Saturday, May 8, 2010

Myth and Fantasy Literature (II): The Mythophiloi

By Victoria Goddard

We are, as a species, lovers of myth one and all, and the retelling only stops briefly when a myth dies for the first time and is given a concrete form by some scholar or other.  The Greek gods died as worshipped divinities long ago, but their myths never have. When we meet the goddess of love in The Moon's Fire-Eating Daughter, by John Myers Myers, or in Marie Phillips’ Gods Behaving Badly, we have no problem recognizing Homer’s laughing Aphrodite. When Harry Potter encounters “Fluffy” in The Philosopher's Stone, surely half the charm for us as readers lies in our recognition of Cerberus, guardian of the land of the dead, who was charmed by cakes and by music (then again, who isn’t?). 

This is barely to touch upon the subject of the mythophiloi.  What of the different takes on what it might mean to be a Norse god in the modern world in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods or Douglas Adams’ The Long, Dark Tea-Time of the Soul?  And what about all those tellings and retellings of fairy tales?  Those, too,are myths.  Not simply those in the Fairy Tales series edited by Terry Windling (though they are worth reading) or the stories by Oscar Wilde, but all those parodies, loving and sarcastic, that weave their way into the works of Terry Pratchett and Patricia C. Wrede, Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn or John Barnes’ One For The Morning Glory, which feels like many tales but, like Barnes’ use of words (the hunting of the gazebo, the drinks in the stupors, that great weapon, the pismire . . .), never seem to mean quite what you think it means.

Thinking about it, I might be able to salvage the mythic quality of The Princess Bride by placing it into this category, given the play between the story and its frame in that book. To the narrator, the book is a talisman and a thing of power, the mystery -- for he claims he has never read it -- at the centre of his life.  That the narrator is so insistently this-worldly and makes audacious claims about the historicity of his work is part of the charm, the glamour, the enchantment (as it is for that greatest poet of the Middle Ages, Dante). The frame narrative is one of the purest examples of verisimilitude I have ever read; but it, too, is a kind of fairy tale.  But more on those in part III.

Victoria Goddard has lived in more of Canada than most people even know exist.  She has lived from the East Coast to the prairies, from the High Arctic to lake country, from villages at the end of the road to Canada’s largest city.  Although in the midst of a five-year doctorate in medieval literature, she has managed to avoid breaking her record of not living for more than three years consecutively in any one house by haring off to Europe periodically to learn languages and look at medieval manuscripts.  A keen reader, particularly of fantasy (from all periods and places), she also writes (as-yet-unpublished) novels, mostly on the subject of the lives that lie behind the fairy stories, trying to combine pithy details of not-so-ordinary days with sometimes all-too-matter-of-fact magic. 

No comments:

Post a Comment