Sunday, November 27, 2011

Genesis of Antellus

The world of Antellus was born out of anxiety. It began as an attempt to work through my horror of decay and entropy and the eternal silence of the infinite spaces. My grandmother, to whom I was close, had just passed away, and the rapid deterioration of her mind—which became incarnate and lingered after her death in her disordered house—had troubled me. It still does. Antellus was not the first project I had undertaken, but it was the first I was driven to complete.

Despite its origins, Antellus is, I hope, far from being mere private musing. It represents a bridge between my mind and the outside world, an attempt to give others something worth reading, something rich yet entertaining. It aims to take a place in the canon of fantasy—in my own mind, if nowhere else—and to dialogue with the works I revere, while retaining the stamp of something written in our age of atomization and anxiety. It is not about autism, but it uses autism to probe the sense of alienation that seems endemic to modern life.

The idea of a living-fossil world of Paleozoic life-forms surviving at the cosmic antipodes had grown in my mind for a long time. The denizens of Antellus—moss-trees, giant mollusks, arthropods, primitive fishes, armored amphibians—all belong to archaic tribes now represented on Tellus only by what is most lowly. They slipped through to the counter-earth at the opposite pole of the universe in primeval times, then ceased to evolve because the demiurgic vicars had rebelled and forsaken the ministry of creation. The framing device with which the story opens represents a geometrical conceit that I entertained myself with while I was lost in the labyrinths of 11-dimensional theoretical physics. The world of Antellus is intended as fantasy, however. Its hierarchy of spiritual agencies owes much to the Summa of Thomas Aquinas, but also to Greek mythology and Arabian and medieval European folklore. The social structure of the world-city of Enoch is inspired by the cultures of the ancient Mediterranean and Near East. The level of technology is stationary, and might be described as Iron Age / Industrial Age / Art Nouveau. Religion is more or less “pagan,” but the various sects that come into the story are significant for their approaches to life rather than their doctrines.

My tales take place against the lurid backdrop of the heat-death of Antellus and the accession of its predestined god-emperor. The setting is a major force: it serves as a projection of the protagonists' anxieties and preoccupations. Their progress through the wastelands, moss-jungles, and ruinous cities of Antellus reflect the tortured landscape of their own hearts.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Style in Fantasy

In an earlier post I cited Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” as an antidote to mythopoeic dualism. In this essay, after considering a number of examples illustrating the role of style in fantasy—and the penalty paid by those who neglect it—Le Guin concludes:
Many readers, many critics, and most editors speak of style as if it were an ingredient of a book, like the sugar in a cake, or something added onto the book, like the frosting on the cake. The style, of course, is the book. If you remove the cake, all you have left is a recipe. If you remove the style, all you have left is a synopsis of the plot.*

This is partly true of history; largely true of fiction; and absolutely true of fantasy.

