Part I: A Multicultural Utopia: Historicizing New Fantasy in Charles de Lint’s Moonheart

The following is the first part of a presentation I gave for this year’s MA colloquium. I have included the accompanying PowerPoint file as well.

 Historicizing Moonheart Presentation

A Multicultural Utopia: Historicizing New Fantasy in Charles de Lint’s Moonheart

Moonheart“Utopia would seem to offer the spectacle of one of those rare phenomena whose concept is indistinguishable from its reality, whose ontology coincides with its representation”: what Fredric Jameson says in his essay “The Politics of Utopia” might also be said about the existence of fantasy (35). Charles de Lint’s modern fantasy novel Moonheart: A Romance (1984) represents utopia by distending reality and merging contemporary urban Canada with supernatural forces from First Nations and Celtic folklore. Laurence Steven terms de Lint’s novel a “new fantasy” for Canada’s “majority multiculture” (70). Referring to Jameson’s theories of interpretation in The Political Unconscious, I will present Moonheart as symbolically resolving cultural anxieties about Canada’s colonial history, through its Othering of the figure of the “colonizer” in its romance structure (Mains 347). Moonheart’s liberal multicultural ideology exists in an uneasy relationship to its rhetorical structure of intrusion, which adds colonial resonances to its inside/outside, self/other divisions. Despite the limits of multiculturalism, de Lint’s use of fantasy and magic is subversive in how it functions as a tactic of representational space in opposition to the strategy of realism, the hegemony of capitalism, and the state’s production of space. Historicizing Moonheart locates it as a text that imagines a utopia during the rise of Canada’s policy of liberal multiculturalism, while using fantasy as a visionary technique to resolve anxieties about the Other, the colonial past, and the capitalist present.

Attebery in his essay “The Politics (If Any) of Fantasy” ventures to define fantasy as the formal “meeting ground between empirical and traditional world views,” but fails to grasp the relevance of Fredric Jameson to his own definition, dismissing strict political readings of fantasy as “beside the point” (10). I differ from Attebery in my use of Jameson to historicize the politics of fantasy. In The Political Unconscious, Jameson describes the form of the novel “as not so much an organic unity as a symbolic act that must reunite or harmonize heterogenous narrative paradigms which have their own specific and contradictory ideological meaning” (130-1). Once these narrative paradigms are identified, it becomes possible to historicize modern fantasy, which borrows from romance and yet relies on a grounding in realism. This is particularly true in Moonheart, which is a “contemporary fantasy,” a genre of modern fantasy that, according to John Clute, “sets the mundanity of the present day in clear opposition to the fantasy premise” (225).

In order to historicize Moonheart, it is necessary to understand the full significance of why Laurence Steven calls it a “new fantasy” (70), a term that places de Lint’s innovative genre on a synchronic axis that stretches back to what might be called the imperialist tradition in fantasy. Such early authors of fantasy included Lord Dunsany, who influenced de Lint. Dunsany wrote “oriental fantasy” (Clute 734) in his works The Book of Wonder and Tales of Wonder and was profoundly implicated with the structures of British imperialism (House-Thomas 89). De Lint broke from this tradition in the 1980s, during the beginnings of Canada’s commitment to multiculturalism. Northrop Frye observes the “creative schizophrenia” that comes from artists being conscious of Canada as “not only a nation but a colony in an empire” (qtd. in Steven 62); likewise, Linda Hutcheon claims that Canada is both capable of critiquing imperialism “and complicit with it” (qtd in Steven 62). Steven argues that authors of new fantasy are frustrated since, in their borrowings from mythology and folklore, they are constantly forced to adopt either an imperialist attitude of cultural appropriation, or to submit to the cultural colonialism of Europe.

Steven argues that new fantasy, emerging after the 1960s, resolves this tension by letting authors go beyond the “dyad of colonizer/colonized” (63), enacting Margaret Atwood’s idea of the “third thing […] somebody who would be neither a killer or a victim” (qtd. in Steven 62). New fantasy blends realism and fantasy into a hybrid genre that emphasizes what Homi Bhabha calls the “hybridity” of the nation-state (qtd. in Steven 63). New fantasy recognizes the dialectical complexity of cultural interaction over the course of history.

The Canadian Multiculturalism Act of 1988, which followed Pierre-Elliot Trudeau’s introduction of Canada’s Multiculturalism Policy in 1971 (Dewing 16), was created, in the words of Michelle Reid, not to “infringe on the autonomy of First Nations” or on other ethnic groups (426). Multiculturalism is Canada’s state policy for the management of immigration and cultural difference. However, the mosaic metaphor for Canadian multiculturalism also implies, according to Reid, a “gridlocked rigidity” (425). For the Canadian nation-state, the management of groups requires clear divisions between them. According to Henri Lefebvre, this includes organizing spaces into cultural “ghettos” (“State” 94), such as First Nations reservations. Multiculturalism serves the Canadian nation-state as a policy that homogenizes the hybridity that characterizes difference in new fantasy.

In Moonheart, the chronotope of the Otherworld serves as an ideal stage on which a narrative depicting a more dialectical approach to cultural difference can be played out. Mikhail Bakhtin describes the chronotope as “the primary means for materializing time and space […] for concretizing representation” (250). Space and time in the primeval forests of the Otherworld, where much of the action of the novel takes place, are more flexible, with multiple levels of different worlds interpenetrating each another—the way cultures should behave, according to progressive multiculturalism. Time and space—even thousands of years or kilometres—can be crossed in a few instants. The Otherworld, which Mains describes as a “multicultural utopia” (348), succeeds in bringing cultures closer together, particularly those of the ancient Celtic and Canadian First Nations traditions.

The most succinct articulation of the principles of de Lint’s utopia is in the Forest Lord’s ‘new way,’ in which First Nations and European cultures can find harmony and freedom from the burdens of the past. The Forest Lord appears after Kieran Foy, one of Moonheart’s protagonists, a magician of mixed French-Canadian and Irish blood, fights the War Chief of an Otherworld tribe in a ritual combat. Although the War Chief draws first blood, and is declared the victor, he attempts to kill Kieran to prevent him from becoming a member of the tribe. The Forest Lord himself stops the spear with magic force and tells the War Chief, “I would have you accept a new Way. Truth wears many faces, Red-Spear. Many paths lead to one destination. It is the spirit that will not accept change that will dwindle and be lost. […] There can be no return to the old ways. Life goes on […] If it were otherwise, life would be stagnant” (384). Since tribes will now be permeable to outsiders, the utopia is one that recognizes hybridity and rejects evidence of cultural ‘impurity.’

Despite de Lint’s representation of unity, the bias of his particular version of multiculturalism is Eurocentric. Anglo-Canadian characters still occupy the central narrative of Moonheart, which is utopian insofar as it claims to transcend the errors of the past and anticipates a better possible world to emerge out of the present. It locates what Fredric Jameson would call the “root of all evil” (“Utopia” ) in what Mains calls “the human force that perpetuates the colonial encounters of the past into the lived present” (347). The Forest Lord’s new Way roughly corresponds to the classic liberal multiculturalism of the Trudeau era. While not containing the faults of conservative multiculturalism, which was founded on white supremacy (McLaren 47), liberal multiculturalism still caters to the values of dominant groups. According to Peter McLaren, liberal multiculturalism is predicated on the “natural equality” between all races that enables them “to compete equally in a capitalist society,” a view that “often collapses into an ethnocentric and oppressively universalistic humanism” that identifies the norm of acceptability with “Anglo-American cultural-political communities” (McLaren 51). De Lint’s rejection of imperialism in favour of liberal multiculturalism places him as a representative of a particular historical moment, when new fantasy as a specific form symbolically reconciled the divisions in Canadian society in the 1980s.

The romance narrative of Moonheart can thereby be historicized through its ‘Othering’ of imperialism. Evil is always connected to “Otherness,” explains Fredric Jameson; an “Other” is considered “evil because he is Other, alien, different, strange, unclean, and unfamiliar” (Unconscious 101). This is as true in imperialist fantasies as it is in multicultural, or ‘new,’ fantasies. The ideologeme of the good/evil binary presents itself as “a form of social praxis, that is, as a symbolic resolution to a concrete historical situation” (104). Moonheart attempts to resolve the political struggle between the federal government and First Nations, who have fought to assert their claims over their cultural status and their ancestral lands, by symbolically depicting a resolution to colonial history in which the historical past and present encounter each other. Since the ‘good’ is liberal multiculturalism, then the ‘evil’ must be its opposite, namely imperialism. However, there is no straightforward battle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ characters per se; rather, since Moonheart is a romance, in the words of Jameson, “the ‘experience’ or the seme of evil [is] expelled from the realm of interpersonal or inner-wordly relations [to] be projectively reconstituted into a free-floating and disembodied element,” which is to say, a supernatural element (Unconscious 106-7).

