Thursday, November 10, 2011

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.

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