Thursday, May 29, 2008


Because several of my friends read it and recommended it with varying degrees of enthusiasm, and because it's enormously popular and I like keeping up on current literary trends, I recently read the book Twilight, by Stephanie Meyer. It's a new, populist, and much better-than-average incarnation of the vampires-in-high-school form of YA fiction. I quite liked the book, as light reading: it's the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries (or, to extend Gaiman's metaphor even further, a non-alcoholic Pina Colada).

However, it was not until I noticed the similarity between the two covers pictured above (while browsing Barnes and Noble) that I began to think of certain things that now seem painfully obvious.

When looked at through the lens one would use to view a book by, say, CS Lewis, certain interesting aspects begin to show themselves. (WARNING: spoilers beyond this point, and it will probably only make sense to those who have read the book.)

Several of the characters in the book could be, or at least have certain aspects of, Christ figures. In fact, on the very first page, when our heroine is contemplating her death, she does not regret it because she is dying in the place of someone she loves. Edward, too, in his constant protective role, could be seen as a Christ figure; his father, actually, could be seen in both the Christ and the Creator roles--he more or less raises Edward from the dead, for example, and grants him eternal life, and he has created this family of vampires out of loneliness--out of, we may infer, a desire to be loved.

The main character's name, Isabella Swan, is interesting too. Isabella means "My God is my oath" or "Devoted to God"; Bella, the name she prefers, comes from the Italian word for "beautiful." The Swan, of course, has multiple possible symbolic meanings--it is a symbol of innocence and purity, but also of self-sacrifice. And of course, there is the old story of the swansong, the piercingly beautiful song sung by the swan only when it is about to die.

Which brings us to the book's climax. The dance studio where Bella waits for the hunter, both because of the way dance studios look and specifically the way this one is described, has the possible appearance of a coffin or a tomb. Long, enclosed, with mirrors on all sides (resembling the smooth stone walls of a tomb or the smooth sides of a coffin), windowless. She has given herself up to the grave; but at the last minute, and without her doing (and, in fact, despite her best efforts), she is found and rescued. The heroine descends willingly to her doom, and is rescued, basically, by grace. This has every appearance of classical Christian symbolism.

Of course, it could be that I'm reading stuff into it that's not there. It's interesting to think about, at least. I'll have to see if the next two books uphold my theories.


Because there has been too much posting that could be mistaken for intelligent around here recently, and I thought this game looked like fun. Stole it from someone on Facebook.

Here's how it works:

1. Open your library (iTunes, Winamp, Media Player, iPod, etc)
2. Put it on shuffle
3. Press play
4. For every question, type the song that's playing
5. When you go to a new question, press the next button
6. Don't lie and try to pretend you're cool...
7. Include commentary

Opening Credits: Dead to the World, Nightwish [Ha, this would be great if my life movie were either angst-ridden, dark, or a dark comedy; I like the last two choices.]

Waking Up: Seven Swans, Sufjan Stevens [Complete change of pace from the last one, but it'd make an excellent waking up song--especially since the first words are, "We didn't sleep too late..."]

First Day At School: The Story So Far, Flogging Molly [Doesn't quite work; it's more of an old man song; though the lines, "All that you know means nothing to you, but it's the loss of control, shatters the truth" seem oddly fitting...]

Falling In Love: Donald McGillavry, Rising Gael [Hmm. It's got a cool beat, and it is kind of a fangirl song for the titular Celtic hero; it might work.]

Fight Song: Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn, White Stripes [It would be a very loopy fight scene, but that seems to fit with the rest so far.]

Breaking Up: Sister, by Sufjan Stevens [This would be excellent. Downbeat melancholy instrumental with some gorgeous melancholy lyrics at the end; perfect]

Prom: The Wanderlust, by Flogging Molly ["Well I'd love to photograph your hand, shake it for a while, because you learn so much, about someone, a brother or a swine..." Actually, being that proms always seem to bring out my extreme romantic streak, and so does the idea of Wanderlust, this seems to fit; it may only work for me, though]

Life's OK: Digital Sea, by Thrice ["And the ghost of Descartes screams again in the dark, oh how could I have been so wrong; But above the scream still the sirens sing their song."--Actually, these is more like "life sucks, but in the same way it has from the Fall." Which would work, for the dark or the dark comedy. Or the angst. Dang]

Mental Breakdown: Kings Upon the Main, Thrice [I suppose. Maybe I could go crazy and imagine the sea talking to me...]

Driving: The Queen of Argyll, by Wolfstone [More of an 'In love' song, but it could work. The blazing bagpipe solo could be when I get mad and swerve around people...]

Flashback: Devil in a Midnight Mass, by Billy Talent [Great for a dark flashback, but I wouldn't want to have one to the particular subject of this song. *shudder*]

Getting Back Together: Anywhere But Here, by Rise Against [hahaha... "Destination, anywhere but here, away from you..." Oh, the irony.]

