Harley J. Sims

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This is where I post my thoughts on the Fantasy genre, as it has appeared and been understood across our various media (books, films, games, etc). It is not a vanity journal by any means, and readers can expect more than soliliquy and opinionation.  I welcome all civil comments. 

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Supermen and Human Beings

Posted by Harley J Sims on March 18, 2019 at 2:35 PM Comments comments (0)

I watched the trailer for a new 'super-hero horror film' over the weekend. Brightburn,which is being produced by Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn, showcases an infant from another world who crashlands in the rural US and is adopted by the childless couple who finds him. As he grows into a school-age child, however, and learns he is different, he begins to use his powers to hurt the people who distrust and ostracize him rather than champion them. Essentially, it explores the idea of Superman's origin story gone sour, and an alien child who becomes a tyrant rather than a hero.

Despite the direct parallels to Superman the makers of Brightburn observe, the idea of a superpowered child gone bad is nothing new. Not at all. The Village of the Damned films (based on John Wyndham's Midwich Cuckoos), and Rian Johson's Looper film sprang immediately to mind. Numerous X-Men (and their enemies) also come from tragic backgrounds, usually when they first discover - and cannot at first control - their powers. And there are mythological and legendary precedents as well, especially with demigods and half-devil children. 

Sir Gowther, a little-known Middle English romance, tells the story of a half-demon who not only suckles his wet-nurses to death, but grows up (and supernaturally quickly) into a virgin-raping, parson-burning monster:

In a twelmond more he wex

Then odur chyldur in seyvon or sex,

Hym semyd full well to ryde;

He was so wekyd in all kyn wyse

Tho Duke hym myght not chastyse,

Bot made hym knyght that tyde,

With cold brade bronde;

Ther was non in that londe

That dynt of hym durst byde.

For sorro tho Duke fell don ded;

His modur was so wo of red

Hur care scho myght not hyde.

[He matured more in a year than other youths do in six or seven, and by the age of sixteen he could ride skilfully and was so evil that the duke had no control over him at all and had no other choice but to make him a knight. There was no one in the land who could survive a blow from his sword. The shame of it all killed the duke; Gowther's mother was so distressed by what people told her about her son that she could not hide her sorrow.]

Gowther eventually redeems himself - at least theologically speaking - and becomes a champion for good. In any event, our sympathies are lost in translation, or require extreme shortsightedness. As with Darth Vader's redemption at the end of The Return of the Jedi, we're required to overlook every prior atrocity, or assign them to a general category of sinfulness.

Now, these and other examples of the alien/mutant-child-gone-bad invite certain kinds of interpretation - foremost  the child's own nature, and whether he was born to be bad. As the child of a demon, Gowther is to Brightburn what Hellboy is to Superman; it's in his blood, and what we are witnessing - at least at first -  is fate, and not choice. Because Gowther is a product of a medieval Christian culture, he showcases the power of free will and forgiveness. He goes from Brightburn to Superman in one story, and just made a few 'mistakes' along the way, which work to show him the error of his ways. We aren't likely to forgive him, however. For someone so powerful, a few mistakes means a few dozen dead bodies.  

And this is where, in a realistic sense, Brightburn seems much more plausible than Superman. For restraint is what a child lacks from the beginning, and must find and learn to govern, as he or she matures. Babies pull puppy's ears, they break things if they can, they bite - they are discovering their abilities, and capacities, in the world, as much as they are learning to speak and look out for themselves. For a child who can flip cars, or break hands, there is no question they would do these things. And as for their being bullied (which the boy in Brightburn clearly is)? What child would sit by and be terrorized when they could stop it in an instant? In Man of Steel, Clark Kent sits there in front a fence while he is taunted, and restrains himself. If a human child were to lash out to defend himself (or someone else), we would understand, if not encourage it.  

While it may explore a simple (parodic) premise, Brightburn shows yet again that what makes Superman superhuman is not only his powers, but his conduct. He is the best of us - the ideal virtuous human being. To a kid, what makes Superman cool is his strength and flight and eyebeams, and that everyone likes him. To an adult mindful of morals and ethics, it is his code and self-restraint. Now take these considerations and make Superman himself a child. Could he have kept himself from making a few spectacular mistakes, or living licentiously for a while as he figured it all out, or developed a conscience? Not likely.  

