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. At present, the electronic book, and the ingenious online retailing machine perfected by Mr. Bezos, are blowing up the assumption that books are physical objects and (as such) governed by the particular economic laws that obtain in conditions of limited supply. Electronic books are not in limited supply; electrons are far more abundant than readers, and even electronic computers are cheap and plentiful enough to stay ahead of any conceivable demand for books. The wise old publishers who built their business on controlling and restricting the limited supply of paper books, and the limited shelf space in the bookshops, are falling now like new hay before the scythe. Their whole training and temperament, which made them such able buccaneers under the old system, completely unfits them to survive in the new. They still have not seen what hit them; they are only just beginning to realize that they have been hit. Up to the middle of the nineteenth century, while printing was relatively cheap, paper was an expensive commodity. It was made mostly from waste linen, and consequently, the quantity of paper manufactured could never exceed the quantity of linen that was thrown away. (You could make paper directly from flax fibres; but it was much cheaper to let the linen industry use the flax first, and buy up the worn-out linen afterwards.) Men and women made a decent, if undignified, living as rag-pickers – the recyclers of their time. Ragpickers scavenged all kinds of useful stuff from the rubbish-heaps of the world, but their chief stock in trade was linen rags for the paper trade: hence the name of their profession. So long as the supply of paper was limited in this way, books remained a luxury; literacy for the masses, a pipe-dream. In the 1840s, separately but almost simultaneously, two men invented machines for turning wood into a fibrous pulp. One was a German, F. G. Keller; the other a Canadian, Charles Fenerty. This wood pulp, it turned out, could be used to make paper almost as good as linen-rag paper, and much cheaper. For a few years before this, a few small firms in London had been turning out cheap pamphlets containing lurid adventure stories for a mostly working-class audience. The new pulp paper allowed the pamphlets to be printed by the millions, and ‘pulp fiction’ was born. When The String of Pearls appeared, the usual thing was to release a novel in weekly instalments, and charge (in England) a penny for each issue. The stories were not chosen for highfalutin literary quality; they were written to please a large and not very sophisticated audience. The English upper classes ignored the new medium. The middle classes, who feared anything that might diminish their advantages over the working class, hated it and sneered at it, dismissing all stories so told as ‘dreadful’. This was a calumny. As Theodore Sturgeon would certainly have said, nine-tenths of the penny serials were crap; but then, nine-tenths of the expensive books favoured by the middle classes were crap. The real sin of the penny dreadfuls was not that they were bad stories, but that they brought printed books within the reach of the Lower Orders. Half a century later, a great moral crusade swept Britain like a new broom. The crusaders were filled with a high and holy desire to cleanse the culture of the (alleged) low morals and (admitted) sensationalism of the penny dreadfuls. The dreadfuls were blamed for every social evil from beer-drinking to Jack the Ripper. In much the same way, in the following century, heavy metal lyrics were blamed for juvenile delinquency and teen suicide. If this high and holy desire was mixed up with an even stronger desire to make a quick buck – well, that was a point that the crusaders liked people to overlook. In the 1890s, Alfred Harmsworth led the crusade to victory. He began by putting out clean, moral, sermonizing stories for a halfpenny; and when the public ignored these, he put out lurid and sensational stories for the same halfpenny, and made a fortune. As A. A. Milne put it, ‘Harmsworth killed the penny dreadful by the simple process of producing the ha’penny dreadfuller.’ One of G. K. Chesterton’s early essays was ‘A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls’, in which he declared firmly: ‘Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity.’ He went on to say, with a scorn worthy of Jonathan Swift:
But instead of basing all discussion of the problem upon the common-sense recognition of this fact – that the youth of the lower orders always has had and always must have formless and endless romantic reading of some kind, and then going on to make provision for its wholesomeness – we begin, generally speaking, by fantastic abuse of this reading as a whole and indignant surprise that the errand-boys under discussion do not read The Egoist and The Master Builder.
What working-class readers, especially young boys, wanted was vicarious adventure. They liked a good ripping yarn well told; but if they had to choose between a ripping yarn badly told and a dull, insipid story well told, they would take the ripping yarn every time. Young girls were more likely to go in for vicarious love-affairs. In Victorian times, both kinds of cheap fiction, the adventure stories and the love stories, were called ‘Romantic’; but by an accident of linguistic drift, the label of ‘romance’ is now applied to the second kind only. The penny dreadfuls were replaced as the dominant form of working-class fiction by the ‘halfpenny dreadfullers’. It was Harmsworth’s company, the Amalgamated Press, that published The Gem and The Magnet, in which most of Charles Hamilton’s school stories appeared. The paper shortage of the Second World War killed those papers, along with most of the dime pulp magazines that were their American counterparts. They in turn were replaced partly by paperback books, and partly by television; and the mass-market paperback, these last few years, has been largely replaced by electronic books. Each of these forms, in turn, has been subjected to the same withering scorn, accompanied by the same hysterical predictions of the Downfall of Western Civilization. The ‘cultured’ middle classes, it would appear, want a monopoly of culture; the thought that the poor might have a culture, and that it might be a different culture from that of the bourgeoisie, fills them with horror and alarm. At any rate, it produces horror and alarm among the media moguls and bohemian artists who mass-produce the stuff that is sold as bourgeois culture. The actual bourgeoisie, from what I know of them, do not much care, and take their fun wherever they please. They do not take very much of their fun by reading the stuff that the moguls and bohemians call ‘literary’. Literary Fiction is not literature; it is a publishing category, less profitable than most, but marketed with greater cynicism. The average publisher’s attitude towards Westerns or space operas or ‘nursy novels’ is roughly, ‘It’s trash, but it sells, and who am I to question that?’ But the same publisher’s attitude towards Literary Fiction is an interesting combination of fetish-worship and humbug. Until the latter part of the nineteenth century (it is hard to imagine it now) it was impossible to get a degree in English from any university in an English-speaking country. The proper job of a university was to teach the old-fashioned liberal arts, solidly rooted in the Classics – in Greek and Latin literature. The general opinion among academics was that the English language and English literature were not difficult enough to be taught at the university level. To give a degree in English to a native English-speaker was a foolish notion; you did not get a B.A. for learning things you were supposed to know already. Linguistics and philology, on the other hand, were considered highly suitable subjects for university study. Both those fields were fresh and fascinating then. It was only in 1786 that the philologist William Jones founded Indo-European linguistics with this shrewd observation:
The Sanscrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists; there is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothic and the Celtic, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanscrit; and the old Persian might be added to the same family.
If it was proper to study Latin and Greek at university, why, it must also be proper to study Sanskrit, Gothic, and other ancient languages – Old and Middle English among them. There was a surge of interest in the history of languages; in how one language changed by degrees into another, or gave birth to many daughter languages, as Latin gave birth to the Romance tongues. And what better way to study those ancient languages than to read and interpret their literature, if any survived? So the degree program in English language was born. At Oxford, the most prestigious English-language university, that meant studying English and its literature up to the time of Chaucer – roughly the tail end of Middle English. But it was clear that the language and literature of later times were still of scholarly interest, and difficult enough (though this point was long disputed) to justify the award of an Oxford B.A. So the degree in English literature came into being: a sort of poor cousin at first, quickly growing into a bumptious nouveau riche. For the ‘English Lit’ curriculum proved hugely popular among students – partly because it was interesting to them, and partly, alas, because it was easier than fussing about with dusty old books like Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The professors of the Classics department (and ‘English Lang’ as well) shook their old grey heads in disapproval; but the thing had been done and they could not well go back. But the professors of the new discipline keenly felt their lack of scholarly stature. If you could study Shakespeare at Oxford, why, you might study any kind of low trash – even penny dreadfuls! The new professors urgently needed some material to give their field cachet – to make it look as difficult, and therefore as important, as Latin, Greek, or Anglo-Saxon. This brings us down to about 1900: a time when the arts generally were in wild ferment. Painters were taking up Impressionism and Cubism; composers were flirting with atonality; the recent toy of photography, and the brand-new toy of the cinema, were claiming places as arts in their own right. Literature was no exception. East of the Atlantic, Henrik Ibsen broke with centuries of tradition by writing plays in prose, in at least an approximation of everyday language. To the west, William Dean Howells was spending fantastic sums of money to publish and promote stories about everyday life, from which every trace of wonder and adventure had carefully been expunged. These new literary movements ran together and acquired the name of Modernism. And Modernism, it turned out, was exactly what the English Lit professors wanted. The central message of Modernist fiction is that life is empty and the best thing a man can do is go and hang himself. This is an exaggeration, of course; but it fairly describes some of the most praised Modernist stories, and it exactly explains why most of the reading public found such literature revolting and rebelled against it. This, too, was to the professors’ liking. Modernism evidently was an acquired taste, shared only by the intellectual élite; and who better to help people acquire that taste than an English Lit professor? So with almost unseemly haste, the likes of Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolf were recruited into the curriculum. Before this change, ‘Literature’ (with a capital L) meant the Great Books out of the past, the books that had endured and helped to form the permanent bedrock of Western culture. But James, Wharton, and Woolf had not endured yet; they had not been subjected to the test of time. So the professors had to change the meaning of the word. This they did by a subterfuge. Most ordinary people had neither the time nor the inclination to read the Classics. Most ordinary people positively loathed the ‘highbrow’ Modernist fiction. To include them both, the professors (and their untenured allies, the literary critics) redefined ‘Literature’ to mean ‘books that uneducated people don’t like’. Greek tragedy was an acquired taste, because it was difficult to learn Greek. Chaucer was an acquired taste, because it was difficult to understand Chaucer’s English. Woolf was an acquired taste, because – well, never mind why. Most people found her work pretentious, ponderous, and dull. The English Lit students found her delightful; or