In saying that the style is the book, I speak from the reader’s point of view. From the writer’s point of view, the style is the writer. Style isn’t just how you use English when you write. It isn’t a mannerism or an affectation (though it may be mannered or affected). It isn’t something you can do without, though that is what people assume when they announce that they intend to write something “like it is.” You can’t do without it. There is no “is,” without it. Style is how you as a writer see and speak. It is how you see: your vision, your understanding of the world, your voice.
This expresses my own view of the matter perfectly. (It also echoes E. B. White’s concluding remarks in The Elements of Style.) But Le Guin goes on to form a conjecture as to the precise role of style in fantasy, and this, I feel, is where she comes up short.
[W]hy is style of such fundamental importance in fantasy?... I think it is, because in fantasy there is nothing but the writer’s vision of the world. There is no borrowed reality of history, or current events, or just plain folks at Peyton Place. There is no comfortable matrix of the commonplace to substitute for the imagination, to provide ready-made emotional responses, and to disguise flaws and failures of creation. There is only a construct built in a void, with every joint and seam and nail exposed. To create what Tolkien calls “a secondary universe” is to make a new world. A world where no voice has ever spoken before; where the act of speech is the act of creation. The only voice that speaks there is the creator’s voice. And every word counts.
Surely this can’t be all there is to it. Such a necessity would call for exhaustive descriptions but not for a distinctive style. There are plenty of terse ordinary novels about remote times or exotic places, while some of the best fantasies take place in settings that are more or less familiar. The fantasy-writer’s skill is perhaps most apparent in his or her ability to use familiar things to evoke unfamiliar responses. Think of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, for instance. Most of it unfolds against a backdrop drawn from European topography. The Shire was based on the English Midlands, the Misty Mountains on the Alps, and Ithilien on the Mediterranean countries. In fact, Tolkien’s use of extraordinary settings is rather sparing. What sets him apart from so many imitators is that he is able to cast an aura of beauty and mystery about the ordinary good things of life. But this, he says, is one of the primary roles of fantasy: Recovery.
By the forging of Gram cold iron was revealed; by the making of Pegasus horses were ennobled; in the Trees of the Sun and Moon root and stock, flower and fruit are manifested in glory. And actually fairy-stories deal largely, or (the better ones) mainly, with simple or fundamental things, untouched by Fantasy, but these simplicities are made all the more luminous by their setting. For the story-maker who allows himself to be “free with” Nature can be her lover not her slave. It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.
The problem is not that trees, etc., are flat in fantasy if not properly described, for trees are flat in many types of good, ordinary novels. The problem is that flat trees simply are not allowable in fantasy. Fantasy is the branch of literature in which we care about the trees. Not because they are supernatural or extraordinary, &c., but simply because they are. Perhaps supernaturality is merely a way of heightening what most affects us, or should affect us, about real trees. Clearly style plays a crucial role this. Not even the most exhaustive description is enough; in fact, it is probably a great deal too much. What is needed is the gift of seeing combined with a touch of magic.

Where the mass-produced clones spawned by the advent of the fantasy genre fall short is in taking the typical devices of fantasy as ends in themselves. As Le Guin saw so clearly, weakness in style vitiates the pleasurability of these devices. But the devices themselves must be oriented as directed by the work as a whole, as a work of fantasy. They are but material elements subservient to an art that aims at a certain type of beauty. The writer who fails to comprehend this merely manipulates material elements, forming something lightly entertaining to a certain type of reader but banal and superficial.

*Which itself can never be entirely divorced from style, in my opinion. —raphordo

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Sphinx of Remote Posterity

I think I encountered H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine when I was in middle school. I had seen the first part of a film version on PBS. It ended with the Traveller being silently approached by the queerly inhuman humans of the unthinkable future. The image haunted me, and I went immediately to our town library to check it out. As I recall, I read it in one sitting. I was not yet a teenager then, but my enjoyment of the novel is unabated to this day, which to me is the sign of a truly good book.

It is a melancholy tale touched with weird loveliness, a haunting myth of the ephemerality of mankind’s place in the universe. What can compare with the Time-Traveller’s loneliness amid the simple-minded Eloi in their meaningless ruins and gardens presided over by the marble sphinx? The plot and resolution are poignant enough to make us take interest, but never so obtrusive as to distract from the contemplation of time’s abyss.

And then there is the awful moment when the Traveller escapes at last and rushes far, far into the future, into an age when the earth has ceased in its turning and the sun has become a motionless red disc in an eternally black sky; when nearly all life has become extinct, and the world is inhabited only by giant crabs; when the sea is a dead dark pool without wind or waves. Here we see the genesis of the Dying Earth of The Night Land and Jack Vance’s tales; here we see a precursor of Lewis’ dead city of Charn.

Of what fabric is the mantle that hangs like enchantment over entropic tales of earth’s last days? It is a question I often ask, for my own novel has an anticlimactic-apocalyptic aspect. Why do we take pleasure in such stories? Perhaps the feeling is akin to the sense of awe that ovecomes one when walking through the grassy spaces of Tintern Abbey or Stonehenge. Ruins please us where the intact structures would not. A decadent pleasure, suited to jaded generations. We want our cathedrals old and gray, stained with the patina of centuries, a preference the builders would not have understood. For the Gothic cathedral was a riot of color and white stone in its day.*

At any rate, there is something about The Time Machine that affects me in much the same way that good fantasy novels do. Tolkien, in his ”On Fairy Stories,” even concedes that it comes close to being fantasy, though he stops short at classifying it as part of the genre. Of course it is officially classified as science fiction because it involves “science” and machines and not “magic.” But I contend that what classifies a novel as fantasy should not be the presence or absence of this or that material element. It should be its end as a work of art, what sort of beauty it aims at. Many fantasy novels that concern “magic” nowadays are really just banal technology stories, whereas books like The Time Machine are within the sphere of what I call fantasy.

