Unicorn Horns: A Viking Con Job?

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What if Vikings, whose settlements stretched across the northern medieval world, used legends of unicorns to swindle the kings of Europe out of their coffers, all the while skimping out on giving the proto-Inuits their fair share of the profits?

I would like to informally propose that such a scheme was happening throughout much of the medieval period. While I must admit I have no evidence to directly support this claim, the idea of it is almost as entrancing as the unicorn mythology itself.

For starters, it is commonly perceived that one theory for the existence of unicorn horns is that they were not, in fact, taken from horned quadrupeds, but narwhals. Since narwhals, whose tusks are majestic, tend to live in the northern reaches of the world, particularly around Baffin Island, Greenland, and the islands of Northern Canada, they would not have been out of sight of Norse settlements.

Patricia Sutherland, a Canadian archaeologist featured in this article in National Geographic magazine, believes certain tell-tale signs indicate that Vikings settled Baffin Island. I would be willing to believe her claim–particularly since it confirms the allusion to a Norse settlement on Baffin Island in John Dee’s Limites Imperii Britanici. Although this work is filled with dubious historical allusions to the Norse island of Estotiland (roughly corresponding to Baffin Island or Labrador), it would make a great story if legends of Estotiland were based on some truth. Perhaps Sutherland’s findings have something to do with a forgotten Norse kingdom located in Northern Canada.

At around 1300-1500AD, Vikings would have had contact with the Dorset culture. Although the small bands of proto-Inuit would have been on the decline territorially, they would have been resourceful traders and hunters of narwhal. Furthermore, a Viking settlement in the cold lands of Baffin Island, if one did exist, would have had a hard time trying to survive without some kind of exchange with the locals.

What if the European settlers saw the narwhal horns that the Dorsets collected–presumably from which they carved tools or jewellery–and saw in them instead an opportunity to get rich?

The fascinating possibility is that Vikings, or some other north-sailing tribe, might have either traded these horns with the Dorsets or hunted the whales themselves. In the North, narwhal tusks would have been valuable enough, in a utilitarian or decorative way. But down South, the horns had legendary, even religious significance and could be sold for an amount to make a weary Arctic sailor very wealthy indeed.

Surely if we accept the hypothesis that many unicorn horns are, in fact, narwhal tusks, then there must have been some form of trading and bartering between the north and south by someone. Seeing these tusks as evidence for the existence of unicorns, royal buyers would have inflated their real value according to their perceptions of the mythology, legends, and magical lore surrounding these beasts. This would make the market strategy of the Vikings, or whatever culture did these tradings, an early example of commodity fetishism.

If we suppose that someone, either a merchant or the hunter of the narwhal himself, must have knowingly traded the narwhal tusk, knowing it was a tusk, with a European who thought it was a unicorn horn, then what we have is a case of first class deception. What we have is the fostering of belief in a legend for the sake of mercantile prosperity.

“What is the profit margin of a legend?” writes Brian Attebery in his essay “The Politics (If Any) of Fantasy.”  Though the fantasy critic uses this rhetorical question to make the point that universal stories can never have a price tag attached to them, that the value of stories runs beyond the economic draw of capitalism, this Viking con game of narwhal tusks and unicorn horns threatens to challenge that idea. The right kind of  legend, it seems, can indeed draw a profit–although it will, of course, remain impossible to calculate the total net profit of something so abstract as a story.

I don’t know if it was the Vikings who did this. I don’t know if the system of deception was that systematic. But I’d like to propose that if the Dorsets were involved, they got a poor share from the deal. Since their culture did not have arrowheads, it may have been that the Vikings traded arrows for tusks, which they sold to the kings of Norway, Scotland, and England for chests filled with gold. I doubt they ever returned to give the “pygmies” or “Skraelings” two pence of what they made.

I hope that the whole narwhal horn trade inspires future archaeologists and historians to pursue solid evidence about this, albeit hypothetical, transaction.

In the meanwhile, I believe this will make a great short story one day.

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Picture Credits:

Narwhal: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Narwhal.jpg

Unicorn: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unicorn

Viking: https://www.flickr.com/

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Cockroach by Rawi Hage

Cockroach by Rawi Hage
Cockroach by Rawi Hage

Rawi Hage’s unnamed protagonist—an unreliable narrator—fantasizes almost as much as he steals.

A poor, starving Middle-Eastern immigrant walking the Montreal winter streets, he sees himself as a cockroach: the lowest of the low, but also crafty and able to survive. His awkwardness around women causes him to undergo what he perceives as a metamorphosis into a dirty, many-legged insect who will survive the apocalypse, when all the wealthy people in the world will die.

