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11.29.12: An Author’s Journey: Some Inspirations & Influences in Crafting The Codex Lacrimae, Part 3.4: Influence of J.R.R. Tolkien & C.S. Lewis (Needful Departures from Middle Earth & Narnia — Michael Moorcock’s Critique)

Wizardry & Wild Romance (Michael Moorcock)

In this sentiment of wanting something “new” from epic fantasy, I agree with aspects of Michael Moorcock’s critique of the genre in his Wizardry and Wild Romance: A Study of Epic Fantasy (2004). [http://www.amazon.com/Wizardry-Wild-Romance/Moorcock]

Michael Moorcock

A multi-award winning novelist (Nebula, August Derleth, World Fantasy, British Fantasy, etc.), Michael Moorcock is one of my favorite authors, whose Eternal Champion sequence, (including the Hawkmoon, Corum, and Elric series) has left an indelible mark on my imagination.

Moorcock, Elric of Melniboné Series

Now, when he writes critically, Moorcock takes the fantasy genre seriously, and at times can appear to be a cantankerous sort (and he’s particularly severe on Tolkien and Lewis, basing his blasts on what he sees as those authors’ mediocre literary skills and their appeal to a middle-class yearning for a “rural romance” that never existed).  While I disagree with the broad swaths of those assessments, his arguments are generally so well founded and contextualized that they bear consideration, particularly when one thinks about the fantasy genre.

The Vanishing Tower (Moorcock; cvr art by Michael Whelan)

In Wizardry and Wild Romance, Moorcock warns the reader that he’ll not be giving a complete definition of “epic fantasy,” but I really appreciate (and applaud) the demands he makes on the form and its practitioners  [Please note: I’ve neither mentioned nor depicted the fantasy authors whom Moorcock negatively criticizes; I’ve captioned the illustrations that accompany this blog with “Moorcock’s preferred fantasy” as a way to efficiently show the works he cites as worthwhile fantasy, from comments in this book as well as from public interviews.] :

Arzach (Moebius; in Metal Hurlant)

[pp. 19-20] …In modern times, Einstein, Freud and Jung…have broadened rather than destroyed the scope of the artist and broadened the range of meaning and pleasure which the intelligent reader can derive from fiction. In a romance the “real” world of the social novel is reversed; the protagonists are placed in landscapes directly reflecting the inner landscapes of their minds.  A hero might range the terrain of his own psyche, encountering, as other characters, various aspect of himself.

The Elric Saga (Michael Moorcock; artist, Robert Gould)

It’s perfectly possible, therefore, that a good fantasy story could lead us to greater self-understanding…For me the main fascination of the fantasy story lies in its manipulation of direct subconscious symbols.  The mingled attraction and revulsion often felt by its readers might well express the combined curiosity and fear of seeing too deeply into themselves. If our “irrational” dreams are potent images “explained” by the semi-conscious mind and blended into some sort of rough plot, so fantasy stories take the same material and attempt the same sort of job…Too much rationalization, and we get a certain kind of rather dull science fiction; just enough to organize the images and give symbolic shape to…our most secret impulses, and we get a good fantasy story.  Add superior language and we get a Coleridge or a Tennyson.  Add irony and we get a degree of objectivity reflected, say, in the work of Borges or Calvino.

Moorcock’s Preferred Fantasy: Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser (Fritz Leiber)

Fritz Leiber (cover of Fantasy & Science Fiction, 1969)

Epic fantasy can offer a world of metaphor in which to explore the rich, hidden territories deep within us.  And this, of course, is why epic romances, romantic poetry, grotesques, fascinated painters and illustrators for centuries, just as fabulous and mythological subjects have always inspired them, as representations of this inner world.  The romance’s prime concern is not with character or narrative but with the evocation of strong, powerful images; symbols conjuring up a multitude of sensations to be used (as mystics once used distorting mirrors, as romantics used opium, or, latterly, LSD) as escape from the pressures of the objective world or as a means of achieving increased self-awareness. [p.20]

Moorcock’s Preferred Fantasy: A Wizard of Earthsea (Le Guin)

Ursula K. Le Guin

A writer of fantasy must be judged, I think, by the level of inventive intensity at which he or she works.  Allegory can be nonexistent but a certain amount of conscious metaphor is always there.  The writer who follows such originals without understanding this produces work which is at best superficially entertaining and worst meaningless on any level — generic dross doing nothing to revitalize the form from which it borrows.  A writer’s work tends to last in direct ratio to the degree of originality and vitality put into it… [p. 47]

and:

