Robbie Arnott’s magical realism novel Flames embarks on a journey through Tasmania to meditate on the complexity of human emotion and our relationship with nature. Centred in the natural world, Flames asks us to reject anthropocentrism and to consider the ways in which we are a reflection of, and a part of, the natural world.
The story, told through multiple perspectives, opens with the death and resurrection of Levi and Charlotte's McAllister’s mother, who rises from the ashes transformed only to combust into flames outside the house of the siblings’ estranged father. Grief affects Levi and Charlotte differently, with the former determined to contain his sister’s grief and suffering through the act of building her a coffin. Charlotte promptly runs for her life, sparking a series of events that introduce us to human as well as non-human characters all struggling to deal with change. It is this unity between the human and the non-human which drives Arnott’s odyssey across the Tasmanian landscape. In this blog, we will explore some of the key issues, literary devices, and themes that you will need to familiarise yourself with to study the text.
Context and issues
To begin, we need to understand the authorial intent behind the novel. The author has previously written about the threat of extinction and climate change within the Australian context, rendering it crucial for students to consider his work in relation to his environmental activism and his thoughts on the present relationship between humans and nature. Speaking on his other work, The Rain Heron, Arnott has relayed his belief that ‘spinning myths into a story of human violence and greed [is] a better way of telling this story’ – the story of climate disaster and human culpability. In addition, the novel deeply mourns the effects of colonisation and industrialisation. Consequently, students should be mindful of the subtle, indirect ways in which Arnott comments on issues of extinction, climate change, colonisation, anthropocentrism, and above all, human greed.
Flames falls into the mystifying genre of magical realism. Magical realism, as suggested by the name, invokes magical elements in otherwise realistic settings. As Jie Lu writes, ‘it grows out of the real to illuminate the real.’ Unlike fantasy, which is inherently escapist, magical realism remains deeply grounded in political, social and historical realities. Specific elements of magical realism include narrative convolution, carnivalesque scenes, folk legends and mythology, as well as magical or inexplicable scenarios. Famous authors who have written in this style include Gabriel Garcia Marcquez (whose Chronicle of a Death Foretold also features in the 2024 text list!), Isabel Allende, Italo Calvino, Haruki Murakami, and, in Australia, Alexis Wright.
Noteworthy is the ways in which magical realism has often been used in postcolonial works to explore how pre-colonial traditions came to be destroyed through colonialism, imperialism, and industrialisation on behalf of the coloniser or dominant group; according to Homi Bhabha, magical realism has become ‘the literary language of the emergent postcolonial world.’ Unsatisfied with the conventions of realist literature, magical realist authors employ mythology or otherwise magical elements to force the reader to view events, objects, places and history in a new light.
Elements of magical realism in Flames include:
- Mystical occurrences, such as the McAllister women’s reincarnations. These occurrences are sometimes strange but never disbelieved (as the detective observes, ‘sure, the whole reincarnation thing was a bit off-script, but I’d seen stranger things’)
- The gods
- The mystical power of certain objects, such as the golden pelt
- The possession of supernatural powers (Charlotte’s flames and the detective’s ‘twinge,’ for instance)
To get a better understanding of how magical realism manifests in the novel, and how you can analyse its use, consider the following passage analysis:
She was definitely our mother—but, at the same time, she was not our mother at all. Since her dispersal among the fronds of Notley, she had changed. Now her skin was carpeted by spongy, verdant moss and thin tendrils of common filmy fern. Six large fronds of tree fern had sprouted from her back and extended past her waist in a layered peacock tail of vegetation. (1)
- A third of the Allistair women return from cremation transformed, their physicality adopting floristic and faunistic traits: the ‘mother’ with a ‘peacock tail of vegetation,’ great-aunt Margaret with ‘an ornate crown of bluegum branches’ and ‘the furred tail of a Bennet’s wallaby,’ and cousin Ella with a ‘speckled body of dolerite.’