As he tries to romance Shohreh, the woman with whom he is enamoured, the self-styled cockroach tells his therapist Genèvieve about his life before immigration, that is, the story of his relationship with his sister and how he tried to defend her from Tony, her abusive husband. These therapy sessions were court-ordered after the narrator attempted to hang himself, and he tells his story like Scheherazade, to keep himself out of the mad house.

Eventually the narrator’s past begins to catch up with him and he must decide how to act against the powers of capitalism and religious fundamentalism. But the poor cannot be pacifists in the world the cockroach has explored. Sooner or later, in a moment of decision, the cockroach will rise from the shadows and drains of the underworld and rise against the upper world, where the sun shines so bright.

cockroachThough I once thought the narrator was a creep, stalking women and men to find their homes and steal from their basements, by some strange magic, the protagonist wins your sympathy and cannot fail to engage you. It may depend on your political views or moral expectations, paraphrasing Rawi Hage during the Concordia event, but the narrator is funny, witty, and can get away with anything. Evil and goodness coexist in the same man.

Cockroach, or so argued Samantha Bee on Canada Reads, highlights the difficulties and troubles surrounding the immigrant experience in Montreal, a hidden “underground” world that most Montrealers cannot see. But Hage’s novel is more than an informative Montreal Gazette article. It is the unreliable, yet politically radical vision of a trickster whose monologues in defiance of the hypocritical and the wealthy must have delighted Hage to write whenever he stepped into his alter ego’s worn-out shoes.

I simply love Hage’s refreshing style. His long, lyrical sentences are filled with extended similes and charged descriptions that underlie the narrator’s keen observations. Take the following as a metaphor for his desire to escape the trials of the immigrant experience:

“When I entered the café, I peeled myself out from under layers of hats, gloves, and scarves, liberated myself from zippers and buttons, and endured the painful tearing of Velcro that hissed like a prehistoric reptile, that split and separated like people’s lives, like exiles falling into cracks that give birth and lead to death under digging shovels that sound just like the friction of car wheels wedging snow around my mortal parts” (10).

The narrator’s observations also help him to expose hypocrisy. Take the narrator’s following rebuke against a Jehovah’s witness, which almost reads like a slam poem:

“You are a charlatan, standing there with your magazines full of promising images like opium. Look at you, human, all dressed up. You can’t be handsome without weaving the saliva of worms around you, without stealing the wool from the backs of sheep, without making the poor work like mules in long factories with cruel whistles and punch-in cards” (284).

Another wonderful feature of Rawi Hage’s style is his refusal to write dialogue with quotation marks. The effect is that we are receiving all the dialogue filtered through the narrator’s voice, which means characters may or may not have spoken exactly as the narrator tells it. This adds another layer of untrustworthiness to his protagonist, making you question everything he tells you.

At the Concordia event “Up Close and Personal with Rawi Hage,” which I attended with my father in 2009, Hage said that he saw the lack of quotation marks in his writing as not a radical innovation, so much as a result of his own laziness. He never understood why you would ever need quotation marks. It is this kind of unconventional attitude that underlies Cockroach.

Hage’s stylistic unorthodoxy adds to the appeal of his story, like innovative directorial cuts add to the originality of a Martin Scorsese flick. Particularly, I am thinking of Taxi staring Robert DeNiro, another tale of isolation and the underworld, which culminates in an act of violence. There is even a mirror scene, only when Hage’s narrator looks in the mirror, he sees a man-sized cockroach standing behind him instead of saying, “Are you talkn’ to me?” Is it any wonder that Hage was a Montreal taxi driver and lived in New York City for a time?

Anyway, I suppose I would have to read his most recent book Carnival, which also concerns a taxi driver, to find out about this link between Rawi Hage and Robert DeNiro. In the meantime, Cockroach is a great book for Canadians and especially Montrealers to read, if they enjoy a little trip down the sink drain.

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Montreal, view from Mount Royal.
Montreal, view from Mount Royal.

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Photo Credits:

Cockroach: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smokybrown_cockroach

Montreal: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Montreal_Skyline_winter_panorama_Jan_2006.jpg

Drain: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kitchen_sink_drain.jpg

Rawi Hage and What his Work Means to Me

Samantha Bee (left) defended Cockroach by Rawi Hage (right) on Canada Reads
Samantha Bee (left) defended Cockroach by Rawi Hage (right) on Canada Reads.

I counted it a significant turn of good fortune that I had just finished reading Rawi Hage’s novel Cockroach when it almost won this year’s Canada Reads competition (Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda took first prize). It took me 5 years to get around to reading it.

Nonetheless, this author—whose book I am reviewing Friday—has had a mythic impact on me, a presence in my life that grew during those 5 years. Allow me to explain.

In 2009, there was an event at Concordia University called “Up Close and Personal with Rawi Hage.” I was still halfway though the Liberal Arts program at Dawson College and I received a ticket from my mother, who is an alumnus. I had only read DeNiro’s Game, Hage’s electrifying first novel, but I still relished the opportunity to hear him interviewed. It was there I received a signed copy of Cockroach for my mother.

