Perusing the books on sale at MythCon 45 at Wheaton College in Norton, MA this summer, I stumbled across a most peculiar historical fantasy novel. It was the long-lost masterpiece of Kenneth Morris, The Chalchiuhite Dragon.
Well-known, if not actually famous, for his modern Celtic fantasies such as The Fates of the Princes of Dyfed and Book of Three Dragons, Morris was a contemporary of J.R.R. Tolkien and the Inklings, though he spent most of his time within the tight-knit community of the Theosophical Society in Wales and California. The Chalchiuhite Dragon, his final novel, was left unpublished at his death, and is the only classic fantasy based in Mesoamerica that I have read. Due partly to the prompting of Ursula K. Le Guin, who valourized Morris’s writing style in “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie,” a famous 1970s essay on proper diction in fantasy writing, this final novel was edited and published fifty-five years after the author’s death in 1992.
I was left in utter amazement that Morris’s book should be resurrected from the dead in the early 90s in a book cover style that seems to label it as a bestselling, contemporary novel. This astonishing story in the history of fantasy publishing is all the more remarkable since Morris’s writing style is at least partly the reason why editors felt it was valuable to publish this novel posthumously. The style is anything but contemporary; in fact, I might call the style as opaque as jade. When mixed with the obscure, impossible-to-pronounce-without-a-guide Toltec names, following the novel’s storyline was a labour. The dictionary of names at the back of the book is a necessary tool, and the absence of a map makes the storyline still more difficult to follow. Yet there is no doubt that it is written in a high style.
In terms of reading difficulty, Morris is between Tolkien and E.R. Eddison–Tolkien being the easiest to read and Eddison being the most difficult. It is these two authors, with Morris and George MacDonald, whom Le Guin declares to be the true masters of epic diction in modern fantasy. Especially for fantasy authors who are themselves interested in imitating the formal epic style of modern fantasy, The Chalchiuhite Dragon can make an instructive read in addition to an entertaining one.
The prose is a rock wall over which you must climb to access the spectacular Mesoamerican vistas. The novel should reward any devotee of modern fantasy who is willing to work through passages such as the following:
On the night of the Arrival of the Gods, every priest in Huitznahuac watched in his deity’s temple for the Divine Event. Thus the Royal Uncle Acatonatzin, being Tezcatlipocâ-priest, watched from the koo of the Soul of the World.
There are words you will not understand and some characters have more than one name, like Nopal’s alternatives names, Nopalton and Nopaltontli. But despite the density of the prose, it can make a rewarding reading for those interested.
Believe it or not, the story behind the The Chalchiuhite Dragon is one that lies behind a story that will be familiar to some. It is about mythical Huitznahuacan, a capital city of a kingdom that has never known war, and the events leading up to the birth of the Plumed Serpent Quetzalcoatl, whose form in a jade (chalchiuhite in Toltec) statue becomes a key image in the novel. Yes, this is (approximately) the same Quetzalcoatl whom the Aztecs, according to legend, mistook for Hernàn Cortes during the Spanish conquistador’s invasion of Mexico. Quetzalcoatl is like the Jesus Christ of Mesoamerica, a Prince of Peace and lawgiver for the Toltecs. However, the main action of the story is the lead-up to this miraculous birth during the holy month of Teotleco.
At times reading like an anthropological description of an ancient people’s religious practices, The Chalchiuhite Dragon comes across as a subtle mix of classical literature and political intrigue. When the Huitznahuatecs encounter foreign ambassadors during a festival, a whole new and dangerous world becomes introduced to them–Toltec civilization. Toltecs have a mysterious practice called war, with which the Huitznahuatecs are unfamiliar. The utopian, though naive, city must survive the conquest of the Toltecs and the wily machinations of its war leaders. A story about innocence lost and the hope for future peace emerges, a rewarding, oddly Christmas-y conclusion to a particularly well-written and neglected modern fantasy classic.
Imagine if Tolkien had written The Lord of the Rings sixty years ago, but it was only published this year. That is was what the intrigue behind The Chalchiuhite Dragon must have been like in 1992. Now in 2015, it is up for a new generation of Morris fans to determine whether it will be celebrated and for how long it will be remembered.
