- Mosaic and Cornucopia: Fairy Tale and Myth in Contemporary Australian YA Fantasy
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Since the 1990s, Australian Young Adult fantasy has flourished as a genre, buoyed by the increasing interest in fantasy literature world-wide and at home. From fully realized secondary fantasy worlds, to intrusion fantasy that incorporates fantasy and the real world, to portal quests with one foot in the contemporary Australian scene, Australian writers of Young Adult (YA) literature have been adept at exploring the literary opportunities offered them by this genre. In this essay, we explore some of those literary opportunities—namely, the adaptation of fairy tale and myth in Australian YA fantasy. These two strands have emerged in recent years, and they demonstrate Australian writers’ engagement with their cultural heritage and their ongoing interest in interweaving local interests with a universal experience. We use the terms “mosaic and cornucopia” to point to the rich array of influences visible in Australian YA fantasy: mosaic referring to the incorporation of elements put together in ways that create new material; and cornucopia referring to the idea that fantasy writers work in a context of a plenitude of influences, references, and ideas from myth (ancient and modern).
This essay is not intended to be a complete survey of the contemporary Australian YA fantasy in these twin sub-genres. Writing respectively from the perspectives of a creator of YA fairy tale fantasy and Creative Practice PHD student interested in fairy tales (Sophie) and a scholar of children’s and YA literature scholar interested in mythological influences (Elizabeth), we look at how the mosaic and cornucopia of myth and fairy tale connect with key issues in Australian YA fantasy—especially issues of landscape, place, and identity; the interpretation of fairy tale and myth in contemporary contexts; and the impact of cultural changes in Australian society.
A Fairy-Tale Mosaic (Sophie Masson)
“Fairy tales are everywhere in Australian fiction” proposes Lisa M. Fiander. Observing that “fiction writers are most likely to draw upon fairy tales when they are framing, in writing, a subject that generates anxiety in their culture,” she describes how writers from different cultures have approached this: with British writers using fairy tales to “chart the movement of the lonely into communities,” whilst Canadian writers employ them to explore anxieties about identity (Fiander). Australian writers, Fiander contends, often use fairy tale to express the landscape, to describe geography, and to articulate anxieties about not belonging in a land whose ancient Aboriginal roots are not truly accessible to a settler society.
Fiander writes about contemporary Australian literary fiction for adults, but her research makes an interesting starting-point for a look at contemporary Australian fiction for young people which uses fairy tale either as direct inspiration or as an element within the narrative framework. Are contemporary Australian writers for young people similarly using fairy tales to express landscape/settler anxieties, or are other themes more dominant?
The vast majority of fairy-tale fiction published [End Page 45] in Australia before the 1960s was for children, not young adults, and reveals writers’ anxiety about their mixed heritage (European and Australian) as they transpose European fairy tale frameworks, creatures, and tropes onto an Australian bushland setting. The works of May Gibbs (1877–1969), Ethel Pedley (1859–1898), Ida Renthoul Outhwaite(1888–1960), and Pixie O’Harris (1903–1991), which are all now considered “classic” Australian texts, all demonstrate that “geography anxiety” as writers negotiate a desire to create a unique Australian fairy tale corpus as familiar to Australian children as the original European stories—an ambition arguably realized by such works as Gibbs’ Snugglepot and Cuddlepie (1918)—and partly a wish to domesticate a landscape which could otherwise seem alien to original fairy tales based on European tradition. Some early authors, such as Atha Westbury (1838–1901) and Jessie Whitfield (publishing in 1898), also made an attempt to unite Aboriginal and settler cultural elements in creating their fairy tales, a theme continued later by Alan Marshall in his 1969 fairy tale novel, Whispering in the Wind, and rather more successfully by the great Patricia Wrightson in such...