Showing posts with label Michael Moorcock. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Michael Moorcock. Show all posts

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Disney's "John Carter" Teaser Trailer Captures the Wonder of the Imagination

I have mentioned in the past that it was Michael Moorcock who instilled in me a love of fantasy, and that it was Edgar Rice Burroughs who instilled in me an everlasting and insatiable love of reading.  Those who have seen my overflowing book shelves, and my large storage unit filled with books and games, might find the fact that I once claimed that English was my least favorite subject due to all the reading a little incredible.

...seriously, who has a storage unit filled with books and games?...

Of all of Burroughs tales, it was his wonderful John Carter Planetary Romances that sparked my imagination to wonder at distant shores.  It was these books that gave me an insatiable hunger to experience that kind of escape and profound sense of greatness.  It wasn't that Burroughs wordsmithery was profoundly great and beautiful.  It was his ability to convey just enough information for your own mind to create that sense of wonder that kept me coming back.

The John Carter stories -- with their stilted Edwardian/Victorian morality -- provided an interesting and valuable look at love and courage.  It was a point of view that was often lacking in much of the fiction of the my youth, which was more jaded and more realistic in the presentation of relationships.  

Even Elric -- tragic, ironic, sardonic, immoral, cynical, despicable as he is -- is a student of John Carter when it comes to love.  His love for Cymoril, and his remorse over her death, echo Carter's love.   No man can love a woman as much as Carter loves Dejah Thoris, and maybe no man should, but it makes for wonderful romance.

By the looks of the preview, the upcoming Disney film manages to capture some of the wonder and romance of the Burroughs tales in addition to all of the action.  If the preview is any indication, the film also manages to capture the feel of the alien yet familiar geography of Barsoom.  Disney's John Carter doesn't look like "my" imagined one -- which was heavily Michael Whelan influenced -- but it does capture my imagination.

I have high hopes for this film.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Kell's Legend -- An Action Packed Fusion of Legends Past and New Concepts

It is often said that you cannot judge a book by its cover, but we know that isn't entirely true. Marketing departments work hard to ensure that a book's cover conveys a hint of what a book's contents will be. The cover to Andy Remic's book Kell's Legend, published by Angry Robot Books, practically screams at the potential reader.

"Psst! You! Yes, I mean you. You like David Gemmell books right?"

I am a big fan of Gemmell and I admit that the prospect of an author continuing to satisfy my pulp action reading itch is a pleasant one. Gemmell had a way of combining tried and true narrative tropes with interesting characters and pulse pounding action with a hint of moral philosophic undertones. Gemmell's originality as a writer wasn't in plotlines -- some of his most famous books were adaptations of the Spartan stand at Thermopylae and stories of Scottish rebels -- it was in his ability to create human characters in a genre that too often presented ciphers.

By making the comparison to Gemmell, the marketing department set the bar to impress readers fairly high. How did Remic fare?

Kell's Legend -- the title even evokes Gemmell comparisons -- opens with a massive army invasion. From the initial description of the invasion, the reader does not hold much hope for the Kingdom of Falanor to resist the Iron Army that seeks conquest. The Iron Army is more than a disciplined army comprised of skilled soldiers led by a talented commander invading at an opportune moment -- though it is all of those things -- it is also an army that has access to sinister "blood oil magic." This magic can win battles before they even begin as it creates a frightening pogonip like "ice fog" that can freeze defenders, and citizens, to death before the first blow is struck.

This pleases General Graal for many reasons, not the least of which is that his army doesn't merely seek to conquer the Kingdom of Falanor. His army seeks to harvest the blood of Falanor's citizens to provide food for his people to the north. General Graal, and his kin, are a vampiric fusion of man and machine. The country from which Graal hails is one where the citizens are merged with clockwork mechanisms as children in a process that creates a race of vampire machines -- or as the book calls them "The Vachine." The process doesn't go well for every child. There are those whose minds and bodies are twisted in the attempt. These poor souls become the feral "cankers," primitive societal rejects filled with bloodlust and rage.

This is the force that our hero Kell must resist. When the novel opens, Kell is already a legend among his people. His "Days of Blood" are the subject of great ballads that travel the land, but those days are long past. Kell would rather spend his time supporting his granddaughter's pursuit of an education, and leave his bloodbound axe Ilanna hanging on a wall mount. While the axe is mounted, it cannot speak to him, grant him its terrible strength, and he can attempt to forget all of the terrible things he has done. Things that have brought him fame, but at what personal cost.

