Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: fantasy (page 1 of 1)

Peace, Peace

N.B. This post is spoilerful. 

A few years ago I read a fascinating post by my colleague Philip Jenkins about Gene Wolfe’s 1975 novel Peace. I had read Peace many years ago but didn’t remember anything about it, and Philip’s post reminded me that there’s a complicated discourse surrounding the book. I decided that I wanted to re-read the book without looking at the interpretations … and only now have I gotten around to it. Here are some things that struck me:

It seemed obvious to me that our narrator, Alden Dennis Weer, is dead and is revisiting his life. (Wolfe has cheerfully confirmed that Weer is a ghost.) He clearly lives, or “lives,” in a rambling memory palace of his own making, each room of which is related to some season of his life. But the palace is not complete, and he can temporarily or permanently lose access to some of its rooms.

Severian, the protagonist and narrator of Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun tetralogy — which Wolfe began almost immediately after writing Peace — claims to have a perfect memory, and perhaps he does, but he does not tell us everything he remembers. When he remains silent about some episode in his life, the reader has to sift the evidence to figure out what really happened, or wait for later evidence. The same is true of Weer’s narration in Peace. Often he leaves stories unfinished — and by “stories” I mean both his direct narration of his life’s events and the book’s many tales (some of them fairy tales, some of them anecdotes told to him by others). It’s possible that he has forgotten how some stories end, but in many of the cases he simply does not want to say what happened, and we are left to draw inferences. He does not narrate the death of his Aunt Olivia, but we can piece together an account of her death. He explicitly says that he will not tell us what happened when he and the librarian Lois Arbuthnot visited a farm outside of town to search for an old document, but later it becomes pretty clear what happened: Weer killed her. (And she may not be the only person he murders.)

When declining to tell that story, Weer writes,

You must excuse me. I can write nothing more now about the trip Lois and I made to Gold’s, or our search for the buried treasure. Everything we do is unimportant, I know; but some things are, if not more important, at least more immediate than others, and so I must tell you (writing alone in this empty room, my pen scratching on the paper like a mouse in a wall) that I am very ill. Sicker, I think, than I have ever been before — sicker, even, than I was this winter, before Eleanor Bold’s tree fell.

The falling of that tree — called Eleanor Bold’s because she planted it, but the key point is that she planted it over Weer’s grave — is what awakens his spirit (Wolfe confirmed this in an interview) and inaugurates his assessment of his life. Trees can live a long time, and there’s a hint early in the book that Weer knows himself to be a ghost, and a ghost haunting the place where he had lived long, long before:

And as if by magic — and it may have been magic, for I believe America is the land of magic, and that we, we now past Americans, were once the magical people of it, waiting now to stand to some unguessable generation of the future as the nameless pre-Mycenaean tribes did to the Greeks, ready, at a word, each of us now, to flit piping through groves ungrown, our women ready to haunt as lamioe the rose-red ruins of Chicago and Indianapolis when they are little more than earthen mounds, when the heads of the trees are higher than the hundred-and-twenty-fifth floor — it seemed to me that I found myself in bed again, the old house swaying in silence as though it were moored to the universe by only the thread of smoke from the stove.

This narration, then, may take place hundreds of years in the future.

What is the term of Weer’s haunting? Will he forever be a ghost? Or is he, perhaps, like Hamlet’s father, “Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night … Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature / Are burnt and purged away”? I am inclined to believe the latter. That is, I think that Weer will wander through the rooms of his memory until he remembers, and faces, it all. His old house is a purgatorial mansion. (That word makes me wonder whether there is a thematic connection between Peace and an even weirder book by Wolfe’s fellow Roman Catholic SF writer, R. A. Lafferty: Fourth Mansions.)

Those who know Alden Dennis Weer best call him Den, which is interesting because that’s the second half of his first name and the first half of his second name. Den/Den. I take this to indicate that he is a doubled self — like Dr. Jekyll, and like the Major Weir (!) Philip discusses in his post — and may be liberated from his complicated prison only when he has confronted and acknowledged all that he currently denies or evades. Then and only then will he have peace. The title of the novel thus points to what’s missing from it.

The various interpolated tales in Peace comment in various ways on the events that Weer narrates and the people that he knew. For instance, one story about a princess and her suitors clearly mirrors Aunt Olivia and her suitors. And late in the novel the bookseller and forger Mr. Gold reads a tale to Weer that I think is meant to describe to Weer his own situation. The tale comes, Gold says, from a book called The Book That Binds the Dead, though he comments that “It may not be as easy to hold the dead down as we think.” Be that as it may, in the passage Gold reads a man describes how he and a friend tried to summon the spirit of a dead man. They stand over his grave, and eventually he rises before them:

The flesh of his head was as the dust, and there remained only his hair, which hung to his shoulders as in life, but had lost its luster and had in it certain of those small animals which the sun engenders in that which no longer has life. His eyes were no more; their sockets seemed dark pits, save that there flickered behind them a point of light that moved from one to the other and often was gone from both, and appeared just such a spark as is seen at night when the wind blows a fire that is almost gone, and perhaps a single spark, burning red, flies hither and thither in the black air. From what the spirit, that mighty one, had whispered to me, I knew this spark for the soul of the dead man, seeking now in all the chambers under the vault of the skull its old resting places.

Then, gathering all my courage, and recollecting what the spirit had divulged to me — that the dead man was not like to harm me save I set my foot upon his grave, or cast aside one of the stones that had sheltered him from the jackals — I spoke to him, saying, “O you who have returned where none return. You waked from the death that men say never dies; speak to us the knowledge of the place from which you have come.”

Then he said to us, “O shades of the unborn years, depart from me, and trouble not the day that is mine.”

What does he mean by “the day that is mine”? It is, I think, the day of his purgation. We should remember Pope Adrian V in Dante’s Purgatorio, who speaks briefly the pilgrim but then asks him to go away: “Your presence here distracts me from the tears that make me ready.” The spirit the men in this tale have raised is a true image of Alden Dennis Weer.

I have tried in the above to outline what I think is fundamentally going on in Peace — but what I say has relatively little overlap with the vast online literature about the novel, which, now that I’ve looked it over in the aftermath of my reading, seems mainly concerned to trace the staggeringly dense and complex web of reference that Wolfe weaves into this novel, as he does into most of his stories. To mention just one tiny example that I noticed as I read: Weer early on mentions his childhood fascination with Andrew Lang’s Green Fairy Book, which (I reminded myself by checking Wikipedia) contains a version of the old French fairy tale “The Blue Bird,” in which a man is transformed into a bird. And then one of the characters in Peace narrates his encounter with a man who is gradually being transformed into stone — a man whom he meets in The Bluebird Cafe. This led me to notice the number of characters in the novel who are compared to birds; and I also started thinking of the characters’ various metamorphoses. Aunt Olivia, for instance, once described as being “all bird bones and petticoats,” eventually becomes a corpulent woman whom Weer sees naked in her bath. Plus, “The Blue Bird” also concerns magic eggs, and a major event in Peace involves the quest for a rare and beautiful painted egg.

There is no end to this kind of thing in Wolfe’s fiction: he knits and purls, always stitching stitching stitching, ever complicating the weave, to a degree that seems to me compulsive and often, frankly, counterproductive. The (largely online) discourse about his books is obsessed with these fancy stitchings, and you can read thousands and thousands of words about this connection and that, this allusion and that, without ever finding anyone who asks what a given book is about, why it exists.

I’m reading a lot of mysteries these days, in preparation for a biography of Dorothy L. Sayers, and readers of mysteries may be divided into two camps, those who want to find a good puzzle to solve and those who want to read an interesting story. You can also, generally speaking, divide the writers of mysteries into two camps: those who want to please the puzzle solvers and those who want to please the story lovers.

