I’ve been a bit under the weather the past couple of weeks, which has been annoying for a number of reasons. For one thing, I was unable to get my thoughts in enough order to respond adequately to three pieces of writing I came across several days ago. Each piece on its own seemed to pose interesting questions, and collectively they raised what seemed to me to be related issues about how one reads, and why; and how and why one reads fantasy in particular.
Well, my head’s cleared a bit over the past little while, and, however delayed, I’ve been able to frame responses (however wordy and inadequate) to the articles I had in mind. I present them here as open letters to the writers of the various pieces: Adam Gopnik, Mur Lafferty, and John C. Wright.
I: To Adam Gopnik
Dear Mr. Gopnik,
I read your recent article in The New Yorker, “The Dragon’s Egg,” with some interest. I haven’t read Christopher Paolini’s work; my interest is less in Young-Adult literature than in fantasy fiction. From that perspective I found your piece intriguing for what was left unsaid, or what you chose not to investigate. Specifically, I thought there were two major lacunae in the thinking underlying your approach to fantasy.
The first is apparent fairly early on, when you write that Ossian, The Silmarillion, and The Children of Húrin are boring. Later, you say: “And the truth is that most actual mythologies and epics and sacred books are dull. Nothing is more wearying, for readers whose tastes have been formed by the realist novel, than the Elder Edda.” This may well be so, though I’d like to think the enigmatic poems of the Edda can intrigue most readers. At any rate, true as what you say may be, the reverse is true as well. If you’re a reader whose tastes were shaped by mythology, the realist novel is pretty weak sauce. Surely, though, there’s more to be said about either form.
I’d like to draw upon our shared heritage as Montrealers to illustrate what I’m saying. Imagine, one early April night as the NHL season nears its end and the baseball season gets underway, a hockey fan and baseball fan change sports for one game. The baseball fan watches a hockey game, the hockey fan a baseball game. Leaving aside issues of team loyalty, and assuming both games put the best elements of their sports on display, what are the fans going to see?
The baseball fan’s going to look at a hockey game and think it’s ridiculous. Where’s the stillness, the reflection, the carefully-unfolding rhythm of baseball? Hockey just keeps moving, at ludicrous speeds to boot. It’s crude, players blocking other players with their bodies, and there’s clearly no strategy; players race back and forth and back and forth along the ice surface, in frantic pursuit of a round black Mcguffin. It’s wearying. And the violence — what on earth is the need for that? Don’t these people realise how ridiculous this sport is?
The hockey fan, meanwhile, finds the baseball game dull. The thing just goes on and on, and nothing happens, and nothing keeps happening at length. There’re no real battles in the game, outside of a few footraces; nobody physically struggles against anyone else. Not one body check. And no flow; a pitcher throws a ball, and then something happens or, most often, doesn’t. There’s no structure of one play constantly organically developing into another. No plot. (There’s also a ludicrous structural imbalance favouring big-market teams, but admittedly that’s really something separate from my metaphor.)
Neither hypothetical fan really understands the game they’re unfamiliar with. They can’t see the structures of the sport, and don’t appreciate the gamesmanship involved. More than that, neither fan appreciates the long traditions of the other’s game. Their tastes have been shaped by the sport they love to the point where the virtues of the other sport simply seem nonsensical, or at best an entertainment of a lower order.
Yet the example I gave is, as I’ve said, hypothetical. It’s been my experience that most sports fans have a bit more breadth than the ones in my example; most have at least a bit of understanding of sports beside the one they follow most passionately. It’d be nice if readers and critics had the same catholicism. Sadly, it seems rare.
Of course it’s true that the experience of enjoying watching a sport is of a different kind than the experience of literature, but I think the comparison of sports and forms works in this case. I feel a critic in particular has to try to appreciate the complexity of a work on its own terms — to appreciate the fantasy as a fantasy, to appreciate the realist novel as a realist novel — rather than insist on judging a work by whether it’s doing something it’s not trying to do. This is not to deny that some works are excellent and others poor; it is simply to say that there’s no reason to think that excellence in one literary form will look much like excellence in another.
Two hundred and fifty years ago, critics who assumed that poetry represented the height of literature considered the realistic novel to be trash. We now would say they were wrong to write off the whole form, even when they were correct with respect to specific individual works. Your attitude, privileging the realistic novel, smacks of that old attitude. I see no reason to think that either realism or fantasy is necessarily superior to the other, and your article didn’t really provide me with one.
