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Announcing the Archaeology of Weird Fiction Project

At the World Fantasy Convention in 2015, I was introduced to the world of weird fiction.

My roommate for the weekend, Usman T. Malik, introduced me to the  Year’s Best Weird Fiction anthology series (Undertow Publications), where a short story of his, “Resurrection Points,” had been published recently. His enthusiasm for his genre of choice, the weird tale, was contagious.

Soon I had discovered ChiZine Press’s lineup of dark fiction novels and short story collections and I had picked up Jeffrey Ford’s collection A Natural History of Hell. These stories, particularly those in the Ford collection, astounded me with their imaginative situations, their mythologies, and their bold use of language. Although I had not been exposed much to H.P. Lovecraft, I began to read his classic weird tales as well. I had caught the bug.

Before I knew it, weird tales had infected my brain. It was just as China Miéville described in his “Afterweird” to Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s seminal anthology, The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories: weird texts “will eat the books you read from today on … That is how the weird recruits. … These stories are worms” (1116).

These textual tapeworms led me to write an essay on the Weird and Usman T. Malik’s fiction in Harf: A Journal of South Asian Studies, an academic journal based at McGill University. The ways this genre twists language and representation became an object of fascination for me.

It was not long before I discovered the vast range of texts Ann and Jeff VanderMeer had compiled together in their anthology. Texts from the early twentieth century to the twenty-first are gathered here within the same sprawling volume, encompassing authors as diverse as Franz Kafka, Ray Bradbury, Rabindranath Tagore, James Triptree, Jr., George R.R. Martin, Julio Cortázar, Kelly Link, and Jamaica Kincaid. The anthology also includes contemporary authors of the New Weird, such as China Miéville and Thomas Ligotti. In all, 110 texts appear in this collection, each originally published between 1909 and 2010.

The Weird creates the predecessors of the New Weird movement, an act of canonization. However, Miéville emphasizes that this compendium “does not, nor could it, enshrine one set of texts. Without motion–of crawling and wringing time–there is no Weird. All canons are tombs, yes, but this collection is a post-elegy, wearing / an eaten shroud / –a long-dead rag for the dead” (1116). Weird fiction frustrates our categories and subverts our reassurances of permanency and order.

This project is an excavation of that canonical tomb. It is an archaeology of the weird.

My goal will be to post weekly reflections on each story in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s compendium–all 110 stories, covering more than a hundred years of weird fiction writing. I hope to learn something about how the genre developed the way it did. I also hope to figure how the weird produces some of the stylistic effects it is famous for making. And lastly, like a pulp archaeologist in the adventure serials, I may find my cold, rational logic challenged by the sudden manifestation of the realities human beings were never meant to understand…

It promises to be fun.

My first post will be on an excerpt of Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side (1908), the first story included in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s anthology. The posts will appear weekly on Saturday mornings.

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Could the Artificial Paradise of the Assassins be a Fairy Otherworld?

After a hiatus, weekly posts have returned on Saturdays. Today, I propose a modest theory about the Old Man of the Mountain, Hassan ibn Sabbah, the leader of the Nizari Ismai’lis, which are more infamously known (however unfairly) as the Assassins.

I have discussed the Old Man of the Mountain in the past in the context of the famous Assassin’s Creed franchise. In this post, I try to understand how exactly Middle English readers would have understood the reference to the Old Man of the Mountain in The Book of John Mandeville. I propose in fact that they would have interpreted this account as a moral allegory not dissimilar to certain fairy tales in which the seductions of fairy land tempt the victim away from aspiring to heaven by presenting the victim with a garden of earthly delights.

Before I begin, here is the entire reference to Catholonabeus, which is Mandeville’s name for Hassan ibn Sabbah. This is a free translation from the text edited by Kohanski and Benson. (Catholonabeus is a Latinized corruption of a Syrian word meaning ‘killer.’)

Paradise Ismaili
The Old Man of the Mountain

In this land was a rich men that men called Catholonabeus, and he had a fair, strong castle. And he had made a good, strong wall all around the hill. Within was a fair garden in which were many fair trees bearing all manner of fruit that he could find. And he planted all manner of herbs of good smell. And there were many fair wells, and nearby were built many fair halls and chambers endowed with gold and azure. And he made birds and beasts that turned around via an engine within a clock and they sang as if they were alive. And he had in his gardens maidens of 15 years of age, the fairest that he could find, and male children of the same age, and they were clothed in gold and he said that they were angels. And he had made a conduit under the earth so that when he wanted he could sometimes run milk, sometimes wine, sometimes honey. And this place is called Paradise. And when any young bachelor of that country, knight or squire, came to find solace, [Catholonabeus] led him into his Paradise and showed him many wonderful things and his maidens and his wells and  he also sounded his musical instruments in a high tower that could not be seen and said that they were angels of God and that here was Paradise that God granted to those who believed when He said thus: “I shall give you a land flowing with milk and honey.”

Marco Polo’s account of Hassan ibn Sabbah develops this point to say that all those who the Old Man of the Mountain seduced with his pleasure garden he also persuaded to carry out political murders. Their reward was re-entry into Paradise and for that, they were willing to do anything.

My initial impression of this account is that it is an Orientalist wonder tale, a European projection of fears about the Islamic ‘Other.’ Certainly the myth of a false paradise implies a degree of alterity to the man who built it. He cannot be said to be an entirely orthodox man and certainly not a Christian one. However, nowhere in Mandeville is Catholonabeus called a Saracen or a Muslim. And nowhere is his Paradise ever explicitly condemned as a false heaven. If anything, it almost seems as though the author celebrates the human ingenuity that could produce such a marvel in this world. The mechanical birds and magnificent the clock (which reminds me of a certain water-clock the caliph Harun al-Rashid of One Thousand and One Nights fame gifted to none other than King Charlemagne) suggest a technological advancement far ahead of what was common in Europe at the time.

My second impression of this account is that it corresponds fairly closely the idea of a wainscot society in fantasy criticism. A “wainscot” refers to a society of fantastic beings that exists within the mundane world, although this society can only be accessed ‘through the cracks.’ For example, there might be fairies living in a house’s actual wood paneling, which is what a ‘wainscot’ is. Or, to return to Catholonabeus, a secret society of hedonistic pleasure seekers (and their servants) might exist concealed in the mountains and within a castle, as the artificial paradise appears to be. The fact that the servants are called ‘angels’ furthermore links them with the supernatural, although they may merely be false angels.

