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The Old English Ruins in Margaret Atwood's Apocalyptic Landscape

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T HE O LD E NGLISH R UINS IN M ARGARET A TWOOD S A POCALYPTIC L ANDSCAPE By Kimberley Louise Garratt Arts IV Dr Stephanie Downes, Supervisor A thesis submitted to the School of Culture and Communication in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the Bachelor of Arts (Hons) Degree




Kimberley Louise Garratt

Arts IV

Dr Stephanie Downes, Supervisor

A thesis submitted to the School of Culture and


in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the

Bachelor of Arts (Hons) Degree

G a r r a t t | 1

16,200 words

University of Melbourne

May 2013


A cross-chronological “weird reading” of Atwood’s

apocalyptic novels Oryx and Crake and The Year of The

Flood against a selection Old English elegy provides one

method of interpretation which reveals Atwood’s

protagonists’ experience of time, place and inter-

subjectivity in the apocalyptic landscape. This thesis

concludes that Atwood does not consciously adopt the

imagery and form of Old English elegiac poems and

passages; rather those sources contribute to the nexus

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of ideas behind, and conventions of expression within,

modern post/apocalyptic fiction. Atwood’s description of

nature as encircling, threatening, and ruined,

corresponds to the Anglo-Saxon intellectual and

spiritual framework that informs Old English elegy.

However, Atwood subverts the typical affective points of

post/apocalyptic fiction as regard utopia and dystopia.

For Atwood, the apocalyptic landscape is not “fallen”

because of a distance from God, as for the Old English

poets, but because in writing the ‘myth of our

separation from nature’ we have lost our ‘knowing by

heart the ways of the world.’


G a r r a t t | 3

Acknowledgements………………………………………………………….. 3

Introduction……………………………………………………………………... 4

Chapter One: Exile…………………………………………………………….15

Chapter Two: Nature…………………………………………………………25

Chapter Three: Nostalgia…………………………………………………..42

Conclusion………………………………………………………………………. 59

Works Cited…………………………………………………………………….. 66

G a r r a t t | 4


I would like to express thanks to

the people who have supported me

in the writing of this thesis. I

wish to convey my deepest

appreciation to Dr Stephanie

Downes, whose supervision and

encouragement throughout the year

have been invaluable. Furthermore,

I would like to gratefully

acknowledge the academic

assistance of Dr Grace Moore, and

also to Dr Robert DiNapoli, whose

passionate teaching inspired my

love of Old English poetry. I

would like to thank my loved ones

for their invaluable support.

Lastly, I would like to thank my

mother, who has always encouraged

G a r r a t t | 5

my love of SF and of our mother



Why are we designed to see the world as supremely beautiful just as we're about to be snuffed?

(The Year of The Flood 415)

We're using up the Earth. It's almost gone. You can't live with such fears and keep on whistling. The waiting builds up in you like a tide. You start wanting it to bedone with. You find yourself saying to the sky, Just do it. Do your worst. Get it over with.

(The Year of The Flood 239)

The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilisation.

(Emerson Uncivilisation)

G a r r a t t | 6

‘It's faint and far away, but moving closer. It's the

sound of many people singing. Now we can see the

flickering of their torches, winding towards us through

the darkness of the trees.’ This faintly heard music, in

the last lines of Atwood's The Year of The Flood, is a

“torch song” which adumbrates the final instalment of

Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy, due for release in Australia

this October. Will this song signal a grim acceptance,

maybe even a joyful embrace of the end of the current

world order? Or the fatalistic last stand of a humanity

that positions itself against non-human nature;

resisting a potential utopia in which humanity is

present as a legend, in favour of a dystopia that

upholds human centrality?

This thesis argues that Atwood’s apocalyptic writing

“resolves” catastrophe by inhabiting an ecology of

extinctions and elegies, with a dark hopefulness that

embraces humanity’s relationship to the radically

endangered landscape by rejecting ‘the myth of our

G a r r a t t | 7

separation from nature’ (Emerson Uncivilisation).1 The

landscape I concern myself with here is harsh,

apocalyptic and post-catastrophic, populated by rag-and-

bone ‘ex-people’ and ‘crumbling towers’ (Year 339; Oryx

11); a landscape experienced sometimes as a ‘downpour’

of stormy weather, as a toxic shoreline, or as a ‘dark

encircling wall,’ all of which hold the exiled speaker

in ‘both a prison a wasteland.’ Through a brief reading

of six Old English elegies—four of the poems extant in

The Exeter Book and two elegiac passages embedded in

Beowulf--this thesis traces the patterns of elegiac

thought as they appear in the apocalyptic landscapes of

the novels Oryx and Crake and The Year of The Flood by

Margaret Atwood. Having identified cross-chronological

parallels, I am interested in comparing them, reigniting

the former to shed light on the latter, in order develop

an understanding of how poetically inhabiting the ruins

of a post-catastrophic landscape might allow poets,

writers and readers to come to terms with the

1 ‘[T]he myth of our separation from nature’ is a problemexpounded and theorised by Ralph Waldo Emerson in Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto.

G a r r a t t | 8

dramatically transitioning relationship between humans

and their endangered environment.

I will begin by reviewing the academic literature that

addresses the question: why do contemporary authors

write about post/apocalyptic landscapes? As Gerry

Canavan has written:

The apocalypse is the only thing in our time that seems to have the capacity to shake the foundationsof the system and “jumpstart” a history that now seems completely moribund—the only power left that could still create a renewed, free space in which another kind of life might be possible. Apocalypse (especially eco-apocalypse) is increasingly the frame we use for imagining an end to capitalism, precisely because (after the “end of history”) we can't imagine any other possible way for it to end.And in a way this is eerily appropriate; the increasingly dire predictions of ecological sciencewarn us that “the end of the world” and “the end ofcapitalism” may in fact describe the same event—theone is catapulting us faster and faster towards theother…The political content of both Oryx and Crake and The Year of The Flood is predicated on the increasingly desperate need to find some “outside” to the closed, totalizing system called capitalism,which has swallowed the entire globe and remade allof human history, all the way down to the level of the gene, in its image. The books allegorize both the difficulty and the necessity of finding some sort of alternative. (139, 154)

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In this thesis, I am interested in how Atwood comes to

compose the landscape of “the end of the world.” How

does she position humans in relation to the landscape,

and what does the “outside” of civilisation look like?

Atwood is a richly intertextual author with a long

history of appropriating myth and tradition. I argue

that it is worth uncovering the Old English sources for

Atwood’s portrayal of the apocalyptic landscape. I will

break down the “outside” that I am concerned with into

three areas of approach: exile, nature and nostalgia,

devoting a chapter of this thesis to each.

By using early medieval concepts of a world in decline,

as expressed through elegiac poems and passages, to

examine Atwood’s apocalyptic novels Oryx and Crake and

The Year of The Flood, I shall demonstrate

correspondences and appropriations, and will argue that

she probably did not draw these appropriations directly

from the Old English sources, but that those sources

have, however, contributed to the nexus of ideas behind

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and conventions of expression within modern

post/apocalyptic fiction, and the correspondences

between Atwood’s novels and the elegiac genre owe

something to that genealogy. Moreover, I will

demonstrate their validity as a way of looking at

Atwood’s apocalyptic landscape, and tell us something

about her confrontation with the decay of the English


My argument takes into account the existing scholarship

on the broader medieval sources for Atwood’s oeuvre,

criticism which focuses on Atwood’s intersection with

Arthurian sources and Gothic sensibilities.2 In her

recent collection of essays In Other Worlds, Margaret

Atwood acknowledges her appropriations from classical or

mythological and later medieval sources in her fiction.

Atwood’s earliest poetry collection, Double Persephone

(1961) drew on classical myths. As Elizabeth Kantor has

pointed out, the title of Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s

2 Downes; Duncan; Kantor; McMillan, Ann. Thompson; Wilson. For full details, see the list of works cited inthis thesis.

G a r r a t t | 11

Tale alludes to Geoffrey Chaucer’s fourteenth-century

Canterbury Tales. Discussing her Arthurian influences

with Raymond H. Thompson, Atwood cites Sir Gawain and

the Green Knight as a source for Avalon Revisited, a

sequence of poems she published in 1963. More recently,

Atwood reworked Homer in The Penelopiad (2005) as part of

the Canongate Myth Series, a project for which she

initially planned to rewrite the Norse creation myth

(Tonkin). Although the author has thereby shown an

interest in early medieval English and Norse literature,

this interest remains unexplored by academic criticism.

This thesis expands the discussion concerning influences

on Atwood’s oeuvre to the early medieval, by devloping a

new understanding of the Old English sources in Atwood’s

MaddAddam trilogy in order to provide valuable insight

into what attracts modern writers and readers to posit

humanity in post-apocalyptic landscapes. Author and

critic Ursula K Le Guin--while placing the trilogy

squarely in and exemplary of the post/apocalyptic

G a r r a t t | 12

science fiction genre--describes the novels in a way

that confirms the correspondences between them and their

sources in Old English elegies: ‘The Year of The Flood,’

writes Le Guin, is ‘a lament for what little was good

about human beings - affection, loyalty, patience,

courage - ground down into the dust by our overweening

stupidity and monkey cleverness and crazy hatefulness’

(Review). There has been a recent upsurge of scholarly

interest in post/apocalyptic fiction, and of Oryx and

Crake and The Year of The Flood as key texts, and Atwood

as a leading author, in that genre.3 Throughout this

thesis my argument will engage with this current


Contemporary post/apocalyptic fiction presents original

visions of potential futures: how the end-of-the-world-

as-we-know-it might come about, and what might happen to

the humans--if any--that are left. At the same time, all

of these “future-histories” look backward, frequently

3 Adams; Canavan; Cooke; Dobson; Kearney; Le Guin; Masters; Messer; Skrimshire; Watkins. For full details, see the list of works cited in this thesis.

G a r r a t t | 13

deriving core thematic and narrative elements from

mythical sources. These mythical sources (primarily

biblical, such as Noah’s Flood, the Rapture, but also

non-Christian traditions such as the Norse apocalyptic

myth of Ragnarok) are millennia old, and the symbolism

and narratives they inhabit today have been developed

extensively through medieval poetry and eschatology.

Contrasting with Christian apocalyptic novels, in which

the New Testament Book of Revelation is used canonically

and transparently (Bergen), the mythical sources in

secular apocalyptic fiction are usually adapted,

subverted or reinterpreted, and authors are more likely

to draw on these myths as they have been mediated

through historical traditions and new religious


This thesis is interested specifically in the early

medieval influences on Oryx and Crake and The Year of The

Flood, and explores in particular the continuities with

Old English poetry that are evinced by intertextual

G a r r a t t | 14

fragments or “ruins” in the novels. I argue that the

ruins are there to be glimpsed in the landscape:

“outside” of society, “outside” of history, and

“outside” in nature. Atwood co-opts the perspectives of

her protagonists –Snowman (formerly Jimmy), Toby and Ren

—in her reinterpretation of these themes. My

investigation of Atwood’s adaptation of Old English myth

and tradition will shed some pre-dawn light on modern

literature’s ‘apocalyptic…attraction to ecological world

views,’ and hopefully on the ways post/apocalyptic

writers confront their arguably ill-fated medium, for to

propose the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it is to posit

the end of the writing itself (Watkins 120).

Literary visions, both Old and contemporary English,

imagines the apocalypse as a judgement, purification,

redemption -even a new act of creation. In both visions,

a physical (albeit perhaps metaphorical) state of exile,

enmeshed in a nostalgic perspective, provides a site of

social critique, which foregrounds the apocalypse as

G a r r a t t | 15

both inevitable and redemptive. Both perform judgement

on a society that is perceived as in danger of being

lost to the speaker, while mourning the loss of positive

aspects (usually historical) of that society, and

expressing nostalgia for the position the speaking voice

previously occupied within that society. In both

visions, elemental scenery offers a locus for the

narrator to contemplate human agency in relation to

nature (subjectivity as well as responsibility), as well

as a potentially divine force with a dual ability to

destroy and create, and to be itself destroyed and

reconstructed as a Miltonian “paradise regained.”

Atwood’s non-fiction writing provides a crucial lens for

analysis of Oryx and Crake and The Year of The Flood. In

a collection of essays entitled In Other Worlds, Atwood

theorises and explores ‘science fiction and the human

imagination’ by discussing her “ustopian” novels and

their sources. Atwood herself admits that these essays

are written for a general rather than an academic

G a r r a t t | 16

audience, but as such, this text enables us to better

understand how she wishes to negotiate with her general

audience’s ideas (In Other Worlds 1). In addition to

examining Atwood’s non-fiction writing (which also

includes Negotiating With the Dead and a selection of pieces

written for the UK Times and Guardian), I shall look at

the meta-text that is associated with the MaddAddam

trilogy. Fourteen hymns ‘from the God’s Gardener’s Oral

Hymnbook’ punctuate the narrative of The Year of The

Flood, preceding each of the fourteen titled chapter

sections (which are subdivided into smaller numbered

chapters).4 Crucially outside of the fictional frame, 4 Of oral poetry, Atwood has said: ‘Oral poetry is poetry, and the people who made it are poets. The Iliad and The Odyssey are oral poetry written down, and so is much of the Bible, and so are the poem cycles of Skaay and Ghandl (individuals of the Native Canadian tribe known as Haida). Oral poetry is different from the poetry produced by a society in which writing is the norm. It depends on individual performance, and therefore on audience. It is heard, in the way that music is heard, and it employs many of the same devices.It is embedded in land-forms and bears witness to a close interaction with what we call Nature. It is profoundly local’ but ‘goes beyond its culture of originto stand side-by-side with the great myth-based artisticcreations of the world.’ Writing this article in 2004, Atwood implies that reading the oral poetry of Skaay andGhandl triggered ‘a profound meditation on the nature oforal poetry and myth, and on the habits of thought and feeling that inform them. It restores two poets that we

G a r r a t t | 17

Atwood includes an invitation to listen to these hymns

at the end of the book.5 The Year of The Flood also

draws from a fictional list of saints: non-fictional

ambassadors of environmentalism, animal rights,

sustainability, and survivalism, whose depiction is

overlayed with the Christian model of sainthood. It is

difficult to define this meta-text as either exclusively

literary fiction or creative non-fiction because, as Le

Guin has pointed out, their content ‘may be read as

kindly spoofs of hippy mysticism, green fervour, and

religious naivety, and at the same time can be taken

quite seriously’ (Review). With this duality in mind

then, my close textual analysis of Oryx and Crake, The

Year of The Flood, and their associated meta-text, will be

mediated by Atwood’s non-fiction writing.

