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.