World Fantasy Convention 2015, Part III: Challenging the Canon

Last week I wrote about my interview with Charles de Lint at the World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga Springs. Today, I wrap up my discussion of the conference with some comments on the fantasy canon and the awards ceremony, which have of late been the subject of some controversy.

My MA thesis is on fantasy as a globalized form, with a focus on the works of Charles de Lint. However, I will be gesturing towards a larger project of studying contemporary fantasy as a product of the age of globalization. One panel at World Fantasy whose subject spoke to my project was “Epic Fantasy is All About the European Middle Ages–Except When It Isn’t.” Joshua Palmatier moderated and the panelists included Bradley Beaulieu, Anatoly Belilovsky, Kevin Maroney, and Gregory A. Wilson. Think of your typical or canonical fantasy novels: chances are they are set in a version of the European Middle Ages. We might draw exception at Guy Gavriel Kay’s Chinese historical fantasies Under Heaven and River of Stars, which stand as fine examples of non-Western fantasies, but there was also some good discussion about Russian fantasies and Russian steampunk.

Wilson said there is a lot of speculative fiction not being done in English, such as in China and Laos. This represents, from the American point of view, an large untapped market. The only way for the English world to read such works is through translation. At this insight, I was reminded of Goethe’s claim that translation is a fundamental requirement for the development of world literature. This rule of world literature applies to the field of contemporary fantasy just as much as it applies to global modernisms.

There are many non-Western fantasy authors writing in different languages and even some Western authors writing in languages other than English. On this latter list, we might include the authors published by Acheron Press, a small press that publishes English translations of Italian fantasy authors. My review of Demon Hunter Severian by Giovanni Anastasi can be found through the above link. We need translators like Acheron, but also translators specializing in different languages, such as French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Urdu, Arabic, Sinhalese… any language where there is significant work being done today. Perhaps my living in bilingual Quebec is why I might be more conscious of the need for translation. I might add that the French publisher Alire translates some fantasy from English, such as the works of Guy Gavriel Kay. This is another non-anglophone example of an institution that roles up its sleeves while working on this grand project of world literature.

Belilovsky discussed Russian literature, mentioning that Russian, like English, is an imperial language. Many other languages exist in Russia, but translation gives authors who might be writing in such languages an audience outside their country. Literature must recognize that Russia is not a monolithic culture; for example, Belilovsky mentioned the Koreans who settled in Siberia but were deported to Kazakhstan because it was claimed to be too difficult to tell them apart from Japanese spies during the Second World War. Literature has a capacity to un-erase such identities.

Another interesting thought that I had during this panel was that there are material, economic conditions requiring authors of epic fantasy to employ the myths of diverse cultures in their work: it is a way to make a novel stand out in the market. There is a great danger in getting the sense of a culture wrong even if one gets the facts right, Beaulieu explained. This made me speculate that what might problematize the ‘exploitation’ of such cultures, even if done by well-meaning authors, is that epic fantasy can become a kind of cultural tourism, much in the same way ‘ethnic memoirs’ present themselves in the literary marketplace. Despite all this controversy, there was a consensus at the panel that writing about various cultures that have been marginalized does broaden the conversation, encouraging the building of bridges across cultures.

The final panel I attended during the convention was “Creating the Fantasy Canon” with Jonathan Strahan as moderator and John Clute, Michael Dirda, Yanni Kuznia, Gary Wolfe, and Ron Yaniv as panelists. Since I was contemplating fantasy as a globalized form, the discussion during this panel at the ‘World’ Fantasy Convention promised to be significant. However, I confess to being disappointed in the ‘worldness’ of the convention. All of the works the panelists could agree on for canonization were anglophone works. This was predictable, but it goes to show that fantasy novels from other language traditions are still subversive to the ‘secular scripture’ of the fantasy canon.

What is a canon? This was the opening question of the panel and each panelist gave a separate answer. Kuznia said a canon was whatever books continue to influence today’s writers. Dirda said the canon was whatever books are taught in English classes or books that we continue to find useful when thinking about the genre. Clute claimed that we create the canon constantly, but the books that constitute it must meet the condition of still being read. Wolfe said that a canon is formed of those books that continue to be read, even if no one tells you that you should read them. I thought this was a clever answer.

From my perspective, being a student of canon theorist Robert Lecker, I would have to agree mostly with Michael Dirda on this account: a canon is a ‘secular scripture,’ a body of assembled, and often anthologized, texts that we consider fundamental to fantasy and the values it holds dear. They are the works representing the values we wish to pass on to the next generation of students–it has nothing essentially to do with what is popular at the moment. Harry Potter may or may not ever enter the canon, but the works of William Morris and Tolkien will always be in the canon. In the larger canon of English literature, the works of Aphra Behn may not be frequently read outside of universities and colleges, but her work has entered canonical status nonetheless. A canon is, to my understanding, an essentially conservative institution, in the sense that it protects a certain set of values, rather than trying to subvert them. We cannot really talk about multiple canons without dissolving the significance of what ‘canon’ means. But that is not to say that the values upheld by canons cannot be challenged or that new works from previously marginalized authors may not be added to the canon: this expansion of the canon is still an important task.

