Sunday morning at MythCon, and I took it easy, only getting to “Harry Potter as Dystopian Literature” for 10:00.
Kris Swank framed Harry Potter not only in terms of the latest dystopian craze in YA fiction (Divergent, The Hunger Games), but also with the dystopian tradition of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. The Dolores Umbridge-corrupted Ministry of Magic in the later volumes of Harry Potter has a simplistic slogan that would not be entirely out of place on the wall of the Ministry of Truth in 1984; ‘Magic is Might’ has the same double-think ring as ‘War is Peace,’ ‘Ignorance is Strength,’ and ‘Freedom is Slavery.’ Umbridge is an O’Brien of the wizarding world, employing exotic forms of torture to elicit “confessions” from witches and wizards who are muggle-born, often employing the morally dubious drug veritaserum, a truth serum.
The disturbing thing is that, as pervasive as government surveillance is in Oceania in 1984 and the wizarding world, we willingly subject ourselves now, using our instant-communicators, our ever-present smartphones, to the same kind of surveillance. The charm placed on the name “Voldemort” alerts Death Eaters, who eventually run the ministry, that someone has said the word the instant they utter it. Meanwhile, the government tracks what we say online, words like “Bush” and “al-Quaida,” but also plain words like “pork,” and “erosion,” because they can be connected to terrorist-related discourses, presumably. It’s like Michel Foucault’s Panopticon out there.
The next talk was a return to J.R.R. Tolkien: Janet Brennan Croft presented “Noms de Guerre: The Power of Naming in War and Conflict in Middle Earth.” She gave a catalogue of swords and other weapons and their names, and more specifically the function these unique names have. Names endow these objects–like Isildur’s sword Narsil, renamed Andúril by Aragorn–with power, distinguishing them from common weapons. In legend, Sigurd owned Gram, and Charlemagne Joyeuse–and who could forget the blade of the leader of latter’s rear-guard, the Dolindale of Roland? Most weapons in LOTR are swords, like Bilbo and Frodo’s Sting, though notable exceptions are Gil-Galad’s Aiglos and Grond, Morgoth’s mace (the same name is given to the battering ram the orcs bring against Minas Tirith).
Noms de guerre, on the other hand, refer to the names characters take on in war. They are like noms de plume, or pen names, except those who use them are more likely to believe that the sword is mightier. They are used by those who wish to break with the past, hide the self. For example, Éowyn turns her name into Durnhelm when she goes to war against her father Théoden’s wishes. In The Hobbit, Thorin is surnamed Oakenshield, in memory of the improvised shield he wore to battle. Aragorn is later called Elessar, to fit his new role as King. These names can also be bestowed by another, as revealing descriptions of one character’s relationship with another. For instance, Gríma Wormtongue calls Gandalf, who he mistrusts, Stormcrow, and Frodo calls Gollum Sméagol, in recognition of the good that he still sees in him.
The following talk was “Toying with Fantasy: the Post-Modern Playground of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld” by Daniel Lüthi. Anyone who as read Pratchett will know how hilarious his novels can be; I myself have read too little of Pratchett. Lüthi came all the way from Switzerland to explain to us how Pratchett threw Tolkien’s rules in “On Faerie-Stories” out the window: particularly the line that says comic fantasy can never make fun of magic itself. That is exactly what the Discworld novels are predicated on: mockery of the fantasy genre. All the tired tropes of fantasy—as well as multiple other genres, including the detective novel, noir, and science fiction—are all mocked in sardonic incidents and Pratchett’s playful footnotes. Pratchett comes from the tradition—and perhaps inspired much of the tradition—that produces parodies like Bored of the Rings and Barry Trotter. Yet Pratchett never loses affection for the fantasy genre itself; his parodies do not reject fantasy, only satirizes it lovingly.
Discworld has become much more than just a form of parody, however; in typical post-modern fashion, parody has become its own world. Pratchett employs science to explain his fictional universe, though with wild stretches of the imagination. Narrativium, The Science of Discworld explains, is what holds the world together, the power of Story itself, like a kind of pseudo-scientifical phlogiston. It’s the sort of world, I suppose, that might house of the God of Evolution, who was the funniest character of The Lost Continent. The other Pratchett novel I read was The Wee-Free Men, and I was not disappointed.
John Polanin II gave a talk entitled “Damnation (Un-)Eternal: Fluid Mythologies of Hell in the Work of Neil Gaiman.” In the Sandman comics, Hell becomes a triumvirate, ruled by three demons and not just Lucifer himself, who later in the series abdicates his responsibilities as regent of the nether regions. This change to Christian mythology shows how Gaiman, like Jorge Luis Borges, writes against textual monoliths such as the bible, Dante’s Inferno, and Milton’s Paradise Lost. He turns mythology into an unfixed text that can be played around with, in a post-modern manner. Further evidence for Gaiman-Borges connections? In Sandman, Morpheus’ library contains thousands of billions of volumes of literature, including all the books that have only ever been dreamed, or left unfinished. The complete Canterbury Tales lies there, as well as a “lost” Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe that ends as a comedy. An English major’s freakin’ paradise. (Why doesn’t McGill’s McLennan library have any of these volumes?) This library of Dream is like the labyrinth of Borges, a key image for post-modernism in that it emphasizes how literature forms its own twisty-turny simulacrum of infinite reality, an image Umberto Eco may have referred to obliquely in The Name of the Rose.
Clever John Polanin also found a possible source text for Gaiman’s famous tale “The Price”: Milagros de Nuestra Señora by Gonzalo de Berceo, a Catholic book of exempla detailing miracles of the Virgin Mary. Asked about whether he based “The Price” on this book, Gaiman answered, in an email, “no, but the story was true.” Believe what you will.
Stay tuned to read the rest of Sunday’s events–including two memorable panels–and how my own presentation went. Monday’s final events will also be included in next weeks’ post.
Day 2 of MythCon began Saturday morning. After breakfast, I really came to appreciate how many people had come to Wheaton College. In addition to seeing many of the faces I saw on Friday, Corey Olsen, the Tolkien Professor, was there.
Allow me to explain one thing about this guy: I first listened to his podcast years ago, likely when I was still at Dawson College in Liberal Arts, and from him, I first learned about Tolkien’s “On Faerie-Stories” and eucatastrophe. I had no idea previously how to read Tolkien through a critical lens, but listening to Olsen’s podcasts gave me the vocabulary. Only this was years and years before I got serious with my Honours thesis. I was listening to the podcasts for intellectual pleasure, but it planted a seed, and that seed grew. Pretty well, you could say Olsen indirectly inspired this blog.
After breakfast, our first order of the day: Scholar Guest of Honour Richard C. West gave his talk “Where does fantasy fit?” This question was the theme of the conference. West has been a Tolkien scholar since the 60s and his 1970 book Tolkien Criticism: An Annotated Checklist became a key source for subsequent bibliographies.