Through the events of the tale Kell encounters his chief ally, a master swordsman named Saark. Saark is the Grey Mouser to Kell's Fafhrd, the Moonglum to Kell's Elric, the eternal companion. Like Kell, Saark has done horrible things in his past. He too has killed for King and Country, but he has also betrayed them. Saark is a witty and self-loathing character who often takes his own self-hatred out on others. He was once a paragon of virtue and now he wallows in debauchery as a means to punish himself. It is only in meeting Kell and fighting a hopeless battle against the Vachine that Saark can find any possible redemption.

The book has everything one could ask in pulp fantasy. It has pulse pounding action, brooding heroes, elements of horror, clockwork vampires, epic battles, and ancient evils.

Did I mention the clockwork vampires?

Like Gemmell, Remic is working in territory familiar to the fantasy fan, but he combines familiar elements into an engaging tapestry of action. Remic's writing jumps off the page and leaves reader's asking for more as the book's final page ends on a desperate cliffhanger.

Though the book is quite good, it isn't perfect either. The milieu of the novel is filled with allusions to a detailed history, but these allusions often come up after the information might have aided the reader in understanding the context of narrative elements. We are given the name vachine before the term is explained to us. Given that "vachine," and "canker" for that matter, sound like things you might catch frequenting brothels, this is an oversight on the part of the author. When the clumsiness of the introduction of the vachine as race is contrasted with the introduction of the Stone Lion of the Stone Lion Woods, it becomes clear that Remic has a detailed setting from which to draw. I could easily see myself highlighting passages of the book to form the basis of an rpg campaign, there is myth-building going on here. It is just sometimes presented out of order.

Remic also has a penchant for profanity in the book which that can seem shocking at first. The sexual escapades of Saark are a necessary part of the narrative, they demonstrate his self-loathing aptly, but Remic's choice of vocabulary was straight out of Deadwood. Like Deadwood, the reader becomes used to certain characters and their use of what Spock called "colorful metaphors," but one does wonder if the word choice itself is as vital as the scenes where the vocabulary is used. What does the use of the "c" word and "q" word add to the verisimilitude of the tale?

As can be seen from the brief synopsis of the book's opening, Remic draws from many of my favorite fantasy authors for inspiration. Kell's Legend contains echoes of Moorcock, Lieber, Howard, and Gemmell while maintaining a rich originality.

While Remic's book lacks the subversive political critiques of Moorcock, or the Just War undertones of Gemmell's fiction, it does contain imagery that makes for interesting discussion about modern man. By making the results of man and machine into horrifying vampiric creatures, sometimes less than human and sometimes more, Remic allows us to consider the wisdom of fiction's current obsession with "Transhumanism." By becoming more than human, are we really becoming less than human? The industrial nature of the exploitation of conquest itself adds some interesting elements for conversation. When the Vachine invade, they harvest the conquered and prepare them for processing in their "Blood Refineries."

Some may find such descriptions as too "on the nose," but I found them fresh, topical, and engaging.

The battle scenes of Kell's Legend are vivid, the human relationships are compelling, and the hints at the legendary past of the world spark the imagination. That is exactly what one should be hoping for when one opens the pages of a novel.

I am eagerly opening my copy of "Soul Stealers."

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Mongoose Publishing Releasing "Classic Chaosium" Michael Moorcock RPGs in PDF

I am happy to see that a number of publishers are using digital publishing to keep old and out of print games in the marketplace. In the modern market, there is no excuse for not having old products available. All you do is feed a secondary market and feed digital piracy. While digital pirates will still steal products that are made available digitally for sale, more honest purchasers have a way that they can support the games that they love. It allows new players to be introduced to historic games, and it allows people who own physical copies to keep those in more pristine shape and use the digital copies instead.

Mongoose Publishing has long been using the digital distribution stream, and they have now made the classic Chaosium Michael Moorcock inspired Basic Role-Playing games available for purchase. This includes the excellent first edition of Stormbringer by Tunnels and Trolls' own Ken St. Andre.

