Kathryn Walls looks at the influence of Lyndahl Chapple Gee’s writing on her son’s work.
Maurice Gee clearly admired his mother as a person. But although he has often noted that she was a writer, he has always stopped short of praising her work. Indeed he has never really departed from the views he expressed in the autobiographical essay published in Islands in 1977:
My mother was a writer. When her day’s work was done and her husband and children in bed she sat with her feet in the range oven and wrote stories and poems in exercise books. She had natural gifts, but her circumstances were wrong. She needed to write hard, she needed practice. There was never sufficient time. She could not discover what it was she wanted to say … . She did not really care about Mihi the little Maori boy and his adventures with “the very last of the Moas”.
It is hardly surprising that commentators have not really cared about Mihi and the Last of the Moas either. But Lyndahl Chapple Gee’s Mihi did in fact exert a strong subconscious influence on Gee’s classic fantasy sequence, the O trilogy (1982-85). (Her 1945 short story for adults, “Double Unit” was equally influential – being founded on the emblem of complementary halves – but I shall confine myself to Mihi here.)
Although he was 11 or 12 when Mihi was published in 1943, Gee was in all probability exposed to a prototype when he was much younger, and would have responded to his mother’s illustrations (in full colour as well as black and white) and “nursery rhyme” verse. Mihi (“a little Maori boy”) is orphaned when his tribe is wiped out by an invading tribe. Marooned in a pole-house, he sobs loudly enough to attract the attention of both trees and birds. The birds vote in council to care for him, and charge the Morepork with the task of fetching the last Moa from its underground cavern, so that Mihi can slide down its neck to the ground. The Morepork’s is the first of the seven underground journeys that constitute most of the action. Despite the fact that “Every warrior’s hand, up and down the land/Was raised for his capture grim”, the Moa comes to the rescue, but then decides to kidnap Mihi. The child takes pity on his childless captor, however, and volunteers to become his foster-son.
The birds then hold a celebratory feast, at which point the Tuatara emerges from yet another “underground lane” to present Mihi and the Moa with the secret of longevity. The fact that the secret is sunlight is not revealed to the reader until the end of the story, however. In the meantime, Mihi saves the day by frightening off a party of moa hunters with his fierce yells. But, in his hurry to escape, the Moa is crippled. He languishes in his dark cave while Mihi sets off to learn from the wise Tuatara how to shift the giant bird. In the end, following the Tuatara’s advice, he uses a raft to bring the Moa along an underground river into the light that does indeed revive him.
Mihi is interesting in its own terms, perhaps in particular for its Pakeha-convenient attribution of tribal conflict and ecological damage to pre-European Maori – although the imminent invasion of the Pakeha is admitted in the very first stanza (“No white man had come, with his musket and drum/To fight with the brown-skinned men”). In broad terms, Mihi anticipates the dark themes of the O trilogy. In The Motherstone, for instance, the human inhabitants of O divide into two camps and seem to be heading for mutually assured destruction, while throughout the trilogy they are intent on the extinction of other species.
As indications of influence, however, particular details are more telling. Close to the beginning of The Halfmen of O, the heroine Susan finds herself in a predicament reminiscent of Mihi’s original situation (“No mother, no father, no friends were in sight,/In the trampled tribal pa”, italics mine). When she is taken captive by the Halfman Odo Cling and his minions, Cling gloats over her separation from her family (even stressing the crucial terms):
“You are dangerous, Mixie. You are the last enemy.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Susan said. “I just want to go home.”
“Home?” Odo Cling laughed. “Soon you will be saying mother and father. These words have no meaning.”
The first friendly beings Susan and her cousin Nick encounter are the “Woodlanders”. Dressed in green, and regarding trees (even blades of grass) as their “brothers and sisters”, these compassionate dryad-figures recall Lyndahl Gee’s quasi-human trees:
The trees in the forest hushed their whispering
And listened from far and near;
A tall ponga sighed, “I cannot abide,
Such a sobbing as I can hear!”
Even more striking, as evidence of Lyndahl’s influence, are Gee’s “Birdfolk” – the next species encountered by Susan and Nick. Like the Moa, they are both anthropomorphised and gigantic. Furthermore, like the ritual-loving community of birds that takes responsibility for Mihi, they hold a feast, meet in “Council”, make speeches, and virtually vote to show their support for Susan. The Birdfolk enable Susan to accomplish the first part of her quest, lifting her to the mountain to collect one of the stone “halves” that she will use to redeem the Halfmen.
