Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Music Of Fantasy Fiction

I am not the foremost authority on Fantasy as anyone reading this post will soon figure out, but I am interested in both Fantasy and Science Fiction as forms of entertainment. So rather than try to write authoritatively on a subject I have limited knowledge about, I thought I would relay it into a subject I am quite familiar with. So this is why I've tried to connect Fantasy (and later Science Fiction) with the art of music. There are several motifs found throughout musical representations of both genres, which are used for good reason: they are attempts at accurately portraying the worlds built to defy normal fictional conventions. So much of our culture is based in music that it would be foolish to try to imagine these worlds without trying to hear them artistically.

All throughout the common-practice period of music, and even today in the pieces of the 21st century, music can be used to set an atmosphere with which the listener can create his/her own interpretations. This genre being considered "absolute music", pieces wherein the music is written without a specific story to be told. The opposite of this could be considered "programmatic music", where a story is told through certain musical techniques. Some such pieces that fall under the former category go by the title of Fantasia, literally meaning fantasy. While this title was more commonly used for pieces before the 20th century, there have been more Fantasias written than can possibly be listed. J.S. Bach, W.A. Mozart and other baroque/classical composers used the title to convey the sense of an otherworldly wonder. Others in the romantic era like Chopin and Brahms use this title, while still composers in the 20th and 21st centuries write such pieces to further the ideas of atmosphere as a means to tell a story, all through the mind of the listener. While this does not directly relate to the ideas of Fantasy Fiction, it shares the otherworldly themes that the stories of the genre present.

The words Fantasy Fiction can often evoke memories of fairies and pixie dust, ugly little creatures and strong noble men hiding high in stone castles. This stereotype and others like it have been exhausted since novels like the Lord Of The Rings series had its boom onto the market. While we can see the cliche in the actual act of storytelling, it's a bit more difficult to find the root of the cliches faced in music based on these stories. What kind of cliches? There are several ways of conveying the atmosphere of these man-built worlds. One example found in almost every piece of "fantasy music" is the motif of a large, brilliant, brassy fare. Those that make the listener envision a noble knight or stoic king being serenaded by the various peasants and countrymen that make up his/her kingdom. This theme was largely utilized by composer Howard Shore in his attempts to bring The Lord Of The Rings: Fellowship Of The Ring to life, in his score for the film version. The stately theme used to represent the Fellowship is a broad showcase of the orchestra, displaying the heroic characteristics of the team, and largely Aragorn. In another musical telling of this story, this time by famous concert band composer Johan de Meij in his first symphony, written as a programmatic representation of the novels. This time, he uses a fanfare figure to represent the nobility of the hobbits in their frightening quest to destroy the one ring, which closes the work on a grand, extravagant note.

Another idea used in fantasy music is that of dancing fairies and other light magical ideas. Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky is known as one of the greatest melodists and romantic composers of all time. His Shchelkunchik, better known as The Nutcracker, is a suite of music from a ballet that he wrote. The Nutcracker is based on a story by E.T.A. Hoffman called "The Nutcracker And The Mouse King", about a Nutcracker coming to life and whisking away a young girl to a magical kingdom of dolls. The piece has many memorable themes, one of which is a tune written about a magical being known as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Tchaikovsky was a master orchestrator, using a little known instrument, the celesta (essentially a series of metal plates struck similarly in fashion with a piano) to illustrate the light, flowery and fantastic nature of the creature. The theme is mysterious, inviting the listener to picture a tiny fairy going about its environment, enchanting its surroundings along the way. This piece was used in the Walt Disney film, Fantasia along with the rest of The Nutcracker, to show the pieces through the eyes of Disney animators. Again, the theme accompanies a small magical being gently flying and dancing around a garden and pond, freezing plants and water into beautiful, shining glittery objects.

There are still myriad examples of what can constitute musical representations of various sorts of Fantasy Fiction. Among them are representations of folk-tales, like Russian composer Igor Stravinsky's ballet Petroushka, portraying a marionette that comes to life. Another may come from another Russian composer, Modest Mussorgsky, in his attempts to bring the tale of the Chernabog to life in his piece "A Night On Bald Mountain" (which coincidentally was used in Disney's Fantasia.) There are also several scores for Fantasy films, among the most notable are The Lord Of The Rings series scored by Howard Shore, as well as the Harry Potter series scored by John Williams.

