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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Escapism, Productivity and Distraction

Posted by Harley J Sims on June 11, 2019 at 3:10 PM Comments comments (0)

It's been over a month since my last blog entry. There are a few reasons for it, but rather settle into a litany of distractions and excuses, I'd rather do something productive with it all and talk about how different projects require different kinds of focus. This is especially the case when one's projects involve or demand escapism, and not simply leisure time.

Distraction is a huge part of how much work one gets done, but I'm not just talking about everyday things like chores, barking dogs, and ringing doorbells. Being distracted nowadays is as easy as turning on one's computer - the very thing that is supposed to have made work easier in a lot of ways makes it harder, or at least waters down its quality. It was standard growing up to talk about the last generation before television (my grandparents'), and to try to imagine what that was like, and how TV has changed the way our minds work. Really, though, TV is nothing compared to the Internet, and my generation is the last to remember what it was like before the World Wide Web. In trying to explain to my children how we saw the world, I keep coming back to one word. Quieter. We were alone with ourselves and our thoughts, and that changed the way we dealt with one another we when engaged.

Generations who are growing up with the Web and social media are different animals. There's no getting around that. Conversely, those who came of age before the Internet are likely to spend their lives trying to cope with the friction. I don't think we have any immunity to it - those newer generations who flow seamlessly between different apps and online tasks don't even think about the kinds of mindsets we older dogs are desperately trying to maintain.

For those of us who endeavour to make our livelihoods in Fantasy, we're kind of double-damned. For one, we work in a generic setting which is largely pre-scientific (and very often medieval). While certain magics can mimic modern technologies, they remain exclusive to wizards and other elites - the idea that the peasantry can all be connected as with cell phones and social media is, I would argue, unworkable. It would scream sci-fi. Fantasy itself is becoming increasingly alienated  from the circumstances of our own world. The other way Fantasists are hindered by the Cyber Age is that we have to somehow find a way to step out of our own world to work, even when that world is becoming more invasive. Whether it's culturally, commercially or sociopolitically, the background noises of our lives are becoming ever more foregrounded. Our own private thoughts and imagination - whatever those are - have a hard time breathing, much less shouting creative fiats.

As I've returned to writing the Unforgotten, I've noticed these things more and more. Writing the Unsung took a long time, but a lot of that long time was spent improving as a writer, rewriting, and simply taking time out. Now writing is harder. It's harder to get away, it's harder to live somewhere else, and it's harder to stay immersed in the ways that are conducive to immersive worlds. Maturing and other responsibilities in the here-and-now are no doubt responsible, but not entirely. Neverland was never just about youth, but about the kinds of dreams and make-believe that are most decorous to youth. Sometimes, it seems you're closer to Captain Hook than Peter Pan, and while both have access to the otherworlds of Fantasy, only one wants to play. The other sees something ridiculous he wants nonetheless to own.

Superhero Films: The Neverending Endgame

Posted by Harley J Sims on May 4, 2019 at 11:50 AM Comments comments (0)

I was fortunate to have had two discussions last week about the 22nd Marvel Cinematic Universe film Avengers: Endgame (which has just entered its second weekend, and is already on the verge of breaking the two-billion-dollar mark at the box office). The first discussion was on Corus radio with Charles Adler, and can be heard by going to my Publications, Facebook, or Soundcloud pages. Charles asked me on to talk about what was likely the most popular (and profitable) Fantasy weekend in entertainment history, with Endgame and Game of Thrones's Battle of Winterfell going to air within a few days of each other. The other discussion was with my friend, about whether the success of Endgame and the MCU will have any lasting cultural significance. I didn't record that one. 

Trying to explain why superhero films are so popular is a bit like trying to explain the punchline of a joke. If you don't get it, you missed the train, and probably never wanted to catch it anyway. That said, there have been plenty of superhero films which haven't been as popular as Disney's Marvel films, and it does a disservice to the question (as well as to the filmmakers) to ignore the differences among them. Huge budgets, crazy special effects, snappy dialogues, and likable characters (played by good-looking actors) are a big part of it, as well as the priceless half-century of branding that Marvel's pantheon brings with it. Unlike the DC and Star Wars films, Disney and Marvel have yet to stumble; their opus seems to have achieved an almost anthropologically perfected appeal. They're in the Goldilocks zone, neither too dark (Watchmen, Batman v. Superman) nor too vacuous (X-Men: Age of Apocalypse, Batman & Robin). There are also logistical models and market strategies at work, including the round-the-clock airings of Endgame and the increasing importance of China and other international audiences. I won't talk about those things, though. They're boring.

