Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Response Essay - What is it about magic that is so appealing?

Just as there are many forms and uses of magic, there are many reasons why magic is so appealing to readers of Fantasy Fiction. I believe the main reason that magic is so appealing is because it’s so entertaining, so unlike anything we know as readers. But on a deeper and arguably more important level, magic is so appealing because it is such an exciting and extraordinary allegorical means of tackling real world issues. After a while issues like morality, politics, power, love, art, and other important issues can become dry. By dry I mean that these issues seem to be the same over and over again, and there seems to be only one way to perceive these matters. But through magic readers are able to reconsider and reevaluate these issues through a completely new perspective. And readers can become so caught up in the exciting and extraordinary nature of magic that they might not even realize they’re looking at real world issues. Magic is not just a distraction; it isn’t just a fun element of fiction. Magic helps us as humans reconsider and reevaluate the people we are, the issues we care about, and the world we live in.
            An excellent example of magic’s appeal can be found in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. My examples will include one of the best works included in this Fantasy Fiction course—The Hobbit—and will extend the appeal of Tolkien’s magic to The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The most important example of magic in Middle-Earth is the Ring, the Ring that Bilbo Baggins acquires in The Hobbit, the same Ring which the Fellowship sets out to destroy in The Lord of the Rings. Initially the Ring seems to be solely a helpful magical artifact. It helps Bilbo escape Gollum, helps him save the dwarves from the spiders in Mirkwood, free the dwarves from the elves, burgle his way into the Lonely Mountain, give the Arkenstone to Bard and the elves in order to minimize the inevitable fighting, survive the Battle of the Five Armies, etc. There seems to be nothing malevolent about the Ring in The Hobbit. In this work, readers definitely perceive the Ring as good magic, its ability to turn the wearer invisible an exciting and extraordinary prospect. There are no hints of the Ring’s malevolence in The Hobbit, except perhaps for Gollum’s twisted nature. However, in The Lord of the Rings, the Ring proves to be an evil object that creates violence, betrayal, and corruption.
            So what does this shift in the Ring’s magic say about larger real world issues? In The Hobbit, the Ring can be an allegory for furthering self-confidence through appropriate use of power. Before acquiring the Ring, Bilbo is really struggling in his journey with Thorin’s company. Thorin and the dwarves make him feel bad about how he’s doing in the journey, and Bilbo also feels bad about himself. He’s certainly lacking in self-confidence, and feeling very out of place in the dangerous journey in the big world so far from the comfort of his home in the Shire. But the Ring, this source of magic, proves to be a turning point for Bilbo. Through the magic of the Ring, Bilbo is able to become a skilled burglar, and a heroic and valuable member of Thorin’s company. He comes to respect himself more, and so do the dwarves. The appeal of magic helps us as readers ponder this shift. Does this shift in Bilbo’s character occur simply because he acquires magic, or is it something more? I believe it’s not just the magic he acquires, but how he uses the magic. Bilbo uses the Ring’s magic appropriately. He only uses it to do what is best, to save himself and the dwarves and help in their quest, or to try and achieve peace. Bilbo’s use of the Ring can therefore be seen through the allegorical lens of furthering self-confidence through appropriate use of power. Magic is almost always power in Fantasy Fiction, and the Ring’s magic is certainly powerful. Bilbo thus acquires power and through appropriate use the power is used for good, for helping himself and helping others. This furthers his self- confidence because he becomes a more valuable and skilled and benevolent individual. And we as readers can learn a lesson about power, that one gains more self-confidence and helps good things happen not by just acquiring power, but by using power wisely once acquired. With the same object of magic we see how unwise and inappropriate use of power can kill, injure, betray, and corrupt, all of which the Ring causes in The Lord of the Rings. Thus, magic entertains and helps us as readers reconsider important issues, particularly the issue of power.
            Another excellent example of how magic’s appeal helps readers reconsider and reevaluate the real world is magic in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. In this classic work the extraordinary nature of magic leads readers to examine the issue of faith and law. When Aslan survives despite being killed upon the Stone Table by the White Witch and her minions, he returns and tells Susan and Lucy the secret of his survival:
Though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward. (Lewis 178-179)
Magic that defies death is certainly intriguing. Aslan’s reasons for why this magic defies death are even more intriguing. In short, the magic that saves Aslan is about the power of sacrifice and faith, and adhering to such laws. The magic Lewis presents makes readers consider the power of faith, the good that can come out of a victim willingly sacrificing his or her self for a greater cause. Furthermore, such faith during sacrifice can allow evil to be triumphed. Through these exciting possibilities depicted in the magic of Narnia, readers can look at faith and sacrifice through a new lens. Readers who scoff at their religious faith may reconsider their feelings toward their faith. I’m not saying reading this will make an atheist or agnostic suddenly believe in God and start attending church or synagogue or any other place of religious worship, but it does make readers reexamine the issue of faith. And it’s not necessarily religious faith; it can help readers reevaluate the value of having faith in anything, even faith in one’s self or other people or certain causes and so forth.
Not only does the magic of Aslan’s resurrection speak to the issue of faith, but it also speaks to laws. Aslan triumphs because he knows the ancient laws of magic and adheres to them. He lives because he knows and manipulates the system. The White Witch thinks she triumphs because she thinks she can cheat the system but it turns out she doesn’t know the system as well as she thinks. Magic can thus be used an allegory for law. To thrive and survive one needs to know the law, adhere to the law, and use the law wisely. If you’re going to manipulate the law, you better know it in and out, and know how to use and manipulate the law effectively.
            Issues like power, self-confidence, faith, sacrifice, and law can seem dry and simple. But the highly entertaining and astonishing nature of magic helps us as readers willingly think of these issues, and think of them in new ways. Power and self-confidence are more intrinsically fascinating and appealing to analyze through the Ring. In the same way faith, sacrifice, and law are more intrinsically fascinating and appealing to analyze through the magic behind Aslan’s resurrection. These are just a few of countless examples in which magic helps us better understand and assess the real world. And by offering new perspectives and by triggering critical thinking about such important issues, magic does not draw readers further from the real world as many argue magic and Fantasy Fiction do. Magic helps readers live in and better understand the real world.
Works Cited

Lewis, C.S. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. New York: Harper Collins, 1950. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Fantasy Fiction: Are you willing to believe?