John Clute adopted a more historically-lensed approach to what a canon is. “Any canon is a form of argument. It is not an establishment,” he said. A canon that begins with the pulps, for example, argues for a different source of origin for modern fantasy than another that begins its narrative with the works George MacDonald. This view has its merits, but it is a definition of canon removed from the original sense of ‘canon’ as an assembly of sacred texts, such as the books that constitute the Bible. The Bible’s exclusion of the Gospel of Thomas, for instance, may be seen as an argument in favour of a particular interpretation of Christianity, but the accepted canon as it comes to exist is more significantly a set of texts which held a highly exalted position in society–an establishment. That said, an argument in Clute’s favour is that the fantasy canon may still be in the midst of being decided, it being a lot less stable than the Biblical canon or the canon of English literature as anthologized by Norton.

The moderator asked each panelist to provide one work of twentieth-century fantasy that they would nominate for canonization. Gary Wolfe nominated Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, Ron Yaniv, Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, Michael Dirda, Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist, Yanni Kuznia, Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn.

On a second pass, the following titles came up in the same order of panelists: Mary Stuart’s The Crystal Cave, C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, Lord Dunsany’s Gods of Pegana, and Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. The moderator Jonathan Strahan felt obliged to throw in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings for good measure. Further discussion turned up the names Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, Arthur Machen‘s horror stories, H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and Joan Aitken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase.

When asked which recent books were likely to become canonical in the future, the panelists provided another list of titles. Yanni Kuznia: Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K. Hamilton. Michael Dirda: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. John Clute: Perdido Street Station by China Miéville. Greg Wolfe: Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay (although there was some discord about whether to list Tigana instead; read both). Ron Yaniv: Charles de Lint’s Someplace to be Flying.

Consider this a reading list.

Any serious academic of fantasy should think about reading this canon; the works have great value. Yet we must not think uncritically about this value. It was disappointing to me, for instance, that the panel did not discuss any challenges to the canon. Perhaps the fantasy canon is still at the stage of becoming solidified into something stable and therefore teachable. Yet, whether the canon(s) described by the panelists were ‘writer’s’ canons or more professorial in nature, one thing remained consistent: each work was originally written in English.

In face of this anglophone fact, what happens to all this rhetoric about fantasy being a universal drive shared in common by all cultures, all languages? Fantasy should be bigger than any one language. The canon listed above represents not a ‘fantasy’ canon but a ‘fantasy literature in English’ canon, which is a very different thing. It is worth noting that even the concept of ‘fantasy’ as a term that can be applied to a modern genre is an English term with a specific English meaning (although derived from a word in Greek meaning ‘to make visible’). Therefore, I would propose that ‘fantasy’ connotes an originally anglophone literary form. It is unclear what terms other language traditions apply to describe their ‘fantastic’ literature, although the cultural hegemony of the English-speaking world has probably spread the influence of Tolkien and other fantasy authors into those non-English speaking traditions as well, altering them by the influence of translations.

English fantasy writers seem glad enough to declare the universality of fantasy in all cultures around the globe. It grants a validity to the idea of borrowing from the myths and folklore of increasingly diverse cultural traditions. If a myth is fantasy, it is in a sense dead and therefore exploitable; it has no more central authority in the society that formed it and in turn was formed by it. The loss of these central organizing myths is a feature of modernity; read The Sacred and Profane by Mircea Eliade. However, in the case of budding Maori, Aborigine, or Native American authors who derive inspiration from the narrative traditions of their respective cultures, it is unclear whether such authors would even consider their works ‘fantasy,’ especially as such cultures undergo renaissance and revitalization. As such cultures attempt to re-establish the real authority of their cultural narratives, the term ‘fantasy’ would seem to undercut the privileged position these narratives ought to have in their society, relativizing the importance of cultural narratives.

Although such rhetoric of the ‘universality’ of fantasy exists–that all cultures have myths equally valid for raw literary material–the actual literary landscape is heavily Eurocentric and with the hegemony of American culture, weighted in definite favour of the English language. Fantasy is more heterogenous and unequal than works such as Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces, which proclaims the universality of the heroic journey in all mythic traditions, would have us believe.

The World Fantasy Convention awarded the H.P. Lovecraft trophy this year for the last time. A new trophy is currently being designed.
The World Fantasy Convention awarded the H.P. Lovecraft trophy this year for the last time. A new trophy is currently being designed.

This World Fantasy Convention was the last year the trophies for the World Fantasy Awards will bear the shape of a bust of H.P. Lovecraft’s face. From what I understand of the controversy surrounding this decision, it was at least partly related to the reputation that Lovecraft has today of being a racist. Like Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling, whose works each retain their canonicity and literary value despite their authors’ imperialist politics, Lovecraft’s works will continue to be valued despite his racist ideas, however problematic they may be. However, the change of trophy design is a message that the ‘face’ of fantasy is changing, that the established canon is being challenged by new, upcoming writers. This is a sign of a healthy, living literary tradition that refuses to become ossified. One can only applaud the renewal of the genre and the renewal of world literature in general.

