Monday, August 17, 2009

A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away...

I was going to write about paladins and other holy warriors, but changed my mind at the last minute, because I wasn't feeling it. Lest you feel somehow bereft of an update, I am posting below the crawl for my recently started Star Wars role-playing campaign. May the Force be with you.


Episode VII

The Balance of the Force

The Galactic Civil War has ended with the defeat of the Emperor at the hands of Luke Skywalker and the destruction of the dreaded second Death Star by the forces of the Rebel Alliance. However, although the Alliance is overjoyed at their victory they know there is still much work to be done if peace and justice are once more to reign over the Galaxy.

To this end they have have commissioned a new starship The Resplendent Phoenix and tasked with a mission to bring the news of the downfall of the terrible Galactic Empire and the restoration of freedom to the Galaxy. Fitted out with the best crew the Alliance has to offer the Phoenix must battle for the minds and hearts of the Galaxy....

Monday, August 03, 2009

A Return; or, For the Sake of My Ego

So, my 'blog has been much neglected of late, for which I am very sorry. If I may be so bold as to offer excuses, I have been in an intensive Arabic course, and my wife has been pushing to purchase a house. Add to that my calling as the First Counselor in the Young Men's Presidency and my position in the ward's Boy Scout troop, and equals out to: I've had a busy Summer. It has been really good, make no mistake of that, but it has not lent itself to activities such as writing, either on this 'blog, or on any other medium. I've had some occasion to think on topics both fantastic and mundane, but have had no occasion to set to it. This is, of course, nothing new. I am now, perhaps attempting to set to something, both for my own benefit, and perhaps for yours. It is a funny thing, considering how ephemeral writing on the Internet seems--even Internet writing is somehow more permanent than never writing at all. As my good friend Matt indicated once, however, the impetus to not write is often very great. We soldier on, though. We soldier on.

Unlike my ordinary essays, I have no clear topic tonight. This is contrary to custom, but the desire to write out-weighed the fear of appearing foolish. Of course, I often appear the fool when I have a topic, so it is clear that having no topic is no defense against silliness. I suspect that there is no true defense against foolishness. Perhaps time and age.

I've been reading Professor Tolkien again. As you know from some of my previous posts, my life has been great influenced by Tolkien's life and works. The intellectual and philosophical basis of this 'blog is derived ultimately from his articulation of sub-creation. It is therefore always a joy to read from his works. I have been working my through The Lord of the Rings again, albeit slowly, since I started after Christmas and have only just finished The Two Towers. This was part of a pact which I formed with my Uncle, Master and fellow Inkling (who has been discovering other skills) to begin again. It has been a lot of fun reading Tolkien again, although it has been also somewhat intimidating. I have always kicked around the idea of being a writer and long-time friends have been aware on at least some level that I am a fabulist, in that I create fantasy worlds. My fantasy lacks the mythic grandeur that gives Middle Earth so much of its strength. I was not as well-versed in Myth when the first inklings of Henryon came about as I am now, so it is perhaps unsurprising, but one of the things which surprises me about Henryon is how pedestrian it is. It is fantastic, but it is not usually very epic--and it is never mythic. This is not a complaint. I am not trying to write The Lord of the Rings. Henryon is what it is, and is solely mine, but it is interesting, that, given my influences, it should be so down-to-earth--for a fantasy world.

This set me to thinking about influences. I've observed previously that you can tell much about Jack and Prof. Tolkien's education and linguistic leanings by the way their stories and fantasy worlds develop. Their influences are clear. My influences are also clear--in fact if you were to do an intellectual history of the development of Henryon (or any of my other projects) you would be able to discern elements from my outside life and education which were then bled into my fabulism. It has always been thus, for fabulism is, in some ways, part of how I order the world--my own personal foundation myth--which is why Henryon is, in particular, so idiosyncratic. I read, and know people, who dream of getting their fantasy novels published. I harbour no such ideas, for Henryon is therapy. Nobody wants to read my therapy. I think it interesting (else I wouldn't spend so much time on it) but there is a difference between interesting and worth reading. In terms of writing for others, whether academic or fantastic, it ultimately doesn't matter whether the author likes it or not, for he is not the one reading it. So, I don't write for others (not that I actually write fiction--no, I usually write notes on cultural and historical elements of the fantasy world, rather than actual fiction. This is in part because all of my training and disposition inclines in this direction, and partly because writing believable dialogue is hard).

