After the King: Tolkien’s heirs

22 Oct

It is something of a relief, having looked last month at his critics, to turn this time to Tolkien’s many admirers. It would not be true to say that there was no such thing as epic fantasy before Tolkien: there was a tradition of English and Irish writers before him, such as E R Eddison and Lord Dunsany, and a parallel tradition also of American writers appearing in pulp-magazines such as Weird Tales and Unknown. The Lord of the Rings however altered reading tastes rapidly and lastingly. Several hundred English-language fantasy novels are currently being published annually. The influence of Tolkien on them is often apparent from their titles – Guardians of the West (David Eddings), The Fellowship of the Talisman (Clifford D Simak), The Halfling’s Gem (R A Salvatore) and so on, to name just a few. Most writers do better at concealing their literary ancestry, but the first works even of authors who have found their own highly distinctive voices, like Stephen Donaldson or Alan Garner, habitually betray deep Tolkienian influence. Terry Pratchett, whose works have now been reliable best-sellers for almost forty years, began with what is obviously in part an affectionate parody of Tolkien, The Colour of Magic. Tolkien furthermore provided much of the inspiration, the personnel and the material, for early fantasy games and for role-playing games of the Dungeons & Dragons type. Spin-offs from these into computer games are still developing and multiplying. Middle-earth has become a cultural phenomenon, a part of many people’s mental furniture. Any full study of Tolkien’s legacy would have to be at least book-length – and will not be attempted here – but there is some interest in recording what at least a few of his most evident emulators have found most inspirational in Tolkien.

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Tolkien: The Monsters and the Critics

24 Sep

“This is not a work that many adults will read right through more than once.” With these words the anonymous reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement (25 November 1955) summed up his judgment of J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. It must have seemed a pretty safe prophecy at the time, for of course in those days very few adults (or children) read anything right through more than once, still less anything as long as The Lord of the Rings. However, it could not have been more wrong: of all popular best-sellers, The Lord of the Rings is the one most likely to be read over and over again by readers eager to immerse themselves in Middle Earth. This did not stop critics continuing to say the same thing. Six years later, after the three separate volumes had gone through eight or nine hardback impressions each, Philip Toynbee in the Observer (6 August 1961) voiced delight at the way sales, he thought, were dropping. Most of Professor Tolkien’s more ardent supporters, he declared, were beginning to “sell out their shares” in him, so that “today these books have passed into merciful oblivion.” Five years afterwards the authorised American paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings was moving rapidly past its first million copies, starting a wave which never receded and has in the 21st century reached levels Toynbee could not have dreamed of. This general phenomenon of intense critical hostility to Tolkien in the face of his undeniable popularity is open enough; however, the reasons for it often remain unexpressed, hints and sneers rather than statements. Several attempts have been made to explain this deep and seemingly compulsive antipathy. This is the first of two linked posts that deal, firstly, with Tolkien’s critics and, secondly, with his legacy in the form of his many admirers and emulators.

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Faith and Fantasy: American Gods

20 Aug

Scary, gripping and often deeply unsettling, Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods has reached a new audience since being adapted recently as a television series. Placing it in a specific genre has however proved tricky since its publication – some have described it as urban fantasy while others label it as mythic fiction. One description that is as good as any, given the novel’s subject matter, is religious fantasy. A fantasy of religion is a text that depicts or makes use of commonly understood religious tropes, but which recasts them in the context of additional fantastic narrative elements. A clear example of this approach is the satire employed by James Morrow in his 1990 novel Only Begotten Daughter. Although it has a notionally science-fictional frame, being set a few years in the future and hypothesizing some near-future technologies, the overall effect of the book is clearly that of fantasy, as was recognised when it won the World Fantasy Award for its year. The book begins by following Murray Katz, a celibate lighthouse-keeper, who discovers that a sperm donation he has made has become a foetus: an immaculate conception. Overtaken by responsibility for his child-to-be, he brings home the ‘ectogenesis machine’ containing it, and ends up superintending the birth and childhood of the Daughter of God, Julie Katz. The body of the book follows Julie’s adulthood, as she arrives at her credo despite the best efforts of fundamentalist ministers and the Devil. Of course, fantasies of religion need not be as overtly revisionist as Morrow’s. Gene Wolfe is an author primarily known for science fiction rather than fantasy. His Catholicism is also a well-known part of his worldview; it is prominent in his most well-known work, The Book of the New Sun (4 vols, 1980-83). It is set on a far-future ‘Urth’, and many of the fantasy tropes that appear – wizards, magic and so on – can be understood from the text as, for instance, aliens or energy weapons. However, it cannot be denied that the experience of reading the series has many similarities with that of a religious fantasy. The unlikely protagonist, the torturer Severian, is a Christ figure sent and enabled to achieve the task of a new sun for a dying world. The many layers of imagery this invokes – Christ/Apollo, New Son/Sun, for instance – are left for the reader to understand.

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The House on the Borderland

23 Jul

The House on the Borderland (1908) is a supernatural horror novel by British fantasist William Hope Hodgson. The novel is a hallucinatory account of a recluse’s stay at a remote house, and his experiences of supernatural creatures and otherworldly dimensions. A manuscript is found: filled with small, precise writing and smelling of pit-water, it tells the story of an old recluse and his strange home – and its even stranger, jade-green double, seen by the recluse on an otherworldly plain where gigantic gods and monsters roam. Soon his more earthly home is no less terrible than this bizarre vision, as swine-like creatures boil from a cavern beneath the ground and besiege it. But a still greater horror will face the recluse – more inexorable, merciless and awful than any creature that can be fought or killed. The book was a milestone that signalled a radical departure from the typical Gothic fiction of the late 19th century. Hodgson created a newer more realistic/scientific cosmic horror that left a marked impression on those who would become the great writers of the weird tales of the middle of the 20th century, particularly Clark Ashton Smith, and H P Lovecraft. Lovecraft listed The House on the Borderland and other works by Hodgson among his greatest influences, and Terry Pratchett has called the novel “the Big Bang in my private universe as a science fiction and fantasy reader and, later, writer.”