The question of the MaddAddam trilogy’s genre has

attracted considerable academic and journalistic

ought to know. It gives us some insight into their world–in Bringhurst’s words, “the old-growth forest of the human mind” –and, by comparison, into our own. In our march toward the secular, the orderly, the urban, the mechanised, what have we lost? (Uncovered: An American Iliad).5 These pieces have been put to music and made available on compact disc.

G a r r a t t | 18

attention (Evans). For the purposes of this thesis, the

terms ‘science fiction’, ‘speculative fiction’ and

‘ustopia’ require brief discussion and definition.

Grayson Cooke describes Oryx and Crake as ‘speculative

fiction…a reflection on what it might mean to posit an

end to the human within a biotechnological scenario

[which] places the human, as well as modernity and what

is termed, often disingenuously, civilisation, in

jeopardy, partially in crisis, and most certainly in question'

(Cooke 105). The MaddAddam trilogy has been classified

as “science fiction” by most booksellers, fans, and

reviewers of that genre, including speculative fiction

and fantasy author Ursula K Le Guin (Le Guin, ‘Review:

The Year of The Flood’). Atwood believes that the genre

would be better served by a distinction between ‘science

fiction,’ which she traces as descending from Wells, and

‘speculative fiction,’ which is more closely related to

Verne (Canavan 151).6 ‘Speculative fiction,’ Atwood

proposes, is fiction with a narrative outside of our

present timeline, but ‘about things that really could

6 Fantasy is placed off to another side, descending from Tennyson (Evans).

G a r r a t t | 19

happen,’ in contrast to ‘science fiction,’ which she

describes as about things that could not possibly happen

(In Other Worlds 5-6). Offering an alternative to this

dichotomy, Le Guin defines speculative fiction as a

subgenre nested within science fiction, the former

closer to realism, whereas things that things that could

never happen she classifies under ‘fantasy’ (In Other

Worlds 6).7 Cooke has aptly observed, regarding Oryx and

Crake, ‘Atwood states that she has written speculative

fiction, not science fiction, because she wants her

novel to be understood as a direct extrapolation from,

and thus critique of, contemporary science and

technology' (Atwood "Writing" qtd. in Cooke 105). By her

use of an epigraph from Jonathon Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels to

introduce Oryx and Crake: ‘I could perhaps have

astonished you with strange improbable tales; but…my

principal design was to inform you, and not to amuse

you,’ (Oryx n. pag.) Atwood foregrounds that intention. 7 Atwood further frustrates attempts to describe how she defines her own fiction when, in her introduction to In Other Worlds, she also highlights the subgenres of ‘Slipstream Fiction’ and ‘Sword and Sorcery Fantasy,’ grouping the four genres under the umbrella term of ‘wonder tale,’ and thereafter in her book switching to the confounding abbreviation of SF (In Other Worlds 8).

G a r r a t t | 20

More specifically, the MaddAddam trilogy forms

speculative fiction that concerns apocalypse and

dystopia, though those latter terms may be considered

genres of their own, and which occur in novels which

would be better described as science fiction according

to Atwood’s own definition of that genre. Atwood coined

the term ‘ustopia’ in the introduction to In Other

Worlds (2011). This neologism encapsulates Atwood's

argument that each--dystopia and utopia--always contains

a hidden version of the other within themselves (66-7).

Many of the utopias that form our frame of reference--

like Eden or Atlantis--are “fallen” in the present time.

Thus we subconsciously expect that any utopia always

already exists in a state of suspension, waiting to fail

by either collapsing altogether or inverting into

dystopia. As speculative fiction then, Atwood's text

traces a ‘"not too distant future" that is yet

alarmingly familiar’ (Cooke 117), and affords readers a

vertiginous glimpse of the future, extrapolated from our


G a r r a t t | 21

The Year of The Flood is ‘a sibling book,’ rather than a

chronological sequel to Oryx and Crake (In Other Worlds

92). Both novels are set in the same timeline, opening

in the ‘Year of The Flood,’ the immediate aftermath of a

biotechnological contagion apocalypse. The narratives of

both novels unfold through a sequence of flashbacks to a

“twenty-minutes-into-the-future” dystopian version of a

north-American city, which could be anywhere in east-

coast US or Canada, but remains unidentified.89 The

“nameability” and “mappability” of literary place is

important to Atwood (In Other Worlds 66-75), yet by

resisting a definite locale in place as well as time,

Atwood invites an imagining of the apocalypse in

readers’ own terms, allowing the external landscape to

be founded upon the ruins of each reader’s own frame of

reference, in order that those ruins become more

personally and intimately haunting. With the apocalyptic

8 I’m borrowing Canavan’s phrase of ‘twenty-minutes-into-the-future.’9 Curiously, the library of congress data lists New York City as a sub-subject of the novels, but without reason,it appears.

G a r r a t t | 22

catastrophe, the boundaries of human habitation are

irrecoverably ruined and redefined – the surfaces of the

maps have been erased and the world is one seamless new

frontier. The Dark Mountain movement--a collective

think-tank of writers and other artists currently

working out of the UK--has these unseen surfaces in its

sights: 'There are great white spaces on this map still

[showing where humanity might go after all this]. The

civilised would fill them in; we are not sure we want

to. But we cannot resist exploring them,' (Emerson

“Eight Principles of Uncivilisation” 2).

The argument of this thesis is supported by a detailed

analysis of how Atwood expresses three elegiac themes,

through a brief reading of how these themes are

expressed through the Old English elegies. The themes of

exile and nostalgia, together with what might be more

appropriately termed the ‘motif’ of nature (and the topos

of ruins therein), have been chosen because they offer

clear and richly detailed loci in both apocalyptic

G a r r a t t | 23

fiction and Old English elegy, allowing me to trace

poetic continuities between the two literary forms. I

shall evaluate how each balance and interpose nostalgia

against social criticism, expecting to reveal Atwood’s

engagement with these medieval motifs. I hope to show

that Atwood echoes and reframes the early medieval

apocalypse in a modern context, arguing that she deploys

these narratives in order to convey her concerns for our

present-day endangered landscape.

G a r r a t t | 24


Oft him anhaga are gebideð / metudes miltse

Often the exile must endure the Creator’s mercy

(The Wanderer 1-2a)

The roots of the modern post/apocalyptic genre may be

traced back to Mary Wollstonecraft-Shelley’s Last Man

(1862), in which Lionel Verney survives a plague that

obliterates the human race. A narrative voice positioned

G a r r a t t | 25

as “exiled,” a status concomitant with survival in total

isolation, is central to the majority of contemporary

post/apocalyptic writing, wherein the story is told from

the point of view of a remnant of humanity. A

significant proportion of post/apocalyptic speculative

fiction texts regard the perspective of a single

surviving individual (although the human remnant can be,

and often is, a group). "Exile" is perhaps the single

most identifiable, consistent and striking theme of the

group of Old English poems gathered together and

designated as elegies.10 The Wanderer, The Seafarer, and

The Wife are named as exiles through kennings11 and

formulae (e.g. anhaga, literally 'lone hedge-dweller'

(Wan 1a), winéleas wrećća 'friendless wretch' (WLa 10a), and

describe themselves as traversing the wræccan lastum, the

'paths of exile'(Sea 15b).12 The narrators of two further

examples from the elegiac group--The Ruin and The Lay of

10 See Greenfield’s authoritative treatise on "exile" as a theme in Old English poetry.11 Kennings are compound words or expressions which were understood in a poetic context to signify another thing.For a study of kennings in Old English poetry see Rankin.12 Also: wræclastas, Wan 5a; wræclast, Wan 32a; wræcsiþa,WLa 5b.

G a r r a t t | 26

the Last Survivor--are not exiles as such, but

contemplate the material trace of vanished races. These

poems juxtapose imagery of that civilisation’s past

glory with their present fate, and by extension,

contemplate the fate of all human culture. The narrator

of The Ruin operates at one increment of analytical

remove, contemplating a vanished culture by means of the

ruins of a Roman fortified town, and the latter more

directly and intimately as the last survivor from an

obliterated ethno-cultural group from southern present-

day Sweden. My first chapter looks at how Atwood plays

with the theme of exile and takes it in some new

directions. The poetic conventions of exile in Old

English elegy constitute one lens through which to view,

or a tool with which to pick apart, Atwood's expression

of exile, in order to see how that expression is unique

and engages in new ways with some of the universalising

human problems that plague contemporary post/apocalyptic


G a r r a t t | 27

Old English poets, as Greenfield has shown, explore the

theme of exile using verbal formulas or ‘images’ (200).

‘Despite the fact that exile figures are so different in

type and character,’ says Greenfield (a woman, a

seafarer, a lordless thane), ‘the expressions of their

plights are clearly cast in similar molds’ (201). The

Wanderer and the Last Survivor are both lordless thanes,

survivors of catastrophe. The same is true for Snowman

and also, in a gender-subversive way, for Toby. Each

mourns the loss of the comitatus, the (traditionally)

‘male world’ of a close-knit social group which embodies

an old Germanic code of ‘obedience, loyalty, fortitude,

self-sacrifice in repayment for the lord’s prior

generosity’ (Klinck 178; Greenfield and Calder qtd. in

Klinck 150).13 In the case of the Lay of the Last

Survivor, as well as Oryx and Crake and The Year of The

Flood, the loss of the comitatus is enfolded in the loss

of an entire cultural universe.

13 For a comprehensive examination of the comitatus and thestatus of a lordless thane in Old English literature, see Mitchell and Robinson, 136-140.

G a r r a t t | 28

The Old English elegies themselves differ markedly from

“elegy” ‘in the classic sense of compositions in elegaic

metre,’ and likewise from ‘the tradition of the English

pastoral elegies modelled on the eclogue and the idyll,

such as Milton’s Lysidas, Shelley’s Adonais, and Arnold’s

Thyrsis’ (Klinck 11). The Old English elegies do, however,

share ‘a kinship with later English elegies of a broader

kind, for example with Gray’s Elegy, which treats themes

of death and transience in a general way, and even with

Tennyson’s In Memoriam, which though far longer than the

Old English poems, resembles them in consisting of

rather various reflections prompted by the need to come to

terms with a sense of loss’ (Klinck 11, my italics).

The characteristic scenes of elegy are identified by

Greenfield as including ‘the sea with cliffs, hail,

snow, rain, and storms, plus the meadhall of heroic

poetry’ figured as erstwhile or devoid of ‘its lords,

warriors, hawks, horses, and precious cups’ (Greenfield

200-6). The elegiac themes--identified by Klinck as

G a r r a t t | 29

‘exile, loss of loved ones, scenes of desolation and the

transience of worldly joys’--are presented in a

‘lyrical-reflective mode with characteristic features

such as monologue, personal introduction, gnomic or

homiletic conclusion, and the ordered repetition of

words and sounds, amounting occasionally to refrain or

rhyme’ (11). Atwood deploys these identifiable scenic

elements and structural features of Old English

expressions "exile" in her exploration of apocalypse,

with some compelling nuances.


In Oryx and Crake, Snowman is an archetypal Last Man, an

anti-Adam. To be exiled is to be alone, left over or

left out, an outcast and a castaway, a lone survivor and

also a lone surveyor.14 He shares his status as an exile

with the narrators of the Old English elegies: the

nameless ‘Last Survivor’ of the Lay has not been

expelled by his loved ones or from a particular place;

14 I owe my thought tying ‘survivor’ to ‘surveyor’ to Cooke (105).

G a r r a t t | 30

rather he is a lone survivor, necessarily lone by virtue

of being last. The Old English ‘Wanderer’ is the lone

survivor of his original lord and comitatus and remains

unsuccessful in seeking a new one, becoming an outcast.

The Old English ‘Seafarer’ is a castaway and both he and

the Wanderer 'often awaken...friendless' [onwæcneð eft…

wineleas] (Wan 35), on the shoreline where, wretched, the

exiles ‘frequently are bound by sorrow and sleep mixed

together’ [sorg ond slæp somod ætgædre ermne anhogan oft

gebindað](Wan 39-40), until the sounds of seabirds seem to

them the voices of men. In Snowman's own terms he is one

such 'castaway' (Oryx 41), and both Snowman and Toby

question and lament their roles as last survivors. Each

wonders if they are 'the last person on the planet,' and

asks whether they are here to make a record (of the

future) or to leave one (of the past) behind: 'to bear

witness...transmit a message, to salvage at least

something from the general wreck' (Year 95). Even if

they do not compose or send that hypothetical message,

Atwood constantly presents us with their impulse to do


G a r r a t t | 31

The exile is compelled to seek ways of mediating their

present experience, or at least mitigating their

suffering. Like the ‘Wanderer’ and ‘Seafarer,’ Snowman

and Toby alternate between lamentations which reveal

guilt and anxiety, and self-directed sermonising which

seeks to console and contain those emotions. Snowman’s

monologue alternates between miserable nihilism –

‘What's his life worth anyway, and who cares?’ (Oryx 107)

– and wildly reaching for meaning: ‘“Crake!” He

whimpers, “Why am I on this earth? How come I’m alone?