Tolkien himself seems to have anticipated your reaction. In a foreword to The Lord of the Rings, he observed: “Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer.” One can of course leave matters there, but it seems to me a pity that a reader would refrain from trying to expand their understanding of literature. At the very least, if one finds a way to enjoy types of writing one previously found boring, then one has found a new source of enjoyment; which is a reward in itself.
If that’s a good idea for a reader in the long run, then in the short term it’s a necessity for a critic. Ideally, I think, a critic will look beyond their own immediate sense of enjoyment to see how an unfamiliar, and superficially perhaps uninteresting, piece of writing really works. Of course a critic must make individual judgements and be guided by their individual tastes. But I find that the best critical writing comes when a critic attempts to explain their judgement; to look carefully at their own reactions, and to expand on those reactions to support their position, guided by a real understanding of the work at hand and the traditions out of which it came.
Which is what I found lacking in your article. Your perception of Tolkien and of mythology as boring is, I feel, not a particularly useful critical judgement. All it really tells me is that you as a critic are not likely to be particularly sensitive to the techniques and processes of fantasy fiction. That you do not understand the work you’re talking about.
Which in turn leads me to the second problem I found in the way you approached fantasy: a lack of awareness of traditions within the genre. You didn’t seem to appreciate the diversity of forms within fantasy, nor did you seem to understand that fantasy represents a tradition (or group of traditions) that reaches back at least to William Morris — I’d argue well before him. I felt that weakened your piece in a number of ways.
To begin with, it’s worth pointing out that Tolkien consciously rejected the tradition of the realistic novel, and much of the ideology of character that still drives the realist novel. To evaluate a writer on the basis of something he wasn’t trying to do is nonsensical; one might as well say that, for example, Bleak House was a failure because it wasn’t fourteen lines long and divided into an octave and sestet. I’d argue that Tolkien’s understanding of character is no less deep than what we find in the realist novel; but his way of bringing out character is certainly different.
So I must disagree with your statement that “realist emotional ambivalence, is unknown to Tolkien.” I think we don’t really understand Denethor or Boromir, for example, unless we see them not as inherently evil, but great men with weaknesses that Sauron and the Ring prey upon mercilessly (I’ll point you back to the link in the previous paragraph for more about Tolkien’s characters). Conversely, you state that “it is self-interest, rather than conscience, that makes [Gollum] tip back and forth,” but this statement verges on the nonsensical — firstly because Gollum clearly is torn by his conscience, and more profoundly because, even leaving aside the question of whether a desire for the Ring is really self-interest, it’s unclear why self-interest has less to do with “realist emotional ambivalence” than conscience does.
(I’d also point out that comparing White’s update of Arthurian myth to Tolkien’s work is misleading. White certainly recast the Arthurian themes into a resonant modern form — but Tolkien had no interest in the matter of Arthur. In fact, he had no use for the courtly love tradition which underlay the Arthurian romances, and which influenced such later literary treatments of love as … well, as the modern novel.)
But let me move beyond Tolkien to the broader fantasy field. You state that since the 1977 publication of The Sword of Shannara, “fantasy fiction, of the sword-and-sorcery kind, has been an annex of Tolkien’s imagination. A vaguely medieval world populated by dwarfs, elves, trolls; an evil lord out to enslave the good creatures; and, almost always, a weird magic thing that will let him do it, if the hero doesn’t find or destroy it first—that is the Tolkien formula.” Now, ‘Tolkien formula’ is an unfortunate turn of phrase; Tolkien, as you observe elsewhere, certainly wasn’t writing to a formula — and if a formula was worked out several years after his death, it’s hardly fair to implicitly burden him with it. In fact, reading Tolkien backwards through his imitators, whether Paolini or George Lucas, does him a disservice (note that if Paolini’s dwarves are “slightly comic,” they’re not much like Tolkien’s dwarves, though they would be similar to Peter Jackson’s).
More importantly, your use of the term “sword-and-sorcery” is unfortunate. Sub-types of fantasy fiction have a determined tendency to resist precise definition, but sword-and-sorcery is typically considered to be a sort of fantasy that Tolkien specifically did not write. It’s a term much more associated with the works of Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, and Michael Moorcock — still vaguely medieval, perhaps, but typically less morally clear-cut, and usually involving a much smaller scale of adventure. It’s a fantasy of daggers in alleyways, not armies and great sorceries. That is, it’s a separate tradition from the type of tradition you’re attempting to identify.
