The Literary Mushroom

The other day on my early morning walk, I came across mushrooms that had, no doubt, come to life with all the rain we have had. They are intriguing as one day I walk a field and there are none, and the next day they have sprung up overnight. Emily Dickinson captures this mystery with these simple lines:

Anne H Campbell 2017

“The mushroom is the elf of plants,

At evening it is not;

At morning in a truffled hut

It stops upon a spot”

Not only do they appear magically, but the variety seems endless. The mushroom I found yesterday is gone today, but another kind has emerged somewhere else.

How did mushrooms come to acquire such a name? Say “mushroom,” and the word seems to slosh around in your mouth, but eaten raw they are not mushy. According to several sources, our modern English word comes from the Middle English musseroun or muscheron, which in turn comes from Old French. The modern spelling dates from 1560. Mushrooms are also called toadstools. According to fairy tales and German folklore, toads would sit on mushrooms and catch flies with their tongues. Perhaps, there is some truth to those stories (assuming this picture is not photo shopped!)! By perching on them, toads made the mushrooms poisonous.

Because of their mysterious appearing, people thought mushrooms were evidence of dark forces at work such as witches or earthly vapors. They were often associated with faeries and elves, hence the fairy ring, where fairies came to dance and perch on mushrooms. However, people entered fairy rings at their own risk. They could become lame or blind or even kidnapped by the fairies to become their slaves. On the other hand, the Welsh believed  that it was good luck to build a house in a field where fairy rings appeared. Mushrooms also figured in folk remedies. They were used to treat boils and abscesses and in gargles for sore throats. The dried spores of puffballs were used to stop the bleeding of wounds and nosebleeds.

Anne H Campbell 2017

One of the mushrooms I came across, pictured here, is the Amanita muscaria. The white warts are the remnants of a veil that encloses the young mushroom. The Amanita is poisonous if you eat enough of them, and they are also hallucinogenic. One effect the user experiences is that objects appear larger or smaller than they actually are. There is speculation that Lewis Carroll had firsthand experience with this mushroom as the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland tells her that if she nibbles one side of a mushroom, it will make her taller, and if she partakes of the other side, it will make her shorter. This mushroom is also called the fly agaric. People in the Middle Ages discovered that if crushed in a saucer of milk, it would attract flies that would then become befuddled and drown.

References to mushrooms pop up in other literary works. Shakespeare, in keeping with folklore, refers to elves whose pastime “Is to make midnight mushrooms” (The Tempest). Fungal references rear their heads in the Harry Potter books. Ray Bradbury wrote a story about a menacing form of fungus. Mushrooms figure in murder mysteries, such as Sue Grafton’s I Is for Innocent. Finally, I encourage you to look up Sylvia Plath’s poem “Mushrooms,” two lines of which are “Our toes, our noses/Take hold on the loam.”

What other literary works do you know of that feature fungi? What other myths and legends are there about mushrooms and toadstools?

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George Macdonald’s Malcolm: Too good to be true?

As an author, I often come across the advice that protagonists should not be squeaky clean but should be flawed in order for them to be three-dimensional. I thought about this as I was reading George MacDonald’s The Fisherman’s Lady and The Marquis’ Secret, two novels that follow the rise of Malcolm MacPhail from fisherman to marquis. I doubt, however, that Malcolm would consider his new title a step up, for in his mind a person is to be judged by his moral rectitude, not by his station in life. That, of course, is an invitation for the reader to judge Malcolm’s character, and at first, my sense was that he had no flaws. As a result, I didn’t find him to be an engaging character.

Malcolm’s positive traits are many: hardworking, loyal, dependable, honest, truthful, respectful of women, unassuming, longsuffering (to a point), and on top of all that, humble. I could list even more! He is respected by his community, and most of the women are particularly fond of him because he is not afraid to face ridicule when he joins them in their tasks as fishermen’s wives. For a fisherman, he’s well educated and reads Shakespeare in addition to the Scripture. The Bible is not just another tome of literature for him, however. He is God-fearing and seeks to live according to the Bible. So, I’m thinking this guy’s too good to be true.

His virtues and noble character, however, do get him into difficult situations. Because of his unassuming nature and guilelessness, he is often the brunt of practical jokes and a source of entertainment, particularly for the “genteel” folks of the manor. But what really gets him into trouble is unabashed honesty and truthfulness. He is not shy about calling out people for their wrongdoings, wickedness, and dishonest dealings, with the result that they view him as their enemy. In The Marquis’ Secret, Mr. Crathie, the factor (agent) for the Lossie manor, wants Malcolm to sell an intractable horse without warning potential buyers of the mare’s vicious nature—because that is just the nature of the horse business. As a man of conscience and of God, Malcolm could never be party to such dealings, and the factor becomes his adversary. His chief antagonists, Mrs. Catanach (no, not Katniss) and Mrs. Caley, are so incensed by his goodness they seek to disgrace him and even to send him to his grave.

