Tales from the Orient

Eleanor M. Farrell

In this article, I will discuss one book representative of each of four major Eastern cultures (China, Japan, Arabia, Australia), and then discuss the very small set of Polynesian fantasy fiction available.


In the mid-1980s, Ace Books began publishing a "Fairy Tales" series, with original novels retelling classic tales. One of the most charming of these books was Kara Dalkey's treatment of The Nightingale. Set in the court life of ancient Japan (the time of Lady Murasaki's Tale of Genji), Dalkey's nightingale is Uguisu, a young woman with a gift for song, whose flute playing reaches the ear of the Emperor. Caught in the political intrigue of the court, Uguisu must use her courage and wit to save her own social position at court and to help the Emperor overcome his enemies. Dalkey displays a competent knowledge of the culture of medieval Japan (she has also written a young adult fantasy novel, Little Sister, using this setting, which was published in 1996), and the fairy tale fits well amid the poetry and pageantry of this period. It's a delightful book.


M. Lucie Chin published The Fairy of Ku-She in 1988, and, as far as I know, hasn't been heard from since. It's a shame, because this is another lovely fantasy novel. At the start of every winter, Chou Ch'ung-i summons her subjects to discharge their duties for the coming season. The White Tiger of the Winter Wind walks the earth, and cold winds freeze the rivers. Other fairies call home the spirits of trees and grasses, and the land becomes brown and withered. The Fairy of Ku-She is in charge of the Golden Chopsticks, and with her sister, Tung Shuang-Ch'eng, who holds the Crystal Snow-vase, they control and amount and placement of the year's snowfall. One year, however, the Golden Chopsticks are stolen, and Ku-She is forced to take on mortal form and descend to the world of men to recover them. The Fairy of Ku-She is set more or less in the China of the Ming dynasty, and the story, with its quest motif and rich descriptions of the fantastic characters of Chinese myth, is perfect fairy tale form.


Patricia Wrightson's trilogy -- The Ice is Coming, The Dark Bright Water, and Journey Behind the Wind -- is a fascinating evocation of aboriginal Australian folklore, which is full of bizarre creatures such as the Nargun, creatures of living rock, the Ninya, ice spirits living in underground caves, or the Yunggamurra, river-spirits who lure men with a siren call. The three books center on Wirrun, a young man of the People who is called upon to become a Hero and to save his land from various evils. These are fairly standard coming of age and quest stories, but the use of the unfamiliar Australian mythology and settings put the classic form into fresh perspective.


Tanith Lee, who is known for her "dark fantasy" stories, wrote a series of books set in an Arabian-inspired land of djinns and demons. Each of these four books concentrates on one of the lords of the Flat Earth -- Azhrarn, creator of nightmare, Uhlume, lord of darkness, Chuz, master of madness, and Azhriaz, mistress of delirium -- and their dealings with each other and with the humans who are often their pawns. The descriptions of the underworld realms of these demon lords and wonderfully rich and decadent. I enjoyed the earlier books, Death's Master and Night's Master, best; eventually the convolutions of plot and the hopeless fates of most of the humans in this diabolic universe got a bit wearing. These are, however, among the few handlings of Arabian Nights-type settings and stories in modern fantasy.


The Pacific island cultures, too, have their unique folklore and mythology, which are still quite unexplored in fantasy fiction. While I was living in Hawaii (a great place to go to graduate school!), I became fascinated by the rich cultural history of the Islands, which permeates the land. I believe in Hawaiian ghosts. So, evidently, does the state government: once while driving through a housing development under construction, I took a photo of an official highway sign stating "Proceed at own risk. Road not yet dedicated." Hawaiians love to "talk story" and they weave their heritage into music, dance and costume, as their ancestors carved it into the lava rocks and sea caves as petroglyphs.

Kathleen Ann Goonan's 1996 novel, The Bones of Time, is a science fiction tale blending genetic cloning and space navigation themes with elements of Hawaiian history and culture, particularly the legendary status of Kamehameha I, who joined the peoples of the Hawaiian islands and founded the dynasty which ruled Hawaii until the last queen, Liliukalani, was deposed by an American-sponsored coup in 1917. Goonan's novel is ambitious and flawed, but has many intriguing concepts and a good feel for Hawaiian culture and geography. In fact, I wish she had kept the story in the Islands, rather than moving to Hong Kong and Tibet for parts of the action. At any rate, the connection between the navigational techniques of the ancient Polynesians, who emigrated from the Asian mainland to populate island groups throughout the Pacific, and futuristic star travel by the characters in The Bones of Time, is particularly fascinating.

