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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

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

The Mythorealist Spirit in Art and Literature, Part 1

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1- Mythorealism

The term “mythorealism” was coined by fantasy author Lani Thompson to describe a particular tendency in modern art and literature, the tendency to create stories in which “myth incarnates in the waking world”:

Mythorealism is what happens when myth incarnates in the waking world. Like its cousin, magical realism, mythorealism encompasses facets of reality which aren’t ordinarily perceived and brings them into the waking world. Reality is more than bones and blood. It is the spirit lurking behind stones and flesh… Myth stepping into Matter… The World being uttered… (Lani Thompson)

Magical realism usually incorporates fantastic elements without comment in a story that is otherwise set in the mundane world. The characters in a story of magical realism don’t generally react with wonder or horror when confronted with something magical; instead they take it for granted. Mythorealist fiction, by contrast, emphasizes the mystery and awe of the numinous and the wonder and horror of encountering the mythic in the “waking” world.

The art and literature I think of as “mythorealist” is not just entertainment or escapism, but a new kind of spiritual practice, free of all dogma and orthodoxy and capable of engaging with higher realities in a spontaneous and unmediated way. The humor, the poetry and the magic of this approach to spirituality represent a modern alternative to what I see as the dead ends of fundamentalist religion and skeptical materialism. This is a form of spirituality for the modern person, to whom “belief” no longer comes naturally- but wonder still does.

Rather than attempting a comprehensive survey of the mythorealist tendency in modern art and literature (which would require a book), I will focus on seven examples: the fiction of Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, Ekaterina Sedia, Emma Bull and Sergei Lukyanenko, the movie Pan’s Labyrinth, and the art of Zdzislaw Beksinski. These seven incorporate different aspects of the mythorealist tendency, and I’ll be exploring the implications of that tendency through a discussion of these works.

Coming Soon:

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

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

4- Night Watch: The Gothic Noir of Sergei Lukyanenko

5- The Two Worlds of Pan’s Labyrinth

6- Photographing Dreams: The Art of Zdzisław Beksiński

7- Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks

8- Ekaterina Sedia’s Secret History

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