This 'blog falls into a strange middle ground, for it is written for others. That is why I hunger for comments so, for without consumers this 'blog is the same as all of the rest of my writings, but since these writings are actually published, after their fashion, they clearly serve a different purpose, which purpose is clear: to feed my enormous ego. 'Blogging, all 'blogging, is a symptom of raging egoism, a disease which is rampant all over the Internet. I am not at all immune to it, as this 'blog clearly indicates (although anyone who knows me well will no doubt observe that 'blogging is the least symptom of my egoism). Because the purpose of this 'blog is to feed my ego, I must choose topics that spark agreement or at least generate intelligent discourse, thus further increasing my ever-growing confidence in my own vain intellect. In fact, once I wrote a 'blog post where I felt that my ego was not being properly fed, and I near swore off 'blogging entirely. The hunger of my ego was sufficient to keep me 'blogging, clearly, but it was a close fought battle. Still, I learned to choose my topics more carefully, lest somehow I am again mistaken, and my ego suffers such a blow that it never recovers, and I am forced to give up 'blogging and begin a quest to either restore my ego to its proper over-blown place, or else develop true humility.

Real-life virtue or virtual vices. Such a difficult decision.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Voice of One Crying in the Wilderness

I was recently reading in a collection of letters from Jack Lewis (a present from my lovely wife), and I came across the following passage, which struck me:

"This week I have re-read Jane Eyre. It is quite prodigiously better than the other Bronte is very worth reading. Part of the interest lies in seeing in the most (apparently) preposterous male characters how quite ordinary people look through the eyes of a shy, naive, inflexibly upright, intelligent little woman of the mouse-like governessy type.... Particularly delicious is her idea of conjugal bliss when she says on almost the last page 'We talk, I believe, all day.' Poor husband!" [C. S. Lewis, Books, Broadcasts and the War: 1931-1949, Volume II in The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis edited by Walter Hooper (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2004), 291)

I thought it was a very fun quote--not in the least because it brought out a number of points about the book Jane Eyre which I myself had considered. It is always interesting to me to hear the opinions about many of my favourite authors on other authors, whether favourite or not. Jack's opinion on the works of Jane Austen, for example: "[Austen's] books have only 2 faults and both are damnable. They are too few & too short" (ibib, 967). I found both of these opinions very interesting, partially because I was perusing this volume of letters more or less at random, and came across these fascinating references to a couple of books near and dear to the hearts of a number of my female friends (my own dear wife, not the least).

This is not, however, the purpose of this post, but serves only as a convenient segue into a discussion, which is one of my wife's prime criteria for judging a book, namely the voice of an author. For those unfamiliar with the concept, by voice I refer to the way an author puts his words on the page. I tend to have a fairly dry, academic voice, even in my fictional writing (which is why I tend to write what I call fictional non-fiction--a lot of discussion on the politics and religion of Henryon [the name of my fantasy world], but very little actual plot). This is appropriate because I am a dry, academic person. A strong voice can help drive a book forward, elevating it from a mere plot-based book to something more. After all, plot is the easiest part of writing. Look at Shakespeare, for example. His plots are, in general, nothing much, as others have observed before me. It is what he does with them that is the real joy, changing them from fun stories full of sex and violence to part of our English cultural heritage. It is not for nothing we fight to defend "The Language of Shakespeare."

Indeed, for my wife, if an author can vary how his characters speak, that author has already put hooks into her. One of the things she loves about her new favourite author, Brandon Sanderson, is in his voice. She did not like Weiss and Hickman's Rose of the Prophet for much the same reason. Sometimes this may be found in a good first line: "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit" or "All children grow up, except one" to name a couple of my favourites. These are good because they set the tone for the entire rest of the book. Actually, The Hobbit is a good example of an author's ability to change his voice (you didn't think that I could write a post on any topic without a reference to Tolkien did you? "The disciple does not stand except in the shadow of the Master"), when taken in connection with The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. Here you have three books, written by the same author and set in the same fantastic world. Yet they are very different in tone and voice. Of the three, I far prefer The Lord of the Rings, because I believe it represents the best middle ground between The Hobbit's conversational style, and the mythic sweep of The Silmarillion (not that I have anything wrong with epic or myth, but I read novels for different reasons than I read myths). Other differ, but that illustrates my point about voice.

