3.3 Green Grass, Running Water: A Trip Down The Rabbit Hole

In the beginning, there was nothing. Just the water.” (King 1)


What a wonderful beginning. The opening pages to Green Grass, Running Water hold many of the clues that assist us further on in the text. Because the structure of the novel circles (or, rather spirals) back on itself, King’s opening becomes richer and richer on further readings, and, magically, seems to tell different stories with each revisiting.

“In the beginning” signals a Creation story, the likes of which people have been telling to one another for as long as stories have existed. My Judeo-Christian-indoctrinated mind immediately made a connection to Genesis, but also to the stories my mother told me about the beginning of the world, which were decidedly less patriarchal. The truth is that Creation stories are one of the most essential tools for identifying with community and teaching lessons about our place in the world. I have mentioned the importance of Creation stories before with reference to Leanne Simpson’s theory that the Creation stories we pass on to one another contain the seeds for everything we need to know about life and community.

King continues with the creation story, revealing that there was nothing, except the water – and Coyote. This is an important point, because it indicates that Coyote had no creator – s/he simply existed and has existed forever, as long as water and nothingness. Coyote was asleep, however, perhaps indicating that the potential for Coyote was there, but lying dormant. Coyote’s dream, self-important and reckless and a sort of perversion of Coyote energy, runs rampant with no conscious Coyote to keep it in check, and stands in for the Christian god. This sets up the first of many instances in the novel of subverting familiar Christian doctrine to reveal an alternate perspective, questioning and mocking the presumed authority of male figures from Western narratives.

Shortly, the reader encounters the reflexivity of the narrative when the narrator, “I”, engages in conversation directly with Coyote, breaking the fourth wall and indicating that these figures are able to transgress beyond the ordinary bounds of literary convention. There is some question as to whether the “I” is the Creator figure in the text. I am of the opinion that they are – simply because they are telling the story, and the telling is an act of creation. Whether or not there is any definitive god figure is up for debate, and I am personally of the opinion that everything in the text is an expression of god; the narrator figure is simply performing a necessary role, but everything in this world is an aspect and representation of the Creator.

Page 4 greets us with (what looked to my untrained eye) beautiful but foreign writing. When I first read the book several years ago, it registered simply as a series of attractive black squiggles on a cream page. Isn’t that what all writing is, after all, until we learn to decipher the symbols? It reminded me of being a small child, gazing in wonder at the mysterious squiggles on pages that held the key to worlds of adventure and information. This displacement, and the defamiliarisation that the writing provokes, reminds me that I am not in the world I am used to: I am a visitor on someone else’s territory. I think this strangeness and potential discomfort is important for settlers like myself to experience because it de-centres the privileged group from the conversation to make room for narratives that are being gifted to us from another culture.
These title headings are, of course, references to the Medicine Wheel, which represent the seasons, the four cardinal directions, and four aspects of human experience, among many other things.


The first part is East. East represents Spring, new life, and calls for the recognitions of the interconnectedness between all beings and things, and also recognising the importance of all human senses in knowing (Chisila 183). This part of the wheel is about spiritual experience, childhood, and new beginnings. In her “Reading Notes for Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water,” Jane Flick quotes Peter Powell’s Sweet Medicine: The Continuing Role of the Sacred Arrows, the Sun Dance and the Sacred Buffalo Hat in Northern Cheyenne History to describe the qualities of each direction, noting that “the East represents the new generation, still green, and just beginning to grow” (Powell, qtd in Flick 143). This gives us some clues into the nature of the following section: we’re setting up beginnings, telling the stories about how we got to where we are today, and setting the ball rolling to embark on this adventure. These stories are just beginning, and King uses the qualities of the Medicine Wheel to frame the storytelling.

It is natural, then, that we begin with Lionel trying not to fall asleep at the wheel as his Aunt Norma asks his opinion about carpet colours. He is straddling the boundary between consciousness and unconsciousness, being and not-being, the place of being born, which is arguably the place of spirit.

The most interesting part of this mini-segment, to me, is the last two lines:
“Everybody makes mistakes, auntie.”
“Best not to make one with carpet.” (King 8).
Because this is right at the end of the introduction to the first realist characters we meet, I find those two statements reverberating in my mind: clearly they are important. In such a simple gesture, King sets up a theme of mistakes and differing value systems which he later weaves masterfully into his narrative. Those two sentences are dynamic and revealing without telling too much. Here, too, he manages to touch on the importance of orality, as they are almost audible. I can almost hear the words in my mind when I read them.