In my next post (if this one went as well as I hoped), I will discuss the use of music in portraying Fantasy Fiction's cousin, Science Fiction. Like Fantasy Fiction, there are several tools in the composer's archive used to convey this fantastic brand of storytelling.

Quantum Leap and Time Travel

Time travel is one of the numerous motifs that consistently appear in the science fiction (SF) genre. In Reading Science Fiction, when the discussion of time travel rises in the pop culture section of the book, it is mentioned that one of the purposed time travel is used by the characters of a story is to fix something in the past that once had gone wrong. When reading this line, I immediately thought of the show, Quantum Leap, which was not mentioned in the articles at all.

Here is a very general description of the storyline from Internet Movie Database ( for those who do not know:
Doctor Sam Beckett led a group of top scientists into the desert to research his theory that a man could time travel within his own lifetime. Unfortunately, in order to save his funding, he was forced to enter the accelerator prematurely and vanished. He then found himself in someone else's body with partial amnesia. His only contact from home is Al, a holographic image only he can see and hear. Setting right things which once went wrong, Sam leaps from life to life, hoping each time that this is the final leap home.

In each episode, Sam must figure out who he is and what he has to make right of the situation he has leaped into.

Though time travel isn't something new in the SF genre, Quantum Leap beings a different aspect of time travel into play. Having watched most of the show, Sam can not control where or when he leaps from time to time. The driving force of these leaps is never revealed; he just hopes the next leap is back to the lab in which he disappeared from. When he leaps into the body of whoever in whatever time, the "actual person" he has left into is back in the science lab in Sam's time, usually confused and scared, not understanding what is happening to him, much like Sam after he has leaped. But once Sam has leaped in a person, he controls all aspects of that person and, not only fixes what went wrong involving that person, he changes the affects of time while the actual person is rendered helpless of control over their own lives. This is a power God-like: almost an all- ruling ability to change- well history! But what if it is God who is having Sam leap around from decade to decade, fixing things that went wrong in the world. This brings as whole new aspect to discussing science in relation to religion. This topic of course would be too in depth for a single blog post, but the connection is there. How can there be a pre-destined plan in a person's life if time travel is possible? Would time travel disprove the existence of [a] God is a person can go back and change history ( which would affect the years after the event)?

These are just a few questions SF, at least not in Reading Science Fiction, has not addressed.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Fantasy 'newbies' reactions and speculations to Armitt

Without prior background knowledge on the fantasy genre and without ever truly indulging in the genre itself, I found myself struggling to get through Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, as well as Armitts disorganized (emphasis on disorganized) and intensely opinionated critical analysis of the fantasy genre.

When picking up the 35 dollar copy of Fantasy Fiction: An Introduction at the bookstore, I figured that I would be getting an "introduction" to something that I really knew nothing about. Perfect! Now, granted I am a newbie at this type of reading, but to me an Introduction would have been worth the 35 dollars (especially if it at least taught me some interesting aspects or literary elements of fantasy). However, after reading the seven lengthy chapters in which Armitt twists and turns every fantasy novel to fit her criticism, I gained from it only one thing; a headache.

I feel that half the problem with my reading of this particular criticism, is that I cannot relate to anything that Armitt discusses. I have never read Gulliver's Travels, Animal House, and I had never owned (or planned on owning) a copy of Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring until I registered for this class. Now, I will say for anyone who is actually reading these things, that I did enjoy The Fellowship of the Ring with a little help from the movie :)

Apart from my unknowledgeable self (at least on this topic), I felt that Armitt presented her views and opinions in a way that was particularly hard to understand. She was very disorganized, presenting a term and discussing it for one to two paragraphs, then leaving it in the dust. Other times, Armitt would bring up such opinions in one chapter, only to rediscuss them again in a chapter later in her analysis. This typically annoyed me because I am used to reading in chronological order. Any story has a beginning, middle and an end, but Armitts was all over the place.

The one aspect of Armitt's criticism that left me hanging and far more confused then ever was her topic of Utopia in fantasy. Her establishment of the 'Utopia' definition was first 'the desire to go beyond' and a page later it was 'no place'. This was confusing to me because she gives two definitions that are dratstically different, and she doesn't support either with examples from the 'best known fantasy texts' she uses as resources for all of her 'critical information'.