Tolkien associated “green suns” with faerie–two words that describe the nonexistent is what fundamentally lies behind the structure of fantasy. Opening with this remark, West proceeded to give an early history of the fantasy genre. He gave a catalogue of fantasy novels including Starplex by R.J. Sawyer (a sci-fi novel which contains a green sun), James Stevens’ Deidre, E.R. Eddison’s Worm Ouroboros, Mervyne Peak’s Gormenghast trilogy, T.H. White’s Once and Future King, and Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword, which inspired Michael Moorcock’s Elric series. Throughout his talk, he attempted to show how fantasy and science fiction have always grown together as a genre.
Next was a panel talk: “College-level Tolkien: Teaching Middle-Earth Sixty Years Later.” Brian Walter moderated and Chip Crane, Verlyn Flieger, Kristine Larsen, and Corey Olsen were answering our questions. Crane talked about how he uses the films to teach the books: for example, analyzing why Peter Jackson made Arwen summon the river to wash away the Black Riders, rather than having Frodo make his heroic stand alone, as he does in the book. Kristine Larsen talked about using Tolkien as a lead-in to scientific discussion in the classroom–the early chapters describing creation in The Silmarillion are a text in point. Verlyn Flieger had been smuggling Tolkien into the classroom almost from the time the books first came out. She takes Tolkien as a war writer, no less relevant to modernity as Hemingway. In his playing with language, Tolkien is similar to James Joyce in Finnegan’s Wake. I’d have to read Joyce to confirm that.
Comparing Tolkien to the Modernists certainly does sound like a brilliant strategy–and possibly awarding as an MA thesis. But Tolkien studies does have its pitfalls–Olsen told us many non-scholars register for classes at the Mythgard Institute, expecting an easy saunter. At the same time as you shouldn’t dumb Tolkien down as a teacher, you must be careful and precise when dealing with his works as a scholar.
Eleanor Simpson presented an excellent paper after lunch, “Tolkien’s Evolution and Clarification in his Portrayal of Nature through Fantasy: Foreshadowing Critical Animal Theory and Anti-Speciesism.” Speciesism is the prejudice or bias towards your own species, versus the interests of another species (ducks, rabbits, trees, aliens). Referring to the theoretical work of Peter Singer, Simpson gave a structured analysis of The Hobbit and The Lord of theRings, describing how Tolkien represents animal, plants, and rocks differently in either book.
Although Old Man Willow in LOTR is a tree described as a menace, Treebeard is the epitome of the dignity Tolkien saw in trees. The author’s evolution, or progression, towards anti-speciesism is irregular, but he does become more of an eco-writer in LOTR. Whereas The Hobbit contains the skin-changer Beorn, a bear who is significant to the quest only because he has another form, a man, The Lord of the Rings contains an little-know episode with a fox. The fox approaches Frodo and Sam, who are sleeping in a forest clearing, sniffs around for food, and wonders what danger in the wood could have brought the hobbits to sleep in the open. He then runs away to quest for more food. The episode is striking because the fox is fully his own character, with his own motivation (to find food and determine if there is a danger in the wood). Although Tolkien anthropomorphizes the spiders in The Hobbit, Shelob in The Lord of the Rings is fully a spider, and Sauron’s peer.
Ryan Lawrence’s talk “Tolkien’s Creative Process: Retelling and Expanding Norse Saga in The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun,” rather than focusing on how the author invented his own stories, focused on a description of his use of source texts. After all, Tolkien is an “unoriginal” author. Or perhaps “traditional” is the right word: rather than inventing his own, new stories, he constantly returns to old, make that very old, texts.
In the Codex Rigius, there is a story of Sigurd, Germanic hero of the Volsunga Saga, but a “great lacunae,” or gap, has caused about 8 pages to become lost. Scholars have been puzzling over this lost piece of narrative. What story fit within this break with the text? Tolkien’s creative juices flow whenever presented with these kind of gaps, the empty, silent spaces of history. In his own treatment of the Volsunga Saga, Tolkien elevates the figure of Sigurd to Christ, redeeming the pagan Norse gods–perhaps paving the way to Aragorn’s character. To aid his work, Tolkien only had the translation provided by William Morris and Erikr Magnusson, whose text was in English couplets. Tolkien, a poetic translator badass, made his poem into alliterative verse to keep it consistent with Germanic style.
To close the day, I attended a final paper presentation by Rebecca McCurdy, “Comedy, Tragedy, Romance: A Study of Tolkien’s Eucatastrophe.” How does eucatastrophe fit in a genre that mixes comedy, tragedy, and romance? This was a presentation I knew I must attend, given McCurdy’s focus on eucatastrophe and her angle on genre, which was not dissimilar to the theory behind my Honours thesis. McCurdy–not to mention one comment made during the earlier panel–made me rethink my Honours thesis, a little.
Even in the happily-ever-after faerie-story, a comedy, eucatastrophe is constantly in a tension with catastrophe, or tragedy. So saying catastrophe cannot blend into a eucatastrophic novel is technically not true. Happy endings and trying times exist in all fairy tales. Besides, plenty of modern authors have written catastrophic fantasy that is not quite horror or absurdism–we call it dark fantasy. Furthermore, McCurdy challenged me further with her example from C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, which highlighted how eucatastrophe needs catastrophe in order to become “joy beyond the walls of the world, as poignant as grief” (“On Faerie-Stories”). I may need to refine my thesis, or at least add a footnote as a disclaimer!
As if that wasn’t enough for a day, after dinner, we had a collaborative reading of Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf. Since I, alas, did not take any Old English courses, I could not read the original, but I did get up to read a translated paragraph where Beowulf does battle with Wiglaf, his ward, against the dragon.
Following this, I has a Sam Adams in the hospitality room and had a conversation with Corey Olsen. I also struck up rapport with Sorina Higgins, whose Twitter account @Oddest_Inkling is all about the Christian-occultist Charles Williams and his wild, genre-bending works of fiction. I also noticed my earlier acquaintance Mark Williams was up for an award–a Mythopoeic Award for his hilarious novel Sleepless Nights. The only way to describe it is as a cross between Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Remains of the Day. It is the most British book in the universe, and it is told from the perspective of King Arthur’s butler. (In the end, disappointingly, when the announcements happened on Sunday, Mark did not win. But then again, Neil Gaiman, who was nominated, did not win either. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker took home the Mythopoeic Award for Adult Literature.)
And so ended another brilliant day at MythCon!
Stay tuned to hear all about Sunday–and how my presentation went!
The letters, the opening of Ray Bradbury’s seminal dystopian novel, glimmered flatly on my Kobo screen as I realized the irony of what I was doing. I realized swiftly that the battle of digital media versus print is a central point that burns down in Fahranheit 451. I will present to you my reflections on this question: Do Kobo readers create a real dystopia similar to the one in Fahrenheit 451?
Guy Montag, the protagonist, is a fireman. In Bradbury’s future in which all houses and buildings have been fireproofed, that means he sets fires, instead of putting them out. In effect, the firemen are the ideological police of their world, burning books in great bonfires of literature. Only fragments of the past survive–and Montag’s inner journey will lead him to discover more about that past world than his fellow firemen will dare allow.