Whether or not Miss Bronte was using her writing skills in order to present us a picture of "a shy, naive, inflexibly upright, intelligent little woman of the mouse-likegovernessy type" or, as I tend to think, was projecting a little bit of her psyche into the text is unimportant. Part of the enjoyment of the book is seeing the world through another's eyes and getting another perspective on the universe.

Closely related to this is the idea of an Unreliable Narrator. Now, since many of my readers are careful students of Literature in their various languages of choice, I must admit that I suspect they know better than I the implications of this particular device (I am, after all, a Biblicist, so the application of idea to my field has fascinating theological ramifications, most of which I am unprepared to deal with). I only bring it up, because I first encountered it in a series of books penned by the late, great Roger Zelazny, The Chronicles of Amber. Now, Zelazny wrote faster than he thought, and so his books are full of internal inconsistencies. However, Zelazny turned this into a virtue. In The Chronicles of Amber the narrator and protaganist, one Corwin by name, begins the book with amnesia. As the book progresses he begins to remember things, but sometimes he gets them wrong. As an example, he has a number of brothers and half-brothers and at one point he messes up whose mother belonged to whom. This is, I know, somewhat common place, but it came like a hammer blow to my young teenage self. If Corwin got this wrong, what else is he getting wrong? Then, in another place, Corwin lies to the reader, a lie that only comes out later. Again, a hammer blow. If you couldn't trust Corwin, who was your window into the world, who could you trust? All of these thoughts were confirmed by the second series in the Chronicles, written from the perspective of Corwin's son Merlin, who had a very different take on the events in the first books. These books helped to remember to always examine my own assumptions when reading any book, so whenever my wife starts talking about voice (and she invariably does), Zelazny is the light I hold up to the world.

How about you? Any authors you love to read merely because of how they write? Any books that shook your assumptions about reading? Any other examples of changes in voice showing an author's ability to vary his tone and style? Natually, because I am most interested in fantasy on this 'blog, I would be delighted to hear about those, but this post is much more about reading in general than any specific genre, so please, tell me your opinions of voice, without regard to genre.


Thursday, April 09, 2009

A Shout Out for Science Fiction

So, this 'blog is primarily dedicated to the discussion of all things fantastic. I prefer it that way, for I dearly love fantasy, and as I discussed in the last post, I dearly love the myth that fantasy drew from. However, I felt a need to write a brief comment on fantasy's cousin science fiction.

I say cousin, but they aren't really cousins, although they are often lumped together. Part of this, I believe, comes, perhaps on the speculative nature of them both. Some of this comes from a sort of blurring of the lines in movies such as Star Wars, which has blasters and starships, but is in all its particulars, except for set dressing, a fantasy film. Space fantasy to be sure, but fantasy. Even more thorny are shows such as Star Trek, which is more scientific than Star Wars, but which is still, in terms of real science, not very scientific. This is all to say, that just as fantasy runs the entire gamut from high to low, swords and sorcery to epic, so there is also a spectrum for science fiction, based primarily on the grounding of its speculations in actual science. At the far end of the spectrum, closest to fantasy are films and books such as Star Wars. At the opposite end is the hard science fiction, preferred by thos great science fiction authors such as Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov.

I enjoy the whole spectrum, unlike, my wife, for example, who prefers fantasy almost to the exclusion of science fiction. Some of my favourite books have been science fiction, especially books by Clarke and Heinlein. My wife is not alone, however. Fantasy, especially juvenile fantasy, is very trendy right, likely in the light of the successes of books series such as Harry Potter. It is interesting to me that one may read Harry Potter and his companions, good and bad, and still not have to worry about losing your high school status as a "cool kid" (this is a gentle ribbing to all those "Mormon Mommy 'Bloggers" who loved Twilight, but would be horrified to hear it described as fantasy), but Asimov and Heinlein are still the domain of the geek.

