Elizabethan England’s most celebrated poet and playwright, in underground kind of way, was Christopher Marlowe, although he was soon eclipsed by Mr. Will Shakespeare, whose popular plays would define the mainstream for centuries to come. It was the 90s. The 1590s to be precise. Marlowe was at the height of his powers, writing the politically subversive and experimental poetry that would come to define his generation. Doctor Faustus, for instance, would stand the test of centuries as a profound representation of Renaissance humanism.
Many have tried to label Marlowe. Attaining his MA at Cambridge, he was a member of a generation of college wits. The civil service was not large enough to accommodate the young poets of London, so they turned to more edgy professions, like poetry.
Poet, playwright, spy, homosexual, Catholic, atheist: even if the labels didn’t make any sense, they stuck. Marlowe’s response? Haters gonna hate.
Here are five reasons why Marlowe was basically a hipster:
1. He avoided all labels.
Although Edward II depicts the homosexual relationship between a king and his favourite courtier (fun fact: Edward II is Longshanks’ son in Braveheart), Marlowe cannot be outed of the closet based on textual evidence alone. In a similar way, scholars have argued about whether Doctor Faustus celebrates or a condemns Renaissance humanism and the pursuit of scientific knowledge–they have to settle on seeing the play as expressing a paradox. Neither can they determine with absolute certainty whether he was an atheist, or for that matter, a closet Catholic. You can’t pin Marlowe down or place him in any particular intellectual camp–being classified would make him way too mainstream.
2. He was over-educated and underemployed.
Sound familiar? Like a certain generation of young, college- and university-aged people today (such as yours truly), he had no money unless he sought patronage. Furthermore, his education in classical literature went nowhere towards finding him a job. He couldn’t just be a cobbler like his father, Mr. John Marlowe. Way too mainstream. Instead, the only way Marlowe was able to get his MA was by serving in Her Majesty’s Secret Service–such as it existed back then. Marlowe was sent to France to spy on Catholics for Elizabeth I, or at least that’s what scholars have argued. If only that was all you had to do today: become James Bond for a while and then bang! your degree is conferred, your tuition paid. (I’ll stop dreaming about it now.)
3. He was into retro.
Marlowe painstakingly tried to bring back the first-century Roman poet Ovid. Although he was not alone in reviving interest in Ovid’s poetry, most people came to know Ovid only in grammar school textbooks. Marlowe remixed a collection of Ovid’s poems, the Elegies, by translating them into English verse. Then he brought Ovid to popular audiences by writing highly pretentious allusions to Ovid’s Metamorphoses into his plays. I don’t suppose you’d understand the reference, but…
4. He was unappreciated as an artist for centuries.
Marlowe’s art was so ahead of his time that his seventeenth- and eighteenth-century readers devalued him as only a necessary precursor to the Bard–John the Baptist to Shakespeare’s Christ. Well, the Romantics reappraised him after almost 200 years and his works, which explore tyranny and the dark side of politics, had new resonance in the twentieth century. Like Vincent Van Gogh, the archetypical unappreciated artist, the genius in Marlowe only became relevant after his death.
5. He wrote in blank verse before it was cool.
Rhymes were way too fashionable. Not to mention, they were just distasteful. I mean really. His contemporaries were infatuated with couplets, Spenserian stanzas, and rime royal. Marlowe was one of the first to realize that rhymes were overrated. Iambic pentameter blank verse in English, so characteristic of Shakespeare’s great dramatic speeches, was actually pioneered by his more underground predecessor. Unfortunately, Shakespeare is given all the cred for this. What everyone should come to realize is that Marlowe was not some kind of mindless trend follower; he started one of the greatest poetic trends in English literature, thank you very much.
An elimination is a poetic form where you don’t write the words. You erase them.
Take any stanza or paragraph with a rich, evocative vocabulary. I for example chose a few pages from James Frazer’s classic work of anthropology The Golden Bough. Any other kind of text can fit just as well as any other–the crazier or more meaningful, the better. Take something written by your favourite author or poet, or even an ad, if the text is to your liking. Any well-textured bit of literature you can find.
Either mentally or with a writing stylus–pen or pencil–underline individual words and punctuation marks. In order, write each underlined word down on a separate paper or another document file. You may also–if you so wish–take the via negativa: scratch out the words you don’t need.
See, you are now constructing a parallel text that has been buried within the original. You are using the author’s own words to construct your expression. This is called an elimination.
An elimination is a great way to break your inertia if you have writer’s block. It is also a fascinating exercise in how you can wittily reshape what someone else has said to fit your own agenda. Maybe this is as close a poet ever comes to becoming a politician.
Here you can find my own elimination of the first page of The Golden Bough, an epic of classical anthropology. I have reproduced the first two paragraphs of text of Frazer’s work for the purposes of demonstration:
“WHO does not know Turner’s picture of the Golden Bough? The scene, suffused with the golden glow of imagination in which the divine mind of Turner steeped and transfigured even the fairest natural landscape, is[in] a dream-like vision of the little woodland lake of Nemi—“Diana’s Mirror,” as it was called by the ancients. No one who has seen that calm water, lapped in a green hollow of the Alban hills, can ever forget it. The two characteristic Italian villages which slumber on its banks, and the equally Italian palace whose terraced gardens descend steeply to the lake, hardly break the stillness and even the solitariness of the scene. Diana herself might still linger by this lonely shore, still haunt these woodlands wild.
In antiquity this sylvan landscape was the scene of a strange and recurring tragedy. On the northern shore of the lake, right under the precipitous cliffs on which the modern village of Nemi is perched, stood the sacred grove and sanctuary of Diana Nemorensis, or Diana of the Wood. The lake and the grove were sometimes known as the lake and grove of Aricia. But the town of Aricia (the modern La Riccia) was situated about three miles off, at the foot of the Alban Mount, and separated by a steep descent from the lake, which lies in a small crater-like hollow on the mountain side. In this sacred grove there grew a certain tree round which at any time of the day, and probably far into the night, a grim figure might be seen to prowl. In his hand he carried[s] a drawn sword, and he kept peering warily about him as if at
every instant he expected to be set upon by an enemy. He was a priest and a murderer; and the man for whom he looked was sooner or later to murder him and hold the priesthood in his stead. Such was the rule of the sanctuary. A candidate for the priesthood could only succeed to office by slaying the priest, and having slain him, he retained office till he was himself slain by a stronger or a craftier.”
