Mysticism - National Council of Teachers of English
Back to Blog


This post is by NCTE member Justin Stygles. 

JustinStygles1Recently, I sat down in my classroom library to sort books. As many teachers do, I sort books into labeled baskets based on author, genre, and theme. I’ve really struggled with the fantasy genre and the topic of magic. Fantasy, to me, evokes Harry Potter. Magic, on the other hand, suggests something stereotypical, like rabbits in a hat. As a result, there haven’t been a lot of magic books in my library until I recently discovered something, almost a bridge between fantasy and magic, yet real: mysticism.

Over the past two years, I’ve begun to understand the concept of “mysticism” as a means in which the universe leads a person to their destiny or a way in which the universe reveals the unknown. The driving force of mysticism can be a literary vehicle that helps readers connect with characters and plots that reveal the footsteps from journeys of self-discovery in times of despair. I have discovered, particularly after reading Dark Night of the Soul (St. John of the Cross) simultaneously with A Snicker of Magic (Natalie Lloyd) that mysticism can be a genre that attempts to explain the unknown, mysteries of the universe, or Divine intervention – fiction and non-fiction. Upon this discovery, I incorporated a “mysticism” book basket into my classroom library.

Now, maybe I am not qualified to define genres or establish understandings such as editors L.P. Zamora and W.B. Faris did with Magic Realism, however, I must invite students to read books they might otherwise ignore. I have to be deliberate and purposeful when assigning books to a theme or a genre, with the knowledge and the rationales to support my decisions. After all, a reader’s ability to utilize text structure, discern themes, and connect with characters strengthens his or her interest.

When I consider mysticism I take into account setting, self-manifestation (Maturing and understanding one’s identity and place in the universe), and the role of darkness. For example, fantasy or science fiction transports us to mythical or “middle-earth” lands.  Mystic-based narratives never take us from our material reality. We expect characters’ manifestation of supernatural abilities in conjunction with a fantasy book’s setting. In mystic reads, characters discover preordained talents or abilities through self-discovery within their current reality. Lastly, the contextualization of darkness differs between fantasy and mysticism. In fantasy, darkness is associated with evil, a clear enemy. With mysticism, the darkness is internal. Manifestations such as rage and anger caused by circumstances such as abandonment and rejection emerge from a character. A character may also struggle on the journey toward self-acceptance and self-discovery. This struggle is a personal darkness.

Let’s consider A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd as an example. Here, the main character, Felicity Pickle, is plagued with life-changing scenarios including a curse, depression, loneliness, and abandonment. She feels lost and confused regarding her place in the world. She endures a modest representation of the “dark night of the soul” concept, in which Felicity has to sort out external influences on her soul, which help her discover who she is. Lloyd presents this darkness tangibly for middle-grade readers to recognize and associate with, before interpreting meaning, which is the act of decoding mysticism.

Felicity lives in a place, Midnight Gulch, a town overwhelmed by darkness. The darkness is not dominated by evil, as in fantasy, but a crippling sense of depression and soullessness. The setting is congruent with situations in which mysticism most readily presents itself because those shrouded in internal darkness come from dark environments. The expectation is that the main character discovers his or her light and sheds a light on those in despair. The nature of Felicity’s circumstance encourages the reader to recognize a certain kind of “calling.” While Felicity is not responsible for solving the plethora of problems that exists within her environment, she is compelled to discover their roots. She then becomes the catalyst to performing work requested by the universe. Felicity follows her belief, her heart, following direction of the Universe by reading signals. Felicity uses mysticism to reverse the negativity that grips her and her community, meanwhile using her mystical talent (seeing words that describe a person and his emotions).

Mysticism as a genre deserves a space in the classroom library because kids deserve to learn, through characters, that the weight of their feelings and wholehearted desires are heard by the universe. Readers deserve inspiration to emerge from darkness and discover themselves. They deserve to learn that internal problems have solutions, maybe not of ready-made answers, but through indications, signs, that the universe presents by meticulous observation and perseverance. Readers deserve to learn that when darkness and despair surround their lives, love and faith can guide them to solutions. Felicity Pickle is an example of an archetype whose belief – wanting better for herself and others – transcended the material world leading to the fulfillment of her destiny. Felicity becomes an example for all readers who believe in themselves and the promise of a brilliant tomorrow. Mystic literature then, helps explain what we cannot explain on our own in situations to which we identify, but do not understand, by calling us back to looking at the signs that the universe has in store for us.

When we can interpret the clues in our lives and decode the mystic, through reading, we tend to read more in our quest to unlock the mysteries and determine the unknown.

Justin Stygles is an intermediate teacher of thirteen years in MSAD #17, Norway, Maine. His writings are included in NJCTE, the English Record, and Voices From the Middle (December, 2016).