As you may have guessed, the title is “The Critical Irrealism of Borges’s Aleph.” You may already be familiar with Jorge Luis Borges’s famous short story, “The Aleph.” If you aren’t, do yourself a favour and read it: it’s a phantasmagorical vision told in sophisticated prose and you won’t be disappointed.
Back yet? Good. Now, you might be wondering what critical irrealism is. Fortunately, the answer is quite simple.
Critical irrealism is basically a stance a writer takes towards reality. Instead of assuming that literature can represent reality objectively, as all realist fiction does at least implicitly, the critical irrealist demonstrates the ways reality cannot be trusted. Often, critical irrealists do this through the devices of fantasy, gothic fiction, and surrealism.
I’m fascinated with Borges because he seems to encapsulate the concept of critical irrealism so well. In “The Aleph,” he describes a point in space in which all other points are visible simultaneously. This object, which he calls the Aleph, is a vision into the totality of the worlds in the universe. However, there’s a catch.
While it appears to present a perfect representation of the universe, Borges’s narrator comes to distrust it. He calls it a false Aleph, suggesting the way human beings sometimes deny what they know to be true. I explain the reason for this in my article, which you can read here. For now, suffice it to say that Borges throws doubt on the very ability of language to represent reality, let alone infinity.
The Aleph also reminded me of a similar artefact mentioned in Usman T. Malik’s award-winning novella “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn.” It’s an interesting coincidence, and probably more than a coincidence, because as it turns out, “The Aleph” and “Pauper Prince” are linked by a common legend.
The hero of Malik’s novella travels to Pakistan to unravel some mysteries that lie in his family’s history. On this quest, he comes across an ancient artefact that grants him knowledge of the whole universe, including the realm of the jinn. It is the Cup of Jamshid of Islamic legend, also known as the Cup of Kai Khosru.
It turns out that legends of this famous cup may have partly inspired Borges’s Aleph. In his story, Borges explicitly compares the Aleph to “the sevenfold goblet of Kai Khorsu,” one of the artifices described in a forgotten manuscript written by Sir Richard Francis Burton, the adventurer and translator of the One Thousand and One Nights. One might conclude that stories of this cup, a sort of Islamic Holy Grail, were percolating at the back of Borges’s highly intertextual mind.
However, whereas Borges must maintain a plausible denial of the fantastic, Malik does not fear dipping fully into fantasy. Indeed, Malik presents us with a real Aleph, similar to the one Borges describes: the seven-ringed Cup of Jamshed.
“At the Ford of Danamol a spur of the mountains runs right down to the river, making a low rampart of hills screening it from the north. The Khentor host was pausing to eat about two miles away from the Ford; Li’vanh and Mnorh had gone away from the rest about a mile, to the top of a low rise, to keep a watch. They were lying very flat in the short grass taking it in turns to keep an eye on the land before them. And it was during Mnorh’s watch, while Li’vanh was looking back towards their own camp, that the enemy first showed themselves” 146
“[Li’vanh] He sighed. It was not so easy to pray, alone–or at least he had never found it so. But all at once he felt that he dared not go unblessed–unarmed. What prayer could he make, to the God whom he had refused to forsake, yet could not truly remember?” 209
“So Ir’nanh brough me, didn’t he? he thought angrily. Well then, all I can say is that Ir’nanh had a ruddy nerve. But what right did Ir’nanh bring me? What affair was I of his?
And that was another thing. Magic he might possibly accept; he had no choice. But Ir’nanh was spoken of as a god. Of many things he was uncertain, but he was fiercely sure that Ir’nanh was no god of his, and he would not worship him” (34).
At a wine and cheese social last November, my professor, Dorothy Bray, who taught a class on the fantastic in medieval literature over the Fall, began to talk to me about how Guy Gavriel Kay had ‘stolen’ material from The Fionavar Tapestry from an earlier author.
I was mildly scandalized that Kay, who has achieved the Order of Canada, should have stolen details from an earlier author of epic fantasy, and was curious about who that author might have been. Perhaps he could be forgiven this unabashed theft if it came in his earlier Fionavar novels, when the younger Kay had yet to iron out his style and voice.
The premise behind the novels is that five students from the University of Toronto get summoned, by an undercover wizard, to the court of Ailill, the High King of Brennin. When the wardstones holding back the grim evil of Rokoth Maugrim the Unraveller break, the dark lord unleashes war upon the free peoples of Fionavar. Meanwhile each of the five students have their own private destinies to fulfill, one as a seer, one as a warrior of the plains, and so on. (You can read more about books one, two, and three of The Fionavar Tapestry here.)
In January Professor Bray offered me a well-preserved Ballantine Adult Fantasy novel, Red Moon and Black Mountain by the wonderfully-named Joy Chant. In The Fionavar Tapestry, one of the university students, Dave Martyniuk, is separated from the other during the crossing from this world into Fionavar. Prof. Bray informed me that basically the same thing happens in Red Moon, Black Mountain, and offered it to me to read.
I read through Chant’s novel chapter by chapter while working on my Master’s thesis. I emerged pleasantly surprised. My experience was of a nostalgic tour through the classic tradition of fantasy. Chant really focused on the psychology of the child protagonists, and did so realistically, while presenting an honest narrative about the experience of growing up and losing innocence in a war against great evil, a war where victory is never assured and even triumph buys only momentary reprieve.
I recall Kay telling the press (I forget the particular essay or interview) that the reason he emphasizes the cost of his characters’ choices is because he read too much epic fantasy where dire choices held no grave consequences. This perspective seems to me now to have a lot to do with the worldview projected in Red Moon and Black Mountain, where a fairy tale happy ending never happens without catastrophe.
All this was very suggestive to me. So I read the novel and compiled a list of similarities between Kay’s trilogy and Chant’s epic fantasy novel. Most points are superficial, no more than the usual kind of borrowing authors do. But the last example is a direct lifting from Chant–or as I prefer to think of it, a scene that was stolen productively.
The list follows:
1. A red moon and a black mountain.
Chant’s villain, the sorcerer Fendarl, has been bound by magic within Black Mountain, close to where Penelope and Nick find themselves after crossing over into the land of Kendrinh, the Starlit Land. Kay also has Rakoth Maugrim locked up in a dark mountain–a volcano in fact. As for the red moon, for Chant, its redness signifies the growing power of evil, while the moon’s waxing represents the power of good. Kay riffs off the same idea when the red War Moon of the Goddess appears in The Summer Tree.
2. Massive black birds
When Paul hangs on the Summer Tree in The Fionavar Tapestry, he witnesses a white and a black wolf fight, representing the war between good and evil. In Red Moon and Black Mountain, there is an epic battle between white and black eagles near Black Mountain–the white eagles win, but at terrible cost. Kay also has giant black birds in his fantasy: the black swans, who are servants of Rakoth.
3. Portal Quest Fantasy
Just likeThe Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Red Moon and Black Mountain is about children who tumble through a portal into a magical world. In The Summer Tree, they are adults, and commit more or less willingly to travel to Fionavar, following the advice of Loren Silvercloak, a wizard. Both novels also have one character separate from the main group in the crossing: Oliver in Chant and Dave Martyniuk in Kay. Another interesting variation on the portal quest fantasy is how Chant depicts the rapid acculturation of the children to their new, medieval world. They even start to forget their own birth names, adopting the ones locals give to them. In Kay, the Torontonians gain alternative names too and adopt to their medieval setting so rapidly that I frankly deem it one of the faults of this early novel that it did not take more time to show their transition.
Dave and Oliver both wind up among horse-riding nomads. In Fionavar, Dave finds himself among the Dalrei, which share similarities to Plains Indian culture. In Chant’s novel, Oliver finds himself learning the ways of the Hurnei, another nomadic tribe that punishes the unnecessary hunting of animals with banishment. Furthermore–and this demonstrates more than passing coincidence–Dave’s Dalrei friend is named Levon, an echo of Oliver’s name among the Khentor: Li’vanh.
5. Mythic horses
Horses are a staple of many fantasies. But magical horses are nonetheless included in both Kay and Chant: Dur’chai is Oliver’s sublime steed, while Tabor, a Dalrei, rides on the red unicorn, which is a horse with wings.