*Perhaps this reduction to schadenfruede unduly harsh. Perhaps it would be more correct to speak of catharsis. Our anxieties about our civilization are vicariously purged in the contemplation of its eventual demise.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Fantasy: Matter and Form

In an earlier post, I discussed C. S. Lewis’ “mythopoeic dualism,” his theory that myth-making is a distinct art whose product is a sequence of ideas, existing immaterially, but accidently embodied in written or spoken form.

Colin Manlove, in his Modern Fantasy: Five Studies, objects to this dualism, as I do. But his counterargument is hardly sufficient. He merely takes a passage from MacDonald, criticizes it line by line, and concludes (without further argument) that its defects in style do vitiate the whole. His criticisms are unassailable but miss the point. He and Lewis are speaking about different forms—Lewis would probably have conceded that the writing detracted from the novel, but what about the myth?—and anyway the passage Manlove cites is surely too short to invalidate Lewis’s view, which concerns global aspects. Perhaps Manlove denies the existence of a mythopoeic art as distinct from writing or telling, but if that is the case he should say so, and justify his position. Even better, he should explain why MacDonald’s style fails him insofar as he is writing a fantasy novel. But doing so would involve him in stating the role of style in fantasy (as opposed to other forms of writing), whereas he approaches his subjects merely as literary novels about fantastic things.

This brings us to a more profound question: what is fantasy? Is it its own distinct branch of literature, subject to its own rules? What are the material elements? What cements these elements into a work of fantasy qua fantasy? Manlove would seem to say that the art-form of the fantasy novel is the same as that of the ordinary novel—the difference is in the material. But, like Lewis, I don’t think people read fantasy novels for the same reason they read "literary" novels. The fantastic elements serve a necessary albeit material role: they act as a trigger mechanism for a way of viewing the whole, shifting the reader into a certain mode of enjoyment. This role, as we have seen, is closely tied to the style of the telling.

I would say that “myth” is one of several material elements, among which is literary style. The “myth” element of a work of modern fantasy can certainly be enjoyed for its own sake (just as any technical virtuosity can), but bad or inappropriate writing vitiates the work as a whole. Both are necessary ingredients, but both are subordinate to the form, the final shape that determines the work as a work of fantasy. And this form is not the same as for the ordinary work of literature.

In my opinion, the writer who has come closest to elucidating the matter is Ursula K. Le Guin. In her essay “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie,” she makes the point that, without style, there simply is no writing, which is just as valid in fantasy as in other types of writing. Good, honest Aristotelianism. She goes even further, offering some hints as to what constitutes the fitting approach to style in fantasy as such. But the essay, while suggestive, suffers from nebulosity, and fails to come to a decisive point. The question is, what are the special demands placed upon style by the art-form of fantasy? To fully answer it, we need to have an idea of what fantasy is.

In a future post I’ll hopefully be able to explain in more detail why Le Guin’s essay, while pointing in the right direction, comes up short, and how our unanswered question might be answered.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Cover Art

When I buy a book, I prefer it to be ancient, musty, compact, and weather-worn. One of my prize possessions is a tiny Everyman’s edition of Marlowe printed in 1912. I found it in an antiquarian bookstore in Archer City, Texas. Its cover is green and it has leaves and tendrils stamped in gold on the spine. The first page is inscribed with a Cambridge address, and there’s an old coupon for the Boston Metropolitan Opera inside it.

But I digress. When it comes to fantasy I have to make do with what I can find. Much as I would love to acquire an early hardcover edition of The Worm Ouroboros like the one I first found at the library, these are invariably bought and sold by collectors and other people with money. But nearly as good are the old Adult Fantasy trade paperbacks from Ballantine.

To begin with, when I read a paperback, I much prefer something yellowed and slightly trashy. The Ballantine books certainly fit this description. But there is more. I genuinely like the cover designs. They are garish and childish. Back when I lived in the city and rode a crowded bus every day, I was a little self-conscious about pulling out a slick reprint with a big, bold, up-to-date design. But a trashy old copy of Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn with its unicorn, its harpy, and its woodland scenery that all look as though painted by a junior high student with a six-year-old’s taste in color? That I would display with pride.

