The Critics’ Corner
Danielle L. Parker writes about...
Tala Bar’s “Minstrel in the Forest”
I found “Minstrel in the Forest” intriguing enough to sit thinking about it for quite some time. But having finally marshaled my thoughts, I have decided to issue a challenge to the author. My challenge to Tala is to think about the meaning of this story and maybe, just maybe, to revisit it with some of those thoughts in mind.
So first of all, why am I harping on the meaning of this story? That’s because, when I read it, it felt like a mythological story. Many fantasy stories aim at no higher goal than pure, mindless entertainment. Mythological tales — among which, for purposes of this discussion at least, I will also include fairy tales — usually carry a heavier freight of meaning than mere escapism.
The Greek myths probably provide the best examples. The tale of Orpheus and his lost love, for example, is a disguised resurrection myth. Oedipus and his mom well, let’s not get too deep here. And classic fairy tales are often upwellings of folk emotion and longing: the sad, over-worked kitchen maid dreaming of rescue becomes the escapist princess she never could in grim, or Grimm, reality.
Certainly, when I read “Minstrel in the Forest,” the sense of such a mythological tale was inescapable. We have, in fact, many references to Greek myths in this story. Callisto, described as the feminine aspect of the Bear spirit in Tala’s story, was indeed a kind of bear in Greek myth (though Camoy, the masculine aspect of the Bear spirit of the story, has no counterpart that I know of). And the three women, obviously, represent the Triple Goddess in her three aspects: the Maiden; the sexually mature and fruitful woman, or Mother; and the post-reproductive, threatening Crone.
We also have a certain narrative style that trumpets myth. Finbar’s unnatural sense of calm in amazing and horrifying circumstances is one clue. We, as the reader, are insulated for the most part from the emotions of the narrator; there is no sweating-with-the-hero immediacy such as we would expect from, say, a pure fantasy tale. This is a common fairy-tale convention: there is the magical talking tree, and our hero evinces no particular shock! So, in short, we have magic, we have other mythological references, we have a particular narrative style: what we have here a tale we would expect to find weighted with some sort of meaning.
Having made that determination in my mind, however, I was stumped. The symbolism of the story broke down upon closer scrutiny. Let’s take a look at the symbolic/mythological elements one at a time to see why.
First, there’s our Triple Goddess. What does it mean when the juvenile aspect is sexually active? What does it mean to be described, as the author does her Nimmi aspect, as past puberty yet too young for pregnancy? Well, first of all, if one is past puberty, by definition one is not too young for pregnancy (without getting into the Birds and Bees in more detail).
More confusing, however, is how the character contradicts its known and accepted symbolic aspect. The Maiden, by definition, is not sexually active; she is virginal. In the referenced mythologies, she generally manifests as Diana/Artemis the Huntress. Nimmi is indeed a huntress, so the parallel between the two (Nimmi/Artemis) is inescapable. Yet the reference breaks down because of Nimmi’s sexual activity. I could even say the subversion of such a pre-sexual symbol hints at pedophilia and I’d rather not. In short, the symbolic/mythological reference seems not to connect.
Next, let’s take the Bear spirit. By using the name Callisto, reference is clearly made to another Greek myth. Again, however, the meaning of the reference breaks down: Callisto was the daughter of a wicked man who presented Zeus with human flesh for dinner, much as, indeed, Nimmi does. However, Callisto herself was innocent, and as is usual in Greek myths involving Zeus, she had the misfortune of catching the eye of the philandering god. Jealous Hera plotted to have Callisto’s own son kill her by accident. However, Zeus caught his love up into the stars as the constellation of the Bear, where she remains, chilly and glorious, to this day.
Here we seem to have a symbol that is used only for its common name (i.e. Bear), and (possibly) its innocence. Nor could I understand the significance of the division of the Bear spirit into masculine and feminine aspects, especially since its masculine aspect, Camoy, has no counterpart in classical mythology that I am aware of.
We find the magical transformation of Finbar into animal form echoes another Greek myth: Circe, of course, who imprisoned Odysseus and turned his men into beasts. The symbolism of turning a man into a mindless beast is self-evident, I think. And indeed Finbar sports with the triple-aspect Goddess (although, if tradition is our guide, with the wrong aspect of her). But I could not extend the obvious mythological references into meaning. Nor could I understand why Finbar, returned to his natural human form, causes the Goddess to give birth to piglets. Again, the references seem to become unintelligible.
My whole point is that symbolic and mythological references can add enormous weight and meaning to a story, but the author must at all times use them with a conscious understanding of how the reader will most likely resolve them. They are not to be lightly used, or we will have something that, so to speak, sounds like a language but has no actual sense. Nor can well-known mythological references be lightly subverted into contradictory meaning. Then we’re off in uncharted waters, and the reader is left without a guide, and as frustrated as a man listening to a foreign language he does not know.
Having said all that, however, I think it is entirely possible for a writer to invent her own mythology. I suspect that is the real aim of this story. It is certainly one of the most difficult challenges a writer can aspire to.
Looking back on the science-fiction writers of this century, the writer who was probably most successful in inventing a completely new mythology was H. P. Lovecraft. In Lovecraft’s cosmos, humanity is but an insignificant mote in the glance of infinity, and good and evil merely irrelevant concepts in the face of the utterly alien. These are new parameters indeed!
So if I’m right, Tala, I challenge you to define that new mythology you have in mind. Cast the weighty anchor of the pre-existing order aside, just as Lovecraft did, and set sail into uncharted waters with your imagination as your guide! I suspect we will see new ways of understanding human relationships in the Barian (if I may invent the term!) mythology. And I must say I really look forward to seeing where you take us. Your “Minstrel” story was very intriguing, and I hope to see more of your continued journey in Bewildering Stories.
Copyright © 2005 by Danielle L. Parker
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