Roz and Fantasy 1

Over the next few weeks, before volume 1 of Rhapsody of Blood comes out, I thought I would post some stuff about fantasy in general that people may find interesting in itself, and maybe even more so when the book is around. This was an entry I wrote for the Encyclopaedia of Fantasy and which didn’t get used – it appears here for the first time.

PLOT DEVICES IN FANTASY This encyclopaedia uses the term plot device for any of the stock mechanisms whereby the plot of a piece of fiction is, in whole or in part, initiated, complicated, advanced, retarded, or terminated. Some of these will be common to all genres, while others will be more probable in one genre or another, generally occuring elsewhere only when genre-crossing is intended.
Many of these stock plot devices have their own entries in this encyclopaedia and are cross-referred to at the end of this entry. Many others do not; an inevitably arbitrary selection makes up the body of the present article, arranged alphabetically.

Inevitably this contains a massive number of spoilers for various books.

AMNESIA- The protagonist of fantasy is sometimes amnesiac for a significant part of the narrative, usually its opening stages. This serves as a convenient pretext for exposition; it is also a convenient way of making a sympathetic character into an obsessed seeker; since the protagonist has no direct connection with his past, he or she may be in a position to escape all previous guilt and indeed be the subject of rebirth. To this extent, protagonists acquire a measure of liminality – see liminal beings. Corwin in Roger zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber (1970) is clearly relatively gentler for his long experiences on Earth; the protagonist of Tanith lee’s The Birthgrave (1975) by contrast is rendered more dangerous by her amnesia, since she has no real knowledge of, or control over, the powers that go with her lost identity. Closely linked to this device is that of the hero whose progress is apparently at first that of the brave little tailor, but whose growth in stature is matched by revelations about the truth of his being – the protagonist of A.E.van vogt’s The Book of Ptath (1947) comes to be aware of his godhead, while that of Jack williamson’s Darker than You think (1948) realizes that he is the expected messiah of a race of shape-changers -theriomorphy- and accordingly adjusts his loyalties away from humanity. ( see also amnesia)
BUTCHERY The excessive violence of dark lords and other villains is often a crucial factor in motivating the heroes and heroines to pursue them. Often, the initiating violence is perpetrated against the protagonist’s parents, as in George lucas’s Star Wars (1977) or Terry goodkind’s Wizard’s First Rule (1994). (Interestingly, in both these cases, the Dark Lord is the unknown biological father of the protagonist). The atrocity involved is not always murder – in Michael moorcock’s Stormbringer (1963), Elric’s wife is transmogrified into a half-human, half-worm chimera by the villain. The villain’s butchery of those dear to the protagonist is almost always an example of over-reaching.
In the case of accursed wanderers, the butchery may, usually semi-inadvertently, be carried out by the accursed wanderer him or herself and be either the cause of, or the first symptom of, the curse. Elric accidentally kills the beloved half-sister for whose incestuous love he has sacked his native city; Louise cooper’s Tarod in the Time Master trilogy (85-7) first manifests his unknowing commitment to the forces of Chaos by blasting his cousin by magic he did not know he possessed.
As with amnesia, this deprivation of roots attaches a measure of liminality to the protagonist by rendering them a paradoxical being who exists in the world without kin or community to tie them to history.
CLUE In fantasy that straightforwardly crosses genre into the detective story or thriller, clues have the same function as in those genres; they enable the reader to think ahead to the solution and to match their wits with the protagonist and with the unknown villain. In Barbara hambly’s The Witches of Wenshar (1987), the identity and motivation of the magical murderer can be deduced from probabilities, even though the magical methods involved are something which Sun Wolf has to discover as he proceeds.
More generally, since many or even most fantasies involve some sort of mystery or intrigue, there will often be clues which function in this way even though solving a crime is not the prime purpose of the action or of reading about it; such clues, particularly when not picked up by either the reader or the protagonist, will also foreshadow later events by dramatic irony, or prepare them so that they not seem like cheating. When, in LOTR, Pippin and Merry find two casks of good pipeweed in the spoil from Saruman’s tower, such is the pressure of events that they never consider the implications of regular trade or who his agents might be. In Tim power’s The Anubis Gates (1983), talk early in the novel about strychnine and its antidote, and about the symptoms of the dying ‘Dancing Apes’, prepares us for the inspiration which leads the dying Doyle to cram wood embers into the poisoned body into which he has been shifted. The moment at which Doyle overhears someone whistling Lennon and MaCartney’s “Yesterday” in a Regency London street and deduces that he is not the only C20 person around is a bridge between clues and the pistol effect described below.
