Guest Post: City of Dreaming Books

City of Dreaming Books“Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dinosaur”: Writing and Imagination in Walter Moers’ The City of Dreaming Books

By ChrisC

Metafiction is hard to do. It’s also something that most readers aren’t familiar with. Metafiction is a sub-genre of literature that is perhaps best defined as “Fiction that is about the nature, art and craft of fiction, and its various elements (i.e. style, characterization etc.)”. Because of this, metafiction is actually more of a subject that can be fitted into the plot of any genre, whether it be fantastic or realistic.

Because metafiction is concerned with “the writing of fiction”, one of it’s greatest risks is that it can bore the audience. The simple fact is that while it’s possible to tell a story about the art of writing, very few seem able to pull it off in an effective way. That and the truth about creative writing is that for most authors, it consists of just sitting in front of a computer screen all day while either waiting or trying to have a good idea. That’s about it (almost) as far as the scribbling side of things goes (and it gets even worse if your story requires a bit of research, as most of them often do; lame perhaps, but true).

The surprising thing is, there are a few books out there that tackle Metafiction as a subject, and manage to make it entertaining as well. Stephen King includes frequent asides on the writing life in a lot of his stories (most famously inMisery) as he seems to take a genuine, pleasurable curiosity in the craft, and in trying to think out it’s implications (never let it be said he was weird for nothing, huh?). More to the point, J.K. Rowling herself has crafted an entire novel around the metafictional concept in her second Cormoran Strike novel, The Silkworm. With it’s look into the publishing industry, it’s examinations of the author as a main subject, and little asides such as “Plot is what happens: Narrative is how much you show your readers and how you show it to them (Rowling, 66)”, Silkworm can be cited as a modern textbook example of successful metafiction.

It’s a description which I think sums up another work in this sub-genre, The City of Dreaming Books by Walter Moers.

Welcome To Bookholm

Few people in the outside world are acquainted with the great publishing empire that is Bookholm. In fact, many would be surprise to even hear of such a place at all. However the word empire is apt, for Bookholm is none other than the only city, in any universe, which is built, founded, and devoted 24-7 to the writing, publishing, and selling of all things literary. Hence it’s nickname, The City of Dreaming Books. Situated roughly between points A and B (said points being the space between the readers ears) and only slightly less well known than the great galactic publishing firm of Ursa Minor (world renown for the famous Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) Bookholm has long prided itself on being the sole city specifically designed for the service of culture through literacy.

Into to this mega-publishing-tropolis comes one Optimus Yarnspinner, a young Lindworm (which is a cross between a dinosaur and a dragon that cannot fly) and aspiring author (and also narrator). He has come to the City of Books with two goals in mind. 1. Jump start his literary aspirations and, 2. try and locate the author of the most perfect story ever written. The Perfect Manuscript came into his possession when Yarnspinner inherited the collection of books in god-uncles library. He says of this manuscript:

“My first thought was that every word was in the right place. Well, there was nothing so special about that – every piece of writing makes the same initial impression.

Its only on closer inspection that one notices occasional solecisms; the misplacing of punctuation marks, the insidious spelling mistakes, the use of cock-eyed metaphors, the spurning of one word where two will do, and all the other blunders a writer can make. But that first page was different. Even without absorbing it’s contents, I gained the impression that it was a flawless work of art. it resembled the kind of painting or sculpture that tells you at a glance if it’s kitsch or a masterpiece. No handwritten page had ever had that effect on me even before I’d read it. This one looked as if it had been inscribed by a calligrapher. The characters, each of them a work of art in it’s own right, were choreographed across the page like an enchanting ballet….

…I read on. The author’s way of writing was so absolutely right, so perfect, that tears sprang to my eyes – something that usually happens only when I’m listening to stirring music. There was an unearthly finality about its grandeur(Moers, 25)”.

Armed with the Manuscript of the Unknown Author, and his own meager offerings, Yarnspinner sets off in search of answer, and success if they have any. As is the case with this sort of scenario, all anyone can give him is more than he bargained for. It’s not long before Yarnspinner finds himself caught up in the intrigues of Bookholm’s hidden history, involving the life and exploits of it’s greatest hero (imagine an anthropomorphic talking fox that hunts for rare and used books and just roll with it), The Bookemists, a secret society of antiquarians with alchemistic tendencies…(ibid, 56)”, a curious cultic symbol revered by the Bookemists known as the Orm, and the connection all three have with the mysterious figure known as The Shadow King.

The narrator’s search eventually leads him into the catacombs and tunnel systems under the city, and it is there that all Bookholm’s mysteries are revealed. Technically, it’s possible to emerge from this sort of situation unchanged in any fundamental way, yet it’s very hard to pull off. You’d having to be either very ignorant, or very uncaring and callous, and thankfully Optimus Yarnspinner is neither. There are times when he displays a familiar kind of snobbery that is often associated with artists or critics, and yet has nothing to do with art or it’s appreciation, and even that is slowly winnowed away as his journey goes on. So yes, I’d say what he learns during his search turns him into the person by the close of the book.

What makes it Mythopoeic

The synopsis above is the barest outline of an overall sketch of the story. Partly this is for the sake of spoilers, and also because of a growing concern with, not the story as such, rather the ability of some, if not all, modern audiences to enjoy this sort of thing.

