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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World Fantasy Convention 2015, Part III: Challenging the Canon

Last week I wrote about my interview with Charles de Lint at the World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga Springs. Today, I wrap up my discussion of the conference with some comments on the fantasy canon and the awards ceremony, which have of late been the subject of some controversy.

My MA thesis is on fantasy as a globalized form, with a focus on the works of Charles de Lint. However, I will be gesturing towards a larger project of studying contemporary fantasy as a product of the age of globalization. One panel at World Fantasy whose subject spoke to my project was “Epic Fantasy is All About the European Middle Ages–Except When It Isn’t.” Joshua Palmatier moderated and the panelists included Bradley Beaulieu, Anatoly Belilovsky, Kevin Maroney, and Gregory A. Wilson. Think of your typical or canonical fantasy novels: chances are they are set in a version of the European Middle Ages. We might draw exception at Guy Gavriel Kay’s Chinese historical fantasies Under Heaven and River of Stars, which stand as fine examples of non-Western fantasies, but there was also some good discussion about Russian fantasies and Russian steampunk.

Wilson said there is a lot of speculative fiction not being done in English, such as in China and Laos. This represents, from the American point of view, an large untapped market. The only way for the English world to read such works is through translation. At this insight, I was reminded of Goethe’s claim that translation is a fundamental requirement for the development of world literature. This rule of world literature applies to the field of contemporary fantasy just as much as it applies to global modernisms.

There are many non-Western fantasy authors writing in different languages and even some Western authors writing in languages other than English. On this latter list, we might include the authors published by Acheron Press, a small press that publishes English translations of Italian fantasy authors. My review of Demon Hunter Severian by Giovanni Anastasi can be found through the above link. We need translators like Acheron, but also translators specializing in different languages, such as French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Urdu, Arabic, Sinhalese… any language where there is significant work being done today. Perhaps my living in bilingual Quebec is why I might be more conscious of the need for translation. I might add that the French publisher Alire translates some fantasy from English, such as the works of Guy Gavriel Kay. This is another non-anglophone example of an institution that roles up its sleeves while working on this grand project of world literature.

Belilovsky discussed Russian literature, mentioning that Russian, like English, is an imperial language. Many other languages exist in Russia, but translation gives authors who might be writing in such languages an audience outside their country. Literature must recognize that Russia is not a monolithic culture; for example, Belilovsky mentioned the Koreans who settled in Siberia but were deported to Kazakhstan because it was claimed to be too difficult to tell them apart from Japanese spies during the Second World War. Literature has a capacity to un-erase such identities.

Another interesting thought that I had during this panel was that there are material, economic conditions requiring authors of epic fantasy to employ the myths of diverse cultures in their work: it is a way to make a novel stand out in the market. There is a great danger in getting the sense of a culture wrong even if one gets the facts right, Beaulieu explained. This made me speculate that what might problematize the ‘exploitation’ of such cultures, even if done by well-meaning authors, is that epic fantasy can become a kind of cultural tourism, much in the same way ‘ethnic memoirs’ present themselves in the literary marketplace. Despite all this controversy, there was a consensus at the panel that writing about various cultures that have been marginalized does broaden the conversation, encouraging the building of bridges across cultures.

The final panel I attended during the convention was “Creating the Fantasy Canon” with Jonathan Strahan as moderator and John Clute, Michael Dirda, Yanni Kuznia, Gary Wolfe, and Ron Yaniv as panelists. Since I was contemplating fantasy as a globalized form, the discussion during this panel at the ‘World’ Fantasy Convention promised to be significant. However, I confess to being disappointed in the ‘worldness’ of the convention. All of the works the panelists could agree on for canonization were anglophone works. This was predictable, but it goes to show that fantasy novels from other language traditions are still subversive to the ‘secular scripture’ of the fantasy canon.

What is a canon? This was the opening question of the panel and each panelist gave a separate answer. Kuznia said a canon was whatever books continue to influence today’s writers. Dirda said the canon was whatever books are taught in English classes or books that we continue to find useful when thinking about the genre. Clute claimed that we create the canon constantly, but the books that constitute it must meet the condition of still being read. Wolfe said that a canon is formed of those books that continue to be read, even if no one tells you that you should read them. I thought this was a clever answer.

From my perspective, being a student of canon theorist Robert Lecker, I would have to agree mostly with Michael Dirda on this account: a canon is a ‘secular scripture,’ a body of assembled, and often anthologized, texts that we consider fundamental to fantasy and the values it holds dear. They are the works representing the values we wish to pass on to the next generation of students–it has nothing essentially to do with what is popular at the moment. Harry Potter may or may not ever enter the canon, but the works of William Morris and Tolkien will always be in the canon. In the larger canon of English literature, the works of Aphra Behn may not be frequently read outside of universities and colleges, but her work has entered canonical status nonetheless. A canon is, to my understanding, an essentially conservative institution, in the sense that it protects a certain set of values, rather than trying to subvert them. We cannot really talk about multiple canons without dissolving the significance of what ‘canon’ means. But that is not to say that the values upheld by canons cannot be challenged or that new works from previously marginalized authors may not be added to the canon: this expansion of the canon is still an important task.

