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Mythopoeic Society

a non-profit organization devoted to the study of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, the Inklings, and the genres of myth and fantasy


Mythcon 42

Guest of Honor Speech

This was originally posted on Catherynne M. Valente’s blog. (View Comments)

As a child, I did my very best impression of Persephone–I spent summers with my mother in California, and winters with my father in Seattle. Maybe it’s because of that split in my world that I’ve always conceived of my heart as a set of two: northwest/southwest, mother/father–well that’s the easy stuff. It never really stopped, though. There has always been a slash through my identity: novelist/poet, science fiction/fantasy, monster/minstrel, classicist/medievalist (which is a lot like the whole virgin/whore thing, but with a lot more reading).

Oh yes, once upon a time, before any of my novels had gotten up the courage to be a twinkle in my eye, I was an academic. When I first saw the theme for this year’s Mythcon, my dusty little scholarly heart did a doubletake and clapped its hands–because monsters are my great literary obsession, and long ago, in a department far far away, I was a medievalist. Most people don’t know that the very fine graduate program I valiantly dropped out of was in medieval studies. I didn’t mean to drop out, but life happens–I didn’t mean to fall sideways out of Classics, either, and in fact I was very snobbish about Carolingean Latin for quite some time. I came to the medieval world as an overenthusiastic devourer of difficult languages, but also as a fantasy reader, one who had loved not only Tolkien but most of his imitators, a girl who had grown up at Renaissance Fairs, who had been writing Arthurian plays with Greek choruses since middle school. And what I found was so much more than what my elf-laden interior world had prepared me for–not just the world of vague pleasant villages and princesses in towers, but of The Dream of the Rood and Ancrene Wisse, of Carmina Burana and assorted gorgeous heresies which I, having been raised in a rather peculiar branch of the protestant tree, never dreamed of. Yet I still felt that divide, that doubled identity, that two-headed beast–one girl in the classical ocean, one girl in the medieval wood. I was Morgan le Fay, lamenting to her chorus of Furies.

I must say to you very venerable hobbits that I am not an academic now. That’s hard for me to say. I’m not here to present research or read to you from my long put-off new translation of Antigone. It’s what I always thought I would be, but you might say I was waylaid in the woods by a certain wolf, and wandered off the path. I never made it to grandmother’s house. I have all the training and none of the letters behind my name. But it turns out that a couple of years in those particular mines will serve you quite well as a fantasy novelist. Because the fantasy genre just can’t let go of medievalism. That’s where it lives, its the blood that moves it. Steampunk is a blip, a coppery inkspill on the vast page of the fantasy of the village, the castle, the knight and the maiden. Dragon bad; sword pretty.

Why is this? Why do we keep going back to this particular well and hauling on the rope, whether or not the bucket comes up full of water or full of mud? What is it about the Not Very Dark Dark Ages that sits on the fantasy genre like a hoard of gold? This is the question I thought I might try to answer tonight–no pressure, I thought. It’s only the nut at the core of my genre’s whole identity. Should be able to manage that in 30 minutes.

The easy answer is that it’s Tolkien’s fault. It’s all the rage these days to blame old Uncle John for any sin of fantasy, but that is an easy answer, and a thoughtless one. Yes, Tolkien imitators glutted up the scene for a good long time, but the movement of the genre is one of reacting away these days, if Tolkien is addressed at all in the very dark and serious halls of the New Weird and her various runaway punk children. It’s a 1.0 answer, and I don’t find it satisfying.

The 1.5 answer is that the medieval world provides us a relatively technology-free space in which to employ magic without worrying that someone will come along with a refrigerator instead of a frostfire spell. It’s a workaday answer, serviceable I suppose, but it doesn’t really hold up–the classical world is also blessedly refrigerator-free, and though the loss of classical knowledge and political structure is certainly a thing that happened, the ancient world offers no lack of kings and vassals and witches–in fact, when I first began writing fantasy it had to be explained to me that my book about magic and talking animals and curses and sorceresses and sentient mazes was not, strictly speaking, realism. In Classics we just call that Tuesday. And of course the idea that the medieval world lacked all technological progress is more an invention of industrial souls looking for an idealized pastoral utopia than an accurate picture of the mills, nautical advancements, mechanical clocks, gunpowder, and later, the printing press, not to mention the bustling Islamic Golden Age and the highly developed Chinese empire. A simpler time which was never simple at all. Dragon bad; sword pretty.

