Thursday, August 21, 2014

Nicholas Stuart Gray’s witch: Barbara

Barbara is the main character in The Stranger, a short story in Nicolas Stuart Gray’s book The Edge of Evening. She does not at all resemble the witch Huddle, who also appears in this book. She is described as being neither young nor old, neither ugly nor pretty. She has brown hair and violet eyes, and is slim and rather tall.

Barbara has little in common with other witches I have written about: for example, she is not seeking some black magic book, magical artefact or other item as are Dr. Melanie Powers, Rowena Cooper and Miss Heckatty; she is not power crazy nor planning to rule the world like Gwendolen Chant; she is not cruel and evil like Madame Delubovoska nor surly and unpleasant like Mrs Lubbage.

Her problem is that she is miserable: she is a stranger in a strange land; she hates her life in a world where kindness is dreadfully lacking and wants to get away from it. She is tired of people telling her to pull herself together.

She has learned magic and sorcery just to obtain the power to find a world of her own, a place that is right for her, somewhere with people who speak her language, somewhere she can meet her own kind at last and be happy. She is so desperate for help that she performs a summoning ritual and conjures up a demon – whose name is Balbarith – and orders him to obey her. She commands him to show her other worlds and how to enter them.

Compelled to obedience by the power of Barbara’s spells, Balbarith shows her a few worlds, none of which is suitable, then finds a fairly reasonable sort of place, simple and happy looking. It is full of flowers, fields and sweet, friendly animals and birds. Barbara likes it very much.

She starts to treat Balbarith more as a friend than a servant. She asks the demon to accompany her while she explores and looks for people who will be her friends. Eventually they realise that the reason for the creatures’ tameness is that they have never learned to distrust a human because there are no other people there. Balbarith says this is ideal: the human race poisons everything it touches.

Barbara agrees that humans are a miserable lot, mostly unhappy and making each other wretched in their spare time: Earth is a world of trouble. Yet she says that she cannot live in this lovely place without another human to share it with her. She must have a human face and an answering voice.

She remembers that her power of sorcery can still be used to bring someone to her. She creates a magic circle and chants an incantation, ignoring Balbarith’s warning that it could all end in trouble.

A very handsome man on a big horse appears. His blue eyes shine, as do Barbara’s when she sees what she has caught with her spell. He smiles at her.

Unfortunately, this is as good as it gets: the good feelings on both sides disappear when the horseman notices the magic circle and throws his lance at a little deer that appears. This upsets Barbara who says that everything is spoilt.

The man turns nasty when he realises what Barbara has done and shouts that he hates black magic and that she should be burned at the stake. When Barbara says that she only wanted someone to share the lovely world, the man demands to know why she has picked on him without giving him any choice in the matter. He says that he would rather be destroyed than enslaved by a witch. He rejects her and her world.

Balbarith prepares himself to intercept an attempt by Barbara to destroy the man, but she does the decent thing by releasing him and sending him and his horse back to where they came from. She then cries bitterly. She admits that the man was right and she should have tried to find someone who actually wanted to come to her world.

She realises that she has been as thoughtless as the rest. Grieving for her own unhappiness has prevented her from looking into other people’s hearts and seeing their misery. She wonders whether everyone is a stranger on Earth.

This light bulb moment, this breakthrough point, is something I expected would bring about a good outcome, but the happy ending that both Huddle and Miss Heckatty earn by doing the right thing is not for Barbara.

I thought that she might decide to go back to where she came from and resolve to do whatever she can to understand people and help them. However, she decides to stay on, alone, and tells Balbarith to go and live his own life. She deliberately breaks her magic wand, so Balbarith is set free. He does not offer to escort her back himself as I thought he might. He hears a terrible, paralysing sound so stays a little longer beside her before leaving.

He visits her from time to time to chat and see how she is getting on; she seems content enough, but the sound he heard was the sound of a breaking heart. . .

Thesis: the witch Barbara’s case for support 
“In this world I’m a stranger. I have always been a stranger. I don’t understand other people at all, and they don’t understand me. My life has been unhappy here from the start. But somewhere there must be a place where I would feel at home.”

 “I’m so miserable. Since I was a child I’ve felt different from other humans. Even from my own family! All my wishes, my needs, my thoughts, my dreams have been ignored or mocked. Sometimes I feel that no one can hear me or see me properly. And people that I’ve loved – and tried to help and serve – have rejected me or just not noticed me.”

