Thursday, December 22, 2011

In Pursuit of Leviathan

I have come in my old age to be dissatisfied with the flimsiness of the contemporary fantasy novel. Not all are superficial or insubstantial, I know, but still it is rare that I come across something I can sink really my teeth into. Perhaps I am over-critical; perhaps years of reading mathematics and metaphysics have merely wound my brain too tight, so that anything not taxing is positively boring. However this may be, whenever I stand in need of something that offers what I look for in fantasy but that satisfies my need for the rich and the sublime, I turn to the nineteenth century. And foremost among the works of gothic imagination that attract me as fantasies do is Melville’s Moby-Dick.

Sometimes I amuse myself by tring to pinpoint what it is in Moby-Dick that draws me as Dune or Titus Groan do. The "fantastic" material elements—the improbability of the adventure, the omens and soothsayers, the sentience of the whale—are all somewhat beside the point. The book itself is the doorway to a complete and self-contained world—the world of the primordial ocean—and the reader loses himself in it. The opening scenes in Bedford play the role of an induction, like the finding of the wardrobe or the arrival of the hippogriff. The sailors don’t merely move across the sea as across a backdrop: they become part of it, the lovers and foes coequal of Leviathan. The Pequod, too, that tiny island in the midst of the featureless face of the waters, lorded over by Ahab its sultan, is itself a character and a potent force, like Arrakis or Gormenghast Castle.
You may have seen many a quaint craft in your day, for aught I know;—square-toed luggers; mountainous Japanese junks; butter-box galliots, and what not; but take my word for it, you never saw such a rare old craft as this same rare old Pequod. She was a ship of the old school, rather small if anything; with an old-fashioned claw-footed look about her. Long seasoned and weather-stained in the typhoons and calms of all four oceans, her old hull's complexion was darkened like a French grenadier's, who has alike fought in Egypt and Siberia. Her venerable bows looked bearded. Her masts—cut somewhere on the coast of Japan, where her original ones were lost overboard in a gale—her masts stood stiffly up like the spines of the three old kings of Cologne. Her ancient decks were worn and wrinkled, like the pilgrim-worshipped flag-stone in Canterbury Cathedral where Becket bled. But to all these her old antiquities, were added new and marvellous features, pertaining to the wild business that for more than half a century she had followed… She was apparelled like any barbaric Ethiopian emperor, his neck heavy with pendants of polished ivory. She was a thing of trophies. A cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies. All round, her unpanelled, open bulwarks were garnished like one continuous jaw, with the long sharp teeth of the sperm whale, inserted there for pins, to fasten her old hempen thews and tendons to. Those thews ran not through base blocks of land wood, but deftly travelled over sheaves of sea-ivory. Scorning a turnstile wheel at her reverend helm, she sported there a tiller; and that tiller was in one mass, curiously carved from the long narrow lower jaw of her hereditary foe. The helmsman who steered by that tiller in a tempest, felt like the Tartar, when he holds back his fiery steed by clutching its jaw. A noble craft, but somehow a most melancholy! All noble things are touched with that.
In Moby-Dick Melville seeks to communicate the fiery vision of a nature pregnant with the utter absence of God. This vision is couched in the very language and imagery of the King James Bible. The affective structure of the work and its stylistic elements transform the gothic vision of nature into a living, breathing reality that can be touched and communed with. The sought-for whale is itself the personification of the brutal unconcern of the cosmos with aught that is human, and its very whiteness is a living force and symbol of impenetrable mystery.
Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a colour as the visible absence of colour; and at the same time the concrete of all colours; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows—a colourless, all-colour of atheism from which we shrink? And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues—every stately or lovely emblazoning—the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colourless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge—pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear coloured and colouring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?
And so I delight in Moby-Dick as I do in few fantasies, but for the same reasons that I enjoy the greatest fantasies. I revel in its grotesqueries and "digressions." I wander in it like a lost soul in Faërie, wondering at all that I see, drinking in the sentences and symbols like heady wine.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Cosmos

"The universe, an expanding three-sphere, is almost a projective space, the almost being a euphemism for a certain quantum effect. Each locality consists of two parallel leaves, cosmic antipodes to one another. The leaves are nearly identical, having diverged only through the uncertainty principle, with the exception of the sublunary sphere. There is a weak gravitational pairing between leaves, one body creating a sink in the other, and so gravitating bodies are held together, each in its respective leaf. Paired with the earth (Tellus) is the counter-earth (Antellus) at the opposite end of the universe. At the center of the universe is the sacred flame imperishable, as in the Pythagorean system. The translunary universe is self-paired identically in a large-scale sense. The sublunary divergence occurred in primeval times during the Paleozoic Era, when the demiurgic spirits of the air fought a destructive war amongst themselves and a tithe were banished to Antellus. This is a symbol for the independence of terrestrial life, and particularly rational choice, from physical exigencies."

from Notes on Antellus

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Fantasy and Knowledge

Some people get all tied in knots about the fact that what might have been realism to our progenitors is now fantasy to us, because we no longer believe in supernatural things. But this is nonsense. What is science to one culture may seem magic to another (as Arthur C. Clarke pointed out), but this only goes to show that the presence of "magic" in a fictional work doesn’t suffice to make it a fantasy. On the other hand, a work of non-fantasy doesn’t suddenly become fantasy just because we learn a few extra facts.

It may be that the Odyssey affects us differently than it did the Greeks—I happen to doubt it, but who knows?—but, if so, this is not primarily a difference in belief. Modern readers of "taproot texts" have a tendency to see any ancient text as "the Bible" of whomever. Personally, I think that the way the Greeks heard the story of Polyphemus is probably closer to our reading of a modern fantasy novel than to the Hebrews' belief in the giving of the Law on Horeb. In fact, belief is a major limitation in story-telling (and not necessarily a bad one). The Puritans believed in witches, but they didn’t make up fantasies about them.

Further, I would argue that what matters is not extrinsic impossibility, but presentation. I can read The War of the Worlds or Thuvia, Maid of Mars or The Martian Chronicles or Out of the Silent Planet with the same pleasure with which the first readers did, despite the findings of space exploration, because I accept the possibility of undiscovered Martian life-forms at the outset when I submit to be worked upon by the book. In just the same way, an old fantasy about something assumed at the time to be impossible, which we now know to be possible, could be read with exactly the same pleasure; we accept the impossibility by accepting the tokens given us by the writer. Possibility or impossibility doesn't matter. What matters is the inner structure. This is what sets The Lord of the Rings or Titus Groan apart from (say) One Hundred Years of Solitude. The latter contains no internal impossibilities in its presentation to the reader.