Written during the turbulent McCarthy era in which supposed communists were hunted like witches and artists censored for their views, Fahrenheit 451 invokes myriad other historical instances of heresy and censorship. Whether it’s the Inquisition burning books placed on the Vatican’s infamous Index or the Nazis’ burning of tomes written by Jews, socialists, and other voices of opposition, burnings have been notorious throughout history. Though those who burn defend themselves by saying they are protecting “culture,” it is plain to others that burning books is antithetical to the fostering of culture.
I believe it was Neil Gaiman who said, “Libraries are the thin red line between civilization and barbarism.” An apt point when taken in the context of Ray Bradbury. (To read Gaiman’s tribute to Ray Bradbury, which he wrote upon his death in 2012, click here. For the Guardian article, click here.)
But burning is only one example of society’s dystopianism in Bradbury’s novel: there are also Seashells—basically a 1950s conception of what would eventually become earbuds for your iPod/MP3 player—and full-wall television screens. Bradbury never imagined in his novel the numerous computers currently in existence, and certainly not the distracting potential of social media websites, or the Internet in general, but he did get the sense that Western society was being bombarded by visual/auditory stimulation that would only get more intense and distracting. Whether the book burnings or media bombardment are more effective at creating Bradbury’s dystopia is a debatable point. I say the two go hand in hand.
Bradbury saw the transition from print media to the dominance of visual and digital media. In essence, Fahrenheit 451 is about that fundamental change in culture taken to an extreme. So I suppose it must be an ironic book to read on a Kobo, a digital platform. Am I a traitor to Bradbury’s ideals if I read his novel on a Kobo? I certainly hope not. But reading it on a Kobo did influence my experience of this novel in a way that underlines its theme, revealing some subtle effects in my reading experience that may, perhaps, be troubling.
For starters, I read the novel a whole lot faster, I suspect, than if I had had a physical copy on hand. Flipping the pages was easy; I just had to touch the right-hand side of the screen with my thumb. Furthermore, I could change the font and margins to enable faster reading and page turning. Reading it on the bus and metro also made it necessary to read faster in order to finish at a good spot to leave off whenever I would make a transfer. While reading the novel on a bus may appear to be a factor external to the digital experience, it was also the situation in which I feel most natural reading a Kobo.
Secondly, it was harder to browse through Fahrenheit 451 on my Kobo. While with physical book, you can open it randomly in the middle of the book and flip through the pages, you cannot do that on a digital book–at least not until an appropriate “page flipping” interface is designed and put into future models. Though the search function enables a certain amount of ease in finding passages, navigation forces you on a more linear path while flipping through the book beginning-to-end. This makes Kobo great for airport novels that you read through once and don’t bother with again, but less good for nonfiction and novels that you want to examine closely. As a literature student and book reviewer, I have a beef with this limitation.
Lastly, you cannot make comments on a Kobo easily, or write in the margins. Yes, you can make bookmarks. But to label the bookmarks effectively, you must leave the ebook and do a lot of back-and-forthing. If you have installed Calibre on your computer, you can make comments on your computer, but I was not able do this on my Kobo, even though the highlighting function says you can supposedly do this.
While these three points can potentially be fixed by developers, at present my Kobo makes a certain type of reading of Fahrenheit 451 easier rather than other types. And that type of reading says a lot about our society and the society in Fahrenheit 451.
Kobo is good for straight-through reading, for example, while on a bus: a way to quickly read a book that does not take up too much physical space. It is a portable library—a personal “bastion of civilization” that you can bring around with you. However, Kobo makes it difficult to read a book that you dearly love with the attention it deserves. Due to this limitation, “Kobo reading” is a kind of reading that is complicit to an extent with the hasty, media-overwhelmed, lower-attention span world that Bradbury warns us about.
Kobo rushes us along a highway (often when actually travelling on a highway), rather than allowing us to stroll, to stop, and to think.
In a way, this makes Kobo reading analogous the fast cars so prevalent in Bradbury’s utopia. Traditional readers are like pedestrians—people like Clarisse, the strange teenager Montag meets who walks on sidewalks asking “why?” and “how?” about things she sees. But Clarisse is later killed by a fast car, which bear no regard to pedestrians. Whereas Kobos have you rush through a book, traditional reading can be like a stroll through the suburbs—it involves a lot of stopping, smelling of roses, observation, and above all, opinion-forming.
Fahrenheit 451 is all about how media saturation, passive consumption, and a fast-paced society makes it harder to become a dissident of society and its ideology—not just about burning literature, but by ensuring new books are never written. Since we are all kept happy by comsumption and reassured that the world will take care of itself, we find less and less reason to challenge that order. But the “pursuit of happiness” cannot be the be-all-and-end-all of human existence: sometimes it is necessary to become disturbed, in order to make social change.
Outlawing literature and pedestrianism are two ways in which Bradbury’s society silences dissidence; it destroys opinions formed in the past and makes it difficult to develop opinions in the present. It is therefore not always necessary to burn in order to silence a heretic; an Inquisition founded on pleasure instead of torture is far more effective at domination.
And reading about such a dystopia on a Kobo forces you to become aware of the fact that how you read depends on where you read it, and in what format. Our consummerist society has made it harder to read books critically by developing ebook interfaces that do not promote critical and nonlinear reading styles. Physical books represent a freer way of reading. If all books end up going digital, our society will become closer than ever before to Bradbury’s dystopia.
It’s like fantasy tapas, or if you prefer, a buffet: fantasy short stories contain all the excitement and inspiration of a novel, in a way that requires less commitment. Instead of reading a five-course fantasy series of 900+ pages, you can hunker down for a 10- or 20-page adventure. And while you’re at it, eat at the best place in town: read Hartwell and Cramer’s Year’s Best Fantasy series.
There are anthologies like it, but the books I read were edited by Hartwell and Cramer, and every story in their anthology series is a gem. What I love in particular are the author bios at the start of each entry, which can drop you the names of certain magazines worth submitting to, a boon to readers who also happen to be writers hungering for a chance at publication.
A great way to discover new writers and read the shorts of those who you might already know. Though the anthology has gone completely online in recent years, I still possess three physical anthologies. They contain tales from such noted authors as Neil Gaiman, Michael Moorcock, Tad Williams, Jeffrey Ford, Gene Wolf, and Holly Black–but also many upcoming authors who have been published only rarely. You can buy them from Tor.com or on Amazon.
Hartwell and Cramer define fantasy broadly, to include such various approaches as supernatural fantasy, adventure fantasy, satirical, and humorous fantasy. There is no pure science fiction, which I think is great, being a fantasy purist, but an occasional tale with a science fiction bent occasionally appears, if fantasy elements are present in the story. These anthologies are for people who believe that fantasy can be as good, and as necessary, as literary fiction. They provide a survey of the genre from every direction in which it is expanding.