rather, they found it delightful that they could gain entree to the intellectual élite merely by skimming her books and dropping her name at the right sort of parties. A few years later, James Joyce wrote a book tailor-made for this new audience. Ulysses was deliberately written in an English as difficult as anything in Chaucer. The events of the story were deliberately made as dull and trivial as anything in Woolf. The classical allusions were as recondite as any Professor of Classics could wish for; and this, too, was deliberate. Moreover, the book was obscene in a rather joyless way, like Rabelais on downers; so it had to be published in France at first, and one had to have money and connections to get a copy into England or the U.S.A. To name-drop Ulysses (but not necessarily to have read it) became the infallible touchstone of membership in the cognoscenti. This set a pattern for the century-long swindle of Literary Fiction. If you write about dull characters doing dull things in dull ways, if you labour over your language until every sentence glitters like pyrite and pinchbeck, why, your work is not rubbish; it is merely too good for the plebeians who don’t understand it. If, in addition, you go to the Right Schools, know the Right Sort of People, and have (this is very important) the Right Opinions about politics and art, then you may be anointed as a Great Author; your publishers will brag about your greatness, and about their own astounding acumen in ‘discovering’ you, even before your first book is published. Your book will be labelled a ‘prestige book’, which means that your publisher has no intention of making a profit from it; it is an elaborate public relations exercise designed to give that money-grubbing worthy a shining reputation as a Patron of the Arts and a Bastion of Literary Culture. And the people who care about these things will always think about them with the Capital Letters in the Right Places. Modernism, meanwhile, went in another direction, not of the professors’ choosing. The next generation of Modernists, led by the gigantic figure of Hemingway, got out of the drawing-rooms and into the streets and the suburbs, cornfields and battlefields, boxing matches and bullfights: that is, they got as close to adventure as they could without breaking the rules of Modernism by actually making things up. They tossed aside the obscurely pretty language and worked in an elaborate pastiche of everyday speech. For a time, they achieved enormous commercial success; their tricks and techniques are still used in films and television and ‘mainstream’ fiction. Raymond Chandler became famous by writing detective stories that sounded like Hemingway instead of Agatha Christie. Robert A. Heinlein became famous by writing science fiction that sounded like Hemingway instead of H. G. Wells. Modernism conquered so completely that it ceased to be exclusive – and the professors moved on to other fashions. Chandler and Heinlein had to be sneered at: they were popular. You could not prove your intellectual superiority by teaching people to acquire tastes that they had already acquired for themselves. In time, the professors moved in on popular culture as they had moved in on popular literature, and largely in the same way. The avant-garde cinema of Bergman and Antonioni rejected story in favour of cinematography, bored the general public to tears, and so became the fashionable acquired taste of the 1960s, as Joyce had been in the 1920s. The ‘New Hollywood’ was in part an unsuccessful attempt to impose avant-garde tastes on the public. The ‘Death by Newbery’ school tried to do the same with children’s books. In each case, they merely succeeded in driving away a large part of their audience, which stayed away until a Lucas or a Rowling brought them home by giving them what they had actually wanted all along. By the 1980s, it was becoming extremely difficult to pretend that Literary Fiction and its cousin Art Film had any technical superiority over their hated commercial counterparts. In both fields, first-rate talent followed the money. The professors could rail against this and call it the prostitution of Art; but they could not stop it from happening. The shibboleths were beginning to break down; the humbug was wearing thin. There remained one avenue of escape. If you could not prove your superiority over the despised masses by a morbid obsession with technique, you could still prove it by a morbid obsession with morbidity itself. So Bret Easton Ellis, one of the anointed darlings of the ‘Literary’ crowd, wrote a critically acclaimed (and popularly ignored) novel about an ‘American Psycho’ who liked to do things like cut off women’s breasts and eat them. So Thomas Harris wrote about Hannibal Lecter, a brilliant and cultured intellectual who made gourmet meals out of human flesh. The chase had come full circle: the self-styled literati had retreated into the ground of the old penny dreadfuls, which their own ancestors had killed stone dead a hundred years before. Only this time the monsters themselves were the heroes. The great sin was not to kill people and eat them, but to judge those enlightened and liberated souls who had outgrown the primitive tribal taboos against murder and cannibalism. This movement, too, was quickly carried into the mainstream of the entertainment business by enthusiastic proselytizers. Some of them, I am afraid, genuinely believed that a man like Lecter was superior to a person with a functioning conscience or at least a sense of disgust. Most of them saw one more opportunity to make easy money off the old game (grown so much more difficult now) of shocking the old ladies in Brighton so that their grandchildren would spend money to see what the fuss was about. They had made it their life’s work to explore the cesspool, and now they were determined to drag popular culture into the muck with them. The moralizing crusaders of the Harmsworth type were gone – their place taken by a generation of immoralizing crusaders, just as convinced of their own utter rightness. Critics of this ghoulish persuasion were pleased to see Tim Burton make a big-budget film of Sweeney Todd. But in fact Mr. Todd and his partner in crime, though they commit the same sins as Hannibal Lecter, are not at all like him. For they are not portrayed as heroes, or even as misunderstood. For The String of Pearls, like the bulk of the penny dreadfuls, for all its ostentatious gore, was at bottom a moral tale; even a moralizing one. You can write moralizing stories in three different ways. There is the road of melodrama, in which the Hero triumphs over the Villain. There is the road of comedy, in which the Hero achieves a happy ending by his own good qualities, though there may be no Villain at all. And there is the road of tragedy, in which the Villain is punished for his sins – though he may appear, at first, to be a heroic figure, and it is generally better art if he does. Sweeney Todd is a tragic protagonist, like Oedipus or Macbeth; his story tells how he was tempted, fell into evil, and finally got what he deserved. This is true in the original, and in all the important adaptations of the story. It remains true in the Stephen Sondheim musical which Tim Burton used as the basis for his film. Burton’s Sweeney Todd is more elaborate than The String of Pearls, and as I believe, the added elements make it a more satisfying story. Todd is a barber who was sentenced to transportation for a crime he did not commit, because the magistrate, Judge Turpin, lusted after Todd’s wife Lucy. We see him returning to England under his assumed name, bitter at the world and hungry for revenge; with him is a young sailor, Anthony, neither bitter nor vengeful, but moved to pity by the story of Todd’s betrayal. The villains will follow one path, and the innocent people (not heroes as such) will follow another, so that the deeds of the latter form a counterpoint to the crimes of the former, and a moral commentary which stands at the heart of the tale. The villains: Todd returns to his old shop in London, upstairs from the shop where Mrs. Lovett sells ‘the worst pies in London’. Mrs. Lovett informs him that his beloved Lucy is dead by suicide, having been raped by Judge Turpin, and his daughter has been brought up as Turpin’s ward. Todd plots his revenge: he will go back into business, establish a reputation as the best barber in London, win Turpin as a customer – and cut his throat. The scheme miscarries; Turpin escapes. It is at this point that Todd becomes a definite villain. He decides to take his vengeance on the whole human race, slitting the throat of every man that he can lure into his barber’s chair. Downstairs, Mrs. Lovett will dispose of the bodies by making them into meat pies; and so they will make their fortune. In the climax, Todd murders Turpin, but finds out that Lucy survived – that she is the beggar woman whom he has just killed to protect his secrets. Mrs. Lovett was lying to him and using him all along. He flings Mrs. Lovett into the bakehouse furnace and kneels to cradle his dead wife in his arms. The innocents: Anthony sees Todd’s daughter, Johanna, looking out of her window at Turpin’s house and pining for freedom. He falls in love with her, but Turpin forbids him to see her. Anthony takes Todd into his confidence, and after various stratagems and schemes, he sets Johanna free. In the end, they both pass through the horrors of Todd and Turpin’s feud without becoming involved in either man’s crimes. We are left to assume that they marry and live happily ever after; but this is not actually shown. There is a third strain, of sins atoned and wickedness redeemed. Young Toby Ragg is a juvenile delinquent straight out of Oliver Twist, the shill for a mountebank who calls himself Adolfo Pirelli and sells a miracle hair tonic. Pirelli is actually Todd’s old apprentice, who knows too much about his past and tries to blackmail him – only to become fresh meat for Mrs. Lovett’s pies. Toby goes to work at the pie shop, never suspecting what horrors are going on in the bakehouse. When he does find out, Mrs. Lovett tries to kill him; he escapes by hiding in the sewers. At the end, it is Toby who plays the role of Nemesis, slitting Todd’s throat with his own razor as Todd holds dead Lucy in his arms; and we come out feeling that this killing, at least, is both just and merciful. At no time are we meant to approve of Todd’s vengefulness, though we never feel as if Turpin’s death would be any loss. When Todd begins to kill strangers, we see at once that he has crossed what is sometimes called the moral event horizon: he is now a villain pure and simple. The battle lines are drawn, and the rest of the story merely brings that battle to its necessary conclusion. Virtue is not exactly rewarded, but Anthony and Johanna at least escape; vice is amply punished. The only people who don’t get exactly what they deserve are the customers at Todd’s barbershop and Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop; and it is precisely for their crimes against them that Todd and Lovett must die.   While Sweeney Todd is a moral story, it is far from being a great story; perhaps not even a very good one. It relies too heavily on cheap sensationalism and obvious gross-outs. The evil is too theatrical to ring true. One would imagine that a barbershop where scores of customers walk in, and nobody ever comes out again, would draw unfavourable attention to itself even in Fleet Street. And a woman who makes ‘the worst pies in London’ out of ordinary butcher’s meat is not, I should think, the best candidate to make a profitable gourmet dish out of human flesh. In Sondheim’s musical and Burton’s film, these faults are cheerfully handwaved away; we come along for the grisly ride, as with any good B-grade horror movie, and leave our brains at the door (where they will doubtless be served up to the audience at the next show). It is a celebration of the mere dreadfulness of the penny dreadful. Still, Rymer and Priest’s tale survived and was retold for over a century before Sondheim wrote his musical; and that alone confers a distinction upon it that thousands of serious and skilful novels missed. Before I launched upon this digression, I asked what elements made the three breakthrough fantasies so much more popular, so much better attuned to the tastes and needs of the big public, than any of their rivals. I believe that the enduring success of Sweeney Todd, in spite of its obvious flaws, can give us the key to that riddle. Let us now see if the key fits; let us try and open the lock. Concluded in Part 5, which appears in Superversive: Recovering the Tao of Fantasy. Oh, the humanity!