My talks with Charles Adler, which I always enjoy, tend to be pretty buoyant; people are excited about this chapter in the MCU, which wraps up a decade-long story arc, and brings to a close (at least for now) a few of the actors' portrayals of these heroes. Critics fail to appreciate a lot of things about the material they criticize, but two things most of all-- that target audiences of popular films don't obsess over them like professional critics do, and that people are deeply offended by having their tastes ridiculed. No, Endgame isn't a thought-provoking prestige film. It's a limited-time ride at the most mindblowing amusement park yet built by man. Can superhero prestige films be made? Absolutely. Unbreakable was about as close as we've seen, with Split close behind. But such films will never catch the winds of popular enthusiasm, nor rake in the billions like any brainchild of Disney and Marvel. These two are gods of entertainment, which make their offspring fullblooded gods as well. There are mile-long lineups of creative minds just waiting to be led to their altars. For an individual creative type like myself, it's beyond intimidating. Good thing Fantasy feeds on that stuff.

All things considered, my private conversation with my friend about the cultural signifiance of the MCU's success might easily have taken an Adbusters-type turn. It's the most reflexive thing in the world nowadays when it comes to moneymaking popular enterprises to get all misanthropic and anti-corporate. But no. I think the the kinds of people who most appreciate Endgame have enough going on their lives that they're not going to the theatres to be wilfully or unconsciously seeded by some messiah in Mickey Mouse ears. You can enjoy simple things profoundly - Winston Churchill said all great things are simple - and not be profoundly influenced by that enjoyment. The sensation does not reprogram the faculty. You just get your fill, go back to your life, and maybe check out the next product when it comes down the pipe. It's a lot more like a meal than anything. 

Is it an issue of concern that entertainment (especially Fantasy) seems increasingly centralized - that, for example, the top 10 films of 2018 made 35% of all box office revenues? I suppose. It's a lot like what has happened to the music and publishing industries; there may be more out there in terms of material, but few people (especially those without the right connections) can hope to make a living off of it. These are separate issues, however.  We're talking about business here, not simply entertainment.

It's natural, as fans have professed, to feel some fatigue or sadness after all the narrative buildup and suspense. But sports fans feel the same thing after the playoffs have ended, or a beloved player has retired - it takes the run of a new regular season to generate new hype and illuminate new heroes. Some seasons, and the playoffs they lead to, will inevitably prove more legendary than others. The Infinity Gauntlet originated with a Marvel Comics crossover in 1991, one of many such story arcs. Atlantis Attacks was another, the X-Tinction Agenda, the X-cutioner's song (I was more of an X-Men guy). Afterwards, there are a few throwaway issues with the heroes picking up the pieces, maybe playing some basketball, before the momentum starts building towards something else. Endgame was only the endgame of a single match on a single chessboard (well, to be clear, the endgame was set in motion in the previous film). There are plenty more matches to be played, especially when you're dealing with a multiverse.

Fantasy vs. Science Fiction: Scope

Posted by Harley J Sims on April 22, 2019 at 11:20 AM Comments comments (0)

Prompted by the Netflix animated series Love, Death & Robots, I've been reading the latest Alastair Reynolds short story collection, Beyond the Aquila Rift (Reynolds's short story of a ship gone tragically off-course was adapted for the series). Reynolds is a solid figure in modern science fiction, but not (yet) a celebrity. Formerly a scientist with the European Space Agency, and as a 'hard' sci-fi specialist, Reynolds utilizes concepts and vocabularies which demand a certain appreciation for facts, detail, and scientific expertise. He is definitely a science-guy's sci-fi writer.

There are a lot of things that make Reynolds's corpus interesting. One of them is its chronological scope. The short story "Troika," for example, takes place only a little later than our own time, while others, such as "Thousandth Night", seem to go millions of years into the future. Certain technological limitations differentiate civilizations from one another (it's important with Reynolds's work not assume that futurity equals advancement; since progress and knowledge rise and fall in different places at different times), as well as human beings' comfort with some of the more exotic alien artefacts they inherit. While Reynolds does not shy away from near-magical alien tech in his stories, he does stop short of trying to describe or imagine how exactly it works. 

