Chatwin’s The Songlines: Fiction Or Non-Fiction?

Bruce Chatwin in What Am I Doing Here?:

Early on I [...] decided to write an imaginary dialogue in which both narrator and interlocutor had the liberty to be wrong. This was a difficult concept for English-speaking readers. I had a running battle as to whether the book should be classified as fiction or non-fiction. “Fiction,” I insisted. “I made it up.” A Spanish reviewer had no such difficulty. A libro de viaje was a travel book and a novela de viaje … there was Don Quixote.

In the Swedish translation of The Songlines I read, a paperback published by Brombergs, there’s no indication of this whatsoever. However, although one can’t be sure of the details, Chatwin’s overall account of songlines seems correct. I searched Amazon and found a few books that mention them. Most are references to Chatwin, though. Lonely Planet Australia calls Chatwin “famously self-indulgent but outwardly perceptive,” and writes the following about songlines, not citing him:

Across the continent cultural elements were maintained and transmitted in oral forms. Of particular importance was the use of songs to convey the stories regarding the creative activities of ancestor figures during the “Dreaming”. Short songs contain [Amazon’s scan has lost a word or two here] powerful information might relate to specific localities or, when a series is strung together, a dreaming track. In this latter case, such series are sometimes called songlines and can refer to tracks extending over considerable distances. A detailed knowledge of such songs was held to be a sign of great power in an individual.


Each ancestor’s spiritual energy flows along the path it travelled during the Dreamtime and is strongest at the points where it left physical evidence of its activities, such as a tree, hill or claypan. These features are called “sacred sites”. [...] Each person is spiritually bound to the sacred sites that marke the land associated with his or her spirit ancestor. [...] Songs explain how the landscape contains these powerful creator ancestors [...]. They also have a practical meaning: telling of the best places and the best times to hunt, and where to find water in drought years. They can also specify kinship relations and identify correct marriage partners.

From The Dreaming Universe: A Mind-Expanding Journey Into the Realm Where Psyche and Physics Meet by Fred Alan Wolf (doesn’t cite Chatwin):

[T]he Australian Aboriginal people believe that a Great Spirit dreamed all of reality, the whole universe of it, into existence. They say that the land they walk is a reflection of this Great Spirit’s dream, and when they walk this land, they become aware of the songs of their legends, which resonate with the land itself. These songs resonate as song lines in the earth and give them directions. There are stories of runners moving across the land at great speed in the dark, seeing the glow of the song as vividly as if they were running along a great lighted highway. They can find out where to go, where the sacred grounds are, as if this spirit were still speaking to them and lighting the way.

David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World does cite Chatwin, but along with several others – for instance T. G. H. Strehlow’s out of print Aranda Traditions (also cited by Chatwin and Wolf). Abram’s book contains a few passages on “The Dreaming” and songlines which look interesting.

The above was posted to my personal weblog on June 2, 2004. My name is Peter Lindberg and I am a thirtysomething software developer and dad living in Stockholm, Sweden. Here, you’ll find posts in English and Swedish about whatever happens to interest me for the moment.

Posted around the same time:

The seven most recent posts:

  1. Tesugen Replaced (October 7)
  2. My Year of MacBook Troubles (May 16)
  3. Tesugen Turns Five (March 21)
  4. Gustaf Nordenskiöld om keramik kontra kläddesign (December 10, 2006)
  5. Se till att ha två buffertar för oförutsedda utgifter (October 30, 2006)
  6. Bra tips för den som vill börja fondspara (October 7, 2006)
  7. Light-Hearted Parenting Tips (September 16, 2006)