Gene Wolfe is likewise a maker of puzzles and a teller of tales, and I often find myself wondering which he cared about more. If you look at the online commentary on Wolfe’s novels, you might think that the puzzles are the only things that matter, and certainly Wolfe gives us a superabundance of teasing clues. I call that superabundance “counterproductive” because I like stories more than puzzles — which is also why I’d rather read Dorothy L. Sayers than John Dickson Carr. When reading Wolfe’s fiction I am often frustrated, because I find that the complications of the weave obscure the design of the story. In my reflections above I have tried to set aside many of the puzzles in order to focus on the matters I find essential. But maybe occluding the distinction between the essential and inessential is just what Wolfe wants to do.

Slanted and disenchanted

The most delightful thing about Arthur C. Clarke’s famous comment that “any smoothly functioning technology gives the appearance of magic” is how obvious the point is once you read it. But because the point is so retrospectively obvious the phrase tends to get deployed unimaginatively. It’s actually more subtle, and perhaps consequential, than it appears to be.

Here’s another way to put Clarke’s point: Many or most human beings have in our intellectual toolbox a category – one that we that may for convenience’ sake call “magic” – that we deploy in situations in which we perceive certain ends achieved but cannot perceive the means by which the achievement was accomplished. There’s a large metal box in my kitchen that is filled with cold air, this I know, but how it makes the air cold may not only be unknown to me but effectively unimaginable. Or: A tall black monolith has appeared in the midst of my small band of early-hominid hunter-gatherers, this we know, but how it got there and what it is we cannot guess.

If you read much of Clarke’s writings you know that Clarke doesn’t believe in magic – that is, in forces outside the laws of physics as we know them that produce effects in the physical world – but it’s worth noting that his point stands whether you believe in magic or not. Even if magic can be done, it remains true that any smoothly functioning technology etc. etc. That is to say, Clarke’s statement is not a metaphysical claim but a phenomenological one – it is about “appearance,” about what presents itself to us, about what we perceive. Whether we are perceiving accurately, and how what we perceive might be explained – these are epistemological questions. In this case, epistemology (theory of knowledge) is brought in to help us understand the gap (or, in some cases, fit) between what we perceive and what is.

In these respects, Clarke’s statement resembles Max Weber’s famous description of “the disenchantment of the world” (Entzauberung, unmagicking). Weber is not saying that once the world was filled with disembodied spirits subject only to metaphysical rather than physical description, spirits that have now departed. He’s saying that that’s what the world feels like – it reads to us like a place where transmissions from the far invisible have ceased. In such a phenomenological environment, what do we do when things happen that we don’t know how to account for – when we see the ends but cannot imagine the means?

And this can happen to us when we read fiction as well, an experience I can perhaps describe in this way: Any imaginatively conceived and coherently presented work of science fiction reads like a work of fantasy.

In Adam Roberts’s new novel The Death of Sir Martin Malprelate these very themes are pursued, these questions are posed, in a provocative and delightful way. What do you do if you are a rational man, a man of science, and begin to see things that science (as you understand it) cannot explain? What do you do if you’re reading a novel and can’t tell if it’s fantasy or science fiction?

If these questions interest you, you’ll very much enjoy (as I did) The Death of Sir Martin Malprelate.

beyond daylight ethics

In a 1975 essay called “The Child and the Shadow,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote:

In many fantasy tales of the 19th and 20th centuries the tension between good and evil, light and dark, is drawn absolutely clearly, as a battle, the good guys on one side and the bad guys on the other, cops and robbers, Christians and heathens, heroes and villains. In such fantasies I believe the author has tried to force reason to lead him where reason cannot go, and has abandoned the faithful and frightening guide he should have followed, the shadow. These are false fantasies, rationalized fantasies. They are not the real thing. Let me, by way of exhibiting the real thing, which is always much more interesting than the fake one, discuss The Lord of the Rings for a minute.

It’s a sweet little pivot that Le Guin executes in that paragraph’s last sentence, because many of her readers would have assumed that her critique included Tolkien – but no. She admits that “his good people tend to be entirely good, though with endearing frailties, while his Orcs and other villains are altogether nasty. But,” she continues, “all this is a judgment by daylight ethics, by conventional standards of virtue and vice. When you look at the story as a psychic journey, you see something quite different, and very strange.” Daylight ethics is insufficient to account for the greatness of The Lord of the Rings: it may in certain respects be “a simple story,” but “it is not simplistic. It is the kind of story that can be told only by one who has turned and faced his shadow and looked into the dark.” And: 

That it is told in the language of fantasy is not an accident, or because Tolkien was an escapist, or because he was writing for children. It is a fantasy because fantasy is the natural, the appropriate, language for the recounting of the spiritual journey and the struggle of good and evil in the soul.

Which is why when she herself had a story like that to tell, she turned to fantasy.

In most respects, Earthsea is a radically different world than Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, but that perhaps makes the correspondences all the more worth noting. As I was rereading The Farthest Shore recently it struck me how faithfully the journey of Ged and Arren to the Dry Land echoes the journey of Frodo and Sam to Mordor – down to the point that Ged’s helper Arren has to carry him for a brief period, in much the same way that Frodo is carried by Sam (though in Le Guin’s tale after the decisive moment rather than before).

That said, Le Guin has created a world in which the protagonist has a different kind of helper than Frodo does. The relationship between Frodo and Sam is that of master and servant – as Sam’s deferential language continually reminds us – but the young man who accompanies Ged to the Dry Land is not a servant at all. He is a prince, soon to be a king, and had been shocked to learn just after meeting Ged that this Archmage, this titan among wizards, had been in his childhood a goatherd on a distant dirty island. But he is much younger and less experienced than Ged, and Ged is, after all, a mage, which Arren is not. So matters of status are very much in question here. Ged takes upon himself the burden of teaching Arren, assumes an authority over him in certain respects, an authority that Arren sometimes accepts and sometimes resents. Their relationship is much more complex than that of Frodo and Sam; it is constantly in negotiation.

What is Le Guin doing with this acknowledgement of and then swerving from the Tolkienian model? Well, I think this is very closely related to her fascination with Daoism, and illuminates certain contrasts between Confucianism and Taoism – especially as regards the purpose of education. Among other things, Confucianism is a way of breeding rulers. It emphasizes righteousness (yi 義) as a key virtue – but especially for rulers. (See this overview by Mark Csikszentmihalyi.) The practice of yi is essential to legitimizing and consolidating political authority – and this is why the famous Imperial Examination, used to identify candidates for civil service, was so deeply grounded in the neo-Confucian classics.

By contrast, Daoism does not make governors but rather sages, and the Daoist sage has no interest in ruling. If the key virtue of the Confucian ruler is righteousness, the key virtue of the Daoist sage is inaction: wuwei. And this is the virtue that Ged, knowing who Arren will become, tries to teach him. That is, Ged believes that even for a king righteousness sometimes may be inadequate. He says to Arren,

“It is much easier for men to act than to refrain from acting. We will continue to do good and to do evil. … But if there were a king over us all again and he sought counsel of a mage, as in the days of old, and I were that mage, I would say to him: My lord, do nothing because it is righteous or praiseworthy or noble to do so; do nothing because it seems good to do so; do only that which you must do and which you cannot do in any other way.”

Ged is preparing Arren not for kingship as it is typically understood – the “daylight ethics” of Confucianism would be adequate for that – but rather the the possibility of a “psychic journey,” a spiritual challenge.

