'Dreaming the Place' - My Introduction to Once Upon a Time in Oz - Griffith Review Number 42, December 2013
Once upon a time – and the story begins. Story is one of the most powerful tools in the minds of human beings, having deep and far-reaching cultural and political significance. It depends on language and imagination, two other precious tools. It works its magic by its music. Once upon a time Australia ‘existed’ only in the imaginations of people in the northern hemisphere. It was an alluring dream, perhaps, or a myth, a paradise to be desired, a Great South Land below the equator, balancing the world, but unknown. Then explorers came by sea and gradually discovered the solid reality of the land mass, and bit by bit they mapped the coastline. Myth was then, and is now, never far from the surface in Australia. It is nourished by fact, explained and embellished by fiction, spoken and written, and in its turn it informs the way lives are lived and perceived.
One of my personal favourite tales of early historical Australian myth is the story of the Portuguese sailor Pedro Fernandez de Quiros who came in search of the Great South Land in 1605. He found Vanuatu, but believed it to be the place he sought. He named it Australia Del Espiritu Santo. So far the story is romantic but not really extraordinary, so why do I like it so much? Well, there’s more. In the nineteenth century, Archbishop Moran of Sydney believed that de Quiros had in fact discovered Australia, had named it as the land of the Holy Spirit, and had established the New Jerusalem near Gladstone in Queensland. This lovely Australian yarn was taught as historical fact in Australian Catholic schools for many years. I am not really being critical of the Archbishop, I look upon him tenderly, admiring his fine Irish ability to work so boldly with fairy tale to strengthen the faith of his flock. Yes, yes, children, you are living in the land of the Holy Spirit. Happy ever after. Of course I have here taken the Archbishop into a little narrative of my own, weaving his fiction into my fiction and coming up with a smile and a shamrock.
The stories that resonate and lodge in a culture are, after all, the expression of desires.
Already I have used several terms for ‘story’. There are some distinctions to be made between, say, myths and legends, fables and parables and fairy tales, sagas, folk tales, and yarns, some genres depending on heroes, some on journeys, some on morals, some on magic, but finally, they are all stories of some kind. So I’m not too fussed here by fine distinctions. I am really looking at what I call ‘common’ stories, stories that are not strictly the property of anyone in particular, but of humanity itself. And then I will consider some stories invented in Australia, stories that express aspects of life that appeal to Australians, and that in their turn express the feeling of the country. I will look at how some of these stories appear to sit in the culture of Australia.
Australia is a story as well as a place. Aboriginal Australians see nothing unusual in that statement. From a fantasy paradise of pearls and spices, waiting to be discovered in the southern seas below the magical mirror of the equator, to the huge island reality of today, with all that has happened here in the meantime, (oh, all that has happened!), Australia has been and continues to be imagined and told from the outside. It has been imagined and told also from the inside, taking into the story a vast number of narratives from – well, it seems to me, from everywhere. Some of these narratives resonate more loudly at one time than another, but the story is going on all the time. At this point I stop and ask myself – how is all this different from what goes on elsewhere? And I believe there is perhaps an answer to be found in the way the Aboriginal place was telling itself for at least those sixty-thousand years, while outside other people were dreaming about it. Then in recent times, starting, say, in 1788, those other people began to come here to live, and brought with them narratives from afar. The shocking, defining moment in 1788 when the First Fleet landed fractures the backbone of the story, and sets off a whole galaxy of further plots and subplots that continue to play out.
In 2013, in the pharmacy of a central Victorian town, I asked for a bottle of camomile shampoo. The pharmacist’s assistant skipped across the shop floor to get it from the shelf, singing: ‘Hi ho! Hi ho! It’s off to work we go!’ She laughed; I laughed. We both got the reference, which was not particularly apt, but we were strangers suddenly drawn together by the marching dwarves in Disney’s Snow White, an animated movie from 1937 based on an old European fairy tale. This is a banal anecdote, yet I set it out here because it is a quick illustration of one of the ways ancient stories enter cultures, lodge in the imagination, and are reinforced by rituals and reminders. Neither the girl in the pharmacy nor I could have cared less right then about the princess and the wicked queen and the mirror and the apple, not to mention the prince, yet the story really was present in our brief moment of contact. We were in fact in the grip of the fairy tale, strangely in thrall to magic. There in regional Australia, in the twenty-first century, we were reacting to a slender reference to a nineteenth century re-telling of a gruesome German story, as again retold in film and song.