I do believe that fantasy fiction is a type of genre that questions what happens beyond the horizon, do these thing really happen beyond earth? Probably Not. But in Lord of the Rings The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkein creates 'Middle Earth', a place that cannot be found on any map (besides the one in the book). Along with the creation of such a place, Tolkein creates languages, monsters, 'superhuman characters' and a powerful plot that lead us to a place of no return for thousands of pages. The interesting thing that Armitt claims is that fantasy is reaching for blue sky. I think it is a good way of characterizing fantasy, because when I think of it, I think of What if? What if these things could really happen? But that is all part of how I read fantasy, fantasizing about the story an author creates for you.

I cannot say that I completely disagree with Armitt, because I simply didn't understand half of the things she was saying. However, for me as a reader, I would have appreciated a more rigid structure to her writing. This POSSIBLY would have helped me in wanting to read her work, and maybe could have pushed me along to understanding and connecting with it.

Hopefully there are others out there that feel the same?


Armitt speaks of relationships between the tangible and the speculative. 'What is? What could be?" The relation to the real is symbolized by sea and land. The boundary between sea and land is displayed as the unreal and real. There is much juxtaposition in fantasy fiction.

Moreover, Armitt states fairy tales are similar to fantasy fiction. However, I disagree with this way of thinking. Fairy tales are simply composed, concrete, and more easily predictable than that of fantasy fiction. For example, J.R.R Tolkien developed whole creations of characterization centered around a highly developed way of life. Entire new languages were formed. Visions on authors of coherent universes occur in fantasy fiction. Characters are seemingly fragments out of dreams. Suspended beliefs of characters lie on readers. Complexity at best, is framed and threaded through words of linear progression.

Fairy tales come out of traditional forces and collective efforts. While there are still common themes in fantasy writing, for instance, the fact that main characters appear to be the hero who wins at a quest, the originality within fantasy fiction is strikingly more pronounced.

Armitt poses the question, 'is there a utopian impulse in all of fantasy?" This is one of her crowning points. However, she does not expand too much on this subject and this leaves readers without answers. Is this true, or paradoxically, does this occur in the darkest notion? There is too much abstractness in this statment. She failed to define what utopia is, as well. Is utopia a good place or no place? Readers were left to contemplate themselves. Where is Armitt's expertise on this issue?

At last, Armitt's most significantly climatic point occured when she stated that the Lord of the Rings series was not merely a traditional, christian, allegory. While this is most interesting and agreeable for myself, she spent only one paragraph developing this thought. Why so little?While she states the complex nature of the characterization, as a critic, this is not arguable. Armitt appears to be playing it safe.

Tolkien did say that he wasn't trying to write allegory, as he does not enjoy allegory. The characterization is complex and not easily mappable to christianity. There is great ambivalence of main characters. Reality is meant to be interpreted, rather than absolute. Clearly, the Lord of the Rings novels are not simplistic epics. Classic philosophical debates such as, the nature of evil, and what is happiness, through idealism, are discussed throughout Tolkien's writing. These matters are not to be taken lightly and certainly not to be simply pressed on christianity alone. Much is to be taken into account through fantasy fiction. Many issues are at hand through subjective thinking.

Armitt/Fantasy fiction in my life during 2001-03

While reading Armitt's book about Fantasy fiction, I found myself with a somewhat scattered viewpoint of what fantasy fiction really is. It's not that I particulary didn't care much for the book (it was a somewhat easier read than most would be on the subject), it was the varied definition of what fantasy fiction is supposed to be, according to Armitt. First, I disagreed with Animal Farm and Gulliver's Travels being labeled fantasy fiction. I personally feel that those books are considered to be fictional satires on real life events, the former about communist Russia and the latter about the wars between England and France in the 1700s. Second, I do agree with Armitt on the grounds about Christian allegorical writing about Pilgrim's Progress, but totally disagree with The Lord of the Rings being a Christian allegory. Armitt mentions this in the book, and some 30-odd pages later, says that LOTR is usually mistaken as being a Christian allegory. All in all, Armitt's Fantasy fiction book was an interesting read at times, but at other times, one could get lost with too much information that was in the text. I wished that Armitt could focus a bit on the basics of Fantasy fiction instead of overloading one with too much at one time.

As a footnote, besides going too much in depth on a book review, I thought I'd shift my attention to when I first "discovered" fantasy fiction. It was around the fall of 2001, when the Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings were being showned in theatres. I didn't automatically jump on the bandwagon, but about a month before the new year, I decided to see "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." I then read the book shortly afterwards, and for the next year, found myself caught up in the Harry Potter-mania that was going on at that time. I couldn't wait for the next film, so I read the book and during the fall of 2002, saw the second Harry Potter film. My fascination with fantasy did not last long. I became quite bored along the way with the Harry Potter books and films, and by 2003, was finished with my one and a half year journey into the world of fantasy fiction. I have not gone back into reading or watching fantasy since that time, and do not plan to at anytime. As an interesting sidenote, this is the first time since the 2001-2003 fantasy stage that I have read, watched, or spoke of fantasy. I'd had seen the first two LOTR films during that time period, but grew tired of them, unlike Harry Potter.