Impossible Worlds

Most definitions of fantasy involve the supernatural or the impossible. A typical example can be found in Manlove’s Modern Fantasy. He there defines fantasy as
…a fiction evoking wonder and containing a substantial and irreducible element of supernatural or impossible worlds, beings or objects with which the mortal characters or the readers of the story become on at least partly familiar terms.
I think that this is a good definition as far as it goes. It dwells on material elements, but then, the definition of any art-form necessarily does. For instance, a painting is an arrangement of pigments on a plane surface. It’s our idea of what sort of beauty painting aims at that allows us to argue whether a particular piece is or isn't good. Still, when I come to consider what sort of beauty fantasy aims at, I wonder if Manlove's definition doesn’t miss the point after all. A painting without ground or pigments can't very well be conceived. But can we conceive of a fantasy without "supernatural or impossible worlds," etc.? Perhaps so, in a way. Certainly some existing fantasies come very close, e.g., Titus Groan, as Manlove concedes. And it is easy to think of books that involve the elements Manlove lists but that are almost universally recognized as being something other than fantasy.

What is crucial, I think, is not the possibility or impossibility of the world, but the way the world is presented. It’s just that "impossible" worlds lend themselves to this sort of holistic presentation. The crumbling castle-world of Gormenghast is a well-considered, closed system, and its denizens are woven into its very fabric. The same is true of Middle-Earth, Perelandra, Narnia, Tormance, Earthsea, and Arrakis. Perhaps this interdependence of inhabitants and environment is what makes fantasy fantasy.

Gary Wolfe, in "The Encounter with Fantasy," argues that it is a mistake to regard fantasy merely as the fictional presentation of the supernatural or the impossible, or even as fiction that "evokes wonder"—the latter being a subjective criterion that allows for no bad fantasies. Wolfe suggests that the overall affective structure is what makes fantasy fantasy. For fantasy has both a cognitive and an affective aspect. The latter may be a little difficult to get our hands on, but it is nevertheless an objective element.

Wolfe goes on to note that the most successful fantasies overlie an objective set of beliefs held by the author. One has the Christian Platonism of Lewis, for instance, or the Catholicism of Tolkien, or the Taoism of Le Guin, or the anti-Aestheticism of Lindsay, or the quasi-Nietzschean paganism of Eddison. However, these beliefs are subordinate to the final form of the work as a work of fantasy, and one need not share them to enjoy the work in question.
Fantasy indeed tries to set us free by making us captive to belief, but since the kind of belief that is peculiar to fantasy arises as much from affect as from cognition, it is not necessary for us to share an author's philosophies or beliefs that are external to the work for us to accept and "believe in" their embodiment in the narrative… Fantasy authors who are most successful at creating his kind of belief attempt neither to allegorize their own systems of belief nor to subordinate those systems to sensation. Instead, they achieve a balanced tension—perhaps more properly a dialectic—between cognition and affect, between moralism and passion, between the impossible and the inevitable. They do not merely construct metaphors for a preconceived reality, or if they do, the power of the metaphors is apt to transform the nature of those preconceptions into something new.
The focus on material elements such as elves and imaginary countries is what leads to all the delightful hair-splitting one finds in wikipedia articles on the subject, arguments about which category such-and-such a book really fits into based on the presence of this or that element. It is all quite beside the point apart from the purely commercial point of view. Books like Dune or The Time Machine should be classed with books like The Lord of the Rings or A Voyage to Arcturus or the Earthsea trilogy. If they aren’t, then the lines need to be redrawn.

Friday, December 9, 2011


When I was in junior high, one of my favorite authors was Edgar Allen Poe. My parents’ copy of Poe’s collected works found a semi-permanent home in my already overstuffed backpack. (It wouldn’t have fit in my locker, which was generally filled from bottom to top with rubbish, articles of clothing, overdue library books, rotting food, and old newspapers.) I was at the time slowly becoming the morbid, hypersensitive insect I am today—junior high will do that to aspies—and Poe’s weirder stories were just my kind of thing.

Poe was my first introduction to poetry, and my favorite poem of his was "Dream-Land." It is full of sublime romantic imagery and has a simple, hypnotic rhythm. I read it over and over until I had it memorized.
Bottomless vales and boundless floods,
And chasms, and caves, and Titan woods,
With forms that no man can discover
For the tears that drip all over;
Mountains toppling evermore
Into seas without a shore;
Seas that restlessly aspire,
Surging, unto skies of fire;
Lakes that endlessly outspread
Their lone waters—lone and dead,—
Their still waters—still and chilly
With the snows of the lolling lily.
By the lakes that thus outspread
Their lone waters, lone and dead,—
Their sad waters, sad and chilly
With the snows of the lolling lily,—
By the mountains—near the river
Murmuring lowly, murmuring ever,—
By the grey woods,—by the swamp
Where the toad and the newt encamp—
By the dismal tarns and pools
           Where dwell the Ghouls,—
Later on, when I was fourteen, I discovered H. P. Lovecraft. I approached Lovecraft through his older weird tales and Dunsanian fantasy, and the first piece I read was "The Nameless City." It was in an anthology of old fantasy short stories together with Dunsany’s "The Fortress Unvanquishable Save for Sacnoth" and Howard’s "The Tower of the Elephant." All three stuck in my head for years like darkly glimmering gems. Lovecraft was the one I went back to first, but it wasn’t until college that I came across his Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, which recounts the adventures of a sleeper in the Dreamlands (a real, self-existent world entered through the portal of sleep). In it I found someone else who had been touched by Poe’s "Dream-Land."

Critics and fans have put forth various older works as possible inspirations for Dream-Quest, but I haven’t come across any discussion of "Dream-Land." (Not that I’ve looked too hard.) To me the connection seems obvious, though. Lovecraft admired Poe and emulated him in some of his stories. The poem in question opens in speaking of "an Eidolon, named NIGHT" who "on a black throne reigns upright," while Lovecraft’s atheistic pantheon (the connecting link between his Dunsanian stories and Cthulu stories) is ruled over by gods of Chaos. The settings and general tenor of the novelette reflect those of the poem. And, if that were not enough, they both involve ghouls.

“Dream-Land” is still one of my favorite poems, although my enjoyment of it is a little guilty, as I now perceive that it isn’t as good as I once thought it was. Its mood is an inspiration in my writing; I read it when I wish to hit a certain key. On the other hand, Dream-Quest is too insubstantial for my taste. It is all mood and affect, the sort of thing that gave Lin Carter shivers of delight. To me it’s like frosting, which is tasty and good, but tends to make you sick if you eat a lot of it without some solid cake underneath. The short story was definitely Lovecraft’s proper medium. Still, I like Dream-Quest better than much of what Dunsany wrote, and it reminds me a little of Phantastes, another "dream-quest" I happen to be fond of.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Literary Fantasy and Ecological Comedy

I’ve never formally studied literature and I'm not terribly wide-read. My way is to find a vein of metal that appeals to me and mine it for all it's worth. Also, I approach fantasy as a writer, not as a critic; one belongs to the sphere of making, the other to the sphere of knowing. But I do like to read critical theory from time to time, to give myself some perspective if nothing else.

