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

Top Ten Wainscot Societies

When Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone gained unprecedented popularity, the world at large was introduced to a “new” concept: a hidden magical society that lived parallel to the everyday world, but scarcely—if ever—interacting with it. The idea of hidden societies, however, is not a new one.

Many fantasy novels of all types include hidden societies. These have been termed “wainscot societies” in John Clute’s Encyclopedia of Fantasy, or “wainscots” for short. You may have wainscots in your house: the name also refers to fancy paneling, which is often used to decorate walls. Mice and rats are reportedly notorious for borrowing into wainscotting, to make their own homes inside the walls and cracks. These hidden “wainscots” are analogous to the hidden structure of mouse homes.

Wainscotting in a house. Coincidence that Harry Potter also lived in a cupboard under the stairs?
Wainscotting in a house. Coincidence that Harry Potter also lived in a cupboard under the stairs?

Including the wizarding world of Harry Potter, there are 10 wainscots in fantasy literature that I have identified as being either the very famous or very defining. The Top 10 list is probably less than perfect, mind you, and I confess I have not read most of these books. However, I do feel that most of the authors are well-known enough for the list to have some legitimacy. They are in alphabetical order:

Borrowers1. The Borrowers

Mary Norton’s 1952 book The Borrowers is clearly and distinctly a wainscot society. In this children’s tale, a family of tiny people live within the floorboards of a house in England and must borrow items from the big people who live parallel lives along with them. A great success, this book developed into a 5-book series. The novel was adapted into a 1997 film I  remember seeing way back in elementary school.

Cuthulhu2. Cthulhu Cult

Cthulhu is an ancient god supposedly dormant in the depths of the Pacific Ocean, who will one day rise and bring about an apocalypse. The creation of H.P. Lovecraft, Cthulhu drives humans mad upon sight, even if they only see a depiction of him in a statue. Furthermore, his telepathic energy affects human around the world on the unconscious level, filling them with terror. The religious societies of people who worship Cthulhu can be considered a wainscot—one you are better off not finding.

Strange devices3. Faery

“Faery” was used by J.R.R. Tolkien to describe a place, not a magical creature. In literature, fairies are always hidden and when a human ventures into the kingdom of faery, they enter into a dangerous, supernatural world where time runs differently from normal. While Lisa Goldsteins’ Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon is not the only story to use faery, I still think it is a defining use of faery as a wainscot—especially in a historical fantasy novel.

In Strange Devices, the Faery Queen enters the court of Queen Elizabeth I in search of her son, King Arthur. Historical reality and the supernatural world are crosshatched here, so that it is not clear whether “our” world or the world of Faery is the “dominant” one.

Faerie also appears in John Crowley’s novel Little, Big, in which Smoky Barnable, the protagonist, encounters a similar crosshatched world, in which he encounters fairy tale creatures invented by his future father-in-law. Although traditional stories about faery were at first simple encounters with invisible realities, more modern stories include complex interactions between our world and the other.

Anubis Gates4. King Horrabin’s beggars

Much of the work of Tim Powers contains wainscots, especially in the form of hidden societies of sorcerers living in the historical past. The Anubis Gates (1983) is his most well known story, based on a millionaire’s botched time-traveling plan to send a group of wealthy people to 1810 to attend a lecture of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. One of the characters, Professor Brenden Doyle, falls in with the clan of murderous beggars led by King Horrabin, a clown sorcerer. The domain of the king’s kingdom runs parallel with the mundane world.

Gulliver5. Lilliputians

The tiny people from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels do not quite form their own wainscot. Although the Lilliputians are diminutive people, the existence of whom normal people are ignorant, they live completely apart from human beings. T.H. White, however, turned them into a wainscot in Mistress Masham’s Repose (1946). The home of the Liliputians, two hundred years after Gulliver, is on Repose, an island in the middle of an lake on the estate of Malplaquet, an English house in Northamptonshire. The island is difficult to access and their city hidden within brambles, providing an effective place for this wainscot to hide.

Neverwhere6. London Below

Neil Gaiman’s stories contain many wainscots indeed. The hidden world of deities in American Gods and Anansi Boys is prominent (and similar of the wainscot of divinities in the Percy Jackson series), but Gaiman conjures no milieu more fully a wainscot than London Below in Neverwhere (1996). Beggars and thieves live unobserved in the sewers and abandoned tube stations of London, forming a feudal-based society that revolves around the markets, where various items normally considered trash are traded for other items, or favours. A clan of rat-speakers, a group of beggars who can speak to rats, is a wainscot within a wainscot—to say nothing of the rats themselves, which form their own society.

pratchett nomes7. Nomes

Terry Pratchett’s Nomes series—Truckers (1989), Diggers (1990), and Wings (1990)—involves a group of small people who come from another world. They struggle to survive among humans, but make a return journey towards home once they learn about their origins—from a thing known as the “Thing.” The series consists, of course, of typical Terry Pratchett humour.

Wainscotting in a house. Coincidence that Harry Potter also lived in a cupboard under the stairs?
Wainscotting in a house. Coincidence that Harry Potter also lived in a cupboard under the stairs?

8. The Pendragons

C.S. Lewis speculates about the survival of the descendents of Arthur Pendragon in his 1945 novel That Hideous Strength. The final volume of his Space Trilogy, a science fiction series with theological undertones, Lewis’ novel takes place mostly on earth. His series protagonist, Dr. Elwin Ransom, learns he is the heir of King Arthur and thus “Pendragon” (or king) of Logres, King Arthur’s ancient kingdom. In the Space Trilogy world, Pendragons live in secret in Britain and have risen up in times of crisis to protect their country from evil, without letting everyday people learn of their existence.

Roofworld9. Roofworld

Christopher Fowler’s Roofworld contains a secret society of Londoners who live on the city’s rooftops. Robert Linden and Rose Leonard, two outsiders, get drawn into into that world, as the roof-dwellers enter a war over their leadership. I would not be surprised if Neil Gaiman had been inspired by Fowler in his depiction of London Below, especially in the character of the roof-dweller Old Bailey. Roofworld proves that wainscots are not only in walls, or underground, but above our heads as well.

10. The Wizarding World

Last but not least, the world of Harry Potter, meticulously imagined by world-famous author J.K. Rowling, has to be the most famous of all wainscots. Harry first enters the wizarding world through the back wall of the Leaky Cauldron, which opens to Diagon Alley, where he goes shopping for school supplies. Hogwarts, a school for witches and wizards—along with the rest of the magical universe—is not visible to Muggles (normal people). Strict laws protect any exposure of the wizarding world to Muggle eyewitnesses. Of course, you probably already knew all this.

leaky cauldron

Works Cited

Wikipedia, Goodreads, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy by John Clute.

Photo Credits

Anubis Gates: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Anubis_Gates

The Borrowers: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Borrowers

Cuthulhu: http://creepypasta.wikia.com/wiki/The_Call_of_Cthulhu

Leaky Cauldron: http://dumbledoresarmyroleplay.wikia.com/wiki/The_Leaky_Cauldron

Lilliputians: http://ralphcassar.wordpress.com/2011/07/08/liliput-and-chris-said%E2%80%99s-tunnel%E2%80%A6/

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

Nomes: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Terry-Pratchett-Nomes-Books-Collection/dp/B005FPTAUG

Roofworld: http://www.christopherfowler.co.uk/blog/books-2/roofworld/

Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon: http://www.salamzone.com/strange-devices-of-the-sun-and-moon/

That Hideous Strength: http://americanfront.info/2012/04/22/c-s-lewison-left-vs-right/

Wainscot: http://www.cambridgecrownandtrim.ca/Wainscoting.aspx