Notice that I occasionally fix the tense of some verbs and make adjustments to minor words like ‘in.’ This is all I’ve allowed myself. Aside from a few added commas, every word and punctuation mark is in the same order as Frazer wrote it:
“Golden Bough Elimination: King of the Wood”
Know the scene. The golden imagination
steeped in a dream-like woodland lake.
Ancients in a green hollow forget characteristic
terraced gardens, break solitariness, linger, still haunt
this sylvan landscape. Tragedy on the lake
under the cliffs, perched. Sacred Diana of the town,
at the foot of the lake. On a certain time of day,
a grim figure carries a sword, and, warily,
a priest and a murderer
hold office till slain.
I have been a bit cowardly in my use of the form; I have transplanted many of Frazer’s original phrases into my own poem. The best eliminations carry the spirit of the primary text to an extent, but spin the author’s own words into entirely new, unlikely directions. The result is an uncanny effect where the author speaks vicariously through you. You can can link words together that the author has thought best to keep apart, in order to find mysterious hidden meanings; manipulate language to make the author’s words disagree with him- or herself; or, take the words of a prophet and spin them into something wild.
A poet may choose to hide their source text from the reader, although in my case, I chose not to, since I wanted readers to feel the significance that The Golden Bough might have for them.
I find that this technique is most visible in its effects when the text itself is well-known, like the first page of Moby-Dick or Hamlet’s soliloquy. Try eliminating a famous text such as these as an exercise.
Eliminations are like the excavation of a hidden message in the sands of language. They’re especially uncanny when you eliminate the words of a well-known historical figure, written during a particular, defining historical moment. What happens when you cut out words from Herodotus? From Martin Luther’s Theses? From Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech? The past can speak with a new voice to us, even though, paradoxically, it uses the same words as it has always used. In a way, eliminations have the potential to construct strange ‘historical fantasies,’ alternate realities where the words of history and literature stand in the same order but are changed in their very substance into new meanings and forms–with a few simple nicks of a pen.
Embedding myself in the novels and poetry of Michael Ondaatje this semester in an MA seminar taught by Prof. Robert Lecker, I could not help but notice the similarity between the thematic/artistic concerns of the author of The English Patient and Guy Gavriel Kay. Both are great writers and both are Canadian. Upon first glance, this might be where their similarities end. Ondaatje has written postmodern poetry and literary fiction that merges with autobiography, while Kay writes mainly historical fantasy, although he does have one book of poetry, Beyond this Dark House. On closer inspection, they both have similar obsessions. I could possibly write a whole thesis on their similarities and differences, but why write a huge paper when I can just turn out a blog post?
Both of these authors leave me in awe at their poetic prose style and the infinite care and research that goes into their novels. They’re also two writers whose collected works I’ve come close to reading in full–by the end of the semester, I’ll have Ondaatje’s novels and much of his poetry under my belt, and I’ve already read all of Kay’s books. It’s about time we set them side by side and imagine them in conversation–perhaps at a round table debating art, history, and the life of the artist over drams of scotch (I hear Kay, at least, knows a thing or two about the latter).
Scotch night update. Lagavulin 16, unsurprisingly, the blind taste winner, & many called it for what it was.
Without further ado, here are the 6 similarities between Michael Ondaatje and Guy Gavriel Kay:
1. They both use the same John Berger epigraph.
At the end of Ysabel, Guy Gavriel Kay uses the same epigraph by John Berger that Michael Ondaatje uses at the beginning of In the Skin of a Lion: “Never again will a single story be told as if it is the only one.” Fittingly, the fact that both authors employ the same epigraph confirms what the epigraph itself implies. Both novels also happen to borrow from myth–Ysabel from Celtic myth generally, and In the Skin of a Lion from The Epic of Gilgamesh. (The title alludes to a particular line in that ancient narrative poem.)
2. One is a poet-turned novelist and the other a novelist-turned poet.
Ondaatje began his career writing poetry, from early works like The Dainty Monsters and the man with seven toes, to his more mature confessional poems in Secular Love. While writing poetry, he slowly made the transition into the form of the novel. He eventually became hugely famous for writing The English Patient, a novel that was made into an Academy Award winning movie.
Guy Gavriel Kay is chiefly a novelist, although he intersperses poetry when a particular character, usually a poet, has the occasion to write a few lines. My favourite examples of such poetry come from the Chinese-inspired poems in River of Stars and Under Heaven. He has also published a nice volume of poetry called Beyond this Dark House.
3. They are both interested in where the mythic intersects with the personal.
In The Lions of Al-Rassan, the relationships between Ammar ibn Khairan, Rodrigo Belmonte, and Jehanne bet Ishak–which includes both romantic love and friendship–are between three legendary individuals. Rodrigo, for example, represents a figure similar to El Cid, the national hero of Spain. Kay shows how public duty places demands on each of these figures in such a way that it conflicts with their personal friendships. The result is sublime, believable art. Describing how five University of Toronto students deal with a new mythic world in The Fionavar Tapestry might be Kay’s quintessential exploration of the mythic-personal conflict, although I must say his treatment of such themes in Ysabel is more effective.
Ondaatje’s early poetry in The Dainty Monsters was intensely interested in the intersection between myth and one’s personal life: the section of the book entitled “Troy Town” attests to this, particularly the Trojan War poem “O Troy’s Down: Helen’s Song.” When he began to write novels, he did not abandon this interest. Coming Through Slaughter treats the myth behind jazz legend Buddy Bolden, who went mad playing the cornet during a New Orleans parade. He writes intimate, sensual scenes of Bolden’s personal life that also imagine the possible cause of his madness–the archetypal downfall of substance-abusing musicians. Furthermore, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid deals with the myth of the titular outlaw, made famous from nineteenth-century penny dreadfuls.
4. They are both obsessed with the figure of the outlaw.
Ondaatje’s first published novel was also an experiment in poetry. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid opens with the frame of an absent photo of Billy, and implies that the reader will have to assemble an image of this mythic character themselves. They are to do this extrapolating from the fragments revealed in Ondaatje’s multi-genre collage. This is outlaw poetry, and poetry about an outlaw. As well as being intensely violent and precise in its imagery and diction, The Collected Works reveals the obsession of an author trying to excavate an American celebrity about whom no one seems to have a full picture.