Still more broadly, it’s a vast oversimplification to say that fantasy fiction post-1977 (however much “sword-and-sorcery” should be understood to qualify the term) “has been an annex of Tolkien’s imagination.” It’s about as accurate as saying that realistic fiction’s been an annex of Cervantes’ imagination. The truth is that any number of writers have consciously been trying to work against that tremendous influence, while others write out of other traditions, or are simply interested in using fantasy differently. And, of course, some acknowledge Tolkien as an important predecessor and then go on to tell their own, not necessarily formulaic, tales. Consider the most popular fantasy series of the moment, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire — Martin readily admits that he was influenced by Tolkien, but the “formula” you cite isn’t in evidence in his books.
If we look at Tolkien not as the creator of a formula for commercial writing, but as a major figure in a tradition of fiction, we will probably come closer to understanding not only his achievement but also the achievement of those who came after him — possibly those who came before him, as well. I appreciate that this may be difficult for someone who does not immediately respond emotionally to Tolkien’s specific form of writing. But surely the result, the greater understanding, is worth the effort.
You mention, for example, that Tolkien used “… the sort of medieval background that Mark Twain thought he had discredited with A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” Granted that was Twain’s aim, but if he was ever foolish enough to think he succeeded in discrediting the use of a medieval background, he was swiftly disabused. A Connecticut Yankee was published in 1889. The same year, William Morris published The House of the Wolfings and The Roots of the Mountains, two novels with medieval backgrounds. Unabashed by Twain, the next year Morris wrote The Glittering Plain, which he followed in 1894 with The Wood Beyond the World and The Well at the World’s End. These novels were crucial in the development of the fantasy tradition, and all of them had a pseudo-medieval setting. Rather than see medieval tales dwindle in popularity, then, these years saw fantasies rooted in the Middle Ages take firm hold.
As I noted, I personally see fantasy as having an earlier origin than Morris, but the point here is, again, that fantasy as a form has a history that extends back well before Tolkien, and has over the course of that history developed its own complex ways of grappling with complex problems. Far from “stale,” as you characterise pre-Tolkien fantasy in the next paragraph, it had what I would characterise as a vibrant history of excellent writers and stunning work. Consider, say, Lord Dunsany’s short stories, Hope Mirrlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist, E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros and Zimiamvia books, or a text you yourself mentioned, T.H White’s Once and Future King.
To dismiss these writers, to dismiss Tolkien, with the simple adjective “boring” is inadequate. You clearly don’t care for the use of a medieval setting, but give no real reason for your dislike. You quote Christopher Ricks approvingly to make the point that “there is something fraudulent and faddish about Tolkien’s ginned-up medievalism,” but do not elaborate. What is fraudulent in the use of the setting? What fad do you think affected Tolkien? Indeed, given that Tolkien worked on the development of his setting over literally decades of his life, in what sense can this be meaningfully called ‘faddish’?
It is also unclear what “ginned-up” means in this context; to ‘gin up’ is ‘to excite or enliven’. It’s clear that Tolkien made his setting live for many readers, so in that sense I suppose I’d agree with the use of the term. It’s equally clear that you’re not one of those readers, and of course that’s fine; no book is for everyone. But as I’ve said, I feel a critic has a certain responsibility to understand and explain why a given artistic choice may be wrong, rather simply dismissing a whole form without understanding it.
Before concluding, I have two other minor points about the article I’d like to make. The first is that I must disagree with you on Ossian. I enjoy reading the Eddas, I enjoy reading Tolkien, perhaps it’s not surprising that I enjoy reading Ossian. But more than that: given that the Ossianic poems are typically considered one of the earliest examples of Romanticism in English, I find it odd to call them calculated for neo-classical tastes. And to say Ossian was a major influence on Chatterton is strange to me. Chatterton’s Rowley poems were set in the late Middle Ages, not the 3rd century of Ossian; and there’s no actual similarity between the Ossianic poems, written in stylised 18th-century prose, and the Rowley poems, written in mock 15th-century verse (“[N]or is there the slightest resemblance between any of the Rowley poems and the Gaelic epics, either in rhythm, form, or mode of thought” — Sir Daniel Wilson, Chatterton: A Biographical Study, 1869).
And, finally: I’m no expert in kids’ reactions to fantasy, but I would say also that your assumptions about why children like fantasy follow from flawed premises. You as a reader seem to look for novels that are explicitly and unambiguously about life and what to expect in life; you therefore seem to assume that kids do as well. This is unlikely to me. When I was a child I certainly looked for no such thing.
It seems clear to me that readers read books for a wide range of different reasons. I see no need to assume that kids read fantasies “not for escape but for organization, and a little elevation;” some probably do, and some likely don’t. To make such easy generalisations betrays not only a lack of understanding of the range of fantasy, but a shocking contempt for children and the range of their tastes.
