One of the problems with writing about great works is there’s so little for me to add to the volumes and volumes written by writers far and away more knowledgable than I. Still, maybe I can bring a newcomer’s eye to books that have nourished the roots of fantasy, and maybe encourage a few others to pick them up. So I shall ramble for a piece about William Shakespeare’s last solo play, The Tempest (ca. 1610).
The Tempest is believed to have been performed only a few times during Shakespeare’s lifetime, including once in 1611 for King James I at Whitehall Palace on Hallowmas night. It became part of the standard theatrical repertoire during the Restoration starting in 1660, but was edited to appeal more to upper-class audiences and support royalist policies. Finally, in 1838, when actor William Charles Macready staged an incredibly elaborate production using the unedited script, Shakespeare’s original became the preferred version.
Along with several other of Shakespeare’s final plays, including The Winter’s Tale and Cymbeline, The Tempest is categorized as a romance, fitting into none of the standard tragedy, comedy, or history categories. His later works, perhaps reflecting his own changing nature, changing tastes, and the growth of more elaborate productions, mix the comic and tragic, along with magic and mystical elements. The Tempest showcases this evolution brilliantly.
In high school I read Beowulf on my own. It was from the Folio Society, illustrated by Virgil Burnett and translated by Kevin Crossley-Holland. Some years later I read John Gardner’s Grendel, a commentary on humanity and Jean-Paul Sartre more than on Beowulf itself. Eventually I came across Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead, a mashup of the journal of Ahmad ibn Fadlan and Beowulf (and reviewed by me here). Since it’s been ages since I read the original poem, I thought I should give it a go and find something interesting to say. I’m struggling, but bear with me as I try.
Beowulf is a heroic tale set in 6th century Scandinavia. Scholars debate whether it existed first as an oral tale from pagan days, only to be written down in later Christian times, or if it is a mix of Germanic oral tradition and literate Anglo-Saxon poetry, or something else altogether. The sole extant version of it is written in Old English, the language of Anglo-Saxon England (people originally from Northern Germany and Southern Denmark), and preserved as part of the Nowell Codex, a manuscript written between the end of the 10th and beginning of the 11th centuries. Several characters mentioned in Beowulf make appearances in other Nordic tales, particularly the Hrólfs saga kraka (The Saga of King Rolf Hraki. My review of Poul Anderson’s telling of the saga is here).
Here’s Wikipedia describing the technical aspects of the poem:
Anglo-Saxon poetry is constructed very differently from a modern poem. There is little use of rhyme and no fixed number of beats or syllables; the verse is alliterative, meaning that each line is in two halves, separated by a caesura, and linked by the presence of stressed syllables with similar sounds. The poet often used formulaic phrases for half-lines, including kennings, evocative poetic descriptions compressed into a single compound word.
Having neither Old English nor expertise in epic German or Anglo-Saxon poetry, I won’t weigh in on the matter of Beowulf‘s origin. Suffice to say it is a very old poem that not only recounts Beowulf’s exploits, but also provides partial histories of several Scandinavian royal households, describes battles, and gives an idea of life in ancient Scandinavia.
The history of the novel in the West is long, complex, and complicated. Suffice it to say, by the middle of the 18th century the novel was a popular form of entertainment no longer confined to aristocratic readers. The romances of the Middle Ages and Renaissance had been largely supplanted by more realistic tales, but with the advent of Gothic literature, romantic fiction rose again in popularity, proceeding directly from Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel, The Castle of Otranto.
Gothic fiction is defined in the Encyclopedia Britannica as “European Romantic pseudomedieval fiction having a prevailing atmosphere of mystery and terror.” The deliberate admixture of realistic and fantastic elements in Otranto was a huge success. While Gothic fiction’s popularity has ebbed and flowed over the years, it has never receded completely. Horror fiction, as well as certain strains of romance and thriller writing, all trace their roots to this era.
Walpole was the youngest son of Sir Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford, the first real prime minister of England. His time at Cambridge led to skepticism of certain aspects of Christianity, a strong dislike for superstition, and, in turn, the Catholic Church. Walpole was elected to Parliament multiple times from assorted rotten boroughs (electoral districts that had lost most of their populations but still sent an MP to the House of Commons — and which he never visited) and his father secured several adequately remunerative sinecures for him over the years. A Whig, Walpole opposed efforts he saw as supportive of making the monarchy more powerful. On the death of his nephew in 1791, at the age of 74, he became the 4th and final Earl of Orford.
So begins Once on a Time (1917), A. A. Milne‘s charming and funny fairy tale sendup. In it, a war is started over one king leaping over another king’s land in his seven-league boots, a bad wish is wished (as well as a good one), lovers meet, and a slightly wicked countess plots to steal the kingdom’s wealth. It is a book that had me laughing aloud one minute and forcing my wife to listen to me read pages aloud the next.
