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

The following is the second 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

[…]

MoonheartThe narrative structure at work during Mal’eka’s seige is part of a larger rhetorical structure in Moonheart that produces a colonial dynamic between the Otherworld and the mundane world. Farah Mendlesohn calls this structure the “intrusion fantasy”: “In intrusion fantasy the fantastic is the bringer of chaos. […] It is horror and amazement. It takes us out of safety without taking us from our place” (xxi-xxii). An intrusion implies that the fantastic comes from outside and invades the mundane world. Since this dynamic sets the denizens of the mundane world against the evil forces invading from the Otherworld, the intrusion fantasy maps the inside/outside conflict of Northrop Frye’s “garrison mentality” (73) onto the fantastic/mundane binary.

An ambivalent politics surrounding the intrusion fantasy also appears in what Brian Attebery calls “indigenous fantasies,” a genre that appeared in the 1980s but that rarely involves “indigenes” (Mendlesohn 147). Such novels, according to Mendlesohn, bring “the fantastic into the cities” in order to add “complex historical layers” to modern America or, equally often, they use European folklore simply to say, “The modern world is boring, there must be something more than this” (147). The indigenous fantasy can be subversive when merged with a rhetoric of intrusion. Mendlesohn claims that such fantasies construct “consensus reality” and “then [render] the walls of the world-story translucent” to reveal lurking presences (116). This rhetorical mode is called “latency” (116). Indigenous fantasy is set squarely within a familiar, identifiable world. For example, De Lint situates Tamson House, in which the fantastic is generally latent, in a locatable area of Ottawa, invoking street names like “Patterson Avenue,” “O’Connor Street,” and “Clemow Avenue,” a series of firm anchors to geographical reality (24). These spatial descriptions bring the fairy tale framing device of ‘once upon a time’ into the ‘here and now.’ To quote Michel de Certeau, they begin the story to “authorize the establishment, displacement or transcendence of limits” (“Stories” 123), to establish the reality that fantasy transgresses. This non-realist violation of consensus reality is a tactic of what Henri Lefebvre would call “representational space” (Production 33), against the strategies of realist depictions of space.

Contemporary, indigenous fantasy presents a restorative vision that contrasts with realist representation. Fantasy can be a “literature of vision,” a body of work that makes us, according the Kathryn Hume, “feel the limitations of our notions of reality, often by presenting one that seems more rich, more intense, more coherent (or incoherent), or somehow more significant” (82). The Otherworld is one of these more coherent spaces, what Christine Mains calls a “representation of the enduring moment of colonial encounter” (342). Crucially, a literature of vision enters “our consciousness not as verbal argument to be accepted or rejected on logical grounds, but as a vision” (101). Through the mode of fantasy, Moonheart thus mediates multicultural interaction between Celtic, First Nations, and modern cultures in order to depict a convergeance of the supernatural within the real, a tactic of representational space that creates an enchanting literature of vison. These presences gain political resonance when they are associated with indigenous peoples, who have been repressed historically by colonialism and by Canadian “neo-colonialism” (McPherson and Robb 11).

The Otherworld’s colonization of the mundane world counters the imperialism of state-produced, scientifically-defined space. Henri Lefebvre describes how the state’s production of space creates a homogeneous order that can be reduced to its visual nature: “Through its control, the state tends to accentuate the homogeneous character of space, which is fractured by exchange. […] In modern space, the body no longer has a presence; it is only represented, in a spatial environment reduced to its optical components” (“State” 88). Moonheart’s literature of vision opposes this optical reductionism by making characters and readers aware of realties beyond the visual and by making distant history present within contemporary spaces.

Historicizing de Lint’s new fantasy reveals how Moonheart is constituted by the liberal mulitcultural ideology of its time, a progression from the imperialist tradition of fantasy, but nonetheless a position biased in favour of an Anglo-Canadian reading public. The imperial past is represented in a romance narrative by an ‘evil’ spirit, against the ‘good’ forces representing more tolerant and hybrid cultural identities. In presencing this Other as an invasive entity, de Lint creates a potentially subversive situation where supernatural creatures representing First Nations beliefs counter-colonize the colonized space of Canada. Fantasy proves subversive to the modern state’s production of homogeneous and optically reductive space by introducing a literature of vision that proposes, through a rhetoric of latency, that there are realities beyond the visible—including certain historical realities, the memory of which the state attempts to render invisible. In opposing realism, modern fantasy opposes the carefully constructed consensus reality associated with empirical, mostly Western systems of knowledge. For as long as realism maintains its hegemony, contemporary fantasy will continue to look for tactical victories to modify representations of reality and to look for roads that might lead from fantasy to utopia.

