MythCon 45 Day 4: Faith, Myths, and Archetypes

Fantasy and Faith Panel
Fantasy and Faith Panel
J. R. R. Tolkien
J. R. R. Tolkien

The first of the two legendary panels that happened on Sunday–just before my own presentation, which was the last before the banquet and awards ceremony–was entitled “Fantasy and Faith.”

Chip Crane moderated, and Carl Hostetter, Sorina Higgins, and Lynn Maudlin were discussing the Inklings. What is the place of faith in the fantasy genre? What place does religion have in LOTR? Oddly enough, there are no religions in Tolkien, despite his firm Catholicism; the elves have no need of religion, given their certainty that the Valar live in the West. Tolkien himself explained that LOTR was a “fundamentally” religious and Catholic work–unconsciously at first, but conscious during revision. This means that “fundamentally,” or “at base,” LOTR is religious, though not “fundamentally” in the sense of “extremism.” That would be decidedly un-Tolkienian! The Legendarium of Tolkien–the complex of legends that build up Tolkien’s world–is filled with Catholic metaphysics, well-informed by Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. Yet the only hint of religious ritual is when, as Chip Crane’s two young children so learnedly pointed out, Faramir and his men bow to the West before meals, as a veneration of their “host.”

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C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis

Tolkien was firm that one should not read LOTR as an allegory of faith or Christianity itself. He was no conjurer of cheap symbolic tricks, although some have thought C.S. Lewis to stoop a little lower artistically. However, it is not fair to reduce Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia to allegory: Aslan is not representative of Christ, Aslan is Christ–just in another dimension of reality. Lewis’ Christianity is a whole other area of study. If you don’t know him from his fantasy novels, you know him as the Christian author of Surprised by Joy. But what you might not know, is that he was a science fiction writer too–his Space Trilogy is Christian sci-fi, where the cosmos is not Galilean and heliocentric but medieval, geocentric.

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Charles Williams
Charles Williams

The oddball of the Inklings was the Christian-Rosicrucian Charles Williams. Like H.P. Lovecraft, William fills his novels with occult secret societies and fanatic cults. In War in Heaven, what begins like a straightforward detective thriller morphs into a quest for the Holy Grail, a spectacular blending of genres. His description of a black mass around the Holy Grail, explained Sorina Higgins, is loving, precise, and sexual in mood. It suggests experience at having actually conducted such masses, of having participated himself in the described ritual.

Orthodox C.S. Lewis he was not.

In another novel, The Place of the Lion, Platonic archetypes run amok in the English countryside. In Shadows of Ecstasy, a cult of Africans plan a revolutionary movement to supplant European civilization. His novels have no Everyman character with whom the reader can relate, no Lucy Pevensey or Frodo Baggins. He tries, in a Modernist manner, to distort and challenge the reader. Why have I never heard of Williams before?

The Inklings were also big on Arthurian literature–which, by the way, is the theme of next year’s MythCon. Sorina Higgins was back in action as moderator for “The Inklings and King Arthur.” Chris Gaertner, Yannick Imbert, Benjamin Shogren, and Brenton Dickieson were the panelists. In May, Tolkien’s Fall of Arthur was published, a work that had long been sitting in the archives. But Lewis and Owen Barfield too, another Inkling, all wrote Arthurian legends. The Inklings were concerned with national mythologies and legends that describe the acting-out of human history. History can be seen as a long defeat, or as something to identify with, and when you do attach yourself to history in that way, history becomes mythology.

Owen Barfield
Owen Barfield

Owen Barfield deserves a paragraph on his own, even though few have ever heard of him. He was the first and last Inkling. Tolkien had the greatest regard for him; Barfield changed his whole outlook on philology. Lewis called Barfield his wisest teacher. Barfield was deeply aware of how ancients saw nature as having a consciousness, although our scientific, Cartesian universe draws a separation. He tried to restore readers’ awareness of this separation through literature. His Night Operation is a science-fiction novella, a grail story, and a dystopian tale of the Blitz, where society relocates to the London sewers to avoid the bombs. The effect of the Blitz on fantasy literature has been considerable, when you think of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; it was almost as if the Inklings saw the space of their nation’s city threatened, forcing them to escape into other spaces–even fantastic space.

I left this brilliant discussion, which I would have liked to hear more of, to high-tail it to my own presentation. You can read the summary of my main points here, and look at the PowerPoint I used here. I have no interest in re-hashing my thesis, but suffice it to say, the presentation went on without a hitch. The comments I received were constructive, although the audience cannot be said to have been intimately familiar with Guy Gavriel’s Kay’s work, as they might have been, for instance with Lewis or Tolkien. But most of the people I’d met over the weekend were there: Brenton Dickieson, John McGeaery, Daniel Lüthie, Rebecca McCurdy, Sorina Higgins, Carl Hostetter, and Mark Williams. Lüthie directed me towards Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal to explore the nature of Story more closely, and the audience was curious as to how I would analyze alternate history, or historical fantasy set in the primary world, such as Tales of Alvin Maker. I confess I don’t know how I would investigate alternate history–it would depend on the individual novel. But all suggestions were welcome.

Following my presentation was the banquet, for which several people dressed up as obscure, and not-so-obscure, characters from fantasy. The Author/Artist Guest of Honour was Ursula Vernon, whose web comic Digger was popular, though I had never heard of it. It is a beast-fable comics series that explores the mythologies and societies of different species of animals. It stars Digger, a groundhog miner who winds up in all sorts of trouble.

