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?