Monday, November 29, 2010

A Different Perspective

Eli explains:

Why do authors choose to write in fantasy, anyways? Why pick a genre that is generally shrugged off by literature professors as they turn their noses to the canon? Talented writers are spending years upon years and sometimes their whole lives wrapped up in imaginary worlds. Are they wasting their time? An even more important question: are we wasting our time when we read fantasy? We could be flipping pages in War and Peace instead, or pondering Wordsworth on a picnic bench by an Adirondack lake, sniffing in the sweet fall air as geese fly in their ardent “V” overhead (no doubt dropping some fragrant gifts from the sky) and honk farewell as they disappear into a hazy dusk. Excuse me, I digress. Why would a fantasy writer waste their time twiddling their thumbs in imaginary worlds when they could have that beautiful scene by the lake? (Maybe because when he was reading poetry by the lake, he realized that there were very intricate carvings in the varnished wood. As he traced these etchings with his forefinger, a faint light seemed to appear deep inside each foreign character. The sound of upset lake water pricked his ears and when he looked up a very large boat was emerging from under the water, with the same carvings all along the stern. A centaur beckoned to him.) We can't precisely address this question without having an interview with the writer himself or herself but can we, and should we, try to pry into the author's choice to write in fantasy? It is hard enough to infer the intention of a single work and much more confusing to find an intent in genre choice. Yet, it is still an interesting endeavor to wonder about the ideas and convictions that give inspiration to fantasy writers. Contemplating this will supply us with insight as readers in the world of fantasy fiction.

Let's take the work of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. Good Omens is no run-of-the-mill fantasy book by any means. Located in our modern world, we have angels and demons, men and witches, the natural and the supernatural all stuck in the apocalypse. They supply us with all the humor and entertainment we could ever want in this work of genius. Yet, for some reason these authors chose to deliver their impeccable style in fantasy when they could have easily written in another (more respected) genre. They chose this perspective with a specific intention. When working in fantasy, an author can use non-human characters and unrealistic worlds to say certain things about humanity, society, and our current condition. An angel and a demon can casually observe humanity like no human could. For instance Crowley (the demon) thinks, "It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people" (26). This message runs throughout the book, the erasing of the line between good and evil. There is something quite shocking about these ideas coming from angels and demons who are supposed to define the two different sides of the spectrum. One would expect a modern-day contemporary thinker to say something about the disappearance of good and evil. But a demon destroying these boundaries is preposterous, and effective. Crowley asks Aziraphale, "Well, haven't you ever wondered about it all? You know--your people and my people, Heaven and Hell, good and evil, all that sort of thing? I mean, why?" (360). Rules are broken and angels and demons wonder about the same things that humans do. Pratchett and Gaiman demonstrate the same "ineffable" feelings that humans experience from another view.

Another composer of fantasy, Piers Anthony, has a much different take on the genre. He has created the world of Xanth, with its own type of magic and plenty of flora and fauna to accompany it. In this world, Anthony tells us many things about humanity. The character Bink is a philosophizing exile, who in the end discovers some things about himself and other people. His whole journey is filled with him gaining new knowledge, information that he is not necessarily supposed to have. He is on a quest that leads him to truth. Nonetheless, Anthony makes Bink a very stubborn and dogmatic character. The reader can see the truth before Bink does--his stubbornness is often cumbersome. Isn't this how we view ourselves after coming to a sudden realization and point of change? Bink may represent humans in general with his slow-changing views of how the world works. It takes him so long to see the truth about Trent because he was taught that Trent is evil. Is this much different than our own mundanian human nature? We hold onto our own comfortable views of the world and the older we get the less willing we are to change. Our society is full of Bink-like people. It is easy to see this reality of human dogmatism (and other philosophies) that Anthony presents through his fantastical world. We may look on the ignorance of the Xanthians with harsh judgement. We should turn this judgement on ourselves. Anthony is saying these things in a different approach; through fantasy he delivers his message with greater ease.

The intent of fantasy writers is very similar to the intent of writers in any genre. Literature gives us insight into life and fantasy fiction is not left out of this statement. Writers of this genre may have chosen it because of their fascination with the mystical or they may have been tired with reality that they faced day to day. But fantasy fiction should not be viewed as an escape from our everyday life. We should not just want to escape into alternate realities that entertain us and delay our problems for a while. I do not think that is the reason authors choose fantasy. Their statements on the human condition come naturally and powerfully through this genre and take on a new and distinct perspective. These stories carry the essential component of good art (that ever escaping, shifting, always there, always departing human condition) and can hold their own weight against other forms of literature. Fantasy fiction is an important aspect to lives of many people and that will not change. This brings us to the conclusion...long live fantasy!

Works Cited
Anthony, Piers. A Spell for Chameleon. New York: Del Rey, 1977.
Gaiman, Neil, and Terry Pratchett. Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. New York: Harper, 2007

Fantasy: What Is It?