Where’s my bride of Frankenstein?”’ (Oryx 169). Snowman

perceives his exile--his solitude that is concomitant

with his survival 'of the general wreck' (Year 95)--as a

torment, a judgement, and a punishment. The narrative

voice that merges with Snowman’s point of view therefore

posits a dialogue through which that judgment might be

reconciled, and his grief consoled. Like the Wanderer,

Snowman must ‘abide the creator’s mercy’: Snowman tells

the reader that Crake, creator of the post-human

“children of Crake” and the virus that has depopulated

G a r r a t t | 32

the earth, has deliberately kept him alive to watch over

(who Snowman refers to as) the “Crakers.”

Wehlau hovers over a translation of gebideð in the first

line of The Wanderer as either ‘experiences’ or ‘waits

for,’ and recalls Bruce Mitchell's point that there

exists no way to translate it outside the context of the

poem. I argue for 'abides,' the most phonologically

clear modern English descendant of gebideð, and for a

sense of 'endures [the Creator's mercy],' which

resonates with our contemporary understanding of

survivor's guilt, whereby grief is compounded by

feelings of self-blame which are based not on having

caused the death of one’s comitatus, but simply on having

survived them in a culture where honour depends upon

loyalty to one’s leader and upon one’s reputation among

comrades. The narrative voice of Oryx and Crake moves in

and out of this dialogue with Snowman’s past, and

through it he attempts to overcome both isolation and

grief. Snowman’s presentation of speech as dissolving

G a r r a t t | 33

and disappearing reflects the surrounding world, itself

crumbling in comfortless fragments.


Atwood’s desolate and decaying landscape suffuses the

MaddAddam trilogy with a mood of decline which

foregrounds human civilisation in those terms. This

landscape is, as Wehlau has described the outlook of the

Old English elegies, a ‘landscape of despair’ (17).

Atwood, like the Old English poets, emphasises the

importance of not taking for granted worldly comforts,

which are, at best, only ‘loaned.’ For the exile,

contemplations of life’s transience can collapse the

distance between themselves, suffering in exile, and the

ones who experience earthly life more joyfully, whether

in the past or present. This collapse reveals the exile

to be superior in wisdom and in their sense of

perspective. The narrator-as-exile is in a unique

position to critique the social world from which they

have been dislocated. In an attempt to lessen the

G a r r a t t | 34

apparent severity of their present suffering, the exile

often exposes the foredoomed nature of the world to

which they no longer have access. Thus the Seafarer

prefers his apocalyptic contemplations to þis dæde líf, læne

on land ‘this dead life, loaned on land’ (Sea 65-6).

Moreover, as well as figuring the favourable surrounding

world as moribund and transitory, the exile often

reflects upon it as “fallen”; declining in a distinctly

postlapsarian sense: Gedroren is þeos duguð eal, dreamas sind

gewitene; wuniað þa wacran, ond þæs woruld healdaþ, 'All that old

guard is gone and the revels are over; the weaker ones

now dwell and hold the world’ (Sea 86-7). Atwood’s

invocations of Paradise show a strong influence of

Milton upon them, primarily with this notion of The

Fall. However, although the Gardeners share with the Old

English poets a view of the world as explicitly

‘fallen,’ their exact positioning in relation to that

fallen world diverges both from Miltonian philosophy and

G a r r a t t | 35

a common tendency of apocalyptic cults, as I shall show



Members of the God's Gardeners cult, even as a

community, describe themselves explicitly as a community

of exiles. They are isolated not as individuals, but

rather--by their views, values and customs--as a group

from the surrounding world. Ren’s narrative begins when

she is taken away from the ‘Exfernal world' to live with

the Gardeners. Through them Atwood plays with the prefix

‘ex.’ ‘"There's a number of ex-graphic artists in the

Gardeners," said Zeb. "Of course, there's a number of

ex-everything"’ (Year 184). Whereas apocalyptic cults

frequently valorise themselves as God’s “chosen” (both

in contemporary society, and fictional cults, for

example the Known Fruits mentioned in The Year of The

Flood), Adam One instead highlights the need for the

Gardeners themselves to prepare earnestly for the Flood

G a r r a t t | 36

if they wish to survive, and emphasises the position of

the cult in relation to wider society not as chosen but

as exiled.

The God’s Gardeners share the Anglo-Saxons’ Christian

philosophy of human civilisation as fallen, and the

ephemeral world as corrupt, and if not doomed in a

cosmic sense, nevertheless as moving inexorably toward

catastrophe. They await a figurative purging through

fire, in contrast to their doctrine of compassion at an

individual level and their astute grasp of both ecology

and technology, and in opposition to their officially

pacifist stance. Adam One constantly refers to the world

surrounding the utopic Edencliff Sanctuary as ‘the

Exfernal world’ and joyfully anticipates the coming time

when it will be ‘cleansed as well as destroyed’ by the

‘Waterless Flood’ (Year 345):

Take comfort in the thought that this history will soon be swept away by the Waterless Flood. Nothing will remain of the Exfernal World but decaying woodand rusting metal implements; and over these the Kudzu and other vines will climb; and Birds and Animals will nest in them, as we are told in the

G a r r a t t | 37

Human Words of God: "They shall be left together unto the Fowls of the mountains, and to the Beats of the Earth; and the Fowls shall summer upon them,and all the Beasts of the Earth shall winter upon them." For all the works of Man will be as words written on water. (The Year of The Flood 312)

Adam One, like the Seafarer of the Old English poem, is

‘not a part of the decaying world but a pilgrim moving

through it. His perceptions then do not define his

interior state, which is far from bleak at the

conclusion of the [novel]' (Wehlau 9). Although it seems

by the close of The Year of The Flood that Adam One and

the remains of his exiled group may soon succumb to

Crake’s apocalyptic supervirus, Adam One is comforted in

the knowledge that his darkly hopeful apocalyptic vision

has been realised.



Atwood’s protagonists are not wanderers, but must remain

interstitial, trapped in a state of being not-at-home.

Toby describes her home (and workplace) in Heritage Park

as become like ‘a haunted house’ in which ‘[she’s] been

G a r r a t t | 38

the ghost’ (Year 360). Snowman, as we have already seen,

posits himself as monstrous, ‘flickering at the edges’

(Oryx 7) of the deeply at-home children of Crake.15

Snowman, Toby and Ren are not exiled in the sense of

banishment so much as ‘unplaced’; out-of-place, in a

home that is not a home.

Ren shows insight into the trans-corporeal relationship

of internal mind and external landscape, choosing to

turn inward during her exile rather than to “dwell” upon

the miseries befalling the external world: 'You create

your own world by your inner attitude...[a]nd I didn't

want to create the world out there: the world of the

dead and dying' (Year 315). Snowman feels an

overwhelming sense of restriction, but one that stems

from his interior world: ‘Get me out! He hears himself

thinking. But he isn’t locked up, he’s not in prison.

What could be more out than where he is?’ (Oryx 45).

15 The “authored” post-human children of Crake are themselves not contained by their landscape, but ‘edited’ or designed to be content within the orchestrated “wilderness” of Heritage Park.

G a r r a t t | 39

Wehlau’s description of The Wanderer could describe

Snowman’s situation equally well: ‘[t]he internal

imagery of restriction, and excess space, and the loss

of meaning in the exterior world are all one’ (9). In

his earlier life, as Jimmy, Snowman prided himself on

his ability to structure his reception of the world, to

be wilfully ignorant, to ‘turn a blind eye’ to outside

events and undesirable truths. ‘He’d grown up in walled

spaces, and then he had become one’ (Oryx 184). But then,

like the Wanderer who must wander perpetually ‘in

stasis’ (Wehlau 9), Snowman is stranded symbolically on

the “strand,” the beach. The shoreline functions as a

physical barrier to Snowman but it is a barrier

suggestive of continual shifting movement, endlessly

repeating indistinguishable motions of withdrawing and

returning. This continual shifting movement that defies

either rest or progress corresponds with the Seafarer’s

movement over the ocean, which is not constant but


G a r r a t t | 40

The Seafarer implies that he has made this journey often

before (oft þrowade 3b; oft…bidan 30b-31b; cymeð eft, 61b) and

the poet’s structure of repeated sounds and images

emphasises this continuance. Atwood has argued that oral

poetry shares devices with music, and in the same way,

Atwood’s narration co-opts the poetic use of symbolic,

repetitive imagery for illustrating her protagonist’s

interior mood. Over the course of Oryx and Crake,

Snowman makes a pilgrimage to Crake’s ‘bubble-dome’

compound--named ‘Paradice’--and barely survives to

return, delirious and feverish, to the ‘Crakers’ and his

“home” on the beach (Oryx 151). If the paths of exile are

essentially both binding and boundless, it is unclear

where Snowman can go from here.

Snowman’s increasing sense of isolation and restriction

correlate conversely with the breaking down of

boundaries in the external post-catastrophic landscape.

In Atwood’s post-catastrophic landscape, the boundaries

between ‘compound’ and ‘pleebland,’ once mercilessly

G a r r a t t | 41

maintained, are broken, open now to any succumbing or

surviving pleeblanders, but also to pigoons and other

grotesque representations of humanity’s Faustian gamble

with technoscience, a gamble which is its own

transgression.16 Atwood explores the new frontiers of

this post-catastrophic landscape. Not least of these

crumbling boundaries is that of the frontier of the

human versus non-human nature.

This landscape is conversely one in which all barriers

have broken down, a radically unrestrained natural

environment. The sea, the seashore, and enclosures of

“wilderness” do not just reflect the interior states of

Atwood’s protagonists – these locales denote and resound

with the protagonists’ position as exiles. The state of

exile is often expressed as a proximity or vulnerability

to nature. As well as signifying itself, this

vulnerability allegorises universalising narratives of

16 Of the xenosplicing which is the mainstay of Crake’s university, Jimmy asks himself, ‘Why is it he feels someline has been crossed, some boundary transgressed? How much is too much, how far is too far?’ (Oryx 206).

G a r r a t t | 42

human existential anxiety. The primary imagery used to

express exile by Old English poets, and indeed by

Atwood, is that of the protagonist’s relationship to the

landscape, both their immediate, post-catastrophic

environment of ruins, and their relationship with nature

in the larger sense of Nature ‘with a capital N’ (Oryx



Þær ic ne gehyrde butan hlimman sæ

There I could hear nothing but the howl of the sea (The Seafarer 18)

Atwood builds on a tradition minimally twelve hundred

years old when she expresses exile as a proximity and

feeling of vulnerability to nature. Her protagonists’

experiences of nature function on one level as aesthetic

and narrative devices, while also allegorising universal

anxieties concerning fragility, futurity, and our

relationship to the environment we inhabit. The emphasis

G a r r a t t | 43

on the protagonist’s endurance of the surrounding world is

a unifying feature of Old English and contemporary

explorations of apocalyptic exile. It is in the

theoretical positioning of this relationship, that I

mark Atwood’s key point of differentiation in her

reworking of Old English sources. The Wanderer, The Ruin

and The Lay of the Last Survivor all present ‘an

internal landscape’ which ‘ranges over not only ruined

buildings, but also a ruined world’ (Wehlau 7), in which

eal þis eorðan gesteal idel weorþeð ‘all this earth has become

empty and void’ (Wan 110). Ruined fragments of nature, a

sense of creation (i.e. the biosphere) as “doomed,” and

buildings which are hreosende ‘falling’ or idel ‘void,’ all

bind together in Atwood’s apocalyptic landscape.

The natural landscape is the essential destination of

the exile. Within a culture for whose members life on

earth could be figured as the brief flight of a swallow

through one gable in a mead-hall and out the other,

being cast out of that mead-hall and into nature is

G a r r a t t | 44

synonymous with (social) death. According to the Anglo-

Saxon’s Christian philosophy of the world and our place

in it, all human construction (and indeed all earthly

endeavours) are destined to be hrim behrorene ‘fallen under

frost’ (Sea 32), gripped by wintres woma ‘the dread of

winter’ (Wan 103), ældo undereotone ‘undermined by age,’ or

wyrd gebræcon ‘laid waste by fate’ (Ruin 4, 1). Although

the elemental scenery of winter and oceanic weather is

ubiquitous in Old English elegy, human-constructed

landscapes form the most poignant sites for expressions

of exile – here the focus shifts to the endurance of

grief, rather than exposure. The isolation of the exile

(who yet dwells in or near their habitual home) is

defined by their interior state, not their physical

location. At times, the entering of nature into

buildings is only metaphorical, or certainly not

catastrophic (consider the ‘empty, windy corridors’ of

the Speech of the Bereaved Father. Always the figuring

of buildings as locations of exile works through a

reversal of the essence of exile: the exile is not

G a r r a t t | 45

literally cast out, rather the exterior world

encroaches, and what should remain outside “gets in.”


In Old English elegy, external literary landscapes

express the inner mind of the narrator. Ruth Wehlau has

demonstrated that the interior anxiety and despair--even

depression--of the narrator is projected onto the

landscape described in The Wanderer, The Seafarer, The

Wife's Lament, and the bereaved father’s lament in

Beowulf. The sense of sorrow and loss, or “winteriness”

of the narrators’ hearts are described directly in each

poem, and then reinforced and developed further in their

descriptions of the surrounding landscapes which

themselves reflect that despair, ‘not only as an

exterior symbol of the passing of time but as a

representation of the interior landscape’ (Wehlau 1).

