Thursday, April 10, 2014

Self-Congratulatory

My story "Misbegotten" (see the sidebar) appears on the 2013 Locus Recommended Reading List. It is in truth an homage to Flannery O'Connor's "Temple of the Holy Ghost," which is in itself (it seems to me) an homage to the Dumb Ox.

If you like that story, then you may consider voting for it in the Locus Poll and Survey. The deadline is April 15. You might also consider casting a vote for Beneath Ceaseless Skies, where I am honored to have my stories appear. What other pro journal devotes itself so exclusively and successfully to literary adventure fantasy?

Thursday, April 3, 2014

At the Edge of the Sea

I'm pleased to announce that my story "At the Edge of the Sea" has been published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. It was inspired by Rachel Carson's books about marine life, Adolf Portmann's Animal Forms and Patterns, and Ernst Haeckel's Kunstformen der Natur. I already wrote a bit about it here.

At any rate, the podcast is coming soon. BCS is one of the only venues for the kind of fantasy I like to read, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to have my work appear there.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Lin Carter on Naming

On to Chapter 10 of Lin Carter's Imaginary Worlds: "A Local Habitation and a Name: Some Remarks on Neocognomina."* This is a continuation of a previous post.

Lin** heads the chapter with the Tsargol Records Genesis 2:19, in which God brings the animals before Adam so that he can name them. God gave the earth to man for his dominion, and to man belongs the office of naming. The two are indissolubly tied – but that is a subject for another post. Lin goes on to quote Auden: "A Proper Name must not only refer, it must refer aptly, and this aptness must be publicly recognizable."

Let me make an aside here. The authority of a parent to name their child is a great authority indeed. I sometimes feel, in an almost mystical sense, that the act of naming exercises an influence over a child's destiny until the day they die and, perhaps, beyond. My parents have revealed that I was almost named Richard; well, I cannot imagine life as Richard any more than I can imagine being a different person. They clearly chose the correct name. It horrifies me when parents are flippant or cute about naming their children.

My wife and I went to a diner late one night a few years ago, and the waiter came over and introduced himself as…well, as having a name most people would find quite humorous. Naturally, being the well-bred people we are, we merely smiled and opened our mouths to order our coffee. Surprised, he asked why we weren't laughing. Apparently his mother had given him his name, and he'd never introduced himself to a patron without being laughed at. Imagine going through life like that! How could someone be so frivolous, to name their child as though they were a cute doll that would never grow up and have to make their way in the world?

My own children's names I thought long and carefully about. I named my son after my father and grandfather, but his middle name is a rather ornate Greek name that isn't commonly encountered in its masculine form, and has to do with the season in which he was born. Both my children have martyrs' names from the Roman Canon. We considered others, of course, but there's a strange retrospective sense of predestination. Beforehand, we could have chosen anything, but after the fact it was always going to be what we picked, forever, from the foundation of the world.

There's a touch of that in writing. I find that I have to be careful about affixing placeholder names to characters until I can think of something better, because they tend to become canonical and irreplaceable despite my intentions. Consider the example of E. R. Eddison, the consummate stylist who wrote an epic fantasy novel in Jacobean prose while retaining the ridiculous names of his childhood make-believe games, like Goldry Bluzsco and Fax Fay Faz. I'm willing to bet that he simply couldn't have written the story otherwise.

All of which is to say, the subject of naming must be approached diffidently, because we have less freedom in the matter than it may sometimes seem.

Lin begins by discussing Robert E. Howard's much-criticized penchant for using actual historical names. I can understand the criticism, but to be honest it's never really bothered me. REH was looking for connotations, and was generally pretty good about picking the right ones. Leigh Brackett's Sword of Rhiannon I have a harder time forgiving. What could she have been thinking, to have used Welsh place-names for an ancient Martian civilization? Babylonian I could see. Assyrian, too, or Egyptian. One of those desert empires that made really big stone buildings. But "Caer" on Mars? And "Ywain" as a lady-name?? And "Rhiannon" as a male entity???

Of course, a decent historical name is arguably better than a really stupid made-up one. Lin commends Moorcock's Imrryr (though why the double r?) but singles out R'lin K'ren A'a for contempt. How exactly did those mysterious preadamite races pronounce words with apostrophies?

As to aptness in common-nouning, Lin cites the opening to Edgar Rice Burroughs' Thuvia, A Maid of Mars as a prime example. Happy choice! I will repeat it here, though I've done so on this blog before:
Upon a massive bench of polished ersite beneath the gorgeous blooms of a giant pimalia a woman sat. Her shapely, sandalled foot tapped impatiently upon the jewel-strewn walk that wound beneath the stately sorapus trees across the scarlet sward of the royal gardens of Thuvan Dihn, Jeddak of Ptarth, as a dark-haired, red- skinned warrior bent low toward her, whispering heated words close to her ear.
Even without having read this passage, it's plain to anyone that ersite is a hard, granite-like stone susceptible to cutting and polishing, suited to upholding the shapely posteriors of scantily clad Martian princesses, while the pimalia is clearly a small, exotic tree out of place anywhere but the ornamental gardens of Martian jeddaks. The sorapus, of course, is a bit like a horse chestnut, a bit like a loquat, and a bit like an elephant, with big leaves and knobby, many-branching trunks.

I've written on the subject of common noun invention in previous posts, so won't dwell on it here. The point is to introduce apposite new terms for common things so as not to break the spell of the story.

For this reason Lin excoriates the style of one Jane Gaskell***, whose works I have not read, but who uses words like "epaulettes," "the big brass," and "H.Q." in a novel-series set during the time of Atlantis. She corresponded with C. S. Lewis, who advised her that names in fantasies should be "beautiful and suggestive as well as strange; not merely odd." He adds: "In a fantasy, every precaution must be taken never to break the spell, to do nothing which will wake the reader and bring him with a bump to the common earth. All magic dies at the touch of the commonplace."

