Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Mark Twain's influence on Fantasy Fiction

Fantasy Fiction as a genre has come into its own over the last several decades. Authors like Tolkien and Lewis helped to form the genre, and authors like Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, and Robin Hobb have helped keep it alive; however, there has been a lot of debate on when and with whom the genre originated. While pivotal authors like Tolkien and Lewis are often given credit, other critics and scholars would argue for an origin found in fairy tales, or even earlier. Instead of focusing on one particular author or body of work as the origin of Fantasy Fiction, I would argue that Fantasy Fiction, like all genres, is more dependent on literature as a whole than some would believe. Authors outside of the genre contribute and impact Fantasy Fiction, because the authors of the genre are constantly influenced by work outside of it. Literary icons, like Mark Twain, contribute to Fantasy Fiction by impacting authors and the general public. Authors do not write from an isolated, independent perspective. Authors write from the perspective of a member of society, influenced by literature as a whole, whether that literature is contemporary or ancient. Anything an author has read influences the work of that author, affecting them on conscious and unconscious levels. Readers who closely analyze Fantasy Fiction can see the influence of Mark Twain. Twain’s influence can be seen in a realist writing technique, as well as topics covered in his books and essays. In Fantasy Fiction, readers can see, immersed among the magic and mysticism, discussions on slavery, opposing cultures and societies, realistic descriptions and understanding of fantasy based worlds, and characters based on a real world understanding of people. Twain’s influence can be seen in genres not his own, because as a literary icon, Mark Twain has impacted our society as a whole, affecting people on a level that defines his literature as iconic, something beyond words on a page.

Mark Twain subscribed to a realistic approach in his literature. Readers can view Twain’s disdain for unrealistic literature in his critique of Fennimore Cooper’s writings, particularly Cooper’s The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer. Throughout the critique, Twain berates Cooper’s lack of realistic situations and failure to understand or observe real world examples. He mentions examples spanning from an incorrect understanding of artillery to the misunderstanding of how a streambed works. Twain goes on to discuss Cooper’s unrealistic, ridiculous characters and the impossible actions of those characters. Cooper’s characters accomplish feats impossible for any real person, such as shooting the head of a nail at one-hundred yards. In Fantasy Fiction, we can see the impact of Twain’s realistic approach. Authors like Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin are products of realistic writing. Fantasy fiction is a genre based on the impossible, on magic and mysticism, on our imaginations; however, the worlds that authors create are based on our own. How can these worlds not be? Authors of Fantasy Fiction take what they know and stretch it with their imaginations. What authors know is a culmination of their own experiences. In Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series, Jordan creates a world both fantastical and realistic. His magic system follows a set of rules explained in the first book. The rules he uses are understandable by readers; they are realistic, because we can understand and apply them. Even though the magic seen in Jordan’s work is impossible, it is still realistic.

The realism found in Fantasy Fiction does not apply only to the impossible, fantastic components of the literature. The realism in Fantasy Fiction also applies to the characters. Twain was a firm believer in realistic accents and modes of thinking. In Twain’s the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck does not talk like an educated thirty-year-old man, because he is not an educated thirty-year-old man. Huck is an uneducated, backwoods, young teenager. As such, he talks like one. Jordan and Martin utilize a realistic approach in their books. Although the characters of their stories live in a fantastical world, those characters are based on real people, so those characters act like real people. Jordan’s attention to realistic characters can be seen constantly throughout his books. In the first book of Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series, Jordan creates a scene in which he is able to better define the human qualities of two main characters, forcing actions upon those characters that are believable.

“Be at ease, Lan,” Moiraine said. “Be at ease. Wisdom, you think I can help Master Fitch and the people at the inn? Well, you are right.” Nynaeve started to say something, but Moiraine waved it away and went on. “I can go back by myself and give some help. Not too much, of course. That would draw attention to those I helped, attention they would not thank me for, especially with the Children of the Light in the town. And that would leave only Lan to protect the rest of you. He is very good, but it will take more than him if a Myrddraal and a fist of Trollocs find you. Of course, we could all return, though I doubt I can get all of us back into Baerlon unnoticed. And that would expose all of you to whomever set that fire, not to mention the Whitecloaks. Which alternative would you choose, Wisdom, if you were I?”

