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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

11.26.12: An Author’s Journey: Some Inspirations & Influences in Crafting The Codex Lacrimae, Part 3.1: Influence of J.R.R. Tolkien & C.S. Lewis (The Oxford Dons & the Inklings)

That love of Norse mythology was secured completely after our 6th Grade teacher read The Hobbit to our class after every lunch recess (AJ’s Blog, 9.24.12), and from that point on, I started reading fantasy books that had J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia as my touchstones.

Because these authors served as my entry point into both the epic fantasy genre and an interest in medieval European history, I’m going to spend the next few blogs discussing Tolkien and Lewis.  Specifically, their backgrounds in medieval history, and their respective contributions to (and creation of) an entirely new fantasy genre in the early 20th Century that converted Norse & Germanic myths into the worlds of Middle Earth and Narnia.

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

We should situate ourselves with who these authors were, & to get the ball rolling, here’s a good excerpt 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. 205-206.)

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

Carpenter, The Inklings (HarperCollins, 2006)

Oxfordshire, Oxford, Magdalen College II (c. 1890s)

1. Save the Beloved Land

In the early forties, during the height of the war years, while a bomber moon shone down upon the deer park on the grounds of Magdalen College, Oxford, a half dozen dons and their friends…gathered on Tuesday evenings in the rooms of the Magdalen College tutor in medieval literature and political theory.  The Magdalen tutor was C.S. Lewis — Jack to his friends.  They drank beer and tea, smoked heavily in the British manner, throwing their cigarette ashes on the worn carpet, and read to each other from, and caustically commented on, written work in progress. The group called themselves the Inklings….

Tolkien, Sir Gawain & the Green Knight, Pearl, Sir Orfeo

J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973)

Another Inkling was the reclusive professor of Anglo-Saxon, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, called Ronald.  In the late twenties and early thirties he was renowned as an authority on Old and Middle English.  He was the leading scholar on the subject of two precious fourteenth-century poems written anonymously in the Midlands, about seventy miles from Oxford, in the dialect of the region. These poems, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl, are now regarded, along with Beowulf (c. 800) and the works of Chaucer (late fourteenth century) as the greatest medieval poetry in the English language.  There is no more beautiful poem in any medieval language than Pearl, an allegorical elegy for a dead child.  Tolkien was responsible for the definitive text of Sir Gawain, published in 1925.  For thirty years, off and on, he labored on a translation of Pearl; it was finally published posthumously, but it was soon superseded by a remarkable metrical translation made by Yale’s Marie Borroff…

C.S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963)

…Lewis in the war years was by far the best known of the Inklings group, both within the academic world and even more among the general public.  He had established his reputation as a leading medieval literary historian with The Allegory of Love (1936), a pioneering and influential study of medieval romantic literature, which he had written one chapter at a time over a half dozen long summer vacations from his heavy Magdalen College teaching load.  He was now rapidly gaining attention among the general public for his children’s fiction, for science fiction novels and allegories with a Christian twist, and for a series of BBC lectures…. [end excerpt from Cantor’s Inventing the Middle Ages].

For those interested in reading more about the Inklings, here are a couple of resources:

Wikipedia link (with tabs that lead to the author page for each member): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inklings

Book: Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends

Next time: Medieval Fantasy with Tolkien and Lewis

11.24.12: An Author’s Journey: Some Inspirations & Influences in Crafting The Codex Lacrimae, Part 2.4: The Greek & Norse Myths

The Norse Myths (2):  Intimations of Becoming a Medieval Historian — The Viking Age and Snorri Sturluson’s “Prose Edda!”

Jotunheim Mt. Range (view from Knutshøi; Wikimedia)

The Norse myths themselves were, of course, all idealized visions of the northern European countryside and waterways, but you’ll recall from earlier blogs that any exposure I’d had previously to mythology was a sun-drenched one, marked by the libidinous and temperamental gods and goddesses of Ancient Greece and warm & bright Mediterranean locales! In the Viking myths was a worldview that saw the First Movers as the Fire World of Muspelheim and the Mist World of Niflheim, with those two places clashing in a cataclysm of heat and cold within the great chasm of Ginnungagap to form Ymir (the first of the giants), and Audumla, an ice cow!  The more stories I read, the more magical creatures and mysterious locales fixed themselves into my imagination.

