Imagination is a beautiful thing. Couple that with technical skill and the results can be stunning. I recently came across a poem by Neil Gaiman, titled Instructions. It’s a beautifully written piece of literature that guides the reader on how to enter a Fairy-Tale world. It is published in a children’s book under the same name, with illustrations by the respected Charles Vess. Take the time to read the text below and watch the brief video at the end of this post. You won’t be disappointed. What will follow are some of my thoughts on why this is so lovely.
by Neil Gaiman
Touch the wooden gate in the wall you never saw before.
Say ‘please’ before you open the latch,
go through, walk down the path.
A red metal Imp hangs from the green-painted front door,
as a knocker, do not touch it; it will bite your fingers.
Walk through the house.
Take nothing. Eat nothing.
However, if any creature tells you that it hungers,
If it tells you that it’s dirty,
If it cries to you that it hurts, if you can,
ease its pain.
From the back garden you will be able to see the wild wood.
The deep well you walk past leads down to Winter’s realm;
There is another land at the bottom of it.
If you turn around here, you can walk back,
safely; you will lose no face. I will think no less of you.
Once through the garden you will be in the wood.
The trees are old. Eyes peer from the undergrowth.
Beneath a twisted oak sits an old woman.
She may ask for something;
give it to her.
She will point the way to the castle.
Inside are three princesses.
Do not trust the youngest. Walk on.
In the clearing beyond the castle
the twelve months sit above a fire,
warming their feet, exchanging tales.
They may do favours for you, if you are polite.
You may pick strawberries in December’s frost.
Trust the wolves, but do not tell them where
you are going.
The river can be crossed by the ferry.
The ferryman will take you.
(The answer to his question is this:
If he hands the oar to his passenger,
he will be free to leave the boat.
Only tell him this from a safe distance.)
If an eagle gives you a feather, keep it safe.
Remember: that giants sleep too soundly;
that witches are often betrayed by their appetites;
dragons have one soft spot, somewhere, always;
hearts can be well-hidden,
and you betray them with your tongue.
Don’t be jealous of your sister.
Know that diamonds and roses
are as uncomfortable when they tumble
from one’s lips as toads and frogs;
colder, too, and sharper,
and they cut.
Remember your name.
Don’t lose hope- what you seek will be found.
Trust ghosts. Trust those that you have helped
to help you in their turn.
Trust dreams. Trust your heart,
and trust your story.
When you come back, return the way you came.
Favours will be returned, debts be repaid.
Don’t forget your manners.
Do not look back.
Ride the wise eagle (you shall not fall).
Ride the silver fish (you will not drown).
Ride the grey wolf (hold tightly to his fur).
There is a worm at the heart of the tower;
that is why it will not stand.
When you reach the little house,
the place your journey started,
you will recognise it, although it
will seem much smaller than you remembered.
Walk up the path, and through the
garden gate you never saw before but once.
And then go home. Or make a home.
When I first read this, I found myself taken back, just for a moment, to my unique adventures as a child. If only I had these instructions back then? My many journeys into fantasy realms may have been made easier. The mind is a curious creature; to tame it would be a mistake.
Although this poetic prose is rather long, it tells a curious tale of magic, admirable courage and the complete sense of wonder that all Fairy-Tales seem to encapsulate. When I read this, I found myself transformed into the main character. I see myself walking that path, holding the eagle’s feather and exchanging stories with the twelve months by the fire. How do you see yourself in this story? Is it just words to you, or does it connect with you the way it has me?
‘Don’t lose hope- what you seek will be found.’
Below is a short video of Gaiman reading Instructions. The beautiful illustrations by Charles Vess make this even more enjoyable. When words are terrifically put together and complemented with indulgent art, something amazing happens. The story comes to life.