It’s attractive to sum up fantasy as being about the past while science fiction is about the future, about the unreal and the magical as opposed to the plausibly real and the technological. But the past is a country vast and strange, and technology is more than simply that which whirrs and beeps. Sometimes it creaks and groans.

Let’s make it personal for a moment–why do I do it? Of my ten novels, two take place during WWII, one in the present day, three in an early medieval period and four in a late medieval period–six if you count The Orphan’s Tales as they were meant to be, as four discreet novels.

Well, I do it because of fairy tales. While not all of my fiction deals in folklore and fairy tales, a significant majority shows up for work with three wishes in its pocket and a dizzying array of peculiar shoes. Fairy tales are certainly not confined to the medieval era, and folklore knows no chronological confinement, but thanks to the Grimm boys and a few other perpetrators (not to absolve Disney from this) the Western imagination “knows” that Cinderella isn’t a Chinese girl with bound and therefore perfect feet, she’s a French or German lass with a peasant skirt and a castle in her cards. There is a sweet spot there–there’s always a reason that incorrect ideas about the past stick. Go back too far and many of these stories become religious or at least epic. Little Red Riding Hood trades in her scones for pomegranates, Clever Jack takes twenty years to get home from the war. Too far forward and they cease to be about any kind of belief and become rather naked political and cultural tools. All the mothers become stepmothers, because you just can’t talk that way about good, honest German maternity. You can’t tell innocent children that the mermaid dies at the end.

Folklore develops most rapidly and with the most diversity among populations of the powerless. Given a lack of ability to affect the world around us and a lack of information about causation, humans tend to kick into high explanatory gear, propitiating unseen forces, insisting that wearing this color will bring bad fortune, this color good, seeking to order a disordered universe. This is part of why fairy tales are considered to be for children–children are engines of folklore, throwing any explanation for a baffling universe over which they have no influence at all at the wall to see what sticks. Fairy tales tell them how to grow up and survive, what the psychological rules are–but that’s never enough. Kids make their own. So do other powerless populations both extreme and quotidian: victims of totalitarian regimes and natural disasters, runaways, the rural and urban poor, medical students have endless bizarre rituals, and of course writers participate in their own versions of sacrifice, bargaining with unfeeling gods, and sympathetic magic. The relative powerlessness of the medieval person–not the protagonists, the Black Princes and Joans and Aquinases, but the actual man or even monk on the ground, did create an extraordinarily rich narrative patchwork of Christian, pagan, folk magic, science, half-forgotten philosophy, and political determinism that starkly and strongly informs what we now recognize as the object known as a fairy tale. Something about those stories goes straight to the deep narrative brain, and because we modern and very civilized kittens conceive of the medieval era as somewhat vague and eventless on a macro level if not the micro, a broad grassy plain of peasants in ruddy health, noble kings, women who’d never heard the word feminism, with the dark wood just beyond to provide story and threat and the scintillating thrill of the Other, placing fairy tales there makes them feel somewhat non-specific, and therefore universal.

But I still don’t think that’s it. After all, while epic fantasy is based on the fairy tale of the just war, that’s not one you’ll find in Grimm or Disney, and most will never recognize the shape of it. I think the fantasy genre pitches its tent in the medieval campground for the very reason that we even bother to write stories about things that never happened in the first place: because it says something subtle and true about our own world, something it is difficult to say straight out, with a straight face. Something you need tools to say, you need cheat codes for the human brain–a candy princess or a sugar-coated unicorn to wash down the sour taste of how bad things can really get.

See, I think our culture has a slash running through the middle of it, too. Past/Future, Conservative/Liberal, Online/Offline. Virgin/Whore. And yes: Classical/Medieval. I think we’re torn between the Classical Narrative of Self and the Medieval Narrative of Self, between the choice of Achilles and Keep Calm and Carry On.

The Classical internal monologue goes like this: do anything, anything, only don’t be forgotten. Yes, this one sacrificed his daughter on a slab at Aulis, that one married his mother and tore out his eyes, and oh that guy ate his kids in a pie. But you remember their names, don’t you? So it’s all good in the end. Give a Greek soul a choice between a short life full of glory and a name echoing down the halls of time and a long, gentle life full of children and a quiet sort of virtue, and he’ll always go down in flames. That’s what the Iliad is all about, and the Odyssey too. When you get to Hades, you gotta have a story to tell, because the rest of eternity is just forgetting and hoping some mortal shows up on a quest and lets you drink blood from a bowl so you can remember who you were for one hour.