Canada has been celebrating the discovery of Captain Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated ship, the Erebus, since early September. Along with the Terror, captained by Francis Crozier, this ship carried Franklin and his crew on their fatal quest for the Northwest Passage, which lasted three years (1845-1848). For most of that time, Franklin was stranded, a prisoner of the arctic ice. When finally his ships sank, the crew was forced to go overland on foot. They all eventually met their end, through cold and starvation.
This latest–and first successful–search for Franklin’s Lost Expedition was the last of six made since 2008, according to Tom Spears from Postmedia (“Shipwreck”). But many other expeditions to recover the ships were undertaken during the twentieth and nineteenth centuries–including that of Knud Rasmussen who visited the region from 1921-1924. He was also the first European to cross the Passage by dogsled.
So, you may ask, What does all this have to do with a mythopoeic Canadian poet who was active during the ’60s and ’70s and is now regrettably out-of-print?
Gwendolyn MacEwen’s volume of poetry Afterworlds contains a narrative long poem based on Rasmussen’s search for the Franklin Expedition, entitled “Terror and Erebus.” It takes the form of a fictional dialogue between Rasmussen and Franklin, the historical past conversing–or failing to converse–with the narrative present. Rasmussen follows the explorer through the same unforgiving landscape, his only advantage being the comforts of more advanced technology. Decades and Franklin’s watery grave separate them from each other, but the present nonetheless strives to connect to the past.
MacEwen also deals with history in King of Egypt, King of Dreams, The T.E. Lawrence Poems, and, to a lesser extent, Julian the Magician. “Terror and Erebus” is a fusion of history and fantasy–that is to say, her own mystical reflections projected onto the past. She balances her historical, documentary subject matter with her impeccable poetic sensibility. The Arctic landscape becomes a wasteland where the self loses itself, faced with the harshness of the cosmos. These are some, at times, terrifying verses. The staggered lines recall the jagged fjords of ice that Captain Franklin would have had to traverse on his miserable voyage, his existential journey. Now, with the discovery of the Terror, it is a timely moment to reflect on Franklin’s terror at finding himself in this frigid, blank landscape.
MacEwen’s long poem opens with the following mood-setting lines:
King William Island . . . latitude unmentionable.
But I’m not the first here.
They preceded me, they marked the way
………………. .with bones
White as this ice is, whiter maybe,
The white of death,
………………..of purity” (41).
Rasmussen attempts to interpret the signs that mark the trail of the expedition. He has the impression that Franklin “created the Passage / By willing it to be” (42). Furthermore, Franklin’s quest is interpreted as his search for “a passage from imagination to reality” (42). In this respect, “Terror and Erebus” explores the dividing line between reality and fantasy in way that can be compared to Julian’s illusion-spinning in Julian the Magician.
Franklin responds to Rasmussen, or at least it seems that way. His voice never really does reach Rasmussen, although the reader can see how Franklin ‘responds’ to Rasmussen’s speech, in a way. “I brought them here, a hundred and twenty-nine men, / Led them into this bottleneck, / This white asylum,” remarks Franklin. “My ships, the Terror, the Erebus / Are learning the meaning of their / names” (43). Erebus is a personification of darkness, a god born from Chaos in Greek mythology. The irony of the ship’s name is appropriate; the ship is surrounded desperately by endless white, but the history Rasmussen is trying to unravel is full of darkness.
MacEwen’s interests in dualities, psychology, and archetypes appear throughout the poem, adding depth to the existential situation in which Franklin and Rasmussen both find themselves alone. Although Franklin did not necessarily think these thoughts, they are all a part of the poet’s reflection on his subjection to the landscape. Franklin asks the captain of the Terror:
“Crozier, what laws govern
This final tug of war
between life and death,
the human polarities?
……………….. The ice
Is its own argument” (46).
After a harsh winter, Franklin abandons his ships struck in an ice flow that is “drifting south / Itself, like a ship” (47). He does so “in a kind of horrible birth, / a forced expulsion / From those two wombs” (47). Later, punning off Crozier’s name, which refers to a bishop’s staff containing a cross, the overland march becomes a walk towards crucifixion on Good Friday, “April 21, 1848” in the log (48).