Equally crucial are the antithetical “Stonefolk”, who (being explicitly lizard-like) are strikingly reminiscent of Lyndahl Gee’s Tuatara (several times described as a “lizard”). Two Stonefolk escort Susan on her gruelling journey into their home territory – underground. It is there, in the darkness, that she takes possession of the remaining “half”. Gee’s description of this underground world owes much to his mother’s book:
Many times she heard water. It dripped and roared and hissed. She heard it making a throaty boom deep in a gorge, and felt its spray on her face from a waterfall.
There was more climbing, more booming of water, and an echoing cavern that sounded.
They followed the River Stoneblood for a long while. It flowed along silkily, lapping idly – strange for a river with such a fierce name.
She and Finder and Seeker [the guides] kept on through lonely caverns. At last Seeker said, “Climb.” She felt her way up a sloping wall, slick with running water. “Now down.” She went down another wall, dry this time. It plunged deep and seemed to turn under the river, into a honeycomb of passages. There were broken echoes and sudden reverberations.
Significantly, it is not just the topography of Mihi (cavern, waterfall with tunnel behind) that Gee seems to be recalling here. He uses his mother’s very words (“drips”, “echo”, “passages”). He personifies the cavern as she did, and (again, like her) he evokes underground water as something heard rather than seen:
Nearby the coast was the cavern deep,
Its mouth showing black as dye;
Through its rocky lips, wet with water drips,
Flew the owl with his “Morepork” cry;
Every echo awoke in the passages long,
And caught up the sound as it fell
(“Morepork Goes to the Moa for Help”)
Now the way you must go is important indeed,
So listen with both of your ears;
Steer with a turn, to the waterfall’s churn,
And into its silvery tears!
Once through its curtain of falling drops
A long secret tunnel you’ll find
Hidden away, at the back of the spray,
It leads to an outlet behind.
(“The Tuatara’s Plan”)
Nick and Susan are often the recipients of advice of this kind, and in The Priests of Ferris one of the Stonefolk delivers a set of instructions that (with its injunction to “listen”, as well as its contents and vocabulary) is particularly suggestive in this context:
Listen to what I am telling Nick. After you have climbed you will come to a river. Walk by the side of it until it vanishes. You will hear it booming. Go down then through a turning passage, deep down, very deep, and you will come to a lake in a cavern.
A crucial complication in The Priests is supplied by an ancient “Prohibition” that prevents the Birdfolk from flying across the mountains (“Unless ye be as Humble as the Worm, never shall ye fly outside the Mountains”). Needing their assistance on the other side, Nick realises that the giant birds must “forget [their] wings” and go underneath the mountain, “crawling in the ground”. Here Gee seems to recall his mother’s representation of the Morepork taking itself underground to find the Moa in his cavern. The Morepork was, however, quite comfortable in his surroundings (“Well knowing each turn of the cavern long,/The Morepork followed his beak,/Till rounding a bend, he found journey’s end,/And the bird he had come to seek./’Twas a wondrous cave …”).
Gee’s transformation of this unlikely material is vivid and satisfying. As a child listening to his mother’s story, he must have imagined what it would really feel like to be a bird journeying underground. Indeed, he attributes such imagining to his character Nick, who, we are told, “thought of the Birdfolk deep in the mountain under them, turning in caves, shuffling in passages, with their great wings useless by their sides”. Gee’s realisation that being underground would be agonising for a bird may have been what drove him to account for the experience in moral terms – his birds do penance for their pride, through a journey that is literally self-abasing. (The journey is so difficult that some of the Birdfolk cannot bring themselves to make it, and some die in the attempt.)
Distinguishing himself from writers who are able to produce portfolios of childhood reading at the drop of a hat, Gee has often suggested that as a child he spent most of his time playing outside. But while he may not have been deeply into Kipling’s Jungle Books, he evidently knew his mother’s rather eccentric handling of the “wild child” archetype pretty much off by heart. Gee’s failure (for want of a better word) to register his mother’s influence needs, I suspect, to be understood in the light of the fact that this influence is mostly confined to his novels for children. Gee’s reserved stance towards his junior fiction is not in fact dissimilar from his stance towards his mother’s work – though his junior novels are superb in their own way. The novelist Gee is thus as divided as the dark and light “halves” that Susan must bring together upon the “Motherstone”. His two sides are externalised in the form of a mother-son division in Meg. Meg’s attitude to life has a mythopoeic dimension that, under the influence of Raymond, her “realist” son, she mostly suppresses in order to write the autobiography that is co-extensive with Gee’s own peerless novel.
A fuller version of this article will appear in a projected critical collection on Maurice Gee’s work, edited by Elizabeth Hale and Lawrence Jones.