Sunday, June 22, 2008

Land Spirits

Josh said in comments:

I read a great novel once about Irish Faeries in Minneapolis, one of whom was a black man.

That novel is The War for the Oaks by Emma Bull. The black fairy was based on Prince Nelson. Emma was a fan of his.

The book made me crazy. I would -- just possibly -- have bought it, if it had been set in St. Paul, which is a very Irish city still. But Minneapolis is Scandinavian. If Irish elves tried to move in, Scandinavian elves would have kicked their little butts.

If there were any Scandinavian elves in Minneapolis. As far as I know, what Minneapolis has is Lutherans; and what St. Paul has is Catholics.

I have never made a study, but my impression is, most of the minor supernatural beings -- elves, trolls and so on -- did not make it across the Atlantic. Yes, there are some stories about them in the new world, real stories, folk tales. But most of those spirits are attached to specific places in the old world. They did not leave.

The result is, the US -- especially the Midwest I know -- is supernaturally thin. We have the big religions, the churches and mosques and synagogues and Buddhist and Hindu temples planted on the Midwestern prairie. But our woods and lakes and rivers are relatively unhaunted, except by Native American spirits. No question they are here. But for the most part, they belong to Native Americans. They don't mix with the rest of us.

So how do you write a new world story based on the supernatural? I know there is American folklore, more in the east, I think. I'd say that is the place to start, not with the old world folklore that is not rooted here.

Paul Bunyan is a lot more real and local than Irish fairies, even though the question of how much of Paul is folklore and how much advertising is still (as far as I know) unsettled.

There is a children's book by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve, titled The Trickster and the Troll. It's about a troll who comes to the new world with a Norwegian family and then becomes lost from his family. Norwegian Americans no longer believe in trolls. He meets up with the Lakota trickster spirit Iktomi, who is also lost, because the Lakota no longer believe in their spirits. The two travel together, looking for people who will believe in them.

Sneve is Lakota and married to a Norwegian American. She wrote the story for her children. (She's also a pretty well known children's author. But I have read only this one story.)

My friend Ruth Berman wrote a story about the recent strike by University of Minnesota employees, in which the striking employees, the people on the picket lines, are trolls. This works, because it says something real about the status of workers; and trolls are still part of local tradition, though mostly as kitsch and sentiment now. You can pick them up in Scandinavian stores, along with your Dale of Norway sweater, your Finnish glassware and your CDs of Scandinavian folk singers.


Blogger Tallgeese said...

The pace of Bear's literary output makes me wonder if narrative or world-structural depth is being sacrificed for the sake of a high speed of production. But one of the challenges in the analysis of contemporary fantasy is that the genre very much reflects the postmodern condition of which it is a part. The cultural logic of late capitalism tends to produce bricolage (or to use a yiddishism, "mishmosh") composed of different cultural and historical elements. One of the positive examples of this is hip-hop, in which many different songs and even different musical traditions can be sampled (appropriated/recommodified) and recombined in new ways that create new kinds of relationships among the constituent elements. Given that, one of the questions that Bear and others *should* be prepared to answer is not so much "Have you put the right spirits (faeries, orisas, what have you) into the right bottles (cities, cultures, etc.)" but why have you chosen to combine the elements that you chose to bring together (and not others)? What does this say about the world being created?

1:18 PM  

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