Happy New Year

But in Gondor the New Year will always now begin upon the twenty-fifth of March when Sauron fell.

—J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

Catholic tradition holds, on reasonably secure grounds, that Jesus was crucified on the twenty-fifth of March; which makes it the feast day of St. Dismas. That is the name assigned by tradition to the robber who was crucified with him, to whom he said, ‘Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.’ By a happy coincidence, I am writing this in a year when Good Friday falls on March 25: a rare event. It is also the Feast of the Annunciation. On somewhat less secure, but still reasonable grounds, the Church calculates that Jesus was born on December 25; which means, in round numbers, that he must have been conceived somewhere around March 25, and the angel who broke the news to Mary is therefore thought to have appeared on that date. This fits in with the ancient Jewish tradition that great sages and prophets lived an exact number of years, being born (or conceived) and dying on the same day of the year. There are more fanciful associations. For instance, some have supposed that Adam and Eve were created on March 25. I ask the skeptical among my 3.6 Loyal Readers to suspend their unbelief momentarily for the sake of a good story. Supposing that there were an Adam and Eve, and that they were created on the same day (which even Genesis does not tell us), they lived long before the invention of fixed calendars; so that even if they knew the exact time of year at which they were born, and told their children, the information could not have been passed on to the authors of the Torah. The language of the Hebrew calendar is too new, the calendar itself too recent, to convey data directly from so remote a source. You could suppose that God gave the information to the author of that passage in Genesis; but then, Genesis does not tell us any exact date either. Even the most enthusiastic and credulous believer, I am afraid, has to surrender this particular story as a pious taradiddle. In the Middle Ages in Christendom – not everywhere, not always, but certainly in the official records of the Church – March 25 was treated as New Year’s Day in commemoration of these events, real and legendary; with the odd result that March 24, 1066 (to pick a year not quite at random), was almost a year after March 25, 1066. This peculiar system persisted until Pope Gregory XIII reformed the calendar in 1582, bringing it back in step with the seasons, and incidentally moving the New Year back to January 1, the start of the old Roman consular year. The Protestant and Orthodox countries stuck to the Julian calendar for some time yet; England went over to the new system in 1752, which by that time meant dropping eleven days from that year, so that March 25 of the old calendar corresponded with April 5 of the new. In 1800, the old and new calendars diverged by one more day, so the British Parliament made a special enactment that the tax year would start on April 6 instead; but they did not trouble themselves to move it to April 7 in 1900. That is why, to this day, the British tax year begins on the sixth day of April, to the lasting exasperation of accountants, taxpayers, and all tidy-minded persons. ‘Thinning’, as The Encyclopaedia of Fantasy calls it, does not only occur in fantasy fiction; we often find it in real life. The old Catholic New Year has thinned to a shadow, and all that remains of it now is a bizarre tax regulation in Britain, which hardly even pretends to be a Christian country. One of the few people to recall the old New Year and the old reasons for it was Tolkien, who deliberately chose that date for the defeat of Sauron and the beginning of the Fourth Age; so the reason for the date passes over into myths and old wives’ tales. But as Tolkien made Celeborn say—
Do not despise the lore that has come down from distant years; for oft it may chance that old wives keep in memory word of things that once were needful for the wise to know.
Still, I bid you all a happy and glorious New Year in the Old Style (with Gregory’s correction), and in company of the old wives of Oxenford; and I add a prayer for any of my readers who may chance to be British, and in the clutches of the Inland Revenue. God bless you all.