Skald Reciting Poetry & Sagas

On the way to becoming a medievalist, I’d later learn that the Viking tales were a blend of Germanic (Teutonic) and Nordic folklores whose oral tradition we can trace to the Scandinavia and Iceland during the Viking Age (8th through 11th centuries).  But, as with most mythologies, those oral traditions had roots that stretch millennia into the past.  These tales and sagas had been told by skalds (court poets) that entertained their audiences with family stories and myths during the long, cold days and evenings of Norwegian winters.  Most notably, Snorri Sturluson in his Prose Edda finally recorded the myths in literary form in the 13th Century, and other skalds followed suit, contributing to the historical record with the Poetic Eddaand the Sagas from Iceland and Greenland.  All of these works related Scandinavian history & Viking culture in ways that hadn’t been captured before.

Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda (18th c. ms)

Those historian-related discoveries were for the future, though, and even while studied seriously as part of my training, the Norse myths, languages, and literary tradition weren’t going to become a formal course of study or specialized professional interest for me (I’m a 12th century Church historian).  No, in thinking about the “author’s journey” that led me to writing The Codex Lacrimae, the Norse myths became a wellspring of inspiration and creativity for my creative-writing side.

Odin with Magic Spear, Gugnir (H. Hendrich, 1906)

Loki Gets Thor to Dress as Freya (E. Boyd Smith, 1902; Wikimedia)

In these sources I found a writing career’s worth of story ideas and fantastical landscapes that could inform all kinds of tales, most of which I’ve included in my fantasy series, The Artifacts of Destiny. Although I’d later come to study the Eddic poetry and sagas on which the selection of myths I’d read were based, an admiration (and amazement) at the Norse legends remains with me to this day. I was entranced by these northern worlds, and wanted to learn as much as I could about the medieval European society from which these Norse myths sprang.

Loki & the Rhine Maidens

Sigurd Roasts Heart of Fafnir the Dragon (Wood Carving, 12th C.)

So, returning to that late afternoon discovery of the volume of Collier’s Myths and Legends, after losing track of time in these new Scandinavian lands while my mother and grandmother talked, I reluctantly had to stop reading and leave the book behind until our next visit.  Within a short time, however, I’d begun the same routine I described with the Greek myths, going to the library and getting “real” books on Norse mythology that revealed more of the legends and characters than had been possible in the Collier’s children edition, and as I matured into young adulthood, I retained a special place in my heart for the Norse myths.

Next time: Epic Fantasy and Medieval History in the Early 20th Century (Or, Norse Mythology, the Nazi Appropriation of Teutonic Legends, and the OffsettingWorks of J.R.R. Tolkien & C.S. Lewis)

11.21.12: An Author’s Journey: Some Inspirations & Influences in Crafting The Codex Lacrimae, Part 2.3: The Greek & Norse Myths

The Norse Myths (1):  Sails of Imagination Filled with Winds of the Viking Age

Collier’s Junior Classics

I was very young, and bored out of my mind while my mother and Grandma were having one of the many conversations they’d have every week over a pot of tea at the end of Grocery Shopping Thursday. I was in my mother’s old bedroom, lying on the floor, and making a serious effort at counting the number of flowers in an intaglio of floral designs on the wallpaper.  I glanced across the carpet and saw a series of children’s books on the bottom shelf of a bookcase.  The books were a series from the 1950s entitled Collier’s Junior Classics.

What initially caught my eye were some brightly colored spines, arrayed in red, light green, orange, and brown, with each volume clearly numbered, titled, and depicting a relevant character: Jack climbed a beanstalk on the spine of Vol. 1, Fairy Tales; an armored Galahad knelt before a shining Grail on Vol. 4’s Hero Tales, Tom Sawyer stood with straw hat, paintbrush, and bucket in front of a fence on Vol. 6’s Stories about Boys & Girls, and so on.  But, it was the royal blue spine of Vol. 3, Myths and Legends that caught my eye, because there was a centaur strumming a lyre.  I later came to learn that the centaur was actually Chiron the Educator, reputed to have taught many of the heroes of Greek mythology, including Ajax, Jason, Hercules, and Perseus; however, it wasn’t the selection of Greek tales that caught my attention upon opening the book, because a quick scan revealed that those stories were all ones I already knew.

No, what positively impacted my life was the handful of Norse myths collected inside.  I’d never read such stories before! I started reading about Odin on a quest for knowledge and was entranced.  As the shadows of the huge fern that always scratched against the window lengthened outside, suddenly my mother and grandmother couldn’t converse long enough.  That late afternoon’s reading soon made me an enthusiast of Norse mythology.

