The Elements of Story: Air

Part 3 of a series: we’re all familiar with plot, character, setting, dialogue, theme and so on, but what are some of the other, lesser-known “elements” of story?

Element Air 2

Our revels now are ended. These our actors, 

as I foretold you, were all spirits and 

are melted into air, into thin air….

 — Shakespeare, The Tempest


Prospero, the magician in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, is a brilliant storyteller. Almost the first thing we see him doing in the play is telling his daughter Miranda the story of how the two of them came to live on this enchanted island. He tells it with such skill and power that Miranda exclaims “Your tale, sir, would cure deafness.”

 But the story he tells doesn’t have an ending … yet. The play that unfolds before us is the completion of that unfinished story. From start to finish we see Prospero, with his magical art, in control of everything that happens. He carefully shapes events in order to weave a happy ending, and the element he uses most in his story-shaping is air.

The chief spirit under his command, Ariel, not only has an airy name, he is mostly air himself. Ariel “performs” the storm which brings the ship carrying Prospero’s treacherous brother Antonio to the island. At Prospero’s bidding he creates lifelike visions that beguile or frighten, and just as quickly makes them dissolve. Like air, he seems to be able to go anywhere — he has no physical limitations, other than Prospero’s power over him. (Of course Prospero has another servant who is far more solid and far less willing: Caliban, whom he refers to at one point as “thou earth.”) After one of Ariel’s visions has suddenly vanished, Prospero tells Ferdinand that the spirits have melted into thin air. He then goes on to say that everything in the world will eventually do the same, since “we are such stuff as dreams are made on.”

Air, then, is the boundless freedom of the storyweaving mind, constrained only by the storyteller’s skill and vision. Air is the breath of inspiration, by which the maker of story reimagines and shapes experience into story. And air is the word, uttered by the breath, or spoken silently in the reader’s thoughts, which weaves the “baseless fabric” of a story, like the story of The Tempest, which we get caught up in and spellbound by, just as Ariel is caught and spellbound by Prospero. This might serve to remind us that we too are such temporary, fragile stuff as dreams are made on.

For these reasons I like to think of Prospero as a kind of patron saint or archetypal figure for storytellers, even though, as a sorcerer, he’s more usually associated with magic. And I find intriguing links between him and another figure of wind and air, the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent (who was also “dethroned” by a treacherous brother). Quetzalcoatl, besides being a wind god, is also associated with the arts and with the intellect. There’s more to airy nothing than it usually seems.





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