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5 October 2015

Margaret Atwood on how an inspired polymath resurrected Native America’s epics

Robert ­Bringhurst and the rediscovery of the Haida mythtellers.

By Margaret Atwood

Robert Bringhurst’s A Story as Sharp as a Knife is not only a testament to a monumental labour of love and intellect; it is an astonishing and essential book. But astonishing how, and essential why? Or otherwise put: astonishing and essential to whom? Astonishing and essential to anyone interested in storytelling, and stories, and how they move, and their local and universal nature, and what functions they may fulfil in their society. To anyone interested in myth, and how mythic stories differ from anecdote. To anyone interested in poetry, and how it may be constructed; thus, to anyone interested in structure and form, on which subjects Bringhurst is an expert. To anyone interested in the differences between oral poetry and literature, and written poetry and literature. To anyone interested in our human history and prehistory. To anyone interested in what makes us human, with language at the top of the list: how we think, or rather think-feel; how we express that activity; how we create “meaning”.

And also, to anyone interested in the catastrophic meltdown that took place in societies and nations all over North and South America after 1492, when Columbus made land with his boatload of infectious diseases to which Native Americans had no immunity. The mortality rate is estimated at 80 to 90 per cent: the largest human die-off we know about, much larger than the Black Death. For A Story as Sharp as a Knife is part of that event, as well, as it played out on Haida Gwaii, a once-mighty island nation located on the north-west coast of what is now Canada, in the 19th century.

A Story as Sharp as a Knife explores all those interests, as they come together in the story of how this book came to be. That story begins with two oral epic poets from Haida Gwaii, Ghandl and Skaay, one of them blind, who were living at the end of the 19th century, in a time of the almost-extinction of their people, and who made a last attempt to save something that might be passed on. Then there was a young American anthropologist, John Reed Swanton, who spoke no Haida but who wanted to record what he thought were folk tales, and an interpreter who helped him make phonic transcriptions and a rough translation.

Finally, Robert Bringhurst himself wandered into the dormant story, and found Swanton’s material slumbering in a library, and woke it up, and deciphered it, and led it out of its thorn-encircled castle. Is Robert Bringhurst this book’s author? Its singer? Its translator? Its fabricator? Is he a kind of Hermes, revealer of secrets, opener of doors, messenger who travels between worlds, including the world of the gods and the underworld? Is he a magician, bringing the dead back to life? For the story of A Story as Sharp as a Knife is also the story of Robert Bringhurst.

There’s no getting around it: Robert ­Bringhurst is a kind of genius. And like many kinds of genius, an odd duck. The paths he’s followed have not been those trodden by your run-of-the-mill duck. Unlikely are his ways, several are his attributes, many are his works, riddling are sometimes his words, and in The Hobbit he’d be Gandalf, who hasn’t got much of a personal backstory that he chooses to reveal.

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Bringhurst has many strings to his magic bow; in fact, he has many bows. His studies have included (brace yourself): architecture, linguistics, physics, comparative literature and philosophy. He’s a poet himself, with over a dozen titles. In an interview, he said of his poet self:

“I am not my favourite subject. The earth is a lot bigger and more interesting than I am. I also have a strong desire . . . not to be trapped in my own time. The poetry of the present, when it isn’t playing language games, is routinely full of self-display and personal confession – or, to put it more kindly, it is full of self-exploration. In classical Greece or Tang Dynasty China or Renaissance Italy, and in the great oral cultures that were native to North America, there was very little art of that kind. Artists in those times and places were interested in human relations, too, and had serious questions to ask themselves – but most of the time they found it more fruitful and more powerful not to deal with the self directly.”

He is also a thinker about poetry and what it’s doing in the world: The Tree of Meaning (2006) contains, for instance, one of the really necessary meditations on form in poetry: how it works, why it’s there. Bringhurst compares it to wings on a bird: the bird may not use them to fly (as in poems that, as we say, don’t get off the ground), but without the structure of the wing, no bird flight is possible. Or as he puts it: “Wings are a constraint that makes it possible to fly.”

In addition to that, he’s written what is possibly the key book on typography and book design, The Elements of Typographic Style (1992). “In a badly designed book,” he remarks, “the letters mill and stand like starving horses in a field. In a book designed by rote, they sit like stale bread and mutton on the page. In a well-made book, where designer, compositor and printer have all done their jobs, no matter how many thousands of lines and pages, the letters are alive.” Thus he is well versed in the visual dimension of significant human markings, and takes them very seriously indeed; which stands him in good stead when he is interpreting the visual clues in the Haida poems.

What do all these things have to do with one another? To be a magician in the world of Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea, you’d have to have a similar portfolio of know­ledge and skills: the true names for things, how to fit words together to make powerful structures, what the world is made of in both its human and its non-human dimensions, the songs and stories about it, its deep semi-forgotten roots in the dark backward and abysm of time, and the many languages in which it speaks. “How things fit together” might be a way of describing the quests Bringhurst has pursued. For he seems to have been on a Holy Grail search for most of his life.

