Supernatural wrath looms large in Amitav Ghosh’s 2019 novel Gun Island. The protagonist learns of the apocryphal folktale of Bonduki Sadagar, the gun merchant on the run from Manasa Devi, the Bengali goddess of snakes who unleashes her cataclysmic fury on him across the world.
Yet, these catastrophes from the mythical world of the gun merchant intrude on our protagonist’s reality too, as he encounters a world of natural disasters: forest fires in Los Angeles, floods in the Sundarbans, tornados in Italy. Suddenly, for the reader, disasters ripped from our newspaper headlines appear less like scientifically plausible natural disasters than supernatural intrusions straight out of the folkloric substratum.
Is it possible that the irreversibility and inevitability of climate change will force a turn to the fantastic, to the implausible, as one way of regaining control in these narratives?
Over the past few decades our popular climate change narratives have shifted from denialism, to the Al Gore-approved era of personal responsibility, to Greta Thunberg inspired youth-led climate change activism. Yet, the recent ubiquity of climate change in our political discourse has only been matched by our growing sense of powerlessness. Is it possible that the irreversibility and inevitability of climate change will force a turn to the fantastic, to the implausible, as one way of regaining control in these narratives?
Searching for answers in sci-fi
In the global publishing industry, science fiction has unsurprisingly emerged as the primary genre through which writers grapple with the planetary ecological emergency.
Folklore may seem naïve in a world where science has allowed us to fashion explanations and posit solutions for climate catastrophe.
In Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, most of mankind has left an Earth which has become largely uninhabitable. Jeanette Winterson’s Stone Gods takes place in futuristic cities on Earth, on other planets, and even flashes back to the destruction of Easter Island in the 18thcentury. Technology and geoengineering are at the forefront of those narratives.
While science has altered the ways in which we understand climate history, even in these climate fiction narratives, can it explain the massive ethical ramifications of climate change? After all, natural processes and their manmade reversals cannot encompass global anxieties, moral culpability and justice. In Ian McEwan’s Solar, the protagonist says, in an outburst to a fellow scientist, “Let’s hear you apply Heisenberg to ethics. Right plus wrong over the square root of two. What the hell does it mean? Nothing!”
Folklore may seem naïve in a world where science has allowed us to fashion explanations and posit solutions for climate catastrophe. Yet, if we understand climate catastrophe as history returning to haunt us, perhaps any response to it will also require the folktales which have long been a part of human history.
Shared Memory, Shared Understanding
Climate change is in many ways intimately concerned with memory, both cultural memory and what we might call ecological memory: the continuation of organic processes that began millennia before we inhabited this earth.The term folklore, according to history of art professor Henning Laugerud, itself describes a “certain kind of transmitted and collectively shared memory”.
As rising seas threaten to inundate low-lying land, some of our oldest oral myths, which speak of catastrophic floods, could connect this ongoing catastrophe to both forms of memory.
One need only look to the recurrence of flood myths. Epic of Gilgamesh, considered to be the world’s oldest written epic – dated to the 18thcentury BC – contains the tale of Utnapishtim, who builds a boat after the gods send a flood to destroy humanity.
That myth is thought to have antecedents that speak to both history – flooding in the ancient Sumerian city of Shurrupak and adaptation – the Akkadian epic of Atra-Hasis believed to have been passed on orally as early as 2300BC. Its restaging in Biblical and Vedic texts millennia later underlines how folklore moves, changes its form and assumes new identities in different time periods.
In a world where we no longer live in a symbiotic relationship with nature, but in which such a relationship is increasingly demanded of us if we are to escape total catastrophe, these tales acquire new meaning and force.
Animals and natural landscapes have always been central to folktales, as they play a huge role in shaping and signifying our understanding of the world. Think of the anthropomorphic qualities we assign to animals – the predatory nature of wolves in Western fairy tales or the shape-shifting qualities of tigers in South Asian folktales. In a world where we no longer live in a symbiotic relationship with nature, but in which such a relationship is increasingly demanded of us if we are to escape total catastrophe, these tales acquire new meaning and force.
Folklore might allow us to understand climate change not just as apocalyptic prophecies or a global catastrophe requiring high-tech solutions, but as an implicit demand for the recovery of a much older understanding of nature – and of how that understanding was transformed by history, colonialism and ecology.
Where Tales Take Us
Writer Roy Scranton argues that in the face of the inevitability of our deaths in the Anthropocene, “narrative is a trick to seduce the mind into making sense of reality”.
Folktales whisk us away to times and places that defy these rationalist, scientific outlooks on the world. They can connect us to what for many are abstract, distant changes taking place.
Alexis Wright’s 2006 novel Carpentaria opens with the Aboriginal myth of the Rainbow serpent that creates the rivers in the Gulf of Carpentaria but it also attests to this in folklore. “Can someone who did not grow up in a place that is sometimes under water, sometimes bone-dry, know when the trade winds blowing off the southern and northern hemispheres will merge in summer? Know the moment of climactic change better than they know themselves?”
Folk wisdom is undoubtedly unreliable and incongruent with modern scientific facts. The implications might be troubling to some, like a global project of religious piety. But if climate change requires, as environmental philosopher J. Baird Callicott has noted, a “shift from a reason-based to a sentiment-based moral psychology,” folklore is much more attuned to that register.
Folklore might help us think of our past and future beyond the limitations of eschatological narratives of the judgement day
Promoting and encouraging folklore, however, can allow us to process the idea of human obsolescence. After all, notions of universal order – of the cosmos and its opposite chaos – intrinsic to folklore mirrors the way in which extreme weather conditions remind us that we are simply one piece of the fragile natural world.
As well as helping place us in this natural order, folklore might help us think of our past and future beyond the limitations of eschatological narratives of the judgement day: extinction not death, but also survival and resistance. As the protagonist notes in Gun Island, “…some stories, like certain life forms, possess a special streak of vitality that allow them to outlive others of their kind…”