Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Thoughts on fantasy: A preamble

I have occasionally threatened to use this blog as a testing-ground for my academic writing ... and sometimes I have actually done so, often inadvertently, but I’ve never tried a sustained series of posts dedicated to a specific topic.

Well, here we go—I’ve been working at my normal glacial pace on a handful of articles on the novels of Terry Pratchett specifically, and fantasy as a genre more generally. For a long time now, they’ve been less a handful of articles in process than snowdrifts of notes dealing with far too many facets of the larger topic, and the process of trying to connect them into cohesive arguments has been not unlike having root canal surgery performed on my frontal lobe. By a bear.

But for all that, some things are coming into focus—the big thing being that I really need to work harder on bringing things into focus. So over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to post some forays into this research, and I’ll try to do it in a more conversational way than I would if writing for an academic journal. Arguments and challenges to my premises are not just welcomed but encouraged …

 My name is Christopher Lockett, and I read fantasy. That comes as no great galloping shock to anyone who has read this blog, but I figured I should start with the basics. I read fantasy fiction, and, more than that, it was fantasy that really is to blame for where I am in life now … by which I mean, a professor of English. I read The Lord of the Rings when I was twelve, and it was the first thing I ever read that affected me on a gut level. It took me a few months to get through it—from the end of grade six, over the summer (I remember vividly reading the Battle of Helm’s Deep in the back of the car on the way up to my uncle’s cottage), and into the start of grade seven. I had the full edition of LotR, all three books in the one volume, plus appendices (the appendices are important—I will be returning to Tolkien’s appendices in future posts). Some time in autumn of 1984, I came to the last sentences of the last chapter:

At last they rode over the downs and took the East Road, and then Merry and Pippin rode on to Buckland and already they were singing again as they went. But Sam turned to Bywater, and so came back up the Hill, as day was ending once more. And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap. He drew a deep breath. “Well, I'm back,” he said.

And then, refusing to allow that this novel that had consumed me for several months was finished, I read through the appendices. Tolkien helpfully included a chronology that starts with the first age, and ends with the death of Aragorn some decades after LotR technically ends:

In this year ... came at last the Passing of King Elessar [that's Aragorn, for the non-dorks in the audience]. It is said that the beds of Meriadoc and Peregrin were set beside the bed of the great king. Then Legolas built a ship in Ithilien, and sailed down Anduin and so over Sea; and with him, it is said, went Gimli the Dwarf. And when that ship passed and end was come in Middle-Earth of the Fellowship of the Ring.

THAT was the moment that gutted me—Sam coming home after seeing Frodo et al off to the West was bad enough, but THAT was the moment at which something in my mind said “that’s it—these characters whom you have loved so much? You get nothing more.”

It was devastating. But it was a turning point in my literary and intellectual development, because it was the first time I realized that literature, novels, stories, could have affect. They could, quite literally, change your life. And LotR was the first thing I read that made me want to write. I bought a spiral notebook and pack of papermate pens at the local drugstore (starting my lifelong love affair with stationary) and started writing a story that was a thin knockoff of Tolkien. I also—and this was key—invented my own maps. Maps were important. I loved the maps of Middle-Earth in LotR, and one of my great loves in my readings in fantasy has been the maps imaginary places at the front of the novels—be it Middle-Earth, Pern, Westeros, or Earthsea. (I have always had a cartographic imagination).

But anyway … fantasy in the form of Tolkien (and to a lesser extent, C.S. Lewis) was my defining literary experience. Since then, it has always been a genre to which I have returned. Leaving high school and entering university, it became what I would call a guilty pleasure; sometime around the middle of my PhD, I stopped being guilty about it. (I actually now loathe that term. I’m sympathetic to the desire to appreciate “art,” but at this stage in my life I have known high school dropouts working as carpenters who have a better grasp of Thomas Pynchon than I do, and accomplished, critically acclaimed poets who take inspiration from America’s Next Top Model. It takes all kinds, and one of the things literary study has taught me is that even the crappiest, most formulaic novel can teach us something, even inadvertently, and that talented writers take their inspiration from a host of sources).

So, part of this series of posts I’m working on is a return to my roots, as it were … and to ask: what is the appeal of this genre? And what has it done for us lately? The answers to both of those questions are at once no-brainers and endlessly complex … at its most formulaic and simplistic, fantasy is a nostalgic return to a pre-modern sensibility, which unfortunately tends to include somewhat problematic depictions of race and gender. At its most inventive, however, fantasy represents a remarkable fusion of the historical and romantic imagination.

What first prompted my research into this topic, however, was the gradual realization of how much contemporary fantasy has shifted from Tolkien-esque mythopoeia to eminently humanist narratives. It seems slightly counter-intuitive at first blush: why employ a traditionally anti-rationalist, anti-realist genre to this end? But when one reads George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods,* Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Richard K. Morgan’s ongoing A Land Fit for Heroes series (which currently comprises The Steel Remains and The Cold Commands), or Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicle (to name a few), one finds a definite shift away from a preoccupation with magic and the supernatural, and the mythical, to one with, well, people … and to frame it more philosophically, with a Foucauldian conception of power not as a transcendent ordering principle, but the product of human exchange and interaction.

To be clear: this is not to suggest that contemporary fantasy has abandoned the mythopoeic tropes on display in Narnia or The Lord of the Rings, or that those novels didn’t have a host of human dramas on display. In the first case, we wouldn’t have a genre we could reliably call “fantasy” in the way we have come to understand it post-Tolkien without some combination magic and sorcery, fantastic creatures, different “kinds” of people (e.g. elves, dwarves, gnomes, etc.), all within the context of an identifiably medieval, pre-modern world.

I realize there’s a lot I’m saying here that is currently ill-defined, and much that devoted readers of fantasy will likely take issue with (as well as devoted readers of critical theory and philosophy—certainly “humanism” is a rather fraught and catholic concept, almost as much as the concept of “fantasy,” and I don’t do myself favors when citing Michel Foucault and humanism in the same breath). To which I just beg patience. As mentioned above, this is all essentially an exercise in forcing myself to clarify my thoughts on the matter(s) at hand and, hopefully, evoking discussion and argument.

Next up: a consideration of diegetic logic in fantasy and fairy-tales. Sexy!

*Yes, including American Gods in this list is a little one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-others, but I'll be returning to talk about Neil Gaiman quite a lot over these posts ... not because he's a typical practitioner of fantasy fiction, but because his thematic preoccupations help explicate the rest of what I'll be talking about.

1 comment:

Dave Reynolds said...

Sounds great! I look forward to reading more in this series. Fantasy tales had a big impact on me as a teen, too. I think, for me at least, much of that love came from enjoying how the different characters/peoples/races could be seen as reflections of the real world. Animal Farm and Maus are like that in a way, too, but they tend to be taken more seriously than fantasy tales. I prefer my allegories with elves and dragons.

And, I totally share your fondness for maps. Cheers!