Underworld as Otherworld: Combined and Uneven Development in Charles de Lint’s Urban Fantasy Fiction

Today I will be presenting on urban fantasy and how it relates to the conditions of combined and uneven development.

Modern fantasy as a literary form has diversified since The Lord of the Rings (1954) and its subsequent paperback imitators. Stereotypically set in medieval or pseudomedieval kingdoms with dragons, elves, and faeries, these paperbacks were rarely set in cities, but usually in the countryside or in a sublime, pre-Raphaelite wilderness. As a form, what provided the historical impetus to the rise of modern fantasy, as early as the late nineteenth century, was the rise of literary realism and the modern novel, the techniques of which authors began to apply to older, or residual forms, such as chivalric romance and epic. Fantasy is therefore a quintessentially modern form even though its settings might be throwbacks to medieval forms. With urban fantasy, a subgenre that originated in the 1980s, fantasy continues to employ residual literary forms such as fairy tale, folktale, romance, and epic, but places the fantastic content within a modern milieu—the contemporary, usually North American, city.

Moonheart            Charles de Lint, a Canadian author resident in Ottawa, has been called the Father of Urban Fantasy. Fantasy novels set in the modern world have older antecedents, such as the supernatural detective stories of Charles Williams, but ‘urban fantasy’ per se, as a market category, emerged during the 1980s, when de Lint wrote many of his classic works, including Moonheart (1984). De Lint’s fiction sets fairy tales, myths, and folktales derived from Celtic, Romany, and Native American traditions—as well as urban legends—within urban space, with novelistic, modern protagonists who interact with mythical, otherworldly figures. Instead of imposing the plot of a conventional fantasy novel onto urban space, de Lint is interested in how ordinary people interact with the fantastic and the numinous on their own terms, and he does so with a social conscience.

Urban fantasy lends itself to an analysis framed by the concept of combined and uneven development because it can claim to represent an uneven modernity in its content as well as its form. But first we must ask, “What is combined and uneven development?” The Warwick Research Collective, referring to Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, describes combined and uneven development as “a situation in which capitalist forms and relations exist alongside ‘archaic forms of economic life’ and pre-existing social and class relations” (WReC 11). Uneven development rears its head whenever you see a high-rise financial district skyline within close proximity to seemingly ‘backwards’ and impoverished slums, or when agrarian farmers are wrenched from the cotton fields they have tilled for generations right into the disorienting presence of advanced industrial machinery. Capitalism must be understood as a world system that encompasses the whole globe under a single, though uneven, modernity—not just as a European development that has spread outward across the globe, bringing modernity with it. This understanding refutes the idea that some societies, especially former colonies, are somehow ‘backwards,’ or behind modernity. Although societies across the globe experience the modern age differently, they are all irreducibly modern, part of one combined system. Neocolonialism may establish hierarchies between one singular modernity and another, but this simply makes it an uneven, combined system, rather than two distinct systems.

How does all this tie in to urban fantasy? Just like the world-system, the form of all modern fantasy is itself combined and uneven, since it joins residual forms that originated in pre-modern periods with the modern novel. In a sense, this is true of all novels, even in realism, where displaced romance forms the novel’s deep structure. But modern fantasy differs from realism because it displays this structure upfront, often as a self-conscious imitation of pre-modern forms, the magical content of which, however, it retains. These disjunctures deepen in urban fantasy, which blends the pre-modern and the modern on the level of content as well as form. The disjuncture between elves, mermaids, fairies, spirits, and goblins coexisting with a modern, urban setting becomes explicitly represented and narrativized in urban fantasy. We can read this disjuncture as an allegory of the combined and uneven system.

This system also describes the dynamic in the hierarchy between the city and the country that urban fantasy mediates. The city dominates the countryside but this relationship nonetheless joins the two spaces. In a similar way, urban fantasy appropriates the pastoralist content of fairy tales and folktales, joining residual, rural culture with the dominant urban culture. This combination of disjunctive content allegorizes the hierarchical relationship of the city over the country. However, urban fantasy does not simply reflect urban dominance as much as it appropriates the natural and the rural to awaken a utopian desire for a less alienated existence within the urban.