COOK’S TOUR Closely allied to the collection of plot coupons is the journey around the map visiting every point in it and observing points of interest. This can be, and often is, one of the cruder of the devices whereby an obsessed seeker or accursed wanderer is moved from location to location in a template series; it can also, as in the work of Dave duncan, be a useful way of exploring a variety of examples of moral and social themes.
DUEL Many of the societies on which fantasyland is modelled have actually had the code duello or trial by combat as a part of their manners; the swashbuckling historical romances on which they are also based have tended to extend this ahistorically to societies which in historical fact had nothing of the kind. A minor one of the maggots which infest fantasy is the assumption that right will prevail in a straightforward contest between two strong men, one of them good. Accordingly, many fantasies have their climax in a physical, or magical, single combat between the protagonist and a rival swordsperson or wizard. At the end of Martha wells’s The Element of Fire (1993), her battleweary protagonist allows his enemy, the king’s favourite, to assume him more weakened than he is and challenge him; when righteousness is the issue, duels do not always have to be straightforwardly honest occasions. The protagonist of Ellen kushner’s Swordspoint (1987) is unusual in being a professional duellist; most fantasy protagonists are merely enthusiastic amateurs.
At the climax of Barbara hambly’s The Ladies of Mandrigyn (1984), Sun Wolf overcomes the wizard Altiokis by a mixture of physical prowess. wizardly clarity of sight and soldierly resolve – even shape-changed (theriomorphy) to a leopard, the older man is an ageing and overweight leopard. Duels between wizards – and by this point Sun Wolf is definitely a wizard as well as a warrior – are rarely this physical, and are described either in terms of competitive metamorphosis – the duel between Dream and the demon Azazael in Neil gaiman’s Sandman (1988 onwards) is an elegant variation on this traditional theme – or as struggles between magical force conceptualized as if physical forces or objects – in the duel between Vincent Price and Boris Karloff in Roger corman’s The Raven (1963), Karloff turns Price’s magically hurled dagger into a fan – or an alternating sequence of oddly named charms one set of which eventually overwhelms the other – Jack vance’s wizards are fond of duels of this kind.
ESCAPE J.R.R. tolkien argued that escape from prison is one of the prime images of fantasy, and that objections to its ‘escapism’ revealed the secret tyrannous agendas of those who made them – G.K. chesterton makes this point even more explicitly. Certainly LOTR is full of escapes and rescues, which offer a regularly reiterated emotional correlative to our hope that Sauron will eventually be defeated, small fixes of victory. Such escapes occur through supernatural intervention – as when Tom Bombadil arrives to save the hobbits from the willow or the barrow-wight – or through the incompetence and malice of the forces of evil – as when the orc captain steals Pippin and Merry to look for the Ring – as often as through physical prowess – Sam’s rescue of Frodo from an orc fortress and his own escape from the spider Shelob. This distribution of responsibility for escapes is almost certainly deliberately intended by Tolkien to indicate the workings of grace in the primary world – Sam is aided by a supernatural phial of light he carries with him. Further, Gandalf’s escape from the depths of the underworld and the monstrous Balrog effectively involves his death and resurrection – for a Christian like Tolkien or C.S.lewis, all escapes are types of Christ’s Resurrection from the tomb and all rescues of his redemption of mankind.
Against all this high-mindedness, we may as well set Robert E. howard’s Conan, particularly as portrayed by Arnold Schwarzeneggar in Conan the Barbarian (1981). Crucified by his enemies and with a vulture perched on his chest to peck out his eyes, Conan bites its throat out, impressing onlookers with his machismo to a point where they let him down. Escapes are a way of getting the protagonist out of the impasse of bondage, once they have done all the suffering it is useful for them to do in this section of the narrative; escapes are also a way to display prowess or intelectual force – the heroes of Stephen king’s ‘Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption’ (1982) and The Eyes of the Dragon (1984) engage in escape schemes that fool not only their jailers but the reader.
