MythCon 46: The Arthurian Mythos Part III: Attebery, Politics, and Worldviews

20150802_125245

Sunday 2 August 2015 was the date of my long-awaited presentation on Charles de Lint’s multicultural utopia. Although this post will not include a copy of my presentation–that will be for next week, when I will discuss the final day of lectures at MythCon 46–I do include a significant panel involving the inestimable Brian Attebery, one of the key scholars of fantasy literature, whose studies The Tradition of Fantasy in American Literature: From Irving to LeGuin and Strategies of Fantasy have been highly influential in the history of fantasy criticism. His most recent work is Stories about Stories: Fantasy and the Remaking of Myth.

First up was David Bratman’s presentation “How Do You Solve A Problem Like King Arthur?” in which he discussed the complexity and uncertainty in unearthing the historical Arthur. The real Arthur, if he ever existed, was a post-Roman warlord and not the highly romanticized Tennysonian richly-caparisoned lordly king of the popular imagination. Authors such as T.H. White have attempted to place Arthur accurately in the medieval past, while Jack Whyte situates Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s father, in the post-Roman era. Books such as The Discovery of King Arthur have attempted to unearth the historical Arthur once and for all, but inevitably we know too little to create any consistent narrative about the king.

For those who feel uninitiated to Arthurian legend, don’t feel too bad. There’s no standardized, linear plot of the entire Arthurian cycle that incorporates all the adventures and significant events that are attributed to Arthur and his knights; the Disneyfied versions most folk encounter are as complete as any other retelling. An anthology of Arthuriana I own, The Romance of Arthur: An Anthology of Medieval Texts in Translation by James J. Wilhelm, does its best to establish a canon of Arthurian texts that when read together give some kind of impression of the different stories associated with the famous king, from the originally oral tale of the Celts, Culwch and Owen to Malory’s Morte Darthur, one of the first printed texts in England.

Our Montreal-based Author Guest of Honour Jon Walton has a series of Arthurian novels. Other authors such as Kris Swank give Arthur an ethnic twist by bringing black characters into the cast. Tales from the point of view of the servants also abound including, in addition to Mark Williams’s Sleepless Knights, Squire’s Blood and Squire’s Honour by Peter Telep.

If so many different versions of Arthur exist, how did we get the colourful, valiant, shiny version of Arthur with which most people are familiar? The answer to this might lie in the colourful illustrations that accompanied the sanitized story of The Boy’s King Arthur, in which the scenes containing episodes of adultery have been cut out.  The illustrator M.C. Wyatt was also a major contributor to our images of Arthur. Of course one might also add Disney’s The Sword in the Stone, Looney Tunes, and Monty Python as other inevitable sources.

One last item to add to this list was Camelot 3000, a comic from a certain era that was not mine, but which was full of 80s camp. In this, the Knights of the Round Table are awoken from cryogenic chambers in the far future. Other Arthurian comics are cataloged on Camelot 4 Colors.

Following this, Daniel Gabelman presented one of the original classics of nineteenth-century fantasy that later inspired C.S. Lewis’s conversion and “baptised” his imagination, according to his memoir Surprised by Joy. The presentation was entitled “MacDonald’s Phantastes and The Last Chronicle of Sir Percival, or Phantastes: the Original MythCon?”

I am currently reading the Phantastes, called the first full-length prose novel of modern fantasy, and I’m recognizing a familiar Romantic fascination with sickly, snow-pale women who function as Muse to the hero. MacDonald himself was a highly religious man–this I don’t doubt from having glimpsed at a few of his sermons–but Phantastes reads more like a Romantic text than an explicitly Christian one. I have recognized a certain joy animate the hero, Anodos, as he enters Fairyland, which I can only imagine was the same joy of the imagination that C.S. Lewis felt deeply when he read Phantastes. Reading this novel as an allegory of Lewis’s conversion is an interesting way of reading it, but at any rate, not precisely the way Gabelman read it.

Phantastes was explicitly called a fairy tale for adults, representing a moment when fairy tales began to adopt more realistic techniques to attract an audience beyond the nursery. MacDonald includes heavily allusive epigraphs from works in English and in German throughout his novel, tying his thought to German Romanticism. Gabelman said Phantastes is very much about the reading experience, especially considering the number of times Anodos either hears a story or reads one, especially the embedded tale of Cosmos, a youth who acquires a cursed magic mirror. Being unfamiliar with the Phantastes at the time, I regrettably could not absorb the crux of Gabelman’s poststructural argument about textual play in MacDonald and Lewis, but I was left with a good impression of the overall presentation.

20150917_185137-1Alicia Fox-Lenz, a Mythgardian and graphic designer, presented a well-designed slide presentation of “The Union Between the Two Towers and the Twin Towers,” which was about the impact of 9/11 on the reception of LOTR. She referred to the relevance of Tolkien’s epic to issues regarding warfare in the generations that followed WWII. Like Modernists such as W.H. Auden, Tolkien’s literary career is overshadowed by an involvement in world wars. Baptism of Fire: The Birth of the Modern British Fantastic in World War I is a Mythopoeic Press collection of essays that discuss the impact of the Great War on many different authors of modern fantasy. Rather than writing realistic narratives about the social reality of the post-war years, Tolkien became an “interwar hipster” by returning to the heroic ideal in a non-realist literary form.

Later generations interpreted LOTR as relevant to the trials facing their generation. So there were unauthorized paperback copies of LOTR available to the Vietnam generation, while the hippies of the Summer of Love adopted the slogan, “Frodo Lives!” Tolkien’s novels gained a subcultural following he certainly could never have foreseen.

Peter Jackson’s films reinvigorated interest in LOTR just around the time of the New York terrorist attacks. Like the Black Riders that infiltrate the peaceful Shire, Islamic fundamentalism entered the consciousness of a reeling and traumatized American public.

The result, Fox-Lenz argued brilliantly, is that online Amazon reviews of Tolkien’s trilogy before 9/11 stress a lofty, idealist view of the heroism of Tolkien’s characters, while the reviews after 9/11 use a more negatively connotative vocabulary, making more references to the battle between good and evil, moral absolutes, and biblical language. Reviewers became more obsessed, as a whole, with words such as ‘evil,’ and the name of Sauron was more frequently mentioned. One reviewer even stated that fighting a war for peace is a galvanizing theme in LOTR. Galvanizing for what, the invasion of a certain Middle-Eastern country? In short, these reviews echoed, more and more, the wartime rhetoric that led to the invasion of both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Frodo was even treated as a zealot, a suicide bomber off the destroy Sauron. Tolkien surely rolled over in his grave, but this is exactly the sort of overblown, shocking statements one tends to find in comments sections on major websites these days. The Rohirrim in Jackson’s films also become seen as a parallel to Homeland Security. And then, of course, there are the cheap allegories in which Frodo is America, bin Laden Sauron, Sam Gamgee America’s allies (Canada, Britain, Australia, etc, all being somehow encapsulated by the loyal gardener), and Isildur is … you guessed it, also ‘merica–the earlier ‘merica under Bush Sr. I might add, from a different political standpoint, that Wormtongue and Theoden (before his conversion by Gandalf) would have made a lovely pair as Cheney and Bush respectively. But would this allegory make the Ring a WMD? Well, let’s try to keep in mind that using the enemy’s power to destroy evil was Boromir’s brilliant idea and it got him killed. Frodo was out to destroy the One Ring, to destroy Powerthe Ring was a WMD that really did exist.

Fantasy and Worldview Panel
Fantasy and Worldview Panel — Attebery is seated second from the left

Leaving this bitter and controversial political world aside, it was then time for me to go to the next talk, which was about worldviews as such. Mary Kay Kare, Janice Bogstad, and Jo Walton made up the panel for “Fantasy and Worldview” with Brian Attebery as moderator. Attebery’s 1979 dissertation had been on American fantasy, responding to the post-W.R. Irwin academic climate. Irwin called fantasy the “game of the impossible,” but Attebery was convinced of the sterility of this description, that fantasy was not simply impossible. Fantasy represented instead a deeply meaningful worldview. Naturally, various cultures on planet earth share disparate worldviews that do not always align with Western, postmodern understandings of “reality.” Provided of course postmodernity has any sense of “reality” at all. To say fantasy is a literature of the impossible is to define it according to how the privileged class in power define “reality” and “possible.”

The panel discussed the notion of consensus reality–and its inevitable violation–as an important feature of fantasy literature, a way in which fantasy and not just science fiction can act as a ‘laboratory’ with which to try out new ideas. My own opinion about consensus reality is that it should always appear beneath scare quotes. I mean, reality never asked your opinion. Even if a cult believes with all their faith that if they jump out a window, they’ll be able to fly, they will wind up flat on the ground and sorely disappointed. And this isn’t just because physics cannot be violated, but because even social reality is exterior to the subject. I also believe that reality can never really be a consensus, because the very term implies the covering up of any negations or violations of that consensus. However, when writing a fantasy novel, the notion of reality being a consensus is a useful way of structuring characters’ reactions to the fantastic; whatever the norm of belief is in your novel–maybe dragons and magic already exist, maybe not–you need to establish that consensus up front, so your readers understand the novum of your subcreated world, that is, how the fictional universe differs from the reader’s own.