When in the Dry Land they meet the undead mage who goes by the name of Cob, they are encountering one whose path to power, and to great evil, had years earlier been opened for him by Ged. That opening was quite inadvertent, to be sure: Ged wished to act righteously in disciplining Cob, who had dabbled in necromancy, but his actions – driven in part, he admits, by his pride, his desire to demonstrate his greater power – had precisely the opposite effect than he had intended. Cob became more, not less, obsessed with necromancy and the conquest of death. (He is in some ways the proto-Voldemort, a would-be Death Eater.) Ged acted thus because he thought it “righteous or praiseworthy or noble to do so”; but it was not what he had to do, and it could have been done in some other way, some less humiliating and degrading way. The problem with action, as Daoism teaches and as Ged tries to teach Arren, is that it always, always, has unexpected consequences, often profoundly unwelcome ones. 

To their final confrontation with Cob Arren brings an instrument appropriate to a ruler and a warrior: a sword. Again and again he strikes Cob, severing his spinal cord, splitting his skull … but Cob simply reassembles himself. “There is no good in killing a dead man.” Ged, by contrast, brings but “one word” that stills Arren and Cob alike. (We do not hear the one word is, but Ged says that it is “the word that will not be spoken until time’s end.”)

And then what Ged must do – must do, and cannot do in any other way – is to pour out all his own magical power, leaving nothing inside, not to inflict a wound but to close one; not to sever but to knit together. Cob had made a gap in the cosmos through which Death entered the world of the living; and that could be healed not by a Confucian king but by a Daoist sage.

But something a little, or a lot, more than a Daoist sage: here, I think, the guiding shape of Tolkien’s story takes Le Guin a step beyond what Daoism can envisage. Like Frodo, Ged undertakes a kenosis, a self-emptying; except that what Frodo cannot do without the intervention of his Shadow, Ged completes. “It is done,” he says. It is finished. And when Arren takes up his crown, he knows that he owes it to Ged; the same knowledge leads Aragorn to kneel before Frodo.  

Near the novel’s end, the Doorkeeper of Roke says of Ged, “He is done with doing. He goes home.” And still later Ged will wonder why he outlived his magic. Which raises the question: What happens after “it is finished”? There, I think, our three stories diverge.

P.S. re: where a story can take a writer

Le Guin, from her Afterword to The Farthest Shore: “It would be lovely if writing a story was like getting into a little boat that drifted off and took me to the promised land, or climbing on a dragon’s back and flying off to Selidor. But it’s only as a reader that I can do that. As a writer, to take full responsibility without claiming total control requires a lot of work, a lot of groping and testing, flexibility, caution, watchfulness. I have no chart to follow, so I have to be constantly alert. The boat needs steering. There have to be long conversations with the dragon I ride. But however watchful and aware I am, I know I can never be fully aware of the currents that carry the boat, of where the winds beneath the dragon’s wings are blowing.”

Continuing the recent reflections on fantasy, it me:

Like many other fantasy writers, [Hope] Mirrlees is interested in what happens if the power of Fairyland cannot be wholly excluded from our well-buffered society. In this case, we see what happens when magic begins to creep back into well-ordered and well-buffered lives. To figure this as essentially a drug war — an inevitably unsuccessful attempt to prevent the smuggling of what one character in the story significantly calls the “commodity” of fairy fruit — is a wonderful conceit and developed with delightful panache, tracing an elegantly oscillating line between the economic and the metaphysical. When one character tells a senator that he should be more aware of the high levels of consumption of fairy fruit among the poor, I find myself murmuring, Fairy fruit is the opiate of the masses.

self-sacrifice and despair

Adam Roberts:

And in the middle (round about the two-thirds point, actually) there is the odd, striking scene of Denethor’s suicide. I wasn’t sure what to make of this, actually. In one sense he has to die, in order for the rule of the Stewards to end and the rule of the King to begin. But suicide is a semiotically tangled and troubled a thing for JRRT’s imagination. He doesn’t want to parse it as a nobly Roman action, and strains it into the straight-jacket of over-coded pseudo-Christian moralising: ‘Authority is not given to you, Steward of Gondor, to order the hour of your death’ snaps Gandalf — perhaps forgetting that he himself effectively threw himself into the chasm at Khazad-Dum in order to save his comrades. Or perhaps it’s one law for wizards, another for Gondor. ‘Only the heathen kings, under the dominion of the Dark Power, did thus, slaying themselves in pride and despair …’ [III:129]

It’s tempting to see this as a double standard. For in point of fact one of the general trajectories of this book is precisely that pseduo-samurai or Horatius-at-the-Bridge sacrifice of self: Frodo and Sam going (as they think) into certain death; the Rohirrim galloping will-nill towards a massively larger army; Gandalf rejecting the truce terms and dooming (they all think) the entire army to destruction. More, Gandalf does not lecture Denethor to prevent him from ending his life, only to stop him from doing so by his own hand: ‘your part,’ he tells the Steward, ‘is to go out to the battle of your City, where maybe death awaits you. This you know in your heart.’ If you want to die, fine: go out into the city and get cut down by an orc. That would be OK! This sees to me a strange logic, as if we might say ‘suicide is wrong, but suicide-by-cop is fine’. 

I think Adam is wrong about this. (As I’ve said before, he is rarely wrong; maybe it’s only about The Lord of the Rings that he’s wrong.)  

Let’s make some distinctions — but before I jump in, let me say this: I don’t think that suicide is always (maybe it is not even usually) the result of despair. Many people who take, or try to take, their own lives have not come to a conclusion about the meaningless of life, or of their lives. When someone tells a suicidal person that things will get better, the suicidal person doesn’t necessarily disagree with that — doesn’t necessarily have a view about it at all. Often, those who take their own lives simply cannot bear their pain any longer and will do whatever they have to to make it stop. 

Okay, having made that sobering statement, now let me move on. 

Point the First: There’s a difference between fighting a battle you’re sure you’ll lose and “suicide-by-cop.” The point of the former action is not to be killed by an orc, but to kill orcs — and by killing them maybe saving a friend from being killed, or slowing the advance of your enemies long enough for some of the women and children to escape. You may be certain that eventually an orc will kill you, but you’re going to try to take as many with you as you can, and you’re doing that for a cause larger than yourself. Similarly, even if we grant that Gandalf “effectively threw himself into the chasm at Khazad-Dum” (a point that as it happens I do not grant), the fact that he did it “to save his comrades” — to keep the Quest going, to give Frodo a chance to make it to Mount Doom with the ring — makes it an act not of despair but of hope

Point the Second: It is important to note that Denethor is the Steward of Gondor, which is to say, he has sworn vows to preserve and protect that land. This is what Gandalf is reminding him of in this exchange, in which Denethor speaks first: 

“The Lord of Gondor is not to be made the tool of other men’s purposes, however worthy. And to him there is no purpose higher in the world as it now stands than the good of Gondor; and the rule of Gondor, my lord, is mine and no other man’s, unless the king should come again.” 

“Unless the king should come again?” said Gandalf. “Well, my lord Steward, it is your task to keep some kingdom still against that event, which few now look to see. In that task you shall have all the aid that you are pleased to ask for.”  

To accept the mantle of the Steward of Gondor is like getting married in that one does it “for better or worse.” By taking his own life Denethor is simply, and disgracefully, renouncing and mocking his own vows. (It is telling that he refers to himself simply as “The Lord of Gondor,” whereas Gandalf more precisely refers to him as “my lord Steward.”) By contrast, if he were to go out and fight, even in the certainty of his own death, he would be faithful to his vows, for reasons noted above. 

Point the Third: Denethor couldn’t be more explicit that his despair arises from the thwarting of his personal preferences: 

“I would have things as they were in all the days of my life … and in the days of my longfathers before me: to be the Lord of this City in peace, and leave my chair to a son after me, who would be his own master and no wizard’s pupil. But if doom denies this to me, then I will have naught: neither life diminished, nor love halved, nor honour abated.”

