Saturday, September 21, 2013
Andrew Lang on the best dream stories
Andrew Lang (1844-1922), a prolific Scots author best-known for his popular "color" books of fairy stories, wrote a book on dreams that is one of my favorites. Titled The Book of Dreams and Ghosts, it was first published in 1897. Lang affected a cool skepticism towards this subject material, which allows him to slide readers cunningly into the deep end, as he recounts case after case of timefolding and interdimensional travel in dreams, based on research ranging from Classical literature to Highland folklore and reports from his neighbors.
As a consummate storyteller, Lang was always alert for the story value of his material. He raises the question: Which dreams make the best stories? He concludes that the dreams that make the best stories are those that reveal the “unknown past”, “the unknown present” and the “unknown future”. In other words, he especially likes dreams that reveal episodes in regular life that were previously unknown but can be subsequently verified. If we dreamed of being present in "an unchronicled scene" at the court of a long-dead queen, and a document confirming what we witnessed were later discovered, "then there is matter for a good dream-story."
"Perhaps nothing, not even a ghost, is so staggering to the powers of belief as a well-authenticated dream which strikes the bull's eye of facts not known to the dreamer nor capable of being guessed by him...What we need is a dream or vision of the unknown past, corroborated by a document not known to exist at the time when the vision took place and was recorded."
Here Lang describes a core element in the discipline I call dream archaeology, of whose findings I give many examples in my own books, including Dreaming the Soul Back Home and the forthcoming The Boy Who Died and Came Back.
Lang's references to his own dream life, though modest and brief, suggest he had experiential insight into his subject and that he believed he was a time traveler in his dreams: “In dreams, we see the events of the past. I have been at Culloden fight and at the siege of Troy."
He understood that dreaming is social as well as individual, and that we meet others in our dreams and may find we have memories of these encounters. He made a collection of reports of shared dreams (and used that term for them) including the following:
- Five members of the Ogilvie family, in different locations dream that a family dog – a poodle called Fanti – goes mad. Subsequently, the poodle lives on, sane and harmless, for the rest of his natural life. Lang leaves us to speculate on whether the dog's fate was changed when one of the dreamer's took action in his dream, throwing the poodle into the fire.
- Three members of the Swithinbanks family (father and two sons) dream the mother’s death on the same night and discover in the morning that indeed she died that night,
Lang gives several examples of dream tracking (my term) in which dreams reveal the location of lost objects.
- a lawyer dreams that a check he has lost is curled around a street railing (he dropped it when he went out to post letters)
- a girl in Lang’s family dreams that the missing ducks’ eggs were at a place in a certain field, where they proved to be
- an Irish lady dreams a lost key was lying at the root of a certain tree, where it is subsequently found.
He allows that in such cases, the dreaming mind may simply be putting half-observed data together better than its waking counterpart. But he also tips us a huge wink that dreamers may see such things because while the body sleeps, the dream self is out and about a-roving.