The geography of the Arctic is alien, and the metaphysical truths Franklin believes in hold no more reality when he has sailed beyond Ultima Thule:
“Whoever said that Hell was darkness?
What fool said that light was good
………………..and darkness evil?
In extremes all things reverse themselves” (49).
One of the most memorable images, in my reading, is of the ivory visors Rasmussen remarks upon, the kind with narrow slits that Inuit wear to keep away the snow glare. Existentially overwhelmed in the sheer vastness of the Arctic, the expedition can only protect their naked eyes with “those ridiculous / instruments / That keep the cosmos out” (50).
With no food to eat, the Franklin expedition may have resorted to cannibalism. MacEwen depicts this horrific likelihood with a series of startling images:
“the snow turns red, there are sounds
………………..of men puking, and sounds
Of knives scraping bone.
They are eating
………………..one of their dead” (50).
Now that the expedition has fallen so far beyond what is considered human and reasonable, Rasmussen remarks, “Now Crozier, now you’ve come / To the end of science” (52). Wishing for their salvation is futile. Crozier asks, “What magnet do I know of / That will pull us south?” (53)
Franklin’s crew were all doomed. Scarce traces of the expedition survived, though there was one cairn containing a message supposedly left behind by the survivors. Part of what enabled the 2014 expedition to finally discover the Erebus at the bottom of the sea, however, was the testimony of Inuit oral history. Rasmussen uncovers this testimony in the poem from the Inuit Qaqortingneq, who says, “I remember the day / When our fathers found a ship” (54). The Inuit, like Rasmussen, are faced with a mystery: what to make of the strange, foreign ship they find captured in the ice floe. Unfamiliar with European technologies, “they went aboard the great ship / As though into another world / Understanding nothing” (54).
The poem concludes with a return to Rasmussen’s conviction that Franklin, though he failed to find it, was nonetheless utterly convinced of the Northwest Passage’s existence. In the end, there is a difference between this absolute certainty and the fact that we “cannot know […] where the passage lies /Between conjecture and reality” (57). Frankin had deduced that the Northwest Passage did exist, yet he died trying to find it. Certainty is not the same as discovering the reality behind that certainty. That was the tragedy of the Franklin Expedition, and it is also what makes uncovering the past so difficult–indeed, it is essentially impossible.
In our day, light has been shone onto the Erebus, the god of darkness’s ship. Our knowledge of Franklin’s tragedy will become fuller in due time. Just as Rasmussen attempts to recover the Terror and Erebus , our age can look back upon MacEwen’s “Terror and Erebus,” and her potent reflections on the sacrifices involved in exploration.
MacEwen, Gwendolyn. “Erebus and Terror.” Afterworlds. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1987. 41-57.
Spears, Tom. “Shipwreck identified as Franklin’s flagship.” Montreal Gazette. 2 Oct. 2014. A2
We re-imagine World War I, a century after its declaration in 1914, as a time of heroic sacrifice. It was also a time of foreboding, since it alluded to the mass causalities that would follow in the various wars of the Twentieth Century. Even the peace treaty itself would provide the pretense for a new, still more disastrous war in 1939. Brian Gottheil’s historical fantasy novel Gateways is just such a world, where a peace treaty to end a disastrous war might produce as many enemies as allies.
Caryn Hallom is First Minister of Deugan, the first woman to hold such an office in the democratic republic. She is responsible for the foreign policy of the Hallom Doctrine, which aims to reduce the threat of the Seffians, a group of religious fundamentalist terrorists, by bringing their land in the Fringes out from the New Empire’s control and into Deugan’s aegis. When Wassia closes the Amimi canal and Brealand responds to Deugan’s subsequent invasion of Wassia by declaring war, the continent falls into chaos. Though the world was told it would be over in a few span, it stretches on, a war on three fronts.
The Deugan President sends Caryn to the Gateway fort, on the frontier with Brealand, where the fate of the continent will be decided in blood, shells, and gas. Adding to the difficulty is that Caryn, thanks to Steffian propaganda, is widely thought to be a witch. She can indeed use magic–or as she calls it, energy–but only at terrible cost.
