Posts Tagged ‘Folklore’

Ever since I made a conscious decision to start reading more widely, I’ve found that my definitions of genre have been shifting. To lapse briefly into metaphor, my earliest reading habits were like a stream of water that gradually wore a riverbed in the earth; but as I became more rigid in these choices, forcing myself to stick to what was known rather than breaking new ground, the flow of water lessened, confined to a muddy rut. The decision to read new things was like a drought breaking: since then, the river has been in spate, surpassing all previous limits. Which is actually a longer sort of metaphor than I’d intended, but the point is this: that the more I read across various genres, the harder it is to view them as being wholly separate, unconnected entities.

Right now, I’m fascinated by the crossover between mainstream literary novels and SFF. Several times recently, I’ve picked out popular fiction works and been surprised to discover their reliance on magic and SF elements. Which, don’t get me wrong, is a wonderful thing. But it makes me wonder: why are these books classed as fiction, when their content is clearly fantastic? I feel like we’re missing an important taxonomy here, one that might seriously help ease the debate about Literary Fiction vs Genre – the categorical equivalent of a Missing Link. Having read¬†The Tiger’s Wife and¬†Chocolat in quick succession, for instance, it strikes me that in both cases, the presence of magic is simultaneously incidental and integral: incidental, in that neither story is interested in expounding on how and why it actually works; yet integral, because the emotional crux of both narratives hinges on its ability to touch ordinary lives, thereby transforming the characters and generating the plot. The same is equally true of The Time Traveler’s Wife¬†and¬†Her Fearful Symmetry, both by Audrey Niffenegger,¬†and Alice Sebold’s¬†The Lovely Bones, two of which books, in addition to Chocolat, have been turned into movies.¬†In each of these stories, a real-world plot with a deep investment in the emotional lives of its characters has been facilitated by a fantastic premise, respectively a deathless man, a chocolate-making witch, a genetic time traveler, a persistent ghost and a girl who narrates her previous life from heaven – and yet, they’re not quite SFF, either.

What makes such stories different? Why is Erick Setiawan’s Of Bees and Mist, despite its openly fantastic blurb,¬†shelved with fiction, while Charles Yu’s¬†How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, despite its similar themes of family, loneliness and love, put in with SFF? What about Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus: A Novel, which has all the conventions and impossible whimsy of a fairy tale? Were YA genre novels consistently separated from their fictional fellows, one suspects that¬†This Is Shyness by Leanne Hall would pose a similar problem to would-be pigeonholers. And yet, the more I consider such books collectively, the more it feels like they’re all of a kind – neither fiction nor SFF, but something distinct and beautiful by itself. Whatever we might term this hypothetical section of the bookshop, it wouldn’t lack for content. Taking the incidental/integral balance described above and rendering it in language more familiar to SFF discussions, what distinguishes these books from other genre titles is their disinterest in worldbuilding. By which I mean: creating a secondary, hidden layer to the everyday world – or, as in the case of Yu’s work, speculating about a not-too-distant future – is less important than the emotional development these scenarios afford. (I’m being particularly tentative about Yu’s inclusion on this list, not just because his work is shelved in SFF, but because it’s the only novel mentioned here not set in the current Real World. Nonetheless, I think it fits.) What separates them from straight fiction is the inclusion of unreality.

Despite their SFF elements, these novels are concerned almost wholly with traversing internal, emotional landscapes – the magic is there to facilitate these journeys, but stops short of being a journey in itself. This is not a bad thing, the way it might be for a poorly written genre novel, because the story is meant to stop short. Asking questions to which deeper worldbuilding might provide an answer – Why does Vianne have magic? Where does the deathless man come from? What makes Wolfboy howl? – would only detract from the rhythms of the narrative proper. ¬†Magic here is at its purest form, resulting from the perennial what if of human imagination and leading to stories which are essentially folkloric in nature. Just as a child reading Rapunzel¬†has no need to ask how a princess’s tears can cure blindness, so does an adult reading Of Bees and Mist have no need to wonder why Meridia’s childhood home is full of sentient fog. Asking is not the point; the people – and their situations – are.

