Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Ruminations on the Mythic West - Canadian Style

Tay John

Howard O'Hagan

New Canadian Library

Reviewed by: Terry 

4 out of 5 stars


_Tay John_ is a woefully under-appreciated book that deserves wider attention. Written by Howard O'Hagan, a true son of the Canadian west who was, by turns, a surveyer, a lawyer, and a wilderness guide in addition to being a writer, it stands as a great example of wilderness writing at its best. As the Canadian Encyclopedia says: "O'Hagan has been the quintessential 'mountain man' who knew the wilderness intimately and celebrated it through fiction."

In _Tay John_ we have a story in three parts. The first, "Legend", starts out like a creation myth and tells the somewhat cryptic story of the birth and youth of the enigmatic Native half-breed known as Tay John (derived from the french "TĂȘte Jaune" or "Yellowhead" on account of his unique blond hair). We see the circumstances of his birth and his early life among his people, his eventual restlessness, and the beginning of his life of wandering.

In the second part, "Hearsay", we focus on the outdoorsman Jack Denham and his tall tales of the heroic Tay John, whose path he crosses several times in the wilderness. We begin to see the wider shape of the world of the Canadian Rockies at the end of the 19th century as the civilization of the white man encroaches upon the wilderness that heretofore held sway. Tay John begins to get entangled in this new world and is torn between the opportunities it offers and the ancient prophecies and expectations of his native tribe.

In the third and final section, "Evidence - without a finding", the conflict between the old and new ways of the world comes to a head and Tay John is caught in the middle. The end of his tale proves to be as enigmatic as was its beginning and the reader is left to draw his own conclusions about its meaning.

The most outstanding element of O'Hagan's story is his descriptive prose. It's obvious that the man knew and loved the wilderness of which he writes and we see into the everyday lives and concerns of the men who preferred to live their lives on the outskirts of society, able to plunge into the wilderness when it called to them. His characters are also a colourful bunch, running the gamut of pioneers, explorers, preachers and trappers who peopled the Canadian west. We move from wide panoramic scenes of the mountains and the forests to a close focus on the individual lives of people making their way in this wide world. All in all, I found _Tay John_ to be a compelling and moving story that portrayed its world and characters with vivid detail and wonder.

Also posted at Goodreads

The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay started off his illustrious career as a fantasist with The Fionavar Tapestry, one of those rare trilogies that actually grows in power with each book. Although the first novel has its challenges - mainly around a rather clumsy interaction with our own world - his mastery of poetic prose is quickly recognizable. This is an author who sprung into existence fully formed.



although quite a wonderful novel overall, it is hard to love at first. sometimes you get to know people who seem automatically awkward, whose social style is stilted, composed of quotes from movies or off-putting attempts to be clever, insisting on repeating tired tales, who seem eager to please yet incapable of easy connection. but you get to know them over time and those trappings fall away, the awkwardness fades and they become real, three-dimensional, a friend even. and so it is with The Summer Tree.

at first, it is pure template. The Lord of the Rings is more than an inspiration; Tolkein's characters and themes and countries are all directly paralleled within. as such, it is often a very familiar novel and, just as often, that does not work in its favor. what becomes an equal problem is the staginess of the opening chapters and the awkwardness of the dialogue and characterization. both are rather off-putting and the novel starts out with a stumble.

but after that stumble...oh, the riches! what seemed to be trite characters soon flower into figures far more rich, fascinating, enigmatic, even iconic. their adventures moved quickly into the unexpected yet retained a richly mythic quality. the quality of the writing beyond the dialogue is striking: Kay does not engage in lush description but rather chooses his words carefully, and the simplicity yet sophistication of word choice often made me pause, and read them again: a haiku of a tale, compared to Tolkein's extravagant epic poem. the mythos itself remained entrenched in the familiar, but that becomes a virtue - at times it felt as if I was reading an original telling of these tales and a recounting of these myths, as if this were actually the original template, as if the tried-and-true depiction of celtic-flavored mysticism, the elves & dwarfs & trolls, the ancient powers and unending evils were being presented in their purest and most direct format. and its combination of modern (5 modern students cross dimensions) and classic (mythological kingdoms that are the true reality) becomes a delight - wit and sad wisdom doled out equally. I certainly was not expecting to read about one character's embarrassing hard-on; nor did I expect the tragic driving death of a loved one and the suicidal yearnings of that crash's survivor to become a touchstone drawn movingly upon during somber self-sacrifice. the two worlds become surprisingly and effectively intertwined.

the penultimate chapter is one of harrowing devastation and mortification. I'm not sure I've read such a terrible and horrifying episode of torment and despair, and one that wastes no time in excessive cataloguing of the indecent tortures visited upon a tragic character. the horrors depicted in this sequence are, again, mythic in scope and meaning, yet disturbingly modern in their ability to repulse and sadden. 


This middle volume is pretty damn good. two things in particular stick out for me:

104088Sex. I love how this novel places sexuality at the center of much of its magic, both implicitly and explicitly. it is really refreshing. and not corny! I suppose that is the danger of including sex in fantasy - if its not done right, it is a trashy sex scene or, even worse, an eye-rolling tantric experience featuring new age nonsense that makes me gag. sexuality in this novel is mysterious, natural, unnatural, a profound part of some magic, a threatening form in other kinds of magic, and just a regular part of life as well, no big deal. it is taken seriously but it is also not turned into the whole point either - it is an important part of the tapestry, so to speak. it is a refreshingly adult perspective.