Western culture, as Cat Asthon describes in her essay on de Lint in The Canadian Fantastic in Focus, traditionally treats the idea of nature and wilderness as a cure for alienated modernity. However, de Lint’s fiction recognizes the truth that an escape to pure nature is an escape from history and responsibility. Nature is, after all, a cultural construct produced by humans, an aspect of modernity even though it describes a non-human world. Instead, de Lint adopts an urban environmentalism in which his fiction seeks what spatial theorist Henri Lefebvre would call a “renewed right to urban life” (“Right to the City”).

Henri Lefebvre’s concept of the right to the city, which counters urban alienation, finds common cause with the politics of de Lint’s urban fantasy. “The right to the city is like a cry and demand,” Lefebvre writes, a revolution of space that places “appropriation over domination, demand over command, and use over exchange” (“Space as a Social Social Product”). Since the city dominates space and nature by transforming it into exchange value—for example, by exploiting natural resources for export and by constructing vast condo projects—Lefebvre calls for the production of socialist space, in which the working classes will use, or appropriate, space for themselves. Nature is the source of all use value, and asks for nothing in return. The city will become a healthier environment if people can use it, rather than it using them.

In the remainder of my presentation, I will demonstrate how two of de Lint’s books—the novel Mulengro (1985) and the short story collection Dreams Underfoot (1993)—respond to the call for the right to the city while also representing the conditions of combined and uneven development in North American cities, specifically Ottawa and de Lint’s fictional city of Newford.

20160308_162556-1Mulengro is a ghost story about the community of Rom living in Ottawa, mixed with a police procedural subplot. A series of gruesome “Gypsy” murders around Ottawa has the cops lost for any plausible explanation. Janfri, a Romani fiddler, watches his home burn down with the Rom symbol for marhime, meaning unclean, painted on his house. Since the Romani are nomad, owning a home is a sign of defilement, an unacceptable adoption of Gaje, or non-Rom, ways—or at least this is what the arsonist’s gesture implies. As the criminal murders more Rom, the elders decide to flee the Ottawa. They know the culprit to be a ghost named Mulengro, a survivor of the Nazi persecutions who has come back to cleanse the Rom from their Gaje ways. Ola, a Rom who practices draba, or magic, flees her house after being attacked by local ruffians, and Mulengro targets her. She hides out with Zach, a hippy living off the land in cabin country. Eventually Janfri makes a final stand with her and the police against Mulengro and his feral wolf minions.

Mulengro denies the Rom the right to the city. His reasoning for committing the murders is that he sees the Rom’s impoverishment as a result of their being marhime, owing to their adoption of Gaje ways—in a word, because of their modernizing. However, the novel’s resolution makes clear that cultural identities are not so clear-cut, that it is possible and even favourable to partake of modernity and retain connection to traditional ways of life, including magic. The Rom are a non-modern culture living a quintessentially modern life. Furthermore they are subjected, like the native peoples of North America, to a settler culture that seeks to manage and even criminalize difference.

What are we to make of the role Mulengro himself plays, a revenant who consumes the souls of doomed Rom? The imagery of consumption calls upon vampire lore—and the Gothic vocabulary in Marx that references vampiric capitalists who extract surplus value from the working class. Mulengro harasses those Rom who own real estate and thus live between the worlds of capitalism and the Rom pre-capitalist, handicrafts mode of production. In other words, he consumes the souls of those most aware of the unevenness of modernity. As the Rom become incorporated into the capitalist economy, most importantly through the real estate market, they experience sudden change. The replacement of use value with exchange value in their increasingly commodity-filled lives leads the Rom to feel cognitive dissonance between the capitalist system they inhabit and their traditions, where a belief in ghosts and the law of marhime still holds sway. Mulengro’s horror represents a structure of feeling among the Rom, a social formation in the process of developing. The ghost is an allegorization of how their society experiences the turmoil of poverty while living on the margins of modernity.

