MythCon 45 Day 3: Postmodernity at MythCon

hogwarts

Sunday morning at MythCon, and I took it easy, only getting to “Harry Potter as Dystopian Literature” for 10:00.

Kris Swank framed Harry Potter not only in terms of the latest dystopian craze in YA fiction (Divergent, The Hunger Games), but also with the dystopian tradition of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. The Dolores Umbridge-corrupted Ministry of Magic in the later volumes of Harry Potter has a simplistic slogan that would not be entirely out of place on the wall of the Ministry of Truth in 1984; ‘Magic is Might’ has the same double-think ring as ‘War is Peace,’ ‘Ignorance is Strength,’ and ‘Freedom is Slavery.’ Umbridge is an O’Brien of the wizarding world, employing exotic forms of torture to elicit “confessions” from witches and wizards who are muggle-born, often employing the morally dubious drug veritaserum, a truth serum.

The disturbing thing is that, as pervasive as government surveillance is in Oceania in 1984 and the wizarding world, we  willingly subject ourselves now, using our instant-communicators, our ever-present smartphones, to the same kind of surveillance. The charm placed on the name “Voldemort” alerts Death Eaters, who eventually run the ministry, that someone has said the word the instant they utter it. Meanwhile, the government tracks what we say online, words like “Bush” and “al-Quaida,” but also plain words like “pork,” and “erosion,” because they can be connected to terrorist-related discourses, presumably. It’s like Michel Foucault’s Panopticon out there.

Panopticon, by Jeremy Bentham, and basis for many of Michel Foucault's insights.
Panopticon, by Jeremy Bentham, and basis for many of Michel Foucault’s insights.

The next talk was a return to J.R.R. Tolkien: Janet Brennan Croft presented “Noms de Guerre: The Power of Naming in War and Conflict in Middle Earth.” She gave a catalogue of swords and other weapons and their names, and more specifically the function these unique names have. Names endow these objects–like Isildur’s sword Narsil, renamed Andúril by Aragorn–with power, distinguishing them from common weapons. In legend, Sigurd owned Gram, and Charlemagne Joyeuse–and who could forget the blade of the leader of latter’s rear-guard, the Dolindale of Roland? Most weapons in LOTR are swords, like Bilbo and Frodo’s Sting, though notable exceptions are Gil-Galad’s Aiglos and Grond, Morgoth’s mace (the same name is given to the battering ram the orcs bring against Minas Tirith).

Noms de guerre, on the other hand, refer to the names characters take on in war. They are like noms de plume, or pen names, except those who use them are more likely to believe that the sword is mightier. They are used by those who wish to break with the past, hide the self. For example, Éowyn turns her name into Durnhelm when she goes to war against her father Théoden’s wishes. In The Hobbit, Thorin is surnamed Oakenshield, in memory of the improvised shield he wore to battle. Aragorn is later called Elessar, to fit his new role as King. These names can also be bestowed by another, as revealing descriptions of one character’s relationship with another. For instance, Gríma Wormtongue calls Gandalf, who he mistrusts, Stormcrow, and Frodo calls Gollum Sméagol, in recognition of the good that he still sees in him.

Gaiman and Pratchett: Post-Modern Conspirators.
Gaiman and Pratchett: Post-Modern Conspirators.

The following talk was “Toying with Fantasy: the Post-Modern Playground of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld” by Daniel Lüthi. Anyone who as read Pratchett will know how hilarious his novels can be; I myself have read too little of Pratchett. Lüthi came all the way from Switzerland to explain to us how Pratchett threw Tolkien’s rules in “On Faerie-Stories” out the window: particularly the line that says comic fantasy can never make fun of magic itself. That is exactly what the Discworld novels are predicated on: mockery of the fantasy genre. All the tired tropes of fantasy—as well as multiple other genres, including the detective novel, noir, and science fiction—are all mocked in sardonic incidents and Pratchett’s playful footnotes. Pratchett comes from the tradition—and perhaps inspired much of the tradition—that produces parodies like Bored of the Rings and Barry Trotter. Yet Pratchett never loses affection for the fantasy genre itself; his parodies do not reject fantasy, only satirizes it lovingly.

Discworld has become much more than just a form of parody, however; in typical post-modern fashion, parody has become its own world. Pratchett employs science to explain his fictional universe, though with wild stretches of the imagination. Narrativium, The Science of Discworld explains, is what holds the world together, the power of Story itself, like a kind of pseudo-scientifical phlogiston. It’s the sort of world, I suppose, that might house of the God of Evolution, who was the funniest character of The Lost Continent. The other Pratchett novel I read was The Wee-Free Men, and I was not disappointed.

Jorge Luis Borges
Jorge Luis Borges

John Polanin II gave a talk entitled “Damnation (Un-)Eternal: Fluid Mythologies of Hell in the Work of Neil Gaiman.” In the Sandman comics, Hell becomes a triumvirate, ruled by three demons and not just Lucifer himself, who later in the series abdicates his responsibilities as regent of the nether regions. This change to Christian mythology shows how Gaiman, like Jorge Luis Borges, writes against textual monoliths such as the bible, Dante’s Inferno, and Milton’s  Paradise Lost. He turns mythology into an unfixed text that can be played around with, in a post-modern manner. Further evidence for Gaiman-Borges connections? In Sandman, Morpheus’ library contains thousands of billions of volumes of literature, including all the books that have only ever been dreamed, or left unfinished. The complete Canterbury Tales lies there, as well as a “lost” Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe that ends as a comedy. An English major’s freakin’ paradise. (Why doesn’t McGill’s McLennan library have any of these volumes?) This library of Dream is like the labyrinth of Borges, a key image for post-modernism in that it emphasizes how literature forms its own twisty-turny simulacrum of infinite reality, an image Umberto Eco may have referred to obliquely in The Name of the Rose.