Mal’ek’a, The-Dread-That-Walks-Nameless, is the evil supernatural force that completes Moonheart’s ideologeme. The evil spirit comes “from across the Great Water” (20). The monster’s association with Europe is not accidental. The quin’on’a, or manitous, call Mal’ek’a “the white man’s curse” (366), confirming that de Lint has ‘Othered’ imperialism and has displaced this evil from human social relations onto a supernatural entity.

The denizens of Tamson House represent the ‘good’ side in the ideologeme. A home for those “different from the norm” (29), Tamson House is its own chronotope. The House acts as a bridge between the mundane world and the Otherworld, what Michel de Certeau would call a “transformation of the void into a plenitude, of the in-between into an established place” (“Stories” 127). It is a multicultural space, where, according to the novel’s protagonist Sara Kendell, “Stepping over its threshold was like stepping into a place where everything you knew had to be forgotten to make way for new rules” (29). The House is a place of diversity, tolerance, and redemption. When Mal’ek’a’s minions, a band of tragg’a, or wolfmen, besiege Tamson House after transporting it into the Otherworld, de Lint evokes colonial history by mimicking the mythology of the surrounded fort—classically, an inside/outside division that pits Europeans against First Nations. In this case, however, the outside Other is Mal’ek’a, who represents colonial history itself. Tamson House—a building given the power of dialogue—tells Jamie Tams, the house’s owner, that he is not, in fact, facing Mal’ek’a, “but the evil of our ancestors given a life of its own” (416). Since Jamie in fact shares blood with the originator of Mal’ek’a, the Celtic druid Thomas Hengwyr, the irony of the siege becomes that the enemy is within. This twist implies that European-descended Anglo-Canadians, such as Jamie and Sara, have a dark history behind their heritage and an accompanying moral resposibility to overcome it. Jamie sacrifices himself to slake Mal’ek’a’s revenge at the cost of his life. As a symbolic act that mediates social relations, this ending satisfies the unquantifiable cost that Canada owes First Nations for hundreds of years of colonial abuse. The defeat of Mal’ek’a is thus a symbolic way of clearing the grievances of history so that white, Anglo-Canadians can transcend the mistakes of past.

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Charles de Lint
Charles de Lint

Works Cited

Attebery, Brian. “The Politics (If Any) of Fantasy.” Modes of the Fantastic. Ed. Robert A. Lantham and Robert A. Collins. Westport: Greenwood, 1995.

—. Strategies of Fantasy. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1992.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. “Forms of Time and of the Chrontope in the Novel: Notes toward a Historical Poetics.” The Dialogic Imagination. Ed. Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas, 1981.

Bastien, Betty. “Indigenous Pedagogy: A Way Out of Dependence.” Aboriginal History: A Reader. Eds. Kristine Burnett and Geoff Read. Don Mills: Oxford UP, 2012.

Bechdel, Gregory. “The Word for World is Story: Towards a Cognitive Theory of (Canadian) Syncretic Fantasy.” Diss. U of Alberta, 2011.

Brydon, Diana. “The White Inuit Speaks: Contamination as Literary Strategy.” The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. Eds. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. London: Routledge, 1994.

Clute, John. “Contemporary Fantasy.” The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.

—. “Crosshatch.” The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.

—. “Oriental Fantasy.” The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.

—. “Otherworld.” The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.

de Certeau, Michel. “Spatial Stories.” The Practice of Everyday Life. 1984. Berkeley: University of California, 2011.

—. “On the Oppositional Practices of Everyday Life.” 1980. Cultural Theory. Vol. I. Ed. David Oswell. Los Angeles: Sage, 2010.

de Lint, Charles. Greenmantle. New York: Ace, 1988.

—. Moonheart. New York: Ace, 1984.

—. Svaha. New York: Ace, 1989.

Dewing, Michael. Canadian Multiculturalism. 2009. Library of Parliament, 2013.

Frye, Northrop. “Conclusion to a Literary History of Canada.” 1965. Mythologizing Canada: Essays on the Canadian Literary Imagination. Ed. Branko Gorjup. New York: Legas, 1997.

House-Thomas, Alyssa. “The Wondrous Orientalism of Lord Dunsany.”Mythlore 31.1 (2012): 85-103.

Hume, Kathryn. Fantasy and Mimesis: Responses to Reality in Western Literature. New York: Methuen, 1984.

Irvine, Alexander C. “Urban Fantasy.” The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature. Eds. Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious. 1981. London: Routledge, 2002.

—. “The Politics of Utopia.” The New Left Review 25 (2004): 35-56.

Lefebvre, Henri. “Space and the State.” 1978. State/Space: A Reader. Eds. Neil Brenner, Bob Jessop, Martin Jessop, et al. Malden: Blackwell, 2003.

—. The Production of Space. 1974. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.

Mains, Christine. “Old World, New World, Otherworlds: Celtic and Native American Influences in Charles de Lint’s Moonheart and Forests of the Heart.” Extrapolation 46.3 (2005): 338-350.

McLaren, Peter. “White Terror and Oppositional Agency: Towards a Critical Multiculturalism.” Multiculturalism: A Critical Reader. Ed. David Theo Goldberg. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.

McPherson, Dennis H. And J. Douglas Rabb. “Indigeneity in Canada: Spirituality, the Sacred, and Survival.” Aboriginal History: A Reader. Ed. Kristine Burnett and Geoff Read. Don Mills: Oxford UP, 2012.

Mendlesohn, Farah. Rhetorics of Fantasy. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2008.

Miéville, China. “The Conspiracy of Architecture: Notes on a Modern Anxiety.” Historical Materialism 2.1 (1998): 1-32.

Reid, Michelle. “Urban Space and Canadian Identity in Charles de Lint’s Svaha.” Science Fiction Studies. 33.3 (2006): 421-437.

Steven, Laurence. “Welwyn Wilton Katz and Charles de Lint: New Fantasy as a Canadian Post-colonial Genre.” Worlds of Wonder: Readings in Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature. Eds. Jean-François Leroux and Camille R. La Bossière. Ottawa: U of Ottawa Press, 2004.

Tonkiss, Fran. “Urban Cultures: Spatial Tactics.” Urban Culture: Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies. Vol. III. Ed. Chris Jenks. London: Routledge, 2004.

The Almásy Controversy: History, Fantasy, and The English Patient

The following is an update of an essay I submitted to a class on Michael Ondaatje taught by Prof. Robert Lecker at McGill. The English Patient, especially after it was transformed into a movie, ignited a controversy about historical representation. Was it ethical to rewrite the death of marginal desert explorer László Almásy by having him burn in a fiery plane crash? The ethics of Ondaatje’s rewriting of history was under particular questioning because of Almásy’s choice to join the Axis powers at the outbreak of World War II. His actions had consequences, to paraphrase the thief Caravaggio in the film. Are there any limits to an author or a director’s freedom when they deal with historical subject matter? This is a question that haunts not only makers of historical films and writers of historical novels, but writers of historical fantasy, such as Guy Gavriel Kay. Fantasy makes no claim to represent reality, which makes it a ‘safer’ mode in which to depict events that reflect, but do not actually depict, primary-world history. Although Ondaatje seems to reject the easy road of fantasy, Kay mounts a convincing case that fantasy can universalize a historical moment to make it applicable to multiple contexts.

