Archive for the ‘literature’ Category

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Worlds of Fantasy: fantasy… “…the biggest thing in our modern culture”??

March 17, 2008

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So, the final episode of BBC4’s Worlds of Fantasy series aired on Wednesday night (I caught it on the recently cracked BBC iPlayer) and it was easily the most interesting of the lot, managing to pack pretty much everything I complained about the absence of in the first two epsiodes. Under normal circumstances I’d have moaned about the overabundance of Terry Pratchett (as a teen I preferred Piers Anthony’s Xanth series) but in his favour he’s done a good job of popularising the genre and given that he just donated $1 million to Alzheimer’s research and is sadly suffering from the disease itself I think he deserves all the attention out of sheer respect, if nothing else.

It all began very well with some clips from World of Warcraft at long last, then drove straight into the subject of the post-war fantasy boom, with interviews from Michael Moorcock, who explains that coffee and sugar where his drugs of choice during the 60s, and, get this, Lemmy! While discussing the hippy movement’s love for Lord of the Rings the narrator, quite unintentionally states the funniest line on the whole series, when he says that ‘fantasy thrived in an underground scene of radical thinking, wild imagination and the kind of drugs that made people want to befriend elves’.

Moorcock draws an interesting parallel between rock’n’roll and fantasy genre, a point he explores in more depth in Wizardry and Wild Romance, the emphasis being on the ‘romance’ element. Given the penchant for fantasy imagery amongst ‘power metal’ bands like Blind Guardian, Doomhammer, and my personal favourite Crystal Viper this seems particularly relevant. We finally get to see some D&D in action with what appears to be a very young Steve Jackson and some very dodgily painted miniatures. We get a bit of Hollywood in here too in the form of Guillermo del Torro, director of Pan’s Labyrinth and even MMO’s own great grandfather Richard Bartle.

But the statement quoted in the title of this post is what surprised me most. Maybe I’m a bit out of touch here, but despite the popularity of The Lord of the Rinsg films and Harry Potter I thought that being a fan of this genre was nigh on the worst social stigma conceivable. Okay, so commuters unabashedly read Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings on the tube, but this falls a long way short of encompassing the genre as a whole. Perhaps it would be fair to say that ‘fantasy’ in the broadest sense is having a major impact on our entertainment preferences, especially if we count superheroes, supernatural horror and the ‘magic realism’ of shows like Pushing Daisies as well as the continuing production of more conventional fantasy releases like The Spiderwick Chronicles and the upcoming adaptation of The Hobbit. Perhaps it’s not a huge surprise that most of the conventional fantasy films are aimed at younger audiences, I’m doubtful we’ll see an Elric or Cugel the Clever film anytime soon, more’s the pity. MMOs are used to illustrate that people want to do more than just read about fantasical quests, they want to do them. We get lots of nice shots fro World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online, but again, in the UK at least there is still social stigam attached to these games, even more so than single player games. This isn’t to say that fantasy isn’t appealing, I’ve noticed the strange gleam in friends’ eyes when I show them my Dungeonquest and Talisman boardgames, I’m sure I can see their inner struggle, their curiosity to know if it will be just as exciting to pretend to be a barbarian or magician as it was when they were kids, so perhaps the fantasy is better described ‘guiltiest pleasure’ in our modern culture.

The last part of the programme briefly discusses ‘The New Weird’ and its more gritty take on the genre, asking the question is fantasy popular because of some millinerian anxiety, a need for a escapism or an abstract lense through which to view the great fears of the day? It’s a difficult call really and I’m dubious that a single factor alone can have such impact. The Harry Potter series began in 1997 four years before 9/11 and The Lord of the Rings trilogy began its run in cinemas a year before that, so fantasy was rising in popularity before our fears became apparent. Could it have been a general response to the turn of the millenium? Well, give that prior to 2001 the greatest conceived threat was the ‘Millenium Bug’, a disaster movie concpet so unconvincing that even the most desperate Hollywood studio wisely ognored it, then I would say, no. Harry Potter probably has as much in common with The Famous Five as it does Lord of the Rings, maybe even more, and I think its popularity has as much to do with the reclamation of romanticised British culture from nationalism (and football) something ex-colonies, and probably most of the globe can appreciate. The Lord of the Rings films made the most of the amazing special effects available today and conicided with two other epic ‘fantastical’ trilogies (Star Wars prequels and the Matrix films) and is as much a part of their heritage as fantasy litertaure. Likewise the popularity of MMOs has as much to do with improved computer graphics, simplification of gameplay and the rapid spread of broadband than some underlying ideological pressure. Fantasy will probably always be there, it’s popularity like that of sci fi will wax and wane depending on the quality and relevance of media to societies tastes and preferences. Whether it will ever be accepted in the world of formal institutions is up to the next generation of those who find themselves in a position to champion its cause. I know I’ll be doing my best.

