The legend of Robin Hood has been told in England for at least 700 years. He and his band of gallant outlaws who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor have been described in dozens of poems and stories, and it seems likely that there was once a real outlaw about whom the tales first grew up. No one man could have had all the adventures that are attributed to the Robin of legend, and yet there are some things that are similar in many of them and that therefore look as if they were founded on fact. For instance, Robin Hood is said to have lived with his men in Sherwood Forest in the English county of Nottinghamshire, and nearly all his adventures are described as taking place in the district that includes Nottinghamshire and part of Yorkshire. There are place names such as Robin Hood’s Bay and Robin Hood’s Cave in these areas today. Another theory about the legend of Robin Hood is that he is an aspect of the seasonal hero king of pagan myth. He is deeply connected to the woods and wild places and in appearance seems to have many similarities to other English folk figures such as the Green Man, Herne the Hunter and Robin Goodfellow. Perhaps he was created by the Saxons as their equivalent of Celtic heroes such as King Arthur, the wizard Merlin and the bard Taliesin. Whatever his origin, Robin Hood remains an extremely popular heroic figure, one whose myth endures as strongly today as it ever did.
One of my favourite authors from childhood is Alan Garner and in his saga of ‘Wild Magic’ he achieves powerful effects of beauty and terror that hold a reader well beyond the close. The Wild Magic books are officially The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and its direct sequel The Moon of Gomrath, but Elidor and The Owl Service are usually included in this description because, though unrelated plot-wise, they share many thematic similarities. In Garner’s own words, this quartet of books all concern characters drawn into the world of magic that lies as near and unknown to us as the back of a shadow – a world of mists and forests, ancient enchantments, mythical beings, ageless wizards… and restless evil. Garner is at his best writing of night and dark water – his stories are ferocious and deeply felt, briskly adventurous yet brimming over with wonder, excitement and imagination. As a reader – even a child reader – you are never patronised by Garner or presented with endless, boring explanations or descriptions. His books move along at a breakneck pace, almost like a film shot with a handheld camera, and the reader is continually thrust right into the midst of it all. A native of Cheshire, England, most of Garner’s books centre on Alderly Edge, a place as personal and as full of mythic potential to him as the West Midlands were to J R R Tolkien.
To quote Treebeard ‘… the world is changing: I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth and I smell it in the air.’ It always surprises me when I hear other fantasy writers and readers say that they find Lord of the Rings, Gormenghast and many of the other masterworks of fantasy hard going. When I first came across these books they held me spellbound for weeks on end – I’d never read anything like them and everything else in the world at large (let alone in the world of books) seemed to just fade away while I was under their spell. In one sense, though, it should perhaps not be so difficult to understand. These days it is more likely than not that someone who reads fantasy will only come to Tolkien after having read other, more modern books, most likely in the growing field of young adult fantasy, which is spearheaded by the likes of J K Rowling and Philip Pullman. Written in an up-to-date, engaging and above all understandable manner, Harry Potter and its ilk are in stark contrast to what must to many people seem the dessicated writings of an out of touch Oxford Don sitting in his ivory tower over half a century ago. It should also be noted that very many people will now only come to Tolkien’s book in light of the (well-deserved) critical and commercial success of Peter Jackson’s film versions. Anyone who came out of the cinema thinking ‘Cool, a book about lots of vikings and elves killing trolls and scary-looking guys in cloaks!’ might well be left feeling bewildered and annoyed by Tolkien’s dense, plodding prose and old-fashioned language. Even back in the 1950s when it was first published, Lord of the Rings must have presented a conundrum to its publishers, let alone the book-buying public. Here was a novel that was over one thousand pages long, with over a hundred pages of additional appendices, filled with hundreds of characters (very many of whom only appear for a handful of pages, if that) and poems in invented languages that in many cases the author did not even bother to translate! Despite all of this Lord of the Rings is to this day often voted the most popular novel in all of English Literature and Tolkien the most popular author. His influence on the field of epic fantasy remains palpable in the form of his many imitators and his work has more devotees and fan clubs all over the world than almost any other writer. Why do people read and re-read Tolkien’s books? What makes them so powerful and enduring?
Robert Silverberg’s creation of the giant world of Majipoor ranks almost alongside Frank Herbert’s Dune as one of the most iconic settings in all of science fiction. Majipoor, which has a diameter at least ten times as great as that of Earth, was settled in its distant past by colonists from our own planet, who made a place for themselves amid the Plurivars, the intelligent indigenous beings, known to the new arrivals from Earth as ‘Metamorphs’ because of their ability to alter their bodily forms. Majipoor is an extraordinarily beautiful planet, with a largely benign climate, and is a place of astonishing zoological, botanical and geographical wonders. Everything on Majipoor is large-scale, fantastic and marvellous. The Majipoor series has been both successful and ground-breaking but Silverberg might never have written it following the collapse of the market for science fiction stories at the end of the 1950s. Silverberg was a voracious reader and writer from childhood and made his start contributing science fiction short stories to pulp magazines almost as soon as he graduated from Columbia University, where he studied English Literature in the mid-1950s. It was only in the mid-1960s that science fiction writers were allowed to become more literarily ambitious and Frederik Pohl, then editing three science fiction magazines, offered Silverberg carte blanche in writing for them. Thus inspired, Silverberg returned to the field that gave him his start, paying far more attention to depth of character development and social background than he had in the past and mixing in elements of the modernist literature he had studied at Columbia.
