Posts Tagged ‘J R R Tolkien’

Powerful.

If I was going to choose one word to describe The Wandering Fire, the second book in Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry, ‘powerful’ is the word I would choose, not just for its style but for its story. It’s a power that lifts a good series into one that’s truly great.

Part Two: Better and Darker

The Wandering Fire picks up some months after The Summer Tree left off. The characters introduced in that book are once more transported from modern Canada to the magical world of Fionavar, where in true legendary style they are called upon to fight the forces of darkness.

At first glance, this book seems much like the first, taking a very Tolkien morality and mythological story-telling, and cranking it up with Kay’s excellent writing. But it feels like, having set up the series, Kay is now free to use his full literary prowess in expanding upon it. The big moments feel even more epic, the intimate ones more personal, the menace even more substantial.

The Revelation of the Overwhelming

Overwhelming power is a major theme of this story, and one that gives it much of its drama.

On the one hand there is the overwhelming threat of Rakoth Maugrim, and of the apparent inevitability of his triumph. By alluding in advance to events to come, as well as shifting the story around chronologically, Kay creates a sense of creeping inevitable disaster, much like the atmosphere of a horror film. Defeat feels almost unavoidable, both in the broad scheme and in individual battles.

But characters are also overwhelmed in a more positive way, through religious experiences. Incidents such as an encounter between Dave and the goddess Ceinwen have a real sense of awe and grandeur to them. The gods are present and yet not reduced to mere people. It’s a difficult balance to strike, and moving to read. This is religious experience at its most emotional.

The Intimate

This isn’t to say that Kay’s book is all about epic grandeur. It’s also rooted in more ordinary but no less wonderful relationships, which he uses to explore all kinds of emotional bonds. There are siblings; romances; parent-child pairings; leaders and followers; blood brothers bound together by combat; a man and his dog; gods and worshippers; mages and the extraordinary people from whom they draw their power. This last pairing, a creation of Kay’s world, helps to draw attention to the others and bring out this theme of the story.

I enjoyed The Summer Tree, but was not enjoying The Fionavar Tapestry as much as Kay’s later work. The Wandering Fire has turned this series into something extraordinary, and I look forward to the final book.

15695408576_f3e40566af_zJ R R Tolkien seemed to think that we go to America when we die. After all, at the end of The Lord of the Rings Frodo and others sail off into the west to eternal life in a beautiful land. Two of the fundamental underpinnings of Tolkien’s work were his Christian beliefs, including heavenly rewards for good people, and the idea that Middle Earth is a sort of pre-historic Europe, from which our modern myths originate. That ship leaving the Grey Havens, it’s taking people to heaven across the Atlantic.

OK, so I’m crossing the streams of Tolkien’s layers of meaning here. But it’s an idea that Paul Cornell ran with much more literally in ‘Ramesses on the Frontier’, his contribution to the mummy anthology The Book of the Dead. Ramesses I awakes to find himself in a rather unexpected version of the Egyptian afterlife, crossing the United States in search of his eternal reward. It’s a fun idea, and a quirky story.

But would I want the USA as the afterlife? As a Brit, I find that idea troubling. Sure, the scenery’s fantastic, but what would my chances be of getting a decent cup of tea? Not to mention the bread – it’s so sweet. And that’s before we even get into the noise and the lack of proper queueing.

No, if the afterlife lies to the west then I’m hoping it’s Canada. I hear good things about their donuts.

European mythology and sailing away into death also feature in my collection of alternate history and historical fiction stories From a Foreign Shore, which is free today and all this weekend on Amazon. If you enjoy fiction that reinvents the past then please check it out.

Picture by davebloggs007 via Flickr Creative Commons

I find it interesting to see how writers develop. I see it in my own writing every time I go back to edit an old story. And I saw it in spades reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Summer Tree.

I came to Kay through his more recent work, which is some of the richest and most brilliant in modern fantasy. The Summer Tree is a good read, but lacks the overwhelming beauty of Lions of Al-Rassan or The Sarantine Mosaic. But it helps in understanding where those books come from.

 The Roots of the Tree

Most obvious is the Tolkien connection. Kay helped Christopher Tolkien edit his father Silmarillion, and boy does it show in The Summer Tree. There’s a world of culturally varied nations that will pull together in the face of external menace. There’s an epic mythology frequently alluded to. There’s a battle brewing between everyday good and epic evil. There are even ordinary people suddenly thrown into great destinies.

Christian Ethics, Pagan Trappings

Its underlying morality also shows Tolkien’s influence. I don’t know what Kay’s religious beliefs are, but Tolkien was a Christian, and his stories showed Christian morality beneath pagan trappings. The same can be seen here.