Jotunheim Mt. Range (South-Central Norway)

Viking Longboat

Why?  First, these tales were new to me.  Each one kept revealing a Scandinavian world totally foreign to my experience. Whereas the Greek creation story had Chaos, Gaea, and Erebus as foundations, and the Judeo-Christian religion had God creating Heaven & Earth, Creation in the Norse myths explicitly reflected the Dark Age of the Vikings.  These newly discovered myths had a cosmology informed by harsh Scandinavian climes, where First Things and the Creation of the World were as elemental as Fire and Ice — flames like the campfires into which Norsemen stared after a raid, and snows like the arctic blizzards that blasted against the wattle-and-daub walls of their winter homes.

Thor (2011, Marvel)

Thor #338 (Marvel Comics)

Moreover, I came to realize that the Norse myths still lingered in western culture.  As I grew older, I learned that the names for four of the seven days are named after Norse deities (Tyr’s Day = Tuesday, Odin’s Day = Wednesday, Thor’s Day = Thursday, and Freya’s Day = Friday).  The Norse myths have also inspired many cultural expressions, from operas like Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelung (The Ring of the Nibelung) to books and films; for example, Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods (2001) has main characters who are part of the Norse pantheon, while Jim Carrey’s 1994 film, The Mask, had one of Loki’s magical disguises as the titular device.  Immediately accessible to me when I was a kid was The Mighty Thor comic book,  (produced by Marvel Comics since the 1960s), with last year’s film version of the character already getting a sequel forthcoming in 2013 (Thor: The Dark World).

The Mask (Jim Carrey, 1994)

Morning in the Riesengebirge (Caspar David Friedrich, 1818)

The more I learned about Norse mythology, the more captivated I became by the myths’ collective settings in Scandinavian and Germanic lands.  I didn’t know it back then, but in that initial encounter with legends from northern Europe in the Middle Ages, I’d taken the first steps on a different, history-loving journey that would ultimately go far beyond tales of Asgardians and the Nine Worlds… .

But, that’s a tale that needs to resume on Saturday…I need to go help my wife prepare for the Thanksgiving holiday tomorrow!

Happy Thanksgiving to American Readers of this blog (& well-wishing to those in the international community)!  

Next time: The Viking Age and Snorri Sturluson’s “Prose Edda!”

11.19.12: An Author’s Journey: Some Inspirations & Influences in Crafting The Codex Lacrimae, Part 2.2: The Greek & Norse Myths

The Greek Myths (2): Vivid Images to Inspire a Fantasy Writer, Ancient History to Lure a Scholar into the Labyrinth!

Simply put, in learning about matters mythological, I was also becoming conversant with matters historical.  That is, while you can certainly read the Greek myths as individual stories and emerge with the moral at the end, I think that the myths gain a little more “flavor” and depth if you take the time to open an atlas and find Greece, or click on britannica.com to find out more about the sources for that mythology (for the Greeks, start with: Homer, Hesiod, Aeschlyus, Sophocles, and Euripides; for the Romans, go to Ovid, Virgil).

Palace of Knossos (Crete), Bernard Gagnon (Wikimedia Commons)

Theseus and Minotaur (6th C. B.C.)

Back in a pre-Internet/pre-Google age, however, I’d read the myth, then go to the library and find places or people mentioned, which led me to either atlases, encyclopedias, or entire books on the subject, and then I’d decide if I’d keep pursuing the tale to the end, or regroup and return to another tale (and start the process all over).  For example, when I read about Theseus going to Crete and fighting the Minotaur in the labyrinth of King Minos, it didn’t take much effort to find Crete on a map, then look up the island in an encyclopedia, and discover that not only was there a rich archaeological history to the island (Palace of Knossos), but that the island was the center of an Aegean civilization called the Minoans. [The Minoans were a civilization that reached a height of power between 1700-1600 B.C., and whose archaeological remains were discovered by Arthur Evans at the turn of the 19th & 20th centuries A.D.  Besides revealing a thriving maritime culture for that time, the palace structures, & Linear A and Linear B scripts reveal far-spanning — if as yet not completely understood — connections between the Minoans & Mycenaean peoples and mainland Greece.]

Theseus & Minotaur in Labyrinth (Sir Edward Burne-Jones, 1861)

My attempts at following up on things I learned in myths sounds more exhausting than it was, given that some days I had all the time in the world to find this stuff out because most of my afternoons were spent in a library!  (If you read an earlier blog, you’ll recall that I was in a library for 2-4 hours a day after school while my brother and I waited for my father to get off work.) Little did I know then that — like following the string Ariadne laid for Theseus to follow — those mini “search-and-find” expeditions were leading me through a labyrinth of learning and familiarization with libraries that prepped (& interested) me in historical research.  At the time, though, all I knew was that playing literary and historical detective in search for more clues to the background of Greek myths was fun!