Right now I have a copy of Fantastic Literature: A Critical Reader, courtesy of the county library’s ILL program. One excerpt I've particularly enjoyed is Don Elgin’s "Literary Fantasy and Ecological Comedy." Ordinarily, theories of eco- this and ethno- that and Marxist so-and-so turn me off. But any theory of fantasy for which Frank Herbert falls naturally into place beside Tolkien and Lewis is sure of piquing my interest. The piece doesn’t quarry works for evidence of ecological awareness or supposed eco-symbolism or anything like that. Rather, it probes the ways in which fantasy expresses a certain attitude toward man's complex relationship with his environment.

Elgin describes two fundamental views of man's place in nature. The first, the tragic, sees man in opposition to his environment, its user and its ruler. The second, the comic, sees man as one dependent part of a complex whole. The first Elgin associates with the purely "literary" or experimental novel, now in a state of effete exhaustion (reflected in the destruction of nature), and the second with fantasy. He sees these as the two basic types of novel in the world today, and avers that it is through the latter, however "disreputable," that mankind will find his way forward.*
Comedy has been the somewhat embarrassingly omnipresent, somewhat disreputable black sheep of the literary family. And within the comic tradition lie the basic traditions of sound ecological practices. When combined with ideas inherent in the romantic tradition of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the result has been the production of a new kind of novel, the fantasy novel. And, because of this merging of form and theme, the fantasy novel has become one of the two major strains that the novel as a genre will be taking in the coming years. This does not guarantee the continued existence of the novel or of humanity, but it does offer to both the promise and opportunity to take the wandering, unknown road of which Bilbo sings. And it offers to both the opportunity to go beyond the tragic ideal, with all the horrors which its abstractions have brought to western humanity… [L]iterature, especially the fantasy novel, offers humanity a way to reintegrate itself into the natural world and, in so doing, invites a new relationship between itself, its fellow creatures, and the science and literature that mirror that world.
Tolkien’s novels are held up as the prime example. It strikes me that what Elgin writes concerning the end of the Third Age and the farewell to the tragic attitude there symbolized dovetails with Tolkien’s own view (expressed in his letters) of the "sin" of the Elves in wishing to keep the world static, which is what caused them to fall under Sauron’s power through the Three.

One reason I resonate with the essay is that there's always been an acutely painful tension in my relationship to the world around me. I've described this in some of my earlier posts; perhaps it's related to my autism disorder. At any rate, my attempt at novel-writing is tied to my attempt to reconcile myself to my ambient reality, to the brutally innocent world of nature as well as to the rape of that world by the society of which I am part. Books like Dune and The Lord of the Rings and Titus Groan attract me because of the role of the secondary world in each.

On a final note, I don’t know that I agree with Elgin's statements (cited from other sources) about the role of western religion in the tragic view. The attitudes there crudely ascribed to traditional Christianity regarding man's place in nature are actually held to have been consequences of the Fall, not of Creation. Man was to hold dominion over the earth, it is true, but we are told that all that was made was good, and that the mutual antagonism came after the expulsion from Eden. Seeing man as the pinnacle of creation is not the same as seeing him as nature’s tyrant.** No, I don't think it is necessary to look beyond post-medieval Europe for the causes of our present situation, and it strikes me that the holistic views espoused by Elgin are profoundly Thomistic. It is Tolkien’s inherited philosophy that gives his work so many of the qualities that Elgin admires.

* For this reason and others, I think it unfortunate that some contemporary fantasy authors feel the need to adopt "experimental" poses in their fiction in order to validate it. It is against the very nature of fantasy to be experimental. "Experimentation" in fantasy always amounts to copying some technique from a "literary novel," to the detriment of both technique and fantasy. There is nothing worse than clever, self-conscious fantasy.

** And man knows that he is the pinnacle. If he were wrong in this, then he would at any rate be the only creature in all the universe capable of posing the question or being wrong.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Catharsis and the Post-Apocalyptic

A couple of posts ago, I dwelt on H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine and the fascination it exerted over my young mind. I had at that point already read and re-read the Chronicles of Narnia, and my favorite book in the series was The Magician’s Nephew. What drew me was its presentation of the dreary, dead world of Charn. (I was less interested in the Narnian creation story, and Lewis’ depiction of Aslan-Christ, Eden, and Heaven chilled my heart even when I was in elementary school.) Olaf Stapledon’s First and Last Men affected me in much the same way. I could multiply such examples, but these are the first works of the sort that I encountered.

I’ve thought a lot about the post-apocalyptic genre. My own writing seems ever to veer that way, whether I will or no, and our culture as a whole certainly has a fascination with the idea. Sometimes I’ve wondered if this merely represents a species of schadenfreude, a vicious enjoyment of the destruction of all man’s works and institutions, of all that is great and beautiful in the human sphere. But perhaps there is more to it than that.

When I was in high school, I happened to find a copy of The Road Warrior (a.k.a., Mad Max 2) in our town library. It is a bleak and depressing (and darkly humorous) film with hardly any dialogue. But it enthralled me at the time, and is still one of my favorite movies. The characters drive the vehicles and use the tools of our vulgar, ugly era, but these things assume new natures, new functions in a surreal, post-apocalyptic wasteland. The suppressed demons of our modern world are released from bondage (!) to confront the last vestiges of civilization, and the forces of order are utterly impotent before them. The ugliness of my surroundings and the slow slide of our society into barbarism had long troubled me—hence my flight into The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion—but seeing the goads of my torment in a post-apocalyptic light affected me in a way that I can hardly describe. It helped me to step back from my ambient reality, to assess what tormented me about it, and even to come to appreciate it for what it is in itself, to view it as something new and strange and (dare I say?) beautiful. What I experienced was like the Chestertonian fantasy described by Tolkien in his essay on fairy stories. It was an aid in Recovery.

Post-apocalyptic literature and film present our ugly surroundings and increasingly barbarous world through an inverted telescope/kaleidescope, helping us to recover, through a cathartic process, a sense of the sacred. The red sun of Charn helps us to regain the white sun of earth, and the crumbling metropolis destroyed by the Deplorable Word casts an aura of mystery over our filthy, sprawling cities. In our age of bio-engineered superviruses and nuclear arsenals, of youth riots and genocide and abortion mills, the average person lives with a certain amount of built-up tension that desperately needs release. The dramatic presentation of the demise of our civilization—be it through violent destruction or gradual extinction—releases these pent-up emotions, purging the soul.

Certainly I was conscious of these ends in writing my own novel, Antellus. Much of the story takes place in the margins and waste-places of a civilization grown senile in heat-death. A number of passages were inspired by my experience as a land-surveyor’s assistant one hot summer in a sprawling Texas city. The experience was, for me—who am, I admit, hypersensitive—harrowing. A surveyor, especially in a big city in this part of the world, spends most of his time contemplating the seamy underbelly of things. I had to begin to see beauty in ugliness if I was to cope with it. And that is what my story attempts to do: to probe the apparent absence of beauty and the sacred in the world of man and of nature, that, in the end, the reader might recover a sense of them, in part if not in whole. Whether this end is attained is another matter, of course.

