Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Just Gimme Some Truth: Reading the Old Masters of Fantasy (Part 2)

This is simply a continuation of my last post with a similar title, and, as such, should not contain this introductory paragraph. It does, however. What follows will have less to do with Moorckock and more to do with the works to which his book led me. So, onward.

E.R. Eddison: The Worm Ouroboros

Between Dunsany, William Morris (whose The Well at the World's End I recently bought, and which might become Part 3 of this post), and Eddison, we apparently have the three strongest contemporary influences on Tolkien's trilogy. And with its grand quests and sub-quests, massive battles punctuated by thrilling single combat, and overarching aura of Dark Magic, it reminded me of nothing more than Return of the King. There were some, er, aesthetic oddities about the book. At the beginning , a man and his wife seemingly astral project to Mercury, where they are apparently watching the action take place. This framing device takes up, or is mentioned frequently for about the first 50 pages; it is mentioned once again at about page 150, and then disappears, never to be heard from again. The names, too--the chief rivals are Witchland and Demonland, and other locales include Impland, Pixyland, etc. The Mercury setting is immaterial--this is an alt-world fantasy, through and through. Also, the Witches and Demons, despite being described early on as having horns and forked tails, resemble nothing more than mortal men in Hallowe'en costumes.

However, all this is immaterial. The central points, the principal attractions of this book, are the story and the language.

The story contains all the best elements of Viking sagas--great battles, single combat, quests both to slay monsters and destroy enemies. There are some great sub-stories too, which I'd talk about save that it would give too much away. At the same time, we have a great deal of court politics and political intrigue, reminiscent of certain of Shakespeare's plays. Combined with these two strong elements is the third of, names aside, very strong world building. And the ending is one of the best I've ever read.

But the language is what truly sets this book apart. Whereas Tolkien and Dunsany used a simple, lyrical archaic style, Eddison goes whole hog with a 16th/17th century flowery archaism. It's fantastic; it's like Shakespeare wrote a fantasy novel. Opening at random, we get:

Surely to be in Morna Moruna was to be in the death chamber of some once lovely presence. Stains of fire were on the walls. The fair gallery of open wood-work that ran above the main hall was burnt through and partly fallen in ruin, the blackened ends of the beams that held it jutting blindly in the gap. Among the wreck of carved chairs and benches, broken and worm-eaten, some shreds of figured tapestries rotted, the home now of beetles and spiders. Patches of colour, faded lines, mildewed and damp with the corruptions of two hundred years, lingered to be the memorials, like the mummied skeleton of a king's daughter long ago untimely dead, of sweet gracious paintings on the walls. Five nights and five days the demons and Mivarsh dwelt in Morna Moruna, inured to portents till they marked them as little as men mark swallows at their window. In the still night were flames seen, and flying forms dim in the moonlit air; and in moonless nights unstarred, moans heard and gibbering accents: prodigies besode their beds, and ridings in the sky, and fleshless fingers plucking at Juss unseen when he wet forth to make question of the night.

The dialogue, too, is excellent. It's also in that high archaic style, but is somehow never overdone or melodramatic:

Now spake Spitfire saying, "Read forth to us, I pary thee, the book of Gro; for my soul is afire to set forth on this faring."

"Tis writ somewhat crabbedly, said Brandoch Daha, "and most dambably long. I spent half last night a-searching on't, and 'tis most apparent no other way lieth to these mountains save by the Moruna, and across the Moruna is (if Gro say true) but one way..."

Another excellent thing about this book is the women: Eddison writes some of the strongest female characters I've ever seen in epic fantasy. Sure, they're all (or mostly) conniving, and backstabbing, but then so are all (or most of) the men.

Linguistically, this is probably the most challenging book I'll recommend, but it's a great book--the payoff is worth the effort.

(It's been reprinted in the "Barnes and Noble Library of Essential Reading," so check B&N's fantasy section. Otherwise, I know it's been reprinted by at least two small publishers.)

James Branch Cabell: Jurgen

James Branch Cabell cut his literary teeth on authors like Horace, Montaigne, Marlowe, Moliere, and Wilde--in short, romantics long on symbolism and imagery. However, his own highly symbolic writing came in the late 1910's through the 30's--a period whose vogue involved writers like Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway--that is,
realists. Cabell hated realism, and refused to write it. Though some of his peers--Sinclair Lewis and Mark Twain, for example--praised him, Cabell's work was never hugely popular with the critics or the reading public.