Lin spends several pages discussing letter choice. He warns against an overuse of Q, X, and Z in attempting to create exotic-sounding place-names. This is excellent advice, though he might just as well have mentioned the abuse of double (and triple!) letters, a practice to which he was unfortunately addicted. Tolkien is presented as an antidote. He uses English-derived names for place-names in the common tongue, which eases the (English) reader into the story. Verisimilitude and mystery are heightened by occasionally referring to the more ancient, Elvish names, of which the common names are sometimes corruptions. For instance, the Brandywine is known to the Elves as Baranduin.

This reminds one of the many towns and rivers in England whose names come down from pre-Roman times, such as York, which derives from the latinized Eburacum. The landscape mirrors this layeredness. In a single day I once toured Salisbury Cathedral, went by bus to Stonehenge and Avebury, walked past Silbury Hill (a prehistoric mound used by Roman road surveyors) to an open Bronze-Age barrow, saw from a distance a white horse-figure cut into the green downs, and returned to town to dine on venison at a medieval inn. At the time it struck me that Eriador could be an immense Salisbury Plain.

There is, Lin claims, an "almost irresistible tendency to make up names which begin with 'T.'" I must confess to never having experienced this myself. S is also singled out as an offender. It is quite true from a practical point of view that one should avoid having too many names that begin with the same letter. Then again, one can get a little too worried about it, so that it becomes obvious and annoying.

Come to think of it, though, the character names in LOTR are pretty well distributed. If anything Tolkien would seem to incline toward F and G, with his Frodo, Fredegar, Folco, Faramir, Gandalf, Glamdring, Galadriel, Gondor, and Gimli. Lin criticizes his overuse of the ending -or for countries, e.g., Arnor, Eriador, Gondor, Mordor. Which, I suppose, is valid enough, though it's never bothered me.

With that, on to Chapter 11: "Tricks of the Trade: Some Advanced Techniques of World-Making."

* Is "neocognomina" a real word? Or was Lin indulging in a bit of unwarranted neology?

** He writes so chattily, I find I must call him by his praenomen. It's similar to the way people can't help but refer to Elizabeth Gaskell as Mrs. Gaskell, and to J. R. R. Tolkien as Professor Tolkien (though no one ever calls C. S. Lewis Professor Lewis – I suspect pipes have to do with it).

*** The great grandniece of Elizabeth Gaskell, mentioned in the previous footnote. Apparently she went on to become a journalist and an astrologer.

Monday, March 3, 2014

What Is So Great About The Worm Ouroboros?

A while back I discovered the statistics section of my blogging dashboard. Apparently I've just passed the ten thousandth visit since starting this blog in late 2011, thanks in no small part to the dedication of all the loyal spam-bots who carefully pore over everything I've written. Thank you all.

Most amusingly, Blogger shows you the search keywords that got visits to your site. I usually feel sorry for these people, as I probably didn't give them what they were after when they searched for "tom cruise," "gouache artists," "planet krypton," "of the attraction for," "i am a catholic not like someone else," "flying whale," "soylent green paper answer key," or "the protagonist doesn."

But recently someone came here from a search for "what is so great about the worm ouroboros." Ah, now this is something I can help with. My friend, you have come to the right place.

