Today’s post involves that favourite pastime of fantasy artists–finding shapes in wood. The more interesting texture to the wood, the more shapes people tend to see within the fibers. I have seen my fair share of flat-out inspiring shapes. Take the above photo for example, which I took in 2008 when I was in New Zealand for World Youth Day. You can see what I thought resembles a stag turned into wood in the trunk of this enormous tree (the canopy of this particular species stretches very wide in either direction).
The above photo inspired me to write a narrative poem in the tradition of Ovid–imagine that Actaeon peeked at the nude Diana while she bathes, then the goddess in her anger transforms Actaeon into a stag, before taking pity on him just at the end by immortalizing him into wood so he can’t be eaten by his own dogs. If you can’t see the stag, maybe you can look below at the sketch I made which exaggerates my imaginative observation:
More recently than 2008–in fact it was 2013–I spotted a nymph who molded herself into a thin tree, embracing it as if trying to fuse her spirit into the plant. It mystified me. What it really was, was a kind of misshapen tumour growing on this young tree on Mount Royal in a small patch of trees close to the staircase near Pine Avenue. But I couldn’t resist the sense that if this strange growth on the tree wasn’t an imp, then it at least represented a beating heart. Unfortunately I did not have my camera at the time and when I returned in later months to take a snapshot, I could not find the tree again–that is, if it was still alive. This hand-drawn picture (coloured on Photoshop) will give a sense of what I saw, but also what I saw in it:
It’s moments like this where you realize how old civilizations like the Celts and the Algonquins or Iroquois may have seen spirits in their natural world. Perhaps they saw strange things in nature that suggested this presence.
Lastly, perhaps the most traditional sighting of a spirit in wood is when a passing traveler notices an old oak and sees a man’s face in the leaves, or in the texture of the bark. This one even has a name: the Green Man. Here is a picture of him from Trafalgar Square, but you can see him anywhere, on most any stone decoration on an older building. And next to him I have attached a texture reference I took of an interesting tree on Mount Royal whose bark would no doubt serve as an extension to the Green Man’s beard. See more wood faces here.
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.
The 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.
As 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?
If 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.