The Leto Bundle
Marina Warner: The Leto Bundle (2001)
Contributed by Milada Franková
The Leto Bundle is a complex, hypertextual novel spun out of the ancient myth of Leto, who is raped, exiled and gives birth to the twins in the wilderness. Her story is repeated across millennia, told through a variety of historical records from different places. Eventually, Leto-Ella-Nellie seeks refugee status for herself and her daughter Phoebe in 1990s Albion, where she hopes to find Phoebe’s twin brother Phoebus, whom she had given away for adoption amidst the dangers of civil war. The motley records of the Leto story, known as the Leto Bundle in the National Museum of Albion, are an inspiration for Kim McQuy, whose History Starts With Us movement aims to transform the world into a safe and welcoming home for everyone. There are, however, hints that Kim might be Phoebus.
Marina Warner was born in London on 9 November 1946 to an Italian mother and an English father. She read French and Italian at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. She is the author of numerous works of fiction, including novels, short stories and children’s books, as well as non-fiction studies. Her academic work is mainly concerned with mythology, fairy tales and cultural archetypes from a historical and from women’s perspective. Warner has served on a number of prestigious committees, including her current appointment to the Committee of PEN since 2001, whilst holding several academic appointments. She has received numerous literary prizes and awards, and was made a CBE in 2008.
In a Dark Wood (1977); The Skating Party (1982); The Lost Father (1988); Indigo, or Mapping the Waters (1992); The Leto Bundle (2001)
Into the Dangerous World (1989); Mermaids in the Basement (1993); Wonder Tales: Six Stories of Enchantment (editor) (1994); Murderers I Have Known and Other Stories (2002)
The Dragon Empress: Life and Times of Tz’u-his 1835-1908 (1972); Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary (1976); Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism (1981); Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form (1985); Imagining a Democratic Culture (1991); L’Atalante (1993); Richard Wentworth (1993); From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers (1994); Managing Monsters: Six Myths of Our Time (1994); Donkey Business Donkey Work: Magic and Metamorphoses in Contemporary Opera (1996); The Inner Eye Beyond the Visible (1996); No Go the Bogeyman: Scaring, Lulling and Making Mock (1998); Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds (2002); Signs & Wonders: Essays on Literature and Culture (2003); Phantasmagoria (2006)
Leto: in Greek mythology a Titaness, who was raped by Zeus and pursued by Hera; gave birth to twins Apollo and Artemis and found shelter with a she-wolf; Leto-Laetitia – in twelfth-century Lycania, seduced and promised marriage by her guardian Lord Cumar; driven out by his wife and, like Leto, gives birth to twins Phoebus and Phoebe in the wilderness; saved and nurtured by a she-wolf; in the nineteenth century she is found as a stowaway with twin toddlers on a ship, accompanied by a host of archeological treasures from Lycania; Ella – emerges with her small twins in Tirzah during its 1970s civil war; Ella-Nellie – comes to Enoch as a refugee from Tirzah on a temporary permit in order to accompany Pheobe during her operation to treat her burnt skin; she works as a domestic help for rock singer Gramercy Poule and disappears after Kim Mc Quy's murder
Phoebe: Leto's twin daughter, who is badly burned in a missile attack on the road in Tirzah; after a media campaign she is allowed entry into Albion for a skin operation; at the end of the novel she studies at college and still hopes to be granted permanent settlement
Phoebus: Leto's twin son; given away by Leto for adoption in Albion when life in Tirzah, ravaged by civil war, was precarious and hopeless
Kim Mc Quy: a young primary-school teacher and founder of the HSWU (History Starts With Us) movement; passionately involved with the Leto Bundle materials; adopted from Tirzah by an Enoch couple, he has no memory of his early childhood and family; killed by a thug under unexplained circumstances; questions arise whether his true identity is actually that of Phoebus
Hortense Fernly: curator in the National Museum; involved with the Leto Bundle exhibit; helps Kim with his research and is infected by the latter’s enthusiasm; in her early thirties; torn between her attraction to Kim and her loyalty to her defunct marriage to David, who is living and teaching in Shiloh
Gramercy Poule: a popular rock star in her thirties; fifteen years into her career, she wants to try a new approach with committed songs; having become interested in Kim and his HSWU campaign, she decides to continue with Kim’s mission after he has been killed
The setting of The Leto Bundle spans temporal and geographical boundaries: from ancient Greece, early Christian Middle-East to nineteenth-century Turkey to Tirzah in the 1970s and Enoch, Albion, in the 1990s. It remains unclear why Warner invented places like Tirzah, while she simply renamed London as Enoch and England as Albion.