6. Magic forest
The magic forest is yet another staple of fantasy. Nonetheless, I note it here: Kay’s perilous wood is Pendaran Wood, a place of deadly magic where the trees themselves conspire against unworthy trespassers, while Nelimhon is Chant’s wood of eternal spring, which is dangerous for its seductive faery-like beauty.
7. Sense of sacrifice
The general sense of necessary sacrifice in Kay and Chant reveals a similar moral tone in both their novels, whether it is Paul willingly sacrificing himself on the Summer Tree in The Fionavar Tapestry, or the Hurnei’s grievous wartime losses in the desperate war against the forces of the dark lord Fendarl in Red Moon and Black Mountain.
6. Wild magic that must be bound
In Red Moon and Black Mountain, the evil magic of Fendarl looses the wild magic of Vir’Vachal, an amoral earth goddess who cares only for the land itself and growing things, to the exclusion of human beings. In The Fionavar Tapestry, a magic horn summons the Wild Hunt, which descends on the battlefield where the Dalrei are fighting Rakoth Maugrim’s forces. The Wild Hunt slaughters amorally on either side and is only bound with the intervention of the hunter goddess Ceinwein, who cannot be counted on to intercede twice. Vir’Vachal, on the other hand, is bound back to the earth with Oliver’s sacrifice towards the end of the novel. Which brings us to Kay’s direct borrowing from Chant.
9. Adonis myth
There is a nearly beat-by-beat borrowing from Red Moon and Black Mountain in The Wandering Fire in how Kay depicts Kevin Lane’s sacrifice to the earth goddess. The passage in Chant that Kay borrows from happens when the Hurnei realize that a vast human sacrifice is necessary in order to bind Vir’Vachal and prevent a wider human catastrophe. Oliver realizes that if he volunteers himself as a sacrifice, no more Hurnei will have to die. He presents himself into the cave of the priestesses and participates in a ritual that involves stepping over a cliff to plummet into a (nearly) bottomless pit:
“A clear path lay before him, ending on a slab at the brink of the abyss. With fear and will both drowned in the pounding heartbeat, he walked slowly forward. She [The High Priestess] watched him come, and he looked at her, and was not afraid. With the gulf at his feet he stopped, and hot air rising from the deeps smote on his face. Less than twice his height parted from Vir’Vachal; yet this time she did not rob him of his strength. He was strong, strong as she herself, and he would bind her. Gazing back at her he stepped up on to the slab. The dark depths at his feet called to him, the eyes of Vir’Vachal drew him. He drew a deep breath and raised his arms. Then savouring the sweet terror of doing just what he desired, he laughed and sprang over the edge.
For an instant he seemed to hover above the gulf, then he plunged into darkness. Fast and faster he fell, while the air roared in his ears and light burst behind his eyelids. The heat smothered him,his blood thundered, and the darkness closed above him, filled him, enveloped and overpowered him, devoured him and destroyed him, and Li’vanh Tuvoi was no more. Vir’Vachal flung up her head and sank from the sight of mortals for ever; and in the cave the women beat their breasts and cried Rahai! Rahai!” (264)
Oliver’s laughter emerges like an ecstatic joy chant. If he were not a child, his reaction could be called a moment of nearly sexual pleasure: the symbolism of this scene is allegorical for a sexual awakening. The cave is a sign of the female anatomy, and Freud interpreted dreams of falling as being sexual in nature. By performing this sacrifice, Oliver has become an adult, at least symbolically: fully mature and introduced to womanhood. It is a sacrifice much like Kevin’s sacrifice in The Wandering Fire:
“Wordlessly, he turned, remembering the way, and crossing the wide chamber, bearing his blood in a stone bowl, he came to its farthest point. To the very brink of the chasm.
“Naked as he had been in the womb, he stood over it. […] and he poured out the brimming cup of his blood into the dark chasm, to summon Dana from the earth on Midsummer’s Eve. […]
“She was there and her arms were around him in the dark as she claimed him for her own. It seemed to him as if they floated for a moment, and then the long falling began. Her legs twined about his, he reached and found her breasts. He caressed her hips, her thighs, felt her open like a flower to his touch, felt himself wild, rampant, entered her. They fell. […] End of longing, with the ground rushing now to meet, the walls streaming by; no regret, much love, power, a certain hope, spent desire, and only the one sorrow for which to grieve in the last half second, as the final earth came up to meet him.
“Abba, he thought, incongruously. And met.” (398-9)
Ovid’s Metamorphoses tells of how Adonis was the lover of Venus. He was gored by a boar in the groin and died from his wounds, but from his blood, a new flower grew as a memorial: the anemone, noted for its red petals. In The Wandering Fire, Kevin was marked for his destiny likewise by a boar that tusked him in the groin. His sacrifice mirrors the death of Adonis and is in keeping with the mythologies of fertility and sacrifice surrounding the archetype of the Dying God that Sir James Frazer describes in The Golden Bough. The Dying God, like the Dying King, perishes for the sake of the land, and so, replenishes it and saves its people, much as Jesus Christ died for the redemption of sins.
Kay’s treatment of Kevin’s sacrifice does more than echo Chant’s depiction of Oliver’s sacrifice–it offers a gloss on the episode. The sexual symbolism not yet explicit in Chant finds explicitness in Kay, revealing how Kay’s later work holds conversation with the classic fantasy tradition.
Chant, Joy. Red Moon and Black Mountain. New York: Ballantine Books, 1970. Print.
Kay, Guy Gavriel. The Fionavar Tapestry. Toronto: HarperCollins, 1995. Print.
Today I will be presenting on urban fantasy and how it relates to the conditions of combined and uneven development.
Modern fantasy as a literary form has diversified since The Lord of the Rings (1954) and its subsequent paperback imitators. Stereotypically set in medieval or pseudomedieval kingdoms with dragons, elves, and faeries, these paperbacks were rarely set in cities, but usually in the countryside or in a sublime, pre-Raphaelite wilderness. As a form, what provided the historical impetus to the rise of modern fantasy, as early as the late nineteenth century, was the rise of literary realism and the modern novel, the techniques of which authors began to apply to older, or residual forms, such as chivalric romance and epic. Fantasy is therefore a quintessentially modern form even though its settings might be throwbacks to medieval forms. With urban fantasy, a subgenre that originated in the 1980s, fantasy continues to employ residual literary forms such as fairy tale, folktale, romance, and epic, but places the fantastic content within a modern milieu—the contemporary, usually North American, city.
Charles de Lint, a Canadian author resident in Ottawa, has been called the Father of Urban Fantasy. Fantasy novels set in the modern world have older antecedents, such as the supernatural detective stories of Charles Williams, but ‘urban fantasy’ per se, as a market category, emerged during the 1980s, when de Lint wrote many of his classic works, including Moonheart (1984). De Lint’s fiction sets fairy tales, myths, and folktales derived from Celtic, Romany, and Native American traditions—as well as urban legends—within urban space, with novelistic, modern protagonists who interact with mythical, otherworldly figures. Instead of imposing the plot of a conventional fantasy novel onto urban space, de Lint is interested in how ordinary people interact with the fantastic and the numinous on their own terms, and he does so with a social conscience.
Urban fantasy lends itself to an analysis framed by the concept of combined and uneven development because it can claim to represent an uneven modernity in its content as well as its form. But first we must ask, “What is combined and uneven development?” The Warwick Research Collective, referring to Leon Trotsky’s History of the RussianRevolution, describes combined and uneven development as “a situation in which capitalist forms and relations exist alongside ‘archaic forms of economic life’ and pre-existing social and class relations” (WReC 11). Uneven development rears its head whenever you see a high-rise financial district skyline within close proximity to seemingly ‘backwards’ and impoverished slums, or when agrarian farmers are wrenched from the cotton fields they have tilled for generations right into the disorienting presence of advanced industrial machinery. Capitalism must be understood as a world system that encompasses the whole globe under a single, though uneven, modernity—not just as a European development that has spread outward across the globe, bringing modernity with it. This understanding refutes the idea that some societies, especially former colonies, are somehow ‘backwards,’ or behind modernity. Although societies across the globe experience the modern age differently, they are all irreducibly modern, part of one combined system. Neocolonialism may establish hierarchies between one singular modernity and another, but this simply makes it an uneven, combined system, rather than two distinct systems.