John Clute adopted a more historically-lensed approach to what a canon is. “Any canon is a form of argument. It is not an establishment,” he said. A canon that begins with the pulps, for example, argues for a different source of origin for modern fantasy than another that begins its narrative with the works George MacDonald. This view has its merits, but it is a definition of canon removed from the original sense of ‘canon’ as an assembly of sacred texts, such as the books that constitute the Bible. The Bible’s exclusion of the Gospel of Thomas, for instance, may be seen as an argument in favour of a particular interpretation of Christianity, but the accepted canon as it comes to exist is more significantly a set of texts which held a highly exalted position in society–an establishment. That said, an argument in Clute’s favour is that the fantasy canon may still be in the midst of being decided, it being a lot less stable than the Biblical canon or the canon of English literature as anthologized by Norton.

The moderator asked each panelist to provide one work of twentieth-century fantasy that they would nominate for canonization. Gary Wolfe nominated Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, Ron Yaniv, Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, Michael Dirda, Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist, Yanni Kuznia, Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn.

On a second pass, the following titles came up in the same order of panelists: Mary Stuart’s The Crystal Cave, C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, Lord Dunsany’s Gods of Pegana, and Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. The moderator Jonathan Strahan felt obliged to throw in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings for good measure. Further discussion turned up the names Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, Arthur Machen‘s horror stories, H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and Joan Aitken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase.

When asked which recent books were likely to become canonical in the future, the panelists provided another list of titles. Yanni Kuznia: Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K. Hamilton. Michael Dirda: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. John Clute: Perdido Street Station by China Miéville. Greg Wolfe: Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay (although there was some discord about whether to list Tigana instead; read both). Ron Yaniv: Charles de Lint’s Someplace to be Flying.

Consider this a reading list.

Any serious academic of fantasy should think about reading this canon; the works have great value. Yet we must not think uncritically about this value. It was disappointing to me, for instance, that the panel did not discuss any challenges to the canon. Perhaps the fantasy canon is still at the stage of becoming solidified into something stable and therefore teachable. Yet, whether the canon(s) described by the panelists were ‘writer’s’ canons or more professorial in nature, one thing remained consistent: each work was originally written in English.

In face of this anglophone fact, what happens to all this rhetoric about fantasy being a universal drive shared in common by all cultures, all languages? Fantasy should be bigger than any one language. The canon listed above represents not a ‘fantasy’ canon but a ‘fantasy literature in English’ canon, which is a very different thing. It is worth noting that even the concept of ‘fantasy’ as a term that can be applied to a modern genre is an English term with a specific English meaning (although derived from a word in Greek meaning ‘to make visible’). Therefore, I would propose that ‘fantasy’ connotes an originally anglophone literary form. It is unclear what terms other language traditions apply to describe their ‘fantastic’ literature, although the cultural hegemony of the English-speaking world has probably spread the influence of Tolkien and other fantasy authors into those non-English speaking traditions as well, altering them by the influence of translations.

English fantasy writers seem glad enough to declare the universality of fantasy in all cultures around the globe. It grants a validity to the idea of borrowing from the myths and folklore of increasingly diverse cultural traditions. If a myth is fantasy, it is in a sense dead and therefore exploitable; it has no more central authority in the society that formed it and in turn was formed by it. The loss of these central organizing myths is a feature of modernity; read The Sacred and Profane by Mircea Eliade. However, in the case of budding Maori, Aborigine, or Native American authors who derive inspiration from the narrative traditions of their respective cultures, it is unclear whether such authors would even consider their works ‘fantasy,’ especially as such cultures undergo renaissance and revitalization. As such cultures attempt to re-establish the real authority of their cultural narratives, the term ‘fantasy’ would seem to undercut the privileged position these narratives ought to have in their society, relativizing the importance of cultural narratives.

Although such rhetoric of the ‘universality’ of fantasy exists–that all cultures have myths equally valid for raw literary material–the actual literary landscape is heavily Eurocentric and with the hegemony of American culture, weighted in definite favour of the English language. Fantasy is more heterogenous and unequal than works such as Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces, which proclaims the universality of the heroic journey in all mythic traditions, would have us believe.

The World Fantasy Convention awarded the H.P. Lovecraft trophy this year for the last time. A new trophy is currently being designed.
The World Fantasy Convention awarded the H.P. Lovecraft trophy this year for the last time. A new trophy is currently being designed.

This World Fantasy Convention was the last year the trophies for the World Fantasy Awards will bear the shape of a bust of H.P. Lovecraft’s face. From what I understand of the controversy surrounding this decision, it was at least partly related to the reputation that Lovecraft has today of being a racist. Like Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling, whose works each retain their canonicity and literary value despite their authors’ imperialist politics, Lovecraft’s works will continue to be valued despite his racist ideas, however problematic they may be. However, the change of trophy design is a message that the ‘face’ of fantasy is changing, that the established canon is being challenged by new, upcoming writers. This is a sign of a healthy, living literary tradition that refuses to become ossified. One can only applaud the renewal of the genre and the renewal of world literature in general.