Guy Gavriel Kay finds his Billy the Kid in the figure of Yue Fei, a Chinese hero. In River of Stars, Kay writes the story of Ren Daiyan, who is a fictitious analogue for Yue Fei. An expert bowman who wishes to restore the glory of the Empire of Kitai, Ren ambushes representatives of the Prime Minister’s oppressive Flowers and Rocks Network, which is exploiting the empire’s starving poor. Kay speculates on the origins of a Chinese national legend through the figure of Ren, who eventually becomes a General fighting for the Emperor–a movement from the peripheries of society to the center that may lead to disaster (as it often does in Kay’s novels). The intricate attention Kay pays to how Ren’s story becomes legend attests to his obsession with Yue Fei.
5. They both wrote novels that explore the life of an original and mysterious artist.
In addition to the outlaw, Kay and Ondaatje are obsessed by the figure of the artist. Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter is about Buddy Bolden, who many believe to be the originator of jazz itself. Jazz is also a metaphor for Ondaatje’s own style. Taking documentary evidence of Bolden’s life as a starting point, Ondaatje improvises the narrative of Bolden’s life in a way that mimics the solos of a jazz musician. Ondaatje strongly identifies with Bolden, at one point stating, “When he went mad he was the same age as I am now” (134). Coming Through Slaughter stands as perhaps the greatest jazz novel ever written.
Although Kay is less personally invested in the artist Caius Crispus from his Sarantine Mosaic duotrope, he still connects Crispin to an artwork in real life that fascinated him. A mosaicist, Crispin becomes the employee of Emperor Valerius and charged with the creation of a massive mosaic to cover the inner dome of his Sanctuary of Holy Wisdom. This project is analogous to the decoration of the dome of Hagia Sophia in modern-day Istanbul, during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. Can an artist produce a work that can survive the times in which he was born? Is it possible to create a monument that will stand for eternity? While Crispin’s mosaic is designed to withstand political tribulations, Bolden’s jazz is deliberately ephemeral. Yet both forms of art continue to inspire.
6. They each use a different strategy to depict the personal lives of historical characters.
Regarding this issue, Kay explicitly links his novels to Ondaatje’s. Do historical characters deserve privacy? What about living characters? Is it more ethical for a novelist to speculate on the intimate life of Elizabeth II, or Elizabeth I?
In his speech “Home and Away,” Kay describes the rationale for his particular approach to historical fantasy–writing narratives set in locales that invoke historical milieus but do not actually refer to such milieus. In this way, Byzantine Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora become Sarantine Emperor Valerius and Empress Alixana. At one point, he compares his problem of blending the historical and the personal to the ethics of Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient:
And then there are the moral questions. These emerge most strongly when we consider that ‘history’ isn’t just about the distant past. Consider the works that involve real people – living or recently dead – saying and doing things the author has simply made up. There is no way to know if such scenes are true, indeed, put more strongly, there is almost no way that they are true. Does this matter? Should it?
The examples are legion. We look at the real people interwoven with fictional ones in Doctorow’s Ragtime, we consider J.D. Salinger as a character in Shoeless Joe (and pass over a more recent tell-all about Salinger which purports to be non-fiction), we pause before the controversy regarding Michael Ondaatje’s creative ‘invention’ of a life and personality and death for a very real person: Count Almasy in The English Patient. […]
The question – or one question – seems to me to be this: are there limits, or ought there to be limits, to what writers of fiction feel at liberty to do with real people and their lives? Does anything go, in fiction as in Cole Porter songs? Ondaatje, in a spirited defence last year against attacks in the Washington Post, pointed out that we’d lose Shakespeare’s Richard III if we introduced constraints to the free treatment of real people in art. A grievous, appalling loss.
Kay’s strategy to deal with this moral problem is to present his work as entirely fictional. This extra level of removal acts as a humble admission that he does not know what historical characters truly thought during the time they were alive, or what they felt. It also enables him to weave a mythically structured plot that true history, being filled with random events, does not always permit.
Ondaatje’s strategy is entirely different from Kay’s, and yet achieves a similar effect, in one respect. He purports to show you Buddy Bolden or Billy the Kid in their most intimate moments. But rather than presenting a straightforward plot, he presents a fragmented, disunified story from different voices and witnesses. Readers must suture the gaps between various scenes with narratives of their own. It is a style that lets the reader participate in the creation of Bolden and Billy.
Furthermore, Ondaatje makes clear in Coming Through Slaughter that his goal is not the mimesis of a historical subject–that is, the reproduction of a historical reality–but a more jazzed-up combination of fact and fiction. This kind of art serves as a mirror to his own self. “The photograph moves and becomes a mirror,” states Ondaatje, illustrating the transformation of one of the only surviving photos of Bolden. Bolden reflects Ondaatje’s own psyche; the two inhabit each other. His improvised history of Bolden says less about a historical referent that it does about Ondaatje’s idea of the self-destructive artist.
Kay’s secondary worlds are also mirrors–although they are less personal to the author and more like mirrors to history. The patterns of history reflected in novels like Tigana and The Lions of Al-Rassan continue to map onto events in the modern world–wherever national or linguistic heritages are being erased or competing religions wage endless wars against each other. This gives Kay’s novels, according to sometime Michael Ondaatje scholar Douglas Barbour, “the kind of escape that brings you home.”
In conclusion, I will state boldly that Kay’s novels are a ‘historical fantasy’ reaction to many of the ethical problems and artistic interests that concern Ondaatje as a writer. Together, these two authors share something more than a Canadian citizenship; they are two kindred spirits writing from two very different, yet nonetheless related, artistic philosophies.
Two weeks ago, my seminar class on Michael Ondaatje got together to put on a fantastic presentation for Professor Robert Lecker. We were reading Ondaatje’s poem “Tin Roof” and instead of writing a four-page essay response, which we are supposed to do every week, Prof. Lecker told us to go do something as a group. Usually seminar students see each other in class, exchange pleasantries and ideas, and then go their separate ways without really learning about each other. The challenge was to buck the trend and surprise the prof with something we’d all organized.
We ended up agreeing to perform a tableaux, set in a bar, where we would each say a monologue that would be our existential response to the poem. We each chose a couple of lines from “Tin Roof” that inspired us. After we had written the poems/monologues over the weekend, we met on Monday to order them and come up with a strategy to put on the presentation. Various people brought in curtain drapes, candles, wine glasses, beer, wine, and whiskey. Then on the day of, we arranged the classroom into the bar setting and presented ourselves to Prof. Lecker, our audience of one, who we decked out in a Hawaiian lei.
