Today is a special day in the life of a blogger: the day his baby turns one. Although I once had another blog that I updated infrequently, this has been my first serious attempt to blog. Was this year a success? In celebration of this great anniversary, let my reminisce a retrospective over the marking events of this year. And when I am finished being nostalgic, let me look to where the blog stands now and to where it might fly in the future.
I began The Vinciolo Journal exactly a year ago today with a post promising content of a literary and historical variety. If I had a target audience, I was not conscious of targeting one, which was probably a fault. For the record, I now state that my ideal reader is, like me, in his twenties (or thirties), a university student or graduate, and an avid reader of fantasy novels, particularly historical fantasy. Basically, I set out to write for someone like myself, who has interests similar to mine.
I thought it would be brilliant to keeping writing these long posts, much longer than the 600 or so words that are normal to bloggers, in the interest of presenting researched information on historical subjects that interested me. I was not going to be one of those self-absorbed critics spitting out polarizing doggerel. Although I enjoyed doing research, however, my posts soon became very long and I began to realize that my audience–many of whom began to follow after my first few successful posts in April and May–did not have the necessary attention spans.
After publishing my post on my Honours thesis, which is still in my top-ten posts at 66 hits (receiving some of my first serious comments), I began to write book reviews. I focused on historical fantasy novels currently in my library, but did not limit myself to that genre. These reviews covered most of my summer campaign. Highlights of my reading experience include Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco and the Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay, which I covered in a series of three posts (I, II, III), one for each book. Such was the regularity of these book review posts that I temporarily re-branded myself as a book review blog. I was even asked to review William Harlan’s Antioch.
At the end of the summer, I returned to the triple-feature format for a dip into Scottish history with my posts on the lead up, action, and aftermath of the Battle of Culloden. This battle had featured prominently in two book I reviewed: one from Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series and the second being No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod. I enjoyed writing the post series, adopting a trademark pictures-and-text style to ease the lengthier treatment of historical subject matter. Readers would return to these, but they would not be as famous as my posts on Masyaf castle or Christopher Marlowe.
When my final semester began at McGill, I swore to pick up the pace. I could publish one post every two weeks like it was nothing, sometimes including an extra post before the fortnight. As such, I challenged myself to put a Friday article online every week until Christmas. I succeeded by cleverly scheduling a three-parter on Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot to post during the most stressful period of my semester. I managed to post a few poems that were published in student literary journals, which began to draw people back to my site.
It was a long haul, but we made it! I have nearly 4,000 views so far and 116 followers, which includes WordPress, Facebook, Tumblr (http://www.tumblr.com/blog/thevinciolojournal), and Twitter (@matthewrettino). My following is a modest achievement, but I count my real victory in the devoted hours I spend posting top-quality content. Whatever followers I have will continue to receive more of the same posts: historical overviews, book reviews, essays, and every once in a while a poem. I actually intend to post quite a few more book reviews: Canadian poetry books, literary fiction, and, of course, fantasy novels. This Friday, for example, I will be reviewing a classic: Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
This blog has always been about historical fantasy in one way or another, attempting to find answers to the ways in which historical narratives are shaped by our desires and “fantasies.” History is written by the victors, we often say, but it is also true that history is written by anyone with an interest in it. Even victims include their distortions. I do not always so seriously probe these hard, philosophical ideas, but I do engage with them in an on-and-off basis within my posts. I hope to explore these ideas a little more explicitly in the future.
At the bottom line, though, what I really want is to have fun. Fun with a bit of intellectual stimulation thrown in. I hope to publish more poetry, more artwork. I have an entire other talent related to the visual arts in which I am passionate, if unschooled. (See the bottom of the page for one example.)
This is the purpose of my blog, but I have yet to finally explain the title. Why is it called “The Vinciolo Journal”?
To answer this question, I must explain my novel-in-progress. I have already written its roughest draft, though I am rewriting many of the scenes, in preparation for line editing. One day I may self-publish this book as physical copy or an e-book, but I cannot promise a specific time when, or if, this will be possible. The premise is as follows:
Intelligence, or The Stars Move Still is about Marco Vinciolo, the son of a Venetian alchemist, who has ambitions of becoming his family’s Maestro, a master alchemist. His father, Jacopo, was blinded in an accident, setting the future of the small family–which he runs almost like a mafia–into uncertainty. Then things get worse. A family friend exiles himself from Venice the day that the heretic Giordano Bruno is arrested by the Inquisition (26 May 1592). The Vinciolo family is warned to flee Venice, when the authorities charge Jacopo not only with heresy, but treason, supposing he was involved in a plot to assassinate Philip Hapsburg, the King of Spain. Marco must flee his pursuers, protect his disabled father, and fight for his and his family’s innocence, while uncovering the roots of the conspiracy, which have literally earth-shattering consequences.
No, not figuratively earth-shattering. Literally earth-shattering. How? You’ll have to read my book to find out.