This bundle of interests and expertise made him the perfect Prince Charming to come across John Swanton’s neglected Haida oral poetry transcriptions, and to hack his way – with help – through the thicket of brambles surrounding them. He needed to teach himself Haida, a language which he still claims not to speak (though he could fool just about everyone on that score, since
there’s only a handful of fluent speakers alive). He then needed to discover the structural principles of the epics he was translating: not easy, since Haida (like Japanese) does not use rhyme as a structuring principle, nor does it use metrical feet in the way that English and French do. The structure he uncovered is based partly on numbers (enter the physicist), as is music, and our own poetry; but the significance of the numbers as symbols is different. “Nine”, for Robert Graves, pointed to the Moon Goddess; in the
Haida context it is an unfinished number, gesturing towards ten, its completion.

Next, he needed to learn the iconography of the Haida: the signs for clans, the signs for supernatural beings, the objects that point to the myths about them: myths everyone in the culture would have known, in the way we know a certain kind of cross means “Christianity” and another kind of cross means “Nazi”. The colour red in western iconography has many meanings, including passion, blood and Mary Magdalene. Among the Haida, a blue and red staff is the sign of a supernatural being. Every culture is filled with short cuts like this – signs that point to things all those within that culture can immediately grasp – and to understand the poems, Bringhurst needed to learn the symbol system.

Then he needed to think about why the Haida poets grouped stories together, the way Christian artists would group paintings in a triptych or murals around the inside of a church. Context is key, for any cultural artefact; and any cultural artefact, though it is made or shaped by an individual, is also, always, an expression of its culture. And finally, he needed to craft the results of all his work into a book – a shapely book; a book about the meaning of meaning; a book that did justice to his subject. This subject would be unknown to most of the readers he might hope to reach, just as Ghandl and Skaay hoped to reach people in the future who would not have known anything about their own art and their own society. And he needed to make this gnarly subject legible and indeed fascinating to his potential readers; because if the reader does not read, the message has not passed from mind to mind, and love’s labour will have been lost.

Most would have been daunted by the challenge. But Robert Bringhurst, we feel, enjoys being daunted. Many knights errant would have turned back. Many, indeed, would have stayed away in the first place: why put so much labour into something that must have seemed forbiddingly obscure? So into the dark forest he plunged; and then, after battles we can only begin to imagine, out of the forest he came, carrying this book of wonders.

He encountered opposition. Not every­one welcomed his vision of this Haida material as art, as poetry, as the creation of talented individual artists. So that was the final thing he needed to do: confront those who saw his grail as theirs, or as a teacup, or as the product of an anonymous drinking-vessel mass-production company. But Bringhurst is stubborn enough so he is not easily cowed. He has stood his ground. His book, he insists, is indeed a book of wonders.

And what a book of wonders it is! It does what wonder-books do: it opens locked doors, it reveals vistas, it illuminates. While reading it, you will see many things in a new light. Never again will you be able to think of oral poems as the product of some anonymous “mass”, as Swanton’s teacher, Franz Boas, liked to think of it; instead you will recognise that such poems were the creations of individuals working within their cultures. The best-known author in the world may well be “Anonymous”, but that is only because the names of Anonymous have been forgotten.

Instead of thinking of “native” stories as simple folk tales, you will be able to imagine them as they must have been experienced by their hearers: both beautifully formed works of art with precisely chosen words, and complex dramatic performances acted out by their poets in a darkness illuminated by flickering firelight. And each performance,
like each poem, was one of a kind. As Bring­hurst says of a performance by Ghandl, “It is a work of music built from silent images, sounding down the years. It is a vision painted indelibly in the air with words that disappear the moment they are spoken.”

Bringhurst also translated a number of Ghandl’s myth poems, which he published in Nine Visits to the Mythworld, with helpful explanatory notes. One of them is so much like the Swan Lake motif you will gasp, except that the woman who is also a bird isn’t a swan, it’s a Canada goose. There’s no Black Swan, but there is a sequence in which the man loses his bride and has to seek her through many ordeals. But my favourite is the story of Wolverine, who kills a woman and stuffs himself into her skin – shades of Men in Black – hoping through this ­impersonation to gain access to the entire tribe and eat them. The fraud is detected through Wolverine’s bad manners, a detail I cherish, and the supernatural being Mouse Woman sets things right. As with ancient Greek myth in its oral form, these poems were performed on specific occasions to specific audiences, and wisdom was transmitted through them.

Bringhurst’s devotion to the art of his long-dead fellow poets is evident on every page of A Story as Sharp as a Knife. Since he chooses his words advisedly, let us allow him the last ones:

“Ghandl’s spoken poem, like an apple or a loaf of home-made bread – or a coho skin or a cedar tree or Diego Velázquez’s painting – is both familiar and one-of-a-kind. It is something new and locally flavoured, fulfilling age-old, independently recurrent and widely travelled themes. And it is part of a whole forest of themes and variations, echoes and allusions, spreading out through space and time. It is one piece of work; it is also part of a fabric that is torn and patched, woven and unwoven day after day, night after night, and sentence after sentence, like the cloth on Penelope’s loom.”

The first UK edition of “A Story as Sharp as a Knife: the Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World” by Robert Bringhurst is published by the Folio Society and illustrated by Don Yeomans (£80).

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This article appears in the 30 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide