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. I say ‘only a giant’ advisedly. A windmill is an awful thing, in more than one sense of the word: a soulless creature born of sheer inanimate nature, grinding without desire, crushing without intent, turning its tireless arms in response to a commandment more inexorable than the law of the Medes and Persians, which altereth not. I believe that the windmill was invented by Koshchei the Deathless, while wearing the guise in which he used to appear to James Branch Cabell — ‘the Master of Things As They Are’, as Cabell called him. How wonderful it is, then, having tried one’s lance against a windmill, to find that after all it is just another creature of flesh and blood like oneself — bigger and stronger, no doubt, but just as fallible, just as uncertain, just as liable to err, to weary, and to die. The greatest delight of an essayist is to tilt at a windmill and find that it really is a windmill, that one has crossed lances, in some way, with the fundamental bedrock of reality. But that experience is a great deal rarer. So I spend a lot of my time tilting at windmills, and most of them, as it turns out, are nothing but giants. This language is figurative. I mean that I pick quarrels with the conventional wisdom or fashionable opinion that different sorts of people are apt to accept as unalterable truth; and then I find that they are only opinions, and dubiously founded ones at that — or else I do not. Since both conventional wisdom and fashionable opinion are fallible and largely wrong, and nearly everybody takes comfort in one or the other, I make a terrible nuisance of myself to virtually everybody. In the past, for instance, I have gone jousting in aid of Ursula K. Le Guin, and particularly for her views on the diction and rhetoric of fantasy, though she needs my help almost as much as a whale needs a life jacket. Today I feel the urge to turn my lance against her, or against one of her windmills, and see whether I score a hit on a giant. The occasion of this joust is the arrival today, per post, of a long-awaited copy of The Language of the Night, Ms. Le Guin’s first, and perhaps best-known, book of critical essays. It has been allowed to go out of print, but several of the essays in it have been so widely reprinted that not even the folly of publishers has suppressed their well-earned fame. Some of these I first read long ago, when I was in my early youth, and Ms. Le Guin was already an accomplished past master of her craft; which is odd, because I am now several aeons older than the hills, and Ms. Le Guin is still only in her early eighties. I attribute this discrepancy to the well-known habit women have of telling lies about their age. Now, in those days, in the first flush of youth, or at least in an epoch when I was still thrusting upwards by orogeny and not merely wearing down by erosion, I was strongly impressed, and somewhat flattered, by the first proper essay in Language, which bears the fine polemical title, ‘Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?’ Impressed, because I had not much experience of the world, and thought that the people who seemed in public not to care for fantasy or imaginative fiction must necessarily have the same fault in private life; flattered, because by implication I was one of the happy few not so afflicted. I was far from being the only one so impressed, or so flattered. This essay, or rather, the extraordinary claim made in its title, has been taken up into the received wisdom of Western culture: so that people feel themselves wise and learned for granting the antecedent, or rather, begging the question, and simply assuming that Americans are afraid of dragons. In support of the idea, I admit, Ms. Le Guin tells a pretty tale, and she could probably get the average jury to convict. To summarize baldly: America, more than any other country, is the heir to the Puritan tradition, which values worldly things only according to their immediate usefulness, and utterly rejects magic and wonder as tools of the Devil. Even when Americans (and their unenlightened brethren in other industrialized nations) reject the idea of the Devil, they retain a vague and rootless distrust of the sort of things that were once considered the Devil’s handiwork, such as l’art pour l’art, and aesthetic experience, and the free play of the imagination. American men in particular are subject to this disease; they are wholly consumed by the hateful materialistic philosophy of ‘get on or get out’, and have a practised disdain, ultimately phobic in nature, for any kind of art or literature that will not immediately help them get money for themselves. However, like all those who reject the overt manifestations of fantasy, the American Male lets the irrational in by the back door of superstition; so he will sometimes let himself read bestsellers, because bestsellers are good business, and some of their luck may rub off by a kind of sympathetic magic. He is, of course, never consciously aware of such a motive, but it is there just the same, and plain enough for a Le Guin to diagnose. For the rest he will stick to non-fiction, or else
end up watching bloody detective thrillers on the television, or reading hack Westerns or sports stories, or going in for pornography. . . . That all these genres are sterile, hopelessly sterile, is a reassurance to him rather than a defect. If they were genuinely realistic, which is to say genuinely imagined and imaginative, he would be afraid of them. Fake realism is the escapist literature of our time. And probably the ultimate escapist reading is that masterpiece of total unreality, the daily stock market report.
Now this is a masterpiece of character assassination, and all the more because the victim is entirely imaginary. The American Male of this depiction never existed: not in 1974, when Le Guin wrote this rant against him; not in 1900, when imaginative and (in the old-fashioned sense) ‘romantic’ literature were being ruthlessly squeezed out of the limelight and into the backwaters of American culture; not in 1830, when American literature was just beginning to take a shape of its own, after the fallow half-century that followed the cultural severance of the colonies from Europe. Americans, of course, and even American males, are as varied a group as any other nationality you might choose to name, and more varied than most. There are Americans with the solid commercial practicality of the Dutch, the quick-witted rationality of the French, the dreamy and intermittently dangerous sentimentality of the Germans — to say nothing of the peculiar cultural complexions of the island nations of Europe. And that is only to count the immigrants who formed part of the cultural matrix in the earliest years of the Union. It leaves out the Slavs, the Mediterranean peoples, the Asians, the Africans (who were present in those early years, but forcibly prevented from contributing to the culture till later). For that matter, it leaves out the American Indians: Hiawatha and Black Hawk are as much a part of American culture and American history as Captain John Smith and Andrew Jackson. For all this variety, one can still draw a sort of composite picture of what we might call the culturally typical American; that is, of the cultural qualities that were thoroughly boiled down in the ‘melting pot’, and became the common property of the whole nation. Our composite American has never shied away from fantasy or the imagination. He loved tall tales long before he learnt to read; and since he grew up in a landscape of wild and wonderful possibilities, he did not much care whether the tall tales were strictly impossible or not. He is equally delighted with Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed. He will swallow the feats of Natty Bumppo, which are flatly impossible without being magical, right along with the ghost stories of Edgar Allan Poe, which are magical and might not be quite impossible. He has the advantage of loving adventure stories, and the greater advantage of living in a land where adventure has never been banished ‘beyond the fields we know’ into the realms of fantasy. He likes to play at being a juvenile Don Quixote, like Tom Sawyer, or a juvenile Marco Polo, like Huckleberry Finn. He doesn’t believe in dragons — quite — but he has cousins who went West by covered waggon and turned back because they ‘saw the elephant’. He likes taking day trips into the future, conducted by the folks at the circus of science fiction, even though he knows that one day the voyage will be as permanent and estranging as Rip Van Winkle’s. He enjoys travelling abroad, where he entertains himself by pretending to be a barbarian to scandalize the snobs; he had great fun playing this game in King Arthur’s court. His chief official hero is George Washington, a real person credited with doing things that never happened, like chopping down the celebrated cherry tree. His unofficial heroes include Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck, entirely unreal persons who somehow managed to accomplish all sorts of perfectly real things. American adventure fiction takes reality and fantasy, magic and technology, sober exploration and wild travellers’ yarns, chucks them all up together in the air as high as they will go, and makes a glorious game of taking them just as they fall. It may happen to exclude the elements of fantasy in particular instances, but it has no prejudice against them; and neither, we must conclude, has its audience. This is the common or melting-pot American, in the particularly masculine form that Ms. Le Guin has singled out for castigation: and if he is afraid of dragons at all, he is probably afraid that they may be a shade too dull for him. Old-world etiquette requires him to be a St. George and kill them, but he would really rather climb on their backs, rodeo style, and see if he can stay on for the whole eight seconds. He used to be wonderfully served by what we may call his official culture, the Arts and Literature and Other Good Things with Capital Letters. Cooper, Irving, Poe, Melville, Twain, O. Henry — the earlier part of American literary history is a glorious constellation of tall-tale tellers who didn’t care a rap whether they were being ‘realistic’ or not. Moby-Dick is filled with painstaking detail about life aboard a whaling boat, but it is also the ultimate fish story about ‘the one that got away’; the great white whale is as mythic a figure as the fish that swallowed Jonah, and the one has sometimes been mistaken for the other. The same whale (I have it on good authority) used to go by the name of Fastitocalon, and lurk about in the mediaeval bestiaries, pretending to be an island until unwary sailors tried to land on him and pitch a camp. Fantasy and realism play together with perfect freedom, en tutoyant, neither of them putting on airs or pretending to dominate the other. It is sadly true, however, that the typical American, especially the male American, of the 1970s and thereabouts, as Ms. Le Guin knew him, did not have much time for fiction, except for the dull mass-produced stuff served to him by network television; and this phenomenon has got to be accounted for. He may not have been afraid of dragons, but there were certainly no dragons in his life. How can we account for this? The hypothesis suggests itself that it was the dragons who were afraid of the Americans, and not the other way round. Something frightened them off. In ‘On Fairy-Stories’, J. R. R. Tolkien remarks that fantasy came to be associated with children, not because it was peculiarly suitable for them, but because their elders had ceased to like it; just as the old furniture in a house would be banished to the nursery for the children’s use. But it was not only fantasy that was treated in this way. The whole tradition of adventure fiction — all the tropes and categories that descended ultimately from the mediaeval romance, and that were still called ‘romantic’ in English until that word was misappropriated and applied exclusively to love-stories — was quite abruptly banished from polite circles in the latter part of the nineteenth century, not only in the U.S. but in other industrial countries as well, and remained in exile until it crept back in through the new medium of the mass-market paperback in the years after the Second World War. If you want to examine the truth of this claim, you have only to consider the kinds of fiction that were regarded as ‘boys’ stories’ in the first half of the twentieth century. This is George Orwell in ‘Boys’ Weeklies’:
Examination of a large number of these papers shows that, putting aside school stories, the favourite subjects are Wild West, Frozen North, Foreign Legion, crime (always from the detective's angle), the Great War (Air Force or Secret Service, not the infantry), the Tarzan motif in varying forms, professional football, tropical exploration, historical romance (Robin Hood, Cavaliers and Round-heads, etc.) and scientific invention. The Wild West still leads, at any rate as a setting, though the Red Indian seems to be fading out. The one theme that is really new is the scientific one. Death-rays, Martians, invisible men, robots, helicopters and interplanetary rockets figure largely: here and there there are even far-off rumours of psychotherapy and ductless glands.
Orwell is talking here about the British boys’ magazines, but the same subjects, with minor variations, predominated in the American pulp magazines. The pulps showed far greater specialization than the British boys’ weeklies; there were hundreds of titles, most of them monthly, against the ten papers that served the same market in the tight oligopoly of the British press; but then the American market was a bigger one, and it could be profitable to cater to quite small segments of it. Millions of Americans read the pulps for pleasure, and by no means all of them were boys; but the pulps were aimed at boys, edited for the reading-level of boys, and censored ferociously to keep out any subjects that might be thought to corrupt the impressionable minds of boys. It is this accident, by the way, that accounts for the remarkable sexlessness of ‘Golden Age’ science fiction. Clearly there was an insatiable market for imaginative fiction; clearly our ‘common American’ had not died out, or given up reading, or even altered his tastes. But his preferred reading-matter had been banished to the cheapest magazines; the literati sneered and called it trash. After the pulp magazines disappeared, their place as the lowest common denominator of narrative fiction was taken over by television: very inadequately, for where there had been hundreds of pulps publishing thousands of stories per month, there were only three major television networks, broadcasting no more than about eighty prime-time series at any given time. There was much less variety in the televised pulp fiction of 1960 than in the printed pulp fiction of 1940. Naturally, the literati sneered at television twice as hard, fearing its tremendous reach and influence (and profitability) even more than they hated its deadly sameness. But our common American stuck to his TV set and gave up, for the most part, even pretending to read ‘serious’ fiction, though he retained a certain taste for paperback Westerns and detective stories. The literati had not changed his tastes; they only managed to drive him out. They did not drive out his female counterpart, who was more interested in love-stories and domestic melodrama (which the electronic media call ‘soap opera’). They could not; they needed her money. In the years after the Second World War, more than ever before, American popular fiction became a women’s preserve. Those were the years that saw the rise of the Harlequin romance, and the mini-novel, ‘complete in this issue’, that was for a while a staple of the women’s magazines; but also the rise of ‘women’s fiction’, the ordinary bestselling novel that contained nothing imaginative in the wider sense, but pushed the emotional buttons of the average female reader within a carefully limited domain of ‘realistic’ domesticity. Ms. Le Guin, of course, has no more time for this stuff than she has for the television shows that the menfolk were using to pass the time:
[L]acking training and encouragement, her fancy is likely to glom on to very sickly fodder, such things as soap operas, and ‘true romances’, and nursy novels, and historico-sentimental novels, and all the rest of the baloney ground out to replace genuine imaginative works by the artistic sweatshops of a society that is profoundly distrustful of the uses of the imagination.
But once again, it does not occur to her that the Common American (Female Division) simply took the ‘fodder’ that was actually available. The decision to push this kind of material was made from on high, in the élitist (and profoundly sexist) confines of the Higher Publishing. During what Ms. Le Guin herself has called the fifty-year halt of American feminism, women readers were not encouraged to read ‘serious’ fiction; but their interest in domestic matters and family drama (as old, and as evident, as the village gossip that has been with us since Neolithic times) meant that some of their interests could be catered to without risking the deep forbidden waters of the old-style romance. In these latter days, when women are perfectly free to range over the literary landscape however they choose, I have known any number of female readers who liked both ‘sickly fodder’ and ‘genuine imaginative works’ — women who voluntarily read (for example) ‘nursy novels’ in one mood, and science fiction in another, and find entertainment, even nourishment, in both. The readership of fantasy in the U.S. nowadays, I am told, is about three-fourths female. The same range of tastes, we may well suppose, was latently there in the women of fifty years ago; but the publishing business made a deliberate choice to cater to only one small part of that range. It begins to look as if we are faced with a deliberate plot; and already I can hear a chorus warming up in the wings, getting ready to call me a crackpot and a conspiracy theorist. I can only reply that there was such a plot, and that some of the original principals have confessed. In An Experiment in Criticism, C. S. Lewis professed that he had never heard anyone actually and explicitly say that works of pure imagination (such as fantasy) were per se not literature, or ought not to be read; but I have seen both those claims made. As late as the early 1990s, I could go into any ‘independent’ bookshop in my home town and confidently expect not to find any science fiction or fantasy, except for stuff like Nineteen Eighty-four or Lord of the Flies, which had been suitably disinfected by being taught as Literature — so much the better if it was unbearably depressing, as those two books are to most people. If I wanted such books, I had to look in the chain bookshops, where the staff and the distant owners were not too proud to carry ‘cheap commercial trash’. But where did this attitude start? I have elsewhere repeated Dave Wolverton’s assertion, which he can back with formidable evidence (as befits a retired professor), that it began with the American Socialist movement that arose around 1870, and in particular with William Dean Howells, the ‘father of American realism’. Here it is again, from ‘On Writing as a Fantasist’:
He claimed that authors had gone astray by being imitators of one another rather than of nature. He proscribed writing about ‘interesting’ characters — such as famous historical figures or creatures of myth. He decried exotic settings — places such as Rome or Pompeii, and he denounced tales that told of uncommon events. He praised stories that dealt with the everyday, where ‘nobody murders or debauches anybody else; there is no arson or pillage of any sort; there is no ghost, or a ravening beast, or a hair-breadth escape, or a shipwreck, or a monster of self-sacrifice, or a lady five thousand years old in the course of the whole story’. He denounced tales with sexual innuendo. He said that instead he wanted to publish stories about the plight of the ‘common man’, just living an ordinary existence. Because Howells was the editor of the largest and most powerful magazine of the time (and because of its fabulous payment rates, a short story sale to that magazine could support a writer for a year or two), his views had a tremendous influence on American writers.
Howells was still alive, and still wielding that tremendous influence, in the first years of the twentieth century, when names like Henry James and Edith Wharton were the new giants of American letters. Howells’s disciples — it is not too strong a word — had risen to the highest positions in New York publishing, and the editorships of the most prestigious literary reviews. Together they founded what we might call the ‘secular Puritan’ school of fiction, dominated by the idea that strict realism is the only valid form of literature, because only strict realism is good for you. And how do you know that it is good for you? Why, because it is dull. There are those who profess to be fascinated by James’s and Wharton’s fiction, but they are well outnumbered, as I believe, by those who admire their technique, but admit that the bulk of their stories, considered as stories, are terribly and sustainedly boring. This attitude of studied admiration for deliberate dulness was appallingly common at the time; it is brilliantly lampooned in Saki’s short story, ‘Filboid Studge’, in which the world’s worst breakfast cereal becomes a daily staple precisely because anything that foul-tasting must be good for you — if not nutritionally, then morally. It was not only the younger writers who geared up to write literary Filboid Studge. Mark Twain’s last years furnish sad evidence of Howells’s power. Twain and Howells were close friends in those years, and Howells influenced Twain’s work, I believe, markedly for the worse. Among my books are two volumes of Twain from the Library of America: one containing a sample of his shorter pieces from 1852 to 1890, the other from 1890 to his death in 1910. They might almost have been written by two different men. The stories in the first volume are imaginative, wild, free, and nearly always funny, in the finest tradition of the American tall tale. Those in the second volume are increasingly solemn, sober, preachy, and depressing, and when they depart from strict realism, it is apt to be in the service of heavy-handed satire, like the attack on religion in The Mysterious Stranger. Among these latter pieces is a little screed that he wrote to glorify Howells. In this, he makes a great effort to convince us that a little word-picture by Howells (of menial labourers shovelling snow in the Piazza San Marco in Venice) is a masterpiece of poetic prose. It isn’t; it is a string of pretty words, prettily put together, and wasted on an utterly trivial object. But Howells would not have it any other way; he devoutly believed literature ought to be about trivial objects. He thought that snow-shovellers in Venice were worth writing about precisely because they were ordinary and prosaic, and because they were poor and downtrodden; and if only the art of literature could be engaged to make them seem fascinating and important, it would enlist the sympathies of the middle classes on their behalf, and then — hey presto! The Socialist Utopia would ensue. This method was followed by Upton Sinclair and others, and ultimately perfected by Steinbeck. One could call it ‘Socialist Realism for the bourgeoisie’. Such work has a powerful attraction for the literati to this day, for the literati are still Socialists for the most part, and are still, after all these years, waiting for their Utopia. The ‘sentence cult’, the habit of heaping extravagant praise upon works that combine exquisite prose with utterly vapid subject-matter, is as congenial to their ideology now as it was in Howells’s time. For it is the characteristic mark of the Utopian Socialist in particular (there are other and better kinds of Socialists) that he must be in a perpetual stew lest people hanker after the wrong Utopia. Even to find a modicum of happiness in this life is liable to be condemned by such people as ‘escapism’; and of course stories of fantasy and adventure are ‘escapist’ by definition. It does not much matter whether the stories are realistic or not, in the sense of being formally possible in real life. The Utopian view is that ‘realism’ requires an unrelenting focus on the dreary, the depressing, the degrading; that, as Lenin put it, the worse things are, the better they are — for it is miserable people who can be talked into backing revolutions. Happy and contented people are too liable to accept the status quo. The idea was perfectly expressed, back in the 1920s, by an American union organizer who complained because workingmen were buying motorcars:
The Ford car has done an awful lot of harm to the unions here and everywhere else. As long as men have enough money to buy a second-hand Ford and tires and gasoline, they’ll be out on the road and paying no attention to union meetings.
But this kind of thinking — ‘the worse, the better’ — persisted strongly in Socialist parties all over the world until the 1980s, and in some of them it persists to this day. A genuine turning-point came in 1987, when another union leader — a British one, this time, the late Ron Todd — confessed that this whole method was mistaken:
What do you say to a docker who earns £400 a week, owns his house, a new car, a microwave and a video, as well as a small place near Marbella? You do not say, ‘Let me take you out of your misery, brother.’
But misery remains a selling-point for the literati; as long as it is other people’s misery. The élite of the New York publishing business, and the élite of the famous reviews, all earned their élitehood by acquiring the strongest possible taste for Filboid Studge; they cannot possibly admit that the game is up, that the unwashed masses were right all along to take their nourishment from food that tasted good. It was these élites that fought to keep J. K. Rowling off the Times bestseller list (and succeeded in banishing her to a separate children’s list); it was their British counterparts who cried out that literature was dead because polls of the British reading public showed that The Lord of the Rings was regarded as the greatest novel of the twentieth century. According to the Filboid Studge theory, no work of fantasy (‘escapist trash’) should have been allowed on the list at all; the highest place should have been reserved for Ulysses, no matter how the vote had to be rigged to make it come out right. Tom Shippey tells a lovely tale about a famous British critic who said, on hearing that The Lord of the Rings had topped the poll: ‘Has it? Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.’ Such things are not supposed to happen; and to a good Utopian Socialist, who still believes in the Marxist dogmas he imbibed in his credulous youth, such things cannot happen. History is the inevitable progress of humanity out of the ignorant past and into the glorious Marxist future. Fantasy is dead, the adventure story is dead, just as religion and laissez-faire are supposed to be dead; our glorious predecessors killed them a hundred years ago. If the dead are seen walking abroad, they can only be ghosts; and we cannot believe in ghosts. For a Utopian of 2000, the continued popularity of Tolkien was intolerable, as the victories of Thatcher and Reagan were for a Utopian of 1980. They refuted the theories; they confounded the prophecies. In 1974, when Ms. Le Guin wrote her snide attack on the taste of the American public, it was still just barely possible to believe that the Socialist Utopia was still inevitable; and rather easier to believe that the triumph of literary realism was complete. At that time, the publishing industry had convinced itself that fantasy was unsalable after all, that Tolkien had been a passing fad of the hippie culture, like tie-dye or acid rock. But it was only the publishers who believed it. The American public were never deceived. Many of them had never heard of Tolkien, or of any modern fantasy for grown-ups; the knowledge had been carefully kept from them. But the attitude that Le Guin fathers onto them, the contempt for fantasy and adventure fiction, hardly existed outside the circle of the literary élite and their hangers-on. Some people — it was a common thing in academia — hated fantasy because it was fashionable to hate it, because that was the way to get up and get on in their profession. Some had an honest distaste for it. Some people loved it. The great mass of the people liked fantasy, when they could get it; they enjoyed taking their children to Disney movies (often more than the children themselves did). TV programs like Bewitched were always popular. As fantasy goes, these things were pretty thin gruel; but a man will take thin gruel and be glad of it, if he can get no other food. But it was never true that the mass of the American people were afraid of fantasy, or of imaginative fiction in general. Just three years after Ms. Le Guin published ‘Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?’, the dam burst once and for all. In one amazing year, 1977, the film industry was changed for ever by the astounding success of a fantasy movie with science-fiction visuals — Star Wars. The biggest selling book of the year was The Silmarillion. In the same year, The Sword of Shannara and The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever proved that Tolkien was not alone, that there was a huge pent-up demand for fantasy by other authors as well. By the early eighties, science fiction and fantasy books were frequent bestsellers, and SF and fantasy movies were reliable box-office hits. The Common American (of both sexes) was back; the American tall tale, in all its forms, was alive and impossibly well. Raiders of the Lost Ark showed that the pure adventure story, even without the trimmings of SF, had lost none of its old power to enchant an audience. The auteurs of the 1970s ‘new cinema’ have been mourning their lost glory and counting their losses ever since. They tried to conquer Hollywood for the kingdom of Filboid Studge — and failed. And since that day, the very citadel of Filboid Studge in America, the New York Literary Establishment, has been under siege. That, in brief, is the story of the American who was never afraid of dragons. He took to dragons with childlike delight, as soon as the dragons were allowed to get near him again. And sad to say, the people who were afraid of dragons all along — the people who went to war upon the dragons, and made the dragons afraid of them — were not the hated capitalists, the money men reading ‘that masterpiece of total unreality, the daily stock market report’. They were the literati themselves, the Progressives, the enlightened and cultured ones — people a lot more like Ms. Le Guin than the straw men she mistook for her opponents. Like Pogo in the famous comic strip (another masterpiece of the American imagination), Ms. Le Guin could aptly have proclaimed: ‘We have met the enemy, and he is us.’