Wedding: Missed the Boat, Modest Mouse [Again, it would work, in a loopy and dark sort of way; it would be the oddest wedding ever, I'd have to say]

Birth of Child: Last of the Wilds, by Nightwish [A dark, metal-ish instrumental; I have strange forebodings about this child :P]

Final Battle: Beauty of the Beast:Long Lost Love/One More Night to Live, by Nightwish [Oh wow, this would make an incredible last fight, especially the "One More Night to Live Section"; I could see this as the first part being a parting scene with the love interest, the second being the battle itself. I really really really want to use this in a movie now.]

Death Scene: Between a Man and a Woman, by Flogging Molly [Oh this would work spectacularly, if only for the irony]

Funeral Song: Birdhouse in Your Soul, by They Might Be Giants [Oh this would be awesome too; comic funeral ftw!]

End Credits: Dulaman, by Anuna [Excellent ending, a choir singing Gaelic]

Man, I seem to have bizzare music...

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.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Quick Reviews

I AM going to get back to the old fantasy, but I feel the urge to post some quick movie reviews. I'll make them quick, because opinions about movies are about a dime a dozen and usually worth even less.

Prince Caspian: Well. It was fun, I have to give it that. I hadn't read the book in too long to do a detailed comparison, but anyone going into this movie not already knowing it was a Christian allegory would be unlikely to pick up on it, Aslan aside. As a CS Lewis fan, I was disappointed. On the up side, the battles are cool, and almost all the actors, especially the kids, are excellent.

Iron Man: Not a whole lot to say about this movie. Highly entertaining fluff. Somewhat of a let-down having theatre-hopped from Indiana Jones. Good if you want to while away two hours.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: This movie was to the Indiana Jones series everything The Phantom Menace should have been to Star Wars and wasn't. An enormously fun movie, with enormously fun action scenes and dialogue. Great acting, from Harrison Ford, Shia Labeouf, Cate Blanchett (you can feel the evil coming off the screen when she appears), and most of the others. Oh, and the janitor from Scrubs is in it, which I found awesome. The henchman still can't shoot, and Indy's hat (a fedora, of course) still stays on. There are a couple plot points that remain unexplained. But of course, that's all part of the fun. I haven't seen a movie this fun since... Well, probably the last Indiana Jones. A couple points of interest: this movie is set in 1957, the bad guys being Russian. So the original movies were Cold War era movies with Indy fighting Nazis; this latest is a 9/11 era movie with Indy fighting Soviets. Second, it's set at the height of the Red Scare, and some of the things certain characters say are reminiscent of things heard after 9/11. Not politically, really, at least in a partisan sense, but more along the lines of, "You can't trust anybody, these days." This lends the movie both a sense of timeliness and one of timelessness: timeliness, in that this story can be applied to our climate today; but timelessness, in that this very fact makes you realize that the last generation felt this way, and probably the one before them and the one before them.

Well, I'll quit here and pretend that still counts as "short."

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.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Ubiquitous Update

I sit at my desk in my newly shrunken room, breathing in the steam of my 2 AM Ramen, and reflect that my freshman year of college has passed me by. Well, not really. More like it's taken me by the seat in an uncomfortable sort of wedgie and dragged me kicking and screaming and spouting bits of Hamlet along for the ride. If that metaphor doesn't make sense, it's because it's 2 AM and I am tired.

What can I say about college that isn't infinitely more cliched than my last paragraph? It's like nothing one is ever likely to experience, before or after. I miss it, at the moment, except for the part about having classes which I'm currently pretty burned out on. But I can't bring myself to miss it too much, yet. For as awesome as infinite soda at lunch and talking to people in the shower and 3 AM pizza runs and staying up all night to walk to Wal-Mart all is, it's also all extroversion; college leaves precious little room for introverts like me. As for people, really I only miss one or two--again, that's at the moment. This may seem rather un-nostalgic, especially for me, but I think it would be different if I weren't going back there in about 3 months--if I were leaving for good, this would be a far weepier paragraph. I have a feeling senior year's going to be a treat.

For classes this semester, I'll give the succinct version. Computer Apps was fairly stupid--the two weeks on Excel were useful, but for everything else I could have learned as much by opening whatever program we were looking at and clicking stuff. Speech was good in that it forced me to write and give speeches, the only way to improve that skill; though it was often boring and tempting to call superfluous. Biology was excellent, because of a good teacher; my dissatisfaction with that class comes mainly from my general disinterest in Biology. (Though if I had to be a scientist, I'd be a geneticist.) World Politics was always interesting, because of the wildly divergent views of the teacher and various students. Roman Lit was fun, if only because the teacher made Monty Python references as often as possible. Religion was basic Lutheranism, which meant I could linguistically doodle through that class. I didn't have any really mind-blowing classes this semester--I missed having classes like first semester's Ancient History (which was mind-blowing because of the teacher) and Sociology (mind-blowing because of the teacher and the subject). But such is life.

So that's all I've got to say on that. Posts of greater interest to come.