Monday, January 21, 2013

Guest Post: Familiar Otherness

By Edward Gardner

[Edward invited me to read his blog-published wonder-story, The Black Dionysia, which touches on so much of what we speak about here on Spinning Straw into Gold, so of course I asked him if he would like to contribute a guest post.  You can read The Black Dionysia for yourself here. -- Christie]

The strongest enchantment fairy stories cast over me is that feeling of 'familiar otherness' I have when I read them. It's that feeling so many readers have had of being transported half out of the ordinary flow of time and into a different sort of time we somehow feel we know, or half know. Maybe it is a time nestled back in our childhoods when the world was still infinitely vast and full of both wonder and dread, when night was still possessed with mythical awe and we believed the summer sunshine eternal.

But what we are familiar with about this fairy tale time is precisely the kind of otherness we encounter there, and it is a profound otherness. We are always put off our guard when we enter Faerie. We feel there a tangible presence of threat, a lurking possibility of real harm because something very big has to be at stake for any mortal who goes there. Children can be lost forever in fairy stories, or altered beyond recognition. I don't think of these stories as comforting, not at all. Rather they are by nature unsettling, and address unsettling realities of life, even if what some of them have to unsettle is our capacity to bore ourselves to death in a predictable and disenchanted world.

Anyway, I've heard great writers talk about this phenomenon of familiar otherness (I hear vague echoes of Tolkien and Chesterton talking about it now), so I'm under no illusion of having profound new insights to offer. Mostly what I'm here to do is talk about how this familiar otherness was my guiding principle when I wrote the prologue and first chapter of The Black Dionysia.

Michael Pape, Grace - Mute Swan, source
The book begins by revisiting that familiar old confrontation between clever weakling and threatening beast. In this case we enter the scene from the perspective of the beast, which is a Leopard. This Leopard has become hungry, but her appetite is for something she cannot quite express, a kind of complex longing that defies her every attempt to explain it. She sets out in search of this object but after long and fruitless hours she becomes exhausted, morose. She drops the hunt and looks for a quiet out of the way place to curl up. Yet just when she finds it the Leopard discovers something unexpected and yet familiar waiting for her. She finds an animal she could easily devour, a Swan, but who holds the possibility of giving her what she was looking for in the first place, an involved and complex story that will contain the Swan's true name.

It is no accident that the prologue of The Black Dionysia is a fable, or that it recreates a scene found in so many fables. We are already so familiar with the magic of fable, are we not? I find even mentioning the word fable awakens something very old inside me. Already that other time of Faerie is stirring, peeking through at me with animal eyes. Probably many of us can recall from childhood Aesop's fable of the Lion and the Mouse. One of my favorite recent adaptations is Huevos Rancheros: A Mexican Tale, in which a hen convinces a coyote not to eat her by scrambling up a delicious breakfast every morning. Whenever we see this encounter between the two animals, something inside alerts us that we have witnessed strange scenes like this before and we are drawing close to Faerie.

In the case of The Black Dionysia, the Swan is weary and forgetful and cannot offer any guarantee that her story will be very entertaining, let alone worth the Leopard's hunt. But of course the Leopard accepts the offer of a story, and of course we know she will. The powerful beast always listens. Besides, when one finds a beautiful creature sleeping in a four-poster bed in a remote cottage one already knows from various promptings and indications in the fairy tradition that a remarkable story is about to unfold. We are familiar with the scene already. We expect to hear how the Swan is really a princess, and perhaps how an enchantment was set upon her by a witch, maybe how she still has a family somewhere but cannot return in her present condition. Perhaps the reader is surprised when the Swan begins to tell her story in Chapter 1 and we find that she grew up in New England.

M.L. Ecclestone, Leopard, source

But although the Swan's story defies expectation, it remains quite remarkable and there are familiar elements within it. In the first place it involves finding a monkey in her grandmother's attic. Not that many of us will have had this experience, but something about it seems strangely familiar, does it not? Perhaps we have witnessed scenes like it in books or movies, scenes invariably set in England during the early part of the last century in which children find artifacts brought back by their eccentric uncles from expeditions to Egypt, India, or Borneo. Or perhaps we have explored attics ourselves and found odd things from other cultures that seem to have imported with them something of the spirit (or spirits) of that far away place.