The energy is a mysterious, parasitic force of nature residing in certain Wells that are scattered throughout the continent. Energy cannot be manipulated, but it can be tamed. The energy has its own desires and appetites and the skill of the Secrets user is determined by how well one knows the energy. Most people cannot survive more than a day in a Well, and being in contact with the energy prematurely ages you. Caryn has already spent time in a Well, letting the energy seep into her body so she can learn to use its power. As a result, she has the body of a middle-aged woman but the mind and memories of a twenty-five-year-old.
Before the Well changed her forever, Caryn went by another name: Jayla. As Jayla, she fell in love with Brenner, the man with whom she spent months in the Well, their bodies slowly being destroyed as they learned how to manipulate the very energy that was killing them. Since Jayla escaped the Well, she and Brenner have not seen each other. But as fate would have it, the war will reunite the again–in the most unlikely manner.
Caryn will have to evade assassination plots, negotiate with the cool-headed and sardonic Brea ambassador Michael Ravencliffe, and survive bombardments and assaults within the maze of twisted passageways that form the Gateway. As the stakes rise, a new, highly destructive weapon made from the power of the Wells’ energy will confront the Deugan army–and in the middle of it, there will be Brenner, and all Caryn’s forgotten feelings for him.
Will Caryn survive? Will she be able to establish a peace? And even if she does, will it last? You will have to read Gatewaysto find out.
One of the strongest parts of this book, I think, is the cost associated with the magic system. The cost of magic should, as a rule in fantasy lit, be more interesting than the magic itself, and that is true in Gateways: it increases the sacrifice of war. Although the energy can create miracles, it can also destroy, and may even be fatal for the user.
It was good to see that no political side in the conflict is ever stigmatized as the “enemy.” The true enemy is the war itself. Although we may sympathize with the liberal-leaning Deugans, the history of which is reminiscent of the United States or perhaps France, we receive the Brea perspective through Ravencliffe, who, I think, is a noble character. We even receive two empathetic Steffian viewpoints.
It was clever worldbuilding to fog the correspondences between the countries of the continent and those in Europe. This eliminates the prejudice we might feel, for example, if Brealand was clearly described as an analogue for Russia or Germany. As Guy Gavriel Kay’s secondary “mirror” worlds are analogues for medieval Spain and T’ang-dynasty China, Gottheil’s continent is an analogue for Europe itself, during World War I. Gateways can therefore be interpreted as a reflection of how nations struggle towards conflict resolution throughout history.
A hundred years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, perhaps Gateways is just what readers need to renew their perspective on the Great War, and armed conflict in general.
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.”
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.
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 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 Diggerwas 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 Lane. The 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
This is a series documenting my intellectual journey at MythCon 45 at Wheaton College, in Norton, MA (8-11 August 2014). Although I will attempt to summarize the arguments made by presenters, the series does not replace the presenters’ scholarship, but will represent my attitudes towards the topics.
Having arrived early the Thursday, I had already killed a lot of time on campus and slept over one night by the time I showed up for the first presentation at MythCon 45. Early friday afternoon, I attended “Perception and Ambiguity in Tolkien’s Prose Style” by Christopher (Chip) Crane. It drew me straight out of my lethargic state of mind and into the full-blown academic rhythm of the conference, which I had been anticipating for months.
The classroom in the science building where Chip presented was fairly empty when I arrived, but filled up quickly. I was surprised that so many had come to hear about style, which could seem to be a dry topic, even if it was Tolkien’s style. However, Chip Crane’s quantitative analysis of Tolkien’s prose style proved to a fascinating, highly relevant topic.
Having read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings a long, long time ago, I knew the passages Crane talked about: when describing a possibly magic phenomenon, Tolkien frequently adopts words and phrases like “seems,” “as if,” “[comma] 0r,” “maybe,” and “perhaps.” Crane has run digital searches to quantify the frequency of these terms in many of Tolkien’s works. The results show more hits on “seems” in LOTR, where it appears almost once for every page, than in The Silmarillion, for example.