Luke Hider answers:

Fantasy, what is it? I suppose I can try and put this as formally as possible. Fantasy is a mind blowing experience that grips you by the cerebral cortex and sends shivers down your spine. Fantasy is the ideas you get when just shittin' around with your friends, or when wondering whether Legolas or Drizzt would win in a fight. In short fantasy is the coolest part of using your imagination, and should be respected as such. Of course fantasy can be defined in a more academic nature, and this can be qualified by looking at some of the more prominent authors of the genre.

When talking about defining Fantasy the first name on anyone's list would be Tolkien. As to not gush over his numerous qualifications as an expert I will just clearly state that the man reinvented the genre on a mainstream level. Taking shoe-making elves, making them grow five feet, giving them amplified everything, and arming them with deadly skills in just about every way you could want to kill someone. Point being, Tolkien had some pretty badass ideas, case closed.

In order to see what Tolkien defines as fantasy we need to take a deeper look into his characterization. Since I have already started to discuss characters in fantasy I think its safe to say a fantasy novel needs these certain "beings." Not to limit yourselves to dwarves, elves, wizards etc. but that there should be some mythical aspect to your characters. If you want to give your dwarves wings with lasers shooting out of their eyes, then by all means. Or perhaps make up your own character that has four legs, four arms, spits venom, and drinks coffee! This is part of the beauty that makes fantasy so enticing to readers.

Arguably the most important aspect that defines fantasy is the setting that its taking place in, or rather the world built around your characters. In order to demonstrate this you can refer to Tepper's work in King's Blood Four. Tepper had a rather unique idea when building her world, which was to make it almost entirely opposite of our own. But she takes it deeper and looks at the infrastructure of our world, the laws and morals that govern us and makes this new world spit on such things. At first you want to reject such a wildly inappropriate concept, but after a while it becomes your guilty pleasure. It's unique ideas like this that make up the majority of what fantasy is. Without a rare world to build inside of, your fantasy story cannot go far.

Listed above are only two of many, many parts of a whole. But if fantasy is what it's supposed to be it will be forever changing and challenging our imaginations. The day I can wholly define fantasy may be the day the genre has died.

"Who Am I?": One Loaded, Sticky Question Addressed by Fantasy Fiction

Kayla Carucci explains:

Motif: a literary convention we have all come to know and love, not to be confused with theme. Teachers pound it into your brain that themes are the most important part of a novel and if you miss the recurrent motifs, you have missed the point of the novel entirely. Common motifs are love, loss, coming of age, and identity/search for identity. Now that we've identified some of the most common motifs in literature, we can start to address the question of common motifs in Fantasy Fiction more specifically. I propose that one of the most prevalent motifs found in Fantasy fiction is the search for one’s identity.

Identity crisis is a common problem in life. We all experience it at one point or another in our lives whether it be when we hit puberty (say hello to hormones!), or in our middle age (that point in life everybody dreads because once they get there, you are officially no longer young). "Who am I?" is one of the most frequently asked questions in actual reality so it makes perfect sense that this is one of the most commonly asked questions in fantasy fiction. Most people think that fantasy fiction is just "fluff" or "light" reading that enables the reader to escape reality. Although this is a common school of thought, it's a wrong school of thought. Fantasy fiction is very relevant to our society and everyday lives because, in its own discrete ways, it helps us learn how to cope with our own identity crises.

Perhaps the most common time in our lives for identity crisis to occur is when one is in the dreaded teenage years. Everything is hitting you at once and it seems like nothing ever goes your way. You always feel like nobody understands your problems and therefore you are "a lone wolf," "alone in the universe," or any of the other millions of euphemisms teenagers use to describe their misfortunes while they are trying to find out who they are. Fantasy fiction with the theme of identity crisis or discovering one's true identity is a fantastic source to turn to for people going through identity crises of their own.

Sherri Tepper's The True Game is a perfect example of a work of fantasy fiction in which the main character, Peter, is trying to work through an identity crisis and discover who he truly is. Peter is a child who was dropped off by his parents in School Town as an infant so he has no clue who his real parents are (or if he even has them). On top of that, in the land of The True Game, you either have a talent, or you are a Pawn. Peter must discover his talent to find his place in society. This situation is perfect for a reader who is going through an identity crisis of their own to read about because it can help them work through their own crisis.

At the beginning of the book, Peter is in Schooltown where he is basically shielded from reality as he goes through his day-to-day routines. While he is in Schooltown he craves adventure, but is unaware that he will soon be confronted with the adventure of a lifetime as he is unexpectedly thrust into the True Game. Throughout the novel, Peter encounters many difficulties that assist him on his way through adolescence and also aid him in the discovery of who he really is. With each challenge, Peter grows into himself more than he thought he could. Finally, by the end of the novel, he has witnessed a great battle (and been a key player in it) and uncovered a portion of himself. He has learned part of his mysterious past and is well on his way to discovering the full truth about his parentage and his own identity.