Ironically, it was an attempt at censorship that brought Cabell both his most lasting fame and his largest audience. In 1919 certain members of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice picked up on some of the double entendres in
Jurgen (more on these in a bit), and it was put on trial for indecency (or some such). However, being that these were true double entendres--in that they all had perfectly legitimate, unscandalous meanings--the case was thrown out. However, this brought Jurgen into the public eye, and gained Cabell some measure of public exposure.

Enough of that. What of the book itself?

Well, the main character, a middle-aged pawnbroker named Jurgen, does a good turn for the Devil and, in gratitude, the Devil decides to do a good turn for him. Subsequently, Jurgen's wife (who seems to be rather a nag) disappears. Jurgen realizes he must set out in search for her. His journey takes him through various strange lands, including heaven, hell, and the place where the "real" master of the universe resides.

The first 50 pages (7 chapters) or so of this book contain some of the best, truest writing I've ever encountered. I spoke before of encountering in this old fantasy things which seem ultimately
true, and Jurgen had several such instances for me. Near the beginning, Jurgen follows a Centaur to the "Garden between dawn and sunrise,"--he must follow a Centaur there, as the Centaur says, "Because... there is no other way. For this garden does not exist, and never did exist, in what men humorously call real life; so that of course only imaginary creatures such as I can enter it."

He is taken by the centaur to the garden:

"Why, but it is Count Emmerick's garden at Storisende," says Jurgen, "where I used to be having such fine times when I was a lad."

"I will wager," said Nessus, "that you did not use to walk alone in this garden."

"Well, no; there was a girl."

"Just so," assented Nessus. "It is a local by-law: and here are those who comply with it."

For now had come toward them, walking together in the dawn, a handsome boy and girl. And the girl was incredibly beautiful, because everybody in the garden saw her with the vision of the boy who was with her.

A bit later, we have this:

"For in this garden," said the Centaur, "each man that ever lived has sojourned for a little while, with no company save his illusions. I must tell you again that in this garden are encountered none but imaginary creatures. And stalwart persons take their hour of recreation here, and go hence unaccompanied, to become aldermen and respected merchants and bishops, and to be admired as captains upon prancing horses, or even as kings upon tall thrones; each in his station thinking not at all of the garden ever any more. Bit now and then come timid persons, Jurgen, who fear to leave this garden without an escort: so these must need go hence with one or another imaginary creature, to guide them about alleys and by-paths, becaise imaginary creatures find little nourishment in the public highways, and shun them..."

I could quote Jurgen all day, were it not for things like time and space complaints and the fact that some of my readers are unafraid of doing me harm.

One of my favorite sections was added to the second edition of the book, after the obscenity trials: Jurgen travels to the land of Philistia, and is put on trial for indecency by the Philistines. The judge, a dung-beetle, marches into the courtroom with three pages, bearing a staff, a sword, and a lance. The judge declares to Jurgen, "You are offensive... because this page has a sword which I choose to say is not a sword. You are lewd because that page has a lance which I prefer to think is not a lance. You are lascivious because yonder page has a staff which I elect to declare is not a staff." Yeah.

One reason I think Jurgen has fallen into obscurity is that its chief theme is love, specifically romantic love; but this from an entirely male perspective, to the extent that females might have problems relating to it. And I don't mean love in a moral sense, here. Jurgen has his own idea of morality that would make an interesting essay unto itself, but that is in no way the focus of the book. What is dealt with is the feelings, the urges, the desires, the messy stuff--love as it is, not as it should be.

Jurgen is one book I can't really recommend across the board. For one, I think a person should be 18 to read it: not because of any adult themes or double entendres (though those are there), but because I think you'd have to be at least 18 just to know what Cabell is talking about. I was 19 when I read it, and I'm not entirely convinced I was even ready. Secondly, you really do have to have a strong appreciation for symbolism to get anything out of this book. However, because of the double entendres present, it may make one regret having an aptitude for symbolism.

A review on Amazon, here, quotes a letter by one Deems Taylor, who says thus:

I have finished Jurgen; a great and beautiful book, and the saddest book I ever read. I don't know why, exactly. The book hurts me -- tears me to small pieces -- but somehow it sets me free. It says the word that I've been trying to pronounce for so long. It tells me everything I am, and have been, and may be, unsparingly...I don't know why I cry over it so much. It's too -- something-or-other -- to stand. I've been sitting here tonight, reading it aloud, with the tears streaming down my face...

This, a bit melodramatically, pretty well summarizes my personal reaction to
Jurgen. It made me want to laugh, and to cry, often at the same time; and it gave me the sense that those two actions may not actually be that far apart.