(To take a less explicitly political perspective on the trophy controversy: Lovecraft was a brutally excessive stylist, like Edgar Allan Poe on steroids, so if this change of trophy dissociates the fantasy/science fiction field from H.P.’s standard of foggy, dense, unclear writing, then I my opinion there’s a lot less of a down side to the change than you might think.)

 

The World Fantasy Awards were handed out to the following winners. There was considerable Canadian representation in the list of winners (ChiZine, Tachyon). As a matter of fact, I was seated at the ChiZine table and so I got to sample the excitement of my companions winning not once but twice.

The Life Achievement awards went to Ramsey Campbell and Sheri S. Tepper.

Best Novel: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (Random House/Sceptre UK)

Novella: We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory (Tachyon Publications)

Short Story: Do You Like to Look at Monsters? by Scott Nicolay (Ferdogan & Bremer, chapbook)

Anthology: Monstrous Affections: An Anthology of Beastly Tales, edited by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant (Candlewick Press)

Collection: Gifts for the One Who Comes After by Helen Marshall (ChiZine Publications) tied with The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings by Angela Slatter (Tartarus Press)

Artist: Samuel Araya

Special Award–Professional: Sandra Kasturi and Brett Alexander Savory, for ChiZine Publications

Special Award–Non-Professional: Ray B. Russell and Rosalie Parker, for Tartarus Press

Congratulations WFC 2015 award winners!
Congratulations WFC 2015 award winners!

 

The new books I hauled home somehow after the convention
The new books I hauled home somehow after the convention

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

Forests of the Heart by Charles de Lint

20150722_111003-1Does magic exist in the contemporary world? Charles de Lint’s mythic fiction brings supernatural beings into the context of the everyday and Forests of the Heart explores the contact between ordinary people and what he calls Mystery.

Bettina and Adelita are sisters, both partly Mexican, partly Indios, and raised by their grandmother to see la époco del mito, the time of myth. However, as they grow older, Adelita puts the childish stories away, while Bettina becomes trained by her grandmother to become a skilled curandera, or healer. After her grandmother disappears, she comes up north to Newford, the imaginary setting of many Charles de Lint’s novels and short stories, and finds work as a model for a high-end artist’s retreat.

Meanwhile in Newford the folk/Celtic music scene that de Lint writes about so well is thriving even as an especially frigid winter threatens to upset the normalcy of the city. Miki and Donal are sister and brother, a musician and artist, who came years ago to Newford from an abusive family background in Ireland. Hunter, a man who stands out somewhat because he has no artistic leanings at all, owns Gypsy Records, a music record store that forms a hub for local musicians. De Lint provides copious details about the ins and outs of running such a store, likely because he has had experience running his own store. The author’s talent as a folk musician likewise brings an irresistible spark of life to his depictions of the musical communities of Newford.

But it is not into this community that serves as our introduction to Newford. At first we see Ellie, a sculptor, at work with the city’s Angel network, which helps out the homeless. Work is especially needed now that the weather is getting steadily worse. Our first impression of her comes from her heroic act of saving a homeless man choking to death on his own vomit, by giving him a most unpleasant mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Her companion on these outings with the Angel relief van is Tommy, a young Native American whose many aunts seem, to Ellie, to be mythical characters than real women.

When Ellie meets a mysterious man, who may also be a woman, on the streets that night who gives her a business card with the name Musgrave Wood upon it, she feels the first inkling of destiny beckoning to her. Is it a sculptor’s contract or something weirder?

Meanwhile at the Irish pub, Miki, Donal, Hunter, and Ellie grow suspicious about a group of dark strangers who sit in the back of the room to hear the Irish reels. Donal claims that they are hard men, made bitter by years of drunken Irish angst, and that it is better you don’t look at them for too long lest they try to make you their friend–an honour conferred by a punch to the guts. The weird thing is that Bettina, across town, can see them too, standing without winter clothing in the cold snow smoking just outside her window. And she grows steadily more convinced that they derive from the same magic world her grandmother showed to her.

It turns out these dark men are none other than the Gentry, exiled Irish spirits who wander homeless in the city. And they want their revenge against the native manitous, or Mysteries, the rightful spiritual guardians of North America. Their plot to assert dominance over the Mysteries will cause much destruction and draw all of de Lint’s characters into a test against the destructive potential that lies in the bitterness and darkness that all human beings carry deep inside of them.

Although this is not a new novel by Charles de Lint, it is more recent than his classic work Moonheart, a product of the 1980s. I strongly suspect the winter storm was inspired by the ’98 Ice Storm, a turn-of-the-century ordeal that blew out the power in hundreds of cities across the eastern seaboard and is still etched clearly in my memory. The conflict of the musicians/artists against the dark forces of the Gentry gains something of the air of the Fisher King myth, where the salvation of the land itself and its fertility is at stake. What’s so great about this is everyone over a certain age can remember this Ice Storm and feel that much closer to the myth. That’s part of the payoff of setting fantasy novels in the here-and-now.