In the end, I amended my judgment about Malcolm and decided there was a “flaw” in his character. His passion for justice and righteousness is so fierce that he can’t help but erupt in wrath and indignation when he sees injustice. On several occasions, his anger leads him to land physical blows on scoundrels. Malcolm’s former teacher, Mr. Graham, has seen Malcolm become “white with passion” and attests to his struggles “to master the fierce temper his ancestors gave him” (those ancestors being none other than Campbells!). Malcolm, though, is not blind to his shortcomings and applies the same standards to himself as he does to others. He admits to his future wife that he is “so swayed toward wrong, so fertile of resentments and indignations!”

Thus, the farther I traveled with Malcolm through his perils, the more I liked him. His story is one of a principled young man struggling to establish himself in a world of unprincipled people. Along the way, he faces temptations to abandon his ethics, and yes, at times he falters, but that does not deter him from seeking to live a righteous life. Thus, he is an encouragement for us to live with integrity and to stand for what is right in the face of ridicule, misunderstanding, temptations, and schemes to make us fall. Besides, as a former horse owner, I’d rather buy a horse from Malcolm any day than from Mr. Crathie.

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Update on sequel to Sword of Deliverance

I have come to the end of drafting the sequel to Sword of Deliverance, which is a way of saying that I am far from finished. It is currently fermenting, proofing, or simmering—whichever culinary metaphor you like. But here’s what I can tell you about it.

The sequel chronicles what Brandan calls, at the end of Deliverance, his journey back from a very dark place. While he and Meredyth have come through their ordeals, problems lurk below the surface waiting to bubble up, particularly psychological issues. One of Brandan’s is a condition called moral injury, which is, briefly, damage to one’s moral integrity. This disorder has come to the forefront because of returning veterans who are wrestling with the fact that they have committed acts that go against their moral beliefs. Symptoms include guilt and shame, self-condemnation, an inability to forgive oneself, and difficulty with personal relationships.

Caveat lector: For those who have not read Sword of Deliverance, from here on this post hints at plot spoilers. Continue reading

Book Review: The Confessions of X

What can I say in praise of The Confessions of X by Suzanne M. Wolfe that has not already been said? Evocative. Poignant. Bittersweet. Beautifully wrought like a fine mosaic. True-to-life. When I finished it, I could only sit, tears welling up and trickling down my face. To do anything else would have been to deny it the reflection it deserves.

The Confessions of X is a fictionalized memoir of the only woman Augustine of Hippo loved. He refers to her in his Confessions but never names her. When we finish her memoir, we still do not know her name, just her nickname, Naiad—water nymph—given to her by her childhood friend, Nebridius. In that regard, she stands for all the nameless women throughout history whose lives were intertwined with the lives of famous, powerful men. The last haunting words of her memoir could be her epitaph as well as that of all women like her. Continue reading

Don’t judge and author by her appearance

We’ve all heard the saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” I think that adage could be applied to writers as well: “Don’t judge an author by her appearance.”

This occurred to me after a recent conversation with a person I’d met for the first time.  I got around to telling him I had self-published a fantasy novel, and he asked what it was about. So, I started my pitch: “It’s about Brandan who is an assassin for Lord Wulfgar.” Before I could continue, he said, “I’m a good judge of people when I meet them for the first time, but I never imagined you were the type to write about an assassin.” If it hadn’t been my first meeting with him, I might have quipped, “Did you think I would write steamy romance novels?” Oh, but wait. I probably don’t look like I write them either. But say, what does a person look like who writes steamy romances? Or novels about assassins? Or horror stories? Continue reading

Join the Slow-Read Movement

The slow-food movement has arisen to counter the speed and frenzy of our lives, one aspect of which is fast food. It promotes the idea that we should be more intentional about our food, where it comes from, how it is grown, how we prepare it, and ultimately how we consume it. I, for one, would like to suggest a slow-read movement that promotes an intentional, leisurely experiencing of books instead of a quick, drive-through consumption.

I fear that we have become devourers of books instead savorers. One primary standard for evaluating a book seems to be whether it creates in the reader a reflexive compulsion to turn the pages, which often means action, action, action and cliffhanger after cliffhanger after cliffhanger. Such a story exhausts me. Yes, I may keep turning the pages, but I come to resent being forced to do so. It seems gimmicky, and when I reach the end, I feel cheated because it has gone by in such a blur. Continue reading