#11 in the series, following ‘Campbell’s Cream of Fantasy’. This is the last piece in the series as originally written; an earlier version appeared on LiveJournal in June, 2006.
The process that replaces winged Pegasus with plodding Dobbin, and Tolkien’s ‘Soup’ of myth and legend with ‘Campbell’s Cream of Fantasy’, does not stop with debasing settings and motifs. It debases themes as well. The old folktales, among many other things, were wisdom literature, a thing that does not exist in any thoroughly modern society. We have a number of authors nowadays who want to create a substitute for wisdom literature; what they actually do is write books with titles like ‘The Rules of X’ or ‘Chicken Soup for the Y’. Not having much in the way of wisdom themselves, they substitute pop psychology and bumper-sticker slogans.
This is bad enough in the modern world; it is doubly bad in fantasy, for it is false to the whole atmosphere of Faërie. Heinlein expressed a useful rule in Magic, Inc.: whereas the physical world is subject to unalterable physical law, the ‘Half World’ of magic and spirits (a name I have swiped for my own use) is a place where anything is physically possible, but morally and metaphysically, everything is subject to ‘the Customs’, which are as unalterable in that world as gravitation is in ours. In this, Heinlein showed a better understanding of Faërie than hundreds of fantasy writers since. G. K. Chesterton drew the same distinction in different terms. This is from Orthodoxy:
It might be stated this way. There are certain sequences or developments (cases of one thing following another), which are, in the true sense of the word, reasonable. They are, in the true sense of the word, necessary. Such are mathematical and merely logical sequences. We in fairyland (who are the most reasonable of all creatures) admit that reason and that necessity. For instance, if the Ugly Sisters are older than Cinderella, it is (in an iron and awful sense) necessary that Cinderella is younger than the Ugly Sisters. There is no getting out of it. Haeckel may talk as much fatalism about that fact as he pleases: it really must be. If Jack is the son of a miller, a miller is the father of Jack. Cold reason decrees it from her awful throne: and we in fairyland submit. If the three brothers all ride horses, there are six animals and eighteen legs involved: that is true rationalism, and fairyland is full of it.
But as I put my head over the hedge of the elves and began to take notice of the natural world, I observed an extraordinary thing. I observed that learned men in spectacles were talking of the actual things that happened — dawn and death and so on — as if they were rational and inevitable. They talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as necessary as the fact that two and one trees make three. But it is not. There is an enormous difference by the test of fairyland; which is the test of the imagination. You cannot imagine two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail.
Now, it will be objected that moral truths do not fall into the same category as the mathematical or metaphysical certitudes Chesterton speaks of here. This is a mistake born of the modern habit of cultural relativism. One could imagine a world where the three brothers could all ride horses and have twenty-four legs involved instead of eighteen; all you need is a world where horses have six legs. But if you once grant that, you will discover that you are no longer talking about horses; you are talking about a different animal that has been (confusingly and deceptively) allowed to usurp the common name of Equus ferus caballus.
Likewise, perhaps you can imagine a species of creature for whom it is actually good that they should kill their friends or devour their young; but when you do so, you are no longer talking of Homo sapiens or any of his near relatives (real or hypothetical). The nature of the animal is so different that its lessons cannot be taken as applicable to us humans; the ethics of the Natural Anthropophagus are ‘not addressed to our condition’. To pretend that they are is to tell a deep and awful lie. If you are going to draw lessons for human beings, you have to draw them from human life, or from something so closely analogous to it that the logic and the conclusions can be transferred back to humans.
The anthropomorphic animals of Aesop’s fables are creatures of this kind, and indeed such beast-fables are prominent in the wisdom literature of many cultures. But the point would cease to apply if the animals stopped being anthropomorphic. We can readily perceive the lesson of the fox and the grapes, even though real foxes don’t eat grapes, because real men and women do. We should be ill advised to draw a lesson from the female mantis, who (according to another kind of fable) consummates her nuptials by eating the bridegroom; because real men and women do not mate in that way. A woman who bit off her husband’s head would find herself without a mate long before she reached the point of having children, and her amorous innovation would die out in the first generation. It would be contrary to the Customs.
