C. S. L. on novelty and myth

C. S. Lewis’s Preface to Paradise Lost is not much read nowadays, as indeed Paradise Lost itself is not much read; and both we and our art are the poorer for it. Milton’s great epic contains much beauty and grandeur and not a little good sense. Lewis’s lectures on Milton (from which the Preface was constructed) are wanting in the beauty and the grandeur, which were not to his purpose anyway, but compensate for this by overflowing with a fount of good sense that is directed with deadly precision at the characteristic follies and errors of ‘literary’ people in our own age. Lewis was a survivor from the previous age (he once likened himself to a living dinosaur), and saw with painful clarity what necessary human qualities were being cast off with the old learning that he had acquired and his successors had not. We are still living recognizably in the age of those successors.

One of the follies of this age, which has only grown worse with time, is the tendency to ‘ironize’ or undercut anything archetypal or mythical, to make the gods and heroes ‘just folks’, to deflate, to take the heroism out of heroes and the importance out of villains, and make all the characters talk and act like bored and unreflective teenagers. The ideal of modern drama is the situation comedy, reduced to a troupe of stock characters making stock wisecracks at each other’s expense. The ideal of modern literature is either an impenetrable and meaningless jungle of very pretty words (for the Snobs), or a perfectly stylized and predictable melodrama that makes no demand whatever upon the imagination (for the Proles).

The idea that there are other kinds of people besides Snobs and Proles does not occur to the Snobs; they have not even thought of asking the Proles what they like or want. And as the Snobs have captured the citadel, the rest of us are supposed to be content with whatever books and drama they see fit to shove down our throats. The dire sales figures of recent fiction from the major publishers, and the collapse of one major film-franchise after another, shows what happens when the Snobs are put in charge of popular entertainment. They are neither entertaining nor popular.

One form that this takes (you see it in most of the Dreamworks animated films, and the formula is imitated to dire effect in cartoon franchises like Hotel Transylvania) is to turn all the creatures of fantasy, from elves and dragons to vampires and talking beasts, into sitcom parodies with exactly the same motivations and neuroses as stereotypical suburbanites in Los Angeles. (Sometimes, as in the Madagascar series, they have the neuroses of stereotypical Manhattanites instead. This is no great improvement.)

By this everything essential is lost, and only a twee appearance remains. A dragon without greed is no dragon at all, but only a giant cartoon lizard; there is not even any particular reason why it should be a lizard. A vampire that does not steal souls is only a morbid sex-symbol to tickle the fancy of the ‘goth’ crowd. In Zootopia we have seen the nadir of this approach: a city full of talking animals that all behave exactly like modern city-dwelling Americans, to the point where any realistic animal behaviour is considered a freak and an abomination. Half the plot of the film turns on the horror (oh, the horror!) of carnivorous animals actually reverting to type and eating meat. The idea that one species of animal is any different from another is represented as the most benighted racial bigotry.

Lewis, if anybody had troubled to heed him, warned us very early on against this kind of thematic degeneration. The whole point of using creatures different from men in a story is that they are indeed different; they are not Just Folks; they are brought in because they are not Just Folks, but at worst hypostasized qualities, or at best, thinking and feeling creatures that are nevertheless not human. Everyone in a modern story is alienated. The humans are alienated from their own human nature, and the aliens are alienated from being alien. One of the functions of fantasy, before it became morbid, was to recover the sense of the alien and of the human; to remind us what we were alienated from, as well as what was alien to us. We might not have lost that function so quickly or so thoroughly if we had troubled to listen to this passage:

There is, furthermore, a special reason why mythical poetry ought not to attempt novelty in respect of its ingredients. What it does with the ingredients may be as novel as you please. But giants, dragons, paradises, gods, and the like are themselves the expression of certain basic elements in man’s spiritual experience. In that sense they are more like words – the words of a language which speaks the else unspeakable – than they are like the people and places of a novel. To give them radically new characters is not so much original as ungrammatical. 

That strange blend of genius and vulgarity, the film of Snow-White, will illustrate the point. There was good unoriginality in the drawing of the queen. She was the very archetype of all beautiful, cruel queens: the thing one expected to see, save that it was truer to type than one had dared to hope for. There was bad originality in the bloated, drunken, low comedy faces of the dwarfs. Neither the wisdom, the avarice, nor the earthiness of true dwarfs were there, but an imbecility of arbitrary invention.

But in the scene where Snow-White wakes in the woods both the right originality and the right unoriginality were used together. The good unoriginality lay in the use of small, delicate animals as comforters, in the true märchen style. The good originality lay in letting us at first mistake their eyes for the eyes of monsters. The whole art consists not in evoking the unexpected, but in evoking with a perfection and accuracy beyond expectation the very image that has haunted us all our lives.

A Preface to Paradise Lost, ch. 8

Fflewddur’s harp

The bard did not answer. For a long moment he held the harp lovingly in his hands and gently touched the strings, then with a quick motion raised the beautiful instrument and smashed it across his knee.

Taran cried out in anguish as the wood shattered into splinters and the harp strings tore loose with a discordant burst of sound. Fflewddur let the broken fragments drop from his hands.

“Burn it,” he said. “It is wood well-seasoned.”

[Read more…]

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.