Ondaatje wrote “Tin Roof” after suffering a divorce and period of silence in his writing career. He retreated to fellow poet Phyllis Webb’s cabin in Hawaii, the location where his confessional poem is set. The poem confronts despair and the violence of the poet’s existential anxieties, as he drowns in self-doubt and self-questioning, trying to seek a new foundation for his writing. The poem begins with the poet’s quest for “the solution” and ends with his realization,
I wanted poetry to be walnuts
in their green cases
but now it is the sea
and we let it drown us,
and we fly to it released
by giant catapults
of pain loneliness deceit and vanity.
The following is my personal monologue. I borrow lines from “Tin Roof” and some from other poems, such as “‘The gate in his head.'” I focus on the image of the gecko that the speaker of “Tin Roof” finds on his glass window–an image of voyeurism, the threshold between public and private lives, and a objective correlative that Ondaatje uses with some irony to critique the modernist value of impersonality.
I loved the fantastical image of this gecko turning invisible and how the gecko might have become a ghost briefly in the “Tin Roof.” Since large part of his work concerns the blurring of barriers between fiction and fact, Ondaatje is a writer who should be of interest to those intrigued by historical fantasties. I hope to include future posts about Michael Ondaatje as this seminar continues.
Prof. Lecker, who has these kinds of connections, has said he will present Ondaatje’s assistant with a copy of our monologues–which means with any luck, Ondaatje will read them himself and maybe even write back. We’ll see…
Gwendolyn MacEwen’s historical novel King of Egypt, King of Dreams was published in 1971 and as far as I know, it is out of print-except by online order from Insomniac Press. Nonetheless I am fascinated to review it, because it stands as a powerful testimony to the tragedy of those who own a unique, transcendent vision of the universe, when faced by the demands and adversity of a society that has rejected them. This description can be applied to Akhenaton, the pharaoh known as “the Criminal” who forms the center of MacEwen’s novel, and to MacEwen herself.
Rosemary Sullivan’s biography of MacEwen, Shadow Maker, tells about how the poet died of alcohol poisoning in a suspected suicide in 1987. Part of her despair sprung from her depression at the failure of her audience to bring her the success she had hoped for. Although she anticipated that her vast research into ancient Egypt, while on a Canada Council grant in Cairo, would result in a historical novel that would make her financially independent, King of Egypt, King of Dreams was greeted with a poor reception.
Perhaps this was because she had difficulty adopting to the form of the novel. MacEwen was primarily a poet. She could not make the transition from poetry to novel that Michael Ondaatje made with The English Patient and Coming Through Slaughter. By the 1980s, the period that Joel Deshaye in The Metaphor of Celebrity calls the “era of celebrity” in Canadian poetry was at a close; the novel was now the dominant form.
MacEwen’s vision of the poet as a magician did not successfully make the transition into the world of the novel. However, King of Egypt, King of Dreams testifies to the uniqueness of her vision. The story of Akhenaton becomes replicated in some ways in MacEwen’s own life–at least, it is tempting to see it that way. As the landscape of genre in Canadian literature did not accommodate her writing, changing times undid the visionary pharaoh Akhenaton.
Akhenaton begins life as the sickly son of the powerful, but aging, Pharaoh–the living god, Amenhotep. Greatly disappointed in his offspring, the god regards his son with anger and bitterness, causing Akhenaton to be terrified of him and develop a stutter. But after his father’s death, a new, golden man arises from the frail body of his former self.
It is not long before Akhenaton shakes up the court with his new religious vision–monotheism. He believes that there is no god but the Aton, who is lord of all that the sun’s disk surrounds. The names of all the other gods, he orders erased from inscriptions. Wherever a god’s name is recorded on the tombs and temples of the land, it is to be destroyed. Those who refuse him or challenge his judgment encounter the uncanny look of his gaze–but do his eyes reveal divinity, or madness?
Although MacEwen seems to treat Akhenaton as an example of the suffering visionary, a position with which she was no doubt in sympathy, his monotheistic religion leads to the collapse of his empire. MacEwen’s poetic career testifies to a belief the harmony found in oppositions, a more pluralist philosophy that is at odds with the Pharaoh’s conception of a single god. One man who is close to the king, and yet is distant enough from him to see how he angers his subjects, is Akhenaton’s servant It Neter Ay, the Father of Horse. From his perspective, we see Pharaoh ignore the rebellion of his empire’s tributary states, name his would-be assassin a high priest, and found the temples that he hopes will serve as testament to the glory of his god.
MacEwen’s writing style is particular and with a texture distinct from contemporary historical novelists. She writes in a poetic style that has a curious combination of mysticism and humour. Justifying her approach, she quotes from Guillaume Ferrero’s Les Lois Psychologiques:
“It is a very common belief that the further man is separated from the present in time, the more he differs from us in his thoughts and feelings; that the psychology of humanity changes from century to century like fashions or literature. […] And indeed, man does not change so quickly; his psychology at bottom remains the same.”
Occasionally the dialogue, thoughts, and actions of Akhenaton, It Neter Ay, and the king’s wife, Nefertiti, might appear peculiarly modern, but MacEwen always roots their characters firmly in the cultural milieu of ancient Egypt. One example of the mundane in the ancient past, is the casual, realist description of Ay slicing a cucumber while he ponders what Akhenaton’s ‘true nature’ is. This attitude of continuity with the past might demonstrate MacEwen’s own self-identification with these historical characters–Nefertiti’s kohl-painted eyelids are not so different from MacEwen’s, who was famous for appearing like an Egyptian at Toronto poetry readings.
Like the historical fantasies of Guy Gavriel Kay, there is but a sprinkling of the fantastic in King of Egypt, King of Dreams–but it is enough that it can be considered a historical fantasy, if Akhenaton’s divinity and the glowing presence of his body is read literally.
Together with her T.E. Lawrence Poems, this novel is also the consummation of MacEwen’s lifelong interest in the Middle East’s history and its mystery. It is also a psychologically and intellectually invested accomplishment, in which she confronts questions about visionary experience that define her career–and its untimely end.
The following is an excerpt from the presentation I made earlier this week for my seminar on (Post)Colonial Geographies with Professor Sandeep Banerjee at McGill University.
The young protagonist of Salman Rushdie’s children’s fantasy novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories asks his father Rashid Khalifa, a great storyteller better known as the Shah of Blah, or the Ocean of Notions,“What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?” (22) Upon being asked this question Rashid falls silent and finds “he had run out of stories to tell” (22).
