I’ve been working on the third book in my soon to be released (w00t!) Beauty and the Beast trilogy. In the story Hauk, the hero of the series, returned from the war in Afghanistan with 82% of his body burned and now, five years later, is still dealing with the consequences of living with so many physical scars. I did a lot of research on burning as I began writing, learning the basics of medical care and how scarring looks and affects a person’s abilities. I cheated a bit on that last part; usually people with as much scarring as Hauk will have some mobility limitations, but for story purposes I didn’t deal with that. My world has magic, and Hauk has unintentionally gotten himself mixed up with it, so I reference magic to gloss over his better-than-it-should-be physicality and hope my readers will indulge me. 🙂
The third book deals more intimately than the first two with Hauk’s scars and with his relationship to fire, both psychologically and symbolically. I returned to research to make sure my story had the facts to create an authentic feel. As a result, I’ve been contemplating my own relationship to fire. My latest read has been Rising from the Flames: The Experience of the Severely Burned by Albert Howard Carter III, PhD and Jane Arbuckle Petro, MD,* and it has been one of the best resources I’ve seen. Not only does the book talk about patient care in the immediate aftermath of burning and long term ramifications of scarring, but it deals with Western society’s collective ideas of fire from early myth to modern movies and how those stories affect our interactions with burn survivors.
The writers spoke a lot about the dichotomy we have between good, controlled fire – hearth, candles, campfire – and evil, uncontrolled fire – wildfires, explosions, pyromania. The first is like the Grecian Promethus, bringing down fire from the gods to elevate mankind’s lot. The second is illustrated with Loki, the trickster whose inherently dangerous nature led to the death of Odin’s most beloved son, causing the gods to finally cast Loki out for good. The book’s author’s argued that collectively we have so entrenched this divide that burn survivors’ association with “evil” fire psychologically taints them. We see this prejudice in such characters as Freddy Krueger and the Joker. Burned = evil, either because, like Freddy Kreuger they were already evil and deserved the burning (with a “burn the witch” sort of mentality) or burned = evil because the fire and their resulting disfigurement drove them insane (like the Phantom of the Opera).
Countering that inherent prejudice was a challenge for me while trying to create not just a hero but a romance hero who was severely disfigured. Despite his encounter with fire in its “evil” form, Hauk remains loyal and forthright, and has a sense of humor more like a traditional white-knight hero with a handsome face. It isn’t that he’s unaffected by his scars, and he’s well aware of the fear people feel when seeing him, but there is nothing evil nor gothically romantic about his burn scars. They’re simply a fact of his life he has to deal with.
Elemental Fire and Paganism
As a Heathen I don’t work with the classical elements of earth, air, water, and fire (and sometimes spirit), but since they are so entrenched in the modern Pagan ethos I have spent time contemplating them. Fire has always seemed like the outlier to me, the element that doesn’t completely belong. I breathe air and drink water. After we die, our bodies (in a natural burial, anyway) turn into earth. We may speak of the burn of emotions or the spark of life, but it is metaphorical. I may use fire, but I do not consume it and it is not part of me on a literal level as the other three are or will be. Likewise, while I revel in the feel of the breeze touching my face, immersing myself in a lake, and digging my hands into the soil of my garden, I would not choose to become so intimate with fire and instead enjoy its heat and light from a safe distance. I do not stick my hand directly in the coals.
While the other three elements have their destructive side, such as tornados, floods, and earthquakes, none are at their core a force of destruction. But fire cannot exist without something to burn. To appreciate fire is to appreciate annihilation.
Fire in Heathenry
In Heathenry we don’t use the word “elements,” but we do have our own variation on the notion with fire and frost. For us the universe began when the plane of fire met the plane of ice, and life was sparked as these opposing forces destroyed each other to create something new. From this primordial chaos were also born the jotnar – frost giants and fire giants, the traditional enemies of the gods.
At the other end of time, armageddon will be signaled by Fimbulwinter – years of snow with no summer to break the cold. Then when Ragnarok’s final day of reckoning comes, Surt will lead the fire giants to battle the gods until almost all of creation is destroyed in flames. But between the destruction wreaked by uncontrollable forces at the world’s beginning and end, we have the temporary balance of Midgard, our world of fragile stability. Here these two opposites are tamed enough that we can harness them for our use. Part of being human, in fact, is the use of fire for warmth, light, cooking, and now for mobility (engines run on combustion) But every so often these forces will rise back up and freeze or burn us. For us Heathens these two “elements” must be treated with great caution. We look at them as forces outside our circle of frith which we keep tentative balance with and use at our own risk.
One of my favorite fire myths does not come from the Norse. It is the Mediterranean/Asian myth of the phoenix, the bird that dies in flames to be reborn in splendor. I both love and fear this myth because to me it represents the crucible of enduring strife and change with the hope of rebirth, of becoming ourselves again but somehow better because we know how powerful we can be.
This crucible is, to me is the true difference between fire and the three other classical elements. We may be made of water, air, and earth, but it is our treatment of fire – our respect and awe of its power and beauty, our ingenuity in harnessing it, and our endurance and grace when it burns us (physically or metaphorically) – that shows us our true characters.
It was this symbol, in fact that originally inspired my story. Hauk has a tattoo of a phoenix to remind himself that despite the odds he has risen from fire to new life. When the frightened heroine sees this tattoo as he is sleeping, it helps her remember that the beauty of the human spirit is revealed through strength of character, and their tentative friendship is started at this moment of revelation through a phoenix.
What does fire mean to you? Do you have any memories or ideas you’d like to share?
* There are a few gut-wrenching photos, but the book isn’t filled with them. If you can stomach those and are interested in the topic, I highly recommend the book. (My own stomach has grown far more iron-like in the course of researching this book.)
+ Featured Image: Fire breathing “Jaipur Maharaja Brass Band” Chassepierre Belgium, by Luc Viatour (Yes, I’ve used one of his fire images before here…)