Almasy
Almásy

 

“The Almásy Controversy: History, Fantasy, and The English Patient

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Under accusations that he had distorted the life of Hugarian aviator and explorer László Almásy while writing The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje wrote a letter to the Globe and Mail defending his art. In his article “Michael Ondaatje Responds,” Doug Saunders quotes his defense:

From Homer to Richard III to the present, literature has based its imaginative stories on historical event. [] If a novelist or dramatist or filmmaker is to be censored or factually tested every time he or she writes from historical event, then this will result in the most uninspired works, or it just might be safer for those artists to resort to cartoons and fantasy. (qtd. in Tötösy)1

Ondaatje transforms the marginal but real figure of Almásy into the burned-out ‘English’ patient, a victim of a fiery plane crash. Almásy’s fictionalization distorts the reader’s perception of historical fact. Yet Ondaatje desires to depict the private lives of historical figures through ‘the truth of fiction.’ This postmodern approach to novel writing defies the strictures of mimetic, bourgeois representations of history, while rejecting historical fantasy, which transcends the issues at the heart of the Almásy controversy. Like Ondaatje, historical fantasy novelist Guy Gavriel Kay’s non-mimetic aesthetic dramatizes the relationship between the private and the historical. While Kay humbly admits the impossibility of knowing the private lives of historical figures, Ondaatje insists on explicit historical references, which add deeper meaning to the innermost emotions of his characters.

In a keynote speech delivered in Toronto, Kay refers explicitly to The English Patient and the Count Almásy controversy when he asks the provocative question, “Are there limits, or ought there to be limits, to what writers of fiction feel at liberty to do with real people and their lives?” The value of artistic freedom must be weighed against the danger of “political propaganda,” which constitutes such works as the Tudor play Richard III. Kay also raises the issue of whether “privacy or respect for lives lived” should be a factor in a novelist’s ethical considerations while fictionalizing historical characters, asking “If they are uttely obscure—like Almasy [sic]—can we do it?” If such depictions do imply a violation of privacy, then Ondaatje pays slight regard to those limits. For example, Almásy died not in Tuscany after a plane crash in the desert, as the novel suggests, but in Salzburg, where he was “appointed head of the Desert Institute in Cairo” just before his death in 1951 (Tötösy 3). If, for example, Ondaatje had rewritten Ghandi’s death instead of Almásy’s, whose biographical details remain obscure for most readers, the controversy surrounding The English Patient would have become a scandle. But can Almásy’s obscurity alone permit Ondaatje to indulge in a historical fantasy?

Critics such as Elizabeth Pathy Salette accuse the film of The English Patient of being “ahistorical” and even “amoral,” since it “trivializes” the distinction between the Nazis and Allies (qtd. in Tötösy 8). This criticism can extend to the novel. One passage states explicitly that “it no longer matters which side [Almásy] was on during the war” (251), which was the side of the Nazis. Furthermore, Caravaggio trivializes wartime alliances and makes a melodrama out of the patient’s adulterous affair when he tells him, “You had become the enemy not when you sided with Germany but when you began your affair with Katherine Clifton” (254-5), the fictive wife of explorer Geoffrey Clifton.2 Taken out of context, these quotations relativize the ethics of alliance during the Second World War, which is a problematic effect of the novel. Within their context, however, the same quotations are really about how private individuals relate to the war. The side Almásy takes has great emotional significance for the explorer friends whom he betrays and to Caravaggio, a thief-turned-spy who lost his thumbs in a Nazi torture while tailing him for the Allies. Ondaatje is more interested in individual emotions within the epic sweep of the catastrophe of World War II rather than what he calls in an interview, “that Ben Hur sense of looking down and encompassing the full scope” (Wachtel 256). He humbly refuses to pretend he can paint such a picture accurately, preferring to piece together “little bits of mosaic” instead (256). Understanding these personal relationships and how they are affected by an overarching event forms Ondaatje’s primary interest in historical literature.

On the other hand, Kay’s historical fantasy novels are able to avoid ethical pitfalls because he avoids explicit reference to historical events. In the sense that they create worlds that do not actually exist, Kay’s novels are non-mimetic; however, they remain intricately researched and founded on an idea of a specific time period and geographical region. In The Lions of Al-Rassan, for example, Kay invokes Moorish Spain during the Reconquista. The Islamic territory of Al-Andalus becomes Al-Rassan, a non-factual but reasonably accurate reflection of historical reality. A reflection of the historical, legendary figure of Rodrigo Diaz de Bivar (El Cid) appears in Kay’s novel under the name Rodrigo Belmonte. Using this manoeuvre, Kay explains, “I would be declaring, without pretense, that I did not know what the real man was like nine hundred years ago, how he related to his wife, his children, his enemies.” Notably, Ondaatje does exactly the opposite in Coming Through Slaughter with regards to showing many aspects of Buddy Bolden’s personal life. Yet, he avoids the claims of biography, which he knows he cannot make, by including authorial self-references that make it evident that the novel is a self-conscious, imaginative construction.

Although Kay’s historical fantasy is not escapist, Ondaatje implies that fantasy would be a dissatisfying alternative to choosing a historical setting grounded in the real world. Douglas Barbour, who happens to be an Ondaatje scholar, calls one of Kay’s novels “the kind of escape that brings you home” (qtd. in Kay), since his novels serve as a kind of historical allegory for real events. This “allows the universalizing of a story” because it “detaches the tale from a narrow context” in history. Historical fantasy can be more ethically responsible than Ondaatje makes fantasy out to be when he rejects offhand the childlike alternatives of “cartoons and fantasy” (qtd. in Tötösy). Unlike Kay, the author of The English Patient requires the freedom to set his art in the real world. Although both Kay and Ondaatje are careful in their humility towards representing history, Ondaatje still feels that a connection to real events is fundamental to his fiction; in this light, The English Patient‘s historical fantasies about Almásy are more radical than the imaginative histories of Kay’s novels.

Despite the ethical dangers of historical representation, Ondaatje makes the case that his depiction of Count Almásy reveals more truth than lies. Ajay Hebel claims that his postmodern novel expresses an “imaginative account of the past as being narratively faithful to the way things might have been” (qtd. in Tötösy 2). This is “truth by lying,” a phrase Ondaatje attributes to Vargas Llosa in an interview with Eleanor Wachtel (258). Ondaatje claims that his departures from history are more honest than his description of facts: he tells Wachtel, “I started to discover I was being more honest when I was inventing, more truthful when dreaming” (257). Rather than relying on written histories, which can be warped, Ondaatje uses historical personas simply as a “costume” or “mask” in which he can “both reveal and discover” himself (Bush 240). In this way, he avoids making truth claims he cannot make, accomplishing the same humility as Kay, but while using a different literary mode. History becomes the playground in which Ondaatje writes about themes that are less about history and more about the personal relationships that exist in private among small groups of individuals.

Lyrical and private moments in The English Patient are Ondaatje’s strategies of responsible historical representation. These moments serve as a shield against potential accusations of historical falsity. Ondaatje’s fascination with “minor characters in history, people who don’t usually get written about” (Wachtel 256) give him artistic space, since figures like Bolden and Almásy have relatively few verifiable facts recorded about them. The blank spaces of their lives can be filled with fictions. Often these lacunae are their personal lives, their private thoughts, their first person perspectives—how the ‘English’ patient relates his story, saying, “I fell burning into the desert” (5). “I wanted to erase my name and the place I had come from,” says the mysterious burned man (139), suggesting the ambiguity of his identity as either English or Hungarian. Almásy’s ambiguous identity creates space for Ondaatje’s fictional inventions, a kind of writing that is at odds with history writing itself. Intimacy and emotions rarely get written down in history. Discussing his affair with Katherine Clifton, Almásy says, “You do not find adultery in the minutes of the Geographical Society. Our room never appears in the detailed reports which chartered every knoll and every incident of history” (145). Not only does Ondaatje give Almásy a voice he never had, but he claims that the evidence of the affair is in, paradoxically, the absence of recorded evidence. Such details construct an illusion of fact within the fiction.

Another layer that frames Ondaatje’s subject matter in addition to protecting his novel from the scrutiny of censoring historians is the Villa San Girolamo itself, a private, isolated chronotope. Hana, Caravaggio, Kip, and the patient reside in the villa, which was made a private space after the nurses abandoned it and as the front moved into northern Italy. It is a place and time where Ondaatje’s characters take refuge from the tumult of history-making events, a “tableau, the four of them in private movement, momentarily lit up, flung ironically against this war” (278). Aside from Hana’s personal writing, the events at the villa go unrecorded, making the fictive Almásy’s last days unknowable to any readers of the official historical record. While the four characters inhabit the villa, it is the perfect setting for Ondaatje to explore the human emotions and relationships that pass between each of them. Although Kip imagines “the streets of Asia full of fire” after the bombing of Japan (284), Ondaatje is not primarily interested in history lessons, but in “an interpretation of human emotions—love, desire, betrayals in war and betrayals in peace—in a historical time” (qtd. in Tötösy 8). Fantasy would make these human emotions less authentic, because they would be less recognizably connected to a time and place of significance for the twentieth century. For Ondaatje, being criticized for manipulating history is the price to be paid for the perfect setting in which to dramatize emotions.