(To take a less explicitly political perspective on the trophy controversy: Lovecraft was a brutally excessive stylist, like Edgar Allan Poe on steroids, so if this change of trophy dissociates the fantasy/science fiction field from H.P.’s standard of foggy, dense, unclear writing, then I my opinion there’s a lot less of a down side to the change than you might think.)

 

The World Fantasy Awards were handed out to the following winners. There was considerable Canadian representation in the list of winners (ChiZine, Tachyon). As a matter of fact, I was seated at the ChiZine table and so I got to sample the excitement of my companions winning not once but twice.

The Life Achievement awards went to Ramsey Campbell and Sheri S. Tepper.

Best Novel: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (Random House/Sceptre UK)

Novella: We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory (Tachyon Publications)

Short Story: Do You Like to Look at Monsters? by Scott Nicolay (Ferdogan & Bremer, chapbook)

Anthology: Monstrous Affections: An Anthology of Beastly Tales, edited by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant (Candlewick Press)

Collection: Gifts for the One Who Comes After by Helen Marshall (ChiZine Publications) tied with The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings by Angela Slatter (Tartarus Press)

Artist: Samuel Araya

Special Award–Professional: Sandra Kasturi and Brett Alexander Savory, for ChiZine Publications

Special Award–Non-Professional: Ray B. Russell and Rosalie Parker, for Tartarus Press

Congratulations WFC 2015 award winners!
Congratulations WFC 2015 award winners!

 

The new books I hauled home somehow after the convention
The new books I hauled home somehow after the convention

MythCon 46: The Arthurian Mythos Part III: Attebery, Politics, and Worldviews

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Sunday 2 August 2015 was the date of my long-awaited presentation on Charles de Lint’s multicultural utopia. Although this post will not include a copy of my presentation–that will be for next week, when I will discuss the final day of lectures at MythCon 46–I do include a significant panel involving the inestimable Brian Attebery, one of the key scholars of fantasy literature, whose studies The Tradition of Fantasy in American Literature: From Irving to LeGuin and Strategies of Fantasy have been highly influential in the history of fantasy criticism. His most recent work is Stories about Stories: Fantasy and the Remaking of Myth.

First up was David Bratman’s presentation “How Do You Solve A Problem Like King Arthur?” in which he discussed the complexity and uncertainty in unearthing the historical Arthur. The real Arthur, if he ever existed, was a post-Roman warlord and not the highly romanticized Tennysonian richly-caparisoned lordly king of the popular imagination. Authors such as T.H. White have attempted to place Arthur accurately in the medieval past, while Jack Whyte situates Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s father, in the post-Roman era. Books such as The Discovery of King Arthur have attempted to unearth the historical Arthur once and for all, but inevitably we know too little to create any consistent narrative about the king.

For those who feel uninitiated to Arthurian legend, don’t feel too bad. There’s no standardized, linear plot of the entire Arthurian cycle that incorporates all the adventures and significant events that are attributed to Arthur and his knights; the Disneyfied versions most folk encounter are as complete as any other retelling. An anthology of Arthuriana I own, The Romance of Arthur: An Anthology of Medieval Texts in Translation by James J. Wilhelm, does its best to establish a canon of Arthurian texts that when read together give some kind of impression of the different stories associated with the famous king, from the originally oral tale of the Celts, Culwch and Owen to Malory’s Morte Darthur, one of the first printed texts in England.

Our Montreal-based Author Guest of Honour Jon Walton has a series of Arthurian novels. Other authors such as Kris Swank give Arthur an ethnic twist by bringing black characters into the cast. Tales from the point of view of the servants also abound including, in addition to Mark Williams’s Sleepless Knights, Squire’s Blood and Squire’s Honour by Peter Telep.

If so many different versions of Arthur exist, how did we get the colourful, valiant, shiny version of Arthur with which most people are familiar? The answer to this might lie in the colourful illustrations that accompanied the sanitized story of The Boy’s King Arthur, in which the scenes containing episodes of adultery have been cut out.  The illustrator M.C. Wyatt was also a major contributor to our images of Arthur. Of course one might also add Disney’s The Sword in the Stone, Looney Tunes, and Monty Python as other inevitable sources.

One last item to add to this list was Camelot 3000, a comic from a certain era that was not mine, but which was full of 80s camp. In this, the Knights of the Round Table are awoken from cryogenic chambers in the far future. Other Arthurian comics are cataloged on Camelot 4 Colors.

Following this, Daniel Gabelman presented one of the original classics of nineteenth-century fantasy that later inspired C.S. Lewis’s conversion and “baptised” his imagination, according to his memoir Surprised by Joy. The presentation was entitled “MacDonald’s Phantastes and The Last Chronicle of Sir Percival, or Phantastes: the Original MythCon?”