So begins Haroun’s great quest to restore his father’s gift for storytelling, a journey that will take him all the way to the Sea of Stories, which is being poisoned by a dark lord named Khattam-Shud, “the Arch-Enemy of all Stories, even of Language itself” (79). On the way, Haroun meets an array of quirky characters who become his allies, including Iff the water genie and Butt the hoopoe bird (who don’t tolerate Ifs or Buts!). Haroun flies to Kahani, an invisible moon that shadows the visible one. There he travels the Sea of Stories to Gup City, capital of a kingdom of story-loving blabbermouths on Kahani who are at war against the Chupwalas, or “quiet fellows” (215), led by Khattam-Shud. He must help the kingdom rescue the princess Batcheat from the dark side of the planet, where the Chupwalas are poisoning the Streams of Story.
The Sea of Stories is a representation of intertextuality and the war between Gups and Chups is a battle over that initial question: “What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?” (22). While the Chups are represented as bureaucratic functionaries interested in utility instead of fables, the Gups are defenders of the Sea. In TheEncyclopedia of Fantasy, John Clute writes an entry devoted exclusively to the idea of an Ocean of Story. Somadeva, a Kashmiri poet, collected various stories in the eleventh century in the Katha Sarit Sagara—“a kind of encyclopedia of story types” (704). The English translation by Norman Penzer is the ten-volume anthology The Ocean of Story (1924-8). Like The Arabian Nights, The Ocean of Story influenced Rushdie. Clute takes the notion of the “Ocean of Story” to refer “to the current critical understanding that almost every traditional STORY exists in multiple versions; that it is exceedingly difficult to sort these versions into chaste stemmata” (704). Stories interpenetrate each other in patterns that defy linearity. Rushdie describes this effectively in his description of the Sea of the Streams of Story:
“it was made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different colour, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity; and Iff explained that these were the Streams of Story, that each coloured strand represented and contained a single tale. […] the Ocean of the Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves […] It was not dead but alive” (72).
The Sea is an intertextual body of water. However, when the Chups, who disbelieve in the utility of Story, poison the Sea, these Streams of Stories, about rescued princesses, for example, become scrambled and filled with horrors, until they are meaningless. Haroun’s mission is to stop the poison and let the Sea replenish itself.
Haroun and the Sea of Stories opens in Rashid and Haroun’s home in the Valley of K, in a “sad city, the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name” (15). Rashid mentions that the Valley of K used to be called “Kosh-Mar,” which is from the language of “Franj, which is no longer spoken in these parts” (40). A cauchemar in French is a nightmare, but it also sounds like câche-mer, or “the place that hides a Sea” (40). This nightmare-country is full of “sadness factories” and “ruined buildings that looked like broken hearts,” a magical image of an unevenly developed social reality. Mr. Sengupta, who is a clerk working for the City Corporation, “hated stories and storytellers” even though Rashid has a use in society: “the politicos needed Rashid to help them win the people’s votes” because he gains the people’s confidence by admitting “everything he told them was completely untrue” (20). As far as Rashid is concerned, the falseness of stories is what makes them useful.
Trouble starts, however, when Mr. Sengupta runs off with Rashid’s wife Soraya, spurring the initial question asked by Haroun. The rest of this book review essay is an inquiry into this question: what use are false stories? Rushdie intimately connects the prospect of storytelling and art to the Khalifas’ desire for their home town’s improvement, suggesting that art may indeed have a significant use—inspiring social change.
First, thought, I would like to speak more particularly about one intertext in particular that is involved in Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Haroun meets two talking and singing guppy fish in the Sea. Their names are Goopy and Bagha, a male and a female fish, but their names are taken from the male protagonists of Satyajit Ray’s film Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969). This Bengali film is furthermore based on a short story written by Ray’s grandfather Upendrakishore Ray, who participated in a Bengali cultural renaissance, according to Wikipedia.
The film explores the redemptive and magical power of art. The film begins with Gopinath, seen as eccentric in his village for his love of the tanpura and his avoidance of hand labour, being exiled by the local king. On the road he meets Bagha, a drummer, and they both adopt the title ‘Bayen,’ meaning musician. Encountering a tiger in the forest, they are saved by a band of ghosts, who then grant them three boons: clothing and food, the ability to travel, and the ability to entertain. Goopy and Bagha gain the favour of the King of Shundi, whose peasant population is stricken dumb by an epidemic, similar to how the Chupwalas are speechless in Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Using magic to subvert the Empire of Halla’s attempt to invade Shundi, Goopy and Bagha capture the King of Halla, who is the good King’s long lost brother. Soon after the people of Shundi have their speech restored, thanks to a magic potion. In Haroun and the Sea of Stories, as in Goopy Gyne Bagha Bynne, the power of art—storytelling and music—is seen as highly redemptive, inspiring social change and peace.
John Clute makes the connection between Story and music in works of fantasy more explicit:
“In modern fantasy, when they are performing their task, protagonists or COMPANIONS who are musicians […] tend to become LIMINAL BEINGS, and articulate in memorable form the relationship between different levels of being in the world. They put into a form […] some version of the essential STORY being enacted, which may be memorized, or followed, or obeyed” (673).
Goopy and Bagha embody this role in the film. They mediate the social relations between the lower classes and the upper classes as well as between the Kingdoms of Shundi and Halla. Furthermore each of their actions move the story towards the fairy-tale ending that culminates in their royal marriages to the daughters of the Kings of Shundi and Halla. This happy ending represents the healing of the brokenness of the land and alludes to the potential founding of a utopia in the new union between the kingdoms.
Yet what useis Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, a story that is not even true? What useis Haroun and the Sea of Stories? What useare the ageless fairy tales that lay behind these modern forms? To the literary scholar, it is useful to consider how such “essential” stories are in fact mediating the historical moment and the social relations that produced them (Clute 673). But literary scholars are not the typical audience of such books. How could there be a social benefit from these stories, which do not even offer accurate, realist representations of social reality? Is magical realism and fantasy a mystification, a distraction?
The question I would like to direct our attention to can be whittled down to the following: do Ray and Rusdie affirm the possibility that immaterial labour, which is what storytelling arguably is, can bring about a utopia? Do the stories themselves have any agency, or is the potential for social revolution limited to the labours of the artist?
Walter Benjamin in “The Author as Producer” invites us to consider the author’s position is society rather than, say, the attitude of the artist or his/her text towards the relations of production, which are defined by capitalism and comodification (222). The movie and the children’s novel are part of a real social system. Furthermore, they are disseminating a representation of a pair of musicians and an old storyteller who must survive within the social milieu of their own fictional society. Benjamin argues that a revolutionary writer is in effect counterrevolutionary if he or she has a mere attitude of solidarity with the proletariat, but not in terms of his or her position as a producer (226). Though the author may belong to a higher, privileged class by virtue of education, he/she can still use this education to help the working class.
