Harley J. Sims



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Epic and Irreverence

Posted by Harley J Sims on November 14, 2018 at 9:40 AM Comments comments (0)

I saw a YouTube video the other day of a videogamer who completed an extremely difficult Fantasy game without being hit once. The game, Dark Souls III, was made by FromSoftware, a Japanese developer specializing in the kinds of games where you have to die, often hundreds of times, before you get it right. It's like the Tom Cruise film Live Die Repeat, or maybe Groundhog Day, but action-based. The only FromSoftware game I've played to any depth is Bloodborne, and it drove me crazier than the disease for which the game is named. 

In any event, it would have taken this gamer many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hours to master his gameplay in Dark Souls III to the point of taking no damage. That's a ton of time spent in the fantasy-horror setting, fighting demons and undead and representing a single splinter of light in an otherwise dark and terrifying world. So it was with some bemusement that I watched the gamer give his character an extremely silly and irreverent name - Naked Jesus Ape - before embarking on his perfect quest. Why begin such an epic effort, in such an epic world, with something so anti-epic?

The truth is, epic and irreverence coexist quite comfortably in Fantasy.

Irreverence plays a huge role in countercultural attitutudes and perspectives. Not everyone who is countercultural is irreverent, but reacting with disrespect to what is perceived to be a culturally enforced set of sacred values one does not believe in is always a temptation, especially if those values are seen to be dominant, and possibly unsurmountable. This is also why irreverence so often employs sarcasm, as sarcasm is the bitterness of someone who feels powerless to do or change anything. It is the sour whimper of resentment.

Counter-culture takes many forms, some more more active (and activist) than others. Geek culture is one such form, and while fandom is by no means homogenous, there is soliditary in an imaginative world to be shared or fought over. All fiction is subversive, since it presents a rearrangement and flow of events that reality did not authorize. Fantasy is especially subversive, however. Think about the different camps among Harry Potter fans, some of whom champion the Slytherins as misunderstood, or even - implicating the narrator - misrepresented. And there are camps within this camp, some of whom enjoy the idea of terrorizing the goody two-shoes elements of Hogwarts, and others who idealize malevolence. The proportions of imagination and belief will vary in each of these perspectives - some people are just having fun, while others are flirting with dark fascination, Saruman-style - but there is solidarity in the idea that a purely imaginative world is a playground for expression, exploration, and development. What could be more countercultural than seeking a cultural identity through a purely imaginative perspective, especially when that identity establishes standards that compete with those of the real world?

There's a lot more to it, but confidence plays a role in the kind of irreverence at play. 'Geek' types tend not to be self-deprecating so much as self-loathing, which is one of the reasons why the entertainment industry they support is often able to take advantage of them. To be self-loathing is to be psychologically wounded, and nothing wounded lashes out gracefully. Irritants become triggers, bringing forth volleys of unmitigated resentment. There's a reason why the popular image of the Internet troll as a basement dweller coincides with the basement-dwelling stigma of the Fantasy-gamer geek. 

This, I believe, is one of the reasons why epic and irreverence coexist within Fantasy circles; there are two different cultures at play, creating a cultural feedback loop whose wheel never hits solid ground. There is the one in which the imagination resides, and finds its most satisfying definitions of identity (the imaginative epic), and the one to which that culture is a reaction or, at least, with which it is severely disappointed (the real world). Bitterness towards the latter, and especially its most sacred values, is expressed as irreverence, despite the fact that the imaginary takes most of its material, dignity and inspiration from real-world precedents.

For example, many people believe that spirituality is only cool when it is kept to an imaginative context. Such a thing might explain why a person who loves fighting against a world of death in a video game might mock real-world spirituality that represents the same thing.

Politics and Escapism

Posted by Harley J Sims on November 8, 2018 at 6:20 PM Comments comments (0)

There are lots of reasons why people read Fantasy. One reason, popularly attributed, is to escape from reality. 

