From Kyanite Press’s Winter Digest
Warning! Spoilers Ahead!
Origin stories permeate almost every aspect of our culture, religion writing and art (whether you ascribe to religion or not). A familiar religious origin story from the Bible, when God said in Genesis, “Let there be light.” The Big Bang theory in physics explains the beginnings of our universe in a scientific way. In pop culture, there’s story of how Super Man came from Krypton escaping a dying/exploding planet. Or how Spiderman obtained his powers by being bitten by a special spider. Most recently, I read one about the Shoshone people of Death Valley being carried in a basket by the Coyote Spirit then escaping while he slept.
We as human beings have sought to ascribe meaning to our origins since the dawn of time. Even the most cynical amongst us wants to believe there is something magical and special to our existence on this hunk of rock spinning through space and time. The purpose for our lives must move beyond just chaos and random events. Even as science has wiped out or eliminated the magic behind some of these myths and legends, we still want to believe that magic exists, that there is a special force behind the chaos.
Backgrounds and origins stories in writing are also what allow for well-rounded characters and story arcs. Typically, a protagonist or antagonist’s origins drive their motivations, whether good or evil. A writer quickly loses credibility for creating a character without a solid origin or backstory. Even if the backstory is not explicitly stated in the story, it must be hinted at or otherwise implied to help the reader understand the underlying motivation for the character’s actions.
Mr. Nadeau’s story, the Last Race of Animals is at its heart, an origin story. He uses a blend of three different genres to achieve his goal. Set in his mythical world of Lythinall, a Queen Mother and bard spins a bed-time story, a “Fairytale,” after her precocious daughter demands a “grown-up” story. Nadeau uses the old Aesop’s tale of the Tortoise and the Hare to convey his origin story of the how the “Forest of the Lost” came to be. But the tale is turned twisted in more than the usual way.
Here is where we get into the cross-section of what it means to be a fairy tale vs. a fable
Edward Clayton of Central Michigan University does an excellent job of expounding on who Aesop was, but also breaking down some of these timeless tales. As he points out in his essay; Herodotus, Plato, Aristophanes and Aristotle all make references to Aesop, but did so centuries after he was purported to exist. Aesop’s life story (as told) is fairly mythical, giving credence that he may not have existed as a single person, but more as an ideal. He was a slave who was born nearly mute and incredibly ugly, but then through his incredible intelligence and cunning was able to rise above his infirmity. Eventually due to his good deeds and intelligence he was granted the gift of speech. Meanwhile, it was eventually his over-confidence in his capabilities that led to his downfall. If you would like to read more about Aesop, please see my link to the article below.
But how does a fable differentiate from a fairytale? A fable is per Mr. Clayton’s article is usually set in no distinct time or place. It (typically, though not always) revolves around talking animals to convey a moral, usually uses allegory and analogies and is relatively short.
Here is where Nadeau does an excellent job of meshing together the realm of the fairytale, the fable and the origin story. As mentioned in a previous blog, a fairytale, though it does teach morality, always incorporates an element of magic. Here Nadeau spins a tale where at one point in the past, when faeries dominated the land, they made it so the animals could talk. At some point, they left the world and their special animals. This gives a start, as to why these animals are special, and can reason and talk like us.
The talking animals are being hunted to extinction by the humans that don’t understand that they are special and magical. The tortoise, who is observant and wise, wishes to just lay low and stay in the forest, watching the humans. The Hare wishes to leave, he’s confident they could follow the faerie kind to someplace safer. There’s good foreshadowing from the very beginning of the tale, where you get the feeling that staying in what is now the “Forrest of the Lost” may not end well for the talking animals. Here is where the fatal bet is made. The tortoise and the hare make the classic bet of racing each other, with the caveat if the hare wins, the talking animals leave the forest. If the Tortoise wins, the animals stay, but the hare must leave and wander the world of men alone.
So we all know the traditional tale, through his arrogance and overconfidence, the hare loses. Nadeau brings in a slightly different angle here. While the hare is most certainly overconfident, that is not entirely his undoing. He forgets that it is hunting season and is shot in the leg by one of the human hunters. He manages to limp back to the finish line, long after the tortoise has run the race. The tortoise, smug, because he knew all along that it was hunting season, graciously allows the hare to recover from getting his foot amputated before banishing him to the world.
But here comes the additional twist in the tale. After the hare leaves, he smells smoke. Looking back at his once home, he sees that it is ablaze. Retuning to look for his friends, he finds that they have all perished.
In the end, while he lost the race, and his foot he was lucky to not have lost his life.
Nadeau’s story leaves things open ended for the reader. While the hare was certainly wrong in being so arrogant and bullying to the tortoise, was he really so wrong in wanting to leave the forest? Would the hare winning the bet have led to a better outcome for the talking animals? Did the hare ever go on to find the place where the faeries “stepped sideways into the moon?”
He has created a unique open-ended twist on the traditional Tortoise and the Hare fable. Can’t wait to read more on his mythical world of Lythinall.
Thanks for reading. Stay tuned, I plan on dissecting Stephen Coglan’s Last Ride of the Inferno Train next.