FORGETTING The decision to destroy a piece of knowledge on behalf of humanity is a standard ending to various sorts of supernatural fiction, horror and dark fantasy. At the end of Karel capek’s The Makropoulos Case (1922), Emilia Marty decides that three hundred years of life is enough and gives the recipe for her father’s immortality drug to the girl Krista, who decides to burn it. Outside fantastic fiction, this is a trope most often associated with the destruction of manuscripts – Henry james’s The Aspern Papers (1888) for example – and is one of the points at which quite mundane fictions can ally themselves to fantasies of history and deal with imaginary books
Allied to this trope is the type of thinning often present at the end of genre fantasy; it has been necessary to damage the world in order to save it and our order will be replaced by a more mundane one in which we will never have been. This happens at the end of LOTR, and at the end of Michael Scott rohan’s The Winter of the World trilogy (1986-8). It is to be distinguished from that passing away of the old order which results from the mere physical using up of magic as a commodity as in Larry niven’s The Magic goes away (1977).
GIFT OF THE MAGI In the famous O.Henry story, a husband and wife both make personal sacrifices to purchase for the other a Christmas gift which the sacrifice involved makes redundant. This encyclopaedia accordingly uses the term for any occasion on which separated principals – separation- pursue courses apparently at cross purposes, but revealing a greater ultimate unity of purpose. Sometimes, this is used for simple gentle irony as in
almost every episode of The X-Files ( tv. drama 1993(?) onwards), but it more often occurs when both halves of a potential couple – Rap and Inos in David duncan’s A Man of His Word (1990-91)- are going through a process of education, often a night journey and need to learn different things. or when two halves of a duo are at odds, as in Fritz leiber’s “Lean Times in Lankhmar”.
HATTIFATTENERS Tove jansson’s Moomin books (1945-71) for children have, as one of many running features, the Hattifatteners,a horde of slightly phospherescent tubular creatures which normally move across the landscape doing nothing save be slightly sinister and inexplicable. A Hattifattener is accordingly any creature whose presence in the action has no direct effect save to increase in the principals a sense of wonder or estrangement or both; examples of this are the Singing Beast and the mysterious humanoid rider of the giant beetle in C.S. lewis’s Perelandra (1943)
INNS There has to be a mechanism for assembling dirty dozens and seven samurai, a place where you meed hidden monarchs and do not recognize them, a place where unpacking is done for you, or where stories and interpolated poems happen; there has, particularly in narratives involving a lot of walking, to be the occasional place where you get a comparatively safe sleep for the night. Inns are all these things – they are also a threshold, whose landlords are sometimes liminal beings, because by definition they are an outpost of the urban in the wild, or even in the wildwood. They are thus polders, and as much so when their proprietors are entirely mundane; simply by being concerned with running a good house and not worrying his head with the menaces a few short leagues away, lotr’s Butterbur, the landlord of the inn at Bree is a civilizing force. Sometimes they are portals between the worlds – as in Poul anderson’s A Midsummer Tempest (1974). When this is the case, they are closely related to bars and clubs, in that they are venues in which club stories are told, stories which by definition come from a variety of worlds, and may illuminate by difference.
IMPERSONATION It is the nature of fantasy that things not always be what they seem, and that both good and evil go masked; it is also the case that the relationship between the mask and the face is complex. Grandier, the magician villain of Martha
wells’s The Element of Fire (1993) spends much of the book pretending to be a benevolent magician, whom he has murdered; the impersonation allows him to be in some ways the man he might have been had he not been driven mad by torture and a desire for vengeance. Impersonation is often the way in which a bad or neutral principal becomes good – it is a crucial element in the brave little tailor motif; either because the mask literally becomes the face, as in Max beerbohm’s The Happy Hypocrite (1897), or more generally because the impersonation imposes changes to both character and physiology as in Simon green’s Blood and Honour (1992). Particularly when caught up with theriomorphy or gender disguise, impersonation is a crucial nexus in the elaborate set of fantasy discourses surrounding true names. Because it can place a character in the position of being two things at once, it can be a source of liminality – liminal beings.