Then to the Mythopoeic Awards, in which Mark Williams’s book Sleepless Nights was denied victory, though so was Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the LaneThe Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker won the Adult Literature Prize. Father G. Ronald Murphy rose to take the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award in General Myth and Fantasy Studies for Tree of Salvation: Yggdrasil and the Cross in the North. Murphy was the only Mythopoeic Award-winner present that evening. Another important work that won an award for Inkling Studies was Tolkien and the Study of his Sources: Critical Essays, edited by Jason Fisher. Lastly, Holly Black won the Children’s Literature award for Doll Bones.

Mythopoeic Awards! (It's a sphinx.)
Mythopoeic Awards! (It’s shaped like a sphinx.)

Silliness ensued with the reading out of the clerihews and the presentation of the Clerihew Award. A clerihew is a four-lined poem with rhyming couplets, meant to satirize lightly like a limerick. Tolkien was fond of them. The Masquerade presented all the costumes people brought to the conference. There was Galadriel, a steampunk Fourth Doctor, and Gandalf, among others. This show included Chris Gaertner’s tragic soliloquy as King Arthur, a memorable moment, as well as Sorina’s reading of passage from Charles Williams, as Morgeuse.

Christ Gaertner as King Arthur (the hair is real)
Chris Gaertner as King Arthur (the hair is real)
Sorina Higgins as Morgeuse
Sorina Higgins as Morgeuse

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Then there was Golfimbul. We lined up outside the depression in the quadrangle known as the Dimple and played T-ball with a doll’s head attached to a “Mordor U” jersey (a converted MacDonald’s uniform). This was our “goblin” and our goal was to knock off its head with a baseball bat and get it as close as possible to a plastic rabbit. This unusual sport is based on the anecdote Tolkien accidentally left in The Hobbit explaining how Bilbo’s ancestor, who was tall enough to ride horseback, once whacked the head off a goblin chieftain, so that it rolled into a rabbit hole, thereby inventing the game of golf. It is a MythCon tradition and I am happy to say I lost–so bad, in fact, that they had to give me a prize Monday morning. The paper plate commemorating my lack of Golfimbul skills remains on my desk to this day. It is known as the much-coveted “Linguist” trophy.

Golfinbul
Golfinbul

To close the day, I participated in Bardic Circle. There were ten or so sitting in a circle in the common room of one of the dorms, and we went in a circle, reading poetry, telling stories, or singing–whatever we brought to share. Sea shanties, Celtic reels, and our own creative mythopoeic poetry were all recited. When it came to my turn, I was put in the situation of Caedmon, who in Anglo-Saxon England was asked to sing a song, and was so embarrassed he ran off into a stable. When he returned, he played the harp and spoke the first poem in all of English, “The Creator’s Hymn,” which is earlier even than Beowulf. My version of this hymn was from this very website, which I was able to access from my smartphone. I recited “Vision:  Evening Prayer” and, on my second round, “Eternal Guarantee,” which is my own humorous take on the Arthurian mythos.

And so ended Sunday, a most memorable day

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Monday

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In the morning, I was sad, because this was going to be the last day of MythCon, an event I had been waiting for months to attend. It would now be over, and I would move on to the next thing: my Master’s degree (though not before a little Boston vacation with my aunt, uncle, and cousin). Thankfully, John McGeary’s morning presentation “C.S. Lewis and C.G. Jung: The Fine Line Between ‘Myth’ and ‘Archetype'” had a lot of energy and useful ideas.

McGeary tried to look at Carl Jung through Lewis. Specifically, he searched for a way to restore Lewis’s idea that myths and archetypes are part of natural law, rather than the Jungian collective unconscious. Genetic memory, Jung claims, creates archetypes, which are instinctual, genetic predispositions towards certain images. For instance, Dracula: he is universally scary because he combines the archetypes of  vampire, dark lord, and werewolf (he has furry hands and controls wolves), which excite deep-seated primitive fears in our psyche.

McGeary cited Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, an anti-neo-darwinist philosophic return to objectivism, as a reaction against relativism. If natural law was the premise on which archetypes are based, that would mean archetypes are “out there” in the universe–not merely instincts or social conventions. In archetypes, Augustine and Plato saw the numinous, which functions alongside natural law, and can be a good or an evil force. Lewis argues that it is the numinous that is at the core of the archetype, not the unconscious itself, or merely.

This perspective has the possibility of challenging how we see the world. If the archetypes are a result of the numinous, then as with any human encounter with the numinous, we must have an existential reaction. For example, upon seeing a spirit or a ghost (or a taniwha, or elves), our most profound reaction is to think, “I’m afraid of how I exist, now that I know this exists.” If the fantastic, or the numinous, exists, what does that make us, here in the mundane world? If archetypes are a part of natural law and imbued with this numinous quality, then that changes forever how we understand out existence–there is something else out there.

Playing around with these archetypes is what mythopoeia–myth-making–is all about. This is what Tolkien, Lewis, Barfield, and Williams were on about. It’s what the whole conference was on about. Surely Lewis believed there to be a divine origin for the myths he told: that’s why Aslan is not like Jesus Christ, but actually is Him. Maybe it’s also true that his Christ-archetype objectively exists. I challenge, however, that thinking about archetypes as objective realities must of necessity introduce the divine, for God is a divisive subject. For many people, it’s either you believe in Him or you do not, and there is a danger in making the question of God the same question as whether or not there is any objective reality to archetypes.