Through fantasy fiction, a person can be comforted about their own identity crisis and work through it alongside the character that they are reading about. Having something to connect to and relate to is crucial to working through an identity crisis, and teenagers especially need this connection to feel that they are not going through their own version of hell alone. The connection that can be made between the quest for one to find their true self in the novel and the reader's own personal quest for who they are is what links fantasy fiction to reality. For this reason, identity crisis/search for one's true identity is one of the most common motifs in Fantasy Fiction.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Writing Styles Do Not Define Fantasy Fiction

Derek Herzog argues:

There seems to be a stigma associated with the fantasy genre which makes people hesitant to pick up a book labeled fantasy. A big part of this has to do with what first comes to someone's head when they think of fantasy. For many, the term fantasy brings to mind a long, tedious work of escapism which is weird and unapproachable. They might think this because they associate fantasy with a particular style of writing, one that is slow, straight-forward, and not innovative. To think like that though is a misconception, and it could be what has given fantasy a bad rap for so long.

The truth is, fantasy is not limited to one particular style of writing; if this was the case, it really would have no hope. I've read fantasy works from six different authors recently, and one of the coolest things I've learned is how varied fantasy authors are in their approaches to their work. Fantasy is by no means limited to one style of writing, and coming to this realization not only removes the stigma associated with the genre but it reveals the potential for how many new and innovative things could be done with it, as well.

To begin my recent fantasy escapade, I started with two authors whose books could be considered the roots of fantasy: J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, and C.S. Lewis's The Magician's Nephew. They both tell their stories as if they were Grandpas dictating an old tale to their Grandsons; this is why I have deemed this style the "Old Man Narrative." Consider how The Magician's Nephew begins: "This is a story about something that happened long ago when your grandfather was a child" (Lewis 1). The whole book goes along with this sort of feel. While I'm reading it, I actually even read in my head in the voice of an old Grandpa. The Hobbit is told in a similar way. Consider this line, for example: "The Mother of our particular hobbit--what is a hobbit? I suppose hobbits need some description nowadays, since they have become rare and shy of the Big People, as they call us" (Tolkien 12). Both of these novels are written in these distinctive narrative styles, which are quite different from other authors in our class. Could you imagine if every fantasy novel were written like this? Sure, both books are good reads, but after being exposed to a style for too long it quickly goes stale. The "Old Man Narrative" helped pave the way for future fantasy fiction, but fortunately other authors moved beyond this--or regressed from it.

Speaking of regressed, this brings me to the next two authors: Piers Anthony and Anne McCaffrey. Both authors have a writing style which is fairly simplistic. The stories also move along quite slowly. I think the novels by these two would be better received by younger readers, not only because of their coming-of-age themes, but also because of their slow and steady writing styles which probably make the books easier to understand. In both books, a lot of time is spent talking over what is going on in the protagonist's head. As an older reader, this can seem tedious and unnecessary, but to someone who is younger, the repetition might really help them understand what's going on. It is unfair of me to label these two as lesser authors, but their writing styles definitely do not appeal to me that much. Whether I enjoy it or not, though, these authors possess a distinctive writing style which adds validity to the notion that it is not what solely characterizes the fantasy genre.

Sheri Tepper makes up another category of writing styles. Unlike many other fantasy authors, she writes her prose in a more creative, even poetic way. She really gets inside of her protagonist's mind, and this makes her book, The True Game, seem more realistic, and it also allows the reader to become more immersed in the story. Take, for example, just a random line from the text: "How so many could find power to exist, she did not say. We did not ask. It was only a tall tale, we thought. Hum of bees, quiet sough of wind. Then, suddenly, as we climbed a high ridge of stone, a cold gust from above, chill as winter, without warning" (Tepper 39). She presents the information to the reader in a way which emulates the flashes of thought and sensory information going through Peter's mind; this technique is effective, highly creative, and unique. I would argue that Tepper's style proves the great potential for evolution within the genre.

The last fantasy novel I read was Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman's Good Omens, which can definitely be set apart from other authors. Being an apocalyptic satirical novel which aims to make the reader laugh and think, a writing style which is similar to any of the ones discussed above would not suffice. Rather, Pratchett and Gaiman tell their story in short, inter-weaving fragments which keep it fast-paced and upbeat. The prose is also casual, witty, conversational, and laid-back. Take a look at this line from the first page: "By the same token the earth itself is generally supposed to be about four and a half thousand million years old.... These dates are incorrect" (Pratchett & Gaiman 13). It is not serious, or boring, or enormously creative, or condescending--it is just natural. By natural I mean the pacing just feels pretty leisurely, if you know what I mean. The effect this style has on the reader makes it one of the most enjoyable books I've ever read, and I don't just mean fantasy fiction. This style is a departure from the others we've seen, and not only proves that fantasy is not defined by a style of writing, but it also shows just how entertaining fantasy can be.

It will be the best thing to happen for the fantasy genre when it loses the stereotype attached to it that all fantasy books are boring and stale. There are so many cool and creative things that have been done with it. Look at Sheri Tepper: she did something that was completely different and innovative, which arguably rivals writers in other, more acclaimed genres, and yet she is relatively unknown because she chose to pour her efforts into a stigmatized genre. This must stop. Fantasy has so much potential but if it continues to be disregarded because of a false definition of it then it will never go anywhere.