Here, without further ado, are the…

TOP TEN REASONS WHY
THE WORM OUROBOROS
IS SO GREAT

Reason 10. Alliteration in Duress
But the Prince himself took flamboys and went six in company to the old banquet hall, overpowered the guard, brake open the doors, and so stood before Lord Juss and Lord Brandoch Daha that hung shackled to the wall side by side. Something dazzled they were in the sudden torch-light, but Lord Brandoch Daha spake and hailed the Prince, and his mocking haughty lazy accents were scarcely touched with hollowness, for all his hunger-starving and long watching and the cark and care of his affliction. "La Fireez!" he said. "Day ne'er broke up till now. And methought ye were yonder false fitchews fostered in filth and fen, the spawn of Witchland, returned again to fleer and flout at us."
Reason 9. Overdecorated Palaces
At the end of the hall upon a dais stood three high seats, the arms of each composed of two hippogriffs wrought in gold, with wings spread, and the legs of the seats the legs of the hippogriffs; but the body of each high seat was a single jewel of monstrous size: the left-hand seat a black opal, asparkle with steel-blue fire, the next a fire-opal, as it were a burning coal, the third seat an alexandrite, purple like wine by night but deep sea-green by day. Ten more pillars stood in semicircle behind the high seats, bearing up above them and the dais a canopy of gold. The benches that ran from end to end of the lofty chamber were of cedar, inlaid with coral and ivory, and so were the tables that stood before the benches. The floor of the chamber was tessellated, of marble and green tourmaline, and on every square of tourmaline was carven the image of a fish: as the dolphin, the conger, the cat-fish, the salmon, the tunny, the squid, and other wonders of the deep. Hangings of tapestry were behind the high seats, worked with flowers, snake's-head, snapdragon, dragon-mouth, and their kind; and on the dado below the windows were sculptures of birds and beasts and creeping things.
Reason 8. Hippogriffs and Crocodiles
In such wise Mivarsh fell asleep, clasping the egg as a man should clasp his dearest. And a little before dawn it hatched in his arms and fell asunder, and he started awake, his arms about the neck of a strange steed. It went forth into the pale light before the sunrise, and he with it, holding it fast. The sheen of its hair was like the peacock's neck; its eyes like the changing fires of a star of a windy night. Its nostrils widened to the breath of the dawn. Its wings unfolded and grew stiff, their feathers like the tail-feathers of the peacock pheasant, white with purple eyes, and hard to the touch as iron blades. Mivarsh was mounted on its back, seizing the shining mane with both hands, trembling. And now was he fain to descend, but the hippogriff snorted and reared, and he, fearing a great fall, clung closer. It stamped with its silver hoofs, flapping its wings, ramping like a lioness, tearing up the grass with its claws. Mivarsh screamed, torn between hope and fear. It plunged forward and leaped into the air and flew.
     The Demons, waked by the whirring of wings, rushed from the pavilion, to behold that marvel flown against the obscure west. Wild was its flight, like a snipe dipping and plunging. And while they looked, they saw the rider flung from his seat and heard, some moments after, a dull flop and splash of a body fallen in the lake.
     The wild steed vanished, winging toward the upper air. Rings ran outward from the splash, troubling the surface of the lake, marring the dark reflection of Zora Rach mirrored in the sleeping waters.
     "Poor Mivarsh!" cried Lord Brandoch Daha. "After all the weary leagues I made him go with me." And he threw off his cloak, took a dagger in his teeth, and swam with great overarm strokes out to the spot where Mivarsh fell. But nought he found of Mivarsh. Only he saw near by on an island beach a crocodile, big and bloated, that eyed him guiltily and stayed not for his coming, but lumbering into the water dived and disappeared.
Reason 7. Dramatic Entrances
Lord Juss and Lord Brandoch Daha watched, as men watch for a star to rise, that radiant portal. And like a star indeed, or like the tranquil moon appearing, they beheld after a while one crowned like a Queen with a diadem of little clouds that seemed stolen from the mountain sunset, scattering soft beams of rosy brightness. She stood alone under that mighty portico with its vast shadowy forms of winged lions in shining stone black as jet. Youthful she seemed, as one that hath but just bidden adieu to childhood, with grave sweet lips and grave black eyes and hair like the night. Little black martlets perched on her either shoulder, and a dozen more skimmed the air above her head, so swift of wing that scarcely the eye might follow them. Meantime, that delicate and simple melody mounted from height to height, until in a while it burned with all the fires of summer, burned as summer to the uttermost ember, fierce and compulsive in its riot of love and beauty. So that, before the last triumphant chords died down in silence, that music had brought back to Juss all the glories of the mountains, the sunset fires on Koshtra Belorn, the first great revelation of the peaks from Morna Moruna; and over all these, as the spirit of that music to the eye made manifest, the image of that Queen so blessed-fair in her youth and her clear brow's sweet solemn respect and promise: in every line and pose of her fair form, virginal dainty as a flower, and kindled from withinward as never flower was with that divinity before the face of which speech and song fall silent and men may but catch their breath and worship.
Reason 6. Dancing Animals
Next the Red Foliot called for his Cat-bears, that stood before him foxy-red above but with black bellies, round furry faces, and innocent amber eyes, and soft great paws, and tails barred alternately with ruddy rings and creamy; and he said, "O Cat-bears, dance before us, since dearly we delight in your dancing."
     They asked, "Lord, will you that we perform the Gigue?"
     And he answered them, "The Gigue, and ye love me."
     So the stringed instruments began a swift movement, and the tambourines and triangles entered on the beat, and swiftly twinkled the feet of the Cat-bears in the joyous dance. The music rippled and ran and the dancers danced till the hall was awhirl with the rhythm of their dancing, and the Witches roared applause. On a sudden the music ceased, and the dancers were still, and standing side by side, paw in furry paw, they bowed shyly to the company, and the Red Foliot called them to him and kissed them on the mouth and sent them to their seats, that they might rest and view the dances that were to follow.
Reason 5. Bad-Ass Sorcerer Kings
Like a black eagle surveying earth from some high mountain the King passed by in his majesty. His byrny was of black chain mail, its collar, sleeves, and skirt edged with plates of dull gold set with hyacinths and black opals. His hose were black, cross-gartered with bands of sealskin trimmed with diamonds. On his left thumb was his great signet ring fashioned in gold in the semblance of the worm Ouroboros that eateth his own tail: the bezel of the ring the head of the worm, made of a peach-coloured ruby of the bigness of a sparrow's egg. His cloak was woven of the skins of black cobras stitched together with gold wire, its lining of black silk sprinkled with dust of gold. The iron crown of Witchland weighed on his brow, the claws of the crab erect like horns; and the sheen of its jewels was many-coloured like the rays of Sirius on a clear night of frost and wind at Yule-tide. 
Reason 4. Stinking Mantichores
Small time was there to ponder. Swinging from hold to hold across the dizzy precipice, as an ape swingeth from bough to bough, the beast drew near. The shape of it was as a lion, but bigger and taller, the colour a dull red, and it had prickles lancing out behind, as of a porcupine; its face a man's face, if aught so hideous might be conceived of human kind, with staring eyeballs, low wrinkled brow, elephant ears, some wispy mangy likeness of a lion's mane, huge bony chaps, brown blood-stained gubber-tushes grinning betwixt bristly lips. Straight for the ledge it made, and as they braced them to receive it, with a great swing heaved a man's height above them and leaped down upon their ledge from aloft betwixt Juss and Brandoch Daha ere they were well aware of its changed course. Brandoch Daha smote at it a great swashing blow and cut off its scorpion tail; but it clawed Juss's shoulder, smote down Mivarsh, and charged like a lion upon Brandoch Daha, who, missing his footing on the narrow edge of rock, fell backwards a great fall, clear of the cliff, down to the snow an hundred feet beneath them.
     As it craned over, minded to follow and make an end of him, Juss smote it in the hinder parts and on the ham, shearing away the flesh from the thigh bone, and his sword came with a clank against the brazen claws of its foot. So with a horrid bellow it turned on Juss, rearing like a horse; and it was three heads greater than a tall man in stature when it reared aloft, and the breadth of its chest like the chest of a bear. The stench of its breath choked Juss's mouth and his senses sickened, but he slashed it athwart the belly, a great round-armed blow, cutting open its belly so that the guts fell out. Again he hewed at it, but missed, and his sword came against the rock, and was shivered into pieces. So when that noisome vermin fell forward on him roaring like a thousand lions, Juss grappled with it, running in beneath its body and clasping it and thrusting his arms into its inward parts, to rip out its vitals if so he might. So close he grappled it that it might not reach him with its murthering teeth, but its claws sliced off the flesh from his left knee down ward to the ankle bone, and it fell on him and crushed him on the rock, breaking in the bones of his breast. And Juss, for all his bitter pain and torment, and for all he was well nigh stifled by the sore stink of the creature's breath and the stink of its blood and puddings blubbering about his face and breast, yet by his great strength wrastled with that fell and filthy man-eater. And ever he thrust his right hand, armed with the hilt and stump of his broken sword, yet deeper into its belly until he searched out its heart and did his will upon it, slicing the heart asunder like a lemon and severing and tearing all the great vessels about the heart until the blood gushed about him like a spring. And like a caterpillar the beast curled up and straightened out in its death  spasms, and it rolled and fell from that ledge, a great fall, and lay by Brandoch Daha, the foulest beside the fairest of all earthly beings, reddening the pure snow with its blood. And the spines that grew on the hinder parts of the beast went out and in like the sting of a new-dead wasp that goes out and in continually. It fell not clean to the snow, as by the care of heaven was fallen Brandoch Daha, but smote an edge of rock near the bottom, and that strook out its brains. There it lay in its blood, gaping to the sky.
Reason 3. Conjuring in the Iron Tower
And now through every window came a light into the chamber as of skies paling to the dawn. Yet not wholly so; for never yet came dawn at midnight, nor from all four quarters of the sky at once, nor with such swift strides of increasing light, nor with a light so ghastly. The candle flames burned filmy as the glare waxed strong from without: an evil pallid light of bale and corruption, wherein the hands and faces of the King Gorice and his disciple showed death-pale, and their lips black as the dark skin of a grape where the bloom has been rubbed off from it. The King cried terribly, "The hour approacheth!" And he took a phial of crystal containing a decoction of wolf's jelly and salamander's blood, and dropped seven drops from the alembic into the phial and poured forth that liquor on the figure of the crab drawn on the floor. Gro leaned against the wall, weak in body but with will unbowed. So bitter was the cold that his hands and feet were benumbed, and the liquor from the phial congealed where it fell. Yet the sweat stood in beads on the forehead of the King by reason of the mighty striving that was his, and in the overpowering glare of that light from the underskies he stood stiff and erect, hands clenched and arms outstretched, and spake the words LURO VOPO VIR VOARCHADUMIA.
     Now with those words spoken the vivid light departed as a blown-out lamp, and the midnight closed down again without. Nor was any sound heard save the thick panting of the King; but it was as if the night held its breath in expectation of that which was to come. And the candles sputtered and burned blue. The King swayed and clutched the table with his left hand; and again the King pronounced terribly the word VOARCHADUMIA.
Reason 2. The Lord Gro
And the son of Corund went, and returned anon with Lord Gro, that came with furtive step yet goodly and fair to behold. The nose of him was hooked like a sickle and his eyes great and fair like the eyes of an ox, inscrutable as they. Lean and spare was his frame. Pale was his face and pale his delicate hands, and his long black beard was tightly curled and bright as the coat of a black retriever.
Reason 1. The Lord Brandoch Daha
His gait was delicate, as of some lithe beast of prey newly wakened out of slumber, and he greeted with lazy grace the many friends who hailed his entrance. Very tall was that lord, and slender of build, like a girl. His tunic was of silk coloured like the wild rose, and embroidered in gold with representations of flowers and thunderbolts. Jewels glittered on his left hand and on the golden bracelets on his arms, and on the fillet twined among the golden curls of his hair, set with plumes of the king-bird of Paradise. His horns were dyed with saffron, and inlaid with filigree work of gold. His buskins were laced with gold, and from his belt hung a sword, narrow of blade and keen, the hilt rough with beryls and black diamonds. Strangely light and delicate was his frame and seeming, yet with a sense of slumbering power beneath, as the delicate peak of a snow mountain seen afar in the low red rays of morning. His face was beautiful to look upon, and softly coloured like a girl's face, and his expression one of gentle melancholy, mixed with some disdain; but fiery glints awoke at intervals in his eyes, and the lines of swift determination hovered round the mouth below his curled moustachios.
See also here, here, and here.