Charles de Lint
Charles de Lint

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

A graffit-tagged lion guarding the gate to Chinatown, Montreal
A graffiti-tagged lion guarding the gate to Chinatown, Montreal

When we left off last week, I was trying to prove that graffiti interrupts the rational order of the city, as a spatial tactic, and therefore can be compared to urban fantasy, inasmuch as it too subverts conventional “consensus reality.” I quoted Bramley Dapple in Charles de Lint’s short story “Uncle Dobbin’s Parrot Fair,”  who says, “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). Dapple implies in a metafictional moment that collective belief is what defines reality. However, this definition of what constitutes reality can only be explained by an investigation of what forces in society constitute reality itself.

This is why, in North American especially, consensus reality is a political issue.

The rationalist, Cartesian, scientific discourse that divides space into a square grid is inextricably opposed to the perspective of ‘traditional,’ and especially indigenous, worldviews, which contain an entirely different ontology, or definition of what things are. I have explored problems of this conflict in other articles: among the Maori and Icelanders. Our consensual reality is tied up with capitalism. Our mode of production, to use a Marxist term, structures how power works and how ideas are disseminated in our society. It is also connected with the imperialism that was responsible for the expulsion and disenfranchisement of indigenous civilization in North America. Perhaps in introducing Native American mythology in books like Moonheart, Charles de Lint attempts to subvert the ideology that enables imperialism by presenting another ontology as valid. Charles de Lint’s urban fantasy can then be seen as subversive, inscribing, through his texts, the identity and worldview of traditional cultures—both Celtic and Native American—on the rational cityscape. (Although, this has been seen as problematic given certain accusations against de Lint’s cultural appropriation. See his response in his Afterword to Mulengro.)

A whimsical yet mythical mural on St. Laurent Blvd. in Montreal
A whimsical yet mythical mural on St. Laurent Blvd. in Montreal

Let us now take a brief interlude and go explore through an example what I mean to say when comparing spatial tactics to urban fantasy. Remember: urban fantasy combines the space-time associated with urban reality and ‘crosshatches’ it with that of the folktale. You are walking on the street one day near the Redpath Museum on McGill campus, let’s say. Then in a glimpse of sublime might, you see the god Pan, cloven-hoofed and decked with horns on his head, standing against the wall. You blink. Pan is gone, but he has left his mark: you recover a set of panpipes. Maybe he sprayed his name in aerosol over the wall, but it would be partly the same effect. The panpipes are a sign: the god not only exists, but also, it is implied, every narrative, every myth, in which the god participates. He exists, but the meaningful space and time in which he exists also exists.

You come to recognize that if Pan is real, then the universe is operating according to a narrative, that the world is heterogeneous, divided between mundane and numinous realities. You have encountered “Story” and such a universe cannot have the random disorder which scientists assure us is the law of the universe.

This world of “Story” means that the Barthesian text of the city is altered forever and that you can conceive the world as whole—not as fragmented and shattered. “The worldness of the world” is restored, which, for Fredric Jameson, is a key mark of the romance genre, on which so many fantasy novels are based (98). In our capitalist mode of production, Jameson implies, romance lets us to re-imagine our alienated society as one, though this has an effect of painting an illusory picture of social reality. Charles de Lint operates less according to a Marxist agenda—which is my critique of how he deals with the urban—but he does align his ‘subversion’ of the urban squarely with the structure outlined in Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories.” He places more of an emphasis on the transcendent encounter with the fantastic and numinous ‘other.’ If the urban world is threatened again with fragmentation—if there is “Wrongness” that appears, threatening it with “Thinning”—then a hero, “Recognizing” the true “Story,” might attempt to “Heal” the city. This is possible in fantasy unlike in social realism, implying the utopian potential of fantasy, which de Lint sometimes invokes, as in the harmonious blending of Native American and Celtic cultures in Moonheart. What Charles de Lint’s novels ultimately do, is attempt to rescue this sense of “Story” from the fragmented urban world, as it already exists for us.

An example of political graffiti, which like sectarian graffiti, marks out a particular kind of space. In this case, a French Canadian Montrealer has expressed solidarity with the Scottish separatists.
An example of political graffiti, which like sectarian graffiti, marks out a particular kind of space. In this case, a French Canadian Montrealer has expressed solidarity with the Scottish separatists.

Like “sectarian graffiti,” de Lint’s novels “make real, by making visible, certain claims to ownership: to convert space into territory” (243). You have all likely seen pictures, at least, of gang tags in bus shelters, a scribble of “FTP” perhaps or, in my province especially, a scrabble of “Vive le Quebec Libre!” These are examples of (respectively) African-Americans asserting space free from the racial profiling of police officers and of French-Canadians declaring that, in this space, there is a people who wish for Quebec to become an independent, de-colonized nation. Subaltern groups especially—those cultural communities who are ‘invisible’— feel an existential need to assert their existence in urban space.