The rule of fantasy is that the Customs remain the same; the stories may be about foxes or elves or creatures from Arcturus in the literal sense, but they must be applicable to human experience, and within the range of human sympathy, if they are to touch the reader’s heart and not merely titillate her desire for novelty. To quote from Orthodoxy again:
If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If, in your bold creative way, you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe.
Human beings really do have a rather determinate nature. Our differences, spectacular as they may seem, are all founded upon a bedrock of similarity. Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, investigated these universals of human nature, and drew up a moral code based on them. C. S. Lewis, in The Abolition of Man, has shown how the same code, restated in but slightly different terms, recurs over and over in every cultural tradition on every continent. The kind of maxims that Lewis collected are another variety of wisdom literature, and a splendid real-life instance of the general consistency of ‘the Customs’ even in strictly human affairs. If, in your bold creative way, you draw a man without this bedrock ethical structure, you will really find that you are not free to draw a man.
The same stricture applies to that staple of fantasy, the Wise Old Man. Even if he is not technically a man, he has to say things that it would be wise for a man to say, or it will not appear as wisdom at all. Fantasy and near-fantasy books are filled with Wise Old Men, chiefly because Wise Old Men are useful figures to conduct maid-and-butler dialogues with Naive Young Heroes, but also, perhaps, because that canny old charlatan Jung listed the Wise Old Man prominently among his archetypes. The W.O.M. has become part of the furniture of Fantasyland, and the hacks at the Old Baloney Factory haven’t got the guts or the imagination to do without him. Unfortunately, while these Wise Old Men may be very old indeed, most of them seem singularly lacking in wisdom.
This, while regrettable, is hardly surprising. Wisdom is not a quality much sought after nowadays. The word sounds uncomfortably elitist and anti-subjective. It will not do to say that one person is wiser than another, unless one is prepared to say that one belief may be right and another wrong; and that is just the sort of thing we have grown too mealy-mouthed to say. It is the culmination of our collective amnesia. For two centuries, Western civilization has been growing steadily more infatuated with ephemeral knowledge at the expense of enduring truth. Ancient folktales and traditional songs have been replaced by pop-culture references; philosophy has declined into ideology; and wisdom, as an object of desire, has largely been supplanted by technical know-how. The very word wizard, which originally meant ‘wise person’, has come back into vogue as a label for people with the technological skill to do impressively difficult things as if by magic. Our ancestors, if educated, learnt Latin and quoted the Book of Proverbs; we learn XML and Java and quote the ‘Chicken Soup’ books I mentioned earlier.
They think that [God] works like the factories in Claptrap, inventing every day a new machine which supersedes the old. As machines are among the very few things that they do know something about, they cannot help thinking that everything is like them.
That is Lewis again, castigating the ‘Anti-Romantics’ in The Pilgrim’s Regress. He could have aimed this barb at the Postmodernists if they had existed in his day, or the Moral Relativists, or any of the philosophically vacuous people who think human nature as changeable as popular opinion. Whatever else has changed in the last thousand years, the human animal has not changed, and neither has the human brain. We cannot invent a new emotion, any more than a new primary colour. Birth and death are with us yet, as mysterious and awful as they were to our Neolithic ancestors, and as shrouded in rituals and taboos. Marriage persists strongly, despite the best efforts of the sexual revolutionaries, and even religion has stubbornly falsified every prediction that it would disappear. Computers ten years ago ran Windows XP, and computers ten years hence may run Windows 10 or iOS 12 or Android Goody Gum Drops; but the operating system of the human soul has not changed in all our recorded history.
I am convinced that this largely accounts for our present hankering for fantasy. Fantasy worlds seldom seem to change much, and for the most part they do not change in technology at all. In Elfland men still fight each other with swords, or shoot arrows at one another, and they have never learnt to build machines more complicated than a simple water-powered grist-mill or sawmill. In other words, they live pretty much as humans lived from the invention of agriculture to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. (Of course there was great change during that long span of time; but it usually occurred so slowly that a man could grow old and die in the same world and culture he was born in.) Fantasy is a zoo, as it were, where we can see humans in a clever imitation of their native habitat. Our own habitat changes so fast that it can hardly be called native to any of us. I was born in the 1960s, and already I often feel like an exile from a country that no longer exists. For a people almost wholly ignorant of history, fantasy serves as a useful palliative for culture shock. It gives us an ersatz feeling of continuity.