Angels are only a small step away from fairies. Now consider if this wainscot society situated in a wondrous garden of paradise formed a sort of Celtic Otherworld.

In Sir Orfeo, a Middle English verse romance, a knight ventures into a fairy Otherworld that resembles the New Jerusalem, for all the bright and precious stones that adorn the buildings. The New Jerusalem is “the proude court of Paradis” (376). It is an otherworldly, wondrous utopia like the artificial paradise, only Sir Orfeo’s is the real deal. Nonetheless, it might be said that a tradition of viewing Paradise as an Otherworld does exist in the medieval English literature. Why not an artificial paradise?

Celtic fairy lore mentions the perils of being caught dancing in fairy circles and the danger of losing oneself to the seductions of fairy land, the ‘perilous realm.’ Consider Catholonabeus as a kind of Oberon, only with the skill of La Belle Dame Sans Merci at seducing young men with the pleasures of his garden. The dangers a young man might face with the Old Man of the Mountain come remarkably close to the ones a knight might expect from a fairy.

Then recall the tradition of fairies as the puckish, arbitrary dispensers of harm or aid. Never anger a fairy, or there will be hell to pay. Keep giving them milk in a dish by the windowsill and they will be kind to you. But you just never know. A fairy might decide to play the trickster no matter what you try to do.

Although Mandeville strangely omits all mention of the Assassins from his account, if Catholonabeus controlled his Assassins rather like a fairy king, he would have been considered a dangerous man. Like a Mafia don, a fairy with the power to murder you should better be placated.

Although I let my fancy fly a little in my last paragraph, I believe there are nevertheless suggestive cues in the account of the Old Man of the Mountain to suggest that one kind of text that might have influenced how Middle English readers interpreted John Mandeville’s account is what I will loosely call the ‘fairy story’ or ‘fairy romance.’ Kings and squires venturing near a fairy mound had better pour wax in their ears not to hear the seductive siren music of the fairyland. In the same way, the same heroes might be well instructed to turn a deaf ear to anything Catholonabeus promises and to not be fooled by his hidden musical instruments that they are in the real Paradise.

But just in case anyone needs a convincer, think about this.

Fairy rings are known to grow bigger the deeper you enter them. Although they look small, as if they do not contain much space, once you enter one, they are bigger on the inside (rather like the inside of the Doctor’s TARDIS).

Hassan ibn Sabbah was lord of Alamut castle in Northern Iran. Unfortunately, this castle is much too small, narrow, and rocky to have housed a full scale garden of paradise. However, a certain vineyard does thrive on Alamut to this day. It was rumoured to have been planted by Hassan himself.

Although it is not much to look at, the vineyard is a slice of green life thriving in the otherwise spartan ruin of the Ismai’li castle.

Has anyone ever paused to see how big that vineyard is on the inside?

Alamut
A modern-day shot of the castle of Alamut.

World Fantasy Convention 2015, Part I: Guy Gavriel Kay’s Children of the Earth and Sky

My third conference of the year brought me to Saratoga Springs for the World Fantasy Convention
My third conference of the year brought me to Saratoga Springs for the World Fantasy Convention

He spoke in a small presentation room called Broadway I in the Saratoga Hilton at Saratoga Springs, NY, introducing for the first time the central concept behind his new novel. It was Guy Gavriel Kay giving the origin story behind Children of the Earth and Sky, due for release this Spring, and I was among the privileged few to hear him read from his new novel–the most anyone has ever learned about his latest historical fantasy.

This was only one of the many highlights over the weekend, but it was the highlight to which I had most been looking forward. I may not own Guy Kay’s complete works, but I have read them all and that includes not just Fionavar Tapestry and all of his historical fantasies, but his poetry volume Beyond this Dark House as well.

Before going into the details of his new novel that were revealed during his reading, let me at first attempt to describe my experience of what went down during the first few days (Thursday and Friday) of the World Fantasy Convention. There were many panels and big-name, even venerable, authors of both fantasy and science fiction–as well as authors of horror and weird tales, and their editors, publishers, and even some literary agents.

I arrived late Thursday evening, but I was on time to attend three plays by Lord Dunsany. The tone of the these plays was British-mannered and satirical and included play where a thief gone to heaven strives to break the lock of the pearly gates–but finds only the stars of the firmament on the other side.

Usman Malik and I
Usman Malik and I

I was rooming at the convention with a celebrity, as I discovered, although to me he was just a normal guy I was able to connect with in order to share a room: Usman T. Malik is an author of weird fiction and very popular in Pakistan, the first from his country to win a Bram Stoker Award. His story “Resurrection Points” was published in Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Vol. II, which was one of the many books I bought at the convention.

Upon first entering the convention, we were handed canvas bags loaded with 4-5 free books. Already this was more books than I had anticipated bringing home, but then again, I had yet to learn the ways of World Fantasy. These books included an ARC (Advance Reading Copy) of soon-to-be-released novel The Alchemist’s Council by Cynthia Masson, which I will strive to write a review for before its release date.

The funky thing about this book is that it was published by ECW Publications, to which I have a connection. Robert Lecker, who was my professor throughout several classes on Canadian literature at McGill and for whom I am now employed as a research assistant, was an ex-editor at ECW when it was a magazine called Essays in Canadian Writing. Nowadays, although they kept the copyrighted acronym, the publishers changed the meaning of ECW to Entertainment Culture Writing and are now publishing fantasy and science fiction, among other genres including non-fiction and literary fiction. While I knew Lecker had been with ECW, I was not aware they were publishing in my genre and I was quite surprised to see them at Saratoga!

Thursday night I chilled at the Canadian SF party, listening to David Hartwell, editor of Tor’s Years Best anthologies, talk informally about how a lot of authors nowadays are being taught how to write publishable material, but rare is the writer who can write with voice and rise to greatness. Guy Kay was circulating about the room as I listened, but I missed my chance to speak with him right then. The next day, Friday, I had a better opportunity to do this.

Friday, I attended two panels before walking into Guy Kay’s reading and learning the long-kept secret of the subject of his latest novel.