My way or the fire way, as it were. This is not a decision born of intolerable pain but rather one born of a childish indulgence in ressentiment.

In all these ways we see that even by the standards of his own pagan warrior culture — as opposed to Tolkien’s own Christian standards — Denethor’s despair is clearly blameworthy, and Tolkien doesn’t have to tie himself in knots or smuggle in Christian ethics in order to show that. As Aragorn says much earlier in the novel, “The counsel of Gandalf was not founded on foreknowledge of safety, for himself or for others. There are some things that it is better to begin than to refuse, even though the end may be dark.” 

Point the Fourth: But there is an interesting difference between the pagan understanding of despair and the Christian one. The pagan denunciation of despair is not, as we have seen, based on a commandment to have hope, for yourself or for others. This is a point that C. S. Lewis often made when he described his own deep attachment to the ethic of the Norse gods. In his late book Letters to Malcolm he wrote, 

You know my history. You know why my withers are quite unwrung by the fear that I was bribed — that I was lured into Christianity by the hope of everlasting life. I believed in God before I believed in Heaven. And even now, even if — let’s make an impossible supposition — His voice, unmistakably His, said to me, ‘They have misled you. I can do nothing of that sort for you. My long struggle with the blind forces is nearly over. I die, children. The story is ending’ — would that be a moment for changing sides? Would not you and I take the Viking way: ‘The Giants and Trolls win. Let us die on the right side, with Father Odin.’ 

(I suspect that in writing that last sentence Lewis had in mind this fable by Robert Louis Stevenson.) The key thing here is not the belief that the Good will win out — that’s as may be — but rather the belief that the Good is the Good, and deserves on that account alone our loyalty. 

But Christianity raises the stakes by asking us to believe not just that Good is Good, but that Good will in the end prevail. For the Christian, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the prefiguration and guarantor of one’s own personal resurrection and also, and more important, the renewal of the world, the eventual coming of the New Creation. Despair in this account is the loss of hope for one’s own future and for that of the world. (And again, though Christian theology has often associated suicide with despair, I deny that there is any necessary association. Many people have left suicide notes asking for God’s forgiveness and — rightly, I think — hoping that He will raise them up on the last day.)

Is this understanding present in The Lord of the Rings? A question to be asked. In the great chapter called “The Last Debate,” the one in which our heroes decide to take the battle to Sauron even though his armies dwarf theirs, Aragorn says that their decision “is the last move in a great jeopardy, and for one side or the other it will bring the end of the game.” This holds out more hope for the triumph of the Good than Norse mythology does, but not much more. Gandalf had said something similar a couple of pages earlier: 

“We must walk open-eyed into that trap, with courage, but small hope for ourselves. For, my lords, it may well prove that we ourselves shall perish utterly in a black battle far from the living lands; so that even if Barad-dûr be thrown down, we shall not live to see a new age. But this, I deem, is our duty. And better so than to perish nonetheless — as we surely shall, if we sit here — and know as we die that no new age shall be.” 

That’s as much as to say: We have a tiny chance (“only a fool’s hope,” he says elsewhere) of prevailing, but if we do not fight, then Sauron will most certainly win — he will eventually get the Ring, and “his victory will be swift and complete: so complete that none can foresee the end of it while this world lasts.” Whether there might be something more to come after this world ends Gandalf does not say, though surely he knows something more than Aragorn and the others do.

It seems to me, though, that we’re not really invited to speculate about such things here: the whole context of the story is the life of Middle-Earth, not any other world that lies beyond it. The calculations to be made are purely this-worldly, and therefore one makes one’s decisions about which side to take not from prudential calculation but from a clear-eyed perception of the difference between good and evil. When Eomer asks “How shall a man judge what to do in such times?” Aragorn briskly replies: “As he ever has judged. Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them, as much in the Golden wood as in his own house.” 


Adam Roberts (yes, again):

My problem is not that [Miles Cameron’s Against All Gods] gets this or that specific historical detail or mood wrong; it’s that it doesn’t really engage with ‘history’ at all, despite pretending to do so. Its characters’ sensibilities are modern, its gods agents in the imagined world much as its mortals are — the gods are more powerful, though ‘power’ is rendered here only in terms of the ability to overbear, with violence or words — all potestas, nothing of auctoritas. There’s nothing in these gods of the numinous, the transcendent, nothing of the strange, the awe-inspiring, tarrying or resplendent. This is not a dimension that Cameron reproduces in his imagined Bronze Age; although for ‘actual’ Bronze Age human beings, in their porosity of subjectivity, it was a crucial and wondrous and terrifying aspect of existence. The characters go about their various plot-driven actions, and the storylines are punctuated by interludes of purely somatic intensity (the violence, the fighting, the sex) that do nothing to estrange, to capture or embody the wonder and strangeness of the past as such. 

Great post by Adam. I would just add that precisely the same problem afflicts most SF, which cosplays an imagined future as fantasy cosplays an imagined past (or past-like secondary world). As someone who has toyed with the idea of writing both fantasy and SF, I have always believed that this is the greatest challenge: How to avoid writing characters who are people exactly like me, only placed in a different natural, cultural, and technological environment? But people who are situated in radically different environments develop in wholly different ways: each Lebenswelt generates its own distinctive range of cultural and personal possibilities. Trying to imagine my way from (a) the possibilities, the options of mind and action, available to me in my Lebenswelt to (b) what someone formed in a radically different environment might experience … well, that’s astonishingly difficult. (Indeed, I have felt this challenge so strongly that I’ve never completed anything in either genre. The problem defeats me.) 

One writer who has attempted to think through these problems, though primarily in one novel and with one character, is C. S. Lewis. (He attempts a similar act of historical imagination in Till We Have Faces but without the explicit contrast to our own world.) The novel is That Hideous Strength and the character is Merlinus Ambrosius, who is awakened from 1500 years of sleep into mid-twentieth-century England and is puzzled by everything he sees. For instance: 

“Sir,” said Merlin in answer to the question which the Director had just asked him. “I give you great thanks. I cannot indeed understand the way you live and your house is strange to me. You give me a bath such as the Emperor himself might envy, but no one attends me to it; a bed softer than sleep itself, but when I rise from it I find I must put on my own clothes with my own hands as if I were a peasant. I lie in a room with windows of pure crystal so that you can see the sky as clearly when they are shut as when they are open, and there is not wind enough within the room to blow out an unguarded taper; but I lie in it alone with no more honor than a prisoner in a dungeon. Your people eat dry and tasteless flesh but it is off plates as smooth as ivory and as round as the sun. In all the house there are warmth and softness and silence that might put a man in mind of paradise terrestrial; but no hangings, no beautified pavements, no musicians, no perfumes, no high seats, not a gleam of gold, not a hawk, not a hound. You seem to me to live neither like a rich man nor a poor one: neither like a lord nor a hermit.”  

The novel I think is flawed, but this is quite brilliant, and I wish the world of fiction had more like it. One reason there isn’t: Merlinus is to his modern interlocutors a thoroughly appalling character, who quite readily suggests that a woman who has not behaved in the way he thinks right should be beheaded, and then is befuddled by the response this opinion receives. (“The Pendragon tells me … that you accuse me for a fierce and cruel man. It is a charge I never heard before. A third part of my substance I gave to widows and poor men. I never sought the death of any but felons and heathen Saxons.”) And to create a character so alien to our readerly sensibilities is a risky thing for a storyteller to do; perhaps Lewis was wise to do this only with a minor character. 

