Tag Archives: Neil Gaiman

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 Light Fantastic

11 Oct

This is the first of two linked posts about the sub-genre of urban fantasy, in which the tropes of pastoral or heroic fantasy are brought into a modern setting. Within the elements common to all urban fantasies – a city in which supernatural events occur, the presence of prominent characters who are artists or musicians or scholars, the redeployment of previous fantastic and folkloric topography in unfamiliar contexts – there are two fundamental strains of urban fantasy. In the first, a more or less recognisable city – New York or London, Minneapolis or Galveston, Newford or Bordertown – is revealed to be in contact with the realm of Faerie, or some magical realm, and the resultant narrative redeploys the tropes and characters of older fairy tales and folklore, forcing them into collisions with a contemporary urban milieu. This I have termed the ‘Light Fantastic’, as it tends to involve a strong element of wish-fulfilment. In the second, what I have termed the ‘Dark Fantastic’, a greater debt is owed to the gothic or horror genre – the distillation of mankind’s greatest fears and nightmares rather than hopes and dreams – but more on that next time.

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Snow, Glass, Apples

12 Jul

Snow White is a German fairy tale known across much of Europe, the most popular version of which was published in 1812 by the Brothers Grimm in the first edition of their collection Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Following the release of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs animated feature in 1937, the tale took on a whole new level of popularity and is today one of the most famous fairy tales worldwide. While the majority of people today regard it as nothing more than a story for children, with magic, romance and cute dwarfs, the older versions of the story, including that of the Grimms’, with its themes of sexual jealousy, revenge and murder, was incredibly dark and certainly not written with children in mind – except as a warning. These deeper themes in the story have given rise to a significant body of ‘Snow White scholarship’, which seeks to explore the hidden meanings in the fairy tale and place them in some sort of context. Michelle Abate has explored the fact and fantasy of filicide in Snow White, Shuli Barzilai has considered the fairy tale in terms of its being a mother’s story, Vanessa Joosen has highlighted the retellings of Snow White between magic and realism and Steven Jones has given broad consideration to the inherent pitfalls in Snow White scholarship. Perhaps most interesting of all, however, is Neil Gaiman’s famous revisionist re-telling of the story, Snow, Glass, Apples, which completely reconceives the fairy tale in a manner more disturbing even than the Grimm version that is best known today.

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The Problem of Susan

12 Apr

Anyone who has read and loved C S Lewis’ Narnia books may have encountered what is usually referred to in literary circles today as ‘the problem of Susan’. Susan was the only one of the four Pevensie siblings who survived the train wreck (because she was not on the train or at the station) on Earth which sent the others to Narnia after The Last Battle. In that final book of the series, Susan is conspicuous by her absence. Why? Because, as Peter says, she is “no longer a friend of Narnia” and she is described, perhaps rather uncharitably, by Jill Pole as “interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations”. Several people who are otherwise fans of the Narnia books have a big problem with Susan’s fate. Notably, Harry Potter author J K Rowling once commented: “There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She’s become irreligious basically because she found sex. I have a big problem with that”. In his Companion to Narnia, Paul F Ford writes at the end of the entry for Susan Pevensie that “Susan’s is one of the most important Unfinished Tales of The Chronicles of Narnia”. In his short story The Problem of Susan, Neil Gaiman creates a fix that attempts to highlight the issue of Susan’s exile within the world of The Chronicles and within the ‘real world’. Since the publication of Gaiman’s story, ‘the problem of Susan’ has become used more widely as a catchphrase for the literary and feminist investigation into Susan’s treatment.

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Hanging out with the Dream King

22 Jun

As befits a man with his undying work ethic, Neil Gaiman once said “Writing is flying in dreams. When you remember. When you can. When it works. It’s that easy.” One of the world’s most successful and versatile writers, Gaiman is a best-selling novelist (American Gods), an award-winning comic book writer (The Sandman), a popular children’s book author (Stardust) and a highly respected screenwriter (Neverwhere). The dazzling diversity of concepts produced by Gaiman’s fecund (some might say fevered) imagination has led many to ask him where he gets his story ideas from. His answer, more often than not, is that a few of them were written to amuse himself or, more precisely, to get an idea or an image out of his head and pinned safely down on paper: releasing demons and letting them fly. Other stories began in idleness: mere fancies and curiosities that got out of hand. In Gaiman’s richly imagined fictions, anything is possible: an elderly widow finds the Holy Grail beneath an old fur coat in a second-hand shop; under a bridge, a frightened little boy bargains for his life with a very persistent troll; a stray cat fights and re-fights a terrible nightly battle to protect his unsuspecting adoptive family from unimaginable evil, and so on and so on… The distinctive storytelling genius of Neil Gaiman has been acclaimed by writers as diverse as Norman Mailer and Stephen King. I’m sure, if you haven’t sampled Gaiman’s work already, that if you seek it out it will no doubt similarly dazzle your senses, haunt your imagination and move you to the depths of your soul.

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Urban Faerie

23 Feb

Exactly what is it that allows the fairy tale, a story archetype that by all rights should have disappeared with powdered wigs and petticoats, to survive, and even thrive, in the new millenium? Perhaps it’s because they concern important lessons – warnings, morals, aspects of the unknowable, ancient folk wisdom – or maybe it’s just for their pure entertainment value. Whatever the reason, fairy tales, in one form or another, are still enjoyed today. Whether it’s classics collected by the Brothers Grimm, Andrew Lang and Charles Perrault, or new tales, such as Charles de Lint’s Newford stories or Neil Gaiman’s tales of American Gods; fairy tales, stories of fantasy, myth and legend, are still creating wonder and magic for people around the world. Perhaps this is why they survive, because no matter when or where a fairy tale is first told, they embody universal images and truths that, over the centuries, have passed beyond time or place, and become one with the vast tapestry of human consciousness. But naturally, as times change, the stories people tell also change. Cities give rise to their own types of stories – the urban legends that make the rounds from time to time, stories that utilize elements of the old ways, but with a metropolitan spin on them that just didn’t exist until the modern city was created.

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The Books of Magic

28 Dec

Let me tell you about a bespectacled young schoolboy with a pet owl who finds out one day that he’s a wizard – and no, I’m not talking about Harry Potter! Timothy Hunter is the star of Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel series The Books of Magic, which tells the story of a young boy who has the potential to become the world’s greatest sorcerer. Despite the striking superficial similarities between Timothy Hunter and Harry Potter, The Books of Magic actually came into being several years before J K Rowling’s creation was released on an unsuspecting world. The similarity was once noted by a journalist from The Scotsman newspaper, who asked Gaiman if he thought Rowling was aware of his 1990 comic, to which Gaiman replied that he ‘wasn’t the first writer to create a young magician with potential, nor was Rowling the first to send one to school’. Gaiman’s view, with which I tend to agree, is that whether or not Rowling had read The Books of Magic, the similarities most likely result from both it and the Harry Potter series being inspired by similar works, in particular those of T H White (author of The Once and Future King). The idea that Rowling and Gaiman were were both simply ‘drinking from the same well’ is supported by the prevalence of common archetypes from myth and fantasy in both their works.

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