A Willing Suspension of Disbelief- 
 Are you willing to believe?

Many of the questions posted to the class Fantasy Fiction blog talk about differences between the “real” world and the fantasy worlds. Some of these questions include:

“Do the best works of fantasy need their own universes or can great works take place in the world we know?” 

This then brings us to ask the questions of whether these fantasy worlds are “just literary devices, or whether they are intended to be believed as truth”.
Then we must ask if these works of fantasy should even be “read and analyzed for their symbolism and literary devices”.

If one decides to read works of fantasy fiction and apply lenses, devices, symbolism and analogies to them one must then as if these works should be read with the fantasy worlds as a “commentary on the real world”, and if the time period and culture in which the author wrote these stories in needs to be taken into account.

The answers to these questions are going to rely on individual and very personal readings of each text. Who are we as readers to decide what is real or what the author’s intentions were? One of the greatest aspects of fantasy fiction to many readers is the ability to escape from the “real” world and travel into the fantasy world. What is important to notice however is that this escapism doesn’t make the fantasy worlds any less "real" than the real world. What does matter is that there is a base of a real world from which to escape from

In Catherynne Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making September leaves the very real land of Omaha and enters Fairyland without even a glance back at first. In the many Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling Harry must return to the “Muggle” (real) world every year. In C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia the very entrance to Narnia is through a wardrobe in a house that is in the real world. Whether or not the worlds of Fairyland, Narnia or Hogwarts are real the adventures within them and the stories they create would not exist without a real world to escape from and come back to. One cannot always decide whether or not these fantasy worlds are to be taken as truth, but it is certain that the real world is what allows them to exist. 

As for reading works of fantasy to draw parallels and make connections to the real world that is very subjective, but no matter what one chooses to believe, the fantasy world does not need to be taken as truth or even be taken as a work to make commentary on the real world in order to have meaning. The witches in The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making point out strong lessons in the world that are neither symbolic nor allusive, but are merely just true, no matter what world one applies them to. The witches inform September that “The future is a messy, motley business” and that they “have to dress well, or the future will not take us seriously” (Valente 31). This is true whether or not one chooses to believe in fantasy worlds.

As for the time period and direct correlations between the real worlds and the fantasy worlds, that decision is left more to the reader. It does not matter if the author intended any of these novels to draw parallels between the wars during which they were written. What matters is whether or not the reader is going to dive into the stories with a willing suspension of disbelief. 

For readers who read to escape, the answer is simple. I’m going to cross through the wardrobe into Narnia to hang out with my animal friends and do good for the world, and I still believe that my mother intercepted my owl and burned my acceptance letter from Hogwarts. Fantasy fiction reading isn’t so much about whether these fantasy worlds actually exist or whether or not they are supposed to represent the real world. Fantasy fiction depends on whether or not you are willing to believe.

Works Cited
Lewis, C. S. The Chronicals of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Hollywood, CA: Walt Disney Studios and Walden Media, 2006. Print.
Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone Harry Potter. NY: Listening Library, 1999. Print.
Valente, Catherynne M. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. New York: Feiwel and Friends, 2011. Print.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Questions about A Wizard of Earthsea, Fall 2014

More questions from my ENGL 217 students, this time on Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea!


  • Why so much emphasis on all the names (of people and places) in the book?  Do they have importance later on?
  • How powerful is the concept of a true name?  What are its limits in shaping the lives of the characters?
  • What is a deciding factor in who is magical and who is not?
  • Why do wizards always learn in secret?
  • By adding a number of different wizard-like figures in the novel, does the magic of Earthsea become more structured--or more chaotic and complex?
  • Why is Earthsea made to be so complicated that we as readers cannot define most of the concepts/map out the world ourselves?
  • As an introduction to a long series does A Wizard of Earthsea do the world justice?