Works Cited

Bush, Catherine. “Michael Ondaatje: An Interview.” Essays on Canadian Writing 53 (1994): 238-49.

Kay, Guy Gavriel. “Home and Away.” Bright Weavings: the Worlds of Guy Gavriel Kay. 2002. Web.

Ondaatje, Michael. The English Patient. 1992. Toronto: Vintage, 1993

Tötösy de Zepetnek, Steven. “Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, ‘History,’ and the Other.” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 1.4 (1999): 2-12. <http://docs.lib.purdue.edu/ clcweb/vol6/iss3/5>

Wachtel, Eleanor. “An Interview with Michael Ondaatje.” Essays on Canadian Writing 53 (1994): 250-61.

Endnotes

1Regretfully, I could not unearth Ondaatje’s original letter, or the Saunders article; I must quote from Ondaatje third-hand.

2A further violation of the bourgeois mimetic contract, the plot of heterosexual adultery erases the fact that Almásy may have been a homosexual engaged in a relationship with Rommel (Totosy 6).

Photo Credits:

Almasy: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Almasy_Laszlo.JPG

5 Reasons Why Christopher Marlowe is an Elizabethan Hipster Poet

Bonus: Reason #6 is he already has the requisite mustache. All he needs are the glasses.
Bonus: He grew hipster moustaches literally centuries before they were trendy.

Elizabethan England’s most celebrated poet and playwright, in underground kind of way, was Christopher Marlowe, although he was soon eclipsed by Mr. Will Shakespeare, whose popular plays would define the mainstream for centuries to come. It was the 90s. The 1590s to be precise. Marlowe was at the height of his powers, writing the politically subversive and experimental poetry that would come to define his generation. Doctor Faustus, for instance, would stand the test of centuries as a profound representation of Renaissance humanism.

Many have tried to label Marlowe. Attaining his MA at Cambridge, he was a member of a generation of college wits. The civil service was not large enough to accommodate the young poets of London, so they turned to more edgy professions, like poetry.

Poet, playwright, spy, homosexual, Catholic, atheist: even if the labels didn’t make any sense, they stuck. Marlowe’s response? Haters gonna hate.

Here are five reasons why Marlowe was basically a hipster:

1. He avoided all labels.

Although Edward II depicts the homosexual relationship between a king and his favourite courtier (fun fact: Edward II is Longshanks’ son in Braveheart), Marlowe cannot be outed of the closet based on textual evidence alone. In a similar way, scholars have argued about whether Doctor Faustus celebrates or a condemns Renaissance humanism and the pursuit of scientific knowledge–they have to settle on seeing the play as expressing a paradox. Neither can they determine with absolute certainty whether he was an atheist, or for that matter, a closet Catholic. You can’t pin Marlowe down or place him in any particular intellectual camp–being classified would make him way too mainstream.

2. He was over-educated and underemployed.

Sound familiar? Like a certain generation of young, college- and university-aged people today (such as yours truly), he had no money unless he sought patronage. Furthermore, his education in classical literature went nowhere towards finding him a job. He couldn’t just be a cobbler like his father, Mr. John Marlowe. Way too mainstream. Instead, the only way Marlowe was able to get his MA was by serving in Her Majesty’s Secret Service–such as it existed back then. Marlowe was sent to France to spy on Catholics for Elizabeth I, or at least that’s what scholars have argued. If only that was all you had to do today: become James Bond for a while and then bang! your degree is conferred, your tuition paid. (I’ll stop dreaming about it now.)

3. He was into retro.

Marlowe painstakingly tried to bring back the first-century Roman poet Ovid. Although he was not alone in reviving interest in Ovid’s poetry, most people came to know Ovid only in grammar school textbooks. Marlowe remixed a collection of Ovid’s poems, the Elegies, by translating them into English verse. Then he brought Ovid to popular audiences by writing highly pretentious  allusions to Ovid’s Metamorphoses into his plays. I don’t suppose you’d understand the reference, but…

4. He was unappreciated as an artist for centuries.

Marlowe’s art was so ahead of his time that his seventeenth- and eighteenth-century readers devalued him as only a necessary precursor to the Bard–John the Baptist to Shakespeare’s Christ. Well, the Romantics reappraised him after almost 200 years and his works, which explore tyranny and the dark side of politics, had new resonance in the twentieth century. Like Vincent Van Gogh, the archetypical unappreciated artist, the genius in Marlowe only became relevant after his death.

5. He wrote in blank verse before it was cool.

Rhymes were way too fashionable. Not to mention, they were just distasteful. I mean really. His contemporaries were infatuated with couplets, Spenserian stanzas, and rime royal. Marlowe was one of the first to realize that rhymes were overrated. Iambic pentameter blank verse in English, so characteristic of Shakespeare’s great dramatic speeches, was actually pioneered by his more underground predecessor. Unfortunately, Shakespeare is given all the cred for this. What everyone should come to realize is that Marlowe was not some kind of mindless trend follower; he started one of the greatest poetic trends in English literature, thank you very much.

 

6 Similarities between Guy Gavriel Kay and Michael Ondaatje

Guy Gavriel Kay
Guy Gavriel Kay

 

Michael Ondaatje
Michael Ondaatje

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Embedding myself in the novels and poetry of Michael Ondaatje this semester in an MA seminar taught by Prof. Robert Lecker, I could not help but notice the similarity between the thematic/artistic concerns of the author of The English Patient and Guy Gavriel Kay. Both are great writers and both are Canadian. Upon first glance, this might be where their similarities end. Ondaatje has written postmodern poetry and literary fiction that merges with autobiography, while Kay writes mainly historical fantasy, although he does have one book of poetry, Beyond this Dark House. On closer inspection, they both have similar obsessions. I could possibly write a whole thesis on their similarities and differences, but why write a huge paper when I can just turn out a blog post?

Both of these authors leave me in awe at their poetic prose style and the infinite care and research that goes into their novels. They’re also two writers whose collected works I’ve come close to reading in full–by the end of the semester, I’ll have Ondaatje’s novels and much of his poetry under my belt, and I’ve already read all of Kay’s books. It’s about time we set them side by side and imagine them in conversation–perhaps at a round table debating art, history, and the life of the artist over drams of scotch (I hear Kay, at least, knows a thing or two about the latter).

(Michael Ondaatje doesn’t have Twitter.)

Without further ado, here are the 6 similarities between Michael Ondaatje and Guy Gavriel Kay:

1. They both use the same John Berger epigraph.

At the end of Ysabel, Guy Gavriel Kay uses the same epigraph by John Berger that Michael Ondaatje uses at the beginning of In the Skin of a Lion: “Never again will a single story be told as if it is the only one.” Fittingly, the fact that both authors employ the same epigraph confirms what the epigraph itself implies. Both novels also happen to borrow from myth–Ysabel from Celtic myth generally, and In the Skin of a Lion from The Epic of Gilgamesh. (The title alludes to a particular line in that ancient narrative poem.)

2. One is a poet-turned novelist and the other a novelist-turned poet.

Ondaatje began his career writing poetry, from early works like The Dainty Monsters and the man with seven toes, to his more mature confessional poems in Secular Love. While writing poetry, he slowly made the transition into the form of the novel. He eventually became hugely famous for writing The English Patient, a novel that was made into an Academy Award winning movie.

Guy Gavriel Kay is chiefly a novelist, although he intersperses poetry when a particular character, usually a poet, has the occasion to write a few lines. My favourite examples of such poetry come from the Chinese-inspired poems in River of Stars and Under Heaven. He has also published a nice volume of poetry called Beyond this Dark House.

3. They are both interested in where the mythic intersects with the personal.

In The Lions of Al-Rassan, the relationships between Ammar ibn Khairan, Rodrigo Belmonte, and Jehanne bet Ishak–which includes both romantic love and friendship–are between three legendary individuals. Rodrigo, for example, represents a figure similar to El Cid, the national hero of Spain. Kay  shows how public duty places demands on each of these figures in such a way that it conflicts with their personal friendships. The result is sublime, believable art. Describing how five University of Toronto students deal with a new mythic world in The Fionavar Tapestry might be Kay’s quintessential exploration of the mythic-personal conflict, although I must say his treatment of such themes in Ysabel is more effective.