Orphans and Surrogates

Posted by Harley J Sims on March 2, 2019 at 12:40 PM Comments comments (0)

     I'm not sure there's anything I or anyone else can say about orphans in literature - especially Fantasy literature - that hasn't been recognized before. Parentless heroes are not only the norm but also the rule when it comes to Fantasy protagonists; it's difficult to name anyone whose mother or father is still in the mix, and much more so for both parents. Mythology; legends; superheroes - anything of a heroic bent seems to have to strip the central character of that formative, protective influence in order for them to become self-reliant to the degree heroes must be.

     Wonder Woman still has both parents, I suppose, though Zeus is a bit of a deadbeat dad to all his kids. Some of the X-Men still have them, but were more or less abandoned by them, or banished to Xavier's school for gifted youngsters (considering how often it is attacked, they'd be safer at a boarding school in Syria). In any event, there aren't many - if anyone reading this recalls a major figure I've overlooked, please leave his or her name in the comments.

     I almost always approach works of fiction as imaginative realities - I wrote my doctoral dissertation on how and why we should do this, especially when it comes to Fantasy and other highly imaginative literature. When you start bringing in symbolical and other figurative meanings, you cause the reality of the fiction to stagnate - you must paralyze it in order to examine or assert the shadows of meaning you think its fiction is casting into our own world. Now, these kinds of interpretations are standard with fiction, and are often no doubt valid in terms of the author's own influences and intentions - they lead to approaches like source analysis and biographical studies - as withThe Lord of the Rings and J.R.R. Tolkien's service in the First World War

     When it comes to orphans in Fantasy, however, I tend to lean towards meaning rather than reality - there are simply too many of them for it to be merely a creative choice. Whether you call it an anthropological or a creative perspective, I see orphaned protagonists as necessary to imaginative fiction because they represent the audience's windows on an alternate world whose circumstances cannot be assumed. That world offers too much speculation, wonder, and manipulation for the window to be too complex. Where the world is a character in itself, even the protagonist must take a backseat, and becomes the surrogate for the audience's own exploration and experience. The orphan is not parentless, but rather the child of every reader; the world itself becomes the other parent.

     Non-Fantasy fans may argue that the genre is predictable in many other ways (the word 'generic' carries this stigma), but matters of orphanhood can be particularly repetitive. When, in Taran Wanderer for example, Taran finally reaches the Mirror of Llunet, and instead of seeing his parents in its surface sees only himself, it echoes other situations across Fantasy literature - including Atreyu seeing Bastian in the mirror in The Neverending Story. Whether these characters are themselves or us, their identities answer to the imaginative theatre in which their words come to life - our own minds. 

     And on that, I'll add that the root meaning of the word orphan (-orbh) was only recently deciphered, and made possible by the study of Hittite. The late Calvert Watkins gave us the following, which I quote in full from his American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots:

Hittite has a verb ḫarb-, with the basic meaning "change allegiance": in the Hittite Laws it is used of a cow that wanders out of its owner's fold into another's. With this new piece of information, the disparate senses "orphan," "inheritance," and "slave" could now all be understood as stemming from an original concept "to go from one sphere of belonging to another" or "to change status or allegiance." Orphans were no longer in the tutelage of their kin-group; inherited property passed from one holder to another; and slaves were persons whose social status had changed from being free to unfree.

     This root meaning works well with the role of orphans in fiction, whose sphere of belonging has passed to the audience, and whose apparent freedom from parental influence is in truth an obligation to that audience's imaginative surrogacy.

The Fantasy of William Morris

Posted by Harley J Sims on February 24, 2019 at 4:55 PM Comments comments (0)

William Morris (1834-96) was an English writer, translator, political activist, and textile designer. As such, it is possible to have become acquainted with his work via a number of different channels. An Icelandophile, he translated a number of the medieval sagas after learning the Icelandic language from a friend, and visiting the country - his interest in the language not only allowed him to bring the Icelandic sagas to a English-speaking audiences, but also shaped his writing style as a fantasist. He is, along with E.R. Eddison and J.R.R. Tolkien, a master of archaic language, able to choose words based not simply on their historical character, but also their etymology. His works, at one time quite popular, are now considered difficult. 