  • Gender and differing magic roles?  Evil magic=female?  Lack of female magicians and powerful females in general throughout multiple series?
  • Why do characters' names have to be changed, and why can't they tell anybody their real name?  What is the significance?
  • I felt that the writing style/plot of this novel was too obvious (at least so far).  The "fork in the road" moments are almost cut and dry decisions.  When Ged chooses to go to school, it was almost too easy to guess where he was going to end up.  Is this supposed to be a commentary on how hindsight is 20/20 or is it just poorly written?
  • What would books be without a main conflict?
  • Why did the author decide to have only men be wizards?
  • Is the sexism presented purposely done as a foreshadowing or is it just sexism?
  • Do you think getting feminist attention was part of Le Guin's intention?
  • Vetch is described as dark-skinned, gluttonous, and sort of a comic relief.  This novel was written around the '60s; it was very common in this time for black characters in books and other sources of media to be seen in this light.  Was it groundbreaking that Le Guin incorporated a powerful wizard who is black or just being stereotypical?
  • Is good versus evil what makes the story more interesting for the reader?
  • What is the significance of a person's identity?
  • A Wizard of Earthsea is clearly the most Tolkien-esque book we've read, outside, of course, The Hobbit.  The emphasis is on the world.  I couldn't bring myself to care about what was going on because the story wasn't that unique and the author seems to care precious little about the actual writing side of the book.  The narration is very passive and flat...I don't want to be mean, but I couldn't understand the appeal of this one...but I don't think I'm much of a fantasy fan in general...?
  • Did this book get a lot of feminist attention?
  • Was this book the first popular one of its kind to involve a wizard/magic academy?
  • Why is there a focus on names in fantasy fiction?  What is the power of names/naming?
  • In T.H. White's The Once and Future King,  ordinary Wart becomes legendary Arthur when he pulls Excalibur out of the Stone.  Does this name/identity change have any influence on the change from Duny to Ged?  What is the significance of name changes in fantasy?
  • Is good/evil a common theme in fantasy fiction writing?  What about other genres?  I'm beginning to question if this is a theme in all books.
  • It seems like the further along in time we get, the less pure the protagonist is, and the less black and white good and evil are.  I like that he is a victim to things like ambition and pride  because it makes him more believable and more likable.  Compared to fantasy novels of the past, has there been a definite shift in the moral standing of the character the reader is meant to see as the hero in more recent books?  Is what I noticed a real trend, or just a coincidence?
  • In most of the novels we've read. the main character has been orphaned in some way and in A Wizard of Earthsea it's no different.  Why is this a recurring aspect of fantasy fiction?  What effect does this give the story that the authors are trying to achieve?
  • I watched the movie version of Earthsea directed by Goro Miyazaki and I realized that Ged's personality is the movie was so much different than in the book.  What made this so?
  • Women's magic seems to be scorned in Earthsea whereas a sorcerer would be respected.  The same goes for The Hobbit:  how many female sorcerers or magic users are there? And when there is a female magic user (Galadriel), is she respected or fared? Why the lack of female protagonists in fantasy fiction about magic users?
  • Most stories we've read make animals very important (eagles, Narnians, daemons); in this novel, Ged has a connection to birds and adopts a flying squirrel.  Does this lead to a bigger connection in the end, or are animals used more or less as an example of his magical ability?

Questions about The Hobbit, Fall 2014

Continuing my Fantasy Fiction course's strategy of focusing on my students' questions, here are some they wrote about Tolkien's The Hobbit late last month (plus a few on Peter Jackson's movie trilogy).

  • How long did the quest take?  How much time had passed when Bilbo returns to The Shire?  About a year or so?
  • Why is it in every fantasy story they have to cross the continent to the farthest geographical point possible?
  • Why is Middle Earth the staple for fantasy?
  • Why did Bilbo take the Arkenstone?
  • How long was Bilbo knocked out when he gets hit in the head by the rock (after the eagles)?
  • Why does Bilbo take so long to share with his friends about the ring? What did he think was going to happen if he told people when he first got it?
  • After Bilbo's encounter with Gollum in the cave, asking riddles in the dark, why did he not tell Gandalf about where he was after he reunited with the group?  Is it because the ring compelled him not to?
  • Why is Bilbo unharmed by the ring's usage?  Why does Sauron not send for him?  And, furthermore, how is Bilbo not weakened and maddened by the ring as many other characters in Middle Earth are?
  • Why is the Ring portrayed so much more positively in The Hobbit than in The Lord of the Rings?
  • Bilbo Baggins never seems to be heroic on purpose; everything that happens to him seems to happen on accident, at least early in the novel:  is this because fate is just playing out, meaning Bilbo really was destined to be on this journey, as Gandalf said, or because Bilbo is not a hero?
  • Why was Bilbo so content with going home and "not being in great danger ever again"?  The adventure was the greatest experience he would ever be a part of, so why not go with Gandalf and adventure more?  Seems so much better than staying at home.
  • What drives Bilbo's sense of adventure and his ability to face such danger he is so unaccustomed to?
  • How do Bilbo's internal emotions relate to the other characters within the story?
  • Do we see characters switching roles throughout the story, and how so?
  • What is the significance of the characters switching roles?
  • To what degree can a family heritage affect the quests of Tolkien's characters?
  • In the second half of The Hobbit, a good amount of action occurs, but the small amount of Smaug is honestly surprising to me.  As one of the main anti-heroes of the story you would expect to see a lot more of him or at least of his story.  So my question is, was Smaug the true villain of the story?  I don't believe so.  I believe "the darkness" is what is evil, whether it be the dark forests and spiders or the Necromancer.
  • Who is the Necromancer?  Is he a Witch King?  Is he the main antagonist?  Or is that Smaug?
  • Why did wizard stuff take place off-stage?
  • Why are necromancers so underrated?
  • What idiot told the Goblins Smaug was dead?
  • Why did the Lake Men destroy the bridge when their foe was in the sky?
  • Why didn't they just take the eagles?
  • I question the use of the upbeat, cheerful narrator that we talked about last time.  Why choose to do this?  Why not a darker narrator?
  • Why did the narrator change perspectives so many times?
  • Why didn't Tolkien give each dwarf their own identity and distinguish them from one another?
  • Why would the author choose to use 13 dwarves?  It seems like they are not all necessary to the story.
  • In a world full of so many epic tales (the Kinslaying, the Fall of Beleriand, the wars against Morgoth, the fall of Numenor, etc.) why did J.R.R. Tolkien write The Hobbit as his first publication of Middle Earth?
  • In the novel, during the epic battle scene (Battle of the Five Armies), Tolkien leaves out many of the details and decides to retell them after the war.  Why does he follow Bilbo's perspective instead of a general and large-scaled view?  And why does he knock Bilbo out?
  • Was The Hobbit an extension of Tolkien's mythology for Britain?
  • How far had the story of The Lord of the Rings been developed when Tolkien was writing The Hobbit?
  • In The Hobbit the one ring isn't really implied to be evil.  It seems to just be a cool magic item to set Bilbo apart.  It doesn't seem to corrupt Bilbo like it does in later stories.  So how much of the world/plot of the Lord of the Rings trilogy do you think Tolkien had planned when he wrote The Hobbit?  Do you think that he knew the significance of Bilbo's ring when he wrote The Hobbit, or was this something he added to the trilogy, to tie it into something from the original story?
  • One question I had was about the Necromancer plot point.  Did it really get solved off-screen, with no help from Bilbo?  Was Tolkien just trying to tie up loose ends or was it really that simple to introduce then complete a plot-point off-screen?
  • After seeing how quickly Thorin is accepted by the humans in River Town, it became clear to me that birthright and names go a long way in Middle Earth.  This is reinforced by the power of the Took name affecting Bilbo.  In Tolkien's timeline and history of Middle Earth, does he have an established family tree of sorts for these prestigious names?
  • People often suggest that The Lord of the Rings is an allegory for something (WW I or WW II, for example), even though Tolkien hated allegory.  I wonder, then, what The Hobbit's allegory could be?
  • Why does Tolkien neglect any diversity in gender in his characters?
  • Why do they change the movie so much from the book?  I know that action movies make more money, but it seems like a disservice to Tolkien and the novel.
  • Why did the movie director create the movie?  What point of view was he attracted to?

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Questions about Fantasy Fiction, Fall 2014

My students in my Fantasy Fiction course have generated questions about fantasy fiction that they are interested in trying to answer this semester.  Feel free to compare them to the questions and answers my students from Fall 2010 generated.  I'll post this semester's answers here as I receive them, so be sure to check back over the next few months.

General Questions About Fantasy Fiction

  • What is the most important element in a work of fantasy?
  • Does fantasy fiction take longer to set up because you have to explain the world, the characters, etc.?
  • How does the story move along?
  • Is the phrase "No book is original" from How to Read Literature Like a Professor actually true or not?
  • What actually makes something fantasy fiction?
  • What are some of the structures and conventions of fantasy fiction?
  • Where do many of the concepts and ideas of fantasy fiction come from?
  • What are the most important elements that define a work of fantasy fiction?
  • Can a story be considered fantasy if it does not include magic?
  • Are heroes and villains necessary for a story to be considered fantasy?
  • How do the main characters in fantasy novels relate to each other?  What makes some of these characters heroes?
  • If all fantasy novels were compared using the hero formula (separation/initiation/return), would they all relate?
  • Is there a difference between male and female heroes?
  • What novels outside of the class could be considered fantasy fiction?
  • Can short stories be considered fantasy fiction?
  • Are there fantasy plays and poems, or are they all novels, tales, and prose?
  • Does there have to be a form of "magic" to make it a fantasy?
  • Do fantasy books tend to stay within the confines of "old earth but with magic and monsters"?  Is that part of what fantasy is?
  • What "types" of fantasy fiction are there?
  • What types of fantasy worlds (portal/secondary/alternate history) have been invented?
  • Do the best works of fantasy need their own universes (Wonderland, Middle Earth, Fairyland, Oz, Westeros and Essos, Narnia, etc.) or do/can great works of fantasy take place in the world we know?  Does good fantasy require world-building?
  • What is the range of fantasy fiction?
  • What are the limitations of fantasy fiction?
  • Is fantasy fiction limited to only specific conventions, tropes, and other stereotypical scenarios?
  • How widespread is fantasy fiction and what makes it so different from the rest of the world?
  • Is there a distinction between fantasy and broader unrealistic fiction?
  • Is there any work or subgenre that could be argued as realistic fantasy fiction?
  • What makes fantasy fiction different from other forms of fiction?  What dictates it to be fantasy?
  • Where is the line between fairy tales and fantasy fiction?
  • Where is the line drawn between fantasy fiction and science fiction?
  • How well can fantasy fiction and science fiction mesh together?  Must they reject each other?
  • Could magical realism and fantasy ever be combined or connected?
  • Can't all genre fiction fit into the fantasy fiction genre?
  • Is there such a thing as mainstream fantasy (e.g., Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter) and, if so, how is it different from non-mainstream fantasy?
  • Does fantasy translate better from book to film than any other literary genre? If so, why? If not, why not?
  • How progressive can fantasy fiction be?
Reader-Response/Cultural Studies
  • Why haven't I received my Hogwarts letter yet?
  • What is it about magic that is so appealing?
  • Will we learn a lot from the readings, both intellectually and emotionally?
  • It is said that any fantasy stories are good for children's education--what aspects of these stories affect them or appeal to them?
  • How does fantasy fiction keep the reader interested?
  • While reading should one take into account the time and culture during which the piece was written, even if one is supposed to be engulfed in "the fantasy"?
  • What do you expect of a fantasy novel to consider it "good"?
  • Do I truly enjoy fantasy fiction or are Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings just the best out there?
  • Should these works be taken on their own merit or must we analyze what symbolism and other devices are used to make commentary on the real world?  Does this analysis ruin the magic?
  • How far detached from "real life" is it safe to become while reading these works?
  • How can we compare the worlds of fantasy with the worlds of religions?  More specifically, how readers and followers truly believe that maybe someday they will get a Hogwarts letter, or that if they worship a certain god, they'll achieve a paradise after life?
  • Why do some people prefer fantasy fiction over science fiction, and vice versa?
  • Why is fantasy socially acceptable?
  • The resurgence of fantasy (books, tv shows, movies) in popular culture is due to what, exactly (economic issues, social issues, etc.)?
  • Is it fair to say that fantasy is the most popular literary genre today? If so, why?
  • Does escapism have anything to do with the current wave of fantasy fiction fans?
  • Would fantasy fiction be as popular or socially acceptable if most of these books weren't adapted to successful motion pictures/television series?
  • How does censorship and pop culture come into how fantasy books are adapted into film?
  • Some fantasy novels or series have been adapted into films that are either less adult (Eragon) or more adult (The Hobbit) than the audiences for which they were originally written.  Why?
  • How have fantasy fiction affected audiences all over the world?
  • Why are so many people involved in reading fantasy fiction?
  • Where do you believe fantasy fiction is headed?
Mimesis/Representation/Reality/The World/Truth
  • How do the expectations of society impact the fantasy genre?
  • Where do many of the concepts and ideas of fantasy fiction come from?
  • How can fantasy fiction apply to the real world?
  • How do characters in fantasy relate to us in real life?
  • Can fantasy fiction really be considered plausible?
  • Literature can be read as a whole bunch of allusions/symbols meaning something different that the literal text, so are fantasy "worlds" literary devices or meant to be believed as truth?
  • Can fantasy still have morals and points?  Do all fantasy works have them?
  • Does fantasy always examine morality?
  • Does good fantasy always need to tackle moral issues?
  • Does religion play a huge role in these novels, and why?
  • How progressive can fantasy fiction be?
  • Why is there such a male dominance as role characters in fantasy fiction?  (Even though there is a slight rise in female lead characters, it still seems the male protagonist is the dominating role.)
  • Why different worlds?
  • Dreams vs. reality vs. magic realms:  what defines the difference between them? is it subjective?
  • What do dreams tell about a dreamer?  Do they have meaning?
  • What is life?  Is it real, or an invention of someone?
  • What is real?
  • Why do fantasy fiction authors use their initials in their names?
  • Would all the authors of the works we're going to be reading consider their writing fantasy fiction?
  • Where do many of the concepts and ideas of fantasy fiction come from?
  • Is "escaping" a popular reason why fantasy fiction is continually being written?
  • How do authors refine a story from ideas of monsters and magic into fantasy fiction?
  • How do authors make up a world?  Is it all imagination or influences from other stories, real life, etc.?
  • Do fantasy writers translate what is happening in their world into their novels?
  • In a lot of fantasy fiction there is this battle of good vs. evil that tends to repeat itself, so does the time period influence the writer into setting the storyline in a war-immersed setting?  (For example, Tolkien influenced by WW I...)
  • Are there any great fantasy fictions influenced by the colonial era?
  • What is the history of fantasy fiction?
  • How old is fantasy fiction?  How did it begin?
  • Is fantasy just a continuation of mythology?
  • Were the origins of fantasy based more in medieval times or that of fairy tales?
  • Why is fantasy fiction more often based in the medieval era instead of modern times?
  • Does fantasy fiction share elements of Enlightenment, Romantic, and/or Victorian fiction?
  • When did fantasy fiction become mainstream?  Which books/series started the fad for fantasy films?
  • When was the transition when fantasy fiction became pop culture?
  • Do you think the large focus on fantasy has to do with the rise of gaming and video games in the last 30-40 years?
  • How does fantasy fiction evolve between writers?
  • What have various fantasy writers done to make their work stand out/expand upon the fantasy genre?
  • How progressive can fantasy fiction be?
  • What has Disney done to the original stories that now seem to be forgotten compared to their Disney movie versions?
  • J.R.R. Tolkien has been referred to as the "father of fantasy"--is this a fair statement, and if so, why?
  • How have other authors responded to C.S. Lewis's works?
  • What were some of the biggest influences on the most prominent of recent fantasy writers (J.K. Rowling, George R.R. Martin, etc.)?
  • How visible is George R.R. Martin's science fiction background in Game of Thrones?
  • Can you combine science fiction and fantasy fiction?
  • How does one go about writing fantasy fiction?

Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass Questions
  • How is a raven like a writing desk?
  • The baby turned into a piglet?  Why?  How?
  • Is Wonderland a different view of our world or a new world?
  • Was all of Wonderland just a dream or actually real because Alice believed it to be?
  • How does Wonderland work?  What are the rules of its universe?  Can you even have a world when the laws of existence seem fluid at best and everyone is a raving lunatic?  Can you ever have meaningful change without consistency?  Is Wonderland just forever stagnant and repetitive?  Are all the characters stuck in this mad loop forever?  Are they all so mad as to stay on their one-track moebius strips?
  • Wonderland is obviously a legitimate fantasy world--why else would it have a name?  (I guess I'm just intrigued by the logistics of a fantasy world that is fundamentally nonsensical.)
  • How does Wonderland relate to other fictional realms/worlds/universes? Particularly with respect to concepts of time...?
  • After Wonderland, it will be interesting to see how different novel "universes" respond to rules/chaos--more or less structured?  How does it matter to each plot?  Defining factors of each?
  • Do each of the characters control time through their own perception?
  • Does the food chain apply in Wonderland?  Is there any kind of animal hierarchy?
  • Why do all the problems that occur in Wonderland seem to get solved almost instantaneously?
  • Is this really a dream?  Whose dream?  Is everything a dream?
  • What would great thinkers like Plato think about Alice?
  • How old is Alice supposed to be?
  • What is actually happening to Alice in Through the Looking-Glass?  Is she wandering through her estate, talking to flowers?
  • Doesn't it seem strange how quickly Alice abandons her life in the real world?
  • Did Alice have some kind of disorder?  Or is she just an imaginative child?  If she does have a personality disorder, how can she recognize, as a child, differences between her and people in her life?  Was this child a very imaginative and open-minded person, or does she suffer from any disorders such as multiple personality, schizophrenia, or depression that allows her to accept her fates?
  • Is Alice's main issue with identity or growing up?
  • What made Alice have this wild dream—the book her sister was reading, her imagination, or what?
  • How does Alice perceive reality if she keeps living and learning in dreams?  What is Alice's reality?
  • How is Alice so smart and resourceful for a child?  Is she an important person's daughter to be so educated and opinionated?
  • Was there any inconsistency with her cleverness and lack of it?
  • Would you classify Alice as a heroine or a ditzy child?
  • Do you think Alice is strange or does she act the way a typical child does?
  • Alice never really freaks out about the fact that she's in another dimension and hardly questions the talking animals or disappearing cats with grins.  Does her acceptance make her more delightful or somehow frustrating?
  • Why is Alice an effective character, one who experiences such bizarre circumstances with mostly comfort and ease?
  • Why does Alice focus so much on being crazy?  Is she questioning her own sanity?  Or everyone else's?
  • Is Alice actually mad or does being in Wonderland make her mad?
  • How is Alice choosing who/what to believe in Wonderland?
  • Why does Alice start to forget things (rhymes, things she's learned in school, etc.)?
  • If I were Alice the story would not go smoothly because I have no courage to walk forward.  What characteristics made Alice get through Wonderland?
  • I feel like Alice should have been scared, especially around the queen.  But her fear was mild, and that was disconcerting.  To her, in the space of time, everything that happened was real.  Was she not afraid of being stuck there?
  • Why does Alice spend most of her time avoiding drama?
  • Were the characters simply there to get Alice thinking?
  • Was Alice supposed to have learned a lesson from all the events that happened in Wonderland?
  • Do things going on in the magical world have something to do with her real life?
  • Were Alice's sister's similar experiences of Wonderland while sleeping significant at all?
  • Does the story have any meaning?  (It seems to have no direction.)  How do you find any significance in a book like this?  What is the point of the novel?  (It all seems like nonsense to me.)
  • Why does the story go around in circles?
  • Is the narrator unreliable?  Can you have an unreliable narrator?
  • Was Alice in Wonderland a political allegory or satire?
  • Who/what is Alice supposed to represent?
  • Does Alice's view of the world represent that of a young girl or does it refer to an ignorant, unchanging adult?
  • Is Alice's adventure of going down the rabbit-hole a metaphor for something else?
  • When Alice is "drowning in her own tears," could it be a metaphor for depression?
  • Do some of these characters directly correlate to an aspect of Alice's life/struggles?  Do they function as metaphors or personifications?  What do they represent or symbolize?  Are the characters symbolic of pure nonsense?
  • Was there any sort of significance as to why Alice kept changing sizes?