Ondaatje’s early poetry in The Dainty Monsters was intensely interested in the intersection between myth and one’s personal life: the section of the book entitled “Troy Town” attests to this, particularly the Trojan War poem “O Troy’s Down: Helen’s Song.”  When he began to write novels, he did not abandon this interest. Coming Through Slaughter treats the myth behind jazz legend Buddy Bolden, who went mad playing the cornet during a New Orleans parade. He writes intimate, sensual scenes of Bolden’s personal life that also imagine the possible cause of his madness–the archetypal downfall of substance-abusing musicians. Furthermore, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid deals with the myth of the titular outlaw, made famous from nineteenth-century penny dreadfuls.

4. They are both obsessed with the figure of the outlaw.

Ondaatje’s first published novel was also an experiment in poetry. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid opens with the frame of an absent photo of Billy, and implies that the reader will have to assemble an image of this mythic character themselves. They are to do this extrapolating from the fragments revealed in Ondaatje’s multi-genre collage. This is outlaw poetry, and poetry about an outlaw. As well as being intensely violent and precise in its imagery and diction, The Collected Works reveals the obsession of an author trying to excavate an American celebrity about whom no one seems to have a full picture.

Guy Gavriel Kay finds his Billy the Kid in the figure of Yue Fei, a Chinese hero. In River of Stars, Kay writes the story of Ren Daiyan, who is a fictitious analogue for Yue Fei. An expert bowman who wishes to restore the glory of the Empire of Kitai, Ren ambushes representatives of the Prime Minister’s oppressive Flowers and Rocks Network, which is exploiting the empire’s starving poor. Kay speculates on the origins of a Chinese national legend through the figure of Ren, who eventually becomes a General fighting for the Emperor–a movement from the peripheries of society to the center that may lead to disaster (as it often does in Kay’s novels). The intricate attention Kay pays to how Ren’s story becomes legend attests to his obsession with Yue Fei.

5. They both wrote novels that explore the life of an original and mysterious artist.

In addition to the outlaw, Kay and Ondaatje are obsessed by the figure of the artist. Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter is about Buddy Bolden, who many believe to be the originator of jazz itself. Jazz is also a metaphor for Ondaatje’s own style. Taking documentary evidence of Bolden’s life as a starting point, Ondaatje improvises the narrative of Bolden’s life in a way that mimics the solos of a jazz musician. Ondaatje strongly identifies with Bolden, at one point stating, “When he went mad he was the same age as I am now” (134). Coming Through Slaughter stands as perhaps the greatest jazz novel ever written.

Although Kay is less personally invested in the artist Caius Crispus from his Sarantine Mosaic duotrope, he still connects Crispin to an artwork in real life that fascinated him. A mosaicist, Crispin becomes the employee of Emperor Valerius and charged with the creation of a massive mosaic to cover the inner dome of his Sanctuary of Holy Wisdom. This project is analogous to the decoration of the dome of Hagia Sophia in modern-day Istanbul, during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. Can an artist produce a work that can survive the times in which he was born? Is it possible to create a monument that will stand for eternity? While Crispin’s mosaic is designed to withstand political tribulations, Bolden’s jazz is deliberately ephemeral. Yet both forms of art continue to inspire.

6. They each use a different strategy to depict the personal lives of historical characters.

Regarding this issue, Kay explicitly links his novels to Ondaatje’s. Do historical characters deserve privacy? What about living characters? Is it more ethical for a novelist to speculate on the intimate life of Elizabeth II, or Elizabeth I?

In his speech “Home and Away,” Kay describes the rationale for his particular approach to historical fantasy–writing narratives set in locales that invoke historical milieus but do not actually refer to such milieus. In this way, Byzantine Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora become Sarantine Emperor Valerius and Empress Alixana. At one point, he compares his problem of blending the historical and the personal to the ethics of Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient:

And then there are the moral questions. These emerge most strongly when we consider that ‘history’ isn’t just about the distant past. Consider the works that involve real people – living or recently dead – saying and doing things the author has simply made up. There is no way to know if such scenes are true, indeed, put more strongly, there is almost no way that they are true. Does this matter? Should it?

The examples are legion. We look at the real people interwoven with fictional ones in Doctorow’s Ragtime, we consider J.D. Salinger as a character in Shoeless Joe (and pass over a more recent tell-all about Salinger which purports to be non-fiction), we pause before the controversy regarding Michael Ondaatje’s creative ‘invention’ of a life and personality and death for a very real person: Count Almasy in The English Patient. […]

The question – or one question – seems to me to be this: are there limits, or ought there to be limits, to what writers of fiction feel at liberty to do with real people and their lives? Does anything go, in fiction as in Cole Porter songs? Ondaatje, in a spirited defence last year against attacks in the Washington Post, pointed out that we’d lose Shakespeare’s Richard III if we introduced constraints to the free treatment of real people in art. A grievous, appalling loss.

Kay’s strategy to deal with this moral problem is to present his work as entirely fictional. This extra level of removal acts as a humble admission that he does not know what historical characters truly thought during the time they were alive, or what they felt. It also enables him to weave a mythically structured plot that true history, being filled with random events, does not always permit.

Ondaatje’s strategy is entirely different from Kay’s, and yet achieves a similar effect, in one respect. He purports to show you Buddy Bolden or Billy the Kid in their most intimate moments. But rather than presenting a straightforward plot, he presents a fragmented, disunified story from different voices and witnesses.  Readers must suture the gaps between various scenes with narratives of their own. It is a style that lets the reader participate in the creation of Bolden and Billy.

Furthermore, Ondaatje makes clear in Coming Through Slaughter that his goal is not the mimesis of a historical subject–that is, the reproduction of a historical reality–but a more jazzed-up combination of fact and fiction. This kind of art serves as a mirror to his own self. “The photograph moves and becomes a mirror,” states Ondaatje, illustrating the transformation of one of the only surviving photos of Bolden.  Bolden reflects Ondaatje’s own psyche; the two inhabit each other. His improvised history of Bolden says less about a historical referent that it does about Ondaatje’s idea of the self-destructive artist.

Kay’s secondary worlds are also mirrors–although they are less personal to the author and more like mirrors to history. The patterns of history reflected in novels like Tigana and The Lions of Al-Rassan continue to map onto events in the modern world–wherever national or linguistic heritages are being erased or competing religions wage endless wars against each other. This gives Kay’s novels, according to sometime Michael Ondaatje scholar Douglas Barbour, “the kind of escape that brings you home.”

In conclusion, I will state boldly that Kay’s novels are a ‘historical fantasy’ reaction to many of the ethical problems and artistic interests that concern Ondaatje as a writer. Together, these two authors share something more than a Canadian citizenship; they are two kindred spirits writing from two very different, yet nonetheless related, artistic philosophies.

A Battle of Five Blogs — Why I would have filmed The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit in the North

With the release of The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies in theatres this week, some of my MythCon friends and I decided to participate in A Battle of 5 Blogs. We will all be posting about the movie, which concludes Peter Jackson’s trilogy. Although I have heard rumours of Jackson’s plans to make The Silmarillion, for the time being, it looks like this is the end of the epic journey that began at the turn of the century with the release of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

You can find links to the other blogs below.

Jim Moffet’s A Tolkienist’s Perspective @TolkienistView

Sorina Higgins’s The Oddest Inkling @Oddest_Inkling

Crystal Hurd CrystalHurd.com @Doctorhurd

Kat Sas of Raving Sanity @Katherine_Sas

And Brenton Dickieson’s A Pilgrim in Narnia @BrentonDana

When I think of the beauty of The Lord of the Rings films, one thing strikes me above all else. The landscape.

After more than a decade of the films, the panoramic shots of the Misty Mountains and the River Anduin still leave me with an impression of the sublime. While the soundtrack rushes by with the familiarity of an old song, the landscape still leaves me with an impression of the great, epic tenor of Tolkien’s trilogy. When Howard Shore’s musical scores echo that majesty, they become one with the landscape itself. I get goosebumps at just thinking of seeing that world from an Eagle’s-eye view, and I become reminded of the glories of my adolescent years–yes, there was some glory to them–bringing me right back to the trip I made in 2008 to New Zealand (and Australia) for World Youth Day.