How does all this tie in to urban fantasy? Just like the world-system, the form of all modern fantasy is itself combined and uneven, since it joins residual forms that originated in pre-modern periods with the modern novel. In a sense, this is true of all novels, even in realism, where displaced romance forms the novel’s deep structure. But modern fantasy differs from realism because it displays this structure upfront, often as a self-conscious imitation of pre-modern forms, the magical content of which, however, it retains. These disjunctures deepen in urban fantasy, which blends the pre-modern and the modern on the level of content as well as form. The disjuncture between elves, mermaids, fairies, spirits, and goblins coexisting with a modern, urban setting becomes explicitly represented and narrativized in urban fantasy. We can read this disjuncture as an allegory of the combined and uneven system.
This system also describes the dynamic in the hierarchy between the city and the country that urban fantasy mediates. The city dominates the countryside but this relationship nonetheless joins the two spaces. In a similar way, urban fantasy appropriates the pastoralist content of fairy tales and folktales, joining residual, rural culture with the dominant urban culture. This combination of disjunctive content allegorizes the hierarchical relationship of the city over the country. However, urban fantasy does not simply reflect urban dominance as much as it appropriates the natural and the rural to awaken a utopian desire for a less alienated existence within the urban.
Western culture, as Cat Asthon describes in her essay on de Lint in The Canadian Fantastic in Focus, traditionally treats the idea of nature and wilderness as a cure for alienated modernity. However, de Lint’s fiction recognizes the truth that an escape to pure nature is an escape from history and responsibility. Nature is, after all, a cultural construct produced by humans, an aspect of modernity even though it describes a non-human world. Instead, de Lint adopts an urban environmentalism in which his fiction seeks what spatial theorist Henri Lefebvre would call a “renewed right to urban life” (“Right to the City”).
Henri Lefebvre’s concept of the right to the city, which counters urban alienation, finds common cause with the politics of de Lint’s urban fantasy. “The right to the city is like a cry and demand,” Lefebvre writes, a revolution of space that places “appropriation over domination, demand over command, and use over exchange” (“Space as a Social Social Product”). Since the city dominates space and nature by transforming it into exchange value—for example, by exploiting natural resources for export and by constructing vast condo projects—Lefebvre calls for the production of socialist space, in which the working classes will use, or appropriate, space for themselves. Nature is the source of all use value, and asks for nothing in return. The city will become a healthier environment if people can use it, rather than it using them.
In the remainder of my presentation, I will demonstrate how two of de Lint’s books—the novel Mulengro (1985) and the short story collection Dreams Underfoot (1993)—respond to the call for the right to the city while also representing the conditions of combined and uneven development in North American cities, specifically Ottawa and de Lint’s fictional city of Newford.
Mulengro is a ghost story about the community of Rom living in Ottawa, mixed with a police procedural subplot. A series of gruesome “Gypsy” murders around Ottawa has the cops lost for any plausible explanation. Janfri, a Romani fiddler, watches his home burn down with the Rom symbol for marhime, meaning unclean, painted on his house. Since the Romani are nomad, owning a home is a sign of defilement, an unacceptable adoption of Gaje, or non-Rom, ways—or at least this is what the arsonist’s gesture implies. As the criminal murders more Rom, the elders decide to flee the Ottawa. They know the culprit to be a ghost named Mulengro, a survivor of the Nazi persecutions who has come back to cleanse the Rom from their Gaje ways. Ola, a Rom who practices draba, or magic, flees her house after being attacked by local ruffians, and Mulengro targets her. She hides out with Zach, a hippy living off the land in cabin country. Eventually Janfri makes a final stand with her and the police against Mulengro and his feral wolf minions.
Mulengro denies the Rom the right to the city. His reasoning for committing the murders is that he sees the Rom’s impoverishment as a result of their being marhime, owing to their adoption of Gaje ways—in a word, because of their modernizing. However, the novel’s resolution makes clear that cultural identities are not so clear-cut, that it is possible and even favourable to partake of modernity and retain connection to traditional ways of life, including magic. The Rom are a non-modern culture living a quintessentially modern life. Furthermore they are subjected, like the native peoples of North America, to a settler culture that seeks to manage and even criminalize difference.
What are we to make of the role Mulengro himself plays, a revenant who consumes the souls of doomed Rom? The imagery of consumption calls upon vampire lore—and the Gothic vocabulary in Marx that references vampiric capitalists who extract surplus value from the working class. Mulengro harasses those Rom who own real estate and thus live between the worlds of capitalism and the Rom pre-capitalist, handicrafts mode of production. In other words, he consumes the souls of those most aware of the unevenness of modernity. As the Rom become incorporated into the capitalist economy, most importantly through the real estate market, they experience sudden change. The replacement of use value with exchange value in their increasingly commodity-filled lives leads the Rom to feel cognitive dissonance between the capitalist system they inhabit and their traditions, where a belief in ghosts and the law of marhime still holds sway. Mulengro’s horror represents a structure of feeling among the Rom, a social formation in the process of developing. The ghost is an allegorization of how their society experiences the turmoil of poverty while living on the margins of modernity.
I now turn to Dreams Underfoot, which is more centrally focused on urban experience. Here the urban underworld becomes a faerie Otherworld unnoticed by most denizens of Newford, although occasionally glimpsed by the bohemian artists, street kids, and homeless men that distinguish de Lint’s fiction. The Tombs, for instance, used to be a developer’s dream for a sprawling yuppie paradise, but when this late capitalist urban planning venture failed, the ruins of the city blocks that were demolished remained behind—now a refuge for winos, bag ladies, and the homeless. The Tombs, abandoned by the city government after the attempt to produce exchange value from its space, has now fallen into a state of nature or wilderness and become appropriated by the underclass. Although it is a dangerous area of the city, the Tombs is where the underprivileged can tactically appropriate their right to urban space.
A space they share with colourful characters derived from fairy tales and urban myths. In one short story, “That Explains Poland,” a young photographer finds Bigfoot in the Tombs, which is not so unusual a discovery, because of the various disenfranchised people who live in this wilderness-like area. In another story, “Winter was Hard,” the presence of certain genii loci, or spirits of a place, in the Tombs contributes to making the city a tolerable place to live, while their departure signals the moment the city takes on a more haunted, less homelike character. The right to the city is thus tied directly to the presence of these pre-modern fairy-like creatures. They are pieces of agrarian European folklore transplanted to a North American city and they directly oppose alienation. If we believe in them hard enough, they might come back and restore the city.
The story that concludes Dreams Underfoot strongly suggests that de Lint sees his own fiction as a way to counter urban alienation and foster a sense of community. The fictional urban fantasy writer Christy Riddell, a stand-in for de Lint, finds his muse in Tallullah, the spirit of Newford itself. But Tallullah must leave Christy because of the rise of urban crime and a loss of connectivity among people, which drives her away. In the end, Christy holds the hope that his story collections might restore a sense of community to city dwellers and bring her back.
Dreams Underfoot and Mulengro both use fantasy to question the Enlightenment epistemology and to assert that if this epistemology does not extend to everyone, everywhere, equally—if, for example, it is still possible for people to believe in ghosts and fairies—then modernity itself cannot be evenly developed. While a text asking you to believe in fairies and spirits might seem flaky, seeing as this gives us no solid program to reclaim the city, such faith does awaken the desire to see the postmodern, uneven city restored from its ruins. It implies that there is more to modernity, and that the residual survives and coexists with the modern. De Lint’s fiction arouses our desire to become instruments of social progress. This is the utopian imagination and the power of fantasy.
This concludes my presentation, which could not have been possible without the financial assistance of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. I thank them, and I thank you for listening.
The following has been a transcript of a talk given at the English Department of McGill University’s MA colloquium on 10 March 2016 in Montreal.
Steadily, I am reading through T.E. Lawrence’s military memoir Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and I had to ask myself, “What are these seven pillars of wisdom anyway?” Nowhere in the text does he ever mention these seven pillars. What were they and what could they possibly mean?
My quest lead me down an interesting path of discovery, into the Bible and the works of Robert Graves, whose nonfiction book The White Goddess will have interest to readers of fantasy literature, since it is a source text behind much of the druid and bardic lore that went into making classic Celtic fantasy, and, I imagine, still goes into more recent fantasy as well.