For a massively successful bestselling novelist, Terry Brooks has attracted more than his fair share of critics. He, along with his namesake Terry Goodkind, seems to be one of those fantasy authors who some readers love to hate. His books have been called derivative, badly written and uninspired – and those are just some of the kinder comments! Having said this, Brooks certainly has a legion of fans and his Shannara novels are one of the most famous and widely read of all fantasy series. But what is it that so polarises opinion about Terry Brooks? Why is it that he is so derided by critics and readers on one hand while being one of the biggest names in fantasy on the other? The statistics speak for themselves in some respects: He has written 23 New York Times bestsellers during his writing career and has over 21 million copies of his books in print. He is one of the biggest-selling living fantasy writers but has never won any awards or inspired anything like the fanatical following that writers like J R R Tolkien, Frank Herbert and Robert Jordan have enjoyed. Let’s have a look at his career.
It’s been a while since I read an entire book in a weekend but that was the case with the advance copy I recently got my hands on of James Treadwell’s debut novel Advent, partly because I’ve been waiting for someone to write a book like this for what feels like a very long time! Regular readers of this blog will be aware of the high esteem in which I hold The Dark is Rising and that is perhaps the best comparison to make at the outset – reading Advent is like re-visiting an older, darker, more mature version of Susan Cooper’s famous novel. Treadwell’s book is brimming over with all of the elements that fans of everything from Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen will know and love – ancient magic, a struggle between good and evil, burgeoning wisdom and a young man’s coming of age. What I particularly like about Advent, though, is that the novel isn’t merely derivative and that its author mines less familiar areas of fantasy and mythology such as alchemy, necromancy and the Faust legend.
Some myths are so familiar that the very mention of them evokes immediately recognisable images in the mind’s eye. Norse mythology makes us picture the colourful pantheon of Aesir gods like Odin, Thor and Loki; Celtic legends bring to mind figures such as King Arthur, the wizard Merlin and the bard Taliesin; and the very mention of Egypt immediately makes us think of pyramids, mummies and animal-headed deities. More intangible is the dark world of Slavic mythology, which tends to suggest scattered but unrelated bits of lore, like vampires, werewolves and the Baba Yaga. Largely absent are the unifying elements that so many other mythological systems have, such as a single accepted creation myth, a universal pantheon of gods or an epic piece of poetry or prose. This is partly because, unlike Greek or Egyptian mythology, there are no first-hand records for the study of Slavic legends and indeed it cannot even be proved that the Slavs had any sort of writing system before the arrival of Saints Cyril and Methodius to Eastern Europe in 862. Fragments of old mythological beliefs and pagan festivals survive up to this day in Slavic folk customs, songs and stories largely because all their original religious beliefs and traditions were passed down orally over the generations. Despite the rapid conversion of much of Eastern Europe to Christianity post-862, the old myths still remained strong and Slavic peoples persisted in performing ancient rites and worshipping as part of the old pagan cults, even when the ancient deities and myths on which those were based were forgotten. For survival in a harsh world the old religious system, with its fertility rites, its protective deities, and its household spirits, was still taken to be necessary for the yearly harvest and the protection of crops and cattle. To this day, therefore, the folk beliefs and traditions of all Slavic peoples remain the richest resource for reconstructing their ancient myths and legends.
There is a common misconception that J R R Tolkien invented the field of fantasy fiction. Whilst it is true that in many ways he expanded the genre and brought it to a new and wider audience than ever before, it must be remembered that he was not entirely alone in doing so and was certainly not the first to make an important contribution. Before the reading public was introduced to the alternate world of Middle Earth, Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E Howard used the secondary world settings of Hyperborea, Poseidonis, Averoigne and Zothique for their heroic fantasy tales. Before them, fantastical creatures and other worlds appeared in the writings of William Hope Hodgson, most memorably The House on the Borderland (1908). Going back even earlier, the Victorian writer Lord Dunsany, who began his authorial career in the 1890s, was responsible for two major works – The Book of Wonders and The King of Elfland’s Daughter – that were a major influence on Tolkien and many of those who came after him. In 1946, almost a decade before the publication of The Lord of the Rings, there appeared the first of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels, which are often compared to Tolkien’s epic due to their length, complexity and the depth of their author’s invention. In 1954, the same year as The Fellowship of the Ring was first published, Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword was also released and over time it is a book that has proven in many ways to be almost as influential and universally loved as Tolkien’s masterwork.
The famous Irish fantasist Lord Dunsany coined the evocative term ‘the fields beyond the fields we know’ to describe fairyland but there are many other terms for this place, including the Twilight Realm, the Otherworld, Elfland and Faerie. There are just as many names for the mystical inhabitants of this Other Place: they are variously called fairies, the Good Neighbours, the Fair Folk, the Fey, the Fiah Ree and the Gentry. Whatever they are called, they have been around as long as humans have told stories around camp fires. They are the heroes and villains of folk tales and appear in dreams and works of the imagination of all kinds, whether they be paintings, plays, poetry, music or motion pictures. So ingrained are they in the collective consciousness of mankind that it seems almost impossible to believe that they do not exist – so pervasive and consistent has their influence on human creativity been throughout recorded history. They have been worshipped as deities in some parts of the world and even in other, supposedly more enlightened places, the most cynical of people take care to throw salt over their shoulder when it is spilled, to avoid walking under ladders or stepping on cracks in the pavement. A cracked mirror or black cat crossing one’s path are still seen as signs of bad luck, proof if any were needed that superstition lives on and that wherever people believe in magic they believe in the Fair Folk. As well they might, for there are many who swear that the Fey are real and not only that, these Good Neighbours supposedly live among us. They may be out of sight and often out of mind, but nevertheless they are there and it is said that we would do well to mind them.