In a way it is the childishness of the pictures that I like. For there is something a little immature in reading fantasy; this is tied to its essential seriousness. Yes, the pictures are often laughably crude, the colors horribly garish. Yet they are attractive in a retro sort of way, and there is a certain composite prettiness in a shelf-full of them, like a collage of dried flowers. Many of the paintings wrap around to the back cover, and some are quite beautiful.

A while back I decided to acquire Evangeline Walton’s retelling of the Mabinogion. I ordered the four Adult Fantasy paperbacks on Amazon. One of them, The Children of Llyr, did not match the image shown by the seller; it was an edition from the period after Ballantine was acquired by Del Rey. It features a bold, hirsute, dwarfish character sporting a horn-hat, a shield, and a shirt with those little X’s that they used back before buttons were invented. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the actual book, of course, and to me it is much more dated than the psychedelic Ballantine covers. And then there were the other three, which come as close to timeless fantasy as the cover of a trashy trade paperback ever could.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Mythopoeic Dualism

Does style play a special role in fantasy?

C. S. Lewis speaks in several places of a mythopoeic art, holding it as distinct from the manner of telling. This is an art is whose objects exist in the ideal, independent of any embodiment in tangible form. In his introduction to an anthology of George MacDonald’s works, he writes:
If you try to take the theme of Keats’ Nightingale apart from the very words in which he has embodied it, you find that you are talking about almost nothing. Form and content can there be separated only by a false abstraction. But in a myth—in a story where the mere pattern of events is all that matters—this is not so. Any means of communication whatever which succeeds in lodging those events in our imagination has, as we say, “done the trick.” After that you can throw the means of communication away.
Lewis did not think style unimportant, of course. He was sensitive to the defects in MacDonald’s style; he praises Eddison’s writing while deploring Lindsay’s as “wretched”; his own novels are quite polished. But he holds that what is important in each case is independent of the verbal presentation. The telling is just the wrapper. The myth is the soul, the true reality; the telling is the body, necessary for the time being, perhaps, but to be gotten rid of as quickly as possible.

Being more of an Aristotelian than a Platonist, I am not quite comfortable with this “mythopoeic dualism.” Lewis would make the mythopoeic art a liberal art, like composition: a story exists even if no one is telling it, just as a piece of music exists even if no one is playing it. But the product of this mythopoeic art supposedly consists of a sequence of ideas with no guidelines as to how to “play” them, whereas composition leaves no such freedom. Is that what myth-making is really like?

For one thing, whoever has told a story to children knows very well that they are at least as sensitive to style as their elders, quick to point out the slightest deviation in wording. Analogously, in primitive societies, the manner of telling is fixed, and the story-teller assumes something of a priestly office. The same is true of the Greeks and other peoples of antiquity. They did not retell Homer: they recited him, and the poems themselves are highly formulaic. But even modern retellings of ancient myths follow certain traditional channels. Edith Hamilton’s Mythology is probably the best compendium of Greek myths for children—it’s what I grew up reading, at any rate—and this owes to the fact that she pays deference to the texts. It lends her book a certain heterogeneity. Or again, there are four different Gospels rather than one “harmony”; such harmonies have been written, but they never supersede the texts.

No, I begin to wonder if certain aspects of style are not intrinsic to myth as such. Lewis avers that he has always loved the tale of the Golden Fleece while never being particularly fond of any single telling; nevertheless, I think there must be something about the manner of telling, the style, that tints the story in all its different tellings. Style and story are mixed; they represent, not distinct categories, but a multiplicity of interwoven elements. Even the retelling of a modern “mythopoeic” novel (e.g., The Trial, Lewis’ example) must retain something of the author’s style.