“I’ve never married…never had children. And never will, now. No one has ever seen me clearly! I’ll grow old in this horrible, alien world, without a true friend or a love. What is wrong with me?... am I an alien, in fact? Some being from another planet – fallen here by mischance…?”

Antithesis: the demon Balbarith’s opinion of Barbara’s situation
Balbarith does have a heart and becomes quite fond of Barbara, but at first he is not very supportive. He does not approve of Barbara’s attempt to escape from a world where she is very unhappy; he is not sympathetic when he hears her lamentations. He comes close to telling Barbara to pull herself together and be brave like everyone else.

His opinion of the human race is not particularly high: he considers humans to be an odd lot. He has noticed that they always long to be understood, but only occasionally do they make any effort to understand another person. They always think that they are the only sufferers from lack of understanding and they turn a blind eye and ear to someone else pleading for sympathy.

He thinks that using sorcery to find a suitable place to be happy in is a foolish notion: people who take up magic usually do it for power, money and revenge - and sometimes by mistake. They are rarely happy and would be better off without it.

Balbarith says that of course humans are all homesick: they came, long ago, from another star.

Synthesis: my take on the two viewpoints
I think that Balbarith is wrong about the stranger in a strange land syndrome: I don’t believe that everyone on earth has feelings of not belonging in this world, or that the entire human race really does come from somewhere else. I believe that just a small minority composed of certain constituencies feels this way.

Collective minded and grounded people do not usually report feeling that they are aliens who are trapped on the wrong planet. It seems to be mainly sensitive and gifted people, psychics, people with metaphysical interests, outsiders, outliers, extreme introverts and creative people with strong imaginations such as artists, writers and poets who feel that they are living far from home in an alien world.

Kathleen Raine for example mentions her sense of innate difference and says:
 “the sense of living as an exile in a foreign land, of being of another race and kind from those among whom I have been forced to live and work has never left me.’

Sylvia Plath said something to the effect that she could not adjust to this world because she was constructed to live somewhere else.

Balbarith is spot on when he says that people need to understand rather than wish to be understood. You need to give in order to get; you get back what you put out; before a quality can manifest itself in your life, you first need to start the proceedings from your end by expressing that quality yourself. Barbara could have tried to see and hear the people around her properly and find some minor things in common with them: this might have brought her some of the positive attention that she was seeking.

The idea that the right place is waiting for us as we are now is a common delusion. Barbara needed to evolve and earn a better place for herself: gratitude and appreciation could have moved her in the right direction, step by step, and opened some avenues.

Balbarith is right too about magic and sorcery: there is usually no good outcome in the long term for people who use any form of black magic, whether unconsciously or deliberately. Barbara was suffering terribly; perhaps she felt that she was in a trap with no way out. It is at just these times that people are in danger of using illegitimate ways to escape, and it often backfires and turns sour so they find themselves even worse off.

It is a pity that Barbara didn’t have Internet access: she could just have Googled ”I feel like an alien from another planet” and found thousands of like-minded people to communicate with.

Some final thoughts
Barbara’s words are very moving. Many people with metaphysical interests will find them familiar and say “I could have written that myself”.  I myself can identify with some of what Barbara and Kathleen Raine have said. I have noticed similar ideas, similar feelings of belonging elsewhere, in the works of science fiction writers such as Andre Norton and Sylvia Engdahl. This suggests that feeling isolated among the Earthlings is not just a personal viewpoint but a scenario, a mindset that some people are issued with.

An article that went very deeply into the issues raised by this sad little story would be book length, and even so I have not got enough information to cover all aspects in detail. I would like to see an in-depth investigation of the stranger in a strange land syndrome performed.

I would like to see a list of all possible explanations for the phenomenon listed: for example, I have seen it attributed to Atlantean blood, RH Negative blood, Star Seeds, autism and lack of nurturing in the earliest years.

I wish someone would do a survey: more information would help with identifying patterns and making connections. I would very much like to know which demographics are involved. I am interested in attributes such as nationality, eye colour and blood group. I would like to know how many people feel like this, what sort of families they come from, what their early lives were like, what they do, where they go, how they try to solve their problems and how many ever find contentment and a life that is right for them in this world.