  • What metaphors are there to real life/society in the novels, if any, and how can we identify them?
  • Is there any allegory for the focus on playing cards and chess?
  • Why do all the characters seem to have such an absurd attitude?  What was the significance of all these odd characters?  What did they symbolize?
  • Are there antagonists?  (The Queen is likely the best example, but when it comes to those giving Alice a hard time, there is certainly no shortage.)
  • Are the animals used as a form of symbolism?  Why are they all small animals?
  • Could the animals represent the adults in Alice's life?
  • What is the significance of it being a rabbit that Alice follows, the creature that leads Alice to Wonderland?
  • What can birds represent in the novel?  Is Alice's experience with the birds supposed to be an analogy of sorts for multiculturalism and stepping into an unfamiliar culture?
  • Why does the caterpillar smoke if this is a children's book?  Does this start controversy?
  • Because the novel ends with Alice discovering it was all a dream, do you believe it made her entire journey of shrinking and growing, arguing, and such irrelevant?
  • What happens after?!
  • Do the novels actually have nothing to do with the real world or logic?  Is it simply meant to be a dream-like sequence?  Can it be as much about daydreaming, making believe, and pretending as dreaming?
  • Is there a real-world connection?
  • What does this book reveal about its time and our time?
  • Is there a connection to morality or reason?
  • What defines nonsense?  What is real if you are gifted with an imagination?
  • What is madness?  Is it anything that strays from conventional logic?  Is it an objective state, or dependent on the person?
  • What if this were how children actually feel and think of things in their everyday life?  How can we say it's madness when children can't accurately convey how they feel and think?
  • Who controls language?  Decides what is acceptable?
  • Does any part of the story have something to do with what was going on in Lewis Carroll's world at the time he wrote it?
  • Is this a statement of her individual self-realization or a statement on Victorian society?
  • Is the story tackling more than one issue, or is it more of an overview of the Victorian era? (cf. caucus race, potions and cakes, executions...)
  • Are these works an exception to the rule that rules/laws and consistent, logical, structured world-building are necessary to create really good fantasy fiction?  Why do the Alice stories work with so few rules/laws, but Game of Thrones and Harry Potter need so many to flourish?
  • Was the book considered fast-paced for its time?
  • Who was the target audience of Alice in Wonderland?  Is this supposed to be geared for children or adults?  Or trying to entertain both at the same time?
  • What prompted Carroll to write these novels?  What was his motivation?  Why did he set out to write such a dream-like, non-sensical story?  Was it intended to be an allegory at all?
  • Should Carroll's relationship with Alice define the books?
  • How did Carroll get inspiration for the scenes in the novels?
  • With the education scenes with the Gryphon and Mock Turtle, was Carroll making fun of a specific educational system?
  • Could Carroll have been using nonsense to attack some math ideas, challenging the validity of ideas by testing its premises and taking them to their logical extremes?
  • Why Wonderland?  Why involve a little girl in a world of talking animals and nonsense?  Is it to contrast with conventional education?  To challenge traditional logic and deduction?  Why does Alice become a voice of reason to many characters?
  • Is the use of nonsense a way to bring back the confusion of childhood, or a manner of questioning reality and the universe?
  • Does Carroll understand the use of a transition?  How can he expect flow?
  • Besides the beginning and end I felt like the middle didn't have an inherent order and scenes changed sort of rapidly.  Was this on purpose?  Did the author have a reason for having events play out in the way they did?
  • Did Carroll think of Alice as a sympathetic character?
  • Why did the author constantly manipulate Alice's knowledge?
  • What drugs was Carroll on?
  • Why is this story still so popular?
  • How did Carroll leave readers with such a lasting impression of characters after introducing most only once or twice in a seemingly orderless universe?  Is it their pure creative nature that is memorable, or perhaps the unique personality of each and how they antagonize Alice? 
  • If you were in Wonderland, which character would you trust most and why?
  • What can/should we as readers do with the themes of dreaming and reality in Carroll's novels?
  • Is Wonderland supposed to make the reader mad?
  • How do we relate Alice in Wonderland to our lives?
  • Wonderland makes us think a child's favorite question:  why?
  • Do the black-and-white drawings add anything to the book?
  • Why are the film adaptations so morbid for a book that, I felt, was entirely light-hearted and whimsical?
  • Why does Tim Burton's film adaptation include so much lead-up to Alice following the rabbit to Wonderland?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Sharing My ENGL 217: Fantasy Fiction Syllabus

