In an old essay on the Aboriginal influence on literature in Australia (in its many forms), Margaret Dunkle included an interesting section titled:
‘Fairies of the Bush’
She writes: “At the 1978 IBBY Conference in Sydney, Through Folklore to Literature, the Aboriginal poet Jack Davis spoke of the folk creatures he discovered when his family moved from a white community to another ‘where a large number of our own people lived… I was transported from a world of fairies to another world. A world of mummaries, moorlies and widargees’ (Davis 1979, p.122). Patricia Wrightson at the same conference, in her paper ‘When Cultures meet: A Writer’s Response’ spoke of her own voyage of discovery into Aboriginal fairy lore:
I had needed for so long to write creative, contemporary fantasy with that strength that comes only from experience and belief – from authentic folklore; and when I tried to do this on the basis of imported European folklore it very naturally lost that reality and shed its strength. A folklore is man’s response to the mysteries of life in his environment, and so it can illuminate that environment in the light of his wonder. (Wrightson 1979, p.188)
Starting from this premise, Wrightson proceeded to create a new literary genre, that of the Aboriginal folk fantasy, employing the fairies and goblins of Aboriginal oral legend that are still to be found (if you know how to look) in the Australian countryside, just as the brownies and boggarts of England still peer round the corners in their own home place.
Wrightson divides folk material into three strata:
At the top is the sacred myth, at the bottom the once-upon-a-time, and-there-they-are-in-the-stars-forever, definitive story. In the middle, wavering unnervingly up and down, is the on-going, always-active, freely experienced stratum of fairies and superstitions. The middle level is the level of creative freedom (Wrightson 1979, p.190).
And so in An Older Kind of Magic there are earth spirits still living beneath the hard-packed streets of Sydney, and in The Nargun and the Stars the pot-koorok still plays sly tricks (but now on a white child) in the swamp. In The Ice Is Coming, the first of the magnificent ‘Wirrun’ trilogy, it is not whites but an aboriginal youth, with no tribal background but with the land still deep within his being, who embarks upon a quest in which he is aided – and sometimes hindered – by the creatures of the land: ninyas, nyols, turongs, mimis. His adventures are continued in The Dark Bright Water and culminate in Behind the Wind, as Wirrun himself joins the creatures of legend. In her latest novel, A Little Fear, Wrightson [-p.115] has produced a cameo, a small masterpiece in which an old white woman, Agnes Tucker, engages in a battle of wills against an even older creature: a njimbin, a small sly spirit of the hills.
Wrightson is not the only white person to have seen these fairies of the bush. They appear in the Duracks’ The Way of the Whirlwind: Bubba Piebi, the tricksy little red man, Bremurer the great snake, the Whirlwind itself. So many people have seen Bunyip that he has passed into white folklore, and accounts of Yowies rival those of giant wild cats (perhaps they are legendary too?). But apart from Wrightson, Bill Scott is, as far as I know, the only author to bring these creatures into a novel. In Shadows Among the Leaves there are two sorts, one native to the rainforest that collects interesting toys (like bodies!) and another who are refugees, displaced by the clearing of their own land further south. Both are integral to the story, and lead the way, I hope, to more sightings of Old Things in stories yet to come.” (Dunkle, pp.114-115)
Myths and Legends
Dunkle finishes her essay with a section titled ‘Myths and Legends’ that also seemed interesting… Dunkle again: “The other two strata in Wrightson’s definition, the sacred creative muth and the definitive folk story, are part of the linked chain of media through which the religious and social inheritance of a proud people were once transmitted: told, sung, danced, carved and painted by tribespeople from one end of the continent to the other. The early white settlers and explorers observed, uncomprehending, all the artistic flowering of a rich but wholly alien culture. Mary Ann Fitzgerald and Kate Langloh Parker were the first to attempt to record a few fragments, both writing from a sense of urgency because it was apparent that the legends would die with the old people of the tribes. There have been many collections since, ranging from the sentimental to the scientific, and most of them made with the same feeling of time running out. In 1964, for the first time, an Aboriginal storyteller published his own collection. The Legends of Moonie Jarl are told by Wilf Reeves, illustrated by his sister Olga Miller. The stories were told them by their father, an elder of the Butchulla people of Fraser Island. They are children’s folk tales, and the pictures are in the stule of the sand-paintings which traditional storytellers would have made to illustrate the tales as they were being told. Over the intervening years there have been other collections by other Aboriginal owners: Uncle Willie Mackenzie’s Legends of the Goundirs, Joe Nangan’s Dreaming, Tulo Gordon’s Milbi. Like the white collectors, these Aboriginal narrators are concerned to record what they can of vanishing cultures. Often they are the final ‘owners’, the last traditionally educated people of their tribes.
Djugurba: Tales from the Spirit Time was published in 1974, followed by Kwork Kwork the Green Frog and Other Tales from the Spirit Time and The Aboriginal Children’s History of Australia. The three open a new era in Australian publishing because they are the product of young Aboriginal people in transition, not so much remembering the traditional patterns as adjusting them to new stresses in a white-dominated society. Djugurba and Kwork Kwork are the product of young Aboriginal students training as teachers at Kormilda College in Darwin. The History (which begins, naturally, with a Creation legend and the Dreaming) is a collection of stories and paintings from secondary school students all over Australia. What they have in common, despite a wide diversity of cultures, and varying degrees of westernization, is an unfaltering commitment to Aboriginal values and identity, despite the erosion of tribal cultures. These are unique records, of great historical significance, of a brave and beleaguered people in cultural transition.” (p.115)
Overleaf, she continues: “Dick Roughsey (or Goobalathaldin, his tribal name) grew up within a tribal culture on Mornington Island, in the Gulf of Carpentaria. He had always wanted to learn to paint, and a chance aquaintance with artist/explorer Percy Trezise gave him the opportunity. The two men became friends, going on expeditions together intot he wild and inaccessible Cape York hinterland where they found caves filled with dramatic paintings, and were given the legends they represented by the people to whom they belong. The result is history: a series of stunning picture books of Aboriginal legends, quite unlike anything that had been seen before. Combining a spare and simple text with dramatic, brilliantly coloured paintings, they present the Dreamtime beings as the people would have imagined them, moving across the strange and incredibly beautiful landscape of that northern area. Seen in context, the legends fall into place: Quinkins and Rainbow Serpents and mythic beings who can change at will into birds or animals become wholly believable as they move across the pages of these splendid books.
Long long time before our Dreaming, the earth at our feet had no shape, it had no colour, there was no light and nothing walked across it…
It was dust without water, no river flowed, the earth was empty.
Into the darkness came the Birirrk. They came from fary away and made their tracks on the ground….” (p.116)
Another Australian author
Earlier in her essay, Dunkle also mentions author Kath Walker, describing her work in a way that makes it sound rather appealing: “In 1972 the Aboriginal poet Kath Walker published Stradbroke Dreamtime, with reminiscences of her childhood on Stradbroke Island and also some of the legends told by her people. the brief stories ofer a vivid, wryly humorous commentary on white society and provide a unique glimpse of a warm and lively family still adhering to Aboriginal values and cultural patterns within a rural, largely white, community. In 1981 she published Father Sky and Mother Earth, a picture book, which starts as a Dreaming legends of the Creation and ends as an impassioned plea for global sanity. It is an extraordinary parable, with Aboriginal style illustrations…, far ahead of its time….” (p.113)
Ref: Margaret Dunkle (1988) The Aboriginal influence in Australian literature for young people pp.105-121 in Eds. Wendy and John Birman Brave New World International Understanding through Books. Curtin University of Technology: Perth.