Steven Goldsberry's first (and so far only) novel, Maui, the Demigod, tells the tale of the Trickster god of Hawaiian mythology. Maui, son of the goddess Hina, was given to the sea as a newborn baby, and raised by Kanaloa, god of the ocean. As a boy, he returned to the land of his birth, and became a famous hero whose deeds included pulling up islands with a fishhook, snaring the sun to make it move more slowly across the heavens, and winning fire for the use of men. The various tales of Maui's adventures are woven into a single narrative in this book, linked through stories told by an old man to a boy, sitting at the base of Haleakala (a volcano on the island named for Maui). Goldsberry's book is engaging and lively, full of the earthy humor of Hawaiian story. The author, a teacher at the University of Hawaii, has attended meetings of the Sammath Naur discussion group. I was given a copy of his book by Ken Burtness, one of the group's stalwart organizers and party-givers; hopefully Goldsberry will write more stories retelling Hawaiian myths and legends.

Carol Severance, another writer living in Hawaii, has written a series of three books -- Demon Drums, Storm Caller and Sorcerous Sea -- about Iuti Mano, once a feared warrior but who, tired of death and destruction, has severed her family's bond with the shark clan. In these stories set in a magical island world inspired by the legends of Polynesia, Iuti encounters evil sorcery in many forms. The novels use the basic "sword and sorcery" formula of a hero battling evil forces with the aid of various companions, but rise above this genre partly because we see Iuti as a mature character, who has to deal with the consequences of her earlier career as a warrior, while trying to create a more peaceful existence for herself and her companions. (Kinda like Xena....) The books are also enhanced by the author's choice of setting and imaginative creations: drummers whose instruments are made from human skin and who can control their enemy's heartbeat with their rhythms, sorcerers who can call up storms, sea mimics who can take the form of sharks or birds, etc. I found these books thoroughly enjoyable, and, fortunately, they are not hard to find in used paperback form. Since these are recent publications (from Del Rey), I hope that Severance will continue to explore Pacific island mythology for future books.

Weird World Theatre

Without any structured background in Oriental literature or arts, I have long been interested in, particularly, the more theatrical representations of these cultures. In Hawaii and now in San Francisco, I am lucky to have easy exposure to things Eastern, and -- even more intriguing -- some delightful cross-cultural expressions of Oriental/Western elements. One of these is a fiber artist who lives in Sonoma County, Sha Sha Higby, who creates elaborate costume pieces, using traditional techniques and styles of Tibet, Java, and other Eastern cultures, and uses these in performance pieces incorporating music and movement. I've seen Sha Sha's performances live and on video, and there is currently an exhibit of many of her costumes at the San Francisco Craft and Folk Art Museum. Wonderful stuff!

The Theater of Yugen is a San Francisco troupe which creates and sponsors experimental theatrical productions based on traditional Kabuki and Noh foundations. They perform a Noh Christmas Carol each December, which combines Dickens's story with Japanese masks and movement: it works amazingly well, especially the wonderful ghosts who guide Sukurooji on his journey. At a performance of this play last Christmas season, I picked up a flyer for an upcoming collaborative production which I immediately put on my calendar:

Blood Wine, Blood Wedding: A Kabuki-Flamenco Fusion. Who could resist? This play was a combination of elements from Federico Garcia Lorca's Blood Wedding and Chikamatsu Monzaemon's Love Suicides at Sonezaki, with spoken word, music and dance. Traditional Kabuki musicians were placed on one end of the stage; a flamenco guitarist and singer at the other; Lorca and Sonezaki portrayers served as narrators, arguing their positions with each other. The story was set in the California Central Valley in the 1930s, with Japanese vegetable farm families in conflict with Mexican/Spanish socialist revolutionaries. The Japanese heroine was played by a kabuki onnagata (female role) actor, while her Spanish lover was portrayed by La Tania, a well-known flamenco danceuse who was also one of the play's choreographers. At times, both groups of musicians performed simultaneously, blending wonderfully, as did the fusion of kabuki and flamenco movements. It was fabulous. Boy, am I glad I live here!

Selected Bibliography
This article originally appeared in Butterbur's Woodshed #35.

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