Space is a hot topic given the many land claims First Nations groups are attempting to have Parliament approve. I believe that these claims to territory challenge how poets like Earle Birney have thought of Canada as a “country without a mythology,” because we are too young a nation. In fact, Canada is an ancient country with an erased mythology. These Native American myths, irrelevant to European settlers, have been forgotten, seen as irrelevant and peripheral to modernity—in a word, backwards. Urban fantasy might be a way of asserting not only the space of subaltern territories, but the sacred space of indigenous populations.

The effect would not be dissimilar to bringing the Native American Crow Girls to the center of Montreal in that mural—from the offshore reserve at Kahnawà:ke to a central neighbourhood not far from the transportation hub of the Decarie Expressway. Urban fantasy has an analogous effect: it brings peripheral mythologies and cultures into a central fictionalized-but-real city, in a similar way to how actual cities centralize and condense the populations of entire countries—and indeed form a multinational concentration of many cultures from across the globe.

Urban fantasy can be used in such a way that it engages in a project of representation of postcolonial narratives, bringing them within the central, urban spaces of Canada. In this way, urban fantasy contributes to the postcolonial genre of “New Fantasy” that Lawrence Steven argues expresses a particularly Canadian expression of hybrid identity—an identity composed of a fusion of opposites: central/peripheral, self/other, indigenous/migrant.

panLastly, there is one more potential similarity between spatial tactics and urban fantasy: the idea of play. W.R. Irwin in The Game of the Impossible defines fantasy as a genre of play: a structured game that does not have direct consequences on reality, but enables us to imagine how to deal with reality in a ‘safe’ way. The emblematic deity of play is Pan himself, “the spirit of the Arcadian,” who is “the deity whose disorder is both freedom and discipline” (157). Is it a coincidence that de Lint based Greenmantle on Lord Dunsany’s Blessing of Pan? Perhaps not. When Pan appears in the urban landscape, perhaps a break from the ‘serious’ world is signaled and with an introduction into the world of ‘play.’

However, I object to Irwin on one account: that fantasy as play cannot influence the real world. In urban fantasy in particular, the connection between the real world and fantasy can be fundamental. Play is still a useful way to conceive of fantasy in urban settings because play is a concept involved in subverting urban space, just as it is a concept in fantasy. A skateboarder ‘plays’ in a skatepark–but he can still use his board to travel place to place in a ‘serious’ but alternative manner. In a similar way, fantasy does not always need an alternate universe setting where it has no direct impact or reference to our world. Urban fantasy that refers to real places like Ottawa or Montreal, rather that to fictional locales like Middle Earth, is the equivalent of a skateboarder grinding a stair railing on the way to work. Urban fantasy can make a direct critique on our lived reality at the same time as it engages in subversive forms of  ‘play’ through fantasy. Putting it in another way, fantasy does not have to be ‘escapist’ when it refers to and criticizes reality.

Whether Charles de Lint is consistent in addressing the issues I have here described is another matter. He may not be, in which case my theory is good purely as a theory, though useful to the degree that it might inspire me to adopt my own style of urban fantasy. At present, my readings of de Lint do not confirm my theory on every point, though they do on some. However, I believe I have achieved a valuable theoretical insight into how urban fantasy can be used. Given a free moment to write a short story or novel of my own, I might choose to address these theoretical issues in my own urban fantasy, set in Montreal. However, at present, I have SSHRC grant to fill out and graduate studies to work at.

Charles de Lint
Charles de Lint

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Works Cited:

Jameson, Fredric. “Magical Narratives.” The Political Unconscious. London: Routledge, 1981.

Irwin, W.R. The Game of the Impossible: A Rhetoric of Fantasy. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1976.

Steven, Laurence. “Welwyn Wilton Katz and Charles de Lint: New Fantasy as a Canadian Post-Colonial Genre.” Worlds of Wonder: Readings in Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature. Eds. Jean-François Leroux and Camille R. LaBossière. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2004. 52-72.

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

Photo Credits:

Charles de Lint: author page.

The Orenda by Joseph Boyden

the  OrendaWe had magic before the crows came.

Joseph Boyden begins The Orenda with an allusion to the lost world of Huronia that is suggestive of a certain insight proposed in John Crowley’s Aegypt sequence: the world was not always what it has since become. Huronia, the land of the Wendat nation, has since vanished, along with their magic ties to orenda, the life force the suffuses all things, living and dead. Whether The Orenda is a historical fantasy is debatable–there are magic tricks, dream prophesies, and prayers and libations of all kinds, though none or very few unexplainable by science. However, The Orenda is certainly a historical novel, and therefore invested in showing us a forgotten world and time.

