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Once Upon A Time...

Once Upon A Time...

December 30, 2011

A look at fantasy, magic and reality in hibernal literature across the continents.

This time of year, more than any other sees an emergence of great story telling. The coldness of winter combined with its darkness encourages humans to dwell within cosier settings. During these times we indulge and delight in the magic of story telling. In the west, this idea has manifested itself in the winter pantomime, ballet or blockbuster. Fond examples include The Nutcracker or The Snowman. In the east, where the climate has remained a little more comfortable, stories have still emerged, though most often through oral tradition - therefore taking on new meaning and interpretation. The Ramayan for example, is conveniently placed to tell a story of light versus darkness at just the right time of year.

A great example of the stories that spread through both the cultural divide are The Arabian Nights. Told and re-told, this series of stories - profile the nature of story-telling itself. Scheherazade, our protagonist, volunteers herself as a bride to a king - knowing her likelihood of him being killed the next day. She avoids this by beginning to tell a lengthy series of stories that start and end at just the right moment. Though there have been countless interpretations of this tale, most of the true values have remained the same, each story whether Ali Baba or Aladdin has retained its stronghold on the imagination - and magic, whether as magical-realism or as pure magic features heavily in these tales. Quite often, the older the stories - the greater the tendency there is for magic to exist. However its inclusion is always open to interpretation. Marina Warner’s Stranger Magic, Charmed States and the Arabian Nights touches on this idea to a further extent. The Chatto & Windus release announces the following:

“Magic is not simply a matter of the occult arts, but a whole way of thinking, of dreaming the impossible. As such it has tremendous force in opening the mind to new realms of achievement: imagination precedes the fact. It used to be associated with wisdom, understanding the powers of nature, and with technical ingenuity that could let men do things they had never dreamed of before.”

With this in mind, I wanted to explore the use of magic in an altogether more firmly Indian story, namely, that of the God Shiva. Upon my recent visit to India, I came across Amish Tripathi’s Shiva Trilogy. Beginning with The Immortals of Meluha, it chronicles the life of Lord Shiva from tribal warrior to ‘the chosen one’. The first book looks closely at the relationship between Shiva and his partner Sati - amongst other themes. It succeeds by painting Shiva as the everyman, something that helps the viewer engage with any genre, let alone magic. When we can see events through the eyes of Frodo Baggins or Harry Potter - then it makes the world they’re immersed in all the more identifiable. Like wise, Tripathi has normalised the context of his books through taking us on the same journey Shiva does. Shiva’s realisation of having powers, for example, is new to him and he reacts much in the same way as the reader. The reader is therefore asked to suspend their understanding of Shiva as the Hindu God as we’ve come to see him in theology, but more-so as a human being facing extraordinary circumstances. In this style, modern day writers have been able to re-examine age old myths and humanise events through a twenty-first-century style narrative.

In the Immortals of Meluha - Tripathi’s method for doing this is largely through what some have termed ‘everyday language.’ Which could also be interpreted as colloquial. At first, this was rather annoying, but after immersion became perfectly natural. Where on one hand, I was expecting the language of kings of old, instead this novel was littered with phrases such as ‘bloody hell’ and ‘Goddammit’ etc, which do aid the pace of what turns out to be a frenetic page-turner.

At the heart of the novel is the idea that Shiva, (The Neelkanth) is the saviour of a nation, he finds himself in the cross-wire between the ideology of one kingdom that considers itself supreme and another that is deemed wicked. Through the mythology and magic that Tripathi weaves into this plot line, we begin to understand nothing is quiet ever as it seems. There are vital lessons to be learnt and journeys yet to be made. Essentially Tripathi succeeds at taking what we ordinarily deem as stifling religious text and making it uniquely his own, fast and exciting. Though not specifically hibernal, his story carries with it - the hallmark of literature that is far-away and escapist, much like the Arabian Nights - or like any other film, novel or programme that emerges at this time of year.

What I take away from Warner and Tripathi the most is that when exploring an element of fantasy that goes beyond our time of understanding - we either have to try and understand the social dynamic of the time and age. If we can’t do so, then we embellish where we can. Throughout history countless retellings of Greek myth have given us very different interpretations. Tarsem Singh’s Immortals - is his telling of the Theseus legend for instance and though bold and brazen, is far apart from the Minotaur monster imaginings I had in my head.

We often deem the cultural interests we partake in at this time of year as ‘Christmassy’ but what we’re really saying is that they lend themselves to being more enjoyable right now. Growing up in London, I wondered whether the stories my mum told me would be on par with The Chronicles of Narnia etc - but on a fundamental level, I was probably just conditioned into expecting something ethereal, snowy and Dickensian. Ultimately however, when you’re stuck inside during the darkest of December and January, almost anything set in a far away land will be enough to whet your appetite.

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  • Zach
    30.12.11 01:41 PM
    Rehashing seems to be the current trend with Indian writers.One such work was the much touted Chankyas Chants but It had terribly disappointed me. Tho' am not exactly a fan of this genre I am intrigued after reading your post.
  • Kirklops
    30.12.11 10:59 AM
    A trilogy that paints Shiva as a "human being facing extraordinary circumstances"... buying the first book.
  • Deepak
    30.12.11 09:47 AM
    Well expressed...
    Fantasies are quite old to India, with Ramyana and Mahabharatha, we could say India is birthplace of Fantasies,Dreams.Magic,Black magic etc !
    I bought this book " Nagas ", struggling to move ahead :P

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