Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Just Gimme Some Truth: Reading the Old Masters of Fantasy

"Fantastic fiction... is like the majority of modern fiction primarily fashionable, written for a particular audience at a particular time. Although it borrows images and cadences from poetry it is almost never poetic. It caters for current tastes; it takes the elements from the mother-body and presents them in popular and sensational form... Though occasionally it will transcend these limitations it rarely outlives its audience."

This is the rather dubious definition with which Michael Moorcock begins his seminal work Wizardry & Wild Romance: A Study of Epic Fantasy. Moorcock's book aroused two strong reactions in me: anger and interest.

First, the anger, which was mainly centered on the chapter entitled "Epic Pooh." This chapter is devoted, basically, to a thorough dissing of JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis (others are mentioned, including Charles Williams, but Tolkien and Lewis are the main targets). Now, it is not the fact that Moorcock doesn't like or dares to criticize Tolkien and Lewis; he is, of course, entitled to his own opinion, and I'd rather have an intelligent and accomplished critic like Moorcock heading up the opposition than some slob. No, it was the fact that Moorcock consistently misquotes, misconstrues, misinterprets, miscomprehends and downright lies about Tolkien and Lewis that aroused my ire. I suspect if I were a fan of Lovecraft, I would be equally as incensed on his behalf; his treatment of Lovecraft is nearly as wrongheaded, I think.

Ah well. The rebuttal of "Epic Pooh" is another argument for another day. I fully intend to write it, but not until I have the time and energy to do it really, really well.

My second reaction is the one I want to focus on in this post (and probably in Parts 2 and possibly 3 of this post, since it is already threatening to become ridiculously long). And this is the reason I did not immediately go Texas Chainsaw on Moorcock's butt: it's that W&WW, while wrong in places, is just so interesting.

Now, there are exceptions to every rule, and in this case interesting does not mean ugly baby. Moorcock delves deeply into the heritage of fantasy; it seems he has not only read every fantasy book ever written, but also every book that might possibly by any stretch of the imagination be at all construed to be related to fantasy--and a libraryful of other books besides. He can easily be talking about a certain book, and mention off-hand twelve other books he's read which connect somehow to the book currently under discussion.

I suppose I had a third reaction to W&WW, to whit Inspiration. For ever since I first read this book, a little over a year ago, I have been on the quest to find and read all the books that are modern fantasy's heritage. And believe me, "quest" is the right word: these books are largely out-of-print, hard-to-find, and often the only available copies are old musty paperbacks that have been in someone's garage for years. Even in reprint, they're always done by small publishers, never (seemingly) by mainstream ones.

Moorcock, I'll catch you yet!

At any rate, with all that as background, I want to dedicate the rest of this post--whatever number of parts it ends up at--to a survey of my readings. This is for my own record as much as for anybody, but whoever finishes these posts will get a gold- and/or chocolate-covered reward of some kind.

Charles Robert Maturin: Melmoth the Wanderer

Published in 1820, Melmoth is considered the "Last of the Gothic novels." It is thoroughly Gothic, in the way we generally think of the phrase: lots of shadows, lots of darkness, talk of the Devil and so forth. The novel centers around one Sebastian Melmoth who, afraid of death, made a deal with the Devil: he was given 400 years of extra life (and, apparently, certain abilities such as instantaneous transportation) in exchange for his soul. Now, Melmoth must travel the world, visiting men in their darkest hour and offering to trade places with them--he will take their burden, if they give him their soul.

In one passage, which Moorcock also quotes, an Englishman who has become obsessed with Melmoth catches up to him after a play.

When the play was over, he stood for some moments in the deserted streets. It was a beautiful moonlight night, and he saw near him a figure, whose shadow, projected half across the street, (there were no flagged ways then, chains and posts were the only defence of the foot passenger), appeared to him of gigantic magnitude. He had been so long accustomed to contend with these phantoms of the imagination, that he took a kind of stubborn delight in subduing them. He walked up to the object, and observing the shadow only was magnified, and the figure was the ordinary height of a man, he approached it, and discovered the very object of his search--the man whom he had seen for a moment in Valentia, and, after a search of four years, recognized at the theatre.

"You were in quest of me?" -"I was." "Have you any thing to inquire of me? -"Much." "Speak, then." -"This is no place." "No place! poor wretch, I am independent of time and place. Speak, if you have any thing to ask or to learn?" -"I have many things to ask, but nothing to learn, I hope, from you." "You deceive yourself, but you will be undeceived when next we meet." -"And when shall that be-" said Stanton, grasping his arm; "name your hour and your place." "The hour shall be mid-day," answered the stranger, with a horrid and unintelligible smile; "and the place shall be be the bare walls of a madhouse, where you shall rise rattling in your chains, and rustling from your straw, to greet me-yet still you shall have
the curse of sanity, and of memory. My voice shall ring in your ears till then, and the glance of these eyes shall be reflected from every object, animate or inanimate, till you behold them again." -"Is it under circumstances so horrible we are to meet again?" said Stanton, shrinking under the full-lighted blaze of those demon eyes. "I never," said the stranger, in an emphatic tone- "I never desert my friends in misfortune. When they are plunged un the lowest abyss of human calamity, they are sure to be visited by me."