I've radically reimagined my Fantasy Fiction course the 2nd time I'm teaching it here at Fredonia.  In a nutshell, it's organized by trios of major novels from different periods that speak to each other in interesting ways.  We start with Alice, Dorothy, and September, move on to Middle-Earth, Narnia, and Lyra's Oxford, then go to magic school, and close by seeing if Samuel R. Delany, George R.R. Martin, and N.K. Jemisin can help us figure out what we think about "critical fantasy."  So happy that the September 1st issue of Time features Lev Grossman's essay on the 21st C fantasy boom.  My end-of-semester reward will be watching the 3rd movie in The Hobbit trilogy and finally reading the 3rd novel in his Magicians trilogy!  No spoilers in comments, please.

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Oasis at the End of the Desert: Neil Gaiman at Saratoga Springs

My family and I left on a road trip to Saratoga Springs right after the girls' last day of school let out yesterday morning to meet up with my two students in a Neil Gaiman/Neal Stephenson Major Authors independent study and attend the Neil Gaiman interview/book signing sponsored by Northshire Bookstore.  It was a 5-hour drive and we only made one unscheduled stop and one wrong turn, so with our head start (Hamburg is about 40 minutes closer than Fredonia via the Thruway to the other side of the state) we managed to beat Alyssa and Elizabeth to the site of the event.  I'm writing this far too early the morning after--while my little ladies, 7 and now 9 and a half (as of yesterday), gifted with far great recuperative powers than me, go for an early morning swim in the hotel pool--so it's going to be rushed, but I thought I'd share some first impressions while they were still relatively fresh.

Gaiman's sense of humor was literally our first impression of him when he finally came onto the stage, after three (yes, three!) sets of introductions and one standing ovation (for the actual guy).  The extended metaphor he offered supplied the title for this post; for those listening on the radio in the vicinity of July 7th, they'll know he was making an in-joke, and they should be able to figure out what it was about from the context, but it was a nice way to acknowledge the 1500+ people in the auditorium and it was certainly much appreciated.

Actually, Gaiman's sense of humor was probably the major tone throughout the interview and indeed the entire event.  At some point early in the radio interview he referred to an off-color joke a 10- or 11-year-old told him when he was 8 that got him in trouble when he repeated it at school--and then, once the taping was over, told the actual joke (accent and all) after some urging from the interviewer and audience (he was worried at first about kids being in the audience, but I can attest that just as the joke went over his head at the time, it was miles over 9-year-old onechan's head, as well; she turned to me after it with an expression between quizzical and baffled and gave me a chance to refuse to explain it to her!).  But his humor was always to a serious end.  Just as the point of that joke was to illustrate how kids experience the world differently from adults (and set up nicely the three or four pages he read from The Ocean at the End of the Lane), he was able to make another point about how writing for comics was viewed in the '90s quickly and efficiently with a sally about calling a hooker a lady of the evening.  And there was more, much more.  But I'm going to take a page from Gaiman and his interviewer, who resolutely avoided spoilers of any kind, and not spoil your own experience of listening to the interview when it goes online at the Northshire Bookstore web site.  Suffice to say it was a real pleasure and definitely worth the drive--even after I found out this morning he's going to be in Toronto in early August!  (Maybe there I'll be able to pass along the invitation to do a reading at SUNY Fredonia that I was supposed to deliver for Writers Ring last night!)

But I can give you more general and personal impressions.  One thing that came to mind the second Gaiman started talking was how much more fun it must be to interview writers than golfers.  When I interview an LPGA golfer, it's usually after they've finished a round and can't wait to practice, or shower, go out to eat, or do whatever they need to do to unwind and get ready for the next round.  Pretty much any question you can think of they've heard a million times before, and many of the original ones you manage to come up with just throw them for a loop, because they don't have a preprogrammed answer to give you.  Not only that, but a good number of athletes aren't all that self-aware or great at putting into words the physical, mental, and emotional challenges they're dealt with--and those that are are often the cagiest about giving too much away to their competitors or the most cautious about letting the media into their heads!  So I end up always feeling like I'm imposing on the golfers I manage to track down and usually botch my questions as a result.  Don't get me wrong--over the years, I've managed to hold it together with Tiffany Joh, Morgan Pressel, Hannah Yun, Mika Miyazato, Paula Creamer, and Ai Miyazato, among others, and put some decent interviews and stories up at Mostly Harmless--but Neil Gaiman not only gave the impression he loved being interviewed but backed it up with a vivid reflection on what he loves about readings and interviews.

Speaking of readings, when Gaiman told us about telling stories to his kids and gave us a sneak preview of his next children's book Fortunately, the Milk, it made me wish I could afford to hire the guy as a designated dad at bedtime.  True, my younger daughter imoto was zonked out from a late night the night before (pro tip:  Japanese women living in America and married to American guys are capable of incredible feats of endurance and conversation among themselves when the wine is flowing) and pretty much was put to sleep by Gaiman's voice.  But, hey, isn't that the point of bedtime stories?  (And imoto did love the CD of The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish that we listened to twice as we approached Saratoga Springs that she forced me to buy the paperback on sale at the event to replace the hardback edition we had somehow lost).  Onechan, on the other hand, who was treating the event as a special 9-and-a-half-year present just for her, was enthralled by the excerpt from The Ocean at the End of the Lane and seemed to enjoy the UFO/pirate/dinosaur whimsy of Fortunately, the Milk (just not as much as me).  It's clear Gaiman loves writing for kids (of all ages), but even more gratifying to me--and this is another thing that has already made the trip worth it in my book (even before we go to NYC, see my brother and his family in Connecticut, and swing back to my parents' place in Clinton on the way back home this weekend)--has been the way onechan has (finally, after many failed attempts on my part) embraced his writing!  I left The Graveyard Book in her room early during third grade, but this voracious reader (who's graduated from the likes of the Rainbow Magic and Magic Tree House series to The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, and A Series of Unfortunate Events) kept passing it over.  Once she found out we were going to the reading, though, she devoured M Is for Magic ("October in the Chair" is her favorite) and finally seemed open to reading The Graveyard Book and maybe even Stardust.  Bottom line:  Gaiman made a new fan this week.