- This a common plot feature of magical realist novels, whereby characters die or mysteriously disappear, only to return radically transformed. This metamorphosis signifies to the reader the vanishing of reality, of that which is explainable. The enigmatic nature of the event here is reinforced by the paradox ‘she was definitely our mother, but […] she was not our mother at all.’
- The re-appearance also often holds a purpose – in Flames, the women have ‘unfinished business,’ suggesting a feeling of deep unrest that permeates throughout the entire novel: the land and its people are disturbed, struggling ceaselessly to find peace.
Nature is personified and anthropomorphized.
The use of magical realism to introduce elemental gods enables Arnott to anthropomorphize nature: in other words, to imbue it with human traits and emotions in a way which inspires us to feel sympathy towards it. The novel features a ‘Frost god,’ ‘Esk God,’ ‘Shale Gold, ‘Gum God,’ ‘Fur God’ and ‘Bark God’ as living, feeling embodiments of the natural elements, indigenous fauna, and flora.
However, this approach to ‘humanising’ nature, shall we say, is not always so direct and can take on more subtle forms. Even when magical elements are not present, the land and nature is often personified to emphasise the notion that it is alive and vulnerable. The difference between the two? Well, whereas anthropomorphism is literal (the Gods are literally performing human actions, and expressing human emotion), personification is figurative. While you should be mindful of this difference, the result is effectively the same. Descriptions such as ‘the sky kept thinking about rain,’ or ‘a river bled out,’ evoke the reader’s pathos towards the natural world and emphasise the importance of conservation.
Key themes and ideas
Nature and our relationship to it
By weaving magical realism elements into his narrative, Arnott paints an image of man and the natural world as deeply interconnected. The Fire God’s effortless metamorphosis into a man, Charlotte’s elemental powers, the bond between a seal and a fisherman, and the post-mortem transformation of the McAllister women all enable Arnott to dismantle the presumed dichotomy between man and nature.
Despite this interconnectedness, however, humans in the text repeatedly attempt to assert dominance over nature and Arnott’s depiction of this power struggle repeatedly raises the question: who is more powerful, man or nature? Karl’s relationship with the natural world is a fruitful starting point for exploring these complex ideas. Whilst he is able to exert limited control over nature by capturing the Oneblood tuna, he is ultimately shown to be at the mercy of the ocean, as the ‘salt and waves held other plans for him.’ With the brutal killing of his seal, he is left with no ‘choice’ but to retire, as his trauma and grief prevent him from beginning his career anew. Simultaneously, the bond Karl shares with his seal, as well as his deep respect for the mythical Oneblood tuna, suggests that a symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship between man and nature is possible.
Care and cruelty are thus juxtaposed in an effort to represent the duality of nature and its capacity to be vicious as well as kind. The orcas and the Old Quorn are prime symbols of nature’s cruelty, and the Fire God’s betrayal of his mother’s people to satisfy his ‘hunger’ likewise suggests these vices (greed and cruelty) are not exclusive to man. However, it may be said that for the most part, nature’s wrath is represented as vindictive rather than irrational. Thurston Hough’s fate particularly echoes the notion that nature can be vengeful, and that human greed in the form of hunting, colonising, exploitation and pollution will inevitably wreak havoc on humanity as well as nature.
The diminishing power of nature
The novel also repeatedly alludes to the diminishing power of nature in the face of human development. In the Anthropocene era, the delicate equilibrium of the natural order faces peril from the encroaching forces of industrialisation and colonialism. Arnott portrays the land as resilient, wise, omniscient, and fundamentally primordial: the Esk God ‘had been here longer than the loud pale apes, longer even than the quieter dark ones who had arrived earlier’(38). By emphasising the ancientness of the natural world, Arnott effectively amplifies the tragedy of extinction, and laments the ways in which human greed and inventions threaten to destroy something which predates our very existence.