Throughout The Summer Tree, we see self-sacrifice. In some cases characters literally sacrifice their lives for others, but just as often they sacrifice their happiness or desires. Although the most prominent example of this, using the Summer Tree of the title, draws from northern European pagan mythology, the repeated theme is a very Christian one. Good comes not from people expressing their own interests and finding a way to further those together, but from subsuming themselves in service and sacrifice.

An Interest in Art

While the book shows Kay’s past, the shadow of Tolkien from which he would eventually emerge, it also shows his future, and in particular the importance of the arts in his books.

Art and its relationship to power is a repeated theme in Kay’s novels, including poetry in The Lions of Al-Rassan and mosaic in The Sarantine Mosaic. Like the Sarantine books The Fionavar Tapestry series wears that connection in its title.

But there are other links too. Music plays an important part in stirring emotions and signifying Paul’s past. Carefully crafted letters stir the heartstrings. Kevin solidifies friendships by playing guitar. Ivor’s tribe express themselves through dance.

Watching the Kay Tree Grow

The Summer Tree may not be as great a piece of writing as Kay’s more recent works. But seeing his development toward the writer he is today adds an extra pleasure to this already very good book.

Guy Gavriel Kay is, for me, one of the truly great and unusual voices in fantasy. His work has an incredible richness of character and description that keeps me exhilarated through slow paced stories. His use of fantasy to provide slight twists on historical settings, shining light on the roots of our world, is endlessly fascinating.

So it was with a certain trepidation that I started reading The Summer Tree, the first book in Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry. On the one hand, at only 400 pages this would be a relatively quick Kay read, allowing me to enjoy his writing without investing as much time. On the other hand, from what I’d heard this early work did not live up to the standards of his current writing. I settled in with uncertain expectations.

Rich in Myth

The Summer Tree tells the story of five Canadians snatched away from our world and transported to the magical world of Fionavar. There they become involved in a struggle for the future. There is political turmoil in the court of Brennin, a bastion of light and civilisation. Meanwhile, dark forces are returning in the north.

Morally, it’s a less sophisticated narrative than Kay’s later works. There are clear forces of good and evil. We empathise with the good and not the bad. It’s very much a world of myth and legend.

In this regard, it shows the heavy influence of J R R Tolkien, whose Silmarillion Kay had recently helped to edit. Like The Lord of the Rings, there are hints at deeper legends, a large cast of characters both on and off the page, and divine forces lurking in the background.

Characters of Power

Like Tolkien, Kay in the The Summer Tree is concerned with people who have great destinies, however high or low their roots. From before the characters arrive in Fionavar it is clear that they are people of significance there. I’m not a fan of the use of destinies and chosen ones in fantasy, but it is in keeping with the mythical tone of the book.

In terms of empowering people, this book therefore featured two of my least favourite fantasy tropes – destiny and interventionist gods. Yet despite this, I found it engrossing.

A large part of the pleasure comes from the characters. They aren’t all as interesting as each other, and the women in particular feel less well developed, a sin I fall guilty of in some of my own writing. But characters such as Paul Schafer and Prince Diarmuid are rich and fascinating, their existence defined in relation to other people and their pasts, as our own lives are. I really enjoyed spending time with them.

Good by Any Standard

The Summer Tree is a good fantasy novel. The world is well developed, the characters interesting, and the mythical content, while not quite to my tastes, is well executed. Given developments in both fantasy and Kay’s writing since, I’d have trouble calling this great, but compared to the genre in general it is very good, and I look forward to seeing where the story goes.

If that’s got you intrigued, I’ll be discussing this book further later in the week.

As readers we crave closure. When that is threatened, as when an ongoing series is cancelled or its author dies, we feel disappointed or even cheated. And as writers we work toward closure, using structures that will provide readers with a satisfying ending.

But is there another sense in which, with science fiction and fantasy in particular, one aim is to avoid closure and open up a never-ending imaginary world?

Tolkien and Openendedness

In his essay ‘The Interlaced Structure of The Lord of the Rings‘*, Richard C West argued that Tolkien’s novel created an effect “that might be called openendedness, whereby the reader has the impression that the story has an existence outside the confines of the book and that the author could have begun earlier or ended later, if he chose”.

I think West’s argument ignores some essential features of the book he’s discussing, but it still raises an interesting point. Part of the appeal of Tolkien’s work is that it implies a far larger world and history, one which readers could explore both through his appendices and through their imaginations.

In a sense, Tolkien provides firm closure, seeing a great threat ended and Frodo leaving Middle Earth. But in another sense, The Lord of the Rings leaves many questions unanswered in the reader’s mind.