Sometimes, of course, an impersonation lacks these dimensions and is simply a tactic, or a tease. Tanith lee’s sword-and-sorcery detective Cyrion (1982) uses constant disguises as a way of confusing people into revealing truth, while in Barbara hambly’s Dragonbane (1986), the provincial dragonslayer John Aversin mocks the bitchy snobbery of the court by playing an exaggerated version of the bumpkin that, by their corrupt standards, he is. In a more sinister vein, the unfortunate donkey who is prevailed upon to impersonate Aslan in C.S. lewis’s The Last Battle (1956) is the inadvertent cause of much suffering and despair.
JEALOUSY AND ENVY Emotions are powerful generators of plot, and emotions that are powerfully concerned with a sense of identity are perhaps peculiarly crucial to fantasy, in which identity -true names, impersonation, theriomorphy, hidden monarchs etc.- is always important. Villains are set on villainous courses by the desire to be that which they are not by natural endowment – Barbara hambly’s Altiokis, in The Ladies of Mandrigyn (1984), resents the lines of apprenticeship by which wizardy is handed down and finds his own way to magical power; though the heir to the throne, Elias, in Tad williams’s Sorrow, Memory and Thorn (1988-93), envies his brother Joshua’s prowess and glamour and sets out to destroy him, wounding the land by doing so. Jealousy and envy are powerfully destructive temptations to virtuous characters – Boromir, in lotr, resents discovering that his line of stewards is likely to be replaced by the hidden monarch Aragorn, and contemplates stealing the ring. In all of these cases, there is an implicit assumption that these characters fall short by wanting that to which they are not innately entitled – maggots -, whereas ugly ducklings and brave little tailors, having grace, proceed to get that which is rightfully theirs without having to think about it. Sexual jealousy is a powerful generator of misunderstandings and thus often of separations.
KUBLAI KHAN In the course of many fantasies, the protagonist’s adventures include a measure of education, some of which will proceed by means of introducing him to a powerful potentate, neither malevolent nor especially benevolent, who does things differently and who, by their very different assumptions about the world, reveals to the protagonist that the world is large and that is always a mistake to be locked into provincial assumptions. In acknowledgement of the role played by The Travels of Marco Polo (?) in educating Western Europe in this perception, this Encyclopaedia refers to such potentates as Kublai Khan, though they are as likely to be non-human as exotic or oriental. The court of the Sithi in general, and the prince Jiriki in particular, in Tad williams’s Sorrow, Memory and Thorn (1988-93) have this function for Simon, changing forever his perspective on the relations of Sithi and human. When the potentate/mentor is human, there is often a strong admixture of Orientalism in the way his realm is described, sometimes involving racism – see maggots- and sometimes mere chinoiserie. A protagonist is not necessarily restricted to one of these figures – James Branch cabell’s Jurgen (1919) has several, all of them, in the nature of that in which he is being educated, female.
LIES AND DECEITS Just as impersonations are common in fantasy plots because of the fascination of the genre with questions of identity – true names – so lies and deceits are often crucial because of the underlying fascination with the nature of reality. They are particularly likely to be told by tricksters, and, when the trickster is virtuous, may be versions of the truth rather than straightforward falsehoods; in Tim powers’s The Drawing of the Dark (1979), Ambrosius does not so much deceive the protagonist as fail to explain things to him in enough detail. More often, they are told straightforwardly by villains like Andor in Dave duncan’s A Man of his Word (1990-91) and are there to complicate matters by ensuring, for example, that his friends assume Duncan’s protagonist Rap dead by torture and not burst in and interrupt what becomes his night journey. Lies are at the same time a highly metaphysical element in fantasy and one of its most simplistic generators of story.
MISUNDERSTANDINGS Similarly, and for the same reason, misundertandings and misapprehensions of various kinds are common story elements. Misunderstandings between couples or potential couples can lead to jealousy and thus to separation; when this occurs, as in much planetary romance and genre fantasy that derives from Edgar Rice burroughs, who was overly fond of the trope, it is usually misogynistically blamed on the female partner – sex and gender, women in fantasy, maggots.
