German Play Scene – 2018

Play scene

German Play all done for another year.

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Features of fantasy that (in my opinion) need to die horribly – A Compendium

I have just noticed that while my fifteen part rebuttal of McGarry and Ravipinto has earned itself a special compendium to keep everything together, my very first blog series, Features of Fantasy that Need to Die Horribly, is not being kept together, despite it now being in seven parts (six from 2016, one from 2018). It is together, in the sense that all the parts are under the Cliche section, but as time has gone on, other posts have found their way into that section too.

So today, I figured I would rectify that, and give the series its own little compendium.

To be updated, of course, as future posts are added to the series.

Not a Reading Challenge: August (+ Writing Update)

Completed reads for August:

  • Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë
  • Beren and Lúthien, by J.R.R. Tolkien

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Writing-wise, there has been another short story, Wednesday’s Cup Final. This one is YA-flavoured (which is deliberate), and features the Norse Gods trying to rig a football match. Yes, really.

But right now I am busy with German Play memorisation.

Tolkienian Speculative Guessing III: Time Flows Still at the Iron Hill

Having taken a look at what might have happened had the Ringwraiths acted rationally, and what might have happened had Galadriel claimed the Ring, today is another venture into the muddy waters of Tolkienian alternate history…

What would have happened if Fingolfin did not despair in the aftermath of the Dagor Bragollach?

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Recall that in The Silmarillion, the fourth of the great battles of Beleriand sees a crushing victory for Morgoth. Fingolfin, the High-King of the Noldor, loses his mind to despair, and rides to the gates of Angband to challenge the Dark Lord to a one-on-one duel. Morgoth wins, of course, but not until after Fingolfin wounds him seven times.

(For perspective, our Elven lord has just ridden to the gates of Hell itself, challenged the Devil to single combat, and given the Devil a lasting limp. The scene is that breathtaking).

But suppose Fingolfin does not throw it all away on suicide by Dark Lord. Suppose that the patient, determined Fingolfin who led his people across the Grinding Ice for twenty-seven years reasserts himself. That he decides to wait another day… what happens?

Well, the Doylist approach is that we are suddenly robbed of both Ted Nasmith’s visual depiction of the duel and Blind Guardian’s auditory version. And this lovely piece of Tolkienian prose:

“Therefore Morgoth came, climbing slowly from his subterranean throne, and the rumour of his feet was like thunder underground. And he issued forth clad in black armour; and he stood before the King like a tower, iron-crowned, and his vast shield, sable unblazoned, cast a shadow over him like a stormcloud. But Fingolfin gleamed beneath it as a star; for his mail was overlaid with silver, and his blue shield was set with crystals; and he drew his sword Ringil, that glittered like ice.”

Damn it, Fingolfin, why be cautious? So much art is hinging on you…

From a Watsonian angle, Fingolfin surviving might mean that much of what we think of as The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings never happens. And, for the purposes of Tolkienian alternate history, it is the in-universe Watsonian approach that is of interest. The problem is that it is much easier in this situation to say what doesn’t happen, rather than what does…

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Fingolfin surviving does not alter Beren and Lúthien, so Finrod Felagund still dies, and Thingol of Doriath still ends up with a silmaril. It is possible that Celegorm and Curufin are more hesitant with their designs on Lúthien with their uncle still alive, but I doubt it – Celegorm was thinking with his penis, rather than his brain, and, frankly, the political fall-out was disastrous enough as it was without needing Fingolfin to slap the Sons of Feanor down personally.

The first major point of difference is the Union of Maedhros and the Nirnaeth Arnoediad. While Maedhros may still instigate the grand alliance of Elves, Men, and Dwarves, it is much more likely to be named the Union of Fingolfin… which helps public relations no-end, because it lacks the toxic association with the Sons of Feanor. This means that Orodreth and Nargothrond are likely to send their full quota (Thingol and Doriath remain unlikely). Assuming similar tactics to the actual Nirnaeth, having Orodreth rather than Gwindor in charge of the (much larger) Nargothrond force means that the battle goes more smoothly for the Union, since Orodreth is not going to be provoked via Gelmir. It is also possible that Fingolfin might avoid Maedhros’ mistake of declaring himself too soon (a guess, rather than an assertion. Quite apart from the Union, Maedhros did err earlier in getting himself captured by Morgoth, so our red-haired Elf-lord is not the best at anticipating the Dark Lord’s responses).