In the chapter dedicated to the Esk God, the deity acknowledges the ‘diminished’ ‘presence’ of the Gods, his ‘limited’ powers, and his mortality. This acknowledgement warns the reader that nature is not impervious. This is also illustrated through the demise of the Hunt God. The Hunt God, symbolising the Tasmanian tiger (a creature hunted to extinction by settlers), is described as being ‘harried, tortured, and finally killed by the pale apes.’ It may also be significant that the Hunt God appears to be the first god who experienced death, signalling that nature’s demise began with the industrialisation and colonisation of the land. During the Esk God’s capture, the use of authorial intrusion in the line ‘a god squeaking!’ conveys the idea that man’s power is unnatural and subversive. Despite the ‘dreadful force of his wrath,’ the Esk God’s fate remains unalterable, leading Arnott to condemn a world where the ‘invincible might’ of nature succumbs to man’s presence - a world where a simple ‘knife’ can pierce through the ostensibly ‘immortal hide’ of the natural realm.
Greed, control, and colonialism
Relations of power are instrumental in any discussion of our relationship to the environment, and Flames is saturated with criticisms of man’s desire to control the land, its resources, and his own fellow neighbours. When exploring this theme, students should be mindful of how Arnott ascribes the vices of greed and control to the historical developments of colonialism and industrialisation. Through the Fire God’s narration, Arnott poignantly recalls the brutal massacres of the Indigenous people of Tasmania, the Palawa, as well as the destruction of their heritage and language (kani). Aside from this traumatic history of near-genocide, Arnott exposes the pollution of the land which followed colonisation, as settlers sought to control and own the land rather than live sustainably as Indigenous people had for thousands of years. The ramifications of such greed are explored through the sensory imagery of the ‘blood tasting tag of iron’ and the ‘exploding black powder’ mentioned by the Esk God and Fire God.
Various characters, namely Thurston Hough and Allen Gibson, also attempt to assert ownership and control over the natural world and their troubled fates match their corrupt conscience: one is brutally killed by native animals, and the other morphs into a black cormorant, a ‘blood-hungry spirit’ incarnating cruelty itself. Other characters, such as Levi and Jack (the Fire God), seek to control their very loved ones. Whilst Levi determines to ‘bury’ his sister, Jack, desperate to win Edith’s love, manipulates her by ‘lighting tiny sparks’ in her mind. It is important to note that all of these characters are male characters, and that underneath Arnott’s characterisation also lies a powerful critique of a society which associates masculinity with power (remember, for instance, Allen’s hatred towards Charlotte’s ‘futile, feminine softness’).
As a foil to Thurston and Allen, characters like the ranger are able to respect nature without seeking to control or own it. The ranger accepts his ‘dwarfed’ relationship to nature and its magnificence, letting ‘the wonder take his soul places.’ His view of nature as ‘huge and humbling’ implies his deep respect and humility towards its ‘power,’ and ultimately serves as a reminder that we should all seek more harmonious and sustainable ways of belonging in this landscape.
However, Arnott argues that control is perhaps not inherently malicious. In nature, ecosystems are maintained through the exercise of control and the management of resources. There are hierarchies in nature, as suggested by the Esk God in his assertion that ‘everything in it knew who was in charge, who their god was.’ In Arnott’s mythological landscape, the gods take part in sustaining their ecosystems. The Esk God eats only to maintain a balance in the river, and the Fire God (prior to his betrayal) takes part in cool burning, an Indigenous fire management practice that has been practiced for thousands of years.
Balance and moderation then, is idealised, and the notion equally applies to characters like Charlotte and the detective. Both struggle to control an aspect of their own selves, with Charlotte grappling with the flames that signify her emotions (grief, love, anger), and the detective grappling with an addiction brought on by her dissatisfaction and anger towards life. An inability to control her fire leads to destructive consequences for Charlotte, as she begins to ‘burn’ the people she loves. In this way, Arnott constructs a parallel between Charlotte and her father, who unable to control his ‘hunger’ betrays his ‘mother’s people.’ His lack of restraint similarly leads to devastating consequences, as seen in the descriptions of the god ‘devouring vicious, rich liquids’ for the colonists who ‘moul[d] him into infernos.’ However, unlike her father and the detective (who never gets over her love of gin), Charlotte finds a pathway to restraint through love.