Examples of what you might find in this stellar series (in Issue 8) include a library that comes to life in Holly Black’s “Paper Cuts Scissors.” Civic gods are challenged by a knight and his puppet companion in Garth Nix’s “Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz Go to War Again.” Mark Chadbourn takes us to a supernatural Elizabethan England in which a famous poet is threatened by fairies in “Who Slays the Gyant, Wounds the Beast.” And who could ever forget “Still Life with Boobs” by Anne Harris in Issue 6?
Other treasures in this series include a short story that eventually became Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book in Issue 8: “The Witch’s Headstone.” Though 7 years old, Issue 8’s stories are timeless and Gaiman entertains as always. Very slightly more recently, Issue 9 (2008) presented us with Naomi Novik’s first short fiction. She is otherwise known for her Temeraire series, in which dragons fight Napoleon during the Age of Sail. Legendary author of The Last Unicorn Peter S. Beagle has two stories in Issue 9 as well, including “The Rabbi’s Hobby,” which I found great.
Year’s Best Fantasy also includes experimental fantasy. For example, in Issue 9, Catherynne M. Valente writes a story through a catalogue, chronicling a rivalry between two explorers in “A Buyer’s Guide to Maps of Antarctica.” Garth Nix also writes a story entirely in newspaper headlines in Issue 6’s “Read It in the Headlines!”
Another reason I love this series is that Canadian authors receive substantial representation. For example, Nalo Hopkinson had “Soul Case” published in Issue 8 and Claude Lalumiere, a Montreal author, appeared with Issue 6’s story “Being Here,” and has been published in other more recent issues. For any Canadian fantasy fans out there, you know how perfect this is beautiful. Canadian fantasy is running strong, claim the editors of YBF, with many of the stories they selected appearing in the Tesseracts anthology series published by EDGE.
If anyone is looking for a March break read, get your tongs ready and pick the choicest cuts from this great buffet of literature. You won’t be disappointed; these are the best of the best, served from the very best chefs–err, authors–that fantasy has to offer. (Now this “story-buffet” metaphor is making me hungry!)
Issue 9 was printed in a limited run after Tor.com began to publish the series online. Therefore, you will have to get the most recent additions to the series online.
There has also been some editorial eye-skip in Issue 9, maybe because of the online move. This resulted in more typos. I suspect that the online format makes it easier to miss them. If this is an issue for you, get the earlier editions of the series: they are just as good! That being said, the online editions will hopefully not affect your reading experience too much.
If you’re like me, you have probably starved for an original fantasy novel. So many novels and short stories rely too heavily on TheLord of the Rings and the epic fantasy genre that spawned from it. Are there any original fantasy works that use impossible situations without having elves, orcs, and dragons run across the page? Oh, and I don’t have that much time to read.
The answer? Peter S. Beagle’s anthology of short stories The Secret History of Fantasy.
True, it has a dragon on the cover. But it is half-concealed, placed against a minimalist white page. If we were to judge a book by its cover, we might guess there is a literary sensibility that went into these selections. You’ll find big-name authors like Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Yann Martel, Gregory Maguire, and Ursula K. Le Guin on the cover, as well as other authors with whom you may be unfamiliar, but will remember once you’ve tasted their stories.
This anthology represents the top fantasists of the field. Each story has its own original flavour of the fantastic. Who could forget the remarkably compelling mythagos of Robert Holdstock’s “Mythago Wood?” What is a mythago, you ask? It is a “myth-imago” or “myth-image,” basically a mythic archetype that runs amok in Britain’s oldest forest in Holdstock’s classic novel–here cut to the length of a short novella.
This anthology is filled with other wainscots. For example, there is Stephen King’s tale of Mrs. Todd, a lady who is obsessed with uncovering the shortest shortcuts from place to place, and ends up driving her car into another world. Jeffrey Ford’s “The Empire of Ice Cream” is a tale of a boy who is forbidden from eating ice cream due to his medication and forms a relationship with a girl he sees during one of this synesthetic trips.
Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked, which is perhaps the most famous reworking of the classic novel The Wizard of Oz, returns with a story about the Scarecrow. Steven Millhauser’s description-heavy story of the P.T. Barnum Museum is also remarkable in how it is nothing at all like a fantasy adventure–more of a reflection on a setting’s affect on the people who visit and work there. The museum ends up becoming a metaphor for how we all encounter the fantastic, the wondrous, the inexplicable, and how we all remember our childhoods. Yann Martel, the Canadian author of Life of Pi, adopts an even more alternate route and writes an experimental poem in “The Vita Aeterna Mirror Company.”
Another brilliant feature of this anthology are the supplementary materials. Peter S. Beagle is serious about fantasy and he lets readers become serious about the genre with him. Ursula K. Le Guin, author of A Wizard of Earthsea, and David G. Hartwell, also a fantasy anthology editor, each write essays which Beagle includes in an appendix. Le Guin’s essay “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists” describes the critical reception of fantasy up to the present day and how perceptions that fantasy should be dismissed because it is childlike and escapist have improved over the years. The roadmap to fantasy, she argues, is more inexplicable than the simplicity of Tolkien-derived drivel would suggest.
Hartwell in “The Making of the American Fantasy Genre” gives the history of how Del Rey capitalized on the Tolkien phenomenon in the late 70s and published The Sword of Shannara, the first of many Tolkien homages that sold like hotcakes. Terry Brooks’ first novel thus helped make epic fantasy the repetitive form it eventually became. Both essays provide you with a historical perspective on the development of a genre you love to read.
Peter S. Beagle uses this anthology to propose that fantasy has become stilted due to the staleness of epic fantasy. The market tends to favour a 2,000-page, derivative, Tolkienesque trilogy over more experimental but well thought-out fantasy novels. He attempts to show readers the diversity of fantasy–which may be the broadest genre in the world in terms of narrative possibility. If you ask me, it is impossible not to love this anthology. I would say fantasy is more diverse today than it was 40 years ago. But I would have to agree with Beagle that it is difficult, at least for new writers, to escape the stranglehold of genre.
If it is time for a renewal in fantasy, then it will be through short stories and novels like the ones Beagle has published in The Secret History of Fantasy. There are infinite angles to a fantasy story and Secret History attempts to show us some of those doors. But, like the myriad rooms and passages located inside and underneath the Barnum Museum, you can always count on the fantasy genre being bigger and more expansive than your even imagination can acknowledge.
I hope you all had a merry Christmas. Now, while you’re still warm with Christmas feeling (perhaps you are snug by the fire with a cup of hot cocoa, or a drink of rum and eggnog, experiencing a similar but not altogether identical feeling of warmth) let me take you down to Memory Lane to see the Ghost of Matthew Rettino Past. I have finished my undergraduate degree now, sporting a valiant BA in Honours English, and have become an expert on Guy Gavriel Kay. Suffice it so say, I have grown as a writer since I finished my first serious novel in Summer 2010. How much you say? Well, lad, let me tell you.