Morris did not live a long or healthy life. He died at 62 years of age, having been plagued by illness for many years prior. Though a prolific translator and writer of poetry especially, he did not write his fantasies, or 'imaginative prose fictions', until the last decade of his life. The most famous are The Story of the Glittering Plain, The Wood Beyond the World, The Well at the World's End, The Watrer of the Wondrous Isles, and The Sundering Flood. They are generally held to be first fantasy novels to take place in alternate worlds, and they deeply influenced later (and contemporary) fantasy writers. 

Due to his language, Morris is generally celebrated as a stylist above all else. To say that his writing lacks more than ornamental clout, however, is to let the archaisms and tropes cloud the feelings and images they stylize. There are memorable, powerful moments in his fantasies, especially where old age and youth come into conversation. Morris was not only in his final years when he wrote these books, but also increasingly ill - there can be no doubt that mortality guided his hand.

One of these moment occurs at the midpoint of Well at the World's End, shortly after Ralph's beloved has been murdered. He avenges her, but is left without the will to go on. He runs into Richard, an old retainer from his parents' court, whom he has known from his earliest days as a foster-father. Richard speaks to Ralph, consoling him as only an elder can: 

Said Richard: "I am old now, but I have been young, and many things have I seen and suffered, ere I came to Upmeads. Old am I, and I cannot feel certain hopes and griefs as a young man can; yet have I bought the knowledge of them dear enough, and have not forgotten. Whereby I wot well that [thy] drearihead is concerning a woman. Is it not so?" 

"Yea," quoth Ralph.

Said Richard: "Now shalt thou tell me thereof, and so lighten thine heart a little."

"I will not tell thee," said Ralph: "or, rather, to speak more truly, I cannot."

"Yea," said Richard, "and though it were now an easier thing foor me to tell thee of the griefs of my life than for thee to hearken to the tale, yet I believe thee. But mayhappen thou mayst tell me of one thing that thou desirest more than another."

Said Ralph: “I desire to die.”

And the tears started in his eyes therewith.

But Richard spake, smiling on him kindly: “That way is open for thee on any day of the week. Why hast thou not taken it already?”

But Ralph answered naught.

Richard said: “Is it not because thou hopest to desire something; if not today, then tomorrow, or the next day or the next?”

Still Ralph spake no word; but he wept.

Quoth Richard: “Maybe I may help thee to a hope, though thou mayest think my words wild. In the land and the thorp where I was born and bred there was talk now and again of a thing to be sought, which could cure sorrow, and make life blossom in the old, and uphold life in the young.”

“Yea,” said Ralph, looking up from his tears, “and what was that? and why has thou never told me thereof before?”

“Nay,” said Richard, “and why should I tell it to the merry lad I knew in Upmeads? but now thou art a man, and hast seen the face of sorrow, it is meet that thou shouldst hear of The Well at the World's End."

Though the Well has been an obsession for almost two hundred pages before now,  its mention here is like a beacon brought to flare. Had it begun the novel, it had been no less powerful. As with so many scenes amidst the otherwise spartan prose of the Old Norse-Icelandic sagas which Morris loved, its significance reaches out from its narrative style like a spear, and pierces the heart. Once read, there will be no forgetting it.

Inner Idiom

Posted by Harley J Sims on February 15, 2019 at 4:05 PM Comments comments (0)

Languages, like the creatures who speak them, are indigenous to times and places. They evolve along with one another; their histories are encoded in their roots. In the same way that the origins of certain species can be traced using the fossil record, the origins of certain phrases and even words can be traced using certain literary and linguistic methods. When we speak, we are not expressing ourselves uniquely, but rather translating our thoughts into a system of communication we have inherited.

As such, the figurative expressions we use are tied to experiences and precedents in the world we inhabit. Idiom is among the densest of such expressions, idiom being a set of words whose established meaning must be understood rather than deduced. "Kicking the bucket" - "drawing the longbow" - "pulling my leg" - you just have to see past the words, and even the images they suggest, to know what they actually mean. It is a lot like how some Westerners (mistakenly) believe Chinese ideographs are read - that you have to know from being taught what sign means what, and not hope to make sense of it on your own. They're like symbols - given meaning by conventions which might easily have been different. Many idioms could (and when translated across other languages do) mean contrary things.