Works Cited

Anthony, Piers. A Spell for Chameleon. New York/Toronto: Random House, 1977. Print.
Gaiman, Neil, and Terry Pratchett. Good Omens. New York: HarperCollins, 1990. Print.
Lewis, C.S. The Magician's Nephew. New York: HarperCollins, 1955. Print.
McCaffrey, Anne. Dragonsong. New York: Aladdin Paperbacks, 1976. Print.
Tepper, Sheri S. The True Game. New York: Penguin Group, 1996. Print.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit or There and Back Again. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Print.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Narnia, Pern, and Religion

The Role Of Religion in Fantasy Fiction

Or, "What Kind of Question Is That to Ask the Jesus Allegory Lion?"

Fantasy fiction and religion have long gone hand in hand, whether said religious element forms a subtext or takes on a more didactic tone. It could even be said that religious lore itself contains some of the foundations of modern fantasy--good versus evil, fantastic creatures, miracles, and the creation of worlds. Monsters, intimate objects coming to life, and a healthy amount of sacred artifacts hidden away. Depending on the mythology, you even get tales of mystical weapons.

Just why fantasy and religion share so many similarities isn't clear. It does seem that humanity possesses an explicit need to believe in something; if not some type of religion, than at least some shred of decency that remains in the face of hardship. That good ultimately triumphs over evil. This is why societies value such things as courage, kindness, camaraderie. All of these things are present in fantasy.
However, the exact shape religion takes within the story is a matter of who is writing and who is reading. By creating an entire world or race, a fiction author becomes, in a sense, a small god. Through their creation, we can often glean a sense of their perspective on religion in reality, and from there consider the impact it has on our own world.

Sometimes religion is not about a specific, named deity, but a general belief in right and wrong despite all the shades of gray that are present in life; a general sense of something greater; the promise of an afterlife. These are some of the ideas present in writings such as Tolkien's. Opposite would be C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, where there is one omniscient, powerful (if not all powerful--I'll touch on that in just a moment) deity and a choice of whether or not to follow it...but only one right answer. There are atheists in Narnia, but their punishment is usually specified and they're all obliterated by the end of the series. This tends to be the case with our own monotheistic religions, especially in the middle east and west--their followers tend to be quite content with this arrangement, much like Narnian dwellers.

An interesting thing about life in Narnia is that, while its creator speaks face to face with the inhabitants, he offers so little information about himself and the world that one has to wonder, why does he bother? It's implied that there are limitations on his power, but no more. Who set down the rules, who enforces them, and just what they are remain a mystery. More than that, the answer is almost irrelevant on an individual level. Aslan may not be able to do certain things at certain times, but he created the world and he can end it; he can ultimately save you if he wants to, and if you're compliant--and smite you just as easily. Whatever the fates of the "shadowland" denizens may be, the ultimate decision lies in the hands of a single otherworldly judge and the unseen, silent being he answers to.

Where religion goes, so does the absence of it. According to Anne McCaffrey, author of the Pern series, it is something she thought the story could do without.

I also don't have organized religion on Pern. I figured--since there were four holy wars going on at the time of writing--that religion was one problem Pern didn't need.

Rather, Pernese people form an agrarian society that gives little to no thought to the otherworldly, remaining focused on their own salvation from above--the dragons. Yet they still have moments where they experience the profound, whether in a beautiful dragon's eyes, a piece of song, or the mysteries of between. Their's is not a nature-based religion, but a general healthy respect and occasional awe at the world they struggle to survive in. They could be classified as atheists or agnostics, but only if a distinction was forced to be made at all.

It's worth nothing, however, that most real world agrarian societies do have some sort of spiritual belief system. Pern is rather unusual in this sense.

But it's one thing to renounce religion--it's another to do away with spirituality all together. It's nice to think that there's something beyond death than oblivion and a hole in the ground (or a trip to the bottom of the sea, if that happens to be where circumstances take you). That our struggles in life are rewarded. That the worthy are taken care of. It's for that very reason that McCaffrey wrote the short story "Beyond Between," in which a dragonrider and her partner find themselves in the afterlife.

Fantasy fiction is rarely as blatant about its religious subtext, when it has any, as Narnia. Likewise, it doesn't often go out of its way to avoid connotations with organized religion the way Pern does. Rather, fantasy fiction tends to be made up of a comfortable balance of good versus evil (except when it isn't), likeable protagonists (except when they aren't), and lessons offered on our own morality. Meanwhile, religious texts continue to bring us stories of talking snakes in magical gardens, women who fall from the sky to live on the backs of turtles, beings who give birth to eggs and leech children, and dynasties of gods and goddesses living on top of a mountain. Religious lore and fantasy offer stories to entertain us and stories to guide us towards being better people.

Which accomplishes which is purely subjective.

Work Cited

Jamneck, Lynn. "An Interview with Anne McCaffrey." Welcome to! 05 Oct. 2010. Web.

So... You Want to be a World-Builder?