Speaking of fans, I was a little disappointed at how few of the 1500+ got decked out for the event.  No cosplay to speak of and even very few T-shirts.  Most people were dressed as boring as I was, which made the hours-long wait in the signing line a little less entertaining than I would have hoped.  After hearing Gaiman's explanation for why this is his last U.S. signing tour and experiencing it myself (with onechan and my two students, after the Full Metal Archivist wisely took imoto back to the hotel room right after the interview was done), I can say for sure that he's making the right decision.  Apparently the organizers had said kids can go first, but I missed the memo and wasn't told again until we were literally 5 minutes from Gaiman himself; more important, though, I wanted the SUNY Fredonia gang to stick together, as it was the most f2f time we were going to have during the entire independent study.  When we dispersed at 10:30ish, the line was still going out the door, so Gaiman was going to be there into today.  I just can't see why he should subject himself to that any more, when there's not even a chance to chat with his fans.  Frankly, I was so exhausted by the time we got to him that I forgot to invite him to the SUNY Fredonia campus for Writers Ring, the student group one of my favorite students in Secretary of.  (Ah, there's always Toronto!)  As tough as it was for us, we could try to entertain each other, but all Gaiman could do was sign and sign and sign and maybe exchange a word here or there.  Not just no fun, but a terrible use of his time.  Don't get me wrong:  everyone on that line obviously thought it was worth it and deeply appreciated the chance to meet him, however briefly and impersonally.  But I'd bet most of us would have voted to give it up if the interview period could have been extended an extra hour instead.

OK, the Full Metal Archivist has made it down to the pool, so it's time for me to get ready to move around this morning.  I'm 20 pages in on The Ocean at the End of the Lane and sucked in already....  We'll see how far I can get into it tonight at the hotel in Fort Lee.  More later!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Questions for Neil Gaiman at Saratoga Springs

From Alyssa:

  1. What would be your advice for a young aspiring writer today?
  2. Where do you get your ideas for your stories? Like The Ocean at the End of the Lane for example? What inspired this novel?
  3. Your Sandman series is one of my favorites and what actually got me interested in graphic novels, how was it different to write a story that would later have images created to go along with your words as opposed to just writing a standard story in a novel?
  4. How is it collaborating with other authors? I just read Good Omens and was thoroughly amused reading the excerpts in the back that say how you and Terry Pratchett would call each other and just yell a lot at the excitement of your collaborative work.  Have you ever had any negative experiences with collaborative writing?

From Elizabeth:

  1. What is your favorite part about writing?
  2. Who are some authors that inspire you?
  3. Readers/critics tend to dump you in the fantasy genre.  What "genre(s)" do you consider your writing to fall into?
  4. What is your favorite piece that you have written throughout your career?
  5. Do you prefer collaborating on works or do you like flying solo?

Thursday, May 2, 2013

What’s Acceptable in Society

After we watched the clip in class about the community in Indonesia, I brought up the point that the program, which was on the History Channel, an American channel, used a female translators voice in the place of an individual who was biologically female but identified as a male.  I brought up how I thought this was offensive that they choose to use a female translating into English what the individual was saying, how although this person was referred to as a he, they would use the female voice.  Society is so stuck on the gender binary and so scared to step out of their comfort zone and realize that gender is changing.  The media is very cautious to step away from their viewer’s comfort zone in fear of bringing the numbers down.  Society as a whole does have a long way to go in stepping out of  the norm but there should be more resources made available as a whole to make this information known.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Neal on Neil and Neal

Hey folks, sorry for the long absence.  I'm going to be teaching a summer course on Neil Gaiman and Neal Stephenson this summer from May 28 through June 28 at SUNY Fredonia, so expect a lot more activity here soon!

Here's how I've been pitching it on campus.

Summer Session I

Bring on the "Ne(a/i)ls":
Bruce Neal Simon Will Be Teaching Neil Gaiman and Neal Stephenson

ENGL 427 Major Writers: Neil Gaiman and Neal Stephenson

During Summer Session I, we will examine a sample of works from the major fantasy fiction writer and the major science fiction writer of their generation: Neil Gaiman and Neal Stephenson. We will start by pairing some shorter works that made the writers' early reputations (for instance, Gaiman's Sandman: Season of Mists and Stephenson's "Mother Earth, Mother Board" from Some Remarks). We will then pair Gaiman's (and Terry Pratchett's) Good Omens with Stephenson's Snow Crash as hugely popular and influential experiments in narrative, humor, and apocalypse. Finally, we will pair Gaiman's American Gods with Stephenson's Anathem as mature and major novels. If we have the time (and are completely insane), we will also try to pack in their most recent novels, Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Stephenson's Reamde--you know, for fun (these novels will be optional purchases)!

We will consider such questions as what makes a writer "major"? how do these very different writers speak to each other, to their own times, and to us? what connections and contrasts can we find between their characters and settings, characteristic themes and figures, central beliefs and values, writing styles and narrative strategies, and literary and political projects?

This course fulfills the "major author course" requirement for undergraduates majoring in English or English Adolescence Education.