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Neverwhens, Where History and Fantasy Collide

Neverwhens, Where History and Fantasy Collide

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Fantasy and Science Fiction are often viewed as two distinctive, though related, forms of speculative fiction, but in reality, the genre is a continuum in which the dreamscapes of a Lord Dunsany or Robert Holdstock can lead us through twisting turns of possibility until we arrive at Andy Weir and Ian Banks, or a Neal Stephenson story of “digital resurrection” can turn into a story of gods, goddesses and quests.

The central theme, the true “Call of Cthulhu” behind good speculative fiction is not “swords, sorcerers or blasters,” but the author’s ability to take the reader out of the comfort of our mundane world, and by introducing varying degrees of what-ifs, neverwhens or neverwheres to take us on inward journey that stimulates our imagination, our sense of wonder, our ability to consider this spinning rock we live on today. Of course, what I am talking about is “world-building.” The world building may be subtle, introducing only the smallest tweaks to reality, or it may be the all-encompassing sweep of foreign lands, peoples and languages, most famously represented by Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

There are a lot of ways to tackle world-building, but this column is going to focus on one: historicity in fantasy fiction. Full disclosure: I have a background in medieval history and have spent most of my adult life meticulous reconstructing medieval martial arts from primary source material. So, I’m a nerd. For the average fantasy reader, an obvious pushback is “it’s fantasy, Greg, what does it matter?” I am glad I asked for you!

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Tolkien Manuscripts and Artwork On Display in Oxford

Tolkien Manuscripts and Artwork On Display in Oxford

bilbo-comes-to-the-hut-of-the-raft-elves-recoloured - 300 dpi

Bilbo comes to the Huts of the Raft-elves, a watercolor Tolkien
painted for the first edition of The Hobbit, published in 1937.
Bilbo is seen sitting astride a barrel floating down the forest river,
having helped the dwarves (who are hidden inside the wine barrels) to
escape from the dungeons of the Elvenking. This was Tolkien’s favorite
watercolor and he was disappointed to find that it had been omitted from
the first American edition. Credit: © The Tolkien Estate Limited 1937.

The University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library has launched the largest exhibition on J.R.R. Tolkien in a generation.

Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth showcases the library’s extensive collection of Tolkien’s papers, manuscripts, letters, and artwork, the largest of its kind in the world. The exhibition, which includes some 200 items, also brings together items from private collections and Marquette University’s Tolkien Collection.

J.R.R. Tolkien (1892–1973) spent most of his adult life in Oxford. He came to Oxford University in 1911, aged nineteen, to study Classics at Exeter College, but later switched to English. After serving in France during World War One, he returned to Oxford to work on the New English Dictionary (later the Oxford English Dictionary), while tutoring in English. After five years at Leeds University as Reader and then Professor of English Language, he returned to Oxford in 1925 and remained there for the rest of his working life, first as Professor of Anglo-Saxon from 1925 to 1945, and later as Professor of English Language and Literature from 1945 to 1959. He is buried with his wife, Edith, in Wolvercote Cemetery in Oxford.

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Another View: The Difficult Experiment of Scott Oden’s A Gathering of Ravens

Another View: The Difficult Experiment of Scott Oden’s A Gathering of Ravens

A-Gathering-of-Ravens-smallerI really wanted to like this book. With pleasure I listened to Oden speak on The Literary Wonder and Adventure Show. He talked at length about Tolkien (my own spiritual and literary master), and it seemed that Oden’s and my dials were approximately set. Oden’s book, like Tolkien’s most popular works, deals with “that northern thing” (though I just today learned that Tolkien objected, in part, to this characterization from W.H. Auden).

But Oden’s book is so grimdark that, while reading, I couldn’t find my feet. The work ostensibly is about an orc Hel-bent on revenge — and here is my first objection: the attitudes and actions of this orc, our “protagonist,” are indistinguishable from those of the larger majority of characters in the book. Grimnir, our orc, seems capable only of speaking and thinking in profanities. He murders even when there absolutely is no reason to. The only thing (in this book) we can’t accuse Grimnir of is the sin of rape. That assault remains to be committed by many of the other “human” characters you will find therein: your average male, in this portrayal, seems hardwired to enter rape mode the moment he lays eyes upon any “unprotected” female. Now, remember, Grimnir is supposed to be the “orc,” yet he doesn’t behave much differently from the novel’s many other human characters. Moreover, even when it doesn’t cost a character anything necessarily, few characters are liable to show any shred of kindness for one another. Oden’s narrator summarizes this world’s milieu thusly: “She [the character Etain] knew the score … and she knew sooner or later there would be a reckoning. Men did nothing — undertook no good deed, performed no kindness — without first attaching a price to it.” Oden’s characters, I suppose, are consummate Dark Age businesspersons.

“But that’s the Way It Was,” a number on Goodreads might say, defending Oden’s work from the very few negative reviews I can find there (here and here are two well-said assessments). What these apologists are claiming is that the worldview of the so-called Dark Ages is exactly this: murder whenever you can get away with it, rape whenever you like (for those who like it, I guess, who are all young pre-modern men). I don’t entirely agree with this representation. In the worst possible reading, this might represent the author’s views of the natural state of humankind freed from the fetters or checks thankfully supplied by modernity. In the best possible reading, this representation assumes that, at least in the area of moral development, humans who happened to live a mere millennia ago might be considered pre-human in these respects. Granted, the spread of more nation-building and socializing beliefs and philosophies such as Christianity might have a civilizing influence on a pre-modern worldview, might even be of some aid in the sense of an evolving moral consciousness. But this book barely acknowledges even this. It ostensibly presents two competing worldviews, that of northern paganism and that of Christianity, but, in this book, in practice adherents to either faith might as well be indistinguishable. They merely serve one team in a two-sided competition that is drawn as equal in every respect. Again, apologists should be quick to point to aspects of history that reveal a number of Christians as hypocritical and intolerant throughout their persecutions. Granted, but are you going to deny that there remain some fundamental differences and worldviews between the two perspectives, and therefore requisite actions and behaviors on behalf of the religion’s adherents? To this point Oden seems to relent, to some measure, in the second and much-preferred half of the book, in the figures of King Brian and his freed thrall Ragnar. But we’ll get to that in a moment.

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Holding History

Holding History

sfwa-bulletin-11eBay.  It’s a silly place to be for any amount of time, not to mention its hideous potential as a money-sink.  I do spend time there, though, on a daily basis, and money as well.  It’s one of the sources I use to replace the stock I’ve sold at a convention, and it comes in handy to add to my personal collection on those rare occasions when I have disposable income.

Three weeks ago as I write this, I was lucky to have won a small lot of magazines that popped up on my radar because of the authors included therein.  I was up against another collector, and although the bidding was spirited in the last day or so I walked away with the prize.  And what was it, I hear you ask?

It was a dozen issues of the Bulletin of the Science Fiction Writers of America dating from 1967, the earliest being #10.  After I paid for them – with shipping, a little over a dollar each – the seller found another issue dated 1970 and threw it in.

A few days later the package came, and I slit the tape carefully to open it.  They don’t look like much: just 8.5×11″ pages folded in half and stapled to make a booklet.  The pages are browned; the few photos are black and white.  All in all, pretty unimposing, really.

So why were my hands shaking as I lifted them gently out of the box?

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