Next to the gargantuan, multi-billion-dollar legacy that is Winnie-the-Pooh, it is quite easy to miss that Milne was an author of several adult novels, among them The Red House Mystery, a classic of Golden Age detective fiction. A graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge, he became a columnist for the satirical magazine, Punch, played cricket on teams with P.G. Wodehouse, J.M. Barrie, and Arthur Conan Doyle, and served in the army during WW I. He was wounded at the Somme and spent the last two years of the war writing propaganda. After the war, his son Christopher Robin was born, acquired some stuffed animals, and inspired Milne to write the two books that would be his greatest legacy: Winnie-the-Pooh (1926), and The House at Pooh Corner (1928).
Mervyn Peake‘s 1946 novel, Titus Groan, was intended as the first in a series that would follow the life of Titus Groan, Seventy-seventh Earl of Gormenghast, a vast, city-like castle set in a land of indeterminate latitude and longitude. Unfortunately, Peake was afflicted with what is believed to have been Parkinson’s Disease, and so finished only two other volumes, Gormenghast (1950) and Titus Alone (1959), and a novella, Boy in Darkness (1956). He succumbed to his illness in 1968, leaving only a few paragraphs and ideas for proposed future volumes. From those elements, his wife, Maeve Gilmore, completed a final book, Titus Awakes, which wasn’t published until 2009. By his son Sebastian’s account, it isn’t really a continuation of the series, but an attempt by Gilmore to address the loss of Peake.
Graham Greene helped edit Titus Groan into publishable form. Elizabeth Bowen and Anthony Burgess both thought highly of the book and Harold Bloom considered the Gormenghast trilogy the most accomplished fantasy work of the twentieth century. Michael Moorcock, a friend of Peake’s, has written several times about Peake’s artistry, and his own novel, Glorianna, is dedicated to Peake. Despite the support of so many writers, the books weren’t published for a second time until the late sixties by Penguin, and then as part of Lin Carter’s Ballantine Adult Fantasy line.
A satire of manners and a critique of blind adherence to dead tradition, despite having few clear fantastic elements it is easily one of the great literary works of fantasy. It might not match the success of The Lord of the Rings, but in its richness of imagination it does, and outpaces it in the depth and human variety of its characters.
Titus Groan opens on the day of the birth of its titular character and ends a year later when he is made Earl of Gormenghast. The story, while it revolves around his birth and accession, is not his, but that of several other characters, primarily Steerpike, a kitchen boy intent on forcing his way upward to a position of power in the castle.
Escaping the horrid Great Kitchen ruled by the even more horrid cook, Abiatha Swelter, Steerpike quickly realizes that the weight of Gormenghast’s customs and codes cannot be overcome, but might be subverted to his aims. Slowly, by charisma, guile, and plotting, he begins to do so. Subversion, arson, and murder are all relentlessly and remorselessly employed toward his ends.
Simultaneous to Steerpike’s ascent, Mr. Flay, servant to the current Earl, Lord Sepulchrave, is engaged in a war of wills with the cook, Swelter. Though the conflict plays out outside of everyone else’s observation, its conclusion has great ramifications in the second book.
Like a Dickens novel, the book is filled with numerous digressions and tangential side plots as well as a large assortment of minor characters. On their own, each may seem to do little to further Titus Groan‘s larger story, but taken together they deepen and enrich everything else in the novel.
Titus Groan is one of the great achievements of literary worldbuilding. Peake spent his childhood in China, the son of British missionaries. The segregated community he grew up in, as well as the model of the Forbidden City of the Chinese emperor, itself ruled by tradition and ritual, must have informed his conception of Gormenghast. From those raw elements, Peake created a world that is vast yet strictly confined, and limited by more than just walls.
Like most people these days, my first encounter with the patchwork creature from Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein(1818), was through adaptation. I truly cannot remember whether it was a moulded plastic Halloween mask, a comic strip, James Whale’s 1931 movie Frankenstein, starring Boris Karloff, or Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) that I saw first. Which one doesn’t matter — that green-makeup-painted face with flat head and neck bolts was an image that was everywhere: comics, cartoons, a giant statue on top of a bar & grill on my hometown of Staten Island. In each case, Victor Frankenstein’s creation was presented as a lumbering, platform-booted monster. At some point, I learned that Shelley’s was a very different creature than that which Whale had created for the screen, but that knowledge was unable to dislodge decades of Whale’s iconic image.