New Zealand
New Zealand

Middle-Earth, a secondary-world surrogate for Europe and England, was filmed mostly in that absolutely beautiful country. During its colonial history, it was imagined as the England of the Antipodes, since the rolling green hills of the Waikato Valley so resemble the cozy English landscape. It’s no wonder, then, that Jackson would chose New Zealand–a more sublime England–to film the narrative through which Tolkien intended to build a mythic past for his country.

When I was there in 2008, I didn’t see any of the great mountains, but I did step gingerly across a sheep dung-strewn lawn in the rain to see a couple of hills with white boards cut out to look like Hobbit holes–what remained of Hobbiton after the camera crews had gone. Still, you couldn’t mistake the bizarre and oddly disorienting feeling that you were standing where the village had once been, now once again serving its purpose as a shepherd’s farm. How the powers of Movie Magic must have transformed it! It was like being in two places at once.

Throw in that this land is home to the Maori, and you begin looking for the tip of a wharenui (a village meeting house) to suddenly appear on the Anduin’s west bank. Of course you never see one, but the truth that the Maori had their own tales of elves, fairies, and dragons in their oral traditions lends a certain aura to the landscape of Aotearoa (“land of the long white cloud”; what the Maori call New Zealand, or ‘Middle-Earth’). Whatever way you slice it, New Zealand is an enchanted land.

So, you might ask me if I’d return to New Zealand if I got dropped with a $100 million check to film a remake. Despite my immense enthusiasm for New Zealand, I would politely answer, “No.”

New Zealand worked for Peter Jackson. But to craft my retelling of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, I would likely film in the Northern Hemisphere. Not that I would object to doing a little filming on the North or South Island, if it was necessary, but the trademark of my new film franchise would be to underscore the harshness of Middle-Earth. The ideal place to achieve this effect would be to film in Iceland and the Nordic countries (along with–just maybe–Northern Canada).

The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit were both greatly influenced by the poetry of Old Norse and Celtic mythology, which mixed together like yin and yang in Tolkien’s work. While the sections inspired by Norse myth–The Battle of the Black Gate, Moria, Helm’s Deep–can be characterized as part of a more ‘masculine’ worldview of doom and glory, the parts drawn from Celtic myth–Lothlorien is the chief example–draw on ‘feminine’ nature- and art-centered systems of meaning. Both strands of influence blend together to create a mix of the apocalyptic and the joyful, of the inescapably sad and the sacrificially heroic. No happy ending arrives without cost to the hero.

What about this place in Iceland as a location for Moria?
What about this place in Iceland as a location for Moria?

Tolkien blends the tradition of götterdämerung–‘the Death of the Gods’–from Norse mythology, with the Celtic sense of fay magic being in continual decline. He Christianizes it using the Apocalyptic imagery of the Book of Revelation. His intention to create a myth for England ties the worlds invoked in The Lord of the Rings firmly to the weather-beaten, hard Northern tribes and nations of the late classical and medieval periods. These included the Celts of Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, as well as the Vikings of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Iceland.

Following this historical logic, I would film a remake of The Lord of the Rings in the countries from which Tolkien’s source material came. I would film the Hobbiton scenes in Merry Olde England, since The Shire is so obviously English. But as soon as Frodo and Same draw closer to Mordor, the landscape would become increasingly treacherous and Nordic. Witness the number of volcanoes in Iceland, and you’ll see what I mean. Although Iceland does not have the lush forests of New Zealand, it would lend a stark, weather-beaten atmosphere to the film that would contrast with Peter Jackson’s luscious cinematography.

The bare rock faces in Northern Scotland and Iceland would lend a bare-bones feel to the movie and might upset audience expectations with its minimalism, but it could do so in a good way. In emphasizing the Norse character of Tolkien’s trilogy, the landscape could add a certain Game of Thrones Winter-Is-Coming vibe, in addition to leaving the camera to focus more intimately on the characters and their speeches. One aspect moviegoers miss out on, when they haven’t read The Lord of the Rings–or if they have forgotten it largely because they’d read it so long ago, like me–is how much of the novel is people giving speeches.

Who could forget Aragorn’s dialogue with the Uruk-hai at Helm’s Deep? Nearly everyone, actually. Including Peter Jackson, who left out the dialogue for obvious reasons. It would have been weird. Aragorn just entering a lyrical dialogue with the Uruk-hai, even in an antagonistic way, would have made about as much sense as including the Tom Bombadil scenes. However, these quirky bits–some but not all of which appear in the Warner Brothers’ animated films–are inseparable from the experience of reading Tolkien. I had to do a lot of slogging as a 13-year-old to get through all that, but I did manage to get through it. Not all of Tolkien’s poetry is great but his prose dialogue is certainly worth taking a second look at.

My production–if I am to have full control of it–would not be encumbered by the expectations of a popular audience. In one sense, this makes it an impossible project, since a box office hit is usually the only way to convince Hollywood to give you the $100 million budget you need. Yet, in this utopian world, I would not only chose to film in the North, but emphasize Tolkien’s Shakespearean language and his sense of comedy and tragedy.

I would link Tolkien to the great English tradition of literature that stretches back to the Bard, Christopher Marlowe, and John Milton. I’d make Gollum into a Caliban, Saruman into a Faustus, and Sauron into a Satan. The minimalism of the Icelandic landscape would act as the minimalism of the Globe Theatre’s stage. It would be a grand performance indeed. Throw in the fact that so many of the actors in The Lord of the Rings have training as Shakespearean actors, and you would have a more artistic version of The Lord of the Rings than Jackson could have ever risked producing.

Newfoundland would also be a prime filming location. How about the Tablelands as Rohan?
Newfoundland would also be a prime filming location. How about the Tablelands as Rohan?

Yet the stark landscape would not all be bare rock, volcanoes, and ice. If you have ever been North in the summertime, or have seen pictures of it, as I have, then you will know that there is, actually, a colour palette up there. Red moss coats the valleys of Ellesmere Island, and Northern Quebec is full of endless pine forests that could serve for an interesting interpretation of Mirkwood. There would still be room for the Misty Mountains in Iceland. And the Scottish Highlands are just begging to be filmed. These locations would make no sacrifice of cinematographic excellence. There would simply be a stronger sense of authenticity to the setting and to Tolkien’s voice as an author.

I’m not the first–and nor will I be the last–blogger to offer my opinion on how I would have filmed The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit differently. I’m also not the only one who feels that the Dungeons-and-Dragons/Twilight feel–a contrasting mix!–of the recent Hobbit movies were an insincere treatment of Tolkien’s children’s story. However, I do not blame Peter Jackson for this. He had to meet the expectations of his mass audience. He has succeeded as an entertainer, and I appreciate that Hollywood is a difficult place from which to work as an artist. Yet, without being so tethered–in some kind of moviemaking utopia where I could make a multi-million dollar indie fantasy film–I would have filmed The Lord of the Rings while drawing out the rhythms and cadences of the North.

When I hear Howard Shore’s soundtrack in Jackson’s film, when I seen the landscapes of New Zealand, I am submerged into a world that has the same degree of literary dignity as the most significant works of English, like Hamlet, or–perhaps especially–Beowulf. Goethe’s Faust and Dante’s Divine Comedy might also make this list. Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, even though it largely maintained an epic tenor, still seems too small a narrative to fill that vast world entirely. Perhaps this is as due to over-familiarity with the movies as anything. To recover our sense of Tolkien’s language and landscape, my film would attempt to achieve a deeper, dramatic resonance that would encounter those mountains, lakes, and forests.

Mt. Odin on Baffin Island. Fairly self-explanatory Nordic connection and cinematographic value!
Mt. Odin on Baffin Island, Canada. Fairly self-explanatory Nordic connection and cinematographic value! Odin was the chief god of the Norse pantheon. There is also a Mt. Thor and Mt. Asgard.