And every bit of cultural narrative in America says that we are all Odysseus, we are all Agamemnon, all Atreus, all Achilles. That we as a nation made that choice and chose glory and personal valor, and woe betide any inconvenient “other people” who get in our way. We tell the tales around the campfire of men who came from nothing to run dotcom empires, of a million dollars made overnight, of an actress marrying a prince from Monaco, of athletes and stars and artists and cowboys and gangsters and bootleggers and talk show hosts who hitched up their bootstraps and bent the world to their will. Whose names you all know. And we say: that can be each and every one of us and if it isn’t, it’s your fault. You didn’t have the excellence for it. You didn’t work hard enough. The story wasn’t about you, and the only good stories are the kind that have big, unignorable, undeniable heroes.

But it’s a lie. It’s a lie most of this country believes, even as they forget that Bill Gates is William Gates III, even as they ignore the difference between a million dollars and the terrifying power of genuine wealth. We think we live in a Classical world, and it just ain’t so. For those of us monks on the ground, the world looks much more medieval than the fairy tales say. Technologically we move forward, socially we move back–the middle class dwindles as most of us work all our lives as itinerant laborers, or in thrall to a company that has just enough health insurance to keep us on the estate, the gap between rich and poor becomes a Looney Tunes chasm in which all us poor coyotes fall, signs up, bones broken. Technology itself is unevenly available, religion and the wild, ever-growing tales of Rapture and Revelation it weaves has come again to dominate our government. Industry is no longer even an option for most Americans–factories represent, bizarrely, a safe haven, a good job with union backing, and a time long past when such safety was possible. Corporations prefer to find their way to the cruelest common denomination, turning whole regions other nations into literal serfdoms.

But here? Here, we have retreated into cottage industries. Many people in this room have an Etsy store where they create unique, unreplicable artifacts or useful items to be sold on a small scale, in a common marketplace where their friends meet and barter. I and many of my friends own more than one spinning wheel. We grow our food again. We make pickles and jams on private, individual scales, when many of our mothers forgot those skills if they ever knew them. We come to conventions, we create small communities of support and distributed skills–when one of us needs help, our village steps in. It’s only that our village is no longer physical, but connected by DSL instead of roads. But look at how we organize our tribes–bloggers preside over large estates, kings and queens whose spouses’ virtues are oft-lauded but whose faces are rarely seen. They have moderators to protect them, to be their knights, a nobility of active commenters and big name fans, a peasantry of regular readers, and vandals starting the occasional flame war just to watch the fields burn. Other villages are more commune-like, sharing out resources on forums or aggregate sites, providing wise women to be consulted, rabbis or priests to explain the world, makers and smiths to fashion magical objects. Groups of performers, acrobats and actors and singers of songs are traveling the roads once more, entertaining for a brief evening in a living room or a wheatfield, known by word of mouth and secret signal. Separate from official government, we create our own hierarchies, laws, and mores, as well as our own folklore and secret history. Even my own guilt about having failed as an academic is quite the crisis of filial piety–you see, my mother is a professor. I have not carried on the family trade.

We dwell within a system so large and widespread, so disorganized and unconcerned for anyone but its most privileged and luxurious members, that our powerlessness, when we can summon up the courage to actually face it, is staggering. So we do not face it. We tell ourselves we are Achilles when we have much more in common with the cathedral-worker, laboring anonymously so that the next generation can see some incremental progress. We lack, of course, a Great Work to point to and say: my grandmother made that window; I worked upon the door. Though, I would submit that perhaps the Internet, as an object, as an aggregate entity, is the cathedral we build word by word and image by image, window by window and portal by portal, to stand taller for our children, if only by a little, than it does for us. For most of us are Lancelots, not Galahads. We may see the Grail of a good Classical life, but never touch it. That is for our sons, or their daughters, or further off.

And if our villages are online, the real world becomes that dark wood on the edge of civilization, a place of danger and experience, of magic and blood, a place to make one’s name or find death by bear. And here, there be monsters.

