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PULP LITERATURE: How about some wisdom with your fantasy?

Wednesday, June 30th, 2010 | Posted by John R. Fultz


The three books of the PRINCE OF NOTHING trilogy. Fantasy that goes beyond entertainment and achieves enlightenment. Or at least challenges the reader's grasp of reality.

One of my favorite modern writers of fantasy is R. Scott Bakker. His PRINCE OF NOTHING trilogy absolutely blew my skull a few years back, and his latest book in that continuing saga is THE WHITE-LUCK WARRIOR, due to be released in Spring 2011.

I’ve been singing the praises of Bakker’s fantasy work for awhile now. His is a fantasy on the scale of Tolkien without stealing any of the usual tropes that go with that scale. His work is brilliant, illuminating, and challenging. In short, it is literary fantasy…i.e. fantasy with literary qualities. “What exactly does that mean?” I hear somebody asking. Well, here’s what I tell my students on the first day of any literature class: Literature is a written work of art that explores what it means to be human.

Literature allows us to view human nature, i.e. the human condition, through the lens of the written word. And the real magic is that good literature transcends time and space. Shakespeare, for instance, is still shedding light on the human condition even though he wrote 500 years ago. But literature is not just for the glimmering “elite” in their ivy-grown universities and ivory towers. Bakker’s fantasies do exactly what great literature does, while remaining tremendously entertaining.

This is something I strive for in my own writing (not always succeeding, I’ll admit). I want to reach inside my readers’ heads and challenge them, make them THINK, make them see the world or themselves in a new way. In short, I believe truly great fiction (of any genre) should provide some kind of enlightenment, some elevation of consciousness. Does that mean I see no place for purely “fun” fiction? Not at all. But when I write fantasy, or horror, or science fiction, it is with a literary intent.  

Entertainment is great, but it is not the be-all-end-all of fiction. Nor should it be. How many books have ever changed your life? How many stories? How many books have challenged your own interpretations of reality and made you see the world in exciting new ways?  

After I read Robert Heinlein’s  classic STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND in a college sci-fi class, I could never see reality the same way again. It hit on too many of the absolute truths behind quantum physics and metaphysical spirituality. Like a tab of LSD on the tongue, it made me re-evaluate human existence. There are other books and stories I could talk about, but this post is about Bakker’s work…  

So, skip forward twenty years or so, and Bakker’s trilogy did the same thing for me in a fantasy context. The three books in his PRINCE OF NOTHING series, The Darkness That Comes Before, The Warrior Prophet, and The Thousandfold Thought were consciousness-elevating works of epic fantasy.  

earwaHere’s how Wikipedia describes the crux of the trilogy:

“This trilogy details the emergence of Anasûrimbor Kellhus, a brilliant monastic warrior, as he takes control of a holy war and the hearts and minds of its leaders. Kellhus exhibits incredible powers of prediction and persuasion, which are derived from deep knowledge of rationality, cognitive biases, and causality, as discovered by the Dûnyain, a secret monastic sect. As Kellhus goes from military leader to divine prophet, Drusas Achamian, the sorcerer who mentored Kellhus, comes to realize that his student may well be the harbinger of the Second Apocalypse.”

This summary only scratches the surface of this epic and complex adventure. Monks, Sorcerers, Barbarians, Holy Wars, Ancient Aliens, and world-shattering magic. These are a few of Bakker’s tools, and he uses them brilliantly.

There is a great “manifesto” on Bakker’s blog ( that puts forth his philosophy of literature in a pop-culture context. I wholeheartedly agree with it. Here are a few excerpts from that page: 

My fiction uses pulp genre as a vehicle for literary themes, styles, and concerns – a formula which seems to alienate some readers as much as it excites others… 

Socially conscientious writers need to reach out to people with differing values, not to specialized cliques of likeminded fools. To turn your back on popular culture is to become an entertainer who simply pretends to challenge the assumptions of readers – to abandon literature, in effect, while festooning yourself in its colours…  

I think I’ve accomplished my first two goals:

1) to prove that there is in fact no intrinsic antithesis between pulp genre and literary conventions; and

2) to prove that consumers of popular culture actually have a hunger for fiction that challenges.  

This is a philosophy of “pulp literature” that I can really get behind. Personally, I want more than entertainment when I read a great piece of fiction. I want enlightenment, even if it’s only some kind of personal epiphany or emotional revelation. Good fiction (of any kind) should MOVE you. Ideally, it should CHANGE you. In a good way.  

Wisdom is the goal of literary endeavor, and it should be present in every genre. I’ve found it in the works of Robert Silverberg, Harlan Ellison, Ken Kesey, Thomas Ligotti, Tanith Lee, Erich Maria Remarque, J.R.R. Tolkien, H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, J.D. Salinger, Robert Heinlein, Darrell Schweitzer, William Shakespeare, and the list goes on and on…   

You’ll find it in Bakker’s work, if you’re up for the challenge…and the adventure.  





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    Pingback by PULP LITERATURE: How about some wisdom with your fantasy? « John R. Fultz ———— VIRTUAL SANCTUARY - June 30, 2010 1:46 am

  2. I love Bakker, but he very definitely *does* steal from Tolkien. It’s very deliberate and very obvious. The last amazing 70 page long action sequence from the Judging Eye is both a homage to “The Lord of the Rings” and a very successful attempt to wipe that book in filth and gore. What a wild ride that was.