This was another panel that also happened on Friday:
This was another panel that also happened on Friday: “Extracting Fantasy from the Pulps.” Left to right: Ian C. Esselmont, Walter Jon Wiliams, Steven Erikson, F. Paul Wilson, and moderator Kevin Maroney

One of these panels was “Ur-Fantasies: It all Started With…” and it was composed of Tod McCoy, a Seattle-area small press publisher, Roderick Killheffer, a reviewer and publisher for 25 years, Michael Dirda, a reviewer for the New York Review of Books and who was a medievalist in grad school, Rosemary Claire Smith, who was written for Analog using her experience as an archaeologist, and Barbara Chepaitis, a novelist and the panel’s moderator. What were the first, original fantasy texts? Do they stretch back to The Epic of Gilgamesh or even earlier? Michael Dirda talked about his discovery of the Icelandic sagas as a sort of Ur-fantasy; he called them and I paraphrase, “spaghetti westerns on ice.” Barbara Chepaitis called Scheherazade’s storytelling in The Arabian Nights “the first civil disobedience” since Scheherazade’s tales, designed to always end on a hook, keep interesting the king, thus delaying his plan to execute her in order to ensure her marital fidelity. Telling stories, she saves the kingdom from the murderous rampage of the king, who has already killed hundreds of previous wives. Chepaitis also provocatively mentioned the Iroquois Peacemaker’s Epic, which recounts the formation of the Iroquois Confederacy by chief Hiawatha, as a counterpoint to fantasy epics that tend to constantly revolve around warfare.

“Scale in Epic Fantasy–Tensions between the Epic and the Intimate” involved Chris Gerwel, Ilana C. Meyer, Suzy McKee Charnas, and Glen Cook, with Joshua Palmatier as moderator. How can one write an epic fantasy that also treats intimate moments of human relationships? How do you balance character interaction with the wider lens of a Risk board of military conquests? The market expectation, Palmatier opened, is for vast, sprawling epics. But readers relate to more intimate moments. Striking this balance, I must note, is something Guy Gavriel Kay is excellent in doing.

A good example of pace and scale failing was the example of the Peter Jackson Hobbit films, the panel proposed: Tolkien’s story is intensely focused on Bilbo’s psychology and relationship with the dwarves, while Jackson erred in making the 3-part film too epic in scope. Glen Cook told us that he knows pace more intuitively and that it is his habit to write his entire novel by hand, then type it on a computer and go through 2-3 drafts in that way. Ilana C. Meyer suggested the helpful screenwriter’s trick for writing any scene: “in late, out early.” Chris Girwell suggested that first person voice is an excellent way of filtering a wider, epic world through a single character’s perspective. The panel also seemed to agree that multiple third-person POVS can be useful for presenting the perspectives of diverse people positioned in all walks of life, enabling an author to present a wider sense of events than a single perspective can.

Following this panel, I made a dash to catch the beginning of Guy Gavriel Kay’s reading. The following is a paraphrase of the story Guy Kay told us.

An uskok pirate. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Uskok_EMZ_1300109.jpg
An uskok pirate. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Uskok_EMZ_1300109.jpg

The story behind the creation of Children of the Earth and Sky began eight or nine years ago when Kay was touring Croatia with an editor friend while heading for a librarian conference. They were making for the coast and the editor suggested he write about the Uskoks. Kay explained how upon hearing the name, he promptly asked his editor, “What?” in a “suave and urbane fashion,” he assured us. But he really had never yet heard of this culture of Dalmatian coastal pirates operative during the Renaissance. These Uskoks raided the borderlands of the Ottoman, Venetian and Holy Roman Empires in the Adriatic Sea. They regarded themselves as heroes, “warriors of the border.”

What this growing interest in the Uskoks produced is a novel set in the generation following the fall of Sarantium, which in terms of Kay’s ‘quarter-turn of the fantastic’ world-building corresponds to the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Which means we have a novel set in the Renaissance that contains a significant section set in a city state evocative of Venice, with other locales to be revealed in the Spring.

I was slightly disappointed that Kay wasn’t turning towards North America for his inspiration this time around, which was my grand theory, but I felt a growing excitement for his new concept. The cover, which contains an ocean, a backdrop of a map, and a fleur-de-lys, along with a title evocative of Plains Indian mythology, suggested a novel set in New France, however inconsistent that would be with the Plains Indians. Kay had employed Plains culture in Fionavar Tapestry. My theory may have been a long shot in retrospect, but it’s easy to get excited about the actual concept Kay has now chosen: pirates!

Emphatically–and this is interesting in relation to the earlier panel on scale in epic fantasy–Kay describes his new novel as not being about kings, emperors, and courtiers, but about people who are powerless, unimportant. Children of the Earth and Sky revolves around five protagonists from various milieus who struggle to cope with what history sends their way. Illuminating the lives of secondary characters is something Kay has almost always been interested in and which truly showed itself in his two latest Chinese novels, Under Heaven and River of Stars. However, Children of the Earth and Sky will be different in how it focuses on unimportant and disempowered characters.

I heard Kay read the tense opening scene of one of these characters’ stories. This involved a painter who produces a scandalous portrait of a countessa and lives to regret it. You could feel Kay’s strong love of art history expressed in how he weaved sexual tension into the drama of a artist’s struggle, providing insight into the secret behind this painter’s work, a canvas that depicts a woman’s knowing smile. Leonardo Da Vinci he is not, however: he soon finds himself in hot water. The dramatic pauses and practiced pacing of Kay’s reading combined to create a highly professional performance that promised only good things to come with the Spring release.

The epigraphs to the new novel are borrowed from poem No. XXX in Look, Stranger! by W.H. Auden (“We swayed forward on the dangerous flood of history…”) and from the poem “Parable” by Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Louise Glück.

I, for one, am going to try to apply to Penguin for an ARC and be among the first to review it. If I am successful, I will write a review informed by my knowledge of Kay’s entire oeuvre, having previously written a 50-page Honours thesis devoted to his works. As such, you can trust it will be a well-informed review.

Guy Gavriel Kay and I at Salon du Livre a few years ago
Guy Kay and I meet at the Salon du Livre, Place Bonaventure, Montreal a few years ago

Next week look out for an account of the second half of my experience at the World Fantasy Convention, in which I interview Charles de Lint!