So again I come back to your lack of sympathy with the variety of imaginative experience. I can’t help but feel that this represents a failure in a critic. When one writes about a given form, to be determinedly out of sympathy with the imaginative act that animates the form risks undermining one’s criticism. I’m afraid that’s happened here.
Obviously, I nevertheless found the essay intriguing; it moved me to write out this response. I’d say the piece was certainly an insight not only into a certain approach to the imagination, but also the privileged position that imaginative approach assumes.
Matthew David Surridge
II: To Mur Lafferty
Dear Ms. Lafferty,
You wrote a blog post not long ago, “My Problem With Classics,” which I found intriguing. You asked readers for advice on how to enjoy sf classics, which, as you note, is something that may be difficult for a number of reasons. I gather you found the subsequent discussion swiftly became unhelpful. Your piece provoked some discussion around these parts, but I wanted to write something here myself because your question made me think about how it is that I read what I read, and how I come to enjoy those texts.
To start with, I should observe that I understand you not to be asking “why should I read these books,” but rather “given that I am reading these books, how can I find a way to make the reading experience pleasurable instead of frustrating?” Personally, I empathise with the latter question. I’ve read a number of highly-regarded books that were difficult to enjoy (my reasons for not enjoying them may be different than yours, but the basic phenomenon seems the same). Some of them were actively distasteful. Some were boring. What to do?
What I realise now, as I look back, is that my way of approaching texts changed over time. I’m not really sure why. I don’t know if it’s a function of what I read, or of some broader change in the way I thought; but what I looked for, how I related to a story, seemed to shift. To some extent it was conscious, certainly, as I wanted to try to get as much as I could out of as many different kinds of writing as possible. And the more I engaged myself in trying to enjoy different kinds of books, the more it seemed to happen naturally.
In general, I find I read these days for language as much as anything. For beauty in the use of words. Greer Gilman’s Cloud & Ashes would be a good example of a book that pulled me in by its distinctive style and kept me reading through early sections where I didn’t understand what was happening with respect to character and plot. I think that as any novel is made out of words, it is in the use of words that a novel will ultimately stand or fall.
It’s certainly true that I used to read for story. I think I still do, to an extent, and certainly I feel a text that tells a story should be approached as such. But I think I’m more aware now that story is revealed and defined by language. And I think specifically that I’m less likely to identify completely with a book’s protagonist.
Much as I loved the Book of the New Sun, to use an example you cited, I don’t think I’d have liked it if I was rooting for Severian. Not only does he hurt all sorts of people, but he also lies or half-lies in telling his story — something that may be harder to forgive, if only because it’s more personal. The other crimes are against fictional people in a faraway world. The lies are to us, the readers. He’s a monster of egotism, in a way, but for me personally that egotism is fascinating, well-written and therefore compelling.
At any rate, Severian’s a model of virtue next to, say, Michael Moorcock’s Colonel Pyat, hero of The Pyat Quartet. Pyat’s a lying thieving Nazi pedophile drug fiend, and the Quartet follows his misadventures as he stumbles through some of the bitter historical moments of the first half of the twentieth century. I thought these were excellent books, some of Moorcock’s best. One doesn’t root for Pyatt, one doesn’t identify with him; at best one empathises, for a few fleeting moments, with a fellow human being. And even that empathy is typically undercut, usually very quickly. What makes the books work is that while Pyatt’s completely unaware of how wretched he is, Moorcock’s intensely aware. And he makes us feel it.
The point, I suppose, is that one is forced by the books themselves to read the Pyatt Quartet critically. I think most books that become classics are meant to be read that way, or at least gain from such a reading; with the reader actively engaged, questioning the text, questioning what we’re told and the way the characters think of themselves. Certainly I’ve come to find that to be the most enjoyable way to read, because it’s the most wholly involving.
I think it’s also the best way to read a book one doesn’t enjoy. As you read you question the assumptions of the text. You argue with it. You point out flaws, if only to yourself. And to be sure that you’re seeing actual flaws, you have to be on your guard and question your own assumptions; this means that you’re also actively looking for what’s good in the book.
Probably the best example I can give in my own experience of sticking with a book I did not like at all was David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. I thought it was arch and laboured, but still I made it to the end of the book, well over a thousand pages (with all its tedious footnotes, too). I was arguing with it mentally every step of the way, but I got through it. I think in a sense I removed my own ego from the process. I stopped focussing on the fact that I didn’t like the book, and started thinking something along the lines of ‘there are people that like this, and if I were one of those people, what is it in this that I would be enjoying right now?’