If this is so, then myth is more akin to poetry than Lewis concedes. His enjoyment of MacDonald’s stories as “myths” must owe something to their style, and not merely exist in spite of it. What would we have if we stripped Phantastes of all stylistic elements? Not much more than we would have of Keats’ Nightingale, I think. Faërie would not survive the operation. But even Lewis was not consistent in his dualism, for he excludes The Night Land from his canon of story precisely because of its atrocious and foolish style. And how could we separate the story of The Worm Ouroboros—which Lewis praised so highly—from its ringing Jacobean idiom? Does not the manner of telling cast an enchanted mantle over the entire proceedings?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Idyll by the Bhavinan

Exotic Landscape, Henri Rousseau
"So they made their dwelling in that cave beside deep-eddying Bhavinan, and before that cave they ate their Yule feast, the strangest they had eaten all the days of their lives: seated, not as of old, on their high seats of ruby or of opal, but on mossy banks where daisies slept and creeping thyme; lighted not by the charmed escarbuncle of the high presence chamber in Galing, but by the shifting beams of a brushwood fire that shone not on those pillars crowned with monsters that were the wonder of the world but on the mightier pillars of the sleeping beechwoods. And in place of that feigned heaven of jewels self-effulgent beneath the golden canopy at Galing, they ate pavilioned under a charmed summer night, where the great stars of winter, Orion, Sirius, and the Little Dog, were raised up near the zenith, yielding their known courses in the southern sky to Canopus and the strange stars of the south. When the trees spake, it was not with their winter voice of bare boughs creaking, but with whisper of leaves and beetles droning in the fragrant air. The bushes were white with blossom, not with hoar-frost, and the dim white patches under the trees were not snow, but wild lilies and wood anemones sleeping in the night.

"All the creatures of the forest came to that feast, for they were without fear, having never looked upon the face of man. Little tree-apes, and popinjays, and titmouses, and coalmouses, and wrens, and gentle round-eyed lemurs, and rabbits, and badgers, and dormice, and pied squirrels, and beavers from the streams, and storks, and ravens, and bustards, and wombats, and the spider-monkey with her baby at her breast: all these came to gaze with curious eye upon those travellers. And not these alone, but fierce beasts of the woods and wildernesses: the wild buffalo, the wolf, the tiger with monstrous paws, the bear, the fiery-eyed unicorn, the elephant, the lion and she-lion in their majesty, came to behold them in the firelight in that quiet glade."

The Worm Ouroboros, Chapter XII

The Cult of Númenor: Part II

The Sacrifice of Noah, San Antonio Museum of Art
In Part I of this post, I argued that Tolkien did weave religion (actual, not allegorical) into the tapestry of Middle-Earth, albeit in a manner so implicit as to be hidden even from that most perceptive of critics, Lin Carter. Now, if Tolkien seems somewhat reticent to discuss the matter of religion openly, the reason, I think, is not far to seek. He was himself deeply religious, and a rather self-conscious member of a religious minority. It is all very well for Carter to patch together his decadent pasteboard religions. So might a boy who has never made love to a woman write foolish stories about amorous encounters. Someone who has a little firsthand experience will be less inclined to speak frivolously. Moreover, Tolkien was a papist, and had grown up in a time when enough people in England still cared about religion that that was Not a Good Thing. Even his friend C. S. Lewis harbored some prejudice on this score. There are many other reasons why Tolkien may not have wished openly to treat of religion, not the least being his good taste. Despite all of this, though, there are indeed traces of the Númenorean religion in his works.

We are told in Tolkien’s Akallabêth that at the island’s center was the holy mount Meneltarma, where only the King could speak, praying the Three Prayers to Eru Ilúvatar. And so the Kings of Númenor, Aragorn’s remote ancestors, were also its High Priests. This worship could not continue after the destruction of the island, for Meneltarma was lost and the men of the West a diaspora upon Middle-Earth. The bearing of the sapling of Nimloth, the holy tree descended from Galathilion in the West, into Middle-Earth upon the foundering of Númenor, to give rise in its turn to the White Tree of Minas Tirith, calls to mind the roles of continuity, recurrent death, and perennial vitality in Tolkien’s religion. When Aragorn comes at the end of the Third Age to claim his rightful throne in Minas Tirith, he finds the White Tree long dead, withered as the kingly line of Gondor has withered. He exercises a priestly role in ascending to the holy place upon Mindolluin to uproot the new-sprouted sapling and plant it in the place of its parent. Clearly, the Return of the King is also the Return of the Priest.

