So, been under a lot of stress these days. Been turning a lot to some of my favorite Comfort Stories, and that lead me to start thinking about just what does make a good Comfort Story.
I think the first element is largely accidental. Most of the stories that I find myself turning to in times of trouble are the ones I fell in love with as a child or teenager. (And by ‘stories’, per my usual, I am lumping together all forms of story— books, movies, TV.) Not that I subscribe to the myth of idyllic childhood or high school as the ‘best years of our lives’— like most geeks, I never really found my footing until childhood. Yet for most of us (not all, I know) the pre-adult years are the ones most free of serious responsibility. No matter how much high school sucked, at least it was not my problem to pay bills, keep food on the table and the roof over my head. And anything seemed possible in the nebulous future. A Tom Baker/Peter Davison era Doctor Who marathon can take me back to that safer, simpler time, at least for a while, as can re-reading Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword.
It goes back to more than timing, though. I am not, after all, seeking out episodes of MacGyver online. (If I start, you have my permission to have me locked away for my own good.) And though I read Sherlock Holmes stories as a child (I always read far above my grade level) I didn’t discover the Granada TV/Jeremy Brett versions until well into adulthood. Why then, did watching an antisocial man tracking down murderers soothe me through a bout of insomnia a few years back?
I think it was because that antisocial man was nonetheless a tireless champion of justice, fiercely protective of the innocent, and chivalrous, even kind, when the moment demanded it. With Holmes out there, the world is a safer place, even if it’s just a fictional Holmes and a fictional world. In that, he parallels the Doctor, who is also kind when the occasion calls for it, although he can be flippant and even rude by turns, resourceful, unflinchingly brave and unable to walk past a wrong without righting it. Robin Hood, another of my comfort-read favorites in its various versions, follows the same pattern. Middle Earth offers Aragorn, Faramir and Gandalf. The Dark Is Rising series has Meriman Lyon.
Another element to the Comfort Story— the danger the characters face has to be worse than anything my own life is throwing at me. Murder and blackmail is good. A threat of destruction to the entire world, better. The end of all of time and space, better still. If the characters are able to stand up to that, well, how can I shrink back from my own lesser problems?
I think the Comfort Stories that helped me throughout my own life became part of the drive I have now to write— I want to give to others what I found myself.
I’m aware that what makes a story a Comfort Story varies greatly with the audience. I’m sure there are many disparate lists and sets of criteria. I’d be interested in hearing what some of you out there have found as your Comfort Stories, and why.
Author’s note: This is quite unlike most of my writing, written in a distant POV, almost a prose poem. It actually came almost whole-cloth out of an exercise in flow writing a while back, and since it didn’t seem to fit into any genre or market, languished on my hard drive. I thought it was too lovely to stay hidden. I hope you like it. (apologies for the indenting being wonky. WordPress and I are not getting along.
His muse was in the mountains, in the mists on the mountain meadows, in the mournful cry of the dove. She knew this; it was the reason she always came to him, her wild mountain bard with his flute and his flights of fancy. She never asked him to come to her. All through the spring of their courtship, all through the summer of its fulfillment, not once did he come to her tame little farm in the vale with its neat ordered lines. But it was autumn now, with winter hard upon them. She would not make this journey in the bitter snows, nor could she forsake forever the stolid stone warmth of hearth and home.
And so they parted, he watching her go without a word, she leaving with tears but without regret.
Both of them knew, without saying, that she would not make the journey again in spring. She was not made for the mountains, though she loved them, was not made for a love brief and insubstantial as the mountain mists.
Through the fall she labored, harvesting, gathering storing. The air of her vale was cider-sweet with apples. The fields turned to gold and then to brown against the storm-gray skies. Always before her heart had been so full of her love for the land and its colors that she had no room for loneliness. But this year she found her eyes drawn up to the mountains in the horizon, all bright aspen and dark spruce. In the mornings the colors were softened by the mists. On sunny afternoons their brilliance broke her heart.
Sometimes she thought she heard a wisp of song on the winds that blew down from the mountains. Sometimes she whispered his name, just to hear it.
The leaves faded, fell, blew away. Her pony’s coat grew thick and soft as plush. The days grew shorter, the nights longer and dark.
On solstice eve her Yule fire burned bright, and the sweetness and spice of cider filled the farm home that she had been born in, that her parents had been born in. In the rocking chair by the fire, under the quilt she’d made with her own hands, she dozed and dreamed. The knock on the door that woke her seemed like part of the dream, and the face that met her when she opened the door to black night and swirling snow came from dreams of spring and summer and mountain meadows.
“You cannot,” she said, lying in bed that night with him warm beside her, the passion of their reunion spent. “You cannot leave your mountain.”
“And you cannot leave your vale. Not forever, not for long. But for a time. For a brief time, my muse will forgive a visit.”
“As my fields forgave mine, once.”
“Once, and maybe again?”
“Maybe,” she agreed.
Not for a love as insubstantial as mountain mists. But for a love as strong as mountain stone, a love that grew and changed and grew again with the mountain’s seasons. She, a farmer, knew much of seasons, and of patience.