The blog is, of course, based on the name of Marco’s family, specifically a reference to the precious journal of alchemical lore that the Vinciolos have kept in safe storage for a hundred years. Legends tell that Marco’s ancestor Marconni Vinciolo not only created the Philosopher’s Stone, but even wrote down the recipe for it between the Journal’s covers.
Perhaps this means my blog has a Philosopher’s Stone buried somewhere within it. Perhaps it is a reflection of my desire to create a mythic counterpart to my father’s side of the family, which is Italian (from a village near Naples). Whatever the true meaning, just remember that my novel is a historical fantasy, one of the main tags for my blog.
Here’s to a fresh start in the New Year. Who knows what untold wonders might await us now?
Over the summer, I was debating what kind of new short story I should write, when I found myself gravitating towards the technical challenges and experimentalism that the Assassin’s Creed franchise might inspire in fiction. What really got me thinking was how to represent the experience of entering an Animus in fiction.
The Animus machine in Assassin’s Creed splices two consciousnesses. Tracing ancestral memories through a subject’s DNA–an intriguing bit of pseudoscience–an animus can make you re-experience the memories of distant ancestors. In the game, the modern-era protagonist Desmond Miles revisits worlds of Crusade-era Jerusalem as his distant ancestor Altair, then sees Renaissance Italy through the eyes of Ezio Auditore, before experiencing the American Revolution through the eyes of Connor, a Mohawk.
There are certain rules to the Animus. For example, the bleeding effect: too much time spent in the Animus can cause your visions of the past to appear, ghostlike, in the present. This can lead to madness, as it does with Subject 16 in the game. Also, it is (or should be) impossible to view later memories of an ancestor, if he or she conceives or bears the next child in the subject’s bloodline. The child’s DNA would contain the ancestral memories of both parents, but later memories of his or her parents would be lost, since chromosomes are obviously not given to children after conception. The possible conflicts inherent in this conundrum are not explored in the game. In fact, they are outright ignored in Revelations.
Thirdly, there is the entire concept of “synchronization.” In the game, Desmond’s DNA grants him access to certain early memories, but only through completing memory sequences can he uncover later, or even repressed, memories. Synchronization is an organic way to explain why Desmond must progress through a series of “levels” in the game. But is Desmond passive to Ezio’s memories, or does he engage actively with them? Most of the time, it seems that Desmond is only seeing through Ezio’s eyes what happens. However, if you kill a civilian, fail to complete a level, or die in the game, you “de-synchronize” with Ezio’s consciousness. Desmond has to repeat all the actions Ezio performed in real life. But he does them in a kind of liminal space between history and the player’s failures to “synchronize” perfectly. For example, when you die in the game, especially by doing something stupid like falling off the top of a church steeple, a common reaction is to sarcastically groan, “And so that’s how Ezio died…” and slam the controller on the ground. The skill of players–and Desmond himself–must coincide with Ezio, or all is lost.
All this to say, there is a nonlinear nexus where Ezio’s actions can coincide with Desmond’s or not, a kind of free, Matrix-like world created in the universe of artificial experience that the animus creates. This space not only causes us to ask, “Is this the real world, or just an illusion?” but even makes us ponder, “Is Ezio’s history real, or is the world created by the Animus itself, only an illusion, like a computer game?” (Perhaps Abstergo Industries, the all-powerful organization that invented the Animus, controls perceptions of the past in this way. THAT would make waves. A dilemma never addressed in the game.)
Now that those who may be unfamiliar with Assassin’s Creed have an idea of how the Animus is supposed to work, let me address my initial question: how can literature represent the unique consciousness of a subject like Desmond in the Animus? Two minds vying for the same stream of consciousness make it a challenge to write well–even omitting the whole paradox of synchronization.
Before I get into my analysis, I must clarify that the challenge of the Animus POV extends much, much farther than the world of Assassin’s Creed and its novelizations (none of which use experimental language). One common science fiction and fantasy trope, to cite one example, involves aliens and other creatures who are able to share memories instantly with other organisms, at touch. I believe Vulcans and Na’vi fall under this category, neither of which are limited by the paradoxes of the Animus technology. Furthermore, a fantasist can imagine an infinite number of other ways in which memories can be stored inside inanimate objects and reproduced in the character’s consciousness when activated. I recall Harry Potter’s adventures in the pensieve, for example–not to mention Kimberly Ford’s flashes of Seer insight in Fionavar Tapestry. The great virtue of revisiting memories is that you can make characters re-experience backstory and elide much of the drawl of re-telling history.
My method of representing the Animus viewpoint is as follows: I wrote a story where I began with one consciousness that exists in normal circumstances, made it pass through a transitional phase through the Animus, and then found some way to represent the nexus of consciousnesses within the Animus itself. First person “I” and third person “he/she/it”: these pronouns each create a certain effect when used with either the present or past tense (I left out ‘you’ because the second person is too experimental and thus an unstable ground on which to test this already-experimental strategy). Perhaps it is best for Desmond’s consciousness to be distinct and separate from Ezio’s, which would be a clean, clear reading experience. If we want to experiment with synchronization, however, we might try to keep Desmond’s mind somehow in dialogue with Ezio’s viewpoint, like some kind of self-conscious narrator in Ezio’s story. A happy in-between may also be possible…
If you try to combine the first person with the third person perspective, then make both either present or past tense–and then repeat them again, to form the total number of possible combinations–then you end up with 16 possibilities. These combinations do not employ the synchronization paradox (that, later), but some have the benefit of clarity. I have included the list of aesthetic effects I observed below:
Desmond – Ezio
I am – I was: This combination causes Desmond’s viewpoint to become lost in an ancestor’s voice, who retells his story in the past tense, as though it has already happened. The voices are distinct, but the perspectives do not synchronize.
