Castles in the Sky

‘…only those with their feet on rock can build castles in the air.’
~ Terry Pratchett

As with all of Sir Terry Pratchett’s apparently flippant turns of phrase, this sentence has stuck with me ever since I first read it, gradually settling itself into my psyche and gathering extra nuances in the process. In the context of Carpe Jugulum,¬†the phrase refers to the fact that some of the most down-to-earth and literal people of Discworld contrarily produce the greatest number of witches and wizards. But it could easily be taken to refer to acts of creativity as well as magic-working. After all, what is projecting your imagination onto the world around you if not a form of magic?

I’ve been listening to a lot of artists talking on Chris Oatley’s ArtCast and The Collective Podcast about their own creative processes and the things they value in the work of others. Very often it seems to come back to an idea of ‘honesty’ – of grounding the artwork in the person of the artist and the natural and unnatural world around them. From the importance of studies and reference in creating a single image, to the spark that true expression of inner feelings can give to a story or character, most of these artists seem to agree that the best castles in the air are built with solid foundations.

This is something I have always experienced conflict over. For me, the idea that I must always be tied to reality, my every imaginative effort pinging back to it as though I were attached to one of those extendable dog leads, can feel suffocating. On the other hand, I love the natural world with an intensity that matches that which I hold for my most vivid imaginings, and I know that in order to produce the most convincing drawings/stories/worlds, it is necessary to refer back to my experiences and influences in this world.

Perhaps it is appropriate here to bring in another idea from Discworld. In The Colour of Magic Rincewind and Twoflower discover an upside-down mountain inhabited by dragon riders. These dragons break every law of physics and aerodynamics, but they may be summoned by those with the strongest imaginations. However, the dragons cannot exist far from the mountain, no matter the skill of the imaginer. Perhaps this is how it is with those most free-form of fantasies, the ones with the least basis in reality; they work within the mind of their creator, and may even be shared with a few others. But put them out into the wider world, and they become impossible to realise in their raw form. They become like smoke, blowing away on the breeze of disbelief, swallowed by the great expanse of reality.

There’s something both comforting and tragic in that thought.

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