It’s like the old Cartesian supposition: “God, if he exists, guarantees my senses to reflect objective reality accurately, yet I see often that my senses deceive me, ergo God cannot guarantee my senses.” This opens the scepticism that leads to the separation between consciousness and nature that Barfield would be the first to show us was not the way of the ancients, but a feature of our modern consciousness. Furthermore, just because archetypes excite me emotionally does not mean that, for example, dragons really do exist–although I will accept that they do exist in my mind, and are “real” in that sense. I wonder how Nagel reinforces his argument for objectivism, and what uses McGeary will put him to. I suppose I better read Nagel.

And it is with this highly existential and worrying philosophical conundrum, the separation between nature and consciousness, that I must leave you. After McGeary’s talk, it was all but over.

The ceremonies for the awarding of the not-so-prestigious "Linguist" trophy. I won.
The ceremonies for the awarding of the not-so-prestigious “Linguist” trophy.

We had the MythCon Members’ Meeting, where we were allowed to give input on improving the conference for next year in Colorado. I said we should be given more time to travel between lectures; the schedule made it necessary to teleport between presentations, a luxury none of us had. Following this, we had the MythCon closing ceremonies and we sang the traditional MythCon songs “Chorea Magna” and “The Baby and the Bird,” a tribute to “the place that draws me ever / When my fancy’s running wild, / That little pub in Oxford / Called The Eagle and The Child.” Then it was checkout.

Meeting-Place of the Inklings
Meeting-Place of the Inklings

I hope you all enjoyed sharing in my intellectual journey these past four weeks. In an ideal world, these would have been published during the conference, but I was far too caught up in the moment to bother updating WordPress. I have no regrets, in the end. These copious ideas could lead on to a Master’s thesis or research paper, so long as I don’t rehash someone else’s thesis (I am actually giving a lot of thought to space, post-colonialism, and magic realism right now). In addition to all that I learned, I have plenty of new authors and thinkers to discover. McGill’s MacLennan library beckons.

Until next week, then, so long.

The road leads ever on and on…

The banquet on Sunday evening.
The banquet on Sunday evening. (Clockwise from left: Miguel Angelo Fernandes Rodrigues, Marie Perrier, Sørina Higgins, Paromita Sengupta, Chris Gaertner, Daniel Lüthi, Brenton Dickieson.)

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Photo Credits:

Eagle and Child:http://jtchatter.blogspot.ca/2012/03/dinner-at-eagle-and-child.html

Owen Barfield: http://barfieldsociety.org/Poem.htm

Charles Williams: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Williams_%28British_writer%29

Tolkien: http://cslewisjrrtolkien.classicalautographs.com/jrrtolkien/index.html

Lewis: http://shoutitforlife.com/profiles/2010-2/cslewis/

Fantasies of History: Guy Gavriel Kay’s Synthesis of the Historical Fantasy Novel — PowerPoint Presentation

Use the following  links to download the PowerPoint for my presentation “Fantasies of History: Guy Gavriel Kay’s Synthesis of the Historical Fantasy Novel” at MythCon 2014. I presented at 5:00 pm Sunday, August 1oth at Wheaton College, Norton, MA.

Fantasies of History Presentation PDF

Fantasies of History Presentation PPT

Fantasies of History Presentation PPSX

Fantasies of History Presentation PPTX

Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje

Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje
Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje

Before jazz became what it is today, before it was mainstream, Buddy Bolden blew his cornet in the streets of New Orleans. No recording of his music survives. A famous musician in his time, his genius and the threat of vanishing into silence tormented him. The quest Michael Ondaatje undertook in 1976 to discover the genius of this unheard-of jazz legend involved meticulous historical research, but also–inevitably–a certain amount of fantasy. The result is a novel that runs like a dream sequence, filled with erotic moments that are violent, frenzied, and at other times, romantic.

By erotic, I mean the entire novel is a slow uncovering. Every sentence has a perceptive, tender, yet improvised quality. You might know Ondaatje as the author of The English Patient, which was turned a movie. Written nearly twenty years before The English Patient, Coming Through Slaughter is the novel of a more rogue Ondaatje, who helped, along with other poets such as Robert Kroetsch, develop the literary movement of postmodernism in Canada.

You might say Coming Through Slaughter is jazz. I have already mentioned its improvised quality. This is not, however, a novel printed off a first draft, but a meticulously crafted set of poetic scenes. You should expect nothing less from Ondaatje, whose reputation as one of Canada’s greatest writers is an acknowledged fact. I tried to catch Ondaatje committing the poetic treason of writing a single cliché, but I failed to locate even one. Every phrase he says is original. Both Ondaatje and Bolden’s art is the result of a genius instinct.

Buddy Bolden’s quarter of New Orleans, Storyville, “had some 2000 prostitutes, seventy professional gamblers, and thirty piano players.” His jazz synthesizes all the sounds around this lively area of town, where he works in a barber shop by day and plays sweet jazz by night. In a similar way, Ondaatje’s prose-poetry seems to be taken directly from life–from its most tender, private moments, and its most public, eccentric displays of passion.