Let me tell you, I am a mouthy, aggressive, ambitious woman. I have been a known monster for quite some time. And to be a woman is to be monstrous, to be queer is to be monstrous, to have a body that is not white, that is sick or broken, that is even the littlest bit out of compliance with an increasingly unreal eidolon is monstrous. To be poor, to be other than Christian, to be old–we’re the ones who live in the frightening forest, waiting to prey on everyone else. It’s not really a metaphor–culture treats all of us as though our souls are catching, as though we must be contained and punished and shown to be wicked, made to dance in iron shoes, so that no further good folk will step out of line. After all, a gay teacher will make his students gay. A single mother will ruin her sons. A career woman will steal treasure from noble knights. As social powerlessness grows, scapegoats must be found. Strong, pale men with might on their side must be dispatched to triumph. Dragon bad; sword pretty.

To study literature is to seek to discover where we come from. You can never escape where you come from–every farm boy who ever became king could tell you that. And we didn’t come from Greece–truly, the Hellenic world is not a Western one. Only seen through the eyes of Rome does it become familiar, and to see ourselves there we must look at Rome through medieval glasses–to see it as idealized, perfected world that we somehow lost. A world gone into the West, to which we no longer have claim. It’s nonsense, of course, Rome knew from brutality, but no one speaks ill of the dead. Rome was mighty, Hellas great, but the terrible beauty and unspeakable agonies of those Dark Ages are still moving and shaping us–those Dark Ages illuminated by such strange and unfathomable lights. The fantasy genre is doing the great good work of sorting out our Oedipal relationship with the past, longing to wed the Classical world and murder the medieval, giving us these endless visions of powerful humans vanishing and taking their knowledge and technology with them, leaving us to make do in the mud, looking toward the castle lights on the hill. Fantasy like no other mode of being wields metaphor–not a thing to be scoffed at or shrugged off. We are not like Lancelot. We are Lancelot, hands outstretched to a cup the color of history. Fantasy tells us not what we are like, but who we are, and though that is a terrible responsibility, we need it–we will always need it. We live in a medieval world. We require a living, vibrant medieval literature.

That’s not going to change any time soon. There’s too much still to be done. So much that hasn’t yet been touched by the anemic medieval analogues that are easy and common but never have the bite of truth.

But I’ll tell you what’s changing. The monsters are driving the cart. We’re telling our own stories. We are no longer voiceless, but a tribe of Spencerian Errours, dancing amid riot of books and papers. If I have ever wished to say anything with my novel, it has been to speak to the possibility, the beautiful, daring possibility of a fellowship, not of the ring, but of the monsters, to stand shoulder to shoulder against the unfeeling and uncomprehending world, to determine our own identities and our own places in the story, to find just enough power in being the beast in the dark to defeat those boorish, righteous heroes who come barging into our pleasant Saturdays, and then to turn to each other and see what we are: yes, we are old and queer and female and geeks, yes, we are Grendel’s mother, and Scylla and Charybdis, Circe and Melisande and the Cyclops, Baba Yaga and the Green Knight and Lilith and the witch with the candy hut. We are all of those things because we’re drawn that way and the stories are always written by the guy with the best armor. But we are also magnificent, and we are strong. Dragon pretty; sword bad.

At the end of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Lord Bertilak explains that Morgan le Fay enchanted him to look frightening and fey, and it was all a trick to show up Camelot and Guenevere specifically as a bag full of fools (and let’s be honest, she has a point). And the Green Knight says: but it’s all ok now. All the cards are on the table. No one’s been hurt and it’s a beautiful Christmas afternoon. We were speaking truth to power, that’s all. Can’t blame us for trying. Come inside, boy. Morgan’s put the kettle on. Sit with us and break our bread.

Gawain declines. He must–he is a Company Man, Camelot’s boy to the bone. He is the Self, and not the Other. He is the knight, and not the monster. He is the patriarchy and privilege and power, and he cannot give them up for even a moment. The establishment cannot sit down with the disenfranchised. The castle cannot break bread with the wood.

But I have hope that one day, after all these centuries of setting a table for the souls on the other side of that slash I keep talking about, after enough ink spilled on stories where the Other speaks for herself, stands her ground, refuses the narrative given to her, shows her troth and keeps it, that Gawain will take the Green Knight’s hand and step into Morgan’s house, and their table will groan with feasting.