Perhaps the peoples of Middle-Earth have no “organized religion” in Carter’s sense. Tolkien says as much in his correspondence; but the principal reason for this is that the very texture of Middle-Earth is religious. Nevertheless, Tolkien does give the men of the West a negative “Chaldean” religion on the purely literal plane. They were no more lacking in religion than were the subjects of Melchizedek, who offered bread and wine to the One in thanksgiving after the slaughter of the five kings.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Of Texans and Cimmerians

On June 11, 2011, I was travelling across the state to a wedding when I made a detour through the tiny town of Cross Plains, Texas. Cross Plains, as you may or may not know, is the one-time home of Robert Ervin Howard, 1930s pulp writer and creator of Conan the Cimmerian; June 11 was the seventy-fifth anniversary of the day he committed suicide. I went out of my way that day to look about the town and tour his house, which is now a small museum.

Though I am no very great fan of pulp fantasy, I have a special fondness for REH. Possibly this stems from the fact that he was a product of small-town Texas, as I am. His conception of Cimmeria was inspired by a misty evening in the Hill Country around Fredricksburg, a part of the world that I know well. He lived in Poteet and Wichita Falls and other towns I am familiar with, and travelled to Carlsbad Caverns, where I have been many times. There is something in his stories that speaks strongly of Texas, especially in his later ones, e.g., “Red Nails.” Yes, he was “trapped” in the rural backwaters, but his prose has attained to some kind of immortality.

The Howard house is a small white one-bedroom affair on the edge of town; REH slept and wrote in a tiny sleeping porch behind his parents’ bedroom. I was taken all over the house by a kindly old lady, who, if not exactly an avid reader of REH, was at least proud of their local celebrity. It is furnished for the most part with period antiques rather than with pieces the Howards actually owned. But they have a number of delightful relics there as well, including the bust of Cleopatra that REH bought with his own money on a trip to New Orleans when he was a teenager (it belonged to L. Sprague de Camp before being donated to the museum) and a postcard sent to REH by H. P. Lovecraft from Quebec (written in typical Lovecraftian prose, no less).

For all Howard’s success in pulp writing, he was an intensely lonely and troubled person. He took his own life upon learning that his ailing mother had lapsed into a coma from which she was not expected to recover. It seems that he had been planning to do so for some time. She died the same day, and they were buried together in the family plot in nearby Brownwood.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Cult of Númenor: Part I

In his Imaginary Worlds, the indispensible yet unbearably enthusiastic Lin Carter takes Tolkien to task for having accidently left one element out of his magnum opus, namely, religion:
[T]here is no religion at all in The Lord of the Rings—no temples, shrines, priests, prayers, amulets, scriptures, ikons, idols—nothing! None of the many characters, not even the heroic warriors, so much as swears by his gods. Obviously because they have no gods. Which is simply incredible in a primitive world of wizards and warriors and walled stone cities.
The use of the word “primitive” here brings up a relevant point, for Tolkien seems not to have regarded such religion as primitive at all. We’ll let this pass for the moment, however, and turn to the substance of the criticism. Now, Carter does concede that the peoples of Middle-Earth honor the Valar, the terrestrial angels who watch over the world of Tolkien’s conception, and Eru, the One over all. But that, he says, is not what he is talking about. He means what he calls “organized religion.” Really what he wants is a phony religion, a bit of the added icing and sprinkles that he so delights in. This, however, Tolkien was apparently unwilling to concoct. For it is hard to imagine that he simply neglected to think of it. And if we suppose that his reticence to describe the religion of Middle-Earth was intentional, we may well wonder whether there is a good reason for it.

To begin with, to underscore Carter’s concession, we do find a considerable amount of worship in Middle-Earth. It is not what the theologians call latria, or adoration of the divine, but dulia, adulation, honor paid to creatures. The Elves honor Elbereth, the lady of the stars, to such a degree that we might even speak of hyperdulia. What is more, while Middle-Earth’s mortals speak little of the Valar (Tolkien does mention that some falsely suppose them to be gods), they do pay homage to the great among the Elves. Think, for instance, of Gimli the Dwarf’s courteous “worship” of Galadriel and his bold request to carry away a sacred relic of her person. Now, paying honor to blessed spirits is part of some organized religions, including that to which Tolkien belonged. The dulia of Middle-Earth is not exactly organized, but then, neither is that of Tolkien’s religion. And anyway, who would use an icon when the living, breathing reality resides in the Golden Wood of the terrestrial sphere?

