This is going to be a sort of companion piece to my recent post One Hundred Realms. In that article I discussed the various genres and sub-genres within the fantasy field. I think that most people would agree that, whatever type of fantasy novel you’re writing or reading, an intricately detailed world is likely to be at its heart. Indeed the very act of world-building – i.e. creating an entire world out of one’s head and putting it on a page – is a defining characteristic of fantasy fiction. Sadly, at least half of those worlds are rubbish - and I say that with the dubious benefit of having read as much of the good half as the bad half over the years! I’m far from the only one who finds this frustrating – no less a fantasy luminary than Ursula Le Guin once vented her annoyance at poorly written fantasy in her essay From Elfland to Poughkeepsie about forty years ago. As a well-educated intellectual as well as a gifted author, her main criticism concerned the style of language employed. For Le Guin, the world that is created is indistinguishable from the words that build it. I personally think that she’s onto something – after all, her fantasy world of Earthsea is a grand example of what J R R Tolkien once called a ‘secondary universe’. But what is it that separates the likes of Earthsea and Middle Earth from the slew of identikit fantasy dross that plagues our bookshelves (and online stores for that matter) today?
As Fabulous Realms has today reached the milestone of one hundred posts, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to do something that I’ve been planning to do for some time. Long-time followers of this blog will be aware that I regularly put the spotlight on a ‘mythic archetype’ or fantasy genre, draw out its identifying features and provide what are in my view some of the finest examples of the form. Along the right hand side of this blog site, you’ll see that I’ve grouped my posts into general categories, many of which are self-explanatory but some of which may require a little more in the way of explanation for the casual reader or non-fantasy fan. What do I mean when I talk about ‘Sword & Sorcery’, for instance, and is this the same thing as ‘Epic’ or ‘High’ fantasy? What’s the difference between ‘Urban fantasy’ and ‘Contemporary fantasy’, and where does ‘Paranormal Romance’ fit in? Is ‘Dark fantasy’ the same as horror and is ‘Science fantasy’ the same as science fiction? These questions may or may not have exercised you at one time or another but I thought that it might, all the same, be interesting to explore the – not quite one hundred – ‘Fabulous Realms’ of fantasy fiction in search of answers.
As someone who has been reading The Wheel of Time saga right from the very beginning – that’s almost two dozen years of my life – writing a review of the final book was always going to be a bittersweet experience. Sad, inevitably, because, like it or not, the wheel has finally turned full circle and this really is the end; happy, hopefully, because the series could (and should) go out on a high note. Once I finished reading A Memory of Light I did indeed feel a conflicting range of emotions – but not the ones I was expecting! Yes, there was sadness, yes, there was joy, but there was also irritation, frustration, resentment and more than a little confusion. I purposely avoided Amazon and every other site that might have featured a review of the book until I finished it, for fear of spoilers and other people’s views colouring my own experience of AMOL. Once I did look at the reviews of the finale of the WOT I have to say my confusion only grew. Take the US Amazon page for example – at the time of writing it featured around 400 five-star ratings and 300 one-star ratings! I’ll go into more detail concerning the reasons for this massive diversity of reviews but, suffice to say, I found that I had very little in common with the opinions of those at either end of the spectrum. Instead, I found myself nodding as I read many of the two, three and four-star reviews. If that’s the sort of rating that those of you reading this post gave AMOL then you might agree with a lot of the things that I’m about to say – equally you might find yourself violently disagreeing! Either way, this is my own like-it-or-leave-it, bias-free, non-commercial take on the final volume of the series which, more than any other (sorry George R R Martin fans!), has dominated the fantasy bookshelves for the past two decades.
