What is the world we want to make?

December 16, 2011

Isobelle Carmody, The SendingThe Obernewtyn Chronicles,  (Book 6 or 7) Australia: Penguin, 2011. 

Reviewed by Katherine Firth

Isobelle Carmody’s epic Obernewtyn series, begun in 1987, is finally drawing to a close, with the final novel in the series being published in two volumes—The Sending out now, and The Red Queen out in 2012. The Red Queen will conclude the story of Elspeth Gordie, the supernaturally gifted orphan, who has led the community of Obernewtyn from an isolated pocket of resistance to the head of a national, and now global, resistance to the oppressive and autocratic regime of the Council and the fantatical Herder Faction.  The Sending, however, is Book 6, or book 7, depending on your publisher.  The last two novels in the series have been so long they have been cut in two to enable reading without arm ache—even in their halved state, they are nearly 500 pages long each. This review was originally going to look back over the twenty-four year journey—but like the end of the Harry Potter series, the final work is being divided into halves and then halves again.  So, that review will have to wait till next year.  Instead, I want to look at what insights a long-running fantasy young adult series like The Obernewtyn Chronicles gives us into the Australian imagination.

Young adult (YA) novels allow us to ask, ‘Who do I want to be?’ Fantasy fiction allows us to ask, ‘What world do I want to live in? What is the world we want to make?’  Looking at successful young-adult fantasy series allows us to understand something of a collective cultural desire.  Obernewtyn is one of the earliest of the new phase of YA fantasy series that have crossed over into mainstream culture since the 1990s: Harry Potter (J.K. Rowlings, 1997-2007), His Dark Materials (Philip Pullman, 1995-2000), The Hunger Games  (Suzanne Collins, 2008-10) or Twilight (Stephanie Meyer, 2005-08)Many students say the reason they want to attend Melbourne University (and Trinity College) is a desire to attend Hogwarts, so we see these fictional worlds are affecting the real world decisions of young people.  Obernewtyn is unique among these series for three reasons: it was begun by Carmody when she was a teenager herself; it was begun in the 1980s and is not yet finished making it both one of the earliest and one of the longest running such series; and most interestingly for this particular review, it is Australian.

The first book of the series, Obernewtyn, is now a Penguin Popular Classic, with its distinctive orange-striped cover, and it sits on bookshop shelves with other Australian classics, The Harp in the South (Ruth Park, 1948) a story of larrikins making-do in spite of hardship and In the Winter Dark (Tim Winton, 1988) a novella in which fearful things attack a small Australian rural town.  All three sit next to orange-striped, classic post-apocalyptic novels like The War of the Worlds (H.G. Wells, 1898) and The Day of the Triffids (John Wyndham, 1951). In these, like in the classic Cold War novels, On the Beach (Nevill Shute, 1957) or A Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter M. Miller, Jnr, 1960), a technologically-induced apocalyptic event leads the heroes to return to an agrarian life, or to small communities.  In the aftermath of such disasters, society is returned to pre-industrial life, in farm-based or monastic communities, using horses, candles, vellum.  All of these literary threads find their way into the world Carmody weaves into Obernewtyn.  And it is this convergence between young adult fantasy, post-apocalyptic sci-fi, and Australian classic literature, that I would like to position Carmody.  Through her imagined world, she reimagines Australia.

Obernewtyn is an orphanage set high in the mountains, built on the site of an old manor.  The world is a dystopian future, in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, where society has reverted to a pre-industrial state run by an oppressive theocracy.  The overthrow of the cruel regime of the orphanage in the first novel, leads to rebellion against the oppressive government and church in subsequent volumes.  More recently, the government has been overthrown by a band of rebels, and democratic elections have been held.  However, the fight continues, the purview has been expanded to include surrounding nations and now to a universal need to avoid a second (and perhaps final) nuclear obliteration.  As the story progresses, more of the pre-disaster world (with electricity, sky scrapers, and nuclear capabilities) is uncovered by Elspeth and her band of renegades: including a mutant cat with prophetic powers, a Christ-figure dog, the dispossessed heir of Obernewtyn (and Elspeth’s love interest), deus ex machina gypsies, plucky rebels, and a mad dragon queen.  Elspeth’s magical power is an ability to talk to animals, and psychically with other people.  Her power increases as the novels progress, and she is now able to function as a long-wave radio with booster ‘minds’ along the way.  Elspeth’s quest is to destroy the final hidden ‘weaponmachines’—hidden nuclear weapons which the villains plan to unleash on the world a second time.

The story follows the well-worn trope of children’s and young adult literature, from the post-war historical classics like The Once and Future King (T.H. White, 1958); through the magical/science fiction The Dark is Rising series (Susan Cooper, 1965-77); to more recent versions in the Harry Potter series, His Dark Materials and to a certain extent, The Hunger Games or Twilight: the child hero who changes history.  If the child can be an orphan of mysterious birth, good.