I am- I am: Smooth transition from POVs. Immediacy, in-the-moment. Subjective, so close to a direct experience. Desmond is perfectly synchronized to the second POV to the point where he seems to transform into Ezio and acquire his sense perceptions.
I am- He was : I found that this combination distanced Desmond from Ezio. Desmond ends up describing Ezio’s viewpoint after-the-fact, as though he left the animus and is now explaining what he saw. Or perhaps the narrative’s camera follows the ancestor over his shoulder.
I am- He is: Really postmodern effect. The character loses control of his own narrative, stops telling us his direct experience, and another unknown, possibly non-participant narrator begins telling his story from above.
I was-I was: This effect is like ‘normal’ literature. Desmond is simply revisiting a memory in his own past, in a flashback where he imagines himself revisiting his past experiences.
I was -I am: Decent synchronization effect, and a reasonably smooth transition. To my ears, at least, it did not feel so much that Desmond’s POV became Ezio’s or that Desmond’s POV was replaced by Ezio’s, but that Desmond was wearing the skin of Ezio for a while, as though he was playing his part, a bit like an actor. Not perfect synchronization, but does present an interesting effect that can absolutely work.
I was -He was: There is no direct synchronization, Desmond watching Ezio from a detached, almost God-like or narrative standpoint. Unless explained in the text, we do not necessarily understand their minds to be melded in one; he could simply be watching a video of Ezio moving.
I was – He is: Like ‘I am-he is,” the character loses control of the narration of his own story. However, the transition between past tense to present, which is a bit arbitrary, threw me off and sounded clunky. Not recommended.
He was – I was: Ezio ends up speaking about himself, but it runs a bit clunky. Not immersive: there are two viewpoints being juxtaposed.
He was – I am: Tense difference can be choppy, but it requires the ancestor to have a distinct, immediate voice.
He was – He was: Like normal literature. Desmond is simply reliving his past.
He was – He is: An interesting effect. The synchronization is such that it feels like though Desmond is playing Ezio’s role, (as in “I was-I am”) only it is told with more distance, so the effect of role-playing is reduced. Also, since the Ezio POV is so immediate, it is not necessarily true that it is presenting a linear narrative–only a series of immediate sensations and experiences. This can enable you to scramble the order of the ancestor’s story.
He is – I was: The effect of this is like a retelling in Ezio’s journal. It is strange to use to create the illusion of synchronization, but still viable as a technique. Desmond’s experience of Ezio seems second-hand.
He is – I am: Feels more synchronized than if past tense was used. Ezio ends up speaking about himself in a separate viewpoint, but a clever person might be able to make it clear Desmond is somehow integrated into Ezio’s consciousness, since the experience is in the present-tense with both characters.
He is – He was: Feels like Desmond is visiting his own memory. But the difference in tense makes it awkward, like a failed transition into a normal flashback.
He is – He is: Perhaps the easier, most viable, though one of the least experimental, of these options. The present tense makes it immediate and the consistent third person makes the transition smooth. It is almost as if Desmond has physically turned into Ezio. In fact, this point of view might be effective for metamorphosis stories. Unless we are reminded that Desmond’s own body is still lying in the animus, it will seem to be a complete transformation.
When Desmond and Ezio’s scenes are told from either the same tense or same person, it is generally more effective–although there are some interesting effects that can work where there is a difference. Now, there is one last problem: accurately describing the synchronization process–how Desmond’s mind might occasionally conflict with Ezio’s memory. One solution is to elide this dilemma entirely. After all, losing synchronization does not have to be a danger in a fictional world in the way it must be in the Assassin’s Creed video game. Your readers cannot “lose” a story, unless you’re writing a Choose Your Own Adventure. However, if I were to encounter this dilemma head-on, I might write something like this:
“Desmond sat down in the Animus as Rebecca’s fingers clacked over the computer keys. The pulse of electricity surged up his spine as he closed his eyes. When he opened them, he was no longer in the cave, but in New York, in the midst of a crowd of merchants. It was a market day in 1781. Connor felt angry today and Desmond could see why: the man in the blue coat standing near the bench on the other side was Haytham. I don’t have to see him yet, thought Desmond, and walked into an alleyway. His body was not sore, refreshed from Connor’s last fight, so he climbed onto the roof of the print shop when he spotted a piece of Ben Franklin’s almanac flying in the wind.”