20160308_162621-1            I now turn to Dreams Underfoot, which is more centrally focused on urban experience. Here the urban underworld becomes a faerie Otherworld unnoticed by most denizens of Newford, although occasionally glimpsed by the bohemian artists, street kids, and homeless men that distinguish de Lint’s fiction. The Tombs, for instance, used to be a developer’s dream for a sprawling yuppie paradise, but when this late capitalist urban planning venture failed, the ruins of the city blocks that were demolished remained behind—now a refuge for winos, bag ladies, and the homeless. The Tombs, abandoned by the city government after the attempt to produce exchange value from its space, has now fallen into a state of nature or wilderness and become appropriated by the underclass. Although it is a dangerous area of the city, the Tombs is where the underprivileged can tactically appropriate their right to urban space.

A space they share with colourful characters derived from fairy tales and urban myths. In one short story, “That Explains Poland,” a young photographer finds Bigfoot in the Tombs, which is not so unusual a discovery, because of the various disenfranchised people who live in this wilderness-like area. In another story, “Winter was Hard,” the presence of certain genii loci, or spirits of a place, in the Tombs contributes to making the city a tolerable place to live, while their departure signals the moment the city takes on a more haunted, less homelike character. The right to the city is thus tied directly to the presence of these pre-modern fairy-like creatures. They are pieces of agrarian European folklore transplanted to a North American city and they directly oppose alienation. If we believe in them hard enough, they might come back and restore the city.

The story that concludes Dreams Underfoot strongly suggests that de Lint sees his own fiction as a way to counter urban alienation and foster a sense of community. The fictional urban fantasy writer Christy Riddell, a stand-in for de Lint, finds his muse in Tallullah, the spirit of Newford itself. But Tallullah must leave Christy because of the rise of urban crime and a loss of connectivity among people, which drives her away. In the end, Christy holds the hope that his story collections might restore a sense of community to city dwellers and bring her back.

Dreams Underfoot and Mulengro both use fantasy to question the Enlightenment epistemology and to assert that if this epistemology does not extend to everyone, everywhere, equally—if, for example, it is still possible for people to believe in ghosts and fairies—then modernity itself cannot be evenly developed. While a text asking you to believe in fairies and spirits might seem flaky, seeing as this gives us no solid program to reclaim the city, such faith does awaken the desire to see the postmodern, uneven city restored from its ruins. It implies that there is more to modernity, and that the residual survives and coexists with the modern. De Lint’s fiction arouses our desire to become instruments of social progress. This is the utopian imagination and the power of fantasy.

This concludes my presentation, which could not have been possible without the financial assistance of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. I thank them, and I thank you for listening.

The following has been a transcript of a talk given at the English Department of McGill University’s MA colloquium on 10 March 2016 in Montreal.

 

Did you like this article? You might also like:

Part 1: A Multicultural Utopia: Historicizing New Fantasy in Charles de Lint’s Moonheart

Part 2: A Multicultural Utopia: Historicizing New Fantasy in Charles de Lint’s Moonheart

Forests of the Heart by Charles de Lint

World Fantasy Convention 2015, Part II: My Interview with Charles de Lint

 

 

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Folklore and Graffiti: A (Potential) Study of Spatial Tactics and Urban Fantasy (Part I)

A graffit-tagged lion guarding the gate to Chinatown, Montreal
A graffiti-tagged lion guarding the gate to Chinatown, Montreal: an example of an urban spatial tactic.

While conducting my research into urban fantasy, the subject of my SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Committee) grant proposal, I was stricken by a sudden inspiration. A few images and lines from scholarly texts united in my mind and I saw something bold in the connections. While the following essay is in no sense an exhaustive scholarly study, or even necessarily a completed lead-up to one, it does hint at what could make a promising introduction to an anthology of short stories. Perhaps there is even something of literary critical value in it as well. However, I suspect that the most this gives me is a model for thinking about urban fantasy as a creative artist, before any usefulness as a description of how urban fantasy texts actually function. I leave it to the judgment of my readers to determine if there might just be something linking street art to the urban folktale.