Am I on the right track, here? If so, what might we call this nameless story-genre? If not, why? Do you agree or disagree with the books I’ve mentioned? Do you have some recommendations of your own? Come on, internets – inquiring minds must know!

Thanks to the awesome of Twitter contests, I recently won an ARC of Catherynne M. Valente’s new book, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, which officially has the Best Title Ever. Apart from the usual squee that accompanies the acquisition of a new book, I was particularly excited by this one, having been¬†utterly blown away in February by Palimpsest, which makes reference to Fairyland as a sort of book-within-a-book. Let the record also state that any story featuring a wyvern-library hybrid – that is to say, a wyverary – is destined to occupy a special, warm nook in my heart, in much the same way that delicious chocolate placed within easy reach is destined to be nommed. That being said, approaching anything with greater-than-usual expectations always brings with it the proportionate fear of greater-than-usual disappointment. We do not want to be betrayed, and yet we brace for it, just in case, preparing to heal our hurt hopes by denying we ever had them.

Fairyland does not disappoint.

In fact, it is fair to say, it exceeded my expectations so profoundly, so beautifully, that I was left breathless. Here is the thing about fairy tales: you grow up with them, know them and love them, but even when you try to keep them close – even when you endeavour to remember them – somehow they still slip away from you, because childhood is transient. Even its strongest passions fade and splinter with time. The truths we believed in then are like stained glass windows, and as we age, they grow dirty, or break, or are cast in shade; glass falls away from the leading, and brightens only when some stray sunbeam fires the colours again. Adulthood makes us into archaeologists and scientists, probing at the things we used to love, asking what they mean and how they work, and even though such knowledge is worthwhile, it also changes us: we cannot unsee, unfeel, what it makes us recognise.

Or at least, we can – but only when someone like Catherynne Valente gives us a book like Fairyland. Because as much as the story of September, a girl from Omaha picked up by the¬†mischievous¬†Green Wind and taken to Fairyland, is written for children and young adults, it is also written for all of us who grew up – willingly or not, consciously or not, yet always inevitably – and never stopped wondering how it happened. Fairyland is not folklore as we remember it, but rather a successor tale to Alice in Wonderland: a story on the cusp of things, where adult knowledge has taken the simple rhythms of once upon a time and embroidered them into something richer, stranger: an allegory for everything we used to feel intuitively, but now have learned the hard way. Which isn’t to say that folklore itself is devoid of allegory or hard lessons – far from it. Rather, the resonance of those lessons is for other times and other places, cautionary tales about worlds and mores that no longer exist, so that even if we have been lucky or persistent enough to read the unsanitised versions of Little Red Riding Hood or Rapunzel, we take away only a sense of resonant history, and not a warning about the dangers of our own time.

But Fairyland is written now: its dangers apply to our own world, our own time. September faces fairy-perils, yes, but underneath, the real monsters are bureaucracy, fascism, censorship, prejudice, caste systems, detention and fearmongering; and though she wields fairy-weapons and is helped by fairy-friends, September’s real allies are courage, agency, egalitarianism, fairness, feminism, free speech and compassion. Late in the book, when the titular moment – circumnavigating Fairyland in a self-made ship – finally arrives, it is utterly piercing, an act of beautiful bravery. As September builds her raft from every material to hand, she is left, despite all this effort, without a sail; until she remembers that her own skin is nothing to be ashamed of, and gives up her dress to make one. ‘My dress, my sail!’ she declares, and when I read that, I closed the book and cried, because sometimes there is a truth to words that goes beyond their construction. I can count on one hand the number of stories that have had that effect on me. Fairyland is one of them, and I will never forget it.