Chasing the almanac page is literally a side-quest in the game, translated directly to the page, and threatens only to be a distraction, however. For a tighter narrative, either Desmond would have to search for something important that he would have motivation to find in 1781 New York, or he would go right towards activating the next memory, by speaking with Haytham.
“”Connor,” said Haytham. “You’re late.”
“I came as quickly as I could,” said Connor.
“Follow me. We have a matter at the brewery.”
Desmond remembered Rebecca and Shawn had found something in the Abstergo database about the Old Brewery. He followed Haytham, keeping an eye out as Connor made an angsty sound in his throat, at his father who cared nothing for him. Perhaps he and Connor had more in common than he’d thought–he’d been riled up against his own father, William Miles, earlier.”
If this style of writing satisfies, then my job is done. In conclusion, I have isolated five types of perspectives that can be written, which have resulted from this experiment:
-Split Synchronization (as above)
–Straightforward Transformation of Consciousness: “I am/I am, “he is/ he is,” and “I was/I was,” “he was, he was.”
–Remembrance of things past: “I was /I was” and “he was/ he was.”
–Non-linear/Timeless animus effect: “He was / He is,” “I was / I am.”
–Journal memories: “He is/ I was,” “I am/ he was” “He was / I was” “I was/ I was”
The following are some examples of these last four types, made essentially by taking the first paragraph of Desmond’s above story and changing the tense and person accordingly. Taste the effects like a subtle wine.
Transformation of Consciousness: “I am sitting down in the Animus as Rebecca’s fingers clack over the computer keys. The pulse of electricity surges up my spine. I close my eyes. When I open them, I am no longer in the cave, but in New York, in the midst of a crowd of merchants. It is a market day in 1781. I am angry today: Haytham Kenway, my father, is standing there in his posh blue coat over by the bench on the other side. He looks restless, expectant.”
Remembrance of things past: “Desmond sat down in the Animus as Rebecca’s fingers clacked over the computer keys. The pulse of electricity surged up his spine as he closed his eyes.
He was in New York, in the midst of a crowd of merchants. It was a market day in 1781. He felt angry today: Haytham Kenway, his father, was standing there in his posh blue coat over by the bench on the other side. He looked restless, expectant.”
Non-linear, timeless Animus effect: “I sat down in the Animus as Rebecca’s fingers clacked over the computer keys. The pulse of electricity surged up my spine as I closed my eyes.
I am no longer in the cave, but in New York, in the midst of a crowd of merchants. It is a market day in 1781. I feel angry today: Haytham Kenway, my father, is standing there in his posh blue overcoat by the bench on the other side. He looks restless, expectant.
Rebecca’s voice in my ear tells me to prepare for step back in time. The cityscape vanishes into blue squares and formless shapes while the Animus knits the world back together. Suddenly it is 1776. I’m younger, staring at my father as he waits below the State House, whispering to Charles Lee. The Boston Massacre is about to begin.”
Journal memories: “Desmond sat down in the Animus as Rebecca’s fingers clacked over the computer keys. The pulse of electricity surged up his spine as he closed his eyes…
I was angry today: Haytham Kenway, my father, was standing there in his posh blue overcoat by the bench on the other side of the market. He looked restless, expectant. What could I do, if the Templars have a chance of winning this war? Benjamin Church must pay for his crimes.”
Which passage most pleases the ear? I leave that up to you decide…
“War begets war. Destruction begets destruction. On earth, a century ago, in the year 2020, they outlawed our books.” -Edgar Allen Poe, in Ray Bradbury’s “The Exiles.”
Edgar Allan Poe fights rocket men on a Mars mission to annihilate everything fantastic or non-realistic, in Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Exiles.” Bradbury’s short story stands with Fahrenheit 451 as a grim chronicle of a dystopian world where imagination is prohibited, even to the point of it being considered a mental disorder. In these worlds, fantasy—the ability to imagine realities other than the “consensus”—is outlawed, exiled, and, ultimately, considered heretical.
One fascinating question arises out of how Bradbury saw the role of fantasy literature in this future world. Is fantasy heretical? More specifically, does the literary mode or genre we refer to commonly as “fantasy” hold any innate capacity to oppose the dominant, orthodox “consensus” understanding of truth and reality? If there is such a capacity, what does it mean fantasy-as-heresy can do? And if it is not true that fantasy is heretical, why is it not?
“Fantasy itself is heretical. It denies what everyone knows to be the truth. And, if you’re lucky, the untruth shall make you free.” These words may sound counter-intuitive, even a little Nietzsche-esque, but they are part of Brian Attebery‘s argument for fantasy’s subversive potential in his essay “The Politics (If Any) of Fantasy” (11).
Since it accepts the non-real, fantasy can say that “reality is a social contract, easily avoided” (10). Indeed, most fantasy novels contain an element of escape from the humdrum of modern-day, middle-class North American life (or whatever is your current milieu). While fantasy can slip into “escapism,” what escape does for readers is break the jail cell bars which contain us within the accepted reality that we accede to ever day. It demonstrates that out world is “a fluke, a localized and temporary aberration” (10). I like to think of Neil Gaiman in The Ocean at the End of the Lane saying that the world we know as our own is only the icing on a much larger and much deeper cake, lying just under the surface of things.