Lone Ranger 1956-1Next, we turn to the Lone Ranger, Ishmael, Robinson Crusoe, and Hawkeye to carry us further into the story. This is the Lone Ranger’s take on the events, and s/he clearly has some trouble rallying her compatriots and settling the scene. In the brief dialogue between the four of them, many hints are revealed about the end of the novel, including “the jacket” which turns up later in the John Wayne film and as a birthday gift to Lionel, which is also the appropriated property of George Morningstar; “turn[ing] on the light,” a reference to Genesis, and “the apology” that Coyote must perform (King 9). Right here at the beginning, King establishes the circular structure of the story – although we won’t know that until the end.

The Lone Ranger begins “Once upon a time…” and is reprimanded by their compatriots for getting the beginning wrong (King 11). This is a recognisable beginning of many Western fairy stories, but the other character’s rejection of this beginning indicates that we are in different territory, telling the story of a different culture. It also establishes the importance of beginnings, which brings us back to the vital task of telling Creation stories, and telling them right.

“Best not to make [a mistake] with carpet,” Norma says, but King might as well say that it’s best not to make a mistake with beginnings, because they form a foundation for the rest of the story (King 8).

Works Cited:

Chilisa, Bagele. Indigenous Research Methodologies. Thousand Oaks, Calif: SAGE Publications, 2012. Print.

Favorite, Mary R. “Medicine Wheel.” Anishinaabemodaa – Ojibwe Language Website. June 27, 2011. Web. July 28 2014.

Flick, Jane. Reading Notes for Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water.” Canadian Literature 161-162 (1999): 140-172. Web. 17 July 2014.

“Genesis 1.” Bible Gateway. Web. 28 July 2014.

King, Thomas. Green Grass, Running Water. Toronto: HarperCollins P, 1993. Print.

Marlow, Jess. “Double, Double, Binary Trouble.” ENGL 470A: Our Home On Native Land. UBC Blogs. 25 June 2014. Web. 27 July 2014.

3:2 “Forget the book, we’ve got a story to tell”

Question #3: Examining narrative decolonisation in Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water.

Throughout the novel, King cleverly picks apart and reinterprets a variety of narratives that are familiar to anyone who has been indoctrinated with Christian narratives (i.e., most people in North America at one point or another) to highlight the patriarchal, heteronormative, and strictly rule-oriented themes that characterise European cultural discourse. The two stories that I want to focus on are Changing Woman’s encounter with the Moby Dick story and Old Woman’s conversation with “Young Man Walking On Water”.

From the moment Changing Woman arrives on the Pequod, her frankness and unapologetic Indigenous – not to mention feminine – identity interrupts the expectations of the other characters on board, to the point that they are unable to recognise her for who she is. Instead, they cast her in the roles that they are comfortable with, renaming her Queequeg with blatant disregard to the truth of her identity and experience.

Changing Woman is unable to understand the motivation behind killing whales, and Ahab assures her that in a Christian world, “we only kill things that are useful or things we don’t like,” which, according to Margery Fee and Jane Flick, “covers just about everything” (King 196, Fee and Flick 135). This goes some way to making sense of the relationship that white settlers/explorers have towards Indigenous peoples; Indigenous survival relies upon walking an impossibly thin line of approval that revolves around the whims of an invading group of people. This kind of petulant intolerance reminds me of a child’s temper tantrum, or of the terrifyingly volatile Queen of Hearts from Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, whose favourite expression is “Off with their heads!

Coyote recalls the traditional story of “Moby Dick, the great white whale who destroys the Pequod,” but the narrator’s reminder that “it’s English colonists who destroy the Pequots” creates a useful parallel from which to discuss recurring themes of violence and subjugation towards Indigenous populations. This play on Pequod/Pequots “reminds Coyote that he may have been reading part of the Western canon, but he ought to have been reading Native history: Moby-Dick covers over a white society that killed its foes, sold all the survivors into slavery, and abolished the use of any Pequot names, effectively wiping out any record of them.” (Fee and Flick 136).

Moby Dick positions nature as a destructive force with humans (read: white men) as its victims, while King’s re-envisioning highlights the violence and cruelty with which white men treat the natural world. European narratives are consistently anthropocentric, imagining humans to be separate from and at odds with the natural world, while Indigenous narratives tend to place humans as part of a natural system.

King’s efforts at decolonising the Moby Dick narrative also involves highlighting the invisibility of blackness, femaleness, and queerness in European patriarchal society. As Margery Fee and Jane Flick note, what we have here is “an attack on lesbians and the refusal to recognize black-ness,” as Ahab throws overboard anyone who sees Moby Jane for what she is (black, female, lesbian) and insists on the whale’s whiteness and maleness (135). Changing Woman is instructed to pick up a harpoon, but instead jumps overboard and joins Moby Jane for an erotic ride through the ocean, “swimming and rolling and diving and sliding and spraying” (King 224). The great adventure about men and male domination becomes a story about female relationships and eroticism that is completely independent from male influence. “This inability to see blacks, females, lesbians as people explains why no one [except Babo] has noticed that the four old Indians are women; because they act like men, they have been mapped on to male mixed-race pairs of Western literature that operate on the hierarchical model of the Lone Ranger” (Fee and Flick 135).

Another element of Indigenous narratives that has been layered onto this European story is the cyclical nature of events. Moby Jane remarks to Changing Woman that she and Ahab have the same battle every year. “He’ll be back,” she says, “He always comes back,” and when she leaves Changing Woman in Florida it is because she has a duty to go back to sink the ship again (King 197). There is a quality of long-suffering patience to Moby Jane’s attitude, as if she were a mother indulging a small child’s request to read the same story again and again. Clearly, she performs this service for Ahab’s benefit, not for her own. Instead of considering this a cyclical narrative that loops back on itself pointlessly without progression, I consider it a spiral, as each turn of the wheel brings new insights and development. We can trust that the whale will repeat the cycle as many times as necessary for Ahab to learn the necessary lessons.

When Old Woman encounters Young Man Walking On Water, it is clear to anyone who has had any exposure to Christian doctrine that the man she meets is Jesus, but King defamiliarises his identity by renaming him – denying him his chosen name just as Indigenous figures have been denied their own names. Contrary to Biblical teachings, Young Man Walking On Water is characterised as forceful, proud, masculine, and determined to be self-sufficient. As in all the stories that the four mythical women encounter, there is an emphasis on Christian rules that consistently privilege white maleness and ignore feminine autonomy and wisdom. Jesus attempts to save the men in the boat by ordering the waves to submit to his will, but Old Woman rebukes him for his domineering attitude: “You are acting as if you have no relations,” she says, highlighting the importance of respect for one’s elders, and also a sense of familial connection to the natural world (King 351). Instead of forcefully working against nature, Old Woman works with the waves, singing a song to soothe them so the men in the boat can be rescued. While the men in the boat are grateful for being rescued, they are unable to recognise that a woman could have exercised the power to save them, and so they default to masculine authority and credit Jesus for their rescue (King 352).

Another notable aspect of this story is that the narrator dismisses the authority of textual narratives. Coyote repeatedly proposes story elements taken from the Bible; “Forget the book,” the narrator says, “We’ve got a story to tell,” indicating that this narrative transcends the written word, and that oral stories can carry more validity than text.

Telling these familiar European stories of masculine conquest with an Indigenous twist defamiliarises them and sheds light on the strangeness of the rules that govern Christian doctrine, highlighting in particular the way European narratives present a disconnection between humans and the natural world. The mythical women who fall from the sky repeatedly encounter other characters and situations that diminish or ignore the wisdom of women and Indigenous people. King’s narrator acknowledges that the stories that the four old Indians are telling are all the same: they are spiralling around themselves, telling the same story from different perspectives, looping back around time and again, just like Moby Jane, for as long as it takes for us to learn the lesson.

Works Cited:

Fee, Margery and Jane Flick. “Coyote Pedagogy: Knowing Where the Borders Are in Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water.” Canadian Literature 161-162 (1999): 131-139. Web. 14 July 2014.

Gingerich, Jon. “The Spiraling Narrative.” LitReactor. 26 April 2012. Web. 15 July 2014.

King, Thomas. Green Grass, Running Water. Toronto: HarperCollins P, 1993. Print.

“Off With Their Heads! — Allen (1985).” 30 September 2012. Youtube. Web. 16 July 2014.


3:1 Robinson Makes a Deal with the King of Stories

Question #5: A comparison of Harry Robinson and Thomas King’s narrative styles.

I was so glad that I had read some of Robinson’s words before picking up Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water again. This is the second time I’ve read King’s novel, and I’m happy to report that it only improves on multiple visitations. I have never read any of King’s work that precedes his exposure to Robinson, and so I have little to go on in terms of comparison, but after having read some of Robinson’s work, the tonal resemblance in the narrative voices is clear. King’s narrator positively drips with Robinson’s influence, and it’s interesting to note the genealogy of storytelling styles. Both narrators use colloquial yet authoritative language, and one of the things that stuck out to me the most is that the stories are told in the present tense, giving them a sense of perpetuity, as if they continue to occur over the years, or as if they exist outside of time.

The narrators also frequently break the fourth wall, referring to the reader or audience. This is most notable in King’s work when the narrator makes a reference to Old Woman and the story they had been telling, and Coyote retorts that he remembers all of it. “I wasn’t talking to you,” says the narrator. “Who else is here?” says Coyote (GGRW 391). This demonstrates that the narrator is aware that they are telling the story for more than just Coyote’s benefit, that the invisible reader/audience is present in their mind. King pokes fun at the very act of storytelling too, as Coyote starts to wonder about the imagery in the story. “That’s the way it happens in oral stories,” the narrator says, calling attention to the artifice of metaphor (352).

My favourite character, Coyote, leapt off the page once again. This time, however, with the benefit of an acquaintance with Robinson’s Coyote, my understanding of his character changed. Before, I had interpreted him as a kind of loose cannon – a trickster/teacher who taught valuable lessons by interrupting and subverting all the human characters’ plans. It is through the act of remedying Coyote’s meddling that they learn the big lessons. Coyote is necessary precisely because of his mistakes and accidents, and so while he is the cause of some frustration, he is absolutely essential to each character’s growth and development. While I understood him to be a necessary (if not totally welcome) force, I always thought of him as acting by accident or with abandon, without any sense of purpose and certainly independent from authority. Coyote seemed to be a kind of Lucifer figure, if you will, outside of the Creator’s power or jurisdiction.

This was the trickster I knew – echoed in Loki, Puck, Lear’s Fool, and other clowns and tricksters from various disciplines and traditions. When I encountered Coyote in Robinson’s “Coyote Makes a Deal with the King of England,” I was surprised to note how obediently he followed God’s orders, acting as an extension of God rather than as an adversary.

Robinson characterises God as an indisputable singular authority, omniscient and all-powerful. Robinson’s Coyote may be elusive and troublesome (as indicated by his imprisonment on the boat), but he is unquestioningly obedient to God’s requests, and acts as an advocate for the Indigenous nations in North America.
King’s GOD is an ironic and amusing subversion of the Christian God, emerging from one of Coyote’s dreams as an unruly and power-hungry entity. He is a perversion of Coyote’s energy. GOD is really a ‘dog’ that got itself backwards and confused, and demanded more power and importance. The reader can see that his claim to power is childish and inappropriate, and that there is no singular supreme power in the story. King’s Coyote is elusive, unreliable, and unpredictable. It is necessary that Coyote is present for the important events in the story (as evidenced by the old Indians waiting for Coyote’s return before they do anything, and by the narrator’s insistence on Coyote’s attention) because they need to keep an eye on him to make sure he doesn’t disrupt the work they are trying to do.

After encountering Robinson’s Coyote, I began to put the pieces together: Coyote is the do-er, the actor on God’s behalf, and sometimes this takes the form of appearing to disrupt and destroy things, getting in the way, so that the characters themselves are empowered to make things right by taking control of their own lives. Coyote is not separate from God, rather, he is God in disguise. His presence is essential not because he is like an unruly child with his fingers in all the pies, but because he wields the ultimate creative energy. Even though his influence is messy and unpredictable, bringing chaos into an otherwise orderly world, it is this force itself that furthers the development of the story.


Works Cited:

“Karmic Trickster.” TV Tropes. n.d. Web. 9 July 2014.

King, Thomas. Green Grass, Running Water. Toronto: HarperCollins P, 1993. Print.

McCoy, Dan. “Loki.” Norse Mythology for Smart People: The Ultimate Online Resource for Norse Mythology and Religion. n.d. Web. 11 July 2014.

Robinson, Harry. Living By Stories: A Journey of Landscape and Memory. Ed. Wendy Wickwire. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2005. Print.


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