I am currently reading the Phantastes, called the first full-length prose novel of modern fantasy, and I’m recognizing a familiar Romantic fascination with sickly, snow-pale women who function as Muse to the hero. MacDonald himself was a highly religious man–this I don’t doubt from having glimpsed at a few of his sermons–but Phantastes reads more like a Romantic text than an explicitly Christian one. I have recognized a certain joy animate the hero, Anodos, as he enters Fairyland, which I can only imagine was the same joy of the imagination that C.S. Lewis felt deeply when he read Phantastes. Reading this novel as an allegory of Lewis’s conversion is an interesting way of reading it, but at any rate, not precisely the way Gabelman read it.

Phantastes was explicitly called a fairy tale for adults, representing a moment when fairy tales began to adopt more realistic techniques to attract an audience beyond the nursery. MacDonald includes heavily allusive epigraphs from works in English and in German throughout his novel, tying his thought to German Romanticism. Gabelman said Phantastes is very much about the reading experience, especially considering the number of times Anodos either hears a story or reads one, especially the embedded tale of Cosmos, a youth who acquires a cursed magic mirror. Being unfamiliar with the Phantastes at the time, I regrettably could not absorb the crux of Gabelman’s poststructural argument about textual play in MacDonald and Lewis, but I was left with a good impression of the overall presentation.

20150917_185137-1Alicia Fox-Lenz, a Mythgardian and graphic designer, presented a well-designed slide presentation of “The Union Between the Two Towers and the Twin Towers,” which was about the impact of 9/11 on the reception of LOTR. She referred to the relevance of Tolkien’s epic to issues regarding warfare in the generations that followed WWII. Like Modernists such as W.H. Auden, Tolkien’s literary career is overshadowed by an involvement in world wars. Baptism of Fire: The Birth of the Modern British Fantastic in World War I is a Mythopoeic Press collection of essays that discuss the impact of the Great War on many different authors of modern fantasy. Rather than writing realistic narratives about the social reality of the post-war years, Tolkien became an “interwar hipster” by returning to the heroic ideal in a non-realist literary form.

Later generations interpreted LOTR as relevant to the trials facing their generation. So there were unauthorized paperback copies of LOTR available to the Vietnam generation, while the hippies of the Summer of Love adopted the slogan, “Frodo Lives!” Tolkien’s novels gained a subcultural following he certainly could never have foreseen.

Peter Jackson’s films reinvigorated interest in LOTR just around the time of the New York terrorist attacks. Like the Black Riders that infiltrate the peaceful Shire, Islamic fundamentalism entered the consciousness of a reeling and traumatized American public.

The result, Fox-Lenz argued brilliantly, is that online Amazon reviews of Tolkien’s trilogy before 9/11 stress a lofty, idealist view of the heroism of Tolkien’s characters, while the reviews after 9/11 use a more negatively connotative vocabulary, making more references to the battle between good and evil, moral absolutes, and biblical language. Reviewers became more obsessed, as a whole, with words such as ‘evil,’ and the name of Sauron was more frequently mentioned. One reviewer even stated that fighting a war for peace is a galvanizing theme in LOTR. Galvanizing for what, the invasion of a certain Middle-Eastern country? In short, these reviews echoed, more and more, the wartime rhetoric that led to the invasion of both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Frodo was even treated as a zealot, a suicide bomber off the destroy Sauron. Tolkien surely rolled over in his grave, but this is exactly the sort of overblown, shocking statements one tends to find in comments sections on major websites these days. The Rohirrim in Jackson’s films also become seen as a parallel to Homeland Security. And then, of course, there are the cheap allegories in which Frodo is America, bin Laden Sauron, Sam Gamgee America’s allies (Canada, Britain, Australia, etc, all being somehow encapsulated by the loyal gardener), and Isildur is … you guessed it, also ‘merica–the earlier ‘merica under Bush Sr. I might add, from a different political standpoint, that Wormtongue and Theoden (before his conversion by Gandalf) would have made a lovely pair as Cheney and Bush respectively. But would this allegory make the Ring a WMD? Well, let’s try to keep in mind that using the enemy’s power to destroy evil was Boromir’s brilliant idea and it got him killed. Frodo was out to destroy the One Ring, to destroy Powerthe Ring was a WMD that really did exist.

Fantasy and Worldview Panel
Fantasy and Worldview Panel — Attebery is seated second from the left

Leaving this bitter and controversial political world aside, it was then time for me to go to the next talk, which was about worldviews as such. Mary Kay Kare, Janice Bogstad, and Jo Walton made up the panel for “Fantasy and Worldview” with Brian Attebery as moderator. Attebery’s 1979 dissertation had been on American fantasy, responding to the post-W.R. Irwin academic climate. Irwin called fantasy the “game of the impossible,” but Attebery was convinced of the sterility of this description, that fantasy was not simply impossible. Fantasy represented instead a deeply meaningful worldview. Naturally, various cultures on planet earth share disparate worldviews that do not always align with Western, postmodern understandings of “reality.” Provided of course postmodernity has any sense of “reality” at all. To say fantasy is a literature of the impossible is to define it according to how the privileged class in power define “reality” and “possible.”