MythCon 46: The Arthurian Mythos Part IV: The Conclusion

20150802_125245The final day of MythCon 46 was Monday August 3rd, during which I only took notes on one presentation: Vicki Ronn on “Graphic King Arthur,” that is, the history of King Arthur comic books. Ronn presented a series of comics featuring or starring the mythical king, evaluating each for the quality of its illustrations, story, and characterizations, from Prince Valiant to Camelot 3000 and beyond.

Mike Barr and Briand Bolland worked on Camelot 3000 from 1982-85, a DC Comics series that was able to escape the restrictions of the Comics Code Authority, by selling only to comic book stores. There were several surprises in this series, noted for its 1980s camp. The story is that King Arthur has been cryo-frozen and has been awoken in the futuristic world of 3000 AD. Galahad appears as a Japanese samurai, Gawain as a South African Zulu, and Tristan is Tristana–a woman! This last is remarkable because many comics of the past rarely featured women, King Arthur and His Knights by Frank Bellamy (1955-6) actually having an all-male cast. Morgan Le Fay also appears in Camelot 3000 as the leader of an evil alien force. Unforgettably, the final panel contains the image of a very weird alien drawing Excalibur from a stone, hinting that the Arthurian mythos repeats itself throughout time and (outer) space. Another interesting observation I had, when allowed a chance to view the comic, was that Arthur’s knights are each represented by a special sigil on a wall, not unlike the sigils of the Endless in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.

The Knights of Pendragon included Marvel characters such as the Fantastic Four and Iron Man–not to mention the Incredible Hulk, who was interpreted as a kind of Green Knight figure. It was printed on environmentally friendly paper and references modern poetry. Fables: Camelot was a series Ronn described as quite compelling, a post-9/11 treatment of the Round Table as a place for those who need a ‘second chance.’ Instead of culminating in a huge, epic battle at the end, the two forces, led by fairy tale characters Rose Red and Snow White, decide to put aside their differences and go their separate ways.

Here are several links to various pieces of Arthuriana that Vicki Ronn listed during her presentation:

Camelot 4 Colors: http://www.camelot4colors.com/

An Arthurian Web Comic: http://www.arthurkingoftimeandspace.com/

The Camelot Project: http://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot-project

*

And now for the run-down of how my presentation went on Sunday, 2 August 2015.

Click here to view the YouTube video of my presentation. [If you haven’t read Moonheart, there are spoilers, so WARNING.]

The swift abstract to my presentation is the following:

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

Charles de Lint’s modern fantasy novel Moonheart: A Romance (1984) represents utopia by distending consensus reality and merging contemporary urban Canada with supernatural forces from First Nations and Celtic folklore. Steven Lawrence terms de Lint’s novel a “new fantasy” for Canada’s “majority multiculture.” Referring to Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious, I will present Moonheart as symbolically resolving cultural anxieties about Canada’s colonial history, through its Othering of the figure of the colonizer in its romance structure. De Lint’s use of fantasy functions as a tactic of representational space in opposition to the strategy of realism, the hegemony of capitalism, and the state’s production of space. Historicizing Moonheart locates it as a text that imagines a utopia during the rise of Canada’s policy of liberal multiculturalism, while using fantasy as a visionary technique to resolve anxieties about the Other, the colonial past, and the capitalist present.

You can read more about Moonheart here.

Brian Attebery was in attendance and his comment to me was that although Moonheart does project a resolution to the colonial history of Canada, the ending has always left him dissatisfied. There is a certain lack of closure that leaves the social issues unresolved, even though they are resolved symbolically through the fantastic adventure in contains.

My reply to him today, after reading through the first two chapters of Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious yet again, would differ only a little from the one I offered him that Sunday.

Yes, de Lint leaves the social issues unresolved. There is a disconnection between the decisive victory of the protagonists and the changes this brings to Ottawa at large in the novel–namely, the fact that there are no social changes that result from the supernatural battle.

What does happen is that Sara, the novel’s main protagonist, recognizes that she shares the legacy of imperialism, being a woman of Anglo-Canadian stock. More importantly she learns that she must carry this legacy with her into her everyday world. Presumably, this means she must now work as an white-Canadian ally of Native Americans in order to work for real social justice. However, in Spiritwalk, the sequel to Moonheart, she spends most of her time in the Otherworld with Taliesin, her lover (a Welsh bard), instead of working to repair the real damage of colonial abuse. Of course, the problem might as a whole be too big for Sara to ‘solve’ alone, providing it can be ‘solved’ at all, but the fact is that we never see her, for example, lending a hand to Native American homeless kids, campaigning for better on-res living conditions, etc.

The idea behind such political readings of fantasy literature is not to get on Charles de Lint’s case about not writing fantasy that is sufficiently politically engaging, but to prove that all narratives are situated in history. If de Lint had made Sara into an Aboriginal rights crusader, the story would only reveal other contradictions existent in Canadian society–the difference being that they would be deeper contradictions.

What these kinds of analysis can prove for our times is the relevance of fantasy to our society–it enables us to imagine other worlds and suggest new ways of overcoming problems. The best fantasies are progressive, not merely reactions, but calls to action.

And on that note, I conclude my final report on MythCon 46. I hope the posts over the last few weeks have taught you something new about fantasy and myth you might never have thought about before. Till next time!

 

MythCon 46: The Arthurian Mythos Part II: Race, Raciness, and the Fifty Shades of Charles Williams

20150802_125245For this post I apologize immediately for the title and would like to state that most (the greater half anyway) of this post will be concerned with how Tolkien treats race in his fiction–not how Charles Williams is racy. The lurid revelations about Charles Williams, ‘The Oddest Inkling,’ that have now come forth were just impossible a) to ignore and b) to avoid association with the infamous erotica novel. I mean, what’s the problem with the world today? First, if you’re Canadian, you have the Gian Ghomeshi scandal, then of course there’s Bill Cosby … now even the lurid deeds of obscure Christian mythopoeic poets are at last coming to light.