2012 was the 200th anniversary of the publication of those old stories collected and retold in German by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Amid the worldwide celebrations I reflected on the fact that there is much scholarship and other publication on the subject of fairy tales, particularly in North America and Britain, but that in Australia, although there is a vigorous interest, including the Fairy Tale Salon at Monash University, there isn’t so much local exposure and publication. Griffith Review 42 provides the forum for local writers to reflect on the history and significance of all manner of old stories in the context of modern Australia, a place of many, many cultures, and has given the writers inspiration to create new fairy tales of their own, sometimes revising old tales, experimenting with them, putting a new spin on them. The anniversary of the Grimm stories was the trigger for a broad investigation of how old stories have lodged in Australian culture, and how stories tell the country and the culture. Irrespective of genre, what are the tales that pre-occupy, entertain and guide the culture today in the land of Oz? And how did they make their way here? What has happened to them here, over time?
Wherever people go they carry their personal and cultural stories with them. Storytelling is a mechanism for reflecting on what it is to be human in time and space. Storytelling consists of the story and the telling, and the telling must be to a degree an entertainment. The stories in question here are tales that mingle, in strange and seamless ways, the natural and the supernatural, but there are also plainer stories, less magical narratives that have lodged in the story of the country. Once upon a time in Australia. All cultures retell and refine the key narratives that speak to the heart. These are the narratives that carry darkness and light, good and evil, instructing, by the magic of words, all human beings in the truths of their own existence. Many ‘common’ stories take their elements from real events in the lives of the tellers, hence the Biblical story of a great flood, or the poverty and famine that give rise to such cruelty in the story of Hansel and Gretel.
The first people in Australia, the people with the first stories, are the Aboriginal people who have been here for at least sixty-thousand years. The time, however long it might be, is known by Aboriginal people to be forever, a time that stretches into the future as well as into the past – a fantastic circle of time. Aborigines have a story of a great flood, as do many cultures, a story well documented in rock art. The Flood, based in history, has become a motif in the narratives of many cultures, and is a sacred story in some. Current archeological wisdom puts Australian Aboriginal rock art as the most ancient art on the planet. Having said that, I pause for breath. And there, in the pictorial telling, is the story of the Flood. Considering that Europeans have been here only since 1788, and that non-Europeans have come later, the Aboriginal people have what I might call the home ground of the Australian story. Aboriginal people developed and preserved their legends as oral stories, as images, as dance, as ceremony, as ritual, and as visual art. Throughout the country there is a general pattern to the narratives, but details vary from place to place – place being central to the stories. These stories, sacred to the lands and peoples who are their custodians, are, as I see the matter, a vast hum and whisper of wisdom behind, around, within the fabric of modern Australia. Because the stories are sacred, they are owned by their people, and are not always available to be made public in the ordinary way. This makes them even more powerful. There are creation myths, nature myths, and tales that dramatise the beauty and strangeness of everyday life. And although the resolution of a story may be an explanation of some natural phenomenon, the dreadful human passions found in stories across all cultures are also found in the Aboriginal narratives. You can see the jealousy, hatred and rage of some characters in European fairy tales coming out in the story of ‘The Flowers of Blood’, which also works with the motif of the doomed lovers. It isn’t so far from Shakespeare. The beginning of the story has the arbitrary feeling of many a European tale, and has the concision of a Bible story. The violence and retribution also are familiar tropes from all the storytellers of the world, yet the whole narrative is beautifully stamped with the tone of an Aboriginal legend.
Here is the story:
‘The elders decided that a young girl would marry a coarse old man of the tribe. Now the girl not only hated the old man, but she was planning to marry a fine young man from another tribe in the east. The lovers eloped and fled to the land of his people where they set up camp beside a lake. They lived happily and almost forgot all about the old man. But the jealousy of that man grew until he assembled his own people and attacked the tribe where the lovers were living, planning to take the young woman for himself. Everybody, including the woman, was killed, their blood staining the ground all around bright red. After a year the old man returned to the place to gloat over the skeletons of his victims. But all he found was a carpet of scarlet flowers with great big black eyes. These flowers had grown from the blood of the dead, and showed that the spirits of the dead were still active and powerful. When he tried to flee, a spear came flying out of a cloud and struck him lifeless to the ground. The tears of the spirits changed the sweet lake to salt, and now the man and the spear that killed him are just little stones on the shore of the water. Every year the Flowers of Blood bloom in memory of the lovers.’
