Leonora Carrington, a British-Mexican author and artist, is best known for her surrealist paintings and sculptures, but her literary output provides “a tantalizing glimpse of ways that surrealism might have had more influence on the weird tale” (277). Her story “White Rabbits” certainly gives a sense of dread and terror and decay in a “weird” way, while also exploring the violation of taboos in a surrealist way.
According to André Breton in his First Surrealist Manifesto of 1924, “surrealism is pure, psychic automatism by which it is intended to express, verbally, in writing or in any other way, the true function of thought, thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations” (quote taken from Sufism and Surrealism by Adonis, “Extracts from Surrealist Writing”). Surrealism seeks to liberate the mind and break the taboos imposed on thought by social conventions, in an effort to capture thought in its purest state. Often, this means that surrealist art takes on a dreamlike quality, such as in Carrington’s own paintings.
Weird fiction and surrealism thus seem to be two aesthetic modes that pair extremely well together. Both can be used to question the social constructs that human beings use to regulate and control reality. Both can be used to fog the categories by which we classify objects. Both attempt to describe reality in a piercing way, through a prism that gives a clearer view of reality through its distortion of surface reality.
But what does a surrealist weird tale actually look like? The best way to answer that question would be to read “White Rabbits” itself.
In “White Rabbits,” the narrator moves into a dimly lit home in New York, where she encounters a woman who carries out a dish of bones to feed a flock of ravens, using her long, black hair to wash the dish when they are done. Already, several taboos are broken: the handling of the bones (no word that the bones aren’t human) and the dichotomy between dirty and clean, encapsulated by the washing of the plate with a part of the human body. These suggest the woman does not follow the rules of wider society and, depending on how you understand these behaviours, they might even cast doubt that she is a human being as we understand it.
The narrator and the woman exchange pleasant smiles. Then the woman casually asks the narrator for “decomposed flesh meat” (278). Not sure if the woman is joking at first, the narrator eventually decides to do her new neighbour a favour by buying some meat and letting it go to rot over the course of a week before giving it to her.
When she delivers the meat to the woman in her home, she feeds it to her pets: a group of carnivorous, white rabbits “who fought like wolves for the meat” (278).
Her husband, Lazarus, appears, stating that he is upset that the narrator has been permitted to enter the house. The woman defends her and then suggests that the narrator stay with them, in that house, forever: “In seven years, your skin will be like stars, in seven years you will have the holy disease of the Bible, leprosy!” (279).
The terrified narrator runs away, “choking with horror,” yet unable not to look back as, in one unforgettable image, the woman waves goodbye: “her fingers fell off and dropped to the ground like shooting stars” (279).
These images are charged and cannot help but produce a shudder in the reader. There is something unsettling and uncanny, in particular, about a white rabbit–a peaceful, vegetarian creature–that gorges on rotten meat like a wolf. Though comic images from Monty Python and the Holy Grail came to my mind while reading this story (an association that did not exist in 1942), they did not get much in the way of the raw, unsettling, remorseless way Carrington writes the image. White rabbits also carry certain connotations from Alice in Wonderland: the narrator narrowly avoids tumbling down a rabbit hole into a backwards, bizarre world.
As uncanny as the rabbits are, however, what might be more uncanny about this story is how Carrington twists the casual, neighbourly relationship between the narrator and the leprous woman into something twisted. Part of the process of moving into a new home or apartment is befriending one’s neighbours by doing them small favours. It’s a form of hospitality, a code to follow, and simply one of the kind things people do for one another. Carrington reimagines this relationship as an extreme, grotesque version of itself, rendering the homely unhomely.
The code exists as the artificial construct it is revealed to be, but the normality of it is stripped bare. The neighbour’s request for a piece of rotting meat hints that there is something strange about this relationship. What’s more, the neighbour’s attempt to trap the narrator into their creepy, abject way of life breaks the bond of hospitality completely, an ancient code that in the Western tradition goes back to the Odyssey. The neighbour is a Polyphemus who raises carnivorous bunnies and attempts to trap the narrator in her leprous cavern of a home.
Carrington’s charged images are highly effective, so much so that it leaves me wanting to read more stories like this. Why did surrealism not have a greater effect on weird fiction’s development? The combination of surrealism and the weird is clearly potent, and, in my opinion, is more unsettling than weird fiction that takes on the conventional structures of horror.
Next week I will be examining Donald Wollheim’s “Mimic” (1942).
