I’ve had a few people ask me recently about the mythological background to Bu, the main character of Fosterling. The protagonist grew out of many different pressures, but one combined influence on his development were legends of the yeti, sasquatch, and the maero.
All three creatures are described as gigantic, bipedal, hairy, and living in isolation in the wilds. The cryptid which the novel draws on most is the yeti, native to Nepal or Tibet. Sightings have had various explanations. One is that the yeti is otherworldly – a kind of spiritual being. Another is that it is an increasingly rare, separate species of hominid. Other arguments are that sightings may be mistaken glimpses of Himalayan wildlife: possibilities range from the Langur monkey to the Himalayan brown bear. (The latest fur samples ostensibly from a yeti proved to be from the Himalayan goral, a four-legged mammal that looks something between a camel and a goat: a ruminant with a hunch. I suppose in this case, it’s a ruminant that dispels a hunch.)
Other theories are that the yeti might be a human hermit. (Driven into hiding by his unusual appearance, I wondered? And there one of the seeds for Bu started to shift in its husk, deep in the imagination’s soil.) Another possibility is that the yeti once existed, but no longer does, and that in this sense, oral legends are a kind of distorted history: articulating the human race’s collective memory of an extinct ape, or even another hominid such as the Neanderthal (who interbred with homo sapiens around 80,000-50,000 years ago).
Although Fosterling only touches briefly on the Maori legend of the maero – the monstrous, hairy man of the hinterland – this local myth helped me to imagine Bu in a New Zealand setting. The maero has various other generic names (maeroero; mohoao). Like the patupaiarehe (fairy folk), it is from the iwi-atua, the spiritual realm. Most versions I’ve heard say that the maero, who had disheveled hair and long, sharp fingernails, was savage and man-eating. In a commonly retold tale, a human protagonist, Tukoio, decapitates and dismembers a maero, carrying the head away as his trophy. Yet the head still speaks: it cries out, ‘Come help me, my children!’ – and Tukoio, terrified, runs away, thinking that the maero is trying to summons more of his own kind to overcome him. When Tukoio himself recruits reinforcements, the maero has ‘pulled himself together’ in a wonderfully literal sense: he has reassembled himself, and vanished back in to the bush.
There is a full kete of rational explanations for the origins of the maero myth. Some say that the stories grew from two particularly tall, powerful families in the North Island; others that the stories of maero (and even other fairy folk) stemmed from tales of enemies who lived in the dense New Zealand bush, but were rarely seen, and who seemed to have the ability to melt into nothingness, softly as fog or snow. Other explanations resemble those of the yeti: the maero may be a reclusive human; an otherwise scientifically undocumented man-ape; or the figure may harbour cultural memories of other hominids, encountered before Maori migration to Aotearoa.
What intrigues me is that so many cultures tell similar tales of giant, elusive bipedal creatures of the wilds: from the Woodwose in Medieval Europe, to the Yeren in China, the Yowie of the Australian Aborigine and the Alma of Mongolia. That the crop of stories is so widespread makes me believe they must have once sprung from the grain of fact.
Part of the genesis of Bu was thinking about what could give rise to a resurgence of these stories in the here and now; how to make a credible, realistic character walk out of the myths and mists of our shared past. This pressed up against a question that had haunted me after two of my own ‘mis-sightings’ – what I like to call ‘visual mondegreens’ – where the brain misinterprets and invents on the basis of a first, skating glance. How would parents protect a severely disfigured, or otherwise physically disadvantaged child, who was nevertheless emotionally astute, gifted with empathy and intelligence? One of the other triggers for the novel is the fear many parents feel when their young sons have to tackle a society that still insists on certain versions of masculinity. Yet on another level, the book is a lament for what we have done to our wild places: for the way we have hounded so many real, distinctive, rare and beautiful creatures into the very forests of fiction from which the novel borrows.