Moorcock’s Preferred Fantasy: The Colour of Magic, Discworld Series #1(Terry Pratchett)

Terry Pratchett

It seems significant to me that the majority of writers who have closely followed Tolkien have not produced much in the way of original landscape.  Deserts and mountains are vast and forests are dense…A relish for what is old, ruined, time-worn, is as prevalent in modern epic fantasy as it was in the Gothic of the late 18th-century…This fascination with the antique is combined, of course, with a preference for archaic style. Most of the current attempts at this sort of “high” English are pretty pathetic, reminiscent of children trying to write historical stories by peppering the text with phrases like “shiver me timbers.”  They borrow largely from Tolkien as usual and produce from his original porridge a gruel increasingly thin and lumpy… [p.71]

Lastly, while, again, Moorcock is generally condemnatory of Tolkien and Lewis’s works, he does make a successful argument for criticizing the Oxford dons’ imitators:

Moorcock’s Preferred Fantasy: The Broken Sword (Poul Anderson)

Poul Anderson (1926-2001)

…It seems to me that not enough modern practitioners [of epic fantasy] pay sufficient attention to the invention of their own specific landscapes: landscapes which reflect the themes of the stories, amplify or at least complement the moods of the characters, give added texture and apt symbolism to the narratives.  There is a great deal of self-indulgence, I believe, amongst those who try to emulate the great writers of fantasy.  Too many younger authors fail to realize that quite as much discipline is required to create a good fantasy tale as to make any other kind of good story.

The Jewel in the Skull (M. Moorcock; art, James Cawthorn)

Attention to landscape, as a specific means of clarifying, heightening or counter-pointing a fantasy story, is frequently ignored completely.  “Mighty” deserts and “gloomy” forests make for reading which is as dull as the worst of the decadent romances, the goblin stories of third-rate Stürm & Drangers or a bad Gothic tale.  Descriptive language does not have to be particularly complex or lyrical to work; but it does have to have clarity and freshness…Too frequently one gets the impression that, as with the world of science fiction, most practitioners of epic fantasy read only one another’s work, a little bit of the latest phat phantasy and, perhaps, rather too much Professor Tolkien… .[pp. 72-77] END OF EXCERPT

The Incal (Alejandro Jodorowsky, artist: Moebius)

When conceiving The Artifacts of Destiny, one of the main priorities I had in approaching the project was that I didn’t want to imitate Tolkien and Lewis.  I admired their works, and took much from their tales, but I wanted to tell the tale that was forming in my imagination, and I wanted to do it in ways along the lines that I thought the best practitioners of the form were doing it, with complete originality (see list w/links at bottom of AJ’s Blog, 9.24.12). When I started reading some of the works by the fantasy masters whom Moorcock also praises in his critique (and, of course, the works of Moorcock himself), I began to realize that there wasn’t just one approach to epic fantasy, and that there was plenty of room on the playground for all sorts of players.

However, what I had in mind would explicitly involve restoring much of what I’d thought had been lost in negative publicity/perception of Norse mythology (it has yet to get an introduction to mass audiences on its own terms, and not “cloaked” in another guise as we saw with Tolkien & Lewis). To do that, though, I discovered I had to accomplish two serious tasks, (1) getting past what I saw as the Nazi appropriation of the Norse myths, and (2) becoming a medieval historian so that I could, as the cliché goes, “write what you know.”   Let me just end this blog by stating that overcoming the first obstacle was much easier than the second!

Michael Moorcock’s website can be accessed here:  http://www.multiverse.org

Next time: Internalizing Some Lessons from Tolkien and Lewis, then Proceeding with Caution Past the Dilemma of Restoring Germanic Myths; or, How to Write Epic Fantasy and Utterly Reject the Nazi Appropriation of Norse Mythology!

11.28.12: An Author’s Journey: Some Inspirations & Influences in Crafting The Codex Lacrimae, Part 3.3: Influence of J.R.R. Tolkien & C.S. Lewis (Concluding Thoughts on an Aspect of Imagining the Middle Ages in Fantasy)

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Trolls, New Line Cinema)

The Viking Age (8th to 11th c.)