After all — and here the imperatives of historical imagination may run contrary to the imperatives of good storytelling, readers do typically want to … well, we have different words for it: people used to say that they like to identify with characters, but now they’re more likely to say that they find characters relatable (or not). This is an impulse that I don’t wish to discourage: as Edward Mendelson says in his excellent book The Things That Matter, “A reader who identifies with the characters in a novel is not reacting in a naïve way that ought to be outgrown or transcended, but is performing one of the central acts of literary understanding.” But, I fear, the more seriously a writer takes this reaction the more constrained that writer will be in historical imagination. 

weapons and separations

Adam Roberts:

But the thing that struck me is the way Gandalf comes back invulnerable. The last we see of Gandalf the Grey he is complaining that he is tired (‘what an evil fortune! And I am already weary’ [348]). Now he has almost limitless energy — when the four of them ride all day and all night across Rohan, Gandalf permits them only ‘a few hours rest’…. Not only does he not need sleep, he cannot be harmed by weapons: ‘Indeed, my friends,’ he tells his companions: ‘none of you have any weapon that could hurt me’ [516]. This carries with it the suggestion that all Gandalf’s subsequent battlefield galivanting with Glamdring is a kind of play-acting: for he can no more be slain than could Milton’s Satan. 

Adam is rarely wrong, as I’m sure he will confirm, but I think he’s wrong here. There’s a big difference between “none of you have any weapon that could hurt me” and “no weapon of any kind can hurt me.” Later he is openly uncertain whether he is a match for the Lord of the Nazgul — why couldn’t that encounter at least potentially end in his death again? I suspect that Adam thinks (confirm this for me, friend) that Gandalf could himself be transformed into a wraith, but if that’s what he’s in danger of, I suspect that Tolkien would have him say so.

But that’s just a suspicion — I’m not sure what could befall Gandalf. I just don’t believe we can say that he is “invulnerable” in any sense of that word I know. 

(By the way, in the movie of RotK, when Gandalf finally does confront that antagonist, Peter Jackson makes one of his very worst mistakes by having the Boss Wraith instantly destroy Gandalf’s staff, thus demonstrating absolute dominance over the wizard. It’s impossible to imagine that Gandalf, who has returned from death to fulfill his role as the Enemy of Sauron, could be utterly helpless before one of Sauron’s servants. Jackson then compounds the error by having the Wraith distracted from Gandalf by events on the battlefield: he immediately flies away rather than pausing for the four seconds it would clearly take him to destroy the staffless wizard whom he knows to be the leader of the rebels against the Dark Lord. It’s such a dumb scene.) 

I’m ignoring the main topics of Adam’s post, but I cherish that as my right. One further thing though: At the end Adam discusses Eomer’s complete ignorance of the existence of Lothlorien, though it’s almost on his borders. I wonder if this is meant to be an illustration in small of a more general phenomenon: the separation of the various peoples of Middle Earth, their withdrawal into “gated communities” with a consequent xenophobia. The leaders of Gondor are largely ignorant, and when not ignorant suspicious, of natural allies like the people of Rivendell; the boundaries of Lothlorien are closely guarded; the people of Bree rarely see travelers from the Shire; the dwarves of the Lonely Mountain don’t even know what has become of their kinsman Balin — and don’t seem especially interested, though they are curious. (How far is it from the Lonely Mountain to Moria? Maybe 600 miles? A goodly distance, but people in these books make such journeys fairly regularly.) We are often reminded that what’s called the Last Alliance of Men and Elves occurred thousands of years before the events of this book. The whole world seems to be afflicted by a mistrust of everyone except those who are definitively One’s Own People. There can be good reasons for mistrust, mind you, but not all of these folks act on good reasons. 


In his brilliant book J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, Tom Shippey spends a good deal of time trying to account for the depth and intensity of the hatred of Tolkien among the literati. Many of his points are worthy, but I am especially drawn to something he writes near the end of the book, which he is comparing Tolkien to James Joyce — and there are indeed some interesting points of comparison, for instance in the generic forms their great ambitions take and their fascination with language. But of course there are huge differences as well, and Shippey focuses on one of the most important when he notes their radically different attitudes towards the classical tradition. 

Shippey points out that much Modernist writing depends heavily on literary allusion, and especially allusion to the literary inheritance of Greece and Rome. Ulysses is the obvious example here, followed closely by Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” Joyce refers occasionally to Irish myth and legend, and Eliot quotes the Upanishads, but those references are not central; if you really want to get to the heart of those texts, you must know Odysseus and Tiresias. (Shakespeare too.) Even Yeats, for all of his invocations of Irish legend, expects his readers to know about Leda and the swan and to grasp the significance of the death of Agamemnon. The essential works of the classical tradition are the lingua franca for the most ambitious and demanding writers in English-language Modernism. (As they were for Milton, who effectively defines ambition for so many writers that follow him.) 

Tolkien doesn’t care about any of this.

He alludes frequently to works of what he regarded as his own tradition, the ‘Shire tradition’ of native English poetry…. Tolkien’s heroes and his major debts came from the native and Northern tradition which Milton never knew and Eliot ignored: Beowulf, Sir Gawain, Sigurd, the Eddic gods — a tradition seen by most modernists as literally barbarous (the possession of people who speak incomprehensible languages). 

In brief, “Tolkien was as educated as [the literati] were, but in a different school.” 

Educated in a different school. And the key point here — Shippey hints at this, but is not quite as explicit as he might have been — is that Tolkien never expects his readers to know any of what he knows. To fully appreciate Ulysses you need to know the Odyssey, but the reader of The Hobbit need not be aware of Snorri Sturluson’s “Tally of the Dwarves” in his Skaldskaparmál:

Nár, Nainn, Nipingr, Dainn,

Bifur, Báfur, Bömbur, Nóri,

Órinn, Onarr, inn, Miöð̠vitnir,

Vigr og Gandálfr, Vindálfr, Þorinn,

Fili, Kili, Fundinn, Váli … 

Indeed, perhaps it is better if we don’t know, at least not until after we’ve read and enjoyed the story. Similarly, it is certainly interesting to note that the exchange between Gandalf & Co. and Háma, the Doorward of Théoden, in The Two Towers is nearly identical to an early scene in Beowulf — but Tolkien doesn’t expect you to know that and your appreciation of the scene isn’t diminished if you don’t. 

The great Modernist writers have a tendency to flatter their learned readers and disdain the others; they are in many respects principially elitist. (As has often been noted, Leopold Bloom is Joyce’s hero but he couldn’t have read Joyce’s book about him.) There’s none of this in Tolkien; the astonishing range of allusions to medieval writing in The Lord of the Rings is certainly meant to provide a kind of felt (not directly perceived) coherence to the reader — Shippey is great on this — but its primary purpose is to satisfy Tolkien’s own imaginative needs. There was, I think, something creatively liberating about having been educated in a school — Germanic and Anglo-Saxon philology — that virtually none of his readers ever attended. 

Dunsany’s games

In the class I’m currently teaching on fantasy, we are moving from George MacDonald’s Phantastes to Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter. Phantastes is a classic quest romance, with the added dimension, as Harold Bloom pointed out in a justly famous early essay, that in Romantic and post-Romantic narrative any quest will be primarily an internal one, a psychological or spiritual searching.  

More critics than I can readily count have said that Dunsany is the father of modern fantasy, but it’s very interesting in light of that claim to see how frequently he subverts the expectations of fantasy in all of its forms. For instance … well, why don’t you take just a few minutes now and read a very short story of his called “The Hoard of the Gibbelins”? I’ll wait.

See what he did there? One of the things that we always hear in quest romances, and in other forms of fantasy, is that the protagonist of our story is striving to succeed in an endeavor which many before him have unsuccessfully attempted. Our interest, then, in this protagonist is closely related to our belief that he will indeed succeed in his quest. But the protagonist of “The Hoard of the Gibbelins” does not succeed. It’s very shrewdly and wittily done.  