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.

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.

 .

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.

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.

“Gecko” : a poem for Michael Ondaatje

Two weeks ago, my seminar class on Michael Ondaatje got together to put on a fantastic presentation for Professor Robert Lecker. We were reading Ondaatje’s poem “Tin Roof” and instead of writing a four-page essay response, which we are supposed to do every week, Prof. Lecker told us to go do something as a group. Usually seminar students see each other in class, exchange pleasantries and ideas, and then go their separate ways without really learning about each other. The challenge was to buck the trend and surprise the prof with something we’d all organized.

We ended up agreeing to perform a tableaux, set in a bar, where we would each say a monologue that would be our existential response to the poem. We each chose a couple of lines from “Tin Roof” that inspired us. After we had written the poems/monologues over the weekend, we met on Monday to order them and come up with a strategy to put on the presentation. Various people brought in curtain drapes, candles, wine glasses, beer, wine, and whiskey. Then on the day of, we arranged the classroom into the bar setting and presented ourselves to Prof. Lecker, our audience of one, who we decked out in a Hawaiian lei.

image

Ondaatje wrote “Tin Roof” after suffering a divorce and period of silence in his writing career. He retreated to fellow poet Phyllis Webb’s cabin in Hawaii, the location where his confessional poem is set. The poem confronts despair and the violence of the poet’s existential anxieties, as he drowns in self-doubt and self-questioning, trying to seek a new foundation for his writing. The poem begins with the poet’s quest for “the solution” and ends with his realization,

I wanted poetry to be walnuts

in their green cases

but now it is the sea

and we let it drown us,

and we fly to it released

by giant catapults

of pain loneliness deceit and vanity.

The following is my personal monologue. I borrow lines from “Tin Roof” and some from other poems, such as “‘The gate in his head.'” I focus on the image of the gecko that the speaker of “Tin Roof” finds on his glass window–an image of voyeurism, the threshold between public and private lives, and a objective correlative that Ondaatje uses with some irony to critique the modernist value of impersonality.

I loved the fantastical image of this gecko turning invisible and how the gecko might have become a ghost briefly in the “Tin Roof.” Since large part of his work concerns the blurring of barriers between fiction and fact, Ondaatje is a writer who should be of interest to those intrigued by historical fantasties. I hope to include future posts about Michael Ondaatje as this seminar continues.

Prof. Lecker, who has these kinds of connections, has said he will present Ondaatje’s assistant with a copy of our monologues–which means with any luck, Ondaatje will read them himself and maybe even write back. We’ll see…

Now without further ado:

.

.

“Gecko”

.

He focuses on the gecko

almost transparent body

how he feels now

everything passing through him like light.

.

Extinction of personality. Eyes come in pairs.

.

When they’re focused on the sea

volcanic edge

the gecko vanishes

and he is private again.

.

Contemplating the fall

his eyes spin into his skull:

the gate in his head,

                  .impossible to enter

                  .except in a violent way,

opens onto a rock garden.

.

The gecko another kind of snake.

.

But there is no distance

between animal and man.

Both eyes are focused,

relentless lenses.

.

The sun threads

through the edge of skin.

.

(To miss a ghost

or an angel

you have to be looking at one.)

.

Light, an annunciation

to the dogwood flowers,

impregnates glass

but passes through him like witchwind.

The sea catches it,

white siren glare.

.

He could pivot here

turn from the light to the dark of the room,

walnut shells discarded at his feet

below the table with the pad.

.

the question, a small thing:

.

Do you want to be happy

                                          .and write?

.

He wants the passion

that puts his feet on the ceiling

not on the window.

Gravity a mirror

to reverse the body.

.

The tail

grows back

like a bud of bamboo.

He, smiling in the window.

King of Egypt, King of Dreams by Gwendolyn MacEwen

20150129_232323Gwendolyn MacEwen’s historical novel King of Egypt, King of Dreams was published in 1971 and as far as I know, it is out of print-except by online order from Insomniac Press. Nonetheless I am fascinated to review it, because it stands as a powerful testimony to the tragedy of those who own a unique, transcendent vision of the universe, when faced by the demands and adversity of a society that has rejected them. This description can be applied to Akhenaton, the pharaoh known as “the Criminal” who forms the center of MacEwen’s novel, and to MacEwen herself.