Well. If after all that,
Jurgen sounds at all attractive or interesting to you, I do highly recommend reading it. I have a fairly nice version published by Dover; a search on Amazon turns up editions by a few other publishers.

Something about Eve

Another Cabell, in a similar vein to
Jurgen, though not as good. My choices here are between expounding at length or keeping it short, and considering my treatment of the last several books, I choose the latter. Read Jurgen first; if you find that at all enjoyable, read this.

Hope Mirrlees: Lud-in-the-Mist

I could swear I first heard of this book from Moorcock, but paging through
W&WW I can find no trace of it. It must have been, then, Lin Carter's Imaginary Worlds, the only book I've been able to find whose purpose is similar to Moorcock's. (It's an excellent one for recommendations and author background, but absolute crap for criticism, mainly because Carter is, to put it bluntly, an ass. This despite the fact that he likes LotR.) At any rate, it makes sense that it wasn't in Moorcock--it's not really heroic or epic fantasy, despite being set in an imagined world.

It is set in the town of Lud, in the country of Dorimare. Lud, despite being a prosperous trade town, feels very much like an English hamlet, very much a small town; though its setting in an imagined kingdom mutes any specific English-ness and gives the setting a somewhat timeless feel. To the west of Lud lie the Debateable Hills, beyond which is, of course, the Land of Faerie.

However, the citizens of Lud have outlawed Faerie's existence, and forbidden the importation or existence of Faerie fruit. (It is referred to in the books of law as 'silk.') So when there is an epidemic of children apparently having consumed the fruit, the town's mayor, Nathaniel Chanticleer, must find out where it is coming from and stop it.

This is, apparently, another of Neil Gaiman's favorites. He describes it better than I can: "The book begins as a travelogue or a history, becomes a pastorale, a low comedy, a high comedy, a ghost story and a detective story. The writing is elegant, supple, effective and haunting: the author demands a great deal from her readers, which she repays many times over."

I spoke of encountering in
Jurgen instances of apparent truth: in Lud-in-the-Mist, there were instances of this that were pages and pages long. This truth, as I've been using it, is a slippery and loosely defined concept; it may just be too many drugs on my part. I don't think so, though: it seems to me that people with great insight into how things truly are are drawn to fantasy, with its mystery and its symbolism: and it seems to me that they write books that are wonderful and soon forgotten.

Anyway, that was a digression, and it reminds me of something else: Hope Mirrlees has awesome digressions. An example, from the few pages devoted to describing Nathaniel Chanticleer:

Spiritually, too, he passed for a typical Dorimarite; though, indeed, it is never safe to classify the souls of one's neighbors; one is apt, in the long run, to be proved a fool. You should regard each meeting with a friend as a sitting he is unwittingly giving you for a portrait--a portrait that, probably, when you or he die, will still be unfinished. And, though this is an absorbing pursuit, nevertheless, the painters are apt to end pessimists. For however handsome and merry may be the face, however rich may be the background, in the first rough sketch of each portrait, yet with every added stroke of the brush, with every tiny readjustment of the "values," with every modification of the chiaroscuro, the eyes looking out at you grow more disquieting. And, finally, it is your own face that you are staring at in terror, as in a morror by candle-light, when all the house is still.

The more time passes since I read it, and the more I think about it, the more I realize that this is literally one of the best books I have ever read, up there with Twain's best and
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy and Hamlet and Something Wicked This Way Comes. If you never read another book I recommend, read this one.


Well, that is all I have for now. Anybody who has read this far will probably get that chocolate- and gold-covered prize. There may be a part three to this post, though probably not for a while: I recently picked up Morris'
The Well at the World's End, Dunsany's The Charwoman's Shadow, and Cabell's Figures of Earth; these need reading, along with many others.

A few final remarks:

I have been doing some research into whether certain works of fantastic fiction can be regarded as literature. I have come to no conclusion, yet, but one thing I have noticed: classics of fantastic literature, like the ones I've been talking about, have often been subversive, rebellious, populist, often flying in the face of what is accepted by literary critics. As such, perhaps it has doomed itself to this obscurity. However, all the authors I've listed--and I've barely scratched the surface--ought to be read. Not because they're great writers and their works are incredible (though this is true), but because they have insight into the way the world works and what it means to be human that no one else has. If you care at all about fantastic literature, you would be doing yourself a huge favor and presenting yourself with an enormous treat to read any and all of these books.

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