Address to May Gibbs Childrenâ€™s Literature Trust, Feathers Hotel
I’d like to start by acknowledging the traditional owners of this land.
And the gumnut fairies and banksia men.
I’d also like to express my gratitude to the May Gibbs Children’s Literature Trust Support Group for
four precious weeks in the studio apartment at Norwood, which, I’m told, is known as “The Burrow”.
And what a fine group of people they are: Nan, Jo, Richard, Elizabeth, Ian and Mary have been like
genial genies, appearing when I need them and promptly disappearing to let me get on with my
And to my aunt, Leonore Sanders, and all other lovers of children’s literature, thanks for being here
Before I start, I’d like to mention that Adelaide is my mother’s home town, and perhaps to brag a
little about my South Australian connections. In 1893, my great grandfather, Anthony ‘Bos’ Daly,
kicked 23 goals when playing Aussie Rules footy for Norwood. His record in a first grade match has
never been beaten, although it has been equalled by the great Graham ‘Polly’ Farmer.
My grandfather, Leo Travers, escaped a remote farm at Yatina to put himself through a law degree
by working partâ€time in a sausage factory. He later became a member of the South Australian
Parliament and a Supreme Court Judge. These stories about my grandfather and great grandfather
are true, but they are also part of my family’s mythology. More on that later.
The title of my talk today is Cooking the Magic Magpie Goose: writing Australian mythologies for
Every family has its own mythology. And when I say mythology, I’m not talking about deliberate lies
or accidental falsehoods, but about a vast storehouse of culturallyâ€derived stories, factuallyâ€based or
otherwise, that contain tacit values and encoded messages about how one should live one’s life,
how to react in a crisis, how to treat animals and the wider environment, how to relate to ‘People
Like Us’, and “The Other” – those people who are ‘Not like Us.’
My forebears and the forebears of most of us here today, carried invisible stowaways in their sea
trunks when they came to Australia. These were the ‘Otherworld people’ of northern European
mythology. Witches and wizards. The wee folk of Ireland. Welsh kelpies, Scots brownies. English
fairies, goblins and pixies.
When the colonists arrived in Australia they planted seeds and cuttings brought from ‘home’. They
also planted their stories and histories, and their fantasy creatures escaped, and to some extent
adapted to the Australian environment.
The stories we tell children often have the function of controlling their behaviour at a subliminal
level and influencing their aspirations – if kids wander into a forest, unaccompanied by a
responsible adult, they’d better watch out, or a witch might lure them into her sweet little
gingerbread cottage and shove them in her oven.
If a poor orphan girl suffers years of physical and mental abuse at the hands of cruel and exploitative
relatives, without a murmur of protest, then her fairy godmother might materialise and facilitate her
marriage to a handsome prince.
And, in that great parable of colonialism, if Jack is brave enough to climb a beanstalk to the Giant’s
land in the clouds, then it’s fine for him to steal the goose that lays the golden egg. What the Giant
thinks of the theft of his livelihood is of no consequence, for Giants are not ‘People Like Us”.
The colonists tried to create a new England, Ireland, Scotland or Wales in the antipodes, irrigating
and fertilising the soils, building dams, diverting waterways, planting European grasses, willows and
other environmental weeds. Practices that would eventually choke the waterways and dry them up.
They introduced hoofed animals, cars, heavy machinery, factories and power generators. They built
roads, towns and cities that would ultimately damage the land and pollute the atmosphere. And we
are only now starting to recognise the dire impacts of technological ‘progress’ on the Earth’s future.
So after Jack has stolen the magic goose – let’s call it a magic magpie goose – he has killed, gutted,
plucked and eaten it. And there will be no more golden eggs for Jack or the Giant.
In the late 1970s, when I was in my early twenties, I taught in a remote community in the Northern
Territory, and for the first time, I felt a stranger in the country of my birth.
One of my 10 year old pupils at Nangalala, in north central Arnhem Land, once said to me: ‘Your
grandmother is on the trampoline.’
I looked at the trampoline in the playground and saw a crow perched on it, and realised I had been
given the gift of kinship. I was now woven into a complex web of understandings that connected me
to my students, to their families and communities, to the crows, the kangaroo, the emu and quolls,
to the billabongs, rivers, rocks and trees.