Any serious stylist knows “seems” is a vague word, subject to deletion via the red pen. However, to say Tolkien was a good stylist is to be just as vague. He was more specifically a master, and a philologist to boot–one who studies the evolution of words. If he uses “seems” so much, it is no accident.
But why use “seems?” Could it merely be academic precision, or a symptom of polite British sensibility? Perhaps the One Ring seemed to Frodo to exude an aura of pure evil … but what Frodo subjectively perceived may have had no basis in reality. Or, perhaps Tolkien meant, eh-hem, that the Ring may have just perhaps exuded such an aura, if you don’t mind my saying so, good sir.
The answer of course is more complicated than subscribing any one reason for all the instances of “perhaps” or “seems.” Sometimes the ambiguity is academic and polite. But it is also a rhetorical strategy, Crane argued, to let the reader decide for themselves whether there is magic–or rather, more accurately, to guide the reader to the conclusion that magic is happening. He might say, for instance, in Father Giles of Ham, that “giants seem less unlikely [at night].”
Even in “On Faerie-Stories,” Tolkien employs this ambiguity. He says, for instance, that Beowulf is a Christian story of a pagan past, “or an attempt at one,” an example of his academic carefulness. It seems to me that this use of language opens up Tolkien’s text to more various interpretations, since his above sentence would still be considered logically correct, if Beowulf was a successful Christian-Pagan poem. In his fiction, Tolkien creates ambiguity around some of the central moments of LOTR. Creating these spaces, he gives readers more room to form their own meanings.
In Materiality and Sociology of Text, a class I had several years ago at McGill, we explored how readers sometimes can “poach” meaning from a text by forming interpretations outside of the narrator’s ideology. Although Tolkien’s tales must rely on the authority of the teller to give them truth-value, using these ambiguous turns-of-phrase empower the reader. Perhaps they hint that Tolkien may have believed that finding meaning in literature is a dialectical process, that the power of meaning-creation that authors have is not absolute, that readers form their own equally legitimate meanings.
Upon leaving Chip Crane’s talk, energized with a new enthusiasm for Tolkien, I came to Joe Christopher’s presentation of “Tolkien as a Generic Poet.” I have not often had the opportunity to read Tolkien’s poetry, although his best (and worst!) work is certainly embedded in LOTR: everything from Aragorn’s prophecy to Tom Bombadil’s nonsense verse. What I found most fascinating in Christopher’s presentation was his juxtaposition of Tolkien with the Modernists.
Modernism, as one of its maxims, has Ezra Pound’s Chinese translation: “Let there be daily renovation,” or in plain parlance, “make it new.” The Modernist poet looks at old forms of poetry and renews the old forms, such as ballad, sonnet, and aubade. While the Inklings, who generally held by a common Christianity, were not involved with Modernist scepticism and doubt, they were not un-modern. In Charles Williams’ words, it was better to be modern than minor. They addressed the Modern age and even if they did not fit in with T.S. Eliot and James Joyce, they were still products of the same age, the same shaping forces.
Tolkien was less emotionally involved in his anti-modernism than C.S. Lewis, and knew the classics not through modern poets, but by training. He wrote alliterative verse in Old English style, such as “Sigurd and Gudrun.” He took the Poetic Edda and Nibelungenlied as his models. His poetry also includes the use of such various forms as the clerihew and nursery rhyme. (At MythCon on Sunday evening, there was an award handed out for the greatest clerihew written during the conference.)
Did Tolkien succeed in making it new? I would answer using a qualified “yes.” No, he did not renew poetic form into something unseen or unheard of before. But he did succeed in producing imitations and translations that could only have come from a mind thoroughly engrossed in a literary era that to us “normal” scholars feels so distant and remote. Like Pound, he was a translator. And from his knowledge, building on some Victorian and early twentieth-century precedents, he composed a sprawling fantastic romance about an all-powerful Ring, which was set in a meticulously thought-out secondary world based on a fictional history he had constructed in order to explain languages he had invented–for fun.
So he did fulfill Pound’s Chinese maxim, although the most unique part of his work was most likely his prose, instead of his poetry.