As foremost a Fantasy guy, what most struck me reading Beyond the Aquila Rift were its enviable dimensions - the magnitude of its map, time, cultures, expertise, everything. Even without reading Reynolds's other works, one can appreciate the vastness of his universes (and there are several "franchises" here, among them the Revelation Space Universe and Revenger Universe). I don't mean there is a kind of encyclopedic detail and recordkeeping that defines some of the more bookish imaginative franchises (Tolkien among them), but rather that science--whose speculative fiction most people, I believe, would consider more delimited than Fantasy--seems to have afforded a canvas without boundaries. A sci-fi universe is vast because *the* universe is vast. Because we live in the Scientific Age, science fiction has been consigned vast amounts of confidence and material; it doesn't need to invent ex nihilo so much as extrapolate from existing systems. Most remarkable of all is that its science, given the right rhetorical presentation, is able to assimilate magic.

Again, we're talking about 'hard' sci-fi here, whose emphasis is more on the viability of its speculation than the kinds of sci-fi that focus on the social sciences (so-called 'soft' sci-fi, which foregrounds relationships and social issues over Chemistry, Physics, or Biology). In this case, its tough to compete with comprehensiveness and credibility. Still, when one considers that Fantasy is supposed to be the genre without limits, it can be sobering to see sci-fi done with such imaginative comprehensiveness, that one is hard-pressed to name a Fantasy that outdoes it. There are legitimate reasons for this imbalance, of course; as I said, in the Scientific Age, we have profoundly developed systems of knowledge that provide a towering superstructure for fictive performances. Fantasy must invent a lot more now, and while it can hearken back to old systems (such as Astrology, Alchemy, Humours and other obsolete lore), it cannot withstand the dramatic irony of the audience's disbelief in those systems.

Perhaps I'm off (by a little). I've read a lot, but not everything - Gene Wolfe, who died last week, was a writer of far-future sci-fi which, like the RPG setting Numenera (and even Star Wars), effectively blends Fantasy and sci-fi. There are lot of narrative techniques that facilitate such blending, among them the 'unreliable narrator', but I suspect Fantasy's issues with limits has more to do with epistemology than possibility. In other words, it's likely the labels, and the generic criteria we've distilled and packaged, that are the issue, and not imaginative fiction itself. 

The Head Hunter (film 2018)

Posted by Harley J Sims on April 15, 2019 at 8:25 PM Comments comments (0)

Fantasy has a bad reputation for being hackneyed, repetitive, and, well, generic. The worst thing about this bad reputation is how misunderstood it is. While it is true that there is a lot of pulp Fantasy out there (in the same way there is a pulp line of every genre), what separates good Fantasy from bad Fantasy isn't how generic it seems, but how its generic elements are executed. There is Fantasy done well, and Fantasy done poorly, but as products of the same genre, they will have a lot in common superficially. It takes some digging to see the difference, and not so much a taste for something new, but an ability to recognize a recipe done well. 

The Head Hunter is an American Fantasy-horror film that was recently released for digital purchase. It is the short (70+ minute) story of a monster-slayer who lives alone on the outskirts of a kingdom, and tracks down the evil creatures he is tasked to destroy. He spikes the head of every monster he has killed on a wall inside his cottage, and heals his devastating wounds using a foul, magical elixer he mixes himself.  A bereaved father as well, he visits his young daughter's grave daily, leaving trinkets and speaking a few words before going back to his bleak and brutal life. One day, he is sent a scroll detailing his next target, and learns it is the creature who killed his little girl. With his horse killed on his last expedition (against a werewolf), he sets out on foot, and begins the events that lead to the film's turbulent conclusion. 

Directed by Jordan Downey, https://www.theheadhuntermovie.com/" target="_blank">The Head Hunter is a simple, low-budget production. It lacks impressive visual effects, any real worldbuilding, and even people (altogether, there are only three actors we ever see in the film). Perhaps most surprisingly, we see very little of any actual combat between the slayer and the monsters, and next to nothing of the monsters themselves (other than their heads, which look like something out of a creature workshop). And the ending, while providing a twist, seems to dislocate the heart of the story.

Described this way, there may seem to be many things The Head Hunter does poorly. In fact, the film is an incredibly enjoyable and immersive work of Fantasy. Its style, its visuals, its brevity, and the consistency of its tone do more for its story than millions of dollars have done for others. You can watch the movie, enjoy it, wonder about its world, and put a lid on it. Roots and branches do not range haphazardly into other plotlines; the creativity is focused and constrained. The armoured hero, played by Norwegian actor Christopher Rygh, earns our sympathy without wanting it. And his helmet is just wicked.