Both the modsefan ‘innermost thought’ (lit. ‘spirit’s

heart’) and the external world of the exile are

described primarily in terms of nature. These terms

G a r r a t t | 46

encompass stormy seas and wintry weather, as well as a

sense of the world as eal to rum ‘too wide’ and idel ‘void.’

Liminal spaces are frequently the focus, including

ruined walls with their empty watchtowers and abandoned

battlements, shorelines, and groves (in which are exiled

Toby and the Wife of the Old English Wife’s Lament). The

wanderer is initially nominated as anhaga, etymologically

‘the lone hedge-dweller.’ The sea, in particular, is so

often invoked in elegiac landscapes that wræccan lastum

‘the paths of exile’ seems to be interchangeable with

iscealdne sea ‘ice-cold sea’ (Sea 15b, 14b). The sea has a

long store of symbolic resonance with apocalyptic

material. For the modern reader, exposed to a

‘flourishing of anxiety’ about eco-catastrophic

scenarios of rising sea levels and cyclones, the ocean

remains, or is once more, pregnant with destructive--

even apocalyptic--symbolic meaning. For the Seafarer,

the sea is something he's stuck on, or even in, moving

continually. Atwood thus describes the exile’s locale

with distinct elemental scenery, the apocalyptic

G a r r a t t | 47

symbology of which can be traced back to Old English


For Snowman, the sea is hostile, toxic, a barrier to the

Human: he lives by a liminal shore upon which he depends

but from which he must remain corporeally disconnected:

unlike the fearless children of Crake, ‘he won’t dip a

toe in there even at night, when the sun can’t get at

him’ (Oryx 6). This moment reveals the Otherness, the

monstrosity, of Snowman as a dystopian exile in

proximity to a utopia he can never enter: ‘For the

children – thick-skinned, resistant to ultraviolet –

he’s a creature of dimness, of the dusk’ (Oryx 6).

Similarly, Toby perceives her surroundings in Heritage

Park as ‘the dark encircling wall of trees and vines and

fronds and shrubby undergrowth’ and ‘it’s from there

that any danger might come’ (Year 5). This recurring

description of the natural landscape as a boundary and a

source of danger evince a Gothic sensibility, a

sensibility seen as invoking a reconstructed medieval

aesthetic. Hilde Staels places Atwood squarely in the

G a r r a t t | 48

Gothic tradition – along with Mary Shelley – because

Atwood’s ‘Gothic narrative suggests the co-existence of

the everyday alongside a shadowy nightmarish world”

(Staels 153). As the novel progresses, Toby feels ‘the

line of dark trees that marks the edge of the

forest...drawing her, luring her in, as the depths of

the ocean and the mountain heights are said to lure

people, higher and higher or deeper and deeper, until

they vanish into a state of rapture that isn't human’

(Year 327).17 The blighted scenery in Atwood’s apocalyptic

landscape is echoic of Tennyson’s ‘striking yet less

than idyllic’ imagery, and illustrates the ‘Gothic

sensibility’ that Staels and Duncan have argued for in

Atwood’s oeuvre (Duncan 358, 360).

Atwood gives a description of nature vis-à-vis the

weather at the start of every chapter set in the

narrative present of Oryx and Crake The weather is

17 This quote is suggestive of “the natural sublime,” an interesting though immense subject which this thesis does not have the scope to discuss. For a comprehensive discussion of the natural sublime see Burke.

G a r r a t t | 49

liminal within the text: it is the weather of the

shoreline, of dawn and dusk, of waiting for the storm to

pass. It is the sort of weather synonymous with

“exposure,” and it reveals Snowman’s vulnerabilities.

Nature subjects Snowman via the weather, variously

burning him and soaking him to the bone, immersing him

in the present and reminding him--and threatening us as

readers--both of how dramatically climate change has

affected the biosphere and how inadequate for this

environment are his knowledge and his phenotypic nature.

This inadequacy is highlighted by Atwood’s contrastive

example of the children of Crake, who seem to answer the

epigraph given at the start of Oryx and Crake: ‘Was

there no safety? No learning by heart the ways of the

world?’ (Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, Oryx n. pag.).

Snowman, like the Wanderer, must continually ‘awaken

again’ (onwæcneð eft, 45) from his dreams and see before

himself the ‘dark waves’ (fealwe wægas, 46), or Toby see

the ‘blue-grey haze that marks the distant ocean’ (Year

3). The ‘fall of frost and snow mingled with hail’

(hreosan hrim and snaw hagle gemenged, 48), commonplace

G a r r a t t | 50

in elegy, has become the ‘pelting…derision’ of cyclonic

rain and the merciless glare of a post-ozone sun. This

battered shoreline is indeed what Eileen A. Joy has

described as ‘the site of one’s ultimate alienation from

one’s only ever human “comrades,” who endlessly “float

away” from us [“swimmað eft onweg,” l. 53]’ (“Blue”).

This oceanic scene of destruction, exclusion and

receding consolations is precisely what Steve Mentz has

urged, arguing for ‘abandoning certain happy fictions

and replacing them with less comforting narratives.

Fewer gardens, and more shipwrecks’ (qtd. in Joy

“Oceanic Sorrow”).18


Nature full strength is more than we can take, AdamOne used to say. It's a potent hallucinogen, a soporific, for the untrained Soul. We're no longer at home in it. We need to dilute it. We can't drinkit straight.

(The Year of The Flood 327)

18 This directive was brought to my attention by Joy (“Blue”).

G a r r a t t | 51

Contemporary writers of fiction and of ecology are

beginning to unravel the false dichotomy of human and

(non-human) nature.19 This unravelling, be it undertaken

by journalists, academics, or writers of speculative

fiction, frequently hinges upon post/apocalyptic images.

The ‘myth of our separation from nature,’ and the

related ‘myth[s] of progress [and] human centrality,’

are identified and argued against by Dark Mountain, a UK

based collective of writers and multi-media artists. In

Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto, Ralph Waldo

Emerson proposes a mode of ‘catastrophic thinking’ that

‘refuses the logic of sustainability in favour of a more

aggressive, more radical intervention,’ one which

‘grasps better…what [sustainability] forgets,’ insisting

that ‘we pushed off that cliff long ago’ (Uncivilisation

n. pag.). That ‘cliff’ is the moment of apocalypse; not

necessarily catastrophe, but rather the point-of-no-

return. Atwood confronts this notion of a point-of-no-

19 Such as ecologist Timothy Morton, literary historian Eileen Joy, the fiction writers considered by Watkins inher article, ‘Contemporary Women’s Apocalyptic Writing’ and by the writers of the Dark Mountain collective.

G a r r a t t | 52

return, raising the consequences of incremental


Atwood further illustrates such consequences through the

novels’ heavily altered weather and faunal milieu. As

Canavan identifies, Emerson's notion of an ongoing

‘combined and uneven apocalypse’ begins from this

recognition that ‘the post-apocalyptic is not an image

of that to be’ but “a perspectival stance to be taken up

now”’ (Canavan 150).20 Emerson could be articulating the

ideology of MaddAddam, the militant splinter-cell of the

God’s Gardeners: ‘It is the more extreme position,

closer to the call for civilization’s end, which gives

us sharper tools to forestall such an end, even as we

aim to hasten the end of this particular world order’

(Manifesto).21 This movement argues against an idea of

humans as separate from--much less superior to or

20 This stance is also reminiscent of William Gibson’s maxim: “The future is already here, it’s just not evenlydistributed.” (Distrust That Particular Flavour back cover)21 ‘A hundred new species extinct last month. They got fucking eaten! We can’t just sit here and watch the lights blink out’ (Year 252).

G a r r a t t | 53

superimposed upon--nature as a whole. Following this

logic, ecocide is also necessarily genocide, and so

Atwood’s voice (her narrative of a struggle for human

redemption from eco-catastrophe, embedded within a

narrative of human destruction and artificial evolution)

resonates with a broader movement which argues for the

joyful embrace of the coming end of civilization, framed

as the only possible response to an ongoing ‘age of

ecocide’ (Uncivilisation).

Many contemporary apocalyptic novels figure the

apocalypse as an eco-catastrophe.22 Susan Watkins

suggests that this may be because it is easier for us to

imagine an end to the planetary eco-system than an end

to capitalism (139). Atwood’s novels, however, are not

about an eco-catastrophic apocalypse: in fact, all the

ecological miseries of her ‘twenty-minutes-into-the-

future’ version of the North American landscape are a

22 Such as those by Aldiss, Ballard, Brunner, Gee, McDonagh and Winterson. For full details, see the list of works cited in this thesis. For a more comprehensive list of eco-catastrophe in apocalyptic novels, see Dobson.

G a r r a t t | 54

product of the pre-apocalyptic society, which retains

all the technoscientific features of a civilisation in

‘progress.’ These features are part of a pattern of

human interference and negligence (with regard to

nature) which Atwood consistently foregrounds. For

Watkins, contemporary women’s apocalyptic writing

provides ‘an important counter to the “cornucopian”

position: a belief that “the environmental threats posed

by modern civilisation…are illusory or exaggerated” and

that “the dynamism of capitalist economies will generate

solutions to environmental problems as they arise”’

(Greg Garrard 16-17 cited in Watkins 120). The

relationship of humans to non-human nature is the

definitive problem for Atwood. Her protagonists’

relationship to their own landscapes, as well as to

nature, as a concept ‘with a capital N’ (Oryx 206), show

how Atwood wrestles with that issue. Ralph Waldo

Emerson, in Uncivilisation's "Eight Principles of

Uncivilisation" rejects ‘the faith which holds that the

converging crises of our times can be reduced to a set

of ‘problems’ in need of technological or political

G a r r a t t | 55

‘solutions’ (Uncivilisation “Eight Principles” 2). The

roots of these converging crises lie, according to

Emerson, in ‘the stories we have been telling ourselves…

stories which underpin our civilisation: the myth of

progress, the myth of human centrality, and the myth of

our separation from nature. These myths are more

dangerous for the fact that we have forgotten they are

myths’ (Uncivilisation “Eight Principles” 3). I argue

that, in contrast to the anthropocentric philosophy of

the Old English poets who similarly created literary

landscapes of exile and irretrievable loss, in order to

explore the human, Atwood agrees with Emerson that

‘[h]umans are not the point and purpose of the planet’

and that her texts constitute an attempt to ‘reengage

with the non-human world’ (Uncivilisation “Eight

Principles” 5).

For Atwood’s characters, nature is something that

encircles or excludes, averring the myths of human

centrality and separation noted above. Nature is Other,

G a r r a t t | 56

a concept, like God, which Crake can choose not to

believe in:

“What if they get out? Go on the rampage? Start breeding, then the population spirals out of control – like those big green rabbits?”

“That would be a problem,” said Crake. “But they won’t get out. Nature is to zoos as God is to churches.”

“Meaning what?” said Jimmy. He wasn’t paying close attention, he was worrying about the ChickieNobs [lab-grown meat] and the wolvogs [a splice of wolf and dog designed for deception]. Why is it he feelssome line has been crossed, some boundary transgressed? How much is too much, how much is toofar?

“Those walls and bars are there for a reason,” saidCrake. “Not to keep us out, but to keep them in. Mankind needs barriers in both cases.”


“Nature and God.”

“I thought you didn’t believe in God,” said Jimmy.

“I don’t believe in Nature either,” said Crake. “Ornot with a capital N.”

(Oryx 205-


In Atwood’s apocalyptic landscape, nature has been

relegated to the past. Animals are largely only present

as names in extinction lists (‘Adam named the living

G a r r a t t | 57

animals, MaddAddam names the dead ones’ (Oryx 215). The

MaddAddam novels recall nature through nostalgic

memories, recreated (e.g. the ‘Edencliff’ rooftop

garden), constantly mediated (Heritage Park, ‘Paradice’)

or manipulated (xenosplicing, designer gene-therapy),

but rarely experienced in any pure or immediate state.

Nature with a capital N, or rather Creation with a

capital C, was likewise ‘Other’ according to the

perspectives of the narrative voice that comes across

through Old English elegy. Corporeal existence ‘binds’

the soul for a while, during which nature is a source of

pleasure and joy, but also of longing and suffering.

Within the elegiac landscape, nature in the latter,

negative, sense is foregrounded in order to urge readers

to aim toward securing a place with the Lord in life

everlasting, rather than acting based on anxieties

concerning worldly comforts and distractions.

In The Year of The Flood, Adam One intones an example of

the God’s Gardeners’ ‘joyful embrace of the coming end

of civilisation framed as the only possible response to

G a r r a t t | 58

an ongoing “age of ecocide”’ (Emerson qtd. in Canavan

150), as well as another answer to the Woolf epigraph at

the beginning of Oryx and Crake:

And in the time of our greatest need, help us to

accept whatever Fate may bring us; and whisper into

our inner and Spiritual ears the names of the

Plants, and their seasons, and the locations in

which they may be found.

