Does magic exist in the contemporary world? Charles de Lint’s mythic fiction brings supernatural beings into the context of the everyday and Forests of the Heart explores the contact between ordinary people and what he calls Mystery.
Bettina and Adelita are sisters, both partly Mexican, partly Indios, and raised by their grandmother to see la époco del mito, the time of myth. However, as they grow older, Adelita puts the childish stories away, while Bettina becomes trained by her grandmother to become a skilled curandera, or healer. After her grandmother disappears, she comes up north to Newford, the imaginary setting of many Charles de Lint’s novels and short stories, and finds work as a model for a high-end artist’s retreat.
Meanwhile in Newford the folk/Celtic music scene that de Lint writes about so well is thriving even as an especially frigid winter threatens to upset the normalcy of the city. Miki and Donal are sister and brother, a musician and artist, who came years ago to Newford from an abusive family background in Ireland. Hunter, a man who stands out somewhat because he has no artistic leanings at all, owns Gypsy Records, a music record store that forms a hub for local musicians. De Lint provides copious details about the ins and outs of running such a store, likely because he has had experience running his own store. The author’s talent as a folk musician likewise brings an irresistible spark of life to his depictions of the musical communities of Newford.
But it is not into this community that serves as our introduction to Newford. At first we see Ellie, a sculptor, at work with the city’s Angel network, which helps out the homeless. Work is especially needed now that the weather is getting steadily worse. Our first impression of her comes from her heroic act of saving a homeless man choking to death on his own vomit, by giving him a most unpleasant mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Her companion on these outings with the Angel relief van is Tommy, a young Native American whose many aunts seem, to Ellie, to be mythical characters than real women.
When Ellie meets a mysterious man, who may also be a woman, on the streets that night who gives her a business card with the name Musgrave Wood upon it, she feels the first inkling of destiny beckoning to her. Is it a sculptor’s contract or something weirder?
Meanwhile at the Irish pub, Miki, Donal, Hunter, and Ellie grow suspicious about a group of dark strangers who sit in the back of the room to hear the Irish reels. Donal claims that they are hard men, made bitter by years of drunken Irish angst, and that it is better you don’t look at them for too long lest they try to make you their friend–an honour conferred by a punch to the guts. The weird thing is that Bettina, across town, can see them too, standing without winter clothing in the cold snow smoking just outside her window. And she grows steadily more convinced that they derive from the same magic world her grandmother showed to her.
It turns out these dark men are none other than the Gentry, exiled Irish spirits who wander homeless in the city. And they want their revenge against the native manitous, or Mysteries, the rightful spiritual guardians of North America. Their plot to assert dominance over the Mysteries will cause much destruction and draw all of de Lint’s characters into a test against the destructive potential that lies in the bitterness and darkness that all human beings carry deep inside of them.
Although this is not a new novel by Charles de Lint, it is more recent than his classic work Moonheart, a product of the 1980s. I strongly suspect the winter storm was inspired by the ’98 Ice Storm, a turn-of-the-century ordeal that blew out the power in hundreds of cities across the eastern seaboard and is still etched clearly in my memory. The conflict of the musicians/artists against the dark forces of the Gentry gains something of the air of the Fisher King myth, where the salvation of the land itself and its fertility is at stake. What’s so great about this is everyone over a certain age can remember this Ice Storm and feel that much closer to the myth. That’s part of the payoff of setting fantasy novels in the here-and-now.
Are there Canadian dragons? And if there are, what are they like? Canada is far too young a country to have ever had a population that naively believed in dragons of the European variety. By the time Europeans settled the land, dragons were known to be myths, creatures of the imagination. Besides, leathery wings and smoking nostrils seem quite out of their element in moose and beaver territory. Once upon a time, Canada may have been home to dinosaurs and, upon the arrival of the first Americans across the Bering Strait, the megafauna, such as woolly mammoths, but ultimately the cold seasons are far too adverse to the breeding of reptiles–of any species, real or imagined.
There are monsters and demons particular to Canada, found in First Nations and early settler folklore. Nightmares such as the windigo, who was said to devour travelers who strayed too far into the bush. But dragons belong to another ecology than the vast boreal forests of the Canadian North, which so fits the particular flavour of horror associated with the windigo.
Modern times have only further driven away the dragons, as cities and other human habitations have tamed the wilderness to such an extent that even the windigo has become obsolete. Let alone the flying lizards of legend. Today a Google search for ‘Canadian dragon’ gives you pictures of dragon boats, roller-coasters, and Kevin O’Leary.
