Friday, 31 July 2015

Icelandic Elves

Last time I was in Iceland, it was the best I could do to appreciate the scenery - and learn to cope with the weather! This time, I'm doing much better on understanding the history and culture. This post contains my thoughts on Icelandic elves, to be followed, if the Internet holds out over the next day or so, with a post about Icelandic sea monsters. I learned from Alda Sigmundsdóttir (see references at the end of the post) that Icelanders are all supposed to believe in elves, although she herself finds this assertion somewhat annoying. It would probably be fairer to say that Icelanders have traditionally had a lot of stories about elves. So, where do Icelandic elves come from and what are they like? Well, they partly come from a common European tradition, I expect, but I have my own ideas, based on hiking experiences in Iceland.

Summer in Iceland! That patch of water does not represent some high mountain lake, either, but the sea as I was arriving from Denmark. Of course, it all looks very different when the sun is out.

In Iceland’s past, it must at times have been as difficult to distinguish between the signs of human civilization and the works of nature as it was for 19th Century observers of Martian canals. Even today, I’ve followed hiking paths which were not so much trails on the ground as a question of knowing which geographical feature you’re meant to be following. Across the high plateaus, the way is marked by cairns, and in a good light, if they’re well-maintained, it’s reasonably easy to distinguish between a cairn and a pile of stones. In the all too common fog, not so much - and those wretched piles of stones have a way of forming themselves into alignments quite naturally.

These days, Icelandic houses can seem quite attention seeking, with their bright red or blue roofs. When they were basically mounds of turf, I daresay they could look a lot like the other mounds of turf which aren’t houses - at least not human ones. And if the life of travelers depended on distinguishing the human ones (as it probably would from time to time), and avoiding the false ones which could lead them astray and consume essential time, energy and resources, their minds, senses and emotions would inevitably become intensely focused on these signs. All that mental intensity, that question mark over whether a feature was natural or man-made had to go somewhere - and I suspect some of it went into elves.

The king of cairns, made by the guys who built the road across this rather desolate high plateau, just because....
There’s still the behavior of Icelandic elves to consider. From the stories, they don’t really come across as particularly closely connected with nature, unlike the elves further south who are often half way to being nature spirits. Icelanders were probably as closely connected with nature themselves as they could just about stand, and it’s a feature of people in struggling agricultural and pastoral economies throughout the world that what they actually aspire to get closer to is a state of civilization, not a state of nature as some of us might. Icelandic elves live like Icelanders - except not quite! They live as Icelanders thought they would be living if everything went well for them: like rich Icelanders whose flocks and fields always do well. They have fine houses (still made of turf), fine clothes (of wool), plenty of sheep and they never run out of food, but what they don’t have is a different kind of society to the human Icelanders. More southerly Europeans also imagined the fairy world on the model of the fortunate in their society, their elites, and ended up with royal courts presided over by elven kings and queens. The situation is not so different in Iceland, but the Icelandic elites were in a different place.

Icelandic elves also seem to work as proto-deities. They’re potentially dangerous and threatening. Sometimes they take children or even adults, and possibly those people are going to a better place. It must be said that the demands of adult labor meant child supervision was limited, the demands of child labor meant children were often alone, and Iceland is a dangerous place, therefore children (and adults) had a tendency to disappear. On the good side, you could use elves to warn children away from places which were likely to be dangerous. While in Iceland, I read Sjón’s From the Mouth of the Whale, and particularly enjoyed the part in which Jonas Palmason reminisces about his childhood experiences at the elven mound: the immense fear of the mound with had been created in him by the adults around him, and the amazing revelation of what lay within.

Sometimes however, children were replaced by useless old elven men who appeared to be suffering from learning difficulties or behavioral issues, and then, I’m afraid, the way to get your own child back was to beat the imposter ruthlessly. The elves are not necessarily nice people, but people they certainly are. They can reward you if they like you, or if you help them. It’s possible to do deals with them. Sometimes young elven men formed relationships with the young unmarried human women who spent their summers alone in the mountain dairies and caused unexpected pregnancies. Most unusually - or perhaps not, given the elvish affection for human children - these elven men didn’t try to avoid their parental responsibilities, often taking charge of the child and raising it themselves in the elvish world. Alas, I suspect the unwanted babies in question were indeed ‘left out for the elves’. Basically, elves caused a lot of the unwanted difficulties in life, but they also smoothed them over. Elites, they might be, but they were useful ones.

  • Alda Sigmundsdóttir: The Little Book of Icelanders in the Old Days; The Little Book of the Hidden People: Stories of Elves from Icelandic Folklore
  • Sjón: From the Mouth of the Whale (highly recommended, btw)
  • There is a museum dedicated to Icelandic elves (and trolls and ghosts) at Stokkseyri, about 70km from Reykjavik in Iceland

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Magical realism, and a year of battling over the boundaries of fantasy

Last year a really cool thing called Worldcon happened almost outside my front door, so of course I went along, with my husband the hard core Science Fiction fan, and my daughter, the Japanese anime fan. It was fantastic, especially thanks to the focus it place on all kinds of diversity. SFF fandom tends to the Anglo, a word I’m using here (with some misgivings) to mean white AND native English speaking, but lots of people certainly wanted more demographic diversity, of writers, and if possible, of fellow fans.