Michael Drout’s presentation of Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf capped the evening, and what a memorable talk it was! Drout is an editor for The Tolkien Encyclopedia and even helped edit the edition of Beowulf in question, which includes the Tolkien short story “Sellic Spell” (O.E. for “Happy Story”). Drout has been credited with “discovering” the Beowulf translation, but maintains that Christopher Tolkien had donated the translation a long time ago to the Bodlein Library–Drout simply helped make the material available to a readership, among his other editorial duties.
Tolkien’s translation is a perfect example of his ability to write in the style of the Anglo-Saxons. However, his beautiful alliterative verse translation of Beowulf was omitted from the published text, so what readers are presented with is his prose. In return, explained Drout, the reader gets a precise prose translation of the Old English according to how Tolkien interpreted it; you will see Hrothgar’s vassals called “knights,” for example. Although leather and chainmail does not fit our Victorian image of the knight in shining, plate-steel armour, it is technically the correct term.
Tolkien originally did not wish for his Beowulf to be published, but it is available anyway. Christopher Tolkien’s comments on the text are invaluable, however, and give you an idea about how the author’s mind worked. He was nothing short of genius. For instance, he argued against the translation of the Old English term for “whale-road,” arguing that it could not have referred to a whale precisely, but to a species related to the porpoise that lived in those times in the North. “Dolphin’s riding,” is Tolkien’s sarcastic suggestion.
Tolkien also interpreted the metonymic use of the word “point” to mean “sword” as incorrect. In the passage in question, Beowulf is wrapped in the coils of Grendel’s mother. In a most lively manner, Drout acted out Beowulf’s situation during his presentation using a wooden sword, demonstrating that the only way for Beowulf to escape the death grip was to stab his foe with the point (a.k.a. tip) of the sword.
So deep was Tolkien’s knowledge of Beowulf that he argued the characters in Heorot–like Hrothgar and Unferth–belonged to a cycle of heroic poems similar to the medieval romances of Arthur and his knights. Without any evidence whatsoever, Tolkien believed he was right. No scholar of the present age would dare make such extravagant claims today. The absence of historical documents did not faze him, with the result that “Sellic Spell” is his own story, written by him, which is supposed to be a translation of what the original source text of Beowulf would have been like–making it, if Tolkien was miraculously correct, the oldest story in English, even older than the actual oldest story in English. And, of course, he translated “Sellic Spell” into Old English!
Tolkien’s genius enabled him to have the confidence–perhaps warranted, perhaps not–to commit what in today’s terms would perhaps be called crimes of historical fantasy. But we forgive him for it because he was so good. Tolkien may not have been a Modernist, but he was exceptionally good at being the precise antithesis of a Modernist. He was so at the service of those older texts that he believed his original work to belong to the tradition of Old English rather than to the modern tradition.
What if dragons and their riders formed their own corps of soldiers adjacent to the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars? You get Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, the first novel of which, His Majesty’s Dragon, I have just finished reading on my Kobo.
William Laurence, a Royal Navy captain engaged in the Napoleonic Wars, captures a French ship bearing unusual cargo: a dragon’s egg. When it hatches, the creature accepts Laurence as his master, changing the captain’s life forever. Laurence names the dragon Temeraire, thinking of the name of a British ship. ‘Temeraire’ means ‘bold,’ ‘reckless,’ ‘dauntless,’ and is the sort of name a navy man without experience in the Aerial Corps would bestow.
Here you see the real originality of Novik’s world: Temeraire is named after a ship, hinting that dragons take the place of ships in this alternate nineteenth-century universe. Lawrence does not become the sole, independent rider of a dragon but the captain of a dragonback crew. Temeraire truly becomes one of His Majesty’s dragons, flying alongside His Majesty’s ships, which are trying to prevent the transports for Napoleon’s army from crossing the Channel.
Laurence initially loathes the idea of becoming a member of the Aerial Corps. However, he sees that he has no choice but to join, given his profound sense of duty. It means he must forsake his promising Navy career. He will also never be able to enjoy social functions, since those in the Corps live in isolation due to the nature of their duty and are even looked upon as social outcasts. Lawrence must furthermore lose the hand of a woman he has never formally courted.