All this is not what Carter is talking about, though. He wants gods and priests, mummery and mumbo-jumbo. But the mention of the stars and the angelic agencies of Middle-Earth leads to another important point. The Hebrew conception of the angel, scholars tell us, was inherited from or influenced by the astral religion of Babylon. Now, Abram was called from Ur of the Chaldees, and the Magi who followed the star to Bethlehem hailed from the same region. They may be taken as types of the good pagan, paying homage to the stars and blessed spirits as to what is preeminent in creation, but only insofar as they flow from and are oriented toward the dark and yet-unknown One. Like Thomas More’s Utopians, they do not attempt more, because they know better. They wait in darkness.

In his essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” Tolkien makes some apposite remarks about the apparent absence of religion in the world of the poem, written as it was soon after the advent of the new faith:
But if the specifically Christian was suppressed, so also were the old gods. Partly because they had not really existed, and had been always, in the Christian view, only delusions or lies fabricated by the evil one… Partly because their old names (certainly not forgotten) had been potent, and were connected in memory still, not only with mythology…but with active heathendom, religion… Most of all because they were not actually essential to the theme.
Might not these three factors also be at work in LOTR? Tolkien does speak in passing of heathendom and self-immolation, and of Black Númenoreans who worship the Enemy. Be this as it may, it is worthwhile noting that, while the writer of Beowulf excludes Christianity as an anachronism, he does not simply dismiss his heroic forebears as irredeemable sinners, as so many in his time were willing to do. No, he elevates them to the role played by the patriarchs and noble pagans:
It would seem that, in his attempt to depict ancient pre-Christian days, intending to emphasize their nobility, and the desire of the good for truth, he turned naturally when delineating the great King of Heorot to the Old Testament.
It is hard not to think of the kingly line of Númenor in this connection. Moreover, Aragorn himself seems to hold a pontifical as well as a kingly office (“the hands of the King are the hands of a healer”). The conjunction of these roles is itself a widespread pre-Christian, pagan idea, but it also found its way into the Old Testament in the person of Melchizedek, the high priest and king of Salem.

It is to the heirs of Elendil that we must look if we are to make out the keynotes of religion in Middle-Earth.

The Worm Ouroboros: Fantasy before Genre

The Lords Juss, Goldry Bluszco,
Spitfire, and Brandoch Daha.
Mass-market reissues of The Worm Ouroboros invariably try to package it as something it’s not. The goal seems to be to bamboozle unsuspecting readers into buying it. This attempted pigeonholing  is to be expected, perhaps. But even among those who appreciate Ouroboros, it is hard to find someone who will advocate it without hedging and apologizing.

One of its great sins seems to be that its races of Demons, Witches, Ghouls, Imps, and so on are just nations, and not distinct species. I have to admit that I don’t understand the complaint. But maybe that’s because I don’t understand why some people who read fantasy fiction actually enjoy it. I suppose that someone whose definition of fantasy is “a story taking place in a quasi-medieval fictional world peopled with sapient species such as dwarves, elves, halflings, orcs, etc., and involving taverns and walled cities” might be scandalized by Ouroboros. But the definition is a degenerate one, and that type of reader probably wouldn’t like any real fantasy, or, at any rate, wouldn’t like it for the same reasons that I do.

The other main complaint concerns “The Induction,” the ”awkward” framing device with which the story opens, involving a man named Lessingham who is wafted away one night to Mercury to witness the wars between the Demons and the Witches. The device is dropped after the first couple of chapters, and Mercury is never mentioned again, the world being referred to as middle-earth thereafter (naturally enough, since it is the Demons’ earth). Personally, I find the device delightful. It is strange and beautiful, and in a way mirrors my own more mundane “induction” in the old Dewey decimal section. Furthermore, given that Eddison adopts a Jacobean/Elizabethan-style prose in telling his story, and that English Renaissance plays often had such inductions and framing devices (e.g., A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Taming of the Shrew), I don’t think the choice at all unnatural.