The panel raised some interesting points and referred to some interesting texts. For example, there is Grace Dylan’s Native American science fiction novels and other works of speculative fiction that come from other cultural frameworks than your typical white, Anglo-Saxon authors. “Tolkien’s Realist Magicism” is an essay by Jo Walton in which she describes how Tolkien treats magic realistically, challenging standard realism. Also, the issue of angel literature was raised: a belief in angels is a widespread phenomenon in the United States, making it one concrete example of a situation where one reader might read a such a narrative as ‘supernatural fiction’ while another reader, a believer, might read it is as realistic. Surely there are other people all around the globe who genuinely believe in phenomenon commonly called “fantastic,” such as the Maori of New Zealand some of whom profess belief in taniwha, a race of shapeshifting dragon.

Another interesting facet to this question is: what was considered fantasy in the Middle Ages? If heaven, hell, demons, monsters, witches, werewolves, angels, and miracles were all a part of the world back then, what would constitute imaginative literature? Petrus Nennius wrote a dream vision about a Democritan world where the afterlife was different from the Christian one–except for the dream frame around it, this might be declared a fantasy in the Inklings spirit!

Claude Levi-Strauss argued, and here once again I paraphrase one of the panelists, that human thought was never primitive–different societies just cut up the world differently. Myths are a way of defining phenomena in the world. I am reminded of Fredric Jameson’s allusion to the famous structural anthropologist when in The Political Unconscious, he describes Levi-Strauss’s observations of the facial tatoos of a certain tribe that serve to symbolically resolve the unease developing as their society becomes increasingly socially stratified. Jameson argues that narrative is one way we seek resolution to concrete historical contradictions–and fantasy is one significant way in which we attempt to create such resolutions.

One society that experiences a lot of social contradiction is a version of medieval England in which a hereditary monarchy presides over a socially-conscious anarcho-syndicalist peasantry, apparently led by one Leftist churl by the name of Dennis. What contradictions this society produces, however, lead not to tears but laughs. David Oberhelman discussed the Pythons’ masterpiece in his talk “‘On second thought, let’s not go to Camelot. It is a silly place’: Myth, Politics, and Parody in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

Holy Grail was a symbolic resolution to the concrete historical situation in which Britain found itself after the war, during the time of the Sex Pistols and pre-Thatcher discontent. Both Left and Right had discredited themselves. How could modern England reconcile itself to its conservative, monarchical past and present? Totally opposite political philosophies sparred and sparred in Parliament, till the Pythons just decided to poke fun at the whole situation with one of their funniest sketches. Not only is King Arthur treated as out of touch with socially mobilized peasant reality, but the Trotskyists are also mocked equally, as completely out of touch with reality.

Jo Walton at the banquet
Jo Walton at the banquet

Following this talk, I gave my presentation (news about that next week!) and afterwards, it was time for the banquet and Jo Walton’s Guest of Honour speech. In short she spoke about different writerly strategies of integrating the fantastic into a story. She advised the audience not to throw the fantastic at readers too fast, or they will be lost, but to introduce information about the world gradually. The readers and characters who are unfamiliar with the fantastic are like children constantly absorbing information, so it is usually a good idea to at least have one character who is unfamiliar with the world, so the readers can see through their eyes, while another character may be familiar with the fantastic, providing a model for the norm of your fantastic world. Walton provided an elegant rhetorical twist where the details of a fantastic autumn ceremony she kept alluding to in her speech as an example became gradually revealed to us, as she kept gradually giving us examples that eventually fleshed out the idea of a dragon fire-breathing ceremony. That was some meta-worldbuilding.

Stay tuned next week to hear the next installment of stimulating intellectual discussion!

Brian Attebery's signature in my journal
Brian Attebery’s signature in my journal

 

A Battle of Five Blogs — Why I would have filmed The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit in the North

With the release of The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies in theatres this week, some of my MythCon friends and I decided to participate in A Battle of 5 Blogs. We will all be posting about the movie, which concludes Peter Jackson’s trilogy. Although I have heard rumours of Jackson’s plans to make The Silmarillion, for the time being, it looks like this is the end of the epic journey that began at the turn of the century with the release of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

You can find links to the other blogs below.