But as Temeraire grows in size from a hatchling, so does Laurence’s bond with him. Soon he learns to favour the company of his dragon over that of human society. He learns to accept his lot as Corps captain.
Mix Master and Commander with Eragon and you might think you have a good idea of Novik’s concept for this historical fantasy world. But the truth is more complicated than that; dragons are an analogue for warships and function alongside the Navy. This element of fantasy shows how similar an exchange of broadsides in a naval engagement is to dragon fire.
I was uncertain what to expect wading into His Majesty’s Dragon, but I was pleasantly surprised. The prose style alone is remarkable; Novik uses polite semicolons to render her dialogue and style into the period cadence. Temeraire is about as polite in his speech as dragons come; he is the sort of dragon to whom you could read an Isaac Newton treatise over a cup of earl grey. Temeraire is also special for another reason, an unusual feature of his that makes him feel different from other dragons. But that I leave readers to discover.
The first chapters of His Majesty’s Dragon set off at a roaring start. It was a pleasure to not only learn about the biological aspects of dragons and their military uses, but the social consequences of humans who associate themselves with the creatures. Although the middle sags, when Laurence and Temeraire must train for war and get to know about life in the Corps, it picks up at the end and introduces the sequel around a promising premise. I was personally hoping that premise would get addressed in His Majesty’s Dragon, but I suppose I would have to buy Throne of Jade to find how it plays out.
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.
The sequel to John Crowley’s Aegypt (The Solitudes), Love & Sleep continues the story of Pierce Moffet’s quest to write his history of histories, a book that in which he will propose that there is more than one history of the world.
He must decide what to do with the posthumous, unfinished manuscript of historical novelist Fellowes Kraft. The novel still sits at the famed writer’s office desk, a book that Pierce believes his entire past has prepared him to find.
I feel that my labour over the last several years has prepared me to read Crowley’s Love & Sleep. Researching the philosopher Giordano Bruno and studying the life of John Dee for my historical novel Intelligence has given me the tools I need to appreciate Crowley’s series in a way I would not have otherwise. It is like Pierce and I are mirrors of each other. I can only hope to impart some of my awe-inspired appreciation of this novel’s beauty to my readers.
If you are looking for an Appalachian novel (that’s right, there are hillbillies) that includes not only a parallel story set in England during Elizabethan age, but also an account of small town life during the 1970s New Age movement, and, among other antique delights, an alchemist’s allegorical romance, then you have no other choice than to read Love & Sleep, because there is no other novel that offers those elements in conjunction, trust me.
In 1952, when he is still a boy, Pierce accidentally sets a forest on fire while burning a trash heap at his uncle’s house. This fire links his life to that of a mountain girl, who he comes to shelter from her abusive mother, their babysitter for the summer. With his cousins, he makes a secret club called the Invisible College, which swears to protect her. By the end of the summer, Pierce loses his innocence and makes the fall towards adulthood.
Switch around the numbers of this fateful year buried deep in Pierce’s past, and you get 1592, the year the Inquisition arrested the heretic Giordano Bruno in Venice.
Suddenly the story switches from the past to the historical past, and we see, as if from an excerpt of Fellowes Kraft’s masterpiece, Giordano Bruno, the philosopher who wishes to announce a new age of the earth, arriving at the Elizabethan court during the 80s–the 1580s, that is.
Thrown out of Oxford as a lecturer for his controversial Copernican ideas, which not only postulate the sun as center of the solar system, but imply there is no center of the universe itself, Bruno seems destined to meet the other great polymath of the age, John Dee. Sworn to an occult quest with his companion Edward Kelley, Dee comes under the spell of the angel Madimi, who appears as a seven-year-old girl to Kelley, his scrier, in a seeing-stone. Their devotion to finding out the secrets of the universe from the angels will take them to Prague, and the Holy Roman Emperor Emperor Rudolph II’s court, where an ailing Emperor is searching for the Work.