An Approach to Style

"Write in a way that draws the reader’s attention to the sense and substance of writing, rather than to the mood and temper of the author. If the writing is solid and good, the mood and temper of the writer will eventually be revealed and not at the expense of the work. Therefore, the first piece of advice is this: to achieve style, begin by affecting none—that is, place yourself in the background. A careful and honest writer does not need to worry about style. As you become proficient in the use of language, your style will emerge, because you yourself will emerge, and when this happens you will find it increasingly easy to break through the barriers that separate you from other minds, other hearts—which is, of course, the purpose of writing, as well as its principal reward. Fortunately, the act of composition, or creation, disciplines the mind; writing is one way to go about thinking, and the practice and habit of writing not only drain the mind but supply it, too."

—E. B. White, The Elements of Style

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Genesis of Antellus

The world of Antellus was born out of anxiety. It began as an attempt to work through my horror of decay and entropy and the eternal silence of the infinite spaces. My grandmother, to whom I was close, had just passed away, and the rapid deterioration of her mind—which became incarnate and lingered after her death in her disordered house—had troubled me. It still does. Antellus was not the first project I had undertaken, but it was the first I was driven to complete.

Despite its origins, Antellus is, I hope, far from being mere private musing. It represents a bridge between my mind and the outside world, an attempt to give others something worth reading, something rich yet entertaining. It aims to take a place in the canon of fantasy—in my own mind, if nowhere else—and to dialogue with the works I revere, while retaining the stamp of something written in our age of atomization and anxiety. It is not about autism, but it uses autism to probe the sense of alienation that seems endemic to modern life.

The idea of a living-fossil world of Paleozoic life-forms surviving at the cosmic antipodes had grown in my mind for a long time. The denizens of Antellus—moss-trees, giant mollusks, arthropods, primitive fishes, armored amphibians—all belong to archaic tribes now represented on Tellus only by what is most lowly. They slipped through to the counter-earth at the opposite pole of the universe in primeval times, then ceased to evolve because the demiurgic vicars had rebelled and forsaken the ministry of creation. The framing device with which the story opens represents a geometrical conceit that I entertained myself with while I was lost in the labyrinths of 11-dimensional theoretical physics. The world of Antellus is intended as fantasy, however. Its hierarchy of spiritual agencies owes much to the Summa of Thomas Aquinas, but also to Greek mythology and Arabian and medieval European folklore. The social structure of the world-city of Enoch is inspired by the cultures of the ancient Mediterranean and Near East. The level of technology is stationary, and might be described as Iron Age / Industrial Age / Art Nouveau. Religion is more or less “pagan,” but the various sects that come into the story are significant for their approaches to life rather than their doctrines.

My tales take place against the lurid backdrop of the heat-death of Antellus and the accession of its predestined god-emperor. The setting is a major force: it serves as a projection of the protagonists' anxieties and preoccupations. Their progress through the wastelands, moss-jungles, and ruinous cities of Antellus reflect the tortured landscape of their own hearts.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Style in Fantasy

In an earlier post I cited Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” as an antidote to mythopoeic dualism. In this essay, after considering a number of examples illustrating the role of style in fantasy—and the penalty paid by those who neglect it—Le Guin concludes:
Many readers, many critics, and most editors speak of style as if it were an ingredient of a book, like the sugar in a cake, or something added onto the book, like the frosting on the cake. The style, of course, is the book. If you remove the cake, all you have left is a recipe. If you remove the style, all you have left is a synopsis of the plot.*

This is partly true of history; largely true of fiction; and absolutely true of fantasy.

In saying that the style is the book, I speak from the reader’s point of view. From the writer’s point of view, the style is the writer. Style isn’t just how you use English when you write. It isn’t a mannerism or an affectation (though it may be mannered or affected). It isn’t something you can do without, though that is what people assume when they announce that they intend to write something “like it is.” You can’t do without it. There is no “is,” without it. Style is how you as a writer see and speak. It is how you see: your vision, your understanding of the world, your voice.
This expresses my own view of the matter perfectly. (It also echoes E. B. White’s concluding remarks in The Elements of Style.) But Le Guin goes on to form a conjecture as to the precise role of style in fantasy, and this, I feel, is where she comes up short.
[W]hy is style of such fundamental importance in fantasy?... I think it is, because in fantasy there is nothing but the writer’s vision of the world. There is no borrowed reality of history, or current events, or just plain folks at Peyton Place. There is no comfortable matrix of the commonplace to substitute for the imagination, to provide ready-made emotional responses, and to disguise flaws and failures of creation. There is only a construct built in a void, with every joint and seam and nail exposed. To create what Tolkien calls “a secondary universe” is to make a new world. A world where no voice has ever spoken before; where the act of speech is the act of creation. The only voice that speaks there is the creator’s voice. And every word counts.
Surely this can’t be all there is to it. Such a necessity would call for exhaustive descriptions but not for a distinctive style. There are plenty of terse ordinary novels about remote times or exotic places, while some of the best fantasies take place in settings that are more or less familiar. The fantasy-writer’s skill is perhaps most apparent in his or her ability to use familiar things to evoke unfamiliar responses. Think of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, for instance. Most of it unfolds against a backdrop drawn from European topography. The Shire was based on the English Midlands, the Misty Mountains on the Alps, and Ithilien on the Mediterranean countries. In fact, Tolkien’s use of extraordinary settings is rather sparing. What sets him apart from so many imitators is that he is able to cast an aura of beauty and mystery about the ordinary good things of life. But this, he says, is one of the primary roles of fantasy: Recovery.
By the forging of Gram cold iron was revealed; by the making of Pegasus horses were ennobled; in the Trees of the Sun and Moon root and stock, flower and fruit are manifested in glory. And actually fairy-stories deal largely, or (the better ones) mainly, with simple or fundamental things, untouched by Fantasy, but these simplicities are made all the more luminous by their setting. For the story-maker who allows himself to be “free with” Nature can be her lover not her slave. It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.
The problem is not that trees, etc., are flat in fantasy if not properly described, for trees are flat in many types of good, ordinary novels. The problem is that flat trees simply are not allowable in fantasy. Fantasy is the branch of literature in which we care about the trees. Not because they are supernatural or extraordinary, &c., but simply because they are. Perhaps supernaturality is merely a way of heightening what most affects us, or should affect us, about real trees. Clearly style plays a crucial role this. Not even the most exhaustive description is enough; in fact, it is probably a great deal too much. What is needed is the gift of seeing combined with a touch of magic.

Where the mass-produced clones spawned by the advent of the fantasy genre fall short is in taking the typical devices of fantasy as ends in themselves. As Le Guin saw so clearly, weakness in style vitiates the pleasurability of these devices. But the devices themselves must be oriented as directed by the work as a whole, as a work of fantasy. They are but material elements subservient to an art that aims at a certain type of beauty. The writer who fails to comprehend this merely manipulates material elements, forming something lightly entertaining to a certain type of reader but banal and superficial.