The panel discussed the notion of consensus reality–and its inevitable violation–as an important feature of fantasy literature, a way in which fantasy and not just science fiction can act as a ‘laboratory’ with which to try out new ideas. My own opinion about consensus reality is that it should always appear beneath scare quotes. I mean, reality never asked your opinion. Even if a cult believes with all their faith that if they jump out a window, they’ll be able to fly, they will wind up flat on the ground and sorely disappointed. And this isn’t just because physics cannot be violated, but because even social reality is exterior to the subject. I also believe that reality can never really be a consensus, because the very term implies the covering up of any negations or violations of that consensus. However, when writing a fantasy novel, the notion of reality being a consensus is a useful way of structuring characters’ reactions to the fantastic; whatever the norm of belief is in your novel–maybe dragons and magic already exist, maybe not–you need to establish that consensus up front, so your readers understand the novum of your subcreated world, that is, how the fictional universe differs from the reader’s own.

The panel raised some interesting points and referred to some interesting texts. For example, there is Grace Dylan’s Native American science fiction novels and other works of speculative fiction that come from other cultural frameworks than your typical white, Anglo-Saxon authors. “Tolkien’s Realist Magicism” is an essay by Jo Walton in which she describes how Tolkien treats magic realistically, challenging standard realism. Also, the issue of angel literature was raised: a belief in angels is a widespread phenomenon in the United States, making it one concrete example of a situation where one reader might read a such a narrative as ‘supernatural fiction’ while another reader, a believer, might read it is as realistic. Surely there are other people all around the globe who genuinely believe in phenomenon commonly called “fantastic,” such as the Maori of New Zealand some of whom profess belief in taniwha, a race of shapeshifting dragon.

Another interesting facet to this question is: what was considered fantasy in the Middle Ages? If heaven, hell, demons, monsters, witches, werewolves, angels, and miracles were all a part of the world back then, what would constitute imaginative literature? Petrus Nennius wrote a dream vision about a Democritan world where the afterlife was different from the Christian one–except for the dream frame around it, this might be declared a fantasy in the Inklings spirit!

Claude Levi-Strauss argued, and here once again I paraphrase one of the panelists, that human thought was never primitive–different societies just cut up the world differently. Myths are a way of defining phenomena in the world. I am reminded of Fredric Jameson’s allusion to the famous structural anthropologist when in The Political Unconscious, he describes Levi-Strauss’s observations of the facial tatoos of a certain tribe that serve to symbolically resolve the unease developing as their society becomes increasingly socially stratified. Jameson argues that narrative is one way we seek resolution to concrete historical contradictions–and fantasy is one significant way in which we attempt to create such resolutions.

One society that experiences a lot of social contradiction is a version of medieval England in which a hereditary monarchy presides over a socially-conscious anarcho-syndicalist peasantry, apparently led by one Leftist churl by the name of Dennis. What contradictions this society produces, however, lead not to tears but laughs. David Oberhelman discussed the Pythons’ masterpiece in his talk “‘On second thought, let’s not go to Camelot. It is a silly place’: Myth, Politics, and Parody in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

Holy Grail was a symbolic resolution to the concrete historical situation in which Britain found itself after the war, during the time of the Sex Pistols and pre-Thatcher discontent. Both Left and Right had discredited themselves. How could modern England reconcile itself to its conservative, monarchical past and present? Totally opposite political philosophies sparred and sparred in Parliament, till the Pythons just decided to poke fun at the whole situation with one of their funniest sketches. Not only is King Arthur treated as out of touch with socially mobilized peasant reality, but the Trotskyists are also mocked equally, as completely out of touch with reality.

Jo Walton at the banquet
Jo Walton at the banquet

Following this talk, I gave my presentation (news about that next week!) and afterwards, it was time for the banquet and Jo Walton’s Guest of Honour speech. In short she spoke about different writerly strategies of integrating the fantastic into a story. She advised the audience not to throw the fantastic at readers too fast, or they will be lost, but to introduce information about the world gradually. The readers and characters who are unfamiliar with the fantastic are like children constantly absorbing information, so it is usually a good idea to at least have one character who is unfamiliar with the world, so the readers can see through their eyes, while another character may be familiar with the fantastic, providing a model for the norm of your fantastic world. Walton provided an elegant rhetorical twist where the details of a fantastic autumn ceremony she kept alluding to in her speech as an example became gradually revealed to us, as she kept gradually giving us examples that eventually fleshed out the idea of a dragon fire-breathing ceremony. That was some meta-worldbuilding.

Stay tuned next week to hear the next installment of stimulating intellectual discussion!

Brian Attebery's signature in my journal
Brian Attebery’s signature in my journal

 

Taniwha Highway: the Phenomenon of Modern Day Dragons

Over a decade ago, you might have stumbled across the following headline in the New Zealand Herald: “Transit and the Taniwha” by James Corbett. It discusses–with that characteristic Kiwi sense of dry humour–how a dragon came to be at the center of a Māori protest over the construction of a highway.

The BBC said, “Construction on a major highway in New Zealand has been halted because a local Māori tribe says it is infringing on the habitat of a mythical swamp-dwelling monster.” The New Zealand Herald claimed that you could “hear the sniggering all the way around the globe.”