For the Waterless Flood is coming, in which all

buying and selling will cease, and we will find

ourselves thrown back upon our own resources, in

the midst of God's bounteous Garden. (Year 126)

The God’s Gardeners’ efforts to recuperate survivalist

knowledge, this prayer for the knowledge necessary to

survive outside of civilisation, and the utopic aspect

of the children of Crake, is an attempt to relocate that

‘knowing by heart the ways of the world’ (Woolf, in Oryx

n. pag.).23 A renegotiation of humanity’s relationship with

nature is clearly required, given that in Atwood’s

23 That is, their innate ability to live harmoniously as a part of the non-human natural world.

G a r r a t t | 59

apocalyptic landscape, natural wilderness has been

almost entirely erased. The only ‘natural’ landscapes in

the novels are outposts of wilderness walled into

designated parks, or reclaimed urban wastelands

converted into gardens, or post-agricultural deserts

Humanity’s toxic cocktail of interference and negligence

has direly disaffected the climate; toxified the ocean,

driven the majority of species to extinction. Throughout

the flashback sequences of both Oryx and Crake and The

Year of The Flood, Atwood foregrounds the natural

landscape as already ruined.


Snowman posits his own present via the future-perfect,

imagining future people looking back upon the ruins of

that present, equating the Otherness of the “foreign”

past with “giant-ness.”24

How did this happen? their descendants will ask, stumbling upon the evidence, the ruins. The ruinous

24 I owe this playful neologism to Joy and her article “On the Hither Side of Time.”

G a r r a t t | 60

evidence. Who made these things? Who lived in them?Who destroyed them?At first they'll say giants or gods, but sooner or later they'll want to know the truth. (Oryx 222)

The 'ancient work of giants,' eald ent-worc (Ruin 2b), is a

commonplace verbal formula used in Old English poetry

for monumental ruins (Mitchell and Robinson 327), as the

following lines from The Wanderer exemplify:

Yþde swa þisne eardgeard ælda scyppend,oþþæt burgwara breahtma leaseeald enta geweorc idlu stondon.

So has this world wasted, through the wisdom of the Creator

until, utterly devoid of the revelry of their (erstwhile) inhabitants,

the ancient work of giants stand empty and void.25

(Wan 85-87)

Scenes of nature provide crucial setting for Atwood’s

laments, but in a way that subverts the Anglo-Saxon

perception of nature and humanity’s place within in.

Certainly, in the MaddAddam trilogy, nature is both

ravaged and hostile. It is mitigated and mediated but

remains ultimately ungovernable, and functions

aesthetically as a representation of punishment, fear

25 I take my translation of idlu as ‘void’ from Wehlau, whotranslates idel weorþeð as 'become void,' rather than the conventional translation of 'become idle' (Wehlau 7).

G a r r a t t | 61

and despair. However, instead of lamenting the seasons’

eternal circling back toward winter, or the

environment’s harsh insufferabilities, or the fate of

Creation to be destroyed and remade in apocalyptic

fires, Atwood mourns our disconnection from nature,

rejecting the dangerous illusory perspective that denies

our dependency on and vulnerability to the natural

landscape. Atwood’s elegiac stance on the failure of

human civilisation to recognise the interconnectedness

of human and non-human nature illuminates and is

illuminated by this stance in the majority of her poetry

and prose. In a short piece Atwood wrote for the Guardian

during the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, entitled

“Time Capsule Found on the Dead Planet,” Atwood traces

the arc of that disconnection, fabulating human history

through ages of progressively replacing nature with

gods, money, then the former with the latter. In the

fourth age, humanity creates only deserts – the concrete

jungles, poisoned wastelands and scorched earth of the

world of Oryx and Crake and The Year of The Flood. In the

fifth and final age, what is produced is loss, and the

G a r r a t t | 62

only act of creation is the crafting of despairing

‘lamentations:’ The time capsule intones: ‘You who have

come here from some distant world, to this dry lakeshore

and this cairn, and to this cylinder of brass, in which

on the last day of all our recorded days I place our

final words: Pray for us, who once, too, thought we

could fly’ (“Time Capsule”).


Atwood's post-catastrophic ruins represent a new

frontier. After ninety-nine per cent of the human

population is 'liquefied' (Cooke 105), the spaces where

humans used to be has become a “terra nova”; empty but

frequently habitable, rapidly being reclaimed by nature

and converted into a new frontier, a virgin landscape

even as it is visibly a bricolage of the old.26 The

humans who survive the apocalypse to colonise this new

frontier are split into two groups: the post-humans, who

26 Which has, problematically (and Atwood explores those problematics), been given a helping hand through geneticmodification.

G a r r a t t | 63

are perfectly adapted to live without technics in the

natural world, and the still-humans: hunters, gatherers

and shepherds, 'legends' wandering, haunting the ruins

(Oryx 307). Snowman imagines hopefully –and, it is

proved later, correctly- that others like him must have

survived somewhere: ‘He wills them into being, these

possible remnants’ so he can imagine for a moment ‘that

he’s not the last of his kind’: 

Monks in desert hidewaways, far from contagion;

mountain goatherders who'd never mixed with the

valley people; lost tribes in the jungles.

Survivalists who'd tuned in early, shot all comers,

sealed themselves into their underground bunkers.

Hillbillies, recluses; wandering lunatics, swathed

in protective hallucinations. Bands of nomads,

following their ancient ways. (Oryx 222)

Oryx and Crake and The Year of The Flood present a world

of human maps, territories, and boundaries are thrown

into abstraction. Literal and ethical borders are broken

G a r r a t t | 64

open, not transgressed but rendered meaningless as the

societal consensus they served and reflected ceases to

exist. The dystopian greys and sickly neon of the world

are recast in shades of verdant green, setting the scene

for a return to a jungle-esque terror of predation as

well as the terror of the human Other. This vividness

also equates to the “white-spaces” on the world maps of

Atwood's childhood (In Other Worlds 69): hidden,

speculative frontiers waiting to offer up encounters,

moral ground waiting to be settled and defined, or

redefined. Canavan, like Kearney, recognises the ‘tight

relationship between fantasies of apocalypse and

fantasies of the frontier—the notion that after the end

of civilization the entire world becomes again free and

open land, to be once again molded and “tamed” by heroic

individuals.’ Atwood, however, consistently undermines

this relationship, even as she critiques the ideology

behind the “taming” nature in a technoscientific sense.

The plot arc of the novels, and the missions of Crake

and, separately, the God’s Gardeners, subverts the

frontier trope and a reversion of that “taming,” in

G a r r a t t | 65

which human appetite and behaviour is tamed and nature

is allowed to encroach upon our territories, upon us.

Overgrowth, or revegetation, on the ruins is by

convention (certainly for the romantic-era creators and

curators of aesthetic ruins) an intellectual focus for

musing on the impermanence of human construction and,

more broadly, human endeavour.27 The greenery that breaks

down the ruins of 'civilisation as we know it' in

Atwood's post-catastrophic landscape, however, comes

across decidedly as a symbol of resilience and renewal.

The pre-apocalyptic dystopia is presented as

frighteningly devoid of sustainable life. The rampant

kudzu vine which flourishes in the post-catastrophic

landscape is also the flourishing of a seed of hope that

the balance his not been entirely tipped against the

biosphere, however ‘shrunk and dwindled,’ however

skewed, this speculative incarnation of it appears.

27 See Jefferies’s After London: or, Wild England (1885),an early example of the post-apocalyptic genre. Jefferies’s first two chapters focus on a description ofan only recently industrialised London overgrown by nature and returning to wilderness.

G a r r a t t | 66

Atwood laments the disconnection between humans and non-

human nature. Whereas Toby fears that within her

barricaded ruin ‘every hollow space invites invasion’

(Year 5), Adam One celebrates the encroaching of nature

into human spaces:

What a cause for rejoicing is this rearranged worldin which we find ourselves! True, there is a certain - let us not say disappointment. The debrisleft by the Waterless Flood, like that left by any receding flood, is not attractive. It will take time for our longed-for Eden to appear, my friends.'

'But how privileged we are to witness these first precious moments of Rebirth! How much clearer the air is, now that man-made pollution has ceased!'

'Although we could not condone the violent methods,we did endorse the intention.… As the Human Words of God put it, in Isaiah 34, "From generation to generation it shall lie waste. . . . But the Cormorant and the Bittern shall possess it. . . . There shall the great Owl make her nest, and lay, and hatch, and gather under her shadow; there shallthe vultures also be gathered, every one with her mate."

And so it has come to pass. Even now, my Friends, the rainforest must be regenerating!

Let us sing. (Year 371-2)


G a r r a t t | 67

Both Oryx and Crake and The Year of The Flood are

inhabited by intertextual ruins: scraps of writing on

notepaper and mirror, rotting diaries, an unfinished,

unsent "someone was here" and "this is how the

apocalypse happened" letter, dictionary entries spooling

erratically out of Snowman's brain, and fourteen lyrics

from the God's Gardeners' “Oral Hymnbook.” These lyrics,

artefacts of an oral tradition which is inherited by the

Old English poets (among those of other cultures and

other times) exist, necessarily, on the printed pages of

The Year of The Flood. In practice, the God's Gardeners

group is staunchly opposed to the written word,

preferring instead pedagogical sermons and songs. These

anachronistic ‘relics’ of oral culture are like the

artificial ruins constructed in eighteenth-century

English gardens. They contribute to the layered and

unstable reality of Atwood’s ruins upon ruins, her new

frontiers formed cobbled together out of old ideas.

Atwood's apocalyptic landscape is full not just of

scraps of written words but scraps of language, echoic

G a r r a t t | 68

fragments of “old” English. These fragments reveal an

anxiety about humanity’s tenuous hold upon –or foothold

in- not just nature, but history and the real. Language

loses meaning, becoming ruinous, when the referents for

words disappear.28 Snowman recites words that were

already archaic and rare, almost extinct in his past,

and indeed in our present. After the death (for all he

knows) of every human besides himself, even everyday

words have acquired that same sense of abstraction;

words like ‘toast’ become abject, absurd. They are

without any meaning, much less hope of continuative use:

verbal ideas without referents in reality; “names”

without the “named.”

Snowman’s anachronistic love of language is co-opted in

this passage to re-enact the ubi sunt formula, designating

Snowman not just as a ‘witness’ of ‘catastrophe,’ some

final collapse’ (Oryx 58), of language, but as a

28 My argument here is indebted to Kearney, who proposed this stripping of ‘references’ from linguistic ‘referents’ in his article on The Road.

G a r r a t t | 69

repository; he desires to hold and restore moments of


“Hang onto the words,” he tells himself. The odd words, the old words, the rare ones. Valance. Norn. Serendipity. Pibroch. Lubricious. When they’re gone out of his head, these words, they’ll be gone, everywhere,forever. As if they had never been. (Oryx 68)

Consider also the Old English Wanderer, who contemplatesthe vanished artefacts and breahtma ‘sound’ of his past days.

Hu seo þrag gewat, genap under nihthelm, swa heo no wære.

How that time has disappeared, vanished under the helm of night, as if it never were. (Wan 95-6)

The Old English ruins in Atwood's apocalyptic landscape

are most visible where her style and diction recalls the

motif of ubi sunt (literally 'where now?'). The ubi sunt

motif has classical origins, and its influence ranges

across millennia of poetry, but finds some of its most

memorable incarnations in some closely-related formulae

of Old English elegy. The ubi sunt motif in The Wanderer

has been linked to particular, Christian sources, and

James Cross has shown how widespread this rhetorical

passage was in homiletic writing. Where it is found in

poetry, expressions of ubi sunt are frequently generated

G a r r a t t | 70

when the narrator or speaker contemplates a scene of

structural ruins, such as in The Lay of the Last

Survivor, and The Ruin.

Atwood's apocalyptic landscape inscribes a palimpsest,

interwoven from and upon the fragments of post-

catastrophic ruins ‘endless[ly] crumbling’ under the

weight of green overgrowth, alongside the remnants of a

marginalised nature which has vastly been ruined by

civilisation. There is a marked absence of uncorrupted

wilderness in Atwood’s pre-apocalyptic landscape which

frames the end of civilisation as a space for

redemption. The post-catastrophic global wasteland in

which Snowman, Toby and Ren find themselves exiled thus

provides a counter narrative as it reverts to

wilderness, a seed of hope that sends tendrils out

against the overarching direction of Atwood’s figuring

of nature throughout the flashbacks as quite possibly

irrecoverably ruined.

G a r r a t t | 71

Atwood’s apocalyptic landscape is imaginatively

constructed as a ruined version of our present. By

applying the lens of apocalypse to reframe our present as

ruin, Atwood participates in a centuries-old tradition

of creating artificial ruins. Atwood's artificial ruins

fulfil an aesthetic function as part of the text’s

pathetic fallacy. They also function, like the physical

artificial ruins to which I liken them, to both

commemorate and provoke scrutiny— of a past society.

Atwood’s apocalyptic landscape actually encourages us to

reconnect with nature: to succumb to our

interconnectedness with it, even if it is always already

doomed, and ruined; and find a way forward, even if 'the

only way out is down' (Joy). The urban wasteland

presented in The Year of The Flood signals the

possibility of an improved relationship with wilderness:

'There was a lot of trash cluttering the streets - burnt

things, broken things....It would be safer in a forest

than in a city now. Which was the reverse of what people

used to think’ (Year 338). Atwood posits the events of

our “pre-collapse” world ‘via the future perfect: what

G a r r a t t | 72

will have been,’ as Kearney argues of McCarthy’s The

Road (164). By positing her story the future Atwood

simultaneously renders the reader's contemporary moment

past, and from that vantage point opens up a unique

perspectival stance of critique upon that contemporary



Where are all those things he once thought he knew,and where have they gone?