Fast forward nearly a year and I’m embarked on a long, slow trip to the next Worldcon to be held in Spokane, Washington. It may turn out to be the last for a while. Worldcon, or at least the Hugo award it hands out each year, has gone to the dogs (a link for anyone who doesn’t get the dog reference).
The leader of the Rabid Puppies, the most successful canine faction, makes no bones about the strength of his preference for Anglo culture, especially the most conservative, xenophobic branches of it. The less successful Sad Puppies whine at suggestions that they might be trying to exclude anyone. They just want good, old-fashioned, unpretentious genre fantasy and science-fiction, and they don’t care who writes it.

The trouble is that demographic diversity of writers isn’t very likely to come unaccompanied by literary diversity. The fantastic, magical, supernatural and numinous are related forms of something which finds expression everywhere in culturally differentiated ways. Anglo genre fantasy is just a small subset of this spectrum. Presumed truth values, perceived literary value, types of motifs and interactions with the real world vary, as does literary form (more or less closely related to oral forms), and the status and role of writer and reader.

Consider next year's proposed Mistress of Hounds Kate Paulk’s emphasis on immersion in her analysis of what makes a book Hugo-worthy. It’s an esoteric thing, this ‘immersion’, a culturally specific practice of altering states of consciousness through words. It’s not clear that it’s either desired, or even easily accessible, outside the cultures in which it is practiced. Consider science-fiction as a genre: when it’s not fantasy with technology instead of magic, isn’t it a variation on prophecy? Is 'World'-con to be reserved for Anglo-specific cultural forms?

One of the points non-Anglo writers brought up again and again at Loncon 3 was that the core expectations of western fiction, expectations as ‘basic’ as plot form, conflict, focus on individual characters, ‘showing-not-telling’ don’t mesh well with their cultural priorities. Even those close neighbors of the Anglo cultural zone, the North Europeans of Scandinavia and Germany seem to favor far more exposition than is usually recommended in the Anglo literature. The French tend towards poetics and philosophy, and the 'tale', fairy or otherwise, is an important form with them.

Consequently, to say you want more diversity in the fantasy genre can mean one of two things: either you hope to convert people of other cultures to the minutiae of your own, or you intend to tear down the walls between genres and create a mixed reading space, open to numerous traditions of the fantastic.

Magical realism is one alternative form of the fantastic, the one I write, though hardly the only one. My own reading list also includes books with links to the tradition of animal fables like Alain Mabanckou’s Memoirs of the Porcupine (after all we have werewolves and witchcraft - why not porcupines and witchcraft?); mythopoeics (is that a word?) like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Buried Giant (not a million miles in spirit from Alan Garner); or works based in religion and spirituality: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Palace of Illusions reads an awful lot like the Katherine Anddison’s Goblin Emperor, and as the Puppies seem particularly keen to bring Christianity to our reading lists, why not also Hinduism? I read and enjoy books like these for the same reasons I read and enjoy fantasy. My own reading has been effortlessly demographically diverse, largely because I trawl through the literary shelves of the bookshops at the same time as the fantasy ones.

What I write is definitely magical realism, the combination or magical elements with a real world setting. It also has that feature associated with several core magical realist works: it makes sense as post-colonial literature - or are we post-globalized by now? - at any rate, it is about identity, especially cultural, and the way it emerges from the building blocks of history and politics, daily life and relationships. Where it nods towards the traditions of Anglo fantasy and science-fiction - dragons and UFOs for example - it’s because of the cultural identity of the protagonist, and she has many strings to her bow, as people do: the classical culture of the elites, the popular culture of her ancestors, fairy tales for her daughter, essays for academia…  It even uses language in a way that expresses these variations, and others regarding her state of consciousness, rather than aiming at the hypnotic immersion of the reader.

I know, of course, that this kind of writing isn’t everyone’s cup of tea (what is?) but with Loncon’s panel talks systematically turning away an overflow of people who wanted to talk about the kinds of issues I also found relevant and interesting, I came away feeling positive about throwing in my lot with a broad SFF community. I felt I could fit in, both as a reader and a writer, and my family circumstances favored my ongoing participation (a particularly important detail for many women and members of non-Anglo cultures).

A few months later, when Kazuo Ishiguro and Ursula Le Guin had their little discussion about whether Ishiguro’s latest book, Buried Giant, counted as fantasy or not, I understood both sides. Of course, the literary shelves are filled with books like Ishiguro’s and many of them are by non-Anglo authors. And perhaps the only reason Le Guin thought Ishiguro’s book should be fantasy is that a book can’t get much more Anglo in appearance than by mythologizing the Dark Ages of Britain, regardless of the fact that the author is a Briton of Japanese origin?