The slightly more dangerous and “most profound political statement that fantasy can make is to let the Other become a self” (10). Fantasists write from the point of view of aliens, animals, and other fantastic creatures—and analogously, other human cultures right here on earth. In fantasy, “the past threatens to break into the present, colonies become capitals, and the natural world takes revenge on civilization” (10).
The way fantasy novels do this is clearly evident. Epic fantasy, for starters, is almost completely based on the ways in which the past interferes with the present, and novels such as Ysabelby Guy Gavriel Kay do this in a twentieth-century our-world setting. And how subversive would the Ents of Fangorn be, if they waged a crusade against Amazon rainforest deforestation? In our globally-warmed world, the whole Mayan apocalypse craze was partially a result of our fear of nature’s vendetta against our race, and that surely inspired a few fantasy stories. On the subject of decolonization, I need go no further than Kay’s other novel Tigana in order to indicate a subversive book: a tale of rebels who overthrow the yoke of foreign domination in order to restore their nation’s identity. This belongs not only to the mythic history of the USA and France, but also to Ireland, Wales, Quebec, the Basque regions in Spain, and Communist East Europe.
Choose any binary: man/woman, dark/light, subject/object, self/society, victor/victim, man/nature, past/present, self/other: fantasy gains its subversive, heretical edge by showing us the “other,” by presenting both sides of the coin, and thus challenging us, whether we choose heads or tails. Even when an author such as C.S. Lewis attempts to reinforce a worldview—Christian orthodoxy—Attebury argues that the fantastic frame “resists any kind of orthodoxy” (11). Fantasy has infinite possibilities, which makes any limitations upon those possibilities (the “rules” of the secondary world) contrast with what lies beyond those boundaries, letting us question what set those limitations in the first place.
Why is Aslan a lion, we might ask, and not, say, a dragon? Lewis’ choice reveals Aslan’s significance as a symbol for the “Lion of Judah,” Jesus Christ. At the same time as Christian orthodoxy is reinforced, the fantastic elements in Narnia—such as witches, centaurs, and giants—recall a more pagan world, the other side of the coin. Even a fascistic fantasy that reinforces a certain ideology or orthodoxy will be subverted, argues Attebery, because the possibility of asking, “What else?” remains. There will always be another side, an “other” that the fantasy implies exists.
Since fantasy brings down the orthodox, it is intrinsically heterodox, which is a fancy way of saying “heretical.” Attebery is not alone in drawing conclusions like this. Rosemary Jackson in Fantasy: the Literature of Subversion observes a similar phenomenon. For her, fantasy (defined more as a left-wing absurdist type of literature than post-Tolkien generic fantasy, which she viewed as too conservative and conventional) is a literature of desire that can thwart dominant understandings of reality.
Which brings us back to Edgar Allan Poe in his Martian exile. The dominant orthodoxy of the rocket men eventually triumphs over Poe, when the captain burns the pages of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, The Land of Oz, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—the last copies in the universe. Bradbury’s short story gains its power from the binary contrast between the world of the imagination and the world of science and progress that the rocket men represent. Even though the rocket men triumph and they see that “there’s no one here at all” in the now-emptiness of Mars, the fantastic remains in the unconscious. One man who sees the fall of the city of Oz must report for psychoanalysis. Although orthodoxy might presume to establish itself over all the universe, the fantastic remains in the mind, as an “other” understanding of reality, a heterodoxy.
Imagining other worlds and other heterodox realities is not, of course, a phenomenon limited to fantastic fiction. Any heretic who opposes orthodoxy must have an imagination. In fact, we can further explore how imagining other worlds can be subversive by looking at one sixteenth-century heretic: Giordano Bruno.
Bruno is best known for championing a Copernican understanding of the universe. While this was not precisely the reason for his condemnation as a heretic, it nonetheless presented an alternate understanding of the universe’s order. Humans were no longer the center of the universe after Copernicus’ theories gained acceptance. The “self” had become an “other.” Interestingly, Attebery writes that we can understand fantasy as “the meeting ground between empirical and traditional world views” (10) The whole Copernican debate was also fueled by the very tension between empiricism and the traditional church teachings.
One of the actual reasons that Bruno was burned was that he asserted that Jesus could not have been God: since God, as he saw it, was infinite, it was impossible for infinity to become incarnate in a finite, human form. In my personal opinion, this leaves out the following possibility: in the infinite possibilities of the universe, such a thing could perhaps be possible. Nonetheless, Bruno was also one of the first to champion the idea that there might exist other worlds (such as Mars!) beyond our own, that the universe did not end, but stretched on to infinity. Implicitly, (the following is also my own thought) there are infinite possibilities to reality, no matter how fantastic they might seem to us. Whatever exists in our imagination could exist (we do hope!) somewhere out there.