Here are 13 things I learned while writing Battles of Rofp. I’m sure many fantasy authors have a Battles of Rofp somewhere in their past. For me, it was a 470-page secondary-world epic fantasy that took a rough understanding of J.R.R.Tolkien as my starting point, though I borrowed liberally from Weis and Hickman’s Dragonlance series, which I devoured in High School, and Christopher Paolini’s InheritanceCycle (you’ll remember Eragon).
I had not written all the short stories that authors advise you should write before tackling a massive-sized novel. I just dove straight in, not knowing where I was going. It was the equivalent of learning wilderness survival without a guide, learning how to hunt the beasts and build shelter helter-skelter, by instinct. I began in Sec 1 when I was 13 and I ended just about three years ago now. My literary influences have diversified since then and I have simply become a better writer. I look back upon these years as an example of the primal literature of angst-ridden adolescence, a somewhat “barbaric” age in my career. Nevertheless, I believe I have derived a series of lessons from the experience, which I believe I can offer my devoted followers.
These are not rules. They are not even guidelines. They are simply lessons learned the hard way. If you find them helpful, do not feel constrained by them.
1. Choose names that people can pronounce.
Yes, include a pronunciation guide as back matter to your self-published novel. But that still won’t help your relatives from mispronouncing the title of your book. Do you think you know how to pronounce “Rofp?” Think again. You wouldn’t be able move your tongue the right way. It’s the “fp” that gets everyone. Somehow, people tend to roll it out into an “l”: “Rolfph.” This is not even the worse example of complicated pronunciation in fantasy. For example, anything that looks Welsh or has apostrophes is bound to be hard to read. But these challenges can be overcome.
2. Keep mechanics simple
I’m talking about your usual fantasy fare: secret keys, prophecies, hidden manuscripts, sacred stones, holy swords and the like–whatever clues or unique talismans your hero needs to defeat the archvillain. I had a prophecy, a clay tablet, four sacred swords, and a curse in my story, which took a rather long time to sort through. Oh yeah, and my villain Volkon, who is an immortal skeleton demon with his rib cage on fire, could only be harmed by one sword, owned by an undead king. This sword could only be used by that king’s present-day heir, and only if he collected the four aforementioned swords in a holy shrine to summon the dead to life. But if I had kept only the one sword, things might have been simpler.
3. A band of companions must have good reasons to stick together.
Three men, two dwarves, and an elf formed my group of companions. Roy is a squire aspiring to the knighthood when Gramrige, saves him from a goblin massacre in his hometown of Ebrook. On the way to Thull, the underground dwarven city, they encounter the homesick stonemason Gourd. The other members were Prince Adrugun, the angst-ridden heir to a great kingdom, Vileros, the Grand Master of the knightly order of the Riders of Rofp, and Guillonius, a dwarven fireball bent on revenge.
How are they connected? Somehow.
It is a hard trick to keep a diverse group motivated to risk their lives fighting dragons. If your characters were friends from an earlier time in the book, however, you have rapport and history between your characters. The companions will care about each other. That can serve as glue.
4. Do not be afraid to rewrite scenes.
We rarely get it right the first time. Are you a writer or not? If so, then you cannot be afraid to rebuild. On the novel I’m working on now, I have a rough draft, but I’m going over each scene, sometimes rewriting whole scenes (though not necessarily re-imagining them entirely). Rewrites let you add depth, to hit all the notes you wanted to hit on your first pass.
5. Do not jump straight into line editing.
NEVER waste time line editing after a first draft. That stuff’s raw and straight out of your unconscious. Chances are the story itself needs work, if not a complete overhaul. Line editing comes at least after draft #2. When the story itself is as it should be and all the scenes are in place, consistencies smoothed out, then you can get out the red pen and go line-by-line. For example, I will aim to cut 10-15% of my word count for my present novel.
Would you jump straight into a fray with a troll on a battlement catwalk? No? Then don’t line edit your initial draft either!
6. Exposition is used best when the hero is in conflict.
I realized this early on. When writing fantasy, it’s probably one of the first things you learn. Roy initially thought goblins and shapeshifters were myths, despite Gramrige’s warning that they were going to attack his city. Then he had to fight through mobs of the creatures during a wholesale massacre of his city’ inhabitants. Between the physical conflict of the attack and the personal conflict between Roy’s disbelief and Gramrige’s urgency, I managed to slip it quite a bit of backstory. Lace all exposition with tension and you can smooth it right over.
7. Ensure your protagonist has a distinct personality.
It’s easy to make protagonists have slight flaws, but be heroic enough to conquer his or her foes. It’s probably because we would like to be our protagonists. But flaws should be harder, sharper. They are really what makes character. I thought Roy had a distinct personality, but it was difficult for me to bring out his own idiosyncratic reactions to events in the book, to see that personality on the page. I always vouched for him to perform the “heroic” feat, if given a moral dilemma. He was not really flesh to me, more like an ideal.
8. Be careful that secondary characters do not steal the show.
Adrugun, the angst-ridden Prince of Theomina, becomes engaged in a romantic partnership with a elven woman named Virida. This happened at that soggy point in the middle of the book, where the plot starts to run out of steam. Brilliant move in one respect: adding interest at the low point of the novel. However, I was leaving Roy abandoned by the reader’s interest. The story became more and more about Virida and Adrugun and less about Roy. If your tale revolves heavily around one character, it is best to keep readers primarily interested in that character, instead of upstaging them. Other characters can have their time in the spotlight, but for Battles of Rofp, I felt as though Roy needed to be more central.
9. Diction may be the most important part of writing “epic fantasy.”
Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a wonderful essay called “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” which explains this point amply enough. Tolkien’s characters speak nobly, like Shakespeare without the Elizabethan conceits. Bad epic fantasy sounds like CSI:Miami or even The West Wing: whether you believe these are good or bad American TV shows, elves do not talk like twenty-first century Americans! Keep the diction measured and formal–but don’t overdo it, otherwise you have impenetrable over-stylized prose, another whole problem. (Oh, and neither do elves speak like twenty-first century Canadians–eh?)
10. In writing any story, there comes a point where you can’t go back.
If I could go back and rewrite Battles of Rofp, I would not. This is not because I am overconfident in my abilities as a writer–perhaps you can tell from all this self-criticism that I am not–but because I want to move on. At a certain point with every story, you put in a certain number of hours and pass the “never return” point. The story is what it is and all the labour in the world can’t fix it without you having to completely rewrite it. And if you do that, why not just write a new story instead of trying to reformulate a story that’s already failed? Some story ideas are so simple that they cannot sustain even a short story. Battles of Rofp was more complicated, but it was conceived by a thirteen-year-old me, so when I turned 20, I knew it had to end. There were other worlds to explore.
11. You will have a hard time framing a cliched pitch even if, in the book, you take great strides to evade it.
Battles of Rofp‘s plot was the cliche of epic fantasy, although I will maintain it to the death that it was more original than The Sword of Shannara. A squire’s hometown is attacked by goblins. Then he discovers he is the heir to an ancient warrior of a famous knightly order, destined one day to fight the greatest evil of the age. So he goes hunting dragons across the land, collecting the four sacred swords that will be able to summon a power to defeat this evil. It had Legend of Zelda, Eragon, and The Lord of the Rings written all over it.