Picture Credits:

Newfoundland: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tablelands_Landscape_Newfoundland.jpg

Iceland: http://pixabay.com/en/svartifoss-waterfall-basalt-iceland-108039/

New Zealand: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Udsigt_new_zealand2.jpg

Baffin Island: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Odin

Folklore and Graffiti: A (Potential) Study of Spatial Tactics and Urban Fantasy (Part II)

A graffit-tagged lion guarding the gate to Chinatown, Montreal
A graffiti-tagged lion guarding the gate to Chinatown, Montreal

When we left off last week, I was trying to prove that graffiti interrupts the rational order of the city, as a spatial tactic, and therefore can be compared to urban fantasy, inasmuch as it too subverts conventional “consensus reality.” I quoted Bramley Dapple in Charles de Lint’s short story “Uncle Dobbin’s Parrot Fair,”  who says, “We live in a consensual reality where things exist because we want them to exist. […] Yet if you were to listen to the world at large, Goon [Dapple’ gnome companion] is nothing more than a figment of some fevered writer’s imagination—a literary construct, an artistic representation of something that can’t possibly exist in the world as we know it” (Dreams Underfoot 24). Dapple implies in a metafictional moment that collective belief is what defines reality. However, this definition of what constitutes reality can only be explained by an investigation of what forces in society constitute reality itself.

This is why, in North American especially, consensus reality is a political issue.

The rationalist, Cartesian, scientific discourse that divides space into a square grid is inextricably opposed to the perspective of ‘traditional,’ and especially indigenous, worldviews, which contain an entirely different ontology, or definition of what things are. I have explored problems of this conflict in other articles: among the Maori and Icelanders. Our consensual reality is tied up with capitalism. Our mode of production, to use a Marxist term, structures how power works and how ideas are disseminated in our society. It is also connected with the imperialism that was responsible for the expulsion and disenfranchisement of indigenous civilization in North America. Perhaps in introducing Native American mythology in books like Moonheart, Charles de Lint attempts to subvert the ideology that enables imperialism by presenting another ontology as valid. Charles de Lint’s urban fantasy can then be seen as subversive, inscribing, through his texts, the identity and worldview of traditional cultures—both Celtic and Native American—on the rational cityscape. (Although, this has been seen as problematic given certain accusations against de Lint’s cultural appropriation. See his response in his Afterword to Mulengro.)

A whimsical yet mythical mural on St. Laurent Blvd. in Montreal
A whimsical yet mythical mural on St. Laurent Blvd. in Montreal

Let us now take a brief interlude and go explore through an example what I mean to say when comparing spatial tactics to urban fantasy. Remember: urban fantasy combines the space-time associated with urban reality and ‘crosshatches’ it with that of the folktale. You are walking on the street one day near the Redpath Museum on McGill campus, let’s say. Then in a glimpse of sublime might, you see the god Pan, cloven-hoofed and decked with horns on his head, standing against the wall. You blink. Pan is gone, but he has left his mark: you recover a set of panpipes. Maybe he sprayed his name in aerosol over the wall, but it would be partly the same effect. The panpipes are a sign: the god not only exists, but also, it is implied, every narrative, every myth, in which the god participates. He exists, but the meaningful space and time in which he exists also exists.

You come to recognize that if Pan is real, then the universe is operating according to a narrative, that the world is heterogeneous, divided between mundane and numinous realities. You have encountered “Story” and such a universe cannot have the random disorder which scientists assure us is the law of the universe.

This world of “Story” means that the Barthesian text of the city is altered forever and that you can conceive the world as whole—not as fragmented and shattered. “The worldness of the world” is restored, which, for Fredric Jameson, is a key mark of the romance genre, on which so many fantasy novels are based (98). In our capitalist mode of production, Jameson implies, romance lets us to re-imagine our alienated society as one, though this has an effect of painting an illusory picture of social reality. Charles de Lint operates less according to a Marxist agenda—which is my critique of how he deals with the urban—but he does align his ‘subversion’ of the urban squarely with the structure outlined in Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories.” He places more of an emphasis on the transcendent encounter with the fantastic and numinous ‘other.’ If the urban world is threatened again with fragmentation—if there is “Wrongness” that appears, threatening it with “Thinning”—then a hero, “Recognizing” the true “Story,” might attempt to “Heal” the city. This is possible in fantasy unlike in social realism, implying the utopian potential of fantasy, which de Lint sometimes invokes, as in the harmonious blending of Native American and Celtic cultures in Moonheart. What Charles de Lint’s novels ultimately do, is attempt to rescue this sense of “Story” from the fragmented urban world, as it already exists for us.

An example of political graffiti, which like sectarian graffiti, marks out a particular kind of space. In this case, a French Canadian Montrealer has expressed solidarity with the Scottish separatists.
An example of political graffiti, which like sectarian graffiti, marks out a particular kind of space. In this case, a French Canadian Montrealer has expressed solidarity with the Scottish separatists.

Like “sectarian graffiti,” de Lint’s novels “make real, by making visible, certain claims to ownership: to convert space into territory” (243). You have all likely seen pictures, at least, of gang tags in bus shelters, a scribble of “FTP” perhaps or, in my province especially, a scrabble of “Vive le Quebec Libre!” These are examples of (respectively) African-Americans asserting space free from the racial profiling of police officers and of French-Canadians declaring that, in this space, there is a people who wish for Quebec to become an independent, de-colonized nation. Subaltern groups especially—those cultural communities who are ‘invisible’— feel an existential need to assert their existence in urban space.

Space is a hot topic given the many land claims First Nations groups are attempting to have Parliament approve. I believe that these claims to territory challenge how poets like Earle Birney have thought of Canada as a “country without a mythology,” because we are too young a nation. In fact, Canada is an ancient country with an erased mythology. These Native American myths, irrelevant to European settlers, have been forgotten, seen as irrelevant and peripheral to modernity—in a word, backwards. Urban fantasy might be a way of asserting not only the space of subaltern territories, but the sacred space of indigenous populations.

The effect would not be dissimilar to bringing the Native American Crow Girls to the center of Montreal in that mural—from the offshore reserve at Kahnawà:ke to a central neighbourhood not far from the transportation hub of the Decarie Expressway. Urban fantasy has an analogous effect: it brings peripheral mythologies and cultures into a central fictionalized-but-real city, in a similar way to how actual cities centralize and condense the populations of entire countries—and indeed form a multinational concentration of many cultures from across the globe.

Urban fantasy can be used in such a way that it engages in a project of representation of postcolonial narratives, bringing them within the central, urban spaces of Canada. In this way, urban fantasy contributes to the postcolonial genre of “New Fantasy” that Lawrence Steven argues expresses a particularly Canadian expression of hybrid identity—an identity composed of a fusion of opposites: central/peripheral, self/other, indigenous/migrant.

panLastly, there is one more potential similarity between spatial tactics and urban fantasy: the idea of play. W.R. Irwin in The Game of the Impossible defines fantasy as a genre of play: a structured game that does not have direct consequences on reality, but enables us to imagine how to deal with reality in a ‘safe’ way. The emblematic deity of play is Pan himself, “the spirit of the Arcadian,” who is “the deity whose disorder is both freedom and discipline” (157). Is it a coincidence that de Lint based Greenmantle on Lord Dunsany’s Blessing of Pan? Perhaps not. When Pan appears in the urban landscape, perhaps a break from the ‘serious’ world is signaled and with an introduction into the world of ‘play.’

However, I object to Irwin on one account: that fantasy as play cannot influence the real world. In urban fantasy in particular, the connection between the real world and fantasy can be fundamental. Play is still a useful way to conceive of fantasy in urban settings because play is a concept involved in subverting urban space, just as it is a concept in fantasy. A skateboarder ‘plays’ in a skatepark–but he can still use his board to travel place to place in a ‘serious’ but alternative manner. In a similar way, fantasy does not always need an alternate universe setting where it has no direct impact or reference to our world. Urban fantasy that refers to real places like Ottawa or Montreal, rather that to fictional locales like Middle Earth, is the equivalent of a skateboarder grinding a stair railing on the way to work. Urban fantasy can make a direct critique on our lived reality at the same time as it engages in subversive forms of  ‘play’ through fantasy. Putting it in another way, fantasy does not have to be ‘escapist’ when it refers to and criticizes reality.

Whether Charles de Lint is consistent in addressing the issues I have here described is another matter. He may not be, in which case my theory is good purely as a theory, though useful to the degree that it might inspire me to adopt my own style of urban fantasy. At present, my readings of de Lint do not confirm my theory on every point, though they do on some. However, I believe I have achieved a valuable theoretical insight into how urban fantasy can be used. Given a free moment to write a short story or novel of my own, I might choose to address these theoretical issues in my own urban fantasy, set in Montreal. However, at present, I have SSHRC grant to fill out and graduate studies to work at.