When I reflect on The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Chronicles of Narnia, I share much of Cantor’s sentiment in the last two blogs, especially about how those works evoke aspects of a medieval world long lost.  In that respect, Tolkien and Lewis were completely successful in conveying what Cantor called an “immersion” in the Middle Ages.  The landscapes beyond the Shire of Bilbo and Frodo might be filled with fantastic perils such as the trolls, orcs, and goblins, gigantic spiders, a dragon, or Ring Wraiths of Mordor, but so, too, were the lands of medieval Europe filled with menaces that terrified the common folk everywhere throughout the Continent and beyond (be those enemies the Vikings of the 8th and 9th centuries, feuding German princes in the 11th, or advancing Seljuk Turks in the Crusades of the 12th and 13th).

The Fellowship of the Ring (New Line Cinema)

Medieval Travelers

The Road that led from Bag End was a metaphor for the kind of travel that medieval people used mostly: walking!  (Go reread The Hobbit or LOTR and note how much descriptive storytelling in each of those works is devoted to walking; then remember Cantor’s observation about immersing the reader in the medieval mindset, and you might see what he was getting at.)

The Two Towers (Battle of Helm’s Deep, New Line Cinema)

Battle of Poitiers, 1356 (Hundred Years’ War)

Then, there’s medieval warfare; if nothing else, all of Tolkien and Lewis’s works have the threat of war running throughout the books, either ending adventures with massive battles, or having the main characters affected at some deep level by the fighting that occurs in the stories.  In the medieval period (500-1500 A.D.), you’re almost guaranteed to find war occurring somewhere in Europe at any point during that thousand years of history.

Thanks to the wonderful imaginations of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, these aspects of Medieval Europe (and many more) were evoked in the Oxford Fantasists works, and for most of the last century the fantasy genre has been better for their contributions (particularly in the translation those works have made to film!)

Beowulf (Seamus Heaney trans.)

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J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion

On the flip-side, however, one could also say that there’s been too much imitation of Tolkien and Lewis within the fantasy genre, imitations and regurgitations of their novels that too often lose much of what gave Middle Earth and Narnia such extraordinary originality and vitality: Professors Tolkien and Lewis’s knowledge of medieval literature and the source material that enriched the worlds these Oxford dons created.  (In Tolkien’s case, he even went so far as to write The Silmarillion and include Appendices at the end of The Return of the King to situate his tales within an immense — and imaginary — historical-mythological narrative, an accomplishment that paralleled the work he did during his “day job” in teaching Anglo-Saxon literature.)

I think part of the problem was that the new, complementary mythologies that Tolkien and Lewis created were complex and vast enough to accommodate a host of imitators, authors who throughout the 20th Century didn’t have to understand anything about the “real” Middle Ages, and who thought nothing of simply adapting the ideas and creatures of Middle Earth and Narnia into their own fantasy settings.

When I was growing up, this kind of imitation (and, in some cases, barbarization) of the form always bothered me because (after completing the works of Tolkien and Lewis), I wanted something new and different.

Next time: How to Find Something Different (or, Define Epic Fantasy, then Depart from the Model of Tolkien & Lewis!)

11.27.12: An Author’s Journey: Some Inspirations & Influences in Crafting The Codex Lacrimae, Part 3.2: Influence of J.R.R. Tolkien & C.S. Lewis (Medieval Fantasy with Tolkien and Lewis)

Norman F. Cantor, Inventing the Middle Ages (1991)

Norman F. Cantor (1929-2004)

Before I continue my own discussion about J.R.R. Tolkien & C.S. Lewis’s influences upon my writing of The Codex Lacrimae and the entire Artifacts of Destiny series, here’s the remainder of the relevant excerpts about their medieval history & literary sides from Norman F. Cantor’s Inventing the Middle Ages: The Lives, Works, and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century. Norman F. Cantor, Inventing the Middle Ages (Amazon.com)

[book excerpt] Norman F. Cantor,Inventing the Middle Ages (NY: William Morrow & Co., 1991), pp. 205-208.

“Chapter Six: The Oxford Fantasists: Clive Staples Lewis, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, and Frederick Maurice Powicke”

1. Save the Beloved Land

…Despite his prodigious learning and early professional accomplishments, Tolkien’s academic career in the early forties seemed on a downward trajectory.  In the previous decade his only book publication was a children’s fantasy, The Hobbit (1937), which had sold well.  Tolkien’s publisher clamored for a sequel, but as yet he had not produced it, although he desperately needed the money, having a wife and three children in a lower-middle-class suburb of Oxford.  Tolkien had no private means, and he had to waste a month every summer picking up a few extra pounds grading examination booklets.  Tolkien read to the Inklings miscellaneous sections of what seemed to be a disordered fantasy addressed more to adults than to children.  Who would want to read this thing?  Who would dare publish it?  Jack Lewis’s response to it was only intermittently enthusiastic…

C.S. Lewis (Time cover, Sept. 8, 1947)

….Tolkien and Lewis were at least visibly good friends as well as college luminaries in Oxford’s medieval language and literature faculty. Their friendship was always tense because their personalities were so different — Tolkien, reclusive, driven, querulous, unsatisfied; Lewis, calm, affable, outgoing, sociable.  Underneath their surface friendship there was a deep rivalry between them, not so much in scholarship as in writing fantasy literature.  Of all the medievalists of the twentieth century, Lewis and Tolkien have gained incomparably the greatest audience, although 99.9 percent of their readers have never looked at their scholarly work.  They are among the best-selling authors of modern times for their works of fantasy, adult and children’s.  There are forty million copies of Lewis’s work in print. [A.J.’s note: Cantor’s book was written 21 years ago; according to a recent biography, Lewis’s Narnia books now number over 100 million copies.] The novel that Tolkien read bits of to the Inklings, with mixed response in the early forties, was finally published with trepidation by Allen and Unwin in three volumes in 1954 and 1955.  It has now sold eight million copies in many languages, with about half the sales in American paperback edition.  This is The Lord of the Rings. [A.J.’s note: again, that number has to be revised in the 20 years since Cantor’s work: after Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy of films, the number of copies sold is well over 150 million.]

J.R.R. Tolkien

…Their fantasy writing was a very serious undertaking.  It was not done as a hobby or primarily as a money-making venture, though they both died well-off from it.  They wanted to impart a sense of medieval myth to the widest audience possible.  They wanted to represent to the public the impress of the kind of traditional ethic they derived from their devotion to conservative Christianity.  But essentially they wrote as all creative writers do, from some compulsion within their beings, from something beyond the level of consciousness. Tolkien memorably described this obsession in 1953: “One writes such a story not out of the leaves of trees still to be observed, not by means of botany and soil-science; but it grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mold of the mind; out of all that has been thought or seen or read, that has long been forgotten, descending into the deeps….”

After an assessment of each author’s contribution to medieval literature and the fantasy genre, Cantor concludes [p. 232], “…the importance of their [Tolkien and Lewis’s] work as medievalists…lies in a much broader area, one harder to define.  Tolkien and Lewis immersed the twentieth-century reader in medieval worlds and made that person a participant in the highly activated realm of imagination that at the same time communicates how medieval people thought of themselves and gives us the opportunity to perceive ourselves as possible actors in a medieval place.  That is a highly unusual achievement….”

Before I return to my own thoughts about Tolkien and Lewis, I think it might be worthwhile to return to 1955, when the 2nd and 3rd volumes of The Lord of the Rings [LOTR] had just been published, and give two examples of how literary circles received Tolkien’s magnum opus.

Negative Review of LOTR:

Edmund Wilson (1895-1972)

In the first excerpt (April, 1956) from the literary critic, Edmund Wilson, we have a very negative review, “Oo Those Awful Orcs!” (AwfulOrcs.pdf):

….[The LOTR] is indeed the tale of a Quest, but, to this reader, an extremely unrewarding one.  The hero has no serious temptations; is lured by no insidious enchantments, perplexed by no serious problems.  What we get here is a simple confrontation ― in more or less the traditional terms of British melodrama ― of the Forces of Evil with the Forces of Good, the remote and alien villain with the plucky little homegrown hero.  There are streaks of imagination: the ancient tree-spirits, the Ents, with their deep eyes, twiggy beards, rumbly voices; the Elves, whose nobility and beauty is elusive and not quite human.  But even these are rather clumsily handled.  There is never much development in the episodes; you simply go on getting more of the same.  Dr. Tolkien has little skill at narrative and no instinct for literary form.  The characters talk a story-book language that might have come out of Howard Pyle, and as personalities they do not impose themselves.  At the end of this long romance, I had still no conception of the wizard Gandalph [sic], who is made to play a cardinal role.  I had never been able to visualize him at all.  For the most part such characterizations as Dr. Tolkien is able to contrive are perfectly stereotyped: Frodo the good little Englishman; Samwise, his dog-like servant, who talks lower-class and respectful, and never deserts his master…”