So, I have certain geek tendencies, although social awkwardness is not really one of them, my wife would hasten to add. Regardless, science is an important part of our world-view, and I personally think that science needs science fiction. After all, every religion needs its myths.... In all seriousness, I suppose the primary purpose of this post was to encourage my readers who love fantasy (and if you don't, you are unlikely to read me more than once)to branch out a little bit and try some science fiction. I'd start with something accesible, like Clarke's brilliant 2001: A Space Odyssey or if you like a little bit of philosophy with your reading, Heinlein's Starship Troopers walks an excellent line between a discussion of the rights of citizenship and a rollicking adventure yarn. To my readers who already read science fiction, let's read some more.

Excelsior (ad Astrum.)

Monday, January 19, 2009

Lies, Breathed Through Silver

The myth is vital to consider in reference to fantasy fiction. As this 'blog has discussed previously, fantasy and science fiction have elements of "folk scripture," using the term from Brother Nibley. A large part of this derives from the longing for home talked of in a previous post. However, it is not only fantasy that has this longing for home. In fact, fantasy inherited many of its magic and wonder from an older and deeper source. I speak, as you may have guessed, of mythology.

It has been observed that what Professor Tolkien was doing with The Lord of the Rings and particularly with The Silmarillion was writing new mythology, crafting an English myth cycle, similar to those found in other cultures. Certainly, the charge seems to stick when looking at The Silmarillion (The Lord of the Rings seems to me to be another beast entirely--mostly because of the hobbits. Aragorn certainly belongs in a saga or myth, but Frodo and Sam seem out of place. This is, of course, the idea and is part of the genius behind the books). Even if Tolkien did not set out to create a new mythology, he was certainly well-versed in the legendary and literary tradition which he was pulling from (including names--Gandalf's comes from the Poetic Edda, a Norse cycle of myths). Likewise Jack Lewis pulled extensively from his own classical training in all of his fiction, from The Chronicles of Narnia up to Perelandra (Till We Have Faces is actually a retelling of a Greek myth. It isn't really a fantasy book, and so in some ways stands outside of this discussion. However, it deserves mentioning here, because it illustrates Jack's familiarity with the classical myths, as well as his willingness to use them in other contexts). Thus, Bacchus and Silenus and the Maenads accompany Aslan in Prince Caspian.

Fantasy has always drawn from mythology, but in many ways fantasy is like mythology's little brother. I was pondering about mythology the other day, because I have been tapped to possibly teach a course in Egyptian and Mesopotamian mythology. This excited me, of course, and I was thinking about how to approach mythology. One of the key points I came to was to remember that the ancients believed this stuff--more or less. It is interesting to us to tell stories about the battles between Horus and Set or the tale of Marduk overthrowing Gilgamesh or the divine infighting prolonging the Trojan War, but to us they are just stories. To those hearing these stories originally (for they would have all had an oral component, to be sure), these tales were on some level believed and treasured. It is difficult for us as moderns to know how much they believed them. We know that the Greeks had a long-standing tradition of allegoricizing their myths and their gods (a tradition which Christianity unfortunately inherited)--but we may never know whether or not the ancient Egyptians really believed that the sun was Amon-Re. There seems to have been some level of actual belief, or at least a willingness to spend massive amounts of time and resources to prepare for an afterlife.

So, at least one of the reasons that myths are so powerful is because of the belief of the cultures that produced as opposed to fantasy. Another, closely related reason is that these myths are deeper and more powerful than an individual may produce. An imagination, no matter how fertile, is not equal to the combined sub-conscious of an entire culture. Also, as many anthropological reader from James Frazer on have observed myths tend to visit and revisit the same themes the world over. In part this is because the human experience is at least, on certain levels, universal. However, from a more explicitly religious perspective, Jack Lewis suggested that these myths were planted by the Divine in order to point men toward their final home and destination--bringing us back full circle to the inherent longing for home which is such a part of the appeal of fantasy, as has been previously addressed. Myths represent some of mankind's strongest struggles to the divine, and so have a deep and compelling richness.

I love to read fantasy, but when reading fantasy, I like to look for those universals which underpin all stories--those myths undergirding reality, the true pillars of creation on beyond sight and mind.

I will leave you with a quotation (first learned from Jack Lewis) which taught me much of the meaning in myths:

I ween that I hung | on the windy tree,
Hung there for nights full nine;
With the spear I was wounded, | and offered I was
To Othin, myself to myself,
On the tree that none | may ever know
What root beneath it runs.

The Prose Edda, Hovamal, (Bellows translation)