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Tolkien and Peake: The Next Stage of Fantasy Literature

March 12, 2008

I finally got round to watching the second part of the BBC4 series Worlds of Fantasy, after having some issues with the iPlayer which I won’t go into here, I think there are enough complaints about it already. Unfortunately, it took me so long to get round to watching it then writing this that there’s only 10 hours left to catch it (sorry), although the final part of the series was shown last night and should be available on the iPlayer now. Incidentally, what’s with the Spinal Tap-esque volume adjuster on that thing?

So part two focuses on just two fantasy authors, Tolkien (no surprises there then) and Mervyn Peake, who I was very surprised to see included as the only other author. Let’s be totally honest, Tolkien had to be included, even before the success and mainstream appeal of the films he was still, for the majority of people familiar with this genre, the top of the pile. And naturally his name will bring more eyeballs to the screen, which I haven’t got a problem with at all. I wasn’t expecting a Moorcockian trawl through the outer limits of Gothic and Romantic literature (I’m reading his book Wizardy and Wild Romance at the moment, I know for a fact that if I live my lifetime twice I’ll never read all the books he has read) but I was expecting more than just Tolkien, and oh yeah, Peake. In essence what we got was two brief biographies of the authors, looking at what influenced them (Germanic myths, Worcestershire landscape, the horror of war, Arundel Castle) and what their motivations for writing in this genre were. The most interesting element discussed less fully than it could have been was the idea of ‘secondary world creation’ – Middle Earth and Gormenghast were not set somewhere on earth past, present or future or even a dimension parallel to earth from which they could be accessed, they were entirely secluded locations that had their own histories and cosmologies, especially in Middle Earth’s case (which the documentary does cover in a fair bit of depth, although I don’t recall them mentioning the Silmarillion).

I’ve tried to convince myself that it was for this reason that the programme focused on these two authors exclusively. If we look at the other early fantasy authors there is an element of ambiguity about whether or not their worlds are entirely seperate from a fictional version of our own earth or not. Obviously Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars series is set in our universe and Howard’s Conan stories are set on earth albeit in a very different pre-ice age landscape. But what about the other originators of the genre like Jack Vance and Fritz Leiber? Many of their fantasy worlds are distinctly unearthly. I suppose it’s possible that Vance’s Dying Earth is set in the future of our own planet, but never is that made explicit to my knowledge. And there is at least one adventure where Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser enter our earth’s past, but this is an exception to the rule. So why were two such influential writers not included? Well, I think it has alot to do with the fact that both Tolkien and Peake were British writers, that Jack Vance and Fritz Lieber are US authors and probably less familiar over here (the Gormenghast TV series from 2000 will have brought some familiarity to the masses) and finally that Lieber and Vance are deemed to have less literary worth in BBC circles.

Given that Tolkien and Peake are described as the ‘grandfathers of modern fantasy’ it would have been nice to have seen a wider range of things thay had influenced. Okay, they mentioned games and actually showed a few clips from Lord of the Rings Online, but I was a bit pissed that they didn’t even mention Dungeons and Dragons or even something like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (perhaps that would have raised to many questions about the absence of Conan). Strangely enough, and maybe in order to emphasise the point that Peake, though clearly in the shadow of Tolkien, has influenced a crop of contemporary fantasists the show featured some prominent clips of books by China Mieville and Joe Abercrombie, but none say of classic Tolkien-inspired romps like Dragonlance or Tad Williams Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series.