*Which itself can never be entirely divorced from style, in my opinion. —raphordo

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Sphinx of Remote Posterity

I think I encountered H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine when I was in middle school. I had seen the first part of a film version on PBS. It ended with the Traveller being silently approached by the queerly inhuman humans of the unthinkable future. The image haunted me, and I went immediately to our town library to check it out. As I recall, I read it in one sitting. I was not yet a teenager then, but my enjoyment of the novel is unabated to this day, which to me is the sign of a truly good book.

It is a melancholy tale touched with weird loveliness, a haunting myth of the ephemerality of mankind’s place in the universe. What can compare with the Time-Traveller’s loneliness amid the simple-minded Eloi in their meaningless ruins and gardens presided over by the marble sphinx? The plot and resolution are poignant enough to make us take interest, but never so obtrusive as to distract from the contemplation of time’s abyss.

And then there is the awful moment when the Traveller escapes at last and rushes far, far into the future, into an age when the earth has ceased in its turning and the sun has become a motionless red disc in an eternally black sky; when nearly all life has become extinct, and the world is inhabited only by giant crabs; when the sea is a dead dark pool without wind or waves. Here we see the genesis of the Dying Earth of The Night Land and Jack Vance’s tales; here we see a precursor of Lewis’ dead city of Charn.

Of what fabric is the mantle that hangs like enchantment over entropic tales of earth’s last days? It is a question I often ask, for my own novel has an anticlimactic-apocalyptic aspect. Why do we take pleasure in such stories? Perhaps the feeling is akin to the sense of awe that ovecomes one when walking through the grassy spaces of Tintern Abbey or Stonehenge. Ruins please us where the intact structures would not. A decadent pleasure, suited to jaded generations. We want our cathedrals old and gray, stained with the patina of centuries, a preference the builders would not have understood. For the Gothic cathedral was a riot of color and white stone in its day.*

At any rate, there is something about The Time Machine that affects me in much the same way that good fantasy novels do. Tolkien, in his ”On Fairy Stories,” even concedes that it comes close to being fantasy, though he stops short at classifying it as part of the genre. Of course it is officially classified as science fiction because it involves “science” and machines and not “magic.” But I contend that what classifies a novel as fantasy should not be the presence or absence of this or that material element. It should be its end as a work of art, what sort of beauty it aims at. Many fantasy novels that concern “magic” nowadays are really just banal technology stories, whereas books like The Time Machine are within the sphere of what I call fantasy.

*Perhaps this reduction to schadenfruede unduly harsh. Perhaps it would be more correct to speak of catharsis. Our anxieties about our civilization are vicariously purged in the contemplation of its eventual demise.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Fantasy: Matter and Form

In an earlier post, I discussed C. S. Lewis’ “mythopoeic dualism,” his theory that myth-making is a distinct art whose product is a sequence of ideas, existing immaterially, but accidently embodied in written or spoken form.

Colin Manlove, in his Modern Fantasy: Five Studies, objects to this dualism, as I do. But his counterargument is hardly sufficient. He merely takes a passage from MacDonald, criticizes it line by line, and concludes (without further argument) that its defects in style do vitiate the whole. His criticisms are unassailable but miss the point. He and Lewis are speaking about different forms—Lewis would probably have conceded that the writing detracted from the novel, but what about the myth?—and anyway the passage Manlove cites is surely too short to invalidate Lewis’s view, which concerns global aspects. Perhaps Manlove denies the existence of a mythopoeic art as distinct from writing or telling, but if that is the case he should say so, and justify his position. Even better, he should explain why MacDonald’s style fails him insofar as he is writing a fantasy novel. But doing so would involve him in stating the role of style in fantasy (as opposed to other forms of writing), whereas he approaches his subjects merely as literary novels about fantastic things.

This brings us to a more profound question: what is fantasy? Is it its own distinct branch of literature, subject to its own rules? What are the material elements? What cements these elements into a work of fantasy qua fantasy? Manlove would seem to say that the art-form of the fantasy novel is the same as that of the ordinary novel—the difference is in the material. But, like Lewis, I don’t think people read fantasy novels for the same reason they read "literary" novels. The fantastic elements serve a necessary albeit material role: they act as a trigger mechanism for a way of viewing the whole, shifting the reader into a certain mode of enjoyment. This role, as we have seen, is closely tied to the style of the telling.

I would say that “myth” is one of several material elements, among which is literary style. The “myth” element of a work of modern fantasy can certainly be enjoyed for its own sake (just as any technical virtuosity can), but bad or inappropriate writing vitiates the work as a whole. Both are necessary ingredients, but both are subordinate to the form, the final shape that determines the work as a work of fantasy. And this form is not the same as for the ordinary work of literature.

In my opinion, the writer who has come closest to elucidating the matter is Ursula K. Le Guin. In her essay “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie,” she makes the point that, without style, there simply is no writing, which is just as valid in fantasy as in other types of writing. Good, honest Aristotelianism. She goes even further, offering some hints as to what constitutes the fitting approach to style in fantasy as such. But the essay, while suggestive, suffers from nebulosity, and fails to come to a decisive point. The question is, what are the special demands placed upon style by the art-form of fantasy? To fully answer it, we need to have an idea of what fantasy is.

In a future post I’ll hopefully be able to explain in more detail why Le Guin’s essay, while pointing in the right direction, comes up short, and how our unanswered question might be answered.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Cover Art

When I buy a book, I prefer it to be ancient, musty, compact, and weather-worn. One of my prize possessions is a tiny Everyman’s edition of Marlowe printed in 1912. I found it in an antiquarian bookstore in Archer City, Texas. Its cover is green and it has leaves and tendrils stamped in gold on the spine. The first page is inscribed with a Cambridge address, and there’s an old coupon for the Boston Metropolitan Opera inside it.

But I digress. When it comes to fantasy I have to make do with what I can find. Much as I would love to acquire an early hardcover edition of The Worm Ouroboros like the one I first found at the library, these are invariably bought and sold by collectors and other people with money. But nearly as good are the old Adult Fantasy trade paperbacks from Ballantine.

To begin with, when I read a paperback, I much prefer something yellowed and slightly trashy. The Ballantine books certainly fit this description. But there is more. I genuinely like the cover designs. They are garish and childish. Back when I lived in the city and rode a crowded bus every day, I was a little self-conscious about pulling out a slick reprint with a big, bold, up-to-date design. But a trashy old copy of Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn with its unicorn, its harpy, and its woodland scenery that all look as though painted by a junior high student with a six-year-old’s taste in color? That I would display with pride.