But how can Ondaatje write so much about Buddy Bolden given the lack of historical records about his music? Necessity compels him to create a partly fictitious character out of Bolden–though perhaps not as fictitious as Count Almasy in The English Patient. Ondaatje caused some controversy with his best-known work of historical fiction, for depicting the character of the count, who really existed, in ways that clearly went against historical evidence. Guy Gavriel Kay discusses the topic of historical characters being used in works of fiction at some length in “Home and Away.” Some poetic invention of the past is necessary in order to create the stories we treasure as a society and a nation. England would not have Shakespeare’s Richard III, Kay paraphrases Ondaatje as saying, if not for poetic license with historical characters. I would add that Canada would never have Ondaatje, if a certain amount of historical fantasy were impossible to ‘get away’ with.

Bolden becomes Ondaatje’s vehicle to explore his ideal of poetic genius, which he found in the figure of the outlaw, or the artist ‘on the edge’. Going outside the novel for a minute, I would like to quote a passage from “White Dwarfs,” a poem by Ondaatje that expressed his perfect hero: “Why do I like most / among my heroes those / that sail to that perfect edge / where there is no social fuel?” Ondaatje is fascinated by the outlaw, especially in his early work (see The Collected Works of Billy the Kid), and Bolden, while not a criminal precisely, is still on the edge, a lonely figure. He must come through slaughter–encounter mortality and his own imperfection–to reach that perfect edge, where beyond there is only silence.

Trapped in relationships with two different women, Bolden runs away from his wife, but later returns home, a changed man–more quiet, not his gossipy old self. But the silence is only a buildup to the defining moment of his history as an artist. He blows his cornet in a parade down a New Orleans street and, after a moment of musical ecstasy, loses his mind, vanishing among the stars.

Just as the poem “White Dwarfs” proposes that the meaning of language is found in silence, so is the significance of Bolden’s life found in his silence–the absence of his music. This blankness enables Ondaatje–along with his reader–to search for Bolden’s music, if such an ephemeral thing as music can ever truly be found, or artistic perfection ever attained.

Just as jazz is all about the silences you leave between the notes, so is Coming Through Slaughter all about the absence of Bolden. It is even about the physical white space on the page. Each scene is followed by white space, where, if we linger, we are left to imagine the untold. White space becomes the perfect mirror onto which we project our own fantasies of what Bolden and the other characters do between scenes. On one particular page, only the lyrics to a song, or poem appear: “Passing wet chicory that lies in the field like the sky” (57). And that is all we need.

Ondaatje dares to go places other authors don’t ever go. His tale of Bolden’s life and death confirms his interest in transgression. Bolden’s story is like that of Icarus: he flew too high, too close to the sun where no one could catch him, on the wings of his own genius, and plummeted to his slaughter in the ocean. And like Doctor Faustus, Bolden even made a deal with the devil, according to his Christian critics: he dared to mix sacred hymns with blues, a music very earthly and secular. What came out of that has become to be known as “jazz.”

Ondaatje finds a wholly original way to express this Icaro-Faustian transgression: Bolden was always so short, he writes, that he couldn’t reach the blades of the fan in his barber shop. But later, after his fall, the following passage appears alone with itself on a page: “Bolden’s hand going up into the air / in agony. His brain driving it up into the path of the circling fan. / The last movement happens forever and ever in his memory” (138). Bolden’s artistic pride has caused him to reach out so far that he hurts himself, like he would if his fingers struck the blades of a fan.

I must now mourn Buddy Bolden using the words Christopher Marlowe’s chorus used to mourn Doctor Faustus at the end of his famous play: “cut is the branch that would have grown full straight / and burnèd is Apollo’s laurel bow.” Transgression is the only way to achieve artistic innovation, yet there is always a price to pay for it.

Buddy Bolden in William Cornish's band. Bolden is the cornet player in the top row, second from the left, just above Brock Mumford on guitar.
Buddy Bolden in William Cornish’s band. Bolden is the cornet player in the top row, second from the left, just above Brock Mumford on guitar.

I think Coming Through Slaughter makes excellent reading, especially if you are on a bus heading to a Jazz Festival concert in downtown Montreal. You can also read it before attending a summer festival in your hometown. Even if you don’t like jazz, if you are an artist, or appreciative of good art, then this novel is worth a read. All art deals with blank space, whether poetry, music, painting, sculpture, or even architecture. For the historical fantasy novelist, blanks spaces that show up in the historical record are also the perfect place to stage a work of imaginative, even fantastic, fiction. In a way, this is what Ondaatje does in Coming Through Slaughter.

Which is why I leave you off, with this proposal: in addition to being antithetical, anti-real, and even heretical, historical fantasy, as we may see it through the lens of Michael Ondaatje’s oeuvre, is also jazz. The two syncopated rhythms of realistic history and fantastic mythology–one a linear, regular, pattern, the other free-flying and circular–give historical fantasy an edge. And nowhere is this phenomenon better explored than in Coming Through Slaughter.

Michael Ondaatje
Michael Ondaatje

Photo Credits:

Ondaatje: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Michael_Ondaatje_Tulane_Lecturn_2010.jpg

Bolden band: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddy_Bolden

Ember Nights in Guy Gavriel Kay and John Crowley

tiganaLove and Sleep

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In Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana and John Crowley’s Love and Sleep,part of his Aegypt sequence, characters born with cauls are summoned in the middle of the night to walk among the dead. Kay calls these individuals Night Walkers. Their story stretches back to real-world superstitions about children born with a membrane around their heads. This rare phenomenon, according to Wikipedia, occurs in 1/80,000 births, and it was supposed to mark children for good luck and greatness.