Campbell’s Cream of Fantasy

#10 in a series, following ‘A song of gore and slaughter’. An earlier version appeared on LiveJournal in June, 2006.
By its nature, fantasy is supposed to be the literature of the unbridled imagination; all too often, the imagination is not only bridled, but blinkered and hobbled and confined to its stall in the barn. It is fairly usual for critics to call this process ‘commercialization’; which is very odd, because the most commercially successful fantasies of all time have not been tamed or broken in this way. Rather, the breaking of fantasy is a consequence of its commercialization. Winged Pegasus will bear you with joy to the remotest reaches of Elfland, but he does not always come when you whistle for him. Poor old Dobbin, bridled, blinkered, hobbled, stabled, and without so much as a wish for wings of his own, can only take you for a weary plod round the paddock, but he is always at home and always pathetically grateful to be taken out for a ride. Pegasus is a rare beast, born of inspiration; Dobbins can be mass-produced. Publishers will gladly commercialize a Tolkien, a Howard, or a Rowling if they can get one; if not, they will settle for anything that looks like fantasy, that exploits some of the same tropes and offers to scratch the same itch. The shop must remain open for business, come what may; and if the shelves are stocked with shoddy goods, that is better than no goods at all. Frederik Pohl has expressed the editorial dilemma perfectly: some stories you print with joy and thanksgiving; others, because the alternative is to put out a magazine (or a line of books) with a lot of blank pages. Unfortunately, the tendency of publishers, especially large conglomerates, is to see just how far they can adulterate their product line before it stops selling — how many times they can promise a flight on Pegasus and deliver a ride on Dobbin, before the audience gives up in disgust and stops buying tickets. And of course there is never any shortage of hack writers who will supply the Dobbin rides. Some of them know they fall short of their ideal, and some are blissfully ignorant; some would sell their own mothers to see their names in print, and some just want to make a living, and use hard work and elbow grease to eke out inadequate talent. They can surely be pardoned for their faults; but to pardon is not to approve. The late Diana Wynne Jones, in her delightful Tough Guide to Fantasyland, wrote a brave and brilliant exposé of the various kinds of ersatz and shoddy with which the shelves in the fantasy section of the bookshop are kept artificially full. But her attack, for all its virtues, is aimed at superficial things; she never really addresses the question of why this tired stuff is written and sold. Of course the bookshops are cluttered with interchangeable products set in indistinguishable Fantasylands. But even when fantasy writers make an apparently honest effort to come up with original settings for their tales, the results often betray a disturbing imaginative penury. Ursula K. Le Guin had the right of the matter when she said, in ‘From Elfland to Poughkeepsie’:
The general assumption is that, if there are dragons or hippogriffs in a book, or if it takes place in a vaguely Keltic or Near Eastern medieval setting, or if magic is done in it, then it’s a fantasy. This is a mistake. . . . [A] writer may use all the trappings of fantasy without ever actually imagining anything.
But having the right is not the same as being right. Her definition of fantasy would exclude nine-tenths of the books with FANTASY in small lettering on the spines. Such a categorization is every bit as unhelpful as the attempts by John Grant and others to define fantasy in a way that excludes The Lord of the Rings. It is an exercise in locking the barn door when not only the horse but the very walls have gone. We cannot now hope to exclude the cookie-cutter Fantasyland books from the category called ‘fantasy’. But I will make so bold as to call them failed fantasy, in rather the same sense that the Argonautica could be called a failed epic, or The Phantom Menace a failed Star Wars prequel. The word novel has been defined as ‘a book-length work of fiction that has something wrong with it’, and in every art form failures far outnumber successes. There is no shame and little harm in having written a failed fantasy; but that does not place the failed work beyond the reach of criticism. Le Guin in ‘Poughkeepsie’ again:
When you hear a new violinist, you do not compare him to the kid next door; you compare him to Stern and Heifetz. If he falls short, you will not blame him for it, but you will know what he falls short of. And if he is a real violinist, he knows it too. In art, “good enough” is not good enough.
Of course, some violinists and some writers fall short more than others. Some of those whose books are labelled ‘fantasy’ seem genuinely to believe that Fantasyland is ‘good enough’, and make no attempt to move beyond its trite conventions and faded scenery. Others don’t even bother with that. They not only strip down their settings to the bare minimum, so that their characters seem to live in a vacuum, but praise themselves for doing so and heap scorn on the idiots who actually put effort into their settings. This is from a talk Terry Goodkind gave in 2000:
The books I write are first of all novels, not fantasy, and that is deliberate; I’m really writing books about human beings. I believe that it’s invalid and unethical to write fantasy for fantasy’s sake, because fantasy for fantasy’s sake is non-objective. If you have no human themes or values, then you have no life as a base value. Fantasy for fantasy’s sake is therefore pointless. At the other end of the spectrum from my writing are a kind of book that, for lack of a better word, I’ll call “world-building”—and I don’t mean to disparage pure world building books for what they are: entertainment. I don’t consider them valid novels. . . . . . . . . . . . World-building to me is no better than holding up the drug dealer as an ideal because it is holding up as a normative value a world in which humans do not exercise volition, but instead is a history lesson of when this person was born 300 years ago and had 12 daughters with unpronounceable names who had offspring who went on to have this and that convoluted history, which may be entertaining, but is not a novel.
The contempt could scarcely be more obvious. And yet, at that time, Goodkind by his own admission had never read The Lord of the Rings. He considered it a ‘world-building book’ rather than a ‘novel’. (The ‘history lesson’ sneer is a clear hit at all the detailed back-stories inspired by the Appendices of LOTR; a fortiori at the original, whether he was aware of it or not.) But if The Lord of the Rings is about anything, it is about humans exercising volition. It is about power and renunciation, death and the desire for immortality, and coping with irreversible change. Those are ‘human themes or values’, or the word human has lost all meaning. According to Goodkind this cannot be so, because his particular brand of reductionism will not allow a book to accomplish more than one thing. He does pay lip-service to the idea of a range or continuum between ‘pure novels’ and ‘pure world-building’, but in fact he never speaks about anything but these two extremes, always heaping scorn upon the latter. If a book contains world-building, then it must leave something else out. That is like saying that a house with more than two bedrooms cannot have a kitchen. Houses are not all of a size, and neither are books. Tolkien’s epic is roomy enough for both. Goodkind’s books are also roomy, or at least they take up a great deal of space, but he fails to fit in more than the sketchiest strokes of setting. The effect of this is very curious. I once saw a student production of Richard III, done without props, backdrops, or even costumes: not so much as swords for the fight scenes. (The cast wore monochrome tights of various hues, and consequently looked like a ballet class.) Nothing remained but the actors themselves, standing in various poses on a plain black stage and reciting speeches from Shakespeare. This made for a cheap production, a considerable virtue in the circumstances; and after all it was never billed as a professional performance. Goodkind’s books, however, are billed as professional work, indeed very highly touted by his publisher; and a book laden with scenery and descriptions of action is just as cheap to produce as one with nothing but dialogue. But Wizard’s First Rule gave me just the same sense of talking heads in a void. Sometimes, as in the torture scenes, the action was described vividly enough to give me a clear picture of the character’s entire body, and sometimes Goodkind’s auctorial lantern shed enough light to illuminate a whole room; but not often. The book contains a map, but it is hardly necessary, as there are really only three places of any consequence: the Westlands, the Midlands, and D’Hara. These countries are separated by nearly impenetrable magical barriers, and have evolved widely divergent cultures from a common origin in the time since the barriers went up. From this one would suppose that the barriers are aeons or at least centuries old. Not so: there are people not yet past middle age who remember when they were built. The world’s history before that is an absolute blank. Nobody seems to have any memory or record of anything going back as much as a hundred years. Similarly, we never are told much about how Darken Rahl came to power in D’Hara. In a way, this is a refreshing change from the Dark Lord who was Imprisoned in the Mountain by G’grizzwoz the Moonbat in the Eleventh Age of Bapfnir, and emerged after five Cycles of the Moon of Gormwit, etc., etc. Bogus detail is worse than none at all. But it does not inspire confidence when none of the older characters seem able to remember events from their own youth. We are all a product of our culture as much as of our genes, and it is a truism that characters in fiction are best realized when you can see how they interact with their habitat and history. But Goodkind’s characters have a blank page for a habitat, and very nearly no history at all. One step above no world-building, of course, is the terminally lazy kind. The Belgariad and its interminable rehashes make a fine example. Over here we have Merrie England Sendaria, and there are our stock Romans Tolnedrans, and up yonder are the Vikings Alorns, all portrayed with the careful realism of, say, a Benny Hill skit. The Tough Guide says nearly all that there is to say about these stock cultures, the Vestigial Empire and the Anglo-Saxon Cossacks and so forth; but Eddings goes the template one better, because every one of his characters conforms perfectly to the appropriate ethnic stereotype. Every Arend is fearsomely brave and blitheringly stupid, every Tolnedran is a money-hungry schemer, every Grolim is . . . well, a psychopathic serial killer. Subtle, that. Couple that with plots generated by tracing a path through every country on the map, and you have a recipe for highly commercial fantasy product which requires virtually no imagination at all. Some authors are very industrious indeed in designing their settings, but their efforts are wasted because they pile detail on detail without ever thinking much about the fundamental assumptions underlying the whole work. One finds quite a lot of this in gaming tie-ins. Ed Greenwood’s ‘Forgotten Realms’, even ignoring the material contributed by other hands, is an enormous feat of world-building, far larger in scope and detail than Tolkien’s, and ought to be a masterpiece of its kind. But it falls short, because it is not based on any coherent vision of what a world could be like, but on the rules of Dungeons & Dragons. The cultures of the Realms are a mishmash of colourful mediaeval, pseudo-mediaeval, ancient and Renaissance detail, systematically altered in the interest of modern political correctness. There are, for instance, no defined gender roles, virtually everyone is literate, and slavery is practised only by races and nations that are Evil with a capital E. This is revisionism with a vengeance, and the effect is made still odder by the casual racism that squats in the midst of it like — no, an elephant in the living-room is too commonplace — like a basilisk in a shopping mall. Greenwood gives us the titles and trappings of feudalism without the attitude of feudal loyalty, the intrigues of a Renaissance city-state without the economic constraints that made city-states viable, the impedimenta of ancient empires without the indifferent cruelty of ancient imperialism. It does not hang together. It is hardly intended to. Now, as a setting for a game, this does not much matter. D&D was originally as artificial as chess: ill-assorted groups of ‘adventurers’, patterned vaguely after the Fellowship of the Ring, wandering through improbably spacious underground complexes excavated for no clear reason, practising aggravated assault and grand larceny on an omnium gatherum of exotic monsters. Any attempt at ‘realism’ is an advance on this in a way, and in another way it only shows up the silliness of the original conceit. The Palace of Versailles was built round a royal hunting-lodge, and takes much of its asymmetry and structural inconsequence from that. Well, D&D is like a palace built round one of those astoundingly tacky hot-dog stands in the shape of a giant hot dog. It is a brilliant testimony to the skill of the architects, but less creditable to their judgement. Unfortunately, the bookshops over the years have been crowded with Forgotten Realms tie-ins, Dragonlance books, and other subliterary properties taking after these; and still more with fantasies not overtly related to D&D worlds, but in which one is never out of earshot of the rattle of polyhedral dice. A good many of the more ridiculous entries in the Tough Guide can only be explained genetically. The treatment of horses in failed fantasy, considered in its own right, makes no sense whatever. But when you reflect on the battalions of fantasy writers whose knowledge of equitation is chiefly derived from the overland movement tables in gaming rulebooks, you can see how something of that sort was bound to come about. To this day there are still younger writers who slavishly imitate the absurd conventions derived from role-playing games, just as there are writers who imitate the obvious and showy bits of Tolkien without ever having read his works. Lowest of all are the chimaerical creations of the reckless genre-benders: the punk street elves, the samurai vampires, the Orcs in mirrorshades, who had their brief vogue in the 1990s, and mercifully failed to take over the whole ecology of Faërie. Suffice it to say that you cannot come up with a Good Idea for a fantasy story just by bunging together two tropes pulled out of a hat. Brian Aldiss says that his best ideas come from the intersection of two ideas, but not any two ideas: his ideas come in pairs of a particular kind, one ‘exotic‘, one ‘familiar’ (in his usage of the words). Stephen R. Donaldson reports the same phenomenon; so can I, for what that may be worth. But if you cross and re-cross exotic specimens without ever going back to the familiar for fresh genetic material, the resulting hybrid will almost always be sterile. It may not even survive being decanted from the test tube. Fantasy works by juxtaposing the strange and the familiar, so causing us to look at the familiar with fresh eyes. A landscape composed entirely of the bizarre is not fantasy but dada. I should, however, mention some of the many honourable exceptions. Guy Gavriel Kay does brilliant work with well-researched and well-drawn analogues of historical settings. Susanna Clarke has mined a vein all of her own, rich but narrow: part English folklore, part Regency novel. China Miéville and his fellow-travellers have built bizarre Victorian Gothic structures that owe little to the gingerbread castles of commercial fantasy, though I don’t care for the relentless nihilism that informs their work. And there have always been those like Poul Anderson, Mary Renault, Lloyd Alexander, and Evangeline Walton, who went back to the myths and legends of many cultures and produced their own strikingly original variations on those themes. Tolkien used to talk of putting real people and historical events into the Pot of Story until they became part of the Soup. Easily nine tenths of the fantasy books on the shelves are of no interest to me, because a slight glance through them reveals that nothing has been added to the Pot except the leftovers of yesterday’s meal. The Soup has become a factory product: Campbell’s Cream of Fantasy. All we need now is Andy Warhol to do the cover art.