Giordano Bruno’s was the core of all heresies. By asserting that the universe was infinite and that human beings were not at the center, he challenged the dominant “consensus” reality of his day. An infinite universe has no boundary between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Implying there are worlds and things that lie outside of any explanation orthodoxy can provide necessarily undercuts that orthodoxy. Furthermore, implying that there are infinite things outside those boundaries can render those boundaries insignificant. Bruno’s beliefs not only made him a heretic for denying Christ’s divinity, but his teaching of infinity also denied the very legitimacy of the word “heretic.”
Fantasy, like Bruno’s infinite universe, has endless possibilities. It can therefore subvert any distinction made to divide the universe into binaries, whatever they might be. Furthermore, Bruno’s philosophy suggests that everything is in the universe, whether or not you believe it is real. Science, the orthodoxy of today, does not believe in dragons or the Emerald City of Oz. But Bruno’s philosophy can imply that these places do exist, if not on Mars, then somewhere in the infinite.
So the universe contains everything that can fit under one’s distinctions, as well as everything that exists outside of it. White swans and black swans in equal measure. Your best dreams, and your worst nightmares.
Going back to our original question, I can now confirm that fantasy is intrinsically heretical. However, this does not mean that all fantasy novels go “against the system” or challenge our most profoundly held beliefs. What it does mean is that the element of fantasy, when placed even in a conservative fantasy novel, implicitly subverts the worldview put forward in its story, by opening up the possibilities of the novel to infinity.
Some fantasy literature (we can all imagine the names of a few culprits) has become so codified that board games such as Dungeons and Dragons suggest formulas for crafting genre narratives using a nearly automatized technique. Elves, half-elves, barbarians, bards, and paladins run amok fighting goblins, orcs, and trolls. What particularly scandalizes me about formula dictating a work of fantasy is that—however fun playing a game might be—the story runs counter to everything fantasy stands for.
Fantasy is for imagining other things, new things, things not yet imagined, or things that break the mold of the orthodoxies to which we all implicitly hold. The elves and orcs, which began as an imaginative escape from our boring everyday twentieth- or twenty-first-century life, have become the new prison for our imagination.
Fantasy abhors a prison. It is free spirit. Formulaic genre literature undoes itself when we recognize the boundlessness of the fantastic and ask, “Why is this land populated exclusively by elves, dwarves, humans, and orcs? Why not other things we can imagine?”
In fantasy as in infinity, everything is possible. The creed of the Assassins comes to mind: “Nothing is true; everything is permitted.” Since everything in fantasy is permitted, it implies that what we assume to be true about the genre—and what we assume to be true about the universe—is not always so. Fantasy, a free radical, undoes whatever boundary lines the orthodox assumptions of society can set in its path.
In conclusion, I can confirm that fantasy itself is heretical. If it finds itself in a novel set by boundaries (and every work of fiction must have boundaries to exist), it breaks them. We may not intend this as authors. We may not pick up on it, as readers. But as soon as the windows to infinity are opened, the boundaries of the world we construct—either in the narrative of a story, or in the world in which we live—become exposed, and they are revealed for what they often are: arbitrary limitations. Faced with infinity, it becomes our duty to react. Do we stand by our current structures, definitions, and beliefs, or do we find some way of opening our mind to what we do not understand?
The tricky part of answering this question is that no matter what our answer is, we will always, at least implicitly, be forming a new orthodoxy in our minds—perhaps one more expansive, but still with its limits. A human mind cannot completely encompass infinity. Doctor Faustus tried that and failed miserably. However, if we are careful, fantasy is still a good thing: it’s work is never done, and in this world, the ability to help us press the boundaries of our imagination is a continual need.
Attebery, Brian. “The Politics (If Any) of Fantasy.” Modes of the Fantastic. Ed. Robert A. Latham and Robert A. Collins. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995. 1-13.
Bradbury, Ray. “The Exiles.” Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales With an Introduction by the Author. New York: HaperCollins, 2003.
Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy: the Literature of Subversion. London: Routledge, 1998.
A group of editors gets together to write a parody of a conspiracy theory. What if the parody ends up becoming perceived as the source of ultimate truth for an actual underground group that styles itself after the Templars and Rosicrucians?
The answer lies in the pages of Umberto Eco’s intellectual thriller Foucault’s Pendulum. In a way, the book is Dan Brown on steroids. Conspiracy theories abound in dizzying multitudes. Heretics, Knights Templar, Assassins, cabalists, Diabolicals, Masons, Jesuits, the Bavarian Illuminati, and the School of Night all become implicated in one giant Plan that spans centuries and has formed the very shape of history.
The editors at Garamond Press in Milan, Italy compose the Plan as a parody of a Templar plot that Colonel Ardenti believes he has uncovered from evidence found in Provins (Provence). However, as the editors mock Ardenti’s leaps in logic, their research into secret societies and the occult inspire them to create their own ultimate Plan.
However, the pastime, begun for the editors’ amusement, eventually begins to poison how the editors think. The Plan becomes real; life imitates art. And the central object that ties the created reality together—the thing that may reveal the greatest secret of all—is Foucault’s Pendulum, located in a Paris museum.