The National Museum of Albion has inadvertently attracted a motley crowd of seekers after myth and a new direction in life to an exhibit of a sarcophagus from fourth-century Lycania. Its mysterious content soon becomes known as the Leto Bundle. The self-appointed speaker of the crowd, Kim McQuy, becomes obsessed with the identity and story of the woman's body which is missing from the mummy bundles found in the sarcophagus, together with various scrolls and fragments of manuscript records of different versions of the story of Leto, the Titaness and the woman Leto-Laetitia, or several women bearing these names. Hortense Fernly, the museum curator, is interested in the exhibit as well as in Kim. With her help, Kim goes through nineteenth-century translations of the Leto fragments. It is suggested that the Greek Goddess, the twelfth-century Leto-Laetitia, and the nineteenth-century stowaway could be one and the same woman metamorphosed. Fragmented chronology adds to the sense of intertwined stories: the passage telling of Leto and her new-born twins, saved and nurtured by a she-wolf in the wilderness, parallels that of the mythological Leto, raped by Zeus and hounded into exile by Hera, as well as that of the girl Leto-Laetitia in Cadenas-la Jolie, who was seduced by her guardian Cumar and driven out by his wife to give birth and die in a deserted cemetery. While enemies who have been turned into frogs appear in both the mythological and the human Leto stories, a pair of golden earrings, the twins named Phoebus and Phoebe, and the setting of ancient tombs establish the link to the nineteenth-century stowaway. When this desperate young mother, hiding on a ship that transports archeological finds to Albion, hopes to return with her small twins to human society, they are instead sold into slavery in Turkey only to reemerge once again in our time in the war-torn Eastern town of Tirzah, still in need of shelter and safety. The Leto myth of expulsion and exile continues as a contemporary refugee story. The little girl Phoebe is severely burned in an explosion, and to protect Phoebus from the ravages of war, Leto, now Ella, gives the boy away for adoption in the West. When years later she is granted temporary asylum in Albion for Phoebe’s skin operation, there seems to be a tantalizing chance of a happy reunion, when her and Kim McQuy's paths cross briefly. However, Kim is killed, whilst Ella-Nellie disappears in the process of contesting her deportation order and hoping that the murdered Kim was not Phoebus after all. Kim's HSWU campaign is taken over by Gramercy Poule, a popular rock singer, to continue his work on the erosion of the never-ending myth and reality of expulsion, exile and failed hopes of a new home and acceptance.
Warner's body transformations are fantastic and mythological rather than physical. Leto is like Sycorax, who in Warner’s previous novel Indigo, or Mapping the Waters (1992) starts as a pre-colonial Caribbean healer, is then turned into the Shakespearean witch by the encounter with the colonizer, and finally lives on as a myth into our time, personified in the story-telling nurse Serafine. Similarly, Leto's fantastic transformation evolves across the ages and geographical distances: she is the mythological Titaness raped by Zeus; she is the young Leto-Laetitia in twelfth- century Christian Cadenas-la-Jolie, miraculously surviving with her new-born twins in the den of a she-wolf; she is the wild-looking stowaway on Her Majesty's ship in the nineteenth-century, sold into slavery only to emerge from the dirt road of past ages onto the tarmac of a war-torn twentieth-century town that could be anywhere: in Africa, the Middle-East, or former Yugoslavia. She is Ella and Nellie seeking asylum in Albion, and she is also the mummy missing from the tomb which hides some of the old versions of her story.
Warner treats gender from a mildly feminist perspective in keeping with her historical studies of myth and fairy tales and their tellers. Leto in all of her incarnations is harmed by men because she is vulnerable in the world of men. On the other hand, she can muster incredible strength in the battle for survival. The wisdom and power of the Sibylline voices of old nurses and story-tellers is evolved from the very start by the she-wolf Lycia, who imparts feminine wisdom to Leto to soothe her and prepare her for the future encounter with the male element. Leto survives, and her daughter Phoebe believes her to be indestructible, picturing her "in big landscapes, against huge skies, forging her way ahead".