Teaching Pegasus to crawl

The fourth essai in a series, following ‘Tyrion 13:4’. The original appeared on LiveJournal in May, 2006.
  As I said earlier, the choice of an appropriate prose style for a fantasy tale is a decision fraught with peril. We are tempted to choose a style that will convey the proper sense of wonder and adventure, and the air of old times and alien cultures; or would, if we only had the skill to pull it off. If we lack that skill, our stories will sound rather like an untrained singer trying to do the lead in Rigoletto — ambitious, but inept. And this will get us laughed at. It is safe to say that none of us enjoy being laughed at. So for perhaps forty years past, there has been a reaction in the opposite direction; and I am afraid that is an even worse error. The sensible reaction would be to learn how to produce the effects that we wanted; the real reaction, for far too many writers, has been simply to give up trying and settle for a bland quotidian style. Their stories are inept without being ambitious. And this is worse, for unless they are very lucky, it gets them ignored and forgotten. They may truly be hearing the horns of Elfland in their heads; but they cannot play that music. What they do play is a tuneless mishmash compounded of slovenly description, spin-doctoring, and rhetorical fog. Most of what I could say about this has been said with magnificent wit and force in ‘From Elfland to Poughkeepsie’, which I referred to earlier. The language of fantasy should be appropriate to fantasy; the speech of heroes should be heroic; the sound of the lame excuse should not be heard in that land. This is the law and the prophets: all else is gloss. But I should like to dwell upon the gloss awhile, as the fantasy field has changed enormously since ‘Poughkeepsie’ was published, and by no means all for the better. After some preliminary rumblings, the field of fantasy became a real commercial genre very suddenly. I have written about the Fantasy Big Bang of 1977, when the field as we know it emerged full-grown, swinging a sword and swashing a buckler, from the dog-eared notebooks of the late J. R. R. Tolkien. This is an exaggeration, but not a very gross one. Besides The Silmarillion, that year marked the appearance of three first novels and a film that permanently changed the commercial and critical climate in fantasy publishing. It also marked the official annexation of Elfland by Poughkeepsie, though the elves have been fighting a valiant rearguard action in the remoter parts of the country. In short, 1977 was when Fantasyland opened for business at its present location. And one of the signal qualities of Fantasyland is the utterly pedestrian tone of its prose. Some fantasy authors are simply inept with language, which would have disqualified them in the old days; others, alas, have quite deliberately stripped all the magic and grandeur out of their writing, coldly and deliberately, to make the newcomers from suburbia feel perfectly at home. In Northrop Frye’s taxonomy, as propounded in Anatomy of Criticism, the plots and characters of fantasy normally occupy the levels of Romance and High Mimesis, with occasional excursions into Myth. But from 1977 on, it became usual to write their stories, and still worse their dialogue, in the ordinary novelistic language of Low Mimesis and Irony. The strain is too much for the structure to bear. Where Aragorn and Gandalf, or Eddison’s four Lords of Demonland, spoke like heroes and behaved accordingly, too many of their successors come across as over-aged adolescents playing at knights and dragons. It is no calumny to say that the tone of the average commercial fantasy novel nowadays is not much above the tone of the average Dungeons & Dragons campaign. This is no accident, for D&D players are the most identifiable and exploitable demographic for fantasy publishers. I have played a lot of D&D in my time, as it happens, and what I observe time and again is players who Just Don’t Get It. They are ostensibly playing heroes, or at least quasi-heroic adventurers, but they give these characters a kind of life that betrays their utter unfamiliarity with either heroism or adventure. Some time ago, I dabbled in Third Edition D&D after an absence of many years. One party in which I participated was, or rather played, a group of irregulars in the service of a baron whose domain was beset by ogres, pirates, and assorted menaces from the omnium gatherum of the Monster Manual. The Dungeon Master was an ex-serviceman, familiar with the bureaucratic organization of modern armies, and utterly ignorant of the deeply personal and emotional loyalties that characterized the feudal system. Though we were, sword for sword, the most valuable retainers the baron had, we were never actually permitted to meet him, and seldom even saw the captain of his men-at-arms. We were dealt with summarily by a mere lieutenant, briefed, debriefed, conferred with in map-rooms, and generally treated with less courtesy and ceremony than a mediaeval king would have shown to the merest beggar. Kings touched commoners for the king’s evil, but our lord the baron did not touch commoners at all. Corporate Poughkeepsie, with its disgusting rudeness and indifference, and the layers of insulation built up to protect every person of importance or even self-importance from the importunities of the public, was in full possession of an ostensible fortress of Elfland. All this showed in our DM’s use of language, which I shall mercifully spare you; and the like attitude, with much less excuse, shows daily in the pages of modern commercial fantasy. At about this point in her argument, Ms. Le Guin gave some more or less random examples of dialogue in great works of fantasy, and one less great. I should like to offer some beginnings, since that is where the modern, groomed, workshopped author is taught to display his very finest wares:
When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton. Bilbo was very rich and very peculiar, and had been the wonder of the Shire for sixty years, ever since his remarkable disappearance and unexpected return. The riches he had brought back from his travels had now become a local legend, and it was popularly believed, whatever the old folk might say, that the Hill at Bag End was full of tunnels stuffed with treasure. And if that was not enough for fame, there was also his prolonged vigour to marvel at. Time wore on, but it seemed to have little effect on Mr. Baggins. At ninety he was much the same as at fifty. At ninety-nine they began to call him well-preserved; but unchanged would have been nearer the mark. There were some that shook their heads and thought this was too much of a good thing; it seemed unfair that anyone should possess (apparently) perpetual youth as well as (reputedly) inexhaustible wealth. ‘It will have to be paid for,’ they said. ‘It isn’t natural, and trouble will come of it!’
This is Tolkien’s version of Poughkeepsie, but already in the distance we can hear the horns of Elfland tuning for their first fanfare. The events described are entirely pedestrian, a birthday party and some small-town gossip, but they are fraught with significance. In a way, the entire plot of The Lord of the Rings is merely the rigorous and complete exploration of the ‘trouble’ that came from Bilbo’s ‘unfair’ lease of youth and riches. Note that Tolkien, whose literary influences were nearly all dead before 1900, is not at all afraid to begin with sixty years of backstory, pithily summarized, or to burden the reader with récit instead of a cinematic ‘teaser’. This is how such things were normally done in the days when literature was not deformed by the perceived need (and impossible desire) to compete with television on television’s home ground. I believe that we shall yet see a return of the novelistic novel, as opposed to the novel that tries to be a faithful replica of an unmade movie. But that is not, generally speaking, what we are getting at present:
The sun was already sinking into the deep green of the hills to the west of the valley, the red and gray-pink of its shadows touching the corners of the land, when Flick Ohmsford began his descent. The trail stretched out unevenly down the northern slope, winding through the huge boulders which studded the rugged terrain in massive clumps, disappearing into the thick forests of the lowlands to reappear in brief glimpses in small clearings and thinning spaces of woodland. Flick followed the familiar trail with his eyes as he trudged wearily along, his light pack slung loosely over one shoulder. His broad, windburned face bore a set, placid look, and only the wide gray eyes revealed the restless energy that burned beneath the calm exterior.
That is the opening paragraph of The Sword of Shannara, one of the Big Bang fantasies of 1977. Or rather, it is part of the opening paragraph, for we are treated to several more lines of visual description of the mysterious Mr. Ohmsford. Although Brooks’s first novel has been mercilessly derided as a mere pastiche of The Lord of the Rings, it is in fact something very much more (and less): a translation of LOTR from epic English into modern pedestrian novelese. It is the Fantasyland version of Tolkien. See how the story opens with an attempt at cinematic description. Everything is seen through the camera eye, beginning with a long establishing shot of the countryside, then closing in on the weary figure trudging through the landscape, ending with an extreme closeup focused tightly on the eyes. It is true that everything is seen as through a gel filter, darkly, for Brooks’s descriptive powers are not great, and if we form a vivid image of a countryside from these vague cues, it redounds to our credit and not his. ‘Touching the corners of the land’ is strictly meaningless, as nasty a bit of mock-poetic trumpery as you could hope to find among the sham beams of a Tudor pub in Peoria. The bit about the restless energy revealed by Flick’s wide gray eyes is simply a cheat, and a cheat of a particular kind that I should like to discuss in more detail. For this is the very essence of the Fantasyland style: to swaddle the reader in visual description, engaging her mind (I assume a female reader for convenience’ sake, as the writer I am dissecting is male) in the mild trance state most conducive to escapist reading, while communicating the real gist of the matter in windy abstractions. Nobody could possibly see restless energy burning in a man’s eyes as he trudges wearily down a hillside trail, even if there were somebody there to look for it. (There is not; Flick is alone at this point, except for the omnipresent camera eye.) What we have is a purely subjective and fanciful opinion about Flick’s character, passed off as physical description and therefore as fact. If a character formed such an impression of Flick’s eyes, the reader would know where she stands. She would know it was an opinion, no more reliable or well-informed than the person who made it, and from this she could learn not only about Flick but about his observer, and the relationship between them. As it stands, she learns only that Terry Brooks wants her to think of Flick as a dynamo of hidden energies, without showing him doing anything remotely energetic, let alone dynamic. Le Guin observed that a fantasy writer’s true quality shows best in his dialogue. It takes three full pages of Flick’s solo trudgery before we come to the first line of dialogue in the story:
The dark figure was almost on top of the Valeman before Flick sensed its presence looming up before him like a great, black stone which threatened to crush his smaller being. With a startled cry of fear he leaped aside, his pack falling to the path with a crash of metal, and his left hand whipped out the long, thin dagger at his waist. Even as he crouched to defend himself, he was stayed by a commanding arm raised above the figure before him and a strong, yet reassuring voice that spoke out quickly. ‘Wait a moment, friend. I’m no enemy and have no wish to harm you. I merely seek directions and would be grateful if you could show me the proper path.’
When two strangers cross paths in a wood, and one wishes to ask the other for directions, he does not customarily introduce himself by sneaking up within arm’s length and doing his best impression of a Black Rider. No indeed: accosting the other man from a distance and asking the way to Poughkeepsie is the generally accepted thing. It’s a fake scare, followed by fake reassurance. Again we have the cloudy attempts at description (‘great, black stone’), merely to give the author a plausible defence against the charge of ‘telling, not showing’. And again the meat of the matter, such as it is, is told and not shown, an opinion enforced by pure auctorial fiat. ‘A strong, yet reassuring voice’ could sound like anything. We are told that Flick was reassured by it, but we really have no idea why. By the bye, at this point, four pages into The Sword of Shannara, we have got considerably less distance with the story than Tolkien took us with the three short paragraphs that begin The Lord of the Rings. The Fantasyland writer is nothing if not verbose. Another of the Big Bang fantasies was Circle of Light, by Niel Hancock. It is difficult today to believe that Hancock’s overgrown fairytale was highly acclaimed in its day and sold over a million copies. It is very much a book of the Seventies, and you can hear deliberate echoes of Jonathan Livingston Seagull in the opening:
On the morning of his leaving, he erased all his tracks from that part of heaven, carefully stacked new star branches in a neat pile behind the entrance in the dark mouth of the universe, and sadly began the thousand-year trip down the side of the sky that closely resembled a large mountain. If you looked at it that way. If you didn’t, it might seem very much like walking out your own front door and down the steps.
It is an accomplishment, I suppose, to be both twee and portentous at the same time, but that combination is Hancock’s speciality. Our unnamed character is a Bear, the Bear in fact, a stock anthropomorphic fairytale Bear of the sort that has been familiar to everyone since Robert Southey seeded Elfland with three of the species; but he is also the reincarnation of an ancient hero. So we are told in the subsequent pages, though we never learn just what he did that was so heroic that it would still be remembered in the twilight of the ages. Again we see this curious tendency to show trivialities and baldly tell (or even omit) essentials. In this case, it is overlaid with a New Age mystical conceit, for the Bear’s journey is, of course, his reincarnation to fight the good fight once more. The tone is more juvenile than that of Shannara, but the cinematic pretensions and windy vagueness are much the same. Now, I do not mean to give the impression that a cinematic, novelistic technique (derived, by the way, from Hemingway’s successful experiment referred to earlier) is always inappropriate for fantasy. Special circumstances can justify it, as in the third of the Big Bang novels:
She came out of the store just in time to see her young son playing on the sidewalk directly in the path of the gray, gaunt man who strode down the center of the walk like a mechanical derelict. For an instant, her heart quailed. Then she jumped forward, gripped her son by the arm, snatched him out of harm’s way. The man went by without turning his head. As his back moved away from her, she hissed at it, “Go away! Get out of here! You ought to be ashamed!” Thomas Covenant’s stride went on, as unfaltering as clockwork that had been wound to the hilt for just this purpose. But to himself he responded, Ashamed? Ashamed? His face contorted in a wild grimace. Beware! Outcast unclean!
Stephen R. Donaldson, by his own admission, is a notorious over-writer, but there are no wasted words here. Nothing is spent on the setting, beyond the mention of the store and sidewalk; we recognize this as a street zoned commercial, part of our own world. We have immediate action, immediate conflict, and are faced at once with an urgent question. Why is Thomas Covenant subjected to such execration merely for walking down the street? What ought he to be ashamed of? Just as Bilbo’s neighbours adumbrated the whole plot of LOTR in a sneering line of dialogue, the woman from the store (whom we never see again) sets up the essential conflict that drives The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. It is a powerful and engaging opening, though Covenant soon squanders the capital of sympathy that his author laid in for him. The action is described cinematically, if you like, but it is action and not impressionistic claptrap about the countryside. Like Tolkien, unlike Brooks and Hancock, Donaldson puts his subjective judgements where they properly belong, in the minds and mouths of characters who are capable of making those judgements inside the story. The narrator does not intrude at all. But this exception, after all, works because Thomas Covenant really is a man from Poughkeepsie, or somewhere distressingly like it. The apparatus of the twentieth-century novel is appropriate to his tale, because he is a twentieth-century man, and his tale is about the head-on collision between Elfland and Poughkeepsie. Donaldson has described the Covenant books as a kind of inverse of Idylls of the King. Tennyson’s masterpiece is the tale of how King Arthur was destroyed by a world full of petty and self-seeking men; Donaldson’s debut is about a petty and self-seeking man who finds redemption in a world full of King Arthurs. The tone is often ironic, in Frye’s usage of the term, because Covenant is an ironic hero. He speaks fluent Poughkeepsie, and the characters of the Land to which he is transported speak a highly idiosyncratic dialect pregnant with the unmistakable tones of Elfland. One more example, and I shall leave the matter alone. This is not from the Big Bang, but from the monstrously long Fantasyland novel that fully assimilated and imitated all its predecessors. All the yardwork and busywork, all the Extruded Book Product from the Old Baloney Factory, is summed up in this one encyclopaedic tale, and the beginning strikes the note with uncanny accuracy:
The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning. Born below the ever cloud-capped peaks that gave the mountains their name, the wind blew east, out across the Sand Hills, once the shore of a great ocean, before the Breaking of the World. Down it flailed into the Two Rivers, into the tangled forest called the Westwood, and beat at two men walking with a cart and horse down the rock-strewn track called the Quarry Road. For all that spring should have come a good month since, the wind carried an icy chill as if it would rather bear snow. Gusts plastered Rand al’Thor’s cloak to his back, whipped the earth-colored wool around his legs, then streamed it out behind him. He wished his coat were heavier, or that he had worn an extra shirt. Half the time when he tried to tug the cloak back around him it caught on the quiver swinging at his hip. Trying to hold the cloak one-handed did not do much good anyway; he had his bow in the other, an arrow nocked and ready to draw.
This is Fantasyland in a nutshell. We have the cod philosophizing of Hancock, perhaps improved upon, certainly intensified, by the Liberal Application of Capital Letters. We have the blatant cribs from Tolkien, the Third Age and the Misty Mountains. We have a panoramic camera shot of some very unsatisfactory and out-of-focus scenery, the burden of which is simply the screenwriter’s ‘Exterior Fantasyland, day’. We do not yet, it is true, have any auctorial opinions about Rand al’Thor fobbed off on us as physical description, but we may confidently guess that we will not be deprived of that amenity for long. Robert Jordan has rounded up all the usual suspects, and they all do exactly the Poughkeepsian duty that every right-thinking reader has learnt to expect. And he has done it without getting us any distance at all with the story. It takes him a full page to tell us that Rand’s cloak is flapping in the wind. That may not be good writing, but at least it is an authentic sample of the long, slow slog to come. If nothing else, we can praise Jordan for truth in advertising. He has not only clipped Pegasus’ wings, but broken his legs as well, and will spend the next ten thousand pages teaching him to crawl. It would be so unacceptably Elflandish to let him soar.