Then again, perhaps I simply take an abnormal delight in “dumb shows” and awkward or slow beginnings, from the strange awakening of Anodos, to the silly explanations at the beginning of The Time-Machine, to the the séance with which A Voyage to Arcturus opens, to the homely beginnings of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, to Ransom’s walking tour and abduction, to John Carter’s contemplation of Mars. I like being eased into the sublime and the otherworldly from familiar surroundings. That contemporary fantasy writers don’t feel the need to build a bridge from the familiar only reflects the degeneracy of the genre, in which all has become familiar, in which keywords and cover images are used to elicit conditioned responses.

A good fairy tale begins at home but takes the reader to Faërie; the modern fantasy novel purports to take place wholly in Faërie, but actually never leaves the couch.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Worm Ouroboros

I was about twenty when I discovered E. R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros. I was a shelver in the university library, working in the old, rarely visited Dewey decimal section on the top floor. The title caught my eye, and I took the book down and opened its well-worn cover. As I began to read, I knew that here was a vein of a different metal. Something richer, stranger, more real, more alien, and more true to itself even than Lewis or Tolkien, the authors I had grown up with. The strangest thing was that I had never heard of it. Nor, for that matter, had anyone. And yet it is (in my humble opinion) one of the great works of the English language.

Ouroboros was first published in 1922 and sold very poorly. However, it came to be known to both C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, and Lewis in particular praised it as a strange and unique synthesis of northern hardness and renaissance luxury. Even Lin Carter, that insufferable chatterbox, had the sense to put it forward as a candidate for the greatest fantasy novel ever written. Praise for it has not been limited to fantasists. In his introduction to the 1952 edition, Orville Prescott speaks of it as a “majestic romance” and an “enduring masterpiece, though a strange and imperfect one.”

What do I love about it? To begin with, the Jacobean style in which it is written is unbelievably gorgeous and ornate, but never unnatural, silly, or pretentious. Eddison’s sentences have a heady, round, and ringing rhythm, so that the book is a delight to read aloud (as I have done, twice). The heroes are a combination of the courtly renaissance prince, magnanimous and well-spoken, and the lordly homeric chieftan, while the villains, bad rather than evil, are glorious monsters and chimeras that it is impossible not to admire. The settings range from the rich palaces of many-mountained Demonland to the marshes of waterish Witchland and the Iron Tower of Carcë to the devil-haunted, blasted waste of the Moruna to the jewel-like Lake of Ravary guarded by immortal spirits and ringed with impassible peaks.

But all this is material. No amount of praise or description could convey the sense that one has upon opening the book, that here is something vital, real, and substantial, something with a life of its own. It is a work of art, pursuing its own ends with no thought of utility. That is what I love about it. That is what fantasy should be.

One Cheer for Misfits

My predilections for reading in fantasy tend toward the "antiquarian." Give me some battered old Ballantine Adult Fantasy paperbacks and perhaps a few other volumes here and there, and I’ll be happy. It isn’t that I haven’t read more recent work. I just find that much of it lacks the substance, the freshness, the vigor, and the strangeness of works like The Worm Ouroboros or The Time Machine or A Voyage to Arcturus or "The Tower of the Elephant." So much of it consists of trite and over-clever recombinations of things that have been done to death, the precise opposite of what fantasy should be.

Many of the writers I revere would never get published today. Publishing is simply too monolithic, too uniform; there is no room for drolleries or grotesques. Then again, even in their own time, writers like E. R. Eddison had to go through small publishers, and sold perhaps a few thousand copies at most. So perhaps the advent of indie publishing and contemporary small presses and online magazines and the leveling of the playing field through outlets like are the contemporary answer to the eccentric and the grotesque.

Let the reader decide if he wants to read my stories. That’s what I say.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

First Post

This is my first post on my first attempt at a blog. Beginning things is always a little awkward, and starting a blog is especially so. Here I am, writing something in public space for others to view, when I know very well that I’m completely unknown and that no one will ever view it. So, then, why am I starting a blog? There are two very simple reasons.

The first is that I’ve been writing fantasy, and hope soon to be published. In my opinion, readers buy authors rather than books or stories. So I’m starting a blog where I can speak freely about what interests me, so that prospective readers can decide whether I’m right for them.

The second reason is that, while some people think to write, I write to think. It’s my hope that having a blog will motivate me to discipline my random musings and keep me intellectually and artistically honest. So, as far as that goes, it doesn’t matter if no one ever comes here. All I need is the remote possibility.