The Elves of Middle Earth, also known as the Eldar, the Quendi and the Firstborn, stand at the absolute heart of Tolkien’s legendarium. Even though the word ‘Elf’ existed long before anyone heard of The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, today the Elf is a very different creature because of Tolkien’s writings. The oldest and wisest people of Middle Earth, the Elves possess great nobility and power. They do not age, nor do they die, unless wounds, grief or some artifice of the Enemy takes hold of them and ends their existence. To other peoples they seem at once aged and ageless, possessing the lore and wisdom of experience, together with the joyful nature of youth. But above all, they are the only race never to have willingly served the Shadow. For they revel in the wonders of nature, the beauty of songs and tales, the glimmer of the stars, and the voice of the waters. But in their hearts, they also possess great sadness, knowing that all things pass, and that they cannot preserve them. It is this melancholic aspect of the Elves which makes them so central to Tolkien’s mythology, for they seem to encapsulate one of the major themes of his writing – the passing of ‘The Elder Days’, of a more enlightened and spiritual age, and the loss of its ideals in the face of the relentless rise of man and modernity. But this characteristic also links them with the Elves of folklore who, as depicted in fairy tales like The Elves and the Shoemaker, at first appear very different from Tolkien’s firstborn – smaller and more frivolous in every way. However, it is possible, however unlikely, to link the two conceptions of Elves, if one takes into account Tolkien’s explanation for their literal and metaphorical ‘dwindling’ – an explanation which involves them fighting the inevitable extinction of their species, better known as the ‘Long Defeat’. For this, however, we must go back to the very beginning, and Tolkien’s earliest inspirations for the children of Varda.
“Concerning the beginning of the Dwarves strange tales are told both by the Eldar and by the Dwarves themselves…” – so says Appendix A to the Lord of the Rings. As one of the most iconic sentient fantasy races, the very word ‘Dwarf’ (plural, post-Tolkien: ‘Dwarves’) immediately brings to mind a highly distinctive image. Dwarves, we imagine, are a short and stocky folk, standing between four and five feet tall by the measure of men. Strong and hardy, they are known to endure pain, fatigue and suffering more readily than other races. At need, they can push themselves hard to cross rough terrain quickly or to come to grips with a foe. Their men grow thick, luxuriant beards in which they take great pride, often colouring, forking, or braiding them. They are stern, often stubborn and proud, and are prone to resist any attempt to dominate or sway them. They rarely forget insults or wrongs done them or their families, even over centuries, and they take the burdens of vengeance (and other obligations) placed upon them seriously. But, to balance this, they rarely forget a favour or kindness either. With such unique, appealing attributes, it is no surprise that Dwarves have consistently been a feature of fantasy novels both before and since Tolkien’s day. Given the important role that Dwarves will play in the forthcoming big screen adaptations of The Hobbit, now is an opportune time to take a look at the ‘strange tales’ to which Tolkien alludes concerning the beginnings of the Dwarves.
Now that it is almost October it’s impossible for me to keep those famous, ominous words, first uttered in book one of George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, out of my mind: ‘Winter is coming’. The landscape of A Game of Thrones is irresistibly marked by the clash between winter and summer, warmth and cold, ice and fire. The freezing lands beyond The Wall contrast sharply with the sun-kissed southern lands of Westeros, which end ultimately in the desert principality of Dorne. This climatic imagery reaches its critical point when the imprisoned Davos Seaworth is informed by the red priestess Melisandre of Asshai that their entire world and all its people is no more than the mortal battleground between two gods whose conflict is everywhere and everlasting. On one side is R’hllor, the Lord of Light, the Heart of Fire, the God of Flame and Shadow. Against him stands the Great Other whose name may not be spoken, the Lord of Darkness, the Soul of Ice, the God of Night and Terror. They are opposites who present all men with a choice between light and dark, good and evil, death and life. But by no means is this a concept that is new to fantasy novels. Again and again, the cold lands of the north and the winter season are associated with death and darkness, while it is in the warmer southern lands and summertime that life and joy abide. In Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, Sturmspeik in the northernmost part of the world of Osten Ard is the forbidding fortress of the undead Storm King and his minions; the bleak wasteland known as The Blight is the domain of the Dark One, Robert Jordan’s principal villain in The Wheel of Time; and the witch-realm of Angmar in the north of Middle Earth is home to Tolkien’s Witch King, chieftain of the Ringwraiths who serve the Dark Lord Sauron. What is it that has lodged such dread of the perils of snow and ice in the minds of generations of storytellers?