Gwladys and the Ghraem’lan

This essai follows ‘Quakers in Spain’, and like it, is a revised and expanded version of a piece I wrote and put up on LiveJournal in May, 2006.
  If prose style in fantasy is fraught with peril, naming is a plain old-fashioned minefield. Fantasy writers have a tendency to throw together names from any and all sources that strike their fancy, without thinking how such disparate words came to be in the same language together, or even in the same world. Writers who are very good at other aspects of their craft can still inexplicably fall down in this one area. I am sorry to make a bad example of my friend Jonathan Moeller, but when I first began to read his Demonsouled series, and the first two characters I met were called Mazael and Gerald, I was thrown out of the story long enough to cry aloud to the unheeding night: ‘Mazael is good; Mazael is right and proper. There ought to be a fantasy hero named Mazael, and now, thank God, there is one. But why on earth is he hanging out with someone whose name is a foreign monstrosity like Gerald?’ In Le Guin’s terms, Mazael is from Elfland and Gerald is from Poughkeepsie, and there needs to be some explanation of how they ever came to meet. There are two bad ways of coming up with fantasy names; or rather, of the many bad ways that one could devise, two are much more popular than the rest. One is to name people and places with the kind of jumble one might get by rolling Perquackey dice. This will do for a joke, or for a private diversion like a role-playing game: a friend of mine once did yeoman service with a character unfortunately named Hogheospox. But it is unkind to inflict such names on the reading public; especially your public. The opposite error is the perfectly mundane name with a coat of bad paint. I am referring to the practice, which perhaps originated in cheesy Gothic romances but is most firmly established in bad fantasy, of taking familiar or (God help us) transiently fashionable names, changing a couple of letters, sticking in an apostrophe or two, and passing them off as something wild and exotic. It never works. You cannot pass off pinchbeck as fairy-gold, especially to the fairies. Women writers seem especially prone to this fault — Anne McCaffrey and Katharine Kurtz, with their hordes of imitators, come quickest to mind — which is not surprising, since this is also one of the stock methods of coming up with ‘different’ first names for girl children. P.G. Wodehouse hit it exactly in ‘The Spot of Art’:
‘You sit there and tell me you haven’t enough sense to steer clear of a girl who calls herself Gwladys? Listen, Bertie,’ said Aunt Dahlia earnestly, ‘I’m an older woman than you are — well, you know what I mean — and I can tell you a thing or two. And one of them is that no good can come of association with anything labelled Gwladys or Ysobel or Ethyl or Mabelle or Kathryn. But particularly Gwladys.’
Of course, there are male offenders as well, and they make up in volume of prose whatever they lack in numbers. Robert Jordan’s names are cringingly awful. Take Rand al’Thor: evidently the name of a Dutchman who was named after a Norse god by Arabs, if internal evidence is anything to go by. Trollocs is a bad enough word, reminding one irresistibly of trollops as well as troll-orcs, but nothing compared to the ghastly names of their tribes: Ahf’frait, Al’ghol, Bhan’sheen, Dha’vol, Dhai’mon, Dhjin’nen, Ghar’ghael, Ghob’hlin, Gho’hlem, Ghraem’lan, Ko’bal, Kno’mon. A man who can perpetrate a travesty like that, and deliberately put it into print, should not have the freedom of the streets. He embarrasses the human race by ass’hoh’shieh’shun. But let us give this dha’vol his dh’ue. Jordan may be the worst offender in bulk, but it is Terry Brooks who holds the record for the worst single name ever used in a fantasy novel: the unforgettable Allanon. (I keep wondering when his sidekick Allateen will show up.) Gary Gygax’s city of Stoink is a dismally close second. George R. R. Martin, though a much better writer than Brooks or Jordan, comes perilously close to the Gwladys standard here and there in A Song of Ice and Fire. Some of his names (Tyrion, Daenerys, Arya) are quite effective, if over-freighted with the letter Y. But they sort very ill with the not-quite-English names like Eddard and Samwell, and those in turn clash just perceptibly with straight English names like Robert and Jon. One gets the feeling that Martin knows what he is trying to do, but hasn’t a sufficiently developed ear to tell when he has done it. His names go in and out of tune; or rather, they seem to be playing about three different tunes at once, and the tunes don’t harmonize. In all of sf and fantasy, there have been three authors who perfectly mastered the delicate art of nomenclature: Tolkien, Cordwainer Smith, and Mervyn Peake. Tolkien, of course, worked for decades at his invented languages, and the names he coined in those languages are both euphonious (unless he intended them not to be, like ‘lovely Lugbúrz’) and authentic. But he was also deeply versed in English names, both of people and places, a study that would well reward many writers who do not trouble themselves to undertake it. As for Smith and Peake, between them they cornered the market in Gothic bizarreries, which happened to perfectly suit the kinds of stories they wanted to tell. It is perfectly correct that Lord Jestocost of the Instrumentality should keep a cat-descended mistress called C’Mell. The C stands for Cat, you see; it is a natural contraction, like the one you occasionally used to see for Scottish names — MacLeod reduced to M’Leod, as it is in one of Kipling’s stories. What’s more, Smith actually unbends far enough to explain this. The average perpetrator of Aggravated Apostrophe couldn’t explain why she sticks pothooks in the middle of words, not to save her life, her soul, and her poetic licence. Or at any rate, she doesn’t bother. Likewise, it is only right and just that the nemesis of Sepulchrave Groan, Earl of Gormenghast, should be called Steerpike, and that he should apprentice for a time under an old medico by the name of Prunesquallor. (It is still more right and just that the medico should have a ghastly sister named Irma Prunesquallor.) These names are English, or something near it, but so cleanly transported out of the normal conventions of English naming that they take on some of the glamour of names like Aragorn and Lúthien. And unlike Tolkien’s names, it is possible to work out something of their meanings, or at least associations, without an unobtainable dictionary of an imaginary language. This is a great timesaver. An honourable mention — I owe this observation to my friend John C. Wright — should go to David Lindsay, for some of the names in his infinitely strange novel, Voyage to Arcturus. Despite the name and the ostensible setting, this book really belongs to the genre of fictionalized philosophical declamations, like Atlas Shrugged, rather than science fiction or fantasy as such; which is one of the reasons why it has gone out of vogue, and (frequently) out of print. But Lindsay must have been a considerable influence on Smith and Peake, with his protagonist Maskull, and characters with names like Krag and Nightspore. These names are not all euphonious and certainly not all of one linguistic type, but they are striking and evocative, and that makes up for some of their deficiencies. Lindsay’s onomastic triumphs, known to thousands who have never read any of his books, are jale and ulfire, the two primary colours that one sees in the Arcturian sunlight, but never on earth. Those names are so suggestive that I can almost imagine what they look like. Jale, to me, suggests a colour between red and green that is nevertheless not yellow; pale like milky jade (for all I know, the name may be a portmanteau of jade and pale), but as bright and vivid as any colour you can see through a prism. (I have read that women with the recessive gene for colour-blindness sometimes report seeing such a red-green colour, but I don’t know what it looks like to them.) Ulfire suggests a torridly brilliant colour somewhere beyond violet, which would affect the human eye somewhat like the purplish-white of the very hottest lightning. Lindsay describes ulfire as ‘wild and painful’, and jale as ‘dreamlike, feverish, and voluptuous’. I can well imagine those descriptions fitting with colours of the sort I have described, though I came up with those impressions from the words alone, without ever having read any part of the book. The names are just that magnificently evocative. Each method has much to recommend it, but for a writer in a hurry, with middling linguistic gifts, I would recommend leaning towards the Smith-Peake school. Inventing languages, like writing archaic English (or, as Le Guin says, bicycling and computer programming), is one of those things you have got to know how to do before you can do it. Few fantasy writers are inclined to take this advice, alas; and so the ghraem’lans, I fear, will be with us for a long time to come.