Jim Moffet’s A Tolkienist’s Perspective @TolkienistView

Sorina Higgins’s The Oddest Inkling @Oddest_Inkling

Crystal Hurd CrystalHurd.com @Doctorhurd

Kat Sas of Raving Sanity @Katherine_Sas

And Brenton Dickieson’s A Pilgrim in Narnia @BrentonDana

When I think of the beauty of The Lord of the Rings films, one thing strikes me above all else. The landscape.

After more than a decade of the films, the panoramic shots of the Misty Mountains and the River Anduin still leave me with an impression of the sublime. While the soundtrack rushes by with the familiarity of an old song, the landscape still leaves me with an impression of the great, epic tenor of Tolkien’s trilogy. When Howard Shore’s musical scores echo that majesty, they become one with the landscape itself. I get goosebumps at just thinking of seeing that world from an Eagle’s-eye view, and I become reminded of the glories of my adolescent years–yes, there was some glory to them–bringing me right back to the trip I made in 2008 to New Zealand (and Australia) for World Youth Day.

New Zealand
New Zealand

Middle-Earth, a secondary-world surrogate for Europe and England, was filmed mostly in that absolutely beautiful country. During its colonial history, it was imagined as the England of the Antipodes, since the rolling green hills of the Waikato Valley so resemble the cozy English landscape. It’s no wonder, then, that Jackson would chose New Zealand–a more sublime England–to film the narrative through which Tolkien intended to build a mythic past for his country.

When I was there in 2008, I didn’t see any of the great mountains, but I did step gingerly across a sheep dung-strewn lawn in the rain to see a couple of hills with white boards cut out to look like Hobbit holes–what remained of Hobbiton after the camera crews had gone. Still, you couldn’t mistake the bizarre and oddly disorienting feeling that you were standing where the village had once been, now once again serving its purpose as a shepherd’s farm. How the powers of Movie Magic must have transformed it! It was like being in two places at once.

Throw in that this land is home to the Maori, and you begin looking for the tip of a wharenui (a village meeting house) to suddenly appear on the Anduin’s west bank. Of course you never see one, but the truth that the Maori had their own tales of elves, fairies, and dragons in their oral traditions lends a certain aura to the landscape of Aotearoa (“land of the long white cloud”; what the Maori call New Zealand, or ‘Middle-Earth’). Whatever way you slice it, New Zealand is an enchanted land.

So, you might ask me if I’d return to New Zealand if I got dropped with a $100 million check to film a remake. Despite my immense enthusiasm for New Zealand, I would politely answer, “No.”

New Zealand worked for Peter Jackson. But to craft my retelling of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, I would likely film in the Northern Hemisphere. Not that I would object to doing a little filming on the North or South Island, if it was necessary, but the trademark of my new film franchise would be to underscore the harshness of Middle-Earth. The ideal place to achieve this effect would be to film in Iceland and the Nordic countries (along with–just maybe–Northern Canada).

The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit were both greatly influenced by the poetry of Old Norse and Celtic mythology, which mixed together like yin and yang in Tolkien’s work. While the sections inspired by Norse myth–The Battle of the Black Gate, Moria, Helm’s Deep–can be characterized as part of a more ‘masculine’ worldview of doom and glory, the parts drawn from Celtic myth–Lothlorien is the chief example–draw on ‘feminine’ nature- and art-centered systems of meaning. Both strands of influence blend together to create a mix of the apocalyptic and the joyful, of the inescapably sad and the sacrificially heroic. No happy ending arrives without cost to the hero.

What about this place in Iceland as a location for Moria?
What about this place in Iceland as a location for Moria?

Tolkien blends the tradition of götterdämerung–‘the Death of the Gods’–from Norse mythology, with the Celtic sense of fay magic being in continual decline. He Christianizes it using the Apocalyptic imagery of the Book of Revelation. His intention to create a myth for England ties the worlds invoked in The Lord of the Rings firmly to the weather-beaten, hard Northern tribes and nations of the late classical and medieval periods. These included the Celts of Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, as well as the Vikings of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Iceland.

Following this historical logic, I would film a remake of The Lord of the Rings in the countries from which Tolkien’s source material came. I would film the Hobbiton scenes in Merry Olde England, since The Shire is so obviously English. But as soon as Frodo and Same draw closer to Mordor, the landscape would become increasingly treacherous and Nordic. Witness the number of volcanoes in Iceland, and you’ll see what I mean. Although Iceland does not have the lush forests of New Zealand, it would lend a stark, weather-beaten atmosphere to the film that would contrast with Peter Jackson’s luscious cinematography.