Interestingly enough, the protagonist of that story has almost exactly the same name (Alderic) as the protagonist of The King of Elfland’s Daughter (Alveric). And that might suggest to us that Dunsany wants to play with the conventions and expectations of his chosen genre in that novel as well. Let’s take a look.

In the first chapter, the prince Alveric is given a task, a great Quest to pursue, and … he completes the quest by the end of chapter 3. The story has barely started, and it seems to be over. What that tells us is that Dunsany isn’t actually interested in Quest, at least not in any conventional way, and perhaps, at this point, we should remember that the name of this novel is not The Quest of Prince Alveric but rather The King of Elfland’s Daughter and revise our expectations in light of that title.   

Some of you will know that long ago a scholar named A. J. Greimas – the OG Ayjay, as it were – declared that all stories are comprised of what he called actants. There were six of these, in three pairs: subject/object, sender/receiver, helper/opponent. In a standard quest romance, the Quester, however odd or ambiguous his quest, is always the subject. Thus our interest in Phantastes is always what happens to Anodos; we see the world through his eyes. 

But in Dunsany’s novel things are different. One could say that in the first three chapters of the story, Alveric is the subject, the persons and things of Elfland as the objects, and various figures are helpers or opponents. The primary opponent seems to be the King of Elfland, the primary helper the witch Ziroonderel. But after the completion of his quest, Alveric recedes from the novel for quite some time and the focus moves elsewhere, primarily to the denizens of Elfland. At this point, we would do better to think of the subject of the story as Lirazel and the objects of the story as the things of our world – what Dunsany typically calls “the fields we know” –; and then we might see her husband, her son, and her father as helpers or opponents of hers. In MacDonald’s work women are almost always the helpers or opponents of men; but Lirazel is much more than that even if we can’t quite see her as in any simple sense the protagonist of the story.

It’s a very curious novel with shifting perspectives, and continual reminders that the understanding of one world is never to be given priority over the understanding of another, nor is the understanding of one character to be definitive for the readers. It’s full of sly subversions of the tropes of fantasy, often presented en passant. For instance, there’s a delightful little moment when a troll from Elfland comes to our world on his own Quest, happens to encounter a child, and suggests that perhaps the child would want to go to Elfland — from which, as we know from our fairy tales, she would never return. The child mulls the offer for a moment and then declines, because her mother has made her a jam roll and she wants to eat it. So nothing happens. The troll goes on about his business. 

But we haven’t yet talked about senders and receivers. Here too Dunsany complicates things. At the outset the King of Erl sends his son Alveric to Elfland, and Elfland quite reluctantly receives him. But from that point on we are treated to a series of sendings and receivings, characters moving back and forth between Elfland and the fields we know, Elfland itself contracting and expanding — but hovering over it all are the three great runes of the King of Elfland: the magic he can send forth in power that no one can contest or deflect. The whole story builds to a final sending, a conclusive receiving. 

It is a very strange book — it gets stranger the more you think about it — and is, I believe, a genuine masterpiece. 


Phantastes is all about doubling: reflections in mirrors, a cave of making juxtaposed to a grotto of destruction, a loving womanly beech-tree versus a malicious Maiden of the Ash, a bedroom in an ordinary Victorian home and the twin of that bedroom in Fairy Castle. All of these doublings are most fully embodied in the contrast between our world — where the waters reflect but the sky does not — and Fairy Land — where just the opposite is true.

On the day after his 21st birthday, a man named Anodos enters Fairy Land, undergoes many adventures and trials, and returns to his home twenty-one days later — though the period feels to him like twenty-one years, that is, the equivalent of the time he had previously spent in our world. (The one life mirrors the other.) His parents both being dead, he has now, at reaching his majority, become the head of his household:

My mind soon grew calm; and I began the duties of my new position, somewhat instructed, I hoped, by the adventures that had befallen me in Fairy Land. Could I translate the experience of my travels there, into common life? This was the question. Or must I live it all over again, and learn it all over again, in the other forms that belong to the world of men, whose experience yet runs parallel to that of Fairy Land? These questions I cannot answer yet. But I fear.

These concerns about the effects of such doubling (such “parallel” experiences) are, it seems clear, George MacDonald’s own concerns about the writing of fantasy. In his essay “The Fantastic Imagination” MacDonald confesses quite directly a complication in the writing of what we would now call fantasy but when he called (as he himself said, for lack of a better term) fairy tale:

  1. On the one hand, among the literary genres the fairy tale has a unique power to “wake a meaning” in its readers — and this is a great thing. “The best thing you can do for your fellow, next to rousing his conscience, is — not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him; or say, to make him think things for himself.” In seeking this effect the writer of a fairy tale is imitating Nature: “The best Nature does for us is to work in us such moods in which thoughts of high import arise.”
  2. On the other hand, there is nothing the writer of the fairy tale could or should do to determine what meaning is awakened in its readers. He says this repeatedly. “A genuine work of art must mean many things; the truer its art, the more things it will mean.” To determine that a single meaning be extracted from the tale is to write an allegory, and “a fairytale is not an allegory. There may be allegory in it, but it not an allegory. He must be an artist indeed who can, in any mode, produce a strict allegory that is not a weariness to the spirit.” No, “the greatest forces lie in the region of the uncomprehended,” and therefore the fairy-tale writer must be willing to accept, and indeed must (by opening his mind and spirit) court the uncomprehended. Otherwise, why bother writing a fairy tale?

MacDonald knows that this will not be pleasant news to the didactically inclined. But the didactically inclined are free to work in (and to read) genres other than the fairy tale.

If a writer’s aim be logical conviction, he must spare no logical pains, not merely to be understood, but to escape being misunderstood; where his object is to move by suggestion, to cause to imagine, then let him assail the soul of his reader as the wind assails an aeolian harp. If there be music in my reader, I would gladly wake it. Let fairytale of mine go for a firefly that now flashes, now is dark, but may flash again. Caught in a hand which does not love its kind, it will turn to an insignificant ugly thing, that can neither flash nor fly.

A work of fantasy, then — in addition to being a firefly, and a wind —, may be described as a mirror, but as with the Mirror of Galadriel, what one sees in it is largely determined by who one is. (And anyway, if G. C. Lichtenberg was right, that’s true of all books without exception: “A book is like a mirror,” he said; “If a jackass looks in, you can’t expect an apostle to look out.”)

But if this mirror will provide any kind of reflection at all in what Lord Dunsany liked to call “the fields we know,” what’s necessary, MacDonald believes, is a kind of consistency in the imagined world one offers to the reader.

Man may, if he pleases, invent a little world of his own, with its own laws; for there is that in him which delights in calling up new forms — which is the nearest, perhaps, he can come to creation. […] His world once invented, the highest law that comes next into play is, that there shall be harmony between the laws by which the new world has begun to exist; and in the process of his creation, the inventor must hold by those laws. The moment he forgets one of them, he makes the story, by its own postulates, incredible. To be able to live a moment in an imagined world, we must see the laws of its existence obeyed. Those broken, we fall out of it.

This is obviously an adumbration of Tolkien’s more famous concept of “secondary worlds” — but it is clear (see my previous post on mythopoeic promiscuity) that when MacDonald talks about the “laws” of an imagined world he cannot possibly mean the kind of consistency in world-building that Tolkien so prized, and so lamented the absence of in Lewis’s fiction.