Quakers in Spain

I wrote part of this essai in response to an Internet meme, ‘Ten things I hate in a book’, which I got from Glenda Larke by way of Sherwood Smith and others. It first appeared on LiveJournal in May, 2006. I have had requests for this material since; but the first few parts of the series are, in my maturer judgement, sadly inadequate, for I only gradually relaxed and began to speak my mind at full length as I went on. Here it is, updated, extended, and (I hope) brought into better harmony with the whole.
  Prose style is an endless source trouble for writers in the imaginative genres, and fantasy above all. There is always the temptation to write in an entirely modern, journalistic style. Such a style is like an Interstate highway in America: smooth, fast, easy to travel, with no dangerous or distracting bumps. The drawback is that you can drive from coast to coast without ever really seeing anything but the road itself. Such styles and such roads are good for getting to your destination in a hurry. But experienced tourists, and experienced readers, find it more fun to take the scenic route. If you are a writer of some ambition, then, you will try to build a scenic route with your prose. Ursula K. Le Guin’s superb essay, ‘From Elfland to Poughkeepsie,’ is all about this difficult art. It has every virtue, alas, except that of being in print. It used to be collected in The Language of the Night, which I strongly recommend, if you can manage to buy, beg, or borrow a copy. If not, you and I will have to worry along together the best we can. As Le Guin says, what you want in imaginative writing, and in fantasy particularly, is distancing from the ordinary. The scenic route had better show the reader some scenery that she will not see in her daily commute. In fantasy, part of this effect is inherent in the subject-matter. A story about dragons is not likely to be mistaken for the morning newspaper. But if you want to achieve the best effects, if you really want to sweep the reader off her feet and carry her into your imagined world, you need a style to match the substance. You will want to describe your freshly imagined world with fresh and imaginative language, or else you may put your reader to sleep with the very story that is meant to awaken her sense of wonder.   How, then, do you build a scenic route out of words? It is an easy trick to come up with a stilted and unnatural way of telling a story; and all you will achieve by it is to sound stilted and unnatural. The real trick is to come up with a style that is not quite like ordinary language: different enough to convey that this is another world, another culture, but ordinary enough that it does not get in the way of comprehension. The same technique has often been used to portray other countries and cultures in the real world; particularly, to give the flavour of a foreign language, with its own set of idioms and cultural assumptions, without actually writing in a foreign language. Ernest Hemingway was an early master of this technique, but also an early failure; oddly enough, his failures came after his successes. While still in his twenties, he perfected an entirely new narrative prose style, an etiolated strain of which has become the default ‘transparent’ style of the modern American novelist. Of all the bizarre experimental styles of the 1920s, from Joyce’s glossolalia to Stein’s commaphobia, Hemingway’s was the only experiment that really succeeded. It doesn’t matter; he paid the rent for them all. Unfortunately, he soon degenerated into self-parody. A man’s wit may outlive his wits, in which case he will retain the ability to write arch imitations of his best work long after time and tide and whiskey have washed away the rest of his talents. Alas, Hemingway’s judgement went the way of his skill, for the style he chose to imitate in his parodic senescence was not the style of the successful experiment. It was the laboured and mannered style of For Whom the Bell Tolls, the purpose of which is to make you think that the book has been translated from Spanish with painful literalness. So he peppered his prose with irrelevant Spanish palabras that you are expected to know the meaning of, not because they have no English equivalents, but because, you know, people speaking Spanish occasionally throw in a really really Spanish word just to remind you that they are not speaking English or Cantonese. He also makes much use of Spanish idioms translated word for word, no import how unnaturally the sentence puts itself in consequence. He makes sure, once in a while, after giving you a phrase in English, to repeat himself in Spanish, y relanzarse en castellano. And he uses thou and thee with wild inconsistency, often forgetting and settling for you, and just as often using thee as the nominative case — an error that he probably picked up from the Quakers. Quakers in Spain, forsooth! There are words in Spanish for people who do this kind of thing, and we do not have such words in English, but I will not instruct you in obscenity by repeating them here. Sinverguenza is one of the milder ones. The effect of all this is to persuade you that the book you are reading was written by an idiot savant who is intimately acquainted with foreign idioms, but does not know how to form English contractions. In a short book, like The Old Man and the Sea, it is just tolerable, but at greater length, or done inexpertly by other hands, it descends rapidly into schtick. There is a place for this technique, but not much of one. It is appropriate to dialogue, not récit, and at that, to the speech of characters who are either represented as speaking a foreign language (to the narrator, that is), or as foreigners trying to speak the narrator’s language with imperfect success. A little goes a long way. It is particularly unsuitable for long passages when the subtextual ‘foreign’ language is itself fictitious. Tolkien skirted the bounds with his gobbets of undigested Elvish, but at least his Elves, when speaking English, spoke English (a peculiarly archaic and cadenced English, which suited them, and sorted well with the things they had to say) and not a tortured attempt at Elf-glish.   A variation on this is the faux archaism one finds all too often in fantasy. Archaic words and turns of speech can create that distance from the ordinary; but ‘like bicycling and computer programming’, as Le Guin says, you have to know how to do it. An archaic style has to be built from the ground up; and since nobody speaks archaic literary English nowadays, it has to be built up from encyclopaedic reading. Two twentieth-century fantasy writers did this perfectly: E. R. Eddison and Lord Dunsany. If you want to see how they did it, and what effects can be achieved in setting the tone for a fantasy by language alone, I recommend that you read Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros and Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter. (I rejoice to report that Ouroboros is now available in an ebook edition for just one U.S. dollar.) But if you don’t do the trick perfectly, you risk losing the knowledgeable reader; and if you try to fake it, you might as well not do it at all. Bad archaism takes us straight to that other fantasy world (they call it Hollywood), where Tony Curtis made himself a laughingstock by saying in a thick Bronx accent, ‘Yonder lies de castle of my fodda.’ In fact, Curtis never said any such thing; the story originated with Debbie Reynolds, who was misquoting one of his lines from Son of Ali Baba, with the full and malicious intention, I am afraid, of making him look like a fool. But the butchered version of the line became instantly famous, and still gets a knowing snigger from fantasy fans, and from people who think they are film buffs. Don’t set yourself up to be the butt of such a joke. Unlike Tony Curtis, you might actually deserve it. If you insist on rejecting this excellent advice, you can fadge up your ‘archaic’ dialogue the way David Eddings did in The Belgariad. Just take a completely modern, colloquial, slovenly speaking style, and do a global search-and-replace to swap in three or four archaic-sounding words. The worst example I have ever seen was on a store-front sign, advertising ‘Ye Olde Video Shoppe’ — the perfect place for all those people who wanted to rent authentic 16th-century films. Eddings’ technique was not much better. This is a random, but not unrepresentative, sample from Castle of Wizardry:
“Food hath been prepared, your Majesty,” Mandorallen assured him. “Our Asturian brothers have provided goodly numbers of the king’s deer — doubtless obtained lawfully — though I chose not to investigate that too closely.”
It is not the language of a hero, even a minor hero, but of a cop on the take in a 1970s TV drama. Change hath back into has, and goodly numbers back into a lot or plenty, and doubtless back into no doubt, and you have expunged every trace of archaic English. As Le Guin says, ‘You can’t clip Pegasus’ wings that easily — not if he has wings.’ Mandorallen’s dialogue is simply a fake, a cheap knockoff ordered straight from Ye Olde Baloney Factory. So what’s wrong with baloney? In this case, it wastes words, and it does nothing to convey the idea that Mandorallen comes from a different culture. If you are going to make people talk strangely in a book, whether they are Spaniards in For Whom the Bell Tolls or Arendish knights in a cheapjack epic fantasy, there ought to be a cultural reason for them to do it. The cultural value of archaic English was described admirably by J. R. R. Tolkien:
Real archaic English is far more terse than modern; also many of the things said could not be said in our slack and often frivolous idiom.
Mandorallen has the slack and frivolous modern idiom, with just enough archaic words sprinkled in to make it ludicrous. But then, Mandorallen himself is ludicrous, and is probably meant to be. Eddings dresses him up in the trappings of European chivalry, without understanding them in the slightest. They are either used as window-dressing, or brought in to make the characters look like fools. Everybody is summarily judged by the mores of middle-class America circa 1980, and everybody is found guilty, except the ingenue hero and his utterly spoilt love interest; those two never come into conflict with modern American culture, because they have as nearly as possible no culture at all. In Eddings’ world, noblemen like Mandorallen spout highfalutin language about courtesy and courage and knightly duty, while starving their peasants to death and grinding their faces in the dust. Why? Because that’s just what noblemen do: ask any Connecticut Yankee. The idea that chivalry was real, that there were men who tried to live up to the highfalutin sentiments, is not even entertained as a falsehood. To make doubly sure that his character will seem a complete blockhead, Eddings puts him in a country whose borders are fixed by the gods. There have been no wars except civil wars, no invasions, no reason to have a caste of mounted warriors or a feudal society, for the last five hundred years. Mandorallen’s old-fashioned ideals and old-fashioned language are put in the story for no better reason than to make him ridiculous. And that is a poor reason to put anything in a story, unless the story is a deliberate farce. The Belgariad is only an accidental farce. But I shall have more to say about that later.
Continued in ‘Gwladys and the Ghraem’lan’.