If, on the other hand, these things leave you cold; if you shrink from these jeweled Renaissance word-palaces; if the wine of true fantasy is too heady for your milk-and-water tastes; if you prefer the safe tropes of genre fiction to the strange, the terrible, the beautiful, and the eccentric – if any of these apply to you, my friend, then flee this place, and never let twilight catch you in the Lotus Room.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Imaginary Worlds

Being a Ballantine Adult Fantasy aficionado, I'm fond of Lin Carter's Imaginary Worlds, despite its (ahem) rather outré cover. (I'm sensitive about book covers.) It's a priceless document: published in 1973, it stands at the watershed moment, when fantasy was at last being widely recognized as a distinctive vein of literature, but before the appearance of The Sword of Shannara and all its consequences for Western civilization.

The first eight of IW's chapters present a history of fantasy literature from the Victorians down through Ursula K. Le Guin. It's not a bad read, though Carter's scholarship is not to be relied upon, and his style is and will forever remain insufferably chatty to me. The last three chapters are a kind of manual for fantasy-writing, many of whose maxims are repeated in Patricia Wrede's excellent guide available at SFWA.

Let's begin with Chapter 9: "Of World-Making: Some Problems of the Invented Milieu."

Lin – I find somehow that I must call him Lin, and not Carter or Mr. Carter – Lin, I say, begins with the common observation that fantasy-writing presents unique technical challenges.
If you stop and think about it, you will realize that fantasy writers face a variety of technical problems that authors working in other genres seldom have to worry about. The problem of creating an imaginary world on paper is the largest and most serious of these, and it is a complex problem involving many different factors.
He goes on to explain that getting James Bond from London to Lisbon is a relatively simple matter, since the readers are presumably familiar with telephones, taxi cabs, airplanes, Portugal, and the like, and no exposition need be expended on these things.

