“I saw, close up, unending eyes watching themselves in me as in a mirror; I saw all the mirrors on earth and none of them reflected me…” Jorge Luis Borges, “The Aleph”
The next time you look in the mirror, stop and really look. Look into that face, those eyes looking back at you. Who is that looking back at you?
I remember holding my baby son in front of a mirror once. He looked at our reflection with confusion. He could see and recognize me, but there was this other baby in my arms. Then an uneasy smile came to his face as he became aware that this other baby was actually him. He saw himself smile. He saw himself.
What was the first mirror? Probably a still pool of water. Who was the first person to admire his or her face in a mirror? Who was the first person to despise what they saw?
When you stand between two mirrors and see yourself replicated over and over, copies of yourself marching away down a dim corridor, where does the replication end? Or does it? What if just one of those replicated selves was different?
Many ancient cultures believed that a mirror could capture one’s soul, and that if a mirror was broken or harmed in any way it would harm the soul of the one who had damaged it. The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges was haunted and disturbed by mirrors his whole life, and often wrote about their troubling power.
Mirrors are so often dangerous, magical, or creepy in stories. Narcissus falling in love with his own face in the mirror pool. The wicked queen’s magic mirror in the tale of Snow White. The devil’s distorting mirror in Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” The mirror Alice steps through in Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. Galadriel’s mirror in The Fellowship of the Ring. The Mirror of Erised.
Mirrors are also dangerous for storytellers because they lend themselves to cliché. In how many melodramatic movies does the protagonist look in the mirror at a moment of loathing or self-doubt? And how often does he or she then break the mirror? And yet mirrors hold an unending fascination that stories haven’t yet utterly exhausted, and likely never will.
There are many legends and rituals in older cultures associated with mirrors, such as the belief that by performing certain rites a young woman could see the face of her future husband in a mirror. When I was a kid there was the legend of “Bloody Mary,” a girl whose face had been horribly disfigured, and who died of fright and grief while looking a herself in a mirror. It was said that if you stood in front of a mirror in a dark room and said “Bloody Mary” three times, she would appear to you, and maybe even try to kill you. We tried this, of course. My sister, or a friend of hers, was the only one who dared do it alone, and then came screaming out of the bathroom saying she’s seen something start to appear in the mirror.
In The Shadow of Malabron, Will Lightfoot finds mirror shards hanging from a tree when he first arrives in the Perilous Realm. They are shards of what was once known as Samaya, the Mirror of Truth, in the possession of the Fair Folk. The mirror allowed them to see within appearances to the truth within. It is also said they could travel through the mirror to other parts of the Realm. This great mirror was shattered in the Great Unweaving, and many pieces of it were taken by the servants of the Night King and put to evil uses.
Lotan the Angel used the shards in his possession to lure Will to the tree and keep him there until the fetches could overpower him and bring him under Lotan’s control. When Will looks into one of these mirror shards he sees someone else—someone malevolent—looking back at him through his own eyes. The question is: whose eyes are these? The likeliest answer (and one I didn’t know for certain when I first wrote the scene) is that these are the eyes of Lotan, the eyes in the face that he conceals from the world under the cowl of his shrowde cloak.
Over the ages the Fair Folk have been gathering all of the lost and scattered shards they can find, in the hope of restoring the Mirror. Although they sometimes also give these shards as gifts to people who are lost and need their help. Perhaps they know that at some future time the ones to whom they give the shards will have an opportunity to return them to their rightful place in the mirror.
Images: from Andrei Tarkovsky's Mirror, Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, and by T Wharton