Fantasy fiction (based on the ur-text, The Lord of the Rings (Tolkien, 1954-55)) is inherently conservative, based in an imagined past of horses, swords, magic and kings.  In Harry Potter, this world of public schools, Latin lessons, pre-decimal currency, ancient castles, is powered by enduring nostalgia for the school stories of Tom Brown’s School Days (Thomas Hughes, 1857) or Mallory Towers (Enid Blyton, 1946-51).  However, the fantasy quest novel is also strongly socially progressive: a meritocratic team from different races, classes and even species come together as a small, under-dog team which attacks a large, oppressive, homogenous, fascistic dictatorship, such as Tolkien’s Sauron, or Rowling’s Voldemort.

The world of Obernewtyn is strongly reminiscent of just such a Europe, more, an England. Appropriately, an Anglican private school north of Melbourne, Overnewton, seems to have inspired Carmody.  In their travels the characters reach out to other cultures and continents reminiscent of the Near East and North Africa.  Though the congruences are impressionistic rather than exact (Obernewtyn is post-apocalyptic, not allegorical), the imaginative heritage is clearly European.  Yet the landscape could also be, and probably is, more Australian in its details.  There are lush farmlands not unlike the hills around Daylesford, bright red desert like that around Uluru, and glittering blue seas (Carmody writes much of her novels in a café overlooking Apollo Bay).

Moreover, the psychological centres of the book lie in the cultural contact between the western culture that destroyed itself through unbridled technological development, and encounters with an ancient culture more closely attuned to their environment.  Sadorians are a nomadic desert people (based somewhere near Libya), and their clothes and camels and cultures clearly borrow from the deserts of North Africa.  Nonetheless, we should not overlook their parallels to the desert tribes of our own Australian history, in their mystical rock art, their ancient beliefs, their careful management of their desert ecosystem.  They provide access to a holistic and spiritual realm, in a similar way to the shamanistic, totemic, bird-tribe of Agyllians.

Through fantasy fiction, by placing that world in parallel universe, writer and reader can articulate more brutally the things we prefer to leave unsaid.  In this case, the un-reconciled conflict for our contemporary Australian identity, situated between the injustices of the convict era when we were the Colonised, and the policies towards the Indigenous people of Australia, when we were the Colonisers.  We are a bastard and orphan children of a long and lofty heritage—Gothic cathedrals, Magna Charta, Shakespeare’s tragedies, the British Empire—separated from that Motherland by an unjust history.  Yet something of that cultural heritage still fuels our imagination, still gives our thoughts and dreams some nobility.  And that injustice gives us solidarity with others who have been unjustly treated, it assuages our guilt about this land that was not terra nullius, not a tabula rasa on which we write a new history, but a history that we have overwritten, and rewritten.

One of the things Rowling does so well in the Harry Potter series is make the hero’s parents ordinary people, who made him extraordinary simply by doing an ordinary and brave thing.  Yes they were talented and brave and kind and loved their families, but so are many of the people we work with day to day.  So, we could have been Harry, and like him perhaps we can be heroes.  This is the narrative that Potter and His Dark Materials gives us.  In Twilight  Bella only becomes a hero by marrying a rich, older, aristocrat and gaining power by becoming like him (i.e. a vampire)—but that too is a route open to young people.  In the revelations that Elspeth’s foremother was the first leader of the gypsies and sister-in-law of the Red Queen, and that the estate of Obernewtyn is Elspeth’s by inheritance, Carmody’s world undercuts the mythos of the orphan who makes good through her own gifts, grit, and hard graft.  Instead, the series suggests a return to a more aristocratic culture: the young Arthur finding he is the Once and Future King, rather than the young Katniss winning the horrific Hunger Games because of who she is, not who her family is. In the end, Carmody seems to say, Australia will inherit the earth through proving herself worthy of her European inheritance.

And if Carmody reflects something of our collective desires in contemporary Australian culture, this is what it seems to suggest.  We dream of a flame-haired Red Queen who is part dragon, pure royal, and magical: not a red-head with flat vowels from the valleys and no supernatural powers to speak of.  We dream of a public renaissance powered from the agricultural heartlands, from the bush: not a wild-eyed, big hatted jackaroo with extreme politics.  We dream of ourselves as battlers in a sunburnt country, a small country fighting above its weight: not of a wealthy, urban, middle class country of extraordinary privilege.  We dream of our northern heritage, which we will one day inherit: not our engagement (perhaps as a junior partner) with the growing economies of the north.

It is uncomfortable reading, when the Australian landscape is re-cast as the northern hemisphere; a reverse of those early colonial paintings where the colours are too muted, the hills too Italianate, the bush too Romantic.  All the colours in Obernewtyn are too strong for Europe, the deserts too red, the seas too blue, the weather too extreme.  There isn’t enough grey, dricht, wine-dark, misty blue, soft sage for Europe.  But this overwriting happens both ways.  In that imaginary universe, the injustice done to the Anglo-Saxon characters is so much greater—their culture obliterated by nuclear holocaust—while the Indigenous desert culture has successfully resisted the insidious expansion of the military-industrial complex.  In some ways it seems this is the only way modern Australians and First Australians could meet as equals, the only way we can rewrite history together.  That, and a bit of magic.

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