Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Second Short Critical Paper G2/Goddard

Kotzwinkle’s Elephants

William Kotzwinkle’s 1971 short story collect Elephant Bangs Train is a fantastical collection of stories covering many subjects from Boy Scout outings turned melee to decadent social elite parties. Three of the stories, however, share elephants as a common thread. Perhaps the young Kotzwinkle simply liked writing elephant stories, and these three stories “A Most Incredible Meal,” the title story, “Elephant Bangs Train,” and “Elephant’s Graveyard” are more than subjects of interest. As entertaining as these stories are as works of imagination and fiction, they share myths about elephants. The importance of elephants is no secret to anyone. Times gone past when elephants provided more than mere scientific research, or a source of ivory. They are the material of myths of indigenous peoples of Africa and India.
In the modern world, elephants are still the fancy of new myths. Considering a myth as a fiction of a half-truth, especially one that forms part of an idea or an explanation, Kotzwinkle has touched on modern myths in each one of his three stories. As modern man looks at elephants, mostly confined to zoos and wildlife preserves, the conception of new myths are conjecture and convenient. Using scientific findings overlaid on these three stories, how true are the modern myths about Kotzwinkle’s elephants?
Modern myths surrounding long extinct wooly mammoths include far-fetched stories of their continued existence. The thought of them roaming or hiding in Alaska or Siberia is entertaining enough and the only proof is eyewitness accounts. Yet, genetically speaking, these elephants from the Pliocene epoch have left behind only traces in Asiatic elephants that live today.
Generally, when modern man meets a mammoth it is at the local natural history museum or in a textbook. In nature, the meeting with such a beast is reserved almost solely for the paleontologists who find skeletons, and more likely bones or fragments of bones. Rarely is an entire animal is uncovered.
Kotzwinkle’s “A Most Incredible Meal” introduces the uncovering of one Siberian Mastodon, and plays to one associated myth: can the meat of a discovered Mastodon be edible?
“The men of the village worked skillfully, cutting off great hunks of flesh, which were then salted, wrapped, and taken immediately to the castle. Each man received a cut of meat larger than his own torso” (Kotzwinkle 9). At the castle, the Count was entertaining his people, the most influential persons: the priest, the poet and of course Alexi Bulnovka, the woodcutter who found the animal. “The poet disliked the flesh of any beast or fish, but tonight he was gripped by a dark hunger. He laid a piece of the ancient meat on his tongue, and chewed into it” (Kotzwinkle 11). In this description of the poet’s enjoyment of the meat, Kotzwinkle embellishes the event of dinner. In the dark night, all the guests enjoyed themselves immensely: “a most incredible meal, said the Count” (Kotzwinkle 11). Kotzwinkle’s description of the party, the conversations around the dinner table, makes the feast of the ancient beast a plausible situation, however farfetched it may be.
To date, thirty-nine preserved bodies have been found, but only four of them are complete. In most cases, the flesh shows signs of decay before its freezing and later desiccation. Stories abound about frozen mammoth corpses that were still edible once defrosted, but the original sources indicate that the corpses were in fact terribly decayed, and the stench so unbearable that only the dogs accompanying the finders showed any interest in the flesh” (Farrand 730). Logically, the flesh of a newly butchered animal begins to decay within minutes. It is no surprise the carcass of a Mastodon would be decayed beyond recognition; hence, this myth is deflated.
Scientists surround modern day elephants, whether in zoos or wildlife preserves, these animals are available for research. In “Elephant Bangs Train,” the title story of Kotzwinkle’s collection we meet an adult Elephant who brawls with a train. “He had wandered from the herd, on the trail of greener leaves,” (Kotzwinkle 68). A rogue adult elephant strayed from the herd. (Incidentally, all adult males stray, only the females stay in herds.) As the elephant continues grazing he finds a strange trail, and on it is “a great serpent”. “It was dark-headed, with a cold, expressionless eye, and it lashed an enormous tail” (Kotzwinkle 68). Cleverly, Kotzwinkle has introduced the train from the elephant’s point of view. “He faced it, ready to debate over territory,” (Kotzwinkle 69). In the story, this adult male elephant stands for a challenge, which makes for an exciting bout between elephant and train, but falsely of behavior. To establish dominance, the larger, and the older of the adults is generally undisputed. Such displays occur during mating periods and with other elephants. The fighting between elephants and other species is uncommon, perhaps due to an elephant’s large size. Rather than the challenge suggested in the story, an elephant might throw up its trunk, or bugle, which is “usually addressed to smaller adversary, including humans. The same gesture is used to rip up and throw objects,” (Estes 7). Drawing from observed behavior, it is not impossible that an adult male would challenge a train, yet it is improbable.