MUTILATION Partly because Odin gave up an eye for wisdom, fantasy protagonists are prone to losing body parts in the course of their night journeys or otherwise. Frodo loses a finger in lotr, while Fritz leiber’s Fafhrd loses a hand; the protagonists of Tim Powers are peculiarly prone to losing fingers or eyes. It is perhaps the case that deprivations of these kinds cause protagonists to acquire liminality- liminal beings – since part of them is alive and part dead.
NAZGUL Though there are effectual villains and monsters in lotr, J.R.R. tolkien was inclined to save his effects up; the Nazgul, undead ringwraiths, are remarkably absent from the plot given the powers attributed to them. They chase the hobbits from the Shire and are washed away in a flood; one of them commands an army and is killed by Eowyn and Pippin; the remainder are sent at the last minute to Mount Doom and wink out like burning mayflies. For the most powerful creations, or to be more precise warpings, of the most powerful evil being in the universe, this is not a very impressive record. A Nazgul is accordingly any menace that is more for ornament than use, which the author holds in reserve so long it becomes a bit of a disappointment.
ORACLE Most of the time, oracles exist so that they can be a source of delphic ambiguity; but sometimes an oracle is just an oracle. Oracles have, after all, to be served by people, either hardened manipulators, who may after all turn into brave little tailors, or frightened youths and young women, who might be ugly ducklings; they are surrounded by small towns which service the pilgrims and act as a force on the economy of fantasyland. While there are some universities and colleges of magic in genre fantasy, the community that serves an oracle often takes its place as in Harry turtledove’s Wereblood and Werenight (both 1979) in pseudo-Hellenistic versions of fantasyland as a nexus for the meeting of unlikely people.
PISTOL EFFECT In Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, the samurai hero witnesses the arrival of one of the villains from another town; the villain produces a six-shooter and bounces a bullet of the town bell, revealing to the audience that we are not, as we had thought, in generic samurai time, but specifically in the aftermath of Commander Perry’s arrival. This encyclopaedia accordingly uses the term Pistol Effect for any sudden presentation of an object or concept which radically changes our perception of where we are in time, space or genre. It is often a triggering moment for that sense of estrangement which this encyclopaedia refers to as a time abyss. Examples can be proliferated – Mary gentle in Rats and Gargoyles (1990) mentions a fifth point of the compass, indicating just how strange a place her city is; in Michael moorcock’s The Runestaff (1969) the sudden mention of the names of the ships of the Empire of Granbretan, names which include distorted versions of the Beatles and Harold Wilson, the then Prime Minister of the UK, indicate that this is the far future of our own world rather than some point elsewhere in the multiverse; in Barbara hambly’s The Silicon Mage (1989), the heroine’s sudden realization that a supposed godling is actually another interloper from elsewhere in the multiverse is signalled by her use of pi to communicate with what turns out to be an alien, and also signals genre crossing.
QUIET TIME Among all the shouting and quests and combats, even fantasy protagonists occasionally need a moment to reflect, so much so that quiet times have become a plot device in themselves. They often take place in inns or by a campfire, and to be a point at which portions of the plot are subjected to unpacking; they may take the form of an encounter with kublai khans and involve the protagonist in a portion of their education; they may be a moment of recovery from mutilation or a prelude to victory celebrations. They will often take place in gardens, which serve as a means of recuperation by contact with the natural world. It is during quiet times, particularly in fantasies that owe much to lotr, that the prose narrative is interrupted by songs, poems and interpolated stories.
RESCUE Setting aside the theological aspects described above in escape, there are other resonances to consider. Rescues are often an civilized overlay to what in earlier mythologies and rituals would have been marriage by capture, which is why the rescuer so often marries the rescued. For Romantic and nationalist opera composers like Beethoven and Smetana, rescue of men by women was symbolic of a new Revolutionary freedom and equality; rescues remain a potent symbol of liberation in the political sense even in almost comical forms like Margery sharp’s Miss Bianca series (1959-72), where the liberators are a virtuous conspiracy of mice and other small beings. Rescues from danger are a way in which people meet on the road or in the wildwood; they are a symbol of solidarity among strangers which leads to comradeship and bloodbrotherhood – it is often by such benevolent chance encounters that seven samurai groups are assembled. In fairy stories, the casual unthinking benevolence of the third child often accumulates good will from magical beings and animal companions. Rescues are sometimes carried out by repentant villains – in Tad williams’s Sorrow, Memory and Thorn (1988-93), the partial repentance of the minor villain Guthwulf is signalled by his saving of the housekeeper Rachael and later of the protagonist Simon. It is often by rescues that long-separated principals come together towards the end of quests – in lotr, the cry ‘The eagles are coming’ acquires additional weight as an indicator that rescue is at hand because the eagles were crucial to a rescue in The Hobbit (1937).
SEPARATION Principals, often part of a duo, or seven samurai or dirty dozen groups, go off in several directions in order to collect plot tokens from different locations, or simply in order to give the reader a Cook’s Tour of this particular version of fantasyland. Often, their separation is the result of a misunderstanding, particularly when they are destined to be sexual partners; more classily, their particular set of moral failings and strengths dictates that they will need very different night journeys to come to their full potential. Separation is so much part of the standard plot devices of large-scale genre fantasy that we take it almost for granted; when, as in the first volume of Stephen R. donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant sequence (1977), we spend almost all of our time with the single viewpoint of a lone protagonist, it can seem claustrophobic by comparison with our expectations.
TEMPTATION Much genre fantasy is either explicitly or by default set in a Christian moral universe, with the particular emphasis on the capacity of even the best of humans to fall into moral jeopardy at any moment. This is particularly true at the climax of their prolonged night journey when there is a risk of their throwing away everything they have learned and earned; J.R.R. tolkien’s snobbery comes interestingly to the fore in the way that the fine and noble Frodo, or the gallant Boromir, nearly succumb to the temptation that the Ring represents, while Samwise, momentarily tempted to become the Great Gardener, is in less moral danger, because he knows his place. Often, the temptation is merely to think wrong thoughts that will make the principal more vulnerable to the forces of evil – there is a stage in the night journey of Simon in Sorrow, Memory and Thorn (1988-93) when Simon finds himself under torture resenting all his allies as having used him; self-pity in a potential messiahis an inevitable moral failing which would become serious if persisted in because it involves injustice to others – Simon has not in fact been used and betrayed. The temptations undergone by Thomas Covenant in Stephen R. donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (1977) are more interesting in that they have to do with using power improperly for good motives; Covenant is unusual in having a personalized tempter rather than merely being betrayed by what is false within. Personal tempters are crucial to much slick fantasy, depending as that sub-genre does on faustian pacts and little shops of the heart’s desire. The existence of this sub-genre, and the indication that tempters are always playing with a rigged deck, has weakened any hint of suspense in the more elevanted temptations of genre fantasy protagonists; it is culturally pre-determined that anything gained in such a way will be a thing bought at too dear a cost. The exception which proves the rule is the accursed wanderer, who is likely to have yielded to temptation of one kind or another in the first place; Louise cooper’s Indigo sequence (1988-93) is initiated by the heroine’s yielding to mere curiosity.
UNPACKING A standard expository device in genre fantasy is the scene or scenes early in the narrative, and occasionally later, at which the action pauses so that the significance of what has gone before can be explained to the principal by a mentor or mentors. In lotr, for example, we have seen little more than a slightly magical keepsake and some progressively threatening strangers before first Gandalf, and then the council at Rivendell, unpack the vast quantity of history and contemporary menace that lies implicit in these small items. Unpacking is a standard mechanism for bringing the reader up suddenly against the implications of a time abyss, which accordingly seems even more impressive because suddenly come upon close to.