Are you tired of this dismal, mundane world? Are you sick of all the limitations in this universe, like gravity and social security tax? Don’t you just wish there was a place where some rules didn’t apply at all, or where crazy things like magic can put a damper on some of those party-poopers? Then let me introduce you to an old friend of mine, the Fantasy genre. This kind of literature is infamous for its geeky, absorbing reputation, but really what I advertise to you is a chance to build your own world and escape into the boundless plane of imagination.

Now as awesome and limitless as world-building can be, when you’re a fantasy writer, there’s a right way and wrong way to do it. To be more technical, it should be said that there are effective and ineffective ways of building a whole universe from scratch. Your tools will include plot, narration,   illustration, and dialogue. Your world is a setting, which is in literary terms the place or time that a story occurs. The story itself, which uses these tools, serves as the capsule for your environment, a place where the action happens and the world is made clearly separate from the real world (or perhaps other authors' worlds!). The capsule's something you NEVER want to break, or else you'll go insane discerning reality from fiction and all that messy psychological junk.

The first tool is plot. The plot of the story, which remember is the device holding your world, by definition is the sequence of events in a story pieced together into a unified work. Thus what I mean is that anything or everything that happens in your story must convey the functions and rules of your world. For example, let's say in this new world of yours, you want there to be a war, either a massive bloodbath or some border tensions. Using plot as your tool, this is how you ought to use plot to weave your world together:

Great troops of horse cavalry and unicorn cavalry followed the infantrymen. Krasta curled her lip to see unicorns made as ugly as horses. And then she curled her lip again, for a squadron of behemoths followed the unicorns (Turtledove 19).

The example above is from the book Into the Darkness by Harry Turtledove. An action is taking place in the passage, which could be considered an event, considering multiple events woven together coherently create a plot. Through describing this action, this author has built several elements into his world of Derlarvai: (1) a war or preparation for a war, (2) horses, which denotes that there is a commonality to this world, making it close to ours, (3) that unicorns exist, (4) that behemoths exist, which are a personal creation of the author himself (5) these creatures are all used for military power, and (6) to many sentient beings (characters) in this universe, these creatures have been made or are repulsive in a way.

Narration is the simplest tool in world-building, so much so that the minute you see the following example, you'll realize that you've used narration many times in the past. That is because narration is just plainly describing the facts, or presenting visual details, both of which are through the narrator's voice. The following passage is from The Magician's Nephew by C.S. Lewis:

He was standing by the edge of a small pool – not more than ten feet from side to side – in a wood. The trees grew close together and were so leafy that he could get no glimpse of the sky. All the light was green light that came through the leaves: but there must have been a very strong sun overhead, for this green daylight was bright and warm. It was the quietest word you could possibly imagine. There were no birds, no insects, no animals, and no wind. You could almost feel the trees growing... There were dozens of other [pools] – a pool every few yards as far as his eyes could reach. (Lewis 31-32).

Now you could argue that the narration and plot devices I've shown are practically the same thing. Consider, however, that an action could be described using dialogue instead, the same way playwrights would have characters say what they see when no props are available. But now why would we used dialogue to build a world? By far you will find that dialogue is the most prevalent tool for world-building among fantasy and science-fiction authors. Dialogue is the name for conversation between characters. Here is another passage from Into the Darkness where dialogue is being used to construct a world:

"I'm not glum about staying at peace," Fernao said. "I'm glum about the rest of the world going back to war. All the kingdoms of eastern Derlavai suffered as much as we did."

"And Unkerlant," Rogelio put in. "Don't forget Unkerlant."

"Unkerlant is a kingdom of eastern Derlavai... in a manner of speaking," Fernao said with a thin smile. The smile soon slipped. "Thanks to the Twinkings War, they hurt themselves worse than Algarve ever managed, and Algarve hurt them plenty." (Turtledove 31)

The quotation above was meant to inform the readers on the political situation of the author's world. Dialogue, on a side note, is especially useful for developing the politics of your world because people in our world tend to debate about politics and history. Characters can do the same, and through such debate also teach the reader about your world.

Here is another passage from A Spell for Chameleon, where the author again builds the history of his world Xanth through dialogue between two characters:

"... In the past century Xanth has been entirely free from invasion--but other threats have developed."

"Like the fireflies and the wiggles and Bad Magician Trent," Bink agreed.

"Trent was not a bad Magician," Cherie corrected him. "He was an Evil magician. There's a distinction--a crucial one."

"Um, yes. He was a good Evil Magician. Lucky they got rid of him before he took over Xanth."

"Certainly. But suppose another Evil Magician appears? Or the wiggles manifest again? Who will save Xanth this time?"

“I don't know,” Bink admitted (Anthony 37).

In this case, one character is informing another character, probably the next clearest and simplest tool used in world-building other than straight-up narration. Informative dialogue works smoothly because it functions in an exact manner as blander narration, except that the informing is focused inward between two characters and creating action at the same time. As a world-builder, you should know what would make dialogue preferable over narration in many ways. Dialogue adds life and brings opportunities to display traits of your characters who populate your world. However, don't grow dependent on the use of dialogue as a world-building tool. People don't commonly spit out all the common knowledge about their world despite the fact that the other character probably knows about it. Your readers will see through your scheme and realize it's just a corny technique of drilling information in their heads. As for much of the world-building dialogue in Into the Darkness, I find it rather unrealistic for commonfolk characters to be so well-rounded and knowledgeable of Derlarvai's history and politics. When choosing instances to share more about your world, choose reasonable characters to work through.

