“In a world of two polarities, if one does not chose Maudus, even if choice is not exercised at all, then Maudus is not chosen; for grey is in no respect of white.”
– Keagga the Garuda, Guardian of Loydn.
A reader of Tolkien’s or Lewis Carroll’s novels will find himself/herself treading down familiar paths within the first few pages of the Myth of the Stone a graphic novel by renowned Singapore poet and literary critic Gwee Li Sui, a book whose first print run 20 years ago was greeted with little interest, but whose latest edition, now by Epigram books, has seen in doing brisk sales at local bookstores.
In Gwee’s story young boy named Li Hsu enters the fantastical world of the Architrave but it wasn’t too long before he got himself into trouble – in this case, opening a crock against his better judgment and turning into an imp – which essentially makes him the slave to the major antagonist of the novel, the Dark Lord Ourhimun. Accompanied by a solemn Garuda (a half-man-half-bird being) who acts not just as a protector, but a spiritual guide to him, Li Hsu had to undertake a perilous journey across the Architrave to look for The Lord of the High Worlds Maudus Rex, the only being who could change him back into a human. The journey takes up only half the story; when Li Hsu finally meets Maudus Rex, he discovers the Architrave is perilously close to annihilation by Ourhimun’s army of ogres and goblins. Li Hsu is faced with the decision of whether to remain a passive observer of all that’s happening around him, or to join Maudus and make an active stand against the forces of evil.
Unlike Tolkien and C.S Lewis who borrow heavily from Celtic and Norse mythology, Gwee balances the traditional Western influence of the high fantasy genre with creatures from decidedly non-Asian folklore, such as kappas (from Japan), Manticores (from early Persia) and extinct animals from Australasia– a talking dodo and a moa amongst them. Likewise, the battle gears the characters wear are reminiscent of Mesopotamian armour than the usual chain-and-plate mail prevalent in 14th Century Europe.
But these are cosmetic differences. Right from the get-go, Myth of The Stone leaves you with little doubt that this is a book steeped in Christian allegories where Biblical themes of sin, free will and salvation are explored. It is inevitable that comparisons will be made between Myth of the Stone and the works in the same genre by luminaries such as Tolkien and Lewis, as well as John Bunyan’s Pilgrim Progress. But the question of whether Myth is as good as these pioneering works is a difficult one to answer, for Gwee has chosen the medium of the graphic novel to tell his story, a medium that has produced mixed results when used to depict the fantasy epic genre.
Interestingly, Gwee’s less-than-professional drawing skills actually work in his favour for Myth. His drawings, like Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s (he of The Little Prince fame) have a marvelous child-like quality to them, and it gives a sense that – despite the omnipresent third-person narration – we are seeing the world through Li Hsu’s innocent eyes; there is a sense of wide-eyed wonder even in the most terrifying scenes. This helps keep the story light, especially in the parts where the pacing was slowed down by too many lengthy expositions – which is somewhat ironic considering that Gwee is known to be a better wordsmith than he is an artist.
But telling what is essentially an epic in an 80-page graphic novel means lots of condensation and narrative shortcuts (e.g. a crucial battle between Li Hsu and a prominent antagonist was told in just one panel) and this robs the story of quite a fair bit of its power to engage the reader in Li Hsu’s adventure. The two most enjoyable scenes, the first a harrowing escape from a school of hungry kappas; the second a disturbing scene which shows how goblins are rewarded for their loyal services to Ourhimun, are enjoyable because they are allowed to unfold naturally and not glossed over through wordy narration. The least satisfactory scenes are interestingly those with the most obvious Christian allusions; a scene that is supposed to be a test of Li Hsu’s faith came across as one of those parables you might hear at a Sunday service, and not a believable plot development in Li Hsu’s spiritual journey.
It then leads one to wonder; is there a deliberate purpose to his choice of storytelling, or is it just the overwrought work of a budding writer/artist biting off more than he can chew?
The answer, as it turns out is both. As Gwee, a Christian, confessed at the launch of the book a few weeks before, he was grappling with questions he was perhaps too young to answer when he drew the graphic novel at the age of 21. He was at a stage still filled with missionary zeal, but starting to grapple with the difficult tenets of his faith. And if the Christian allusions felt unsatisfactory and unconvincing, it was very likely because he wasn’t too convinced with the usual answers that Christian theology provides.
Most myths follow a rather conventional dramatic structure, and allegories of the Christian narrative are no exception. The best writers in such genre such as Tolkien mask the conventions by building a credible story arc for each other their characters and creating a believable world you wish exists. The Christian influences are not so readily apparent until you sit down and start to dissect the story.
Myth of The Stone is more Chronicles of Narnia than Lord Of The Rings in that it wears its influence proudly on its sleeve, complete with a similar Christ/Aslan-like sacrifice of a main character. The difference is that, with a protagonist like Li Hsu who appears to have little control over what is happening to him until near the end of the novel, it appears that everything that has transpired is already predetermined – even the choice of the character who made the ultimate sacrifice. With the question of Free Will raised by some of the characters in the novel, it is unlikely that the sense of inevitability, that the choices everyone – including the God-like Maudus Rex – makes are the only choices they would have made is accidental. This is reinforced by one of the two backup stories that Gwee had drawn for the 20th anniversary edition, which finds Maudus Rex engaging in a rather unGod-like discussion with a character that appeared early in the main story. In that sense, Myth Of The Stone isn’t just another Christian story disguised as high fantasy; it attempts to be a work of meta-fiction which critiques the very genre it is assuming. It attempts to be a work of doubt but which is disguised as one of faith. I write “attempt” because sometimes the smoke and mirrors work too well, almost as if Gwee was afraid of being too critical lest he got branded a heretic.
It is this coyness that makes this otherwise good piece of work stop short of being excellent. But for something that was first published twenty years ago when locally-created graphic novels was practically unheard of, good is sometimes pretty damn awesome.
Myth of the Stone is available at Books Kinokuniya Singapore at S$ 21.31. You can also purchase it online here.
Postscript: I don’t normally do book reviews, and this is more than just about returning a favor to Gwee for so kindly writing the blurb for the back cover of Trackless Paths when I asked. Having met Gwee in the flesh only once even though we had been friends on Facebook for almost three years, I cannot claim to know him very well; however it is safe to say that we share a common love of stories as a way of telling the truth about the human condition, especially those that have a spiritual theme. Gwee’s graphic novel despite its flaws is one of those that deserves to be read over and over again, with every subsequent read revealing new information and meaning, and it is for this reason I blog about it.
Gwee also writes regularly on his blog here.