The Flowers of Blood are now known to gardeners as Sturt’s Desert Pea, and are the floral emblem of South Australia. I chose to tell that story because I love it, but also because the flowers introduce to my narrative the name of Charles Sturt, one of the men who explored the Australian continent. The nineteenth century explorers, who moved inland from the coastal areas to map the rivers and mountains and deserts, created a key narrative of this country, the explorer narrative. Charles Sturt was an explorer who lived to tell the tale. Robert Burke and William Wills both of whom died on their journey, and Ludwig Leichhardt who actually disappeared, never to be seen again, during his search for a great inland sea, are much more romantic, are the stuff of legend, forming motifs that are sometimes revisited in the imaginations of Australian writers.
Writers, I mustn’t forget, have a key role in the invention, development and preservation of the stories that inform, haunt and perhaps shape the way people in Australia make and perceive their culture. The disappearance of Leichhardt was the inspiration for the novel Voss by Patrick White, a legendary Australian writer, and this novel must be acknowledged as an Australian classic. In 2013, when the hard copy printed word is giving way to electronic media, when film, for one thing, is more current than books, Voss remains unfilmed, although it has been produced as an opera. When, in a mythic future, it does make it to the screen, it will further deepen the grip that the story of the doomed explorer has on the story that is Australia.
The land itself has often been a character in the story, a land envisaged as vast and strange and dangerous. For to begin with, in 1788, when people came from English cities to take unlawful possession of the Aboriginal lands of Australia, the land put up its own resistance. The prison colony clung to the eastern shore, established in the name of the English king. But beyond the borders of the colony was a frightening world, its forests and deserts could and did swallow up not just explorers, but in particular, little children. This was not, after all, the paradise dreamt by the fantasists who longed for the Great South Land of jewels and palm trees, this was a nightmare that struck terror into the heart.
The lost child, the stolen child – this must be a narrative that is lodged in the heart and imagination, nightmare and dream, of all human beings. In Australia the nightmare became reality. The child is the future, and if the child goes, there can be no future. The true stories and the folk tales on this theme are mirror images of each other. And the landscape of Australia played and plays its part in them, nourishing the anxiety, proving the validity of the fear. Australia, raw, rough and wild, where the people were already cut off from home by thousands of miles of ocean, was the perfect place for children to disappear, for the future to go missing. ‘Babes in the Wood’, ‘Hansel and Gretel’, are just two common European oral narratives that speak to this theme, and they were carried here in some form by the people who came in 1788. In Australian folklore there is a most interesting hero who sometimes emerges – the Aboriginal tracker who recovers the children and returns them to their parents. The most heart-breaking and haunting of these stories are the ones where the children are never found. The stories collected by the Grimms and published in 1812 were brought here in translation by the educators of the colony in the early part of the nineteenth century, but many of the narratives were familiar in some form long before the collection was made.
‘Red Riding Hood’, a very ancient and seemingly universal narrative, is retold by the Grimms, and is a warning to girls to keep out of the forest, for the wolf who lurks there will rape them and eat them. So it sits well in Australia alongside all the stories, fairy tale and non-fiction, of the dangers of the bush. The sad thing about this story, I think, is that its message has never really taken. For girls continue to listen to the wolf, and to stray from the straight and narrow, sometimes going to their doom. Girls will be girls and wolves will be wolves. The streets of the city are now a perfect stand-in for the paths of the forest, and although the story of Red Riding-Hood is told over and over again, and children’s eyes widen with horror at the sight of the wolf, it seems to make no difference. The girl in the story is usually resurrected, perhaps undercutting the dreadful warning.
All over the world children disappear, but I think I am right in observing that in Australia, probably because of the early experience of the vulnerability of the children, the narrative has a special edge and flavour. In 1980 a white baby girl disappeared from a camper’s tent near the vast red rock of Uluru in the centre of the continent, and was never seen again. Her mother knew she had been taken and eaten by a wild dog, a dingo, but the mother was not believed and was herself convicted of killing the baby and concealing the body, and was imprisoned. After three years in prison, the mother was exonerated and was released from prison. On a scale of terrible true stories, this is one of the worst. If you are looking for demons, there’s the dog of course, but worse than the dog is the society whose legal system allowed the mother to be cruelly punished for her own tragedy. Once upon a time in Australia. I think that if this story were not true, it could scarcely be imagined.