Melmoth is an unconventional novel--it nearly has no beginning, and it doesn't really end. The story-telling method is like Frankenstein's frame-story multiplied exponentially: at one pointwe are reading a story within a story within a story within a story. Despite this, it's not at all hard to keep track of; you simply accept it, keep reading, and all is made clear--or at least, as clear as it's going to get. The book has a sort of dreamlike realism, like a very vivid nightmare. And yet, it's a great book. Not just if you like horror novels--it's up there with the great literature. Why? Well, it's incredibly powerful; the situations Melmoth visits are, despite their sensationalism, universally human situations. Melmoth's, too, is a human situation. There is catharsis here, too, of a similar kind to be found when watching or reading one of the great tragedies. I have read somewhere that literature's two chief functions are to show us Heaven and Hell--that is, to point us to the depths to which man is capable of sinking, and to the heights to which he is capable of climbing.
Melmoth shows us Hell, and thoroughly.

I said it already, but it bears repeating: the writing in this book is incredibly powerful. Moorcock talks about a technique the best speculative fiction writers use, of turning the very landscape of their stories into a device to convey and complement the mood of their stories. "Allegory can be nonexistent," he says, "but a certain amount of conscious metaphor is always there." I had never really noticed this particular technique at work before, but Maturin uses it to great effect. For example, this passage, with Melmoth traveling through Spain:

All this was forgot in contemplating the terrible and awful scenery before him- light struggling with darkness- and darkness menacing a light still more terrible, and announcing its menace in the blue and livid mass of clouds that hovered like a destroying angel in the air, its arrows aimed, but their direction awfully indefinite.

I could quote another page or two's worth of this passage, to drive home my point, but I have decided to spare the gentle reader. Melmoth is one of the easier of these books to find; it was fairly recently republished by Penguin Classics.

Lord Dunsany: Tales of Wonder

There are very few people, living or dead, with whom, given the opportunity, I would completely trade lives, but Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett (Lord Dunsany for short) is one of them. The blighter was an Irish baron, hunted lions in Africa, fought in two wars, was chess champion of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales,
and a master fantasy writer.

The first book I read of his was a slim volume of short stories called
Wonder Tales, a reprint of two even slimmer volumes of short stories, The Book of Wonder and Tales of Wonder. I opened it just after having had a conversation with Nat about bad hack fantasy authors who create sentences like, "John picked up the broken sword of his family's line that had been magically runed to be invincible and had defeated Melkron the first fourteen times he had tried to take over the world, with plans to reforge it and hope the fifteenth time would be the charm." So perhaps I may be forgiven for laughing when I opened this book (with full knowledge that Dunsany was a strong influence on Tolkien and other masters of fantasy) to read this opening line of the first story, "The Bride of the Man-Horse":

In the morning of his two hundred and fiftieth year Shepperalk the centaur went to the golden coffer, wherein the treasure of the centaurs was, and taking from it the hoarded amulet that his father, Jyshak, in the years of his prime, had hammered from mauntain gold and set with opals bartered from the gnomes, he put it upon his wrist, and said no word, but walked from his mother's cavern.

Despite this, I grew to like that particular story very much. It is, however, one of his more bizzare and, objectively, poorer stories, and I wouldn't normally recommend it as an introduction to Dunsany. It endeavors to make up for that opening, though, a bit later:

Yet in the blood of man there is a tide, an old sea-current rather, that is somehow akin to the twilight, which brings him rumours of beauty however far away, as drift wood is found at sea from islands not yet discovered; and this spring-tide or current that visits the blood of man comes from the fabulous quarter of his lineage, from the legendary, of old; it takes him out to the woodlands; out to the hills; he listens to ancient song.

Besides this, there are some
objectively great (as in, great by literary rather than Ethan's standards) short stories to be found here-- "Probable Adventure of the Three Literary Men," "How Knuth Would Have Practiced his art Upon the Gnoles," and "The Bureau d'Echange de Maux" come to mind just from flipping through my copy. "The Three Sailors' Gambit" is, apparently, one of the greatest chess stories ever written (I didn't know there was a category).

Dunsany is a master stylist, as can be seen above and even moreso in his later stories. He writes archaically, like Tolkien, and like Tolkien chooses a Medieval-esque, simple archaic style. But at his best, or even at his middling, he is simply a better prose writer than Tolkien. A bit painful to admit, but true.

The King of Elfland's Daughter

The second Dunsany I read was probably his most famous novel; I was under the impression it was his best, but some hardcore Dunsany fans I've talked to say another,
The Charwoman's Shadow, gets that title. I recently picked that one up at a used bookstore; I shall render judgment when I read it.