1977: Hero and fool

Review: The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, by Stephen R. Donaldson
J. R. R. Tolkien perfectly summed up the critical reaction to his fiction in a clerihew:
The Lord of the Rings is one of those things: if you like you do: if you don’t, then you boo!
You could say the same for the most ambitious of his early imitators, Stephen R. Donaldson, and his first Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. Readers and critics are just as divided in their opinions of this trilogy as of Tolkien’s masterwork, though the division is on wholly different lines. Tolkien is dismissed out of hand by critics who sneer at fantasy in general, loathed by the Moorcock-Miéville school of fantasy nihilists, and of course praised to the skies by a third group. The dispute about Donaldson cuts right across these divisions, and is unusually acrimonious even by the standards of the genre ghetto. By a curious kind of foresight, one of Donaldson’s own verses aptly describes the critical reaction to his work:
And he who wields white wild magic gold is a paradox— for he is everything and nothing, hero and fool, potent, helpless— and with the one word of truth or treachery, he will save or damn the Earth because he is mad and sane, cold and passionate, lost and found.
It is, I think, worth taking a moment to examine the battle lines, for that may tell us something about the fantasy field itself as well as Donaldson’s place in it. Donaldson began writing the Thomas Covenant books with a specific purpose in mind, a polemical purpose, almost a political purpose. Biographical details are of unusual importance here. He was born in 1947, in the first wave of the Baby Boom. His parents were Presbyterian missionaries, his father a surgeon who worked extensively with lepers in India. The family moved there when Stephen was three and stayed there thirteen years; he grew up in a sort of missionary enclave, carefully isolated from the dangerous splendour and squalor of pagan Hindustan. He grew up, in effect, between two fantasy worlds, the exotic fairyland of India and the sombre phantasmagoria of Calvinist theology. Donaldson has never said anything publicly about his own religious beliefs, if any, except that he found his parents’ Calvinism and strict Biblical literalism impossible to accept; but his work shows an ethic built firmly upon the rock of Protestant dogma. Good is Good and Evil is Evil, Man is fallen but God is far away: that is a note that his work strikes again and again. From this knife’s edge between wild visions he was transported to a third fantasy world, the smugly affluent America of the middle 1960s. He imbibed liberalism and skepticism, majored in English, became a conscientious objector, and was at Kent State, working on his M.A. in English, when the National Guard opened fire. But also, like many of his contemporaries, he discovered and fell in love with The Lord of the Rings. In those days, that was a dangerous thing for an English major to do; for a graduate student, almost unheard-of. Modernism still ruled American literature with a chromium-steel hand. That age above all others was hag-ridden by what C. S. Lewis (in the persona of Screwtape) mockingly called ‘the Historical Point of View’:
When a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase in the writer’s development, or in the general history of thought, it illustrates, and how it affected later writers, and how often it has been misunderstood (especially by the learned man’s own colleagues), and what the general course of criticism on it has been for the last ten years, and what is the ‘present state of the question’. To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge . . . would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded.
The antipathy of Donaldson’s professors to Tolkien was immediate and complete, and it put Donaldson in a difficult, almost untenable position. With one side of his mind he had to be a good Modernist, and sneer at the tall tales of the ancients as the work of childish primitives; but with the other he was keenly and imaginatively alive to the power of those ancient tales and their modern successors. Not only Tolkien but Wagner moved him with tectonic force. In later life he would write a sprawling five-volume novel, The Gap, as a space-operatic homage to Wagner’s Ring cycle. But for now he felt the overriding need to answer his professors (and most of his fellow students) on their own ground. Not indeed by academic argument, for that would have been fruitless and might well have cost him his M.A., but by example. So he began to write a very curious fantasy story, about a man who stubbornly refuses to believe in fairy-tales even when he is plunged into one himself. Harking back to his father’s work, he made his protagonist a leper, and with an eye on Kent State he made him a bestselling author, a Modernist and realist, facile rather than deep. The one quality crushed out the other: the Modernist imagination was no match for the stringent demands of Hansen’s disease, which forced this man, Thomas Covenant, to focus all his wits and energies on the daily struggle for survival. Tuberculoid leprosy damages peripheral nerves and makes the extremities numb; a small cut or contusion, unfelt and therefore neglected, can lead to infection and gangrene, and even bruises can be dangerous. It was thus only natural that Covenant, transported from his ‘real’ life to the fantasy world called ‘the Land’, should cling desperately to the medical disciplines that kept him alive, and strive to deny the exotic temptations of an environment instinct with magic and miracle. Now this is a very different method from Tolkien’s, and many misunderstandings have arisen among those who confuse the two. Tolkien’s was a mythopoeic fantasy, a direct successor to Beowulf and the Kalevala, the Eddas and sagas, informed indeed by his own experience of modern life, but not primarily intended as a commentary upon it. One of his first stories, The Fall of Gondolin, was written while he was on sick-leave from the trenches of the Great War; and though it is the story of a battle, the battle of Gondolin is as remote from the Battle of the Somme as a blooded warhorse is from a military railway. Gondolin is written in an extremely archaic style, heavily reminiscent of Malory. The young Tolkien takes great and sometimes clumsy pains to emphasize the glory and chivalry of epic warfare, where fate turns on the skill and courage of heroes and not on the drill of divisions and the supply of artillery shells. This is, if you like, a reaction against the squalid and seemingly pointless fighting Tolkien had actually seen; but it is neither an allegory nor a satire of it. It is simply an escape, or rather, a quest: a desperate attempt to rediscover, in the practices of a simpler and nobler age, the need and cause of courage, the spirit that makes men willing to fight and die defending their homes and loved ones. Donaldson, too, was susceptible to this appeal. Although a conscientious objector and in some measure a pacifist, he recognized that even a hopeless war may be preferable to mere surrender. In The Illearth War Hile Troy, another man from Covenant’s ‘real’ world, compares his former work at the Pentagon with his new role as the commander of the Land’s army, the Warward:
‘I’m useful to something worth being useful to. The issues at stake in this war are the only ones I’ve ever seen worth fighting for. The life of the Land is beautiful. It deserves preservation. For once, I can do some good. Instead of spending my time on troop deployment, first- and second-strike capabilities, superready status, demoralization parameters, nuclear induction of lethal genetic events, I can help defend against a genuine evil. The world we came from — the “real” world hasn’t got such clear colors, no blue and black and green and red, “ebon ichor incarnadine viridian.” Gray is the color of “reality.”’
This is a fine example of the likeness and difference between Tolkien and Donaldson. It is the very likeness that points up the difference: the difference is that the likeness is made explicit. In all Tolkien’s descriptions of battles, at Helm’s Deep and the Pelennor Fields and the rest, there is no reference to modern modes of warfare; the contrast and the criticism are mute and implicit. A man of Malory’s time could read Tolkien with understanding and recognition, though some of the vocabulary would be strange to him. But Hile Troy is utterly modern, and can only be understood by one with a knowledge of the modern world. Incidentally, Donaldson has earned a lot of disrespect for his vocabulary, which ranges from the rococo to the bizarre. ‘Ebon ichor incarnadine viridian’ is a particularly concentrated example. Ursula K. Le Guin has called the word ichor ‘the infallible touchstone of the seventh-rate’, which ‘bores the bejesus out of everybody’. It is certainly not one of Donaldson’s more felicitous word-choices. The prose of the Covenant books is liberally strewn with such questionable jewels as coigned, orieled, threnody, theurgy, unhermeneuticable (!), sibilating, chrysoprastic, irenic, and the ever-popular roynish. This last word is used as a sort of Homeric epithet to describe the ur-viles, the ‘black roynish’ kindred of the Demondim-spawn. Ur-viles are one of Donaldson’s more memorable and original inventions, eyeless, wizardly, sinister, and thoroughly inscrutable. But I never could discover what was particularly roynish about them; indeed, from Donaldson’s usage of the word, I could never figure out what roynish meant at all. The OED gives it as a variant of roinish, defined thus: ‘Covered with scale or scurf; scabby, scurvy, coarse, mean, paltry, base.’ The smooth skins and austerely evil magics of the ur-viles do not seem to suit the word well. Donaldson also has a strange tendency to use clench as every part of speech under the sun. To my knowledge he has not yet used it as an interjection or a definite article, but one must not set arbitrary limits to his genius. And he gives a strange sort of value to imprecise, which is usually a Donaldsonian understatement for ‘utterly wrong or bogus’. These peculiarities give his prose somewhat of the aspect of a magpie’s nest, cluttered with bright shiny objects of unknown or forgotten use. This is not an unfair criticism; he has said himself that he keeps lists of rare words encountered in his reading, and does not always look them up in a dictionary before attempting to use them. In consequence his usages of such words are, in his own personal acceptation of the term, ‘imprecise’. When I first read the Covenant books at fourteen, I merely skipped over the words I did not know, or tried to interpret them from context. This is probably the best way to approach Donaldson’s prose; those who have a dictionary at their elbow as they read are likely to get rather angry. On the other hand, it must be said that Donaldson is capable of wonderfully lyrical passages, relying heavily on the sound of words, even when their meaning sheds no light on his intent. He is a very considerable prose poet, a quality not much appreciated by most modern readers. Like Tolkien, he decks his fiction with verses, though as a rule of a very much lower quality; he descends to vers libre and doggerel, as Tolkien never did. A little later he developed some real facility with formal and metrical verse. Two verses in particular from the later Covenant books, ‘My heart has rooms that sigh with dust’ and ‘Let those who sail the Sea bow down’, have some claim to be called poetry even by snobs. But let us leave Donaldson’s prose and return to his Method. Tom Shippey has put his finger on the cardinal difference between Tolkien and the Modernists:
Tolkien’s approach to the ideas or the devices accepted as modernist is radically different because they are on principle not literary. He used ‘mythical method’ not because it was an interesting method but because he believed that the myths were true. . . . He experimented with language not to see what interesting effects could be produced but because he thought all forms of human language were already an experiment.
In this, Donaldson is very much on the Modernist side. His characters and situations do not exist for their own sake but because they are effective as symbols. Here, in the ‘Gradual Interview’ on his website, he describes a method antithetical to Tolkien’s:
My general view of the kind of fantasy I write is that it's a specialized form of psychodrama. Putting the issue as simply as I can: the story is a human mind turned inside out, and all of the internal forces which drive that mind are dramatized as if they were external characters, places, and events. This is easier to see in the first ‘Chronicles’ because the story is simpler: the Land and everyone in it is an external manifestation of Covenant’s internal journey/struggle. Everything is more complex in ‘The Second Chronicles’ because there are two minds being turned inside out. Which means that there are actually three stories at work: Covenant’s, Linden’s, and the interaction between the two.
With the two words ‘as if’, Donaldson rejects the genuine epic; and when you analyse what remains, it all comes down to that old friend of the literati, the pathetic fallacy. He writes of battles fought with swords and spears (and wizards’ staffs) because that is an interesting way to comment on the spiritual battle in the hero’s mind. He makes that hero a leper because he wants to point out how many of us suffer from a leprosy of the soul. If you strip away the voluptuous flesh of the Land and expose the bare bones of the plot, you will find that Covenant is satirical and symbolic and bitingly topical. None of these things are true of Tolkien’s major works. You cannot strip away the voluptuous flesh of Middle-earth to expose the bones of the plot, because the bones themselves are Middle-earth. As Tolkien said in a letter to a reader: ‘The story is really a story of what happened in B.C. year X, and it just happened to people who were like that!’ With Donaldson one never forgets that the people to whom the story ‘just happened’ are carefully constructed to be ‘like that’ in the service of his theme. It is the tradition not of Beowulf and the Eddas but of Utopia and Gulliver’s Travels. Some of Donaldson’s most vociferous critics have simply missed this aspect of his work. They accuse him of aping Tolkien, and then lambaste him for doing it badly. Such critics nearly always begin with the unfortunate fact that both Donaldson’s hero and Tolkien’s happen to have a magic ring. Some of them never get any further than that: as if Tolkien were the inventor of magic rings, and the one in Frodo’s pocket was the ur-Ring from which all others were copied. Of course earlier critics in the same vapid tradition accused Tolkien of plagiarizing the ur-Ring of Wagner. But in fact magic rings go back to very early tradition; you will find them in Norse sagas and Arabian folktales. What matters, or ought to matter, is the use that each author makes of this primordial device. The fundamental difference between Tolkien and Donaldson appears precisely here, where critics are apt to see only a superficial resemblance. Tolkien’s Ring is a ring because, as everybody knows, rings are often magical, or magic things are often ring-shaped. Bilbo put his hand on it in the dark on his way to Gollum’s cave, and it was only gradually that either he or his creator came to realize its power and its peril. Indeed, in the first edition of The Hobbit Gollum actually offered to wager the Ring against Bilbo’s life, a thing that would have been utterly impossible to the enslaved and addicted Gollum of The Lord of the Rings. The Ring, like the story of Middle-earth, ‘grew in the telling’. Donaldson’s ring is a ring because it embodies all kinds of symbolism significant both in Covenant’s ‘real’ world and in the Land. The essence of Donaldson’s method is to hypostatize his hero’s hopes, fears, and ‘inner demons’ in more or less allegorical form. He has said explicitly that Lord Foul the Despiser ‘is’ a facet of Covenant’s personality, his own death-wish or self-hatred reified and personalized. This is a weak and inadequate approach to the heady stuff of fantasy, which demands to be treated as real, not merely as if it were real; and Lord Foul himself knows it better than the author. To step out of chronological bounds, in White Gold Wielder (not published till 1983) Foul makes short work of that argument:
‘We aren’t enemies. That’s just another lie. . . . You’re just another part of me. Just one side of what it means to be human. The side that hates lepers. The poisonous side.’ His certainty did not waver at all. ‘We are one.’ His assertion made Linden gape at what he had become. But it only drew another laugh from the Despiser — a short, gruff bark of dismissal. ‘Do not seek to bandy truth and falsehood with me,’ he replied. ‘You are too inane for the task. Lies would better serve the trivial yearning which you style love. The truth damns you here. For three and a half millennia I have mustered my will against the Earth in your absence, groveler. I am the truth. And I have no use for the sophistry of your Unbelief.’
Sophistry is a very good word for it; but I shall return to that later. For now let us return to Covenant’s ring. Those who call the Covenant books a mere imitation of Tolkien always begin by equating Covenant’s ring with the One Ring. I have previously pointed out how most of the characters and incidents in The Sword of Shannara correspond simply and exactly to characters and incidents in The Lord of the Rings: Shea Ohmsford = Frodo, Allanon = Gandalf, Orl Fane = Gollum, and so on; and of course the Sword of Shannara itself = the One Ring, though the object is to recover rather than destroy it. Brooks follows Tolkien’s template down to quite small details. Now some have tried to draw a similar list of equivalencies for the Covenant books: Lord Foul = Sauron, Stonedownors = Dwarves, Woodhelvennin = Elves, Giants = Ents, the Council of Lords = the White Council or the Wizards, etc., etc. In each case there are resemblances, but in each case they are outweighed by differences. And there are many elements in Donaldson that simply do not have counterparts in Tolkien at all: for example, the Oath of Peace, the Earthblood, the Ritual of Desecration, and the bizarre relationship between the two branches of the Demondim-spawn. But it all begins with the ring: that is to say, it all begins with a false premise. In the first place, Covenant’s ring is a convenient plot-engine, with obvious symbolic functions in both worlds. Donaldson wanted Covenant to be an utterly ordinary American, except for his leprosy and his consequent bitterness and isolation; in his own world he has special weaknesses and tribulations, but no special powers. In the Land Covenant had to be at least potentially a great hero, with a magical power that the natives of the Land could not aspire to. Since the people of the Land are represented as human, biologically indistinguishable from Covenant himself, his power in the Land must be represented or hypostatized by something exterior to himself: something he brings to the Land with him: something easily identified with magic. When you look at the kinds of things that have magic powers in folklore, most are obviously unsuitable. American men do not commonly carry swords, helmets, suits of armour, torcs, necklaces, staffs, wands, phylacteries, phials, stone tablets, arks, or their grandfathers’ shrunken skulls. Most of the things they do carry and sometimes fetishize, like credit cards, car keys, or wristwatches, would have no relation to anything in the fantasy world, and no aura of enchantment that most readers would readily accept. But a ring is different. Millions of Americans wear wedding rings, and other kinds of rings as well. And a wedding ring is not only a common piece of jewellery; it is the symbol of a sacrament. Give Covenant a wedding ring, a divorce, and an appallingly self-centred ex-wife (whom he nevertheless still loves, for reasons best known to the Deus Ex Machina), and the ring becomes a focal point in both worlds. In the ‘real’ world it symbolizes lost love, broken vows, impotence, despair; in the Land, ‘the wild magic that destroys peace’. It is exactly this dual symbolism that reifies Covenant’s impossible conundrum. He cannot accept that the ring means power, because to him it means powerlessness. Even the fact that it is white gold is significant. In the Land, white gold is a kind of unobtainium or handwavium, an alloy not found in the earth and known only to prophets and mystics. In the ‘real’ world it is an alloy, and Covenant’s wife prefers it to yellow gold because she likes the colour better. That it is her choice and not his serves to emphasize her fundamental falseness. The ring is not what it appears to be, and neither is Joan, nor her marriage to Covenant. Many of the other apparent borrowings from Tolkien are purely illusory. For instance, Stonedownors and Woodhelvennin are not Dwarves and Elves with the serial numbers filed off, but the most normal and representative human inhabitants of the Land. A Woodhelven is a village built in the bole and branches of a single mighty tree; some of the living arrangements hark back to the Silvan Elves of Lórien, but the culture and the people themselves are quite different. A Stonedown is simply a village built of stone. Woodhelvennin use wood for an improbable variety of purposes, even making wooden knives; Stonedownors do the same with stone, even using as fuel an incombustible mineral called graveling. At one point Trell, a Stonedown lore-master or Gravelingas, is shown making an enormous magical effort to mend a broken earthenware pot. Covenant feels as if he comes from a poorer world, where nobody cares about healing crockery; he does not reflect that it is a poor world indeed where a man must work himself to exhaustion over a pot rather than make or buy a new one. This extremely reverential attitude of the Land’s inhabitants towards their materials bears examination, for it is most revealing. The peoples of the Land are almost a caricature, though an approving caricature, of extreme environmentalists of the 1970s hippie type. They use almost no artificial materials, hardly even any metals; they have no money; they swear an ‘Oath of Peace’ at sixteen, and are almost as reluctant as Jainists to take life, though they do appear to raise cattle for meat. The Council of Lords has been trying for centuries to repair the ecological catastrophe caused by the Ritual of Desecration, which was itself merely a misguided attempt to destroy Lord Foul before he could wipe out all life in the Land. Except for the obvious villains, nearly everyone seems to have the purest of motives, in a fashionably Green and Leftist way. There is a sort of pantheistic worship of the Earthpower, and a vague belief in the existence of a Creator, but no religion of a kind that anyone would get worked up about. It is all rather reminiscent of the Houyhnhnms, with Nature taking the place of Reason as the summum bonum. The Lords in particular are dedicated to the highest ideals, and so improbably pure that the three thousand years since Berek Halfhand, their founder, they have only once deviated from the strict and selfless pursuit of their principles. That one deviation, of course, was catastrophic. It was Kevin Landwaster (Donaldson’s gift for names is marred by an occasional sour note), the mightiest of all the Old Lords, who gave in to despair and invoked the Ritual of Desecration in an impossible attempt to destroy Lord Foul. But the lesser and humbler Lords seem to have no politics, no disputes over principle, hardly even any disagreements about tactics from day to day. Having chosen Covenant’s illegitimate daughter Elena as High Lord (in The Illearth War, when forty years have elapsed in the Land since Covenant’s first visit), they follow her unquestioningly to the brink of utter destruction; and with equal alacrity they follow Hile Troy’s idiotic plan to defeat Foul’s army by leading it hundreds of miles away on a wild-goose chase while the strongholds of the Lords stand defenceless. Just as the Houyhnhnms never argued about anything except how to deal with the Yahoos, the Lords seem to agree on everything except what to make of Covenant. Granted that critical thinking is not among their powers, the Lords are more virtuous than any collegial body of powerful men and women has ever been in the history of this world. We have, as it happens, at least three outstanding examples of such bodies that have persisted for comparable lengths of time. From Berek Halfhand to the time of Lord Foul’s Bane is a span of three thousand years. The priesthood of ancient Egypt maintained its power pretty continuously from the First Dynasty to the time of Cleopatra. The mandarins of imperial China and the Catholic Church each lasted two thousand years or thereabouts, and the Church is with us still. Two of these bodies were explicitly religious, and the third dedicated to a secular philosophy so reverent and refined that it approaches religion asymptotically. They can fairly be taken to represent the highest aspirations, the purest intentions, to which large numbers of human beings have ever dedicated themselves for centuries at a time. Yet each one of them failed and fell, not once but many times. The Egyptian priests were notoriously selfish and often tyrannical, and their administration often reduced Egypt to a state of enervation in which it could not resist foreign conquest, despite its large and industrious population and its formidable natural defences. The mandarinate, originally a meritocracy, degenerated into a gigantic patronage machine: the candidates who scored highest on the examinations were promoted to the public offices where they could command the biggest bribes. As for the Catholic Church, several times it has been degraded to a condition that seemed antithetical to the faith it still professed. The spectacle of a Borgia pope selling indulgences to finance palaces was a scandal to the world and an embarrassment to Christianity. G. K. Chesterton has even argued that the Church’s capacity to recover from such a nadir, not once but repeatedly, is nothing short of a miracle. If the survival of Catholicism can only be explained by divine intervention, what power must we invoke to explain the Council of Lords? But I am afraid we are not meant to ask such questions seriously. The Lords, and indeed all the inhabitants of the Land, do not exist in their own right, but merely as foils for Thomas Covenant. It is not quite allegory, for there is no easy correspondence between the states of Covenant’s mind and the people he encounters; but it is not quite real, either. The Secondary Reality is severely limited, and easily broken if you ask yourself the wrong questions. It helps that in Lord Foul’s Bane, Covenant lets himself be swept along with events, refusing to question what is (in his cynical view) obviously a fever dream; this encourages us to do likewise. Donaldson has said that in the Covenant books, he was trying to invert the story of The Idylls of the King. Instead of writing about a pure and virtuous hero (King Arthur) who was brought down by the corruption of the people around him, he wanted to write about a corrupted man who is purified and ennobled by the company and example of the good. It is for this reason that he afflicted Covenant with purely psychosomatic impotence. When he first appears in the Land, he is befriended, and to some degree rescued, by Lena, a sixteen-year-old virgin. When his leprosy is apparently cured by the magic earth called hurtloam, the sudden onrush of sensation overthrows his reason, and he rapes her. It is at this point that many readers give up on the books, and many others have never forgiven Covenant for his crime, or his author for describing it. In truth, this is perhaps the most nearly Christian point of the trilogy, the point at which the moral code Donaldson absorbed from his parents makes itself most fully felt. It is a story of sin and redemption. By his suffering, and still more by his eventual victory over Lord Foul, Covenant earns absolution for his crimes. This is not quite the Christian absolution, but it comes close. Saltheart Foamfollower, last of the Giants, sacrifices himself to make that victory possible; and it is very significant that Foamfollower is called ‘the Pure One’ by Lord Foul’s misbred and rejected slaves, the jheherrin. It is perhaps as close as Donaldson could come to the atoning sacrifice of Christ while still rejecting his parents’ theology. Because of his crimes (and his later offences largely spring from his horror and self-loathing because of the first), and still more because of his rough manners and refusal to commit himself, Covenant is in many respects an intensely unlikable character. This is a significant failure of Donaldson’s art. He has confessed that he himself liked Covenant, and took it for granted that others would like him, too. In fact Covenant has a good many admirable qualities — loyalty, persistence, and a keen critical intelligence, to name a few — but it is his faults that we meet first and with greatest force. He is distrustful, cowardly, insensitive, rude, and sometimes meanly dishonest; and not all these faults are cured before the end. Of course, his greatest fault is his stubborn Unbelief, his refusal to accept the Land. But as Hile Troy proves by example, it is that Unbelief that saves him from hubris. Troy embraces his role as the Land’s defender, fails against hopeless odds, and is destroyed. Covenant’s Unbelief may not be wise, but it is at any rate providential. It fits with Donaldson’s symbolic and psychological approach to fantasy that we are never quite told whether or not the Land is real. Right through Part I of The Illearth War, the narrative is carefully confined to Covenant’s own point of view. After that Hile Troy takes centre stage for a time, but he, too, is from the ‘real’ world; so is Linden Avery, who appears in the Second Chronicles and eventually becomes the principal viewpoint character. A couple of chapters in The Illearth War are told from Lord Mhoram’s point of view, which seems to indicate that the Land is real; but as Donaldson has been careful to point out, at all times in those chapters Mhoram is in the company of either Covenant or Troy. But it is clear that Donaldson was losing control of his epistemological assumptions. The story, I think, was taking on life of its own, insisting upon being told in a broader and more vivid way than Covenant’s solitary perspective could provide. In the second half of the trilogy the pretence breaks down completely. The original Part II of The Illearth War, a detailed account of Korik’s mission to save the Seareach Giants, was cut down to a bare-bones retelling by the survivors, partly because the manuscript was too long for Lester del Rey’s liking, but also because the use of Korik as a viewpoint character starkly violates the terms of Covenant’s Unbelief. The central story is about a man who does not believe that his environment is real. If that environment is shown to be real, he ceases to be a conflicted hero and becomes merely an interesting madman. In The Power That Preserves, matters become even worse. That book contains four chapters from Lord Mhoram’s point of view, almost entirely in Covenant’s absence, and another from the point of view of Triock, a minor character. Donaldson has said, in effect, that Covenant’s Unbelief remained plausible long enough to justify itself. I disagree. By the end of The Power That Preserves, we know that ‘the sophistry of your Unbelief’ is sophistry indeed, for we have seen the story carrying on in Covenant’s absence and without his knowledge. Nobody ever tells him what happened during the siege of Revelstone, but those four chapters from Mhoram’s point of view are there in the book. That tells us, the readers, that the Land is in fact ‘real’; that Covenant has staked his life on a falsehood. Just when his actions raise him up on Northrop Frye’s scale from an ironic to a romantic character, the falsity of his Unbelief threatens to degrade him to the ironic again. Ordinarily it does no harm for the reader to know things that the hero does not. But when the hero insists that there can be no such knowledge, it damages him gravely in our eyes. It is this structural looseness, this wavering between two sets of epistemological standards, that makes the first Covenant trilogy such a puzzle for many classes of readers. The self-consciously literary reader, who is most likely to appreciate the elements of psychodrama and ‘as-if’ dream-narrative, is also likely to turn up his nose at the fantasy elements. The fantasy geek, on the other hand, is often repelled by the unheroic hero, the gaping holes in the world-building, and other flagrant departures from the template so successfully established by Tolkien’s mere imitators. There is considerable reason to think that Lester del Rey himself did not know what to make of the books. Certainly the rest of the publishing industry did not. Lord Foul’s Bane was rejected forty-seven times; every fiction publisher in America turned it down. By the time Donaldson had tried every house on his list, the rest of the trilogy was essentially complete. He then started in on new imprints and editors that had appeared since he made the list. One of these was Lester del Rey, who was serenely confident that he had a blockbuster in The Sword of Shannara, and wanted a stable of other Tolkien clones so he could exploit the category he was creating. Del Rey was an old-fashioned pulpster, and his definition of fantasy was not broad. He seems to have been genuinely impressed by The Lord of the Rings as an adventure story, and to have thought that all the poetry and philosophy and ‘depth’ that distinguish it from its imitators were merely gas and filler. I have been told by persons who knew him that he did not, in fact, like the Covenant books at all; but he needed material, and was not about to look three gift horses in the mouth. And he did observe what he called the ‘crypto-Christian’ elements of sacrifice and redemption in the books, though he seems not to have understood them. Del Rey seems to have despised his market for its poor taste, but he was a shrewd judge of what would sell. Like Phil Spector churning out singles for AM radio, he knew what was ‘dumb enough to be a hit’. The elements of the Thomas Covenant books that were not ‘dumb’ he regarded as regrettable but not fatal. A year or two later, when the first Covenant trilogy was a runaway success, casting even del Rey’s pet, Terry Brooks, in the shade, Donaldson was duly called upon for a sequel. He had some difficulty in coming up with one, as he had never intended to go beyond the original trilogy. To solve this problem, he introduced a new character from the ‘real’ world, a physician named Linden Avery. And to increase her importance, and also to help along those readers who might not have read the first three books, he made her the chief viewpoint character of the second trilogy. Del Rey was outraged. He threatened to reject the new books outright, saying: ‘You can’t tell a Tarzan story from Jane’s point of view!’ (His superiors at Ballantine Books, rather than lose Donaldson and his undeniable earning-power, took him away from del Rey and gave him an editor he could work with.) That del Rey could think of the Thomas Covenant books as Tarzan stories, or of the Shannara books as superior to them, says some very unflattering things about his judgement. He was, it seems, a pretty thoroughgoing philistine, and in the end his bad taste undermined even his commercial acumen. After 1982, when he introduced David Eddings with great fanfare, he never ‘discovered’ a major author again, and by the time of his death Del Rey Books was well on its way to becoming a minor and little-respected player in the genre. Perhaps del Rey’s peculiar variety of ignorance worked in Donaldson’s favour. In any given year since 1977, fantasy publishers have released a lot more books like The Sword of Shannara than like Lord Foul‘s Bane. In fact, Donaldson has the curious distinction of being perhaps the least imitated major author in the genre. George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series shows the hallmarks of Donaldson’s influence — which is not surprising, as they are fellow New Mexicans and personal friends, and began their writing careers almost simultaneously. And I have heard that a publisher of Christian books has put out a fantasy series that is very nearly a plagiarism of the first Covenant trilogy; but I have not procured any of those books and will not condemn them on hearsay. But that is a very small circle of influence for a series of books that made Stephen R. Donaldson, for a short time in the early 1980s, the best-selling author in the world after Stephen King. In effect, Lester del Rey’s influence outweighed that of any of his protégés. He encouraged a generation of fantasy writers to imitate the showy and meretricious features of The Lord of the Rings without trying to emulate the substance; and he encouraged them not to imitate the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant at all. Donaldson’s books are a mixed bag, and at least one of them is a curate’s egg; but they were written with a degree of care and ambition rare among the authors that have succeeded him. Few writers would spend six years of unremitting and unrewarded toil to complete a 600,000-word trilogy before the first book is sold. In fact, so far as I know, only one other writer compares with Donaldson in this respect; and curiously enough, he, too, was a fantasy writer from the crop of 1977. To him, therefore, I shall turn next. Continue to Part 4 . . .