So a larger Union force, with better tactics… this gives the Elves and allies a better chance of winning the battle. The objection is that Uldor will still betray everyone, and everyone always blames Uldor, but I would point out that Uldor is a mercenary bastard, and mercenaries know that a winning side pays better than a losing side, regardless of promises. So Uldor might even re-rat on Morgoth. Potentially. Alternate history is fuzzy, fictional or otherwise. I am going to stick my neck out and suggest that Fingolfin not dying turns the Nirnaeth into a victory (and, of course, it acquires a different name…). So the War of the Jewels returns to the pre-Bragollach status quo, with a couple of differences – the Elves are going to be far more cautious in how they go about a revived Siege of Angband, and the Anfauglith is still a desert.

A victorious Nirnaeth no longer requires the Men of Hithlum to fight a rear-guard battle to allow Turgon to escape. Húrin is not captured, and his family is spared Morgoth’s curse. It is still possible Túrin goes on to make poor life choices (for possible, read nigh-certain), but he remains in Hithlum, absent any curses, rather than going to Doriath. So Saeros lives. He never interacts with Petty-Dwarves. So Beleg lives. He never comes to Nargothrond. So Finduilas lives, and indeed marries Gwindor. Nargothrond itself survives. Túrin and his sister never encounter Glaurung, averting their incest and suicides. Meanwhile, Brodda, Aerin, Brandir, and Glaurung himself live.

Húrin never has to watch his family destroy itself. So he does not wander through Beleriand. He does not accidentally tip-off Morgoth as to the general location of Gondolin. He does not kill Mîm, and bring the Nauglamír to Doriath. Without the Nauglamír, Thingol never gets the idea of putting the silmaril as part of the Necklace, so never gets into a dispute with the Dwarves. So Thingol lives, Melian never abandons Menegroth, and Doriath is never left vulnerable to attack (the Sons of Feanor are not getting past the Girdle). Meanwhile, Húrin never throws himself into the Sea by way of final despair. In short, the tragedy of The Children of Húrin never happens, and Nargothrond and Doriath remain standing.

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And the third hidden Elven realm, Gondolin?

As mentioned, Húrin does not tip-off Morgoth, but one can go further. With Hithlum still under the rule of the House of Hador, Tuor remains there – and does not hear Ulmo’s message. So Tuor never comes to Gondolin, and never falls in love with Idril (Idril still rejects Maeglin, as before). With Morgoth’s forces cooped up in Angband, Maeglin does not get captured by Orcs. Between there being no Tuor in Gondolin and not getting tortured in Angband, Maeglin does not betray the city. So Gondolin survives too.

Meanwhile, no Tuor-Idril marriage means no Eärendil. Someone else is going to make that pilgrimage, if it happens (and, as we’ll see shortly, there might not be time). No Eärendil means no Elrond or Elros. So Rivendell never gets founded, and the line of Elros never gets going. So if Númenor happens, it’s a different royal family. No Elendil, no Isildur, and, eventually, no Aragorn. Fingolfin’s fateful bout of despair alters The Lord of the Rings out of all recognition, never mind The Silmarillion – assuming Thangorodrim gets broken at all.

So all this adds up to a status quo scenario with Nargothrond, Doriath, and Gondolin all continuing happily, and a large number of people living, or not being born, rather than dying. The Noldor once again lay siege to Angband, and Morgoth is unable to break out, again. Does Fingolfin not despairing therefore lead to an eternal stalemate?

Well, no. Something is going to break the stalemate.

And, if I were to hazard a guess, that something is going to be Ancalagon the Black and the winged dragons. With the eventual prospect of Ancalagon unleashed against Fingolfin’s Noldorin forces, rather than against the entire Host of the West, time is certainly on Morgoth’s side – as is the Doom of Mandos, of course. Meawhile, an Ancalagon loose over Beleriand endangers Gondolin, and potentially Doriath (depending on whether the Girdle of Melian extends upwards), though underground Nargothrond is as safe as anywhere. And, with the silmaril still stored safely in Menegroth, who would think to use it in a desperate voyage to Valinor? Never mind Eärendil, there might not even be time for a Voronwe.

