The exotic and the familiar (Part 1)

I’ve heard Brian Aldiss talk about the same phenomenon. For him, a novel often requires two ideas. He describes them as a combination of ‘the familar’ and ‘the exotic’. He begins with ‘the familiar’ – usually something germane to his personal life, either thematically or experientially – but he can’t write about it until ‘the familiar’ is impacted by ‘the exotic’. In his case, ‘the exotic’ is usually a science fictional setting in which ‘the familiar’ can play itself out: ‘the exotic’ provides him with a stage on which he can dramatize ‘the familiar’. Rather like a binary poison – or a magic potion – two inert elements combine to produce something of frightening potency.

The same dynamic works in reverse for me. I start with ‘the exotic’… but that idea declines to turn into a story until it is catalysed by ‘the familiar’.

For example: The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant is squarely – and solely – founded on two ideas: unbelief and leprosy. The notion of writing a fantasy about an ‘unbeliever’, a man who rejects the whole concept of fantasy, first came to me near the end of 1969. But the germ was dormant: no matter how I laboured over it, I couldn’t make it grow. Until I realized, in May of 1972, that my ‘unbeliever’ should be a leper. As soon as those two ideas came together, my brain took fire.

—Stephen R. Donaldson, The Real Story

Three times in the last sixty-odd years, a work of fantasy has come along that redrew the whole map of the field; that banished the limits of the publishable, as then understood, as suddenly and thoroughly as Columbus banished the ‘ne plus ultra’ from the Pillars of Hercules. Lately I have been thinking hard about these works, seeing what they had in common with one another, and what set them apart from the other fantasies of their times, to see whether I could account for the magnitude of their success.

All three of these breakthrough fantasies can be described in terms of Aldiss’s ‘exotic’ and ‘familiar’. Each, considered thematically, is a collision between two great, or at any rate large, ideas. And when I began to look at them in this light, I found a curious thing: which idea was ‘the exotic’ and which was ‘the familiar’ was not as obvious as it seemed. Indeed, the works themselves tended to familiarize the exotic and exoticize the familiar, so that those whose habits of mind were formed afterwards would never quite see the ideas as their first audiences saw them.

Let me see if I can explain what I mean.

First, in 1954–55, came The Lord of the Rings. At the heart of Tolkien’s magnum opus is a collision between two ideas as starkly opposed as life and death. Life, in this case, is the life of Middle-earth: a life deeply rooted in tradition and legend, close to the soil, based upon a deep and vivid understanding of nature in all its modes and moods. Death is the One Ring – the super-weapon with the power to destroy everything.

To all the generations of man before the Industrial Revolution, Middle-earth would have been a familiar setting. The peculiar peoples, their customs and languages, would have seemed strange, but no stranger than the common run of travellers’ tales; and nothing like so strange as a world in which custom and tradition were openly sneered at, and millions of people hared off every day in the frantic pursuit of this year’s fashion and this year’s technology. A single weapon that could blast the whole world to ruin was something out of myth – religious eschatology or morbid fantasy.

But in the aftermath of the two World Wars, the landscape of our own world was strangely reversed. People in the 1950s lived in grim daily knowledge of the super-weapon; and many of them lived in hive cities, far larger than anything known before the twentieth century, in which woods and open fields were exceptional sights, and the stars were largely banished from the night sky. And they had been carefully taught – propagandized is not too strong a term – that the ways of the past were dead and worthless, as irrelevant as last year’s motorcars or last year’s hemlines – that tradition was a dirty word. To such people, it was Middle-earth that was ‘the exotic’, the Ring of Power ‘the familiar’.

The Lord of the Rings, which treated tree and leaf, seas and mountains, as normal, and the Ring as a deadly exception, was a specific remedy for the characteristic malaise of those times. Much has been said about the way Tolkien’s work inspired the New Left (with whom he had so little else in common) – the pacifist and environmentalist movements of the sixties. But the counterculture was merely the foam on the shores; the real sea-change occurred in the deep waters of Western society. Quite ordinary and conservative people began to think that mere technical progress was not automatically good. And while people of both sense and sensitivity had always known that nature was worth having, many of them awoke for the first time to the notion that nature needed saving: that the human race had conjured up forces capable of destroying vast and priceless things.

Today, we have come some distance towards correcting the topsy-turvy world-view of 1954. More people than ever live in big cities, but most of them have at least an ignorant and sentimental regard for ‘the environment’. Wars have not ceased, but all nations, and most of the freelance extra-national combatants, have got it through their heads that some ways of fighting are simply out of bounds. The Ring and the H-bomb are once more becoming ‘exotic’, and the natural world ‘familiar’. Only a small part of this change, of course, was brought about by The Lord of the Rings, or by literature generally. But the change is real, and because of it, we can no longer quite appreciate how startling Frodo’s story was when it appeared, or why it seized so many hearts and minds with the force of revelation.

Twenty-odd years passed: years in which modern and Modernist people assimilated the themes of Tolkien’s work without being contaminated by the work itself. The prophets of the new counter-industrialism – Rachel Carson, Bertrand Russell, Ralph Nader, among many others – were real; one could engage their ideas without risking anything as dangerous as imagination. One could accept nature and reject the H-bomb in a perfectly mundane way. Many people thought the Tolkien ‘fad’ had passed, that fantasy would once more be relegated to the ghetto of children’s literature, or (better yet) abolished altogether. A few quixotic publishers kept trying to make a buck out of the genre; they dimly supposed that there must be more than one way to make money out of this fantasy thing, whatever it was. In 1977, Lester del Rey published a group of highly successful books that proved it was so. Those books included The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, referred to above; but the second breakthrough fantasy came from a wholly unexpected source.

(Continued in Part 2.…)



  1. I can say, without the least bit of exaggeration, that never before have those three little words, “to be continued,” ever caused a more painful combination of disappointment and anticipation. In the midst of being enthralled by another insightful commentary by the estimable Tom Simon, I have suddenly been sat down in a chair and told I must practice restraint; that the world does not exist for my own amusement or run at my convenience. And I, with the attitude of a petulant child who does not much like such lessons, am left exclaiming: Mr. Simon! How could you do this to me?!?

    • Ah, these trials are sent to teach us patience. Compose your spirit, Loyal Reader: Part 2 will be up tomorrow. (Part 3 is still in progress, and I don’t know yet if there will have to be a Part 4.)

  2. You can at least rest easy knowing that you bring great joy to spammers, apparently, if nobody else.

    • That’s only the tip of the iceberg. My spam filter catches most of them, but for some reason it doesn’t learn to block these bozos no matter how many times I flag them.

  3. Carbonelle says:

    Hah! For once delay getting to my e-mail is my friend. I don’t have to wait and may read parts 1 & 2 back-to-back.


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