Saturday morning was the Scholar Guest of Honour speech. John D. Ratecliff is an Inklings scholar and this MythCon’s Scholar Guest of Honour. With his softspoken Texas accent, he began to lecture on “The Lost Letter.” He discussed the problematic friendship between C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams while contextualizing the textual history of some of Williams’s works in relation to some Modernists, including T.S. Eliot who wrote an incomplete essay on Williams’s drama. He also presented us with a great photo of Williams posing with none other than William Butler Yeats (see below).

Ratecliff during his archival spelunking recovered a typescript of Williams’s thought-to-be-destroyed commentary–a necessary document for the comprehension of William’s work because, of all people, even Eliot, as highly allusive, illusive, and difficult a poet as he is, called Williams’s poetry ‘obscure’! The problem for a long time was that C.S. Lewis was known to have burned away this key commentary, rather brutally altering his friend’s literary legacy.

Williams’s obscure poetry in the Arthuriad is highly mythical and difficult to interpret, although it is fairly evident that his character Taliesin is, more or less, a biographical representation of himself, with other characters occasionally representing people he knew nom-a-clef style. Williams in some ways was like more ‘mainstream’ Inklings, Tolkien and Lewis, in that he wrote about mythic themes from a religious perspective. But Charles was an odd duck: a member of the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, a christianized version of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, as well as practicing ritual magician and an occultist.

He also thought sexual arousal could stimulate poetic inspiration.

Just as Taliesin in one part of Williams’s Arthuriad reaches over the bound, fully naked body of Morgeuse, before sitting down, lyre in hand, to compose great poetry, so did Williams–in actual, real life–have the custom of fondling a woman’s breast before stopping just short of consummation. He could then return to his ink and pad filled with erotic energy to scribble off another verse.

“I made her the victim of Love’s laws,” the poem goes. “The queen of Orkney, the queen Morgeuse!”

Tolkien got his inspiration from ‘the refracted light’ that enters humanity from heaven to make us subcreators within God’s creation. Lewis got inspiration from Christian joy. And now we all know what Williams was up to.

What an exemplary Christian mythopoeic writer! But his dirty mind only gets stranger. Ratecliff also distributed copies of a map of Europe called Williams’s “gynecomorphic map,” showing locations from his Arthuriad. If your Greek is up to snuff, you’ll realize that this map showed Europe as the form of a woman (gynaika)–undressed, naturally. Furthermore her body parts correspond to various cities and culturally-significant locations in Williams’s story. Byzantium is situated at the navel, London at the lips, Rome at the hands. The rest was not PG. Let us say Jerusalem in a mystic, or sorta disgusting, way was located in the crotch area, while Southern France–do I really have to specify?–her breasts (due to the ‘nourishing’ quality of the universities in that part of the world, I’m told), while, rather racistly, Ispahan, an obscure Islamic city below the Caspian Sea, took up the fecal rear. Caucasus made up the rest of the gluteus for some unknown reason.

Oh, yeah, there’s one more thing: the giant swarming tentacles at the woman’s feet do not designate Cthulhu but P’o-lu, the court of a fictitious, headless emperor. Although these appear south of Arabia, P’o-lu is supposedly in Java.

So anyway, the moral is that Williams is unanthologizable, unteachable, and such an obscure cockney that you must read him, like you read Hemingway, in a drunken stupor. And I thought modernist poetry was difficult!

Williams's map from the Arthuriad
Williams’s map from the Arthuriad

Time to leave behind all the other shades of Charles Williams and turn to some other, interesting topics.

Stepanie K. Brownell and Sara D. Rivera gave a wondrous talk on a work I had heard about before, but never really thought about reading, although they totally sold me on it. I’m slowly making my way through the novel right now. Their presentation was “‘Out of Far Harad’: Myth and ‘Mirror’ in The Lord of the Rings and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.”

Knowing nothing of this novel except that it’s title sounded vaguely familiar, I went to the presentation a bit late, but I was blown away by the subject matter. Oscar Wao wants to be the Dominican Tolkien–he’s a black, fat Caribbean nerd boy totally into magna, DND, and genre fiction. He goes on a sort of quest to the Dominican Republic after experiencing a dream vision of a mongoose, where he seeks answers to the fuku (in English, the curse), that has blighted his family and his people ever since the days of slavery and especially since the days of the dictator Trujillo, who the narrator explicitly compares to none other than Sauron himself.

Oscar Wao is the postcolonial/diasporic novel meets geekness, and I had no idea these worlds have ever joined in a single novel until now. I knew Caribbean fantasy/science fiction to be existent, having read a little Nalo Hopkinson and read criticism about her work, but this is about science fiction and fantasy as much as it was about colonialism and race.

The novel offers a postcolonial critique of Tolkien and his project. Tolkien attempted to write a ‘myth for England’ but what about the Dominican Republic, which is much more desperately in need of narration, having been subject to various tyrants and colonizers in its history? As an imperial subject, DR needs narration.

Oscar falls out with his idol, Tolkien, when he cannot reconcile the man he sees in the mirror with the figures represented in LOTR. One passage reads “out of Far Harad, black men like half-trolls…” While Oscar naturally identifies with the Elves and Men and Hobbits of Middle Earth like any other reader, when he comes to this passage he realizes that there is no place for heroism in Middle Earth for those of his skin colour.

Junot Diaz, the author of Oscar Wao, wanted to give readers–especially black readers–a mirror so they can see their own race represented in fiction without feeling that it is a monstrous one. “If we were orcs, wouldn’t we, at a racial level, imagine ourselves to look like elves?” (178), he writes.

This novel straddles a grey area between magical realism and fantasy, although as far as I’ve gotten in my reading, it is a quirky but still an essentially realistic story. It’s epigraphs are from Derek Walcott and Stan Lee–a peculiar mix that represents the book’s themes.

While I continue my readings for my MA Thesis, which is partly about analyzing fantasy as a global form, I can’t help but think about this novel and how works of fantasy, like The Lord of the Rings, are receive and interpreted by readers and other authors in nations such as DR. Does the transference of forms from Europe to the ‘periphery’ and the Third World carry a progressive or a detrimental effect towards local literature and national self-image? This talk raised a whole lot of questions that seem to me vital about getting a full picture of what fantasy is doing worldwide.

