Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The A to Z Fantastic: Fantasy Rapid Fire Part 2

Without further ado...

When I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time I felt like Alice must have felt when she followed the White Rabbit into Wonderland: I was falling down into a world so deep that I might never come back from it. It was the depth of Lore in LoTR that gripped me from the beginning. The sense that I might explore Middle-earth forever and never learn all there is to know about it. Soon I discovered that the fantasy genre is full of Lore-rich works and I fell hopelessly in love. Finding a new book or series that has a richness of Lore and background/backstory details to lose myself in is my greatest joy while reading.

Magic. It seems to be the one ingredient that everyone can agree is absolutely essential to fantasy literature. But what is Magic? Arthur C. Clarke famously said that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Gene Wolfe wrote that "There is no magic. There is only knowledge, more or less hidden." I've been giving a lot of serious thought to the question of what Magic is lately. I plan on writing a series of posts about it after April. Come back then if you're interested in my conclusions.

One of my favorite tropes of fantasy is Names. In no other genre are Names as important as they are in fantasy. For in fantasy Names can tell you much about a character and their world. Name construction can give you clues into the author's worldbuilding. For instance, in Tolkien's works, the names follow the rules of the various languages he created. One of his names can instantly tell you a character's race and country of origin before you know anything else about them. And the meaning behind the name might give you clues to their character and role in the stories. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, a smart reader could have realized early on that Professor Remus Lupin was a werewolf just from his name. Names in fantasy are like clues to a mystery, a game I the reader am playing with the author. Meta or not, I find it good fun.

An element that fantasy inherited from mythology and the fairy story is the Otherworld. The Otherworld can be either the land of the dead or just a parallel world of spirits and deities. A character in a fantasy novel may interact with the Otherworld by summoning spirits, communicating with the dead, being tricked into venturing there themselves or even crossing the boundary between the worlds of their own free will on a quest. An Otherworld gives a writer a great opportunity to include really strange stuff in their fantasy without having to explain it: the Otherworld has always been a bizarre place.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The A to Z Fantastic: Fantasy Rapid Fire Part 1

Let's go!

You've all heard of the Hero's Quest, but how about the Hero's Geas? A geas is a concept that comes from Celtic Mythology and it can be either a taboo or an injunction placed on the hero, typically by a woman. For instance, Cuchulainn has a geas on him to never eat dog meat and he is also bound by a geas to eat any food offered to him by a woman. So naturally one day a woman offers him dog meat to eat. Geasa frequently lead to the doom of the hero who is bound by them.

In the real world, we are confronted daily with the knowledge that we are mortal and must die. Perhaps this is why in fantasy Immortality is such a common theme. For better or worse we all at times wish that we could live forever. In fantasy, people can live forever, but frequently they find that it is not as wonderful a thing as they thought it would be. Is this a way of compensating for our inability to live forever, simply to make us feel better about it? Or is there truth there?

Fantasy stories frequently feature great Journeys across vast lands. Think The Lord of the Rings or The Wheel of Time or any major epic fantasy series. Readers go along for the journey, often following along with a relatively clueless character who has never traveled beyond his home town before. In this way the reader experiences the same discovery that the character does as he sees new lands and meets new people and learns new things. Only in fantasy can we make such journeys of discovery in wholly new worlds.

Fantasy has become the refuge of the Kingdom. While Kings and Kingdoms still exist in our modern world, they are simply not the same anymore. And it must be confessed that there is something romantic and awesome about the Kingdom. Part of us longs for the pomp and circumstance that goes along with a kingdom and some of us long for the romance of princes and princesses. But perhaps it is just as well that the good and bad of the monarchy is mostly preserved for us in the pages of a fantasy book.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The A to Z Fantastic: Elfland and Faerie

The first week of this year's A to Z Challenge coincided with spring break, which meant that all 5 of my kids were home all week. This on top of having a brand new baby and a sick two year old. So needless to say I've been having some trouble finding time for blogging and am already way behind. Rather than just picking up where the Challenge is now, I'd like to make up the letters I've missed. So I'll be blogging two letters per day this week until I'm caught up. So today will be E and F.