I think the laws that MacDonald refers to are mystical and spiritual, and unconnected altogether to the material furniture of the fictional environment. But I need to think about that further — and about the specific ways that MacDonald’s crazy-quilt fictional world just might possess a consistency that allows it to serve as a useful mirror of our own.

the buffered self in Fairy Land

A number of years ago I wrote an essay called “Fantasy and the Buffered Self” in which I applied Charles Taylor’s distinction between “porous” and “buffered selves” to the question of why fantasy is such a popular genre in our putatively disenchanted age. There’s a wonderful illustration of this distinction in Chapter VIII of George MacDonald’s Phantastes. Wandering in the woods of what he believes to be Fairy Land, our protagonist Anodos comes across a farmhouse into which he is welcomed by a kindly woman. Anodos tells her about his frightening experiences in the mysterious forest, and she replies,

“It is just as I feared, … but you are now for the night beyond the reach of any of these dreadful creatures. It is no wonder they could delude a child like you. But I must beg you, when my husband comes in, not to say a word about these things; for he thinks me even half crazy for believing anything of the sort. But I must believe my senses, as he cannot believe beyond his, which give him no intimations of this kind. I think he could spend the whole of Midsummer-eve in the wood and come back with the report that he saw nothing worse than himself. Indeed, good man, he would hardly find anything better than himself, if he had seven more senses given him.”

Anodos meets this (as it were) well-buffered farmer, who is openly skeptical of any hint that there are strange creatures in the forest — “It is only trees and trees, till one is sick of them” — and then is put to bed in a room that looks not into the forest but across a plain open field.

I was somewhat sorry not to gather any experience that I might have, of the inhabitants of Fairy Land; but the effect of the farmer’s company, and of my own later adventures, was such, that I chose rather an undisturbed night in my more human quarters; which, with their clean white curtains and white linen, were very inviting to my weariness.

In the morning I awoke refreshed, after a profound and dreamless sleep. The sun was high, when I looked out of the window, shining over a wide, undulating, cultivated country. Various garden-vegetables were growing beneath my window. Everything was radiant with clear sunlight. The dew-drops were sparkling their busiest; the cows in a near-by field were eating as if they had not been at it all day yesterday; the maids were singing at their work as they passed to and fro between the out-houses: I did not believe in Fairy Land.

Exhausted by his own porosity, Anodos seeks some protective buffers, some “more human quarters,” to shield him from his “own later [i.e. recent] adventures.” Seek and you shall find — even deep in the heart of Fairy Land.

moderation in consistency: fantasy edition

Adam Roberts:

I have, I think, a rough model of the broader discursive-etymology of Middle Earth/Narnia — their strange hybrid of medieval/Anglo-Saxon and bourgeois 19th/20th century worldbuilding, their Arthurianism (once-and-future kingishness, merlin-y wizards, battles of good against evil), their complex relationship to allegory — and also their relationship to the tradition of Scottian historical fiction and literary antiquarianism. 

This comes from the first post in Adam’s re-read of LOTR, which I am pleased to see, first because I am always glad to hear from Adam on fantasy, second because I am excited that he’s writing a book on fantasy, and third because I am currently teaching a class on fantasy which includes LOTR and I want to learn from him. 

So there will be commentary! — on Adam’s posts but also on what I’m teaching. In fact I have a post on George MacDonald’s Phantastes that’s queued up for Monday. And speaking of … 

Adam is right about the features that link the work of Lewis and Tolkien, but here let me just flag a major difference: they disagreed about as strongly as two writers could on the value of what we might call mythopoeic promiscuity. As I wrote in my biography of Lewis, explaining Lewis’s debt to the early-modern writers in whom Tolkien had no interest: 

The consistency and integrity that Tolkien believed necessary to all “sub-creation” demanded that the “real” world and the imaginary world of Faery be kept completely separate. But such was not the view of Spenser and Sidney and other “romancers” of their time. That Christian theology should “break in” to Arcadia, or to Faery, was in that era a “convention … well understood, and very useful. In such works the gods are God incognito and everyone is in on the secret. Paganism is the religion of poetry through which the author can express, at any moment, just so much or so little of his real religion as his art requires.” This is a very precise account of what Lewis himself does in Till We Have Faces and, in a different way, in Narnia. It is wrong, therefore, to suppose that the difference on this matter between Tolkien and Lewis can be described in terms of a careful, scrupulous Tolkien and a thoughtless, inattentive Lewis. Tolkien may have been a greater writer of fiction than Lewis — indeed, I feel sure that he was — but not because he had a sound theory of subcreation while Lewis was just playing with his toys. The approach Lewis took has deeper historical roots than Tolkien’s, and in following it Lewis was walking in the footsteps of great predecessors indeed. 

It’s the model of Spenser and (especially) Sidney that Lewis draws on when, for instance, he brings Father Christmas into Narnia — about as flagrant a violation of consistency in world-building as could be imagined. Tolkien was horrified and attributed such jarring juxtapositions to incompetence; but Lewis knew what he was doing. 

What I didn’t say in that passage was that in embracing mythopoeic promiscuity, Lewis was also following in the footsteps of his “master” MacDonald. In the fifth chapter of Phantastes we get the myth of Pygmalion, and in the sixth Anodos encounters Sir Percival; MacDonald is perfectly happy to have a wide range of mythological, legendary, and literary worlds knocking against one another. And if I were to make a defense of this procedure, I’d begin by noting that a great many myths and tales and legends are always knocking against one another in our own heads.

Not for nothing does he choose this passage about “true fairy tales” [echten Märchen] from Novalis as the epigraph to his tale:

Die ganze Natur muss wunderlich mit der ganzen Geisterwelt gemischt sein; hier tritt die Zeit der Anarchie, der Gesetzlosigkeit, Freiheit, der Naturstand der Natur, die Zeit von der Welt ein… 

All of nature must be wonderfully mixed with the whole of the spirit world; here comes the time of anarchy, lawlessness, freedom, the natural state of nature, the time of the world…. 

Anyway, go read Adam’s post now — there is much insight in it.

P.S. The title of this post comes from this

the tongues of men and angels

Milton, Angels, Mortals: a Story Idea | by Adam Roberts: This will be a very busy day, so I don’t have time to engage with this as fully as I desperately want to do, so consider this a bookmark, and these as first thoughts: 

  • In this scenario, angels are bitcoin and people are money. 
  • The angels/humans relationship looks a good bit like that of Elves and Men in Tolkien’s legendarium, except that Elves do have children (just not many of them). 
  • Maybe in light of that one element of this history would be the fallen angels trying to figure out how to have children. Would they pursue this technologically? Or would they, like the people in The Children of Men, make do with surrogates? 
  • Adam envisions the faithful angels remaining in Heaven with God, but why would they do that? If in the orthodox Christian understanding (faithful) angels are among us, why wouldn’t they be in Adam’s imagined world? 

More … eventually. 


Adam Roberts, back in 2014:

There is, I think, a genuine human fascination with outer space. Apollo could have capitalised upon that fascination and expanded into broader and better conceived programmes. But it didn’t, and the real reason it didn’t is that people found a more satisfying way scratch their metaphorical itch. Like a diet of sweets and pastries instead of spinach and brown rice, big screen sci-fi quelled our appetite for space travel in a way both delicious and fundamentally unhealthy. Why should people around the globe give up a significant fraction of their respective gross national products to pay for actual space travel when Hollywood could give them all the thrills of outer space in virtual form?

I think this point — which I missed back when it was published — harmonizes nicely with the argument I made in my essay from the same year, “Fantasy and the Buffered Self”:  

Fantasy — in books, films, television shows, and indeed in all imaginable media — is an instrument by which the late modern self strives to avail itself of the unpredictable excitements of the porous self while retaining its protective buffers. Fantasy, in most of its recent forms, may best be understood as a technologically enabled, and therefore safe, simulacrum of the pre-modern porous self. 

Stories as distractions, as substitute satisfactions, as soma.  


How much of fantasy, I wonder, is revenge fantasy? I’m asking this question, of course, because there’s a new Tarantino movie, and revenge fantasy is His Thing. But this does seem to be one of the primary functions of the fantastic: to create fictional worlds in which moral dramas can play out in ways that the authors like — and especially in which enemies are exposed and punished.

