Printer Friendly

'It begins with the tale of a garden': The Biblical Resonance of Margaret Mahy's The Tricksters.

Interviewing Margaret Mahy in 1987, Murray Edmond asked her to comment on 'the importance of the use of genre in [her] writing'. (1) Mahy's reply centred on the permanence in literature of what she referred to as 'certain ideas':
   certain ideas are more successful than others. Kurt
   Vonnegut points out that this is one of the features of the
   Christian account. Putting aside, for the moment, its
   possible truth, it has the structure of a certain sort of
   romance. From the beginning, we know that Christ is the
   son of God. He has his adventures. Like the hero of
   romance (there is a good book by Northrop Frye on this
   subject) his fortunes suffer an eclipse, but he is vindicated
   and raised up and recognised [...] for what he really is. (2)

Most if not all of Mahy's fictions invite analysis as variations on that 'Christian account'. One of the most strikingly Christ-like of Mahy's heroes is Tycho in Catalogue of the Universe (1985). Tycho's appearance as a young child was such that, as he explains to his friend Angela, 'people used to think [he] was subnormal', partly because he 'looked as if [he] came from another planet'. (3) (He has, we are told, 'fine hair' that lies on his forehead 'limp and soft as white feathers'. (4)) Tycho is both confirmed in and reassured about his singularity when, in an early scene at the side of a pool, he gazes at what looks to him like an eye in the sky and knows himself to be chosen: 'Electrified, he saw one cloud open an eye and look at him. A lid of white mist thinned and rolled back, and the eye, clear, blue and pupil-less, stared at him [...] "You!" it seemed to command him. "Look into me--into me".' (5) The scene contains echoes of the Baptism of Christ, when--according to Matthew--'the heavens were opened unto him' (Matt. 3: 16) and 'a voice from heaven' was heard, saying, 'This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased' (Matt. 3:17; see also Mark 1:10-11, Luke 3:22, John 1:32-3). Eventually, having saved the life of another young man by dragging him from a crashed car on the verge of exploding, Tycho is recognised as a hero. (6) If his action is reminiscent of Christ's triumphant drawing up of the captives from Hell, it is also reminiscent of the event that made that triumph possible--that event being the Crucifixion. Tycho's hands are, like Christ's own, wounded (seriously burnt, in fact--he returns home from hospital with them in bandages). (7) In Aliens in the Family (1986) someone quite literally from another planet (whose name really is 'Bond' (8)) reconciles the seemingly incompatible children of a forcibly 'blended' family, before ascending into outer space in a blaze of light. (9)

Indeed, like most authors writing for young people, Mahy was concerned to inspire hope in the face of life's challenges. (10) One of the two main characters of Dangerous Spaces (1991) combats the implicitly suicidal impulses of her orphaned cousin, while the hero of 24 Hours finds himself dissuading a disturbed and dangerous former school-mate (the said Christo) from suicide. More significant (at least in relation to the biblical dimension of her work) are the explicitly evangelical terms in which Mahy treats the redemption of some of her troubled protagonists. The hero of Memory (1987), Jonny, taking positive action after emerging only gradually from guilt-inspired cynicism and depression, positions himself on a balcony roof beneath a giant tap that once promoted a plumbing business (a simulacrum of a tap that, thanks to the pouring rain, seems to be functioning) and cries 'Baptize me while you have the chance. Make me all new'--before throwing himself down upon a bunch of predatory bullies, and cowing them into submission. (11) He has, towards the end of the novel, reached the point at which Tycho's story began.