Then there’s the matter of Joan Lindsay’s novel, Picnic at Hanging Rock, published in 1967 and made into a movie in 1975. The movie has had the effect of lodging the narrative in the imaginations of people all over the world, including Australia. On St Valentine’s Day 1900, the demonic Australian bush swallows up a group of beautiful young women who are never to be found. So far, so mythic. But the wonderful particularity of this whole thing is that many many people believe the story to be true. People will swear they have read accounts of it in old newspapers. And, you see, in the world of Ludwig Leichhardt and the baby at Uluru, it could be true. Once upon a time in Australia. In 1966 three children, Jane, Arnna and Grant Beaumont disappeared forever from a sunny beach in South Australia. Such things happen.
They feed into the story of the country, the story Australians tell themselves about themselves, and the story the outside world tells about Australia.
I am interested in how easily the words ‘the outside world’ slipped into that sentence. I wonder if I feel there is an ‘inside world’ because Australia is an island, because it is geographically far from older cultures, even though the Aboriginal culture of Australia is the oldest in the world. Perhaps the short time between now and 1788 is also a factor in cutting and containing the place. Is Australia embattled? Threatened by the outside world? As I write, there is a heated, complex and omnipresent debate about how Australia as a country should treat the many people who are desperate refugees from other countries. Should they simply be welcomed and assimilated? Should they be put in special camps here? Should they be put in camps out on islands off the mainland of Australia? Should they be allowed to drown? What to do? Who is in and who is out? I think the perception of inside and outside is quite common among Australians. Do other people, say, Americans, Chinese imagine in this way that there is an outside world from which they must be rigorously protected? Do they think like that? I believe it’s quite tricky and dangerous to generalize about people, to say Australians believe this or that, Americans believe the other. But it is possible to examine the narratives that seem to capture the popular imagination, and to say that these are the stories that might make up some of the fabric of Australia. The narratives of inside and outside are found in many of those stories.
Many of the stories told to children in Australia today have come with people who have been welcomed from the outside world – immigrants from, well, everywhere, who have been coming here since the 1950s, and who have immeasurably enriched the culture of this country. Greek, Italian, Indian stories – and many others. The Chinese who came to the goldfields in the 1850s and 1880s have put down into the culture a bright strand of strange and beautiful stories of demons, princesses and ferocious dragons.
It is impossible to ignore the fact that the dominant narrative carried by the First Fleet was the Christian story. In the name of the king, in the name of a Christian God, they planted the Union Jack in that amazing arrogant and un-Christian gesture of the confident colonist. The stories of the Old and New Testaments are deeply woven into the culture of Australia, one way and another.
Voyage within you, on the fabled ocean,
And you will find that Southern Continent
Quiros’ vision – and his hidalgo heart
And mythical Australia, where reside
All things in their imagined counterpart
James McAuley ‘Terra Australis’ 1946
The outside world perceives Australia as a land of sport, and the inside world also sees itself and promotes itself as a place where sport is paramount, where legendary heroes are the gods and goddesses of sport. Those heroes are part of the internal and ongoing story. Then there are the heroes of war, of science, of song. Dame Nellie Melba sang her way into myth in the early part of the twentieth century, and she is part of the language. These are the narratives that focus on goodness and greatness, and that fashion the legends. The story of the failure of the Anzac military landing in Turkey in 1915 is perhaps as deeply etched and as important as that first great fracture in the history of the country when the ships landed at Botany Bay in 1788. And so the legends build. With tales also of Ned Kelly, the rebel underdog who rose to the status and grandeur of legend. Ned Kelly, the outlaw who shot a policeman and was executed in 1880. Hero or villain? Hero in this land of Oz.
Now the original Land of Oz was a magical place invented by L. Frank Baum, an American, in stories he published in the early 1900s. These stories are what are sometimes called ‘literary fairy tales’, like the stories of Oscar Wilde, tales invented by one writer, but relating in tone and content to the oral narratives that spring from deep within a culture. The stories of Oz had a powerful influence on Americans who absorbed them into their own telling of themselves. Curiously enough, in the late 1930s ‘Oz’ became a popular term for ‘Australia’. The movie The Wizard of Oz appeared in 1939, and it told a fairy tale in which dreams really do come true, although they are ultimately grounded in reality. It has become one of the most beloved and enduring movies of all time. Australia, Oz, is it a place, perhaps where dreams, like the dreams of de Quiros, can come true? Yet in reality?