Seven Pillars of Wisdom is a detailed, factual account of Thomas Edward Lawrence’s stint as liaison officer between the British forces and the Arabs in the Eastern theatre of the First World War. Arab officers rebelled against their Turkish commanders in order to declare open revolt against the crumbling Ottoman Empire and win their national independence from their mismanaging provincial oppressors stationed in Damascus. Lawrence–better known as Lawrence of Arabia–fought a manoeuvre war with the Arab commanders, rallying disparate tribes of nomads to fight as a united nation.
In this memoir, poetic observations of the harsh, magnificent landscape accompany an account of the day-to-day marches across the land to outflank and outmanoeuvre the Turks. Lawrence instructs the rebels to lay charges and detonate explosive gel under the train tracks that ferry supplies to the Turkish garrisons and towns. Moments of still peace and contemplation of strategy accompany moments of sudden violence, all described with the highest literary sensibility. It reads like an epic fantasy novel in its length and description of Lawrence’s extensive journeys, but the content is cold, hard fact written in a masterful style.
The twenty-first century is an age that that has not only seen a revival of an independent, but brutally medieval caliphate, but also one that has seen the struggle of multiple Middle Eastern peoples for national independence, such as the Kurds, who continue to fight ISIL. Some Kurds even fight the Turks from whom they desire to wrest independence–much to their chagrin. Such struggles have diversified and grown infinitely more complicated since 1917, but the struggles happening today may be traced to that much-rued Paris treaty signed after the conclusion of the Great War.
But enough historical background. Down to business. The most well-known reference to the seven pillars of Wisdom is in the Bible:
Wisdom has built her house, / she has hewn her seven pillars. (Proverbs 9.1)
The purpose of the reference is to characterize the persona of Wisdom as a woman who has prepared a feast. Only the wise are invited to this banquet; the foolish are unworthy.
This reference makes sense in relation to the jewels of profundity spread throughout the Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Lawrence becomes immersed in the Arab viewpoint on the war, on religion, and on life itself, picking up on the wisdom of the Bedouin and Howeitat elders:
“Why are the Westerners always wanting all?” provokingly said Auda. “Behind our few stars we can see God, who is not behind your millions. […] If the end of wisdom is to add star to star our foolishness is pleasing.” (289)
While this captures something of the dynamic between Eastern and Western ways of thinking, what do seven pillars have to do with this wisdom?
Wikipedia makes clear that Seven Pillars of Wisdom was the title for a previous book Lawrence had been planning to publish before the war broke out. It was to be a scholarly work about the seven greatest cities of the Middle East: Cairo, Smyrna, Constantinople, Beyrout (Beirut), Aleppo, Damascus, and Medina. This manuscript never saw the light of publication. Lawrence destroyed it. To worsen matters, he would also lose his first manuscript of Seven Pillars of Wisdom in 1919, at Reading train station. Just in time for Christmas. It has never been recovered and would have been 250,000 words in length. And I thought losing a USB key was rough.
In the memoir that eventually saw publication–painfully rewritten by a shellshocked Lawrence overwhelmed by the demands of his own celebrity status as a war hero–the author makes reference to these seven cities, either in one way or another. Damascus, for instance, was the centre of Turkish control over the Arab Middle East and one of the Arab Revolt’s main targets. Even today, age-old Damascus is the capital of war-ravaged Syria and the headquarters of Bashar al-Assad. Owing to the new focus of his book, Lawrence skims over any further significance he may have attached to these seven cities.
Now, while I acknowledge the poetic value of calling the seven cities “pillars of wisdom,” the phrase does strike me as unconventional. Why was Lawrence so insistent on this title for his memoir? Did the seven pillars of Wisdom carry some other kind of meaning?
To provide an answer to this question–or the beginnings of an answer–it might be pointed out that the seven pillars of Wisdom are also mentioned in Robert Graves’s The White Goddess.
Graves was a renowned war poet, just as Lawrence was a wartime writer. Their connection and sharing of ideas deserves to be excavated deeply by scholars. Perhaps they already have written studies of which I’m unaware.
Graves reviewed Lawrence’s memoir and edited the poem that opens Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The poem is “To. S.A.” and may have been addressed to Selim Ahmad, a young Syrian boy. It is written in such a way that it could address the Arab nation as a whole:
I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands
and wrote my will across the sky in stars
To earn you Freedom, the seven-pillared worthy house,
that your eyes might be shining for me […] (ln. 1-4)
Freedom is a word seven letters long. Each letter represents one pillar in Wisdom’s house. Thus, Freedom is a kind of wisdom, or perhaps it is wisdom that makes you free.
Although I am not certain how Robert Graves edited this poem, he may have left the mark of his own ideas upon it, either directly in the editing process or by influencing Lawrence in other ways, such as through their correspondence. Since Lawrence was a bookish man as well as a soldier, he might have read Graves’s poetry and nonfiction works himself. Whatever the case, Lawrence’s poetic use of the seven pillars motif and his correspondence with Graves cannot be entirely coincidental. Not when Chapter 15 of The White Goddess is entitled “The Seven Pillars.”
Any deeper connection between Seven Pillars of Wisdom and The White Goddess evades me. I’m going to call the connection suggestive and leave it at that. But in case you were curious about what Graves does say in “The Seven Pillars,” let us hear it:
the seven pillars of Wisdom are identified by Hebrew mystics with the seven days of the Creation, with the seven days of the week. (259)
But since this is a book about ancient druid rituals and Welsh bards, a miscellaneous trove of Celtic lore, Graves finds a correlation with Irish tree symbolism.
The seven sacred trees of the Irish grove are “birch, willow, holly, hazel, oak, apple and alder” (259). Each tree corresponds to a day of the week and a deity of the classical pantheon. Alder corresponds to Saturn (Saturday), apple to Venus (Friday), oak to Jupiter (Thursday), willow to the Moon, or Circe (Monday), holly to Mars (Tuesday), birch to the Sun (Sunday). The seventh tree, hazel, corresponds to Mercury and its day falls in the middle of the week, on Wednesday. Wednesday in English is named after Odin (Woden), the Norse god of wisdom, which means his sacred tree, the ash, may be substituted for Mercury’s hazel. Not accidentally, Mercury is also a god of wisdom. Hence, you have the seven pillars of wisdom. You might imagine each tree in Wisdom’s house being carved from one of each type of wood–provided Irish trees could grow in ancient Israel.
Is there any connection between these gods, the days of the week, the planets, the sacred trees, and the seven greatest cities of the Middle East? The numerical symbolism is certainly striking and suggestive. What it means is anyone’s guess.
To conclude, it is interesting to casually note that Graves provides a classical Latin message hidden within the acronym of the first letters of the sacred Irish trees. Perhaps this will give us our final hint about the connection of Graves to Lawrence of Arabia. “Benignissime, Solo Tibi Cordis Devotionem Quotidianam Facio.” In English, this reads, “Most Gracious One to Thee alone I make a daily devotion of my heart” (260).
A line that Lawrence could well have spoken to his dear Selim, as a message to the Arab people.
Thank you, llamaladysg, for providing T.E. Lawrence’s original poem:
Most of Robert Grave’s changes were in the third stanza. This is the original version as written by T. E. Lawrence. I much prefer this one.
I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands
and wrote my will across the sky in stars
To gain you Freedom, the seven-pillared worthy house,
that your eyes might be shining for me
When I came.
Death was my servant on the road, till we were near
and saw you waiting:
When you smiled, and in sorrowful envy he outran me
and took you apart:
Into his quietness.
So our love’s earning was your cast-off body,
to be held one moment
Before earth’s soft hands would explore all your face
and the blind worms transmute
Your failing substance.
Men prayed me to set my work, the inviolate house,
In memory of you:
But for fit monument I shattered it unfinished, and now
the little things creep out to patch themselves hovels
In the marred shadow
Of your gift.
The third stanza in the version that Robert Graves edited runs as follows.
“Love, the way-weary, groped to your body, our brief wage
ours for the moment
Before earth’s soft hand explored your shape, and the blind
worms grew fat upon
While I agree that the first lines of the third stanza in Lawrence’s original poem flow more easily, I agree with Graves’s call to concretize Lawrence’s original verb, “transmuting,” into the more vivid verb clause, “grew fat upon.”