In any case we, like the Leopard, probably expect the monkey to be one of these stuffed artifacts. It is not. It is alive. In fact it isn't even a monkey at all but a chimpanzee. And it speaks. The presence of this talking chimpanzee alerts us to the fact we are still in the strangely familiar realm of fable. But if we failed to see this, the chimpanzee himself has a fable to tell. And now we have the first framed story of the book, at which point we will at once recognize the familiar but exotic scenario of A Thousand and One Nights in which Scheherazade spins a maze of stories, adding a new layer each night to prolong her life.

There are many more framed stories to encounter in The Black Dionysia, even though they are not delivered in such a linear fashion as in A Thousand and One Nights. Indeed, we can from one perspective read the book as made up entirely of framed stories that take turns framing each other. But this first framed story is told by the 'monkey' for a reason. The story of a primate behaving like a human is obviously a special kind of fable, and one very familiar in popular culture ever since the work of Charles Darwin. I'm not even sure all that it means, or can mean, but my point is that the 'monkey' (which is how popular culture categorizes all primates) as a fabulous character is both familiar and strange. It is both human and other, and for that reason we might feel both welcoming and uneasy about it.

Actually, the potential of the 'monkey' first occurred to me while sitting at the Nimbus brewpub in Tucson, Arizona. For years Nimbus has been using the 'monkey' (usually a chimpanzee) as its mascot, in the process commissioning all sorts of fascinating art that replaces the human subject in classical and pop art with a chimpanzee. So the chimp appears as Michelangelo's David, as Che Guevara, as Neil Armstrong, etc. It was this sort of thing that gave me the courage to put the chimpanzee into a suit of samurai armor, which is itself a kind of pop culture symbol.

Jonathan Vair Duncan, Sun Wukong, source

But there was also something older and more authentic behind my eastern warrior 'monkey'. While researching world legends in search of inspiration I came across the character of Sun Wukong in the Chinese epic The Journey to the West. Sun Wukong is an immortal being of fascinating powers who is punished by the Buddha for rebelling against Heaven. However, after his 500 year punishment he joins the monk Xuanzang on a journey towards enlightenment and atonement for his past sins. Some elements of Sun Wukong's character come through in my own 'monkey' fable and I believe this contributes a layer of mythic feeling to the story. Not that most readers would recognize Sun Wukong himself, but I think when writers feel the great span of time behind a character they can reach into the legend and write with a borrowed authority or consciousness.

As for the rest of The Black Dionysia I'll say only this: It is an unusual book encompassing a range of literary styles, all of them imaginative and some informed more by the classic elements and experience of Faerie than others. I am only now in the process of sharing it publicly and am eager for feedback, criticism, and conversation, so read this as an invitation.



  1. Thanks for posting this, Christie. You found some great images to go with it as well.

    1. Interesting bits about the fable. I've been thinking about that. Does exclusively using animals make something a fable or does there have to be a moral or lesson? I'm too early in TBD to know if there's a moral or lesson, but there is definitely a subtle but distinct difference between the "familiar otherness" of a fairy tale and a fable, don't you think?

  2. Yeah, I think we do always expect a moral to be part of a fable. We'll see about TBD having a lesson... I'm wondering about fairy tales having lessons... And I agree about the difference between fables and fairy tales. For me I find that the main feeling of 'familiar otherness' in fables comes from the sense of encountering a very old story form. I think maybe that long span of time the fable transports us through is part of the otherness. Maybe there's more to it as well, but it is definitely a different experience than the one in fairy tales. I'd say with fairy tales the feeling is sharper, stronger, more disturbing, more magical.

  3. Just found this article about a Stephen Chow film retelling the Chinese legend that inspired my chimpanzee hero. Can't wait to see it - looks brilliant and wacky:

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