Saturday, 22 June 2013

Wondrous Strange

"'Tis wondrous strange, the like yet never heard of." - Henry VI

HMAS Wyeth by Tom Kidd

Yesterday, just before sunset, I was sitting at a bus stop, waiting to be picked up after a delightful library trip. Beside me on the seat I rested a large and bulging bag of books - the results of my day's profitable prospecting for stories. Since my kind and lovely driver was a little late, I passed the time observing the passers-by, and by gazing at the relucent, luminous clouds in shades of rose and pale peach. The clouds, (whose beauty no one but myself appeared to mark), seemed the perfect setting for uncommon and fantastic flights - for hot air balloons, and sky-squid; perhaps a Pegasus with snowy wings tipped with sunset gold. All manner of strange and wonderful things, I thought, could be found within the glowing arches of the clouds.

Wonderful and strange are naturally paired in my mind...
This thought, like a sudden breeze, sent the hot-air balloon of my mind careening in a new direction. It was the word strange that struck me, or rather my natural pairing of the word strange with wonderful. It made me realise that the word held particular evocative attraction for me; that I use it often with particular relish, and indeed that I have for a long time unconsciously considered the word strange in the light of a particular compliment, a distinction not awarded to words often used as synonyms of "strange"; like "odd", "weird", "peculiar", "different" or "eccentric". 

The Hunt in the Forest by Paolo Uccello. One of my favourite paintings, for its very strangeness. The endlessness of the forest, and the silent, frantic hunt, inspire me with a great sense of mystery and excitement. 

Why should that be, I wondered? What was the difference? In my mind, while these words can in most situations be used interchangeably, strange has a particular savor of mystery and fantasy.Intrigued, I considered the evocative imagery I associated with the word strange and its synonymy, in the hopes of coming to an understanding of my fascination with it. But first I examined how I felt about words like "odd", "weird" and "peculiar".

This four-eared cat is "odd".

This surrealist painting is odd and unsettling and intriguing.

When I think of "odd" I have an unsettling feeling; as though the word describes a quality of something lacking or a quality of having something that one shouldn't have; a dissociation from context, alienation or an unexpected wrongness. I think of surrealist paintings; of cats with four ears and six-legged calves; of pink elephants dancing in a living room. Dreamlike, it is similar in feeling to "peculiar", which in my mind describes anything in Alice in Wonderland, similar to "curious and curiouser". 

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland  are definitely peculiar.

The words "weird", "bizarre" and "eccentric" have different imagery with which they are associated. For "weird" I think of witches on a dark moor, singing and wailing in a disturbing cadence as they concoct foul brews. For "bizarre" I think of garish haute-couture and Dr Seuss, and a colourful market where anything and anything can be purchased.  While my imagery for "eccentric" includes ingenious mechanical contraptions of dubious practical use but great aesthetic appeal; fabulous and sometimes incomprehensible costumery; essentially anything steampunk. 

The weird sisters, gesticulating on the moors as they perform their rites beneath the  awesome sky...

Bizarre haute-couture.
Glorious steampunk eccentricity.

None of these above words have any particular inherent negative connotation in my mind (except the mildly disturbing association with "odd"), and they could be used in a complimentary context (as in, "the dashing and eccentric Lady Thimblespoon was renowned for her explorations through the glowing caves of Sky Patagonia in her incarnadine dirigible", or "the flickering candle light cast a weird light onto the seer’s face and gave her eyes a powerful and terrifying flicker, as if they hid secrets behind a rippling curtain of light"). However, while the words have great evocative potential, I do not think they possess the magic fascination and attraction of strange.

Strange is mystery and power.

In this enchanted forest, who knows what strange things lurk in the shadows and the mist?

There is great beauty in the strange...

When I think of something strange I see in my mind the red, blue and yellow scales of a wild serpent-god, with folded wings glinting with golden highlights, slithering in jungle shadows, under leaves of brilliant green. I think of a deep pool of dark water, and fantastical shapes moving in the depths. I think of the false-eyes on a caterpillar; of the shining blue iridescence of beetles' wings, and the shimmering, multitudinous legs and red lanterns of deep-sea creatures. I think of things that move on the edges of awareness, between seen and unseen, where the imagination is most feverishly creative. There is something dark and splendid about strange - something wild and mysterious. It holds the possibility of beauty incomparable, and at the same time fear. Fear of the monster that is as much the potential of the strange as is the beauty. There is something uncontrollable, awe-inspiring about strange.

Is this ghostly bride a friend to humankind, or foe? Is her visage ghastly or palely, peerlessly beautiful?  Her presence in the wood is strange - has she come to deliver a message from beyond the veil of death, or is she bound to wander here unceasing, mourning what is past?

This being is strange and monstrous, but with a beauty about it too - like the beauty of twisted roots that blindly tunnel ever downward, in the damp dark dirt, seeking water far underground.

That explains why some phrases using the word "strange" are so evocative and so full of poetic potential. "Strange and marvelous", "rare and strange", "on stranger tides", "strange but true", "strange flowers of reason", "tis wondrous strange"... all of these phrases just seethe with imagery and a creeping sensation of mystery and the fantastic.

She found me roots of relish sweet,                  
  And honey wild, and manna dew,          
And sure in language strange she said
  “I love thee true.”   - La Belle Dame Sans Merci         

In a way, strange is connected to magic and old beliefs; to other worlds and to times where people were more aware of mystery. The etymology of the word traces a history back to the 13th Century - rooted in French and Latin, it meant "from elsewhere, foreign, unknown, unfamiliar" before it meant "queer and surprising". Perhaps this explains the otherworldly association? What is Faerie but elsewhere to everywhere? What is mystery but "the unknown"; the never-quite-knowable? 

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rare and strange.

- The Tempest (illustration by Edmund Dulac)

1 comment:

  1. "There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion."
    Sir Francis Bacon, "Of Beauty"

    I agree wholeheartedly with both us you!