Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 632
In her first novel, perhaps her best known, Emma Bull weaves a compelling story about urban history, the 1980’s music scene in Minneapolis, and feminism’s legacy of independent womanhood through the fantasy of a war over the direction of city life carried out beyond sight of humans. Bull employs a realist style in the traditional sense of nineteenth century English novels. War for the Oaks is full of exposition; it fulfills the dual functions of the novel—entertainment and instruction. The plot and characters are finely detailed and utterly convincing.
It is part of Bull’s strategy as a fantasy writer to make readers believe in magic. Bull achieves this through carefully instructing her readers with the pointed irony of the phouka’s lectures to Eddi in the legends, manners, and desires of the faeries Eddi encounters. In her turn, Eddi explains for the phouka the details of Minneapolis’ music scene and the history of its extensive park system.
These two intersecting motifs—music and urban space—are woven into a classic story of good versus evil. Music and parks become the means and site of the heated battle between the warring members of Faerie because they represent aspects of human culture that, like magic, exceed the mundane and enable boundary crossings. Parks are constructed places of nature within the built environment of the city, and music is a cultural form that taps the natural rhythms of blood and breath. Both display controlled anarchy. Moreover, because the Minneapolis music scene of the 1980’s presented such a rich mixture of styles—New Wave, punk, heavy metal, funk among them (Bull’s acknowledgments include such legendary bands as Boiled in Lead, Tetes Noires, and Prince and the Revolution)—it provides a fitting image of the possibility of integrating vast differences into a rich aural texture.
Eddi’s band represents this kind of expansive inclusion as she adds a variety of musicians: male and female, black and white, human and fey. She chooses them because they can play together, forging a unique sound out of the diverse talents of the various players. Her vision of a band that transcends the limits of each individual and makes something new is mirrored in the novel’s utopian view of the city as a location where a variety of people intermingle, destroying the rigid separations forged by class, race, gender, and sexuality.
As a shape-shifter, the phouka best embodies the possibilities open to those who refuse to be categorized. Able to assume both human and animal form, the phouka offers himself as protector and guide to the Seelie Court, but he is in Minneapolis to learn as well. Faerie is limited by its very immortality, its eternity. Although the phouka can shape-shift, he remains essentially unchanged until he meets Eddi and falls in love with her. Human emotion, with its varied timbres and contradictions, challenge the rigidity of Faerie.
This novel, coming as it did in the midst of a feminist revision of virtually all science fiction and fantasy, was highly acclaimed. War for the Oaks moves away from social protest toward a vision of postrevolutionary culture offered by the gay and lesbian community’s response to AIDS. Eddi’s final challenge to the Unseelie Court, to end forever the eternal battles through a power other than violence, suggests a way out of the cycles of aggression found in corporate and patriarchal societies. Even if the Faerie realm is ruled by queens, it remains locked in an ancient masculine ritual of warfare repeating strategies from the Middle Ages. Modern culture, if it is to survive and allow for human creativity, must find another method of acting out conflicts. The wild possibilities opened by many bodies in motion—dancing to loud rhythms—prove more decisive than deadly force.
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