VICTORY CELEBRATIONS When the efforts of fantasy protagonists are crowned with success, an extended victory celebration is a way of artificially extending the joy of catharsis, while moderating it back into the everyday. A typical example is the extended celebration at the end of George lucas’s Star Wars (1977), where rewards and ennoblements are handed out to characters who nonetheless remain entirely and comically the same;(it is also perhaps the sequence in which the film’s debt to The Wizard of Oz, particularly in its 1939? film version, is most apparent). More interestingly, it can provide a useful mechanism for settling the destinies of a multiplicity of viewpoint characters or as a short encoding of the just society arrived at by their efforts – in Mary gentle’s Rats and Gargoyles (1990), it eloquently serves both purposes.
WALKING In his Inventing the Middle Ages don’t have a date to hand – will try and look it up, Norman Cantor remarks that one of several services that J.R.R. tolkien and C.S.Lewis did mediaeval studies was the simple fact that their fantasies dramatized for the common reader the fact that travel on foot, or even on horseback if reasonable care is being taken of a single horse on a long journey, takes a long time and is arduous and inconvenient. The walking pace of most fantasy journeys means that people move slowly through landscapes, landscapes that often acquire moral meanings in the process. It means that problems and conflicts have to be solved rather than merely moved away from at high speed. It provides an extended period during which a character may develop from unpromising beginnings as an ugly duckling or brave little tailor; it also provides an oppurtunity for an extended series of unpackings of the significance of events, whether along the trail or preceding departure. When a character has moved into fantasyland from our own mundane world through a portal, it often provides them with an extended period of acclimatization to a non-technological society. It also provides an extended oppurtunity for chance meetings, the assembly of duos, dirty dozens and seven samurai, as well as for the interjection of stories and poems…
ECSTASIES Many night journeys are also vision quests, at the climax of which the protagonist has a comprehensive vision of how things are or should be. Not all visions are earned in this way; Frodo in lotr, at the moment when he yields to temptation and puts on the Ring, shares in its maker’s power and is simultaneously aware of all the might of Mordor. Visions are often a process and a significant part of the night journey – in Sorrow, Memory and Thorn (1988-93), Simon moves from a dark moment of feeling used and abused to a more accurate vision of himself as the central tool of a Time desperate to restore itself and on to a factual vision of his ancestor, the authentic dragonslayer and King. Ecstatic moments will sometimes convey actual information as well as the usual high-flown sentiments about the structure of the universe; it is not just the content that makes for an ecstasy, but the specific form of the passionate but passive receptivity of the person experiencing it.
Ecstasies are one of the ways in which the essentially secular concerns of genre fantasy protagonists are given moral weight and portrayed as more crucially involved with the eschatological than the mere facts of their situations might be seen as warranting.
YEASAYERS Most mentors are liminal beings of one kind or another; occasionally protagonists encounter figures who are purely and entirely what they are. The best, most extreme and most obvious example of these is Tom Bombadil in LOTR, who acts as a comprehensively positive vision of the natural world of the forest and moorland as it can be when not polluted by evil. If we compare him with the far more complex and interesting figure of Fangorn, it is clear that Bombadil’s function is only in passing to save travellers from Willow and the Barrow-wight; his real strength and importance is his entire innocence – he has not learned loss or pain in the way that the Ent has and his positivity can seem tiresomely irrelevant as a result. Yeasayers like him are important, however, particularly in Christian fantasy, because they intervene in the action from the perspective of an unfallen world; it is us, fallen, who find this optimism tiring.
ZEN The paradoxes that surround the Zen Buddhist concept of mindfulness/no mind have been extensively colonized and vulgarized by genre fantasy; it is these that are being regularly referred to whenever a mentor explains to a protege that the mind must be emptied of ego for the sword or bow to be used as if of itself. The achievement of this goal tends to be one of the standard ways in which conceptual breakthrough of a sort happens in fantasy, which is generally less interested in it than is sf; by learning to turn off their minds and shoot arrows accurately, protagonists are able to rid themselves of confusion and move on towards the purity of spirit necessary to their success. It is typical that Terry goodkind’s Richard, in The Sword of Truth sequence (1994 onwards), should be a zen archer, and teacher of zen archery, and have at the climaxes of his adventures to solve paradoxical casket riddles by righteous instinct rather than untrustworthy reason.