Yet, on the micro-level, I tried to be unconventional. Dwarves had names inspired by the Russian language. The kingdom of Theomina was divided into names that sounded Roman and names that sounded Semitic. The Phoenix Tribe, lone defenders of Theomina, were the only civilization in Rofp to use gunpowder. The Tongues of Shadow stretched from the sky like darkened tentacles wherever evil strikes, scooping up the souls of the dead in order to devour them.
Wow! Too bad the plot of my story overall still read like THE cliche of all epic fantasy! I should have demonstrated my creativity by coming up with unique plot points first. Then my synopsis would have simply sounded better. Even if you want to rebel against the post-Tolkien epic fantasy genre, you cannot do so while working within a frame that replicates that cliche. At any rate, it is usually best to have one true idea that is yours and build a world around that.
12. Model yourself after authors that you think you can imitate, using them as springboards to pursue the higher laurels.
The poet Petrarch uses the laurel branch, sacred to Apollo, the Greek god of poetry, as a symbol for his poetic aspirations. He was referring with reverence to Ovid, who in his Metamorphoses describes how Apollo chases Daphne his beloved, who the gods turn into the laurel tree. Apollo then appropriates the laurel as his symbol. For centuries, new poets aspire to the laurels of old poets, new writers to the reputation of their forefathers.
One of the reasons I aspired to the laurels of Eragon was that it was imminently accessible: it was written by someone who was my age when he wrote it! I took Paolini as my model. Alas, there are many Paolini-haters on the web. I will defend him this far: he had to finish a series he started when he was quite young, his powers as an author limited by lack of experience. (The ending of Inheritance did not impress me, however.)
I claim it was important to take Paolini as a guide through the first primitive years of my writing career. It was important to have something to aspire to, someone accessible. If he could do this at his age, I thought, then I can do it at mine! I now take Guy Gavriel Kay, Neil Gaiman, and the great poets of the Canadian tradition–all mature, accomplished and duly lauded authors–as my new models.
These new models are sublime, to inspire me to reach the highest boughs of Apollo’s laurel tree. And if I miss, I shall land upon the stars!
13. If you set your mind to something, anything is possible.
At base, I am still proud of Battles of Rofp. Not because it will win me the Giller Prize, or a Hugo. It’s because I wrote a 470-page epic fantasy novel by the time I left high school. Who else can claim to have done that? If you set your mind on something, then it doesn’t matter what, or who, gets in your way. Social life, family time, breathing, sleeping: none of it matters, if you have the heart to pursue your dreams. But seriously folks, balance in life is crucial. If you can play the trick, stick to your dreams while supporting our livelihood, you will have battled a fierce dragon indeed.
Now because balance in life is important and I’m afraid I’ve written another monster post, I must retire. Fare thee well! See thee in the New Year MMXIV!
John Dee was Queen Elizabeth I’s court astrologer, mathematician, and geographer–and he might have become the first lord of the North American territory we now call Canada.
Dee is known as a “Renaissance man” for the breadth of his knowledge and for his tendency towards the occult. On a trip to the Continent, he supposedly attempted to summon angels with fellow sorcerer Edward Kelley. Back home, he was a respected courtier whom Elizabeth would often consult–he set the day for her coronation, for example, based on favourable astrological conditions. His knowledge of geography enabled Sir Francis Drake to circumnavigate the globe. In addition to coining the term “British Empire,” Dee is known for employing a spy network, being the first to sign his name under the code “007.”
One gift Dee gave to his Queen was a book called The Limits of the British Empire, or in Latin Brytanici Imperii Limites, which he wrote between 1577 and 1578. A wonderful edition of his work, with an introduction, was printed in 2004 by editors Ken MacMillan and Jennifer Abeles based on a manuscript copied by an amanuensis in 1593, which I have consulted.
Among the things Dee claims in the book is that Queen Elizabeth had rights–the justification for which go back to ancient times–to most of the territory we now call North America. Dee claims that King Arthur and his knights conquered lands near the Arctic Sea, even a territory we now identify with Baffin Island. He also negotiated that he should be allowed ownership of all lands above the 50th parallel. Except for a thin interval of land just above the Canadian border with the modern U.S., that would encompass all of Our True North Strong and Free!
Of course, at the time, England’s colonial strength in its first decade of New World settlement was not a powerful force. Sir Walter Raleigh’s settlement on Roanoke Island proved, in the end, to be a disaster, although it produced a few fascinating discoveries and occasioned John White to paint a series of watercolours of Native folk. Roanoke Island was abandoned mysteriously and no one to this day knows why.
Aside from such ephemeral settlements, England’s imperial strength was mostly limited to the occasional raid on Spanish ships. Privateers such as Sir John Norris and Sir Francis Drake were both explorers and ship-plunderers. Martin Frosbisher and Humphrey Gilbert were given licenses to start overseas colonies close to the Northwest Passage. However, there was a distinct lack of overseas activities through much of the 1590s, when the surviving manuscript of Brytanici Imperii Limites was written.
John Dee’s book advocated for the recovery of ancient British lands, including the North Atlantic, the British Isles, Scandinavia, the Iberian Peninsula, and half of North America. His sources ranged from Byzantine Emperor Justinian, Geraldus Mercator, Jacobus Choyen of s’Hertogenbosh, Hector Boece, and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Brut–a chronicle of Arthurian legends.
It was becoming urgent that England compete with Spain for the New World, which Dee occasionally named “Atlantis” or “Meta Incognita.” The Spanish empire was at its height and came to be associated with the cruelty that it was inflicting on its Native people and the barbaric human-sacrificing rituals of the Aztecs. (Of course, when England did settle the New World, they spread another wave of cruelty across the Native populations, in addition to the spreading of lethal diseases. ) While Spain sought to conquer through papal bulls, planting markers, and reading texts of conquest to often illiterate indigenous peoples (that never goes down well), the Brits divided their land with fences and houses.
Frosbisher’s plan to settle parts of North America was a state secret, but also an object of interest to the Spanish ambassadors in London. Any settlement in the New World, which was seen as territory partitioned between Spain and Portugal, could lead to an act of war.
Alexander VI (aka Roderigo Borgia) wrote the famous papal bull Inter Cetera in 1493 (a hundred years before Dee’s manuscript was written) and the still more famous Treaty of Tordesillas. Both these documents split the territories in New World between the two Iberian countries along an arbitrary line in the Atlantic Ocean. None of this allowed England a toehold.
How could Dee overcome this opposition? Through sneaky legal loopholes and little imagination.
Basically, he alluded to a section of Justinian’s Digest that might well be the foundation of that oldest and dearest piece of legislation: finders keepers, losers weepers. Next time you find a penny on the ground, you can tell your irate friend that “what presently belongs to no one becomes by natural reason the property of the first taker.”