While normally presented as a horror story — and there are great, horrific elements in the book — it is really one of the first science fiction novels. Victor Frankenstein is a warped version of the Enlightenment man, rejecting the supernatural entirely, pursuing material and empirical knowledge to the point “no man was meant to know”. The Creature, foreshadowing countless androids and cyborgs, is tormented by the question of his standing in the universe as a man-made being. I thoroughly enjoyed this terrific, if slightly flawed, book.
I imagine most people know the basic story of Frankenstein‘s creation. As part of a storytelling contest between herself, her lover, the poet Percy Shelley, the poet Lord Byron, and Byron’s sidekick, Dr. John Polidori, eighteen-year-old Mary Shelley conjured a scientist obsessed with creating life. The poets’ tales were never finished, but Polidori wrote one of the first vampire tales, “The Vampyre” (1819). Shelley’s idea was potent enough to turn into a full-length novel.
When Molly Grue yells at the unicorn, it expresses a little how I felt on reading Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn (1968) this past month for the very first time:
But Molly pushed him aside and went up to the unicorn, scolding her as though she were a strayed milk cow. “Where have you been?” Before the whiteness and the shining horn, Molly shrank to a shrilling beetle, but this time it was the unicorn’s old dark eyes that looked down.
“I am here now,” she said at last.
Molly laughed with her lips flat. “And what good is it to me that you’re here now? Where were you twenty years ago, ten years ago? How dare you, how dare you come to me now, when I am this?” With a flap of her hand she summed herself up: barren face, desert eyes, and yellowing heart. “I wish you had never come, why do you come now?” The tears began to slide down the sides of her nose.
Of course, what Molly learns is that she needn’t have waited for wonder and transcendence to find her, but should instead have sought them. Taking her lesson to heart for myself, I felt betrayed and angry for only a moment before yielding to chagrin that I hadn’t sooner sought this perfectly-cut gem of a story. The book sat on a shelf for twenty years, gathering dust and losing to the sun the richness of color of its wonderful Gervasio Gallardo artwork.
If The Last Unicorn was a lesser book, I could offhandedly describe it as an illustration of the universal need to undertake a quest, to find wonder — whether from beauty or love or something more ineffable. But Beagle has given us so much more. He’s tucked treasures inside prose that echoes with the sounds of hidden woodland glens and that is painted in the colors of lost and recovered dreams; he’s elucidated the value that can be gleaned from loss, sacrifice, regret. And further, he’s told a story about stories, and how they don’t reflect reality, except when they do. He’s played with the various elements of fantasy — the quest, the wizard, the princess, etc. — in a way that loves them as much as it punctures them.
I’m back with a new column. Each first Friday of the month I’ll be writing about a work of fantasy I’ve never read (or read only once a long time ago; I insist on room for maneuvering!). Because of Lin Carter’s magnificent taste, it may at times seem I’m simply going through titles from his Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, but my goal is to rummage around in the basement and attic of fantasy, exploring works that preceded, or exist outside of, modern commercial fantasy. My reach will extend at least as far back as the Gothic novels first appearing in the late 18th century, and I hope it will come forward to today. So far, my planned reading includes Gormenghast, The Last Unicorn, Once Upon a Time, The Ship of Ishtar, Melmoth the Wanderer, and Frankenstein. If all goes well, I’ll even go for The Worm Ouroboros and The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, too.
Fantasy has become a successful commodity. Witness the gargantuan force of A Song of Ice and Fire, both in print and on the screen. And what are the leotard-clad protagonists of superhero movies but updated versions of the heroes panegyrized by the skalds and griots? Fantasy, to which I’ve dedicated untold numbers of hours reading and writing about, is more successful than I could ever have imagined forty-odd years ago when I first read The Hobbit, and yet I’ve found my taste for it diminishing with each passing year.
Excellent and original work is being created, but you have to hunt for it. Most new fantasy simply mimics ideas already done to death a long time ago, bringing nothing new or substantial to the field. I love the Ramones, but after four or five albums, you’ve heard everything they have to say. I feel the same way about new fantasy. And yet, I still find myself drawn to fantasy, remembering how it’s allowed me to shrug off the bonds of reality and slip into the world of dreams. I just don’t want another thousand-page story exploring the magically-augmented struggle for the throne of some imaginary kingdom, or a supposedly realistic disquisition on power politics in a “grittier” analogue of the real world, or about how there really isn’t good and evil, only gray morality. Even my beloved sword & sorcery begins to seem a little wan after reading eighty or ninety stories a year. Only in the best of hands do I find new stories that still hold my interest.
