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  • Making Myth on the Prairies
  • Katherine Koller (bio)

As a reader and a writer I have always been drawn to stories that reach toward the mythic. In my teaching, I select texts that have, in my own adaptation of Northrop Frye’s four levels of meaning, these four levels of reading: 1) physical or personal, 2) political, 3) ironic or metaphoric, and 4) mythic. Texts that work on four levels can speak to anyone, but they speak to me most powerfully on the mythic level. I think about myth most clearly in this definition: a myth is “an event which, in some sense, had happened once, but which also happened all the time” (Armstrong 7). This implies that we are all living myths, or “public dreams” (Campbell 40). Together, we can see these myths on the stage, where we see actors re-enact our stories, be it on the personal level, the political level, the ironic or metaphoric level, or the level of myth, the Jungian “collective unconscious” of people from all times and all places. I find this connection to people of all times and places, in events that happen every day, endlessly comforting, redemptive, and inspiring.

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John McIver as Chip, Travis Friesen as Sam, Leigh Wardhaugh as the Miner, and Aaron Krogman as Slav in Coal Valley: The Making of a Miner, Royal Tyrrell Museum Theatre, Drumheller, 2005.

Photo by Linda Digby, Atlas Coal Mine National Historic Site

This is why I write from a defined place of prairie, because the land shapes us, mythically. It tells us who we are. At the moment, I am writing a retelling of a world myth which occurs in many cultures of the world (African, Inuit, European, Asian), often called “The Handless Maiden.” My version of the story is titled Madonna of the Wilderness, a title I have usurped from a monologue I wrote many years ago but which is apt for this [End Page 86] new, bigger, mythic work. In looking for a vehicle for this story, which I believe is Everywoman coming into consciousness of her own personal power, I took it to Tapestry New Opera’s LibLab in the summer of 2012, where I affirmed that the piece would be best told operatically. This is how I will bring the tale to life (although pervasive, it is not commonly known) and how I will make it matter, mythically. Music becomes the water that runs through this tale of loss and renewal. The landscape is prairie, boreal forest, and river, not unlike the northern Alberta spaces I inhabit. Yet the “wilderness,” being dark, uninhabited, or haunted by features of the natural world, is instantly recognizable to all of us, in our dreams.

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John Wright as Joe in The Seed Savers at Workshop West Theatre, 2009.

Photo by Russell Hewitt

When I also look back at some previous work, specifically the three plays Coal Valley: The Making of a Miner, The Seed Savers, and Last Chance Leduc, there is a pattern in my mythmaking. All of these pieces (and many others) are set on the land. There are very few interior scenes, that is, ones with walls. The landscape is a character. In all three plays, the landscape is a place where you can die (physically, emotionally, or spiritually): the underground coal mine, the relentless wind of winter on the prairie, and the bush, where wolves wander. In the opera Madonna of the Wilderness, a three-member chorus takes on the persona of the landscape, guiding and pushing Madonna along in her quest for wholeness, yet uprooting her and taking away from her what she loves most: father, husband, son. The three plays are all set in a specific historical time on the prairies, at a pivotal period for each of the industries that make use of the rich natural resources of the prairies: coal, fields of oilseed, and oil. Madonna lives in a wilderness of forest and river, yet she finds a garden and orchard. The characters in the three plays are fixed on the land that feeds them, employs them, challenges them, and ultimately...


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pp. 86-88
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