The title of this work bears mentioning before all else. It is here we discover what Hannu Rajaniemi wants to reveal to us: the magic of birth and death, the magic of doorways. Words are the backbone to Finnish magic, mythological landscape, and heritage. By choosing the title Words of Birth and Death, we can be assured that Rajaniemi is talking about conjuration and magic. Even the specific words in the title tell us exactly what he wants to talk about. If he would've called this The Words of Life and Death, the entire meaning of the text would have been different.
But he did not. He used birth. Both birth and death can be seen as doorways leading to realms outside of physical reality. And yet, Rajaniemi digs directly into physical reality. He turns death and birth away from such supernatural extra dimensional pastures and makes them dirty and meaty and gritty. He makes them muddy and real, a part of nature. And the speech patterns that the gods and supernatural creatures have are works of beauty—subtle and foreign and intricate. Like a rare gem.
The first story, "The Viper Blanket," takes the old idea of Pagans who murder for the sake of religion and portrays it through a uniquely Finnish frame of reference. At first blush this is an archaic idea—who would believe such a maddening concept in this day and age? Our enlightened times call for an enlightened people. Of course, Pagans don't do such things; that would make them look like evil people needing to be civilized. What a strange and hateful notion.
And yet, the way Rajaniemi approaches the subject, the way he sculpts a dark and modern mythology, forces us to remember the cultural heritage of Western Civilization. Not too long ago, living sacrifice was a part of most religions. And we should be reminded that Christianity, considered so modern and civilized, is also based on the worship of a human sacrifice and whose mass is the celebration of it.
Like Stravinski's The Rite of Spring, we are shown the brutality that existed in ancient religion—the brutality and the beauty, all woven into a darkly chaotic thread that ends with the sacrifice of the old family religion to the hands of its last practitioner.
In this sacrifice we feel a sadness, a mourning and a loss. The whole story is not a trivial exploration of Paganism and sacrifice (unlike the remake of The Wicker Man), but is instead imbued with sadness and dread—of one age passing, and a new one beginning.
The second story, "Barley Child," contains similiar themes but tackles them from an entirely different angle. Oranen returns to his home farm a broken man, his life in shambles. His father has died, his wife has left him for his best friend, his business was stolen from him, and he was blamed for a crime he did not commit. Everything he touches seems to wilt. He is, in some respects, like the Fisher King of Arthurian mythology, a maimed man who must be healed in order to cure the land.
This story dips in and out of various themes common to most mythology: the land and the king connected, and drinking of the blood of an earth god. The imagery that Rajaniemi gives us for the god itself is amazing, and the ending is a fantastic turn on the very topic of the story. One comes seeking death, one leaves seeking life. The characters are fantastic and the world richly detailed.
In the third story, "Fisher of Men," we meet a man caught by an Ahti, a sea goddess. He is forced on a quest below the sea where he tries to find the ring with which to marry Ahti. All of her husbands are below in the ocean, trying to stop him. But if he does grasp the ring, he can be with Ahti forever and loved by her above all else.
What could seem to be a simple folktale is raised to exceptional heights by the reality of the writing and the immensely interesting characters we are presented with. Even though this is the weakest story of the three, it is still a strong work on its own, and like the others, excels in showing the brutality of Paganism in a beautiful and realistic manner.
The way Rajaniemi writes, it's easy to believe that this could be our world, that these gods and trolls and creatures are real, haunting our landscapes in the off-hours. He talks of magic, his words conjuring a different perspective on reality. There is the contrast between Paganism and modern world, and yet it seems that in neither are death or life permanent, just a state between motions.
A very impressive collection.
Publisher: Writers' Bloc (2006)
Chapbook: 44 pages (Published in a signed and numbered limited edition of 250 copies)
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