Of course, the land was owned–by hundreds of thousands of Native American peoples. In all fairness, John Dee might not have been aware of this truth, since the New World was still vastly undiscovered. But he might have taken the hint from Raleigh’s Virginia settlement that other people might already live there.
Although Lord Burghley doubted Dee’s accuracy, he laid the legal groundwork for England to claim everything from Terra Florida (which is Florida) to the territory of the Duke of Moscovia in Russia.
Now the imagination came in. Tracing the ancestry of Britain from Troy through the legendary founder Brutus and down to King Arthur, Dee referred to how Arthur conquered thirty kingdoms in the North Atlantic and Scandinavia. Since Arthur conquered these lands for Britain first, Elizabeth had a right to them now, so long as she settled the land. Arthur, a Welsh king, was supposedly an ancestor of the Welsh Tudors, whose arrival on the English throne in 1485 signaled the revival of the “British” empire, after a long domination of England under the Saxons.
Dee’s mysterious Welsh source book–supposed to be the same nonexistent book on which Monmouth bases his History of the Kings of Britain–claims that King Arthur conquered the Arctic regions in the 530s. Arthur’s conquests of the Arctic, in which he encountered pygmies (Sibereans? Proto-Inuit tribesmen?), are recorded in Arthuri Gestis, or The Deeds of Arthur. During Arthur’s voyages, he encountered many troubles, including fast-flowing seas that blocked his passage to Northern Norway. Four thousands knights lost their lives in these treacherous passages among the straits of Norway. In the mountains around the North Pole, there were cities in Arthur’s time. The lands he conquered include Iceland, Ireland, Greenland, Shetland, Orkney, the Faroe Islands (Friseland), Grocland (NW corner of Greenland), Icaria (an island off of either Ireland or Labrador), Estotiland, and Drogio.
Estotiland is Baffin Island. Dee’s source about the Estotiland came from the journey of two Venetians to the Arctic region in the thirteenth century, Niccolo and Antonio Zeno. In 1558, Niccolo Zeno, a relative of the pair, published an account of this extraordinary story.
Zeno describes Estotiland as an island smaller than Iceland with a mountain in the middle and four rivers. It was ruled by a king in a beautiful, populous city, who kept interpreters. Legends told of a famous library of ancient texts in a strange language only two people in the city could speak, though the library was eventually destroyed. This Scandinavian civilization had gold mines, cultivated and brewed beer, and spoke like Europeans, trading with Greenland for skins. Possibly the texts were in Latin, a language uneducated commoners could not speak.
When most Canadians think of Baffin Island, they probably think of an expansive wasteland filled with ice and snow. But who knew it once had a king?
The Zeno brothers also discovered the “province of Drogio,” which likely corresponds to Labrador. How about we sign a petition to make Newfoundland and Labrador to change their name to Newfoundland and Drogio? They even supposedly landed in Saguenay, Quebec (or “Saguenaya”) two hundred years before Jacques Cartier did in 1535!
In addition to this fascinating Canadian content, I find how Dee’s book absolutely busts the myth that Christopher Colombus discovered the New World to be particularly gratifying.
His other sources for Brytanici Imperii Limites come from semi-legendary figures, such as Saint Brendan, who sailed from the British Isles in 560. He landed in Bermuda, which he called Insula Demonum, or “Island of Demons.” Should we be surprised that he claimed to see supernatural frights on an island known to exist in what is now known as the “Bermuda Triangle”? (Fun fact: Cambrien Machutus, a sailor on Brendan’s ship, became St. Malo, which became the name of the city in which Jacques Cartier was born in 1491!)
In 1170, Lord Madoc, a Welsh prince, an ancestor of Queen Elizabeth, was outraged that his father would leave him no inheritance. So he set sail across the world. He settled, of all places, in Mobile Bay, Alabama! “Devil’s Backbone,” a mound in Indiana, is attributed to the Welsh Prince. This was the first British colony in the New World and Dee used it as precedent to establish England’s rights to conquer the new continent.
There is such a wealth of stories in these legends … but how to separate reality from myth? I’m afraid I do not have the answers. A king on Baffin Island, a Welsh nobleman settling Alabama, John Dee as Lord Canada, and King Arthur as Emperor of the Arctic … these are only a few of the truly radical stories out there. Supposedly Egyptians sailed up the Mississippi, which I cannot confirm or deny, though Neil Gaiman certainly confirms this in American Gods.
I would certainly like to credit these tales. They are the type of stories archeological evidence can do little to confirm.
In conclusion, Brytanici Imperii Limites is a fine example of “historical fantasy” used to justify imperialism and the “rights” of the English to settle North America. It reveals that the justification the British first used for their settlements in North America was based on a 900-year-old lie in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain.
“Dee built an empirical edifice of pseudohistorical sources to provide practical political advice to the English State,” say MacMillian and Abeles (26). But after a certain point, pseudohistory becomes real history. I imagine that Dee’s book can provide available inspiration to writers of historical fantasy or alternate history for generations to come.
When Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone gained unprecedented popularity, the world at large was introduced to a “new” concept: a hidden magical society that lived parallel to the everyday world, but scarcely—if ever—interacting with it. The idea of hidden societies, however, is not a new one.
Many fantasy novels of all types include hidden societies. These have been termed “wainscot societies” in John Clute’s Encyclopedia of Fantasy, or “wainscots” for short. You may have wainscots in your house: the name also refers to fancy paneling, which is often used to decorate walls. Mice and rats are reportedly notorious for borrowing into wainscotting, to make their own homes inside the walls and cracks. These hidden “wainscots” are analogous to the hidden structure of mouse homes.
Including the wizarding world of Harry Potter, there are 10 wainscots in fantasy literature that I have identified as being either the very famous or very defining. The Top 10 list is probably less than perfect, mind you, and I confess I have not read most of these books. However, I do feel that most of the authors are well-known enough for the list to have some legitimacy. They are in alphabetical order:
1. The Borrowers
Mary Norton’s 1952 book The Borrowers is clearly and distinctly a wainscot society. In this children’s tale, a family of tiny people live within the floorboards of a house in England and must borrow items from the big people who live parallel lives along with them. A great success, this book developed into a 5-book series. The novel was adapted into a 1997 film I remember seeing way back in elementary school.
2. Cthulhu Cult
Cthulhu is an ancient god supposedly dormant in the depths of the Pacific Ocean, who will one day rise and bring about an apocalypse. The creation of H.P. Lovecraft, Cthulhu drives humans mad upon sight, even if they only see a depiction of him in a statue. Furthermore, his telepathic energy affects human around the world on the unconscious level, filling them with terror. The religious societies of people who worship Cthulhu can be considered a wainscot—one you are better off not finding.
“Faery” was used by J.R.R. Tolkien to describe a place, not a magical creature. In literature, fairies are always hidden and when a human ventures into the kingdom of faery, they enter into a dangerous, supernatural world where time runs differently from normal. While Lisa Goldsteins’ Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon is not the only story to use faery, I still think it is a defining use of faery as a wainscot—especially in a historical fantasy novel.