I'm sure there are lots of clever definitions of escapism out there, but I've never been comfortable with the term. You can't really escape from reality because reality is the basis for our very existence. Reality is what makes us literate, for example, because words won't work unless they have been tied to experiences and understandings. Language is imaginative, and while it may skip and gallavant for great distances, it must always find solid ground from which to do so. There's no getting away from our own brains.

What I think most people can agree on, however, is that Fantasy serves as a great outlet for those weary of certain pressures and frustrations, namely those associated with responsibilities, disappointment, and the monotony of routine. Again, not everyone falls into this practice - when we're young, we're not so much stepping out when we read Fantasy as we are enjoying a rearrangement of the real, magical world we have yet to understand our places in. Pretty much everything we believe as children would fall into the category of Fantasy when compared to adulthood, but I don't want to turn this entry into a Peter Pannish piece of nostalgia. There are lot advantages to being an adult, and a mature one, though we're rarely encouraged to think about them.

One of the increasingly toxic and disappointing aspects of our modern world are politics, especially politics exacerbated by social media. In saying so, I'm not attempting to elevate myself into some self-righteous position of neutrality - being from a blue collar background in rural Western Canada, I tend to be pretty right wing - but I do my best to avoid unhoveliness (as Knaks would say), and to put relationships with people ahead of hardline talking (or screaming) points. As both a lover of Fantasy and a writer of it, I also keep in mind our shared desire to step outside of it all for a while, and there to take stock of the mythologic values that bind us all as human beings.

That hippies and Christian fundamentalists both love The Lord of the Rings says a lot. I can't think of a genre that better brings people together.

So long as its writers resist the self-indulgent cloud-confessionals of Twitter, that is.

I can't think of anything more anti-Fantasy. It's like the doctor prescribing the disease.

Magic, Languages, and Addiction

Posted by Harley J Sims on November 2, 2018 at 12:00 PM Comments comments (0)

Language seems magical in a lot of ways, but I became addicted to the true magic of languages in 2001. That was when I pulled George Norman Garmonsway's Old Norse Reader off the shelves at Carleton's MacOdrum Library and fell into an old, new world. The book hadn't been signed out in many years, possibly decades. It had dust on it. Carleton's only Old Norse professor, George Johnston, had retired in 1979, which had orphaned the university's sizable collection of Old Norse books. The language of the Vikings (as well as my own Norwegian ancestors).  Why wasn't this being taught anymore? Who wouldn't want to learn it? 

After going through a few of the book's lessons, I was able to read simple passages in Old Norse. I can't really describe the feeling, and I don't really want to try. It's like touching the powder on a butterfly's wings. There are a lot of well-known quotes and proverbs out there about what studying a new language does to you. Probably the most famous is the French Apprendre une langue, c'est vivre de nouveau ("to learn a language is to live anew"). I'd studied other languages, though. When it comes to old languages, this thrill is intensified. What you read is lost to living experience, and can only be activated by imagination. It is not so much to live anew as it is to be reborn elsewhere. And unlike a living language, it is locked behind glass. "Those books are safe," Mr. Koreander from The Neverending Story might say. 

The connection between language and Fantasy draws on the same magic. What we read generates experiences, including feelings and questions, which is magical, but once we push that very practical communicative power back into the mists of other times and place, its words become drenched with wonder. What we hear can be the echo of an entire civilization, one we may feel we should not presume to understand, but whose words possess us, and animate our minds. They need us, after all, to make sense - like an exotic fuel that works in our own, modern engines. The effect can be enthralling. Love is a nice word for it, but addiction, for those who become hooked on it, is not too harsh an analogy.

And with that comes the question of health. Is everything, or anything, we love to the point of addiction good for us? Fantasy, escapism, romance - these are all ambivalent things beneath the cold eyes of practical appraisal. Had I known how difficult it would be to make a living out of many of my passions, I might have tried to steer away from a lot of them. But I think this is something everyone hooked on some kind of magic asks themselves - how can something I love so much be wrong?   