Check some of these out:

https://www.mimicmethod.com/24-ridiculous-foreign-language-idioms-pronunciations/" target="_blank">24 Ridiculous Foreign Language Idioms (they really aren't that ridiculous)

https://blog.ted.com/40-idioms-that-cant-be-translated-literally/" target="_blank">40 Brilliant Idioms that Simply Can't Be Translated Literally 

Idioms can be translated, but only using analogies. When I reviewed the Latin and Irish translation of The Hobbit several years back, I evaluated the translators' abilities to select approximate expressions in the target languages. The Latin barely tried, whereas the Irish offered some real gems. Studying (and understanding) the idioms of foreign languages is among the greatest pleasures of learning those languages. Encapsulated in idioms are unique, and sometimes lost or prehistoric, ways of looking at the world. 

When it comes to alternate worlds, however, both the players and the arena change. In this case, the game's old rules don't hold unless you put on blinders and pretend everything's the same. When, for example, you introduce creatures that knock humans off the top of the food chain, or abilities that liberate speakers from standard ailments, reality changes, and language is changed by refraction. Tolkien's works are full of expressions and values unique to the circumstances of Arda, primarily in his languages' etymologies. Because LOTR is supposed to have been translated from its original tongues, however, most of the proverbs we read are fully comprehensible, and inspire rather than disorient us.

the Unsung. has a bit of both. "Woody as a squirrel tree", "scared off one's branch," "If Mine comes back," and so forth can only be understood once the meanings have been explained, which I do in footnotes. Other expressions, including "howl like the wolves one is among" and even "when in Rome..." either coexist on, or come from, Earth. Nuff said there.

Supporting Characters

Posted by Harley J Sims on February 5, 2019 at 4:30 PM Comments comments (0)

First of all, apologies for the delay. Better late than never; better done than perfect.

A Fantasy world is a place where nobodies can become somebodies. Farm boys - even lazy ones - can end up marrying princesses if they're clever enough, or show generosity to the right person on the road. Some would no doubt argue that the real world offers the same opportunities. Maybe they're right; there are certainly enough pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps stories to to go around, and for all kinds of figures all through history (political, industrial, educational, etc). I'm thinking of Ronald Reagan, Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, fifteenth-century philosopher Erasmus of Rotterdam, Justinian the Great of Byzantium, and many, many others. To come from nowhere to success through hard work is the American Dream, and what is supposed to distinguish a great country from an oppressive one.

None of these success stories involved magical quests, though. 

Even in Fantasy worlds, there are lot of background characters - those to whom glorious success never came, and for reasons Malcom Gladwell or Jared Diamond will never be able to explain. Woodcutters, soldiers, labourers, blacksmiths. Miscellaneous peasants. In reading Lloyd Alexander's Taran Wanderer to my children, we came across the Aeddan in Cantrev Cadiffor - a farmer who barely grows enough to eat, much less sell. Aeddan's son had recently died; he had been close in age to Taran of Caer Dallben, the series' protagonist. It seemed odd, knowing the kind of glory that Taran alone has brushed shoulders with, that paupers should exist.

The supporting characters of speculative fiction are socioeconomic enigmas - what's their deal? Why, in a world our wildest imaginations flock to, do they stay stuck in the background when there is so much to encourage them to seek their fortunes? Is it fear? Circumstance? Narrative necessity? (well, yes to the last one). While supporting characters (or NPCs, as they are called in RPG and video games) are everywhere, it is a rare story that portrays them in credible ways.

I tried to think about this in the Unsung., when I came up with the blacksmith in Booril, from whom Taran bought his new armour:

The smith was a blithesome man, with a youthful heart, who had made a hobby of combing through old battlefields nearby, and of beating old weapons and shieldwear back to life. He was neither a teerseeker nor a wyeman, nor had he ever fought anyone to the death. Barrin was a breadbasket, after all, and his business was in plowshares, coulters, and the metal fittings of handcarts, among other things. Though it was not unwonely for restless laymen to indulge dreams of fighting in some way or other, most did so in a manner that was whimsical and barren—doing swordplay on their scarecrows, or reading books of petty magic by the light of tallow candles. A little sad, it was no different from the way in which a ploughhorse, unwatched in its stall at the end of the day, tosses its mane and rears like the free thoroughbreds it has seen in neighbouring meadows.

These characters needs to be respected, and not simply because their stories need them. It's all relative, after all. Who are the NPCs in your life; and to whom are you an NPC?