The failure of subversion in imaginative literature

‘Do you believe in God, Winston?’ ‘No.’ ‘Then what is it, this principle that will defeat us?’ ‘I don’t know. The spirit of Man.’
‘And do you consider yourself a man?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘If you are a man, Winston, you are the last man. Your kind is extinct; we are the inheritors. Do you understand that you are alone? You are outside history, you are nonexistent.’ His manner changed and he said more harshly: ‘And you consider yourself morally superior to us, with our lies and our cruelty?’ ‘Yes, I consider myself superior.’ O’Brien did not speak. Two other voices were speaking. After a moment Winston recognized one of them as his own. It was a sound track of the conversation he had had with O’Brien, on the night when he had enrolled himself in the Brotherhood. He heard himself promising to lie, to steal, to forge, to murder, to encourage drug-taking and prostitution, to disseminate venereal diseases, to throw vitriol in a child’s face. O’Brien made a small impatient gesture, as though to say that the demonstration was hardly worth making. Then he turned a switch and the voices stopped.
—George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four   

Does Fantasy equal Subversion?

Subversion is a popular word in literary criticism nowadays, and some persons have suggested that it is the principal function of fantasy. Not a function, which may perhaps be true, but the function, the sine qua non of imaginative literature. John Grant has gone so far as to propose that anything that is not subversive is therefore not fantasy at all, but a subliterary ersatz that he derisively dubs Generic Fantasy, ‘this monstrous tide of commercially inspired, mind-numbingly unimaginative garbage — this loathsome mire’. In Mr Grant’s taxonomy, virtually everything derived from Tolkien, or showing his influence, is ‘garbage’ and ‘mire’. He does leave himself just enough room to wriggle out of the logical implication, which is that Tolkien himself did not write fantasy; but he does this by allowing that Tolkien’s work is, in some unspecified way, sufficiently ‘subversive’ to meet the Grantian standard. Now, this is a remarkable claim for anybody to make. If just one author in the appalling history of the twentieth century was not ‘subversive’, it was J. R. R. Tolkien. He was an enthusiastic supporter of order, authority, hierarchy, in both the temporal and spiritual spheres; a passionately orthodox Catholic, a royalist, a hidebound traditionalist who did not even approve of refrigerators and called aeroplanes ‘Mordor-gadgets’. When Orwell said that a Conservative is ‘a thing that does not exist nowadays’, he was merely proving that he had never met Tolkien. A full study of Tolkien’s conservatism would fill up many books, so here I shall confine myself to a couple of quotations (cited in Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien) that sufficiently illustrate the point:
I am not a ‘democrat’, if only because ‘humility’ and equality are spiritual principles corrupted by the attempt to mechanize and formalize them, with the result that we get not universal smallness and humility, but universal greatness and pride, till some Orc gets hold of a ring of power — and then we get and are getting slavery. Touching your cap to the Squire may be dam’ bad for the Squire but it’s dam’ good for you.
Now, some foolish and superficial modern people, whose sense of history extends no further back than the remote primaeval dawn of the 1950s, think Tolkien was subversive because he was loudly opposed to ‘robot-factories’ and the destruction of the English countryside. In fact, and this note runs strongly throughout his work, he regarded industrialism and pollution as subversive, the one degrading human nature, the other destroying the order and beauty of nature as a whole. This sentiment became fashionable in the 1960s, and many of those who adopted it were subversives; but their reasons were not Tolkien’s. They opposed industrial civilization because their parents favoured it; Tolkien opposed it because it destroyed the kind of life lived by all the generations of his ancestors. This leaves Mr Grant in an awkward position. According to his rash definitions, The Lord of the Rings must be ‘Generic Fantasy’ and ‘garbage’ because it is not ‘subversive’; but what most of his audience means by fantasy is ‘stories like The Lord of the Rings’. Mr Grant has not only cut off the branch he is sitting on, he then has the audacity to announce that it alone is the real Tree, and all else is merely a diseased fungoid growth. Often a surgeon must amputate a limb to save the patient; but he amputates the patient to save the limb. Whatever else this is, it is startlingly original. Now, this is what Mr Grant wants fantasy to do:
It must meddle with our thinking, it must delight in being controversial, it must hope to be condemned by authority (whatever authority one chooses to identify), it must be at the cutting edge of the imagination, it must flirt with madness, it must surprise, it must be doing things that other forms of fiction cannot.
‘Cannot,’ Mr Grant? Ulysses, whatever else it may have been, was certainly at the cutting edge of the imagination. Joyce flirted with madness, and in Finnegans Wake he outright embraced it. His vision of Western civilization at the dawn of the twentieth century surprised huge numbers of people; it shocked them, offended them, appalled them; it was heartily condemned by all manner of authorities, and in some parts of the English-speaking world, it was difficult to obtain a copy of Ulysses without breaking the law. But it was not and is not fantasy. The events of Joyce’s books are strikingly mundane; here there be no Tygers, except the strange beasts that lurk in the subconscious, dragged into the open by the novelist’s art and put on public display. ‘Right-thinking’ people professed to be shocked at the crudity and barbarity of the thoughts Joyce dared to express; but at bottom, what really shocked them was that he had dared to express their secret thoughts, the obscenities and blasphemies that cross everyone’s mind, but that in those days it was considered proper to hush up. He exposed a conspiracy to which even Mrs Grundy was a party. And he did it without inventing anything at all beyond the bounds of everyday reality. Tom Shippey has called Ulysses ‘One Day in the Life of a Nobody’. This is very apt; but it would be equally apt applied to almost any of Joyce’s most representative works. This perfectly fulfils Mr Grant’s laundry-list of desiderata, but it is about as far from fantasy as a work of literature can be. At this point, Mr Grant’s bizarre classification system begins to make, not exactly sense, but at least an intelligible form of nonsense. It is as if a man were to say that he liked Soup because it is cold, thick, viscous, and not highly flavoured. Such a man could go to restaurant after restaurant, and to all his friends’ houses, and ask for Soup, and be disappointed every time. Consommé is not thick, chicken soup is not viscous, hot and sour soup has a flavour that will burn his tastebuds; and all these soups are served hot. Therefore he rejects them with scorn. These things, he says, are not proper Soup at all, but a strange and phony substance that he calls Commercial Soup. But when we analyse the man’s language, we see that what he wants is not really Soup at all. Milkshakes or custard would suit him equally well. When he speaks of Soup, proper Soup and not that nasty Commercial Soup, he means vichyssoise; and he may, for courtesy’s sake, extend a grudging acceptance to gazpacho and cold borscht. But it is only by coincidence that he applies the word soup to the object of his desire. And so it is with Mr Grant and his avowed taste for fantasy. He does not really like fantasy; what he wants is subversive literature, and when he does not get it, he blames everyone but himself.

