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…]

‘How to read Tolkien’

Michael Drout’s superb lecture, ‘How to Read Tolkien’, is now available on YouTube, and by the magic of the Intertubes, it’s available on this tube too:

Science fiction or fantasy? A rigorous definition

If there’s a zeppelin, it’s alternate history. If there’s a rocketship, it’s science fiction. If there are swords and/or horses, it’s fantasy. A book with swords and horses in it can be turned into science fiction by adding a rocketship to the mix. If a book has a rocketship in it, the only thing that can turn it back into fantasy is the Holy Grail.

—Debra Doyle

The myth of autarky

Personally I believe that most people are influenced far more than they would care to admit by novels, serial stories, films and so forth, and that from this point of view the worst books are often the most important, because they are usually the ones that are read earliest in life.

—George Orwell, ‘Boys’ Weeklies’

Fantasyland, as the late Diana Wynne Jones showed in her seminal Tough Guide thereto, is an irksome place. It irks me, at any rate, because it is not a world but something more like a film-set; it does not have the working parts to do what it pretends to do. Tolkien was confessedly ignorant of economics, but he at least tried to make sure (for instance) that the Shire was in a naturally fertile clime that could support a large population of hungry hobbits, and that the ‘townlands’ surrounding Minas Tirith were adequate to feed the people of the city. He even threw in a sentence or two about slave plantations in the South of Mordor, around the Sea of Núrnen, to show how Sauron supplied his horde of evil minions. Many fantasy writers don’t even take that much trouble.

Whenever I read about a Glorious Imperial City of Gold™ on top of a high mountain, or a Decadent Palace of the Evil Sultan™ in the midst of a trackless desert, I always find myself asking: ‘But what do these people live on?’ A writer could, by mere fiat, say that they get their food by magic; yet the magic is never there. Not only do we not see it onstage, we also do not see any of the probable consequences and (as fools and mortals say) ‘side-effects’ that such magic would have on all other areas of life. One day I shall probably write a snarky and contumacious tract on the economics of Faërie, but for now I want to leave most of that subject on one side and tackle one particular issue. That is the attitude of almost religious awe that fantasy writers have for societies based on subsistence agriculture — an attitude that, in my wide experience, only occurs among people who know nothing about agriculture and precious little about subsistence.

This attitude is not only prevalent in fantasy; some people hold it in real life as well. Among these we must number the ‘locavores’, the well-meaning fools who think it somehow unethical to eat any food grown more than, say, 100 miles away. This is nonense, and easily proved to be nonsense; but a hundred proofs are not worth as much as one plausible story. That is why it is so dangerous that so many of our storytellers don’t know the facts of the case and do not seem interested in learning them. People, consciously or not, are forming their views of life from stories that are not based on life at all.

I hope you will bear with me, then, while I tell a little story, and if it is not a hundred-proof story, I hope it may be strong enough drink for the occasion. And if it is drink that we want, I had better put wine in the story, since wine is the drink of the storyteller, except in those far Northern climes where the skalds sing in mead-halls. I have simplified the details, but everything I say about the simple diet of Eucharia applies to our own more complex society as well. [Read more…]

Patricia C. Wrede & Marie Brennan on epics

My own essai on managing the length of epic fantasy, ‘Zeno’s mountains’, appears to have incited Marie Brennan to write a piece of her own: ‘How to write a long fantasy series’. This, in turn, inspired Patricia C. Wrede to write a two-part essay on ‘preventing epic bloat’: ‘Epics, part 1’ and ‘Epics, part 2’. If you are interested in epic fantasy and the writing techniques that pertain to it, I can recommend them all.

(Mary Catelli has also been good enough to leave a comment to the second part of Ms. Wrede’s essay, pointing the way back to ‘Zeno’s mountains’. I thank her for her thoughtfulness, and hope that some of Ms. Wrede’s readers may enjoy my little screed, in the brief time that remains to us. You see, closing a chain of links so early, by pointing back to the first URL in the chain, could cause the entire space-time continuum to collapse on itself. Or at least the Internet. You have been warned. By the time I get to say ‘I told you so’, it will be too late.)

Gene Wolfe on the realism of fantasy

In an interview in Clarkesworld, Gene Wolfe was asked why his fantasy seemed ‘much truer to reality, truer to what we humans experience in this life than most of what passes for realistic, mainstream fiction’. His reply:

Because fantasy is nearer the truth, that’s all. Realistic fiction is typically about a married couple, both college teachers. He’s cheating on her with a student, so she cheats on him with whoever’s handy. Angst abounds. How true is that story for the bulk of humankind? Realistic fiction leaves out far, far too much. How old is realistic fiction? How old is fantasy?

 

Why are dragons afraid of Americans?

The chief business of an essayist — I speak here of the kind of essayist that I occasionally manage to be, and that better men than I are sometimes reduced to when not at their best — is to tilt at windmills. The second greatest delight such an essayist can know is to tilt at a windmill, in the full knowledge and expectation that it is really a windmill, and that he shall end by making a quixotic fool of himself, and discover in the heat of combat that it is only a giant after all. [Read more…]

Donaldson on the value of fantasy

Good fantasy (and science fiction) correct an imbalance which exists in most realistic fiction. A man named Pelz (if memory serves) once wrote, ‘Beauty is controlled passion. Passion without control is destructive. Control without passion is dead.’ This is the essential paradox of what Blake called ‘reason’ and ‘energy‘: ‘Reason is the circumference of energy.’ Neither means anything without the other. Well, to put Blake in my terms, ‘Intellect is the circumference of imagination.’ I believe that most realistic fiction these days has lost its potential beauty by sacrificing imagination to intellect. Control crushes passion; reason squeezes out energy. In good fantasy and science fiction, the imagination regains its crucial, energizing role. The result is the single most human thing in the world: beauty. (This is the argument from conviction.) My intellectual grad school friends used to denounce Lord of the Rings because it had no relevance to the ‘real world’. They were wrong. LOTR is intensely relevant to the human heart because LOTR is beautiful. I believe that the ‘escape’ into fantasy is an escape from materialism, dead intellect, and cynicism into humanity.

However, to avoid being misunderstood, I should go on to say that people who sacrifice intellect to imagination are making the same mistake which is killing realistic fiction. ‘Passion without control is destructive.’ The person who uses fantasy to avoid dealing with reality is in as much trouble as the person who uses intellect tou avoid confronting the inner dragons.

—Stephen R. Donaldson, interviewed in Fantasy Crossroads (1979)

The Leaden Rule

#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. [Read more…]