Logging into the Holodeck

Posted by Harley J Sims on October 31, 2018 at 9:45 AM Comments comments (0)

I was having an exchange on messenger the other day with the manager of the FB page dedicated to promoting Polish fantasy writer Andrzej Sapkowski's novels. Sapkowski invented the world of the Witcher in the early 90s, and although the Witcher video games developed by CD Projekt Red have done much to make the wider world aware of his books, Sapkowski remains curmudgeonly - even hostile - about the electronic side of the franchise. We talked about how the books and games, while affording different visions of the Witcher, were both excellent. We then compared the hours we had logged in the game. Over three years, I had around 300. My friend, after checking, admitted to nearly 1000. Congratulations, I said. There are worse worlds to spend that much time in. Since our exchange, I discovered some people out there have put 3000 or more hours into Witcher 3.

While it should be recognized that there is card game, Gwent, inside Witcher 3 which itself can eat up a lot of time, this is still a ponderous number of waking hours to spend in an electronic world. It's also a heck of a lot longer that it takes to read all the books. It is a quick reflex to assign some kind of addiction to this pastime, but there is a lot of generationalism in such labels too; the same unhealthiness was ascribed to reading books at one time. Don Quixote is nuts because he had his brain addled by too much chivalric romance. Negative attitudes towards fabricated realities were also around in medieval and later times, when it came to drama for example, and while we might ascribe theological protectionism to these attitudes just as readily, it makes sense to have some misgivings about the right balance of fact and fiction in our lives. Fiction presents a reshuffling and flow of events that reality, as in Truth, did not authorize, which is why trying to present moral truths through stories is always a little tricky. There are always complications to life and events which stories cannot address, though constantly identifying these complications can make cynics of us.

Stepping into an imaginative reality - whether in games, books, or other extracurricular activities that narrow the focus of our thoughts - is an essential part of life. Every role, every duty, and every individual life involves centralizing certain elements and minimizing or banishing others. There is a fundamentally clean experience to enjoying something that makes perfect sense to us, which is why Fantasy is so engrossing. It makes sense to our imaginations by empowering them, and exorcising a sense of helplessness we so often feel in the world of fact.

Beauty and Impermanence

Posted by Harley J Sims on October 26, 2018 at 9:35 AM Comments comments (0)

"This body is dying. I can feel it rotting all around me. How can anything that is going to die be real? How can it be truly beautiful?"

- Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn

The cry of the unicorn upon finding herself changed into a human encapsulates the deepest theme of The Last Unicorn. It is a staggering moment in a story whose style sings and sweeps the reader along for most of the way.

A belief in the ugliness of mortality and impermanence is something the unicorn has lived her life by, and which poets from ancient times have been fixed on. Imagining the perspective of an immortal, who is immune from such ugliness, is a footstone not only of Fantasy, but of mythology itself.

Immortals are everywhere in fiction, and they're certainly romantic, but how often are they portrayed credibly? Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen comes to mind, and he hasn't been immortal for very long. As I myself age, and I think about the effect it has had on my thinking and outlook, I am drawn time and again to the struldbruggs in Book Three of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, who continue to age without dying. By 200 years old, they are basically out of step with reality, and so weary of their own natures and identities that their lives become torture. 

So it seems immortality also needs eternal youth and omnipotence to meet our expectations. Then it is godhood we imagine, not just immortality - maybe this is why it is hard to find credible portrayals of immortals.

The closest thing to an immortal the readers of the Unsung. meet in any personal way is Vail, whose imaginative complications created a black hole that was hard to keep the narrative from getting sucked into. As Toron's dream touches on, however, immortality is good for bringing out the beauty of impermanence too - as Schmendrick sums up in The Last Unicorn:

"I was born mortal, and I have been immortal for a long, foolish time, and one day I will be mortal again; so I know something that a unicorn cannot know. Whatever can die is beautiful - more beautiful than a unicorn, who lives forever, and who is the most beautiful creature in the world. Do you understand me?"

To imagine perspectives from which to enhance and flatter our worth, and not to degrade and humiliate it - that is what fiction should be about. Let the wrinkles and weatherstained tombstones speak for themselves.