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)
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]
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.
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.
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.] :
[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.
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.
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]
…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]
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:
…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.
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
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!