Monday, July 28, 2008

I Take a Pencil in My Hand...

The other day I was having a conversation with my wife, mother and sister about the demise of imagination and imaginative play--how many children, perhaps because of television and video games, no longer pretend they are anything but themselves, not even to play house. A sad, sad thing. Of course, our lament, like most laments, is premature, but my sister had concrete evidence. She babysits for a family who apparently do not know how to play pretend. Now there may be those who consider this to be an unnecessary skill, and they may be right, but here at Essays in Enchantment we consider playing pretend to be very important. It was one of the chief joys of my childhood, and one which I have not given up. In fact I was going to write a long 'blog post about playing, and how the old enjoyment I got out of playing pretend was carried directly over into role-playing and writing, and that I would write more fantasy fiction, but I'm a better role-player than a writer, but lo, and behold, my brother has already written it. There is a quote from Legend of the Five Rings, a role-playing of Japanese fantasy, which says: "We tell ourselves the stories of heroes to remind ourselves that we too can be heroes." And so it is. Of course, I don't limit myself to role-playing. Just yesterday I was mopping the floor at work at I started singing sea chanties to myself to pass the time while I swabbed the deck on the British Naval vessel I was serving on. Have any of you ever read "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" by James Thurber. Yeah, that is me (although I am quick to point out that there is no similarity whatsoever between Walter Mitty's wife and my own wonderful eternal companion). I have always felt, perhaps incorrectly, that my life was improved by flights of fancy, since such flights helped encourage me in the rest of my life (perhaps unlike Walter Mitty).

Let's be heroes, then! Why should we let the banality of our mundane lives get us down. There is a world of good out there for us to be doing, let's go do it. We should us our imagination to remind ourselves of what it means to be a hero, and then do true heroic actions, such as do good to our neighbours and live according to the pattern set down for us.

Next time, we discuss fantasy movies, derived from fantasy books--advantages and disadvantages. Until then,


Monday, July 21, 2008

A Top Ten

My wife has been giving me a hard time for not writing more on this 'blog. And so it is that I have not been writing as much or as well as I could be. Certainly not the once a week that I hoped to when I re-booted this 'blog. I have a list of excuses (such as moving from England), but I merely hope that you accept my apologies. I also want to say how much I appreciate all of your comments. I'm not sure how I forgot the Earthsea books, but you are right, that is also a very compelling magic system.

Luckily, having waited so long to write I actually have several ideas of things to write. Today's is a variation on something from way back to last year, with the meme about 10 favourite books (I never was able to get that going--although I have a few more books now, such as To Kill a Mockingbird), but this time I am going to do it with fantasy. Not as profound perhaps as some of the lists which inspired this, but I first learned the fabulist's art in many of these books, so in some ways they provide a theoretical under-pinning for all of my writing on this 'blog. The books are arranged in a rough order, but nothing too scientific--this is fantasy after all.

The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien. I am doing, where appropriate, entire series, since fantasy is so often found in series. I will not say too much about the Lord of the Rings and Professor Tolkien, since you can read more of my feelings on the topic here, but suffice it so say that I love Middle Earth and it has had a great influence on me (being the one book both on this list, and on the slightly more serious one). Pride of place for this series goes to The Return of the King, I think because I like the appendices so.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis. I suppose Jack and Tolkien get the top billing because I like them the most. In many ways Narnia is more important to me than Middle Earth, although Tolkien had an earlier influence on me. I always liked the Classical elements in Narnia (reading Narnia and Middle Earth actually does a pretty good job of indicating the scholar interests of their respective authors. Write what you know I guess). I love the youthful optimism in Narnia and the explicit religious overtones. My favourite book here is The Silver Chair. I love the questing nature of it, and Puddleglum is one of my favourite characters perhaps because I resemble him.

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. This is the third book in my Big Three. There are other fantasy books (indeed, we will discuss many of them below), but these are the ones that most inspire me to my own fantasy, and have most stuck with me throughout my life. As I mentioned in my last post, the character of Schmendrick has always resonated with me (the fact that his name is Yiddish probably contributed to that). I read Lord of the Rings for its epic reminders about the battle between good and evil, and Narnia for its quiet message of hope and appreciation of the joys of childhood well into adulthood. The Last Unicorn is a bitter-sweet book. There is a line from Disney's movie The Great Mouse Detective in which Sherlock Holmes has what essentially amounts to a cameo (played by famous television Holmes Basil Rathbone). He and Watson are arguing about a radio program which Holmes wishes to listen to, and Holmes exclaims, "It is introspective, and I want to introspect!" I am like that sometimes, and The Last Unicorn helps fill that need.

The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander. Extremely well-written Welsh-based fantasy. This series has one of the best and most realistic hero's journey I have ever read, especially in the book Taran Wanderer. Another high point of this book is the interactions between the protagonist, young Assistant Pig-Keeper Taran with the bonafied hero Gwydion, the son of Don in the early books. Gwydion remains the primary hero, but the actions of Assistant Pig-Keepers matter in the over all storyline.

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. A different kind of fantasy than the others on this list so far (except that like the Prydain Chronicles and the Chronicles of Narnia it is a children's book), in that it isn't set in a Medievalish sort of world, but I love it anyway.

Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. This is the newest book on this list. It's a funny thing, but I don't like historical fiction. I think it's kind of a silly genre; but slap magic on it, and I love it. I love historical fantasy. Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell is not only historical fantasy, but it's a Napoleonic historical fantasy written in period style. It's a little slow getting into it, but it's certainly worth it.

The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan. The Epic fantasy epic. This is a huge series of books; overwritten, massively long, and still brilliant. I've already mentioned the magic system in a previous post, so I won't get into it here, but these books are wonderful, especially the middle bit. There are twelve books in the series, or at least there will be when the last one is finished (may he rest in peace). The first three books comprise a trilogy starting the hero journey; the second trilogy is Rand (the main character) at the top of his game, the third trilogy is building the story, and the fourth will be the end. I like the second best. My favourite book is Lord of Chaos, although I think Fires of Heaven is the best.

The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny. For those of you who haven't real it, it's about this immortal family who rules over the "one true reality" - a world named Amber. All other worlds are reflections of this world. I love Zelazny's voice. It helps that this fantasy series has some very compelling characters, including the main character, Corwin, who's just really cool.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. Another non-medieval fantasy children's book. This book and The Phantom Tollbooth were my favourite books when I was growing up. I read them and again. I like most of what Roald Dahl does, but this is the best.

The Elenium by David Eddings. I didn't want to include these, since they are not up to the standard of most of the other books on this list. However, I have been recently rereading them, and I have discovered that much of this series worked its way into my own fantasy workings (especially Henryon). Crusading knights and Church politics, even certain plot points coincide between these books and my own work. Not enough to qualify for plagiarism, but certainly a strong influence.

Honourable Mentions:

Terry Pratchett and the Discworld series. These are fun, but not didn't quite make the cut.

Robert E. Howard's Conan. I love Conan. My brother hates him, but this because instead of having a barbarian in his soul, like the rest of us, has a Puritan in his soul.

I wasn't sure if these were cricket, since they were Science Fiction, but I wanted to include them as an appendix.

Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein. All my life I intended to serve in the military. I grew up in a military household, and I always sort of thought in the back of my head that I would do my part (this in spite of having no illusions about the actuality of military service). This book helped to fuel some of those ideas. In many ways this book is a collection of essays about citizenship and militarism combined with a rollicking-good adventure yarn.

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. I don't like the rest of these as much, but this is a great read.

There you have it. Tell me what think of these books, tell me any favourites you have that I may have missed, and tune in in seven days for a discussion of imagination.