The answer to the question of what happens if Fingolfin does not despair?

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Everyone, Fingolfin or otherwise, ends up as food for a gigantic flying lizard.

(Which as a concluding side-note, ties in perfectly with Tolkien’s themes. Fingolfin’s death and the Nirnaeth Arnoediad are simultaneously explorations of the grand futility of the Northern Theory of Courage, and an exploration of how evil’s victory is itself self-defeating. Based off the above, a Morgoth that loses the Nirnaeth would ironically be in a better position than one that wins it… and recall from the Music that the most triumphant notes of evil are turned to good. Clever guy, that Tolkien).

Cracking the Social Code: Class in Tolkien’s Shire

I thought I’d take a look at that infamously enduring social institution – class structure. But not real-world class structure – Tolkienian class structure, of the variety that George R.R. Martin thinks is somehow lacking in Middle-earth. Yes, today we are delving into the social code that Tolkien uses to describe The Shire, that strange little modern imprint on a world that is otherwise so resolutely pre-modern.

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That Tolkien’s Shire has a class system is obvious: everyone can spot the difference between Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee – the pair are close friends, but one is in a socially superior position. Ergo, Sam famously considers Frodo his “master” and tugs the proverbial forelock. But in considering The Shire as a whole, the class dynamics are more complex, to the point where Tolkien’s subtle social coding sometimes goes over the reader’s head. This goes double for readers who apply their own, localised, notions of class structure – English class structure (on which The Shire is based) is not purely a matter of wealth and income. Wealth and income play a role, but they are just components of a wider whole.

A true upper-class Englishman is part of a landowning family, and the family has a title to go with it. The old family home may be a bit shabby these days – maybe parts of it are starting to crumble, maybe Mad Uncle Cecil got a bit too heavily into horses, alcohol, and debt – but land, title, and genealogy carry the day. Another key factor is that the true upper class never care what others think of them. They can be eccentric as they like, and it won’t affect their social standing. Society is also very forgiving of their foibles, to the extent that a social faux pas (like, say, being a Roman Catholic in the nineteenth century) is something they can generally get away with. It might be hushed up, of course, not mentioned in polite company, but it will never destroy them, in a way it might destroy someone of the middle-class.

If you read the previous paragraph, and suddenly thought “hey, that sounds like the Tooks!”, you have been paying attention. The Tooks are Shire aristocracy in the most classical sense (Pippin even makes a passable stab at being the Bertie Wooster of Middle-earth). They have the title (the Thainship), the landed estates (Tookland), the ancestral family home (Great Smials), and a reputation for unbridled eccentricity, which everyone in The Shire has come to put up with… because they are Tooks. It’s what they are, while their enormous wealth is more-or-less treated as a social bonus. The Brandybucks are another good example. They too have title (Master of Buckland), lands (Buckland), ancestral family home (Brandy Hall), and a reputation for being a bit different, though in their case the reputation is tied up with a whiff of “being a bit foreign” – they’re from the other side of the river, don’t you know. Oh yes, and none of them work.

This brings us to one of the great misconceptions about The Shire’s class system – it even appears in the McGarry and Ravipinto article linked above. The Bagginses are not true upper class. Bilbo and Frodo are both upper-middle-class, on account of their Took and Brandybuck mothers (Bungo and Drogo Baggins definitely married up), and Bilbo’s wealth certainly does not hurt, but here the coding is very different. There is no title associated with being a Baggins – Bilbo is a mere “Bilbo Baggins, Esq,” in Thorin’s contract, a gentleman but not an aristocrat. Bag End is a comfortable property, but it lacks the scale or history of the Took or Brandybuck homes, and while it might possibly come with rental properties attached (Bagshot Row?), we are not talking landed estates. It is altogether more modest.

