easy anymore. The Other was minding its own business before some terrified thing blundered in and starting call it all sorts of names, using up everything in sight, and hollering that fighting back just goes to show how wicked and uncivilized it is.
Wendy sewed Peter Pan’s shadow back on and never asked its leave. September’s shadow has an army, and a needle just won’t go through.
In fact, the male and female experiences of the Underworld are typically different: Odysseus goes to the Underworld bravely, voluntarily, to get information and immediately leave, Theseus, post-labyrinth, goes on a frat-boy prank with his friends. Persephone is taken and must always return. Inanna dies there. Not too many girls lose their shadows either—because girls so often are the shadows, the reflection of the male hero, standing in for all his darker impulses: jealousy, pettiness, weakness, deceit, sexuality. Girls are the Other. Their own countries, no less or uglier than boys, but called the devil and worse by those with power. The shadow version of oneself is like the Underworld itself—a wilder, darker, more primal version, a place where the things we try to bury with civilization come roaring to life. September’s shadow has no rules or boundaries and it is always tempting to live that way. One of the great sources of interest and humor in portal fantasies is the contrast between the protagonist’s expectations and reality. September expects the devil, and finds herself.
The fact is, I love underworld stories. I love them because I grew up spending the summers in California with my mothers and the winters in Seattle with my father and damn if that girl and her pomegranates didn’t speak to me. I love them because they are about lifting up the world and seeing how it works, under the hood, under the light. And I love them because they are about our experience in the real world, not only death, but living. We all have times, some of us many of them, when we have messed up, intending to do right, intending the very best of outcomes, and still profoundly blown it. We all go underground, sooner or later, into dark places, depression and grief and shame, isolation and anxiety and abandonment. We go there to meet ourselves, to judge ourselves and often too harshly, to take some lesson or hope back with us. Sometimes it even works. And adolescence is one long journey toward oneself, one’s future, possible self, the path into the frightful dark of change and the long struggle up again—into adulthood, which is another way of saying more and constant change. What you learn down there is how to survive and not to fear. And that’s why we keep writing about it. Because we keep living it.
To get through your story, you gotta go underground.