(Oryx and Crake 148)

So Snowman asks himself, as he strains to hold on to his

memories of life before the apocalypse. All around him,

monumental architecture--testament to the past

constructive efforts of civilisation--is juxtaposed with

‘the endless crumbling that must be going on everywhere'

G a r r a t t | 73

(Oryx 45). Snowman’s struggle to retain his memories and

his grasp of language mirrors this dissolution: As the

'rag ends of language' are ‘swirling down…dissolving,’

Snowman tell himself to ‘ “Hang on to the words”’

reciting strings of obsolete words, ‘[t]he old words,

the odd words, the rare words,’…‘for the comfort that

was in them’ (Oryx 149, 68, 261). Ultimately, however,

the amount of catharsis he derives from these litanies

wanes, and this failure of language-as-artefact to

console is linked to Snowman’s inability to imagine for

his words a listener or a reader. Like the Wanderer,

Snowman is unable to ‘speak his heart’s thoughts’ to any

humans in the present. Unable to imagine a future

reader, Snowman turns more and more to the past for the

audience he craves. Atwood’s mingling of nostalgic

longing and a perspectival critique is a return to

nostalgia as it is worked out in Old English elegy. In

Old English elegy, nostalgia expresses a longing for a

prelapsarian world, and when it expresses a longing for

the social structure and natural landscape which the

speaker previously inhabited, it works to resolve that

G a r r a t t | 74

longing by simultaneously recognising the human

civilisation on earth as fallen, and Creation as


Atwood subverts the ‘typical affective coordinates’ of

apocalyptic fiction, in which the post-apocalyptic

landscape is a horror and the pre-apocalyptic landscape

the longed-for object of nostalgia (Canavan 141). As

Canavan notes, ‘Whereas the pre-apocalyptic status quo

is generally figured as a lost Golden Age to be mourned,

in Oryx and Crake its deprivations are quickly revealed

to be easily the match of Snowman's wasteland (141). The

God’s Gardeners’ configuration of the Flood as a washing

away of the ‘Exfernal world,’ (Year 59), for instance,

gestures toward a positive sense of cleansing and

redemption which she never quite undermines. In

commentary about the novels, Atwood herself describes

the Crakers as ‘utopian’ (In Other Worlds 93). ‘In the

end, the pre-apocalyptic landscape turns out to be much

worse than the post-apocalyptic, built as it is upon a

G a r r a t t | 75

nightmare of murder, rape, exploitation, and theft that

is, as we know too well, the actually existing, entirely

nonfictional history of European expansion’ (Canavan

141). The God’s Gardeners’ wary contempt of their

‘Exfernal’ surroundings accords with the Christian

homiletic wisdom of the Old English poets, whose

‘contempt for the always fallen world’ (Joy “Blue”)

characterises their contemplations of its transience.

Ultimately, Atwood makes clear her stance on such

‘typical’ dichotomies, arguing that utopia and dystopia

are never discrete entities – one always contains the

other, as she argues in her non-fiction chapter on

“ustopia” in In Other Worlds (66).

As I shall demonstrate, there are continuities between

early medieval visions of exile and the science-

fictional visions of modern post/apocalyptic fiction.

Old English elegy poems show how early medieval visions

of exile utilise a framework of apocalyptic expectation,

which resounds with a catastrophic and irrevocable

G a r r a t t | 76

transition in the speaker’s experience. The Old English

elegies, generally considered by Anglo-Saxonists to

consist of a group of nine or ten poems anthologised in

The Exeter Book and including most notably The Wanderer

and The Seafarer, ‘by no means form a homogenous group,’

but as Melanie Heyworth has demonstrated, if they have

any unifying theme it is that of nostalgia (Heyworth

3).29 Writing about the shared features of the elegies in

The Exeter Book, Marilyn Desmond observes, ‘the speaker

usually describes a past irrevocably gone, a past in

which the speaker occupied a meaningful position within

the social framework of the community" (Desmond, "The

Voice of Exile" 585). 'Nostalgia,’ as it is applied by

Heyworth to her analysis of Old English elegy poems,

relies on Bryan S Turner’s definition, and ‘can be

understood as a felt complex of emotions, motivated by

the problematic and/or negative experience of human

dislocation and disaffection in either the natural or

29 Heyworth notes, drawing on Stanley B. Greenfield, thateach of the poems emphasise ‘the speaker's state of mindarising from his reflection on the contrast between pastand present conditions" (Greenfield "The Old English Elegies" 143 in Continuations and Beginnings qtd. in Heyworth 3).

G a r r a t t | 77

the social world, or in both' (Turner "A Note on

Nostalgia" 149-50 cited by Heyworth 4). Dell’s post-

modern theoretical application of nostalgia in medieval

studies assists to evaluate Atwood’s treatment and

manipulation of nostalgia, especially by bring theories

of nostalgia’s interaction with concepts of time and

history up to date.

The apocalyptic arc of time that Atwood traces within

the MaddAddam series, must, following the logic of Joy

and Dionne (2010), be 'predicated upon a plurality of

different, discontinuous and heterogeneous

temporalities.' Further, Atwood’s narrative voice

reveals 'many different Nows existing alongside each

other and within each of them, multiple pasts’ (Joy and

Dionne 6 in Dell 116). The narrative’s coexisting ‘Nows’

and multiple pasts are reflected by the layers of

literary “ruins” in Atwood’s apocalyptic landscape.

These include literal ruins but also ruinous fragments

of ‘old’ words from the English language, and moments of

G a r r a t t | 78

prose evocative of Old English poetic formulae. These

ruins ‘obliterate history’ by making visible the breaks

in historical narrative. 30 The historic timeline is not

simply interrupted by catastrophe, but made abject:

Atwood repeatedly stresses the possibility of the end of

human history.


Preoccupation with a longing for the past is a unifying

feature of the Old English elegiac mode. In Old English

elegy, nostalgia is figured as the speaker’s wish for

the positive elements of the past to ‘return’ to their

present. Whether the poem articulates the speaker’s

suffering in the present (as is the case for The

Wanderer, The Seafarer, The Wife’s Lament and the bereaved

father’s lament in Beowulf ll. 2444-2471) or

contemplates the relative comfort of a society that has

since collapsed (as is the case for The Ruin and The Lay

of the Last Survivor), the individual reflects on their 30 According to Boym, ‘the nostalgic desires to obliterate history…to revisit time like space’ in Dell: 117.

G a r r a t t | 79

altered relative status as an individual member of a

community. This longing for the return of past joys into

the present is therefore also a wish to return oneself

to the 'irrecoverable past'--even if only for a moment,

through reverie or lament--because there ‘the speaker

occupied a meaningful position within the social

framework of the community’ (Desmond 572).

Atwood’s speakers suffer more after the-end-of-the-world-

as-we-know-it, but they suffered in the pre-catastrophic

world too. The fact that Snowman, Toby and Ren,

described their lives as ‘ruined’ prior to the

catastrophe shows that the above holds true even when

the individual’s position in society is problematic.

Although they occupied a persecuted position within a

dystopic society, and endured mental suffering and

existential anxieties in that position, Snowman, Toby

and Ren were nevertheless able to derive significant

meaning and comfort from their place in it. While a

reading of Atwood’s characters’ lives offers a critique

G a r r a t t | 80

of the problems of neoliberal capitalist technocracy, it

nonetheless recognises and affirms a universalising

longing for societal continuity. Toby acknowledges that

nostalgia is ‘the heart clutch[ing] at anything

familiar, whimpering, Mine!’ and despite the

multifarious ills and vices of the pre-apocalyptic

dystopia, Snowman, Toby, Ren, and we as readers along

with them, are afraid to fully let go of that society,

even if it hasn’t treated us all that well, ‘even if we

hadn’t liked it all the time’ (Year 340).


In any case, time is not a thing that passes,

said Pilar: it’s a sea on which you float.

(The Year of The

Flood 101)

Time, figured as water, is constantly flowing and

returning. The interruptions and reconstructions which

31 Quote from Gibson Distrust That Particular Flavour (2012): 51.

G a r r a t t | 81

characterise Snowman’s narrative embody his nostalgic

impulse, for as Helen Dell points out, ‘The multiplicity

of time is itself a nostalgic refusal of its passing’

(Dell 117). If ‘[n]ostalgia is a rebellion against the

modern idea of time’ (Boym qtd. In Dell 117) then we

might think of time as water, parts of which ‘the

nostalgic desires to...revisit...like space’ (Boym xv).

We might also think of it as a river, always the same

river but never the same body of water twice. Following

this metaphor further- time, for Atwood, can be ‘covered

in ice,’ and ‘frozen’ (Year 38), or it can slip through

Toby’s fingers, as indistinct and obscurative as ‘mist’

(Year 38). Snowman lives on a toxic shoreline, awash in

apparitions that undermine his foothold on the present,

a foothold which amounts only to ‘sandcastles in the

wind’ (Oryx 45). As Snowman endures the ‘swirling’ and

‘dissolving’ of ‘all those things he once thought he

knew,’ we wonder who will be left in the post-

apocalyptic landscape to ‘behold the flowing years from

the Sea returning’ (Oryx 149, 148).32 Perched upon the 32 '[B]ehold the flowing years from the Sea returning’ forms part of Aragorn’s ubi sunt speech, the “Lament of the Rohirrim,” in Tolkien's The Two Towers 142-143.

G a r r a t t | 82

shoreline, Snowman watches the flow of what speculative

fiction author William Gibson terms humanity’s

‘prosthetic memory’ receding. The title of The Year of

The Flood, in addition to referencing the Biblical

Flood, enfolds both nature and human historical

narrative in this watery sense, something indefinite but

precipitously poised; a flood of Other time to crash

upon the shores of the human, the shored-up sea-walls of

our prosthetic memory, and all humanity’s attempts to

slow and stop time and ‘thingness’33 and keep at bay the

shadow of mortality – cast by our vulnerability to, and

dependence upon nature.


Toby questions the nostalgic pull of her past. She

struggles to negotiate these contorting temporalities,

knowing that she ‘can’t live only in the present, like a

shrub. But the past is a closed door, and she can’t see

any future’ (Year 96). Despite describing the past as 33 Toby: ‘The whole ‘thing’ thing. Nobody wants to be a thing. Even the word flesh has a mushy sound to it’ (TheYear of The Flood 264).

G a r r a t t | 83

not just behind a door but as that closed door itself,

Toby frequently manages to revisit pastorally nostalgic

scenes from her childhood, because ‘in her memory the

whole experience is one of unblemished happiness. She

knows she’s deceiving herself about that, but she

prefers to deceive herself’ (Year 96).

The past does come back to her: the white frame house of her childhood, the ordinary trees, the woodland in the background, tinged with blue as if there’s haze. A deer is outlined against it, standing rigid as a lawn ornament, ears pricked...Everything tranquil, as if it would neverend.(Year 238-9)

Ultimately, Toby cannot resituate herself in these

static tableaux, because their very stasis and flatness

exclude her: ‘[they are] flat, like a picture on a wall.

She’s not there. She opens her eyes: tears on her

cheeks. I wasn’t in the picture because I’m the frame,

she thinks. It’s not really the past, it’s only me,

holding it all together. It’s only a handful of fading

neural pathways. It’s only a mirage’ (Year 239). There is

no ‘there’ there, no interiority (Gibson Idoru 34).

G a r r a t t | 84

Deception is key to these remembered scenes of an

(un)natural landscape. While these scenes are picturesquely

‘natural,’ Atwood questions, ‘when is nature natural?’

in the extreme-capitalism-shaped future landscape by

consistently foregrounding the synthetic and the

reproduced.34 Toby’s memories of nature from her

childhood possess a definite “fake” quality, but she is

driven to reinhabit these clichéd nature tableaux,

because they (re)produce a ‘pure joy’ which she

‘desperately needs to believe…is still possible’ (Year

96). Jimmy, too, revisits scenes of nature from his

youth, but these are frightening recollections, which

stress an instability or transgression of the world’s

‘natural’ boundaries. Objects of nostalgia exist and

evolve in the atemporal reaches of individual memory,

and by wishing to regain the state one imagines one held

in nostalgic imaginings, one participates in ‘re-

recreating’ something ‘artificial’ from the rubble of

34 ‘Jimmy was quite old before he realised what this word[reproduction] meant – that for each reproduction item, there was supposed to be an original somewhere. Or therehad been once. Or something’ (Oryx 26). Snowman’s ‘authentic-replica Red Sox baseball cap’ satirises contemporary consumerism of “authenticity” (Oryx 4).

G a r r a t t | 85

our actual memories. Nostalgia can be strong even when

its object is faint. It is common enough to feel

nostalgia for something that never existed (Cooke 111).

Crake’s idea of human happiness, especially as it

relates to nature, is deeply nostalgic and not tied to

the real world.35 The “natural” environment of the

children of Crake (the beachside extension of Heritage

Park) is a simulacra, a theme-park, an example made to

show what we have lost.


His words might be purposeless ‘pointless repinings,’ or

at best falling on uncertain shores, nonetheless Snowman

is almost constantly talking: he simultaneously laments

his situation and the fate of the material from which he

weaves that ongoing, endless, ruinous lament. The

purpose of the nostalgic lament, theoretically, is to 35 Ren: ‘When he came to Scales, Crake would often ask usabout happiness. “Was happiness more like excitement, ormore like contentment? Was happiness inside or outside? With trees, or without? Did it have running water nearby?”’ (Year 306).36 This phrase expresses Atwood’s understanding of her practice as a writer of fiction.