Once again the issue of race emerged–and specifically, Tolkien’s ideas of race–with Roger Echo-Hawk’s presentation “Ya Hoi! Tolkien’s Mongol-type Orcs.” Here Echo-Hawk, a Native scholar and author of Tolkien in Pawnee Land, argued that Tolkien borrowed descriptions of Mongoloid skulls when describing his orcs. He related this argument to the discourse of eugenics that was ripe around the time Tolkien was writing–the creation of an ideal human race through selective breeding. I can personally contest to this discourse being ‘in the air’ at the time because I noticed several book ads during my searches through early issues of Canadian Forum during my RAship. Supposedly it was guaranteed that ancestry and genes carried the destiny of a society. There were supposedly four ‘races’ in Europe: Mediterranean, Alpine, Tutonic, and Celtic, with the Negoroid and Mongolian types on other continents.

Although Tolkien was aware of Huxley’s arguments about such racial ideas being unscientific, he still approached race from a Eurocentric sense of mission to the ‘lesser’ races. Tolkien would come to begrudge Hitler’s perversion of the idea of the great Northern racial spirit. In fact, in a 1938 letter Tolkien called such racial theories a “holy pernicious and unscientific doctrine.”

Echo-Hawk continued by referencing an Encyclopaedia Brittanica description of the Mongoloid race and finding close correspondence between its specific description of Mongoloids and Tolkien’s descriptions of the “slant-eyed” orcs. Orcs had “sallow” skin–in other words, the yellow skin corresponding to East/Central Asian ancestry. Furthermore his “squint-eyed Southerner” in the Inn at Bree had nothing to do with Clint Eastwood, but rather invokes the same Mongoloid race as a trait of evil.

Another observant bit of scholarship on Echo-Hawk’s part was proposing that Tolkien was aware of the discovery of a negroid Malay skeleton during the war, which may also have influenced his depiction of orcs. Tolkien kept tabs on the Eastern theater during WWII, a note about a Japanese attack on Malaya having been found behind one of his exam papers. Did he note Malay because he had been paying attention to the discovery? Unfortunately, we may never know. What we do know is that Tolkien’s attitude to race was not entirely straightforward and that his placing of importance on race as a stable entity unfortunately reifies–or stultifies–societies into distinct groups characterized by absolute difference.

To close off the day, I attended a discussion panel on Rudyard Kipling, whose short fiction occasionally ventures into the fantastic, but whose journalistic representations of India still define how people–even Indians themselves–see India today. There were no terribly fascinating theories discussed, but it was an opportunity to hear some things about this complex colonial author. Although his novels like The White Man’s Burden is usually seen as trite, jingoistic, and complicit with imperialism, he presents an honest and surprisingly deep picture of Indian society that frequently find sympathy with the locals instead of representatives of the British government.

The panel mentioned how Kipling’s prose actually scans, like poetry. I almost wanted to quote Ondaatje’s The English Patient, where the patient tells Hana, “Read him slowly, dear girl, you must read Kipling slowly. Watch carefully where the commas fall so you can discover the natural pauses. He is a writer who used pen and ink. He looked up from the page a lot, I believe, stared through his window and listened to birds, as most writers who are alone do.” Another author who writes as carefully as Kipling is Kenneth Morris, whose fantasy short fiction was collected in a volume called The Dragon Path–he even wrote fiction inspired by Beethoven.

Fantasy authors who refer to Kipling and acknowledge their debt to him include Poul Anderson and Tim Powers, whose novel Declare refers to The Great Game. C.S. Lewis in Selected Literary Essays also has an essay on Kipling in which he calls him the “Poet of the Inner Ring,” which is code for male friendship.

And … that’s about all I could pack in to this post. That Saturday was packed full of lectures. In another week, I will be publishing my Sunday notes, including a brief report on my presentation.

Modernism meets classic modern fantasy: Charles Williams and W.B. Yeats
Modernism meets classic modern fantasy: Charles Williams and W.B. Yeats

MythCon 46: The Arthurian Mythos Part I: On Satyrs, Derrida, and Names of Power

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Every Friday over the next couple of weeks I will be posting notes that I made during this year’s Mythopoeic Conference at the Hotel Elegante in Colorado Springs, CO. I presented a paper there on Charles de Lint and had the occasion to reacquaint myself with the much of the same gang from the last MythCon in Norton, MA. Although these posts are somewhat belated because the conference happened between July 31 and August 3 2015, I think the beginning of the semester–the last hurrah before I really have to hunker down and right my MA thesis–serves as a decent occasion to publish some of the interesting ideas that circulated at the conference.

This was the first trip I made this deep into the US of A without any family contacts to boot. It was also my first time flying alone. I flew in via Atlanta–I was most unexpectedly in the South!–and arrived the day before at the conference in one piece. I got some rest and the next day made my way to the first talk of the weekend. The conference theme was on the Arthurian Mythos–anything related to King Arthur and his knights–from Malory to (Grahame) Chapman.

Joe Christopher presented “A Narnian Study and a Lewisian (and Tolkienian) Note: ‘Two Satyrs’ and ‘Passing References in a Modern Arthurian Novel.'” The gist of the talk was a specific study by one of the conference’s veterans. There are (at least) two depictions of satyrs in C.S. Lewis: Mr. Tumnus, who is called a ‘fawn,’ and another in a poem called “The Satyr” from Spirits in Bondage. Satyrs are remarkable fantastic creatures in how they combine a human face and posture with a bestial goat’s body. The human aspect represents the intellectual faculties, while the goat parts, the more basic drives and instincts–food, sex, bacchanalian revelry.

This man-beast dichotomy is enriched in Lewis since the two satyrs were written at very different times in his life: Mr. Tumnus when he was a converted middle-aged Christian and the Satyr when he was an adolescent atheist. Lewis desexualizes the image of the satyr by the time he writes The Chronicles of Narnia, turning a creature who might be described as a sexual predator into the sedate hospitable, umbrella-toting Christmas shopper, Mr. Tumnus. Naturally this lends a creepy background to Mr. Tumnus inviting little lost Lucy Pevensey into his home upon her first visit to Narnia.