I know there are some who have mixed feelings about Mongoose Publishing's business practices during the early d20 boom. No one can deny that Mongoose looked at the upcoming releases of other companies and rushed out versions of similar products that were released prior to those of their competitors. This often led to inferior product by Mongoose and diminished sales for the original company. I share these mixed feelings regarding Mongoose and d20.

That said, I have been impressed with Mongoose Publishing in the Post-d20 marketplace. They have done quality editions of Traveller, and adapted Judge Dredd and Hammer's Slammers to that system seemlessly. I am also enjoying their -- slightly overpriced -- new Lone Wolf role playing game.

Regardless of what you think about Mongoose, you might want to consider what Michael Moorcock had to say about Chaosium in Kobold Quarterly #5:

"Or course, Chaosium turned out to be crooks, paying no royalties, ripping me of, behaving in a dodgy way. I tried over the years to get the stuff away from them, but it wasn't until Mongoose made a serious offer to Chaosium, plus an offer to me, that I was able to switch. Mongoose have proven a completely trustworthy firm... Gary [Gygax] told me he wished he'd known the circumstances, since he had other ideas for EC games. I too wish I'd signed with GG, who seemed a pleasant and agreeable guy."

Quite a different picture than one might have imagined. Chaosium is one of the venerable and trusted names in gaming, and most early vitriol regarding "game publisher greed" were aimed at TSR. Those anti-TSR flames were often fanned by fans of Chaosium, so if Moorcock's claims are true it puts the early days of the hobby in a different light.

I don't know the truth of Moorcock's anti-Chaosium claims, but I'll take him at his word with his pro-Mongoose praise. If purchasing the pdfs means the good author gets royalties, then count me in as a customer.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

What's the Difference Between Sword 'n' Sorcery and Planetary Romance

A couple of weeks ago, Cinerati featured a post discussing some of the peaks and valleys in quality that fans of Planetary Romance have suffered through/enjoyed over the past few years. In response to the post, our good friend -- and sinister barrister -- Tulkinghorn asked, "what is the difference between Planetary Romance and Sword and Sorcery fiction?"

He received a brief response in the comments from a non-Cinerati member fan of Planetary Romance named Venusian that summarized the difference as, "there is no magic in planetary romance, and it's usually 'off planet.'" This definition is useful, as far as it goes, but it doesn't go deep enough to truly differentiate the two sub-genre from each other. It's also only half true. Add to this lack of specificity the particular -- and perculiar -- skepticism of a person like Tulkinghorn and it makes for a perfect topic for a longer post.

So...what is the difference between Planetary Romance and Sword and Sorcery fiction?

To begin, we must start by acknowledging that both of these sub-genre of fiction lie within the scope of Heroic Fantasy -- and sometimes Heroic Science Fiction -- which is itself a sub-genre of Fantasy literature.

[One could use this as an opportunity to advance the argument that in "speculative fiction" it is Fantasy that is the primary genre and all other classifications are sub-genre of Fantasy, but that is a discussion for another post. Let it merely be stated that I dislike the term "speculative fiction" as it seems to a) have an anti-fantasy bias, b) exhibit "embarrassment" with association with Fantasy, c)has a pro-Science Fiction bias (SF is the abbreviation for both), and is guilty of a litany of other sins including the theft of candy apples from small children at county fairs.]

Heroic Fantasy can be simply defined for the purposes of this discussion, it deserves a thorough examination itself, as narratives in which a heroic figure struggles against antagonists within an imagined setting which contains "impossible" or "improbable" elements. These elements can be magic, monsters, imagined science, or gobbledygook. Most of the fiction in modern Fantasy, epic or otherwise, is some form of Heroic Fantasy though some stories contain "mundane" protagonists or "anti-heroes." To be truly Heroic Fantasy, the protagonist must be larger than life; and this is even more true in the sub-genres of Planetary Romance and Sword and Sorcery.

To really discuss the differences between Planetary Romance and Sword and Sorcery, it is helpful to see how prior science fiction critics have defined the subject.