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The Mythic Fantasy of Robert Holdstock

18 Jun

A storyteller par excellence, Robert Holdstock wrote with considerable insight about the power of dreams, the unconscious and human desire. He began by writing science fiction, but although his early books were well received, they remain under-realised. Holdstock had yet to find his true subject and the mode that would allow him to write with passion and depth – this would occur in the Mythago Wood novels. You can find the setting of the novels on any map of England – almost. There’s Herefordshire, a peaceful little county, ‘Middle England’, as is said sometimes; looking westwards towards the Welsh border. The Ryhope estate might be approximately there, and Oak Lodge, and also the ancient forest – the primeval woodland of oak, ash, beech, and the like, with its untrodden dark interior – which gives the first novel in the sequence its magical name of Mythago Wood. Like Holdstock’s characters, we find ourselves lost in the vastness of that ancient eponymous forest when we enter the wildwood with its stench of ash, blood and animal. The Mythago Wood novels exist as a whole, and that whole is no ordinary fantasy story, with its extraordinary beauty. Rather it is about time, time solidified, death pickled, and that way we might have had to live, once upon a time.

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H G Wells, The Time Traveller

21 May

At the end of the 19th century people felt excited over the new discoveries of science, which seemed to promise so much for the future. No English writer expressed this feeling so well as Herbert George Wells (1866-1946). He was born at Bromley in Kent and grew up in poverty and hardship. He struggled to educate himself by winning scholarships, and studied biology under T H Huxley. He used his knowledge of science as the starting point for a series of exciting and fantastic stories, such as The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds and The Invisible Man. Some of their most startling ideas have since come true. As a novelist, he is best remembered for his science fiction novels, but his literary output was vast and extremely varied. Before he became a successful novelist, Wells worked as a draper’s apprentice, a chemist’s assistant and a teacher. He knew about the problems of ordinary people, and wrote about their ambitions and disappointments in novels such as Kipps and The History of Mr Polly, which are full of life and humour. Wells became a socialist and wrote many books about history and science so that people would be able to understand the important ideas of the modern world. These works include The Shape of Things to Come, The Science of Life and a popular history book, The Outline of History.

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The Weird and Wonderful World of Disney

23 Apr

Walt Disney was ‘The Showman of the World’, the king of family entertainment whose visionary genius continues to touch the lives of countless millions to this day. In a career spanning almost half a century Disney succeeded thanks to a rock-like faith in his own fantastic imagination. To this he added a single-minded determination that only the best was good enough: “They know they’re going to get a certain quality, a certain kind of entertainment… That’s what Disney is,” was his boast. It was a boast that went on to win him 48 Academy Awards – more than anyone else in history. Disney was a shy, self-deprecating and insecure man in private, but adopted a warm and outgoing public persona. He had high standards and high expectations of those with whom he worked. Although there have been accusations that he was racist or anti-semitic, they have been contradicted by many who knew him. His reputation changed in the years after his death, from a purveyor of homely patriotic values to a representative of American imperialism. Nevertheless, Disney is considered a cultural icon, particularly in the United States, where the company he co-founded is one of the world’s largest and best-known entertainment companies.

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The Extraordinary Journeys of Jules Verne

19 Mar

Jules Verne (1828-1905) is sometimes called the ‘father of science fiction’. He was born in Nantes in France, and studied law before turning to writing both plays and stories. In 1863 he published in a magazine the first of his Voyages Extraordinaires (literally ‘Extraordinary Voyages’ or ‘Extraordinary Journeys’), a sequence of fifty-four novels, originally published between 1863 and 1905. Entitled (in English) Five Weeks in a Balloon, this was an immediate success, so he decided to write more exciting stories of speculative fiction. Although his stories had fantastic settings, Jules Verne was careful to put in a good deal of realistic detail, so making the story more convincing. He had a remarkable imagination. In Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea he wrote about submarines and aqualungs (neither of which had then been invented), and in From the Earth to the Moon he predicted the birth of space travel – long before the first aeroplane had even taken to the air. His other books include A Journey to the Centre of the Earth and Around the World in Eighty Days. First published as a serial, this tells how an Englishman called Phileas Fogg attempts a round-the-world journey to win a bet. Jules Verne remains to this day the most translated science fiction author in the world as well as one of the most continually reprinted and widely read French authors. Though often scientifically outdated, his Voyages still retain their sense of wonder that appealed to readers of his time, and still provoke an interest in the sciences among the young.

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The Witch of Wicken Fen

6 Mar

Click to read my short story The Witch of Wicken Fen in Aphelion, the Webzine of sci-fi and fantasy!

An Interview with William Horwood

19 Feb

I’m delighted to post today an exclusive interview I recently conducted with William Horwood, author of the Duncton Wood series. Dedicated followers of this blog will be well aware of the high regard in which I hold William and his Duncton novels in particular, so it was a real pleasure to chat with him about a range of topics, including what got him into writing in the first place, inspirations for his work, the most enjoyable and challenging aspects of being a writer and, perhaps most interestingly, the potential forthcoming re-publication of the Duncton novels with Unbound, an award-winning crowdfunding publishing company. As you’ll see from the interview William was very open and incredibly generous with his time, giving answers that were sincere, full, interesting and, often, quite amusing! Read on for more…

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