Monthly Archives: April 2014

HIGH FANTASY: FACT OR FICTION

One of the best things about fantasy books is their ability to take the reader into another world. This is a great strength. At the same time, from some people’s perspective, their greatest weakness.

A large number of readers only like “real” books – things to do with the world as we know it and historical events: memoirs, histories, self-help books and the like. I read a post on a writing forum recently where someone showed this attitude. He said that he was happy to charge high prices for his books because they were non-fiction and useful. The fiction writers, he suggested, were welcome to discount their novels as they were only made up things of no value.

I  certainly enjoy non-fiction books, but are they any more real than, say, the high fantasy of A Wizard of Earthsea?

Let’s take a closer look.

I’ve read the memoirs of many famous historical figures and sports people. Most of them were entertaining, some were enlightening, a few downright inspiring. These people had interesting stories to tell about their lives.

But telling a story is exactly what they did. It just happened to be their story. They presented a recollection of events, as seen through their eyes, and as such their reminiscences were filled not only with personal insights, but also their prejudices and misunderstandings. Who among us is free of those?

In short, a memoir is a record of how things happened, from a particular person’s point of view. Other people may have experienced those identical events, or reviewed the same set of facts, yet arrived at vastly different opinions.

For instance, I might argue that Tolkien is the greatest writer to have ever lived, but William Shakespeare need not agree (nor, for that matter, my English teacher). Likewise, some doctors say a daily glass of wine is good for you. Others argue that it’s poison. The truth is that the more you try to pin facts down, the more slippery they become.

So, what perspective do we gain on things looking out of the fictional eyes of Sparrowhawk while he sails the uncharted waters of Earthsea? Certainly, we learn a lot about pride, humility and the responsibility of power. Ultimately, these perspectives all derive from the author, because it’s the writer who breathes life into the character. But are the perspectives and insights any less real for that?

No.

And what about Sam and Frodo as they trudge across Middle-earth. Their struggles show us a lot about sacrifice, courage and loyalty. You can read a dictionary (one of those useful non-fiction books) to find the meaning of these words, but in The Lord of the Rings you feel them in your very bones.

Which is truer? Which more real? The desperate grit of Sam as he carries his master up the broken slopes of Mount Doom, empty of all hope but filled with determination anyway. Or the dictionary definition of the word: courage, toughness, resolution.

But as I say, it’s all a matter of perspective.

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TOLKIEN AND THE MAGIC GRAPE JUICE

The Lord of the Rings is the second highest selling book of all time. It trails A Tale of Two Cities, although I note that Charles Dickens had nearly a century head start. Tolkien’s masterpiece was consistently voted as the best book of the last century during a series of large-scale reader polls. For myself, I agree. But I have one question.

Why?

Undoubtedly, Tolkien was a great storyteller. He created memorable characters. His plotting was seamless, his prose fluent and poetic. But many authors can claim similar skills. What makes Tolkien different?

A blog on high, heroic and epic fantasy could do worse than attempt an explanation. And I do have one.

I think there are many reasons for Tolkien’s success, and I’ll come back to the subject in the future. For now, I’m going to focus on just one aspect. But first – a detour into history. It will, in the end, clarify my point.

The earliest archeological record for wine making dates to the late Neolithic period in the Caucuses. The people of that time (about 6000 BC) discovered that wild grape juice transformed into wine when buried in clay vessels through winter. And glad would they have been who first drank it.

Grape juice is nice. Its bold flavor is raw, fresh and vibrant. Its sweetness competes with its tartness. But it’s not wine. Wine is more subtle. Wine is refined. Wine is luxurious. The magic of fermentation turns grape juice into something entirely different. The flavors of the crushed grapes and the special characteristics of the yeast on their skins, which begin the process, come together as a whole and meld into something new. Just as soups and casseroles taste better the next day, so does wine improve over weeks, months or years. The flavors interact with each other and work together rather than compete.

The Lord of the Rings is like that. Everything works together as part of a greater whole. This gives the story depth. It makes it seem that things happen for a reason, rather than because of arbitrary chance, or author convenience. It makes things seem real. And that feeling of realness, of reading recorded history rather than fiction, of depth, is something that distinguishes Tolkien from other writers.

Many fantasy authors think that by adding appendices to their work, providing name lists, using a prologue establishing the mythological background, by giving dates for historical events in their fictional world, that they’re emulating Tolkien’s depth. But what they’re doing is tipping distilled spirits into a glass of grape juice and hoping for wine.

Tolkien’s depth comes from the melding of events, characters, names, languages and artifacts, rather than a mere dumping of raw information. If you pull on a single thread of his story, you find that the whole tapestry twitches. Shall we look at just one example to see what I mean?

When Tom Bombadil rescues the hobbits from the Barrow-wight, they retrieve some daggers. Tom explains their history and something of the Men of Westerness, foes of the Dark Lord, who long before had been overcome by the evil king of Angmar. Nearly a thousand pages later we see one of those weapons in use. Merry has stabbed the Witch-king, who was once that same evil king of Angmar. When the Black Rider is dead, Merry watches the blade wither away on the grass. Tolkien gently reminds us, “But glad would he have been to know its fate who wrought it slowly long ago . . .  and chief among their foes was the dread realm of Angmar and its sorcerer king.”

In this way Middle-earth’s past, Merry’s more recent past, and the present are connected. Just as in real life, events have repercussions, and they reverberate through the world.

But that’s not the only link. All through the novel is a sentiment that “Oft evil will shall evil mar.” This is reinforced by the fact that had the Barrow-wight not taken the hobbits, Merry would not have had the blade, and the Witch-king would not have been slain.

This is only one example. Take just about any event, character, name, sentiment or artifact, and think about how it’s connected to something else, and you’ll soon see that very little stands in isolation in The Lord of the Rings. The whole novel is like one of those buried clay vessels. The past is always bubbling up to the present, the fermentation always working its magic.

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