According to David Pringle (in John Clute and John Grant's Encyclopedia of Fantasy) Planetary Romance stories,

are stories of adventure set almost entirely on the surface of some alien world, with an emphasis on swordplay (or similar), monsters, telepathy or other under-explained "magic," and near-human alien civilizations which often resemble those of Earth's pre-technological past...The hero is usually from Earth, but the means of his or her "translation" to the far planet is often supernatural rather than technological, involving flying carpets, astral projection, angel-power and kindred devices. Spaceships are sometimes mentioned, but the complete lack of interest shown in the mechanics of space travel is one of the principal features distinguishing PR from space opera...; super-scientific spacecraft and other mighty machines are central to space opera, but rarely feature in planetary romance.

The same volume includes a definition of Sword and Sorcery written by John Clute, David Langford, and Roz Kaveney which claims,
In 1961 Michael Moorcock requested a term to describe the fantasy subgenre featuring muscular Heroes in violent conflict with a variety of Villains, chiefly Wizards, Witches, evil Spirits, and other creatures whose powers are -- unlike the hero's -- supernatural in origin. Fritz Leiber suggested "Sword and Sorcery", and this term stuck.

I think these two definitions are extremely useful and one might argue that the Pringle and Clute definitions provide us with sufficient data to provide us with a clear understanding of these two genre, but I am not quite satisfied with Clute's definition of Sword and Sorcery. Certainly, the Pringle definition of Planetary Romance gives us a strong sense of the kind of story one might expect if one were to call it Planetary Romance. It also provides ammunition against Venusian's claim that Planetary Romance doesn't feature magic. This is important because one of the things that makes Planetary Romance so special is that way that it walks the tightrope between Fantasy and Science Fiction. It is a wonderful crossover genre.

Some brief examples of the "magic" featured in tales of Planetary Romance include the telepathic language of the Martians of Barsoom, the psychic hounds of Leigh Brackett's Skaith novels, and the "Force" in the Star Wars films. The Star Wars films being a wonderful filmic example of Planetary Romance. Planetary Romance tales feature magic, but it is not a necessary condition for the tale and is often merely a means to an ends. What is fairly universal is the inclusion of fallen empires, dying worlds, and the ruins of once great civilizations.

The obsession with fallen empires, dying worlds, and ruins of once great civilizations is one shared with the Sword and Sorcery genre. The dying planet of Barsoom shares a great deal with Robert E. Howard's presentation of Hyperborea. Though one should note that the empires of Sword and Sorcery are dead empires for the reader, they are usually living (though dying) empires for the characters within the tale. In Planetary Romance, the fallen civilizations are often artifacts from a "more noble" time. In Sword and Sorcery, civilization itself must fall as it corrupts the natural man with its decadence. This is one distinction between the genre, the 19th century moral clarity of Planetary Romance is often in direct opposition to the 20th century pessimism (almost nihilism) of Sword and Sorcery fiction.

But it is more than a pessimistic world view that separates the two genres. Sword and Sorcery tales contain within them elements of the Weird Horror tale. When Michael Moorcock, a master of Sword and Sorcery whose Elric character perfectly embodies the Sword and Sorcery obsessions with cultural decadence and Weird Supernatural Horror, describes Conan's relation to his world (and to prior Heroic Fantasy characters) he writes, "If the form of Howard's stories was borrowed at third and fourth hand from Scott and Fenimore Cooper, the supernatural element from Poe and others, the barbarian hero of the Conan stories owed a great deal to Tarzan and other Burroughs primatives. Given to impulsive violent action, sudden rough affection and bouts of melancholy...Conan mistrusted civilization. He was forever at odds both with the respectable world and the occult world; forever detecting plots to seduce him." [emphasis mine]

In Heroic Fantasy magic can be a tool that is neutral in its use. The "Force" has both a light side and a dark side, the telepathy of Martians isn't in itself corrupting. In Sword and Sorcery tales magic is by its nature a corrupting force. Conan fears and opposes magic, even the anti-Conan Elric eschews its use whenever possible and the use of magic rituals often comes with a great cost.