June 2013: Montreal street artists Fin DACx and Angelina Christina produce a mural on the corner of Notre-Dame and Côte St-Paul. The black and white mural depicts a pair of women whose hair styles are suggestive of raven feathers. Furthermore a bird’s skull—I suspect a raven’s or a crow’s—appears between them looking on at the gazer with hollow eyes. I immediately perceived the resemblance to Charles de Lint’s Crow Girls, a recurring pair of characters from his urban fantasy short stories.

The first time I spotted these Crow Girls, I was on the bus and I zoomed right by. But I had been paying attention to my surroundings and glimpsed them. It was exactly as if I were a character in de Lint’s Newford, catching a glimpse of a folkloric being in the interstices of the urban landscape. Like one of his characters, I doubted that the mural, though I had seen it distinctly, actually represented the Crow Girls. So I sent the author of Dreams Underfoot a Facebook message. He or one of his social media managers returned me an article from StreetArtNews, where the creation of the “Crow Girls” artistic project was reported (see above). Though I still did not have an explicit confirmation that the muralists intended their work to depict the Crow Girls, I was still left with the sense that they must have been familiar with de Lint’s work.

After thinking about it, I came up with the idea that de Lint’s novels are, in some respects, the literary equivalents of street art.

Charles de Lint
Charles de Lint

For those of you unfamiliar with de Lint, let me explain the general concept of his work. Charles de Lint’s works are based on what John Clute calls a crosshatch society—a place where the enchanted and magical mixes with the mundane world—and he does this by fusing urban settings and characters with mythical and folkloric figures. However, these fantastic beings are largely invisible in their urban settings, save to the bohemian, artistic protagonists of de Lint’s world who have knack for spotting them. One might often catch a glimpse of a fairy, or a Celtic god, in the margins of Ottawa, or in de Lint’s invented city of Newford, but the magical beings soon vanish. These encounters with the numinous can be moments of conflict, terror, or healing. This not only involves an encounter between states of being (the real and unreal, or the fantastic and mundane) and worldviews (traditional and scientific), but also different ways of interpreting time and space (the urban chronotope of homogenous space-time versus the folkloric/mythic chronotope of sacred, or heterogenous, space-time).

How do I connect graffiti to these crosshatched worlds? Fran Tonkis in her essay “Urban Cultures: Spatial Tactics” concerns himself with “the everyday escape routes that may be worked through the fabric of the city, ways in which spatial order can be disrupted through different modes of using and making space” (236). These spatial tactics include skateboarding and graffiti (I might also add parkour), which are practices that subvert and transform space. Strikingly, Tonkiss describes this subversion as a moment when the “mundane meets the enchanted,” a moment that enables one to think “about spatial tactics in the city,” a concept explored by Roland Barthes (241). Although I doubt Tonkiss meant enchanted in quite the same way as the magic you read about in fantasy, he is referring to a certain ‘magic’ element in how spatial tactics can change how we perceive urban space. It is easy to imagine a graceful skateboarder as unbound by gravity, for example, and in this ‘magic realist’ sense, reality itself seems to gain enchantment. The subversion and disruption of spatial order can appear as a form of enchantment, since it lets us see the city itself a fresh new way.

Another way in which we can see the city anew is through graffiti—or mural painting. Graffiti are an example of how “the everyday escapes,” though “such escape attempts are only ever partial or temporary—they slip between rather than tear apart the mesh of rational order” (242). A graffiti tag must be sprayed over, for example, a brick wall, but the brick wall is going to stay there. Tonkiss’ invocation of the interstice in his language of ‘slipping between’ made me think of Charles de Lint’s homeless Celtic gods in Forests of the Heart, who live in the ‘in between places’ or interstices of reality just as the homeless do. Since urban fantasies set in an actual North American city cannot enchant the entire city with a magical veneer without causing some cognitive dissonance on the part of the reader, the enchantment must happen within the city—even outside of conventional views of it. This is what may make Ottawa-native readers of de Lint fantasize that Celtic gods might be living in their own city without actually seeing them; maybe such readers have simply not looked carefully enough to see them. This also strikingly calls to mind how no one likes to gaze for too long at the homeless; homeless people are as ‘invisible’ as gods.