I recently reread Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, a tale of the devil visiting Moscow, a writer and his lover, and a novel about Pilate and Christ. While a serious novel about art, love, and totalitarianism, it’s also fantasy. The form allowed Bulgakov to explore ideas he might not, under Stalin, have attempted otherwise (and still it was censored until decades after his death). Some of the deepest, most affecting scenes are pure fantasy, drawing on myth and nightmare instead of psychology and our five senses, allowing them to find a way to our soul that a realistic version could not. Bulgakov wrote to satisfy himself, not the dictates of the market. And though there’s nothing wrong with the latter, the result will rarely be a Bulgakov. You won’t encounter another book like The Master and Margarita because it wasn’t written to conform to genre considerations. Bulgakov never set out to become a “fantasy” writer, just a writer who would find the best way to tell the stories he wanted to tell.
Let me start with a story from when I was fifteen and had yet read only the Lancer Conan the Warrior, but was friends with several serious Conan (and Kull, and Solomon Kane) readers. They learned that Creation Con in Manhattan would include a presentation about the upcoming movie Conan the Barbarian featuring Valeria actress Sandahl Bergman, and they quickly convinced a bunch of us to get tickets. On a Saturday afternoon, we made the drive into the city. My memories of the convention itself are pretty hazy, but the movie preview is etched in my brain. Bergman was beautiful and funny. Any teenage boy would want to see the movie after seeing her. The rest of the presentation, though — woohoo, it stank. It was a slide show, just a batch of lifeless stills that, if they didn’t kill our enthusiasm for the movie, they definitely dimmed it. Nonetheless, we all saw it as soon as we could.
All these years later, I can’t speak to how my friends felt, but I hated the movie. I just rewatched it and now, having read all of Howard’s original stories several times, I hate it even more. But that’s a conversation for another day. My opinion, sadly, didn’t matter, and Conan the Barbarian became a cult success, helped make Arnold Schwarzenegger a star, and set the stage for an explosion of barbarian-themed movies. It’s that eruption of films starring loin-clothed, overly-muscled warriors that is the subject of Barbarians at the Gates of Hollywood by P.J. Thorndyke.
When I stepped back from reviewing at Black Gate (almost two years ago — holy shlamoley!) I knew there could always be something to lure me back. Clearly, John O’Neill knew what that something was when he saw it. He e-mailed me a copy of Barbarians at the Gates of Hollywood, I scanned it and immediately knew I had to read it. It opens with a solid history of sword & sorcery and closes with a brief explanation of why the film genre died. The heart of the book are synopses of dozens, if not all, of swords and sorcery movies of the eighties. If you’ve ever had any interest in movies like Thor the Conqueror or how Richard Corman came to produce such fare as Deathstalker II: Duel of the Titans in Argentina, this is the book for you.
November, 19th is a date worth marking on your calendar. It’s the day Upon the Flight of the Queen (St. Martin’s Press), the second installment of Howard Andrew Jones’ Ring-Sworn Trilogy debuts. I loved For the Killing of Kings, the first book. You can read my review of it here. It’s a terrific swords & sorcery tale with a heavy dose of swashbuckling. If you haven’t read it yet, it should be clear I heartily recommend it. It’s felt like an age since my last post here at Black Gate. I’m still not sure when I’ll return here with any sort of regularity, but for books like this, I’m willing to make an appearance.
I’m old, so the idea of doing a trailer for a book isn’t something I’ve ever thought of. Apparently it’s a thing and it can be pretty cool. Up above is the brand new one for Upon the Flight of the Queen and it was done by Jones’ son, Darian Jones, an animator (as well as many other talents as will become clear later). As trailers are a whole new concept for me, I figured I’d ask Darian about himself and how he created the one for Flight.
Fletcher: So, Darian, can you please, tell us about yourself and your animation background?
Darian: Hello! Well, like my father, I have always been a performer and a storyteller. As a kid, he and I would be unable to watch a movie or listen to a song without taking it apart and analyzing it together. Animation seemed like the natural marriage of writing, art, and music, all things I loved to create. It started with simple comics during middle school at recess (and anytime the teacher wasn’t looking). Then I tried my hand at stop motion using stuffed animals and action figures. Over time I just fell in love with the medium. There is a vast storytelling potential in animation. I believe it is the best way to make any story visually beautiful and expressive. Unlike film, animation grants its creator the most minute control over every detail. I determine exactly what colors I use scene-by-scene. I determine how a character gesticulates and how their face emotes when they speak. I can give them shark teeth or hair made of drifting clouds if I want. My commitment to the study of animation earned me straight As and a position as Lead Animator on our class’ student thesis film. My professor said it was not only my skills with the medium but also my ability to negotiate calmly and effectively during times of extreme stress that won me the title. Now I have graduated college and I’ve been making little animations every chance I get to build my portfolio and, hopefully, win new positions at studios. Until then, I’m doing freelance work for writers and businesses.