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broach the distance between the speaker’s present and an

irrecoverable past. Snowman’s attempt is even broader

than this- his anachronistic love of linguistic

creativity, recalling ‘words and phrases’ that are

‘fantasies in themselves’ because it is ‘comforting to

remember that Homo sapiens sapiens was once so ingenious

with language. And not only with language. Ingenious in

every direction at once’ (Oryx 99). Snowman’s lament for

a lost moment also provides comfort. The intent may not

be to collapse the distance between the favourable past

and the present moment, but instead to show their


This continuity enables the speaker to reconstruct their

previous status as an individual with ‘a meaningful

position within the social framework of their

community,’ by repositioning the ‘affective points’ of

that status. The act of lamenting offers the speaker a

creative outlet in which they can continue to express

themselves as they would have in relation to the

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previous social coordinates of the collapsed

civilisation. Snowman’s words, though they “bring to

mind” his past friends as mirages and hallucinations,

cannot truly bring them back to life. In a vacuum of

meaningful human connection, the words themselves become

his purpose. He strives to hold onto at least the memory

of that human ingenuity with language; just as the God’s

Gardeners hold within themselves the names of all the

extinct bioforms, Snowman holds within himself the

archaic ‘flotsam’ of the English language.


Like the speakers of the Old English Seafarer and The

Wanderer, he is an exile, a castaway, and the voices of

seabirds are no consolation for the lost comitatus. Like

the Old English Seafarer and Wanderer, Snowman’s only

listeners, and the only voices that answer him, are the

calls of gulls. In their voices, Snowman hears the names

of Crake, his dead best friend and one-time “liege-lord”

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and of his lover.37 ‘The crows are flying overhead, their

wings black flames, their words almost audible. Crake!

Crake! They’re saying. The crickets are saying Oryx’ (Oryx

333). Snowman, like the Wanderer, is bound in these

hallucinations by ‘sorrow and sleep mingled together,’

and Snowman has difficulty distinguishing between

different versions of Oryx. In his desperate reaching

for ‘any auditor besides himself’ (Oryx 305), it is clear

that ‘any would do…They are all time present, because

they are all here with [him] now’ (Oryx 308).

Snowman is wracked with guilt. Through his lamenting

monologue, we witness Snowman’s strain to renegotiate

the judgement which he feels has been passed upon

him. ‘“I didn’t do it on purpose,” he insists. “What

could I have done? Just someone, anyone, listen to me

please!”’ Atwood quickly undermines the usefulness of

these confessions, however, as Snowman’s mind turns

quickly to the necessity of ‘avoiding pointless

37 Oryx is primarily Crake's lover (i.e. the speaker's lord's lover), conjuring the Arthurian love-triangle of late medieval romance literature.

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repinings,’ of returning ‘one’s mental energies to

immediate realities’ (Oryx 45). Toby, too, talks out

loud, though it is difficult to discern to whom she

imagines herself speaking. She feels she ‘ought to trust

that she’s here for a reason — to bear witness, to

transmit a message’ but it’s not clear to whom or in

what future. Like Snowman, Toby’s narrative is told

extensively through flashback. But whereas Snowman’s

time is circuitous and disorienting—to the extent that

even during the narrative ‘present’ Snowman’s thoughts

are mixed in with memory and echoes—Toby’s present is

one of ‘lucid stillness’: she is careful not to give

herself over to the nostalgic impulse that intermits her

waking life, but feels increasingly unanchored without

the certainty of a meaningful future.38 ‘This thing I’m

doing,’ she laments, ‘can hardly be called living.

Instead I’m lying dormant, like a bacterium in a

glacier. Getting time over with’ (Year 95). For Toby,

time is a surface with which she is interfaced, similar

to Pilar’s description of time as ‘the sea upon which

38 ‘lucid stillness’ from T.S.Eliot’s “Four Quartets: Burnt Norton.”

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you float,’ or Adam One’s ‘sands’ under which Toby hopes

to bury ‘idle daydreams and fruitless desires’: ‘The

sands of time are quicksands, said Adam One. So much can

vanish into them without a trace’ (Year 191, 192).

What kind of nostalgia can Snowman experience, given

that ‘The past [of Jimmy’s childhood – a near-future

satire of our present] is monstrous’ and that history

itself is depicted by Atwood ‘as the accumulation of an

endless series of disasters’(Canavan 142, 143):

The sack of Troy, says a voice in his ear. The destruction of Carthage. The Vikings. The Crusades.Genghis Khan. Attila the Hun. The massacre of the Cathars. The witch burnings. The destruction of theAztec. Ditto the Maya. Ditto the Inca. The Inquisition. Vlad the Impaler. The massacre of the Huguenots. Cromwell in Ireland. The French Revolution. The Napoleonic Wars. The Irish Famine. Slavery in the American South. King Leopold in the Congo. The Russian Revolution. Stalin. Hitler. Hiroshima. Mao. Pol Pot. Idi Amin. Sri Lanka. East Timor. Saddam Hussein.

“Stop it,” says Snowman.

Sorry honey. Only trying to help. (Oryx 79–80)

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The implication of the list, according to Canavan, is

that ‘civilization is in truth a terror, history itself

a monster. One cannot help but wonder, after playing

Blood & Roses, if the human history that has been wiped

out by the apocalypse is actually worthy of being

mourned at all’ (Canavan 144). Doubtless, Atwood intends

to caution that we should never stack up the

achievements of human civilisation without bearing in

mind the incommensurate tragedies. This reinforces

Atwood’s point that utopia always incorporates dystopia.

Atwood overtly figures the flashbacks to Snowman’s past

as nostalgia;39 yet Snowman and Toby recognise how

distinct their idyllic ‘memories’ are from the reality

of their whole, contextualised, past. It is precisely in

this critical moment of recognition these moments serve

39 ‘He watches [the children] with envy, or is it nostalgia? It can’t be that: he never swam in the sea asa child’ (Oryx 6); ‘“Hi there, cork-nut,” said Crake, and nostalgia swept through Jimmy like sudden hunger. Hewas so pleased to see Crake he almost wept’ (Oryx 198); ‘Already it felt like old time’s sake, already it felt like nostalgia – something they were too old for’ (Oryx 89); ‘He pees on the grasshoppers, watches with nostalgia as they whir away. Already this routine of hisis entering the past, like a lover seen from a train window, waving goodbye, pulled inexorably back, in space, in time, so quickly’ (Oryx 372).

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only to highlight the emptiness of the post-catastrophic

present, denying Atwood’s protagonists the possibility

of ‘pure joy’ even in memory.


Atwood’s writing is intertextual and engages with

multiple literary pasts, presents and futures. Atwood’s

texts contort and collapse temporality. There are

contradictory currents of nostalgia throughout the text,

just as there are layers of ruin that reveal each other

in the novels’ apocalyptic landscape. Atwood’s text is

constantly gesturing toward the medieval – through overt

references in the dialogue (e.g. to technoscience-

conglomerate ‘kings,’ corporate ‘dukes,’ genetic

‘monsters’ and ‘monkish’ eco-freaks), intertextuality,

and the medievalism of the God’s Gardeners group. Cooke

playfully links imagery of the medieval with the

science-fictional in the novels: the calamitous squalor

and class-divide of the ‘pleeblands’ presented by

Atwood ‘[give] the sense of a post-human bazaar economy,

reminiscent of the street scenes in Ridley Scott’s Blade

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Runner (1982)’ (110). The Blade Runner scene mentioned is

the undisputed and ubiquitous major influence for

speculative representations of the urban crucible. This

passage is simultaneously exemplary of many instances in

which Atwood invokes a medieval pastiche.

‘The pleebland inhabitants didn’t look like the mental eficient the Compounders were fond of depicting, or most of them didn’t. After a while Jimmy began to relax, enjoy the experience. There was so much to see, so much being hawked, so much being offered. Neon slogans, billboards, ads everywhere. And there were real tramps, real beggarwomen, just as in old DVD musicals: Jimmy kept expecting them to kick up their battered bootsoles,break into song. Real musicians on the street corners, real bands of street urchins. Asymmetries,deformities: the faces here were a far cry from theregularity of the Compounds. There were even bad teeth’ (Oryx 288).

In one of the flashbacks that interweave Oryx and Crake,

Jimmy’s father explains the compounds to him as a young


“Long ago, in the days of knights and dragons, the kings and dukes had lived in castles, with high walls and drawbridges and slots on the ramparts so you could pour hot pitch on your enemies, said Jimmy’s father, and the Compounds were the same idea. They were for keeping you and your buddies nice and safe inside, and for keeping everybody else outside.

“So where are the kings and dukes?” asked Jimmy.

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“Oh absolutely,” said his father, laughing. (Oryx and Crake 28)

As well as these four aspects of the God’s Gardeners

sect evoke a medieval past and, I argue, constitute

medievalism. The nostalgic reconstruction of medieval

practices and attitudes is part of what distinguishes

the utopic sect from the dystopian cultural milieu.

Their medievalism works along the lines of what Dinshaw

calls restorative nostalgia, which ‘stresses nostos and

attempts a transhistorical reconstruction of the lost

home,’ as opposed to the reflective nostalgia

exemplified by Atwood’s protagonists, especially Jimmy.

For Boym, reflective nostalgia ‘thrives in algia, the

longing itself, and delays the homecoming – wistfully,

ironically, desperately’ (Boym (2001) xviii in Dell

118). Although ‘these distinctions are not absolute

binaries’ (Boym (2007) 10 in Dell 118), their

differences are useful to my analysis of the various

longings evident in Atwood’s apocalyptic narratives:

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Restorative nostalgia does not think of itself as

nostalgia, but rather as truth and tradition.

Reflective nostalgia dwells on the ambivalences of

human longing and belonging and does not shy away

from the contradictions of modernity. Restorative

nostalgia protects the absolute truth, while

reflective nostalgia calls it into doubt. (Boym

(2001) xviii in Dell 118)

The first of these four aspects is the sect’s ideology

regarding their relationship to their landscape.

Religious writers expressed eschatological expectation

during the Middle Ages using rhetoric which viewed the

natural world, as part of Creation, as postlapsarian and

in a state of constant decline. Atwood reframes this

belief in the words of the group’s founder, Adam One:

‘In our effort to rise above ourselves, we have indeed

fallen far, and are falling farther still; for, like the

Creation, our fall is ongoing’ (Year 52). Milton’s

mediation of this rhetoric is particularly evident:

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Snowman hallucinates Oryx saying: ‘Paradice is lost, but

you have a Paradice within you, happier far’ (Oryx 308).40

Secondly, the members of the group with specialised

teaching positions and official duties are known as

Adams and Eves. Thirdly, the God’s Gardeners’ calendar,

and indeed the physical text of the novel is divided

according to the Feast Days of various “Saints” drawn

from the ranks of real-world environmental and animal

activists, as well as Saints appropriated directly from

Catholic tradition. Adam One quotes in full, for

instance, Saint Julian of Norwich’s account of the

universe as a hazel nut (Year 424).41 Finally, in

addition to the descriptions of Saint’s Days which

denote the subchapters of The Year of The Flood, the

text is punctuated by fourteen full-page displays of

lyrics from the ‘God’s Gardeners’ Oral Hymnbook.’

40 Atwood reprints the excerpt of Milton from which this is paraphrased in In Other Worlds (75).41 Several chapter names of Oryx and Crake similarly recall the medieval past: ‘Paradice,’ ‘Idol,’ ‘Sermon’; however, this is an artefact of the text and thus not anaspect of medievalism within the narrative itself.

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The Oral Hymnbook demonstrates the group’s intense

distrust of the written word. The children of the group

are forbidden to write anything down on paper or

digitally; and hard-copied information is mistrusted as

much for its facility to be used against one by one’s

enemies as for its vulnerability to the coming Waterless

Flood. This ‘suspicion of the written word…characterizes

the God’s Gardeners group’ (Watkins 131), and is

complemented by the belief, implied frequently in Adam

One’s speeches, that human physiological memory is a

priceless ‘technic’ in and of itself.42 Adam One refers

to the God’s Gardeners’ bodies as their ‘earthly arks,’

the best way to preserve valuable information regarding

what appears to be the group’s ultimate intent: to

restore the post-apocalyptic earth to a prelapsarian

state after the erasure of destructive human

civilisation. Atwood’s texts explore a growing anxiety

concerning what Gibson has termed ‘the tide of

artificial memory’ even as it evinces a reverence for

oral culture, which, as Watkins has noted, conveys ‘a

nostalgic longing for an imagined world of linguistic 42 For language as a ‘technic’ see Cooke.

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plenitude’ (131). Adam One’s oral sermons are in fact

delivered to us as readers –thus positing us beyond even

the ‘future’ of the novel’s present- on paper and text.

As Joshua Masters reminds us, the post-apocalyptic novel

(more than any other artefact of the genre) must sustain

an in-depth self –conscious confrontation with the

futurity of the written word itself (114).

The “medievalism” of the God’s Gardeners group in The

Year of The Flood should be interpreted as distinct from

enacting authentic medieval values and activities. This

medievalism is partly futuristic and utopic, but can

also be seen as nostalgic. I argue that by placing her

characters in post-catastrophic exile, Atwood allows

readers to move beyond a post-modern perception of the

natural world (predominantly a romantic-era view of

outdoors as a holiday from our sheltered, industrious

lives) in a return to the experience of anxiety, awe and

otherness expressed in early medieval English

literature. This thesis will then turn to a crucial

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question with which the post/apocalyptic novel must

contend: to what extent can elegy – as words – console

us, as speakers or readers, given the framework of an

immediate or even eventual end of literature and even

language as we know it?

The topos of ruins provides an apt metaphor for the echoes

of medieval writing in Atwood’s text. Several passages

appear to very closely translate recognisable formula

from Old English elegy, especially the ubi sunt motif as

discussed above. By way of concluding my third chapter,

I would like to return to these ‘echoes’ to ‘ruins,’ and

expose the interrelationship between the “ruins” which

compose Atwood’s apocalyptic, palimpsestic, landscape:

geographical “literal” ruins which commemorate and

obliterate the pre-catastrophic past, providing a locus

for nostalgia and lament; literary “ruins,” echoes of

the declinist poetics of Old English elegy.