Though it was published in 1989, Foucault’s Pendulum continues to excite readers today. With the popularity of such authors as Dan Brown, author of The DaVinci Code and Angels & Demons (and his new thriller Inferno), interest in conspiracy theories and secret societies is running high.
Also, if reading Foucault’s Pendulum, you are reminded of the Assassin’s Creed video game franchise, you were not alone. In the Plan, Ismaili Assassins inspire the secret rites of the Templars, and dispense secret information to them about a powerful artifact with which they could control the world.
Perhaps Foucault’s Pendulum inspired Assassin’s Creed; perhaps Assassin’s Creed inspired Foucault’s Pendulum! After all, the programers were (obviously) Assassins themselves… And the only way to tell if someone really is an Assassin, is if they deny it.
Such is a sample of the kind of warped thinking into which the editors of Eco’s thriller fall. It combines the paranoid thought patterns of conspiracy theorists and witch hunters with the ars combinatoria, which seeks to interconnect all human knowledge. In Cabala, for example, passages of Hebrew scripture may be randomly combined with each other in order for new truths to emerge. In a similar way, the editors of Garamond Press enter statements of knowledge into a computer called Abulafia, which reconnects the entered statements randomly. Thus they emerge with a list, such as the following:
“The Templars have something to do with everything
What follows is not true
Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate
The sage Omus founded the Rosy Cross in Egypt
There are cabalists in Provence
Who was married at the feast of Cana?
Minnie Mouse is Mickey’s fiancée” (364).
The editors connect the random terms into a narrative and come up with the grand and exquisite claim that Jesus was actually married to Mary Magdalene and it was His marriage that was feted at Cana. In a clever way, Eco ridicules the exact same Templar conspiracy discovered in The DaVinci Code, which (coincidentally?) reveals the “truth” about Jesus Christ.
This is one example of Eco’s exploration of signs and symbols and how people connect them all together, even when no such connection exists objectively. It is the way that Garamond Press’ target audience, the Diabolicals, think.
I personally find Eco’s ideas fascinating, especially in the context of historical fantasy. In Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay discusses the philosophical implications of how desire influences how narratives of random historical events are told. These events become signs of a pattern, or signs of a plan to history’s unfolding. Eco shows how such plans may be interpreted from random data. Furthermore, he implies that in hyperreality, a universe where reality has largely been replaced by symbols and simulations of reality, the creation of such a plan in a spirit of fictitious play may have actual, historical consequences.
Eco explores these ideas because he is a semiotician, a scholar who studies the structure of signs and the processes in which they develop signification. For example, his most famous novel, the medieval mystery The Name of the Rose, explores how signs can be interpreted, or misinterpreted. In Foucault’s Pendulum, Eco explores similar themes. Symbols and signs have such a wide range of meanings that everything (a rose, a triangle in a Leonardo DaVinci painting, historical events) can be interpreted in hundreds or thousands of different ways.
Indeed, it would be a legendary meeting if it were possible for Eco to meet Dan Brown’s protagonist Robert Langdon, who is a symbologist, a professional who interprets the historical meaning of symbols. While Langdon sees a triangle in Leonardo DaVinci’s Last Supper and interprets it as a symbol for the sacred feminine, Eco would perhaps more closely analyze at the process of how Langdon came to make that interpretation. Perhaps Leonardo had intended to make a symbolic triangle. Then again, the triangle may have been a random shape that Langdon only perceived to signify something.
We see symbols everywhere, but where are the real ones? This is a mystery that Eco leaves ambiguous, to his credit. After all, life is much more interesting with symbols to interpret that do not have fixed meaning.
On the whole, Foucault’s Pendulum makes for an engrossing read. Irony, a concern with symbols, and plenty of lists: these signature features of Eco’s style combine to create a unique reading experience. As the Garamond Press editors formulate the Plan, scenes pass almost exclusively in dialogue-based exposition, but somehow, Eco makes it work. Do not expect Eco’s thriller to read like a Dan Brown novel, but expect it to be richer, to fascinate and challenge you intellectually.
And take care you don’t become a Diabolical while reading it.
A white-robed hooded rider spurs his stallion to the castle of Masyaf to receive an assassination contract from his master Rashid al-Din, the infamous leader of the Assassin Brotherhood. The rider’s name is Altaïr ibn la-Ahad. They meet in a library, and the assassin receives his instructions: Marquis Conrad of Montferrat, a Templar crusader, must die.
If this sounds like a video game you’ve played, then you might be aware of how the creators of Assassin’s Creed conduct thorough historical research. Although they take liberties in inventing a fanciful storyline, there are historical realities behind the famous video game.
The fida’is, brave soldiers of the Ismaili sect of Islam, are the real-world historical source for the Assassin myth. In Crusader-era Syria and Iran, they would infiltrate the social circle of political targets and wait, keeping up appearances, before threatening them by thrusting a dagger beside into their pillow at night.