But it is only ersatz, for the most part, because it has no real connection to the common culture of preindustrial man. Nowhere is this easier to see than when an author tries to put words of wisdom in a character’s mouth. Ursula Le Guin said, you will recall, that archaism is something you have got to learn how to do before you can do it. The same is true of wisdom. The collective experience and understanding of any preindustrial people can be found in its store of proverbs, adages, fables, folktales, ballads, poems, and nursery rhymes. There is more homely philosophy in a rhyme like ‘Simple Simon’ than in many a learned tract. As late as the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin seized upon aphorisms and gnomic verses as a way to inculcate strength of character among his American readers.
Some familiar examples of this kind of wisdom:
Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall. —Proverbs 16:18
Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. —St. Paul, Galatians 6:7
It is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness. —Confucius
A liar will not be believed, even when he speaks the truth. —Aesop
Early to bed and early to rise,
Makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise. —Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac
If wishes were horses, beggars might ride. —English proverb, as collected by John Ray
There is a definite manner that all these have in common: pithy, sententious, unabashedly prescriptive. All are what is now called ‘simplistic’; but this popular wisdom is far from simplistic, for often a culture will have two familiar adages that appear to contradict one another, warning against opposite extremes. Sometimes a single saying expresses both horns of the dilemma:
Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him.
Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit. —Proverbs 26:4-5
Now, there is an art to constructing adages, and it has largely been lost. A few modern writers, professionally familiar with the old documents, have managed to acquire the knack and use it to good effect:
Oft evil will shall evil mar.
Oft the unbidden guest proves the best company.
It needs but one foe to breed a war, not two; and those who have not swords can still die upon them.
See the bear in his own den before you judge of his conditions.
The first three of those are from Tolkien, the fourth from Lewis. It is no accident that the readiest examples come from the Inklings, Oxford dons steeped in classic and mediaeval traditions, with a Christian conservatism that assigned living value and significance to the old chestnuts they found there.
Stephen R. Donaldson, though learned primarily in modern literature, as a student of English and a child of missionaries has enough of the same background to work in a similar style when he chooses:
He who waits for the sword to fall upon his neck will surely lose his head.
But now, I am afraid, it is time for some counterexamples. Let us begin with this:
Perfect speed is being there.
That is from Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and well exemplifies the modern Western bumper-sticker koan, the paradox that seems profound but is really meaningless. Richard Bach’s aphorism is certainly not true of physical velocity, which is what Jonathan is taught to apply it to; it leads not to instant apportation, the seagull’s goal, but to standing still. To be everywhere at once may indeed be ‘perfect speed’, but this discovery leaves us, who can be in only one place at a time, no better off. Like that sweet romance in which the bride eats the head of the groom, it is not addressed to our condition.
A proverb should be plain and vivid, and the metaphor, if any, obvious; and the application in daily life should be clear. This one is vague and abstract, and can only be interpreted by supplying a metaphor to which the saying itself supplies no key. It is true that Jonathan Livingston Seagull as a whole supplies a kind of key; but not a useful one. The book is ‘inspirational’ without being wise, but written in language cribbed from pop philosophy, to lend it a spurious air of wisdom. Those who know best the philosophical traditions thus traduced are least forgiving of the result.
One of the worst, or at least most infamous, offenders is our old friend Terry Goodkind. The same sterility of imagination and ineptitude of style that characterize his work as a whole appear in concentrated form when he tries to offer words of wisdom. Here are a few of his ‘Wizard’s Rules’:
People are stupid; given proper motivation, almost anyone will believe almost anything. Because people are stupid, they will believe a lie because they want to believe it’s true, or because they are afraid it might be true.
The Wizard’s Fourth Rule, he called it. He said that there was magic in sincere forgiveness, in the Fourth Rule. Magic to heal. In forgiveness you grant, and more so in the forgiveness you receive.