So those ways of thinking got me through that book. I think there probably are ways one can choose to read which may make some texts easier to deal with. I think part of being an alert reader is in working out what a book tells you about how to read it; what it’s trying to do, what tradition it belongs to, and so forth. But no reader is a perfect reader, and no-one knows every literary tradition. There’s nothing wrong with not enjoying a text. And of course no book, however classic, is immune to criticism.
Thank you for posing an interesting question, and making me think about how I read.
Matthew David Surridge
III: To John C. Wright
Dear Mr. Wright,
A little while ago, you put up a post on your blog responding to an article by novelist Daniel Polansky about his fantasy novel Low Town. I was intrigued by your comments, which put forward some suggestions about fantasy, and about how one appreciates fantasy, that I by and large disagree with. I’d like to try to articulate that disagreement here.
I’ll start by saying that I agree with most of your criticism of Polansky. In some cases I’d go further than you. Polansky says he never understood fantasy, which is why he’s writing a fantasy crime novel. What I would have liked to have seen in his post is an explanation of why he was writing a fantasy crime novel, instead of a straight crime novel (or, for that matter, a science-fiction crime novel). I frankly also would have liked to have seen some awareness in the post that what he’s talking about with his book isn’t new; he’s talking about low fantasy — hence, I presume, the title of the book — and it’s not clear to me how different his book is from, say, Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories.
To judge from his piece, Polansky’s focus is limited by assumptions predicated in the modern world. He says he wants to know “How many platinum coins would a dime bag set me back [in a fantasy city]?” — But even to ask that is to suggest certain things about the setting. It assumes some kind of drug (beyond alcohol); if, as “dime bag” implies, the drug is illegal, it assumes a centralised government that thinks it’s capable of outlawing a drug; it assumes criminal organisations that have evolved to supply the drug anyway. Polansky says he’s not comfortable with a world unless these sorts of questions can be answered; it seems to me that he’s presupposing a world in which the questions have meaning.
Similarly, I note that your post drew strong criticism from David Brin, and I felt that in his approach to fantasy Brin, like Polansky, was also making assumptions without realising it — specifically, assuming that magic was comparable to technology.
He writes: “We owe absolutely nothing to $%#! elfs or wizards who clutch secret “wisdom” (what we moderns call “useful information about the world”) to themselves for thousands of years, leaving men and women to flounder in miserable ignorance, when they might have opened a college in Lothlorien Forest, so we’d have flush toilets and palantirs on every desktop.” But in Tolkien, magic skills aren’t transmissable. Magic isn’t a function of knowledge. It’s a function of natural ability. Elves can do things that mortals can only call magic; Gandalf appears to be human, but is actually a Maiar, effectively an angel. And to seek ‘magic’ not naturally given to one, to exercise the will-to-power, leads to ruin. This ties in to Tolkien’s view of technology, sure, but the point is that in a literal sense the text doesn’t support what Brin wants to read into it. Palantirs on every desktop would be a disaster. Palantirs are dangerous (look at what happened to Denethor). Which is Tolkien’s point, I think — to seek power, magical or scientific control over the environment, leads to bad things. Brin can argue with that underlying idea, but he can’t make the argument he’s making here, using the text without challenging the givens it asserts.
(Brin also says that “Bored of the Rings is every bit as sagacious and insightful as the tome that it satirizes,” to which I can only say that he and I have very different definitions of ‘sagacious’ and ‘insightful.’)
What I want to say here is that if magic could be used the way Brin imagines, it wouldn’t be magic. It’d be technology. I suspect that in general the most memorable, and dramatically successful, fantasy magic is presented as dangerous; some variety of unknowable, uncanny, or untrustworthy. Think of Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea unleashing his shadow. Think of all the prohibitions in fairy-tales. Think of Faustus. It seems that truly fantastic magic takes a toll. Brin isn’t really imagining magic as magic; he’s imagining magic as science. As I say, it’s a perception bound by the nature of this world, not by the text at hand.
Where I disagree with Brin and Polansky, and to an extent agree with you, is that I feel fantasy has a great power to re-imagine the world. And that our assumptions of what the world is and how it works can be, perhaps should be, challenged by a fantasy story in a particularly thoroughgoing way. Where I disagree with you is that it seems you see fantasy, or high fantasy, as essentially re-creating some now-vanished aspect of the past, and therefore as perhaps assuaging a consequent sense of loss. I think high fantasy can do that, but can do other things besides. I see fantasy as somewhat more radical a way of rewriting the world and our imagining of the world.