Christopher also went off on a slight tangent to describe an interesting recent book, The Search for Camlann (2013), which integrates Welsh politics into the story of an archaeologist’s search for the battlefield where Arthur made his last stand against Mordred. Entertainingly enough, the protagonist discovers the mythic source text behind Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, which is usually understood to be non-existent, part of the gigantic lie Monmouth told in order to present Wales in a flattering way to the Norman conquerors.

After this stimulating discussion, I sat down for Andrew Hallam’s “Messianicity and Weak Force in The Lord of the Rings” in which Jacques Derrida served as a surprisingly apt theorist for the discussion of Tolkien’s masterwork. Both academics, for example, were into languages–inventing them and deconstructing them–and if only, if only they could have spoken to each other over tea … well, Andrew and I pretty well agreed they would hate each other’s guts, one being atheist and the other a devout Catholic.

The way Derrida tied into Tolkien was through the French deconstructionist’s writings on faith. To paraphrase, Derrida said one should never give in to the temptation of thinking that one knows what knowledge is. In other words, it is an error to think that knowledge is always certain. Faith is necessary in order to trust in knowledge, but there is always the potential, in what we know, for uncertainty. Messianicity for Derrida must furthermore be wholly unexpected, unanticipated, arriving to change the world from a wildly different direction than ever foreseen.

Jesus Christ was expected to be a powerful ruler who would deliver the Jews from Rome, but he came to be born in a small manger. In a similar way, the One Ring winds up the hands of a Hobbit–wholly unexpected by the rulers of Gondor, much to Boromir’s sad and tragic disappointment. Because Frodo’s Messianicity was so unexpected, Boromir believes he himself ought to have found the Ring, a misunderstanding that leads to his death and the breaking of the Fellowship.

Following this discussion, Janet Brennan Croft gave a talk on “The Name of the Ring: Or There and Back Again,” which although it sounds like it could frankly have been about anything Ring-related, was essentially an analysis of the Ring’s legend through Northrop Frye. Another pleasant surprise was that Croft referred to my old Chaucer TA who I’ve known since my first year of Undergraduate Studies: Benjamin Baroötes, who was working on the thesis she referred to while he was at McGill teaching me. I distinctly remember hearing him talk about it with me and the class and mentioning that his work with philology and medieval literature had certain tie-ins to Tolkien Studies. It was good to hear a familiar name come up!

In Anatomy of Criticism, Frye describes four types of poetic language: the metaphoric, the metonymic (allegory), the demotic, and, finally, the recurso. These Frye borrowed from earlier studies by Giambattista Vico. In the first stage, the name of a thing IS the thing, in the second it is an aspect of the thing, while in the third the name merely describes the thing–a decreasing order of correspondence between word and thing. At the recurso, the cycle begins again: a return to myth and metaphor, the recognition that matter is actually an illusion of energy.

In The Lord of the Rings, these stages of poetic language corresponds to the naming of everything from weapons to the names of the evil forces of Middle-Earth. Melkor, the greatest of evil force in Tolkien’s Legendarium, imparts his own power to his creatures. When he is renamed Morgoth, he loses his ability ‘to rise in height,’ which ‘Melkor’ translates to. In short, his power is metaphoric, until his fall. Sauron, his servant, merely imparts a piece of his being into the One Ring–a metonymic exchange of power. Saruman–who joins Sauron’s forces and is thus one level under him in the hierarchy of evil–represents the demotic stage. Given his language of compromise and his knowledge of science and wizardry–discourses defined by their descriptive styles–he is a far cry from the cosmic force of annihilation that is Melkor.

What makes this scheme especially interesting, in my opinion, is how Frye claims that poetry must create the first phase of language during the domination of the later phases. Since the scientific revolution, the demotic phase has dominated language. But poetry can still remind us about the power of pure metaphor. Occasionally, phrases that partake of two simultaneous eras of language may exist in the same phrase or in the same poem. For example, when Bilbo names his sword upon killing a spider in Mirkwood, he invokes the language of the metonymic phase of sword-naming, proper to an older age of heroism, while choosing a name that represents his own simple, demotic language: “I will call you Sting.”

I found Frye’s theories lend themselves easily to The Lord of the Rings and it got me thinking about how Fredric Jameson interprets these phases of poetry from his historical materialist (Marxist) perspective. Perhaps the later phases of poetry are signs of civilization’s increasing alienation from its environment and its mode of economic production, since it might also be said the rise of capitalism combined with scientific development produced the domination of demotic language. This idea of mine is still a half-formed thought, but Jameson does critique Frye in The Political Unconscious–perhaps I should give it a second read-through….

Stay tuned next week for the next installment of my MythCon 46 notes!

 

Are there Canadian Dragons?

Are there Canadian dragons? And if there are, what are they like? Canada is far too young a country to have ever had a population that naively believed in dragons of the European variety. By the time Europeans settled the land, dragons were known to be myths, creatures of the imagination. Besides, leathery wings and smoking nostrils seem quite out of their element in moose and beaver territory. Once upon a time, Canada may have been home to dinosaurs and, upon the arrival of the first Americans across the Bering Strait, the megafauna, such as woolly mammoths, but ultimately the cold seasons are far too adverse to the breeding of reptiles–of any species, real or imagined.

There are monsters and demons particular to Canada, found in First Nations and early settler folklore. Nightmares such as the windigo, who was said to devour travelers who strayed too far into the bush. But dragons belong to another ecology than the vast boreal forests of the Canadian North, which so fits the particular flavour of horror associated with the windigo.

Modern times have only further driven away the dragons, as cities and other human habitations have tamed the wilderness to such an extent that even the windigo has become obsolete. Let alone the flying lizards of legend. Today a Google search for ‘Canadian dragon’ gives you pictures of dragon boats, roller-coasters, and Kevin O’Leary.

All this is not to say, however, that dragons have never been imagined in Canada. Only to say that the imagining of dragons encounters resistance. While dragons appear in the novels of many Canadian fantasy authors–I’m thinking of the dragon in The Darkest Road by Guy Gavriel Kay especially–two Canadian poets have drawn portraits of dragons: Michael Ondaatje in The Dainty Monsters and Gwendolyn MacEwen in The Shadow-Maker.

Michael Ondaatje
Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje’s most famous for writing The English Patient, but before he hit mainstream success, he was an experimental novelist and poet. His later poetry, in Secular Love, becomes increasingly autobiographical and confessional, but his first book of poems is The Dainty Monsters, a bestiary of poems published and printed by Coach House Press.

