Taniwha Highway: the Phenomenon of Modern Day Dragons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Links for further reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo Credits:

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

 

 

Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever: Lord Foul’s Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson

lord foul's baneBeware! Leper unclean! shout the crowds.

Don’t touch me! responds Thomas Covenant, the antihero of Stephen R. Donaldson’s memorable epic fantasy trilogy. In this exchange, which Convenant repeats in his mind like a mantra for his sanity, Donaldson summarizes the conflict of his protagonist. Despite being unlikeable, Covenant tends to garner your empathy. He’s a man whose marriage to his wife and his writing career crashes on the day he discovers he has been infected with a rare disease that makes him a cripple and a social outcast.

And that was before he was brought, against his will, to the Land.

Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever: Lord Foul’s Bane is the first novel in Donaldson’s signature trilogy, and a book that made experiments in the epic fantasy genre. Published 1977, around the time of the epic fantasy surge that saw the rise of Terry Brooks and other Tolkienistas, Thomas Covenant broke a rule by turning a leprous antihero into a protagonist and implying that the fantasy world he travels through is only a dream.

What a phenomenal idea, as original today as it must have been forty years ago.  This is a book well worth rediscovering.

Thomas Covenant fights a losing battle for his health. He is missing three fingers and his wedding ring is the only sign he carries of a relatively happy past life. A social pariah in small-town America when we first see him, his great rebellion consists of a journey to personally pay his bill at the Bell Telephone Company. A woman has taken the liberty of paying his bills for him, because they just don’t want a leper walking through town. In an effort to reclaim his humanity and connection to the community, he makes his epic quest to town.

On the way, he gets knocked over by a police car.

When he awakes, he is in the Land, surrounded by darkness as Lord Foul, the incarnation of Despite, gives him a quest. He must deliver a message to the council of Lords that Drool Rockworm, a Cavewight has the Staff of Law. This, Foul promises, is cause for despair. All life in the land will be obliterated soon if Covenant does nothing. Still quite ignorant of his situation, hethen finds himself high upon Kevin’s Watch, a pinnacle in a mountain range where he first surveys the Land.

A Pre-Raphaelite Landscape
A Pre-Raphaelite Landscape

The Land is sublime in all its Pre-Raphaelite glory: rolling green hills, vast mountain ranges, mighty rivers. It exudes an aura of health, the vitality of all its living things. Rather like New Zealand, where the Lord of the Rings movies were filmed, it is a source of beauty and goodness.

Soon Covenant makes the acquaintance of the Stonedownor, a tribe of squarely-built, rock-solid humans who specialize in stone-lore. And his quest begins. Men, women, and giants are drawn to him, thinking that he is the incarnation of the hero Berek Halfhand–who lost half his hand from an axe during an epic battle against Lord Foul aeons ago. But Covenant cannot comprehend this lore, doubting even that the Land exists, preferring it as a dream: that his half-hand is the result of leprosy, not prophesy.

He must journey to Revelstone, the seat of the Lords, who are the most powerful magicians in the Land, although their strength is much diminished from the Lords of old. Protectors of the Land’s health, the Lords will do everything in their power to defeat Lord Foul at his game. But all the while, Thomas Covenant doubts.

His wedding ring has become a powerful source of wild magic, perhaps the most useful weapon with which to fight Drool, if he can master it. However, he has no wish to. Because to buy into the reality of that magic and the very existence of the Land would be to sacrifice his sanity.

As a leper, Covenant’s priority is survival. Every day, he tests his nerves by shaving with a straight razor and checks his extremities for signs that his disease is spreading. Meanwhile, “dis-ease” is spreading across the Land in the form of Drool’s bane. As wrongness spreads and reality itself thins, Covenant must at once resist the Land’s seductions while finding a way to get back home.

Thomas Covenant’s tale is existential, filled with the conflict between hope and despair, survival and death, madness and sanity. In a wonderful, if cheeky, move, Donaldson actually provides a reading guide to his own book in the world of the story. A wizard hobo in Covenant’s hometown gives him a slip of paper on the “fundamental question of ethics”:  is it noble to fight for a heroic, moral cause if the world we believe in is an illusion, or is it more courageous to rebel against that world, which we know to be a lie?

In one option, we buy into a lie, but can perform good deeds within that lie. The other option has us resist that lie, holding out in the hope for a more accurate reality, at the expense of neglecting the world. This is how we come to admire Covenant, even as it is the same reason we hate him.  If the Land is an illusion, it means he doesn’t have to be good. Yet though his rebellion against the Land seems cowardly, we still see his courage in his attempts to master his sanity.

Another less philosophical  but more academic reason to read this book is that it fully develops the four-part structure of the fantasy novel outlined by John Clute in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy. (I discuss this a little more in depth here.) This structure consists of wrongness, thinning, recognition, and healing. Wrongness is mentioned explicitly as part of the disease that afflicts the Land, while a strange phenomenon of thinning happens in the presence of some forms of evil magic. The well-being of the Land itself can be restored through healing. And, in the end, Thomas Covenant does have a severe recognition in which he recognizes that he is in a story crafted by a brilliant but cruel hand with an eye for paradox and irony.

Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever will compel many readers to become seduced by the Land, even though it is Covenant’s mantra to resist it.

Stephen R. Donaldson, author of Thomas Covenant
Stephen R. Donaldson, author of Thomas Covenant

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Image Credits:

Stephen R. Donaldson: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_R._Donaldson

Cover: http://sfbook.com/lord-fouls-bane.htm

landscape: http://2hpencil.com/tag/pre-raphaelite-brotherhood/

Are Tolkien’s Ideas Still Alive in Our Postmodern Twenty-First Century?

J.R.R. Tolkien
J.R.R. Tolkien
Pub where Tolkien met with his Inkling bros. Wish I was here.
Pub where Tolkien met with his Inkling bros. Wish I was here.

J.R.R Tolkien, born this day in 1892, would be 122 if he were alive today, one of the oldest people in the world. Alas, his physical body perished 2 September 1973, even though his textual body lives on, with much thanks to the continued labours of Christopher Tolkien, his son and editor. I would love to celebrate Tolkien’s birthday with a pint at the Eagle and Child Pub, where Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and the rest of the Inklings used to meet. Being landlocked in Pierrefonds, a suburb of Montreal, Quebec, I cannot, however, and must compensate by posing a question to you all.

Does Tolkien’s spirit live on in 2014?

ArthurIt would be hard to deny, upon first glance. Peter Jackson’s second Hobbit movie has hit theatres and a third is on the way. New editions of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy are being produced, while many of his more obscure works appear on shelves at Chapters—including The Fall of Arthur, his Arthurian poem in the style of the Alliterative Morte Darthur. Many people around the globe cling loyally to Tolkien’s legacy. The entire epic fantasy genre claims strong ties to Tolkien’s example.

However, behind such observations lies the assumption that Tolkien’s survival depends on his economic value. They do not tell us how, in specific, people perceive his legacy, aside from the obvious. Such observations can tell us nothing of people’s attitudes towards his ideas, aside from a vague sense that they are willing to temporarily “buy into” his aesthetics, his politics, and philosophy. Do his ideas have any deeper resonance for those who buy his books?

I have never conducted a poll among Tolkien-readers. Perhaps it is for the better, though, since I would be asking strange questions for people who just want to read The Hobbit. “What are your beliefs about mythology?” “Do you believe that the deepest human yearning is the desire for communion with nature?” “Do you believe that the subcreator’s power is the refracted light of the Creator’s primary creativity, imparted to the subcreator by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit?”

Chances are these questions never cross our minds when first fingering a Tolkien paperback. We may outright disagree with some of what he believes. Tolkien tied his theory of art closely to his identity as a Catholic and likened the creation of art to an act of communion. Although he draws a beautiful system in “On Fairy Stories” and his poem “Mythopoeia,” the religious imagery might fly over the heads of non-Catholics.

His ideas about mythology might also be described as “essentialist.” Because of his religious convictions, he says he believes that mythology comes from a objective, transcendental source—whether the Tree of Tales, or God Himself. After Lacan and post-structuralism, however, mythology is not viewed as being so much transcendental as born out of sexual drives inherent in all humans. These developments in the theory of mythology place a shadow over Tolkien’s more Victorian conception of fairy tales and myth.

Admittedly, most of us make no account of these ideas. We may read Tolkien for the sheer pleasure of escape. Though we may not be aware of the abstract, theological ideas saturating Tolkien’s philosophy of art, we should not feel that we ought to be aware of those ideas. Each reader reads Tolkien differently and should. But how can we reconcile our investment in Tolkien as a culture to our postmodern (hyper)reality?

How does Tolkien survive today?

Do we still desire old things? Or are we so ingrained in this commodified, throw-away culture that we no longer consider old ways of viewing the world, trees, nature, and birdsong? I feel personally that I spend far too much time dealing with ephemeral trivialities. There is no better time to think about our wasteful society than just after Christmas. It’s sad, but I can’t think of a time of year when our fetishization of the commodity is more evident than late December and early January. As Christianity turned pagan Saturnalia into the Birth of Christ, capitalism has secularized Christmas into a fest of selfishness, line-up rage, and dissatisfaction.

But trees and old songs are free. Nature never goes out of style. “The lilies do not sow,” goes an old Bible verse, “yet Solomon in all his wisdom was not clad as richly as one of these.” Yet, even while faced with the deficiencies of commodity culture, do we still care about these lilies, or is commodity simply too enticing?

Perhaps we need to be refreshed in our understanding of nature. We need to go back and recognize what we have been missing—the simple truths of reality and beauty.

But in our twenty-first century, there is no reality. Or, if there is, it is not reality as Tolkien understood it.

hyperrealOur age has been called “hyperreal.” Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media sites are rapidly becoming the new definers of “reality.” I mean an entirely new definition of reality: separate from science and theology both. Someone can become world-famous simply by posting pictures of themselves online, never leaving their dark, lonely basement. Nothing is real unless it’s documented. Wedding pictures are not as frequently printed as posted. Your trip to the Louvre can only be said to have happened if you take a picture of the Mona Lisa, a picture you have seen a thousand times before. (Did you hear the Mona Lisa was a fake? The real one’s hidden in a vault.)

Some of us think archaeologists will need these pictures in a hundred years, as absurd as the thought may seem. But if you do not even glance at your own photo documentation after you have saved it on a hard drive—let along print them—why would an archaeologist care about your selfie? Even the things we pretend to treasure today are as disposable as anything else we own.

Our culture is obsessed with the new and with copies of reality rather than reality itself. Where can Tolkien’s idea of Renewal fit into our world? Can we “clean our windows” from triteness and ennui if the windows we look through are themselves copies of other windows? Perhaps we have lost something fundamental to reality itself.

Tolkien’s Elves, constantly aware of the thinning of magic, would not doubt weep its loss—to the sound of harp strings. No wonder they left Middle Earth before it was too late.

Perhaps I am being too rough on postmodernity. The last thing I want is to sound like a nostalgic old man getting angry at these newfangled computers and social media sites. I recognize that there is a danger in glorifying the past. I am not saying we must worship Tolkien. But I am saying there is something profound in his work about the role of fantasy in renewing out perceptions of reality, whenever our workaday, commodified lives threaten to bore us to death.

I’ve encountered a breaking point where this shallow world confines you inside your house and prevents you from going outside and encountering nature. Even if hyperreality suggests that Renewal is impossible in this age devoid of a central reality, Tolkien can still cause us to realize that hyperreality itself is only one way of seeing the world. This is not a denial of reality: it is an opposition to consensus, a force in a struggle.

We may be forevermore influenced by hyperreality, but that does not make resistance futile. Tolkien’s works—and other stories and art inspired by his ideas—argue that fantasy is the best way to clean our windows this new year. Fantasy tells us that the world was not always like it is. In particular, historical fantasy can do this to superb effect (see John Crowley’s Aegypt), but other genres of fantasy can also help us see our daily lives in a different light.

All you have to do is imagine.

Movie Poster for The Desolation of Smaug. Food for thought question: Do you find the art direction more evocative of Tolkien himself, or post-Tolkien Dungeons-and-Dragons-style artwork (a copy of a copy of Tolkien)?
Movie Poster for The Desolation of Smaug. Food for thought question: Do you find the art direction more evocative of Tolkien’s descriptions, or post-Tolkien Dungeons-and-Dragons-style artwork (a copy of a copy of Tolkien)?

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Photo Credits:

Pub: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Eagle_and_Child_%28interior%29.jpg

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

Hyperreal: http://ceasefiremagazine.co.uk/in-theory-baudrillard-9/

The Fall of Arthur: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fall_of_Arthur

Desolation of Smaug: http://wallchips.com/cool-movie-the-hobbit-the-desolation-of-smaug-wallpaper.html