While a mythical dragon stopping a construction project makes for a colourful news headline, I believe this story is more than a folksy anecdote. Despite the dryness of the article, the New Zealand Herald did, to it’s credit, include Māori voices.

maoriThe Māori, attempting to recover lost parts of their culture, have turned to defend their traditional beliefs. Since the lore of the Māori claims the existence of a taniwha that resides by the highway, they have sought not only to use the beast as a strategy to reach a compromise with Transport New Zealand, but as a way of asserting Māori identity within a society that has historically attempted to erase their old beliefs.

Being the writer for a blog dedicated to “history and fantasy alchemized,” I found this whole dynamic wildly fascinating. Here the fantastic is perceived to have entered the continuum of history. Modern-day, rational people now have a reason to believe in dragons. And it is anything but fantasy for the sake of escapism, some whimsical trip of the imagination. It is a last resort of a people struggling. If the Māori recant, their identity cracks, fractures.

bulldozerAs the New Zealand Herald explains, the Māori felt ignored when plans for the road were drawn. A desperate fight to argue for a detour around the swamp is the only answer–a conflict reminiscent of Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. (That is, if Arthur Dent were the supernatural thousand-year-old guardian of Ngāti Naho, the local tribe.) And though the battle lines seem clear-cut–Māori who genuinely believe in the taniwha, against the Pakeha (non-Maori New Zealanders) who don’t–the lines are actually fuzzier. Many Māori may disbelieve in the taniwha, or have mixed feelings about their heritage and there are surely Pakeha sympathetic to their cause, maybe even some who believe in the supernatural.

This conflict is a prime example of traditional worldviews at conflict with rationalism. This is the same conflict that resides at the heart of the structure of the historical fantasy genre, which pits fantasy with mimesis, or realism. When magic or the supernatural appears within history, we are asked to judge whether a scientific understanding of the universe is a valid way to explain these events, or if they are, in fact, events completely outside the province of science. Perhaps the taniwha’s existence is entirely subjective, but does that make it an illegitimate phenomenon?

taniwha2If you’re like me, you might believe science holds the answers to why supernatural events occur. What we think of as the supernatural might simply have unknown causes.

But this is no simple ghost story for detectives to solve. The highway protest was a social movement. This is not so much a matter for physicists to decide, but for social scientists and anthropologists to analyze–maybe even ecologists. What if the taniwha is partly a metaphor for the Māori’s greater concern for the environmental impact of the highway? Just because the taniwha does not actually exist does not mean we should let its ecosystem die. (For the record, Ngāti Naho won their case.)

A factor of the unknown needs a name, a personification that can lend our complex world a sense of order and familiarity. Such a factor may take on the shape of the archetype of a dragon. A similar phenomenon occurs with the  elves of Iceland, mythical creatures widely believed to exist within our post-Enlightenment, post-Industrial, post-Darwinian, post-modern world. Both the elves and the taniwha live in patches of wilderness that locals wish to preserve from encroaching modernity.

Do Māori  believe in the taniwha the same way Icelanders believe in elves? Given the cultural significance of taniwha, can only Māori truly believe in the taniwha? What about Pakeha? What happens to the nature of belief itself when you can believe in something while in full knowledge of its scientific impossibility? Is this faith? Perhaps. But it may also be something else.

J.R.R. Tolkien in his essay “On Faerie-Stories,” claims to have desired dragons from a young age. Archetypes like dragons often form a part of the oneiric logic of dreams, which are driven by desire. It may be that in waking, we continue to desire dragons. They become a part of us, our identity.

Perhaps we are missing the point if we look at this phenomenon from a strictly scientific perspective. Actually, we’re practically missing the issue. Desiring dragons, and being consciously aware of this desire, makes dragons as real as anything else in the subjective sphere. Desiring dragons, we desire another plane of reality, we long for state of existence beyond our own: contact with the numinous. It proves the mundane does not satisfy us, because the mundane does not hold all truth.

The taniwha represents the desire of the Māori tribe involved in the protest to restore its culture and overcome erasure. That means its members must consciously believe in a supernatural creature because historically, their ancestors did believe in it. This desire for a connection to the past–a desire that makes the taniwha real enough–challenges the rationalistic definition of reality. “There are more layers to reality, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy,” Hamlet might say. To reject the taniwha legends on scientific principles reinforces the “intellectualist” arguments that have served to belittle and colonize the Māori. This pegs them as “other” and robs their culture of its legitimacy.

The highway protest is the perfect showcase for the competition between scientific and ‘traditional’ definitions of reality. One is framed by method and logic, the other by mythology. Both worldviews are legitimate.

Do you believe in the taniwha? Perhaps the better question is whether you desire it. If we begin to ask questions in this manner, we take the discussion off the laboratory table and the corporate desk. Then we can instead bring discussion into the cultural center , where we can have more meaningful discussions about the relationship between the supernatural, identity, and mystery.