At any rate,
The King of Elfland's Daughter is a beautiful, wonderful novel, and it's an outrage that it hasn't received wider recognition. It's about a town, Erl, that exists very near the border between England ("the fields we know") and Elfland, (i.e., Faerie). (If this setting sounds familiar, it's because Neil Gaiman basically aped it--along with various other elements of this book--in his novel Stardust.) The Parliment of Erl decrees that they must have a magical ruler, so the Lord of Erl sends his son to Elfland to seek and marry the King of Elfland's daughter. Trouble, of course, ensues, but it is not the typical merry-making-and-hogwash kind of mischief we'd expect from a modern novel with this plot description. The prose is even more stately, and even better, than in Dunsany's short stories; the novel moves with a kind of dream like quality, slow and melodic, but at the same time (and probably owing to Dunsany's short-story training) it accomplishes things in forty pages that it would take an entire modern novel to do.

Don't let the talk of stateliness fool you: it's also a very earthy novel, with an eye for the humourous and the droll. Take this passage, for example, in which a troll sent to the human lands by the King of Elfland encounters a little girl, out playing in the fields:

"Hullo," said the child.

"Hullo, child of men," said the troll.

"What are you?" said the child.

"A troll of Elfland," answered the troll.

"So I thought," said the child.

"Where are you going, child of men?" the troll asked.

"To the houses," the child replied.

"We don't want to go there," said the troll.

"N-no," said the child.

"Come to Elfland," the troll said.

The child thought for awhile. Other children had gone, and the elves always sent a changeling in their place, so that nobody quite missed them and nobody really knew. She thought awhile of the wonder and wildness of Elfland, and then of her own house.

"N-no," said the child.

"Why not?" said the troll.

"Mother made a jam roll this morning," said the child. And she walked on gravely home. Had it not been for that chance jam roll she had gone to Elfland.

"Jam!" said the troll contemptuously and thought of the tarns of Elfland, the great lily-leaves lying flat upon their solemn waters, the huge blue lilies towering into the elf-light above the green deep tarns: for jam this child had forsaken them!

It was in this book that I first encountered something I would several times reading other books by old masters of fantasy: passages that struck me as simply being very, very
true. I gave my copy of Daughter away--that I did without regret, but because of it I don't have the passages I had marked to back up my point. I'll use the passage below, which Neil Gaiman quotes in his excellent introduction to a recent edition of the book, as one example. This is an example of another thing I found recurring throughout Daughter and other old fantasy: the idea of finding magic in the everyday world. Dunsany, here, speaks of the wonders of ink:

...How it can mark a dead man's thoughts for the wonder of later years, and tell of happenings that are gone clean away, and be a voice for us out of the dark of time, and save many a fragile thing from the pounding of heavy ages; or carry to us, over the rolling centuries, even a song from lips long dead on forgotten hills.

Gaimain says that Dunsany writes like "A poet who got drunk on the prose of the King James Bible, and still has not yet become sober." I can find no better way of putting it. For a while, I could not read more than a chapter at a time, for fear I too would get drunk on Dunsany's prose, and would be spouting thee's and thou's and going on about the wonders of ink even as the nice men in white coats left me in the padded cell--even while I had
the curse of sanity, and of memory.

But I must apologize. I am mixing my references.

Gaiman further states, in comparing
The King of Elfland's Daughter to other fantasy novels, that this novel is a "rich red wine, which may come as a shock if all one has had so far has been cola." I can think of no better way of putting that, either; this is a book that everyone, denizen of Elfland or not, should read.

(It's another fairly easy one to find--Del Rey reprinted it recently.)

Well, this post has already become ridiculously long. I shall slap a "Part 1" on it, give it, myself, and any readers I have left some room to breathe, and return to my topic at a later date.


Heidi said...

Ha! I read it all! Your writing is usually pretty easy to follow, so it wasn't difficult. At some point, I should read those.. I'm sure I would enjoy them.

Ethan said...

Easy to follow? Blast. I shall have to add in some more multisyllabic synonyms.

Yeah, you should read all those. You'd especially like The King of Elfland's Daughter. (Actually, certain relatives of yours have a copy, you might borrow it from her at some point. :P)

Nat said...

What would Gaiman say of your writing, I wonder?

One reading Bartlett will often come upon the stuff like one coming across a glass of rum and coke inexplicably in the woods, and, though right in assuming that the coke has gone flat, is pleasantly surprised to find that the rum is rather good.

Ethan said...


Um, thanks? I'm thinking it's either that or I'll have to kill you, and I don't really want to do that for various reasons. :P

Nat said...

Oh, you know I like your writing, now. But I figured if I was imaginatively speaking for a famous author in a criticism of you, I ought to be modest enough (for your sake) to make the criticism not entirely positive.

I mean, considering that it'd be enough of a stretch for Neil Gaiman to comment on your blog in the first place. >_> (cough)

Ethan said...


True, true, all true.