Before the arrival of the crows–the Jesuit missionaries who first called First Nations magic unclean–the Wendat had a power that the Christian European world could not comprehend. This is what the Jesuit priest Père Christophe discovers while living away from the security of the settlement of Kebec, behind a Wendat palisade deep in the woods. This ‘primitive’ village is the primal setting of the Canadian consciousness, at least according to Margaret Atwood in her 1970s book Survival, and thus promises to be a gripping Canadian epic.

The first heart-stopping sequence sets the tone for the rest of the novel with the brutal slaughter of the family of a young girl. Snow Falls witnesses her father sing his death song as his skull is bashed in by a club and he falls, arms outstretched and blood pooling around his head. The man who committed the murder is Fox, brother of Bird, who is a respected war chief of the local Wendat village. Bird is at war with the Haudenosaunee, who soon pursue him to avenge Snow Fall’s capture.  As the war party trudges away through the snow, Christophe carries Snow Falls to safety and tries to win her trust.  Despite her rebellion, he sees her father, splayed in the same shape as he fell when he died, in the silver crucifix around the Jesuit’s neck. It is implied that she believes her father’s orenda has come to rest in the crucifix. This belief in the orenda is what defines her people as different from Christophe’s.

‘Orenda’ is the closest word the Wendat have for ‘soul,’ though it also implies ‘power’ and is a mystical force that unites not only humans, but all things–trees, animals, stones. You could also say the orenda is like ‘the Force’ in Star Wars, which borrows ideas from world religion,  or Polynesian ‘mana.’ The difference between Christian soul and Huron orenda proves to be a vast gap that must be bridged if Christophe is to save the ‘savage’ Wendat from what he sees as the demons of Satan.

Though we see Bird and his brother Fox engaged in committing horrific violence within the first few chapters, we later see them at home in their longhouses with their families. We grow to see these characters as heroes defending their traditional way of life. Though in one sense, Christophe–or Christophe Crow, as the Wendat call him–is the antagonist of this novel, the reader cannot help but feel sympathy for him and admiration for his intelligence and bravery. Snow Falls naturally draws our sympathy as we see her grow from a scared Haudenosaunee orphan into a grown Wendat woman who may one day become a seer.

The Orenda is a novel composed of various heroes who come together as antagonists to each other, because of their cultural differences. Even the enemy who we rarely see, the Haudenosaunee, Bird describes as being not so different from the Wendat. But if every character has a good orenda, then what happens to ruin the magic that the Wendat once had?

The Huron were forced to trade with the Iron People for what were once luxuries that became necessities. Was this another cause in the fall of Huronia?
The Huron were forced to trade with the Iron People for what were once luxuries that became necessities. Was this another cause in the fall of Huronia?

Joseph Boyden poses the question of who’s responsible with a beautifully structured tragedy. Is it Bird’s adoption of Snow Falls that begins the war that will see the end of his world? Is it the disease the Jesuits bring with them? Is it Christophe Crow’s clumsiness? Or was it just a few bad harvests? Boyden sows the seeds of the end in the beginning, as the Wendat sow the seeds of the three sisters–squash, corn, and beans–each spring to be harvested–or burned–in the fall.

At times The Orenda causes you to remember the present social troubles of First Nations by glimpsing the birth of the patterns of destruction that have assailed them ever since. You see alcohol, suicide, physical and sexual abuse, and the way of regarding First Nations as “savage” that eventually results in the formation of Residential Schools. All that bloody and painful history has its origins in the fatal story that involves Bird, Snow Falls, and Christophe Crow.

Even before I began to read The Orenda, I expected it to be a defining epic of Canadian history, an absolute must-read. I also expected it be similar to the movie Blackrobe. Indeed, several scenes in The Orenda appear to have been either inspired by Blackrobe, or the source material it has in common with it: The Jesuit Relations. But The Orenda goes deeper in describing the ripples the Jesuits caused in Canadian history. The past and future are present, says Aataentsic the Sky Woman.

I saw Blackrobe once in high school at the same time as I studied–too briefly, perhaps–the civilization of First Nations before and during  European contact. I remember learning about all the anthropological points between distinguishing the Algonquins and Iroquois, the genocidal wars the Iroquois won with Dutch muskets, and then New France’s reaction, or rather inaction, regarding the wars. Our schools spend too little time teaching about First Nations history. But The Orenda can satisfy your curiosity about any blank spots in your mental timeline. I personally find the old-school map included in the hardcover edition and the references to Huronia and Kebec (instead of Quebec) work wonderfully at alienating Quebecois readers who are familiar with their country/province so that they can be carried into the perspective of those who lived during that time.

The Orenda is part of Joseph Boyden’s saga of the Bird family, and the first prequel. Certainly the first to go back so early in the history of the family. I have read Through Black Spruce before, a tale of a comatose bushplane pilot (named Bird) who remembers how he dealt with a gang of drug dealers in Northern Ontario while his daughter speaks to him while he recovers in hospital from a crash, recalling her own journey to find her sister. It has the same stark, affecting style as The Orenda and it explores some of the social issues in First Nations communities–issues that we now know go back to the seventeenth century. Three Day Road is another in the saga, a book I may pick up in the future.