But the thing about graffiti is that they do interrupt, however briefly, the urban rational order. A form of political and territorial inscribing upon the the city, it asserts identity, “the simple statement that says ‘I am here.’” (243). Furthermore, “these assertions of presence by an author who has got away transform blank spaces into the scene of a crime” (243). Graffiti are illegal because they ‘deface’ public and private property, a crime. This is not to say, however, that it can be beautiful, or even, on occasion, fully legal and commissioned. The ‘Crow Girls’ urban art on St. Urbain is such an example of a legal enchantment of city space, although it loses its subversiveness since it was a legal act. However, continuing the analogy with urban fantasy, writing a magical being into an urban setting does breach a law—the law of ‘consensus reality,’ which is constituted by Cartesian, scientific principles, not only of ontology but of space itself. This hegemonic “rational order” found in the city is controlled by the hegemonic discourses that define our reality, a model we all give our consent towards by force of habit (242). As Bramley Dapple in “Uncle Dobbin’s Parrot Fair” declares, “we live in a consensual reality where things exist because we want them to exist. […] Yet if you were to listen to the world at large, Goon [Dapple’ gnome companion] is nothing more than a figment of some fevered writer’s imagination—a literary construct, an artistic representation of something that can’t possibly exist in the world as we know it” (Dreams Underfoot 24).

There is a great potential in urban fantasy to subvert this order, to break the rational laws of reality just as graffiti breaks the laws of the city. In fact, I could say so much on this topic that this would be a large blog post indeed. As such, I will continue these thoughts next week and given the reader a chance to gestate what I have said so far.

Next week, I will continue my thoughts on the political implications of this hegemonic rational order which is otherwise commonly called “consensus reality.” In the meanwhile, I must work on my SSHRC application!

Mural on St. Laurent Boulvd., Montreal. What if this strange hybrid creature came alive?
Mural on St. Laurent Blvd., Montreal. What if this strange hybrid creature came alive?

Works Cited:

Charles de Lint. Dreams Underfoot. New York: Tor, 1993.

StreetArtNews (http://www.streetartnews.net/2013/06/fin-dac-x-angelina-christina-new-mural_28.html)

Tonkis, Fran. “Urban Cultures: Spatial Tactics.” Urban Culture: Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies. Ed. Chris Jenks. Vols. 1-IV. London: Routledge, 2004.

Photo Credits:

Charles de Lint: author website.

Perdido Street Station by China Miéville

20140730_163408Every once in a while, I pick up a book that inspires me into creativity and haunts my dreams. Perdido Street Station by China Miéville is one such book, a celebration of the alien, the urban, and the grotesque.

New Crobuzon is a corrupt city with an underground network of criminals–only a part of whom reside in Parliament and control the ruthless militia. Furthermore, its hundreds-of-years-old decaying architecture sprawls amid the bones of a vast, ancient beast. It is home to humans, xenians, and Remade, a class of condemned criminals whose body parts are replaced by animals limbs as a kind of cruel, creative punishment. The human architecture has been replaced in certain districts by the xenian architecture of khepri, vodyanoi frog-men, and the cactacae, each of whom form their own societies within the complex city landscape.

We are introduced to the life of Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, an unconventional scientist within this vast, minutely detailed world, a universe where various branches of science–mechanical, biological, computational, and thaumaturgic–all thrive. Miéville’s science fantasy world is one where miracle-making, amputation, and difference engines can coexist without contradiction, a hodgepodge patchwork of different systems, just like New Crobuzon itself is a motley ecosystem of various coexisting species.

