Pauline Archell-Thompson

Pauline Archell Thompson                                     

When Dreams become Reality:
The Arcadian Utopia and Other worlds in Fantasy Fiction: A study of Charles De Lint's Yarrow

The essay is based on a paper presented to the New Lanark SFRA conference.

As with many papers this started of as an exploration in what I perceived as one direction and gradually persuaded me to revise its self and walk in another. So I would ask indulgence if the Utopian ideal is not fully finalised.

Dreams feature strongly in the novel whether as dreams of future success as in the case of Rick, Lysistratus's apprentice, or dreams of meeting with Cat as held by Ben, the taxi driver, to Toby Weye's dreams of encountering real magic. The antagonist too has dreams; of power and security of continuation in a world in which he will finally achieve domination of his food source. Cat's dream world is the typical utopian framework of many childhood fairytales and legends. It is a place of stately elves, and friendly gnomes, where the harsher realities are rarely present except as tales from a distant past; a place of bards and magic. A world that is as far distant from the streets of Ottawa as outer space. The dream stealer's effect upon this world is catastrophic. In robbing Caitlin of her dreams he causes an incursion in to the realm and ravages it; the bards die, the elves withdraw and the land takes on a threatening aspect. This how ever, is not done intentionally by him, he has no way of knowing that the dream world actually exists until he meets with the gnome Tiddy Mun and suddenly realises the full potential of what Caitlin is.
"The impossibility of what he faced almost made him question his sanity. Before him stood a straying fragment of Cat's dreaming. It seems she dreamed all too true." P. 116

Tiddy Mun is a catalyst in awakening others in the story to the reality of what is actually occurring. The Bookshop Owner who has befriended Cat is perfectly willing to believe that she dreams her books but he cannot accept its reality:
"He hadn't seen anything, Peter told himself. Especially not some lingering figment of her dreams. He just didn't need something like that to be real" p. 73

Ben too meets with Tiddy and has to re-evaluate his internal conception of Cat's disclosures:

"The cat was gone, replaced by a small skinny man with watchful eyes and a wild mat of hair. The change left Ben slacked jawed... his world was tumbling down around his ears. This was too much" p.179

Cat herself has never accepted that her dreams could be real and much of the novel echoes the ambivalence that she feels to the concept of the Otherworld's reality. However as she is the only female to see Tiddy it would appear that the author wished to make a point about acceptance and non-acceptance of the uncanny. Lysistratus after all is a creature of the uncanny and for him to react with astonishment holds a degree of disorientation for the reader. According to Jackson:
"The concept of evil, which is usually attached to the other, is relative, transforming with shifts in cultural fears and values. Any social structure tends to exclude as 'evil' anything radically different from itself or which threatens it with destruction, and this conceptualisation, this naming of difference as evil, is a significant ideological gesture. It is a concept at one with the category of 'otherness' itself: evil characterises what ever is radically different from me, whatever by virtue of precisely that difference seems to constitute a very real and urgent threat to my existence" (Jameson page 44 see Jackson quotes)

However the reader is already aware that Tiddy Mun is not evil per se, yet the masculine viewpoint seems to be to react as if he is. By evil in this case I am assuming that his otherness is a direct contradiction of their reality concept and therefore threatening to their cultural value systems

The true evil resides in Lysistratus:
"She could still see the man, a slender dark shape in the shadows. Waiting... You could always sense eyes upon you, the pressure of concentrated attention that could turn your head on a busy street... and she realized, she'd felt this pressure before." P.40

He is the watcher in the shadows, the unnameable fear that's stalks our waking dreams:
"The evil killed him. It came like a great shadow to steal your soul."... They both sensed the gathering of what ever it was that hunted in the night. It's searching narrowed, focused on them... It came from the darkness, sapping their wills..." P.71

This is again the very stuff of horror.

Jackson wrote:
" ...fear originates in a source external to the subject: the self suffers an attack of some sort which makes it part of the 'other'...It is a sequence of invasion, metamorphosis and fusion in which an external force enters the subject, changes it irreversibly and usually gives to it the power to initiate similar transformations" p. 58

This is obviously applicable to Lysistratus. He has entered the Otherworld through his attacks on Cat. Although we have now been made aware that he has no awareness of his actual acts outcome. According to Jackson:

"To introduce the fantastic is to replace familiarity, comfort, das Heimlich, with estrangement, unease, the uncanny. It is to introduce dark areas of something completely other and unseen, the space outside the limiting frame of the 'human' and 'real', outside the control of the 'word' and the 'look'. Hence the association of the modern fantastic with the horrific, from Gothic tales of terror to contemporary horror films. The emergence of such literature in periods of relative 'stability' ...points to a direct relation between cultural repression and it generation of oppositional energies which are expressed through various forms of fantasy in art. P. 179 Jackson

But what is expressive is that the reality of the Otherworld is as equally uncanny to such a creature that feels no compunction at draining the lives of others. We have entered an uncanny universe indeed where it causes unease in those that are themselves other.

Lysistratus is fully aware that he cannot, despite his powers, take a more active role in society. He has to remain an outcast, and this is not because he cannot contain and disempower the city dwellers. He fears the primitive amongst us, the rich dreamers as he defines it.
"Instead he had to remain a scavenger - like the jackal. The African root men named him... the ghost death that the Australian bushmen named him. The lone wolf that the Inuit shaman named him... the buzzard that the Hopi shaman named him...The strong dreamers cast him forth... but [they] no longer ruled this land... men of the cities ruled now. [But] they were weak dreamers" p.51

According to Aboriginal tradition the golden age of the past where man lived in collaboration and unity with his fellow creatures is defined as the Dreamtime. This thematic of a non-materialistic existence is also shared by Amerindian shamanistic spirit dreams. A place where men may walk in a primordial utopia where animals communicate and all living things have not only wisdom but a significant place in the interrelationships. Lysistratus references these dreamers and his fear of their ability to differentiate his kind and drive them forth. In doing so he also calls attention to the fact that 'modern' man has lost his rich ability to dream; his attention being taken up by the trivialities of modern society the accumulation of money, goods and power over others. These constituting the waking dreams of present society as against the prophetic, psychic dreaming of the more primitive cultural units.