The reflections of a character can also be used to world-build. Bink of A Spell for Chameleon is an extremely inquisitive character. He looks at the strange world of Xanth the same way the reader will be looking at it, with a fresh pair of eyes. Bink questions his surroundings constantly and comes to his own conclusions. Your characters can do the same thing to inform the reader.

Lastly may perhaps be easier than narration, but more limited. Many fantasy writers choose to place a map of their world or a genealogy chart at the beginning of the book, and I suggest that you use this only to reinforce the other tools you use for world-building. Several examples follow, as always:

 *Derlavai from Into the Darkness

On a final note, most of your world building should take place in the beginning, but here’s an idea: give your audience a reason to keep reading by adding a touch of mystery. Maybe something goes on in the world that you can logically answer, and yet maybe it’s possible to either leave it explained or make the characters aware that there doesn’t seem to be an answer for the particular function--not yet, that is. In the world of Xanth, for example, Piers Anthony keeps us in the dark about Mundania, except implying that it is a nonmagical land. This obscurity creates curiosity to keep your readers, well--reading--and to dive in deeper and deeper into your world. Also, please spare the reader for at least the first thirty pages; don't fire random jargon and information at them as if they know what you're talking about. That will not attract a market at all. Just look at the terrible work of King's Blood Four. People are stupid. That is something you must assume in world-building.

You might be interested in world-building to improve the reputation of this rather obscure genre of literature. It really is fun once you’ve got a great idea off the ground! World-building will bring to light many of the elements of fantasy that people are tired of, as well as the elements readers and authors crave to escape into. Forge yourself a land of impossibilities made commonly possible, an epic place that will draw out the greatest depths of inspiration for all the world to see.

Anthony, Piers. The Quest for Magic. New    York: Ballantine, 2002. Print.
Lewis, C. S., and Pauline Baynes. The Magician's Nephew. New York: HarperTrophy, 2000. Print.
Turtledove, Harry. Into the Darkness. New York: Tor, 2000. Print.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

What Is Fantasy?

George M. breaks it down:

We can recognize it when we see it: witches and wizards casting spells at one another with their great yew staffs, great dragons loosely based on dinosaur renderings, but mostly constructed from pure imagination, ravaging nearby villages with terrific flames, having no explanation for their actions other than that they can. These are defining characteristics of the fantasy genre.

The average person can read a book about wizards and magic and tell you that he or she is reading a fantasy novel (even if the section in the book store didn't already give that away). It is much harder, however, for that person to explain why that novel is classified as "fantasy" and not something else, like mythological fiction or science fiction. In order to explain why this is, we must first look at what fantasy is.

This is my attempt to sum up what fantasy is in a neat sciencey way: "fantasy is the opposite of what could ever be." That’s probably what Emily Dickinson would say if you asked her. You can't, though; she’s dead. She loved to squeeze a book's worth of meaning into a two-stanza poem. The only way to truly appreciate the meaning of that vague, almost cryptic statement is to crank the handle of this fantasy Jack-in-the-box and stand back. Here we go...

Fantasy is wholly subjective of the author's reality and the technology available at the time. For example, an 18th century author could write a novel about horseless carriages and weapons that use light to injure an enemy and this novel would easily fall into the genre of fantasy. A person could pick up and read that same novel today and would be able to classify it as merely a work of fiction. The reason being is because those things are actually in use today, not just concepts (although using a laser as a weapon today would be difficult, as the really powerful ones are still bulky and stationary). What a difference 300 years can make!

The reason why the author classified his novel as "fantasy" was because mechanical, horseless carriages and light-based weapons were the farthest things from his present reality. They were "the opposite of what could ever be" for him. He simply could not fathom a reality where these things existed, so made the decision to place his novel in the same category that houses tales about magic artifacts and unknown worlds. Although the potential for these things existed at the time, the author was ignorant to that potential, and only used his imagination as reference. This 18th century author who exists solely in my example could have classified his novel as "sci-fi," and you'll see why this is momentarily.

J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit falls under the domain of fantasy because there is no record of our past and no evidence of our future depicting an Earth where dragons, dwarves, and goblins could have existed or could exist. Unfortunately, a world where Gandalf exists is not in our foreseeable future, and because of this The Hobbit must be classified as a work of fantasy.

So far we can conclude that in order for a piece of literature to be considered "fantasy," it cannot have a basis in reality. Although this statement seems quite obvious, there is much more to it than that. How many of the elements of the novel that are based in reality and what these elements consist of play a defining role in determining whether a work is considered fantasy or science fiction or some other genre.