All this is not to say, however, that dragons have never been imagined in Canada. Only to say that the imagining of dragons encounters resistance. While dragons appear in the novels of many Canadian fantasy authors–I’m thinking of the dragon in The Darkest Road by Guy Gavriel Kay especially–two Canadian poets have drawn portraits of dragons: Michael Ondaatje in The Dainty Monsters and Gwendolyn MacEwen in The Shadow-Maker.
Michael Ondaatje’s most famous for writing The English Patient, but before he hit mainstream success, he was an experimental novelist and poet. His later poetry, in Secular Love, becomes increasingly autobiographical and confessional, but his first book of poems is The Dainty Monsters, a bestiary of poems published and printed by Coach House Press.
In “Dragon,” Ondaatje draws the fantastic beast as the quintessential ‘dainty monster.’ “I have been seeing dragons again,” claims its speaker, implying that he might be hallucinating, that he shouldn’t be seeing them, but he is. The initial image is almost a code that says ‘This is how dragons are in Canada’: while canoeing in a lake the speaker sees a dragon “hunched over a beaver dam.” Far from the fire-breathing terror of villages and castles, this dragon “clutched a body like a badly held cocktail.” This is a dragon who is drunk and should go home.
Dragons are usually challenged by knights in shining armour who try to rescue princesses from their dens. But Ondaatje’s dainty dragon gets “tangled in our badminton net.” The only thing left of this dragon’s fiery breath, his greatest weapon, is “an extinct burning inside” as the speaker’s four badminton buddies and their “excited spaniel surrounded him.” This is a dragon entirely emasculated and surrounded by the artificial world that humans have built up around themselves. Rather than ravaging humanity, the dragon, representing the unknown dangers of nature, has now, in a world where nature is no longer the Other but tamed, become thing about as harmful as, say, a deer.
In Rat Jelly‘s poem “The Ceremony: A Dragon, a Hero, and a Lady, by Uccello,” Ondaatje returns to the dragon myth from the angle of an ekphrasis on the painting of Saint George and the Dragon by Uccello. His poem evokes the dynamism of the famous painting, which depicts Saint George, the Patron Saint of England, lancing a dragon through the eye. The landscape of the painting is somewhere between an artificial courtyard and a natural setting by a cave.
“A boy-knight shafts the dragon’s eye / –the animal with a spine of claws” writes Ondaatje. “The horse’s legs are bent like lightening. / The boy is perfect in his angle.” The painting is in movement but captures the perfect moment of the dragon’s death, an arrangement artificially staged like a ceremony. This poem reflects Ondaatje’s interest in the dialectic between order and the natural world that characterizes his Henri Rousseau poems, such as “Henry Rousseau and Friends,” and, I believe, anticipates his interest in the movement and caught motion, which becomes a principle aesthetic concern in “‘The gate in his head.'”
Gwendolyn MacEwen’s Canadian dragon is not especially Canadian, but rather appears at first to take after the European kind like Ondaatje’s second dragon poem. But on second thought, her dragon might be Near Eastern–not Chinese, but Mesopotamian. Fascinated by all things exotic, MacEwen’s interest was in Tiamat, the Babylonian goddess of chaos who took the form of a dragon and whose body, after her death at the hands of Marduk, was used to create the heaven and earth. Although this myth doesn’t appear per se in her poem “The Taming of the Dragon” in The Shadow-Maker, the theme of chaos becoming order remains a primary concern.
MacEwen’s dragon has become dainty. “Once the monster’s jaws unfolded fire / but now how harmless are his claws / and all his teeth are capped with gold.” He’s even become a vegetarian: “between his teeth / are bits of flowers, for he’s sworn off flesh; he seems so glad and foolish.” Rather than positioning the dragon in modern-day Canadian spaces like Ondaatje does, MacEwen places him in the mental space of myth itself. The speaker, whom one can read as a creative poet-figure, mourns the loss of the dragon not because it is a noble creature, but because she mourns “how I used to stand / stricken white in his dreadful breath.” Her speaker needs a relationship with death in order to attain purity. White is the colour of purity and the albedo, the stage of purification in the alchemical process. Dragon’s breath, which is fire, is the agent by which she can achieve the albedo. But now that chaos has been tamed, she has lost the danger that provides the impetus to creativity.
The tamed dragon wears a wreath around his neck and “seems so glad and foolish” now that he has been rewarded with what could be laurels–the traditional symbol for poetic acclaim. MacEwen’s dragon shows how creativity, which thrives on danger and looming death, dies when it is tamed with praise and recognition.