The designation 'Christ' is hinted at in several novels. In The Changeover (1984) it is attached to the Canadian 'Chris Holly', who saves the newly-single mother of the female hero from her loneliness. But the characters whose names recall the biblical Christ are not necessarily Christ-like. In 24 Hours (2000) the name 'Christo' is that of a miserable despairing bully. In The Tricksters the young woman named after Coleridge's Christabel is--as we shall see--self-centred (even while she is disarmingly aware of what some would consider a moral limitation). The man that Tycho rescues from his burning car has the almost absurd name of 'Jerry Cherry'; his initials are those of Christ, and (although far from virtuous) he follows through on the association by bleeding profusely after his rescue. Mahy as narrator likens him to 'a huge bleeding doll'; Angela cries out 'He's bleeding [...]. He'll bleed to death', and Tycho finds that the blood--as he tries to staunch it with his tee shirt--made his hands slippery'. (12) Cherry confirms the notion of Dido (Angela's superstitious and vaguely psychic mother) that 'the road needs a sacrifice or two'. (13) Where they are ironic in their contexts, such allusions function as counterpoints to Mahy's salvation narratives.

The biblical resonance of The Tricksters (1986), the subject of this essay, is rich--and, when it comes to its interpretative implications, challenging. The story is told mostly through the eyes of a teenage girl by the name of 'Harry' (her real name being Ariadne). Everything happens at the family's holiday house above one of the bays on the edge of Banks Peninsula. It is a slightly ramshackle colonial homestead. Harry and her family, the Hamiltons, arrive there just three days before Christmas. Harry is nursing a worrying secret (whose nature is not revealed to the reader until the very end of the novel) and she is--again secretly--writing a novel, a Gothic melodrama that invites interpretation as a projection of Harry's sexual hopes and fears. These fears have been exacerbated if not brought into existence by her envy of her beautiful and confident older sister, the above-mentioned Christobel. Harry is the stereotypically overlooked middle child, third of five children. The holiday is interesting thanks to the presence of a visiting Englishman, Anthony Hesketh, and also to that of some entirely unexpected visitors, three brothers who claim the surname 'Carnival'. This links them to Edward Carnival, the original owner of the house (which is still known as 'Carnival's Hide'). They are triplets, two identical twins and their fraternally related brother. They give their names as Ovid (the fraternal twin), and Hadfield and Felix (the identical twins). Hadfield comes close to raping Harry, while Felix falls in love with her--and she with him. Christobel is attracted to Ovid, although she has come home for the holiday with her boyfriend Robert (who is also the yachting partner of her elder brother Charlie), and she is also taken with the urbane and good-looking Englishman Anthony (who reveals to her that he has come to New Zealand because he has just jilted his fiancee, and wants to avoid the emotional repercussions of his action). A third visitor is Christobel's best female friend, the solo mother Emma, with her baby daughter Tibby. Robert becomes increasingly attracted to Emma. Mahy has created an angst-ridden scenario that is (its colonial setting notwithstanding) reminiscent of that of Iris Murdoch's classic, The Bell (which came out to great acclaim when Mahy was twenty-two). (14)

The novel comes to its climax on Christmas Eve. Harry returns from a blissful evening outdoors with Felix, to find Christobel reading her crudely melodramatic novel aloud to all concerned, most of whom are mocking it. Utterly humiliated, Harry takes revenge on her sister by revealing her prior secret, which is that the father of Emma's child is their father, the charming Jack Hamilton. She has learned this by listening in on his night-time conversations with her mother, Naomi. In Coleridge's poem Christabel is of course the daughter, the 'lovely Lady [...] whom her father loves so well'. (15) Jack does love Christobel, but what Mahy emphasises is the fact that Christobel has, until this fateful Christmas Eve, idolised her father. What is often described as a 'terrible scene' ensues, during which the Carnivals 'vanish'--perhaps even literally. (16) Emma and Tibby simply go home (to be joined by Robert), and Christmas Day at Carnival's Hide is subdued. By New Year's Day, however, 'the Chrisanas household [is] restored', (17) and the novel ends in a mood of muted reconciliation.