Fantasy and Horror, and Fantasy Horror

Posted by Harley J Sims on January 16, 2019 at 2:10 PM Comments comments (0)

With so many stories out there, the number of genres - and particularly subgenres - has proliferated too. To be clear, a story exists before and despite any generic tag that might be affixed to it, and there are plenty of debates about the particular genre something might belong to. At times, especially when standards of reality or sincerity are under debate, it all becomes relative. Just look at irony, which means the opposite of what it appears to mean.

Fantasy and Horror seem to co-exist well, most of the time. There are horror elements throughout Fantasy (the undead, necromancers, monsters, demons, infernal planes of existence, etc, etc), while supernatural Horror portrays circumstances beyond scientific understanding - just like Fantasy. There are numerous (and increasing) examples of "Fantasy Horror" or "horror-fantasy" stories and films - not just Evil Dead, Leprechaun, and Gremlins, but also Wildling, Hereditary, Suspiria (original and remake) and Bird Box. As horror films, these are clearly different from Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, Venom, and Constantine. But what is the fundamental difference, boiled down to as simple terms as possible?

My other posts have made clear that I'm not a big genre-labelling guy - I see Fantasy more as a setting than anything else, and you can have horror, romance, comedy, and any other genre take place within that setting (though it will be redefined by it). So I'm not into the largely academic exercise of distinguishing Grimdark Fantasy from Dark Fantasy from Fantasy Horror, and so forth. A label, whether generic or otherwise, acts a definition, which means that it puts limits to something. Writing, and writers especially, will always seek a way over or under those limitations - especially where Fantasy is concerned.

When trying to determine whether something is Fantasy or Horror, there is one simple question you need to ask: am I being made to feel empowered, or made to feel helpless? That's it. Whether there are elements of Horror in a story, or whether it flouts scientific laws and understandings is not so important as the atmosphere of hope or despair in which the story takes place. You can walk through legions of the infernal with the right champion, or be the prey between their teeth. Some examples seem to walk the edge - FromSoftware's games (Demon Souls, Dark Souls, Bloodborne), or Todd McFarlane's Spawn, for example but even here the protagonists are powerful enough to withstand their tormentors. Even with morally ambiguous franchises, such as Underworld or Michael Moorcock's Elric novels, I think it is clear. The protagonists don't have to be good guys to be powerful heroes (which is why the two words' meanings have been conflated when it comes to fiction).

The definition suggested by this simple question does not mean that story cannot dance between the two. A Game of Thrones, comes to mind. Not until the end, I suppose, will we really know whether it is Fantasy or Horror - even as Comedy and Tragedy are decided by whether we are laughing or crying at the end. A story can scare us - just give us Dracula. A story can then empower us - just give us Van Helsing. The friction between the two forces defines the plot.

Horror, however, never gives us the upper hand, at least not one based on empowerment. As in most Stephen King novels, the good guys triumph by the seat of their pants, hopping away from all the ruin and carnage with one leg remaining. It is a fluke of pity -  a eucatastrophe, as Tolkien called something very similar. For it to be Fantasy, we need to trust the system itself. 

Weaponizing the Imagination: Fantasy Arsenals

Posted by Harley J Sims on January 6, 2019 at 2:20 PM Comments comments (0)

Weapons are a huge part of Fantasy and Science Fiction. When it comes down to it, both genres are about technology and what makes things work, so it should come as no surprise that machines and implements of war - which are used to shape civilizations as well as for staging some pretty sensational battle scenes - should make up a large proportion of that tech.

Major Science Fiction franchises have given us some pretty memorable weapons and technology - photon torpedoes, Terminators, proton packs, light sabres, heat rays, and countless others. Believe it or not, though, Fantasy has many more - not from literature primarily, but from gaming. TSR's 4-volume Encyclopedia Magica (1994-5) offers 1500 pages of magical items, and while not all of them are weapons, they come from a single franchise (and over twenty years ago, at that; the number has gone up since).

There are good reasons why Fantasy should provide more opportunities than Science Fiction (the former is more liberal, the latter more credible), but that is not what this post is about. When it comes to Fantasy weapons, I've found that there are two ways the imagination comes into play - both in the design of the weapon, and in the way (or possibility) it can be wielded. Designing a cool-looking weapon is easy, especially if you're not worried about its functionality. 

For example, Sephiroth's katana Masamune in the Final Fantasy series is around nine feet long. Could anyone really use a nine-foot sword to any effect? You might get one swing in, if the metal wasn't too heavy. The Buster Sword of his nemesis, Cloud, isn't much better. It looks like a gigantic metal popsicle on a stick - something baby meat cleavers might have nightmares about. There are countless other examples, largely from video games. Bad guys like more barbs, while good guys love shininess. 

That video games have the best (or worst) examples goes to the second way in which Fantasy weapons must be imagined - wieldability. If you can actually animate someone with superhuman enough speed, strength, or reflexes to use your nine-foot sword, it becomes that much more feasible. Fiction can do this as well, though in a different way - writing doesn't need to show you something, but simply to tell you it is possible. Even in a nonfictional context, this is true - no description of a fencing match will ever do justice to what we actually see (or miss seeing, it happens so quickly).

I first imagined Kurtisian's weapon, the Carno, after playing with triangular pieces of sheet metal. My dad had cut circular pieces out of square sheets, and they were the corner scraps left over. At first, I sharpened the inner edges and threw them into trees like Batarangs - I used them in a series of short films my sister and I made called Indiana Sims - but I also imagined how wicked a large-scale version of them might prove, especially if light enough, and with handslots. Anyone who has ever been sliced by a piece of sheet metal knows how creepy that stuff can be; just about any shape you cut out of it would serve as a blade. 

I first included the Carno in a short story I did for a Writing class in Grade 11, which the teacher submitted to a writer-in-residence at Simon Fraser University. I forget most of the feedback - I found the guy offputtingly familiar and irreverent (I remember he referred to William Shakespeare as Billy Snakeshit) - but the one thing I recall was that he didn't think the weapon, as I had described it, could be wielded. It seemed persnickety at the time - "hey, how can that dragon possibly fly?!" - but it clearly stayed in my mind. When I first introduced the Carno, I made sure to address such misgivings:

It was a sword of sorts, and gripped with both hands, but so eldritch in shape that no one might believe it governable who had not first seen it wielded. A sicklemoon of steel it was, four feet between the cusps, with inside edge honed for shearing, and grips flat along the spine. Blinding was its sheen, like quicksilver, only that it did not, like a looking glass, echo images around it. Instead it was opaque, and moltenlike, and throbbed with an inner fire. Like Marat its manual, the Carno had been drawn from some other earth’s veins; it was lighter than leather, and gore beaded upon it, to be shaken off like weevils. Rust went nowhere near it. And no matter where it was dropped, and in however many shards, it came back to its lord whole, at beck and call, like a beast whose faith in its master broached the walls of death itself, and who would rise ever and again to make meat of anyone unwise enough to cross him. (from Chapter One: The Innocents)

When it comes to Fantasy, belief and doubt are fickle little gremlins at times. You can be standing in the middle of a completely whimsical situation - a council of magi, a battleground between enemy feyfolk - only to shake your head at the way a griffon's stirrups are described. Fantasy isn't simply about everything being credible, but anything being potentially credible. It's not enough to imagine the face of it; you've gotta see the bones and way it walks too.

History and Fantasy: Building Fiction out of Facts

Posted by Harley J Sims on December 29, 2018 at 11:20 AM Comments comments (0)

It seems obvious that any fiction involving our own world must invariably make reference to facts within it. How else are we supposed to know it takes place in our own world if it doesn't say so? Golems are magical creatures that usually appear in fantasy stories and games, but the moment we're told Helene Wecker's golem in The Golem and the Jinni has arrived in New York, we know what to picture, or at least how to go about imagining it. There are differences, however, among kinds of facts - details, names, events, people, etc - whose involvement in the story alters the boundaries between fact and fiction, and determines the extent to which the two reshape each other.

We've already establlshed that fiction, especially written material, must evoke actual experiences in order to be comprehensible to us. We live in the actual world, and while stories can leave us with new feelings and realizations, these must be shaped by initial reference to things we must know and recognize in some form. To a toddler, Stephen King's novel Cujo is just a wad of paper to chew on. A vicious dog - snarling and gnashing - is something the child's senses will recognize without literacy or imagination. It thus makes sense to believe that the richer our experiences are, the richer our imaginations become - this is why you can't live life through books alone, and why the experience of 'reading a book' varies hugely from one person to another, and as we grow. When we first read (or watch) Charles Dickens's Christmas Carol, it is about a grumpy old man who learns the true meaning of Christmas. Eventually, though, we see it as a story about ourselves. Certain scenes, especially of regret, become as unbearable to us as they are to Ebenezer Scrooge.