Rushdie’s position within society as an intellectual embedded in the capitalist system of the book market seems to be at odds with the theme of social restoration in his novel. However, perhaps Rushdie has done as much as he can do while still embedded in the system of capitalism. At any rate, it seems rather clear that capitalism helps in the dissemination of Haroun and the Sea of Stories and the in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne‘s wide distribution. The relationship between artist and capitalism is not necessarily limited to the notion of ‘selling out.’
Frederic Jameson is a historical materialist theorist of utopia and science fiction. One of his theories, which he expresses in “The Politics of Utopia,” is that representations of utopia mediate the current social structure of the society that produces that representation. This simply means that when you read a utopia–for example, the society in Divergent–it says more about the society that imagined the utopia than it does about the possibility of actually realizing it.
Looking at Haroun and the Sea of Stories, I speculate that it is partly Rushdie’s reaction against the fatwa uttered against him by Ayatollah Khomeni for his writing of The Satanic Verses, which he published just before Haroun. Are we talking about a utopian society more accepting of fable, dreams, and the value of untruth? Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, on the other hand, might be a comment on the utopian horizon India imagined for itself at the beginning of the rise of its national film industry, which is nowadays in competition with Hollywood.
Both Rushdie’s book and Ray’s film are works that celebrate culture and imagine the greatest possible society will arise in a world that tolerates, sponsors, and embraces the arts and all that art represents. But in the unequal distribution of power in the global market and between the classes of society, can cultural utopia–not the existence of one but the existence of a representation of one, which might be all that is possible with the concept of utopia–change our lived, socio-economic reality?
I highly doubt that it can do so on its own. But by inspiring people to be agents of change, I think these authors are trying to suggest that it can.
When we left off last week, I was trying to prove that graffiti interrupts the rational order of the city, as a spatial tactic, and therefore can be compared to urban fantasy, inasmuch as it too subverts conventional “consensus reality.” I quoted Bramley Dapple in Charles de Lint’s short story “Uncle Dobbin’s Parrot Fair,” who says, “We live in a consensual reality where things exist because we want them to exist. […] Yet if you were to listen to the world at large, Goon [Dapple’ gnome companion] is nothing more than a figment of some fevered writer’s imagination—a literary construct, an artistic representation of something that can’t possibly exist in the world as we know it” (Dreams Underfoot 24). Dapple implies in a metafictional moment that collective belief is what defines reality. However, this definition of what constitutes reality can only be explained by an investigation of what forces in society constitute reality itself.
This is why, in North American especially, consensus reality is a political issue.
The rationalist, Cartesian, scientific discourse that divides space into a square grid is inextricably opposed to the perspective of ‘traditional,’ and especially indigenous, worldviews, which contain an entirely different ontology, or definition of what things are. I have explored problems of this conflict in other articles: among the Maori and Icelanders. Our consensual reality is tied up with capitalism. Our mode of production, to use a Marxist term, structures how power works and how ideas are disseminated in our society. It is also connected with the imperialism that was responsible for the expulsion and disenfranchisement of indigenous civilization in North America. Perhaps in introducing Native American mythology in books like Moonheart, Charles de Lint attempts to subvert the ideology that enables imperialism by presenting another ontology as valid. Charles de Lint’s urban fantasy can then be seen as subversive, inscribing, through his texts, the identity and worldview of traditional cultures—both Celtic and Native American—on the rational cityscape. (Although, this has been seen as problematic given certain accusations against de Lint’s cultural appropriation. See his response in his Afterword toMulengro.)
Let us now take a brief interlude and go explore through an example what I mean to say when comparing spatial tactics to urban fantasy. Remember: urban fantasy combines the space-time associated with urban reality and ‘crosshatches’ it with that of the folktale. You are walking on the street one day near the Redpath Museum on McGill campus, let’s say. Then in a glimpse of sublime might, you see the god Pan, cloven-hoofed and decked with horns on his head, standing against the wall. You blink. Pan is gone, but he has left his mark: you recover a set of panpipes. Maybe he sprayed his name in aerosol over the wall, but it would be partly the same effect. The panpipes are a sign: the god not only exists, but also, it is implied, every narrative, every myth, in which the god participates. He exists, but the meaningful space and time in which he exists also exists.
You come to recognize that if Pan is real, then the universe is operating according to a narrative, that the world is heterogeneous, divided between mundane and numinous realities. You have encountered “Story” and such a universe cannot have the random disorder which scientists assure us is the law of the universe.
This world of “Story” means that the Barthesian text of the city is altered forever and that you can conceive the world as whole—not as fragmented and shattered. “The worldness of the world” is restored, which, for Fredric Jameson, is a key mark of the romance genre, on which so many fantasy novels are based (98). In our capitalist mode of production, Jameson implies, romance lets us to re-imagine our alienated society as one, though this has an effect of painting an illusory picture of social reality. Charles de Lint operates less according to a Marxist agenda—which is my critique of how he deals with the urban—but he does align his ‘subversion’ of the urban squarely with the structure outlined in Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories.” He places more of an emphasis on the transcendent encounter with the fantastic and numinous ‘other.’ If the urban world is threatened again with fragmentation—if there is “Wrongness” that appears, threatening it with “Thinning”—then a hero, “Recognizing” the true “Story,” might attempt to “Heal” the city. This is possible in fantasy unlike in social realism, implying the utopian potential of fantasy, which de Lint sometimes invokes, as in the harmonious blending of Native American and Celtic cultures in Moonheart. What Charles de Lint’s novels ultimately do, is attempt to rescue this sense of “Story” from the fragmented urban world, as it already exists for us.
Like “sectarian graffiti,” de Lint’s novels “make real, by making visible, certain claims to ownership: to convert space into territory” (243). You have all likely seen pictures, at least, of gang tags in bus shelters, a scribble of “FTP” perhaps or, in my province especially, a scrabble of “Vive le Quebec Libre!” These are examples of (respectively) African-Americans asserting space free from the racial profiling of police officers and of French-Canadians declaring that, in this space, there is a people who wish for Quebec to become an independent, de-colonized nation. Subaltern groups especially—those cultural communities who are ‘invisible’— feel an existential need to assert their existence in urban space.