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Links for further reading:

Taniwha through Maori eyes: http://news.tangatawhenua.com/archives/14944

What are taniwha?: http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/taniwha/page-1

Monster halts highway construction: http://tvnz.co.nz/content/143607

Taniwha: http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/taniwha

Taniwha in the way of Auckland rail loop: http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/5114496/Taniwha-in-the-way-of-Auckland-rail-loop

Transit and the Taniwha: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=3003401

The Elephant in the Room Horotiu the Taniwha!: http://www.channelmag.co.nz/channel-features-mainmenu-8/webpage-784/the-elephant-in-the-room-horotiu-the-taniwha-

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Photo Credits:

Taniwha: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Taniwha_rock_carving_from_the_side_%28Lake_Taupo%29.jpg

 

 

What Icelandic Elves can tell us about Christmas and the Environment

Merry Christmas! From Santa Claus and his "Huldufolk."

Merry Christmas! From Santa and his “Huldufolk” (I mean “elves”).

J.R.R. Tolkien
J.R.R. Tolkien

A merry Christmas to all! For Part 2 of my series on J.R.R. Tolkien, I take you to the frozen rocks of the North: to Iceland, the land that inspired so much of Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

I stumbled upon a fascinating article in today’s Montreal Gazette. “Concern for elves delays Icelandic road” by Jenna Gottlieb (Associated Press) caught my attention on page A21, and for more reasons than you might think. Perhaps the editors thought it fit to include an eccentric article on elves two days before Christmas, but the elves in question are not necessarily Santa’s North Pole helpers. Rather, they are spirits of the Icelandic landscape, the so-called hidden folk, or “Huldufolk.”

An set of elf houses in Iceland.
A set of elf houses in Iceland.

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In Iceland, a road is being built that will bisect a lava field. The bad thing is that the lava fields are where these “Huldufolk” nest. Building the road would drive the elves away and bring environmental ruin to the landscape they inhabit. A group called “Friends of Lava” are protesting the highway, citing the environmental impact and its negative effects on the elves as reasons why the bulldozers should stop in their tracks.

Elf house near a bicycle track in Iceland.
Elf house near a bicycle track in Iceland.

This sort of protest may seem strange, but according to Gottlieb, 62% of 1,000 respondents to a University of Iceland survey in 2007 said that is was “at least possible” that elves exist. I wonder if that is more or less than the percentage of North Americans who believe in Santa Claus. I’m inclined to believe there’s a lack of faith on this continent, although I consider those results skewed that exclude children from polls.

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I simply love Terry Gunnell’s explanation of why so many Icelanders still believe in elves. “This is a land where your house can be destroyed by something you can’t see (earthquakes), where the wind can knock you off your feet, where the smell of sulphur from your taps tells you there is invisible fire not far below your feet, where the northern lights make the sky the biggest television screen in the world, and where hot springs and glaciers ‘talk,’” he said.

Iceland
Icelandic volcano erupts behind grazing horses.

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Above all, it is the Icelanders’ connection with the land and the frightening powers that lie under the ground that cause these superstitions. (Or are they superstitions?) Icelanders still feel, on some level, that nature has power over them. That’s hard to believe, in cities like Montreal, New York, or worse, Los Angeles. Yet, according to Gottlieb, Icelanders still let their children play in the wilderness after dark. I can imagine a childhood there would be fascinating, especially around this time of year.

Take Christmas for example. Gottlieb describes how Icelanders have “13 trolls known as the ‘Yule Lads’ who come to town during the 13 days before Christmas. Each has a task, putting rewards or punishments into the shoes of little children. They include Stufur, or Stubby, who is extremely short and eats crusts left in pans, and Hurdaskellir or Door-Slammer, who likes to slam doors at night.” I think waking in the middle of the night, sneaking over to your kids’ bedroom(s), and slamming their doors hard to their surprise and consternation beats milk and cookies any year. Better yet, the joy of doing this can continue into their adolescence!

Perhaps what inspired me most about this article is how Icelanders are still connected to traditions. Christmas today is stressful, materialistic, and filled with Disneyfied glitz. In Iceland, Christmas is haunted by the homegrown traditions born in a landscape of weather-scarred rocks and volcanoes. There is something more primal and genuine about these traditions that capitalism and marketing has not sought to twist to its own advantage (at least to my knowledge).

Icelandic landscape frequently calls to mind Middle Earth.
Icelandic landscape frequently calls to mind Middle Earth.

Indeed, the “Friends of Lava” engage in an age-old struggle of traditional worldviews versus those of science and progress. Once upon a time, Europe was traditional, but that sense faded during the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century and Scientific Revolution. However, certain pockets of what we might call “superstition” persist. I would call those worldviews simply another way of connecting to nature and the environment we all rely upon.

Icelandic elves also testify, I fancy, to the reality of our unconscious, which emerges in dreams and mythology. Dennis Lee—the Canadian theorist and poet—claims that landscape has a cadence one feels on an unconscious level, deep in the pit of one’s stomach. I would go farther than Lee and say the music of cadence can impact out dreams and mythology. These “elves,” in whatever capacity they exist, are, after all, unarguably a part of the cadence of Iceland: creaking glaciers ‘talk’ to one another, windy gusts whistle over barren treeless landscapes, earthquakes and volcanoes shake the very earth your tread upon.

