Tuesday, November 14, 2023

In the Garden Behind the Moon


I've been rereading The Garden Behind the Moon, by Howard Pyle, originally published in 1895. This may be quite my favorite story for younger readers.

    My friendly daimon of Luna concurs. He especially approves of the fact that a beautiful but terrible entity “whom so many people know by a different name and are so afraid of” is called the Moon-Angel. Around his face, it is bright like sunlight. He “never brings something but he takes something away from him again” - and we come to learn that this is most often the soul of someone who has died. The Moon-Angel of the story is also called the Master Cobbler, which appears to reflect the preferences of an old cobbler in a fishing village who “knows less than nothing” and thereby more than those around him. We see the old cobbler pegging soles to uppers on his last. My daimon points out that there is a crafty allusion here to Sandalphon, the Sandal-Angel or Shoe-Angel who gives and takes away soul bodies for transits to and from the Moon.

So to the story:

   A boy called David, who is not yet twelve, and is regarded as dreamy and simple (a “moon-calf”) by his peers, learns from the old cobbler that a moon-path opens across the sea a day or two after the moon is at its full. Close to shore, the first steps float in the tide as bars of light, slippery underfoot. But if you persist, the moon-path becomes a gravel road, and finally a broad shining field, until you get to the Moon.

    After an initial mishap, the boy gets to the Moon, where a man-in-the-Moon pulls him up a stair. From each window of the Moon house, he sees into different scenes, into the inside as well as the outside. He is set to polishing stars with lamb's wool, for nights when the Moon is waning. He earns a little break; he is allowed down a back stair into a lovely garden where he plays with other children. He has his time in the garden for three days every month, and falls in love with a little princess, but is then told that he cannot return to the garden because he is turning twelve, and will be too old.

     Now he is called to the Quest: to win his girl, he must find the Know All book in the Wonder Box that has been hidden since Eve and Adam (note the order) were driven form the garden. To do this, he must “go behind” the Moon-Angel, something that has almost never been done. When he confronts the Moon-Angel, we begin to feel his terror as well as his beauty. In effect the boy has to step through  his form, through unbearable cold that transforms to unbearable heat. He bursts through a great iron door into the landscape of the Quest. He is no longer a boy; he has aged ten years.

    He finds his local guide - a woman in a red shift who cleans souls and leaves them out to dry. She tells him what he will need to do to capture the black winged horse that will take him to the Iron Castle of the Iron Man where the Wonder Box has long been locked up. He catches the black horse by the forelock (like Kairos - opportunity - time). It can no longer fly with a human on its back, but it can run fast. David manages to enter the Iron Castle, and steals the Wonder Box, and rediscovers the girl - escapes from the Iron Castle, and kills the Iron Man with a stone from the sea shore.

    David and his beloved return to the “brown world” on the moon path, but find that the path branches to take each to their separate homes. So now there is another test, for the princess (she's a real one) to find her hero and for the Wonder Box she took from him to be opened with the key that he retained. A happy and triumphant ending, of course. 

     In which the most interesting feature (as my daimon observes, pointing a finger up under his left eye) is that nobody knew that David was missing all the time he spent in the house of the Moon and the lands beyond it. And nobody in Princess Aurelia's kingdom knew she was gone either; they had merely found her, from birth, strangely mute and emotion-less. She's fully alive now that her soul has come home from the Garden Behind the Moon. 

    So we may catch the hint that the story is about soul loss, when people around you may not notice you are missing, only that you are duller and quieter. And that there are places where lost souls go, from which they may be brought home by those who can muster the courage and imagination to get through some version of the Moon-Angel.

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