Notice the use of the word "fear" when describing Conan's reaction to magic and the supernatural. Howard's invincible barbarian is sometimes as deathly afraid as the most frail Lovecraftian protagonist when it comes to things that lurk in the spaces between. Though the supernatural beast, "neither a hound nor a baboon," that attacks him in The Phoenix and the Sword "rouse[s] in the Cimmerian a frenzied fury akin to madness," a creature similar to Tsathaggua leaves him "frozen with nauseated horror." What is this creature that so frightens Conan, the man beyond fear? It is an "amorphous bulk...Its unstable outlines somewhat suggested an octopus, but its malformed tentacles were too short for its size, and its substance was a quaking, jelly-like stuff which made him physically sick to look at... among this loathsome gelid mass reared up a frog-like head." The creature is either Shoggoth or Tsathaggua (the fact that the creature's summoner is named Tsotha hints at the second), but it is certainly beyond the abilities of our champion to defeat this "blasphemy agains the eternal laws of nature." This is the kind of creature one would not expect to find in the Planetary Romance fiction of Brackett or Burroughs, but that is perfectly at home in the "dreams" of Lovecraftian horror. Horrific creatures abound in the Conan fiction, and in Sword and Sorcery generally. Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar stories have the "Gods of Lankhmar," Michael Moorcock's Elric tales feature all kinds of Weird Horror from the gods of chaos to much smaller beings.

Planetary Romance is a hopeful fantasy where heroes strive valiantly and where the hero chooses good over evil -- even at personal expense. Sword and Sorcery is a dark and nihilistic genre with a dark view of human nature where the hero often chooses self-interest over the Good. It is his firm command of this single feature distinguishing Sword and Sorcery from other Heroic Fantasy (that of the incorporation of the Weird Horror tale into Heroic Fantasy) that makes Michael Moorcock's anti-Conan stories about the tragic albino Elric so ingenious. Moorcock simultaneously deconstructs the character of Conan while writing a story that embodies the conventions -- even while it expands them -- of the Sword and Sorcery tale.

The first words readers of Howard's Conan read as a description of the archetypal character are, "Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet."

The first words readers read as a description of Michael Moorcock's Elric are, "His name was Elric of Melnibone king of ruins, lord of a scattered race that had once ruled the ancient world. Elric, sorcerer and swordsman, slayer of kin, despoiler of his homeland, white-faced albino, last of his line."

Both quotes are from the first published stories of the respective character, and both stories take place toward the end of the character's life. It is exquisite the way that Moorcock inverts almost every aspect of the Conan character in the creation of his anti-hero. He inverts every aspect save one, both men are prone to gigantic melancholies. One might think due to the fact that Moorcock's Elric tales are a deconstruction of the Conan character, or possibly an adult version of an adolescent character, that Moorcock would use the deconstruction as an opportunity to attack the genre itself. Moorcock doesn't. He uses it as an opportunity to refine the genre and expand it. By removing the aspects of the genre that are adolescent wish fulfillment and focusing on the central concepts of Sword and Sorcery, Moorcock allows us to see the literary merit of the conventions of the genre free from the constraints of whimsy. The young reader, seeing the power of Conan, might miss the criticisms of society and the dark presentation of human nature. The reader of Elric's stories cannot avoid them for their terror and their beauty. In writing fiction that is a negative image of the original, possibly to criticize the original, Moorcock created a lens that allows readers to more greatly appreciate what Robert E. Howard has done with his Conan tales -- something that the Lin Carter and L Sprague deCamp pastiches missed -- the demonstration of how fiery human nature reacts when faced with supernatural horror. Conan often fights against the darkness, but he often flees as well.

John Carter would never flee from the giant white ape of Barsoom. He might feel some twinge of fear before he grapples with the beast and defeats it. When translucent skinned invaders from Jupiter attack, horrifying visage and all, it is John Carter who flies of to their home world to defeat them -- fearless in the face of the unnatural or the evil. Luke, when captured by Vader in Return of the Jedi, doesn't succumb to despair. Instead he sees "the good" in his father and fights to redeem a lost father. In Planetary Romance Evil can be defeated. In Sword and Sorcery some Evil is best left in the pit where you found it.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Cinerati Lexicon #2: Gothtentious

Last August we presented our first Cinerati Lexicon entry. That entry focused on what we like to call filmic cultural selectivity. It has come time once again for the Cinerati blog to share another definition with you based on our movie going/appreciating experience.

Like most film fans, we have a flixter account and are fond of examining how closely our "friends" and our tastes match up. In the past, this has led to some pleasant surprises. Not the least of which is that Anne Thompson's opinions match Cinerati's so well that we are considered "Soul Mates." This is true even with our vast disagreement on Pretty Woman. She likes it a lot and we think that it overly debases the Eliza character from My Fair Lady and is thus only worthy of scorn. We must admit though that the recent episode of Flight of the Conchords had a compelling review/interpretation of Pretty Woman. Suffice it to say, that the close proximity of our film tastes will make Cinerati more likely to trust Thompson as someone who likes the films we like.