The clincher, however, is Tolkien’s use of “respectability” as a descriptor. Recall that the true upper-class never care what others think – they are above social embarrassment. Not so the middle-class, who must work night and day to preserve a particular social image, and so we find the Bagginses making boring predictability their defining character-trait. They are stalwartly unremarkable and normal, and Bilbo’s eccentricities hurt his reputation far more than one would normally expect (luckily for Bilbo, he doesn’t really care – our Mr Baggins is a class rebel). For another literary example of this respectability signifier, consider the Dursleys from Harry Potter. Their distaste for wizarding nonsense is not simply a comment on Vernon’s bigoted personality (though he is bigoted), but also a comment on the Dursleys’ social standing. Decent, middle-class people don’t go in for robes and wands!

Yet another distinction between upper and middle-class is ambition. A true aristocrat never obsesses about rising through the ranks, since one cannot rise when one is already at the top (Rowling accordingly errs by categorising Slytherins as both aristocratic and ambitious). A middle-class person, on the other hand, may desire social mobility, generally through substituting obscene amounts of money for titles and tradition.

(Working class social mobility is a bit distinct, and is something we shall discuss later).

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Tolkien plays middle-class social climbing in two ways. The first is for laughs. Bungo Baggins (Bilbo’s father) builds Bag End for his Took wife, but uses her money to pay for it. Drogo Baggins (Frodo’s father) hangs around his Brandybuck in-laws for the free food at dinner parties. Neither Bungo nor Drogo are presented as bad men, however: it is a gentle humour, making light of men marrying up, then taking advantage of the situation (Tolkienian men tend to marry up).

The second way is a darker case study: the Sackville-Bagginses. The Sackville-Bagginses are middle-class, of course (in the drafts, Otho is even explicitly a lawyer), but are incredibly pretentious – hence the hyphenated, Frenchified surname. Tolkien provides us with some interesting insight in a letter:

Customs differed in cases where the ‘head’ [of a family] died leaving no son. In the Took-family, since the headship was also connected with the title and (originally military) office of Thain, descent was strictly through the male line. In other great families the headship might pass through a daughter of the deceased to his eldest grandson (irrespective of the daughter’s age). This latter custom was usual in families of more recent origin, without ancient records or ancestral mansions. In such cases the heir (if he accepted the courtesy title) took the name of his mother’s family — though he often retained that of his father’s family (placed second). This was the case with Otho Sackville-Baggins. For the nominal headship of the Sackvilles had come to him through his mother Camellia. It was his rather absurd ambition to achieve the rare distinction of being ‘head’ of two families (he would probably then have called himself Baggins-Sackville-Baggins): a situation which will explain his exasperation with the adventures and disappearance of Bilbo, quite apart from any loss of property involved in the adoption of Frodo. 

Note the distinction between the ancient Tooks (old money), and the more recent Sackville-Bagginses (new money). Note also Otho’s ridiculous ambition, which speaks entirely to his frustrated middle-class status. He and Lobelia could quite easily fit into Keeping Up Appearances.

The nouveau riche aspect of the Sackville-Bagginses comes to full flower in Lotho. Inheriting a property base from his father, Lotho is a man with drive, who intends to supplant the traditional order with a new way of doing things. Money from commerce gets translated into power, via hired thugs, which enables a temporary usurpation of normality. Which means that the traditional order – the actual upper class of The Shire – is not happy:

You see, your dad, Mr. Peregrin, he’s never had no truck with this Lotho, not from the beginning: said that if anyone was going to play the chief at this time of day, it would be the right Thain of the Shire and no upstart.

In the end, the Tooks reassert themselves in what amounts to an inter-class collaborative revolution. Calling it an aristocratic restoration is to over-egg the pudding, however. It’s really a battle between hobbits of every social class and external usurpers. Lotho himself is long gone, destroyed by his own ambition.

So much for the middle-classes, who in contrast to the upper-class, do actually work from time to time (c.f. Grubb, Grubb, and Burrowes, the auctioneers from The Hobbit). What of the working class? The agricultural labourers, since The Shire has no urban society in any real sense?

Well, it rather goes without saying that Tolkien was rather fond of them. It’s the social class Samwise Gamgee comes from, after all, and the Cotton family play a key role in the Scouring. Salt-of-the-earth types, certainly, with hearts firmly in the right place, some adorable foibles, and perhaps a forgivable whiff of self-satisfaction when they sit down to a well-earned beer at the Ivy Bush.

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That well-earned self-satisfaction is a rather more than a joke, however. One key aspect of working class culture is regarding “good honest toil” as the bedrock of personal identity – sticking with one’s mates, getting the (physical) job done, and not shirking. It is a very collectivist mindset, with a flipside being a distaste for anyone having ideas beyond one’s station. Heaven help you if you come across as thinking you are better than someone else (and lest anyone think I am slandering here, I have working class family. I have seen this in action).

This sounds counter-intuitive – the middle-class dream of upward social mobility (the Sackville-Bagginses want to become upper class), so why wouldn’t the working class want to become middle-class? Simple: aspiring to move into a higher class is so associated with being middle-class that rejecting the premise is (or at least was) itself part of working class identity – there’s no room for bourgeois decadence or affectation in a community where, as mentioned, one’s worth is measured by one’s plain honesty and commitment to thankless toil. Ted Sandyman is Tolkien’s case-study here – a working class hobbit with aspirations beyond his station, who accordingly falls in with another social climber (Lotho) and ends up on the wrong team when Sharkey turns up. Ted wants to be something he’s not, just as Lotho wants to be something he’s not.

But wait… if the working class identity involves rejection of upward social mobility, how does one explain Samwise Gamgee’s rise to prominence? Sam becomes master of Bag End, and then subsequently Mayor – with no negative social repercussions. Well, yes. But one has to contrast Sam with his dark counterpart, Ted. Ted has aspirations and ideas, whereas Sam remains very much grounded. Sam has upwards social mobility thrust on him via the generosity and friendship of Bilbo and Frodo, rather than any innate desire to climb the social ladder, and when he does climb the social ladder, he gets away with it because (unlike Ted) he is so resolutely humble. Sam doesn’t marry upwards (he marries into working-class Cottons), and never picks up airs. That said, the Gaffer tells Sam in no uncertain terms that he doesn’t “hold with ironmongery whether it wears well or no.” Tolkien plays the scene for laughs – contrasting the epic adventure that has earned Sam this “ironmongery” with hobbit mundanity, but when considering the social code of The Shire, this is actually working class identity seeping through into the text. The Gaffer is rock-solid working class – from his viewpoint, this strange affectation Sam wears is to be distrusted.

Unfortunately, this notion of not having ideas beyond one’s station is pretty much the only way Tolkien engages with the working class in his portrayal of The Shire. Because there is a further flipside to the importance of “good honest toil”… working class respectability. Quite apart from affectations being out of place, shirking, or unseemly behaviour is also frowned upon – it is what distinguishes the respectable working class from the non-respectable working class, and as Terry Pratchett notes, when one is at the bottom of the social ladder, the space between the ladder’s rungs gets very significant. Tolkien only ever provides us with respectable working class hobbits (Gamgees, Cottons) – even the Sandymans (Sandymen?) fall into this category, since their fault is “big heads”, not laziness. We certainly never see hobbit beggars.

In terms of the text’s lack of engagement with working class respectability, while it may draw accusations that The Shire is excessively idealised, I think Tolkien can be defended on two grounds. Firstly, having a criminal underclass would not have improved the book – though the middle-class Lobelia actually does regard the Gamgees as potential midnight burglars, which just shows she does not understand how the working class operates. Secondly, Tolkien plays the class structure for gentle laughs. For all the darkness of the Sackville-Bagginses and Ted Sandyman, they are still creatures to be laughed at. Subtle jabs at a criminal underclass are a different matter.

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That concludes our look at The Shire’s class structure, and Tolkien’s engagement with social coding – the eccentricities of the Tooks and Brandybucks, the respectability of the Bagginses, the social climbing of the Sackville-Bagginses, and the salt-of-the-earth nature of the Gamgees, all of which have a particular reference to British cultural norms. There is much to unpack here, all the more so since, of course, the story spends most of its time outside The Shire. Far from neglecting class, Tolkien provides us with an elaborate (for a fantasy novel) referencing of the subject – not so much a critique, but at least a commentary.

