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The Newsletter of
The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic

Volume 1, Number 5 (1998)
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Writing a Third Path

by Evelyn Perry
Copyright © 1997 by Evelyn Perry

Dance of the Snow Dragon, by Eileen Kernaghan.
ISBN 1-895449-41-3, Thistledown Press Ltd.
(663 Main Street, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, S7H 0J8), 1995. 325 pages. $7.95.

Readers of CLF and of Puck will appreciate the liquid prose of Eileen Kernaghan's Dance of the Snow Dragon, a fantasy novel which opens with this gentle reminder: No one can know whether the world is fantastic or real, or whether there is a difference between dreaming and living (Jorge Luis Borges). With such a suggestive reminder held between its covers, the novel promises to--and does--encircle the shattering of the perception of reality. But most importantly, it begins to describe how we might read this fantastic dream. For Dance of the Snow Dragon should be read as a series of concentric circles which, like the dance featured in the novel, work independently--and cooperatively with--each other in order to communicate one essential truth.

Kernaghan's novel encircles three books and many stories: the story of the dance, the story of a world without empirical hierarchy, but most ostensibly, the story of the heroic journey of Sangay Tenzing, an eighteenth century Bhutan boy who ultimately chooses a third path, a high and dangerous road over many mountains, into unknown lands. In Book One, "The White Leopard Dzong," Sangay (and the reader) learns what he must know as a Tibetan Buddhist monk, to write, to read the scriptures, to recite the litany, and the Steps of the Eightfold Path (the longer, slower, safer Middle Way). But though he learns much, Sangay finds himself unable to embrace some of the more arduous requirements of monastic life, namely a sense of selflessness and the letting go of the need for worldly acclaim. Sangay's work begins to suffer, and he becomes restless and unhappy at the Dzong. He is sent to meditate upon his future and, in the depths of a pitch-black cave, is given a vision, an intricate dance of gods and demons that forces him to question for the first time the difference between truth and illusion. Book One closes with Sangay's decision to embark on a mystical journey to Shambhala, the Lotus-petalled Land.

Book Two, "The Road to Shambhala," further questions the boundaries between the real and the fantastic. Sangay meets his guide, a sorceress named Jatsang, who delights and exhausts him with her magic, and who challenges Sangay to persevere--thus teaching him to place the object of his quest before his physical and worldly needs. It is in Book Two that Sangay begins to take on a more heroic persona, and he is rewarded by gifts of knowledge and by a surrendering to the belief in the transient and illusory nature of all that he is and all that surrounds him.

Sangay not only accepts his world as illusion, but begins to shape and to change that illusion in "The Dance of the Snow Dragon," Book Three of the novel and easily the most exciting. It is in Book Three that Sangay meets his greatest challenge, To dream a dance and make it real...when all the dancers and musicians of Shambhala lay in a charmed sleep from which the dance alone could save them...

Sangay Tenzing's heroic journey is ultimately an inward one. The knowledge that he gains has been with him all along, he simply needed to believe. Easier said than done. For the intricate unfolding of that truth, pointing the way from simplicity to complexity is an exact reversal of what Sangay understands to be the truth of the dance, The dance is the mandala and the mandala is the dance. I and the dance and the universe are one. It is this clockwise-counterclockwise truth, this endless cycle of death and birth, the circle of time and the patterns of all the circling worlds in immeasurable space, that permeates Kernaghan's Dance of the Snow Dragon, finally enveloping the author--who is, like Sangay, the choreographer of a universal dance--and the reader--who cooperates in the making of meaning.

In a world--fictional or otherwise (for, as we have seen, what does it matter?)--where all is one, Sangay's heroic journey into the heart of all things, and the wisdom that he gains, belongs to all of us. That Kernaghan succeeds in describing such elaborate and complex simplicity shows her, too, as a hero. In the end, the experience of reading Dance of the Snow Dragon is synonymous with its essential truth; it is not only worth reading a first time, but worth promptly reading again.

The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic is based at the Department of English of the University of Rhode Island. We thank the University and the Department for their support.

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