-Robert Jordan, The Eye of the World, 257

In this paragraph, readers see Jordan explaining and setting limits on the abilities of his characters. Realistic limits. Despite her ability to utilize the magic of Jordan’s world, the character Moiraine admits she cannot produce an ideal situation that helps Master Fitch with his burning inn and also allows the party of adventurers to escape. Through Moiraine, Jordan also limits the abilities of the warrior Lan, setting a vague limit on the amount of Trollocs and Myrddraal he can kill, even though he is a warrior of phenomenal skill. The reactions of the characters and the decisions each character makes are believable and follow the reader’s understanding of each character.

In the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, whether he realized it or not, helped to define the impact and role of African American culture on American society. Toni Morrison discusses the role of African Americans as a contrast to white society in her article Jim’s Africanist Presence in Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain’s book seems a story based in constrasts: freedom contrasted by slavery, and white culture contrasted by black culture. Morrison discusses these contrasts in her analysis of Jim’s freedom: “Thus the fatal ending becomes the elaborate deferment of a necessary and necessarily unfree Africanist character’s escape, because freedom has no meaning to Huck or to the text without the specter of enslavement, the anodyne to individualism; the yardstick of absolute power over the life of another; the signed marked, informing, and mutating presence of a black slave” (Morrison, 309). Twain’s utilization of contrasts, especially in racial and social roles, can be seen in several fantasy books. Robin Hobb’s The Soldier Son trilogy utilizes contrasts throughout all three novels. At the onset of the book, the main character, Nevare Burvelle, is exposed to a post-war world where Nevare’s society has recently conquered and subjugated a society known as the “plainspeople”. The plainspeople are treated as second-class citizens, being extorted and controlled by the society that conquered them. Nevare is entrusted to a member of this society, the enemy of his father, so he might learn to survive and rise above the plainspeople his father helped to conquer. The focus of the trilogy is Nevare’s experiences with the plainspeople, followed later by a forest people known as “specks”. Nevare is forced, through magic, to find a balance between these differing societies, eventually losing the distinction that separated him from the plainspeople and specks.

Fantasy Fiction cannot be understood through a specific origin or starting point. Instead readers must understand Fantasy Fiction as a genre that has come into its own, changing and shaping itself based on literature as a whole. Contemporary Fantasy Fiction authors cannot target Tolkien or Lewis as sole influences, because authors are influenced by everything they see, hear, read, and experience, reflecting those experiences in the literature they write. Mark Twain influenced Fantasy Fiction, because Mark Twain was a literary icon. Authors who read Twain are impacted by him, by Twain’s writing style and influences. Twain’s demand for realistic situations and characters can be seen in the work of successful Fantasy Fiction authors, such as Robert Jordan, George R. R. Martin, and Robin Hobb. Readers can see Twain’s influence in the characters that seem believable and lifelike, in the systems of magic that can be understood, and in the topics Twain himself covered that have been revisited through a fantasy lens. Although Fantasy Fiction deals in the impossible and the imagined, authors base their worlds on our own, requiring rationalized characters, topics, and situations. As such, literary icons, like Twain, will continue to influence writers and readers, despite the genre.

Bibliography and additional reading:

Hobb, Robin. Shaman's Crossing. New York: EOS, 2005. Print.

Jordan, Robert. Eye of the World. New York: TOR, 1990. Print.

Martin, George R. R. A Game of Thrones. New York: Bantam, 2002. Print.

Morrison, Toni. "Jim's Africanist Presence in Huckleberry Finn." Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: a Case Study in Critical Controversy. By Mark Twain, Gerald Graff, and James Phelan. Boston: Bedford of St. Martin's, 1995. 305-10. Print.

Twain, Mark. "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses." University of Virginia Library. Web. 23 Feb. 2011. .

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