Although one is hard-pressed to locate the messianic monomyth within this congested plot, the story does take place over Christmas, and its cast of characters includes a Christ figure. The latter is Tibby, the child whose existence turns out to be fundamental to the plot as a whole. Tibby's strikingly white hair (she is 'one of those children whose baby hair appears quite white' (18)) makes her reminiscent of the Christ-like Tycho. Her name, Tibby, is probably short for Tabitha, the 'woman of good works' (Acts 9:36) who was resurrected by Peter (Acts 9:40). (19) Watching Tibby on Jack's shoulders, Benny, who (as far as he knows at this point) is Jack's youngest, comments: 'That child's touching the sky'. (20)

It is however in its independent back story that The Tricksters is most reminiscent of the Bible. The Hamilton family knows that what is now their house was built in the late nineteenth century by an English settler named Edward Carnival. At the time it was being built, Edward was married with two children, a girl called Minerva, and a boy called (after his father) Teddy. But Carnival's wife died giving birth to a third child (who also, we are left to infer, died) before the house was finished, leaving him to raise his existing children alone. It emerges early on that Edward Carnival was an eccentric. He was a prodigious gardener--his garden stretched down to the beach in his own day, although by the time of the Hamiltons it has been reduced to the remnants of an orchard. Teddy, as the Hamilton family understands it, was drowned, prompting his father to write a poem entitled 'The Colonial Lycidas', an imitation, obviously, of Milton's elegy for another youthful Edward (the historical Edward King, who was drowned in a shipwreck on his way home to Dublin for the university holidays). Naomi, who is an archivist with a good knowledge of local history, explains Edward's educational system to Anthony: '[it] seems to have been based partly on one of those return-to-nature ideas--man being always happy close to the earth in his natural state--and partly the suppression of feeling in favour of what Edward called "rationality". He wanted to train [Minerva and Teddy] up like good forest trees, I suppose'. She adds that 'Edward made them garden a lot' and, very tellingly, that 'He wanted to make this place into something like the Garden of Eden'.21 Further details are added to this skeletal backstory by the Carnival brothers, who seem to know all about Teddy's life under his father's tutelage, and who possess one of the two fantasy volumes composed by Minerva and Teddy in their terrible isolation. Indeed, there is much to suggest that--as Harry believes--the triplets are a composite reincarnation of Teddy himself. In their childhood fantasy, Minerva and Teddy allegorised themselves as garden tools. These are a mirror image of their father in his desire to cultivate them. But they also testify to the dehumanising impact of this cultivation. The other of the two volumes is a kind of survival handbook in which their father is cast as a tyrant, the 'Black King'. This volume is in the possession of Anthony, who eventually reveals that he is descended from Minerva. Indeed, Anthony has learned from Minerva (on her deathbed) that the original Teddy had not in fact died accidentally by drowning. What really happened was that Teddy, at twenty, attempted to murder his father only to be murdered by him instead (with a blow on the head with the garden spade, referred to as Suriel--or the Angel of Death--in the children's fantasy texts).

It will be evident that this backstory of the novel is far more eventful than the story proper. If the story proper alludes through its Christmas setting to the gospels, the beginning of the New Testament, this back story alludes to the story of the Fall of Man, which is told at the beginning of the Old Testament (and which Christians read as the backstory of the New). Indeed, as the old Sunday-School hymn puts it, the Bible (God's 'book full of stories') 'begins with the story of a garden'. (22) Dwelling in the paradise of a garden that is also an orchard, Adam and Eve defy the only restriction placed upon them by God. I laving stolen the forbidden fruit, they are expelled into the world as we know it--a world subject to time and thus death, and characterised by (for women) the pain of childbirth and (for men) work. Even without Naomi's reference to Edward's project as an attempt to recreate the Garden of Eden, we may infer that Edward was playing God, while Teddy, in defying his Father and bringing death upon himself as a consequence, recalls the biblical Adam. But to play God is very far indeed from being God. Edward was, as his children represented him in their fantasies, a black king, a Satanic figure. While he thought of his Garden of Eden as a sanctuary of innocence in a fallen world, his preoccupation with the work of gardening made it emblematic of that very world, the world of work. Indeed, his murder of Teddy (accomplished with the garden spade) anticipates the first murder, that of Abel by his older brother Cain. Interestingly, although no reference is made in the Bible to a weapon, medieval depictions of the incident typically show Cain using a spade--no doubt because he was a gardener (while Abel, by contrast, was a shepherd). (23) Furthermore, Edward's would-be Eden contained no Eve, no partner for Teddy--only an older sister who seems to have behaved at times like an ally not of her little brother but of their terrible father. Anthony, operating of course in the main story, proves able to put an end to a fight between the twins by imitating her domineering tones.