Legosity

So far, I have described my thoughts about ozamataz up to the point where I asked whether one could attract that kind of self-sustaining fan participation, and if so, how. This is also the point at which the Muse, or the Guardian Angel, or the Collective Subconscious, or Something, stepped in. Perhaps it was the Great Oz himself. Having worked out something of the nature of ozamataz, I asked my brain: ‘OK, brain, what is it that makes some things have ozamataz when others don’t?’ And my brain, without missing a beat, obligingly answered: ‘Legosity.’ I was duly annoyed, for I then had to figure out what legosity was. My brain is cryptic and has no manners, and seldom troubles to explain itself. The one thing my brain did deign to tell me is that legosity has something to do with Lego. This made sense on the face of it. Lego toys have an ozamataz of their own. They have inspired movies, games, theme parks, and of course, the imaginations of millions of children the world over. The manufacturer’s recent habit of producing specific single-purpose Lego sets like model kits, which hardly fit together with other Lego and are hardly intended to, is most regrettable. These kits tend to take up shelf space at the toy shops and displace the kind of Lego that you can really play with. But the original bricks and doors and windows, Lego people and Lego cars and Lego trees, and so on – those are still available, and you can do anything with them. Nowadays, you can even buy Lego with moving parts and electric motors, and build Lego machines that can be controlled via computer. There are Lego robots in the world, and serious men with doctorates in the hard sciences have been known to play with them. As the unfortunate history of the kit-model kind of Lego shows, it is not so much the brand name, or even the mechanical ingenuity of Lego that gives the toys their unique quality. It is the concept. At bottom, Lego consists of a whole range of bits and pieces, all designed to fit together easily and without fuss, so that they can be used to build anything the imagination can conceive. You do not have to be a skilled carpenter, or a watchmaker, or know how to build ships in bottles, to build houses and cities and fairy castles out of Lego. The skill in your fingers (especially a child’s fingers) ceases to be a limit on what you can achieve, and the mind is set free to soar. Even the name Lego is well chosen, and means, I think, more than its inventor intended. We are assured that it comes from the Danish phrase leg godt, ‘Play well’. But it is also Latin and Greek, and in those languages the word has a wide and subtle range of meanings that reach right down into the guts of the human psyche. In classical Greek, λέγω means ‘I put in order, I arrange, I gather’: which are certainly things that you do with Lego, and indeed with any toy worth having. It also means ‘I choose, I count, I reckon’: the basic methods by which the creative process works on the raw materials furnished by the imagination. It means ‘I say, I speak,’ and even ‘I mean’. And – most important of all, for our present purpose – it means ‘I tell a story’. Stories, in whatever medium, are more complex than toy bricks, for they have extension in time as well as (imagined) space. They move, within their own confines, or they do not exist at all. But the tropes and elements and imaginative bits and pieces that go into a story function very much like Lego bricks. You can spend years of your life inventing a monster that will metaphorically express the horror of death and the fear of lost identity; or you can dip into the barrel of Lego bits and fish out a ghost, a zombie, or the vampire’s enslaved and unwilling bride. Every story ever written, probably, uses some of this conceptual Lego; for some of the pieces are older than writing itself. If I wanted to make up a bogus etymology for legosity, I would pretend that it did not come from Lego at all. I would choose the Latin form, lego, which means ‘I choose’, and ‘I gather’, and also ‘I read’ (originally in the sense of reading aloud). I would make up an adjective legosus, which would mean ‘well-chosen’ and also ‘worth reading’; from which one naturally gets the abstract noun legositas, which goes into English as legosity – and there you are. But I shall not dissemble. I got the word from my brain, and my brain got it from Lego. Legosity, then, is the quality that makes an idea go easily into stories. Things that have legosity tend to connect together easily, like Lego bricks. They are adaptable and reusable; their play-value is not exhausted in one telling. There are thousands of stories about Robin Hood, and tens of thousands about vampires. Kings and queens, heroes and villains, monsters, perils, and things of nameless dread: these are some of the simple bricks that have gone into stories from time immemorial. They are conceptual Lego, and they are free for anybody to use. Because they are free, they are taken for granted; because they are not original, they are not striking. They don’t contribute to any story’s ozamataz. The Wheel of Time contains barrels of conceptual Lego, swiped or stolen or recycled from every great story-cycle known to Western man: which, I believe, was the author’s intention. But it has precious little originality. When you take it apart to play with the pieces, you find that all the pieces are somebody else’s. From Dune, you have the secret magic sisterhood that controls the fates of families and nations, the Bene Gesserit (renamed Aes Sedai); and the shockingly male creature that sets the world on its ear by having access to the magic and ignoring the sisterhood, the Kwisatz Haderach (renamed Dragon Reborn); and the wild desert-dwelling people who have a hard-won lore of their own, with whom nobody can tangle and not regret it – the Fremen (renamed Aiel). From Tolkien – well, the very first page of Jordan’s interminable saga mentions ‘the Third Age’ and ‘the Mountains of Mist’, and if that isn’t straight-up theft with the serial numbers left in blatant sight, I don’t know what it is. Nobody writes Wheel of Time fan fiction – at least none worth speaking of – for The Wheel of Time is itself fan fiction, in which all the fandoms collide together. The works or franchises that I mentioned earlier, the ones that have long-lived and fruitful fandoms – the ones, as I put it, with ozamataz – all have this in common: they have original toys. They contribute new conceptual Lego to the barrel. ‘Who can invent a new leaf, or a new story?’ Tolkien asked – and then answered his own question, by inventing a whole botanical garden of new leaves, and resurrecting old ones that had been forgotten since the Middle Ages. It is this quality of primary invention – the new ideas, the new toys – that I shall refer to as ‘legosity’ hereafter. And I shall refer to the ideas or toys themselves as lego, with a small L, to distinguish them from the (trademarked) building toys. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which has had ozamataz for more than a century, has this kind of legosity in abundance. Everybody in our culture knows the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears; but few people know that the Three Bears were invented less than two hundred years ago by Robert Southey, or that Goldilocks was added to the tale at a later date (to its great improvement). Everybody knows the legos of the first Oz book; and everybody attributes them. The Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion; the Good Witches of the North and South, the Wicked Witches of the West and East; the Silver Shoes (which became Ruby Slippers in the movie, the better to show off in Technicolor); the Yellow Brick Road, the Emerald City, the Munchkins, the Land of Oz, and of course, the Wizard himself, hiding behind a curtain while he dazzles the world with special effects – all these things are part of our popular culture, and we know exactly where they came from. You can go through each one of the works or franchises that I listed in ‘Ozamataz’, and identify the bits that give each one its legosity. When I perform this exercise, I find myself marvelling at the sheer richness of our storytelling heritage – the vast and delightful variety of legos that our imaginations have to play with. So— From the original Star Trek: the U.S.S. Enterprise; Starfleet and the Federation; Vulcans, Romulans, and Klingons; warp drive (very differently imagined from the point-to-point ‘jump drive’ then common in science fiction); phasers, photon torpedoes, communicators, tricorders; the transporter beam; the Vulcan Nerve Pinch. From the original Doctor Who: Timelords and the TARDIS; regeneration; sonic screwdrivers; the Daleks, Cybermen, Silurians, Sontarans; the Blinovitch Limitation Effect, which is narratively important, because it sets boundaries on the kinds of paradoxes that so many time-travel stories have snarled themselves up in. From Star Wars (the first film only): Darth Vader, droids, Jedi Knights, light sabres, Storm Troopers, the Millennium Falcon, the Death Star, jawas, dogfights in space, the Force, and of course Mos Eisley, the ‘wretched hive of scum and villainy’, of which the cantina was merely the most theatrical part. From The Hobbit (leaving aside The Lord of the Rings): hobbits; Gandalf; Thror’s Map, with its runes and key; the Stone-trolls; Elrond Half-elven and the Last Homely House; orcs and the Great Goblin; Beorn the skin-changer, the Eagles, the Wood-elves; Mirkwood, Lake-town, the Lonely Mountain; and of course Smaug the Magnificent, Chiefest of Calamities. You can, I am sure, make lists of your own, from the fandoms you participate in, and from things you know to have ozamataz; and they will probably bear a fair resemblance to the five I have given. Let us look over these lists a little more closely, and see what they have in common, and whether we can draw any conclusions from that. To begin with, you may notice that the lead characters of each work are not included. There are several reasons for this. In fantastic fiction, the protagonist is often a sort of Everyman, a Jack the Giant-Killer (who is not a giant himself) or Alice in Wonderland – a relatively ordinary sort of person with whom the reader can easily identify, and to whom all the fantastic new inventions can be revealed and explained one by one, so that we can follow along. There is another kind of protagonist, the larger-than-life kind, who participates in the legosity of the story himself. Bilbo is a very minor example of this, for he is a hobbit, and we have to be introduced to the concept of hobbits; but he is so very much like a solid English squire of the nineteenth century, or the earlier twentieth, that he is encountering all the other marvels of Middle-earth for the first time, and therefore serves as our Everyman once we have got him soundly introduced. Sherlock Holmes, Superman, Robin Hood, are all examples of the larger-than-life leads. Let us take Superman as an easy case to analyse. Much of the legosity of the Superman comics is embodied in the lead character himself; but he has to be unbundled. ‘Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings at a single bound’: there we have three legos to start off with. Moreover, Superman can fly. He has X-ray vision. He is vulnerable to Kryptonite. He is really Kal-El, the last survivor (so far as we knew at the outset) of the catastrophe that destroyed the planet Krypton. He has a secret identity as Clark Kent, the mild-mannered reporter on the Daily Planet. We can easily take Superman to pieces in this way, and each of the pieces can be reused and recombined independently. So it is not the character of Superman who is a lego, but each of his salient qualities taken individually. In the same way, Luke Skywalker begins as a farm boy, and only slowly learns to become a Jedi Knight. Dorothy is an ordinary little girl from Kansas before the cyclone transports her to the Land of Oz. Captain Kirk is thoroughly familiar with the workings of his own ship, but for the most part he discovers the new lego bits along with his audience, as he boldly goes where no man has gone before. It would seem that we can make a general rule: Protagonists themselves are not legos, but their special attributes can be legos. What else do we find? Supporting characters can be legos by nature, either because of their abilities or because of their kinds. Gandalf starts off, in The Hobbit, as a lego by ability: he is a Wizard, and can do various kinds of interesting magic, and is moreover a kind of walking travelogue, who can instantly explain to the other characters what kind of trouble they are getting themselves into. (He had to go away in the middle third of the book, by narrative necessity. Having him around would have made things too easy for Thorin’s Quest.) In The Lord of the Rings, it turns out that Gandalf is a lego by kind: one of the Five Wizards, the Istari, the messengers (angels, literally, in