Rape. at the end of the last novel, a major character was captured, tormented, and raped repeatedly. it was a horrifying sequence and also exceedingly, surprisingly well-done. I have actually never read its like before in a fantasy novel - i was horrified while simultaneously impressed by the language, by the ability of the author to remove all traces of potential, repulsive "sexiness", by the way the author showed how the raped character retained her strength while never shying away from how truly negating the experience was, in every way imaginable. in the sequel, Jennifer does not just bounce back. it is not an easy journey for her and she doesn't try to make the people around feel better as they try to comfort her. in a way, reading about Jennifer took me to a sad place, as I recalled the couple friends I've known who were assaulted sexually, and the struggles they lived with for so long after, and probably still live with to this day. Jennifer's character and her struggles seemed so true, in particular her detachment. and when she at last is able to make a faltering step, then another, and another, on the road to recovery, and when she's finally able to even experience sex again, to experience a connection to another person that is both emotional and physical... it was like seeing something slowly coming through in an endless gray sky, some light at last appearing, after waiting for so long. that's a trite image, i know, but that's how it felt to me. I teared up a little bit reading that scene, and I think that's the first time tears have ever sprung to my eyes when reading something so basic as a love scene.


104087The concluding volume of Fionavar Tapestry is a perfect fantasy novel. Happily stripped of the awkward, stilted ‘real world’ situations and dialogue that occasionally marred the preceding novels, The Darkest Road takes place entirely in Fionavar and is all the stronger because of it. The narrative is simple: the characters all engage in a series of final meetings, battles, and individual confrontations that were carefully set up in books 1 and 2. The world is saved, of course. And at such a high cost, of course. The writing is also straightforward. This is not a novel full of lush description; nevertheless, the carefully chosen words, the elegantly stripped-down prose, the overall precision and artistry of the writing should serve as a lesson to all would-be writers: sometimes lavish world-building is not necessary to create a world, or to create a work of art. Kay conveys everything he needs to convey in language that is as simple yet as poetic as a fable. The entire trilogy, rooted as it is in timeless myths, has all the resonance of genuine mythology, one that describes both the beginning and end of all such legends. Kay boils down the tropes of fantasy literature until they are at their most iconic, and then breathes wonderful new life into them.

Who takes the Darkest Road? So many of Fionavar Tapestry’s characters must walk paths that end in death and darkness.

Finn takes a solitary path, riding with The Wild Hunt, slaughtering evil and good alike, becoming a thread of chaos in the tapestry. But in the end, he makes his choice, and chooses well, as all heroes must. All of the heroes in the series are faced with hard life choices, and all of them choose well in the end. It is a glorious thing, and it is a big part of what brings the trilogy to the level of myth. But the fate of brave, sweet Finn, turning from The Wild Hunt and then literally falling from the sky to his death – that is something even more. It felt like I was reading a fable’s first iteration, the story of a kind of Icarus, one who willingly chooses his tragic fate, in service of others.

Diarmud takes a deadly path at the end, to his own end. There is not much I can say about this sequence, other than that I shed some tears at the end of it. A character so full of life, yet so blithely willing to sacrifice that life for others, in an instant. An amazing thing.

Galadan’s whole existence is The Darkest Road. His transformation at the end, his ability to become something greater, something good, was carefully set up from the start of the tale. He is a man in love after all, and moved to his deeds because of that love’s rejection and the loneliness that followed. But despite the hints of what was to pass, when it did come to pass after all, it was still incredibly moving. Not all things from the dark are….all dark. Is there a more humanistic sentiment?

And Darien takes the Darkest Road, of course. His path is the path of the title: a road without friends, without a moral compass, one that leads to the heart of evil and one that ends in a sad and tragically lonely death. But such a death! He saves the world with his courage and his grace. Kay does not allow Darien’s final end to be easy for the reader…there is no one there at the boy's side, to protect him, to embrace him as he dies, to thank him for his sacrifice, to hold him as any child should be held when they are afraid and all alone. It is one of the saddest, bravest, most beautiful deaths I’ve ever read in fantasy literature.

Kay’s imagination is impressive, but even more impressive is his willingness to let tragedies be truly tragic, in the most real of ways. He does not try to balance the deaths out so that the reader is given a kind of easy comfort, a kind of well-they-may-have-lost-so & so but at least they have so & so. He does not make things easy. Some characters are not harmed and achieve a happy ending. Other characters are gone, forever. One set of parents sees both of their brave sons returned to them, and it is a joyous thing. Another set of parents have young sons who both die in the struggle, and in the end they are left alone with each other, and it is a terrible thing. A prince who is full of war, grim and unyielding, lives to rule; a prince that is full of light and a future full of love, is slain. A good seer’s soul remains forever exiled, outside of time. A student from our world remains dead, never to return to his own father. A child dies alone, with no one to tell him that he is loved. So many sad things. Such a beautiful tale, such a battle, and so hard-won, so resonant.