Literary Fernweh

Literary – having to do with books

Fernweh – a longing for distant places

The feeling hits me at least once a year, usually around February. One minute I will be happily going about my daily life, minding my own business, and the next thing I know nothing is right with the world. I have a burning, deep, desperate desire….to go to Narnia. I don’t mean I suddenly want to re-read the Narnia books or that I have the urge to put myself through Fox’s rendition of Voyage of the Dawn Treader again. I mean I seriously, physically want to be in Narnia. I want to touch the cold metal of the lamp-post and see the breathtaking view of Cair Paravel as the sun rises in the East. I want to eat apples as I walk among the ruins of old buildings and I want to converse with chivalrous, talking mice. I want to see the Stone Table and sail on the Dawn Treader.  I want to follow the footsteps of King Peter, Queen Susan, King Edmund, and Queen Lucy…or better yet, join them for dinner at the Beaver’s dam. I want to go to Narnia.

Now, obviously I have never been to Narnia. No one but perhaps Mr. Lewis ever has. Yet I still feel the burning desire to go. That is the mystery and the beauty and the oddity of fernweh.  I can long for a place I have never been. I can yearn to roam the moors in Scotland or walk among the crowds of India having never visited either place. I can wish for the road. However, the essence and emotion of fernweh is not limited to actual, physical places. It is a desire deep inside for someplace. That someplace may manifest in an actual location, but more often fernweh is for a place never seen or known. One of the most powerful yet overlooked aspects of fernweh is the feeling a reader has for places in books. I’m calling it literary fernweh.

Narnia, Hogwarts, Pemberley. There is something about each word that evokes longing in a bookworm’s heart. I want to go to….

The Shire.

I dream of….

221b Baker Street

If only I could be at….

You fill it in.

Books bind us together. They become common ground and unite new friends like old acquaintances. A good story isn’t contained between the covers of a book. It becomes part of the essence and dreams of the reader. And so as readers, we long for those places. With a burning desire for far off places we dream of worlds that will only exist in the imagination. It is those kind of worlds that can be the most powerful. They are what draws us to fairy tales. What leads us to reread favorite stories. They push us to dream and imagine and never let go of that childlike faith that there is meaning in life. Such worlds teach us to believe in wonder. We were not created to be robots. We were designed to respond. We taste that response when we long for worlds that have never been and never physically will be and yet are so real. We visit the childhood homes of favored authors and flock to the movies even though it won’t be as good as the book because  they are tangible parts of that world. And so we form nerdoms and become fangirls and spend hours learning Sarati, Tengwar, and Cirth (the Elvish languages of Tolkien).

And in our hearts we promise, like Peter Pan, to never, ever grow up.

Why is it that “growing up” seems to mean putting such longing behind us? Why is it childish to dream of Narnia? What makes bills more noble than Sherwood Forest? Reality so much greater than Rivendale? Why must maturity mean the disappearance of talking dolls and Winnie the Pooh? It is acceptable to love Jane Austen if you are a middle age woman hunting for Mr. Darcy. It is perhaps appropriate to read a great deal if you work in a library. Otherwise, the world of fairy tales and fantasy must give way to “real life”. We’re to seek the American dream, #MoneySuccessGoodLife. Or, perhaps, take the British outlook and pessimistically declare that you’ve got to make the best of a bad situation and shuffle through it. It being life of course.

Yet somewhere, amidst networking and polished resumes and shaking our heads over how bad the government is getting, there is a tiny voice that says… ‘Forget this bother, I’m going to Narnia!’

That is a small part of literary fernweh.

We recognize there has to be something more.

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2 responses to “Literary Fernweh

  • Timothy Andrew Metcalf

    Literary Fernweh- I like the term. I feel it too. There are times when I would like nothing more than for one of my less-than-sane friend to announce he was not from Guildford at all, but from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse, pull out a sub-ether sens-o-matic and hitch a ride on a passing space ship.I would jump at the opportunity to feast on one of Anatole’s meals at Brinkley Court with Bertram Wooster and company (Have you read “Right Ho, Jeeves?” If not, read it now), and the planet Shine from The Green Book with its glass grass and candy trees would be an untellably delightful vacation destination. But Earth is at least as beautiful as Shine. There are people far more interesting than Bertram and cooks far more talented than Anatole. And even improbability physics is nowhere near as fantastical as quantum mechanics. It’s thus hard to say why these worlds are so attractive. But I think that part of it is that things are much simpler. Things are fair. The Vogons destroyed Earth to make way for a bypass because Mr. Proser bulldozed Arthur Dent’s house for the same reason. In Right Ho, Jeeves, the people who were supposed to be together ended up together. The people of Shine work hard to survive, so they survive. It’s not, then, the places that attract us. It’s what happens in those places. We see that everyone gets what they deserve in novels, so we wish to live in the books so the same happens to us. The reverse is also true. I would never want to visit the universe in which Starship Troopers was written. Sure, they have giant robot suits armed to the teeth with everything from machine guns to nukes. But good men die daily in a pointless war against the bugs. Ender’s Game is one of my favorite books, but I would never want to live in that world, despite the grandeur of the massive zero-g Battle Room, because protagonists systematically crafted children into merciless killers and received no proportionate retribution. This, I believe, is another part of Literary Fernweh. Because we are made in the image of God, we long for justice, but because of the Fall, our world is unjust (only temporally, I know; God’s justice will one day be poured out). Narnia and Middle Earth are tantalizing because good things come to those who do good, and those who do evil come to a bad end. That appeals to us, so we want to go there.

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