Setting aside an elephants challenging trains, and the consumption of ancient meat of mastodons, some myths have a basis in truth, which is the case in the last story in the collection, “Elephant’s Graveyard.”
In the “Elephant’s Graveyard,” the reader meets three old and wise beings, King Sudarma, the mahout, the battle elephant trainer for fifty years, and chief elephant, the eldest bull. The three have years of battle, and have seen the growth of the kingdom of Daspur and its army in common. These experiences and age tie the three together, and the eldest bull, the chief elephant, is the first of them to die. “The eldest bull, said the mahout, raising his head, will die tonight. It is his wish to go outside, my lord, said the mahout. Lead him away, then, said the King,” (Kotzwinkle 140). In this passage, the mahout, the trainer, understands the life process of the old bull drawing near to his end.
Once outside the mahout and the elephant move through the night and deeper into the jungle. As he travels, the mahout on the back of the old bull, he reminisces past battles and memories. Granted, the story is really about the memories of conquest, success, and victory, but of all three stories, this story hits on a truth about elephants. “There is a legend in Africa that speculates that elder elephants knowing that their death was imminent left their herds and traveled to a place known as the Elephant Graveyard. It was believed this graveyard was the final destination for literally thousands of elephants and that their bones and tusks littered the area. This graveyard has never been discovered and has been the subject of speculation for many years” (Ploeg, 2). The idea of a highly evolved set of social standards among elephants leads to conjecture of our less scientific and more emotional ancestors to believe in the elephant graveyard. Even during the fictional times of the King of Daspur and his mahout, elephants were adorned with jewels, and battle armor and their relationships with the lumbering beasts include lifecycle knowledge. In all reality, the life spans of people in old times were about the same if not less than the life spans of elephants. In “Elephant’s Graveyard,” the mahout in his recollections talks to the old beast, and since he had been training elephants for fifty years, he is himself considerably old. This relationship makes the story one of tired old friends rather than creating, perpetuating, or making a myth.
“Very old bulls, ponderous hulks with the biggest tusks, are the most sedentary. They end their days in swamps where they can still consume quantities of herbage as their last set of molars wears out,” (Estes 13). With this model, the mahout leads the bull to the riverbank. “He saw a bright light and in it white cows dancing trunk to tail. His load fell away, and rose above the dawn,” (Kotzwinkle 147). Elegantly, the elephant dies.
Scientific findings of real elephant graveyards, human observation rooted in myth, and Kotzwinkle’s treatment of the death of elephants are different facets. Interestingly, if Mastodons exhibited the same ceremony of their own death as their modern day descendents, climbing into rivers to feed their last and ultimately sink in the mud, then there is no surprise that whole corpses are found. Likewise, it is not surprising when whole corpses of Mastodons are discovered there is still uneaten food in their mouths.
All three of Kotzwinkle’s stories are fun, and entertaining, and filled with humanistic sensibilities. “A Most Incredible Meal,” explores a possibility of what if, and the treatment obviously is man conquest over the Mastodon, simply by eating it. The myth of edible meat from an anciently dead animal however is outlandish. “Elephant Bangs Train,” is more of a conquest of nature over technology; after all, the elephant wins in the end by derailing the train. However, it is not an accurate portrayal of common elephant behavior. Lastly, “Elephant’s Graveyard,” is a story of death, and the story of friendship, however odd it may be with the direct correlation between man and beast. In this last story, Kotzwinkle has used a myth with scientific fact supporting it to treat a subject as profound as death. Even as works of fiction, Kotzwinkle has help to continue myths of elephants in a modern world.

Kotzwinkle, William. Elephant Bangs Train. Clinton, Massachusetts: The Colonial Press, 1971
Estes, Richard. The Safari Companion. Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 1993
Farrand, William. “Frozen Mammoths and Modern Geology.” Science Mar. 1961: 729-735
Ploeg, Dirk Vander. “Legend of Elephant Graveyard May Be True” ufodigest. Jun. 2007.

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