In Tarantino’s case this tends to involve simple rewriting of history, but this mode, or perhaps mood, of storytelling can take several forms.

The future fantasy, as in The Handmaid’s Tale: My enemies don’t have absolute power right now, but if they ever got it here’s the kind of thing they would do.

The alternate worlds fantasy, as in Pullman’s His Dark Materials: In our world the Catholic Church did not rule all of Europe with an iron anti-science fist, and John Calvin did not order the execution of children, but they very easily could have and might have, and see, in this universe right next door to ours we find the cold ugly logic of their position carried to its natural conclusion.

The feigned history fantasy with allegorical overtones: In The Lord of the Rings Saruman is a modern industrialist avant le lettre, and through him Tolkien gets to demonstrate how “a mind of gears and wheels” works and the kind of damage it does if its power is unconstrained. But we also get to see how that mind undoes its own plans, and how the natural world acts to restore a proper equilibrium. There’s a palpable longing in that strand of the tale: If only something like that could happen here and now.

The satirical fantasy, as in the this-world frame-story of The Silver Chair, where Lewis develops his idea that self-consciously “modern” education produces people “without chests,” without a moral foundation, and thereby unleashes the natural human propensity to nastiness. But a visit to Narnia gives Jill and Eustace the moral clarity to see and act (rather violently!) against the absurdities of Experiment House: “For, with the strength of Aslan in them, Jill plied her crop on the girls and Caspian and Eustace plied the flats of their swords on the boys so well that in two minutes all the bullies were running like mad, crying out, ‘Murder! Fascists! Lions! It isn’t fair.’”

So, again: fantasy as a means of exposing and/or punishing the author’s enemies. You could put a positive spin on this and say that fantasy is preoccupied with justice; and sometimes that would be right; Tolkien’s treatment of Saruman seems the least vengeful, largely, I think, because Saruman is so often and so explicitly given the opportunity to choose a different path than the one he settles on — an opportunity Tolkien doesn’t give to Orcs, as Auden was I think the first to note. It’s when enemies are portrayed as unreformable, as incapable of repenting or in any significant way changing, that the love of justice tends to be transformed into a crowing over their wickedness, or a delight in vengeance taken upon them.

(I got an email in response to the above from my friend Adam Roberts, and realized that I needed to be more clear. Here’s my response to Adam. I hope to develop these thoughts in more detail later.)

First of all, I think dreams of revenge are always moral — but of course are dreams of power too. We dream of revenge when we believe that some injustice has been done and we want to make it right, or at least redress it in some way, but can’t. Surely — to put it in Augustinian terms — the root of every dream of vengeance is a love of justice, even if the flowers thereof are fleurs du mal. I love that moment in Lord of the Rings when Sam tells Galadriel that if she had the Ring some nasty people would be paid out, and put in their place, to which she replies, “Yes. That is how it would begin.”

I’m thinking that one form of vengeance is exposure: I may not be able to stop you, but I can expose you. I see that in various ways in all the examples I give, but it seems to me especially clear in Atwood and Pullman. Atwood isn’t taking vengeance on reality, she’s taking vengeance on fundamentalist Christians who have done so much damage to women over the centuries. She is saying, “I will create a world which will give you the power you crave and in that way I will enable all my readers to see you for what you truly are, and to condemn you.”

We do learn at the end of the book that the Gilead Period eventually comes to an end, to be replaced by something not quite as bad perhaps, but there’s no real punishment for the wicked characters. That’s where Pullman goes a step further. Mrs Coulter and Father Gomez and Metatron are all killed, and Metatron’s afterlife Gulag is dismantled. So there is exposure — Pullman has said in interviews quite explicitly that Christians haven’t done the things that they do in his book only because they haven’t had the chance — but also punishment. We get to exult in the destruction of the wicked. (Lewis is playing the same song in a sillier arrangement when Eustace and Jill put the bullies to rout.)

race and ethnicity in the Potterverse

Race and ethnicity are pretty weird in the Potterverse  because of the peculiar ways that fictional world overlaps with our own. This weirdness emerges frequently in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, as my friend Adam Roberts recently commented to me. What follows is an expansion of my response to Adam.

Consider Lela Lestrange: a member of a family notorious for its obsession with purity of wizarding blood, and yet also a mixed-race woman. If you were reading her story in a book, you’d be able to focus on her pure-blood status; watching her in a movie, you are continually reminded of the color of her skin and how it differs from that of the very white Scamander boys who love her.

Or think of Nagini: a Maledictus, a woman under a curse that transforms her into a snake, a woman (we are told) from Indonesia — and who is played in the film by a South Korean actress. That she is a Maledictus is the only thing that matters in the context of the story; but that may not be the only thing that viewers see.

Strangest of all, note this scene: a group of Aurors from various Ministries of Magic find themselves in the midst of a rally led by Gerrit Grindelwald. There is also among them one Muggle, Jacob Kowalski, and one might think that he would be especially frightened and endangered, since Grindelwald’s message is implicitly anti-Muggle. (Grindelwald keeps saying that he doesn’t hate Muggles, that he only wants wizards to live freely in the open — to have Lebensraum, one might say — but come on.) Yet when the camera looks away from Grindelwald, it tends to linger on the anxious face of one of our lead characters, Tina. Why is she so anxious?

The immediate and obvious reason is that she is an Auror, and Grindelwald has just announced to the crowd that there are Aurors among them. (This leads one witch to pull her wand threateningly on someone she perceives to be an Auror, which leads in turn to his killing her — an event which suits Grindelwald’s purposes very nicely, because it allows him to portray his movement as a peaceable one, its members constantly under threat from the violent policing of the magical world’s official bodies.) So Tina could well be fearful that the crowd will turn on her.

Might there be another reason for her to fear? Well, the sleuths of Potter fandom have discovered that she is a half-blood. (Their primary evidence: this.) Does that make her vulnerable among Grindelwald’s supporters? Maybe not: so far he has not sounded the pure-blood clarion the way Voldemort will later do — at least, not that I recall. His emphasis is strongly on the Magic-Muggle dichotomy. So maybe half-blood status doesn’t matter. Yet.

But then there’s this: Tina’s full name is Porpentina Goldstein, something that’s very hard to forget when she stands in a crowd of people who follow the extravagantly Aryan Grindelwald. Does being Jewish matter in the wizarding world? Do the various prejudices and racial identifications that do such powerful work in our Muggle world have any purchase among the magical? The general tone and tenor of the Potterverse would suggest not, but at moments like these….

Adam Roberts also recently pointed me to a series of poets by Phil Edwards on Rowling’s worldmaking. Edwards posits a rough taxonomy of fantasy worlds — the nuts-and-bolts, the numinous, and the satirical/polemical — and suggests that the Potterverse is “a hazy amalgam of all three, covered by repeated register-switching between them.” This seems right to me, and it helps to explain why the racial logic of our social order keeps floating in and out of view. It’s a rather disorienting phenomenon.

To some extent this kind of thing happens in all Fantasy — thus the permanent tendency of readers to see The Lord of the Rings as an allegory of the Second World War, and thus also Tolkien’s endless frustration with that reading. In Edwards’s terms, Tolkien had, he thought, done enough nuts-and-bolts work to rescue his story from such easy analogies. But Rowling seems positively to court such allegorical readings — only to swerve away from them later.

Le Guin’s golden age

Between 1968 and 1974 Ursula K. Le Guin published

A Wizard of Earthsea
The Left Hand of Darkness
The Tombs of Atuan
The Lathe of Heaven
The Farthest Shore
The Disposessed

— along with a series of classic stories, including “Vaster than Empires and More Slow,” “Winter’s King,” and “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” That would be quite a literary career. She did it in six years.