Gormenghast and the Great Tradition

I began this essai in April, soon after John Wright wrote the blog post to which it refers, and shortly before I was taken ill. I offer it now with apologies, having decided that it still had something to say, and was worth finishing. —T. S.


John C. Wright, in a post at Castalia House, asks:

Why in the world does anyone consider the Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake to be fantasy?

He sketches his own scheme of genre classification, which is radial rather than Aristotelian. In case any of my 3.6 Loyal Readers are unfamiliar with these terms, I offer brief definitions.

Aristotelian categories work by genus and species. (These words were borrowed from Aristotle by modern biologists and used in a different way. Ignore the biological usage for the present.) A genus is a category of things, distinguished by some particular quality only found among its members. This quality is called the differentia. A genus can be subdivided into species, by identifying some additional differentia to distinguish members of that species from the other members of the genus. The classical example is the definition, ‘Man is a rational animal.’ Animal is a genus: we can list off ways in which animals are unlike (say) plants, rocks, or locomotives. Man is a species within that genus, differentiated from the others because he is capable of reasoning.

(At this point, the Village Wag will claim that most men are anything but rational. This is a red herring. All humans, except infants and the severely brain-damaged, are capable of some form of rational thinking process. All of them fail to think rationally on some occasions, and some of them fail on nearly all occasions. This does not take away the capacity, which is the differentia of the species Man. A can-opener is still a can-opener, even if you never take it out of the shrink-wrap. Nuts to the Village Wag.)

There is an alternative system, less talked about but sometimes more useful. A radial category consists of a prototype, which is considered an ordinary or definitive member of the category, and any number of other things which share certain qualities with the prototype. If X is the prototype, the category can be defined as ‘things like X’. The similarity may be greater or lesser, so that there are central and peripheral members of the category.

To take an example used by Wittgenstein, chess is a game, and a ‘central’ game at that; it will do no harm to take it as our prototype for the class game. Chess is played for amusement (though in a professional match, it may be for the amusement of spectators); it has set rules and procedures; it is played with definite equipment (chessmen), in a definite playing-ground (the chessboard); it is a competition between the players, with a fixed standard (checkmate) to determine who wins and who loses. Football is unlike chess in some ways – it has many players instead of just two, and it is a contest of athletic rather than intellectual skill; but it, too, is played for amusement, with set rules, equipment, and playing-ground, in a competition with a winner and a loser. The details of play are very different, but in all the essential points, it is just as much a game as chess.

Tabletop role-playing games, on the other hand, are a peripheral member of the category. They are definitely played for amusement. Some equipment is used, and while the playing-ground is usually an imaginary place, it does have sufficient existence for the purpose of the game (like the imaginary chessboard in mental chess). But the rules and procedures are alterable at the game master’s whim, there is no defined winner or loser, and the players normally act in cooperation rather than competition. We feel that these entertainments count as games, but they are very atypical games.

Narrative fiction can be treated as an Aristotelian or a radial category, whichever you prefer. But once you come to subdivide it (for convenience in choosing stories that you are likely to enjoy), you immediately find yourself in a thicket of radial categories that cannot be approached in any other way. A mother reads ‘Cinderella’ to her child, and the child wants to hear ‘more stories like that’. Maybe what the child really wants is more about fairy godmothers, or young girls who marry charming princes, or magical transformations. But whatever the child wants, the mother is likely to find it in the radial category of ‘things like “Cinderella”’, which we call, for convenience, fairy tales. [Read more…]

Fairy tales and realism

‘Can you not see,’ I said, ‘that fairy tales in their essence are quite solid and straightforward; but that this everlasting fiction about modern life is in its nature essentially incredible? Folk-lore means that the soul is sane, but that the universe is wild and full of marvels. Realism means that the world is dull and full of routine, but that the soul is sick and screaming. The problem of the fairy tale is – what will a healthy man do with a fantastic world? The problem of the modern novel is – what will a madman do with a dull world? In the fairy tales the cosmos goes mad; but the hero does not go mad. In the modern novels the hero is mad before the book begins, and suffers from the harsh steadiness and cruel sanity of the cosmos.