    Comment by peadarog - June 30, 2010 4:25 pm

  3. Hey, Peadar,

    Thank you for reminding me of this. I should have clarified that I was talking about the original trilogy (PRINCE OF NOTHING), not the sequel duology (THE ASPECT-EMPEROR). In his original trilogy, Bakker does NOT steal from Tolkien AT ALL…he builds a wholly original world that has more in common with that of Arabian Nights or the Hyborian Age than it does with Middle Earth. However, in “The Judging Eye” (first book of the ASPECT-EMPEROR duology) he DOES consciously do a riff on Tolkien’s “Mines of Moria” by having Drusas Achamian lead a band of warriors through this haunted underground world to get to the other side of a snowbound mountain range. (Much like Gandalf led the Fellowship through Moria.)

    My guess is that, after having established his original world so completely in the first trilogy, he felt it would be okay to create this “homage” sequence and do it in his own inimitable way…which he certainly does.

    But I want to make it clear to those who’ve never read the PRINCE OF NOTHING trilogy that it is a wholly original work the likes of which will thrill and amaze you (as well as challenge you) without falling back on the same archetypes that Tolkien popularized.

    In this respect, the original trilogy is superior to the sequels, but isn’t that par for the course? Sequels are rarely better, and usually only half as original (if that).


    Comment by John R. Fultz - June 30, 2010 7:37 pm

  4. I think there are Tolkien homages even in the first trilogy, but I fear they may be spoilers. As for being wholly original, well, the entire historical background follows the crusades very closely indeed.

    I know the above looks like I’m trying to take something away from the author, but nothing could be further from the truth. I think he is utterly brilliant.

    I’m just engaging in a bit of friendly argument to avoid edits that need doing :)

    Comment by peadarog - July 1, 2010 4:52 am

  5. Hey, I hear you P!

    If you look closely enough at ANY modern fantasy, you’ll find bits of Tolkien because–let’s face it–they guy set the modern paradigm for heroic fantasy. By drawing on ancient archetypes and folklore, he was able to build a monolithic creation that colored every fantasy world that came after.

    However, there are those writers who cleave closely to Tolkien’s tropes (elves, orcs, magic rings, rangers, haflings, etc.) and there are those writers who weave their fantasies out of more obscure cloth. Sure, the Sranc in Bakker’s epic could be allegories of Orcs–but they are both simply raging, bloodthirsty, savage beast-men who kill and devour humans whenever possible…the world’s folklore, myths, and legends are full of such beasties.

    And it’s easy to compare Drusas Achamian with Gandalf, but you could also compare them both to Merlin, or any other wizard out of myth/legend.

    The fact is they are BOTH epic fantasies. Apples and oranges are both fruit, but you’d never mistake an orange for an apple when you bite into it. However, something like THE SWORD OF SHANNARA (and its sequels) shows a direct Tolkien influence, and consciously so (no disrespect to Terry Brooks intended). There are many other fantasies that succeed by “re-imagining” Tolkien’s creations. Yet PRINCE OF NOTHING and SWORD THE SHANNARA are as different as night and day.

    In fact, I see far more Robert E. Howard influence in the PRINCE OF NOTHING trilogy than Tolkien influence. Most especially in the character of the barbarian Cnaiur, who is somewhat an analogue of Conan of Cimmeria–albeit a far more emotionally conflicted and nuanced version than Howard’s legendary barbarian.

    And the character of Kellhus reminds me so much of Kwai Chang Caine, from the classic KUNG FU television show–at least in the first couple of books. Yet he’s far more manipulative and worldly than Caine ever was. In the end he’s more like Paul Atreides from DUNE–the archetypal Messiah Figure.

    Overall, Bakker’s originality is nearly as stunning as his execution. It’s been said there are no new stories, only new ways to tell them. That certainly applies here.


    Comment by John R. Fultz - July 1, 2010 7:21 am

  6. Overall, Bakker’s originality is nearly as stunning as his execution. It’s been said there are no new stories, only new ways to tell them. That certainly applies here.

    Well, that’s certainly true!

    But your example of the Sranc pretty much proves my point. It’s a while since I’ve read either book, but…

    Origin of the Orc — Elves taken in by Great Evil and corrupted

    Origin of the Sranc — Immortals taken in by Great Evil and corrupted

    As in everything else, of course, Bakker’s creations are just so much nastier…

    Feel free to correct, I’m not looking any of this up. Just typing my possibly skewed memories!

    I take your point about Howard, being in there, for sure.

    Have you read Morgan’s “The Steel Remains” yet? Now that one is pure Elric…

    Comment by peadarog - July 1, 2010 10:57 am

  7. Okay, I get that, but again we’re talking about archetypes here. The Lesser Servants of a Greater Evil. Tolkien certainly didn’t invent that concept.

    PRINCE OF NOTHING is so very different from LORD OF THE RINGS in concept, detail, depth of character, religious complexity, philosophical underpinning, diversity of cast, that it could never be taken as “another Tolkien clone.”

    You’re totally correct in that it is much “nastier”, i.e. the blood and filth reeks and the characters often do reprehensible things. In simplistic terms, it’s far more “realistic” than Tolkien’s creations. That’s not to take anything away from Tolkien’s genius…he didn’t want the filth…he wanted the pageantry of legend. Bakker wants the bloody, grimy truth behind the lies that mankind has always told itself (the “glory of war” myth and the “messiah” myth, for example).

    This has turned into quite a discussion. Thanks, Peadar!


    Comment by John R. Fultz - July 1, 2010 11:19 am

  8. Haven’t read “Steel Remains,” but I’ll check it out. I love me some Elric! :)

    Comment by John R. Fultz - July 1, 2010 11:20 am

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