Crowley explains in his book that in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, children born with cauls participated in nightly battles against witches and evil spirits for the renewal of the land’s fertility. This battle is depicted in Tigana when one of the main characters, Baerd, who was born in a caul, meets other Night Walkers like himself, who then fight evil spirits with swords made of cornstalks in order to restore the land blighted by the tyrant Brandin. Crowley’s Night Walker, on the other hand, is a semi-literate coal miner from the Cumberlands of Kentucky, Floyd Shaftoe. While the heroic Baerd’s fight against the undead and the rough, working-class life of Floyd seem aeons apart, their stories are similar narratives woven by two brilliant historical fantasy novelists.

Ember tides are a Catholic tradition that a young Pierce Moffet in Crowley’s novel observes. They are a series of days that introduce each season, where fasting and prayers to the souls in purgatory are encouraged. In Tigana, ember tides become the Ember Nights. To observe Ember Nights, all lights in the house except a single candle are extinguished, in order to remember the story of the Triad, the triune deity worshiped throughout the Peninsula of the Palm.

However, in the south of the Palm, there exist certain heretics who claim the Triad sprang from older gods. Some of those who kept these older beliefs are the Night Walkers who Baerd runs into, men and women who participate in a literal battle against infertility and death itself. Perhaps here Kay alludes to a more ancient, pagan past to the Catholic celebration of ember tides.

moonlight

Kay explains: “In the highlands of Certando a child born with a caul was not said to be guarded from death at sea, or naively named for fortune. It was marked for war. For this war, fought each year on the first of the Ember Nights that began the spring and so began the year. Fought in the fields and for the fields, for the not yet risen seedlings that were hope and life and the offered promise of earth renewed” (388).

Crowley’s description of Floyd Shaftoe’s relationship to the ember tides is similar. “On certain nights–it might be the night of Little Christmas, or the last night of October, or when the moon was full at midsummer, less often as he grew older and the world grew worse–Floyd Shaftoe would hear his name called, not urgently but surely, at his window as he lay asleep: and he would answer. For he was one of a band, men and women born (he supposed) with the same signs as himself; and there were as many of the others, with whom his kind contended for the health and wealth of the earth: and he could no more refuse a summons to walk out against them than he could refuse a dream or die” (103).

While both Kay and Crowley make reference to ancient traditions to explain the Ember Nights, their approaches to depicting them are different. Baerd is engaged in a heroic struggle against the tyrant sorcerer Brandin, who has cursed his homeland of Tigana. He cannot utter his country’s name to strangers due to the tyrant’s curse, and since Tigana has been laid waste and renamed Lower Corte, that curse will annihilate the nation from memory. Answering the summons to stalk around outside during the Ember nights is one way Baerd finds release.

Whereas Baerd grieves for the dead of his nation who were slain fighting Brandin, Floyd Shaftoe’s grief is simpler. “When he was twelve years old Floyd had seen his mother laid away, dead of her last child and first girl, dead too. There had been no preacher for her, no one to read or sing; his father made the box himself, and his brothers dug the grave” (103). At night, he receives a summons from his mother to walk with a great crowd of other lost souls. The dead have a look of hunger in their eyes–the hunger to live again. After returning from this purgatorial vision, Floyd sees his own body sleeping in his bed, and then returns to it, questioning whether he would be able to return if he had stayed with his mother too long.

Floyd goes on to become a Born Again Christian, realizing that the “Holy Spert” summons him on ember tide. He works in the coal mines from boyhood to middle age, through the prosperous times where he is able to buy a fridge and TV, and through the worst times, when millionaires conspire against the company he works for. As he works under the earth, stripping the mountain of its rocks and metals, he starts to farm instead.

He sees the world as divided between those who follow the “Holy Spert” and the “Devil’s fiddle,” between those who grow things from the earth and those, like miners, who take away from it. He survives off Assistance, or “Well Far,” and blames “the great devil Hoover, who had brought ruin on the country, only to be turned out in disgrace himself” (112). President Herbert Hoover takes the place of Brandin of Ygrath as ruler of the land, although Floyd does not blame Hoover for the blighting of the landscape. He comes rather to think the “old enmity” between those sapping the earth and those who try to grow things on it, “was likely just a part of nature, like the enmity fixed between owls and crows, or between the red squirrel and the grey. […] [U]nless their two kinds did battle over what would grow and what would not, then nothing at all would grow” (112).

Reclaimed mountain that had been hollowed due to coal mining. Poisons still brown the stream.
Reclaimed mountain that had been hollowed due to coal mining. Poisons still brown the stream.

John Crowley uses  magic realism to create Floyd’s world, whereas Kay frames the Ember Nights in terms of the heroic tradition of portal-quest fantasy novels. A careful subjective voice claims only that what Floyd sees as his world world is true, but in Kay’s novel, the supernatural is treated as unquestioningly part of reality itself. Though both authors come from different perspectives, both share an interest in this obscure, but fascinating tradition. Both also deal with the genre and the ideas behind historical fantasy. Crowley and Kay both see Ember Nights as an nexus effective for the blending of the fantastic with the real.

Let me propose that the fantasy novel’s structure of restoration (Clute’s four-part structure: wrongness, thinning, recognition, and healing) lends itself to stories of wars fought for the fertility of the land. The war of the Night Walkers belongs to the monomyth found in many fantasy novels and legends. A child marked for greatness is prophesied to venture on a dark road and fight vast armies to restore the land to its health.

Our real world, blasted out of innocence by two World Wars, the Nuclear Age, the Cold War, 9/11, and economic collapse, is sick. Perhaps the monomyth of restoration appeals so much to Crowley and Kay because it promises the rejuvenation of our own world. One idea behind Tigana, for example, is that Tigana represents all cultures that have been obliterated from memory or maimed by powerful tyrants: it could tell the story of Cold War East Europe, Native North America, or Ireland. The story of Baerd and the Night Walkers promises that attempts at cultural obliteration can be overcome, worlds renewed.

On the other hand, Crowley recognizes that at different historical times, such as Renaissance England or one’s childhood, the world as perceived was different than it is now. We tend to believe in myths and legends more in earlier ages than we do in later ones. Crowley’s magic realist treatment of the Ember Nights is aimed not so much to restore culture and identity, as Tigana does, but the fertility of the imagination itself, the magical dimension that underlies our daily lives. Like other modern readaptations of ancient myths, Crowley’s Love and Sleep attempts to reanimate our demythologized, strictly scientific and utilitarian cosmology. Whereas Tigana can help us see our world through a distorted mirror, Crowley proposes something more radical: that, in the coal mine mountains of Kentucky, men might live today who have, in fact, been summoned by the dead to walk with them on Ember Nights.

John Crowley
John Crowley
Me and Guy Gavriel Kay
Guy Gavriel Kay and I

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Image Credits/Works Cited:

Crowley, John. Love and Sleep. New York: Bantam, 1994.

Kay, Guy Gavriel. Tigana. Toronto: Penguin, 1992.

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Love and Sleep Cover: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Love_%26_Sleep

Mountain: https://www.flickr.com/

Unreliable Narrators and Historical Fantasy

Unreliable narrators have a way of turning up in the most recent short stories I have drafted, so, in the interest of attaching this idea to historical fantasy, here is my blog post of this week:

In my Honours thesis, I drew attention to the conflict posed by fusing the historical novel with the fantasy novel. If, as Tolkien argues, fantasy relies on eucatastrophe, then a historical fantasy must incorporate a happy ending to catastrophic historical events. Imposing happy endings on history inevitably draws attention to the fact that our histories of time are actually narratives—and that these narratives are shaped by our own desires, or fantasies.

Building off these ideas, I take a broad view of the term “historical fantasy.” It refers to more than simply a genre, but to a phenomenon—how all narratives of the past  reflect our own desires. History itself is a fantasy, a mode of desire.

No one can retell the past in a complete, objective way. A corollary: whoever writes an account of the past can never be free of bias, no matter how scientifically they approach their tale-telling. After all, science is itself only one way of viewing the world. Culture and religion form other ways.

Since historical narratives can never be trusted to remain objective, it follows that to some extent all historians are unreliable. Not everything about the past can ever be known and even if we were capable of learning all the facts, the way we retell the past will carry a certain bias. It may never be possible to escape being an unreliable narrator. They are no longer the psychologically diseased and murderous viewpoint characters of an Edgar Allan Poe tale or a Robert Browning dramatic monologue. They are each of us.

Perhaps this is the reason why I have been drawn to unreliable narrators as a way to tell a historical fantasy story. If all narratives are unreliable, the possibility for them to be retold in a counter-factual way is a constant danger even for the most thorough historian. But if the character (re)telling the story is a drunken fool, an egomaniac, the unimpeachable emperor of a totalitarian nation, or a witch threatened with torture if she does not confess, then facts are all the more likely to become warped in radical ways. Occasionally—in the case of the witch—these distortions will be outright denials of consensus reality and of physics itself.

Hence you have a “fantasy” (being an imaginative trip of desire and wonder) that is “historical” (having happened, or claimed to have happened, in history).

When an entire nation is being subjected by a foreign will (like in Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay), be it another empire, race, or class, the cultural and economic pressures mounted on the people’s backs drive them to cherish their own identities. They become involved in retelling their nation’s history to keep their identities alive. During these tumultuous times, desires to modify the past emerge in the oppressed people, who glorify legends of the “Golden Age.” Hence the Saxon-dominated Britons and Welsh developed legends about the historical King Arthur, who was of their blood. And Geoffrey of Monmouth told a pro-Welsh tale to the later Norman conquerors in The History of the Kings of Britain. There are thousands of non-Eurocentric examples out there. If only I knew them all, I could try to list them.

Meanwhile, the dominators create their own stories to solidify their claim to the conquered land. The ideologies of conqueror and conquered vie for the status of having the “correct” interpretation of events. And you know what they say about history being written by the victors. The idea of “historical fantasy,” on the other hand, is subversive because it reveals that both sides of the argument are ultimately inaccurate or at least incomplete. Both versions of history are myths: each side may define its own identity, but it also avows the destruction or overturn of the other side.

Faced with these quandaries, no telling of history can be liberated from the conditions of history itself. In a sense, all history is therefore a fantasy. Catastrophe and eucatastrophe are two sides of viewing history, one no less legitimate than the other. A war may not always end happily, but in the end, the result is not outright catastrophe. A great man’s tragic death at the hand of assassins (the great Shakespearean tragedy Julius Caesar) is hardly the end of the world. Life goes on. Time goes on, and on, making the pain and happiness seem microscopic after the immense stretch of years, decades, centuries.

Humanity was not meant to see such long stretches of time. We are mortal and must make as much sense of eternity as we can in the short time we have to live. So we turn to the past in order to draw meaning from it. Faced with the nearly impossible task of finding a direct link to our ultimate origins, we inevitably imagine history. And doing so we necessarily tell a lie about history.

Yet those who tell such lies should not incur blame. We are human and we must live. We must tell stories. Faced with the objectivity of history, we might go insane seeing a meaningless space devoid of all human understanding. Our survival and spiritual well-being depends on having fantasies about history.

I conclude therefore that I may have been drawn to unreliable narrators because I realized that it so happens that all narrators are unreliable, no matter how confidently they may speak. Storytellers recognize that humanity needs narratives in order to survive. Fiction and falsehoods become more wholesome than the truth they are supposed to be detracting from: a disturbing thought. Is it better to lie? Or worse, perhaps all we can ever do is lie, since the truth remains forever indefinite.

Whatever the result of these sceptical musings may be, we may yet have one truth in which to take refuge: though a work of fiction may lie, it can still contain a glimpse of a deeper understanding of human nature. That is something mere history can never find.

In the end, the real story of the unreliable narrator is his own.

ruins

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Photo Credits:

Ruins: http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fantastique

Tell-Tale Heart: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tell-Tale_Heart

Cockroach by Rawi Hage

Cockroach by Rawi Hage
Cockroach by Rawi Hage

Rawi Hage’s unnamed protagonist—an unreliable narrator—fantasizes almost as much as he steals.

A poor, starving Middle-Eastern immigrant walking the Montreal winter streets, he sees himself as a cockroach: the lowest of the low, but also crafty and able to survive. His awkwardness around women causes him to undergo what he perceives as a metamorphosis into a dirty, many-legged insect who will survive the apocalypse, when all the wealthy people in the world will die.

As he tries to romance Shohreh, the woman with whom he is enamoured, the self-styled cockroach tells his therapist Genèvieve about his life before immigration, that is, the story of his relationship with his sister and how he tried to defend her from Tony, her abusive husband. These therapy sessions were court-ordered after the narrator attempted to hang himself, and he tells his story like Scheherazade, to keep himself out of the mad house.

Eventually the narrator’s past begins to catch up with him and he must decide how to act against the powers of capitalism and religious fundamentalism. But the poor cannot be pacifists in the world the cockroach has explored. Sooner or later, in a moment of decision, the cockroach will rise from the shadows and drains of the underworld and rise against the upper world, where the sun shines so bright.

cockroachThough I once thought the narrator was a creep, stalking women and men to find their homes and steal from their basements, by some strange magic, the protagonist wins your sympathy and cannot fail to engage you. It may depend on your political views or moral expectations, paraphrasing Rawi Hage during the Concordia event, but the narrator is funny, witty, and can get away with anything. Evil and goodness coexist in the same man.

Cockroach, or so argued Samantha Bee on Canada Reads, highlights the difficulties and troubles surrounding the immigrant experience in Montreal, a hidden “underground” world that most Montrealers cannot see. But Hage’s novel is more than an informative Montreal Gazette article. It is the unreliable, yet politically radical vision of a trickster whose monologues in defiance of the hypocritical and the wealthy must have delighted Hage to write whenever he stepped into his alter ego’s worn-out shoes.

I simply love Hage’s refreshing style. His long, lyrical sentences are filled with extended similes and charged descriptions that underlie the narrator’s keen observations. Take the following as a metaphor for his desire to escape the trials of the immigrant experience:

“When I entered the café, I peeled myself out from under layers of hats, gloves, and scarves, liberated myself from zippers and buttons, and endured the painful tearing of Velcro that hissed like a prehistoric reptile, that split and separated like people’s lives, like exiles falling into cracks that give birth and lead to death under digging shovels that sound just like the friction of car wheels wedging snow around my mortal parts” (10).

The narrator’s observations also help him to expose hypocrisy. Take the narrator’s following rebuke against a Jehovah’s witness, which almost reads like a slam poem:

“You are a charlatan, standing there with your magazines full of promising images like opium. Look at you, human, all dressed up. You can’t be handsome without weaving the saliva of worms around you, without stealing the wool from the backs of sheep, without making the poor work like mules in long factories with cruel whistles and punch-in cards” (284).

Another wonderful feature of Rawi Hage’s style is his refusal to write dialogue with quotation marks. The effect is that we are receiving all the dialogue filtered through the narrator’s voice, which means characters may or may not have spoken exactly as the narrator tells it. This adds another layer of untrustworthiness to his protagonist, making you question everything he tells you.

At the Concordia event “Up Close and Personal with Rawi Hage,” which I attended with my father in 2009, Hage said that he saw the lack of quotation marks in his writing as not a radical innovation, so much as a result of his own laziness. He never understood why you would ever need quotation marks. It is this kind of unconventional attitude that underlies Cockroach.

Hage’s stylistic unorthodoxy adds to the appeal of his story, like innovative directorial cuts add to the originality of a Martin Scorsese flick. Particularly, I am thinking of Taxi staring Robert DeNiro, another tale of isolation and the underworld, which culminates in an act of violence. There is even a mirror scene, only when Hage’s narrator looks in the mirror, he sees a man-sized cockroach standing behind him instead of saying, “Are you talkn’ to me?” Is it any wonder that Hage was a Montreal taxi driver and lived in New York City for a time?

Anyway, I suppose I would have to read his most recent book Carnival, which also concerns a taxi driver, to find out about this link between Rawi Hage and Robert DeNiro. In the meantime, Cockroach is a great book for Canadians and especially Montrealers to read, if they enjoy a little trip down the sink drain.

drain

Montreal, view from Mount Royal.
Montreal, view from Mount Royal.