In Strange Devices, the Faery Queen enters the court of Queen Elizabeth I in search of her son, King Arthur. Historical reality and the supernatural world are crosshatched here, so that it is not clear whether “our” world or the world of Faery is the “dominant” one.
Faerie also appears in John Crowley’s novel Little, Big, in which Smoky Barnable, the protagonist, encounters a similar crosshatched world, in which he encounters fairy tale creatures invented by his future father-in-law. Although traditional stories about faery were at first simple encounters with invisible realities, more modern stories include complex interactions between our world and the other.
4. King Horrabin’s beggars
Much of the work of Tim Powers contains wainscots, especially in the form of hidden societies of sorcerers living in the historical past. The Anubis Gates (1983) is his most well known story, based on a millionaire’s botched time-traveling plan to send a group of wealthy people to 1810 to attend a lecture of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. One of the characters, Professor Brenden Doyle, falls in with the clan of murderous beggars led by King Horrabin, a clown sorcerer. The domain of the king’s kingdom runs parallel with the mundane world.
The tiny people from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels do not quite form their own wainscot. Although the Lilliputians are diminutive people, the existence of whom normal people are ignorant, they live completely apart from human beings. T.H. White, however, turned them into a wainscot in Mistress Masham’s Repose (1946). The home of the Liliputians, two hundred years after Gulliver, is on Repose, an island in the middle of an lake on the estate of Malplaquet, an English house in Northamptonshire. The island is difficult to access and their city hidden within brambles, providing an effective place for this wainscot to hide.
6. London Below
Neil Gaiman’s stories contain many wainscots indeed. The hidden world of deities in American Gods and Anansi Boys is prominent (and similar of the wainscot of divinities in the Percy Jackson series), but Gaiman conjures no milieu more fully a wainscot than London Below in Neverwhere (1996). Beggars and thieves live unobserved in the sewers and abandoned tube stations of London, forming a feudal-based society that revolves around the markets, where various items normally considered trash are traded for other items, or favours. A clan of rat-speakers, a group of beggars who can speak to rats, is a wainscot within a wainscot—to say nothing of the rats themselves, which form their own society.
Terry Pratchett’s Nomes series—Truckers (1989), Diggers (1990), and Wings (1990)—involves a group of small people who come from another world. They struggle to survive among humans, but make a return journey towards home once they learn about their origins—from a thing known as the “Thing.” The series consists, of course, of typical Terry Pratchett humour.
8. The Pendragons
C.S. Lewis speculates about the survival of the descendents of Arthur Pendragon in his 1945 novel That Hideous Strength. The final volume of his Space Trilogy,a science fiction series with theological undertones, Lewis’ novel takes place mostly on earth. His series protagonist, Dr. Elwin Ransom, learns he is the heir of King Arthur and thus “Pendragon” (or king) of Logres, King Arthur’s ancient kingdom. In the Space Trilogy world, Pendragons live in secret in Britain and have risen up in times of crisis to protect their country from evil, without letting everyday people learn of their existence.
Christopher Fowler’s Roofworld contains a secret society of Londoners who live on the city’s rooftops. Robert Linden and Rose Leonard, two outsiders, get drawn into into that world, as the roof-dwellers enter a war over their leadership. I would not be surprised if Neil Gaiman had been inspired by Fowler in his depiction of London Below, especially in the character of the roof-dweller Old Bailey. Roofworld proves that wainscots are not only in walls, or underground, but above our heads as well.
10. The Wizarding World
Last but not least, the world of Harry Potter, meticulously imagined by world-famous author J.K. Rowling, has to be the most famous of all wainscots. Harry first enters the wizarding world through the back wall of the Leaky Cauldron, which opens to Diagon Alley, where he goes shopping for school supplies. Hogwarts, a school for witches and wizards—along with the rest of the magical universe—is not visible to Muggles (normal people). Strict laws protect any exposure of the wizarding world to Muggle eyewitnesses. Of course, you probably already knew all this.
Wikipedia, Goodreads, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy by John Clute.
“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.
Feel disconnected from your childhood lately? Although I am not a licensed psychiatrist, or a doctor of any sort, let me recommend to you The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman.
Never fear: it is not a pill that is bitter to the taste, although it is certainly not sugar coated. Inviting and familiar, it runs down smooth, putting you right to sleep and bringing you straight into the dream-realm, where you re-experience horrors you may have forgotten from your childhood—or perhaps some you still remember.
“I remember my own childhood vividly … I knew terrible things. But I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.” Such words were spoken by Maurice Sendak in Gaiman’s epigraph to his short novel. The line of dialogue might have been spoken by the protagonist of Ocean.
Like a frequent number of Gaiman’s novels (including American Gods and Anansi Boys), Ocean opens with a funeral. The name of the deceased and the name of the middle-aged narrator are never mentioned. However, from the very first line, we are aware the protagonist has unresolved childhood issues, as he seeks out the old (very old) Hempstock Farm, near the duck pond at the end of the lane near his now-demolished childhood home.
Lettie Hempstock, who was his only friend from when he was seven years old, has moved to Australia. But there is far more to her than meets the eye. She called the duck pond at the end of the lane an ocean, and though she appeared to be twelve years old, she had an ageless look in her eyes and a familiarity with the supernatural world well beyond her years.
Trouble begins when an opal miner from South Africa commits suicide in a stolen car at the end of the lane. The event triggers a series of mysterious happenings. It is not long before the middle-aged man’s seven-year-old self is drawn into the very thick of it. Adventures involving monstrous nannies, thunderstorms, hunger birds, and fairy rings ensue. Lettie is the boy’s only hope of returning to the normal world and he must hold onto her hand for dear life, when faced with terrors that threaten to undo everything he treasures.
In the midst of these horrors, Gaiman writes with poetry and humour. The chapters of The Ocean at the End of the Lane read like highly sensory, nostalgic vignettes, where one indulges in the feeling and breathing in of childhood memories. He does this without becoming a William Wordsworth, leaving Tintern Abbey for the Gothic ruins of another, more dangerous supernatural world.
Gaiman’s casual mentioning of the impossible creates humour, such as when Old Mrs. Hempstock investigates the age of a coin by looking at it hard enough to see electron decay. That particular moment also made the Rialto Theatre in Montreal burst our laughing, when Gaiman was in town for his book tour—an event I was lucky enough to attend.
Fusing the realistic present-day to the fantastic and the cosmologically ancient has to be Gaiman’s signature way to set up a story. It makes for a combination that causes us to look in our own world for traces of the fantastic. The Ocean at the End of the Lane reminds us of this supernatural presence in our world and invites us to look back upon the dark corners and in-between spaces of our childhood, where we did not always follow the paved, repeatedly-traveled roads that adults follow out of routine.
Many readers who pick up this book will be inspired to run across fields and forests and leap over fences, or, if they prefer, only take the road less traveled. An excellent cure for the ennui of adulthood, Ocean makes for an ideal end-of-summer read.