Let me make one thing clear at the outset: the only book in the Sword of Truth series that I have read is the first one, Wizard’s First Rule. This review of the ‘series’ is therefore based entirely on my own limited experience of the author Terry Goodkind’s work. I say this because it may well be the case that the other books that make up the Sword of Truth are entirely different from Wizard’s First Rule – it may be but somehow I doubt it very much. You see, Wizard’s First Rule is not just a book that I don’t like, it is one that I positively detest. I’ve been reading fantasy of one kind or another all my life and Goodkind’s debut novel is almost certainly the worst book that I have ever read in its entirety. In fact, the only reason that I finished it at all was because of all the positive reviews I had read beforehand, all of the word of mouth that insisted that Goodkind was better than Tolkien, Jordan, Martin, Hobb and any other fantasy author you might care to mention. I was sure that, no matter how bad it got, the book must have some redeeming feature. Unfortunately, I was wrong. For years I kept my thoughts on Goodkind’s work to myself but slowly I began to realise that I was by no means alone – take a look at an Amazon review of any of his books to see how he polarises fantasy readers. There is undoubtedly a large contingent who are devoted fans of the Sword of Truth, but equally there are rather a lot of people out there who feel as I do. The logical question you might be asking at this point, then, is what exactly is my problem?
As a novelist, Stephen King needs no introduction. He is perhaps the bestselling, most widely read horror author of all time and among living writers he has no equal in any genre in terms of success, popularity and influence. What is perhaps less well known is that King not only writes fantasy novels, as well as the horror for which he is best known, but he is also an avid reader and fan of fantasy fiction. It was in fact an early reading of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings that led in part to the creation of King’s own fantasy epic, The Dark Tower series. Far from being a mere side interest The Dark Tower actually stands at the heart of King’s imaginarium – as he has said on many occasions, this series is not only King’s magnum opus, it is the glue that binds together his entire literary output. In his own mind every single story that King has written is connected, even if there is no evidence in the story itself of this connection, and this makes The Dark Tower a very intriguing series indeed for any self-respecting King fan. Incorporating themes from multiple genres, including fantasy, science fantasy, horror and westerns, The Dark Tower has almost as many sources: the poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came by Robert Browning, Arthurian legends, the films of Sergio Leone and the aforementioned Lord of the Rings have all, at one time or another, been cited as influences on King. In spite of this, The Dark Tower is one of the most original, compelling and downright frightening works of fantasy ever written. It is also, even eight books later, far from finished.
Knights – brave and doughty individuals trained in the art of swordsmanship, who fight on behalf of a lord or kingdom against great foes – are perhaps the most common and popular archetypal hero found in fairy tales and fantasy. Someone has to shine a light in the darkness, slay wolves and dragons and stand between all that is good and the forces of darkness. When predation rears its head and howls, a Knight may be all that stands between innocence and death. This character has a long and honourable tradition in the old tales; without his axe or sword, happily ever after might never come to pass. The typical image that immediately springs to mind when the word ‘Knight’ is used is that of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, each clad from head to toe in a suit of armour. But don’t let the word ‘Knight’ fool you – these heroic figures are known by different names all over the world. They were Cavaliers in England, Paladins in Italy, Chevaliers in France, Caballeros in Spain and Samurai in Japan. Despite the martial stereotype, this character does not even necessarily have to be a soldier. There is much more to being a knight than simply wielding a sword, as the following quote from the film Dragonheart makes clear: “A knight is sworn to valour. His heart knows only virtue. His blade defends the helpless. His might upholds the weak. His word speaks only truth. His wrath undoes the wicked.”
Ursula K Le Guin is, quite simply, one of the greatest fantasists of our age, as well as a distinguished writer of science fiction, realist fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Among her many honours are a National Book Award, the World Fantasy Award, five Hugo Awards, five Nebula Awards, the Kafka Award, a Pushcart Prize and the Harold D Vursell Memorial Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Although she has published over eighty short stories, two collections of essays, ten books for children, several volumes of poetry and sixteen novels, what she remains most famous for are her tales of the world of Earthsea. A fictional realm originally created by Le Guin for her short story The Word of Unbinding, published in 1964, Earthsea became the setting for a further six books, beginning with A Wizard of Earthsea, first published in 1968, and continuing with The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea and The Other Wind. Iconic, original and deeply moving, the Earthsea novels have enthralled generations of fans – many of whom, it is worth saying, would not normally have been drawn to fantasy in the first place. Le Guin’s world also inspired two TV films, one of which is perhaps best forgotten while the other is a little known animated gem. The woman and the story behind one of the best loved worlds in fantasy are both almost as interesting as anything which occurred in the Earthsea novels.