Today I'm going to kill two birds with one stone by using two words for the same idea. (Hahaha!)

I am currently reading the book The King of Elfland's Daughter by Lord Dunsany. In it, the people of the Vale of Erl desire to have a magic lord to make their lives more interesting. So the old lord of Erl sends his son, Alveric, into Elfland to marry the King of Elfland's Daughter. The story so far seems to me less about the characters and more about the relationship between the "Fields We Know", as Dunsany calls the mundane world where the Vale of Erl is, and the magical realm of Elfland. The story strongly stresses the differences between the two and indeed those differences are the major source of the conflict. The people of the Vale of Erl are drawn to the magic of Elfland and yet have trouble understanding and accepting it.

I don't know how this conflict will play out but I am eager to find out.

One of the pages above talks about Tolkien's brilliant essay On Fairy Stories. In it he talks about the nature of fantasy as rooted in Faerie. Not Fairies, but Faerie, or as Tolkien called it, the Perilous Realm. The place from whence the stories come.

Faërie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold. ... The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveler who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost. ~ J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

Tolkien goes out of his way not to define Faerie, saying that part of its nature is to be indescribable though not imperceptible. But one thing is for certain: whatever Faerie is, it is other. It is something that is at once wondrous and dangerous, compelling and repulsing, beyond us and yet a part of us. Faerie, or Elfland, is the essence of Fantasy, allowing us to pass beyond the Fields We Know and emerge again different, and hopefully better, people.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The A to Z Fantastic: Exploring Life After Death

One of the great things about fantasy is that it allows us to explore things that are impossible or at least impossible to know in this real world. One of my favorite impossible things to explore is Death and Life after it.

Currently my favorite example of this is the anime series Bleach.

Bleach is about Ichigo Kurosaki who has always been able to see dead souls. Then one fateful night he meets Rukia Kuchiki, a Shinigami (lit. death god) whose job is to help those wandering souls enter the after life. Ichigo is drawn into the world of the Soul Society where dead souls go to reside and where the Shinigami protect the balance of life and death. Not all souls go peacefully to Soul Society, he learns. Some become monstrous Hollows and when Hollows linger in the living world to eat human souls it is the Shinigami's duty to end their existence (with super awesome sword powers).

What I like particularly about Bleach's version of the after life is that it doesn't at all seem like an afterlife. Soul Society is a real, fleshed out world where souls live like normal people. While souls do not need to consume food unless they have high spiritual power (and those who do tend to join the Shinigami), water is still necessary for existence. Thus life after death continues to be a struggle for survival.

Over the course of the series you meet members of rich and powerful families residing in Soul Society whose sons and daughters almost always join the 13 Court Guard Squads of the Shinigami. You also meet those that came from the poor and the destitute sections of Soul Society where people scrape by a living, and where those with unusual spiritual power often suffer more than most, being lucky if they can one day join the privileged Shinigami. 

The interaction between the living world and the Soul Society is the crux of the show, Ichigo being a sort of  fulcrum between the two. It's a fascinating world. And it could only be explored through fantasy.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Courageous Authors of Fantasy

This post is both for the A to Z and for the Insecure Writer's Support Group.

Today I want to talk about Courage. But instead of talking about courage within Fantasy stories, I'm going to focus on the courage it takes to write Fantasy stories.

Fantasy has been a much maligned genre since its emergence in the 1800s. (Note: when I talk about Fantasy as a genre I mean modern fantasy beginning with such writers as George MacDonald and William Morris.) Often considered only good for children or as escapist fare for pathetic losers, everyone who doesn't enjoy it seems to look down on fantasy, even the people who publish it. In addition, "experts" were declaring traditional and epic fantasy dead not long ago. Tell someone you were working on a fantasy novel and you were likely to pitied more than praised.

In the face of all this, the last hundred years has been full of courageous writers defying the odds and proving the naysayers wrong with spectacular works of fantasy literature that expand reader horizons and add much beauty to the world. I'd like to take a moment to recognize some of the authors who I think have been particularly bright stars in the universe of fantasy fiction and salute their courage as artists and creators.

Robert E. Howard is remembered as the father of Sword and Sorcery due to his creation of the iconic Conan the Cimmerian character. Conan was the consummate adventurer and a perfect example of the courageous fantasy spirit.

