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The Mythorealist Spirit in Art and Literature

Evelyn de Morgan (1855-1919), Life and Thought Emerging from the Tomb, 1893

My series of blog posts on The Mythorealist Spirit in Art and Literature is now complete:

 

Part 1- Mythorealism

Part 2- Terror in a Handful of Dust: Neil Gaiman and the Sandman

Part 3- The Unbeheld’s Many Mansions: The Fiction of Clive Barker

Part 4- Night Watch: The Gothic Noir of Sergei Lukyanenko

Part 5- The Two Worlds of Pan’s Labyrinth

Part 6- Photographing Dreams: The Art of Zdzisław Beksiński

Part 7-  Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks

Part 8- Ekaterina Sedia’s Secret History of Moscow

Ekaterina Sedia’s Secret History of Moscow (The Mythorealist Spirit in Art and Literature, Part 8)

secrethistory

 

Ekaterina Sedia’s novel The Secret History of Moscow is often seen as a Russian answer to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, but its protagonist Galina is a more interesting and complex personality than Neverwhere’s Richard Mayhew. Where Mayhew (like some of Gaiman’s other heroes) can be frustratingly passive, Galina is an active participant in every situation she finds herself in.

 

When Galina’s sister turns into a bird and flies out the window after giving birth in the bathroom, Galina and two acquaintances follow after her into a secret world beneath the city of Moscow. Down in the underworld they find a number of characters from Russian folklore, a few of the ancient Slavic deities, and an assortment of refugees from the world above who fled underground at various points in Russian history.

 

Although Russian mythology and folklore is a big part of this story, Sedia treats the mythological elements with the same tone of melancholy, ambiguity and skepticism that she applies to the modern world, the people in it and heroes of Russian history such as the Decembrists.

 

There are several different ways to approach mythology. You can think of it as a mess of lies about nonexistent gods and heroes, a collection of amusing or poetic stories, a set of revealed truths with factual validity, a memory of a lost golden age when the world was young and everything was magical- or as something as alive and relevant now as it ever was, though not literal.

 

There’s no point in questioning or probing a set of lies- you just dismiss them. There’s no need to do so with stories that are merely amusing or poetic- you just let yourself be entertained by them. Revealed truths are supposed to be immune to doubt. A memory of a lost golden age can’t really be questioned too closely either. King Arthur was the good guy, and that’s that- even though he ordered the murder of every baby boy in the kingdom to try to prevent Mordred from being born.

 

Anything alive and real and relevant to our lives can be questioned and probed. You can criticize it or adopt a skeptical attitude to it if you choose to, because it’s not separate from our world. Sedia’s tone in The Secret History of Moscow is complex and somewhat cynical, but it seems to me that this is because she takes the mythology too seriously to put it up on a pedestal.

 

If we look at all of the works we’ve examined in this essay, different facets of the mythorealist tendency become apparent with each one:

 

Gaiman- magic and myth in modern settings, the magic is all around us.

Barker- horror and wonder at the same time; horror and wonder are the same thing.

Lukyanenko- using mythology to tell morally serious stories.

Del Toro- seeing out of more than one set of eyes; magical polyvalence.

Bekinski- freedom of imagination combined with realism.

Bullthe magic of place.

Sediataking the myths seriously enough to adopt a critical stance toward them.

 

All of these aspects, in one way or another, are “what happens when myth incarnates in the waking world.”

 

Author ofA Season of Strange Dreams, an urban fantasy novel available as a Kindle e-book from Dark Quest

“An astonishing tour de force of noir fantasy, characterized by some of the most beautifully lyrical, atmospheric writing I’ve come across in a long while. Chris Thompson skilfully blends the mean streets with the streets of dreams in this highly evocative concoction, offering the reader bafflement, dazzlement, gritty hard-boiled realism, wonder and astonishment in turn – but always delight. A Season of Strange Dreams will remain in your mind long after you’ve turned the final page.” (John Grant, co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy)

 

Amazon Link

$2.99 Kindle Edition

Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks (The Mythorealist Spirit in Art and Literature, Part 7)

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Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks was one of the first novels in the urban fantasy genre, and although it has many characteristics in common with later examples of the style it also stands out in several ways. The protagonist Eddi McCandry, for instance, is not a leather-clad sex symbol wielding a katana in the eternal war between vampires and werewolves. Instead she’s a struggling and basically down-to-earth rock musician playing in a cover band in late-Eighties Minneapolis who happens to get drawn into a war for control of the city between the two rival fairy courts.

 

Eddi McCandry’s presence on the battlefield is required in order to render the otherwise-immortal fairies mortal enough to fight and kill each other. Because she’s basically a normal person who was chosen more or less arbitrarily for the role of scapegoat, Eddi is vulnerable to assassination by the other side. A fairy named Phouka is assigned to protect her, and the relationship between Eddi and Phouka is the heart of the book. War for the Oaks also delves into the classism and elitism of the fairy social structure, with Eddi encouraging her low-ranked companion to question his place in the scheme of things.

 

The division of the fairies into a Seelie and an Unseelie Court is familiar and widespread, but it’s actually not well-supported in the Scottish folklore it’s supposed to be derived from. There are many references in Scottish lore to a fairy court ruled by a Queen of Elphame, and to “unseelie wights” (entirely malevolent spirits) and “seelie wights” (not-entirely-malevolent spirits) but no notion of two separate fairy courts waging a struggle of light versus darkness, good versus evil or any other moralistic dualism. Scottish fairies are all more or less perilous. Emma Bull’s story, like many others, filters the Scottish lore through the familiar light versus darkness trope, so there’s a Seelie Queen whose victory would be good for Minneapolis and an Unseelie Queen whose victory would result in the spiritual death of the city.

 

Just because it’s different than the lore it’s derived from doesn’t make it inauthentic, though. The light versus darkness myth is deeply ingrained in American popular culture, and combining it with the Scottish fairy lore helps to ground the story in its Midwestern setting. The sense of place is a big part of what makes this story effective from the perspective of mythorealism- Bull succeeds in turning a large American city into a believable battleground for a war between fairy queens. She takes the urban environment and creates a mythology for it, making Minneapolis into a place of magic and wonder- or revealing that it always was.

 

The ancient religions of the pagan past were highly localized, based on the spirits of specific groves, the goddesses of particular rivers and the ruling deities of cities or tribal territories. War for the Oaks is a pagan story in this most ancient sense- myth incarnated in one very specific place.      

 

Author of A Season of Strange Dreams, an urban fantasy novel available as a Kindle e-book from Dark Quest

“An astonishing tour de force of noir fantasy, characterized by some of the most beautifully lyrical, atmospheric writing I’ve come across in a long while. Chris Thompson skilfully blends the mean streets with the streets of dreams in this highly evocative concoction, offering the reader bafflement, dazzlement, gritty hard-boiled realism, wonder and astonishment in turn – but always delight. A Season of Strange Dreams will remain in your mind long after you’ve turned the final page.” (John Grant, co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy)

 

Amazon Link

$2.99 Kindle Edition