In “Dragon,” Ondaatje draws the fantastic beast as the quintessential ‘dainty monster.’ “I have been seeing dragons again,” claims its speaker, implying that he might be hallucinating, that he shouldn’t be seeing them, but he is. The initial image is almost a code that says ‘This is how dragons are in Canada’: while canoeing in a lake the speaker sees a dragon “hunched over a beaver dam.” Far from the fire-breathing terror of villages and castles, this dragon “clutched a body like a badly held cocktail.” This is a dragon who is drunk and should go home.

Dragons are usually challenged by knights in shining armour who try to rescue princesses from their dens. But Ondaatje’s dainty dragon gets “tangled in our badminton net.” The only thing left of this dragon’s fiery breath, his greatest weapon, is “an extinct burning inside” as the speaker’s four badminton buddies and their “excited spaniel surrounded him.” This is a dragon entirely emasculated and surrounded by the artificial world that humans have built up around themselves. Rather than ravaging humanity, the dragon, representing the unknown dangers of nature, has now, in a world where nature is no longer the Other but tamed, become thing about as harmful as, say, a deer.

In Rat Jelly‘s poem “The Ceremony: A Dragon, a Hero, and a Lady, by Uccello,” Ondaatje returns to the dragon myth from the angle of an ekphrasis on the painting of Saint George and the Dragon by Uccello. His poem evokes the dynamism of the famous painting, which depicts Saint George, the Patron Saint of England, lancing a dragon through the eye. The landscape of the painting is somewhere between an artificial courtyard and a natural setting by a cave.

uccello

“A boy-knight shafts the dragon’s eye / –the animal with a  spine of claws” writes Ondaatje. “The horse’s legs are bent like lightening. / The boy is perfect in his angle.” The painting is in movement but captures the perfect moment of the dragon’s death, an arrangement artificially staged like a ceremony. This poem reflects Ondaatje’s interest in the dialectic between order and the natural world that characterizes his Henri Rousseau poems, such as “Henry Rousseau and Friends,” and, I believe, anticipates his interest in the movement and caught motion, which becomes a principle aesthetic concern in “‘The gate in his head.'”

Gwendolyn MacEwen
Gwendolyn MacEwen

Gwendolyn MacEwen’s Canadian dragon is not especially Canadian, but rather appears at first to take after the European kind like Ondaatje’s second dragon poem. But on second thought, her dragon might be Near Eastern–not Chinese, but Mesopotamian. Fascinated by all things exotic, MacEwen’s interest was in Tiamat, the Babylonian goddess of chaos who took the form of a dragon and whose body, after her death at the hands of Marduk, was used to create the heaven and earth. Although this myth doesn’t appear per se in her poem “The Taming of the Dragon” in The Shadow-Maker, the theme of chaos becoming order remains a primary concern.

MacEwen’s dragon has become dainty. “Once the monster’s jaws unfolded fire / but now how harmless are his claws / and all his teeth are capped with gold.”  He’s even become a vegetarian: “between his teeth / are bits of flowers, for he’s sworn off flesh; he seems so glad and foolish.” Rather than positioning the dragon in modern-day Canadian spaces like Ondaatje does, MacEwen places him in the mental space of myth itself. The speaker, whom one can read as a creative poet-figure, mourns the loss of the dragon not because it is a noble creature, but because she mourns “how I used to stand / stricken white in his dreadful breath.” Her speaker needs a relationship with death in order to attain purity. White is the colour of purity and the albedo, the stage of purification in the alchemical process. Dragon’s breath, which is fire, is the agent by which she can achieve the albedo. But now that chaos has been tamed, she has lost the danger that provides the impetus to creativity.

The tamed dragon wears a wreath around his neck and “seems so glad and foolish” now that he has been rewarded with what could be laurels–the traditional symbol for poetic acclaim. MacEwen’s dragon shows how creativity, which thrives on danger and looming death, dies when it is tamed with praise and recognition.

Ondaatje and MacEwen adopt an attitude towards the dragon as an extinct animal, both finding within the monster a symbol  for how the chaos and danger of previous medieval worlds have become order and tameness in our modernity. Canada is an inhospitable land for dragons, according to these poets, partly because it is and only has been modern. Differing from mainstream urban fantasy authors who find no trouble in writing dragons into the modern world, these poets reflect on why it is so difficult and jarring to imagine such monsters invading our comfortable, dainty lives. Yet imagine dragons they do.

What is gained by even trying to imagine such a connection to a mythic past in our seemingly unmythical and unhistorical world, which resists dragons so totally? Is it nostalgia? A desire to live among symbols? This is one of the great questions mythic writing and fantasy ask.

In “A Toronto Home for Birds and Manticores” Ondaatje’s speaker briefly expresses a desire for some kind of connection to myth–that a mythic past might emerge as a result of an archaeology not of dirt but of snow: “When snows have melted / how dull to find just grass and dog shit. / Why not the polemic bones of centaurs.” The question of “Why not?” is what Ondaatje asks himself in “Dragon,” but all he finds is an answer to the ‘not.’ MacEwen attempts to mythologize the city of Toronto in her Noman books, but as the title suggests, living a mythic reality in Canada is an alienating struggle.

MacEwen in “The Thin Garden” suggests that these great myths cannot be found in Canada, but must be found outside: “No traveller comes here from innocence / but for that myth the snow cannot provide, / and all our histories lie outside.” For MacEwen, this ‘outside’ was Egypt and Mesopotamia. She suggests what many fantasy authors–even ones willing to let dragons live in the modern day–have found to be true in Canada: the myths can only be imported from elsewhere–such as from the Middle East, or, I add, England and Europe–for want of an established native mythology. Of course, there are Native American myths aplenty, but for European-descended writers, there are those who claim that using First Nations myths is an act of cultural appropriation, a discouraging quandary.

In conclusion, we can say that there are Canadian dragons, but, in the imaginations of the poets examined in this post, once those dragons fly across the pond, they live within our climate of long winter seasons in a state of severe, disabling culture shock.

Photo Credit:

Uccello: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Saint_George_and_the_Dragon_by_Paolo_Uccello_%28London%29_01.jpg