Lord Dunsany (or Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany) was, I believe, the first great world builder. His stories were filled with exotic and wondrous locales with memorable names and fantastic atmosphere. He was also probably the first modern mythopoet, crafting a world of gods and their mythologies unlike anything before him.

It goes without saying that J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis belong on this list. For without their brilliant creations of Middle-earth and Narnia fantasy might never have gained the widespread popularity it achieved in the middle of the last century. Their works resonated with readers like none other before them gaining lasting status as classic that will surely be remembered for centuries to come.

One of the finest fantasy series I've ever read is the Amber Chronicles by Roger Zelazny. It's the perfect example of fantasy that transcends subgenres, brilliantly utilizing tropes from ever kind of fantasy fiction without ever being subject to them, it never feels cliche.

Lastly, I want to mention an author who is not a favorite of mine (though he is a favorite of my husband) but whose work and artistry I have profound respect for. Gene Wolfe is an author of all kinds of speculative fiction, not one of his stories being like any other. The depth, subtlety and originality of his work is sadly underrated by readers while being widely praised by authors of all kinds. Or, as my husband has said, "All Gene Wolfe and no Gene Wolfe makes Gene Wolfe, Gene Wolfe." (Don't ask me what that means.)

These shining stars of fantasy (and science fiction) paved the way for writers like me (and you!) with their courageous refusal to write anything but the best and their determination to see their work make its way to readers. They made it possible for the genre to grow and thrive, gathering new writers and new readers constantly, by digging deep and producing amazing works of art that no one else could. Looking to their example, we can do the same. We can persevere against all odds in the name of getting our own unique stories to readers and perhaps one day be remembered as they are. Artists and creators who add beauty and wonder to the world.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The A to Z Fantastic: Beauty

"Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron." ~C. S. Lewis on The Lord of the Rings

I believe that the purpose of every art form is to create Beauty from within ourselves and add it to the world. Writing stories is one way of doing that. Writing Fantasy is, in my opinion, one of the best ways.

Now when I say "Beauty" I don't mean superficial prettiness. I don't mean that a story should necessarily be pleasant to read. As C. S. Lewis said, beauty can hurt.

"There is more beauty in truth, even if it is a dreadful beauty. The storytellers at the city gate twist life so that it looks sweet to the lazy and the stupid and the weak, and this only strengthens their infirmities and teaches nothing, cures nothing, nor does it let the heart soar." ~John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Art creates Beauty and Beauty points to Truth and Truth is that which, as Steinbeck puts it, teaches us, cures us and lets our hearts soar.

The reason that I think Fantasy serves so well in creating Beauty is that it allows us to take a step back from reality, which can so easily cloud our eyes. It allows our imagination freedom of movement to see things from angles we've never seen before and in lights we've never known before. It allows us to examine humanity and the world and our place in it in ways no other art form can. Properly employed, it can leads us to truths no other genre can. And I think that is its true purpose.

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty." ~ John Keats, Ode to a Grecian Urn

Monday, April 1, 2013

The A to Z Fantastic: Anthing Goes

Last year, the first time I attempted this theme before dropping out after 6 posts, I talked about how I believe fantasy is the best genre for Adventure.

This year I want to talk about how in fantasy Anything Goes. (Who has the song in their heads now? And who thought of the version from the Monty Python sketch?)


The more fantasy novels and stories I read the more I realize how utterly limitless the genre is. Most genres seem to have limited subject matter and often come with guidelines about how that subject matter should be explored. (Example: Romance needs to be about the romantic relationship between two people and generally needs to have a happy ending.) But fantasy can be about anything and in fantasy anything can happen. Sure, maybe some things are predictable. Good always triumphs over evil. But there are infinite ways it can happen and the joy of the genre is that sense that you never know what's going to occur on the next page.

As a writer, I love the freedom that fantasy grants me. Literally anything I can imagine I can write about. There's no idea so crazy or so outlandish that fantasy can't accommodate it. There's no idea so mundane that fantasy can't spice it up.

And just for kicks, here's Anything Goes (the song) Indiana Jones style: