Sunday, 3 March 2019

Fantasy is a literary genre

From about fortyfive years of experience, since I read Lord of the Rings (LotR), I agree with Tolkien's opinion that fantasy is essentially a literary form.

After I read LotR, I tried to repeat or extend the experience by seeking in other art forms. At that time, there was not much material (that I could access, anyway) but I eagerly looked at such posters and pictures I could discover - including those by Tolkien himself.

But I found almost all of them unsatisfactory; and of those I did like (such as the work of Pauline Baynes) I would not say that they added to my experience of the books, or increased its depth - it was more a matter of taking the edge off my hunger. Tolkien's own pictures are often very good, but not in the sense of amplifying what he had done in the books. None of them looked like the real places (or people).

I have always found the musical side unsatisfactory too. My search began with medieval and folk music; and while I did develop a taste for these forms, I could never find anything which I felt fitted into the world of LotR - nothing that could have been perfomed in that world. Since then this has not changed. I never find that any musical setting genuinely fits the world of the book. Although I really enjoy Howard Shore's music from the movies (and own CDs of both the soundtrack and orchestral suite) - this is quite separate from my experience of the books. Certainly I cannot imagine Shore's music actually being sung or played in Middle Earth. The same applies to the way that songs are performed in audiobooks, and audio dramatisations adapting the novels; they may be good, but never 'fit'.

As for the matter of visual dramatic adaptation itself - again it is different. When Middle Earth is visually depicted in a movie or drama, the primary and specific fantasy element is closed-off rather than deepened. The LotR movies are about as good as movies can be - but there is a great gulf between fantasy in movies, and literary fantasy.

Literary fantasy is capable of much greater depth and active-power than movies - because reading a fantasy is (potentially) a collaboration, while watching an movie is (mostly) a passive and immersive experience. Now, clearly many people read novels as substitute movies; and want to be 'drawn in' and pulled along'; they call a desirable novel a 'page turner' and are desperate to reach the end and know what happened.

But the best novels, and the best fantasy, is much more than that; which is why we always want to re-read the best work, and engage with it/ think about it rather than 'lose ourselves' in it. I am, of course, aware that there are many/ most people who never re-read - but there are many/ most people who simply 'consume' LotR; and at most have fantasies 'about' it, or 'based-on' it - rather than getting from it the special quality that fantasy offers. And there are people who have that kind of 'exploitative' relationship to all books.

The kind of ideal, active engagement I am talking of is almost sure to be personal and idiosyncratic; it can't be manufactured, and it must be based on a spontaneous affinity between the reader and the work (and its author). There are likely to be only a few books that evoke this kind of reading, for most readers - and the great bulk of our reading is on a lower level, and for lower motives.

But if we do have this relationship with a book - and I suppose it would be the ideal kind of relationship which both author and reader seek - then we perceive the basic unsatisfactoriness of other art forms, when it comes to the genre of fantasy.


Anonymous said...

I'm deeply obsessed with the 'meta' aspects of fiction, especially popular escapist fiction.

My running hypothesis is that modern escapist fiction has unconsciously evolved to address modern spiritual starvation. However, the vast majority of authors are currently focused on writing the 'page turners' you mention. That is, modern authors believe that fiction should be exciting - stories should focus on the exciting conflicts between heroes and villains.

This unrelenting pursuit of vicarious excitement is explicitly promoted in all the fiction-writing guides I own. Everything else is secondary. For example, they will say that it's important to create strong characters, so that readers are invested in all the upcoming action and conflict. You can see where the emphases lie. It is excitement which is thought to be the true heart and soul of a story. Everything else is its servant.

We moderns want to experience vicarious excitement because we're otherwise bored in our controlled, monotonous lives.

But boredom with life is only one aspect of our spiritual starvation, and I don't think it's the worst.

Is it possible to write engaging fiction that places the emphases on addressing other kinds of spiritual starvation - maybe loneliness, or nihilistic malaise? Action and conflict would therefore serve in a secondary role, as opportunities for the characters to grow.

In other words, I wonder if it's possible to write escapist fantasy fiction that consciously addresses our entire suite of spiritual starvations. But in fact, this has been done time and time again - hence the popularity of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings.

They aren't like other books. There's something different about their souls.

Is it possible to do consciously what has always been done unconsciously?

One would think so - I'm still astonished how the golden soul of the Harry Potter series 'shone through' in spite of Rowling's amateurish technique. According to fiction-writing guides, that should be impossible, and yet there it is...

It's obvious that sitcoms, for example, aren't built around visceral excitement, but revolve around the daily lives of beloved characters - usually a family. Does anyone write book-form sitcoms? Is Hogwarts the setting for the Harry Potter sitcom?

But maybe I'm tilting at nothing, I dunno. I sometimes have epiphanies about the obvious.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Anon (Please use a pseudonym) - "Does anyone write book-form sitcoms?" The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan (completed by Brandon Sanderson) is pretty much that. There are about three books' worth of plot spread across 14 volumes, done by by very close-up exposition of every scene, and an expanding cast building to more that a hundred point-of-view characters. The appeal is mostly simply being in that world, and the ups and down of life there - much like a sitcom or a soap. It is seldom exciting, yet it sold many millions.

