Friday, 29 August 2014
The Dragon Griaule Stories by Lucius Shepard
Lucius Shephard’s sequence of linked but discrete stories featuring the Dragon Griaule originated in a Clarion Writer’s Workshop in the early 1980s. Seeking inspiration, Shephard went outside, sat under a tree and smoked a leisurely, contemplative joint. As he relates in the 2013 Gollancz Fantasy Masterwork collection of the Griaule stories (which sadly can now be considered complete since Shephard’s death earlier this year) he was visited by the dope-genius revelation ‘big fucking dragon’. And Griaule is indeed gargantuan, the mother of all fantasy dragons, more a mythic alpine landscape of the terrifying sublime than a living creature. From this unpromising seed grew one of the greatest sustained works of fantasy literature of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
The Dragon Griaule is a central presence throughout the stories, but also a significant absence. It is almost wholly quiescent since a duel with a wizard in a past distant enough to have been obscured in the distorting haze of layered myth and history. The traditional elements of heroic fantasy are here reduced to remote memory, twice-told tales and rote superstitions. The dragon is a landscape feature – it’s almost as if it’s been read into the landscape, ridges, rock-faces and caverns given animal form and animist soul. It is a scaled mountain range with forests bristling its back, its head a craggy outcrop and its gaping mouth a dark cave leading down into the labyrinth of its internal system. This sluggishly vital underworld, along with its unique ecosystem, is extensively explored in the second story, The Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter. Shepard has a fondness for such vast, enclosed worlds. His novel The Golden is a vampire tale set in an immense, Gormenghastly castle whose endless spaces form a many-levelled gothic universe, towering and hermetic.
The attempts to understand Griaule and the power it continues to exert, and finally to destroy it completely, forms a subtext which runs beneath all the stories. It is subjected to scientific analysis, cultural criticism and historical interpretation, but remains ultimately elusive – the unanswerable question and insoluble enigma. These studies are expressed through extracts from biographies, histories, memoirs, religious texts and art critiques, all of which make clear the multivalent impact such a manifestation of the sublime, an invasion from the fantastic other, has upon the mundane world. The actuality of this astonishing being is never in doubt. But it is something which is difficult to define and quantify. Its presence in the world pushes at and warps the boundaries of the possible, mockingly redefining humanity’s understanding of the fundamental nature of the universe. In the extraordinary opening to the 2004 story Liar’s House, Shepard writes a Genesis myth in which the dragons are held to have flown through the first fires of creation. As a result, they embody a metaphysical duality, an uneasy division of soul from body, which reflects the true nature of Creation. Their souls surround them like a cloud and affect the material body from without. Shepard concludes that ‘of all their kind, none incarnated this principle more poignantly, more spectacularly, than did the Dragon Griaule’.
Griaule becomes a mutable metaphor .The externalised soul is commonly perceived as a baleful influence exerted by the spellbound leviathan. The lives of those living in its shadow are characterised by a dour heaviness of spirit. They are afflicted by it as by a dull, background headache which won’t go away. It is thought to impose its will indirectly, guiding men and women’s actions as part of some greater plan. The ends to which it is working remain obscure, but it is assumed that they are destructive, vengeful and fuelled by hatred. It is bent on reasserting its dominance and ultimately revivifying its earthbound carcass, breaking free from the long rhythms of geological time to which it has been bound. It is a terrifying god, then, requiring constant appeasement an obeisance. Or it is a violently oppressive political force, thought vanquished and banished; a dangerous ideology driven underground but regathering its strength and coherence. Its continuation as part of the local landscape symbolises in solid form the drag of the dead, anchoring weight of the historical moment. This is a history which has been transformed over time before ossifying into a delimiting set of beliefs and assumptions. It also represents the arguments for and against the idea of free will within the human soul. And it is, above all, an inescapable genius loci, an overpowering spirit of place. A landscape which lives and breathes, and whose great, golden eyes occasionally blink open and stare blankly out from the beneath the bony overhang of its occipital brow. All of these possible aspects, these potential meanings, are explored in the Griaule stories. Indeed, they are themes Shepard has iterated in much of his fiction over the years. But here, they find their perfect, readily adaptable context.
Religions based on the fear (and secret hope for) wrathful reprisal are built up around the dragon and its mythology. Artists are inspired and consumed by the spirit of place, and those who don’t consider themselves artists feel compelled to create images of the dragon, or to collect relics associated with it. Ideologies and power bases grow up around its most significant relic in the remarkable final story, The Skull. This returns Shepard to the politicised territory of Central America which he mapped out with searing ferocity in early stories such as Salvador, Mengele and in the novel Life During Wartime. Shepard’s rootless, drifting characters, lacking moral compass or inner resolve, are the natural vessels of Griaule’s subtle manipulations. Or is it their own weakness, their inability to locate a firm centre of self or to form a solid sense of purpose, to find meaning in the world, which leads them to fall into reflexive behaviours which are then blamed on an external, demiurge force. As is often the case with Shepard’s characters, a hard-nosed, world-weary attitude prevails. Corroded romanticism, sexual obsession and a recklessness born of ennui lead to self-destruction, but also occasionally to the possibility of the salvation which is subconsciously yearned for. This may or may not be found in The Skull, which remains necessarily ambiguous. It is a political fantasy of extraordinary power and moral force. The spirit of Griaule becomes the template for all oppressive dictatorships, his dissipation into myth and the associated ideologies which the matter of myth breeds allowing for his rebirth in other forms. As Snow, the protagonist of The Skull, says about Jefe, the charismatic leader of the Temalaguan PVO (Party of Organised Violence) who is the reincarnated spirit of Griaule, ‘that prissy little fuck’s going to make Hitler seem like a day at the beach’.
In all the stories, the awe-inspiring, passively aggressive presence of Griaule is seen as an intrusion into the world, an invasion of the fantastic. This is a fantasy series in which the singular, dominant fantastic element represents control and oppressive, limiting power. As such, it is an anti-escapist fantasy, a quality it shares with M.John Harrison’s Viriconium tales. Whatever vague anti-heroism is to be found in Shepard’s Griaule stories is aimed at destroying the dragon. The erasure of the fantastic from the world, thinning its possibilities and reducing it to the mundane, is the ultimate goal. Fantasy, and the need for escape which it feeds, can be a dangerous force. It can breed monsters which grow in size and influence until they control our lives without our even being consciously aware of it. Perhaps it is significant that the dragon is finally rendered into a ruinous rubble by the power of art. We see how the obsessive, all-consuming art of the very first story, The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule, comes to fruition many years later. Representing the monstrous, detailing the mechanisms of its power and bringing its depredations to light can, incrementally over time, lead to its destruction. The Griaule stories are a handbook to the dispelling of damaging fantasy, to killing the dragons in the unwary mind and in the hard, unforgiving world. Their cynical surface is a necessary part of the process of dis-illusionment. What they ultimately offer is fantasy in the service of the real.