Space is a hot topic given the many land claims First Nations groups are attempting to have Parliament approve. I believe that these claims to territory challenge how poets like Earle Birney have thought of Canada as a “country without a mythology,” because we are too young a nation. In fact, Canada is an ancient country with an erased mythology. These Native American myths, irrelevant to European settlers, have been forgotten, seen as irrelevant and peripheral to modernity—in a word, backwards. Urban fantasy might be a way of asserting not only the space of subaltern territories, but the sacred space of indigenous populations.
The effect would not be dissimilar to bringing the Native American Crow Girls to the center of Montreal in that mural—from the offshore reserve at Kahnawà:ke to a central neighbourhood not far from the transportation hub of the Decarie Expressway. Urban fantasy has an analogous effect: it brings peripheral mythologies and cultures into a central fictionalized-but-real city, in a similar way to how actual cities centralize and condense the populations of entire countries—and indeed form a multinational concentration of many cultures from across the globe.
Urban fantasy can be used in such a way that it engages in a project of representation of postcolonial narratives, bringing them within the central, urban spaces of Canada. In this way, urban fantasy contributes to the postcolonial genre of “New Fantasy” that Lawrence Steven argues expresses a particularly Canadian expression of hybrid identity—an identity composed of a fusion of opposites: central/peripheral, self/other, indigenous/migrant.
Lastly, there is one more potential similarity between spatial tactics and urban fantasy: the idea of play. W.R. Irwin in The Game of the Impossible defines fantasy as a genre of play: a structured game that does not have direct consequences on reality, but enables us to imagine how to deal with reality in a ‘safe’ way. The emblematic deity of play is Pan himself, “the spirit of the Arcadian,” who is “the deity whose disorder is both freedom and discipline” (157). Is it a coincidence that de Lint based Greenmantle on Lord Dunsany’s Blessing of Pan? Perhaps not. When Pan appears in the urban landscape, perhaps a break from the ‘serious’ world is signaled and with an introduction into the world of ‘play.’
However, I object to Irwin on one account: that fantasy as play cannot influence the real world. In urban fantasy in particular, the connection between the real world and fantasy can be fundamental. Play is still a useful way to conceive of fantasy in urban settings because play is a concept involved in subverting urban space, just as it is a concept in fantasy. A skateboarder ‘plays’ in a skatepark–but he can still use his board to travel place to place in a ‘serious’ but alternative manner. In a similar way, fantasy does not always need an alternate universe setting where it has no direct impact or reference to our world. Urban fantasy that refers to real places like Ottawa or Montreal, rather that to fictional locales like Middle Earth, is the equivalent of a skateboarder grinding a stair railing on the way to work. Urban fantasy can make a direct critique on our lived reality at the same time as it engages in subversive forms of ‘play’ through fantasy. Putting it in another way, fantasy does not have to be ‘escapist’ when it refers to and criticizes reality.
Whether Charles de Lint is consistent in addressing the issues I have here described is another matter. He may not be, in which case my theory is good purely as a theory, though useful to the degree that it might inspire me to adopt my own style of urban fantasy. At present, my readings of de Lint do not confirm my theory on every point, though they do on some. However, I believe I have achieved a valuable theoretical insight into how urban fantasy can be used. Given a free moment to write a short story or novel of my own, I might choose to address these theoretical issues in my own urban fantasy, set in Montreal. However, at present, I have SSHRC grant to fill out and graduate studies to work at.
Jameson, Fredric. “Magical Narratives.” The Political Unconscious. London: Routledge, 1981.
Irwin, W.R. The Game of the Impossible: A Rhetoric of Fantasy. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1976.
Steven, Laurence. “Welwyn Wilton Katz and Charles de Lint: New Fantasy as a Canadian Post-Colonial Genre.” Worlds of Wonder: Readings in Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature. Eds. Jean-François Leroux and Camille R. LaBossière. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2004. 52-72.
Tonkiss, Fran. “Urban Cultures: Spatial Tactics.” Urban Culture: Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies. Ed. Chris Jenks. Vol. IV. London: Routledge, 2004.
Scrivener Creative Review is calling for submissions. In the past, we have published poetry by Leonard Cohen, Louis Dudek, and P.K. Page. Today, Scrivener is dedicated to uncovering emerging Canadian writers and publishing established talent.
Writers from across the globe are welcome to submit. Scrivener publishes high-quality, literary writing in three genres: poetry, prose, and book reviews. Also, your black and white art/photography submissions are always welcome.
As Book Reviews Editor this academic year, I am in charge of all reviews for recent books. Book reviews should be of novels, short stories collections, poetry, or graphic novels. Scrivener strives to give publicity to deserving books from small Canadian presses.
To submit your poetry, please send no more than five (5) poems to firstname.lastname@example.org. Each individual poem may be no longer than four (4) pages single-spaced in length.
To submit your short fiction, please send no more than four (4) submissions per author to email@example.com. Works must be no longer than 2500 words.
If interested in writing book reviews, please send a short writing sample and a topic of interest for a potential review to firstname.lastname@example.org. Reviews should be no longer than 2500 words.
To submit your art and/or photography, please send no more than five (5) images per artist to email@example.com. Art and photography submissions must be in black and white. Please submit your work in the highest possible resolution.
That is all! We will be publishing online and in a print edition in Winter/Spring of 2015. Due date for the print edition is March 9 2014. Good luck!
Here is a list of books interested reviewers can read. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org:
*New: Hypocritic Days by David Fiore
*New: The Women of Shawa Island by Anthony Bidulka
*New: Dancing Nude in the Moonlight by Joanne C. Hillhouse
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.
Day 2 of MythCon began Saturday morning. After breakfast, I really came to appreciate how many people had come to Wheaton College. In addition to seeing many of the faces I saw on Friday, Corey Olsen, the Tolkien Professor, was there.
Allow me to explain one thing about this guy: I first listened to his podcast years ago, likely when I was still at Dawson College in Liberal Arts, and from him, I first learned about Tolkien’s “On Faerie-Stories” and eucatastrophe. I had no idea previously how to read Tolkien through a critical lens, but listening to Olsen’s podcasts gave me the vocabulary. Only this was years and years before I got serious with my Honours thesis. I was listening to the podcasts for intellectual pleasure, but it planted a seed, and that seed grew. Pretty well, you could say Olsen indirectly inspired this blog.
After breakfast, our first order of the day: Scholar Guest of Honour Richard C. West gave his talk “Where does fantasy fit?” This question was the theme of the conference. West has been a Tolkien scholar since the 60s and his 1970 book Tolkien Criticism: An Annotated Checklist became a key source for subsequent bibliographies.