Charles de Lint
Charles de Lint

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Works Cited:

Jameson, Fredric. “Magical Narratives.” The Political Unconscious. London: Routledge, 1981.

Irwin, W.R. The Game of the Impossible: A Rhetoric of Fantasy. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1976.

Steven, Laurence. “Welwyn Wilton Katz and Charles de Lint: New Fantasy as a Canadian Post-Colonial Genre.” Worlds of Wonder: Readings in Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature. Eds. Jean-François Leroux and Camille R. LaBossière. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2004. 52-72.

Tonkiss, Fran. “Urban Cultures: Spatial Tactics.” Urban Culture: Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies. Ed. Chris Jenks. Vol. IV. London: Routledge, 2004.

Photo Credits:

Charles de Lint: author page.

Folklore and Graffiti: A (Potential) Study of Spatial Tactics and Urban Fantasy (Part I)

A graffit-tagged lion guarding the gate to Chinatown, Montreal
A graffiti-tagged lion guarding the gate to Chinatown, Montreal: an example of an urban spatial tactic.

While conducting my research into urban fantasy, the subject of my SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Committee) grant proposal, I was stricken by a sudden inspiration. A few images and lines from scholarly texts united in my mind and I saw something bold in the connections. While the following essay is in no sense an exhaustive scholarly study, or even necessarily a completed lead-up to one, it does hint at what could make a promising introduction to an anthology of short stories. Perhaps there is even something of literary critical value in it as well. However, I suspect that the most this gives me is a model for thinking about urban fantasy as a creative artist, before any usefulness as a description of how urban fantasy texts actually function. I leave it to the judgment of my readers to determine if there might just be something linking street art to the urban folktale.

June 2013: Montreal street artists Fin DACx and Angelina Christina produce a mural on the corner of Notre-Dame and Côte St-Paul. The black and white mural depicts a pair of women whose hair styles are suggestive of raven feathers. Furthermore a bird’s skull—I suspect a raven’s or a crow’s—appears between them looking on at the gazer with hollow eyes. I immediately perceived the resemblance to Charles de Lint’s Crow Girls, a recurring pair of characters from his urban fantasy short stories.

The first time I spotted these Crow Girls, I was on the bus and I zoomed right by. But I had been paying attention to my surroundings and glimpsed them. It was exactly as if I were a character in de Lint’s Newford, catching a glimpse of a folkloric being in the interstices of the urban landscape. Like one of his characters, I doubted that the mural, though I had seen it distinctly, actually represented the Crow Girls. So I sent the author of Dreams Underfoot a Facebook message. He or one of his social media managers returned me an article from StreetArtNews, where the creation of the “Crow Girls” artistic project was reported (see above). Though I still did not have an explicit confirmation that the muralists intended their work to depict the Crow Girls, I was still left with the sense that they must have been familiar with de Lint’s work.

After thinking about it, I came up with the idea that de Lint’s novels are, in some respects, the literary equivalents of street art.

Charles de Lint
Charles de Lint

For those of you unfamiliar with de Lint, let me explain the general concept of his work. Charles de Lint’s works are based on what John Clute calls a crosshatch society—a place where the enchanted and magical mixes with the mundane world—and he does this by fusing urban settings and characters with mythical and folkloric figures. However, these fantastic beings are largely invisible in their urban settings, save to the bohemian, artistic protagonists of de Lint’s world who have knack for spotting them. One might often catch a glimpse of a fairy, or a Celtic god, in the margins of Ottawa, or in de Lint’s invented city of Newford, but the magical beings soon vanish. These encounters with the numinous can be moments of conflict, terror, or healing. This not only involves an encounter between states of being (the real and unreal, or the fantastic and mundane) and worldviews (traditional and scientific), but also different ways of interpreting time and space (the urban chronotope of homogenous space-time versus the folkloric/mythic chronotope of sacred, or heterogenous, space-time).

How do I connect graffiti to these crosshatched worlds? Fran Tonkis in her essay “Urban Cultures: Spatial Tactics” concerns himself with “the everyday escape routes that may be worked through the fabric of the city, ways in which spatial order can be disrupted through different modes of using and making space” (236). These spatial tactics include skateboarding and graffiti (I might also add parkour), which are practices that subvert and transform space. Strikingly, Tonkiss describes this subversion as a moment when the “mundane meets the enchanted,” a moment that enables one to think “about spatial tactics in the city,” a concept explored by Roland Barthes (241). Although I doubt Tonkiss meant enchanted in quite the same way as the magic you read about in fantasy, he is referring to a certain ‘magic’ element in how spatial tactics can change how we perceive urban space. It is easy to imagine a graceful skateboarder as unbound by gravity, for example, and in this ‘magic realist’ sense, reality itself seems to gain enchantment. The subversion and disruption of spatial order can appear as a form of enchantment, since it lets us see the city itself a fresh new way.

Another way in which we can see the city anew is through graffiti—or mural painting. Graffiti are an example of how “the everyday escapes,” though “such escape attempts are only ever partial or temporary—they slip between rather than tear apart the mesh of rational order” (242). A graffiti tag must be sprayed over, for example, a brick wall, but the brick wall is going to stay there. Tonkiss’ invocation of the interstice in his language of ‘slipping between’ made me think of Charles de Lint’s homeless Celtic gods in Forests of the Heart, who live in the ‘in between places’ or interstices of reality just as the homeless do. Since urban fantasies set in an actual North American city cannot enchant the entire city with a magical veneer without causing some cognitive dissonance on the part of the reader, the enchantment must happen within the city—even outside of conventional views of it. This is what may make Ottawa-native readers of de Lint fantasize that Celtic gods might be living in their own city without actually seeing them; maybe such readers have simply not looked carefully enough to see them. This also strikingly calls to mind how no one likes to gaze for too long at the homeless; homeless people are as ‘invisible’ as gods.

But the thing about graffiti is that they do interrupt, however briefly, the urban rational order. A form of political and territorial inscribing upon the the city, it asserts identity, “the simple statement that says ‘I am here.’” (243). Furthermore, “these assertions of presence by an author who has got away transform blank spaces into the scene of a crime” (243). Graffiti are illegal because they ‘deface’ public and private property, a crime. This is not to say, however, that it can be beautiful, or even, on occasion, fully legal and commissioned. The ‘Crow Girls’ urban art on St. Urbain is such an example of a legal enchantment of city space, although it loses its subversiveness since it was a legal act. However, continuing the analogy with urban fantasy, writing a magical being into an urban setting does breach a law—the law of ‘consensus reality,’ which is constituted by Cartesian, scientific principles, not only of ontology but of space itself. This hegemonic “rational order” found in the city is controlled by the hegemonic discourses that define our reality, a model we all give our consent towards by force of habit (242). As Bramley Dapple in “Uncle Dobbin’s Parrot Fair” declares, “we live in a consensual reality where things exist because we want them to exist. […] Yet if you were to listen to the world at large, Goon [Dapple’ gnome companion] is nothing more than a figment of some fevered writer’s imagination—a literary construct, an artistic representation of something that can’t possibly exist in the world as we know it” (Dreams Underfoot 24).

There is a great potential in urban fantasy to subvert this order, to break the rational laws of reality just as graffiti breaks the laws of the city. In fact, I could say so much on this topic that this would be a large blog post indeed. As such, I will continue these thoughts next week and given the reader a chance to gestate what I have said so far.

Next week, I will continue my thoughts on the political implications of this hegemonic rational order which is otherwise commonly called “consensus reality.” In the meanwhile, I must work on my SSHRC application!

Mural on St. Laurent Boulvd., Montreal. What if this strange hybrid creature came alive?
Mural on St. Laurent Blvd., Montreal. What if this strange hybrid creature came alive?

Works Cited:

Charles de Lint. Dreams Underfoot. New York: Tor, 1993.

StreetArtNews (http://www.streetartnews.net/2013/06/fin-dac-x-angelina-christina-new-mural_28.html)

Tonkis, Fran. “Urban Cultures: Spatial Tactics.” Urban Culture: Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies. Ed. Chris Jenks. Vols. 1-IV. London: Routledge, 2004.

Photo Credits:

Charles de Lint: author website.