Let’s return to Polansky. I agree with you that the mixture of fantasy and noir that Polansky’s talking about has been around for some time. But when you characterise “noir” as Dashiell Hammet knock-offs, and suggest that it’s still about good men, the ideological descendants of knights, struggling against evil … I’m not convinced. Some noir fits this definition, sure, but it seems to me that much noir is also about the corruption within the protagonist, or simply about how vicious the world in general is. I don’t know where you can find a knight in Fritz Lang’s M, for example, and I’m not entirely clear about the moral centre of The Postman Always Rings Twice.
This is relevant, in that you say “absent the soaring ideals that illume the dawn-blazing golden minarets of some tower of an elfin sorcerer-king, you cannot with any conviction describe the filth and litter of the footpads rolling a drunk in the open sewer gutter so far down below, breaking that same king’s peace.” Which again seems to limit what has actually been done in fantasy. I’d say that soaring ideals were notable by their absence in Leiber’s Lankhmar, whereas muggings in gutters were quite convincing. For that matter, footpads rolling a drunk in the gutter can be found in ‘straight’ crime fiction — what need then for the golden minarets?
Without said minarets, you say the story would become satire, and: “No deeper emotion than mirth mingled with wonder at the low folly of sad mankind is possible in satire, a kind of Jovial, aloof and fond contempt.” Now firstly mirth and wonder seem fairly deep emotions to me. But I also think satire lends itself to other, equally profound, emotions — for example, to inspiring anger and grief at injustice. ‘Satire’ isn’t just Monty Python and the Holy Grail; it’s also Brazil.
You suggest, finally, that fantasy noir succeeds through the incongruity of juxtaposing modern cynicism with a medieval setting. I can’t agree. I think the incongruity is the cynicism expressed in modern language. Which is fairly major, since the language of a character expresses the way the character thinks. There’s nothing incongruous in medieval cynicism; you can find it in fiction in Boccaccio or Chaucer, for example. Neither is it unknown in classic fantasy — I’d argue there’s a certain amount in Morris, and quite a lot in Dunsany.
But let’s go back to Polansky, and his argument that human beings, faced with elves, would turn to genocide. You say:
To look at mankind, who so clearly yearns for some sort of communion or reunion with nature that the pagans people the woods with nymphs and satyrs, or the nursery tales or Aesop fables with talking animals, and conclude the only possible relation between man and elf is mutual genocide is a Darwinian rather than sacramental view of life: it is simply blind to what in man, weak though it may be, is not devout to totalitarian modernism and ideas of total war.
You subtly mischaracterise Polansky’s argument here; Polansky wasn’t arguing for mutual genocide, presumably because there’s no reason to ascribe human behaviour to hypothetical elves. But leave that aside. You and he are looking at elves in intriguingly different ways. Polansky’s approach is fairly direct, asking the question: what if these things were real? You, conversely, ask: what do our stories suggest about elves, and how we relate to them? I think both of these are interesting perspectives, but both have their flaws.
In asking how things would be if they were real, we’re bound by our own understanding of the real — and since what we’re asking about is by definition unreal, we have some limitations to struggle with right off the bat. On the other hand, to accept past stories as a guide risks overlooking the fact that stories were told for a reason, usually for specific audiences, and were not necessarily meant to answer the questions we want to ask of them (whether about reality or about anything else). We might find answers in them, but there might also be more to be said. Essentially, we risk being bound by our understanding of past tales, rather than being driven by our own vision.
So: even granting your assumption that myths and fables represent a desire for communion with nature, one might wonder whether if nymphs and satyrs existed they would be perceived by humans as representing that communion. Or whether that communion would be imagined only after the genocide; one can fairly argue, I think, that humans have often warred against or commited genocide against another group of humans, only to romanticise that group once it no longer existed or posed a perceived threat.
I want to turn now to some specific you comments you made about high fantasy. I note you don’t precisely define high fantasy, but do refer to writers such as Tolkien, Malory, Tennyson, and Morris. You mention ‘low fantasy’ as a separate form, exemplified by Howard’s Conan stories. I don’t debate the distinction, though I feel the forms are a bit wider than you seem to suggest; at any rate, I think the points I have in mind stand with just the examples you cite.
(I’m not sure I agree with the suggestion you make about high fantasy being Catholic and low fantasy being Protestant; it’s difficult for me to see the socialist Morris as Catholic. Still, to properly work this out would require fairly precise definitions not only of high and low fantasy, but of what we mean by ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant.’ I’ll therefore observe only that you and I seem to have very different interpretations of history, that I’m very curious about what sources you have that suggest a Roman origin for British democratic traditions, and that there’s no need to go to British anti-Catholic historians for an image of Teutonic noble savages when you can find much the same thing in Tacitus’ Germania.)