The Orenda won Canada Reads in 2014, was a Governor General’s Literary Awards finalist, and made the longlist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. The Orenda‘s orenda is strong. Read it.

Boyden
Joseph Boyden, author of The Orenda

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Photo Credits:

http://grou17.wix.com/fur#!__master-page-3

What Icelandic Elves can tell us about Christmas and the Environment

Merry Christmas! From Santa Claus and his "Huldufolk."

Merry Christmas! From Santa and his “Huldufolk” (I mean “elves”).

J.R.R. Tolkien
J.R.R. Tolkien

A merry Christmas to all! For Part 2 of my series on J.R.R. Tolkien, I take you to the frozen rocks of the North: to Iceland, the land that inspired so much of Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

I stumbled upon a fascinating article in today’s Montreal Gazette. “Concern for elves delays Icelandic road” by Jenna Gottlieb (Associated Press) caught my attention on page A21, and for more reasons than you might think. Perhaps the editors thought it fit to include an eccentric article on elves two days before Christmas, but the elves in question are not necessarily Santa’s North Pole helpers. Rather, they are spirits of the Icelandic landscape, the so-called hidden folk, or “Huldufolk.”

An set of elf houses in Iceland.
A set of elf houses in Iceland.

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In Iceland, a road is being built that will bisect a lava field. The bad thing is that the lava fields are where these “Huldufolk” nest. Building the road would drive the elves away and bring environmental ruin to the landscape they inhabit. A group called “Friends of Lava” are protesting the highway, citing the environmental impact and its negative effects on the elves as reasons why the bulldozers should stop in their tracks.

Elf house near a bicycle track in Iceland.
Elf house near a bicycle track in Iceland.

This sort of protest may seem strange, but according to Gottlieb, 62% of 1,000 respondents to a University of Iceland survey in 2007 said that is was “at least possible” that elves exist. I wonder if that is more or less than the percentage of North Americans who believe in Santa Claus. I’m inclined to believe there’s a lack of faith on this continent, although I consider those results skewed that exclude children from polls.

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I simply love Terry Gunnell’s explanation of why so many Icelanders still believe in elves. “This is a land where your house can be destroyed by something you can’t see (earthquakes), where the wind can knock you off your feet, where the smell of sulphur from your taps tells you there is invisible fire not far below your feet, where the northern lights make the sky the biggest television screen in the world, and where hot springs and glaciers ‘talk,’” he said.

Iceland
Icelandic volcano erupts behind grazing horses.

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Above all, it is the Icelanders’ connection with the land and the frightening powers that lie under the ground that cause these superstitions. (Or are they superstitions?) Icelanders still feel, on some level, that nature has power over them. That’s hard to believe, in cities like Montreal, New York, or worse, Los Angeles. Yet, according to Gottlieb, Icelanders still let their children play in the wilderness after dark. I can imagine a childhood there would be fascinating, especially around this time of year.

Take Christmas for example. Gottlieb describes how Icelanders have “13 trolls known as the ‘Yule Lads’ who come to town during the 13 days before Christmas. Each has a task, putting rewards or punishments into the shoes of little children. They include Stufur, or Stubby, who is extremely short and eats crusts left in pans, and Hurdaskellir or Door-Slammer, who likes to slam doors at night.” I think waking in the middle of the night, sneaking over to your kids’ bedroom(s), and slamming their doors hard to their surprise and consternation beats milk and cookies any year. Better yet, the joy of doing this can continue into their adolescence!

Perhaps what inspired me most about this article is how Icelanders are still connected to traditions. Christmas today is stressful, materialistic, and filled with Disneyfied glitz. In Iceland, Christmas is haunted by the homegrown traditions born in a landscape of weather-scarred rocks and volcanoes. There is something more primal and genuine about these traditions that capitalism and marketing has not sought to twist to its own advantage (at least to my knowledge).

Icelandic landscape frequently calls to mind Middle Earth.
Icelandic landscape frequently calls to mind Middle Earth.

Indeed, the “Friends of Lava” engage in an age-old struggle of traditional worldviews versus those of science and progress. Once upon a time, Europe was traditional, but that sense faded during the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century and Scientific Revolution. However, certain pockets of what we might call “superstition” persist. I would call those worldviews simply another way of connecting to nature and the environment we all rely upon.

Icelandic elves also testify, I fancy, to the reality of our unconscious, which emerges in dreams and mythology. Dennis Lee—the Canadian theorist and poet—claims that landscape has a cadence one feels on an unconscious level, deep in the pit of one’s stomach. I would go farther than Lee and say the music of cadence can impact out dreams and mythology. These “elves,” in whatever capacity they exist, are, after all, unarguably a part of the cadence of Iceland: creaking glaciers ‘talk’ to one another, windy gusts whistle over barren treeless landscapes, earthquakes and volcanoes shake the very earth your tread upon.

