Introduced by Margaret Atwood
Illustrated by Don Yeomans
A revelatory examination of a unique oral culture, published for the first time in the UK.
In her introduction, acclaimed author Margaret Atwood describes A Story as Sharp as a Knife as a ‘book of wonders’, one that ‘opens locked doors, it reveals vistas, it illuminates’. For this Folio edition the Haida artist Don Yeomans was commissioned to create 6 original pieces of artwork, one to sit at the opening of each chapter and a frontispiece. These vibrant images, steeped in Haida culture, along with researched photographs of people, places and artefacts, are another opened door, revealing the rich mythological landscape of the Haida people.
‘Astonishing and essential’
For more than a thousand years, a great culture flourished on the islands known as Haida Gwaii, just off the coast of British Columbia and Alaska. Almost everything we now know about the mythology of this Native American people comes from the transcripts of the linguist and ethnographer John Swanton, who journeyed there in 1901 and spent three and a half years listening to the last great Haida poets, Skaay and Ghandl. Together they created a treasury of oral literature, preserving a mythology rich in imagery, symbolism and philosophy.
In a similarly remarkable undertaking, Robert Bringhurst not only sets out to tell the story of the miraculous preservation of a culture almost entirely lost, he also communicates the immense significance and wonder of an entirely oral literature. Never previously written down, these stories share more with music and painting than Western literature – each telling is enriched by the performance of the poet, and therefore particular to the artist. Bringhurst writes that, ‘a work of oral literature is rooted like a tree, in time and place and the person who is speaking … We must try to make the pilgrimage to the poem.’ Bringhurst takes the reader on that pilgrimage, seeking through his compassionate and canny analysis to show how what might at first seem to be obscure is both universally human and irreplaceably unique.
‘A book which changed the way I look at the world: not only at literature but at art and life entire.’
Erica Wagner, author and former literary editor of the Times, speaks on the importance of reading Bringhurst’s book. Read it here.
The Raven and Odysseus: Literary Tricksters
The myths of the Haida people may be relatively unknown, but throughout his book Bringhurst emphasises their affinity with other iconic works rooted in oral literature, notably The Odyssey. The comparison highlights the intriguingly unclassifiable nature of tales that have come down to us from an oral tradition. The Raven, a central character in Haida mythology, is, like Odysseus, ‘a literary trickster who keeps slipping through the boundaries between history, fiction and myth’.
Robert Bringhurst is a poet, typographer, translator, cultural historian, and linguist. Born in 1946, he studied physics and linguistics at MIT, comparative literature at Indiana University, and poetry at the University of British Columbia. Much of Bringhurst’s work is in the area of book design and typography, and his Elements of Typographic Style (1992) is considered a classic in the field. He has published over a dozen poetry collections, and held a Guggenheim Fellowship in poetry in 1988–9. For years Bringhurst was a close associate of the eminent Haida sculptor Bill Reid. His book The Black Canoe (1991) is a study of Reid’s work, and he edited the posthumous collection Solitary Raven: The Essential Writings of Bill Reid (2nd ed. 2009). A Story as Sharp as a Knife (1999) is the first volume in Bringhurst’s most ambitious work, the trilogy Masterworks of the Classical Haida Mythtellers. Winner of the 2004 Edward Sapir Prize, Masterworks features Bringhurst’s translations of oral stories, poems, and histories transcribed by American anthropologist John Reed Swanton at the turn of the twentieth century. The second volume, Nine Visits to the Mythworld (2001), is devoted exclusively to translations of Ghandl; the third volume, Being in Being (2003), collects the works of the storyteller Skaay. In 2013 Bringhurst was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada.
Margaret Atwood was born in 1939 in Ottawa and grew up in northern Ontario, Quebec, and Toronto. Throughout her writing career she has received numerous awards and honorary degrees. She is the author of more than fifty volumes of poetry, children’s literature, fiction, and non-fiction, but is perhaps best known for her novels, which include The Handmaid’s Tale (1983; The Folio Society, 2012), Alias Grace (1996), and The Blind Assassin, which won the Booker Prize in 2000. Her most recent novel is MaddAddam(2013). For The Folio Society she has introduced Anne of Green Gables (2004), Seven Gothic Tales (2013) and Travels with Herodotus (2011).
Don Yeomans is one of the most established and respected Northwest Coast artists in Canada. Born to a Haida father from Masset and a Métis mother from Slave Lake, Alberta, Yeomans has studied and worked in the Haida style from a young age. He attended art school at Vancouver Community College, and now works in all the traditional media – two-dimensional design, wood carving, as well as gold and silver jewellery – and has mastered formline design, the basic visual language of Haida art. Yeomans’s work can be found in numerous private and public collections, including the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, Québec, and the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta.
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Review by rjmerson on 4th Nov 2017
"One of the most extraordinary and original books I have ever read. If you at all interested in literature in its many forms you must read it. Beautifully produced as well, of course. When are the foli..." [read more]
Review by anon on 14th May 2016
"If you are a curious individual, someone who wants to know more about the world you inhabit, you must read this book. There is so much here, this review cannot possibly do it justice. But briefly, t..." [read more]