The Heat Death of the Subversive

It is all very well to show that John Grant is not really concerned with fantasy at all, but that merely reduces the question to a simpler form. Is subversiveness a good quality in literature as a whole? Fantasy is subject to the same standards of quality as every other branch of literature, though both the Modernists and the professional Fans would deny it. If a story has a predictable and moth-eaten plot, if it is told poorly, with vague imagery and slipshod language, if its setting seems like a stage backdrop and not a real place, if its characters neither engage the reader’s sympathy nor even resemble human beings — why, then not even Elves and Dragons can save it from being irremediably dull. I think every normal reader of fiction would agree that plot, prose style, setting, and characters are all important in a work of fiction. Of course, some readers have higher standards than others. Some readers are willing to forgive a story for being weak in one area if it has great strengths in others — which is not the same thing as having low standards. And of course all readers have different tastes and interests. But the essential elements of good fiction are something that nearly everyone can agree upon, at least in the abstract. Now Mr Grant claims that ‘subversiveness’ is an essential element of good fiction. Is it really? And what do we mean when we call a story ‘subversive’? To subvert a thing is to undermine it, to cut away its foundations so that it can be overthrown. Nowadays the word is always used figuratively; one may subvert a government or a religion, but no one would talk of subverting a rock face or a building. Nevertheless it is helpful to remember the literal meaning of the word, because that will make the figure of speech more fresh and vivid to the understanding. What a subversive does is to dig away at the ground under something too great and powerful to be attacked directly, until that great and powerful thing topples over and breaks of its own unsupported weight. One of the best images of subversion was written by Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was not only a great poet, but a pretty accomplished subversive himself; when he wrote about subversion, he wrote as a skilled professional. I refer, of course, to his sonnet ‘Ozymandias’:
I met a traveller from an antique land Who said: — Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand, Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things, The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed. And on the pedestal these words appear: ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’ Nothing beside remains: round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Horace Smith wrote a vastly inferior sonnet on the same subject, which makes clearer what the shattered figure of Ozymandias represents. Smith’s verse ends with these lines:
We wonder, — and some Hunter may express Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace, He meets some fragments huge, and stops to guess What powerful but unrecorded race Once dwelt in that annihilated place.
Ozymandias is the British Empire, proud and self-assured, which in 1818 had just emerged victorious from a generation of wars against Revolutionary France and the empire of Napoleon, and was now incomparably the greatest power on earth. Shelley was a revolutionary by instinct and conviction, a passionate admirer of Napoleon, and hated his own country for restoring the old regimes in Europe. He saw Britain as a reactionary force, upholding dead institutions, stamping on the revolutionary genius (his own) that would make all things new. In practice Shelley was not very good at making things new, and his own household, the one place where he could carry out his revolution, was a desperately unhappy place. His first wife committed suicide, his second wife never approved of his attempts at ‘free love’ and ménages à trois, and of his seven known children only one lived to adulthood. Shelley himself died by drowning, sailing a dangerously fast and unstable boat in stormy weather, when he was barely thirty years old. But before he died he wrote some of the most brilliant poems in the English language, poems that are studied and admired to this day. If he had been born in 1942 instead of 1792, he would probably have been a hugely successful rock star and died in a car crash. But in his own time his revolution failed utterly. Imperial Britain ruled the nineteenth century, growing ever stronger, more self-righteous, more insular and narrow-minded. For sixty-four years the Empire was reigned over, though not ruled, by Queen Victoria, whose very name has (somewhat unfairly) become another word for hypocrisy and prudery. Ozymandias was in his power, and the mighty looked on his works and despaired. In those days it took a good deal of courage even to speak against the characteristic vices of the age — the false puritanism, the ugliness, the grasping materialism, the disgusting disregard for the poor and unfortunate. But courage is a virtue that the English people have always admired, even the courage to speak up for an unpopular cause. The great literary figure in the first half of Victoria’s reign was Charles Dickens; but the more bitterly he criticized his countrymen, the better they loved him. Orwell has observed: ‘In its attitude towards Dickens the English public has always been a little like the elephant which feels a blow with a walking-stick as a delightful tickling.’ By the end of the century the new giants were George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde, each of whom attacked Ozymandias in his own way. Shaw was the champion of science and material progress, an early Socialist and a founder of the Fabian Society, attacking what he saw as the evils of capitalism and religion. Wilde attacked the manners, and still more the sententious ethics, of Victorian England in his plays and novels, and above all in the pungent epigrams strewn through them like sequins sewn to an evening gown:
Conscience and cowardice are really the same things. I think that God in creating Man somewhat overestimated his ability. I can resist everything except temptation.
These lines, and scores of others like them, have not worn well, because the attitudes they were meant to subvert hardly exist any longer. To take the best-known and most extreme example, Wilde was imprisoned for being homosexual, a thing that would be impossible in any English-speaking country nowadays; and his arrest, trial, and imprisonment were on the whole enormously popular with the public. The puritanical middle classes privately resented his ready wit at their expense; the lower classes, or at least the London ‘mob’, were delirious with Schadenfreude to see one of the upper classes suffering at the hands of the law just like any common offender. Wilde did not live long after his imprisonment, and one of his last public remarks, lapped up eagerly by the press, was this: ‘If the Queen can’t treat her prisoners any better than this, she doesn’t deserve to have any!’ People nowadays, I think, are likely to miss the joke. It was a paraphrase of the standard scolding that every Victorian mother gave her children when they abused their toys or their pets; but how many mothers talk like that nowadays? The wit misses its target, because the target is no longer there. For the twentieth century was the Age of Debunking. The empires fell, and with them all the social taboos of Victorian society, and the belief that man is a noble or even a rational animal. By 1940, Orwell could say, in ‘Inside the Whale’:
And how many of the values by which our grandfathers lived could now be taken seriously? Patriotism, religion, the Empire, the family, the sanctity of marriage, the Old School Tie, birth, breeding, honour, discipline — anyone of ordinary education could turn the whole lot of them inside out in three minutes. But what do you achieve, after all, by getting rid of such primal things as patriotism and religion? You have not necessarily got rid of the need forsomething to believe in.
Shelley’s revolution had arrived, in politics, in religion, above all in sexuality; and it did not bring the millennium. It did not even make people happier. Today, Western civilization has reached the pitch of disintegration at which everyone, including Mrs Grundy herself, has the so-called sophistication to sneer at the ‘values’ of all previous generations. Nothing is sacrosanct except lust and the gratification of lust, and a strange idol called Tolerance. This soi-disant Tolerance has nothing to do with tolerating other people; rather, it consists in a series of shrill demands that other people should tolerate oneself, whatever one does, whomever one harms. Anyone who advocates any standard of behaviour, anyone who might cause people to reflect on their own imperfections, is ‘intolerant’. Still more ‘intolerant’ are those outcast souls who dare mention a fact that someone else might find unpleasant — or, indeed, mention that there are such things as facts, and that they really are factual. I’m OK, you’re OK, Eminem is OK, tAtU is OK, NAMBLA is OK, Charles Manson is quite romantically OK, and next, no doubt, it will be OK for dirty old men to buy breast implants for their tweener girlfriends. Vive tous les différences! In such a culture, ‘subversion’ is meaningless, because there is nothing left to subvert. All our would-be subversives have to work with is the same tired old repertoire of stylized gestures against Victorian ‘prudery’, ‘bigotry’, and ‘repression’. But Wilde was already wearing out that game in 1900. The idol is dead. Ozymandias has fallen. There is not even any fun in throwing bricks at the spot in the air where his head used to be. But that does not stop critics from praising to the skies just those works of art that score the best and directest hits against the imaginary target. As Mary Catelli observes:
Calls for subversion are fundamentally off-base, because they don’t produce the dangerous stuff. They produce what the ‘cutting edge’ fondly imagines subverts the beliefs of the little old lady in a small town, so the readers can read it and feel smugly morally superior to her.
But even the little old ladies are wise to the game. The shrivelled old crone of ninety in the nursing home is not old enough to remember Queen Victoria; her youth was the Jazz Age, the period of James Joyce and Gertrude Stein, still more of Rudolph Valentino and Clara Bow — significantly known as ‘the “It” Girl’. (At which Dorothy Parker sneered: ‘It? She has those!’) Very likely she herself was a flapper, and spent her nights busily subverting the mores of her parents and grandparents. But you cannot carry on one movement or pose for so many years without forming a habit. There is not now any artist, critic, or intellectual who can remember a time when the arts as a whole were not‘subversive’. We expect art to offend, to shock, to épater les bourgeois, even though successive shocks have left les bourgeois almost completely numb. Nowadays even a film like Hannibal, or a book like American Psycho, leaves us blasé. If a man cuts off his own face and feeds it to his dogs, or cuts off a woman’s breasts and eats them before her eyes, what of it? It’s all Muzak, baby; it’s all part of the cultural background noise. Yet we, or the critics, still persist in the belief that our acts of vicious public nihilismmatter; that somewhere in this moral slum there is still an enclave of magical innocence, where people still have the capacity to be shocked. But of course such a thing cannot be. There are still puritans in the world, but not innocents. Some people are still saddened and disgusted by the degrading spectacles that are put on in the name of Art, but they are not shocked. Instead, they are reacting in the one way that is fatal to the subversives and their critics alike: they are tuning out. They are bored. In physics, every action, every process, reduces the available energy of the universe, and in the end everything will be equal: equally cold, equally empty, equally disorganized and lifeless. In a rare burst of poetry, physicists call this state ‘the heat death of the universe’. A culture based on subversion reaches that state of maximum entropy much more quickly, and we are very close to it now. Nobody, at least in public, dares to be any better or nobler or wiser than anybody else. There is nothing left to tear down, nothing to rebel against, and all that a subversive can do is rearrange the rubble on the ground.

How to Undermine a Hole in the Ground

Once Ozymandias has fallen, there is no point in trying to undermine his foundations any further. There is no longer anything to undermine but a hole in the ground; and if you dig out the ground under a hole until it collapses, you will only make the hole bigger. In the passage from Nineteen Eighty-Four quoted above, Winston Smith’s attempted rebellion was doomed from the start. It is not just that the man who inducted him into ‘the Brotherhood’ was a spy for Big Brother. Winston’s failure was even more fundamental. He tried to rebel by becoming a subversive, but the Party itself was a gigantic instrument of subversion. O’Brien’s vision of the future was of ‘a boot stamping on a human face — for ever.’ How can any rebel avert such a fate by throwing bombs or spreading disease? All the methods of the Brotherhood were simply ways of doing what the Party wanted done. In such a state, there is only one way to make a difference. You cannot subvert ruins; but you can build right over top of them. If to subvert is to destroy a thing from below, might we not coin an opposite word? We could destroy a state of ruin from above, and, as I like to say, supervert it. Where people have abandoned their standards, we could suggest new ones (or reintroduce whatever was good and useful in the old). Where institutions have been abolished, we could institute others to do their work. Above all, we could instil the ideas of creation and structure and discipline into human minds and hearts, and especially the hearts of the young. In this sense, Tolkien was a profoundly superversive writer; and his influence may be just beginning. When most people were resigned to the smogs and slums and ruined landscapes of Mordor, he reminded them of trees and forests, and showed them an image of a Shire where people did not earn their living by multiplying ugliness and pain. When humanity itself stood in danger of extinction from nuclear war, he reminded the world that power need not always be used; it can be destroyed. And he did all this by resurrecting words and tales and images from ancient times, giving them new form and new meaning, but using them to point to the same old platitudinous morals that his ancestors lived by, which Shelley and Shaw and Wilde strove so mightily to abolish. Now, Mr Grant has a scornful name for stories that preach old, established morals, as he has for all of the numerous things he does not like. He dismisses them as ‘phatic fictions’:
A phatic conversation is one in which no information is actually exchanged and yet from which all participants gain something, archetypally reassurance. . . . In one of his songs Robin Williamson captured the essence of the phatic conversation in a single sentence: ‘Hello, I must be going, well I only came to say: I hear my mother calling and I must be on my way.’ Similarly there can be phatic fictions — fictions that tell us nothing, that involve no exercise of the intellect whatsoever beyond the basics involved in understanding the words, yet which satisfy some need in ourselves.
He postulates that that need is for ‘vicarious imagination’: to reassure people that they are imaginative, without actually requiring or enabling them to imagine anything. Now, on the face of it this is difficult to believe. Until the eruption of fantasy publishing in the 1970s, hardly anybody felt the need for such a thing. As Ursula K. Le Guin points out in ‘Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?’, most people lived their lives without exposing themselves to anything so dangerous as imagination. People actually prided themselves on being unimaginative, or as they preferred to say, ‘realistic’ and ‘down-to-earth’, and regarded those few odd people, the artists and dreamers and the goofy kids at science fiction cons, as inferior minds, ‘escapists’, deluded and impractical and probably a bit loony. That tens of millions of people should suddenly discover a voracious need for imagination that they never felt before, is hardly to be imagined. That all those people, having suddenly awakened to that need, should be satisfied by cheap palliatives and placebos, defies credulity. No, we must look elsewhere for the psychological need that ‘phatic’, ‘generic’ fantasy fulfils. Now, as I have said, artists and philosophers have been subverting the structures of society for centuries; but their destructive work was enormously speeded by the upheavals of the 1960s. A generation of American children had been raised, in all too many cases, in the ultra-permissive environment recommended by Dr Benjamin Spock, who was regarded as almost a divine guru by many parents at the time. Few parents ever tyrannized their children as thoroughly as Dr Spock tyrannized the parents. Brought up without any definite beliefs, without restrictions, without standards, these children sought whatever beliefs and standards they could find. They became hippies and yuppies and New Agers and Scientologists, or, having been robbed of religion by the subversives, they made a religion of subversiveness itself. By 1977 they, and the pedlars of spiritual snake oil who led them, had captured the reins of society. The media pandered to their tastes, industry catered to them, and they had captured the public schools outright. Even the churches were frantically replacing hymns with folk music and sermons with ‘encounter groups’. In Europe and America in the 1970s, young adults regarded promiscuity almost as a social duty, and in some circles of society it was considered a serious faux pas to refuse a friendly offer of cocaine. And it was at just that moment that fantasy, as a commercial publishing category, arrived with an explosion. I have already discussed the ‘superversive’ qualities of The Lord of the Rings. The publishers who made fantasy a commercial phenomenon knew exactly what they were selling: not ersatz imagination, but easy superversion. Lester del Rey, the genius behind the fantasy craze of 1977, knew that people wanted to read about suffering and redemption, and would eat up stories in which individual men and women were responsible for changing the world by their actions. Del Rey catered to a market that some people describe as ‘crypto-Christian’. He did not, from what I have heard, share these tastes himself; but like a good drug-dealer or prostitute, he gave his customers what he knew they wanted, not what he thought they needed. So in the wake of the rockbound conservative Tolkien, along came first half a dozen other writers, then scores and hundreds, with doses of the same drug. Mr Grant and his cronies, such as Michael Moorcock, John Clute, and Claude Lalumière, think that drug a placebo at best, at worst a poison; but in fact it is a medicine, a specific for the spiritual malady from which they all suffer. In its own way and degree, fantasy supplies, though it does not wholly fulfil, ‘the need for something to believe in’. Even though much of it is inferior literature, derivative, repetitive, and even phatic, it will still sell to an avid audience as long as it provides the necessary dose. When people read ‘escapist’, ‘reactionary’ genres such as commercial fantasy or Campbellian science fiction, they read for the (nowadays) guilty pleasure of reinforcing the values that it will no longer do to profess in public. Reading Heinlein or Tolkien or Herbert, one can thrill to old-fashioned martial glory, strict codes of honour, inherited social class, traditional gender roles, and all the other things that the Western cerebrum has been taught to sneer at, but the limbic system still secretly hankers after. But one does not get from it the same sense of personal applicability and, yes, guilt that one might get from reading, say, the Bible, or the biographies of great figures from history (almost all of which, prior to 1900, are bigoted old reactionary back numbers by modern standards). After all, it is fantasy, not real, and no one can fault himself for not behaving as well as Johnny Rico or Sam Gamgee or even a minor hero like Gurney Halleck. The ‘subversive’ critics take it for granted that readers are, or at least should be, eternal rebels, for ever frozen in the fifteen-year-old’s attitude of nihilistic rejection, hating all authority figures, not because they are wrong, but simply because they are in authority. If subversion is good in itself, then everyauthority, every standard, must necessarily be wrong . . . including their own; but few critics have sufficient self-knowledge to admit it. The revolution has come and gone, the kids of the Sixties have grown old, and it is time for Mr Grant & Company to grow up. There is very little use in a critic whose whole view of the arts is discoloured by the fact that he has not yet learned to stop hating his parents.