If an author writes a story about a world that uses more sophisticated technology than the time in which he is writing in (all my examples are male--sorry, ladies), and the author tries to give a scientific explanation as to how this technology works, then this work can be classified as "science fiction." Although the world itself that the author is describing might not be our world in the foreseeable future, the technology he is describing might. If the author is writing a book about a "green planet" where all the energy we use is derived from fusion reactors, even though that world is obviously not our present one, fusion technology does exist, and so a basis in science fiction can be justified. The Hobbit is classified as "fantasy" as opposed to "sci-fi," because Tolkien did not make any attempt to scientifically explain how Gandalf can shoot lightning out of his staff. However, I don’t think Tolkien ever planned to. The author has to attempt to explain why things are the way they are for his work to be considered "sci-fi."

If a different author wrote a piece of literature in the year 200 B.C and wrote about Zeus and Athena tormenting a mortal man because he angered them in some way, a person who has read this far (and has never heard of mythology before) might guess that this work would be considered "fantasy," but this person would be wrong, although his or her guess makes perfect logical sense. This particular piece of literature would be considered "fantasy" if figures like Zeus and Athena did not have an actual basis in reality. Technically speaking, they do not. They never existed. Well, that is not exactly true, either. Zeus and Athena existed in the minds of the audience the author was writing for. They believed that these gods were real, and because it was a commonly held belief and a commonly accepted truth, this work cannot be considered "fantasy" and must be a work of mythology, a genre of literature that uses supernatural figures to explain real events.

Even though we know that the Greek gods were never real, we cannot reclassify the example story described in the beginning of the last paragraph as "fantasy." The reason being is that even though we know that the Greek gods never existed (although we cannot say that with total certainty), people once believed that they did. This work had a basis in reality, even though it is not the present one. Due to the subjective nature of reality and once-believed social truths, the work of literature that was written in 200 B.C. must be classified as a work of "mythology": things that people once believed were true, but now are not.

We can conclude that for a literary work to be considered a work of fantasy, it cannot have a substantial basis in our present reality. If an author tries to give scientific explanations as to why his world is the way it is, then this work is no longer considered "fantasy," and must be considered "science fiction." If an author writes about elements that he and everyone of the reality at the time of publication believe to be true, then that particular literary work is considered "mythology," not "fantasy." Hence, what exactly defines a piece of literature as "fantasy" is always changing because our reality is always changing. The perception of truth plays such a monumental role in defining fantasy that a truly concrete definition can't be achieved. In order to know that what you are writing will be considered "fantasy" (at least in your present time), just write about what you think can never happen. Because to write in the genre of fantasy is to believe that the impossible will remain impossible.

Work Cited
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit, Revised Ed. New York: Random House, 1997. Print.

Monday, November 1, 2010

History from a Hobbit's Perspective

Erica Yunghans chronicles it:


The Hobbit or There and Back Again by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien is a fantasy novel which introduces the reader to 'Middle Earth' the magical world of Tolkien's creation. In the story, 'Hobbits' are short human-like creatures who tend to live peaceful, agrarian lives far away from war and adventures. The story revolves around one particular Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins who is jolted out of his comfortable existence by a manipulative wizard and driven into joining a group of Dwarves on a quest to reclaim the gold stolen from their ancestors by a dragon. The Hobbit was written in the period between the two World Wars and is a work firmly grounded in Tolkien's time and culture. Tolkien's cultural and social beliefs make their presence felt in the work. In this essay we shall endeavor to show how the ideas prevalent in Tolkien's time and the culture of his period made their impact on the fictional world he created.

'Merry England' Conservatism

Tolkien has often been identified as belonging to a school of thought that can be called 'Merry England' conservatism or Little Englandism. This conservative school of thought seeks to return Britain to an imagined perfect past (Jones 112).
One aspect of 'Merry England' conservatism is related to social conservatism. The followers of this ideology oppose what they see as corrupting modern influences which have destroyed the perfect social order which used to prevail in the past. It is asserted that in the past, the lower social classes were happy with their lot in life, despite being poor, women were happy in their homes being subservient to their husbands despite being denied the opportunity to have a career of their own and people were happy having their decisions made for them by a benevolent monarch. Some researchers find evidence of these ideas in Tolkien's works; for instance, it has been claimed that the few female characters in Tolkien's works are idealized and stereotyped portrayals written from a patriarchal perspective (Donovan 130).

This sort of philosophy can be seen in The Hobbit, a novel that depicts the adventures of a band of fifteen male characters. Implicit in this is the belief that women must remain in their homes. The Hobbit depicts women as helpless creatures, dependent upon the protection of brave men during war. This view of women can be seen in the description of the dragon's attack on the Lake-town when men huddle women and children into boats and heroes like Bard the bowman bravely go forth to fight the dragon (Tolkien 234-42).

Another aspect of 'Merry England' conservatism is a general distaste for imperialism and conquest of other countries. Tolkien was not keen on British occupation of other countries. His Hobbits are inward looking people, content to work in their fields and farms. Hobbits are benign creatures who do not wish to make war upon anyone (Bloom 91).