When it comes to history, however, things get a little spotty, if not messy. History is, broadly speaking, the whole timeline leading to this moment - an unbroken (if sometimes unverifiable) chain of events, developments, and circumstances that preceded and shaped our present. Reality is defined not simply by its details but by the flow (and order) in which they occur - this is why constantly rebooting and reshuffling the lives of fictional characters muddles their integrity. When we experience something is at least as important as what we experience; it separates tragedy from natural order, for example.

If facts are the cornerstones of credibility, historical facts are the looms on which historical fiction is spun. Anyone who has enjoyed a story or series set in our own past will eventually find it remarkable how often the character(s) are involved in pivotal historical events. I enjoyed watching the Highlander TV series in the 1990s, and it seemed like Duncan MacLeod was everywhere it was most meaningful - the American Civil War, the French Revolution, World Wars I and II, and dozens of other revolts and world stages. The Assassin's Creed historical video game series has steadfastly adhered to the best known and documented civilizations on Earth - most recently Egypt and Greece. Egypt is naturally the starting point for a number of imaginative franchises - Anne Rice's vampires come to mind. Where History begins, so must imaginative history, and fiction, like the actors that bring it to life on stage and film, are drawn to the brightest spotlights. 

There is a limit to how much courting of history fiction can do, however, and continue to enjoy the credibility that made history so attractive in the first place. Eventually, the fiction must either recede back into the shadows, or reshape the history (and the present). Comic books (and films) provide obvious examples. I get a kick out of how often the Marvel and DC universes involve historical politicians and events even after the world as we know it has been upended by the existence (and antics) of superpowerful beings. The flow of human history would have been completely altered by these revelations and developments. Some works, like Alan Moore's Watchmen, anticipate this, and work with it. Other, much shallower examples, don't bother trying.

Fantasy is as fugitive when it comes to history as it is with modern reality. Like the trolls and the fair folk who are its subjects, it must hide to remain believable. It can play more openly in the world before smartphones and YouTube (and even literacy), but it cannot establish open kingdoms. That would make it into fact, and other fantasies would take shape to rattle its gates in turn. 

The Magic of Context

Posted by Harley J Sims on December 23, 2018 at 12:25 PM Comments comments (0)

It's Christmas, and a lot of people will be either trying to revive the old magic of their favourite memories of the season, or creating entirely new magic with their loved ones. Christmas comes without fail every 25th of December, but the Christmas spirit itself can be hit-or-miss with some people. We all know folks who have a hard time with it (especially if those folks are ourselves). Confusing as the idea might have been to us as children, times that are supposed to be magical - which carry the weight of a joyous expectation - can be depressing for those who expect a tide of joy simply to wash over them. After long enough, their disappointment ferments into bitterness, and, as the season approaches, they become sad as a matter of course.

It seems reflexive, as with the magic of Fantasy, to point to childhood as the culprit - that fountainhead of joy and meaning which gushes and sparkles for a few years, then dries up mercilessly before we feel we need it most. It's a narrow view, and one blind to the cult of youth's most superficial dogmas. As I mentioned in an earlier post, adulthood is pretty empowering; there's a reason (other than the wallet and the car) that kids want to be grown-ups. And there's no mystery why we should idealize a world where our needs are so much simpler, and overwhelming joy can be unlocked with a twenty-dollar key. By some perspectives, childhood is a beautiful prison.

 Childhood is, however, a fundamental context when it comes to feelings of magic. Context is a heavily intellectualized term, but it refers basically to the circumstances that frame and give meaning to something else. To take something 'out of context' is to view it from the wrong vantage, and perspective is everything. It can make tragedy into comedy and vice versa; as Lucifer famously and so insightfully states in Milton's Paradise Lost, “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven." Very little of what the fallen angel declares is wrong; it is why some people get confused as to who the true hero of the poem is.