Marina Warner's first novel of the new millennium, The Leto Bundle (2001), received well-deserved praise in reviews as an incisive and topical novel (The Times), which brilliantly communicates the kaleidoscope of cultures and nationalities encountered by Leto (Literary Review), and offers a compelling and erudite meditation on exiles against the background of Europe's past and present traumas (Scotland on Sunday). On the other hand, Alex Clark in The Guardian, while commending the novel for being underwritten by thoughts of impeccable integrity and significant depth, takes issue with the novelist for accumulating narrative clutter and only performing a mild, half-hearted satire of the contemporary world, particularly that of England re-named Albion, with Enoch as its capital. Eventually, Clark asks the question: if this is just another story, why should we care?
It could be argued that we should care precisely because Leto's is yet another, continually repeated tragic story. Moreover, Warner's picture of contemporary attitudes is not merely a half-hearted satire, but an incisive observation. In The Leto Bundle, Warner succeeds in combining the mythological and historical aspects with a strong contemporary moral message and literary experiment. The heroines of all of her novels, whether fantastic figures or ordinary humans, frequently reveal close ties to fairy tales and mythology, the interest in which can be traced to Warner's non-fiction studies. In this text, the fantastic incarnations are augmented by Warner's hypertext of a variety of registers from inscriptions on ancient tombs, magic words on mummy wrappings, chronicle records and archeological catalogues, to modern pop lyrics and e-mail correspondence, complete with addresses, dates and hours. All those texts, though separated by millennia, are connected by countless references to mythological, fairy-tale and biblical stories, which in Warner's imagining "open up gaps in time" and whisper to us through them like the winged-feet messengers on ancient vases (The Leto Bundle).
In her fantastic transformations, Leto is that messenger speaking to us through gaps in time. Her message is weighty and disturbing. It tells of the unrelenting cycle of rape, expulsion and asylum seeking. The myth of Leto bears such a curse: she will never rest until she and her babies are no longer taken for strangers. With this, Warner makes a powerful statement in favour of migrants and asylum seekers, not using mild satire but rather levelling a severe accusation against contemporary society, its institutions and individuals, and their callous ways of treating refugees. Warner believes, as she points out in her "Author's Statement" that "writing makes something happen, in spite of evidence to the contrary, so it's important to take part through words and pictures made of words and ideas made of both" (contemporarywriters.com). Kim, the hero of The Leto Bundle, is trying to make something happen when he puts forward his radical hopes for the future: "not looking backwards, at some exhausted notion of heritage. No forced folk identities, no ethnic songs and costumes and rites to whip up into enmities".
Structurally, The Leto Bundle follows the pattern of a series of hypertexts spun out of a mythological hypotext. Warner has created a rich pastiche of various versions of Leto's tragic story as gathered together from many sources recorded in the course of millennia by different scribes, nuns, monks, story-tellers, archeologists and translators. In the novel, these old texts permeate a contemporary story with its web pages and e-mail messages. By developing a poetics of hypertextuality, Warner interlaces the mythological and archeological mysteries of the story with topical debates on immigration, asylum seekers, race and racism, multiculturalism and gender. She makes a powerful topical plea against entrenched national identities and in favour of toleration towards migrants by reinforcing the lesson on what "a mish mash of traditions […] a tangle of paganism and Christianity, of fantasy and fact" we all really come from.
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- Franková, Milada. "Marina Warner's Sibyls and Their Tales". Brno Studies in English S9 (2003), 117-22.
- Williams-Wanquet, Eileen. "Marina Warner’s Indigo as Ethical Deconstruction and Reconstruction". Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction (46:3) (2005 Spring), 267-82.
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- Zabus, Chantal. "Mingling and Metamorphing: Articulations of Feminism and Postcoloniality in Marina Warner’s Fiction". In Acheson, James and Ross, Sarah C.E., ed. and introd. The Contemporary British Novel since 1980. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, 118-28.
http://www.contemporarywriters.com/authors/?p=auth99 (British Council website)
http://lion.chadwyck.co.uk/lion_ref_abell (Literature Online)