the etymological sense) from the West, sent to oppose the evil of Sauron. Places and things can also be legos. Spaceships are a kind of generic lego; we use them without attributing them to any particular creator. But the Millennium Falcon is a new lego in its own right: the rickety, patched-together old smuggler’s ship, not the least bit elegant or streamlined or futuristic – space travel’s answer to the rusted-out jalopy. The Death Star, the space warship so huge that it can be mistaken for a moon, becomes an original lego by sheer force of scale. Things blow up in space battles, but the power to blow up a whole planet becomes a threat of a different kind. Mirkwood is a lego – the very name tells us what kind of trouble to expect there, and Tolkien delivers abundantly on its promise. Mordor, too, is a lego, the terminally diseased and polluted country, ‘dying but not yet dead’, where tormented nature is an adversary in its own right – the country whose very name sounds like murder. Lothlórien, the enchanted elfland where time stands still, is a lego, some of whose properties I have used for other purposes myself. Technologies and ‘magic systems’ – a hateful phrase, for magic and system are two things that seldom go well together – are also common types of lego. The phaser is not just a zap gun, but a gun that can be set to stun: that is, a lethal weapon that, by a deliberate exercise of prudence or mercy, can be used non-lethally. The light sabre is not just a fancy sword, but the Jedi version of a Swiss Army knife: it can cut through metal or deflect blaster fire, and yet be safely and unobtrusively stowed upon one’s person. The Force is a lego, and not just a fancy name for ‘psi’, because of its quiddity, its determinate and often inconvenient nature. A Jedi controls the Force, but the Force also controls him. It has a light side and a dark side, and if you make a habit of using the dark side, ‘for ever will it dominate your destiny’. There seems to be a kind of critical mass for legosity. To develop ozamataz, it seems, a work needs to have something like ten to fifteen good, solid legos that people will readily remember and enjoy playing with. This, I think, is what sets apart the major imaginative works, the ones that have their own fandoms and ozamataz, from merely successful books or films that never give rise to that kind of audience participation. Some examples: The chestburster from Alien is a fine and memorable lego, but it is the only new lego in that movie; the rest is a recycling of common science-fiction tropes. You can easily play with chestbursters by combining them with legos from other sources (Alien Vs. Predator), but the world in which they originated does not have enough of its own legos to be worth playing in. Back to the Future has many fans, and several legos of its own – the time-travelling DeLorean, the flux capacitor, the ‘Mr. Fusion’ converter kit – but most of the story is constructed from existing pieces, so it does not inspire further creativity and has never really developed its own fandom. There are, sadly, some properties that have abundant legosity, but have been blocked from developing ozamataz by some fatal flaw. A good cautionary example is The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. Stephen R. Donaldson is one of the world’s great lego inventors. From the first book alone, I can think of a good dozen. Since most of my Loyal Readers are not Donaldson fans, I shall give a brief account of each, and what gives it the power of legosity:
  • The Land. This place, the setting of the series, is virtually a character in its own right; the whole country is almost sentient. It is a place where good and evil, health and sickness, are as plainly visible as red and green; where every tree and river, every rock and patch of soil, is alive with the organic magic called Earthpower.
  • The Council of Lords. This is not merely a collection of wizards, but a kind of church or mandarinate of wizardry, in which the leaders are linked by telepathy and by a common vow to serve the Land.
  • Kevin’s Lore. Not just a ‘magic system’, but a very complex and weird set of what you might call magical scriptures. It was encoded by its creator in the Seven Wards, each of which contains the clues that will help you find the next. These Wards range from a locked box full of scrolls to a living being constructed out of pure Earthpower.
  • The Giants. These are not ordinary fairy-tale giants, not monsters or villains. They are a race of long-lived seafarers, who love to tell long stories, and to laugh even in the face of tragedy. Their motto is, ‘Joy is in the ears that hear, not in the mouth that speaks.’
  • Stonedowns and rhadhamaerl. About half the humans in the Land live in Stonedowns, villages where all the tools and utensils of everyday life are made of stone, and manipulated by the stone-lore called rhadhamaerl. Even the fires are fuelled by a magical stone called graveling.
  • Woodhelvens and lillianrill. A Woodhelven is a village built in the branches of a single giant tree. As the Stonedownors use stone for every ordinary purpose, the Woodhelvennin use wood. They even have wooden knives, which work because of the lillianrill magic that awakens the Earthpower in the wood.
  • Lord Foul the Despiser. The principal villain of the piece, Lord Foul is trapped in the Land, and wants to destroy it so that he can escape. Failing that, he seeks to torment the Land’s people so horribly that they will destroy it themselves, just to put him out of their misery. He hates every form of life and existence, possibly including his own, and is very good at laying the kind of double-bind trap that TV Tropes calls a ‘Xanatos Gambit’.
  • The Ravers. These three malevolent spirits have no bodies of their own, but work their will by possessing others. They can flit from host to host, using their stolen bodies to kill, destroy, and wreak havoc. The people of the Land call them by (Hebrew) names that refer to different aspects of Hell, but the Ravers name themselves by the (Sanskrit) words for different forms of enlightenment.
  • Ur-viles and Waynhim. These two strange races were created by a mysterious people known as the Demondim. They are outside the Law, since they were constructed, not born; their DNA, so to speak, is entirely artificial. The ur-viles are black, eyeless, and sorcerous, and serve Lord Foul because he gives them lore and genetic material to continue the Demondim breeding program. The grey Waynhim have renounced all that, and devote their lives to serving the Land in their own peculiar way.
  • The Staff of Law. This rune-carved staff both embodies and controls the laws that govern the Earthpower. It has, roughly, the power of life, death, and transformation over anything that exists by Law – that is, anything that has its own determinate nature. (Later on in the series, the Staff is destroyed, and Very Bad Things Happen.)
  • The Illearth Stone. A source of almost infinite power, the Stone warps and diseases everything it touches. It is a kind of Instant Mordor in a can.
  • White gold. This metal, not found in the Land, contains ‘the wild magic that destroys Peace’. It is right outside of the Law; it is ‘closed’ to the second sight of the Land’s people, so that they cannot perceive it as either good or ill, but only as an enigma.
These are all striking and engaging legos, with immense play-value; and the Covenant books, back in the day, sold millions of copies. Yet there is relatively little in the way of Covenant fandom, and hardly any fan fiction or other signs of ozamataz. Partly, this is because Donaldson himself is jealous of his creation, and has made it known that he does not like other people to play with his legos; and his fans, unlike those of some other authors, generally respect that. But mostly, it is because the Thomas Covenant books are flawed, and the name of the flaw is Thomas Covenant. The protagonist of the series – you cannot possibly call him a hero – is one of the most repulsive characters in modern fiction, and that is saying something. To begin with, a protagonist is supposed to be a character with a problem that he wishes to solve; but Covenant has a problem that he cannot solve, and he has invested his whole identity in the proposition that it is insoluble. He is a leper, and in the 1970s, when the books were written, leprosy was still an incurable disease; historically, it had the same kind of stigma that AIDS has had in more recent times. To help him survive, he has been trained in a rigorous discipline that puts physical self-preservation above all else. ‘You cannot hope for a cure,’ he is told. So when he is transported to the Land, where a cure is possible, he flatly refuses to believe in any of it. When his leprosy is apparently cured by Earthpower, he thinks he is dreaming, and rapes the young girl who gave him the cure. This is the point at which thousands of readers threw the book against the wall, never to pick it up again. For those who remain, the story becomes a dreary slog through Covenant’s self-loathing and self-pity, occasionally redeemed by his efforts to save the Land. He is uniquely equipped to resist an enemy called ‘the Despiser’; everyone already despises him, himself included. Lord Foul cannot manipulate him with despair, because he is already living without hope. This is ingenious, if you like, but it is also very depressing. The sort of people who build up fandoms and generate ozamataz, as a general thing, do not care for dreary and depressing stories. Most of them give up on the Covenant books before they even get to the fun bits. They are repelled by the lead character, and never find out about the legos. So it does seem that the protagonist, who is never a lego in his own right, has a vital role to play in legosity. The lead character in a story or series, we might say, has to be a good playmate. He has to be someone that the reader likes to identify with; someone who plays with the legos himself, and whom the fans can imagine playing with them in different ways and combinations. A child can play at being Captain Kirk or Luke Skywalker. Nobody with a healthy disposition would play at being Thomas Covenant. Of course, it is perfectly possible for a work to have a likable protagonist, clever worldbuilding, and a barrel of perfectly wonderful legos, and never catch on with the public. Examples are hard to give, for obvious reasons. The Night Land, by William Hope Hodgson, is an instructive case. Hodgson’s very strange and arresting novel was published about a century ago, and unlike the Oz books, attracted no interest and virtually no audience. It did not help that it was written in a strange, mock-archaic style, weirdly at odds with the far-future setting. Still worse, it was a fantasy aimed at an adult audience just when Modernism was getting its literary grip, and fantasy was generally thought to be fit only for children. But what legos it had! The Last Redoubt! The Watchers! The Air-Clog! The Earth Current! The Abhumans! The Diskos! The Night Land itself, where the sun has been extinguished and the earth is overrun by alien monsters, is a more powerful bit of lego than anything in H. P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft himself described The Night Land as ‘one of the most potent pieces of macabre imagination ever written’. It deserved a following, and just lately, thanks largely to the efforts of the late Andy Robertson, and to the brilliant (and professionally published) fan fiction by John C. Wright, it has finally found one. But for a hundred years, it languished in obscurity, because it lacked one crucial element: luck. To an extent, an author can make his own luck. This is far truer now, when anyone can publish an ebook and make it available to the whole Internet-connected world, than in Hodgson’s day, when books had to be expensively printed, and distribution was difficult and dodgy. As recently as ten years ago, a book could go out of print in months or even weeks and be forgotten, seemingly for ever. But now we are living in wonderfully different times. The sheer overabundance of books (and films, and TV shows, and games) available to us is daunting. But we need not be daunted as authors; for our audiences know how to find us, if we know how to make ourselves findable. Other people have written more ably than I ever could about the problem of discovery; but I shall, I hope, have something to say about that, from my own angle, another time. Meanwhile, I can say this with confidence: There is not much truth in the slogan, ‘Build it, and they will come.’ But if you can get your work discovered, it is quite fair to say: ‘Make the legos, and they will build.’ Legosity leads to ozamataz, just as surely as seeds lead to plants. Not every seed is viable, and not every viable seed falls on good soil. But every tree and blade of grass grew from a seed; and every fandom with ozamataz grew because a story had legosity.