After a hiatus, weekly posts have returned on Saturdays. Today, I propose a modest theory about the Old Man of the Mountain, Hassan ibn Sabbah, the leader of the Nizari Ismai’lis, which are more infamously known (however unfairly) as the Assassins.
I have discussed the Old Man of the Mountain in the past in the context of the famous Assassin’s Creed franchise. In this post, I try to understand how exactly Middle English readers would have understood the reference to the Old Man of the Mountain in The Book of John Mandeville. I propose in fact that they would have interpreted this account as a moral allegory not dissimilar to certain fairy tales in which the seductions of fairy land tempt the victim away from aspiring to heaven by presenting the victim with a garden of earthly delights.
Before I begin, here is the entire reference to Catholonabeus, which is Mandeville’s name for Hassan ibn Sabbah. This is a free translation from the text edited by Kohanski and Benson. (Catholonabeus is a Latinized corruption of a Syrian word meaning ‘killer.’)
In this land was a rich men that men called Catholonabeus, and he had a fair, strong castle. And he had made a good, strong wall all around the hill. Within was a fair garden in which were many fair trees bearing all manner of fruit that he could find. And he planted all manner of herbs of good smell. And there were many fair wells, and nearby were built many fair halls and chambers endowed with gold and azure. And he made birds and beasts that turned around via an engine within a clock and they sang as if they were alive. And he had in his gardens maidens of 15 years of age, the fairest that he could find, and male children of the same age, and they were clothed in gold and he said that they were angels. And he had made a conduit under the earth so that when he wanted he could sometimes run milk, sometimes wine, sometimes honey. And this place is called Paradise. And when any young bachelor of that country, knight or squire, came to find solace, [Catholonabeus] led him into his Paradise and showed him many wonderful things and his maidens and his wells and he also sounded his musical instruments in a high tower that could not be seen and said that they were angels of God and that here was Paradise that God granted to those who believed when He said thus: “I shall give you a land flowing with milk and honey.”
Marco Polo’s account of Hassan ibn Sabbah develops this point to say that all those who the Old Man of the Mountain seduced with his pleasure garden he also persuaded to carry out political murders. Their reward was re-entry into Paradise and for that, they were willing to do anything.
My initial impression of this account is that it is an Orientalist wonder tale, a European projection of fears about the Islamic ‘Other.’ Certainly the myth of a false paradise implies a degree of alterity to the man who built it. He cannot be said to be an entirely orthodox man and certainly not a Christian one. However, nowhere in Mandeville is Catholonabeus called a Saracen or a Muslim. And nowhere is his Paradise ever explicitly condemned as a false heaven. If anything, it almost seems as though the author celebrates the human ingenuity that could produce such a marvel in this world. The mechanical birds and magnificent the clock (which reminds me of a certain water-clock the caliph Harun al-Rashid of One Thousand and One Nights fame gifted to none other than King Charlemagne) suggest a technological advancement far ahead of what was common in Europe at the time.
My second impression of this account is that it corresponds fairly closely the idea of a wainscot society in fantasy criticism. A “wainscot” refers to a society of fantastic beings that exists within the mundane world, although this society can only be accessed ‘through the cracks.’ For example, there might be fairies living in a house’s actual wood paneling, which is what a ‘wainscot’ is. Or, to return to Catholonabeus, a secret society of hedonistic pleasure seekers (and their servants) might exist concealed in the mountains and within a castle, as the artificial paradise appears to be. The fact that the servants are called ‘angels’ furthermore links them with the supernatural, although they may merely be false angels.
Angels are only a small step away from fairies. Now consider if this wainscot society situated in a wondrous garden of paradise formed a sort of Celtic Otherworld.
In Sir Orfeo, a Middle English verse romance, a knight ventures into a fairy Otherworld that resembles the New Jerusalem, for all the bright and precious stones that adorn the buildings. The New Jerusalem is “the proude court of Paradis” (376). It is an otherworldly, wondrous utopia like the artificial paradise, only Sir Orfeo’s is the real deal. Nonetheless, it might be said that a tradition of viewing Paradise as an Otherworld does exist in the medieval English literature. Why not an artificial paradise?
Celtic fairy lore mentions the perils of being caught dancing in fairy circles and the danger of losing oneself to the seductions of fairy land, the ‘perilous realm.’ Consider Catholonabeus as a kind of Oberon, only with the skill of La Belle Dame Sans Merci at seducing young men with the pleasures of his garden. The dangers a young man might face with the Old Man of the Mountain come remarkably close to the ones a knight might expect from a fairy.
Then recall the tradition of fairies as the puckish, arbitrary dispensers of harm or aid. Never anger a fairy, or there will be hell to pay. Keep giving them milk in a dish by the windowsill and they will be kind to you. But you just never know. A fairy might decide to play the trickster no matter what you try to do.
Although Mandeville strangely omits all mention of the Assassins from his account, if Catholonabeus controlled his Assassins rather like a fairy king, he would have been considered a dangerous man. Like a Mafia don, a fairy with the power to murder you should better be placated.
Although I let my fancy fly a little in my last paragraph, I believe there are nevertheless suggestive cues in the account of the Old Man of the Mountain to suggest that one kind of text that might have influenced how Middle English readers interpreted John Mandeville’s account is what I will loosely call the ‘fairy story’ or ‘fairy romance.’ Kings and squires venturing near a fairy mound had better pour wax in their ears not to hear the seductive siren music of the fairyland. In the same way, the same heroes might be well instructed to turn a deaf ear to anything Catholonabeus promises and to not be fooled by his hidden musical instruments that they are in the real Paradise.
But just in case anyone needs a convincer, think about this.
Fairy rings are known to grow bigger the deeper you enter them. Although they look small, as if they do not contain much space, once you enter one, they are bigger on the inside (rather like the inside of the Doctor’s TARDIS).
Hassan ibn Sabbah was lord of Alamut castle in Northern Iran. Unfortunately, this castle is much too small, narrow, and rocky to have housed a full scale garden of paradise. However, a certain vineyard does thrive on Alamut to this day. It was rumoured to have been planted by Hassan himself.
Although it is not much to look at, the vineyard is a slice of green life thriving in the otherwise spartan ruin of the Ismai’li castle.
Has anyone ever paused to see how big that vineyard is on the inside?
Lately my blog posts have been slowing down because of the attention I’m giving to my research assistantship with Professor Robert Lecker at McGill University–we’re researching the history of literary agents and agencies in Canada. As such I have not had the occasion to post about my experience of MythCon 2015 as I did with MythCon 2014. The conference went well and perhaps in the coming months you will hear the whole story. Suffice it to say that my presentation on Charles de Lint’s multicultural utopia went smoothly and I even had a conversation with Brian Attebery about it.
Today, I’m going to be giving a brief sketch about an idea I might work on for another presentation adjacent to my main thesis. I may present the paper that this post might become, eventually, at the Northeast Modern Language Association conference (NeMLA), where a panel is being organized around the topic of war in science fiction and fantasy literature, especially as it pertains to utopian and dystopian fiction.
I was inspired to think up a topic for this panel because of a Mythopoeic Press publication, Baptism of Fire: The Birth of the Modern British Fantastic in World War I. In here is a treasure hoard of essays contextualizing and historicizing the work of the Inklings (including Tolkien, Lewis, and Barfield), along with G.K. Chesterton, Lord Dunsany, Sylvia Townsend Warner, E.R. Eddison, and T.H. White. These guys are fantasy’s T.S. Eliots, W.H. Audens, W.B. Yeatses, and Earnest Hemingways: authors who responded to the horror of World War that ushered in the age of modernity. However, Tolkien and crew approached literature in ways that were fundamentally different from their Modernist compatriots and–at times–associates: they were, generally speaking, more invested in preserving the heroic legacy of romance and adventure that fell out of favour in the literature after WWI. Plus they were less invested in realism, more invested in fantasy and mythopoeia.
I asked myself, in seeing the similarity between the essay collection’s theme and the topic up for discussion at NeMLA, how I might have contributed to Baptism of Fire, if I had been in a position to do so. It did not take me long to think of a topic.