Rosemary Sullivan’s biography of MacEwen, Shadow Maker, tells about how the poet died of alcohol poisoning in a suspected suicide in 1987. Part of her despair sprung from her depression at the failure of her audience to bring her the success she had hoped for. Although she anticipated that her vast research into ancient Egypt, while on a Canada Council grant in Cairo, would result in a historical novel that would make her financially independent, King of Egypt, King of Dreams was greeted with a poor reception.

Perhaps this was because she had difficulty adopting to the form of the novel. MacEwen was primarily a poet. She could not make the transition from poetry to novel that Michael Ondaatje made with The English Patient and Coming Through Slaughter. By the 1980s, the period that Joel Deshaye in The Metaphor of Celebrity calls the “era of celebrity” in Canadian poetry was at a close; the novel was now the dominant form.

MacEwen’s vision of the poet as a magician did not successfully make the transition into the world of the novel. However, King of Egypt, King of Dreams testifies to the uniqueness of her vision. The story of Akhenaton becomes replicated in some ways in MacEwen’s own life–at least, it is tempting to see it that way. As the landscape of genre in Canadian literature did not accommodate her writing, changing times undid the visionary pharaoh Akhenaton.

Akhenaton begins life as the sickly son of the powerful, but aging, Pharaoh–the living god, Amenhotep. Greatly disappointed in his offspring, the god regards his son with anger and bitterness, causing Akhenaton to be terrified of him and develop a stutter. But after his father’s death, a new, golden man arises from the frail body of his former self.

It is not long before Akhenaton shakes up the court with his new religious vision–monotheism. He believes that there is no god but the Aton, who is lord of all that the sun’s disk surrounds. The names of all the other gods, he orders erased from inscriptions. Wherever a god’s name is recorded on the tombs and temples of the land, it is to be destroyed. Those who refuse him or challenge his judgment encounter the uncanny look of his gaze–but do his eyes reveal divinity, or madness?

Although MacEwen seems to treat Akhenaton as an example of the suffering visionary, a position with which she was no doubt in sympathy, his monotheistic religion leads to the collapse of his empire. MacEwen’s poetic career testifies to a belief the harmony found in oppositions, a more pluralist philosophy that is at odds with the Pharaoh’s conception of a single god. One man who is close to the king, and yet is distant enough from him to see how he angers his subjects, is Akhenaton’s servant It Neter Ay, the Father of Horse. From his perspective, we see Pharaoh ignore the rebellion of his empire’s tributary states, name his would-be assassin a high priest, and found the temples that he hopes will serve as testament to the glory of his god.

MacEwen’s writing style is particular and with a texture distinct from contemporary historical novelists. She writes in a poetic style that has a curious combination of mysticism and humour. Justifying her approach, she quotes from Guillaume Ferrero’s Les Lois Psychologiques:

“It is a very common belief that the further man is separated from the present in time, the more he differs from us in his thoughts and feelings; that the psychology of humanity changes from century to century like fashions or literature. […] And indeed, man does not change so quickly; his psychology at bottom remains the same.”

Occasionally the dialogue, thoughts, and actions of Akhenaton, It Neter Ay, and the king’s wife, Nefertiti, might appear peculiarly modern, but MacEwen always roots their characters firmly in the cultural milieu of ancient Egypt. One example of the mundane in the ancient past, is the casual, realist description of Ay slicing a cucumber while he ponders what Akhenaton’s ‘true nature’ is. This attitude of continuity with the past might demonstrate MacEwen’s own self-identification with these historical characters–Nefertiti’s kohl-painted eyelids are not so different from MacEwen’s, who was famous for appearing like an Egyptian at Toronto poetry readings.

Like the historical fantasies of Guy Gavriel Kay, there is but a sprinkling of the fantastic in King of Egypt, King of Dreams–but it is enough that it can be considered a historical fantasy, if Akhenaton’s divinity and the glowing presence of his body is read literally.

Together with her T.E. Lawrence Poems, this novel is also the consummation of MacEwen’s lifelong interest in the Middle East’s history and its mystery. It is also a psychologically and intellectually invested accomplishment, in which she confronts questions about visionary experience that define her career–and its untimely end.