Genetic Determinism

A major aspect of Middle Earth is the interaction between different species of sentient creatures. Some of these species display both good and bad characteristics, but are on the whole depicted as good people, for example the Elves, Dwarves and Hobbits. Other species are essentially evil, such as the Goblins and the Trolls. There are no good Goblins or Trolls. In other words, the genetics of the Goblins and Trolls completely determine their conduct. This reflects the belief in the existence of good and evil races of humans that was prevalent in Tolkien's time (Rearick).

An anti-egalitarian view of the superiority of those with 'noble blood' can also be seen in the story. Elrond the elf is one of the major good characters of the Tolkien universe. He is a descendant of elf-lords and Human heroes (Tolkien 51). Bard, the hero of Lake-town, is likewise the descendant of "Girion, Lord of Dale" (250).


Another aspect of Tolkien's conservatism is his dislike of modern technology. Nearly a century before Tolkien's time, the workmen of England and Scotland had started a revolutionary against industrialization, called the Luddite movement. The Luddites were workmen whose livelihoods were threatened by the introduction of machines; they would gather together at night and mount destructive attacks on machines and factories. Tolkien has also been portrayed as a Luddite (Turner).

In accordance with these views, the Goblins, the main villains of The Hobbit, have been described as makers and designers of tools and instruments of torture. Tolkien has also speculated that the Goblins were responsible for the invention of various machines particularly those machines and devices which result in the death of large numbers of people at once (62). In this speculation, Tolkien has tried to convey to his young readers distaste for industrialization and an abhorrence of weapons of mass destruction that were first deployed in his time.

Dwarves as Jews

The Dwarves in The Hobbit exhibit characteristics that are stereotypically applied to the Jews. Such characterization of ethnicities has been accepted as rude and unfair in the present time; however, it was not considered impolite in Tolkien's days. For example, in The Hobbit the race of Dwarves is depicted as being greedy and fanatic in their love for gold (15). The Jews too were commonly portrayed as greedy and lustful of material wealth. The Dwarves of the golden age in the Lonely Mountain did not grow their own food (23). This also conforms to the portrayal of Jews as people who did not work the land but worked in other secondary professions. The Dwarves are depicted as being "clever with their hands" (23). The Jews too are traditionally depicted as talented at making things.

Lamarckian Evolution

'Lamarckian Evolution' or Lamarckianism is the belief that organisms can acquire major adaptive characteristics within their lifetimes and pass on those characteristics to their offspring. In the early twentieth century, this concept had not been thoroughly disproved and it was common for people to believe in it (Gee 81).
This concept may be seen the description of Gollum. Gollum, originally a Hobbit or a creature similar to Hobbits, acquires large eyes and the ability to see in the dark while living in the caves under Misty Mountains. Gollum even seems to have acquired a tapetum lucidum, the layer of tissue that causes the eyes of many animals to seem to glow in the dark (Tolkien 84). This concept can also be seen in The Hobbit under the description of the fish that inhabited the subterranean lake in Misty Mountains:

There are strange things living in the pools and lakes in the hearts of mountains: fish whose fathers swam in, goodness only knows how many years ago, and never swam out again, while their eyes grew bigger and bigger and bigger from trying to see in the blackness; also there are other things more slimy than fish. (71)

J. R. R. Tolkien was a man of his times and the effect of the thinking that was prevalent in those times is apparent in his works. While Tolkien disclaimed the idea that his work was allegorical in nature, many elements of his own political and social beliefs find their way into the novel. Some of the elements of the novel may not be very politically correct, such as elements suggesting anti-feminist and racist overtones to today's readers, but despite these flaws there are some great merits in Tolkien's works, even by today's standards. Tolkien was opposed to militarism, imperialism and the existence of weapons of mass destruction. He has associated the design and construction of such devices with the villains of his fictional world. Tolkien also opposed industrialization at a time when most people were unable to fathom the extent of environmental damage it causes.

While, by today's standards, Tolkien might be ridiculed for the suggested appearances of racism and bigotry towards some ethnicities, he wrote The Hobbit during a time when such beliefs were rather commonplace. There were reactionary sentiments against the industrial age. Many people were unemployed because technology introduced newer methods of production that reduced the need for physical labor, a human workforce. The world had been at war and all of Europe was still in shell shock. It could be argued that Tolkien's work was simply a reflection of the culture during that time period.

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. J. R. R. Tolkien. New York, NY: Infobase Publishing, 2008.
Donovan, Leslie A. "The Valkyrie Reflex in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings: Galadriel, Shelob, Éowyn, and Arwen." Tolkien the Medievalist. Ed. Jane Chance. Lexington, KY: Routledge, 2003. 106-132.
Gee, Henry. The Science of Middle-Earth. Cold Spring, NY: Cold Spring Press, 2004.
Jones, Leslie. J.R.R. Tolkien: a Biography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003.
Rearick, Anderson. "Why is the only good orc a dead orc? The dark face of racism examined in Tolkien's world." Modern Fiction Studies (2004): 861-874.
Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel. The Hobbit: Or There and Back Again. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 2007.
Turner, Jenny. "Reasons for Liking Tolkien." London Review of Books 23.22 (2001): 15-24.