Here I have a quibble. Modern-type books that don't bother to build mental pictures are unspeakably boring to me. The action seems to take place in drab gray rooms and corridors. Perhaps that's a fault of my imagination. But not all modern-type books suffer from this. I enjoy Ian Fleming and Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett considerably – sometimes I'd actually rather read them than fantasy! – one reason being their ability to paint a picture. Chandler is particularly good at this. Though terse, his descriptions are almost painfully vivid and precise, and rely almost exclusively on minor details. On the other hand, quite a few fantasies nowadays read more like the drab modern thriller. There's a broad enough base of reader expectation that they don't have to describe a throne room any more than they would a motel room. How unutterably depressing!

On the other hand, in my opinion, a good fantasy contains a preponderance of what is familiar to the author. A fantasy chock-full of marvels is very dull indeed. It remains a vague, silly dream, failing to take on a life of its own, like the Amadis de Gaul that Don Quixote was so fond of.

But back to Lin Carter. For the most part the chapter confines itself to discussing the construction of a believable milieu. Here I opine that the best of fantasy milieus weren't constructed from scratch as settings for stories. Either the construction was pursued for its own sake and eventually flowered into a story, or the story acquired its milieu in the telling. The most memorable fantasy worlds came into being over the course of decades, and produced stories only late in their authors' lives. Eddison's Mercury, for instance, had its genesis in childhood make-believe, while Tolkien's Middle-Earth was born in the trenches and mess halls of the Great War. It's pretty obvious which fantasies are the result of an author who sat down one day and decided to cook up an imaginary world. (Cf. Diana Wynne Jones' comments on MAPS.)

Lin categorizes the types of milieu most commonly encountered. Many fantasies are set in a known world of myth. Others are set in a purely invented world, the four varieties being: (1) remote antiquity (Hyboria, Poseidonis, Middle-Earth), (2) remote posterity (Zothique, the Dying Earth), (3) an alternate dimension (Narnia, Witch World), and (4) another planet (Barsoom, Perelandra). It's interesting that all of these are linked to our own space and time somehow. Most fantasies set in invented milieus nowadays are content to just take the independent world as a given. Another result of the establishment of reader expectations. Even the novels that came out in the seventies and early eighties still tended to connect their worlds with ours, e.g., The Sword of Shannara, Lord Foul's Bane, Mythago Wood. Earlier examples of complete autonomy include Earthsea and Gormenghast Castle, but these are fairly rare.

A discussion of techniques in world-building follows. Lin recommends familiarity with geology, climatology, and the like. Deserts don't just taper off into jungles. Great cities don't just pop up out of nowhere for the mere sake of being grand and decadent. His points are well taken. However, I note that Tolkien appears to have constructed his geography dramatically. He writes in one of his letters of the impossibility of pleasing at all points, and admits the shortcomings of his geology. In fact, I've always suspected that the parallel lands of Beleriand and Eriador were originally one and the same region, but were separated (and Beleriand submerged) when too many inconsistencies arose. Indeed, Tolkien sometimes takes his correspondents to task for asking questions as though he'd written a history rather than a work of literary art intended for its own sake.

Lin's recommendation to diversify the forms of government is also well taken. Not many people heed this even now, alas. You'd think a lot of writers got all their knowledge of political systems from their sixth grade world history class. Since most fantasy realms are city-states, more or less, I here have to recommend one of my favorite books, J. B. Bury's A History of Greece. It was written back when they could still write all-encompassing histories, as opposed to specialized monographs and revisionist screeds, and as such is eminently readable. It goes into great detail as to the organization of Sparta, the various Athenian democracies, and so on. It's available (used) in a Modern Library edition. Lin uses a de Camp story as an example of governmental variation; it sounds a bit silly to me, but Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun strikes me a good example of atypical political world-building.

After this Lin dwells at length on the phony citations that often adorn fantasies. Lin himself delighted in such frippery, of course. Irrepressibly enthusiastic as ever, he can't resist citing examples from his own work:
I learned this trick from Howard, and my Lemurian Books use for their chapter-headings quotations from various historical documents such as "The Lemurian Chronicles" and "The Tsargol Records," magical or occult works such as "The Scarlet Edda" and the grimoire of Sarajsha, epics like "Thongor's Saga," pieces of Lemurian literature such as "Diombar's Song of the Last Battle" and any number of folksongs, sea chanteys, sayings and proverbs, and war or marching songs such as "Drum-Song of the Kodanga Tribesmen," "Battle-Song of the Black Dragons," and "Caravan-Song of the Jegga Nomads."
To which I say, just say No. Unless you've actually written the works yourself, and they're actually kind of good, don't, please don't use silly made-up quotations as your chapter-headings. Don't let your characters quote texts and proverbs in dialogue, either, unless you're trying to be funny and are Jack Vance. Trust me. It sounds like something from Star Trek: Voyager.

Tolkien could throw in snatches of rhyme and passages of epic poetry because he wrote that kind of stuff for its own sake. You get the sense of incalculable ages behind the events of LOTR because of the strata of stories he'd written over the preceding decades. When Túrin Turambar is mentioned in passing it's not just a bit of color. Tolkien knew very well who Túrin was, and had known for years.* That's not the kind of thing you can just manufacture. Lin Carter's "Tsargol Records" comes off as pasteboard scenery.

All that said, I hereby exempt the quotations that head Robert E. Howard's Conan stories from this complaint, by a raw exercise of blogging authority.

Lin goes on to recommend hinting at distant regions and peoples to build up a rich background. To which I say, again, don't do it, unless it's really necessary to the story somehow, and you've really done your homework. Otherwise it just sounds phony. The example he gives from his own work exemplifies this. There's an art to it. When I read LOTR, I'm always wanting to get into Rhûn and Harad, as though they're real places that lie beyond the edge of the map. All a matter of style, I suppose.

Lin concludes by pointing out how carefully he distributed his made-up foreign country-names over the alphabet. This brings us to Chapter 10, which I'll cover in a separate post.

* Queen Beruthiel's cats were apparently just a bit of color. Sometimes even Tolkien takes wing shots!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

On the Fringes

As advertised above, these posts are my "musings about fantasy, style, symmetry, art, and life." Here is a post about "life."