Often, the threat would be enough to deter the enemies of the Ismailis, but occasionally they used real violence against targets, as a last resort. One such a target was Marquis Conrad of Montferrat, assassinated in 1192 in a courtyard at the port-city of Tyre just before his coronation as King of Jerusalem—by figures disguised as Christian monks. Wearing robes reminiscent of these assassins, Altaïr is the character that players of Assassin’s Creed guide through multiple levels, conducting similar assassinations. However, the names of the real assassins are lost to history.
As for the castle of Masyaf, it actually does stand in Syria, though not in the location specified in the game. Sinan Rashid al-Din, Altaïr’s master, was the actual legendary Ismaili leader who once called it home. Called “The Old Man of the Mountain,” he was lame in one leg, a learned alchemist, and was said to have had telepathy, clairvoyance, and the ability to communicate with spirits. Perhaps the Apple of Eden, Assassin’s Creed‘s illusion-creating artefact, had had something to do with that .. but once again, these stories are lost to history.
The truth of the Ismaili Assassins is often difficult to separate from myth.
One of the first myths is from Marco Polo’s account of the Earthly Paradise of the Assassins in his Travels. Assassin’s Creed II: Revelations has sequences that play off Niccolo Polo’s supposed encounter with the Brotherhood.
Supposedly, the Old Man of the Mountain had command of a fortress called Alamut (in Polo’s account not Masyaf), where he had an exceptionally beautiful garden. Milk and honey flowed in rivers through his garden, which was filled with fragrant fruits and flowers, appearing as the Qur’an’s vision of Paradise. The Old Man would bring men into the garden and have young virgins entertain them, before serving them wine laced with hashish. He would then bring them into his presence.
There, mission briefing would occur, and a promise. Since an assassination was essentially a suicidal job—it was assumed that the guards protecting the target would inevitably kill or capture an assassin—the Old Man offered Paradise itself to his minions. Since the drugged assassins thought they had truly found Paradise at Alamut, they believed the Old Man could offer that.
Through this method, the Old Man of the Mountain supposedly eliminated his political rivals and advanced his own interests.
Marco Polo’s account is a juicy myth. Essentially a result of Western fascination with the East, Europeans found in the Earthly Paradise of the Assassins a way to explore fantasies forbidden within their moralistic society. The myth gained popularity throughout the ages. According to Wikipedia, Friedrich Nietzsche in his Geneology of Morals considered the Assassins free spirits not bound by Western strictures of morality, operating according to the creed—now made famous by the video game—that states, “Nothing is true; everything is permitted.”
However, the historical reality behind the Brotherhood demolishes these Orientalist fantasies.
To begin with, there could never really have been a garden at Alamut. Peter Willey, in his book Eagle’s Nest: Ismaili Castles in Iran and Syria, to which I am indebted in this article, describes the castle’s physical details at great length. Alamut, which means “Eagle’s Nest,” is perched above a steep and rocky ridge. It is a very narrow castle and is said to have once contained a great library. However, it is simply impossible to imagine a luxurious garden growing in such a narrow courtyard.
Marco Polo clearly had never seen Alamut, which leads scholars to suppose that his famous journey to the Orient never actually happened. He may never have left Constantinople, composing his Travels from hearsay and the stories of other travelers.
To debunk the myth that the Assassins took hashish before carrying out their murders, Peter Willey draws attention to how it is impossible to aim a blade with any accuracy while high. Dexterity takes a serious hit when the mind is clouded, and a successful assassination would require presence of mind to quickly slide a blade between a target’s plate armour or through chain mail—and sometimes the target would be on horseback.
It also must be emphasized that the fida’is did not always kill. Often, the mere threat of a dagger thrust in a target’s pillow would make him withdraw a siege from a castle, or pull back his troops from a strategic region. The fear caused by the fida’is had a real affect on the enemies of the Ismailis, who were much more powerful and numerous. It kept them away from strongholds and villages—and added to the paranoia that would launch the Assassin myth.
The Ismailis were considered heretics by many Muslim religious groups. Hunted like witches by enemies seeking to weed out the fida’is from their ranks, they became blamed for assassinations that they did not commit. Innocent people were accused of being Ismaili assassins. For these, the punishment could be severe: al-Ghazali suggested the death penalty for any Ismailis who remained apostates of the Islamic faith. Meanwhile, the political situation in the Middle East—so little has changed since—was volatile and paranoid, filled with many rival political groups, most of whom employed assassination as a tactic.
In such an environment of fear, myths can easily arise. The Ismailis were blamed for more assassinations than it would have been prudent to commit. Those who blamed them were either reacting out of paranoia, or seizing an appropriate scapegoat, to better mask their own political and military stratagems.
It is precisely through such times of paranoia that fantasies take root. The historical record today can only give us glimpses into the past, and those records may be contaminated with hearsay at best, if not a deliberate falsification of information. Today, you can immerse yourself in the myths that history has passed down to you, playing a part in them through your PS3 controller.
What the the Assassin myth tells us is that human beings prefer to indulge in great stories rather than seek the truth of history. Fiction and reality: these are opposed modes and people enjoy fiction more than reality. For a writer of historical fantasy such as myself, what an insight! “Nothing is true; everything is permitted”: the creed of the historical fantasist!