In some ways this novel could be classified as a fairytale for adults. The battle for good and evil still appears to be playing a major part in our development even after we have been customised to the realities of the adult civilised world. According to Jakes:
"...the fantastic in fairy tales [for children] has been forced to take the offensive, and this situation has not arisen because the fantastic is assuming a more liberating role but because it is in the throes of a last-ditch battle against what many writers have described as technological instrumental and manipulative forces which operate largely for commercial interests and cast a 'totalitarian' gloom over society by making people feel helpless and ineffectual in their attempts to reform and determine their own lives." P. 171 (Jakes)

And this novel does just that in juxtaposing the elements of high technology, against the creative; the disenfranchised against the socially integrated. In this context Lysistratus, apart from his obvious otherness, is representing the greed and lusts of the supposedly civilised. We are mainly dealing with dysfunctional characters by commercial societies categorising of such; Street people, fringe musicians, the homeless. Cat is herself a success apart from her inability to function amongst her own kind. She is somewhat of a recluse and it is this disenfranchisement that sets her apart as both victim and hero.

Another thematic, which indicates a similarity to fairytale, is the coming of age element. Cat is isolated by her dream experiences, preferring them to the reality of social interaction, a style of living to which she admits consciously adhering, her antagonist, on the other hand is poised, elegant and cultured, a creature adapt at integrating with modern society. He is also overtly sexual using this as a means of acquiring life force from his victims. Toby Weye, the wanderer from another Otherworld acts as a typical Proppian helper to Cat. It is he that tells her of her link with Mynfel through their sharing of a name. Mynfel being another name for Yarrow, the secret name that the bard Kothlen had given to Cat. Finally, as they confront the evil on Redcap hill, it is Toby who urges her to greater effort.
"He wants you, he said. He hunts you on both worlds, Mistress Cat. Now he has your body on one, your soul trapped here on another. You must wake up and face him" p.211

Cat also has her quest in that she must save the rest of her Otherworld and she is finally given magical powers to achieve this end, through the intervention of Mynfel.
"What exactly was the antlered woman? A manifestation of Cat's, just as those capering shadows were the dream thief materialised in the Otherworld?" p.216

This question haunts her through much of the latter stages of the novel. Mynfel, the female horned watcher from the sacred woods is a mysterious and elusive character. I have searched all my databases without finding a suitable mythic woodland creature that has either her power or her horns. These usually being bestowed on the male, as in the case of Herne the Hunter. The only comment I can make on this anomaly is perhaps De Lint felt that by making her a horned creature he was emphasising her dominant relationship within the 'Other World'.

The meeting with Mynfel at the still pool within the sacred wood has echoes of Lacanian psychology.
"She looked down into her own face only it wasn't a reflection. The perspective was wrong.. .And there, where the hair was drawn back from the reflections brow... Mynfel's antler weighted down her head p. 133

Although she cannot accept it at that point it is the final clue in the puzzle of her relationship to both the Otherworld and Mynfel. She is both 'Other' and the same.

It is finally through her stand against darkness that Cat gains the strength to function in both her 'realities'. Even though at the end we find her frightened of the power that she has contained within herself and its potential to take over, she does this in a mature and responsible manner. This again is aided by the final meeting with Mynfel where she discovers the meaning of their name and their ultimate purpose...
"This world is real, the antlered woman said. You and I are the strangers in it, but only one of us is real as you use the word. We are two sides of the same tree" p.240

Finally like all good heroes she has to understand the reasoning behind her quest.
"self realization that had to be truly and instinctively understood to be valid" p.243

In conclusion this work can be called an adult fairytale but one that is specifically directed at society and the weighting of power within it. After all what differentiates us, the reading public from the dream thief? I feel very little. At first glance, we all feed upon the dreams of others, however the one major factor to create a chasm between the dream thief and 'us' is the fact that he takes only for himself. In many ways he functions as a capitalist hierarchy that excludes the rights of 'everyman' to lay claim to such dreams. And humanity does need its dreamers, its writers, its artists, its visionaries and its poets because they enrich our experience of the reality that we dwell in.

So is the book ultimately about greed and desire? Or does it represent our liberation from these elements; co-operation and understanding between individuals rather than domination and suppression? This is a difficult question to answer. Some characters achieve a measure of understanding, some are totally bewildered, although changed, by their experiences and yes others are liberated, but a measure of destruction is achieved in both human and supernatural lives. So in getting to the end we than have to posit the further question; is destruction worth the outcome; do we have to tear down the walls to rebuild a society or is there a more humanitarian way?


Primary Text
DE LINT, Charles "Yarrow", Ace Books 1986

Secondary Texts
BENTLY, Peter (Ed.) The Hutchinson Dictionary of World Myth, Helicon, 1995
JACKSON, Rosemary "Fantasy; The Literature of Subversion", Methuen & Co., 1981
SARUP, Madan Jacques Lacan, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992
WALKER, Barbara G. The Women's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, Harper and Row, 1983
ZIPES, Jack Fairy Tales and the art of Subversion, Heinemann Educational Books, 1983

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