Other comparisons have been less rewarding. During our most recent foray into the flixterverse, we encountered something we thought impossible. One of my flixter friends, who shall remain nameless in order to protect their life, rated The Incredibles a meager 1/2 star out of five. We had believed that such a rating was only possible when the reviewer lacked this little thing we call a soul. Alas, it appears that this misguided individual does in fact have a soul -- and is a pretty good reviewer to boot -- so their must be some other explanation. Cinerati has yet to discover what affliction this individual suffers from that makes them hate The Incredibles, and makes them believe that Tom Cruise's War of the Worlds is better than The Matrix, while simultaneously having a proper love for YouTube videos featuring Bettie Page photographs and music by The Cramps.

Our initial suspicion was that this individual was extremely Gothtentious.

What do I mean by Gothtentious?


Gothtentious is a neologism combining the words Gothic and pretentious.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (in a March 2008 Draft Addition), Gothic can be defined as: "Of or designating a genre of fiction characterized by suspenseful, sensational plots involving supernatural or macabre elements and often (esp. in early use) having a medieval theme or setting."

Additionally, Gothic may be defined as (OED Additions Series 1993): "A style of rock music, and the youth culture associated with this, deriving originally from punk, and characterized by the dramatically stark appearance of its performers and followers, reminiscent of the protagonists of (esp. cinematic) gothic fantasy, and by mystical or apocalyptic lyrics."

The most common definition of pretentious, according to the OED, is: "Attempting to impress by affecting greater importance or merit than is actually possessed; making an exaggerated outward display; ostentatious, showy."

Thus gothtentious would be when someone is "attempting to impress by affecting a demeanor which disdains all that is not suspenseful and macabre. Especially, the gothtentious person reserves particular disdain for lighthearted and bourgeois entertainments. The individual will also praise material that is otherwise lacking in merit for the mere fact that it contains an appropriate amount of macabre or suspenseful content."

The gothtentious person would often be willing to take a position of disdain for a particular entertainment vehicle merely to distinguish themselves from the crowd. Such opinions may be driven by a narcissistic desire for attention, even negative attention, from others, or from an underlying sense that one is held in similar disdain by society at large. In these cases, the gothtentious person is acting out against society either for attention or as revenge.

An example of this kind of gothtentious would be the following:

Films like The Incredibles are a perfect example of Hollywood, and America's, obsession with bourgeois morality tales. In it, the dichotomy between hero and villain is clear and even the "children" of the tale can act without fear of any real consequences. We all know how the story is going to end...happily. It is time to move beyond these stories and grapple with the underlying sense of despair intrinsic in the human condition. It would be much better to devote storytelling resources to narratives like insert Neil Gaiman, China Mieville, or Poe reference here.

Another example might be found within Michael Moorcock's excellent Wizardry and Wild Romance:

I think my own dislike of J.R.R. Tolkien lies primarily in the fact that in all those hundreds of pages, full of high ideals, sinister evil and noble deeds, there is scarcely a hint of irony anywhere. its tone is one of relentless nursery room sobriety: "Once upon a time," began nanny gravely, for the telling of stories was a serious matter, "there were a lot of furry little people who lived happily in the most beautiful, gentlest countryside you could possibly imagine, and then one day they learned that Wicked Outsiders were threatening this peace...." ...That such nostalgic pre-pubescent yearnings should find a large audience in England is bad enough, but that they should have international appeal is positively terrifying.

