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Mahy and magic realism

August 1, 2012

Margaret Mahy once wrote:

“Speaking allegorically, says Paul McLean (at that time Head of the Laboratory for Brain Evolution at the National Institute for mental Health, Washington DC), we might imagine that when a psychiatrist bids the patient lie on the couch, he is asking him to stretch out beside a horse and a crocodile. McLean is referring to three distinct evolutionary structures in the brain – the reptilian brain located at the top of the brain stem, the palaeomammalian limbic system, and, wrapped around the other two, the neomammalian neocortex which reaches its most developed form in human beings and which is concerned, among other things, with rationality. Experts argue about the connection between these areas, but, extending McLean’s original metaphor, it is possible that the crocodile and the horse, as well as the human being, all need acknowledgement in stories – that we [-p.313] profit when more primitive brains achieve some sort of recognition and even fulfilment. Underlying most folktales is the stuff processed by the limbic area – hunger, thirst, aggression, joy and sorrow and the recognition that rationality rises out of darkness, and, at its outer edges fades back into it. This also needs a variety of recognitions.

In New Zealand Fiona Farrell’s combination, in The Skinny Louie Book, of accurate, funny and recognisable social realism with odd, almost inconsequential magical events works more powerfully than the science-fiction sequence that ends the story. As Skinny Louie’s baby, Tia, is carried to Dr Campbell’s surgery, the people who have watched the baby’s progress sucddenly tell truths, pleasant and unpleasant, and confess the things that have most oppressed them. These are revealed as ordinary truths… familiar oppressions. There is no escape through the presence of this magical child, only suden disclosures of self, which bring about scuffles and recrimination or forgiveness and pity ‘as people made what they could of the truth’. There is certainly no great invocation of desire. Any astonishment belongs to the reader and not the characters in the book. One of the strong features of Elizabeth Knox’s Treasure is the way in which detail and observation give a tremendous authenticity to characters and conversation. yet in the middle of these real-seeming events, Frances opens a package and finds a black disc. ‘The object was familiar though she knew neither its name or use.’ The disc surface is without friction. It looks back at her like the pupil of an eye, ‘as black as a hold poked through her hand, the room, the morning, into emptiness’. The pressure of this enigmatic object alters the reality around it. In the end it takes on the function of Charon’s toll, buying Mayhew’s passage to another place. Once the disc is described, the story takes on a different nature, and for some readers this alteration is the acknowledgement of a particular experience, of a shift in the inner nature of reality even as everyday life flows on undisturbed. This sort of experience is difficult to acknowledge without metaphor or reference to myth, since it may be due to an experience of a part of the brain which preceded language. So we may need, from time to time, the exaggerations of magic, a device which immediately allows the reader to make connections not only back a primitive childhood of their species, but into the childhood of their reading life – not an escape from the world or self, but a return to it.” (pp.312-313)

Ref: Margaret Mahy ‘A fantastic tale’ pp.307-314 in Mark Williams and Michele Leggott (1995) Opening the Book: New Essays on New Zealand writing. Auckland University Press: Auckland.

Ref also: Fairy stories and Tokien; Magic realism and Margaret Mahy

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