At the most recent Hutchmoot, Andrew Peterson and I gave a talk called “Writing Close to the Earth.” Andrew got on the subject of sehnsucht, that unexplained and unsatisfied longing that was for C.S. Lewis such an important clue to the meaning of the universe. Lewis’s autobiography Surprised by Joy is punctuated by moments in which some earthly experience awakens him to the truth that there is more to the world than mere earthly experience. A little model garden in a biscuit tin, Arthur Rackham’s illustrations of the Ring Cycle, a flowering currant bush—seemingly commonplace things—each gave Lewis “the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing” for a world beyond this world.
In Andrew’s words, these episodes are “moments that are lodged in our memories as significant, though we don’t always understand why—moments where the veil is lifted for a moment, and we’re left with longing, or with a new revelation of the wild beauty of the world.”
Andrew asked the audience to describe such moments in their own lives. There were a lot of mountain vistas, sunsets and sunrises, encounters with music and with art. For me, the question brought back a memory that sheds light on all the fiction I’ve ever written.
Once when I was eighteen or nineteen years old, my father and I were puttering up a familiar stretch of Georgia’s Ocmulgee River in a small aluminum boat. As we passed a sandbar that I had seen a hundred times, I was startled to see it move. Only it wasn’t the sandbar that moved; it was a great, thick alligator, ten feet long at least, with a tail as big around as a saw log. Though I had been coming to the Ocmulgee River all my life, I had never seen an alligator in its waters or on its banks. But there he was, as big as life and twice as natural.
The alligator was terrible to behold. But he was thrilling to behold too. Awful and awesome, after all, used to be synonyms. If he had wanted to, the alligator could have swept us out of our little boat and eaten us up. I understand that alligators don’t ever behave that way. But it wasn’t the understanding part of my brain that first reacted first to the sight of this monster. Nor do I even think it was my “lizard brain”—the seat of the fight-or-flight reflex—that awoke at the sight of the great lizard. No, I think this alligator awakened the part of my brain (or, more appropriately, my soul) that responds to mythology—to old stories of dragons and monsters that lurk at the edges of the worlds that we humans try to keep civilized and comfortable.
I had seen alligators before, at the zoo and in the Okefenokee Swamp. But this one lived only ten miles away from my house. He was in “my” river, where I had been coming all my life. A week earlier, I had swum across its muddy waters, not a mile from the very sandbar where this great reptile lay like Smaug on his pile of treasure.
The rivers in the southern half of Georgia once teemed with alligators. I had heard rumors that a few still survived in the Ocmulgee. I dearly hoped it was true, that the world where I lived was still as wild as that. But it didn’t seem likely. I lived in a world where the roads were paved and hot water came out of the faucet. We had a television, a VCR, a microwave oven. There were McDonald’s restaurants in my world and Top-40 radio stations and convenience stores that sold Coca-Cola and potato chips.
But also, as it turns out, there were dragons. For me, the alligator on his sandbar was a stab of Lewis’s Joy. I couldn’t get over it. I haven’t gotten over it yet.
My friends think it’s funny that every novel and short story I have ever written involves at least one alligator. I suppose it is kind of funny. But it’s more than funny. Alligators for me carry a lot of metaphorical freight. They remind us that just beyond the civilization and comfort that we carve out for ourselves, there is a wild beauty that is neither civilized nor comfortable nor even safe. They remind us that this world, the one where we live and move and have our being, is still a place of myth and marvel. Here be dragons.