One night I was riding home from the outdoor picture theatre with one of my students on the back
of the motor bike. I saw a light coming towards me on the dirt road. When the light came close, it
vanished. The girl on the back of my motorbike said the light was a ‘mokuy’, or spirit, and she saw
the mokuy run like a dog into the bushes.
The next day at school, the kids were excited, because I had seen a mokuy. So I asked them if they
wanted to write mokuy stories for me. They did.
And then I realised that mokuy stories functioned, like our fairy stories, as social sanctions. If kids
broke customary lore, a mokuy would come and get them. But did the adults really see mokuys, or
did they use mokuy stories to scare their kids into behaving appropriately?
Yes, the adults saw mokuys.
And my great grandmother saw wee men playing gaelic football at dusk in a fields in South Armagh,
in Ireland. She never told a lie in her life, my father assured me.
As an Australian children’s writer of Angloâ€celtic descent, I feel an uneasy relationship with the local
landscape. To my mind, the fairies, elves, goblins and leprechauns, born in the marshes and sodden
meadows and forests of the northern hemisphere, are as out of place here as sparrows and starlings.
As out of place as the feral cats, goats and pigs. Yet fairies, witches and their ilk are part of
mainstream Australian storytelling in a way that the Otherworld beings of indigenous mythology are
not. And who would say Australian kids should be denied Harry Potter, or Tolkien’s The Hobbit or
Lord of the Rings, because we should be encouraging Australian children to read only homeâ€grown
The early visionaries of Australian children’s literature attempted to nurture homeâ€grown
mythologies. May Gibbs, with her gumnut fairies and banksia men, is a shining example of an early
writer whose storytelling craft was inspired by her acute observation of the Australian bush. Frank
Dalby Davidson, with Children of the Dark People and Patricia Wrightson, with the Nargun and the
Stars, went a little further by hybridising European and indigenous mythologies.
Other Australian writers of nonâ€Indigenous descent, including myself, have followed suit. My first
published picture book, The Glow Worm Cave, was published by Aboriginal Studies Press in 1999,
with the support of the South East Tasmanian Aboriginal Corporation. When writing this story, I
didn’t want to appropriate Indigenous culture in any way, but I also felt compelled to tell the Truth
about the prior occupation of the landscape – and I use the word ‘Truth’ here, in an abstract, rather
than literal sense.
Any marriage between European and indigenous mythologies is an uneasy alliance. Most Indigenous
people are justifiably fed up with being misrepresented in the mainstream Australian media and
literature. In this age of political correctness, arts funding bodies and many Australian publishers shy
away from supporting nonâ€Indigenous writers to write indigenous characters, or addressing soâ€called
‘Indigenous themes’. But would we say to an Indigenous writer, sorry, you can’t write white
Australian characters because you don’t have sufficient cultural awareness to understand them?
Isn’t it time past time all Australian writers, and the consumers of our stories, developed a greater
Isn’t the view that only Giants are qualified to talk about Giants, akin to telling Jack, whatever you
do, don’t mention the Giant!
What I would suggest that is that if Jack really wants to be a hero, he should right back climb up the
beanstalk, and, like Mr Rudd, apologise for stealing the magic magpie goose. Then, if Jack can
persuade the giant not to grind his bones to make his bread, he should sit down and listen to the
Giant’s victim impact statement, and decide what to do about it.
But what can Jack do, now that he has cooked and eaten the magic magpie goose?
He can do what he is good at, which is to keep telling stories. Jack should also encourage the Giant
to tell his stories too, and listen to the Giant. And the next time Jack tells the story of the magic
magpie goose, he will do so with far greater honesty and sensitivity towards the Giants.
The magic magpie goose is not, of course, the only story that Jack and the Giant should be telling.
Jack and the Giant both have a vast storehouse of culturallyâ€derived stories, new and old, that don’t
preach to children, but rather, convey tacit messages about appropriate values and behaviours. And
from the dialogue between Jack and the Giant, honest, original and dynamic stories should emerge.
Stories that will help the imaginations of Australian children to take flight, to soar above the cities,
across this continent, and to ultimately understand what it means to be Australian.