Arnott’s Flames further depicts grief as a powerful, transformative force. While some characters are able to heal from grief, for others its effects last a lifetime. This is best encapsulated in the ‘clicking sound’ that Karl fruitlessly tries to ‘forget’ but which he ultimately cannot ‘escape.’ Arnott further navigates the myriad of ways individuals grapple with grief by positioning Charlotte and Levi as foils to one another. While Charlotte expresses her grief openly, reasoning that it is her brother who ‘needs help, because what is she doing but grieving?,’ Levi buries his own grief and projects this in his endeavour to likewise ‘bury’ his sister. The coffin poignantly ties the theme of grief to that of control, symbolising Levi’s resolute attempts to contain his sister’s grief.
It is also worthwhile considering the gender dynamics which define these differing responses to grief, as Levi, tethered to conventional norms dictating male stoicism, refuses to accept or acknowledge his own grief. His pained subconscious desire to grieve is revealed by Arnott in various ways, such as the dream which Charlotte has in which ‘Levi is beating his bony little fists as he screams’ (consider that Arnott, like many magical realist authors, constructs dreams as a reflection of reality). Levi’s fear of expressing grief is further implied through his relationship with the ocean; as an ‘obsessively tidy’ person worried of losing control, Levi fears the ocean, an open, uncontainable force that mirrors the feelings which he suppresses deep within his subconscious. However, in the final chapter, ‘Sea’ Arnott resolves these fears by forcing Levi to embrace the ocean. In this symbolic baptism, Levi relinquishes himself to the forces of nature and faces his grief for the first time. The animalistic imagery of the ‘sob that choked into a howl’ best captures this catharsis as he surrenders himself to his natural instinct to grieve.
Similarly to the ocean, the flood that drenches the land in the final moments of the novel signifies both an expression of grief and an act of cleansing. Prompted by the smoke of ‘the pelt of her water locked love,’ the Cloud God releases a storm that culminates into one of the greatest floods to hit Tasmania. The narrator too, appears awed by the power of her grief, crying out ‘how much of herself did that cloud pour into the storm!’ In anthropomorphizing the sky, Arnott invites readers to view the novel not solely as an examination of human grief but also as a reflection on the losses experienced by the natural world. As Arnott emphasises the ‘centuries old’ old love between these two gods, shattered abruptly in an act of selfishness, we begin to understand the immensity of such loss.
Some concluding thoughts
Robbie Arnott’s Flames embarks us on a magical journey through Tasmania, but Arnott is not asking us to escape reality - rejecting the anthropocentrism espoused by our settler, post-industrial society, the novel forces us to link our own suffering and grief to that of the land we live on. As you consider the themes discussed in this blog, and begin to write about this mystifying novel, remember the ways in which Arnott ultimately celebrates our interconnectedness with nature and warns us against the consequences of greed, selfishness, control, and apathy.
List of references:
Arnott, R. (2021, February 11). Megafires and Mass Extinction: Searching for Hope at the End of the Natural World. Literary Hub. https://lithub.com/megafires-and-mass-extinction-searching-for-hope-at-the-end-of-the-natural-world/
Arnott, R. (2020). The bushland was draped in a shroud of extraordinary design. The Sydney Morning Herald. https://www.smh.com.au/national/robbie-arnott-the-bushland-was-draped-in-a-shroud-of-extraordinary-design-20201022-p567q5.html
Benito, J., Manzanas, A. M., & Simal, B. (2009). Juxtaposed Realities: Magical Realism and/as Postcolonial Experience. In Uncertain Mirrors (pp. 105–159). Brill. https://doi.org/10.1163/9789042026018_006
Holgate, B. (2019). Introduction: A Crisis of Imagination. In Climate and Crises. Routledge.
Aboriginal Fire Management: What is Cool Burning? Watarrka Foundation. Retrieved November 28, 2023, from https://www.watarrkafoundation.org.au/blog/aboriginal-fire-management-what-is-cool-burning