In the 1970s, the adult Pierce is without driver’s license, labouring to compile a book for his agent. It will tell the history of histories, arguing that the world has not always been what it has since become. History can be divided into cycles, where different ideas and philosophies of defining reality come and eventually go, in sudden paradigm shifts that leave those in the present looking back wondering. In the new age, the future is different too and the past is no longer the same past. The late sixteenth century, a time of religious strife and warfare and desperate uncertainty, was one age of transition, an time that saw the abandoning of magical ways of thinking and the rise modern science. Though gemstones and amulets in the old world may have been able to cure sickness or even sink the Spanish Armada, in this world, the world we live in, their powers are lost.
The 1970s is another age of transition. Modernity finds itself struggling with its own liberation from the past. All the presumably dubious developments of the New Age movement–climacterics, astrology, miracle cures, auras–find a fresh popularity. However, this New Age is not new in any sense, for these alternative sciences were standard fare in the Renaissance.
While Pierce labours under the debilitating pall of melancholy, a medieval disease afflicting academics, in the picturesque New York State town of Blackbury Jambs, old Boney Rasmussen is after the secret for immortal life. Kraft’s only real friend, Boney is obsessed with using the resources of the Rasmussen Foundation to locate an object of exceptional value. A Holy Grail, a Philosopher’s Stone of sorts, it is also, perhaps, the one thing Pierce needs in order to tie his project together: an object that has maintained its magical virtue from the passing of one age to the other. It could be a powder, a crystal, a stone, a liquid–anything. But it could be anywhere–or everywhere.
While the premise of Love & Sleep sounds like it appeals to those interested in yet another Illuminati thriller of the Dan Brown tradition, Crowley’s mastery as a novelist sets him in a higher sphere. I rank him among the great literary novelists. His style is so rich and multi-layered, every scene and image finding layers of allegorical or symbolic meaning whether through coincidence, conjunction, or parallels with the sixteenth century, that you cannot read Love & Sleep fast, but contemplatively, tasting the implications of each sentence.
Life moves in the quiet rhythms of rural life. Any big, celestial revelations which mark the shocking but cheap ends of scenes in The DaVinci Code do not draw cries of exclamation in Love & Sleep, so much as produce smooth ripples on the surface. Crowley’s style is fluid, the dialogue realistic; how he captures the stilted feel of real conversations is a magic in itself. I cannot fathom his process of plotting these books or how he plans them at all, but somehow, every note is there, each scene a verse of poetry.
I find myself nodding in recognition at all the things the characters notice in their world, things as ordinary as the pink bubblegum medicine Rosie Rasmussen gives her daughter Sam to cure her earache and the joy of what it’s like to sit in bed and pull down an encyclopedia on magical phenomena to read an entry on werewolves. Pierce takes such a book down when he was young, called A Dictionary of Deities, Devils and Daemons of Mankind, by Alexis Payne de St.-Phalle. (Whose name, by the way, is hilarious.) For me, this book was The Sorcerer’s Companion: A Guide to the Magical Worlds of Harry Potter. While the latter book led me to an interest in the Philosopher’s Stone, and then eventually to my novel Intelligence, Pierce’s Dictionary leads him to discover the land of Aegypt. And I think that John Crowley’s Aegypt sequence will form the inspiration for my Master’s thesis.
Love & Sleep is impossible to faithfully sum up in so short a space, but I have done the best I can to explain how astonishing it is. It goes far beyond typical historical fantasy, into the realms of magic realism and literary fiction, yet it never drops the ball on historical fantasy. Aegypt shows how ‘Fallen’ modern humanity can nonetheless glimpse another world that once existed, a world entirely separate from our own shopping mall-ridden, consumerist, parking lot-favouring, entertaining-ourselves-to-death, hyperreal, media-saturated society, a world that was just as much of a fluke as ours is today, to gently paraphrase Brian Attebery. John Crowley weaves a story that stands apart from every other novel I know, accomplishing what many writers of the fantastic have only attempted to do: he shows the mythic resonances of our own twenty-first century lives.
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 Slaughteris 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.
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.
In Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tiganaand John Crowley’s Love and Sleep,part of his Aegyptsequence, 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.
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).
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.
Image Credits/Works Cited:
Crowley, John. Love and Sleep. New York: Bantam, 1994.