Saturday, January 15, 2011

Grand Prix Continental Drift

J.R.R. Tolkein, in all his legendary literary genius, wanted to create a 'mythology' for his country, England. It was to be inspired by the classical Greek and Norse tales of old. Beowulf. The Norse Sagas. These were the templates he used for his time out of myth for Britain. Thus was born the sprawling epic mythology of Middle Earth. Middle Earth lived between myth and history and gave a cultural flavor to England's hypothetical past. One could almost believe that hobbits and orcs have their rightful place in human mythology as much as the Greek satyrs and Norse dragons.

This is all well and good. But I'm not from England. I'm from Australia. What about Australian mythology? Down here we, of course, have a native mythology. The Aboriginal 'dreamtime'. A time in myth when the world was formed by gods of the sun and rivers were carved by giant serpents. A time of bunyips and willy willys. The explanations of the world were spun by moralistic fables, used to make sense of the vast world by its native inhabitants.

But what if a writer that could approach Tolkein in talent and imagination was to create an alternative mythology for our land down under? What if, like Tolkein, a writer picked a template and used it to spin his own fantasy mythology for Australia? Enter Terry Pratchet. Undeniably one of the contemporary greats. A legendary English writer and creator of the eternally popular 'Discworld' series.

I've recently been listening to 'The Last Continent' on audiobook again. The 22nd book in the Discworld series. If there is any piece of modern literature that encapsulates Australian culture and spins it with a fantasy motif it has to be this book. If Tolkeins template for Middle Earth was ancient mythological stories, Pratchet's was 1990's Australian culture. Take that, put it on it's head, add some fantasy tropes, some hilarious characters and Pratchet's typical Discworld 'charm' and you are getting close to The Last Continent.

To boil down the plot; Rincewind the not so magical wizard, one of the original Discworld characters, finds himself on the shores of 'XXXX' or 'Four X', the titular 'last continent'. A vast, sunburnt country that never gets rain, is 40 degrees in the shade and used to be covered in deadly snakes, but the snakes were all killed by the even more deadly spiders. To quote the book on XXXX; 'It's hot. It's dry... very dry. There was this thing once called The Wet, which no one now believes in. Practically everything that's not poisonous is venomous. But it's the best bloody place in the world, all right?'. Rincewind is then thrust reluctantly on a cross country journey to save the world, meeting a cast of characters along the way that all poke fun at Aussie culture. There's a mad dwarven 'road warrior' in his armored carriage who declares that 'hay is life' out on the road. There's a group of female impersonators known as 'Petunia the Desert Princess' and Crocodile Drongo, barkeep at 'Dijabringabeeralong' pub. Along the way Rincewind, try's to run away from his destiny but instead runs towards it. He manages to invent thongs, Vegemite and is wrongfully arrested for sheep theft. Then there is a the story of the Unseen University senior wizards meeting a 'god' and teaching him about evolution. But that's another story.

The Last Continent points a loving finger at contemporary Australia, but in typical Pratchet fashion, has a depth and heart that hooks you unexpectedly. If there was ever a book that could become legend, and represent a mythology for Australia I vote for The Last Continent.

So remember the old XXXX adage; They say the heat and the flies here can drive a man insane. But you don't have to believe that, and nor does that bright mauve elephant that just cycled past.

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