The bare rock faces in Northern Scotland and Iceland would lend a bare-bones feel to the movie and might upset audience expectations with its minimalism, but it could do so in a good way. In emphasizing the Norse character of Tolkien’s trilogy, the landscape could add a certain Game of Thrones Winter-Is-Coming vibe, in addition to leaving the camera to focus more intimately on the characters and their speeches. One aspect moviegoers miss out on, when they haven’t read The Lord of the Rings–or if they have forgotten it largely because they’d read it so long ago, like me–is how much of the novel is people giving speeches.

Who could forget Aragorn’s dialogue with the Uruk-hai at Helm’s Deep? Nearly everyone, actually. Including Peter Jackson, who left out the dialogue for obvious reasons. It would have been weird. Aragorn just entering a lyrical dialogue with the Uruk-hai, even in an antagonistic way, would have made about as much sense as including the Tom Bombadil scenes. However, these quirky bits–some but not all of which appear in the Warner Brothers’ animated films–are inseparable from the experience of reading Tolkien. I had to do a lot of slogging as a 13-year-old to get through all that, but I did manage to get through it. Not all of Tolkien’s poetry is great but his prose dialogue is certainly worth taking a second look at.

My production–if I am to have full control of it–would not be encumbered by the expectations of a popular audience. In one sense, this makes it an impossible project, since a box office hit is usually the only way to convince Hollywood to give you the $100 million budget you need. Yet, in this utopian world, I would not only chose to film in the North, but emphasize Tolkien’s Shakespearean language and his sense of comedy and tragedy.

I would link Tolkien to the great English tradition of literature that stretches back to the Bard, Christopher Marlowe, and John Milton. I’d make Gollum into a Caliban, Saruman into a Faustus, and Sauron into a Satan. The minimalism of the Icelandic landscape would act as the minimalism of the Globe Theatre’s stage. It would be a grand performance indeed. Throw in the fact that so many of the actors in The Lord of the Rings have training as Shakespearean actors, and you would have a more artistic version of The Lord of the Rings than Jackson could have ever risked producing.

Newfoundland would also be a prime filming location. How about the Tablelands as Rohan?
Newfoundland would also be a prime filming location. How about the Tablelands as Rohan?

Yet the stark landscape would not all be bare rock, volcanoes, and ice. If you have ever been North in the summertime, or have seen pictures of it, as I have, then you will know that there is, actually, a colour palette up there. Red moss coats the valleys of Ellesmere Island, and Northern Quebec is full of endless pine forests that could serve for an interesting interpretation of Mirkwood. There would still be room for the Misty Mountains in Iceland. And the Scottish Highlands are just begging to be filmed. These locations would make no sacrifice of cinematographic excellence. There would simply be a stronger sense of authenticity to the setting and to Tolkien’s voice as an author.

I’m not the first–and nor will I be the last–blogger to offer my opinion on how I would have filmed The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit differently. I’m also not the only one who feels that the Dungeons-and-Dragons/Twilight feel–a contrasting mix!–of the recent Hobbit movies were an insincere treatment of Tolkien’s children’s story. However, I do not blame Peter Jackson for this. He had to meet the expectations of his mass audience. He has succeeded as an entertainer, and I appreciate that Hollywood is a difficult place from which to work as an artist. Yet, without being so tethered–in some kind of moviemaking utopia where I could make a multi-million dollar indie fantasy film–I would have filmed The Lord of the Rings while drawing out the rhythms and cadences of the North.

When I hear Howard Shore’s soundtrack in Jackson’s film, when I seen the landscapes of New Zealand, I am submerged into a world that has the same degree of literary dignity as the most significant works of English, like Hamlet, or–perhaps especially–Beowulf. Goethe’s Faust and Dante’s Divine Comedy might also make this list. Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, even though it largely maintained an epic tenor, still seems too small a narrative to fill that vast world entirely. Perhaps this is as due to over-familiarity with the movies as anything. To recover our sense of Tolkien’s language and landscape, my film would attempt to achieve a deeper, dramatic resonance that would encounter those mountains, lakes, and forests.

Mt. Odin on Baffin Island. Fairly self-explanatory Nordic connection and cinematographic value!
Mt. Odin on Baffin Island, Canada. Fairly self-explanatory Nordic connection and cinematographic value! Odin was the chief god of the Norse pantheon. There is also a Mt. Thor and Mt. Asgard.

Picture Credits:

Newfoundland: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tablelands_Landscape_Newfoundland.jpg

Iceland: http://pixabay.com/en/svartifoss-waterfall-basalt-iceland-108039/

New Zealand: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Udsigt_new_zealand2.jpg

Baffin Island: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Odin