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About rozkaveney

Middleaged, trans, novelist, poet, activist
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4 Responses to Roz and Fantasy 1

  1. calimac says:

    Some of your comments on LOTR are very much on the mark: that “This distribution of responsibility for escapes is almost certainly deliberately intended by Tolkien to indicate the workings of grace in the primary world” is definitely so, and derivable from Tolkien’s comments on the subject though only in regard to the Destruction of the Ring did he ever make this explicit; and that Bombadil is present more to illustrate himself as the incarnated spirit of nature than for plot functions is also the case. (Some find it significant that Merry’s sword came from the Barrow-wight, but really, when the sword is eventually used it’s not important how Merry got it, only where it came from originally.)

    In other places, though, this entry exhibits a problem that exists often in the encyclopedia, which is a snide and dismissive attitude, as if the compilers had read so many bad books that they could no longer recognize a good one and were determined to see through everything. Thus, it is really not the case that Boromir is motivated by jealousy, at least not noticeably or primarily so. He wants the Ring for itself and not because Aragorn has a better legal claim on it. Denethor and Boromir are skeptical of Aragorn’s claim to the throne because they view him as a kind of degraded country cousin and doubt that he’d be up to the job of king (indeed, most of his role in the story is to demonstrate that he is fit for it), rather than jealousy of their own power and position. Denethor asserts his own role as ruler of Gondor, tossing in “unless the King should come again” as a rote phrase because he doesn’t think a king will come again, not so much out of anxiety that one will. The explicit anti-monarchialism of Jackson’s Gondor has no place in Tolkien. Sketch ideas in the drafts of a non-dead Boromir turning traitor are motivated by Ring-lust using jealousy as a tool rather than by jealousy for its own sake.

    Gandalf, and Tolkien, were quite explicit about the Nazgul: they operate primarily through engendering fear, rather than by taking action. They work in the story because they are actually fearsome. Readers who are too jaded to feel that sense have lost something valuable.

    I find it very strange that the word “snobbery” should be used to describe the fact that Sam is less vulnerable to the Ring than Frodo or Boromir. It’s depicted in the book as a very high virtue, and to describe it as “he knows his place” has it exactly backwards, the way that “I’m determined, you’re stubborn, and he’s pig-headed” makes an a priori judgment of motives: what Sam actually has is his feet on the ground. If the moral lesson were that Sam knows his place, that would make it odd that the result is that his place is promptly elevated as a result of it, both formally and in the class structure of the Shire. Again, this is not a subliminal pose by Tolkien but something Gandalf and Elrond made explicit earlier: it is the highest-ranking beings who are most vulnerable to Ring-lust.

    Something akin to Hattifatteners occurs in Tolkien; some Tolkienists call them NGTs, for Nameless Gnawing Things, a reference to a comment by Gandalf about what lives deep in Moria. In Tolkien, their point is to be mostly offstage but palpable, to convey the important point that Middle-earth is not a gameboard of itself and that more exists in its universe than the reader sees. This helps make encounters like those with the Watcher in the Water and the Balrog seem less constrained.

    • finopalomino says:

      I think the “problem … in the encyclopedia” is that its mission is to establish a formalism of fantasy without selecting a formalism of narratology to underpin it. The side-effect of this is that it appears particularly cynical about the fantasy elements. But your points about LOTR are all good, and it’s difficult to see how they could be conveyed in an encyclopedia-type setting, LOTR’s effect deriving from it being so much sui generis.

      (The odd thing for me about LOTR is that it’s an almost perfect example of a full working out of what “creation science” would be, and yet the real life creationists fall somewhat short of it. I must work this idea through, sometime.)

      P.S. Eowyn and Merry.

  2. jackfirecat says:

    Thanks for that. It triggers many more examples in my mind, – oh, but also that – , and that – . Which shows that it is working.

    I wondered how many have been used in George rr martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. I wondered if all have been. Perhaps not all, but a vast majority. (Not all? : surprisingly, I think, he hasn’t used amnesia yet, or has he? (closer readers may correct me).) Are you reading it?

  3. cmcmck says:

    No time to respond fully as I’m about to head out of the door and up to Scotland.

    Suffice it to say I disliked the LOTR films as they manage to miss the point etirely.

    Good to see you back though :o)

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