To be fair if I didn’t know a great deal about fantasy authors the program would have been fairly informative if limited in scope. Personally I think that Lieber and Vance would have much more appeal to someone who watched the program because they liked Tolkien, and they have they added bonus of a sense of humour. Speaking of humour apparently tonight’s instalment features Michael Moorcock talking about the influence drugs had on fantasy writing in the 60s, should be interesting.

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The Origins of Fantasy

February 29, 2008

I just finished watching The Worlds of Fantasy, a three part TV series on BBC4 exploring the history of fantasy lierature, you can view it here on the BBC iPlayer for the next 5 days, although I’m not sure if people oustide the UK can access it (somebody put it on Youtube, please). The first episode deals with children’s literature and children heroes, Harry Potter is naturally included although not as much as the beginning of the programme smight imply, and also Alice (in Wonderland), Peter Pan and lesser known heroes From Alan Garner’s books (The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Owl Service) and Lyra Belacqua from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials novels.

I don’t think I’m alone in looking forward to the episodes that deal with adult oriented fantasy (expecting to see lots of Tolkien, Lovecraft, Moorcock, Peake and Howard, would also be nice to see Weiss and Hickman, but I’m not holding my breath [see my last post]) as anyone who’s read my blog will know that I think fantasy is a genre is still far too strongly assocaited with kids.

The argument underlying this epsiode was that fantasy emerged in the 19th century alongside a romanticised notion of children as pure and naive beings and as the twentieth century progressed the heroes of these books became more like the children or teens of their respective times. Okay the argument was a little more subtle than that, in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia novels written in postwar Britain the four heros used slang that was apparently decades out of date, but what their jaunt through the wardrobe did do was make the trauma of wartime displacement into a form of comforting nostalgia where the battle between good and evil was fought between magical beings and the inevitability of triumph was not in question. Clearly it was much easier to write this after the war than during it when the outcome was less certain. In this light Harry Potter with its nostalgically old school setting is a great comfort to kids and parents alike who are scared to send their kids outdoors for fear of stabbings and paedophiles!

It’s hard to be objective about this episode as I was happy enough that this genre was getting any coverage at all, what bothered me was that the childhood themes they discussed could be applied to non-fantasy childrens’ literature, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven share the naive and romaticised spirit of adventure as C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories and show some infighting between the children in the group, yet they are set in an idealised but very recognisable Britain. When it did get to grips with fantasy as a style, it focused on the writer’s motives so we got a lot of sniffy complaints about C.S. Lewis’ use of Christian allegory and a bit about Lewis Carroll’s desire to present childhood innocence, but not why he chose fantasy as a vehicle for this message. We get even less on J.K. Rowling’s or Philip Pullman’s reasons for using the fantasy genre, which would be very interesting to hear about. Alan Garner mentions out of body experiences and using his imagination, but doesn’t describe his clear fondness for the British and Welsh mythology that permeates his work, nor the landscapes in which his books are set.

The whole thing felt a little safe for BBC4 (i.e. middle class, highbrow) – let’s focus on general historical themes that normalise fantasy literature, rather than focusing on what makes it so different to other fictional genres. What makes the series feel even more BBC4 is the fact that they’re focusing only on fantasy litertature and not other mediums such as film or games that if anything have helped bring the genre popularity with much broader audiences than books alone.

These issues aside, I wonder what they’ll make of adult fantasy literature? Howard’s stories reflected their time only in as much that they were part of the pulp fiction trend of over the top and violent stories with tough macho characters. Maybe the rich settings of characters like Conan and Bran Mak Morn gave them a sense of authenticity and heritage that was lacking in the typical macho lead which cried out to young men in Depression era America. Was it any coincidence that Tolkien was keen to construct a mythology for Britain just as the Empire was sliding away? Moorcock was inspired by the 60s counter-culture, his heroes had more in common with Howard’s than Tolkien’s often brooding and of dubious morality, but his wrtiting was generally more cerebral and often lampooned the stables of the genre itself. I guess we’ll have to wait and see what they come up with.