Context is indeed everything, but context is multiform. And it can, like a physical stage, be anticipated, designed, and pre-built. The quickest way to create a happy context is to have a few drinks of course, but this cannot be carried on systematically. Cognitive therapy techniques exist, for example, for those who wish to correct the kinds of negative thinking that keep their heads a dark arena, and which nothing can enter without being blackened. It can take a lot of work to create or adjust contexts themselves, but with traditional events such as Christmas - where we have become used to them - adjusting the context is necessary. You are preparing for something expected rather than expecting to be surprised by joy. The cart and the horse have switched places.

Other (rarer) times, non-traditional events including once-in-a-lifetime vacations or get-togethers create their own contexts, and things can be attached to them to borrow from their magic. Things done, or read, or smelled, or tasted, are infused with memories and other meanings, and can be unbottled down the road. 

This wasn't intended to be a therapeutic post, though it is quickly sounding like one. At times like Christmas, however, I think it's crucial to accept that magic is not something doled out at specific points and events in our lives - like water stations at a marathon - but rather can be constructed with a mind for what will transfuse meaning to what - the event or the experiences within it.    

Little, Big - Fantasy as Microcosm

Posted by Harley J Sims on December 12, 2018 at 11:30 AM Comments comments (0)

John Crowley's 1982 Fantasy novel Little, Big is an enthralling read, and one far too few Fantasy fans have enjoyed. I myself was not aware of it until I was nearly thirty, when I TA'd for a Sci-Fi/Fantasy course in Mississauga that included it on its reading list. Like Crowley's four-volume Ægypt Cycle, the power of Little, Big is in its ability to enchant its audience at their most vulnerable state of disorientation. While Little, Big has some modern elements that set it apart from more traditional - let's call it - moral Fantasy, it represents a literary grade that a lot of that Fantasy should serve as the stepping stone towards. In other words, if you're going to call yourself a Fantasy fan, you can't stop with the most popular stuff, as much a grip as that material has on the genre's identity. Little, Big serves as a powerful example of what  Fantasy can become in the hands of a brilliant writer and experimentalist.

In two words, the title epitomizes the whole genre. "The further in you go, the bigger it gets."

The idea of Fantasy as something that begins small and ends up huge is represented by everything from the rabbit hole and miniature door to Alice's Wonderland through the wardrobe entrance to Narnia to the tiny fairy doors children buy to stick to the walls of their bedrooms. Recall the ending of The Neverending Story film, where Bastian has to rebuild Fantasia from a single fragment. It is, however, all he needs. Fantasy, like the hidden world of the fayfolk who occupy it, is generally subtle and hidden. It's secret. This likely has psychological resonance too, since it becomes harder to find the older and more jaded we become. A lot of Fantasy stories - Alice (including the Disney films), The Wizard of OzPan's Labyrinth, The Neverending Story, and many more - end up suggesting it was all in the imagination of the protagonist.

The connection between Fantasy and childhood can be overgeneralized - many of the most celebrated figures and tropes of Fantasy come from mythology, religion, and history, not from sheer whimsy -  but the idea of Fantasy as something small but expansive is important. As we age and come to a greater - and often ruthless - acquaintance with the world and its laws, it has a centripetal effect on our original positions. That is, we change as we open up, and this proves erosive to the more fanciful assumptions and constructs we begin with. The outside reshapes or even annuls the inside, as it were. The pond is flooded by the ocean.

In the modern scientific age, Fantasy is akin to childhood in the sense that its constructs don't need to be reshaped by new and contrary discoveries. Science follows a procedure of empirical investigation, after all; its power is in its ability to correct itself with new discoveries (kind of like Terminators, who get smarter with every new generation). Inevitably, we learn (and must adopt a belief in) certain things that are devastating to our whims - like the idea that cats can't talk, wizards don't cast spells, and undiscovered continents don't exist in the real world. Children can and do believe such things (just as early Man must have), whereas adults must use Fantasy to recreate their possibility willfully. The difference between actual (assumed) belief and imaginative belief is supposed to be what separates medieval portrayals of dragons from modern ones. The line is nonetheless a misty one.

What a microcosm allows for, however, is the outside to be defined by the inside. A small world of hopes, whims, and beliefs is projected onto one much larger - Little, Big - and that world drips with the saturation of those meanings. Whole continents can be added, which emphasize rather than compromise or threaten the values of the heartland. It is an exploration from the inside out, and not the removing of the walls to let in winds more ancient than anything humans can devise.