Authors seem to benefit financially from literary status and it also allows them to be taken seriously across a broad range of cultural groups, especially within their own (another issue raised by some non-Anglo writers at Loncon 3). On top of that, translation of foreign works into English currently follows a principle of parsimony - a book must seem ‘necessary’ in order to qualify for translation, with the result that being literary is almost a pre-condition for being translated. This severely limits the available writer demographic for genre literature - though it favors translation of other fantastic forms, such as magical realism.

All the same, I understood Le Guin’s frustration. The presence of authors whose value is recognized by a larger world raises the status - and the interest level - of the SFF genre. The idea that a ‘good’ author can’t be writing fantasy must quite justifiably seem like an affront to her, and looks like sheer snobbery on the part of those who do such categorizing.

Just about a month after that, I wondered if Le Guin felt embarrassed after the Puppies made it so very clear that they wanted to aggressively exclude from SFF the very type of writer she’d been castigating for keeping a distance. Even as a part member of the Anglo cultural group, it felt quite disturbing, to have the kind of literature I like to read and write made the target of such an explicit assault. I’m not optimistic about its effect on non-Anglo writers and the fans who certainly seem to want them.

*** Correction: I'm told Spokane is in Washington, not Idaho, so I changed it. Now at least, I'll end up in the right place!! ***


Monday, 20 July 2015

I made it through Denmark...

After a couple of days of solid train travel, I made it to Aalborg in the north of Denmark. Tomorrow, fingers crossed, I will be on the ferry to Iceland. Aalborg is beautiful, and where I'm staying, out of town among the marinas and summer cabins, is extra nice. The south of Denmark looked really very similar to Britain, but here in the north, there's a more Scandinavian feel. It's all sun, water and windswept grasses where I'm staying, and boats... lots and lots of boats! I feel like I haven't had this much exposure to ozone for years. This is from one of the boat yards along the way into town, I just liked it with the poppies. Now I have to start bracing myself for less summery weather in Iceland.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Urban hiking in Cologne

Cologne has a promenade along both banks of the Rhine, a 'green belt' of parks between the city center and the outer suburbs, a botanical garden and an inner city forest. I must have walked at least 12 miles, almost all of it off road, although if I'd rented a bicycle I could have gone even further.

Kathe Kollwitz Museum in Cologne

Few artists who can arouse such intense emotion as Kathe Kollwitz, and not many art works are so much better in real life than in reproduction. She had an incredible mastery of her medium but what I especially love is her commitment to humanity. After visiting this museum, I find the kind of modernism which treats the body as pure form especially hollow and really did not want to see the largest collection of Pop Art outside the USA (even though Cologne has that too).

Kollwitz represented the harder parts of life, especially poverty and the suffering, death and degradation which all too often go with it. I think she understood that no matter what the circumstances, it isn't people who become dehumanized, though their representations, in the media, or in the minds of other people might.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Cologne, then and now...

This is just a tiny detail from the amazing, but still blackened facade of Cologne Cathedral. I thought those two figures on the left were quite unusual for medieval sculpture. Slowly, it dawned on me that they're very different from their neighbors and must be modern.

When I told my father I was going to Cologne, he said he'd last been there in 1954 on a school trip, during which he'd stayed in a youth hostel in an old bomb shelter at the foot of Cologne Cathedral. It's not there now, but I went into a bookshop and browsed through a book of photographs of Cologne in 1945... It was nothing but a pile of rubble around the Cathedral which was still standing. In one picture I could see that the part of the Cathedral adjacent to this was blown out, but it was too fuzzy to show whether the original sculptures were broken then.

The consequence of the WWII bombing is that Cologne is quite a modern city, but very pleasant to be in, with a large pedestrian district and promenade along the Rhine.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Still not scared...

I found a second piece of anxious art about the world out there in Brussels: Marie-Jo Lafontaine's When a Child Was Still a Child (War, Religion, Dreams). Made in 1950 but it could have been last week, so whatever a child was then, they probably still are. In the 'Dream' panel, the little boy is looking at a globe, but here, the beam got in the way. I liked the interaction with the architecture anyway.

Photographed in the Musees Royaux des Beaux Arts.

Out into the world...

London -> Brussels.... I've never been to Brussels before, but it's the generic European city foreshadowed by everyone who has. Still, I keep finding hidden treasures in it, like this tapestry in Brussels Cathedral. It's called Angoisse du Monde (The Fear of the World) by N. de Montalembert, and it has a surprisingly Asiatic feel for a Christian piece, with all those eyes and lips. Fear of the world must be in the mind of the beholder, because this work of art made me feel exhilarated, not afraid.

I like photographing art in its natural setting, so I actually rather like the cathedral windows reflecting in the top.