In a way it is the childishness of the pictures that I like. For there is something a little immature in reading fantasy; this is tied to its essential seriousness. Yes, the pictures are often laughably crude, the colors horribly garish. Yet they are attractive in a retro sort of way, and there is a certain composite prettiness in a shelf-full of them, like a collage of dried flowers. Many of the paintings wrap around to the back cover, and some are quite beautiful.

A while back I decided to acquire Evangeline Walton’s retelling of the Mabinogion. I ordered the four Adult Fantasy paperbacks on Amazon. One of them, The Children of Llyr, did not match the image shown by the seller; it was an edition from the period after Ballantine was acquired by Del Rey. It features a bold, hirsute, dwarfish character sporting a horn-hat, a shield, and a shirt with those little X’s that they used back before buttons were invented. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the actual book, of course, and to me it is much more dated than the psychedelic Ballantine covers. And then there were the other three, which come as close to timeless fantasy as the cover of a trashy trade paperback ever could.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Mythopoeic Dualism

Does style play a special role in fantasy?

C. S. Lewis speaks in several places of a mythopoeic art, holding it as distinct from the manner of telling. This is an art is whose objects exist in the ideal, independent of any embodiment in tangible form. In his introduction to an anthology of George MacDonald’s works, he writes:
If you try to take the theme of Keats’ Nightingale apart from the very words in which he has embodied it, you find that you are talking about almost nothing. Form and content can there be separated only by a false abstraction. But in a myth—in a story where the mere pattern of events is all that matters—this is not so. Any means of communication whatever which succeeds in lodging those events in our imagination has, as we say, “done the trick.” After that you can throw the means of communication away.
Lewis did not think style unimportant, of course. He was sensitive to the defects in MacDonald’s style; he praises Eddison’s writing while deploring Lindsay’s as “wretched”; his own novels are quite polished. But he holds that what is important in each case is independent of the verbal presentation. The telling is just the wrapper. The myth is the soul, the true reality; the telling is the body, necessary for the time being, perhaps, but to be gotten rid of as quickly as possible.

Being more of an Aristotelian than a Platonist, I am not quite comfortable with this “mythopoeic dualism.” Lewis would make the mythopoeic art a liberal art, like composition: a story exists even if no one is telling it, just as a piece of music exists even if no one is playing it. But the product of this mythopoeic art supposedly consists of a sequence of ideas with no guidelines as to how to “play” them, whereas composition leaves no such freedom. Is that what myth-making is really like?

For one thing, whoever has told a story to children knows very well that they are at least as sensitive to style as their elders, quick to point out the slightest deviation in wording. Analogously, in primitive societies, the manner of telling is fixed, and the story-teller assumes something of a priestly office. The same is true of the Greeks and other peoples of antiquity. They did not retell Homer: they recited him, and the poems themselves are highly formulaic. But even modern retellings of ancient myths follow certain traditional channels. Edith Hamilton’s Mythology is probably the best compendium of Greek myths for children—it’s what I grew up reading, at any rate—and this owes to the fact that she pays deference to the texts. It lends her book a certain heterogeneity. Or again, there are four different Gospels rather than one “harmony”; such harmonies have been written, but they never supersede the texts.

No, I begin to wonder if certain aspects of style are not intrinsic to myth as such. Lewis avers that he has always loved the tale of the Golden Fleece while never being particularly fond of any single telling; nevertheless, I think there must be something about the manner of telling, the style, that tints the story in all its different tellings. Style and story are mixed; they represent, not distinct categories, but a multiplicity of interwoven elements. Even the retelling of a modern “mythopoeic” novel (e.g., The Trial, Lewis’ example) must retain something of the author’s style.

If this is so, then myth is more akin to poetry than Lewis concedes. His enjoyment of MacDonald’s stories as “myths” must owe something to their style, and not merely exist in spite of it. What would we have if we stripped Phantastes of all stylistic elements? Not much more than we would have of Keats’ Nightingale, I think. Faërie would not survive the operation. But even Lewis was not consistent in his dualism, for he excludes The Night Land from his canon of story precisely because of its atrocious and foolish style. And how could we separate the story of The Worm Ouroboros—which Lewis praised so highly—from its ringing Jacobean idiom? Does not the manner of telling cast an enchanted mantle over the entire proceedings?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Idyll by the Bhavinan

Exotic Landscape, Henri Rousseau
"So they made their dwelling in that cave beside deep-eddying Bhavinan, and before that cave they ate their Yule feast, the strangest they had eaten all the days of their lives: seated, not as of old, on their high seats of ruby or of opal, but on mossy banks where daisies slept and creeping thyme; lighted not by the charmed escarbuncle of the high presence chamber in Galing, but by the shifting beams of a brushwood fire that shone not on those pillars crowned with monsters that were the wonder of the world but on the mightier pillars of the sleeping beechwoods. And in place of that feigned heaven of jewels self-effulgent beneath the golden canopy at Galing, they ate pavilioned under a charmed summer night, where the great stars of winter, Orion, Sirius, and the Little Dog, were raised up near the zenith, yielding their known courses in the southern sky to Canopus and the strange stars of the south. When the trees spake, it was not with their winter voice of bare boughs creaking, but with whisper of leaves and beetles droning in the fragrant air. The bushes were white with blossom, not with hoar-frost, and the dim white patches under the trees were not snow, but wild lilies and wood anemones sleeping in the night.

"All the creatures of the forest came to that feast, for they were without fear, having never looked upon the face of man. Little tree-apes, and popinjays, and titmouses, and coalmouses, and wrens, and gentle round-eyed lemurs, and rabbits, and badgers, and dormice, and pied squirrels, and beavers from the streams, and storks, and ravens, and bustards, and wombats, and the spider-monkey with her baby at her breast: all these came to gaze with curious eye upon those travellers. And not these alone, but fierce beasts of the woods and wildernesses: the wild buffalo, the wolf, the tiger with monstrous paws, the bear, the fiery-eyed unicorn, the elephant, the lion and she-lion in their majesty, came to behold them in the firelight in that quiet glade."

The Worm Ouroboros, Chapter XII

The Cult of Númenor: Part II

The Sacrifice of Noah, San Antonio Museum of Art
In Part I of this post, I argued that Tolkien did weave religion (actual, not allegorical) into the tapestry of Middle-Earth, albeit in a manner so implicit as to be hidden even from that most perceptive of critics, Lin Carter. Now, if Tolkien seems somewhat reticent to discuss the matter of religion openly, the reason, I think, is not far to seek. He was himself deeply religious, and a rather self-conscious member of a religious minority. It is all very well for Carter to patch together his decadent pasteboard religions. So might a boy who has never made love to a woman write foolish stories about amorous encounters. Someone who has a little firsthand experience will be less inclined to speak frivolously. Moreover, Tolkien was a papist, and had grown up in a time when enough people in England still cared about religion that that was Not a Good Thing. Even his friend C. S. Lewis harbored some prejudice on this score. There are many other reasons why Tolkien may not have wished openly to treat of religion, not the least being his good taste. Despite all of this, though, there are indeed traces of the Númenorean religion in his works.