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Photo Credits:

Cockroach: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smokybrown_cockroach

Montreal: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Montreal_Skyline_winter_panorama_Jan_2006.jpg

Drain: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kitchen_sink_drain.jpg

Rawi Hage and What his Work Means to Me

Samantha Bee (left) defended Cockroach by Rawi Hage (right) on Canada Reads
Samantha Bee (left) defended Cockroach by Rawi Hage (right) on Canada Reads.

I counted it a significant turn of good fortune that I had just finished reading Rawi Hage’s novel Cockroach when it almost won this year’s Canada Reads competition (Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda took first prize). It took me 5 years to get around to reading it.

Nonetheless, this author—whose book I am reviewing Friday—has had a mythic impact on me, a presence in my life that grew during those 5 years. Allow me to explain.

In 2009, there was an event at Concordia University called “Up Close and Personal with Rawi Hage.” I was still halfway though the Liberal Arts program at Dawson College and I received a ticket from my mother, who is an alumnus. I had only read DeNiro’s Game, Hage’s electrifying first novel, but I still relished the opportunity to hear him interviewed. It was there I received a signed copy of Cockroach for my mother.

Cockroach by Rawi Hage
Cockroach by Rawi Hage

To the editor mom, Hage scrawled on the title page, after I told him she had been reading over my unpublished novel Battles of Rofp. I was there with my dad, and we got the book as a gift of thanks to her, since she couldn’t attend the evening event. I placed DeNiro’s Game, which he also signed, on my bookshelf as a talisman, my hope to aspire to become a better writer.

Hage is a photographer and graduate of Concordia’s Creative Writing program. DeNiro’s Game was his thesis. I have spent 5 years of my life yearning to study in that same program, to write my own thesis, have it published, and then maybe participate in my own little “Up Close and Personal with Matthew Rettino.”

I tried once in 2010, but failed, and entered McGill’s English literature program. After I graduated from the Honours program, I tried again in 2013 and by March 2014, this month, I have received the committee’s response. I was rejected for the second time from this program. Though this rejection makes me bitterly disappointed, it is a sign that my path to success will simply not be identical to Rawi Hage’s route. We are, after all, vastly different writers.

Concordia’s creative writing professors, for one, are in the “literary fiction” stream of writing style, rather than “literary fantasy,” which is what I was aspiring to learn to write. ‘Tis the age-old difference between literary fiction and genre, a distinction that really comes down to why people write what they write.

Literary writers write for themselves, for their characters, in an attempt to learn more about human nature and themselves. Genre writers, while they might explore character and the human condtion, write chiefly because an idea for a plot seizes them, or a situation fascinates them. Naturally, literary fiction tends to be dominated by characters, subjectivism, and interiority, whereas genre tends to rely on plot and story.

I write because a crazy or fascinating idea or situation grabs my attention and compels me to write the story. This tends to set me on the path towards genre fiction. Generally, I do not see a person on a bus and think that this or that character would be fascinating to write about, as some literary fiction writers do.

Partly, I suspect this tendency is related to my high-functioning Asperger’s syndrome, which sets up a wall in front of my ability to relate to other people easily. Since character is less of a natural thing for me to think about than plot ideas, I have this tendency towards genre, and a weakness in my writing towards character, voice and dialogue. Description and plot remain my strong points.

One way to overcome the negative effects of my Asperger’s is to introduce literary modes into my fantasy writing, to pay more attention to character and personality. Bridging the genre divide can thus be tied to my own attempts to break out socially with others—and therefore the very existence of this blog.

Rawi Hage’s literary fiction would appear at first to be as vastly different from my own, as the moon is from the sun. However, here is where Hage gets interesting.

His novels, Cockroach and DeNiro’s Game, are remarkable precisely because they fuse the plot of a thriller with the wit and reflection of a literary novel. Perhaps it is no mistake that DeNiro’s Game was the first novel of literary fiction I ever read for pleasure outside of school, and a model I looked up to afterwards. Cockroach even has elements of fantasy to smooth it all over!

If literary fiction can get away with a strong plot in a capable writer’s hands, then there is no reason a fantasy writer cannot write a work of “literary fantasy” fiction. Rawi Hage confirms this hypothesis from the literary fiction perspective just as much as a writer like Guy Gavriel Kay or Charles de Lint can.

What, then, is this fantasy that is at work in Cockroach?

Rawi Hage’s Middle-Eastern immigrant protagonist has a complex around women, which causes him to imagine himself becoming a cockroach. The metamorphosis is Kafkasque, but as Hage mentioned during his interview, it would be eurocentric to ignore the symbolism of cockroaches in other sources, such as Arabic fable books.

Cockroach is the radical story of an uncompromising thief who roots out the hypocrisies in Montreal immigrant society. His work is as literary as Dostoyevsky and as suspenseful as the most page-turning thriller—and it bears the occasional resemblance to the movie Taxi Driver staring—of course—Robert DeNiro.

Continuing on Friday, I shall tell you more about this brilliant book.

deniro
Robert DeNiro: an inspiration for Rawi Hage?

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Photo Credits:

Canada Reads: http://www.cbc.ca/books/canadareads/2013/12/samantha-bee-and-rawi-hage-talk-canada-reads.html

DeNiro: http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taxi_Driver