Gwendolyn MacEwen, author of King of Egypt, King of Dreams
Gwendolyn MacEwen, author of King of Egypt, King of Dreams

Greenmantle by Charles de Lint

GreenmantleWhat happens when you combine Robert Graves’s The White Goddess with Martin Scorsese’s mafia flick Goodfellas? I’m not sure, but it wouldn’t be far from Charles de Lint’s 1988 ‘mythic fiction’ novel Greenmantle.

Called the father of urban fantasy, Charles de Lint is the author of dozens of novels that combine fantasy with mainstream fiction. Perhaps ironically then, many of his novels concern the hipster class of bohemian folk musicians who certainly live beyond the ‘mainstream.’ However, Greenmantle abandons the usual urban settings and artsy protagonists of de Lint’s other fiction for a single mother and her bookish daughter who settles in the Ottawa suburbs.

De Lint stays true to mainstream fiction’s value of depicting how real people deal with real situations–it’s just that sometimes those situations are fantastic. Ali, the teenaged protagonist, moves outside the city after Frankie, her mother, wins the Wintario lottery. Ali’s fondness for classic works of fantasy that many readers will never have heard about–and the fact that she has moved between several different homes with her mother over her childhood–sets her apart from other teenagers. While living on the outskirts of a great forest, Ali makes the friendly acquaintance of a mysterious Italian neighbor, as she puzzles over the distracting, unearthly sounds of pan pipes that emerge from the bush.

This calm, even idyllic setup is preceded by intense scenes that seem to come from a Mario Puzzo novel. Tony Valenti, a member of the Sicilian fratellanza, is framed for the murder of his godfather–a crime he did not commit. He escapes Europe to hide away in his safe house in Canada while the heat dies down–right next door to Ali and Frankie. Meanwhile, Earl, Frankie’s ex, concocts a scheme to force her to sign over the Wintario money.

Alone, these plots could fuel a high-stakes thriller. Combined with the fantastic presence of the god Pan in the woods behind Ali and Frankie’s home, Greenmantle becomes something more than that.

An incarnation of the Horned One described in Robert Graves The White Goddess, Pan is a mystery, a being who appears at times as a human, a stag, a goat-footed satyr, or a combination of forms. The piping that summons him affects everyone differently, although for most people it produces feelings of hope. The only problem is, it seems, that a pack of baying hounds constantly hunts the great stag. Is the mystery’s power failing in a world that has no more need of mystery? Not only Greenmantle, but Charles de Lint’s entire oeuvre, seems to ask this question.

Without ever really making the thematic connections between the three interweaving plots explicit, de Lint places Frankie and Tony in the role of the hunted stag. Men from the fratellanza are coming to kill Tony, just as the baying hounds pursue Pan, and Earl is on the hunt for Frankie. I was half-expecting Tony to become the stag at one point, rather like how in Greek mythology–specifically, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses–Diana, the Virgin Goddess, transforms Actaeon into a stag. ‘The hunter becomes the hunted’ is both a mythological trope and something you can hang on the cover of an airport thriller novel. De Lint somehow makes it all work, elevating his thriller to the status of visionary art.

De Lint describes his chief inspiration for Greenmantle as Lord Dunsany’s novel The Blessing of Pan, in which a Christian vicar attempts to evangelize neo-pagan worshipers. Wolding, the paganized village in Dunsany’s story, becomes New Wolding in Greenmantle, after the inhabitants of the former village immigrate to found an independent, hidden, and self-sufficient village in Ontario. This gesture is one of several references to the history of fantasy contained in the novel itself, which reveals de Lint’s consciousness of writing within a tradition that stretches back long before Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. De Lint inhabits his ‘second generation’ status as a fantasy author with innovative purpose.

There is magic, mystery, and brutal murder behind the covers–certainly a work of adult fiction. Yet women and men should be equally attracted to reading this wonderful book. De Lint has a facility of writing strong female characters and, in my reading, I found the ‘male’ and ‘female’ elements of this novel to be well-balanced; it has features that will strongly appeal to guys and gals. One scene in particular includes Frankie lecturing Tony, who is a slightly macho Italian, on some of the finer points of feminism–a memorable scene.

Greenmantle is classic Charles de Lint and a great introduction to an author who should be read more frequently.

Charles de Lint
Charles de Lint

Photo Credits:

Charles de Lint: author page

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.