As Moorcock demonstrates, the gothtentious person could also be described as a kind of social provocateur who -- when in possession of a serious intellect -- forces other individuals in society to examine what it is about a particular entertainment vehicle they find so rewarding. Gothtentiousness need not be a character flaw but it can certainly be irritating when it is done without the wit and sophistication of a writer like Moorcock. One should also point out that when Moorcock was writing Wizardry and Wild Romance he was drafting a polemic which argued for a new form of fantasy fiction. Specifically, it was arguing for the style of fantasy that Moorcock himself was writing. This is no small coincidence and is evidence of the gothtentious nature of the work.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Acclaimed Fantasy and Adventure Author Now Exploring the Undiscovered Country

May 17th, at his home in Drexel, PA, Lloyd Alexander died. And while the New York Times and The Washington Post provided serviceable obituaries, a part of my soul wishes that the news made the society a little more filled with sorrow than it seems to have done. To be honest, the Washington Post article seems a little labored and clumsily written, magnifying my desire for a larger communal acknowledgement of grief. One imagines how sad the children of England and America would be if J.K. Rowling were to die years from now. I imagine that there would be many who would write eloquently regarding how the adventures of Harry Potter were the first forays into a life of literary exploration. That is what Lloyd Alexander was for me.

Alexander was my first encounter with written Fantasy as a genre of fiction. My first reading obsession was the Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing series by Judy Blume (but that is another topic). My fourth grade teacher noticed that I was reading Edith Hamilton's Mythology and recommended that I read the "Chronicles of Prydain" series. I did. I loved them. They were rooted in a mythic system, heavily influenced by the Mabinogion and Sir James George Frazer, that I had yet to encounter. At the time, I was very familiar with Greek mythology and was already a firmly committed "Sword and Sandals" fan, but I knew little of Hern the Hunter. So the adventures of an assistant pig keeper named Taran were the perfect introduction to Fantasy and set a firm foundation which helped me to understand the "deeper" and more difficult prose of T.H. White. If not for Taran, I never would have gotten to know Wart. I would also never have ventured into Narnia. The Prydain books and the Narnia books shared the same publisher.

In 1985, at a mature 14, I went to the theater to watch a film adaptation which combined elements of the first two Prydain books. The Black Cauldron was a disappointment. I liked the representation of Gurgi, who is very Pooka-esque in the film, though it was very different from the representation in the books. In fact, there was a lot different between the two. To the point that the movie seemed to be afraid to deal with the "darker" aspect of the narrative. One would expect that a film featuring the art of Tim Burton and Mike Ploog might be a little on the dark side, but the film's (and the story's), darker moments are much brighter in the film. Even with the changes, I still enjoyed the film. I still do. I just wish they had let Burton and Ploog go a little wild and had kept the directors originally slated to direct the film, John Musker and Ron Clements. Instead, Musker and Clements went on to direct The Great Mouse Detective, one of my all time favorite Disney films (not to mention The Little Mermaid and Aladdin).

I can understand those who don't have the same warm place in their hearts for Prydain that I do. When one has read a larger amount of Fantasy, the stories can appear less inventive than they did to me at the time. On of the most famous, in Fantasy circles, of Alexander's critics is Michael Moorcock. Moorcock wrote in his seminal Wizardry and Wild Romance (As an aside, Moorcock also complains of the use of Hern the Hunter as an overused legacy from Frazer. I don't know about you, but I don't know many fourth graders who have an intimate knowledge of The Golden Bough, though you should have at least passing knowledge of it by the time you read the Pratt/de Camp stories.) :

Lloyd Alexander is another American writer who has had considerable success in his books set in an invented and decidedly Celtic fantasy world, but for my taste he never quite succeeds in matching the three I have mentioned [ed. note: Ursula K Le Guin, Gillian Bradshaw, and Susan Cooper]. He uses more clich├ęs and writes a trifle flaccidly:
The Horned King stood motionless, his arm upraised. Lightning played about his sword. The giant flamed like a burning tree. The stag horns turned to crimson streaks, the skull mask ran like molten iron. A roar of pain and rage rose from the Antlered King's throat.
With a cry, Taran flung an arm across his face. The ground rumbled and seemed to open beneath him. Then there was nothing.
The Book of Three 1964

I don't know about you, but that read pretty interestingly to me. Especially considering that this is an encounter that Taran has while searching for his lost pig. This is an epic encounter occurring on what, at first, appeared to be a very mundane task. That is what I liked about Alexander. His epic adventure begins with a seemingly mundane, and yes very stalwartly middle-class, activity. Moorcock doesn't like stories rooted in bourgeois morality, and that is his right, he finds such stories staid. But I found the prospect of a chore leading to great adventure, one where the struggle between good and evil is clear rather than shaded, great fun at my young age. I still find it fun. I think I'll curl up tonight and revisit the reason I have read so much.