The other day I was at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, as I mentioned in a previous post. For me, its two really outstanding collections are the minerals and the fossils. The fossils proceed in chronological order from the Paleozoic though the Cenozoic Eras, and the pieces are breathtakingly beautiful. While I was perusing them, a little band of what I took for fundamentalist Christians happened to pass us, and they were saying things like, "It's a good thing the flood came when it did," and, "They're leaving out so much here." So here was an actual group of young-earthers, viewing primeval wonders yielded up by the earth's ancient bosom, completely immune to the evidence set before them. They'd inoculated themselves.

On the long drive home to the blasted wasteland in which we live, the incident came up in a conversation with my lovely and mild-mannered wife. My son had asked her what was the largest star, and this, of course, required some clarification. Largest in what sense? Largest in the universe? Largest that we know of? Largest in the night sky? So we were discussing this, and I mentioned casually that the young-earthers doubtless believed in a small cosmos with painted-on stars (more or less), and, if they had happened to visit the planetarium, probably did so making smug, knowing comments to one another. She expressed some surprise at this, but, you see, dear reader, I have some first-hand experience with such things. More on that in a moment.

Now, let me be clear. These are only theories. There was an annoying news story the other day, saying that such-and-such percent of Americans don't "know" that the earth orbits the sun and that man evolved from lower life forms. I don't know what the wording in the original survey was, but the wording as reported was quite stupid. No one "knows" that the earth orbits the sun. For a brief period during the Renaissance, some scientists held that using a heliocentric model results in a simpler description of various phenomena. This was replaced by Newtonian mechanics, in which the earth and the sun orbit each other, while the system as a whole moves with respect to some fixed frame of reference. In general relativity the situation is subtler. So, if some smart-ass pollster had called me up and asked me if the earth orbits the sun, I would have said, "No." But even if they'd asked the question as though they had some awareness of the march of science since (say) Copernicus, it would still be inadequate, for a theory does not grant "knowledge." It only grants guesses. Observations are the things we feed into the theory; predictions are the things it spits out.

Okay, granted. So these are only theories. But they're theories that were built up by some of the greatest minds in history and are held by virtually all of the academic establishment in our time. Are they inadequate? Most likely, as were the theories they replaced. It's not the rightness or wrongness of the theories that I'm interested in, but the glibness with which young-earthers dismiss them. I've argued with these people. Someone once tried to discredit the Big Bang to me by saying that there's no way we could have astronomical objects spinning both clockwise and counterclockwise if they all came out of the same rotating particle.

But…if you turn the spinning object upside-down… Oh, never mind.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Sailor on the Seas of Elric

So, I've been reading those Elric books of Michael Moorcock. It's taken me a while for one reason or another, but so far I've read Elric of Melniboné, The Sailor on the Seas of Fate, and The Weird of the White Wolf. I have Part II of the Elric Saga on my bookshelf, so we'll see how it goes.

I didn't realize before I started them that the latter two works were short story collections rather than fix-ups or novels. Which is fine; I think sword and sorcery works best in a short format, actually. There's just not enough continuity or coherence to warrant calling the Elric Saga a saga. I mean, I've read a good many Icelandic sagas – Egils saga, Njals saga, Laxdæla saga, Vatnsdœla saga, etc. – and they're anything but episodic. I suppose I'm being nitpicky, since the term just used as a marketing label. They call anything a saga if it's long enough.

The opening of Elric of Melniboné is what really got me hooked, I think.
It is the colour of a bleached skull, his flesh; and the long hair which flows below his shoulders is bone-white. From the tapering, beautiful head stare two slanting eyes, crimson and moody…
and so on. Worthy of the finest fantasists of yore. The throne carved of a single ruby took me back to The Worm Ouroboros, which I suppose must have been an influence. (Side note: I always thought these precious-objects-carved-from-single-stones were just fantastic nonsense, until I visited the Houston Museum of Natural Science last weekend, and saw an entire chair carved from a single piece of jasper, and whole goblets carved from quartz and amethyst.) The Dreaming City, Imrryr, and its deadly harbor labyrinth and fleet of floating ziggurats were exactly to my taste, evoking an unspeakably ancient, alien, wicked power. The hokey magical stuff not so much. But that's just me.

Elric himself… Well, let me first say that all the characters are quite flat, more or less defined by their physical features. Nothing necessarily wrong with that – it isn't as though we're expecting (or wanting) Dostoevsky here – but their actions are artificial and almost absurd. And as for absurdity, Elric himself takes the cake. Yes, he's angsty and moody and disdainful, but he's as capricious as a schoolgirl, too.
capricious - (adj.) determined by chance or impulse or whim rather than by necessity or reason. [Webster's 1913 Dictionary]
This about sums up his public policy in Elric: "My wicked cousin Yyrkoon is ambitious and envious. I'll cynically provoke him into trying to take the throne. Then I'll defeat him. Then I'll set him on the throne and go on vacation. Somehow this will end up saving the nation." What? What kind of sense is that? And then afterward he decides he's going to destroy the nation and slay his cousin? Wouldn't it have been easier to have done that at the end of Elric? And his cunning plan to save his ensorcelled betrothed from the city he's about to destroy is to sneak into said city on the eve of the surprise attack, basically announce to everyone that he's there, and arrange to have an unaided old man take his betrothed to a certain tower when the attack begins. To no one's surprise, this doesn't work out very well. After which he goes around the world, sitting in taverns and staring moodily into his beer, cursing his unhappy fate.

I liked the set-up of an unthinkably ancient, antehuman civilization in the midst of the upstart New Kingdoms, and I would have enjoyed a more rational and drawn-out account of Imrryr's downfall, rather than seeing it used as mere angst fodder. The independent short pieces I found more enjoyable, because there Elric's moodiness and irritating egotism are just givens from which the story proceeds. My favorite, I think, is the first part of Sailor, which involves a pair of weird, giant biomechanical aliens from another dimension. In general, this learnéd and moody albino who relies on the strength that flows to him from his soul-stealing sword is a nice counterpoint to the beefy ebullience of Conan and his clones, fond though I am of them.

