Australian Fantasy (was Re: Obernewtyn (was recommended books))

Sally Odgers sodgers at
Sun Jun 23 21:23:50 EDT 2002

> I find Patricia Wrightson's work impressive. Her books work in the
> as it is, and don't seem ludicrous or strained (was it she who said a
> unicorn could not survive in Australia?)
Yes -- it was Patricia Wrightson who said that, and her comment set off a
the article "An Australian Unicorn?" that I wrote a few years ago..

Some Australian writers of fantasy, if (like me) they are descended from
Europeans, find Patricia Wrightson's comments quite difficult to deal with.
After all, our heritage includes stories of kings, unicorns, dragons, elves
etc, and some of us (me, anyway) still follow the UK/European form of

Different cultures have different ways of telling stories.  Some African
cultures seemed to use "trickster" stories -- B'rer Rabbit and and Ananci
the Spider Man form part of this tradition. The Greeks and Romans, among
others, used gods, goddesses and heroes to reflect human behaviour. So did
the Norse.

The Australian aboriginal stories do not at all resemble the European
tradition.  In European tradition fantasy, there is always motivation or
explanation for things that happen. (Witches do magic,  ordinary people do
not.)  In the aboriginal stories things tend to happen in a very different
way.  For example, a man or woman will suddenly change into a bird or
animal. I suppose the trend is a little like that of Native American
stories -- but I feel no kinship with those, either. It is difficult for
someone who is not of these cultures or who has not studied them to write
with this particular mindset, and when we do, the result is more like a
retelling of a "foreign" myth or legend.  Since many of the "characters" in
the native Australian tradition are so difficult to grasp, many writers are
faced with inventing completely new creatures (and forfeiting the valuable
familiarity factor) or else using (yes) an Australian unicorn.

As for whether a unicorn would survive here -- well, brumbies do.  Camels
do.  Rabbits do.  Foxes do.  None of these creatures is native, but they,
like the ubiquitous blackberry, thrive.

I do see the incongruity of introducing northern fantasy characters into a
southern setting; it is the same incongruity we see when looking at pictures
of 18th-century settlers determinedly wearing the northern hemisphere
clothing in 40 degrees Celsius heat.  On the other hand, it would have been
odd have those settlers chosen to dress in the aboriginal tradition -- it
would have been completely against their culture.  Eventually, they found
another way -- adapting European clothing to our climate.  Australian
writers have also adapted, but our fantasy sometimes falls between the two
schools.  If unicorns are barred from us, and the rainbow serpent never
belonged to us, is it any wonder some of us feel a little dispossessed?

I can see an opening for a new kind of fantasy, and am involved at the
moment in producing one.  I have taken the outback is my setting, but it is
the outback of myth and tall story, and not of reality.  The tall tales of
the outback include characters such as swagmen, drovers, bushrangers,
squatters and symbols such as lost mines, ghost towns, mirage, willy willies
and timelessness. The main problem with this outback fantasy setting is that
it is very masculine.  Introducing female characters is difficult, since
they do not belong to the myth.  Of course, one can always invent them, but
in doing so you lose the sense of familiarity -- in fact, you have another
breed of Australian unicorn.

I do seem to have run on (as usual) so I will now stop.
for which relief much thanks?


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