Life is the future, not the past.
The last ‘rule’ listed above, by the way, was a slogan used in Britain during the Second World War to build civilian morale, and was conspicuously ineffective. The others run the gamut from New Age platitudes to expressions of boundless cynicism.
At one end of the scale, the ‘magic’ of forgiveness is a fine thing, but the Rule, for all its mock-poetic wind, says nothing about what that magic does. Compare William Blake’s verse on a similar subject:
I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
That tells you something about the effects of forgiveness, instead of merely expelling gas about how magical it all is. There is no place for vague rhapsodizing in ‘rules’ or proverbs, which need to be pithy and precise. Nothing so unspecific and unmemorable would pass the tests of use and time; but then, Goodkind’s world has such an exiguous past that perhaps the test of time has never been applied there.
At the opposite end, ‘People are stupid’ is a recipe for pride, an ill-founded feeling of superiority to one’s fellow man, and the ready temptation to Machiavellian manipulation. In cynicism, but not in elegance of expression, it matches Mundus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur. James Branch Cabell, himself an arch-cynic, made that the motto of his fictitious pays of Poictesme, and for good reason: he was mocking everything within reach, and the whole ‘Biography of the Life of Manuel’ constitutes a kind of reductio ad absurdum of human behaviour and ambition. Goodkind, on the other hand, would have us believe that he is serious.
Actually, all these Rules are written in an awkward and clunky style severely at odds with the laconic poetry of the traditional proverb. Even so recent a coinage as Murphy’s Law has been trimmed to fit that standard. According to his son Robert, Major Murphy originally said something like this:
If there’s more than one way to do a job, and one of those ways will result in disaster, then somebody will do it that way.
But it was not in anything like that form that the phrase caught on. It had to be purified of its complexities and caveats, and cast in the strict mnemonic form of the popular adage, before it could take its place in the public mind. In the process, unfortunately, it lost much of its original meaning, and the wisdom of the original has turned to cynicism in the final form:
If something can go wrong, it will.
It says less than the original, but says it better, which matters more: it is easy to remember and falls trippingly from the tongue. The original Law has been worn smooth in passing from hand to hand.
Goodkind’s Rules have not been refined in this way, much to their detriment. By turns over-serious, self-important, cynical and empty, they have the heaviness of gold without the glitter. So does lead. We do not make crowns and sceptres out of lead; and the Golden Rule takes hold of the mind and heart as no leaden rule could ever do. If we are going to have imitations of ancient wisdom in our fiction, they had better be wise, and they had better be well expressed. Too many of Goodkind’s are neither.
There is a koan to the effect that a wheel is useless unless it has a hole in the centre to revolve around. But the function of the hole is not to remain empty, but to attach the wheel to the axle. The ‘wisdom’ of authors like Goodkind reminds me of a wheel without an axle: it will roll, but it cannot carry the cart. Considering that his books are positively hagridden by his Message of watered-down Randism, it seems odd to accuse them of thematic vacuity; but the accusation holds just the same. As soon as he actually expresses the so-called wisdom that makes up the burden of the Message, any wary and experienced reader can see that it is really no wisdom at all, but something ginned up out of platitudes and errors.
Goodkind, alas, is far from the worst offender. Hundreds of his fellow authors have not even a vacuous message. These are the timid souls who merely tell us that their Wise Old Men are wise, without ever offering a sample of their wisdom. Their books are full of wizards in the merely technical sense, enormously powerful in magic, but equally weak in philosophy. Of course a wise man need not expound his philosophy in a nutshell to prove that he is wise; but in too many cases we cannot even infer from the context of his actions what his philosophy is. Belgarath, to return to one of my earlier whipping-boys, has no philosophy at all except ‘The Prophecy is always right’. His companions are even more alarmingly vapid. And there are scores of characters like him in the genre, wise men who show no sign of wisdom.
Perhaps it is this, even more than the derivative nature of their plots and settings, that makes so many fantasy authors’ books so unrewarding. Their heroes exert themselves mightily to save the world, but they have never even asked the questions whose answers might make a world worth saving.