Greenmantle by Charles de Lint

GreenmantleWhat 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.

Charles de Lint
Charles de Lint

Photo Credits:

Charles de Lint: author page

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The Wonders in Wood

A tree along the shore in Auckland, New Zealand. Do you see the stag?
A tree along the shore in Auckland, New Zealand. Do you see the stag?

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:

stag_tree

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:

ligneous impjpgIt’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.

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Photo Credits:

Green man: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Trafalgar_Square_Green_Man_%28London,_England%29.jpg