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.
Alicia 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 Power—the Ring was a WMD that really did exist.
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.
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!
At the beginning of another MythCon, this one in Colorado Springs–where I am now, giving a presentation–it is fitting to review the book of the first MythConer with whom I ever struck up a conversation. This is one of the only cases where I knew the author before I knew he was an author. I found him waiting in line to be registered at the desk and we started to talk.
“Mock,” he told me his name was, but then I realized he had an accent, that his name was “Mark.” He too was reading through John Crowley’s Aegypt Quartet at the time and I thought I was one of the only people in the world to be reading it. We struck up a rapport.
‘Mock,’ incidentally, is more or less what he does to the Arthurian tradition in Sleepless Knights, a novel shortlisted for the 2014 Mythopoeic Prize for Adult Fiction. Last MythCon, it went up against Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Land and the winner, The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker (which, also incidentally, I have just heard recommended as an audiobook by Mary Robinette Kowal on the Writing Excuses podcast). Mark is also a playwright and scriptwriter, having written for the Horrible Histories series–and traces of that series’s humour winds up in Sleepless Knights. I still have my old copy of Horrible Canadian History on a shelf downstairs.
If Sleepless Knights had been nominated for this year, I like to think it might have had a better chance of winning, since the MythCon theme this year is on the Arthurian Mythos. A review now, during the conference, is certainly a propos…
Toby Whithouse, a writer for Doctor Who and Being Human, calls Sleepless Knights “a cracking good read” and his British jargon accurately describes the book’s Monty Pythonesque humour. It is a unique mixture of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day–a very British but wholly unconventional pairing.
Lucas is King Arthur’s butler. He has served the Master with absolute devotion for thousands of years into the modern era, when one Ritual Day, Arthur vanishes to unknown parts. It is fundamental that Lucas rally the team and keep the Knights of the Round Table together. But since the glory days of Camelot, Sir Kay has become a book-hoarding murderer, Sir Lancelot has become an inspirational speaker, and Sir Pellinore is a crazed and delusioned hunter after the mysterious Questing Beast. Soon the only thing that can save them is Merlin himself.
But when they find the place in Wales where Merlin is said to lie in waiting, they unwittingly open a path to the Otherworld, unleashing a mass destructive Apocalypse that only the knights have a clue how to fend off. But as the modern era begins to grow uncomfortably aware of the existence of King Arthur, it becomes Lucas’s responsibility to ensure his Master’s safety and the integrity of the Round Table.
Sleepless Knights also contains a series of flashback chapters to the glory days of Camelot in which we see Lucas in his element, directing kitchen staff during a busy festival. How does a butler assist and provide for the guests with minimal intrusion? How does a butler organize the seating around the Round Table, especially when one of the knights, Sir Mordred, is destined to betray Arthur? There are passages where Mark successfully captures the sang froid of Kazuo Ishiguro’s butler Mr. Stevens, who at one point in Remains of the Day expresses admiration for the ability to remain calm and professional even if a tiger takes up residence under the dinner table. The difference with Sir Lucas is that he is slightly less repressed and has to deal not with tigers, but werewolves. Mark provides a fresh angle on Arthurian legend seen from the perspective of a servant. It is not so long before Sir Lucas must venture on a quest of his own.
I was pleasantly surprised by how well I enjoyed Sleepless Knights. One thing Mark did well and that I wanted a lot more of was Lucas’s sang froid attitude. That voice was strong in the beginning chapters, but the Apocalypse, for obvious reasons, provides only a few opportunities for exhibiting calm orderliness under Otherworldly duress. The only resistance I encountered in reading it was, since I read it nightly chapter by chapter, I had some difficulty picking up the thread of adventure after the day caused me to forget what was happening right before I put the book down. Some chapters end after suddenly introducing a wholly new situation–Sleepless Knights is, after all, a wild, cartoony, dragonback ride. That’s part of what makes it funny and I was happy to trust in the author through several out-of-nowhere surprises, which were eventually explained. The good thing is that these defects simply act as motivation to binge-read Sleepless Knights all the way through.
Mark confided to me that there is, actually, some textual/historical evidence for the existence of Sir Lucas in Arthurian legend. That satisfies the scholar in me. I suspect the reference might be to The Chronicles of Godfrey of Wales,the source text to which he appears, by his own admission, to have consulted. Sleepless Knights is a great example of a how a lost detail in a tale can be exploded into the concept for a whole novel.