Now, perhaps this is neither here nor there, but the Law – Chaos continuum has never appealed to my mind. This isn't a criticism of Moorcock particularly. Certainly he didn't originate the paradigm. Or did he? Who did? I don't know. Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions (1961) is certainly an early example. But the first Elric story came out then as well.

Anyway, it's a nice metric for role-playing games, but philosophically it doesn't make much sense to me. How can there be a tug-of-war between two such extremes? Law is the exception; chaos is the default. Entropy is easy; order is hard. As Chesterton puts it: "It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands." Order contains all that is romantic and exciting and beautiful in this world; chaos is flat and tepid and gray. Those who think they prefer chaos are really just drawn by the dramatic first stages of its advance, when order is still mostly present. It's the persisting order that lends it drama and glamor. Let them wait until things even out and heat death sets in and nothing happens ever again forever and ever. Bo-ring!

Well, to conclude, I must confess that I set out to read these books with a less than open disposition, knowing what Mr. Moorcock thinks of the works I hold dearest. I will put it this way: if there were to occur a deathmatch with Túrin Turambar in one corner and Elric of Melniboné in the other, I think the Dragon-helm would win with an arm tied behind his back, and probably be pretty decent about it, to boot. But then, perhaps it's just a matter of taste.

I will continue to read them, though, and see what happens. A greater compliment than that I cannot give any author.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

An American Fairytale

Fairytales don’t tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairytales tell children that dragons can be killed. [G. K. Chesterton]*
This is a continuation of my previous post.

I've always loved myths and fairy tales. I have most of the colors of Andrew Lang's fairy tale collection, and have read most of the stories in them. I grew up reading Lang and Edith Hamilton and Padraic Colum and Bulfinch. Among fairy tales, my favorite were and remain Grimms', in all their unbowdlerized savagery: Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, The Juniper Tree, Bearskin, Rapunzel, The Goose Girl. It's hard to find much in modern literature to compare with them for strange, sudden beauty and violent resolution. Flannery O'Connor comes close.

At any rate, this probably explains why I find The Night of the Hunter (1955) such a beautiful movie. Though set in the countryside of the Great Depression, it's as close as a fairy tale has ever come to being turned into film. It's closest to Hansel and Gretel, perhaps, but bears relation to a great many others, and (to my mind, at least) well effects what Tolkien calls Recovery. Amazingly, it is the only film Charles Laughton ever made.

The Wikipedia entry describes it as a film noir, but that it most certainly is not. It may share common roots in German expressionism, I suppose. It opens with the kindly old rescuer, Rachel who has a lot in common with George MacDonald's recurring wise-woman character, talking about the Sermon on the Mount to a ring of disembodied children, all superimposed against a field of pulsating stars that make me think of the Babel myth image in Metropolis. She's warning them to beware of false prophets.

The False Prophet being, of course, the Preacher, Harry Powell, the fellow with HATE and LOVE tattooed on his knuckles.** A serial killer of widows, a thief, and an itinerant preacher who, far from being a mere hypocrite, prays to God whenever he's alone, and believes God to be on his side.
Well now, what's it to be Lord? Another widow? How many has it been? Six? Twelve? I disremember. [Tips hat.] You say the word, Lord, I'm on my way. You always send me money to go forth and preach your Word. The widow with a little wad of bills hid away in a sugar bowl. Lord, I am tired. Sometimes I wonder if you really understand. Not that You mind the killin's. Your Book is full of killin's. But there are things you do hate Lord: perfume-smellin' things, lacy things, things with curly hair.
A worthy descendant of Bluebeard.

The Ohio River flows as a living thing through the story, like the Deluge of Noah and the Nile that bore the baby Moses. There is a scene – how did Laughton even film this? – of the preacher's murdered wife sitting in her car at the bottom of the river, her long pale hair waving with the trailing plants that grow there.
Ah, if you could have seen it, Bess, down there in the deep place, with her hair waving soft and lazy like meadow grass under flood water, and that slit in her throat, like she had an extra mouth.
The scene of the children's escape from the monster, drifting with the current in their little skiff, as Pearl sings her curious song –
Once upon a time there was a pretty fly,
he had a wife this pretty fly
but one day she flew away, flew away.
She had two pretty children,
but one night those pretty children
flew away into the sky, into the moon.
– and the night creatures – the bullfrogs, the rabbits, the spiders – watch them, must be the most beautiful in American film.

And the film is very American, and strongly reminiscent of American art. The landscapes could have been painted by Grant Wood (American Gothic) or Thomas Hart Benton (Persephone). Some of the shots remind one particularly of Benton's lithographs. The boat scene has a spiritual connection with Edward Hicks' Peaceable Kingdom and the like. There's an image of the old woman, Rachel, rocking in a chair while holding a shotgun that must surely be a reference to Whistler's Mother. Laughton also emphasizes the link to American or Southern gothic through use of points and spires, the most memorable instance being the killing scene, when the violently steep cathedral ceiling echoes Powell's open stick-knife.

As in Flannery O'Connor, the Bible is woven unapologetically  into the texture of the landscape. And there are no cheap, ham-fisted denunciations of religious hypocrisy here. Even the villain is complex, in his way. Because, as I said, he believes. He believes and he is a rank puritan, horrified and disgusted by sex. That is what defines him. In a revealing opening scene, he sits in the dark in a cabaret, watching a girl dance on the stage, meditating on killing her but reflecting that there are too many such in the world. He puts his hand in his coat pocket, and the blade of his stick-knife tears through the cloth; apparently, the original screenplay had it tearing through his pants pocket instead.