Epimetheus said...

Fascinating! I forgot my username up there sorry.

So loneliness, and the desire for belonging, are spiritual sources at least as potent as boredom when writing fiction. The depth of love and interest between readers and fictional characters carries more weight than the excitement of conflict.

That's so contrary to the training of modern fiction authors, it's unbelievable.

Epimetheus said...

We are to fictional characters as angels are to us. We can't interfere in the story on the page, but we hope and pray for them, just as the angels do above us.

There's something very significant about that, but I'm not sure what.

Bruce Charlton said...

@E - The best of fantasy often seems to have providence or fate (perhaps in the form of prophecy) as a major 'character' - this applies to LotR, Harry Potter and Wheel of Time. A world of purpose and meaning.

Mocheirge said...

You've mentioned seeking folk/medieval music before; have you discovered Amazing Blondel yet? They sing the sort of thing I imagined hobbits would. At least, my interpretation of hobbits, which is Elizabethan Englanders. Regardless, here's their ode to "verdant Lincolnshire":

Bruce Charlton said...

@M - Yes, I knew of Amazing Blondel back in the seventies, although not in any depth. Very stylish chaps! I liked them moderately, but they weren't a favourite at the level of Steeleye Span, Albion Band, Watersons etc.

Nicholas Fulford said...

I alternate between books with which I form a bond, and those I read out of interest for the subject, and something that requires somewhat less of my attention. In the first category two books stand out, "The Brothers Karamazov", and "Crime and Punishment" by Dostoevsky. The Brothers is a book which is read in small portions - each of which is savoured and reflected upon. Crime and Punishment also has this quality, but I found The Brothers had me stopping sooner and thinking longer. What Crime and Punishment did grant me was a sense of the nature of particular segments of Russian society at the time in which Dostoevsky wrote, and both are deep meditations on the nature of the moral, (and immoral man).

I am not particular about the genre, provided it engages me, and has me putting the book down at least every 30 pages to digest what the author has presented to me. I prefer savoury complex foods over fast food that is as quickly forgotten as it is wolfed down, and which in its formulaic blandness leaves me feeling bloated, unsatisfied, and in need of an emetic.

Wurmbrand said...

Nicholas, have you read Dostoevsky's Demons? More specifically, have you reread it?

It's in that category of works that I think of as "news from the real world."

John Repsher said...

As far as music goes, whenever I hear Frank Martin's Mass for Double Choir, I always feel that if the elves ever sang a Mass, this is what it would sound like.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JP - Quite nice. ut not elvish for me - Bits of Howard Shore's elvish singing for the movie was closer to how I imagined, but still not quite there.

The loveliness of Rivendell

The somewhat chilling Byzantine strangeness of Lothlorien

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Bruce, do you have clear mental images of what particular characters and settings look like, such that you could put them down on canvas if you had sufficient artistic talent?

I find that the mental "images" I create while reading, while they are experienced as image-like and even seem extremely "vivid" in some sense, are not depictable even in principle. Any picture would be, at best, a "translation" of the underlying experience into the language of images properly so called. The same is true of my dreams.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - I know exactly what you are getting at - and I am the same.

We probably shouldn't be mystified by this, since it is the way of thought - at least of primary thinking. And probably it is primary thinking being evoked or engaged by the best literature.

Consider Owen Barfield's discussion of language, and how ancient languages meant many things at once; in a way that is not translatable with modern language, with its narrower and more precise meanings (because many things *simultaneously* is Not the same as a linear list of meanings).

This is also the experience of the best poetry - it can't be made into prose (and often can't be translated).

Given these constraints in writing, it ought not to surprise us that one medium cannot be translated into another without... well, not merely reduction of meaning, but actual disortion and change of meaning into something else - but somehow there is an expectation that it can, and we tend to criticise the specific rendition rather than recognise that illustrating Fantasy is impossible!

Wurmbrand said...

Bruce and William, would you be willing to refine the comment, "illustrating Fantasy is impossible," a bit?

The point would be that good fantasy illustration is not (ever?) highly representational or "photo-realistic." Being obviously stylized, it allows the reader's/viewer's imagination to remain receptive to the text and reasonably free.

Thus I find that Pauline Baynes's mid-century illustrations (in more than one style) for the Narnian books, Farmer Giles of Ham, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, and Smith of Wootton Major, are all acceptable and indeed welcome enhancements of what Lewis and Tolkien wrote. I don't feel that they are interfering with my receptivity to the text. Tolkien's own illustrations for The Hobbit help a young reader to tune in to the story's great distances (and I love them).

Conversely, the paintings of Darrell Sweet, which are more "realistic" (although not realistic in their coloring -- which is painful to the eye), are distracting. John Howe's art is also unsatisfactory, although not as nauseous as Sweet's. These seem to stymie the reader's/viewer's imagination. Tolkien art took a turn for the worse in the mid-1970s with the advent of the Hildebrandt brothers' work, a series of wax figures depicted against Disneyesque backgrounds.

I would put Alan Lee's illustrations between these two extremes. His pictures are relatively realistic, but he often paints landscapes in which the figures are not depicted in close detail, and his palette is restrained.

Dale Nelson