Reading this book was like wrapping myself in a blanket. I didn’t read the words; they read themselves to me, and the voice in which they spoke was my mother’s, my father’s, my favourite teacher’s – a synthesis of everyone who read me stories at primary school, in class or the library or putting me to bed, and I suspect that I won’t be the only adult reader to have had that experience. Some stories go to the core of you, and this is one of mine. ¬†The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is an amazing, beautiful, funny, moving, frightening, powerfully imaginative book, and if parents are not reading it to their children five generations from now – or if, at the very least, Hayao Miyazaki doesn’t beg on bended knee for permission to adapt it – then there is no justice in the world.

Heading¬†just finished¬†Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy, I found myself wondering, not for the first time,¬†why vampires, zombies¬†and werewolves make for such popular subjects. Even accounting for boom-and-bust periods, they still dominate in comparison to stories about other kinds of semi-human mythological creatures. Fairies, angels, demons, witches¬†and succubi all have strong followings, but what is it about shapeshifters, bloodsuckers and the undead¬†that we just can’t get enough of? Why are nagas, centaurs, sylphs, dryads, ifrit, djin and selkies (to name but¬†a few) so comparatively¬†underrepresented?

There’s no one aswer to that question, but as I was mulling things over, it occurred to me that, unlike any of the other creatures listed above, vampires, zombies¬†and werewolves exist outside of any specific¬†religious context. Historically speaking, they are creatures of folklore more than creatures of myth, and while many cultures have stories about shape-shifters, the concept is strong enough to stand apart. By contrast, succubi, incubi, angels and demons are all heavily embedded in the Judeo-Christian tradition; witches have been¬†demonised by and therefore incorporated into¬†many religions, but are also associated with a variety of pagan and neopagan traditions in their own right. Nagas hail from the Vedic/Hindu tradition; centaurs, sylphs, dryads, hamadryads, oceanids and¬†nereids are part of Greek mythology;¬† fairies and selkies are from Celtic and Irish mythology;¬†and¬†djinn and ifrit are from the magic of old Arabia.

While religious and mythological origins are hardly a barrier to¬†the reimagining of fantastic creatures¬†for new stories¬†– indeed, they¬†frequently contribute to a rich sense of¬†worldbuilding – perhaps there’s an argument to be made that this selfsame quality also forces¬†writers¬†to¬†address the¬†traditional context of (say) angels¬†before a new schema can be introduced. Which isn’t to say that vampire (or zombie, or werewolf) stories don’t have¬†to tackle existing preconceptions of their main species, so to speak –¬†rather,¬†it’s a question of associated beliefs.¬†Zombies, vampires and werewolves don’t exist as part of any religious or mythological canon.¬†Mentioning a vampire protagonist does not¬†infer¬†the existence of old gods in the way that dryads or¬†demons might, and while there’s certainly a strong tradition of involving Christianity in vampire, zombie and werewolf¬†narratives, the fact remains that neither species¬†is an¬†intrinsic part of Christianity or the Christian mythos. Instead, their ungodliness has been extrapolated in retrospect, making it¬†comparatively easy to remove.¬†Challenging the ungodliness of demons, however, or questioning the saintliness of angels, requires a much more determined assault on established cannon.

Put simply, it is easy to turn¬†vampires, werewolves and zombies into secular protagonists – and therefore to adapt them to modern scenarios – precisely because¬†they lack concrete allegience¬†to established mythological frameworks. Other creatures and species, of necessity, bring more baggage¬†with them: there are stronger assumptions to be overwritten, and especially when¬†the existence of one race (say dryads) goes hand in hand with the existence of another (say centaurs), it is less common to try and¬†recreate dryads as the sole magical¬†species of a given story. Which isn’t a bad thing in the slightest – but it might go some way towards explaining why vampires, weres and zombies are constantly being reinvented, and why their mythological bretheren tend to dwell in¬†bigger, more magical¬†worlds.

What does everyone else think?