It's probably Robert Mitchum's most memorable role. He's delightfully creepy – Children! Childre-e-e-en? – and cruel, but also comically mawkish at times, capable of losing all dignity in an instant, driven by his sordid desires. The scene where Rachel shoots him after the cat attacks him and he runs, howling like a wounded animal, into the barn, is both terrifying and hilarious. And Lillian Gish is wonderful as Rachel. Her goodness and strength is a perfect contrast to Powell's perfidy.
I'm a strong tree with branches for many birds. I'm good for somethin' in this old world, and I know it, too.
I'm not sure I've been particularly coherent here, but that's where I'll stop. If you haven's seen this film, and you treasure the silence, beauty, and arresting strangeness that would-be fantasy-filmmakers seem incapable of producing in their films, then please watch The Night of the Hunter. I'll close with Rachel's words, spoken after she watched a barn owl pounce on a rabbit, bringing us full circle to the Chesterton quote up top:
It's a hard world for little things.

* Not actually Chesterton, though he said something similar.
** I find it difficult not to think of Sideshow Bob throughout the movie.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Fantasy in Film

To begin with, I haven't the seen either of the installments of this bloated new Hobbit trilogy. I have nothing against them or people who like such things – well, perhaps just a little bit – but to me they and the LOTR movies are a mere mockery of the works closest to my heart. The spinning-out of subplots in the interests of making millions upon millions of dollars I pass over in silence. Same goes for the utter tone-deafness of the screenplays (or what I know of them, at least). No, right now I just want to focus on the visuals, which many would say is their strong point. For they certainly represent a superbly realized vision (and I use "vision" in the literal sense) but such overabundance of eye-candy is somehow inimical – indeed, diametrically opposed – to Tolkien's own vision.

In his "On Fairy Stories," Tolkien says that one purpose of fantasy is to open our jaded, cynical eyes to the beauty of the common everyday world and its inhabitants. It ennobles grass and trees, bread and wine, sun and moon. This he calls Recovery. In his works, most of the narrative takes place in the unadorned, silent forests, plains, mountains, and deserts of Middle Earth, or else in such homely settings as the Shire. These elements combine their various strands into a wordless litany. Tolkien pays attention to mundane detail (food, plant species, topography) while refusing to constantly bombard the reader with the strange, the wonderful, and the terrifying. Because that, ultimately, is what really does jade the reader, and Tolkien's aim is to make us really see the strangeness, the wonder, and the terror in all that we take for granted.

Alas, this is something that has little chance of making it to the big screen in this sad era of bloated, multimillion-dollar CGI epics.

This isn't to say it couldn't be done. It is possible, I think, to use the art of film to fulfill the functions of fantasy. But film adaptations of fantastic fiction rarely achieve this. Generally they serve as vehicles for special effects instead. The eighties was the heyday of such films, e.g., the Star Wars trilogy, Clash of the Titans, Dragonslayer, Excalibur, Flash Gordon, Conan the Barbarian, Beastmaster, The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, Dune, and so on. I have more than a little affection for several of these. A few of them occasionally come close to what I call fantasy. I think, for instance, of the last part of Excalibur, from the search for the Grail through the departure of Arthur, though the movie as a whole is something of a mess. But in general these films are content to remain action movies. They simply aren't contemplative enough to be fantasy.

Indeed, it isn't every director who can construct the silent cathedral spaces needed to effect Recovery. Fritz Lang was one. He was aided by the fact that his great works were made during the silent era, of course, but his Die Nibelungen and Metropolis will never be equaled in the genre categories of fantasy and science fiction. Both, of course, are fantasies in the sense that I often use the word.

Andrei Tarkovsky was another. His Andrei Rublev and Solaris are two of my favorite films. The Carver quote on my sidebar says: "At the risk of appearing foolish, a writer sometimes needs to be able to just stand and gape at this or that thing – a sunset or an old shoe – in absolute and simple amazement." Tarkovsky does this with film, and, miraculously, bears the viewer along with him. His movies aren't necessarily "fantasies" in the genre sense, of course, but perhaps the translation of the formal definition from written fiction to film involves a loosening of the matter.

Actually, the film that probably most successfully achieves Recovery – time and space, man and nature – isn't even fiction, but a documentary. I speak of Into Great Silence (2005), an intimate three-hour exploration of life in a Carthusian monastery (the Grand Chartreuse) without background music or a single word of spoken commentary. I went to see it in the theater and have since watched it many times at home; my children, who are four and five, often ask to see it. One of its most beautiful images is of the stars wheeling over the nighted monastery while the monks chant the divine office in a pitch-black church where the tiny red sanctuary candle throbs silently, perpetually. But it also bestows loving attention on mundane details, like ice crystals on green leaves, and jars full of buttons, and the placid surface of holy water in a font, and vegetables ready to be chopped. Its "interviews" consist of the prolonged gaze of the monks themselves.

And perhaps this gives away the extremely high expectations I have of fantasy fiction. I want it to replace, in a small way, the need that in a previous age would have been satisfied by making a retreat at a monastery or visiting a rustic shrine. I'm not speaking of any particular religion here, you understand, but of the universal human need to affirm life's goodness, to open one's eyes to that which is and see one's place in the universe.

I began this post with the intent of writing about a movie I received as a Christmas present, a movie that achieves the goals of fantasy in a distinctively American way, though lying well without the genre. It's gotten away from me now, though, so I'll continue in a second post.

NOTE: Just to show that I'm not just a curmudgeon who doesn't like anything new, I happen to greatly admire Peter Jackson's King Kong. In my humble opinion, he did a service to humanity in making this grand homage to the original film.

Friday, January 17, 2014

An Observation

There is something terrifying and depressing about putting your art out there for people to see.

As long as you're holding something back, you can always say to yourself, I have this in reserve, and can pull it out when I really need to impress. But once it's out there in the cold, clear light of day, you can at last see it from every side, and realize how very small and inadequate it is, and how flawed. Every person who views the work is a curved mirror, and in them you scrutinize your naked self from a million different angles, and are petrified as by the gorgon's head.

It takes a certain humility to strive for any type of greatness, for if you fail then people will see it. It calls for magnanimity, for strict attention to the work itself, for forgetfulness of self. Pusillanimity is secretly tied to pride, the pride that would say to God, I went and buried my talent for I know that you are a hard master, thus flinging his gifts in his teeth.

That is all.