Ondaatje and MacEwen adopt an attitude towards the dragon as an extinct animal, both finding within the monster a symbol for how the chaos and danger of previous medieval worlds have become order and tameness in our modernity. Canada is an inhospitable land for dragons, according to these poets, partly because it is and only has been modern. Differing from mainstream urban fantasy authors who find no trouble in writing dragons into the modern world, these poets reflect on why it is so difficult and jarring to imagine such monsters invading our comfortable, dainty lives. Yet imagine dragons they do.
What is gained by even trying to imagine such a connection to a mythic past in our seemingly unmythical and unhistorical world, which resists dragons so totally? Is it nostalgia? A desire to live among symbols? This is one of the great questions mythic writing and fantasy ask.
In “A Toronto Home for Birds and Manticores” Ondaatje’s speaker briefly expresses a desire for some kind of connection to myth–that a mythic past might emerge as a result of an archaeology not of dirt but of snow: “When snows have melted / how dull to find just grass and dog shit. / Why not the polemic bones of centaurs.” The question of “Why not?” is what Ondaatje asks himself in “Dragon,” but all he finds is an answer to the ‘not.’ MacEwen attempts to mythologize the city of Toronto in her Noman books, but as the title suggests, living a mythic reality in Canada is an alienating struggle.
MacEwen in “The Thin Garden” suggests that these great myths cannot be found in Canada, but must be found outside: “No traveller comes here from innocence / but for that myth the snow cannot provide, / and all our histories lie outside.” For MacEwen, this ‘outside’ was Egypt and Mesopotamia. She suggests what many fantasy authors–even ones willing to let dragons live in the modern day–have found to be true in Canada: the myths can only be imported from elsewhere–such as from the Middle East, or, I add, England and Europe–for want of an established native mythology. Of course, there are Native American myths aplenty, but for European-descended writers, there are those who claim that using First Nations myths is an act of cultural appropriation, a discouraging quandary.
In conclusion, we can say that there are Canadian dragons, but, in the imaginations of the poets examined in this post, once those dragons fly across the pond, they live within our climate of long winter seasons in a state of severe, disabling culture shock.
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.
Old Norse heroism seems to be in vogue these days, given the popularity of Thor and the film adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which is steeped in Norse mythology. Furthermore, the classic literature of the North has been gaining academic readerships ever since the publication of the Penguin collection The Sagas of Icelanders in 2001. Add to this Jeramy Dodds’s recent translation of the Poetic Edda, a cultural treasure of classic tales about Odin, Loki, Freyr, and the rest of the Asgard gang, and the cultural milieu in which Ian Cumpstey’s Warrior Lore (Skadi Press, 2014) enters can be said to be densely populated indeed. The question is, can such a collection of Scandinavian folk ballads stand out?
While certainly Warrior Lore will encounter a much smaller audience than The Hobbit movies, it is a book to which a reader such as Tolkien himself might have been drawn. Written down around 1600 AD, these folk ballads collected and translated by Cumpstey from the original Swedish are part of the heroic tradition of poetry. This means contests of arms, kidnapped lovers, trolls, riddles, and, yes, even skiing.
Told in four-line, rhyming stanzas that are followed by a chorus line, these poems tell the warlike exploits of some of Scandinavia’s forgotten heroes. Most character names will be unfamiliar to readers, although there is one story, “The Hammer Hunt,” in which Thor and Loki make an appearance. Also, those familiar with the Norman Conquest of 1066 will appreciate the appearance of King Harald Hardrada in “Heming and King Harald.” They will also learn, when Harald dies at Heming’s hand instead of at the Battle of Stanford Bridge, just how loosely the poets regarded historical fact.
Warrior Lore varies from Cumpstey’s earlier collection Lord Peter and Little Kerstin in its reduced emphasis on magic and fantastic beings–all except the trolls. In compensation, there is plenty of axe-swinging violence of the kind to expect from medieval Scandinavians. Although the ballads become slightly monotonous–the competition between warriors and the rhyming stanza form rarely present surprises–it is a short collection and I was impressed by the scholarship. Cumpstey traces the manuscript transmission of each story and speculates on the oral tradition behind them. For each tale that has survived down to our own time, many other tales have been forgotten. Although the ballads are not exhaustively collected, they are a window into a new world of literature, and form an accessible supplementary resource.