Tolkien associated “green suns” with faerie–two words that describe the nonexistent is what fundamentally lies behind the structure of fantasy. Opening with this remark, West proceeded to give an early history of the fantasy genre. He gave a catalogue of fantasy novels including Starplex by R.J. Sawyer (a sci-fi novel which contains a green sun), James Stevens’ Deidre, E.R. Eddison’s Worm Ouroboros, Mervyne Peak’s Gormenghast trilogy, T.H. White’s Once and Future King, and Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword, which inspired Michael Moorcock’s Elric series. Throughout his talk, he attempted to show how fantasy and science fiction have always grown together as a genre.
Next was a panel talk: “College-level Tolkien: Teaching Middle-Earth Sixty Years Later.” Brian Walter moderated and Chip Crane, Verlyn Flieger, Kristine Larsen, and Corey Olsen were answering our questions. Crane talked about how he uses the films to teach the books: for example, analyzing why Peter Jackson made Arwen summon the river to wash away the Black Riders, rather than having Frodo make his heroic stand alone, as he does in the book. Kristine Larsen talked about using Tolkien as a lead-in to scientific discussion in the classroom–the early chapters describing creation in The Silmarillion are a text in point. Verlyn Flieger had been smuggling Tolkien into the classroom almost from the time the books first came out. She takes Tolkien as a war writer, no less relevant to modernity as Hemingway. In his playing with language, Tolkien is similar to James Joyce in Finnegan’s Wake. I’d have to read Joyce to confirm that.
Comparing Tolkien to the Modernists certainly does sound like a brilliant strategy–and possibly awarding as an MA thesis. But Tolkien studies does have its pitfalls–Olsen told us many non-scholars register for classes at the Mythgard Institute, expecting an easy saunter. At the same time as you shouldn’t dumb Tolkien down as a teacher, you must be careful and precise when dealing with his works as a scholar.
Eleanor Simpson presented an excellent paper after lunch, “Tolkien’s Evolution and Clarification in his Portrayal of Nature through Fantasy: Foreshadowing Critical Animal Theory and Anti-Speciesism.” Speciesism is the prejudice or bias towards your own species, versus the interests of another species (ducks, rabbits, trees, aliens). Referring to the theoretical work of Peter Singer, Simpson gave a structured analysis of The Hobbit and The Lord of theRings, describing how Tolkien represents animal, plants, and rocks differently in either book.
Although Old Man Willow in LOTR is a tree described as a menace, Treebeard is the epitome of the dignity Tolkien saw in trees. The author’s evolution, or progression, towards anti-speciesism is irregular, but he does become more of an eco-writer in LOTR. Whereas The Hobbit contains the skin-changer Beorn, a bear who is significant to the quest only because he has another form, a man, The Lord of the Rings contains an little-know episode with a fox. The fox approaches Frodo and Sam, who are sleeping in a forest clearing, sniffs around for food, and wonders what danger in the wood could have brought the hobbits to sleep in the open. He then runs away to quest for more food. The episode is striking because the fox is fully his own character, with his own motivation (to find food and determine if there is a danger in the wood). Although Tolkien anthropomorphizes the spiders in The Hobbit, Shelob in The Lord of the Rings is fully a spider, and Sauron’s peer.
Ryan Lawrence’s talk “Tolkien’s Creative Process: Retelling and Expanding Norse Saga in The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun,” rather than focusing on how the author invented his own stories, focused on a description of his use of source texts. After all, Tolkien is an “unoriginal” author. Or perhaps “traditional” is the right word: rather than inventing his own, new stories, he constantly returns to old, make that very old, texts.
In the Codex Rigius, there is a story of Sigurd, Germanic hero of the Volsunga Saga, but a “great lacunae,” or gap, has caused about 8 pages to become lost. Scholars have been puzzling over this lost piece of narrative. What story fit within this break with the text? Tolkien’s creative juices flow whenever presented with these kind of gaps, the empty, silent spaces of history. In his own treatment of the Volsunga Saga, Tolkien elevates the figure of Sigurd to Christ, redeeming the pagan Norse gods–perhaps paving the way to Aragorn’s character. To aid his work, Tolkien only had the translation provided by William Morris and Erikr Magnusson, whose text was in English couplets. Tolkien, a poetic translator badass, made his poem into alliterative verse to keep it consistent with Germanic style.
To close the day, I attended a final paper presentation by Rebecca McCurdy, “Comedy, Tragedy, Romance: A Study of Tolkien’s Eucatastrophe.” How does eucatastrophe fit in a genre that mixes comedy, tragedy, and romance? This was a presentation I knew I must attend, given McCurdy’s focus on eucatastrophe and her angle on genre, which was not dissimilar to the theory behind my Honours thesis. McCurdy–not to mention one comment made during the earlier panel–made me rethink my Honours thesis, a little.
Even in the happily-ever-after faerie-story, a comedy, eucatastrophe is constantly in a tension with catastrophe, or tragedy. So saying catastrophe cannot blend into a eucatastrophic novel is technically not true. Happy endings and trying times exist in all fairy tales. Besides, plenty of modern authors have written catastrophic fantasy that is not quite horror or absurdism–we call it dark fantasy. Furthermore, McCurdy challenged me further with her example from C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, which highlighted how eucatastrophe needs catastrophe in order to become “joy beyond the walls of the world, as poignant as grief” (“On Faerie-Stories”). I may need to refine my thesis, or at least add a footnote as a disclaimer!
As if that wasn’t enough for a day, after dinner, we had a collaborative reading of Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf. Since I, alas, did not take any Old English courses, I could not read the original, but I did get up to read a translated paragraph where Beowulf does battle with Wiglaf, his ward, against the dragon.
Following this, I has a Sam Adams in the hospitality room and had a conversation with Corey Olsen. I also struck up rapport with Sorina Higgins, whose Twitter account @Oddest_Inkling is all about the Christian-occultist Charles Williams and his wild, genre-bending works of fiction. I also noticed my earlier acquaintance Mark Williams was up for an award–a Mythopoeic Award for his hilarious novel Sleepless Nights. The only way to describe it is as a cross between Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Remains of the Day. It is the most British book in the universe, and it is told from the perspective of King Arthur’s butler. (In the end, disappointingly, when the announcements happened on Sunday, Mark did not win. But then again, Neil Gaiman, who was nominated, did not win either. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker took home the Mythopoeic Award for Adult Literature.)
And so ended another brilliant day at MythCon!
Stay tuned to hear all about Sunday–and how my presentation went!