We are told in Tolkien’s Akallabêth that at the island’s center was the holy mount Meneltarma, where only the King could speak, praying the Three Prayers to Eru Ilúvatar. And so the Kings of Númenor, Aragorn’s remote ancestors, were also its High Priests. This worship could not continue after the destruction of the island, for Meneltarma was lost and the men of the West a diaspora upon Middle-Earth. The bearing of the sapling of Nimloth, the holy tree descended from Galathilion in the West, into Middle-Earth upon the foundering of Númenor, to give rise in its turn to the White Tree of Minas Tirith, calls to mind the roles of continuity, recurrent death, and perennial vitality in Tolkien’s religion. When Aragorn comes at the end of the Third Age to claim his rightful throne in Minas Tirith, he finds the White Tree long dead, withered as the kingly line of Gondor has withered. He exercises a priestly role in ascending to the holy place upon Mindolluin to uproot the new-sprouted sapling and plant it in the place of its parent. Clearly, the Return of the King is also the Return of the Priest.

Perhaps the peoples of Middle-Earth have no “organized religion” in Carter’s sense. Tolkien says as much in his correspondence; but the principal reason for this is that the very texture of Middle-Earth is religious. Nevertheless, Tolkien does give the men of the West a negative “Chaldean” religion on the purely literal plane. They were no more lacking in religion than were the subjects of Melchizedek, who offered bread and wine to the One in thanksgiving after the slaughter of the five kings.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Of Texans and Cimmerians

On June 11, 2011, I was travelling across the state to a wedding when I made a detour through the tiny town of Cross Plains, Texas. Cross Plains, as you may or may not know, is the one-time home of Robert Ervin Howard, 1930s pulp writer and creator of Conan the Cimmerian; June 11 was the seventy-fifth anniversary of the day he committed suicide. I went out of my way that day to look about the town and tour his house, which is now a small museum.

Though I am no very great fan of pulp fantasy, I have a special fondness for REH. Possibly this stems from the fact that he was a product of small-town Texas, as I am. His conception of Cimmeria was inspired by a misty evening in the Hill Country around Fredricksburg, a part of the world that I know well. He lived in Poteet and Wichita Falls and other towns I am familiar with, and travelled to Carlsbad Caverns, where I have been many times. There is something in his stories that speaks strongly of Texas, especially in his later ones, e.g., “Red Nails.” Yes, he was “trapped” in the rural backwaters, but his prose has attained to some kind of immortality.

The Howard house is a small white one-bedroom affair on the edge of town; REH slept and wrote in a tiny sleeping porch behind his parents’ bedroom. I was taken all over the house by a kindly old lady, who, if not exactly an avid reader of REH, was at least proud of their local celebrity. It is furnished for the most part with period antiques rather than with pieces the Howards actually owned. But they have a number of delightful relics there as well, including the bust of Cleopatra that REH bought with his own money on a trip to New Orleans when he was a teenager (it belonged to L. Sprague de Camp before being donated to the museum) and a postcard sent to REH by H. P. Lovecraft from Quebec (written in typical Lovecraftian prose, no less).

For all Howard’s success in pulp writing, he was an intensely lonely and troubled person. He took his own life upon learning that his ailing mother had lapsed into a coma from which she was not expected to recover. It seems that he had been planning to do so for some time. She died the same day, and they were buried together in the family plot in nearby Brownwood.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Cult of Númenor: Part I

In his Imaginary Worlds, the indispensible yet unbearably enthusiastic Lin Carter takes Tolkien to task for having accidently left one element out of his magnum opus, namely, religion:
[T]here is no religion at all in The Lord of the Rings—no temples, shrines, priests, prayers, amulets, scriptures, ikons, idols—nothing! None of the many characters, not even the heroic warriors, so much as swears by his gods. Obviously because they have no gods. Which is simply incredible in a primitive world of wizards and warriors and walled stone cities.
The use of the word “primitive” here brings up a relevant point, for Tolkien seems not to have regarded such religion as primitive at all. We’ll let this pass for the moment, however, and turn to the substance of the criticism. Now, Carter does concede that the peoples of Middle-Earth honor the Valar, the terrestrial angels who watch over the world of Tolkien’s conception, and Eru, the One over all. But that, he says, is not what he is talking about. He means what he calls “organized religion.” Really what he wants is a phony religion, a bit of the added icing and sprinkles that he so delights in. This, however, Tolkien was apparently unwilling to concoct. For it is hard to imagine that he simply neglected to think of it. And if we suppose that his reticence to describe the religion of Middle-Earth was intentional, we may well wonder whether there is a good reason for it.

To begin with, to underscore Carter’s concession, we do find a considerable amount of worship in Middle-Earth. It is not what the theologians call latria, or adoration of the divine, but dulia, adulation, honor paid to creatures. The Elves honor Elbereth, the lady of the stars, to such a degree that we might even speak of hyperdulia. What is more, while Middle-Earth’s mortals speak little of the Valar (Tolkien does mention that some falsely suppose them to be gods), they do pay homage to the great among the Elves. Think, for instance, of Gimli the Dwarf’s courteous “worship” of Galadriel and his bold request to carry away a sacred relic of her person. Now, paying honor to blessed spirits is part of some organized religions, including that to which Tolkien belonged. The dulia of Middle-Earth is not exactly organized, but then, neither is that of Tolkien’s religion. And anyway, who would use an icon when the living, breathing reality resides in the Golden Wood of the terrestrial sphere?

All this is not what Carter is talking about, though. He wants gods and priests, mummery and mumbo-jumbo. But the mention of the stars and the angelic agencies of Middle-Earth leads to another important point. The Hebrew conception of the angel, scholars tell us, was inherited from or influenced by the astral religion of Babylon. Now, Abram was called from Ur of the Chaldees, and the Magi who followed the star to Bethlehem hailed from the same region. They may be taken as types of the good pagan, paying homage to the stars and blessed spirits as to what is preeminent in creation, but only insofar as they flow from and are oriented toward the dark and yet-unknown One. Like Thomas More’s Utopians, they do not attempt more, because they know better. They wait in darkness.

In his essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” Tolkien makes some apposite remarks about the apparent absence of religion in the world of the poem, written as it was soon after the advent of the new faith:
But if the specifically Christian was suppressed, so also were the old gods. Partly because they had not really existed, and had been always, in the Christian view, only delusions or lies fabricated by the evil one… Partly because their old names (certainly not forgotten) had been potent, and were connected in memory still, not only with mythology…but with active heathendom, religion… Most of all because they were not actually essential to the theme.
Might not these three factors also be at work in LOTR? Tolkien does speak in passing of heathendom and self-immolation, and of Black Númenoreans who worship the Enemy. Be this as it may, it is worthwhile noting that, while the writer of Beowulf excludes Christianity as an anachronism, he does not simply dismiss his heroic forebears as irredeemable sinners, as so many in his time were willing to do. No, he elevates them to the role played by the patriarchs and noble pagans:
It would seem that, in his attempt to depict ancient pre-Christian days, intending to emphasize their nobility, and the desire of the good for truth, he turned naturally when delineating the great King of Heorot to the Old Testament.
It is hard not to think of the kingly line of Númenor in this connection. Moreover, Aragorn himself seems to hold a pontifical as well as a kingly office (“the hands of the King are the hands of a healer”). The conjunction of these roles is itself a widespread pre-Christian, pagan idea, but it also found its way into the Old Testament in the person of Melchizedek, the high priest and king of Salem.