In describing high fantasy, you say:
High Fantasy rests for its paramount appeal on nostalgia: the longing for a world once known, now lost. An Uzi is a more efficient killing machine than the great sword Excalibur, but the Uzi is never to be described in words like these: “The winter moon, brightening the skirts of a long cloud, ran forth and sparkled keen with frost against the hilt: for all the haft twinkled with diamond sparks, myriads of topaz-lights, and jacinth work of subtlest jewellery.”
By the same token, the sewers and streets of New York are cleaner than the crooked lanes of Athens, but New York is famed neither for her acropolis nor her philosophers. And again, a Panzer tank is better armored than a cataphract of Byzantium or a Paladin of Charlemagne, and an ICBM more dangerous than any dragon.
I don’t agree with this argument. Leave aside that fact that one can easily imagine a magic that makes armour stronger than tanks or dragons more dangerous than ICBMs; and leave aside the relative fame of the architectural monuments of Athens and New York. I fundamentally do not agree that high fantasy’s appeal is nostalgia.
It seems to me, as I read fantasy, and especially high fantasy, that its primary appeal is through the visionary quality of the work. Its ability through the power of its imagery to re-imagine the world. In this sense I find Polansky’s approach to fantasy uninteresting — he seems more interested in superimposing his view of the world he knows over a store of traditional fantasy imagery, rather than generating a vision of a world of its own. But I think the nostalgic view of fantasy is equally uninteresting; if fantasy was only reiterating things I already knew, if it only sighed over what was gone, it would be less fascinating to me than a form that did new things with language as a way of showing me a world greater or at least other than I’d imagined.
The quote you cite is powerful; but it’s powerful, to me, not because it’s familiar, or because it shows me something familiar, and certainly not because it reminds me of a sword I saw once that had gemstones in it. It’s powerful because it takes things I know, moonlight and frost and a sword and flashing gems; and it imagines these things as a unified image with symbolic heft; and presents that unity in powerful, rhythmic language. I’d say that the weakest parts of the image are in fact what are perhaps over-familiar, or over-conventionalised. The phrasing of the description of the gemstones, in particular, feels to me consciously stylised in a way that the rest of the quote doesn’t.
So much for the quote. Elsewhere you state that high fantasy derives from William Morris and the pre-Raphaelites, a statement with which I would disagree, insofar as I think one can go back to Blake and the Romantics; though to some extent I suppose I agree with your larger point that fantasy seems to be born with a reaction to the industrial revolution. Still, I think that the relationship is more complicated than simply one of nostalgia alone, as you seem to suggest.
(I also think it’s misleading to say that fantasy “was a genre despised by the worldly-wise, who rushed to heap adoration on realism”; there was certainly criticism of realism, prompting Oscar Wilde famously to quip about the rage of Caliban seeing his face in a mirror. On the other hand, you say that “The only tales ever told in the history of the world without any element of magical or the supernatural were those told in the modern age,” which I can’t accept — even stretching “modern” to “early modern” to include stuff like Arden of Feversham and Othello and Don Quixote, it leaves out much of Chaucer and Boccaccio.)
You say that there is “a common thread linking” modern fantasy to older fictions like Dante, in that both types of work acknowledge “that the world is wider and wilder and weirder than we suspect,” but then say that “the thread is broken” since moderns know the world really doesn’t contain that weirdness in it. The image is confusing — is the thread linking the two things, or is it broken? — but I’d agree with an element of the statement: I think the radical wildness and strangeness of the best fantasy fiction is reminiscent of works like The Divine Comedy. I think there’s a common quality of vision, and that these visions are presented with some level of artfulness — more in the Comedy than any modern work, sure, but what makes a work of art powerful is surely the quality of the art.
But I strongly disagree when you argue at another point that “Anyone who does not sense or suspect that modernity is missing something, something important, has no heart and no taste for High Fantasy.” You elaborate:
The difference between a culture that respected and reveres the virginity of the maiden fair and the bravery of the warrior prince, and the cult that reveres the bravery of the transgendered community and protects the crooked penis of a presidential adulterer with comically ferocious self-righteousness, is not merely a difference between an ape and a man, a savage and a savant. I mean that it is not an evolution to a better state to despise virgins and destroy marriage and then demand the military accept Marinesses to serve alongside Marines: and while the wealth and happiness which issues from the dark Satanic mills pours forth the blessings of a cornucopia into the comfortable fatness of our overweight era, it is not a mixed blessing. The Middle Ages may have been evil and cruel and dirty in many things, but they were never held Mutually Assured Destruction by thermonuclear annihilation to be a work of wise political policy.
