Respect and heartfelt gratitude to the Wurrundjeri / Woiwurrung People of the Kulin Nation, on whose land I live and write.
Respect and gratitude to all Aboriginal people, all over Australia.
They go along the road a bit and there’s a bloke come along on a black horse. And he said, “Where’re you going?” … And Jack … said, “…We’re going to find that great horse called the Black Entire.” He said, “I’m just the man that can help you.” He said, “I’m the Gothy Duff.”
…So they all tramped along the road and they come into the dark woods and then they went down into deep gullies, one way and another, and they come into the Underworld…
Simon McDonald, from ‘The Black Entire from Bryan O’Ville in the Underworld’ (or ‘The Witch’s Tale’), told to Hugh Anderson in 1967
National Library of Australia, Oral History and Folklore Collection, ORAL TRC 2105 (2093885)
The Australian Mythic Imagination?
I am a writer and storyteller, passionate about creating and telling Australian wonder tales and, in the fullness of time, epic fantasy set in a recognisably Australian imaginative landscape.
To anchor this fiction in Australian culture, as well as the Australian landscape, I have set out to serve an apprenticeship engaging with wonder tales that have been told by ordinary Australians at various stages of our history. This apprenticeship takes the form of listening to the distinctively Australian voices that tell the tales, learning from their storytelling techniques and language, researching the stories they tell, finding their relatives in folktales, legends and myths told in other countries, and respectfully retelling them in a way that is based on what I have learned from the narrative techniques of Australian oral storytellers.
I have also spent time with other narrative traditions of the Australian people, like bush yarns, oral history, historical narratives that have captured the Australian popular imagination, bush poetry, and traditional folk songs sung in Australia.
I have a background interest in comparative mythology, and so when looking into all of these sources for ‘the Australian Legend’, I cannot help but see mythological resonances as well. My work is about exploring these mythic resonances in Australian culture, and trying to help them live more vibrantly in the imaginations of Australians.
What’s This Blog About?
The posts on this blog will be either in narrative form or else scholarly (and sometimes slightly more speculative) discussion about myths and wonder tales. The narratives will be wonder tales – hopefully (if I get permission to publish them), obscure and neglected wonder tales collected from Australian oral tradition. I also post my own retellings of International wonder tales that could have come to Australia in the oral tradition of families who have migrated here from all over the world.
I am interested in how stories are changed by migration to the New World (including Australia and New Zealand, as well as the Americas). So I explore how the stories were told and written down in the ‘Old World’ (Europe, Asia, Africa, the Pacific). I also refer to oral märchen traditions from North America (‘Jack Tales’ and so on).
By ‘wonder tales’ I mean stories that have been called variously ‘fairy tales’, ‘contes de fées’, ‘contes merveilleux’, ‘zaubermärchen’, ‘Kinder- und Hausmärchen’, ‘seanscéalta’, ‘Jack, Will and Tom Tales’, ‘myths’, ‘folktales’, and just plain old ‘stories’. By and large they are stories with recognisable narrative structures (Aarne-Thompson-Uther International Tale Types, and perhaps Vladimir Propp’s morphological structures), containing motifs and archetypes that resonate strongly enough with the human psyche that they are retold and reworked over and over again from culture to culture, historical period to period. That is why one can read a story from Korea, Norway, or North America and recognise similar narrative structures and motifs to tales from France, Germany, China, even ancient Mesopotamia.
Some Australian Wonder Tales
The name of the blog, ‘The Gothy Duff’, comes from an Irish-Australian story told in 1967 by Simon McDonald of Creswick, Victoria. This story, along with an early encounter with Richard Chase’s The Jack Tales, set me off on my journey of discovery into the wonder tales of the New World and their Old World ancestors. Quite a few of the early posts are about Simon McDonald’s story, while others follow tangents related to the variants of the story found around the world.
There are posts about other wonder tales collected from oral tradition in Australia, many of them from non-English language traditions. A few of the English language stories were remembered by nineteenth century folklorist Joseph Jacobs from his childhood in Australia, including one of the most frequently retold versions of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ (which most people assume is English). If anyone out there knows of any other wonder tales that have been told orally in Australia or New Zealand, I would be very interested in hearing from you.
Interpretation and Historical Context
I also indulge in some wonder tale interpretation, by way of comparative mythology, and some of the interpretive approaches of Carl Jung, Marie-Louise von Franz, Vladimir Propp, Mircea Eliade, Walter Burkert, Hilda Ellis Davidson, Joseph Campbell, Rudolf Meyer, and Max Lüthi. Psychology, comparative religion and anthropology all provide perspectives that I find useful in glimpsing the deeper currents running beneath the ‘bright trains of images’ on the surface of a wonder tale.
Australian history and culture, and the history and culture of the countries where New World wonder tales migrated from, will be used as a reference point to anchor the more buoyant approach of wonder tale interpretation.
Australian Traditional Folk Music
I am a singer and musician (pretty rough these days), and have listened to and played traditional music from Australia and around the world, which has given me a particular angle on Australian cultural history (bushrangers, brutal convict systems, the gold rush, swaggies, shearers, bush shanties, and so on), as well as a point of comparison with how culture migrates and is altered to suit its new home. The Australian musical tradition provides a wider field of exploration of the Australian popular imagination from a particular period of our history, as well as many more examples of songs and tunes that have migrated and been ‘naturalised’ in Australia. I discuss traditional music where it can shed some light on Australian wonder tales. Some of the character types and settings that recur in our musical folk tradition come into my retellings of wonder tales.
Australian Aboriginal Stories
As with any discussion of Australian history and culture, the elephant in the room is the shameful and heartbreaking history of the invasion of Aboriginal Australia, the massacres, rapes, enslavement, dispossession, disempowerment, forced alienation from land, family, culture and language, intergenerational scars on mental health, and all the other evils my ancestors and other colonising people inflicted upon the first Australians. Whether through deliberate actions and policies, neglect or ignorance, this litany of tragedies should be a source of deep shame for the descendants of the perpetrators, and represents a great unhealed wound in the national psyche of Australia. This must be addressed, and each Australian has to take their own steps, at their own pace, on the long journey of healing.
I have deliberately not included wonder tales collected from aboriginal people in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This is because I do not have permission to discuss or retell these stories from the people to whom these tales belong. Some of the stories are sacred, and all of them are the cultural and intellectual property of particular aboriginal people who traditionally told these stories and passed them on from custodian to custodian. To retell such a story without permission and, ideally, collaboration from the story’s custodians is extremely disrespectful – insult added to the injuries inflicted by the men with guns and chains.
That said, I would dearly love to include wonder tales told by aboriginal people, whether they be traditional stories of Australian heritage or stories from European, Asian or Pacific Island tradition, retold by aboriginal people in a new way. But I will only do this with permission and ongoing consultation with the aboriginal people who have listened to and retold the story in their family.
The Quest for More Australian Wonder Tales
Anyone with anything to add to my very incomplete knowledge of the oral tradition of wonder tales in Australia and around the world is strongly encouraged to write in. I am putting these stories out in blog form to make them more accessible for storytellers, writers, illustrators and others to work with the raw material that makes up part of the Australian collective imagination. But the wonder tales I know of are only a small selection of the wonder tales that I’m sure have been told in Australia through our history. Perhaps some are still being told in Australia within families, even amidst the tidal wave of the mass media, or at least remembered by members of older generations from their own childhood. Perhaps some were written down or recorded, but now lie languishing in a library or in someone’s collection of family memorabilia.
Let’s make the world more aware of them, so that they can inspire our storytellers to work with narratives that have occupied the imaginations of Australians, and that have resonated strongly enough within the psyches of those Australians that they have remembered and repeated those stories. It doesn’t matter if the story has been in Australia for 50,000 years or migrated in the last few years. They are stories that have lived within the imaginations of people living here, and I think that makes them worth sharing with other Australians.
Tell us another one.