Clever John Polanin also found a possible source text for Gaiman’s famous tale “The Price”: Milagros de Nuestra Señora by Gonzalo de Berceo, a Catholic book of exempla detailing miracles of the Virgin Mary. Asked about whether he based “The Price” on this book, Gaiman answered, in an email, “no, but the story was true.” Believe what you will.

Stay tuned to read the rest of Sunday’s events–including two memorable panels–and how my own presentation went. Monday’s final events will also be included in next weeks’ post.

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Photo Credits:

Hogwarts: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Potter

Panopticon: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Panopticon_Jeremy_Bentham.jpg

Jorge Luis Borges: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jorge_Luis_Borges

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Neverwhere

 

 

It’s an entire world just under your feet, in the vast underground networks that form the urban environment, where people who’ve fallen through the cracks of society vanish from our everyday reality.

Such is the setting of Neil Gaiman’s urban quest fantasy Neverwhere. One of his older novels, it was originally based on a 1996 TV series on BBC Two. It is now a BBC radio series, staring James MacEvoy as Richard Mayhew, Natalie Dormer as Door, and, among others, Christopher Lee as the Earl of Earl’s Court and Benedict Cumberbatch as the Angel Islington. While I have only read the novel, it is a definite sign of the durability of Gaiman’s story that it has seen so many incarnations in diverse media.

Neverwhere is the journey of an Everyman Scotsman name Richard Mayhew, who finds a girl bleeding on the sidewalk. After this encounter, his normal everyday life is ruined as he loses his job, his girlfriend, and indeed his very identity. No one recognizes him in the London of this world (called London Above), and he must find a way to get his life back.

Door, the girl he finds on the sidewalk, is a resident of London Below, an alternate world that exists in the metro systems, sewers, and underground tunnels beneath London Above. Its a world of hobos, aristocrats, rat-speakers, sadistic killers, monsters, and even angels. As Richard quests to find a way out of London Below, since it is impossible to live wholly in both worlds at the same time, he becomes involved in a quest to find who is responsible for the murder of Door’s family.

Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar
Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar

The villains of Nerewhere are just as memorable as the heroes, if not more so. Mr. Croup is a wordy, fox-like assassin who tears his victims apart with his fingernails and wears a raggedy old suit. Mr. Vandemar is a wolfish sadist who picks his fingernails with a machete and doesn’t like telephones. They are like a darker, but still funny version of your typical Disney villain trio–Don Quixote and Sancho Panza with switchblades. There are other villains in the story, but they are surprises.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Neverwhere, especially after finishing a semester of university. It’s ideal reading on the metro (or the Tube, if you wish), because there can be no better place to read Neverwhere than in the underground world where it’s supposed to take place. I read most of it myself in the Montreal metro.

Which leads me to wonder. Is there a Montreal Below, as there is a Montreal Above? I guess I just assumed there could be. Perhaps there is.

Gaiman appears to have done some research into the London Underground writing his book. He talks about “ghost stations” like the British Library Station, which was walled-in a long time ago and, needless to say, is closed to commuters. There is quite a lot of history in the underground world. I would doubt that there are ghost stations in Montreal Below, but Montreal could still have an interesting subterranean civilization, if we were to imagine one developing.

The metro system in Montreal. Do we see a Montreal Below when we look at this map? Click to see a more legible version.
The metro system in Montreal. Do we see a Montreal Below when we look at this map? Click to see a more legible version.

All the shopping malls in the passages under the city, all crisscrossing each other like a labyrinth, might prove ample room to place a alternate world, similar to the feudal-like society Gaiman imagines in Neverwhere. Promenades de la cathédrale, where engineers built a shopping mall under Christ Church Cathedral, could be a key location in Montreal Below. Perhaps Monk, a station on the Green Line, could have a band of monks similar to the Black Friars we see in his book (a pun on Blackfriars Station). What about the dukedom of Vendôme? The barony of Jarry? La seigneurie de Plamondon? Or what about le marquis de Rosemont as the counterpart of the marquis de Carrabas, a swashbuckling character in London Below? And don’t forget the angel residing at Station St. Michel!

Such a world would be an interesting combination of a British-inspired universe with French Canadian characters and settings. Hopefully, the result of such cultural fusion would end in a little more than a Montreal Below that resides exclusively within the potholes that appear on our roads each spring! Gaiman’s underworld is a world of people who have “fallen through the cracks,” after all.

Ah, we Montrealers take every opportunity to complain about our roads!

To avoid this post becoming like an opinion article in The Gazette, let me say a few words to conclude.

Gaiman is a storyteller extraordinaire. His novel reads almost like a bedtime story, except that it’s for adults (teenagers can get away with it). It’s a brilliant combination that reminded me about the nightmares in his Sandman comics. In fact, I almost felt like I was reading a comic book or a graphic novel at a few points, without the pictures or graphics. If you have not read Neverwhere, and you’re a Gaiman fan, then it’s a novel not to be missed. It was a lot of fun. Take it on your next metro ride through the world Below.

 

Photo Credits:

Croup and Vandemar: http://www.fanpop.com/clubs/neverwhere/images/819335/title/mr-croup-mr-vandemar-fanart

Montreal Metro: http://www.stm.info/english/metro/a-mapmet.htm

Neil Gaiman: http://www.myspace.com/neilgaiman1

Neverwhere cover: http://jenniferdawnbrody.com/tag/neverwhere/