[Read more…]

New release: WHERE ANGELS DIE, Episode 1

Now live on Amazon in a country near you:

ANGEL KEEP
Episode 1 of Where Angels Die

Buy your copy for the trivial price of 99 cents (U.S., Canada), 99p (U.K.), or €0.99 (Eurozone), or the equivalent in your local dosh.


‘A demon is the spirit of a bad idea. The Taken are just its victims. If they kill you, you lose. If you kill them – you lose. The only way to win is to kill the idea itself. That’s where we come in.’

Enter Revel Enfield: paladin, exorcist, Knight of the Covenant of Justice.

Every enemy is hidden.

Every friend can be turned.

Even the Angels of Life can be killed.

This is his war.

[Read more…]

The exotic and the familiar (Part 4)

Continued from Part 3.

Before we examine the merits that made our three breakthrough fantasies break through, I hope you will permit me a Historical Digression:

As luck or providence would have it, the other night I saw, for the first time, Tim Burton’s magnificently lurid production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. That tale has been around, in various forms, for nearly two hundred years; it is one of the hardy perennials of horror fiction – far older than Dracula, almost as old as Frankenstein, almost exactly contemporary with the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe.

Mr. Todd first appeared in 1846, in a story called The String of Pearls, by James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Priest – who, for that achievement alone, deserve to be ranked in the first class of Victorian novelists, but never are. For, alas, The String of Pearls was a penny dreadful. That is a term, or insult, that may need a bit of explanation for the benefit of the modern reader.

Every so often, the business of literature is turned topsy-turvy by some new technological development, and the previously unchallenged assumptions of the Grand Old Men of the business are blown to atoms and scattered widely over the waste regions of the cosmos.

[Read more…]

The exotic and the familiar (Part 3)

Continued from Part 2.

In the first half of the twentieth century, the ‘school story’ was one of the most popular genres of British pulp fiction. The giant of the field was Charles Hamilton, better known as ‘Frank Richards’ and ‘Martin Clifford’. Under these two names, he was the lead writer for The Gem and The Magnet, the two leading boys’ weekly magazines in Britain between the World Wars. (He also wrote for other markets under other names, including his own.) For more than thirty years, Hamilton published a 20,000-word story in each magazine every week without fail – more than two million words of fiction per year – until they were killed by the paper shortage of the Second World War. After the war he continued to write, with paperback books taking the place of the vanished pulps. By the time he died in 1961, he had written and published about 100 million words.

Many other writers had a go at school stories. Thomas Hughes founded the genre with Tom Brown’s School Days in 1857, and attracted scores of imitators. Kipling was one of the first; P. G. Wodehouse made a name for himself in the genre before switching to light comedy; and there were, of course, many lesser lights. But the genre died with Hamilton, as it seemed, beyond resurrection. [Read more…]

The exotic and the familiar (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1.

Throughout the 1970s, the ‘New Hollywood’ had been establishing itself. Heroes and villains, Westerns and war movies, were out of fashion. The critics’ new darlings were men like Coppola and De Palma, who pointed their cameras at the mundane and the sordid. The good characters in the new films were ineffectual; the effectual characters, as a general thing, were unselfconsciously evil. This refusal to engage ethical reality was called ‘moral ambiguity’, and praised; the tight focus on a narrow and unrepresentative segment of modern city life was called ‘realism’, and praised more strongly still.

So far as the film business was concerned, fantasy, like animation, was banished to the realm of children’s movies. Such things were considered beneath a grown-up audience, and Hollywood as a whole was trying to be very grown-up indeed. One or two cracked auteurs tried to make animated fantasies for adults, and succeeded in making cult films for stoners and adolescents. [Read more…]

Muggle magic

Mary Catelli wonders aloud:

Read an article on Harry Potter. In which the author asked why the wizarding world didn’t have TV.

Duh. Because the images would go walking around and vanishing and maybe even talking to you instead of saying their lines.

though, actually, the mobile pictures of the wizarding world might be fun but they aren’t very useful for the basic purposes of pictures. Suppose you actually wanted a photograph of your family to show people. It would be awkward if one child’s image was shy and ran off. And for historical purposes, you want an illustration that doesn’t stop depicting what you want.

Sculpture can be stationary. why not flat images? How much magic does it take to do what Muggles can do with mere chemistry?

I respond, with the lessons I learnt at G.K.C.’s mighty knee:

The sad and solemn secret of Elfland, of which Hogwarts is an outpost, is that the fay-folk lack one great and awful power given to us Muggles by our Creator: the power of ‘Thou Shalt Not’. So it is for us to say, ‘I make a photographic image of thee, and thou shalt not walk out of it.’ When we tell a thing to stay put, it stays, backed by the colossal might of Nature and Nature’s God. It is because the fairies have not this power that all fairy-gold turns back to dust.

Message fiction, Victorian style

But the three hundred and sixty-five authors who try to write new fairy tales are very tiresome. They always begin with a little boy or girl who goes out and meets the fairies of polyanthuses and gardenias and apple blossoms: ‘Flowers and fruits, and other winged things.’ These fairies try to be funny, and fail; or they try to preach, and succeed.

― Andrew Lang

The apple-blossom fairies are mostly gone, thank God, but the same failing recurs in other guises. The same could be said of most of the critical darlings of any given moment, especially in our genre (which is insufferable when not humble): They try to be funny, and fail; or they try to preach, and succeed.

Hat tip to Mary Catelli.

How to Shut Down Tolkien

A talk given by Brandon Rhodes at PyGotham 2014, and in my humble but infallible opinion, a very interesting one. Rhodes has much to say about how to encourage the creative faculties and how to bully them into silence.

There are one or two minor factual errors. Lewis was not the first person to whom Tolkien showed the Silmarillion matter: he had given some of it to R. W. Reynolds (for whom he wrote the ‘Sketch of the Mythology’ about 1926), and his earliest audience had been his wife, Edith. But these are unimportant in this context. Lewis was definitely the critic and catalyst who awoke Tolkien’s full powers and spurred him on through his most productive period. How he did so, and how he almost failed, makes an illuminating story.

Hat tip to Nancy Lebovitz for sending me the link.

The Tao of Prydain

Prydain, of course, is just the Welsh name for Britain; you can find it now on any U.K. passport, though Lloyd Alexander did not live to see that. Thanks to Mr. Alexander, the name has acquired a second meaning: it is also the name of a Secondary World, a parish or precinct of Faërie, which serves as the setting for one of the founding texts of modern fantasy. The Book of Three has, I am told, never been out of print since its appearance almost fifty years ago. This fact alone is enough to make many a modern fantasy writer weep with envy. One could, I suspect, fill a very large bookcase with the fantasy trilogies of which Book One was already out of print by the time Book Three appeared. But Prydain remains, partly because the publishers of children’s books are not afraid of their own shadows, and are not too proud to take the profits of a hardy perennial.

My own acquaintance with the fictional Prydain began when I was ten, and read all five of the original books out of the school library; a couple of years later, I acquired my own copies, which went missing in a house-move many years later. Last year, during the enforced idleness that followed upon my fall down stairs, I was delighted to find a complete set of the paperbacks, no longer virginal but still alluring, on a sky-high shelf at a second-hand bookshop within bowshot of my current home. I adopted them and took them home, and packed my bags for a visit to Prydain, to see if the tales retained their charm for an older and more jaded reader, or if they belonged in the vast category of trash that I only enjoyed because I had not yet learnt to tell my good taste from my bad.

I am pleased to report that the books seem as good as they ever did to me, or better. I understand, now, how Alexander produced some of his effects, and where he got some of the odder ingredients for his confection. I still like the same bits I liked as a boy of ten, and dislike most of the bits that left me cold then; but now I can appreciate the ingenuity of the good parts, and at any rate account for the others. I read the books this time with a curious sort of double vision — one eye in childhood, the other in decrepitude, with a lifetime of parallax between them. This gives me a perspective and depth of field, as it were, that would be hard to get in any other way. [Read more…]