Taniwha spotted by observers. I wonder if they actually took a picture of the beast?
Taniwha spotted by observers. I wonder if they actually took a picture of the beast?

As a penultimate thought, let me tell you that these protesters using elf legends to stop a road being built are far from a unique. Although Wikipedia is my only source in this regard, I learned a long time ago that in New Zealand, the indigenous Maori have family guardian spirits called “taniwha,” large-mouthed, lizard-like creatures generally inhabiting oceans, lakes, and rivers. There have been incidents where Maori have blocked half-built roads in protest, because the bulldozers were about to plough through forests glades sacred to the taniwha. Newspaper writers claim it is the Maori using their traditional beliefs to provide reasons to fight the agendas of construction companies. Their argument subtly implies that even the Maori do not necessarily believe their own traditions anymore, but only reinvigorated the idea of the taniwha to make themselves stumbling blocks to “rational” progress.

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Similar incidents occur in Northern Quebec during First Nations protests along logging roads. My impression is that spirits are never far from First Nations consciousness, but they do not explicitly emerge as factors of reckoning in the newspapers. I speculate that in indigenous communities, faith in the “manitou” has waned after generations of subjection and suffering in Residential Schools, which were designed by the Canadian government to assimilate or annihilate their traditional culture. “Science” and “progress” try to stamp out traditional beliefs and then call those people irrational who use those same beliefs to protest further ravaging of the environment at the hands of their oppressors. Tradition and science seem locked in eternal war, even though it is my belief that this need not be so.

Whether “manitou,” “taniwha,” or “Huldufolk,” unseen spirits that lie within the landscape are endangered, as are those people who believe in them. Icelanders may not have been repressed culturally to the extent of Native Americans, but the power of science—though it can help us build bridges and send satellites into space—exerts a constant psychological pressure on use to impose a disbelief in the numinous. One sneaky way “modernity” does this in mainstream culture is by converting Christmas into the secular, capitalistic holiday into which it has decayed.

If we are going to save our environment, can science really hold the entire answer? Although I maintain that science has a crucial place in the war to protect our earth, I challenge that it holds the entire answer. The cases of Iceland, New Zealand, and Quebec show that believing in a super-reality that runs beyond that of the mere physical environment may inspire us with the passion we need to protect our environment. When culture is deeply connected to the landscape and environment, then a struggle to protect nature can become not only a fight for some unseen, invisible spiritual beings, but for our own communal identities.

And if consumerism seeks to erase those identities and traditions, whether around Christmas or any other time of year, then we have a responsibility to strike back with anything that lies outside that shallow worldview. For some, this might involving going to Advent masses rather than shopping, or volunteering one’s sweat and energy at a soup kitchen. For others, it might mean locking arms in a crowd of a hundred people on a lonely stretch of asphalt near an elven nesting ground.

Will Ferrel as Buddy the Elf in Elf. A modern case of an elf-changeling?
Will Ferrel as Buddy in Elf. A modern case of an elf-changeling?

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P.S. : If this article articulates one of the ways in which “fantasy” enters history and traditional beliefs come into direct conflict with the scientific worldview. It is part of the subversive potential of fantasy to be able to plant traditional discourse in the midst of rationalistic discourses. I explore fantasy’s subversive potential in my other post “Is Fantasy Heresy?”

P.S. : If you click on the “Doubtful News” article, you will see what I mean about the press. The press imposes rationalism onto the situation to show their contempt for traditional beliefs, without ever pausing to ask why these beliefs exist. It is far more interesting to explore phenomenon and express a more nuanced opinion about something that appears to be folly than to simply dismiss that phenomenon out of hand because “elves don’t exist.” It’s reductive, and, I hope my readers will agree, irrational to dismiss what one considers irrational simply because it does not fit within one’s understanding of the universe. The world’s a much larger place and can be seen from a thousand different angles.

It cannot be a coincidence that Peter Jackson filmed The Lord of the Rings in New Zeland, a land with a landscape that on occasion invokes Iceland.
It cannot be a coincidence that Peter Jackson filmed The Lord of the Rings in New Zealand, a land with a landscape that on occasion invokes Iceland.

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Photo Credits:

Tolkien: http://www.nndb.com/people/511/000022445/

Santa:http://annanimmity.com/thrifty-framed-art-coke-ads-from-life-magazine/

Iceland: http://www.backroads.com/trips/WIEI/iceland-hiking-tour

Volcano Horses: http://thefrem.wordpress.com/2010/04/21/iceland-volcano/ss-100417-iceland-07-ss-full/

Elf House: http://doubtfulnews.com/2012/10/bike-path-wont-disturb-elf-home-in-iceland-whew-what-a-relief/

http://samdailytimes.blogspot.ca/2012_10_09_archive.html

New Zealand: http://satoriexpeditions.com/expeditions/new-zealand/

Taniwha: http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/artwork/10874/the-kawautahi-taniwha

http://www.unexplained-mysteries.com/forum/index.php?showtopic=208567

Elf: http://whstherebellion.com/?attachment_id=38109