Ozamataz

I have spent the last week or so (when not sleeping off my medications) in a fairly continuous process of brainstorming, chewing over several new-to-me ideas and figuring out how to turn them into actual writing techniques. I forget exactly what prompted me to revisit the Key & Peele skit I reposted some time ago, in which the duo performed a thorough piss-take on the silly (and often self-inflicted) names one so often sees among American football players. Of all the daft monikers they introduced to the world, one in particular seems to have caught the public imagination: ‘Ozamataz Buckshank’. The name Ozamataz has been ‘repurposed’ for any number of online game characters and social-media personas. I think part of the reason lies in the delivery: in the original skit, the name was pronounced in a drawl reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart. It is, in fact, a fun name to say aloud, and I think that contributes to its popularity. But there may be more to it than that. A name like ‘Jackmerius Tacktheritrix’ or ‘Javaris Jamar Javarison-Lamar’ is too Pythonesque, too blatant in its silliness, to have much staying power. ‘Ozamataz’ is almost, but not quite, realistic; it could plausibly be an actual word. And so, hearing the name again, I asked myself: If ozamataz were a word, what would it mean?  It is fairly clear, at least, how Key & Peele (or their writers) came up with the name. It is a portmanteau of Oz with razz(a)matazz. My handy Oxford dictionary app defines the latter word: ‘noisy, showy, and exciting activity and display designed to attract and impress’. Oz, of course, was the name (or title) of the great and powerful and eponymous Wizard, whose magic consisted of little else but razzmatazz. Ozamataz must be the kind of razzmatazz in which the Wizard of Oz specialized. Oz, by his own admission, was a humbug. He was, he insisted, a very good man, but a very bad wizard. This gave him an endearing quality that one does not usually find among frauds and con men. Dorothy and her friends very much wanted his magic to be real; and the Wizard’s three bits of real magic all worked powerfully on that desire, and gave three of the lead characters their hearts’ desires through a cunning twist on the placebo effect. The film, in this respect, is better than the book. Oz gave them recognition for the qualities that they actually had, but believed themselves to lack entirely: a diploma for the Scarecrow, a testimonial for the Tin Woodman, a medal for the Cowardly Lion. Alas, no amount of recognition could send Dorothy back to Kansas: placebos have their limits. But we leave Oz with the feeling that the Wizard not only meant well, but did well and even ruled well; even though his magic was three parts bluff and one part showmanship. The American children who made up L. Frank Baum’s original readership felt this quality keenly. None of Baum’s other books were very successful, but children took Oz to their hearts. They loved the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman precisely for the brain and heart that they themselves never knew they had; and they loved the Wizard for the very real magic that he could do, despite thinking of himself as a humbug. Literature is full of characters who are merely flawed. The heroes of Oz are heroic precisely because of the battles they fight to overcome their flaws – battles that they win, generally speaking, without knowing it. Baum did not want to write any sequels to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It was the children who made him do it. After several years, he gave in to the overwhelming pressure of his fan mail (and the dead, gloomy silence with which his other works were received), and wrote The Land of Oz, a brilliantly successful sequel, and a comic-strip spinoff, which was successful without being brilliant. Still further delays followed before he began the long string of Oz sequels from Ozma of Oz to Glinda of Oz, the fourteenth book in the series. He then died; but Oz did not die with him. On the whole, none of the sequels matched the quality of the first two books. At the time, Oz was something fresh: a joyous head-on collision between the traditional European fairy tale, with its trappings of magic and royalty, and the anarchic humour of the American tall tale. The first Oz books represent a spree of inventiveness never seen in either of those literary forms, and seldom rivalled in the fantasy genre of later times. After that, Baum had to ration out his creativity more carefully. Most of the later Oz books have glimmers of the original brilliance, enough (eked out with shameless recycling of the original material) to keep the fans entertained and the letters (and royalties) coming in. The later books are somewhat spoilt by sentimentality. Baum kept dragging in the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman long after he had run out of things to say about them, because the children demanded it. In the fourth book, straightforwardly entitled Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, he brought back the two leading characters from the first book, and completed the ensemble. Ozma taught the Wizard real magic, and Dorothy made her permanent home in Oz; and that, though it was just what the fans had asked for, killed them both. The essence of the Wizard is that he was a humbug who accomplished good and great deeds by clever fakery; the essence of Dorothy is that she wanted to go home. Without their essence, all that remained was a rather twee appearance. But if the fans of Oz could tell the difference, they were not experienced or critical enough to tell why the revived Wizard and Dorothy were less successful than the originals. Baum’s death did not end the clamour for more Oz books. The series was handed off to Ruth Plumly Thompson, who wrote more than twenty books in the series before tiring of her own formula. She gave it up in 1939, the very year that the film version of The Wizard of Oz brought Baum’s creation to a new mass audience. The series was then continued by John R. Neill, who had illustrated every book from The Land of Oz on. Neill wrote three more books before his own death. At this point, Ozamataz begins to resemble Ouroboros, the world-serpent biting its own tail. The next author of an official Oz book (after the hiatus of the Second World War) was Jack Snow, who had been a twelve-year-old Oz fan when Baum died, and became a Baum scholar when he grew up. The fans had captured the citadel; and they have been there ever since. In the 1970s, two more of Ruth Plumly Thompson’s books were published by the International Wizard of Oz Club; this fan organization went on to print many more Oz books over the following decades. Most recently, Sherwood Smith’s three Oz sequels have been officially recognized by the Baum family trust. On the other hand, Gregory Maguire’s revisionist retelling, Wicked and its sequels, has been officially snubbed, for good reason. The moral of Wicked, as of so much modern nihilist fantasy, could be summed up in a sentence: ‘Evil is Cool, and anyway, it was forced to be Evil because Good is Even Worse.’ This is a sentiment that Baum (like nearly all of his generation) would have regarded with plain horror. And then there is the straightforward Oz fan fiction, not commercially published, and not officially recognized or deprecated by anyone. We can say that Ozamataz, the peculiar fake-but-effective magic of the Wizard, leaked out of the books, made its tour through the lively century-long phenomenon of Oz fandom, and eventually came full circle as the fans grew up to write Oz books themselves. In this wider or larger sense, ozamataz could be defined as the particular blend of creativity and publicity that inheres in a self-sustaining fandom, which has the power to call forth new work in the canon if the original authors cease to supply it. Oz, of course, is not the only franchise with this kind of ozamataz. Sherlock Holmes was a still earlier example. Arthur Conan Doyle thought he had done with his famous consulting detective when he killed him off at the Reichenbach Falls; but the fans would not let ill alone, and forced him to go on writing stories about the resurrected Holmes for thirty more years. Since then, everyone and his dog has had a go at writing unofficial Holmes stories. The pastiches are beyond counting, from Sexton Blake to House and Sherlock. Several of the modern media franchises have definite ozamataz. Star Trek, after the early cancellation of the original series, was kept alive by fan fiction, and Pocket Books’ line of Trek novels became a stepping-stone for many young science fiction writers of the 1970s and 80s. Today, the Trek franchise has entirely escaped the de facto control, though not the de jure ownership, of Paramount Studios. Groups of fans from America to Turkey have produced films in the style of the original series, some as remakes of the original scripts, some with new material written for the purpose. Doctor Who had a large and thriving fandom when the BBC axed the series in 1989; the novels and radio plays kept coming all through the show’s 16-year hiatus, and in the end it was a lifelong fan of the show, Russell T. Davies, who brought it back into production. When Davies left the revived series, he handed it off to Steven Moffat, another old Whovian, who first came to notoriety as the screenwriter of the parody, Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death. Star Wars fandom has a more complex and ambiguous relationship with the creator of its franchise. In the earliest phase, the fans contented themselves with the strange ritual activity of watching the original film over and over, obsessively, often dozens of times – a substantial act of devotion in the pre-VCR era, when each viewing meant paying admission to the cinema. They collected the toys, posters, comics, and other merchandise, of course. But the real breakthrough came after George Lucas himself lost interest in his creation. Once it became clear that he would never tell us what happened after Return of the Jedi, a host of fan writers and young SF professionals brought