There are so many things I disagree with so strongly in this paragraph that I literally have difficulty working out where to start. But I need to go into them a bit in order to make a larger point. So, to start with, I don’t see what there is in female virginity that necessarily ought to be revered. For that matter, neither do I know of a widespread social movement that despises virgins. Marriage hasn’t been destroyed anywhere that I’ve noticed. And I didn’t know that any specific body part of “a presidential adulterer” needed especial protection, but then as a Canadian I often miss the subtleties of American politics.
I would say that your comparisons of ‘bravery’ are actually comparisons of two unequal things. The transgendered community is a specific example of people trying to safely be what they, and others, in fact are — thereby making a better and more just world, and sometimes facing physical threats to their safety in doing so. That takes real and obvious bravery. On the other hand, unlike “the transgendered community,” “the warrior prince” is a general concept. Some warrior princes have done good, some have done bad. So it’s difficult to balance them as a class against the trans community except to say that so far as I can see, most warrior princes seem to have done little to actually make the world a better place, and therefore their bravery is probably on the whole less to be admired than deplored. That said, if you are going to have warrior princes — or marines — it seems to me to be basic fairness to allow women and men equal chances to display their courage.
(I feel obliged to note that you end a later paragraph “It is the kind of warped assumptions from which we moderns draw conclusion that label perversions as brave while labeling virgins as contemptible.” Given the parallels between this statement and the paragraph I quoted above, you seem not only to be again suggesting that virgins are held in contempt, but to be labelling transgendered people as perverse. I hope this is only an accident, as the very least that would be a strained and insensitive use of language. Given the typical connotations of “perversion,” I would have to say it’d be also hateful and unjust.)
The point I want to get at here is not that I disagree with you about morals or politics or history, though evidently I do. Nor is it that I’m irked at you dragging in writers I like to support causes that have nothing to do with them (so far as I know; I mean, maybe Tennyson had a strong opinion about the transgendered community and I never came across it. I doubt it, though). It’s because you’re saying that a reader needs to believe basically the things that you believe in order to appreciate high fantasy. I know this isn’t true — I don’t hold your beliefs, and I like (admire, love, am inspired by) many of the same books you like. And more: I think if you were correct about the prerequisite needed to enjoy high fantasy, it would be a damning indictment of the form.
There are two elements to this disagreement. First, as I’ve said before, I don’t feel that fantasy, or high fantasy, is necessarily nostalgic or conservative. I think fantasy, or high fantasy, presents a vision of the world transformed; that transformation might be conservative, it might be progressive, it might be susceptible to either interpretation. It can suggest that something’s missing in modernity and suggest a restorative; or it can suggest that something’s been missing in all history, and suggest an imaginative apocalypse that will rectify that.
Secondly, it’s possible to love a book and still disagree with it. This possibility, I think, increases with the greatness of the book. I don’t agree with Dante Alighieri that gays and non-Christians ought to be handed an eternal afterlife of punishment, but I think The Divine Comedy is a great book. And it’s one that I like, even love, beyond my appreciation of Dante’s poetic technique, and intricate structure, and brilliant fusion of reality and imagery and allegory. Because it is a great book, one’s affirmation or rejection of is able to go beyond the affirmation or rejection of the writer’s beliefs.
One can argue that it’s easy for me to make this assessment; I’m not gay, and while I don’t believe in the divinity of Christ, by the same token it’s easier for me to treat the book as a pure fantasy. Still, the disagreement is there, and so is my love for the book. (It’s also true that one can disagree with part of a book, or part of a writer’s output, while loving the rest; I assume you’d agree, in that while you evoke Blake’s “dark satanic mills” I presume you’d have less use for “Nor pale religious lechery call that virginity that wishes, but acts not! For everything that lives is holy.”)
If I needed to feel a certain way, or have a certain ideological affiliation, to love a given form — then that form must be limited in its range and capabilities. I don’t think fantasy’s limited that way. In fact, I think a lot of fantasy works are rich enough that they can be interpreted as either conservative or progressive. Morris is a great example; some see him as nostalgic, others see him as a canny socialist.
Obviously fantasy can be elegaic. But’s that not all it can be. I think high fantasy’s a powerful form, and I think it has a wide range of emotional tones; of different kinds of magic that it can evoke.
Thank you for a thought-provoking essay.
Matthew David Surridge
Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His ongoing web serial is The Fell Gard Codices. You can find him on facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.