The works of Kenneth Morris (1879-1937) have been neglected by critics for too long. Thankfully, Douglas A. Anderson has published a glorious volume of his collected short stories, republished for the first time in many, many years: a book called The Dragon Path. Part of the reason for this neglect stems from the fact Morris was for most of his life a Theosophist, publishing his poetry and short stories through Theosophical publications. In addition to this, his contemporaries thought his work too obscure to publish much of it in his own time–making him something of a fantasy writer hipster, writing parable-like works of historical fantasy way before Tolkien made the genre mainstream. He had a small but devoted audience.
His novel The Chalchiuhite Dragon: A Tale of Toltec Times went unpublished until long after his death, when Douglas A. Anderson sought to republish it in a new edition in the 1990s. I have already read and reviewed this novel here, but for those who want a recap, here’s the simple version of the plot:
The city of Huitznahuacan is a utopian enclave in the Mexican jungle during the pre-Colombian era. The residents participate in religious festivals and worship their gods as real, but they have never before heard of war as a practice among men. They believe that they alone are the only civilization on earth. But when the Toltecs arrive during a festival and encounter their culture, they appear as even stranger than the gods: the Huitznahuatecs are not alone! Soon, however, a religious hierarch of a foreign city, misled by anger and envy, plans to manipulate jungle savages to commit a series of murders that will deviously draw the peaceful civilization into armed conflict. The novel concludes with an anticipation of the arrival of Quetzalcoatl, the Prince of Peace, who gives the Toltecs a new law.
Given that Morris began writing his rather obscure third novel in the 1920s and finished writing it, at last, in 1935, it was written during a time Europe was recovering from the shock of World War I and the world was dealing with the Great Depression. Furthermore, the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and World War II (1939-1945) were just on the horizon. Had Morris been writing his novel through Britain’s negotiations with the Third Reich, it might have been possible to read a more or less direct correlation between Huitznahuacan’s failure of pacifism and the failure of Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy. In fact, Morris would die before the beginning of the Second World War.
Although my first thought about how to historicize The Chalchiuhite Dragon was shot by the simple fact of Morris’s death in 1937, it did not deter me from investigating deeper. On a second revision, it appeared to me that the novel was still very much about pacifism anyway. Especially when reading the significance of the utopian enclave in his novel, it occurred to me that Morris was writing, quite possibly, about Point Loma, itself a utopian enclave, and Theosophy in general. A resident of San Diego for a long part of his life, and born in Wales, Morris never served at the front–at least Douglas A. Anderson mentions no such engagement. Morris was too busy writing short stories and poetry for the Theosophists.
Here is where W. Michael Ashcraft’s book Dawn of the New Cycle: Point Loma Theosophists and American Culture comes into play. This study of the community to which Morris devoted his life–quite literally, since it was his busy lecture schedule that may have contributed to his declining health–describes Theosophical positions to war, pacifism, and patriotism. In a nutshell: the Theosophists of Point Loma were more actively pacifist than the German branches of their movement, while in the States they participated with “other Americans in condemning the war and called for peaceful solutions to international problems” (169). Being an international society with a vision for the common brotherhood of humanity, Theosophists served patriotically during WWI, but always under the reverence of a ‘higher patriotism’ towards humanity as a whole. Katherine Tingley, a leader of Point Loma who asked Morris to write a novel on a pre-Columbian subject, which lead to The Chalchiuhite Dragon, was active in organizing and sponsoring meetings that promoted pacifism. Given how Huitznahuacan resembles Point Loma in its devotion to peace and the sacred as well as its being closed off from the outside world, it is difficult not to see where Morris derived his inspiration for the novel.
The thesis that emerges from this evidence is that Morris was expressing a Point Loma style of pacifism in The Chalchiuhite Dragon, as way to respond to the desolation of World War I, which must have affected him in some way, even if he was far from the front lines in San Diego, and that he also did so as a response to the growing climate of unease leading up to World War II. Further evidence of Morris’s reaction to the First World War might be sought out in the short stories and poems he was writing between 1914 and 1918, including the years directly following the war.
Although this post only shows a sketch of my ideas, I think the idea is electrifying. I hope the post, at least, might bring more people to read Kenneth Morris, whose short works, like Guy Gavriel Kay’s novels, explore various historical civilizations that span diverse cultures, such as ancient China, India, medieval Spain, Scandinavia, and the worlds of Welsh myth. In fact, Anderson credits him with being the inventor of modern Welsh fantasy. His style is read-out-loudable and very musical–occasionally, literally inspired in their cadence and theme by composers like Beethoven. His works, which often thematize the universal spiritual brotherhood of mankind and the importance of knowledge through experience, are tales relevant to any era and particularly for today.
Are there Canadian dragons? And if there are, what are they like? Canada is far too young a country to have ever had a population that naively believed in dragons of the European variety. By the time Europeans settled the land, dragons were known to be myths, creatures of the imagination. Besides, leathery wings and smoking nostrils seem quite out of their element in moose and beaver territory. Once upon a time, Canada may have been home to dinosaurs and, upon the arrival of the first Americans across the Bering Strait, the megafauna, such as woolly mammoths, but ultimately the cold seasons are far too adverse to the breeding of reptiles–of any species, real or imagined.
There are monsters and demons particular to Canada, found in First Nations and early settler folklore. Nightmares such as the windigo, who was said to devour travelers who strayed too far into the bush. But dragons belong to another ecology than the vast boreal forests of the Canadian North, which so fits the particular flavour of horror associated with the windigo.
Modern times have only further driven away the dragons, as cities and other human habitations have tamed the wilderness to such an extent that even the windigo has become obsolete. Let alone the flying lizards of legend. Today a Google search for ‘Canadian dragon’ gives you pictures of dragon boats, roller-coasters, and Kevin O’Leary.
All this is not to say, however, that dragons have never been imagined in Canada. Only to say that the imagining of dragons encounters resistance. While dragons appear in the novels of many Canadian fantasy authors–I’m thinking of the dragon in The Darkest Road by Guy Gavriel Kay especially–two Canadian poets have drawn portraits of dragons: Michael Ondaatje in The Dainty Monsters and Gwendolyn MacEwen in The Shadow-Maker.
Michael Ondaatje’s most famous for writing The English Patient, but before he hit mainstream success, he was an experimental novelist and poet. His later poetry, in Secular Love, becomes increasingly autobiographical and confessional, but his first book of poems is The Dainty Monsters, a bestiary of poems published and printed by Coach House Press.
In “Dragon,” Ondaatje draws the fantastic beast as the quintessential ‘dainty monster.’ “I have been seeing dragons again,” claims its speaker, implying that he might be hallucinating, that he shouldn’t be seeing them, but he is. The initial image is almost a code that says ‘This is how dragons are in Canada’: while canoeing in a lake the speaker sees a dragon “hunched over a beaver dam.” Far from the fire-breathing terror of villages and castles, this dragon “clutched a body like a badly held cocktail.” This is a dragon who is drunk and should go home.
Dragons are usually challenged by knights in shining armour who try to rescue princesses from their dens. But Ondaatje’s dainty dragon gets “tangled in our badminton net.” The only thing left of this dragon’s fiery breath, his greatest weapon, is “an extinct burning inside” as the speaker’s four badminton buddies and their “excited spaniel surrounded him.” This is a dragon entirely emasculated and surrounded by the artificial world that humans have built up around themselves. Rather than ravaging humanity, the dragon, representing the unknown dangers of nature, has now, in a world where nature is no longer the Other but tamed, become thing about as harmful as, say, a deer.
In Rat Jelly‘s poem “The Ceremony: A Dragon, a Hero, and a Lady, by Uccello,” Ondaatje returns to the dragon myth from the angle of an ekphrasis on the painting of Saint George and the Dragon by Uccello. His poem evokes the dynamism of the famous painting, which depicts Saint George, the Patron Saint of England, lancing a dragon through the eye. The landscape of the painting is somewhere between an artificial courtyard and a natural setting by a cave.
“A boy-knight shafts the dragon’s eye / –the animal with a spine of claws” writes Ondaatje. “The horse’s legs are bent like lightening. / The boy is perfect in his angle.” The painting is in movement but captures the perfect moment of the dragon’s death, an arrangement artificially staged like a ceremony. This poem reflects Ondaatje’s interest in the dialectic between order and the natural world that characterizes his Henri Rousseau poems, such as “Henry Rousseau and Friends,” and, I believe, anticipates his interest in the movement and caught motion, which becomes a principle aesthetic concern in “‘The gate in his head.'”
Gwendolyn MacEwen’s Canadian dragon is not especially Canadian, but rather appears at first to take after the European kind like Ondaatje’s second dragon poem. But on second thought, her dragon might be Near Eastern–not Chinese, but Mesopotamian. Fascinated by all things exotic, MacEwen’s interest was in Tiamat, the Babylonian goddess of chaos who took the form of a dragon and whose body, after her death at the hands of Marduk, was used to create the heaven and earth. Although this myth doesn’t appear per se in her poem “The Taming of the Dragon” in The Shadow-Maker, the theme of chaos becoming order remains a primary concern.
MacEwen’s dragon has become dainty. “Once the monster’s jaws unfolded fire / but now how harmless are his claws / and all his teeth are capped with gold.” He’s even become a vegetarian: “between his teeth / are bits of flowers, for he’s sworn off flesh; he seems so glad and foolish.” Rather than positioning the dragon in modern-day Canadian spaces like Ondaatje does, MacEwen places him in the mental space of myth itself. The speaker, whom one can read as a creative poet-figure, mourns the loss of the dragon not because it is a noble creature, but because she mourns “how I used to stand / stricken white in his dreadful breath.” Her speaker needs a relationship with death in order to attain purity. White is the colour of purity and the albedo, the stage of purification in the alchemical process. Dragon’s breath, which is fire, is the agent by which she can achieve the albedo. But now that chaos has been tamed, she has lost the danger that provides the impetus to creativity.
The tamed dragon wears a wreath around his neck and “seems so glad and foolish” now that he has been rewarded with what could be laurels–the traditional symbol for poetic acclaim. MacEwen’s dragon shows how creativity, which thrives on danger and looming death, dies when it is tamed with praise and recognition.
Ondaatje and MacEwen adopt an attitude towards the dragon as an extinct animal, both finding within the monster a symbol for how the chaos and danger of previous medieval worlds have become order and tameness in our modernity. Canada is an inhospitable land for dragons, according to these poets, partly because it is and only has been modern. Differing from mainstream urban fantasy authors who find no trouble in writing dragons into the modern world, these poets reflect on why it is so difficult and jarring to imagine such monsters invading our comfortable, dainty lives. Yet imagine dragons they do.
What is gained by even trying to imagine such a connection to a mythic past in our seemingly unmythical and unhistorical world, which resists dragons so totally? Is it nostalgia? A desire to live among symbols? This is one of the great questions mythic writing and fantasy ask.
In “A Toronto Home for Birds and Manticores” Ondaatje’s speaker briefly expresses a desire for some kind of connection to myth–that a mythic past might emerge as a result of an archaeology not of dirt but of snow: “When snows have melted / how dull to find just grass and dog shit. / Why not the polemic bones of centaurs.” The question of “Why not?” is what Ondaatje asks himself in “Dragon,” but all he finds is an answer to the ‘not.’ MacEwen attempts to mythologize the city of Toronto in her Noman books, but as the title suggests, living a mythic reality in Canada is an alienating struggle.
MacEwen in “The Thin Garden” suggests that these great myths cannot be found in Canada, but must be found outside: “No traveller comes here from innocence / but for that myth the snow cannot provide, / and all our histories lie outside.” For MacEwen, this ‘outside’ was Egypt and Mesopotamia. She suggests what many fantasy authors–even ones willing to let dragons live in the modern day–have found to be true in Canada: the myths can only be imported from elsewhere–such as from the Middle East, or, I add, England and Europe–for want of an established native mythology. Of course, there are Native American myths aplenty, but for European-descended writers, there are those who claim that using First Nations myths is an act of cultural appropriation, a discouraging quandary.
In conclusion, we can say that there are Canadian dragons, but, in the imaginations of the poets examined in this post, once those dragons fly across the pond, they live within our climate of long winter seasons in a state of severe, disabling culture shock.
Last week’s post discussed the Indiana Jones series and the works of pulp fiction author A. Merritt, who may have partly influenced the movies. One modern (or postmodern) narrative continues the tradition of what I call archaeological adventure fiction: the video game series Uncharted.
Hero Nathan Drake is a professional thief, who believes he is a descendent of English explorer/pirate/privateer Sir Francis Drake, who is most famous for sailing around the world. Like Sir Francis, Nate travels to various exotic locales in search of treasure. And he has a crew: ex-Marine Victor Sullivan, who is nearly a father to him, Elaina Fischer, a reporter and love interest, Chloe Fraser, a competitive love interest, and Cutter, his Jason Statham look-alike London ally.
The Uncharted series breaks boundaries in the fluidity of its third-person gameplay and in the quality of its storytelling. It is possible to play the game straight through without consulting any level-select menus, for example, and the narrative is supported by many cut scenes that play out almost like a movie. The games offer the pleasure of imagining that there still might be uncharted locales around the globe in this age of satellite imagery and Google Earth. The world has been thoroughly mapped now, but Nate follows in the footsteps of those first explorers like Drake, Marco Polo, and more modern figures such as T.E. Lawrence. Spoilers lie ahead.
The first game, Drake’s Fortune, involves the classic search for Eldorado, which Francis Drake was supposed to have discovered shortly before his supposed death. It is both Nate and Sir Francis’ fortunes that are at stake. Nate discovers Drake’s journal in the explorer’s barnacled, but otherwise empty lead coffin off the coast of Panama, and is soon on the trail after the fabled city, which turns out not to be a golden city at all, but a large statue.
Picking up the trail from where a Nazi U-boat expedition failed horrendously–the crew mauled by some kind of animal–Nate ventures to an island in the Pacific with Elaina. An old forgotten Spanish colony, the island is where the conquistadors must have brought Eldorado. After their plane is shot down, it’s a race to find the statue before some old creditors of Victor Sullivan get their hands on it.
Evidence emerges that Eldorado is cursed somehow. A ledger reveals that the statue was the last shipment the colony received, before Sir Francis set gunpowder to the town and sank the fleet in the harbour. A precautionary measure to keep people out, or keep something in? Deep in the catacombs, they find Francis Drake’s skeleton, his true final resting place, and are soon swarmed by a race of naked zombies who crawl around on all fours like possessed things.
In the end, the bad guys get the statue, which the leader of the expedition opens, only to find a rotten mummy within. Immediately, he turns into one of the zombies, attacking his own second-in-command in pure instinctual rage before he gets shot through the eyes. It turns out the number-two knew about this strange effect all along and was only waiting for a moment to steal the statue and sell its dark properties to the highest bidder. Nate grabs onto the statue as a chopper hauls it away and later fights the villain on the deck of his ship. The final blow is one of poetic justice: Nate knocks the statue overboard so the rope holding it wraps around his enemy’s leg, dragging him into the ocean along with it. You want your treasure? There, you have it.
A classic move similar to some I might have seen in movies such as Indiana Jones and National Treasure. Evil punished for its lust for wealth, so that it gets just what it wants, only too much of it, so that it is beaten to death in a shower of gold like the villain in The Mask of Zorro. Why does this kind of ending prove, on wider inspection, to be such a key part of a good formula across so many narratives?
If you read Drake’s Fortune seriously enough, you discover that it dramatizes the problems associated with imperialism. In fact, I argue that the quasi-supernatural disease that underlies the golden idol of Eldorado is an expression of an anxiety about capitalism. Beneath the luxurious facade of the statue–the treasure par excellence that really did impel so many conquistadors to drive out the Aztecs and Inca and establish their own rule over South America–there lies the hidden reality of exploitation. This unfairness and its accompanying guilt is expressed not directly, but through the metaphors of disease and the zombie.
If capitalism finds a monstrous metaphor in the figure of the vampire–who sucks the blood of its subjects without producing any blood of its own, the same way the higher classes never work in production but exploit workers–then late capitalism, the socio-economic condition of our consumerist, postmodern society, finds an apt metaphor in the zombie, which is reduced to blind instinct and an appetite for brains. Brains are the very thing that make us human subjects and the zombie’s urge to consume becomes a metaphor for ‘the age of consumption.’ That such a potent symbol lies behind the gold facade of the statue that was supposedly Drake’s fortune, should be read as highly suggestive.
The Spanish colony being destroyed by the zombie virus further suggests how colonialism, and capitalism more generally, are not sustainable practices. The acquisitiveness of the Spanish–and Sir Francis Drake’s crew–results in their own undoing, their transformation into zombies. This sixteenth-century disaster finds a link to the modern-day phenomenon of neoimperialism in the arms dealer’s attempt to sell the statue in a black market auction. The zombie disease would have not only become a commodity, but a weapon. In a world where ‘Third World’ countries, frequently in turmoil, are exploited and impoverished by wealthier nations, Eldorado would have gone to the very mercenaries who maintain that instability through constant warfare.
On whether or not Drake’s Fortune is fantasy or at least scientifically plausible, it would all have to depend on whether the curse is scientifically explained. In fact, it is not given such an explanation in the game, although the various zombie films in recent years, such as I am Legend and World War Z, have provided now-famous scenarios of a rabies-like epidemics going rogue. Gamers are left, therefore, in an ambiguous state of mind in which science and the supernatural provide competing explanations. Whatever the case, the disease does make a certain moral point that makes such explanations unneeded.
Of course, to really decide on the extent of Drake’s Fortune‘s use of the fantastic, one would have to factor in awkward questions like whether ancient civilizations really had the technology and manpower to construct elaborate temples underground fitted with counterweights, rising platforms, and wall-climbing footholds simply for the purpose of constructing an enormous puzzle. Nate runs into these Legend of Zelda-style temples frequently in Tibet in Among Thieves and in the castles of Drake’sDeception. But the hidden question of who provided the labour to build these enormous buildings–slaves, perhaps?–is elided by the game’s need to make a complicated level.
Continuing on the thought of puzzles, it is worth noting that Uncharted, although filled with similarities to archaeological adventure fiction and the Indian Jones movies, is not so much about archaeology as treasure hunting and antiquities in general. The quests follow an ‘X marks the spot’ pattern rather than one of scientific excavation. All the temples are accessible above ground, even if they later lead to subterranean levels; there is nothing actually buried. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jones does dig up the chamber where the Ark of the Covenant is kept, but even the fabled city of Ubar, the Atlantis of the Sands in Drake’s Deception, is accessible by a front door shrouded in a vast sandstorm.
The ‘X marks the spot’ formula for an adventure story has a history. “The Gold-Bug” by Edgar Allan Poe tells how Mr. William Legrand, his black slave Jupiter, and his dog methodologically follow a trail of clues to the location of the buried treasure of Captain Kidd. Poe, while mostly known for his morbid first person narrations, is also credited as the inventor of the modern detective story, for example, in “Murder on the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter.” The same obsessive interest in signs and symbols that characterizes his detective stories leads Poe to develop the treasure-hunter story.
Legrand is bitten by a golden scarab beetle and might be going mad. He invites the narrator over so he can see his sketch of this scarab, but the narrator sees a human skull instead of a beetle. When the narrator returns some weeks later, Legrand leads him outside in search of buried treasure, and orders him to climb a tree, find a skull resting on a branch, and pass the scarab on a string through the skull’s eye. He uses the place where the scarab touches the ground as an indication of where to start digging. Legrand then elaborately begins to describe how he knew that treasure was buried there. In an extended retrospective speech, he describes how he heated the parchment with the sketch on it because he suspected the skull the narrator saw was a sign of a pirate’s treasure map. He discovers a code written on the parchment and deciphers it step-by-step in one of the first examples of a cryptogram in literature.
The resulting paragraph is still a cypher: “A good glass in the bishop’s hostel in the devil’s seat forty-one degrees and thirteen minutes northeast and by north main branch seven limb east side shoot from the left eye of the death’s-head a bee-line from the tree through the shot fifty feet out” (95). Upon close analysis, these words are separated into sentences, and then the locations and angles are deciphered.
In this kind of story, maps, cyphers, and old texts hold the signs needed to locate treasure. The quest traces a horizontal line towards a goal, rather than a vertical line into the earth. It is this paradigm of sign interpretation that forms the basis of Indiana Jones and Nathan Drake’s searches after lost cities. Usually a main text, such as a diary of an explorer who has gone before–whether Henry Jones’ Grail diary, or Sir Francis Drake’s lost journal–supplements a map and some kind of key, like the Tibetan ritual dagger in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, which can unlock special secret doors. The interpretation of signs on these artefacts–scrawled symbols for example–add hints and clues to the location of the quester’s goals–but also enables the antagonist to steal the items needed to find the treasure. Such maps, journals, and keys almost become McGuffins–items around which the narrative revolves, with all the characters having their reasons for pursuing them. It is no surprise then that Uncharted and Indiana Jones contain not only a quest but a race.
This sense of competition runs strong in Among Thieves, in which Nate must discover Ximbala (aka Shangri-La), where the fabled and unspeakably powerful Cintimani Stone is kept, a legendary sapphire supposedly discovered by Marco Polo. Nate races against the sinister leader of a mercenary army–Zoren Lazarovich–who uses the instability caused by Tibet’s civil war to search for the powerful stone with brutality and impunity. The medieval past of Polo’s voyage becomes the path which Nate must follow through the chaotic world of modern urban warfare. Lazarovich wrecks a Tibetan city, slaughtering resistance fighters while searching for a certain temple that will lead to his goal. He later attacks a peaceful mountain village with a tank, in his extreme obsession to have what he wants.
“The quest for the Grail is not archaeology,” says Sean Connery, playing Henry Jones in The Last Crusade. “It’s a race against evil.” What begins as a simple quest to retrieve a valuable treasure becomes a race to prevent Lazarovich from becoming unstoppable. The Cintimani Stone lends whoever holds it the power to subdue all their enemies. An elderly German in the village, Carl Schaffer, tells Nate that Genghis Khan held a mere fragment of the stone and conquered all of Asia with it. The Nazis had been searching for it too, but Schaffer, seeing the power of the Stone, shot the SS who were trying to discover it. Lazarovich leaves a path of destruction in his wake, demolishing statues and flattening buildings–everything that stands in his way. Just when Nate feels like turning back from finding Ximbala, Schaffer, echoing Henry Jones, tells him he cannot simply walk away.
The archaeological themes fall away when the story becomes about good versus evil. Although Nate and his companions are thieves who work for various clients, they have no pretension of being archaeologists like Indiana Jones in the first place. They are not necessarily highly educated, although Nate does know Latin from his Catholic boarding school upbringing. This sidesteps the problem of representing archaeology as a romantic profession, while focusing on the explosive central conflict. The quests in Uncharted are therefore “Gold-Bug”-style treasure hunts with pistols, rifles, and RPGs that retain the Jones movies’ themes about evil’s lust for power, wealth, and dominance.
Whether Nazis, as in Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade, Communists, as in The Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls, or the arms dealer in Drake’s Fortune, Lazarovich in Among Thieves, or the occult secret society in Drake’s Deception, evil represents the forces that seek too much power for themselves, who are willing to use objects considered sacred, cursed, powerful, or simply valuable for their own selfish and world-destroying ends.
There is a connection between antiquities and power expressed by these narratives. Something is being expressed about how society imagines history and the deep past–as a place of wonder and yet of danger. Cheering on Indy and Nate as they fight, we are hoping to preserve the past from those who would corrupt or destroy it. Archaeological adventure fictions symbolically resolve tensions about capitalism and imperialism, while imagining the defeat of the bugbears of history such as the Nazis, from ever claiming possession of the past.
In light of the recent advance of ISIS into Palmyra, the site of awe-inspiring Roman ruins, and their explosive demolition of the ancient cities of Babylon and Nimrod, I hope I am not alone in observing who the bugbears (the Nazis, the Commies, the Lazarovitches, the Genghis Khans) of today are. Their so-called ‘caliphate’ is a real-life force bent on destroying the past. They wish to obliterate all memory of pre-Islamic antiquity, and have, like Lazarovich, brought ageless statues to dust, although they do it for the additional reason of abolishing idolatry. If only there could be a hero, we might pray, who can come around to stop them.