Reading of selected works by C.S. Lewis at the Mythopoeic Society convention on the Big Island of Hawaii. (Burl Burlingame, Star-Bulletin)
Magic of myth
By Burl Burlingame
VOLCANO — “This is kind of … new to us,” said Sam Umland of Nebraska, staring dreamily out the Volcano House window. Outside, mist drifted off the steep edges of Kilauea crater, while the Halemaumau pit loomed like a dark eye in the distance. It was primal and new, a raw landscape. Almost mythological.
Umland turned back to his mahimahi saute and talked about King Arthur, and about Japanese pop-culture cinema, and about the great, enobling passions of 19th-century romance novels.
Conversations were similar at other tables. It was, after all, the 31st annual convention of the Mythopoeic Society. Members are scholars of the literature of myth and legend, and for the first time in three decades, the largely academic Euro-centric group was incorporating Polynesian mythology as well.
“Folks have been stunned by the landscape, dazzled,” said Steve Goldsberry, University of Hawai’i associate professor, novelist and the event’s guest of honor. “They’re used to seeing clouds way up in the sky, not creeping down the street. Last night, after my talk, we came out and there was a bank of clouds like an army of ghosts marching across the horizon. We’re in the sort of place where myth becomes reality.”
About 75 showed up for the convention, most from the Western United States. Hawaii’s too far and too expensive for most members, although there’s a core group that shows up at every convention. The largest so far was in 1991 in Oxford, England, where a thousand myth scholars toasted the centennial of J.R.R. Tolkien’s birth.
While mythology scholars and fans study cultures from around the world, their particular focus is on a group of British professors who laughingly called themselves the Inklings. They wrote a number of epic fantasies primarily for their own amusement and were profoundly affected by the great wars of the 20th century. They recognized that literature wasn’t just a technical and artistic exercise, but a sacred craft that worked on a subconscious level, connecting the reader to the broad themes of the human race.
The Inklings included Tolkien — author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings fame — C.S. Lewis of Out of the Silent Planet and Charles Williams of The Greater Trumps. We’re talking about guys who favor the traditional over the trendy, religion over faithlessness. Guys who believed in the sanctity of values and recognized evil on the loose. In the gimme-gimme, do-your-own-thing zeitgeist of the 20th century, the Inklings were the ultimate outsiders.
There’s no denying they touch a chord — the Internet preview for the forthcoming “Lord of the Rings” movie was downloaded by millions, the BBC’s adaption of Gormenghast is wildly popular — but for many of the Mythopoeic Society members, more comfortable in a world of ideas and visions than in the gritty meanness of everyday life, the study of such works is a vital part of their lives.
The Honolulu chapter was created more than 25 years ago and meets monthly. One of its founders was Ellie Farrell, now of the Bay Area and currently society president. “I was a graduate student at the UH, and I just loved the books! The other mediums are fine, but literature comes first.
“No matter whose culture you tap into, you recognize certain themes. We feel it strongly in Hawaii, but whether it’s Celtic or Greco-Roman or Indian, there are common themes. All the great storytellers tap into it. Between the Tolkien movie and the Harry Potter books, I hope kids discover the rest of the field.”
“We were originally going to hold (the conference) in Australia,” said Ed Hollmann, a computer specialist with the Navy. “I opened my big mouth and suggested Hawaii, and before I knew it, they held us to it! We got drafted!”
Living with legends
Husband-and-wife professors Sam and Rebecca Umland teach at the University of Nebraska, he English and film, she Arthurian and 19th-century literature. After writing a book on the way Hollywood has co-opted Arthurian legends (you didn’t think “Shaft” came out of nowhere, did you?) they stumbled across a MythCon link on the Internet.
“I said, ‘let’s do a paper and go to Hawaii!’ ” recalled Rebecca. And so they brainstormed on a piece that examined the way the romantic passion of European literature of the 19th century affected the writers of Japanese films.
Although they’ve regularly visited Arthur’s stomping grounds in England and Scotland, this is their first visit left of the West Coast. “People here are so steeped in their culture and so proud of it that they want to share,” said Sam.
“The Hawaiian folks I’ve met are so aware of their own mythology,” said Rebecca. “They know we exist in a larger context.”
“People in Nebraska aren’t generally that aware,” mused Sam.
Amy Wisniewski, a Bay Area clinical neuro-psychologist, said mythology speaks “to the very basic needs of the human condition. Myth and legend cover all the basic developmental issues, guideposts on the road of life.
“The Hawaiian legends are so new for me, it’s a whole new venue to explore. I’m fascinated by many of the Hawaiian myths, not just what they say, but how they’re different and similar to other mythic traditions.”
Because Hawaii myths grew in isolation, how similar are they to other cultures?
“The same basic issues affect people everywhere,” said Wisniewski. “Like Jung said about myth — it’s our collective unconscious at work.”
“Frankly, for me it’s an escape, when you get right down to it,” said Heather Hollmann, an Aiea mom and secretary who brought her family to the convention. As a bookish, haole kid growing up in Waianae, escape was often on her mind. “The magic is the idea of getting away, of leaving. When I moved here as child, my neighbors told me the menehunes would get me, and that was scary.”
“Menehunes?” said U’i Goldsberry, Steve Goldsberry’s wife and frequent co-author. “I’ve noticed that folks here have strong preferences for certain magical creatures, like a totem. Elves, sorcerers, lions …”
U’i had created a stir Friday by declaring during a panel discussion on female heroes that she really liked Cinderella. “Oh, what a feminist hot-button!” she said. “The rhetoric started to fly! Six or seven women came right out of the closet on that one, admitting they liked Cinderella too. It’s interesting, defending something that’s not politically correct, but hey, think about it — Cinderella’s abusers were women.”
Steve Goldsberry had also delivered a talk Friday, examining the sexual nature of Hawaiian mythology, and then led an expedition Saturday to Kapokohelele Cave, where the pahoehoe had frozen in a gigantic, anatomically correct rendition of a woman’s vagina. At a banquet later that night, he spoke a few words about Pele coming to the islands as a haole, and then sat down, fretting that the talk wasn’t long enough.
He was promptly rewarded with a “food sculpture” of table scraps, in the anatomically correct image of a Hawaiian male god. These sculptures, by California songwriter Lynn Maudlin, are a MythCon tradition. “Oh, my work has been displayed in McDonald’s and Carl’s Jr. all over!” she laughed.
The Not-Ready-For-Mythcon Players then presented a skit called “Evil in Paradise, Or, Ring Around the Caldera,” which appeared to be a fusion of Hawaii Five-O and The Hobbit. One of the characters was named Steve McGandalf (played by Jack LordOfTheRings), and it concluded by announcing “Book ’em, Frodo!”
“Author! Author” cried the audience, but it sounded suspiciously like “Awful! Awful!”
Half the audience then took the stage for a “reading play” of dialogue taken from C.S. Lewis, a dozen single-spaced pages dealing with reality and perception. The members proved to be forceful and passionate readers, and it was heavy, thoughtful going.
In the back of the theater, the Goldsberrys seemed to be nodding off. At the sound of applause, Steve jerked his head up. “I didn’t miss anything, did I?” he said. “I don’t want to miss anything.”