Cockroach by Rawi Hage
Cockroach by Rawi Hage

To the editor mom, Hage scrawled on the title page, after I told him she had been reading over my unpublished novel Battles of Rofp. I was there with my dad, and we got the book as a gift of thanks to her, since she couldn’t attend the evening event. I placed DeNiro’s Game, which he also signed, on my bookshelf as a talisman, my hope to aspire to become a better writer.

Hage is a photographer and graduate of Concordia’s Creative Writing program. DeNiro’s Game was his thesis. I have spent 5 years of my life yearning to study in that same program, to write my own thesis, have it published, and then maybe participate in my own little “Up Close and Personal with Matthew Rettino.”

I tried once in 2010, but failed, and entered McGill’s English literature program. After I graduated from the Honours program, I tried again in 2013 and by March 2014, this month, I have received the committee’s response. I was rejected for the second time from this program. Though this rejection makes me bitterly disappointed, it is a sign that my path to success will simply not be identical to Rawi Hage’s route. We are, after all, vastly different writers.

Concordia’s creative writing professors, for one, are in the “literary fiction” stream of writing style, rather than “literary fantasy,” which is what I was aspiring to learn to write. ‘Tis the age-old difference between literary fiction and genre, a distinction that really comes down to why people write what they write.

Literary writers write for themselves, for their characters, in an attempt to learn more about human nature and themselves. Genre writers, while they might explore character and the human condtion, write chiefly because an idea for a plot seizes them, or a situation fascinates them. Naturally, literary fiction tends to be dominated by characters, subjectivism, and interiority, whereas genre tends to rely on plot and story.

I write because a crazy or fascinating idea or situation grabs my attention and compels me to write the story. This tends to set me on the path towards genre fiction. Generally, I do not see a person on a bus and think that this or that character would be fascinating to write about, as some literary fiction writers do.

Partly, I suspect this tendency is related to my high-functioning Asperger’s syndrome, which sets up a wall in front of my ability to relate to other people easily. Since character is less of a natural thing for me to think about than plot ideas, I have this tendency towards genre, and a weakness in my writing towards character, voice and dialogue. Description and plot remain my strong points.

One way to overcome the negative effects of my Asperger’s is to introduce literary modes into my fantasy writing, to pay more attention to character and personality. Bridging the genre divide can thus be tied to my own attempts to break out socially with others—and therefore the very existence of this blog.

Rawi Hage’s literary fiction would appear at first to be as vastly different from my own, as the moon is from the sun. However, here is where Hage gets interesting.

His novels, Cockroach and DeNiro’s Game, are remarkable precisely because they fuse the plot of a thriller with the wit and reflection of a literary novel. Perhaps it is no mistake that DeNiro’s Game was the first novel of literary fiction I ever read for pleasure outside of school, and a model I looked up to afterwards. Cockroach even has elements of fantasy to smooth it all over!

If literary fiction can get away with a strong plot in a capable writer’s hands, then there is no reason a fantasy writer cannot write a work of “literary fantasy” fiction. Rawi Hage confirms this hypothesis from the literary fiction perspective just as much as a writer like Guy Gavriel Kay or Charles de Lint can.

What, then, is this fantasy that is at work in Cockroach?

Rawi Hage’s Middle-Eastern immigrant protagonist has a complex around women, which causes him to imagine himself becoming a cockroach. The metamorphosis is Kafkasque, but as Hage mentioned during his interview, it would be eurocentric to ignore the symbolism of cockroaches in other sources, such as Arabic fable books.

Cockroach is the radical story of an uncompromising thief who roots out the hypocrisies in Montreal immigrant society. His work is as literary as Dostoyevsky and as suspenseful as the most page-turning thriller—and it bears the occasional resemblance to the movie Taxi Driver staring—of course—Robert DeNiro.

Continuing on Friday, I shall tell you more about this brilliant book.

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Robert DeNiro: an inspiration for Rawi Hage?

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Photo Credits:

Canada Reads: http://www.cbc.ca/books/canadareads/2013/12/samantha-bee-and-rawi-hage-talk-canada-reads.html

DeNiro: http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taxi_Driver

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

 

 

Oil Painting #1

This Friday, I finished a painting I’d been working on for almost a year now, on and off. It was a photo taken in a barn at Vankleek Hill in Ontario and I thought that the colour scheme and geometrical lines would lend themselves well to a painting. It already had a frame in the boarding and a subject in the stove, as it were. Today, the old stove has been thrown out but the hay barrel remains.

In the future, I may turn towards more “fantasy” oil paintings or watercolours, or even acrylics. But for now, this was my first experiment in oils. Not so bad, I think. What do you think of it? Be sure to leave a comment.

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