Monday, September 28, 2009


I don't have too much experience with fantasy novels other than children/pre-teen books (such as Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs; James and the Giant Peach; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; etc.) I've never read the Harry Potter or Twilight series and I never read The Lord of the Rings until this class. It wasn't that I disliked fantasy novels, it just wasn't my favorite genre. The point I'm getting at is that I had very little background knowledge of fantasy novels when I read Armitt's criticism, but even I could tell that she wasn't doing a good job at it.

It seemed to me like she was grasping at straws and she twisted plot points or themes from her sample novels to prove her ideas correct. To me, this doesn't seem very professional and in doing so she loses her credibility. Also, like I already said, I know very little of fantasy novels so when she went off on these examples from books I've never even heard of, she lost me. Unless a reader of her book is an avid fantasy reader they aren't going to get most of what she is trying to say.

While I was reading her book I found myself thinking OK, could you put that in layman's terms for those of us that don't know fantasy fiction well and/or aren't English majors. I know that her intended audience probably was fantasy lovers or English majors, but my high school English teacher always told us that you have to write to the "invisible naive." Which means you have to write it as if the audience has no idea what you are talking about, which she didn't do.

Armitt's criticism didn't change my mind about fantasy fiction either way. She didn't make me hate it or love it. My opinion is pretty much the same as it was before, neutral.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Armitt's views

Armitt's book was okay, but was extremely flawed. I do not believe I can really emphasis how very flawed this book was. To me, it read like an undergraduate paper done at the last minute in one draft from a very basic essay skeleton. Frankly, I hated the book and was very upset by it. When someone writes a book about other books, they should actually read the books they are writing about. On top of that, they should comprehend the book and its meanings. In "Lord of the Rings", Tolkien was very straight forward with his writing; there were few double meanings and those are clearly explained later on in the trilogy.

I find that Armitt has a habit of making a huge undergraduate mistake; stating a point, then giving one or two little points to back her opinion/point up, then just move on. Doing so just shows how little she seemed to have cared to finish a thought or fully prove a point.
Basically, I did not like this book nor would I recommend it to another person to read for class or for fun.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

On Anime and Commercials on Veoh and Youtube

As new faculty advisor to SUNY Fredonia's Anime Club, I feel it's my duty to point out one weird side-effect of youtube's and veoh's turn to running commercials on their sites.

Check out the commercials that air during the first episode of Onegai My Melody on

Watch Onegai My Melody (Episode 01) in Anime View More Free Videos Online at

As I've remarked before, Onegai My Melody may well be the strangest anime ever. It puts Hello Kitty-style living stuffed animal characters in the midst of a music-oriented junior high school setting, mixing kawaiitude and crushes in equal measure. So why are the ads so adult-themed?

Contrast the sponsors for Ouran High School Host Club on FUNimation's channel. What the heck are Cheerios and Nature Valley doing airing commercials during a full-on ikemen parody of/tribute to Hottie Paradise, Boys Over Flowers, and Nodame Cantabile?

I would have thought the shows and sponsors would have been reversed. But maybe that would make too much sense?

Friday, September 4, 2009

Welcoming New Student Authors to sf@SF

This semester I'm teaching 2 courses that are going to stretch the boundaries of this blog's "science fiction at SUNY Fredonia" focus. American Popular and Mass Cultures looks at fantasy, comic books, video games, tv, and film in addition to science fiction, while Major Writers: Tolkien, Donaldson, Pullman focuses primarily on fantasy. In both courses, I'm requiring a certain number of blog posts from everyone--whether here or on their own blogs (which I'll link to)--and expecting everyone to be reading, commenting on, and responding to each other's writing. The dialogues that I hope to see emerge here will be the public face of what goes on in class discussions and on our ANGEL discussion forum, which are for class members only, but will hopefully go beyond the limitations of the 50-minute class meeting or the quick-hit nature of a discussion board. Our common text to start the semester, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring (and the Peter Jackson movie based on it) should give us enough of a common ground to get some discussions going. Let's see what comes of them!