In terms of genre, The City of Dreaming Books belongs firmly in the realm of fantasy, and yet it’s not quite the same straightforward narratives that audiences have come to expect from either a Tolkien or Rowling. This book belongs instead to that much more select group within fantasy alongside Lewis Carroll and the works of Edward Lear, namely the Nonsense Fantasy. In this case City is the net result of what would happen if Carroll and Dr. Seuss collaborated together on a novel. Hence the presence of a whole gaggle of fantastic creatures, the majority of which are improbable on any possible world. To give an illustrated example of the kind of antics the reader is in for, Gathering Books blog provides a more detailed overview, complete with illustrations done by Moers himself: see that here.

With such imagery and description in mind, the idea of a talking fox should start to sound normal by now (did I forget to mention that character is sort of the Gandalf figure for this book?). Whether one embraces the story as worthy for adults, or else dismisses it to the nursery, one thing that does have to be stressed is that the book’s inherent structures and underlying symbols can be label as more or less 100% mythopoeic.

To examine the structure, the usual arc of a mythopoetical story is the three act alchemical stages. While still not giving away too many spoilers, the three stages are displayed in the novel (as far as I can tell) like this:

Nigredo: From roughly his arrival in Bookholm to his waking up in the dark underneath the city’s tunnel system, Yarnspinner’s tale begins with it’s main character both figuratively and ultimately in the literal dark.

Albedo: The second stage of the journey begins when the narrator finds himself in the grotto of a select and erudite underground literary community. From these lower dwellers, Yarnspinner broadens his outlook and philosophy on books, and comes to know more about the best and brightest in letters. At least until the grotto in invaded by a raiding party and it’s a quick and exciting mine cart ride to:

Rubedo: In the final chapters, Yarnspinner at last meets up with the mysterious Shadow King, and learns about the power of Imagination (represented in the book by the symbol of the Uroboros) and begins his eventual slow ascent back to the streets of Bookholm. All that needs to be known about the denouement is that the color red does figure in a way across the entire City of Books.

Mythopoeic Symbols

In addition to the three stages outlined (however poorly) above, the story also has it’s fair share of alchemical symbols to back it up. The two most notable symbols are:

The Bookemists:

The Bookemists, a secret society of antiquarians with alchemistic tendencies…(ibid, 56)”.

Bookemism was a Bookholmian species of alchemy. Part scientists, part physicians, part charlatans and part antiquarians, the Bookemists had founded a guild devoted to typography, antiquarianism, chemistry, biology, physics and literature. These branches of knowledge had combined with conjuration, divination, astrology, and other hocus pocus to form a baneful amalgam sufficient to fill whole libraries with horror stories (ibid, 93)”.

The other (represented by the Uroboros) is the symbol of the Orm:

Dancelot still clung to the old belief in the Orm, a kind of mysterious force said to flow through many authors at moments of extreme inspiration. We young and enlightened writers used to laugh at this hocus-pocus, but respect for our authorial godfathers prompted us to refrain from making any cynical about the Orm in their presence, though not when in the company of kindred spirits. I know hundreds of Orm jokes (ibid, 20)”.

The symbol of the Orm (perhaps a borrowing of the concept of the Auryn necklace from Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story) is really nothing more than the main symbol for the nature and influence of the Coleridgian Imagination in the novel. Throughout the story Yarnspinner keeps coming into repeated contact with this idea, only to dismiss it. Whether of not he believes in such idea about the Imagination is something readers will have to make up their own minds about.

As for the Bookemists, it should be obvious enough that all Moers has done is to take the traditional real world alchemists and given them the smallest of fictional spins. There is more of a focus on ink, paper and parchment than on various chemicals, but in essence the practice and characterization of the Bookemists is consistent with two strands of historical treatment of the Sacred Science and it’s practitioners, the Satiric and the Metaphysical. As a matter of fact, the ending could be read as a kind of partial vindication of the Bookemist practices (at least there’s one way of looking at it). As to whether Moers actually believes in such practices, in the symbolic literary sense, yes, in the real-life literal sense, I very much doubt it. Walter Moers was a figure in the German underground comics movement before branching out into novels (it could be possible he learned about literary alchemy from studying the works of graphic novelist Alan Moore, although this is pure speculation) and from what little else I’ve been able to find on him, he shows nothing in the way of New Age tendencies, or anything like that.

As to whether or not Moers is a Christian of whatever sect, “that” as Professor Digory once said, “is precisely the one thing I cannot tell you”. It may be that Moers had no apologetic in mind. Maybe, for all we know, the story just wound up taking the shape it did based on an imaginative joining together of various elements of knowledge in his mind (although this posits the idea of fiction as half-recalled memory in the vein J.L. Lowes, and that’s a theory of art I’m skeptical of as it doesn’t account for all the symbolism in every work of fiction). All I know is that, for whatever reason, The City of Dreaming Books sets itself out in a style and progress that is, whether by purpose or chance, thoroughly in keeping with the thought of the Inkling writers, and those who have followed in their train over the various years. I can’t say I know how that can happen (though as Lewis once remarked “Jung’s Archetypes do seem to explain it” (Carpenter, 138), yet it interesting that a story from a writer who for all we know may never have read any of the Inklings fantasies can nonetheless make work that fits nicely into the mythopoeic niche.

Just some food for thought.

Speak Your Mind