Wilson spends another page criticizing the ineffectiveness of the unseen Sauron as a worthwhile Enemy for the characters in the books, concluding, “…He makes his first, rather promising appearance as a terrible fire-rimmed yellow eye seen in a water-mirror.  But this is as far as we ever get.  Once Sauron’s realm is invaded, we think we are going to meet him; but he still remains nothing but a burning eye…we never feel Sauron’s power.  And the climax, to which we have been working up through exactly nine-hundred and ninety-nine large close-printed pages, when it comes, proves extremely flat…Frodo has come to the end of his Quest, but the reader has remained untouched by the wounds and fatigue of his journey…”

Positive Literary Review of LOTR:

W.H. Auden (1907-1973)

In contrast, the poet W.H. Auden, whose NY Times 1954 positive critique (“The Hero is a Hobbit,” http://www.nytimes.com/1954/10/31) runs more along the lines of how I think of LOTR, even though this review assesses only The Fellowship of the Ring:

“Seventeen years ago there appeared, without any fanfare, a book called “The Hobbit” which, in my opinion, is one of the best children’s stories of this century.  In “The Fellowship of the Ring,” which is the first volume of a trilogy, J. R. R. Tolkien continues his imaginative history of the imaginary world to which he introduced us in his earlier book but in a manner suited to adults, to those, that is, between 12 and 70.  For anyone who likes the genre to which it belongs, the Heroic Quest, I cannot imagine a more wonderful Christmas present.  All Quests are concerned with some numinous object, the Waters of Life, the Grail, buried treasure, etc.; normally this is a good Object which it is the Hero’s task to find or to rescue from the Enemy, but the Ring of Mr. Tolkien’s story was made by the Enemy and is so dangerous that even the good cannot use it without being corrupted….

The hero, Frodo Baggins, belongs to a race of beings called hobbits, who may be only three feet high; have hairy feet and prefer to live in underground houses, but in their thinking and sensibility resemble very closely those arcadian rustics who inhabit so many British detective stories. I think some readers may find the opening chapter a little shy-making, nut they must not let themselves be put off, for, once the story gets moving, this initial archness disappears.

For over a thousand years the hobbits have been living a peaceful existence in a fertile district called the Shire, incurious about the world outside. Actually, the latter is rather sinister; towns have fallen to ruins, roads into disrepair, fertile fields have returned to wilderness, wild beasts and evil beings on the prowl, and travel is difficult and dangerous. In addition to the Hobbits, there are Elves who are wise and good, Dwarves who are skillful and good on the whole, and Men, some warriors,some wizards, who are good or bad. The present incarnation of the Enemy is Sauron, Lord of Barad-Dur, the Dark Tower in the Land of Mordor. Assisting him are the Orcs, wolves and other horrid creatures and, of course, such men as his power attracts or overawes. Landscape, climate and atmosphere are northern, reminiscent of the Icelandic sagas.

The Lord of the Rings (1st American Edition)

The first thing that one asks is that the adventure should be various and exciting; in this respect Mr. Tolkien’s invention is unflagging, and, on the primitive level of wanting to know what happens next, “The Fellowship of the Ring” is at least as good as “The Thirty-Nine Steps.” Of any imaginary world the reader demands that it seem real, and the standard of realism demanded today is much stricter than in the time, say, of Malory. Mr. Tolkien is fortunate in possessing an amazing gift for naming and a wonderfully exact eye for description; by the time one has finished his book one knows the histories of Hobbits, Elves, Dwarves and the landscape they inhabit as well as one knows one’s own childhood.

Lastly, if one is to take a tale of this kind seriously, one must feel that, however superficially unlike the world we live in its characters and events may be, it nevertheless holds up the mirror to the only nature we know, our own; in this, too, Mr. Tolkien has succeeded superbly, and what happened in the year of the Shire 1418 in the Third Age of Middle Earth is not only fascinating in A. D. 1954 but also a warning and an inspiration. No fiction I have read in the last five years has given me more joy than “The Fellowship of the Ring.”

The Chronicles of Narnia (1st American Edition)

I think I’ve provided sufficient historical and literary evidence at how Tolkien & Lewis were received in their own time, as well as some assessment of how posterity’s judged their fantasy works.  In tomorrow’s blog, I’ll start bringing it together and begin to tell why I think that there’s still plenty of “medieval” left to be explored in medieval epic fantasy!

Next time: Concluding Thoughts on an Aspect of Imagining the Middle Ages in Fantasy

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