us the Expanded Universe, more or less with the blessing of Lucasfilm. The Expanded Universe received a heavy shock with the release of the prequel films, which contradicted much of the fan canon. Many of the fans hated the prequels, but they accepted them as canon, and the Expanded Universe was reworked to fit the new official corpus. Then Lucas sold the whole Star Wars franchise to Disney. The corporate entity known as ‘The Mouse’ first thrilled the fans, by announcing that Episodes VII through IX would be produced at long last. Then it alarmed and consternated them, by handing the job of directing Episode VII to J. J. Abrams, and leaking bits of story and casting information, which suggested that this would be yet another ham-handed Disney effort to cash in on a creative property that it might own, but did not understand. Then came the war. Earlier this year, The Mouse announced that the entire Expanded Universe was no longer regarded as canon. The slate is being wiped entirely clean. A new canon of post-Jedi stories is to be called into being, starting with Chuck Wendig’s widely panned Aftermath. The far superior work of Timothy Zahn, as well as decades of writing and other creative work by countless fans, has been summarily dismissed. You could hear the screams of the neckbeards from Greenland to Antarctica. So what will become of Star Wars? History suggests some possibilities that ought to give Disney pause. Several years ago, Hasbro, through its Wizards of the Coast subsidiary, made a similar head-on attack against its own customers. The third edition of the venerable Dungeons & Dragons game had been a resounding commercial success. Part of that success was due to the crowdsourcing of the basic rules. D&D 3.0 and 3.5 were based on the ‘d20 System’, an open-source rules set to which many hands contributed. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of tabletop role-playing games based on that system. Players can move freely from one setting to another without having an entirely new set of game mechanics to learn; settings and adventures written for one game can be easily adapted for another. D&D benefited hugely from this creative cross-fertilization. But the bean-counters at Hasbro were not satisfied. They wanted to recapture control of the D&D franchise, to make it their own exclusive property again. And the only way to do that was to abandon the d20 System and create a new, incompatible set of rules. This was bad enough; but Fourth Edition D&D was a conceptual disaster. All previous versions of the game had attempted to recreate the tropes and atmosphere of sword-and-sorcery fiction on the tabletop. D&D 4.0 tried to recreate online role-playing games on the tabletop. Instead of being a game about a fantasy world, it was a game about another game. And the complex real-time mechanics of something like World of Warcraft, which work smoothly enough when you have computers and server farms to do all the heavy calculation, are impossibly cumbersome when human beings have to crunch all the numberrs with pencil and paper. The Fourth Edition failed abysmally; and since Hasbro discontinued all the Third Edition products when it released the new system, the fans were left to twist in the wind. They were rescued from this fate by a tiny startup company. Paizo Games released its own heroic fantasy rules based on the d20 System (which still remains in the public domain, available for anyone to use). Pathfinder is cleverly reverse-engineered to be maximally compatible with D&D 3.5, while introducing certain changes that tend to make the mechanics more elegant and streamlined. It is exactly what D&D 4.0 should have been. At first, Paizo did not even have the money to release Pathfinder in print; the original rules were made freely available for download as a PDF file. This was a stroke of genius. Thousands of disaffected D&D players switched to the free Pathfinder rules, then clamoured for printed and bound copies. That gave Paizo the pre-orders it needed to start mass production of printed Pathfinder products; and now, if you go to any tabletop game shop (except Games Workshop, which sells only its own proprietary kit), you will find racks full of Pathfinder products and a distinct dearth of D&D offerings. It remains to be seen whether Star Wars fandom will reject the new Disney canon and cleave loyally to the old Expanded Universe. They have the disadvantage that nobody can reverse-engineer the original films. Disney will always have a hold over the fans through its control of the copyrights. But fan fiction and fan art operate in a world right outside the fences of intellectual property law. It may be that the ozamataz of Star Wars will be preserved through a kind of fan samizdat; that the really dedicated (and therefore profitable) fans of the franchise will tune out the official Disney offerings, and keep their own collaborative work as a separate canon in its own right. Or it could be that neither the Disney canon nor the Expanded Universe fandom will thrive. One thing is certain: The hand of Oz, the Great and Powerful, has been turned against The Mouse, and The Mouse brought it on itself. I do not mean to give the impression that ozamataz has become exclusively a property of game and film franchises. The works of J. R. R. Tolkien exhibit ozamataz par excellence. Tolkien’s story, in one respect, is curiously like Baum’s. After the publication of The Hobbit, he was bombarded with letters from children wanting ‘more about Hobbits’. But being a more serious and scholarly writer than Baum, and haunted moreover by a legendarium that he had been working away on for over twenty years, he was unable to tread Baum’s path. He did not grind out dozens of children’s books about the further adventures of Bagginses and Tooks, as he might have done. Instead, he wrote The Lord of the Rings; and the ozamataz jumped to an adult audience. The entire modern category of epic fantasy is the offspring of his work. The magnum opus was traduced on film through the efforts of well-meaning, if not well-informed, Tolkien fans, and so became known to hundreds of millions. At the opposite end of the media scale, a tiny but devoted coterie of fans write and publish pseudo-learned journals about Tolkien’s invented languages. Nobody has yet got round the Tolkien estate’s blanket prohibition on the commercial publication of fan fiction; but when Tolkien’s copyrights expire, we shall probably see that as well. A few other literary properties have ozamataz: most notably Harry Potter. One fandom exhibits the strange property of anti-ozamataz. The Wheel of Time had millions of readers, but did not attract a large community of creative fans; there is, I believe, comparatively little Wheel of Time fan fiction or fan art. This may be because nearly all the imaginative elements in the series were stolen from earlier and better writers, and any free play being done with those elements is happening in those writers’ fandoms – most notably the fandoms of Tolkien and of Frank Herbert’s Dune series. But the reverse ozamataz shows up very clearly in the Amazon reviews of the later Wheel of Time books. Nobody has begun a series with such lavish promises, or so blatantly failed to keep them; though George R. R. Martin may eventually come close. Beginning with about the fifth book, and with increased volume and stridency thereafter, Jordan’s fans complain about the glacial pace of the story, the bad writing, the endless chasing of side issues and subsidiary characters. Hundreds of the reviews, both on Amazon and on innumerable fan blogs, end with the reviewer swearing never to buy another instalment; but all too often, that same reviewer will return to the series like a dog to his vomit, and make all the same complaints, with the same hollow threat, about the next book. It reminds me of an old joke – speaking of dogs. An old Kentucky colonel was sitting on his veranda, sipping julep and greeting the neighbours as they passed by. His old yellow hound dog lay near him. Every so often, the dog would lift up its head and emit a heart-wrenching howl of pain and distress. ‘What the nation is the matter with that dog?’ a visitor asked. ‘Oh, don’t pay him no mind,’ said the colonel. ‘He’s just a-settin’ on a nail.’ ‘A nail! Well then, why don’t he get up off of it?’ The colonel thought gravely about this. ‘Well, sir, I reckon it only hurts enough to complain.’ Some fandoms are held together by admiration for a creative artist’s work; some by emulation. And then there are those, like Jordan’s fandom, or the Star Wars fans when discussing the prequels, that are held together by the shared pleasure of criticism, because it only hurts enough to complain. The one impulse leads to fan fiction; the other, to fan deconstruction. Both are legitimate amusements, I suppose; but I know which I would rather spend my time on. The great trouble of any writer, in this world of soundbites and YouTube and virtually free publishing, is to stand out from the crowd; to get his work noticed. The traditional methods of promotion hardly work at all any longer, unless backed by (at minimum) the hype machinery of a major motion-picture studio. On the other hand, an obscure and unheralded artist may suddenly ‘go viral’. When this happens, or at least, when it endures beyond the ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ prescribed by Andy Warhol, it is proof of the power of ozamataz. The question, then, is how to attract ozamataz. Can one catch that particular kind of lightning in a bottle, or draw it down with a lightning rod? There do not seem to be any sufficient qualities to guarantee that a work or a franchise will develop a self-sustaining fandom. But perhaps we can identify the necessary qualities; and if we can work with those things in mind, we may increase our chances from zero to something that gives grounds for hope. For it is the fans, in the end, who work the real magic when it happens. Would you know the secret of Oz, the Great and Powerful? Look behind the curtain, and you will find it: ten thousand geeks in hall costumes.
  Read about what makes Ozamataz possible in ‘Legosity’.