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Atwood’s apocalyptic writing foregrounds the tension

between the protagonist’s nostalgic longings, and the

physical and emotional insecurities of exile, against

the need to stay alive in a radically different

landscape in a way that constitutes something meaningful

beyond simply haunting the ruins. The tension between a

nostalgic longing for the past and a very emotional

criticism of that past is a complicit driving force in

the novels. Gibson has written: ‘This perpetual toggling

between nothing being new, under the sun, and everything

having very recently changed, absolutely, is perhaps the

central driving tension of my work’ (Distrust That Particular

Flavor 53). Atwood shows this same toggling by her texts’

active engagement with medievalism in the midst of a

landscape characterised by biotechnological futurism and

through her speakers’ nostalgic lamentations more

broadly. As the examples of medievalism, cited above,

demonstrate, Atwood’s text reaches out nostalgically

toward multiple medieval pasts. This nostalgic reaching

toward the medieval is part of the general interweaving

of temporalities and collapsing of past/present/future

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that Joy and Dionne have posited (Joy and Dionne (2010):

6 in Dell (2011) 116). The god’s Gardeners exile

themselves to the utopic interstices of the broadly

dystopian civilisation, and from there enact the

nostalgic and utopian project and restoring some of that

dystopia to an Eden-like prelapsarian state. By

nostalgically evoking medieval frames of reference for

their values and customs, Atwood explores the

possibility of redemption among the ruins.

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When I began this thesis, I began with a straightforward

question: when you put a modern apocalyptic novel side-

by-side up against medieval apocalyptic literature, what

aspects or “inner life” of the texts might be brought to

light through their similarity, or illuminated by a lack

of similarity? I found even more compelling, possessing

more of what Graham Harman (as quoted in Joy) has since

called “allure”, not the corpus of apocalyptic sermons

and Revelation exegesis but in fact the Old English

elegies, nonetheless enmeshed with a deeply apocalyptic

worldview and whose interactions with the related ubi sunt

motif I was already familiar. I am grateful for Joy’s

recent article on “Weird Reading”, which urges scholars

to observe all the wildly unravelling points and

directions of interconnection between books, since what

has emerged out of my own analysis is a wealth of

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threads which seem to constantly interweave with each

other as the thesis develops toward a conclusion. To

wholly shave off the “rich and sensuous” multiplicity of

ideas that presented themselves would be to fail to show

you, my reader, that which is my point: holding these

two very unlike bodies of work up to each-other has

enabled an incredibly rich spectrum of aesthetic

connections to come to light. According to Joy, ‘what is

(at times) the deadening status quo of literary-

historical studies at present’ might be enlivened

(‘aiming for the carnivalesque over the accounting

office’) by scholarship which admits that reading a text

is a creative process, and that by creating new

correspondences you enrich that text (“Weird Reading”).

The two bodies of literature I chose suggested

themselves as, especially fitting for this sort of a

project since both texts deal quite self-consciously

with layers of reality and fabulation who boundaries

often blur, each re/constituting the other, as well as

the collapse of time, not just of historical time by the

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apocalypse, but of experiential time via the character’s

perspectival arc, where the narrative present recalls

the past and the future into itself. The ‘crumbling’

monuments, suggestive of medieval ruins, in Atwood’s

apocalyptic landscape reinforce an internal breaking

down of boundaries that is concomitant with her

protagonists’ ongoing confrontation with the potential

end of human history. The first two novels of the

MaddAddam trilogy gesture toward the absurdity of text

after civilisation, a sort of existentialist fear about

the sum artefact of humanity: devoid even of the comfort

that some future post-human archaeologist will dig up

the remains of our present civilisation and find

something there, whether the ‘stellar works of

architecture’ or ‘Shakespeare[’s] complete works’ to

serve as monuments ‘to the soul’s magnificence’ (Oryx

79, 78)—what Crake calls mere ‘scribbling, fiddling,

doodling’ (Oryx 167)—among the stratified resulting muck

of our Faustian “progress”.43

43 Since (by design) the post-human children of Crake areby design, incapable of either art or archaeology.

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Atwood’s novels also document the end of future-shock,

as the world’s collective ‘prosthetic memory’

continuously fills in the gap between (what will become)

our past and the onrushing present. The very prescience

of contemporary speculative fiction means that it does

not have access to The Ruin’s driving force of tension

between the mythic, legendary (Romano-British) past and

the narrative (Anglo-Saxon) present. Atwood’s novels

document our moving toward a world in which time, as

serial or sequential, has run out, and there is also no

more time left to reflect upon our current society

before we start experiences the apocalyptic changes to

the-world-as-we-know-it. What will an ongoing experience

of the end look and feel like? Either “it” can’t end

while “we” are in “it,” or else we, at some point,

become exiles from the world as we know it.

Given Atwood’s stated appreciation of literary diversity

and her self-consciously supple appropriation of myth

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and traditions from time- and place-diverse cultural

‘cauldrons,’ why consider the intertext from just one

source?44 John Cooke argues against such methods of

interpretation, averring that by emphasising one pattern

in Atwood’s work (e.g. the mythic intertext) that we

risk ‘trapping’ ourselves in ‘patterns which limit our

perceptions’ (John Cooke).45 But it might prove more

interesting to dive into an intertextual query with the

narrowness that is necessitated by depth, since ‘a text

can be queried at the level of single words and then

related to other texts at the same level of

abstraction,’ and this intensity of focus serves to open

up the text, revealing it to be ‘a vector through a

meta-table of all possible worlds’ (Michael Whitmore,

quoted in Joy “Weird Reading”). Recent criticism of the

Arthurian intertext in Atwood has proven fruitful for 44 “Atwood once declared that: ‘[w]e live in an age not only of genre cross-over but of literary cross-over, so you can throw all [literary genres] into the cauldron and stir.’ – Margaret Atwood, ‘Spotty-handed villainesses: Problems of Female Bad Behaviour in the Creation of Literature’ [lecture online] 1994. 22 May 2013 <http://gos.sbc.edu.a/atwood.html>.45 John Cooke, The Influence of Painting on Five Canadian Writers: Alice Munro, Hugh Hood, Timothy Findley, Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje, vol. 10 of Canadian Studies (Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1996), 151.

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scholars who seek to isolate Atwood’s treatment and

manipulation of gender and, separately, the gothic

sensibility.46 Turning to another seemingly fractional

intersect actually further enriches and enmeshes our

understanding of the bricolage of myth, tradition;

manipulation and fabulation in Atwood’s MaddAddam


‘Weird reading,’ proposes Joy,47 is an interpretive

technique which recognises that ‘[t]he simple act of

placing two “unlike” textual and other objects alongside

each other, that are not believed to have any relation

to each other, culturally-historically or otherwise…can

be a productive act of what Harman calls “vicarious

causation,” where two sensual objects “touch without

touching” each other on the “interior” of the reader’s

attention…It is here, in this carnal realm, where

objects don’t quite line up with eachother, that reading

46 (Downes, Duncan, McMillan, Wilson).47 Joy’s theoretical development of the practice of weird reading is inspired by the Speculative Realist approach.See “Weird Reading” for an outline of Speculative Realism in medieval literary studies.

G a r r a t t | 108

might be configured as a tracing, or description, of the

sticky residues of accidents [sensual façades, or

clusters of “notes”] that reveal the places where

objects both do, and do not, bleed into one another.’ A

close analysis of these facades demonstrates that Atwood

does not adopt the rhetoric of Old English elegiac poems

and passages from those sources directly. Those sources

have, however, contributed to the nexus of ideas behind,

and conventions of expression within, modern

post/apocalyptic fiction, and the correspondences

between Atwood’s apocalyptic novels and the elegiac

genre owe something to that genealogy. Atwood creates a

genre hybridity that is constantly contorting and

collapsing Otherness, and which thwarts attempts to

identify allegory.48 Atwood redeems the God’s Gardeners

by writing their survival of the metaphorical Flood, yet

their members are often shown to be morally flawed.

48 Problematically, the “otherness” within Atwood’s apocalyptic world is depicted partly through uncanny or grotesque animals –glowing rabbits, ‘liobams’, and rationalising pigs- created by genetic engineering, and thus contains a human element. Unlike the human-demon monsters of Anglo Saxon imagination--monsters whom the flood destroys--Atwood’s spliced animals survive. There is clearly more than one level of allegory playing out.

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Humanity overall moves constantly between the position

of victim and destroyer, just as the narrative toggles

between past and present, and between true narrative and


A weird reading of Atwood’s novels Oryx and Crake and The

Year of The Flood against a selection of Old English

elegy provides one method of interpretation which

reveals Atwood’s characters’ experience of time, place

and inter-subjectivity in the apocalyptic landscape. In

this landscape of irretrievable loss, ‘it is difficult

and challenging to trace the edges between self and

Other, between the Real and the fabulated’ (Joy “Weird

Reading”). Atwood’s description of nature as encircling,

threatening and ruined correspond to the Anglo-Saxon

intellectual and spiritual framework that informs Old

English elegy and which allows elemental imagery to be

used to express exile in the ways described above. To

the aspects of encircling, threatening, ruined, and

Other, Atwood adds the aspect of ‘transgressed’: upon

this transgression Atwood’s modification of the

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associative/symbolic use of ‘nature’ with the exile’s

lament. The deeply upsetting aspect of nature in

Atwood’s apocalyptic landscape lies not in its effect on

humans, but on humanity’s effect on it. The threats from

within nature exist explicitly because of human

transgression. Atwood’s texts foreground the dangers

inherent in the myth of our separation from nature, and

of anthropocentric technoscientific “progress”. Thus

humans are exiles in proximity to nature because they are

in proximity to nature; apart from rather than a part of

nature. For Atwood, the apocalyptic landscape is not

“fallen” because of a distance from God, as for the Old

English poets, but because in writing the ‘myth of our

separation from nature’ we have lost our ‘knowing by

heart the ways of the world.’

My weird reading draws on textual understanding and

criticism of scholars from fields as diverse as literary-

historical criticism, post-modern medieval studies,

sociology and even anti-disciplinary projects, which

assist in evaluating Atwood’s treatment and manipulation

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of the apocalyptic landscape. This diverse entanglement

of approaches is as ‘rigorous’ as it is

(proportionately) ‘unreasonable,’ as Joy recently said

of her manifesto of Weird Reading.49 This diversity aptly

facilitates the ‘new reading practices’ that Joy calls

for, which ‘multiply and thicken a literary text’s

sentient reality…that would seek to open and not close a

text’s possible “signiatures,” which are never entirely

collapsible to either the deep reality…nor merely its

sensual surfaces…but instead register what Graham Harman

has termed “allure”: “a special and intermittent

experience in which the intimate bond between a thing’s

unity and its plurality of notes somehow partially

disintegrates”’ (“Weird Reading”). Anxiety regarding

human futurity and the ‘ruinous’ state of the human race

– on a trajectory towards ruin – is explored through

Atwood’s novels’ confrontation with the decay of the

49 Joy notes, ‘that if there is one thing [Joy] is sceptical of, it is the idea there is such a thing as “rational clarity,” or Reason (with a capital R), with its strong investments in post-Enlightenment modes of disenchantment…intellectual (and other forms of) “enlightenment” come in many forms, not all of them “rational.” Certain forms of enchantment may also be necessary components of ethical and political life.

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English language and of the physical fate of the written

word in a speculatively post-apocalyptic world. Atwood’s

texts are complexly nostalgic and anachronistic,

enacting a reaching back toward the past on many levels,

enfolding mythical and literary allusions to the

medieval. Atwood reaches back through this past,

unconsciously, to a moment where nature was inimical and

untamed, as it was in the worldview of the Old English

elegies, rather than marginalized, mediated and

commodified. Ultimately, Atwood denies the inherent

dichotomy between human and nature that was key to the

consolation of Anglo-Saxon apocalyptic fears, and argues

instead that we must collapse that distinction if we are

to divert our present society (pre-catastrophic but

arguably already on an apocalyptic trajectory toward

ruin) away from a final catastrophic breakdown.

The title of this thesis highlights the fact that

contemporary apocalyptic texts, whilst always existing

as discrete and purely created objects, are also

artefacts. They possess as their foundations the traces

G a r r a t t | 113

of their interconnections. These ruins are monuments to

ways of thinking which are of the past (continuatively,

presently, and imminently), yet which remain available

for revisiting and reinterpretation, and are themselves

sites of re/construction.

The Old English ruins are only ‘one thread in a tangle

of many’ vectors through the intersections of ‘all

possible worlds’ of myth and traditions that Atwood

(knowingly or otherwise, by osmosis) negotiates to

‘compose’ Oryx and Crake and The Year of The Flood. They

are, however, useful for delving into the ways in which

Atwood’s bleak landscape revives and reinterprets

aspects of apocalyptically expectation that were part of

the Anglo-Saxon worldview. Her protagonists’

relationship with the environment emerges from a dark

ecology of collapsing worlds. These worlds interweave

contorting (interior & historical) times and crumbling

(moral and geo-political) boundaries. The literary

collapse of these surfaces carves out space for a “new

frontier,” revealing a dark hopefulness which—in a

G a r r a t t | 114

radical twist from her Old English predecessors—denies

the intervention of an omnipresent Creator (sitting in

judgement or acting in salvation), instead insisting

that we as human persons are fully the authors of our

own world.


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Beowulf: A Student Edition. Ed. George Jack. 1994. Oxford: Oxford

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Klinck, Anne L[ingard]. The Old English Elegies: A Critical Edition

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Year of The Flood." Literature Interpretation Theory 23.2 (2012):


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