Decades later, whenever I teach Western Civ courses and get to the Bronze Age civilizations of the Minoans & Mycenaeans, I still inwardly smile at the memory of those initial encounters with ancient peoples via the Greek myths.  I may begin my epic fantasy series The Artifacts of Destiny in the Levant of the Crusades because the storyline demands it, but when I describe historical locales in the book, those depictions also convey direct links to those childhood memories of imagining myself in the Greek Isles and places all over the eastern Mediterranean littoral.

Land Walls of Constantinople

Hagia Sophia (Interior, Wikimedia Commons)

Some of the more famous islands (Crete & Cyprus) will get more “air-time” in later books of the series, but even in The Codex Lacrimae: The Mariner’s Daughter & Doomed Knight, the remnants of the Greco-Roman antiquity that arose from Greek mythological times loom everywhere around my characters.  Clarinda meets Urd in Hagia Sophia (the still-used architectural wonder built by Emperor Justinian in the 6th c. AD), and the weight of over half a millennium of Byzantine history and people fills the basilican air as she hears her Fate revealed by one of the Norns.  Yes, that moment occurs in 1185, a time some millennia past the time of the Greek myths.  But, one has to remember that the Byzantines still thought of themselves as the “Roman Empire” until the city fell in 1453 to the Ottoman Turks, two and a half centuries after Clarinda’s conversation! But, even in Clarinda’s time (12th century), the rulers and citizens of Constantinople lived in a thriving metropolis that was considered one of the “wonders of the world” by medieval Europeans. Byzantines thought of themselves as direct descendants of Julius Caesar, and heirs to all of Greco-Roman antiquity that stretched beyond him back to the time of Homer and Hesiod and the ancient Athenian/Spartan city-states.

Caesarea (Ancient Harbor & City)

Caesarea in Herod’s Time (Augustan Age)

As a historian, I’m always bouncing around in time because I’m aware that to the people living in the moment, the past was a usable, common part of their everyday life.  I try to bring this commonplace perception to light in my fiction.  For instance, in my novel, when Genevieve, Alex, and Clarinda flee Constantinople on a quest to find Clarinda’s father, they first go to a battered old tavern in the Genoese Quarter of the Harbor of the Golden Horn, a natural port whose dockside one can still walk along in modern Istanbul, eight hundred years after the Italian seamen & tradespeople of Clarinda’s world carved their own cultural niche in the imperial city.  Moreover, when Clarinda sails with her companions to Caesarea (a coastal city in modern-day Israel, between Haifa & Tel Aviv), she reaches the ruins of a fortified harbor that King Herod of the Bible built between 25-13 BC to honor the Emperor Augustus, over 1,200 years before her own time!

The Krak des Chevaliers

Although time has taken its toll on all of these places (with many sites in ruins), they still exist. If you want to recreate the journeys of Odysseus, or see the palace structure of King Minos, a traveler merely needs to get to the eastern Mediterranean locales mentioned in the Greek myths, and you can walk the same sandy beaches trod upon by Theseus, Hercules, Perseus, and all the rest of the Greek mythological heroes who have stimulated young (and old) imaginations for millennia.  Failing a personal tour of antiquity, though, a well-written tale can transport you there in the time it takes to read a paragraph!  [That being said, depending on the part of the eastern Mediterranean to which you want to travel, current circumstances might make just that kind of touring too dangerous.  This past summer, the Krak des Chevaliers, one of the main settings of The Codex Lacrimae, came under direct threat when bombs from the Syrian government were dropped in neighborhoods around the castle. See http://www.youtube.com/.  Thankfully, as far as I can tell, the castle itself seems to have been undamaged so far, although one can only guess at the toll being taken on the civilian population.  As a cultural heritage site, and one of best-preserved medieval castles in the world, I sincerely hope that the Krak can emerge unscathed from this civil war.]

As I recount my journey toward becoming an epic fantasy author, I conclude these two blogs on the influence of Greek myths with a couple of observations.  In the first place, while we all reach our careers by following different paths, for me, a couple of prerequisites for the historian’s craft were always finding pleasure in the study of “old things,” and discovering an abiding interest in mythology.  That interest really began with learning the Greek myths.  In the second place, it also helped enormously to have the extra assets of great teachers, a library card, and parents who let me read anything, because all those factors collectively gave me the support I needed to follow those ancient stories into places that stretched far beyond a myth’s ending.

However, for all the lessons and excitement that I took from the Greek myths, those stories weren’t what really set fire to my writing & creative side.  That ignition flared when I took up a book of Norse myths at my grandmother’s house… .

Next Time:  The Norse Myths: Sails of Imagination Filled with Winds of the Viking Age!

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