The Man Who Wrote Spider World
Some time ago I finished re-reading Shadowland. The overwhelming question one is left with is, ‘why isn’t this fantasy series, better known?’ I have said before that Spider World is easily Colin’s best fiction. He has said himself that he would like to be remembered as ‘the man who wrote Spider World’. The fun and pleasure he must have experienced in writing this Opus Magnum seems to radiate from the page. In the four volumes he successfully integrates his ideas with page-turning narrative. With a readership appreciative of Lord of the Rings, His Dark Materials and even Harry Potter, it remains a mystery why the Spider World series isn’t better known. It can’t all be down to marketing can it? Maybe it will gain a wide audience in the future? The spider-balloon scenes alone are tailor made for film adaptations!
Apparently Colin started writing Spider World in response to Roald Dahl’s comment, “Why don’t you write a children’s book?” What we end up with is a series that can appeal to older children and adults, just like Lord of the Rings.
In Shadowland (book 4 of the series) we see Wilson the Mystic, Wilson the Pantheist, Wilson the Ecologist and even, Wilson the Spinner of Fairy Tales. When I first read it I was surprised and somewhat puzzled by the sudden appearance of myriad nature spirits throughout the narrative. Giant man-eating spiders were one thing; but sprites, trolls and tree spirits quite another! It seemed that Colin was incongruently inserting characters from traditional Fairy Tales into his fantasy story about spiders and an evil despot. However, on second reading the ‘fairytale spirits’ no longer seem arbitrary. On the contrary they seem to reinforce the novel’s propositions about the nature of reality and consciousness.
The ‘chameleon men’ and other nature spirits can only be seen by Niall by ‘looking sideways’ – a technique of relaxing the mind which has parallels in some therapeutic systems. When looking sideways, these beings appear in various stages of visibility and can even become completely invisible. What is going on here? Is it possible that Colin believes literally in the existence of such entities? I am no longer sure, it has to be said! Of course, he is on record as saying he believes in ‘discarnate spirits’ but that is in the context of life after death/human survival. Whatever ones opinion of these matters, the worldview of Shadowland is strongly neoplatonic: spirit is integrated with matter but is also somehow independent of matter.
Niall reflects on the limitations of human nature towards the end of the book, contrasting our egotism and cruelty with the harmony of the chameleons’ group mind:
“The chameleon men knew better. Close to the living soul of nature, they knew that every rock, every tree root, every vein of quartz, embodies the force of life. And this force could afford to be benevolent, for it was infinitely powerful.”
This is also the view of Hinduism, Buddhism and that of countless Yogis,
not to mention William Blake [‘the world in a grain of sand’]. The common denominator in all these belief systems is that consciousness is manifest throughout the universe. The earth force and life force are also stored in various gizmos conjured up by Colin. The ‘goddess’ who features in the previous book, The Delta, is equivalent to Gaia.
The chapters featuring trolls are some of the most charming and memorable. The ‘feel’ of these chapters is reminiscent of the timeless quality one senses in reading the Brothers Grimm tales. Again Colin’s sense of fun and enjoyment in sheer invention bursts from the page.
One of the frequent psychological insights in the novel is when Niall realises that his feelings about the Magician – the evil tyrant – swing alarmingly from admiration to detestation. In effect he is asking the perennial questions, ‘Who am I?’ ‘Am I a slave to my thoughts and feelings?’ ‘Is there a deeper self?’
Those looking for Colin’s familiar philosophical themes won’t be disappointed! While sailing aloft in a spider balloon Niall has an altered state of consciousness when his mind ‘splits’ in two:
“He understood suddenly why every human being spends a lifetime trapped in a narrow room behind his eyes, becoming so accustomed to the prison that he is not even aware of his captivity. And this was the root of the human dilemma. Every one of us is so accustomed to seeing the world from a single point of view that it is almost impossible to believe that other people are as real as we are.”
Niall continues to become more adept at controlled telepathy in this volume of the series. Again, this can be understood symbolically as well as literally. Many spiritual traditions speak of the transcendence of the ego where ‘the dewdrop slips into the shining sea.’ The person feels part of a larger whole, no longer separate. This is the enlightenment experience spoken of in Buddhism usually by the use of the term ‘satori.’ Here is another description [of Shiva] from a text about Yoga meditation:
“When my presence is awakened in you. . .you experience Me as Silence, Absolute Joy and Peace. There is no duality between my Shakti and Myself. We are inseparable like the moon and moonlight. I am neither the mind, the intelligence, the ego, the chitta nor attention; neither the ears nor the tongue, nor the sense of smell; neither ether or air, nor fire, nor water, nor Earth. I am eternal bliss and awareness. I am Shiva.”
I would hesitate to use the word ‘spirituality’ when talking about Colin Wilson but in discussing Shadowland it is hard not to. If any of you have teenage children recommend Spider World – it may change their world, just as reading The Outsider changed mine way back in 1967 when I was 21!