Simply because something seems plain or derivative does not disqualify it from quality. Tolkien isn't celebrated simply because he was the first to establish many of modern Fantasy's generic elements, but because he did it so captivatingly. He's a good storyteller and an unparalleled world-builder. If someone were to describe the premise of Andrzej Sapkowski's Witcher character, it would seem trite. What Sapkowski does, though, is handle that premise so well that it reminds us of why we became Fantasy fans in the first place.

With The Head Hunter, Jordan Downey and his team have a film to be proud of, and precisely because it does the usual things so well. 

Diving into Dunsany I - The King of Elfland's Daughter

Posted by Harley J Sims on March 25, 2019 at 10:20 PM Comments comments (0)

One of the best advantages of owning an e-reader is having access to the whole of public domain literature either for free or - if it is a particularly well-organized collection - for a pittance (usually a couple of bucks). It has been argued that with so much available, and with so much having been winnowed by time, there is really no reason to spend one's time reading something of questionable value. Rather than gamble twenty bucks on the latest NYT bestseller, one can always sit down with a respected classic. There's always an old book one feels one ought to have read, which one can get for free.

The Anglo-Irish aristocrat Edward Plunkett (1878-1957), 18th Baron of Dunsany, was an early-twentieth-century Fantasy author who published under the name Lord Dunsany. He was an extremely prolific writer, but was largely forgotten after his own lifetime. Renewed interest in his work came in the 1970s after Ballentyne published a number of classic Fantasy editions, including The King of Elfland's Daughter and The Charwoman's Shadow. As it now stands, he is best known as an influence on modern Fantasy writers - including Robert E. Howard, J.R.R. Tolkien, Peter S. Beagle, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Neil Gaiman, among others. In other words, you don't necessarily need to have read Dunsany to be Fantasy fan, but you certainly do to be a Fantasy writer. 

The King of Elfland's Daughter (1924) is a canonical work of 'Fairytale Fantasy', telling the story of a human prince (Alvaric) who, with the help of a magic sword, enters fairyland and retrieves the eponymous bride. The two have a son in the Earth realm (Orion), but eventually Lirazel (the princess) is drawn home again by her father the King of Elfland, who then uses his magic to remove Elfland from Alvaric's reach. With each unable to shake the touch of the other's realm, Alvaric and Lirazel pine for each other. Alvaric searches for the boundary to Elfland for more than a decade, while Lirazel begs her father to use the last mighty rune in his possession to unite her with her husband and son. In the meantime, Orion has lived up to his name by becoming a great hunter, especially of unicorns, and with every day is bringing more and more magic into his earthly kingdom. It sounds lovely, but the intrusion of Elfland into Earth is, at peak strangeness, comparable to the Shimmer of Annihilation.

The novel is celebrated primarily for its dreamlike style - it reads like a reverie, with sumptuous descriptions of Elfland's beauty. The most gorgeous of Earth's sights and sensations are among the least of Elfland's - most of the realm, including the Elfking's palace, is said to be describable only in song. We've read such decriptions of Faerie before, however - what makes The King of Elfland's Daughter different is Dunsany's endeavour to explain what makes Elfland precisely different - especially in terms of Time. Time is, of course, a thematic preoccupation of Dunsany's (the short story collection In the Land of Time contains haunting sketches, at their best comparable to those of Borges). While the novel is without a doubt repetitive at times, the recurrence of its formulaic decriptions complements its genre and setting - we sense we are lost in the story, enthralled but also trapped. The conclusion is well worth the investment, and the heartache of the novel's interior.

I daresay The King of Elfland's Daughter is not Lord Dunsany's best work, however - not even his best Fantasy. Were he to go down in literary history for that single work, it would be unjust. Despite the novel's memorable style, Dunsany is a versatile storyteller, and is able to deliver his fantasies in a much more traditional and prosaic style.

https://www.amazon.com/Delphi-Complete-Works-Dunsany-Illustrated-ebook/dp/B073DMSY63/ref=sr_1_2?keywords=works+lord+dunsany&qid=1553570092&s=gateway&sr=8-2" target="_blank">The Complete Works of Lord Dunsany (Kindle edition - Amazon US)

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?