For critics to date, the significance of this distorted version of the first three chapters of Genesis has centred either on Edward Carnival as the epitome of the coloniser, or on Teddy (in his triply-divided reincarnation in the latter-day form of the Carnival brothers) as a projection of the psyche of the novel's female hero, Harry. (24) Its biblical resonance has contributed nothing to these interpretations--eminently valid though they are. Where, then, does this resonance lead?

The lynchpin that connects the story proper with the back story is the father figure. Jack Hamilton's infidelity and irresponsibility have triggered Harry's confusion, and it disillusions Christobel, who until Harry's revelation had considered the relationship between her parents exemplary, jack is lacking in the very moral authority that Edward Carnival had been only too ready to assume. In other words, the failings of Mahy's two father figures are diametrically opposed. Indeed, every aspect of existence in Edward Carnival's world may be matched with (and by the same token diametrically opposed to) every aspect of existence in that of the latter-day Hamiltons. Edward Carnival banishes society; his children have no-one to play with. Indeed, their father sets them to work. But Jack began (and presumably ended) his affair with the surely too-young Emma during what his children always describe (to his intense irritation) as one of several 'wife swapping' parties. These playful events have not, moreover, been left in the past. On Christmas Eve the Hamiltons host a large fancy-dress party, and prominent among their guests is an older man who has left his wife for a woman no older than his daughter (a daughter who, we learn, hates him for it). The late twentieth-century Carnivals' Hide has been and still is open to all kinds of visitors, who become thereby candidates for seduction. To the extent that it is a genetically closed unit, on the other hand, it is a vipers' nest of sibling rivalry. Teddy had no brothers, but he was a victim of an unproductive rivalry between the three components of his own nature. Indeed, the relationship between the latter-day identical twins, the brutal instinct-driven Hadfield and the gentle emotionally-oriented Felix, reiterates in its oppositional character the relationship between the two stories at stake. As the brothers themselves explain, the twins Hadfield and Felix are not strictly identical; they are actually entantiomorphs--mirror-images of each other, with Hadfield being left-handed and Felix right-handed, etc. (25) Jung used this biological phenomenon as a metaphor for the antagonistic relationship between the overly repressive consciousness and its shadow in the unconscious mind. (26)

I have suggested, so far, that Edward Carnival's Eden and the Hamiltons' latter-day holiday home (what Real Estate agents describe as 'slice of paradise'), while different to the point of being opposites, are both--to put it mildly--ironic testimonies to human imperfection. The point may be that perfection lies elsewhere, perhaps between the two. Thus, if Jack Hamilton had been more disciplined, the agonies suffered by his wife and children, together with his own demoralising guilt, would have been averted. But this potential territory is unrealised in the novel. It seems reasonable to conclude from this that Mahy felt it was unrealisable in life. What Mahy's evocation of Eden serves to underline is, not a vision of perfection; it is, rather, the fact (or her acceptance of the fact) that it is only natural for human beings to sin. As I have already observed, The Tricksters is challenging; this is not least in its refusal, its Biblical resonance notwithstanding, to affirm the fourth and sixth of the Ten Commandments.

There is a way forward, however. Naomi has arrived at Carnival's Hide with stores, among which are numerous bottles of sour plums, which the family is going to be forced to get through. They must, in other words, confront their failings--which is to say, in the relatively abstract language of Christian doctrine, repent. Although eternal life does not seem to be on offer in this novel, Tibby functions as a reminder of the fact that life can, in one (albeit limited) sense, go on. Jack has already turned over a new leaf.