 

2018 German Play

As in 2016 and 2017, I am involved in the 2018 German Language Play for the University of Otago. This year, it is a stage adaptation of the YA/Fairy Tale novel, Krabat, by Otfried Preußler.

Krabat Poster

I am playing Hanzo, one of the miller boys.

The Mystery of the Nineteen Bells – For All

Wild Musette Journal has now posted my short campanological fantasy for general consumption, so you can read it without buying the entire issue:

The Mystery of the Nineteen Bells

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John Dilillo, Practicalities, and the Point of Middle-earth

Today’s interesting article argues that the upcoming Amazon adaptation of Aragorn’s story misses the point of what Tolkien was trying to do.

Interesting, because Dilillo is completely correct in a broad sense, but errs in another way, and not just because it feels like he’s talking about Jackson’s Aragorn more than Tolkien’s (rejection of heritage? Angst?).

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When I say the article is correct, Tolkien’s story does indeed revolve around the hobbits – the great deeds of the Gondorians and Rohirrim are merely a distraction from the heart of the tale, which is Frodo and Sam (and Gollum). This has always been my objection to Martin’s complaint about Aragorn’s tax policy – The Lord of the Rings is not about Aragorn, let alone tax policy. Moreover, victory in the War of the Ring is not achieved through conventional means, such as force of arms or physical courage – those are necessary but not sufficient conditions. Sauron is instead defeated through the power of mercy, which means focusing on the battles misses the thematic point.

(As an aside, I think this “non-traditional hero” thing might well be the influence of the Finnish Kalevala. Kalevala is, of course, famous for inspiring Quenya, the tale of Túrin, and other bits and pieces like the eagles. Kalevala is also notable for its heroes being more rogue-ish tricksters than grand figures like Gilgamesh, Beowulf, and Achilles. Tolkien definitely noted the discrepancy, and might well have toyed the idea of sidelining the Aragorn figure in favour of someone… different).

So The Lord of the Rings is a trope-busting (yes, really) inversion of traditional epic fantasy. Granted. On that point, Dilillo and I are on the same page. Where I feel he errs is that he thinks Rings is the only way of exploring Middle-earth:

Without Hobbits, Middle-earth is just another cliched fantasy tapestry, painting with the same old tired strokes. What makes Aragorn special is not his heritage or his backstory; it is that he recognizes that he is not the hero of this story. Aragorn is the king who bows to the Hobbits. Stripped of that identity, he is indistinguishable from any other gruff sword-wielding badass.

There are no hobbits in The Silmarillion, and plenty of sword-wielding badasses, yet I do not see it as another cliched fantasy tapestry. Note that The Silmarillion is also a major departure from traditional epic fantasy, but it is a departure in a different way – rather than the weak overcoming the strong (Rings), it is the strong failing, spectacularly, again and again, then finally finding redemption if they are willing to seek it (some are, some aren’t).

That is not to say the Aragorn series will use that framework either. Never mind that the plot would need to be created out of whole-cloth, it would not gel with the current zeitgeist. Empowering ordinary people, a la Rings, is a good fit for the modern world, spiritual pilgrimages a la Eärendil, less so. Rather, my point is that an Aragorn story, departing from the Rings/hobbit framework, could still work, in theory – I have previously suggested something more sword and sorcery-style. It would utterly fail at a Game of Thrones-style venture, for both plot (where’s the politics and sex?) and thematic (where’s the cynicism?) reasons. As I have suggested before, if Amazon wanted a Middle-earth Game of Thrones, they should have done a Númenor adaptation, with extra decadence – and since Númenor appears in Appendix A in summarised form, they do have the rights to the Downfall story.

This brings me to the second area where I feel Dilillo errs – raw practicalities. If not Aragorn (or Númenor…) then who? A series focused on hobbits would be an exercise in banality unless you can get them out of The Shire, at which point you have a rehash of Rings or The Hobbit – hobbits may be the point of Rings, but you need the supporting base (Gondor, et al) to raise the stakes. No-one is going to watch a series about the Sackville-Bagginses and their social-climbing ways, and we already have Keeping Up Appearances for that anyway. One could potentially do something more Elven-focused (Legolas), but the problem there would be identifying with a people who aren’t human. Easier to have Aragorn – a human – in the lead role, and drag Elves and Dwarves in as needed. Oh, and Aragorn can fight too… which makes visual representation much easier, and which is incidentally why any visual adaptation of Rings is inevitably going to focus more on the battles. It’s not that adaptors don’t get Tolkien (though sometimes they don’t), but rather the practicalities of a visual medium.

So, in summary: yes, an interesting and well-meaning article, that does touch on what Tolkien was trying to do with The Lord of the Rings. I just feel that it ignores the wider potential of Middle-earth in general, and fails as a critique of the Amazon series in particular. If (or when) the Amazon series fails, it won’t be because it focused on Aragorn, rather than hobbits.

Not A Reading Challenge: July (+ Writing Update)

Completed reads this month:

  • Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov

So, yeah. Yet another quiet month on the reading front. But an interesting month on the writing front…

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  • Pink Unicorns Solvable in O(2) Time. – The hard science-fiction short story that turned into a novelette. Needs more polish.
  • Old Phuul. – Clarification coming.
  • Kaamos (short story). – Clarification coming.

I am still waiting to hear back on my sick-and-twisted Christmas in Bohemia story, which I wrote back in February. Not that I am overly bothered by delay – if it does not find a home with the anthology to which I submitted, I have a hard time seeing anyone else wanting it. Unless there’s a market for perversion?

[Edit – Sorry.]

Beyond Escapism

George R.R. Martin provides an interesting take on why we read fantasy:

I had seen this before, though only in written format. It works quite well on Youtube, I think, and if nothing else is a genuinely gorgeous and stirring piece of writing. An Escapist Manifesto, if you will (readers of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your boredom!).

I know where Martin is coming from. I understand full and unapologetic escapism, the pleasures that come from immersing oneself in a reality more rich and exciting than our own. Life is short – why not escape the prison walls for a few hours, and visit the wild and uncharted lands beyond the seas? As Tolkien himself notes, the escape of the prisoner should not be confused with the flight of the deserter, and as either C.S. Lewis or Terry Pratchett (or someone else) remarks, jailers hate escapism. In that sense, Martin takes what was once considered poison, and turns it into medicine – albeit in kinder social circumstances than the late, great Ursula Le Guin faced in 1974, when she wrote Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?

I would also defend escapism against the charge that it is literary lotus-eating. China Miéville wrote an article on this, back in 2002:

Tolkien claimed the function of his fantasy was ‘consolation’. In other words, it becomes a point of principle that his literature mollycoddles its readers. Tolkien and his admirers (many of them leftists) gave his escapism an emancipatory gloss, claiming that jailers hate escapism. As the great anarchist fantasist Michael Moorcock has pointed out, this is precisely untrue. Jailers love escapism. What they hate is escape.

Back in 2016, I spent a good 15,000+ words rebutting the sentiment that Tolkien is a mollycoddling author of the conservative status quo, so I won’t rehash things here – suffice to say, The Shire is not utopia. I would also smile grimly at Miéville’s ‘socialist appreciation’ of Peter Jackson, in light of later events. For the present, however, I would take issue with the notion that escapism and escape are antithetical.

Miéville’s point is that escapism is de facto surrender. We give up hope of a better reality by retreating into a world of make-believe. To which I would make two rebuttals:

(i) Sometimes, change is impossible. It’s a depressing thought, but most of us only have limited control over our own lives, and bringing about a better reality is a… complicated… thing. If, indeed, most of us are doomed (through no fault of our own) to live a drab existence, what is wrong with a safety blanket that makes existence liveable? I am reminded of The Road to Wigan Pier, by George Orwell, where Orwell notes that while the middle-class may enjoy healthy food, the poor and destitute will often consume sugary treats as a way of easing their misery. Fantasy might sometimes be a sugary treat of the mind, but if it gives some small satisfaction to people after a long day at the office, then that is no bad thing.

(ii) Less depressingly, but more importantly, one cannot escape without escapism. If someone cannot conceive of a world outside their prison, if grey bricks and narrow bed are all there is, and all there ever can be, then they will remain stuck forever. Miéville would have us build a better world. Fair enough. But to build a better world, you must first imagine one. I do not think it an accident that modern fantasy was birthed by the pen of William Morris.

So, yes, I am on board with escapism being fundamentally rewarding on its own terms. Indeed, I would go further, and suggest that a degree of escapism – a degree of taking the reader to a different reality – is an integral part of modern fantasy’s job description. A pre-modern fantasy could conceive of witches or angry gods on the other side of the forest. As late as the 1920s and 1930s, H.P. Lovecraft could conceive of strange, outlying places amid the Antarctic mountains. We in 2018 do not have that luxury – the world is too well-known – so we fall back on self-consciously escapist worlds. Or on space exploration, which I think feeds into the same sense of wonder, the same innate hunger for the exotic.

But I think Martin’s quote also creates a false dichotomy between fantasy and real-life, as though the great purpose of the genre is to replace the latter with something more pleasant and exciting. Pleasant excitement is great, but is it necessarily why we read and write this stuff? For some people, perhaps. It is not my place to judge. For myself, I feel one of the chief roles of fantasy – and indeed of fiction in general – is to present different views of reality, of exploring the human experience. Why else have humans invented storytelling, if not to hold a mirror to our mundane lives?

To clarify, I do not mean that fantasy ought to function as allegory. I normally find “message” stories rather dull, even if I agree with the message, which is why I keep preachy politics out of my own fiction. Rather, I agree with the often-suggested idea that fantasy is a sort of literary abstract art. It allows us to view reality differently. The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov – a fantastic social satire, in both senses of the word ‘fantastic’ – would be a far less interesting novel without the premise of Satan visiting Stalin’s Moscow. But at the same time, I think it would also be a less interesting novel without the premise of Satan visiting Stalin’s Moscow. This is less about escapism, and more about some very real and very clever social commentary. It just uses the vehicle of fantasy.

Cat

Nor is fantasy limited to commentary on real-life social questions. It can also be used as a means of exploring the real-life individual. Stephen Donaldson is particularly fond of this, suggesting the genre can be viewed as an externalisation of the internal:

“Put simply, fantasy is a form of fiction in which the internal crises
or conflicts or processes of the characters are dramatized as if they
were external individuals or events.”

Two of Donaldson’s own series, Thomas Covenant and Mordant’s Need, fit this particular framework – Covenant’s experiences in the Land, and Terisa’s experiences in Mordant, both reflect back on their own individual circumstances. The former is a man afflicted with leprosy, the latter a woman bereft of purpose. Neither series can really be called escapism – neither character is escaping their problems. Rather, they’re confronting them, in a very literal sense. Does one read Donaldson for escapist value? I suppose he can be read that way – Thomas Covenant still follows a Tolkienian framework, even while it challenges it – but it is just as valid to read him as a psychological study, as expressed in fantasy format.

As an aside, there is also the more problematic situation where the author tries to reverse the polarity… err… reverse the direction of the real-world vs fantasy world commentary. A major offender here is later-book J.K. Rowling, who opts to play up the Nazi/Death Eater comparison, via giving her villains recognisable salutes, et cetera. The problem is that this comparison does not offer any insight into real-world evil, or indeed real-world anything. It is simply an attempt to offer an insight into fantasy evil – an extremely banal and uninteresting insight at that. Giving Death Eaters a Nazi salute is shorthand for “these people are bad”… as though we did not know that already, and as I mentioned long ago, Hitler was not evil because he saluted people. Hitler was evil because he started a genocidal war. But I digress.

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I do appreciate Martin’s vision of fantasy as a genre of dreams. A genre that satisfies our desire to explore, to experience something greater than ourselves, “to find the colours again” in a world of grey and beige. I fully agree that we, as humans, have a deep innate hunger for such things, and that one of the joys of reading fantasy is sating that hunger. And I would also oppose the Miévilles who see escapism as surrender. But I think to point to this, and say “this is why we read fantasy,” is too reductionist, and indeed risks buying into the notion that fantasy cannot say anything about our actual world. That fantasy is a lie, even if it is a lie breathed through silver. No. Fantasy can say much about ourselves and our society. It can satirise and study, even as it mesmerises and provokes. Martin describes good fantasy as “more real than real… for a moment, at least.” He does himself a disservice with the qualifier.