Once upon a time in Oz there was a Magic Pudding. No matter how many times you cut it and ate it, it reformed, and you had a whole pudding again. That’s a great dream. This 1918 story by Australian Norman Lindsay tells the hilarious adventures of some Australian animals, and it is characterized by a larrikin humour which is considered to be typically Australian both inside and outside of Oz. The larrikins of Oz Magazine from the 1960s took that humour out of Sydney and into London, a journey that, in those days was seen as a rite of passage by young Australians. I always see it, perhaps fancifully, as a kind of mirror image of the journey of the First Fleet in 1788.
In my own adventures here in the essayland of Oz, I have wandered far from the Brothers Grimm whose anniversary was once my inspiration. If their story of Red Riding Hood has not had the effect of keeping girls from wolves, their ‘Cinderella’ (which has in fact been supplanted by the softer French version retold in 1950 by the Disney movie) is a dazzling success in the delivery of its message. Or perhaps I mean to say that ‘Cinderella’ speaks to the heart and of the heart of the majority of people. Everywhere. Perhaps it doesn’t exactly have a ‘message’ or a ‘lesson’, perhaps it just tells it how it is in the realm of hopeful magic in the human imagination. For irrespective of the details of the different versions (of which there are at least 1500 across many cultures, beginning with a Chinese narrative from 805), the story of the good and beautiful girl who rises from obscurity and victimhood to marry the prince by the agency of magic, and lives happily ever after, is the story that captures the imaginations of girls everywhere. It forms the basis of romantic stories over and over again. Disney vigorously promotes the story of Cinderella, but she was ready and waiting for the Disney treatment and marketing. She is not the only princess who has had the Disney treatment, but she dominates, she leads the field. There’s something about Cinderella. When Diana Spencer married Prince Charles in 1981, her wedding was widely describe as a fairy tale, as a Cinderella story, regardless of the fact that most of Diana’s story was at odds with that of Cinderella. There was a prince and a beautiful girl and a fantastic wedding. Hey presto – Cinderella!
I think it would be difficult for any little girl in Australia today to escape the central narrative of ‘Cinderella’, even if she is ultimately going to reject its tropes. Fantasy is truly a wonderful and powerful magic, and stories of magic whisper to the heart the secret of the hope of happiness. Little girl, supposing you are beautiful, and then supposing you are good, and supposing there is some magic, you will marry a prince and you will be complete, and you will be happy. It’s quite a story, really. The girl can’t do it without the magic, mind you, and the prince is actually just a given, a necessary element of the plot, which is a tale of all sex and no death. It’s really a story about an everlasting wedding party. It seems to me that attempts to divert or subvert the power of this narrative are always doomed; the essence of the myth of Cinderella holds its ground. And the role of the prince gives boys their script too. The noble and beautiful girl with the miraculous shoe will be theirs, they don’t have to do a great deal. The story of Cinderella might still be the underlying and even the dominant myth, the norm in the culture of Oz, where today the gay community seeks the happy ever after of a Cinderella wedding.
Oh, once upon a time, children, there was a land of dreams where pearls were strung on amber vines, and bright birds sang long and sweet in the tall jasper trees. And in another country there was a king who banished from his land all the people who had done bad things. He sent them far far away across the ocean to a place where they would have to steal the land and kill the people and make their own way in deep forests and wide deserts. There were fires and floods and wars. And after many years, and many troubles, those people learned to dream that place into the land of pearls and bright birds whistling in the jasper trees. There were rivers of precious gold, and great hillsides spilling with miraculous metals and volcanic glass. Whispering coral and whirling malachite. Oh milk and honey and marzipan! The people became known throughout the world for their great skill at games, for their courage, and for their kindness and good humour. They made peace with the people who had been there first, and they freely welcomed strangers from other lands. They all lived happily ever after in peace and harmony, working together, telling each other stories, singing songs, swimming in the lazy rolling surf. Bells rang out across the fields, fields of emerald green. The sapphire skies were forever clear and pure by day, the moon and stars bright in the skies by night. Eternally.
Yes? Once upon a time in Oz?