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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.

Fantasy and Pastoralism

Posted by Harley J Sims on December 1, 2018 at 12:45 PM Comments comments (0)

Most works of Fantasy involve constant travel - ceaseless, questing movement through a beautiful world which may or may not have previously been described. Whether you want to look at it in terms of worldbuilding, or as Joseph Campbell's hero's journey, is up to you. In any event, you have to get out of bed to get the day started, and it makes sense that epic travel is part of an epic story. Some find the travel in Fantasy to be extremely repetitive, however - I recall Randall's comment about The Lord of the Rings in Clerks II: "Even the %&#ing trees walked in those movies." As with travel-writing, lovely descriptions of one's surroundings can seem like too much window dressing.

Pastoralism is part of a human fixation. It's evident in everything, from cave paintings to the Super Mario Brothers games. At its heart is leisure, or freedom enough from toil or worry to focus on other resonances nature affords. Living in certain parts of Canada during winter, you really start to wonder when humankind became confident enough to look upon a snowy landscape as a beautiful place, and not as some icy deathgrip that may not leave again (hence the Norse fimbulvetr, about which I wrote in a recent Facebook post).

  Pastoral writing is about more than portraying the countryside - or nature, or shepherds, or even farms and gardens - in an idealized way. The genre seems to have been around since we started talking to each other - long before urban life could possibly have been as cloying as it is today. The Greeks and Romans both offer representations of rustic life that emphasize the beauty, splendour, and desirable loneliness of wandering far from civilization, and while the spirit of these portrayals differs from, say, Philip Sidney's or William Wordsworth's, a fascination with the countryside and its therapeutic solitude seems as timeless as mythology.

One can easily overgeneralize here - the pastoral is about verdant and hospitable wilds, not simply the scenic outdoors; a travelogue can describe a very dangerous piece of wilderness very beautifully - as the Romantics did - but that doesn't make it pastoralism. At the same time, one should be cautious of hair-splitting genrification, whose pedantry might endlessly split and tease apart a single strand of hair. I think that pastoralism can generally be recognized wherever the leisure of a description transcends its implicit call to work - not simply where there is no labour, but where peace reigns, and any struggle or toil seems secondary to the benefits, psychological or aesthetic, such works offers. In this sense, it's not simply the difference between the vacationer and the worker in a lovely place, but rather about the pressures.

As Toron reflects on when his party reaches Eksar in the Unsung., the opportunity to do some manual labour seems relaxing after their unlucky stint on the road, which is ironic when he thinks about how many manual labourers likely idealized his own vocation. It's reverse-pastoralism, in a way, and something I came to think about living rurally. Sometimes you need to take a break from one in the other. There are unique pressures in each, some of which are locked in our heads no matter where we go, and only from the concrete does the grass always look greener.

Chronicles and Timelessness

Posted by Harley J Sims on November 21, 2018 at 12:00 PM Comments comments (0)

We've all heard of sequels and prequels, but now the term "sidequel" has come about as well. The word drives me crazy ("prequel" is bad enough as far as coinages go), but this is a Fantasy blog, not a linguistic one. I'll put a bite block between my teeth and keep going.

The terms sequel, prequel, and sidequel pertain to narrative chronology, or the order in which a story in more than one part is told. They require a primary story to orient them, just as you must know where someone is standing or heading in order for their directions to make sense. That said, not all primary stories are necessarily the original ones - J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit was published almost twenty years before The Lord of the Rings, but it's as common to hear The Hobbit referred to as a prequel to The Lord of the Rings as it is to call LOTR a sequel to The Hobbit (note: Tolkien, in a letter to his publisher, acknowledged LOTR as a sequel to The Silmarillion instead of the sequel to The Hobbit he was supposed to have been writing). It's not necessarily about reading order, either. C.S. Lewis wrote The Chronicles of Narnia non-chronologically, and some people insist one reads The Magician's Nephew first (it was published sixth; such a preference would not have been available for those who read the books as they appeared).

In any event, a sidequel is purportedly a kind of sequel which explores events peripheral to a main storyline. I've heard it called a kind of spin-off, which may not even allude directly to the characters or events of the anchor narrative. Terms like side-quest have also been used, though this comes from gaming, and does not fit the map. The Star Wars film Rogue One has many characteristics of a sidequel, with original characters in peripheral events. But the latest Witcher novel Season of Storms is considered a sidequel as well, primarily because it tells a story that slots into the established timeline (it still involves the central characters of the franchise). I think it debatable whether something can ever be truly considered a sidequel rather than a sequel or prequel, since the designation can depend either on publication date, canon, or narrative chronology.

It can get a little confusing as the tales stack up, with some stories being sequels to some and prequels to others. This is why we eventually get away from the chronological stuff and start talking about things like mythos and canon. Those familiar with Fantasy and other speculative fiction know that the world underlies the story, even as the story reveals and defines the world. The narrator becomes a kind of chaperone, from whom one's imagination often runs away to explore other places and events. This exploratory impulse will inevitably generate new and sometimes conflicting material, whether as books, fanfiction, games, or even interpretive responses. From this material the canon is winnowed, or the core material of the franchise. And from the canon comes the mythos, or the eclectic core-story which ties it all together, even when there is no single work that does so. Beyond this, there is worldbuilding, which may not even involve a storyline - supplemental material to some franchises, including maps and sourcebooks (such as those with Dungeons & Dragons) may lay the stagework for all kinds of stories. These exist apart from narrative, though narratives may shape or occupy them. 

It sounds complicated, but only because the imagination creates both the foundation and the structure. The only real problems come about when we start trying to organize it collectively. L'enfer c'est les autres.

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?   


 


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