If, as it seems, we as readers must choose between the extremes that are actually on offer, we will surely choose the Hamiltonian model. The Hamilton that is perhaps most resistant to the Carnivals is Harry's mother (Jack's wife) Naomi. She takes an instant dislike to the three brothers, and is even afraid of them. Towards the end of the novel, however, she is referring compassionately to Minerva and Teddy as '[p]oor children'. (27) For her, of course, there is a distinction between Teddy and the Carnivals, but this is a distinction that the reader has been conditioned to deny. It is as if Teddy has been drawn into the twentieth century in a desperate quest for compensation and integration. He wants to live in order to love. In the tripartite form of the brothers, he gets a taste of what that might mean, a taste that produces envy (that manifests itself as a spiteful desire to destroy what they cannot have--as exhibited by Ovid and Hadfield), and a yearning for more (Felix). But the brothers are visitors and (unlike the other visitors of that Christmas) they will never belong. On her first morning at Carnival's Hide Harry wakes up remembering fragments of poetry, among them a line from T.S. Eliot's Journey of the Magi, (28) and Harry's brother Charlie refers to the three brothers as 'the three wise men'. (29) But Charlie speaks ironically behind their backs, and the brothers have--as already noted--vanished into thin air by Christmas Day. This is because they have, as their name reminds us, left the flesh. (30) Teddy was murdered at the age of twenty by his own father. He lives only in the imaginations of those who think of him. His function in the novel is to remind the Hamiltons of their great good fortune in being alive, and to validate their lust for experience with all that that entails.


(1) 'Margaret Mahy interviewed by Murray Edmond', in Margaret Mahy, A Dissolving Ghost: Essays and More (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2000), p. 95. The essay was originally published in the June 1987 issue of Landfall. The most likely candidate for the 'good book by Northrop Frye' is The Secular Scripture (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1976).

(2) 'Margaret Mahy interviewed', p. 95 (italics original).

(3) Margaret Mahy, The Catalogue of the Universe (London: Mammoth, 1991), p. 45.

(4) Mahy, Catalogue, p. 29.

(5) Mahy, Catalogue, p. 42.

(6) Mahy, Catalogue, pp. 149-51. The hand of the young man concerned is 'as limp as Adam's before it was touched into life by God' (p. 149).

(7) His brother exclaims: 'Your hands! They're bandaged' (p. 166).

(8) In deference to Ian Fleming's James Bond, of course, the name also alludes, punningly, to this Bond's reconciliatory function.

(9) Bond leaves this planet in the company of his own kind. Appearing to escort him home, his compatriots are likened to 'columns of light' (p. 150), and Bond, too, becomes 'transparent' before disappearing altogether (p. 152). Quotations are from Margaret Mahy, Aliens in the Family (London: Scholastic Children's Books, 1993).

(10) Children expect happy endings. Maurice Gee was to learn this from the many children who asked him why, in his first children's novel Under the Mountain (1979), Ricky--the likeable adolescent cousin of the juvenile heroes--had to die: 'If I were writing Under the Mountain today, I'd save Ricky'. See Creeks and Kitchens: A Childhood Memoir (Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2014), p. 15.

(11) Margaret Mahy, Memory (London: Penguin, 1989), p. 207.

(12) Mahy, Catalogue, pp. 150, 151.

(13) Mahy, Catalogue, p. 79.

(14) The Bell (1958) suggests itself as a generic model for The Tricksters in following the fortunes of its cast of characters (mostly troubled, some plagued by erotic desire, some secretive) in a situation of retreat. As it happens, it also anticipates Mahy's novel by featuring swimming and submerged objects suggestive of secrets and all that remains unacknowledged (the eponymous bell in The Bell the underwater cave in The Tricksters).

(15) Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 'Christabel', 11. 22-24, The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, vol. 16, 1:1, ed. by J.C.C. Mays (Princeton: Princeton University Press), pp. 483-504.

(16) Mahy, Tricksters, p. 234: 'They dissolved, they vanished'.

(17) Mahy, Tricksters, p. 256. Emma and Tibby have returned, though without Robert. Robert's absence allows Christobel to prove that she is reconciled to Emma by helping her with Tibby.

(18) Mahy, Tricksters, p. 39.

(19) It may, alternatively, be short for Talitha, Syriac for 'little girl'--the name derived from Christ's address to Jairus's daughter when raising her from the dead (Luke 8:54).

(20) Mahy, Tricksters, p. 204.

(21) For this and the immediately previous quotation, see Mahy, The Tricksters, p. 33.

(22) The hymn by Maria Matilda Penstone (1850-1910) does embrace Christmas in the second of its four verses:
   God has given us a book full of stories,
   Which was made for his people of old,
   It begins with the tale of a garden,
   And ends with the city of gold.

   But the best is the story of Jesus,
   Of the babe with the ox in the stall,
   Of the song that was sung by the angels,
   The most beautiful story of all.

Frye used to quote this hymn in his lectures on the Bible and literature at the University of Toronto.

(23) Numerous examples are listed on the Lardatter website, 'Medieval and Renaissance Material Culture', under the heading 'Shovels and Spades'. See Whether Mahy would have encountered such examples is doubtful. Her choice of a spade as first Edward's and then his son's weapon was probably inspired by the gardening context--the same context that determined the medieval illustrations.

(24) Ruth P. Feingold's essay, 'Gardening in Eden: Margaret Mahy's Postcolonial Ghosts and the New Zealand Landscape', in Marvellous Codes: The Fiction of Margaret Mahy, ed. by Elizabeth Hale and Sarah Fiona Winters (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2005), pp. 21033, epitomizes the colonial (or historical) vein of interpretation. See also Rose Lovell-Smith's 'On the Gothic Beach: A New Zealand Reading of House and Landscape in Margaret Mahy's The Tricksters', in The Gothic in Children's Literature: Flaunting the Borders, ed. Anna Jackson et al. (New York: Routledge, 2008), pp. 93-115. Psychological interpretations of the back story are offered by Elliott Gose in 'Fairy Tale and Myth in Mahy's The Changeover and The Tricksters', Children's Literature Association Quarterly 16:1 (1991), pp. 6-11 and by Anna Smith in 'Contagious Knowledge: Margaret Mahy and the Adolescent Novel', in Marvellous Codes, pp. 44-61.

(25) As explained by Felix. See Mahy, Tricksters, p. 70.

(26) C.G. Jung, Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, trans R.F.C. Hull, Collected Works, 7 (New York: Pantheon, 1953), pp. 71-2.

(27) Mahy, Tricksters, p. 214.

(28) Mahy, Tricksters, p. 51: 'no longer at peace under the old dispensation'. Harry recalls, not quite accurately, 'Journey of the Magi'. The speaker, one of the Magi, describes how--on their return from Bethlehem--they felt 'no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation'. The 'old dispensation' is that of the Old Testament characterized by the law (as opposed to the 'new dispensation' of Christ and grace). T.S. Eliot, 'Journey of the Magi', Collected Poems: Centenary Edition (London: Faber & Faber, 1963), p. 100,1. 41.

(29) Mahy, Tricksters, p. 94.

(30) Had field glosses 'carnival' ('the name means "goodbye to flesh'") on first meeting the Hamilton family. See Mahy, Tricksters, pp. 66-7.
COPYRIGHT 2018 Victoria University of Wellington
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2018 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Walls, Kathryn
Publication:JNZL: Journal of New Zealand Literature
Date:Jul 1, 2018
Previous Article:The Apocalyptic Imagination of Janet Frame.
Next Article:Genesis in New Zealand; or Man Playing God in Fiona Farrell's Mr Allbones' Ferrets.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |