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.
“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.