‘After the real world has passed away’

After the death of his wife, Edith, J. R. R. Tolkien wrote to his son Michael:
I do not feel quite ‘real’ or whole, and in a sense there is no one to talk to.… Since I came of age, and our 3 years separation was ended, we had shared all joys and griefs, and all opinions (in agreement or otherwise), so that I still often find myself thinking ‘I must tell E. about this’ – and then suddenly I feel like a castaway left on a barren island under a heedless sky after the loss of a great ship. I remember trying to tell Marjorie Incledon this feeling, when I was not yet thirteen after the death of my mother, and vainly waving a hand at the sky saying ‘it is so empty and cold’. And again I remember after the death of Fr Francis my ‘second father’ (at 77 in 1934), saying to C. S. Lewis: ‘I feel like a lost survivor into a new alien world after the real world has passed away’.

(Letters no. 332)

I am sad to report that these descriptions of feelings fit me rather exactly. My mother was a difficult person to deal with, and nearly impossible to talk to; she had the fixed habit of listening to the first half-dozen words that you said, ignoring the rest, and then responding to what she imagined you might have said; and she had a short and fearsome temper. Our relationship could be charitably described as ‘fraught’; yet one has, as a rule, only one mother, and whatever she may be, one feels the loss when she is gone. My father was my chief friend, supporter, and confidant for many years, and I still miss him terribly. Now that I have lost them both, and in rapid succession, I feel rather like the little girl from London in the Second World War, who was interviewed by a reporter after losing her home and family in the Blitz: ‘Now I am nobody’s nothing.’ It is a disorienting and indeed frightening feeling.   A postscriptum about practical matters: It will probably take some months to settle my parents’ affairs, but once that is done I can expect to come into a small inheritance, which if used frugally, will keep the wolf from the door for some time while I get my bearings and (I hope) find a way to make my work pay my bills. I thank all those generous donors who have helped me through my recent difficulties with gifts of money (and still more, of time, attention, and care). I believe I shall be all right for the time being.

Reasons for books

It occurs to me (in such a way that I may write a future essai about it, or then again I moutn’t) that there are four major, common, and abiding reasons why particular books get written, and that one can rank them by how likely they are to produce books that stand the test of time. From least to most likely: 1. Books written solely for money – often in a genre for which the author had no particular liking or affinity. (Such books are usually unpublishable. There is an art to being a successful hack, which the would-be get-rich-quick artist can seldom master.) 2. Books written chiefly to please the author’s fans. (This is a good and worthy motivation. The trouble is that so many fans want the same book again and again under different titles. Such work is seldom good to reread; and it is rereadable books that most often endure.) 3. Books written because the author had an itch to tell a certain story, and the itch would not go away. (Often these are the books that win large number of fans, who then clamour for more and give rise to category-2 sequels.) 4. Books written because the author very much wanted there to be a certain kind of book, and could not find it. Sometimes there is a book-shaped hole in human literature, and someone sets out to write a book to fill that hole. (Note that a single writer’s oeuvre may span all four categories. Robert Silverberg has written seminal books of science fiction, and he also used to write quickie porn novels to pay the rent.) The Inklings had an uncanny knack for finding book-shaped holes and filling them; which largely accounts for their enduring fame. Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction fills what was then a massive gap in literary theory. C. S. Lewis frankly admitted that he wrote his works of Christian apologetics only because none of the clergy (who he considered ought to have written them) were doing the job. And of course there is Tolkien, who found an entire genre-shaped hole and, not being immortal or infinitely productive, only got as far as to lay the book-shaped cornerstone of the wall that has since filled the gap. I myself get all kinds of ideas for books, but they don’t stick with me unless I can at least delude myself that they fall into category #4. Nothing else seems worth my extremely limited working time and energy. (I have never even been tempted with #1 or #2: nobody has offered to buy my soul with money, fame, or even fan-letters. Whether I could resist such temptations is anybody’s guess.) But then I feel ashamed for my presumption. If there is a book-shaped hole in literature, surely it is because better writers than I have tried and failed to fill it. Who am I to try what the real experts could not do? Looking at things in this manner, I am morosely convinced that this dissonance or antinomy accounts for a good deal of the writer’s block with which I am so often afflicted.   In other news, I have been tired and unwell yesterday and today. No new writing of any account, alas. I think I shall try to get some extra sleep and see if that helps.

For Charlie, but mainly for Baga

Two sayings that, at this moment, are particularly worth bearing in mind:  
It needs but one foe to breed a war, not two. And those who have not swords can still die upon them.

—J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

  To survive you often have to fight, and to fight you have to dirty yourself. War is evil, and it is often the lesser evil. Those who take the sword perish by the sword, and those who don’t take the sword perish by smelly diseases.

—George Orwell, ‘Looking Back on the Spanish War

May God be with the Christians of Nigeria in their hour of tribulation, and may He confound Boko Haram and all their evil works. And may the dead of Charlie Hebdo find mercy, and the survivors seek truth.

‘The frightful landslide into Theyocracy’

My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) – or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy. I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights, nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate! If we could get back to personal names, it would do a lot of good. Government is an abstract noun meaning the art and process of governing and it should be an offence to write it with a capital G or so as to refer to people. If people were in the habit of referring to ‘King George’s council, Winston and his gang’, it would go a long way to clearing thought, and reducing the frightful landslide into Theyocracy. Anyway the proper study of Man is anything but Man; and the most improper job of any man, even saints (who were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.

The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, no. 52 (to Christopher Tolkien, 29 November 1943)

(Paragraph breaks added.) The infernal and redoubtable H. Smiggy McStudge has some things to say about all this, and has asked (or rather, peremptorily ordered) me to put some of it up here in the near future. Perhaps I shall oblige (or obey) him. He says it is to be a manual of advice for all the little McStudges, who, he says, have great zeal for their work but are in danger of believing their own propaganda. It will also be an ‘outline of history’, a form that was very popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but is pretty well extinct now. Smiggy makes his pitch thus: ‘The average human now has nothing but contempt for history – contempt born of utter ignorance. The schools teach a kind of compost of outdated sociology and falsified anthropology under the name of Social Studies, and graduate chuckleheads who cannot tell you whether George III came before or after George II, and who, if given a globe, are exceptionally lucky if they can point a finger at the Earth. History has been abandoned to the history buffs, who have the characteristic stupidity of experts, the ant’s-eye view. There are people who can tell you in minute detail the costume and weaponry of a Pecheneg warrior of the eleventh century, but who cannot tell you what the Pechenegs did, or how they influenced other nations, or why anyone should bother to inform themselves about the God-rotted Pechenegs at all. And we McStudges are very content that this should be so. ‘But let us not be fooled because we make fools of others. We need a clear eye for the prize. History is a game that we have played, using the humans as pawns and fodder. Let us not be dazzled by the lies and distractions we design for them. Our workers in the field need a clear understanding of what the game is, and what the stakes are, and which tactics are most likely to be successful. There is, of course, some risk in making this information widely available. Some of the humans are likely to read it. Fortunately, few of them have (thanks to our efforts) the mental equipment to take notice of the truth; fewer still have the gumption to act on it. These perishing few may safely be ignored. The risk is nothing compared to the risk of letting our own people wallow in the ignorance they have created. Ink is a wonderful poison. Let us cover the world with it, let us use it to drown human wit and human reason, such as they are, once and for all. But let us take care not to drink it ourselves.’

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.

What’s that you say? Something sold?

To my astonishment, to say nothing of crogglement, confustication, and gobsmackosity, I have sold an essay to Sci Phi Journal: and for actual money, too. With a speed hitherto unknown to magazine-kind, it has been scheduled for publication in the upcoming issue. Look for Sci Phi Journal #2, containing ‘The Making of the Fellowship: Concepts of the Good in The Lord of the Rings', coming soon to an ebook store near you.
In other news, I am still filled with doubt and concern about Where Angels Die. The first chapter seemed to be a rousing success, but the second has met with dead silence so far, and frankly, I don’t know what to make of that. Are my 3.6 Loyal Readers still waiting for more? Or have I done something dreadful, on a par with the infamous Klingon practice of farting in airlocks? Please advise.