Ancient Egyptian Khepri
Ancient Egyptian Khepri

Isaac’s lover is Lin, a khepri. It is a scandalous kind of love for a human to be enamoured with a xenian. She is half-human, half-insect, her body apparently human-looking–below her head-scarab, that is. The males of her race are oversized beetles without sentient brains, only good for reproduction, and so she has bitterly left her home to become an independent artist.  She and Isaac keep their relationship secret, although it is an open secret among their friends in artistic community.

Isaac and Lin’s lives get complicated, however, when Isaac encounters a garuda, a half-man, half-bird xenian, named Yagharek, who has lost his wings. Yagharek hires Isaac to find a way to get him into the air again. Isaac, being the pioneering scientist he is, agrees to the challenge. Meanwhile, a shady employer hires Lin to produce a sculpture unlike any she has ever created, a very portrait of the grotesque.

As Isaac searches for a way to make Yagharek fly again, he peruses all the technologies and scientific systems at his disposal. It’s his specialty to combine disparate ideas to create new technology. His unified field theory proposes that there is a  center where all the sciences converge, like how all the skyrails and trains in New Crobuzon converge on Perdido Street Station, the giant tower of sprawling architecture that forms the city’s central hub.

While Isaac gathers data to build wings for Yag, it swiftly becomes apparent, however, that in trying to analyze and document the physiognomies of all manner of flying creatures, he may have wandered out of his depth. A terrible danger arises out of his unsavoury deals with the criminal underworld, and it will lead to a nightmare from which the entire city will not be able to awaken.

A Thai garuda
A Thai garuda

I came to learn about this book while researching my Honours thesis. In Rhetorics of Fantasy, Farah Mendelsohn calls Perdido Street Station an immersive fantasy, because the protagonist, Isaac, takes all the strangeness in the setting for granted. The scientific principles that formulate how the world functions makes that world “arguable.” The reader is therefore “immersed” in the perspective of  a New Crobuzon native. As a scientist, Isaac can combine technologies in ways never conceived of before, and even set their forces in paradoxical contradiction to each other. The word “grotesque” means “attaching to an object qualities that do not belong to it,” for example, a wingless garuda, or a human with his head turned around 180 degrees. Isaac’s science–crisis theory–is itself a kind of grotesque of science, fusing magic and technology.

As if these ideas–strange concepts of science and art, religion and magic, the urban and biological–were not enough, China Miéville paints such a vivid, believable, and detailed picture of New Crobuzon that it was impossible for me not to imagine some scenes as paintings. His style is poetic, especially during Yagharek’s first-person scenes at the end of each part of the novel, where he appears as a lost soul at war with his own deformation, wandering the dirty city streets, longing for the feeling of wind in his feathers.

The epigraph to Perdido Street Station is from Philip K. Dick’s We can Build You: “I even gave up, for a while, stopping by the window of the room to look out at the lights and deep, illuminated streets. That’s a form of dying, that losing contact with the city like that.” New Crobuzon is itself a character. Just as the war against the vampiric creatures that will be unleashed tests Isaac’s relationship to his city, Yagharek loses touch with the sky, which is his home. Readers grow to be highly sympathetic towards old Yag, forgetting sometimes that he lost his wings because he committed a crime.

I have only just scratched the surface in describing the complex, sprawling, political, and fascinating world Miéville creates. I forgot to mention the Ambassador to Hell, for example, and, my favourite extra-dimensional entity, the Weaver, a giant crooning spider whose metaphoric structure of speech left me imagining him in a fedora snapping to Beat poetry. You’ll have to read Perdido Street Station to taste the rest of this whacky world. I’ll say it certainly made me hungry for more. Maybe I will read Iron Council next…

China Mieville, author of Perdido Street Station
China Miéville, author of Perdido Street Station

Photo Credits:

Garuda: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thai_Garuda_emblem.png

China Miéville: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:China_Mi%C3%A9ville.jpg

Khepri: http://www.zin.ru/animalia/coleoptera/rus/chimera.htm

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