Taniwha spotted by observers. I wonder if they actually took a picture of the beast?
Taniwha spotted by observers. I wonder if they actually took a picture of the beast?

As a penultimate thought, let me tell you that these protesters using elf legends to stop a road being built are far from a unique. Although Wikipedia is my only source in this regard, I learned a long time ago that in New Zealand, the indigenous Maori have family guardian spirits called “taniwha,” large-mouthed, lizard-like creatures generally inhabiting oceans, lakes, and rivers. There have been incidents where Maori have blocked half-built roads in protest, because the bulldozers were about to plough through forests glades sacred to the taniwha. Newspaper writers claim it is the Maori using their traditional beliefs to provide reasons to fight the agendas of construction companies. Their argument subtly implies that even the Maori do not necessarily believe their own traditions anymore, but only reinvigorated the idea of the taniwha to make themselves stumbling blocks to “rational” progress.

taniwha2.

Similar incidents occur in Northern Quebec during First Nations protests along logging roads. My impression is that spirits are never far from First Nations consciousness, but they do not explicitly emerge as factors of reckoning in the newspapers. I speculate that in indigenous communities, faith in the “manitou” has waned after generations of subjection and suffering in Residential Schools, which were designed by the Canadian government to assimilate or annihilate their traditional culture. “Science” and “progress” try to stamp out traditional beliefs and then call those people irrational who use those same beliefs to protest further ravaging of the environment at the hands of their oppressors. Tradition and science seem locked in eternal war, even though it is my belief that this need not be so.

Whether “manitou,” “taniwha,” or “Huldufolk,” unseen spirits that lie within the landscape are endangered, as are those people who believe in them. Icelanders may not have been repressed culturally to the extent of Native Americans, but the power of science—though it can help us build bridges and send satellites into space—exerts a constant psychological pressure on use to impose a disbelief in the numinous. One sneaky way “modernity” does this in mainstream culture is by converting Christmas into the secular, capitalistic holiday into which it has decayed.

If we are going to save our environment, can science really hold the entire answer? Although I maintain that science has a crucial place in the war to protect our earth, I challenge that it holds the entire answer. The cases of Iceland, New Zealand, and Quebec show that believing in a super-reality that runs beyond that of the mere physical environment may inspire us with the passion we need to protect our environment. When culture is deeply connected to the landscape and environment, then a struggle to protect nature can become not only a fight for some unseen, invisible spiritual beings, but for our own communal identities.

And if consumerism seeks to erase those identities and traditions, whether around Christmas or any other time of year, then we have a responsibility to strike back with anything that lies outside that shallow worldview. For some, this might involving going to Advent masses rather than shopping, or volunteering one’s sweat and energy at a soup kitchen. For others, it might mean locking arms in a crowd of a hundred people on a lonely stretch of asphalt near an elven nesting ground.

Will Ferrel as Buddy the Elf in Elf. A modern case of an elf-changeling?
Will Ferrel as Buddy in Elf. A modern case of an elf-changeling?

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P.S. : If this article articulates one of the ways in which “fantasy” enters history and traditional beliefs come into direct conflict with the scientific worldview. It is part of the subversive potential of fantasy to be able to plant traditional discourse in the midst of rationalistic discourses. I explore fantasy’s subversive potential in my other post “Is Fantasy Heresy?”

P.S. : If you click on the “Doubtful News” article, you will see what I mean about the press. The press imposes rationalism onto the situation to show their contempt for traditional beliefs, without ever pausing to ask why these beliefs exist. It is far more interesting to explore phenomenon and express a more nuanced opinion about something that appears to be folly than to simply dismiss that phenomenon out of hand because “elves don’t exist.” It’s reductive, and, I hope my readers will agree, irrational to dismiss what one considers irrational simply because it does not fit within one’s understanding of the universe. The world’s a much larger place and can be seen from a thousand different angles.

It cannot be a coincidence that Peter Jackson filmed The Lord of the Rings in New Zeland, a land with a landscape that on occasion invokes Iceland.
It cannot be a coincidence that Peter Jackson filmed The Lord of the Rings in New Zealand, a land with a landscape that on occasion invokes Iceland.

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Photo Credits:

Tolkien: http://www.nndb.com/people/511/000022445/

Santa:http://annanimmity.com/thrifty-framed-art-coke-ads-from-life-magazine/

Iceland: http://www.backroads.com/trips/WIEI/iceland-hiking-tour

Volcano Horses: http://thefrem.wordpress.com/2010/04/21/iceland-volcano/ss-100417-iceland-07-ss-full/

Elf House: http://doubtfulnews.com/2012/10/bike-path-wont-disturb-elf-home-in-iceland-whew-what-a-relief/

http://samdailytimes.blogspot.ca/2012_10_09_archive.html

New Zealand: http://satoriexpeditions.com/expeditions/new-zealand/

Taniwha: http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/artwork/10874/the-kawautahi-taniwha

http://www.unexplained-mysteries.com/forum/index.php?showtopic=208567

Elf: http://whstherebellion.com/?attachment_id=38109