Lovers of Scandinavian and old Norse myths and legends will likely be the first to read Warrior Lore. Academics interested in alternative narrative traditions in the medieval European milieu–stories uninfluenced, as far as I know, by the all-pervading Greek traditions of the Mediterranean–should be interested as well. As a student of English, I am keenly aware of just how different these ballads are from anything springing from the influence of the Graeco-Roman epics of Virgil and Homer. They also greatly differ from the tradition of tale-telling represented in The Arabian Nights and The Decameron. Yet they are not completely different. Plot is considered primary instead of character, and the relatively straightforward narratives value the human virtues of cleverness and competition. The contest of arms between Hector and Achilles is made of the same stuff as the fight between Heming and King Harald.
Given the academic significance of Warrior Lore, I, for one, hope that it earns its place in the constellation of similar English translations of Scandinavian poetry–and earns the attention of many more readers.
Perusing the books on sale at MythCon 45 at Wheaton College in Norton, MA this summer, I stumbled across a most peculiar historical fantasy novel. It was the long-lost masterpiece of Kenneth Morris, The Chalchiuhite Dragon.
Well-known, if not actually famous, for his modern Celtic fantasies such as The Fates of the Princes of Dyfed and Book of Three Dragons, Morris was a contemporary of J.R.R. Tolkien and the Inklings, though he spent most of his time within the tight-knit community of the Theosophical Society in Wales and California. The Chalchiuhite Dragon, his final novel, was left unpublished at his death, and is the only classic fantasy based in Mesoamerica that I have read. Due partly to the prompting of Ursula K. Le Guin, who valourized Morris’s writing style in “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie,” a famous 1970s essay on proper diction in fantasy writing, this final novel was edited and published fifty-five years after the author’s death in 1992.
I was left in utter amazement that Morris’s book should be resurrected from the dead in the early 90s in a book cover style that seems to label it as a bestselling, contemporary novel. This astonishing story in the history of fantasy publishing is all the more remarkable since Morris’s writing style is at least partly the reason why editors felt it was valuable to publish this novel posthumously. The style is anything but contemporary; in fact, I might call the style as opaque as jade. When mixed with the obscure, impossible-to-pronounce-without-a-guide Toltec names, following the novel’s storyline was a labour. The dictionary of names at the back of the book is a necessary tool, and the absence of a map makes the storyline still more difficult to follow. Yet there is no doubt that it is written in a high style.
In terms of reading difficulty, Morris is between Tolkien and E.R. Eddison–Tolkien being the easiest to read and Eddison being the most difficult. It is these two authors, with Morris and George MacDonald, whom Le Guin declares to be the true masters of epic diction in modern fantasy. Especially for fantasy authors who are themselves interested in imitating the formal epic style of modern fantasy, The Chalchiuhite Dragon can make an instructive read in addition to an entertaining one.
The prose is a rock wall over which you must climb to access the spectacular Mesoamerican vistas. The novel should reward any devotee of modern fantasy who is willing to work through passages such as the following:
On the night of the Arrival of the Gods, every priest in Huitznahuac watched in his deity’s temple for the Divine Event. Thus the Royal Uncle Acatonatzin, being Tezcatlipocâ-priest, watched from the koo of the Soul of the World.
There are words you will not understand and some characters have more than one name, like Nopal’s alternatives names, Nopalton and Nopaltontli. But despite the density of the prose, it can make a rewarding reading for those interested.
Believe it or not, the story behind the The Chalchiuhite Dragon is one that lies behind a story that will be familiar to some. It is about mythical Huitznahuacan, a capital city of a kingdom that has never known war, and the events leading up to the birth of the Plumed Serpent Quetzalcoatl, whose form in a jade (chalchiuhite in Toltec) statue becomes a key image in the novel. Yes, this is (approximately) the same Quetzalcoatl whom the Aztecs, according to legend, mistook for Hernàn Cortes during the Spanish conquistador’s invasion of Mexico. Quetzalcoatl is like the Jesus Christ of Mesoamerica, a Prince of Peace and lawgiver for the Toltecs. However, the main action of the story is the lead-up to this miraculous birth during the holy month of Teotleco.
At times reading like an anthropological description of an ancient people’s religious practices, The Chalchiuhite Dragon comes across as a subtle mix of classical literature and political intrigue. When the Huitznahuatecs encounter foreign ambassadors during a festival, a whole new and dangerous world becomes introduced to them–Toltec civilization. Toltecs have a mysterious practice called war, with which the Huitznahuatecs are unfamiliar. The utopian, though naive, city must survive the conquest of the Toltecs and the wily machinations of its war leaders. A story about innocence lost and the hope for future peace emerges, a rewarding, oddly Christmas-y conclusion to a particularly well-written and neglected modern fantasy classic.
Imagine if Tolkien had written The Lord of the Rings sixty years ago, but it was only published this year. That is was what the intrigue behind The Chalchiuhite Dragon must have been like in 1992. Now in 2015, it is up for a new generation of Morris fans to determine whether it will be celebrated and for how long it will be remembered.
What happens when you combine Robert Graves’s The White Goddess with Martin Scorsese’s mafia flick Goodfellas? I’m not sure, but it wouldn’t be far from Charles de Lint’s 1988 ‘mythic fiction’ novel Greenmantle.
Called the father of urban fantasy, Charles de Lint is the author of dozens of novels that combine fantasy with mainstream fiction. Perhaps ironically then, many of his novels concern the hipster class of bohemian folk musicians who certainly live beyond the ‘mainstream.’ However, Greenmantle abandons the usual urban settings and artsy protagonists of de Lint’s other fiction for a single mother and her bookish daughter who settles in the Ottawa suburbs.
De Lint stays true to mainstream fiction’s value of depicting how real people deal with real situations–it’s just that sometimes those situations are fantastic. Ali, the teenaged protagonist, moves outside the city after Frankie, her mother, wins the Wintario lottery. Ali’s fondness for classic works of fantasy that many readers will never have heard about–and the fact that she has moved between several different homes with her mother over her childhood–sets her apart from other teenagers. While living on the outskirts of a great forest, Ali makes the friendly acquaintance of a mysterious Italian neighbor, as she puzzles over the distracting, unearthly sounds of pan pipes that emerge from the bush.
This calm, even idyllic setup is preceded by intense scenes that seem to come from a Mario Puzzo novel. Tony Valenti, a member of the Sicilian fratellanza, is framed for the murder of his godfather–a crime he did not commit. He escapes Europe to hide away in his safe house in Canada while the heat dies down–right next door to Ali and Frankie. Meanwhile, Earl, Frankie’s ex, concocts a scheme to force her to sign over the Wintario money.
Alone, these plots could fuel a high-stakes thriller. Combined with the fantastic presence of the god Pan in the woods behind Ali and Frankie’s home, Greenmantle becomes something more than that.
An incarnation of the Horned One described in Robert Graves The White Goddess, Pan is a mystery, a being who appears at times as a human, a stag, a goat-footed satyr, or a combination of forms. The piping that summons him affects everyone differently, although for most people it produces feelings of hope. The only problem is, it seems, that a pack of baying hounds constantly hunts the great stag. Is the mystery’s power failing in a world that has no more need of mystery? Not only Greenmantle, but Charles de Lint’s entire oeuvre, seems to ask this question.
Without ever really making the thematic connections between the three interweaving plots explicit, de Lint places Frankie and Tony in the role of the hunted stag. Men from the fratellanza are coming to kill Tony, just as the baying hounds pursue Pan, and Earl is on the hunt for Frankie. I was half-expecting Tony to become the stag at one point, rather like how in Greek mythology–specifically, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses–Diana, the Virgin Goddess, transforms Actaeon into a stag. ‘The hunter becomes the hunted’ is both a mythological trope and something you can hang on the cover of an airport thriller novel. De Lint somehow makes it all work, elevating his thriller to the status of visionary art.
De Lint describes his chief inspiration for Greenmantle as Lord Dunsany’s novel The Blessing of Pan, in which a Christian vicar attempts to evangelize neo-pagan worshipers. Wolding, the paganized village in Dunsany’s story, becomes New Wolding in Greenmantle, after the inhabitants of the former village immigrate to found an independent, hidden, and self-sufficient village in Ontario. This gesture is one of several references to the history of fantasy contained in the novel itself, which reveals de Lint’s consciousness of writing within a tradition that stretches back long before Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. De Lint inhabits his ‘second generation’ status as a fantasy author with innovative purpose.
There is magic, mystery, and brutal murder behind the covers–certainly a work of adult fiction. Yet women and men should be equally attracted to reading this wonderful book. De Lint has a facility of writing strong female characters and, in my reading, I found the ‘male’ and ‘female’ elements of this novel to be well-balanced; it has features that will strongly appeal to guys and gals. One scene in particular includes Frankie lecturing Tony, who is a slightly macho Italian, on some of the finer points of feminism–a memorable scene.
Greenmantle is classic Charles de Lint and a great introduction to an author who should be read more frequently.
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.