It is to the heirs of Elendil that we must look if we are to make out the keynotes of religion in Middle-Earth.

The Worm Ouroboros: Fantasy before Genre

The Lords Juss, Goldry Bluszco,
Spitfire, and Brandoch Daha.
Mass-market reissues of The Worm Ouroboros invariably try to package it as something it’s not. The goal seems to be to bamboozle unsuspecting readers into buying it. This attempted pigeonholing  is to be expected, perhaps. But even among those who appreciate Ouroboros, it is hard to find someone who will advocate it without hedging and apologizing.

One of its great sins seems to be that its races of Demons, Witches, Ghouls, Imps, and so on are just nations, and not distinct species. I have to admit that I don’t understand the complaint. But maybe that’s because I don’t understand why some people who read fantasy fiction actually enjoy it. I suppose that someone whose definition of fantasy is “a story taking place in a quasi-medieval fictional world peopled with sapient species such as dwarves, elves, halflings, orcs, etc., and involving taverns and walled cities” might be scandalized by Ouroboros. But the definition is a degenerate one, and that type of reader probably wouldn’t like any real fantasy, or, at any rate, wouldn’t like it for the same reasons that I do.

The other main complaint concerns “The Induction,” the ”awkward” framing device with which the story opens, involving a man named Lessingham who is wafted away one night to Mercury to witness the wars between the Demons and the Witches. The device is dropped after the first couple of chapters, and Mercury is never mentioned again, the world being referred to as middle-earth thereafter (naturally enough, since it is the Demons’ earth). Personally, I find the device delightful. It is strange and beautiful, and in a way mirrors my own more mundane “induction” in the old Dewey decimal section. Furthermore, given that Eddison adopts a Jacobean/Elizabethan-style prose in telling his story, and that English Renaissance plays often had such inductions and framing devices (e.g., A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Taming of the Shrew), I don’t think the choice at all unnatural.

Then again, perhaps I simply take an abnormal delight in “dumb shows” and awkward or slow beginnings, from the strange awakening of Anodos, to the silly explanations at the beginning of The Time-Machine, to the the séance with which A Voyage to Arcturus opens, to the homely beginnings of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, to Ransom’s walking tour and abduction, to John Carter’s contemplation of Mars. I like being eased into the sublime and the otherworldly from familiar surroundings. That contemporary fantasy writers don’t feel the need to build a bridge from the familiar only reflects the degeneracy of the genre, in which all has become familiar, in which keywords and cover images are used to elicit conditioned responses.

A good fairy tale begins at home but takes the reader to Faërie; the modern fantasy novel purports to take place wholly in Faërie, but actually never leaves the couch.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Worm Ouroboros

I was about twenty when I discovered E. R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros. I was a shelver in the university library, working in the old, rarely visited Dewey decimal section on the top floor. The title caught my eye, and I took the book down and opened its well-worn cover. As I began to read, I knew that here was a vein of a different metal. Something richer, stranger, more real, more alien, and more true to itself even than Lewis or Tolkien, the authors I had grown up with. The strangest thing was that I had never heard of it. Nor, for that matter, had anyone. And yet it is (in my humble opinion) one of the great works of the English language.

Ouroboros was first published in 1922 and sold very poorly. However, it came to be known to both C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, and Lewis in particular praised it as a strange and unique synthesis of northern hardness and renaissance luxury. Even Lin Carter, that insufferable chatterbox, had the sense to put it forward as a candidate for the greatest fantasy novel ever written. Praise for it has not been limited to fantasists. In his introduction to the 1952 edition, Orville Prescott speaks of it as a “majestic romance” and an “enduring masterpiece, though a strange and imperfect one.”

What do I love about it? To begin with, the Jacobean style in which it is written is unbelievably gorgeous and ornate, but never unnatural, silly, or pretentious. Eddison’s sentences have a heady, round, and ringing rhythm, so that the book is a delight to read aloud (as I have done, twice). The heroes are a combination of the courtly renaissance prince, magnanimous and well-spoken, and the lordly homeric chieftan, while the villains, bad rather than evil, are glorious monsters and chimeras that it is impossible not to admire. The settings range from the rich palaces of many-mountained Demonland to the marshes of waterish Witchland and the Iron Tower of Carcë to the devil-haunted, blasted waste of the Moruna to the jewel-like Lake of Ravary guarded by immortal spirits and ringed with impassible peaks.

But all this is material. No amount of praise or description could convey the sense that one has upon opening the book, that here is something vital, real, and substantial, something with a life of its own. It is a work of art, pursuing its own ends with no thought of utility. That is what I love about it. That is what fantasy should be.

One Cheer for Misfits

My predilections for reading in fantasy tend toward the "antiquarian." Give me some battered old Ballantine Adult Fantasy paperbacks and perhaps a few other volumes here and there, and I’ll be happy. It isn’t that I haven’t read more recent work. I just find that much of it lacks the substance, the freshness, the vigor, and the strangeness of works like The Worm Ouroboros or The Time Machine or A Voyage to Arcturus or "The Tower of the Elephant." So much of it consists of trite and over-clever recombinations of things that have been done to death, the precise opposite of what fantasy should be.

Many of the writers I revere would never get published today. Publishing is simply too monolithic, too uniform; there is no room for drolleries or grotesques. Then again, even in their own time, writers like E. R. Eddison had to go through small publishers, and sold perhaps a few thousand copies at most. So perhaps the advent of indie publishing and contemporary small presses and online magazines and the leveling of the playing field through outlets like are the contemporary answer to the eccentric and the grotesque.

Let the reader decide if he wants to read my stories. That’s what I say.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

First Post

This is my first post on my first attempt at a blog. Beginning things is always a little awkward, and starting a blog is especially so. Here I am, writing something in public space for others to view, when I know very well that I’m completely unknown and that no one will ever view it. So, then, why am I starting a blog? There are two very simple reasons.

The first is that I’ve been writing fantasy, and hope soon to be published. In my opinion, readers buy authors rather than books or stories. So I’m starting a blog where I can speak freely about what interests me, so that prospective readers can decide whether I’m right for them.

The second reason is that, while some people think to write, I write to think. It’s my hope that having a blog will motivate me to discipline my random musings and keep me intellectually and artistically honest. So, as far as that goes, it doesn’t matter if no one ever comes here. All I need is the remote possibility.