A Tradition of Imagination

We can see this in many other works of fantasy and science fiction. They lead us to imagine a world far beyond the borders of their narratives. In a sense, their stories usually have clear, decisive beginnings and ends. But in another sense, the best leave their worlds open through the wealth of barely explored detail they provide.

Perhaps this is part of the appeal of science fiction and fantasy – that it invites us to imagine beyond its boundaries in a way not all fiction can.

What do you think? Do science fiction and fantasy somehow avoid closure? And is this distinctive to these genres?

* Published in A Tolkien Compass, edited by Jared Lobdell.

Britain’s a funny old place. Lets face it, guidebooks can never quite capture the essence of a nation that gave us both Bilbo Baggins and the Rolling Stones. Fortunately our rich tradition of making stuff up, aka science fiction and fantasy, can help out.

Fellow writer Victoria Randall‘s daughter will be learning about Britain first hand later this year when she travels to Swansea, a town some of my readers are very familiar with. So to help her out here are a few valuable lessons on Britain, as shown by science fiction and fantasy.

Queueing matters

I know that in some other countries getting what you want is a mad scrum to get to the front. She who shouts loudest or pushes hardest gets her way.

Yes United States, I’m looking at you. Don’t try to hide behind Canada, even if they’re too polite to give you away.

No pushing, no shoving, no giggling at the back - these chaps know how to behave.

No pushing, no shoving, no giggling at the back – these chaps know how to behave.

In this country we are far too polite for that (sidenote: studies from the Centre for Made Up Statistics show that 63% of British politeness is just a cover for repression – more on that later). The cybermen may be brutal villains hell bent on destroying humanity, but at least they know how to wait their turn in line. Get out of line around cybermen and they will destroy you. Real Britains will politely dream about it, and then provide you with poor service and a look of disdain. Don’t take that chance.

Food = happiness

Sam cookingIs there any more British hero than Sam from Lord of the Rings? Diligent, home-loving, unsure of himself. And what does Sam do whenever he wants to cheer people up? He cooks.

The British love of a cuppa is well known, but it goes beyond that. Look at our traditional national cuisine – Yorkshire puddings, teacakes, milky tea, boiled potatoes and over-cooked vegetables. Some people might call it joyless and unexciting, but it’s really the opposite – it’s a sign of how much we love our food, that we can find comfort in it no matter what. That’s what makes Sam such a big damn hero – halfway up Mount Doom he’s still putting on the kettle and reaching for the breadknife.

Scepticism is not just healthy, it’s compulsory

How better to cope with an infestation than by having a nice cuppa?

How better to cope with an infestation than by having a nice cuppa?

We may be polite but that doesn’t mean we blankly accept whatever we’re told. Remember, we chopped our king’s head off long before other countries got in on the act.

That’s right revolutionary France, I see you jumping on our bandwagon.

Scepticism is the bedrock of the British mindset. It can be about authority, about ideas, even about whether this nice weather will last (it won’t, this is Britain). And it’s embodied in the works of one of finest fantasy authors, the amazing Terry Pratchett. Pratchett’s characters and the plots of his books challenge accepted ideas and authorities. They show that scepticism of which we’re so proud.

Though we do look askance at anyone who gets too proud.

Repression is so last century

Not as polite as they look.

Not as polite as they look.

All of this might leave you thinking that Britain is still the stiff upper lipped land of the Victorian age. But if you want to see modern Britain, and just how foul-mouthed and sneering that upper lip has become, then you should check out Misfits. The show about young people who develop super powers while on community service is full of imaginatively foul language and the worst sort of behaviour. Because after years of repression Britain is finally pulling out of the nineteenth century and the results are… lets call them messy.

Modern Britain has learned that it can get away with swearing in public, consuming drugs other than a nice cup of Assam, and loudly screaming its scepticism in the face of authority. We’re changing, which is not all good and not all bad, and as always science fiction and fantasy are there to show the world what it means to be British.

So anyway, that’s my guide to Britain, as shown by our science fiction and fantasy. Fellow Brits, add your opinions in the comments – what lessons have I missed? And those of you further afield, what have you learned about Britain from our national nerd culture? Or what would you like the rest of us to explain?

There are as many different ways to read and understand a book as there are people reading it. But one of the big divisions, one that’s in the background of many discussions about teaching literature and enjoying books, is the difference between immersion and analysis.

Tolkien and secondary worlds – full immersion

J R R Tolkien was a huge advocate of immersion, and his attitude really helps us to understand what this is all about.

For Tolkien as a Christian and literary scholar, writing was an act of world building, a secondary creation that was a lesser reflection of God’s work in creating the world. The writer’s aim was to create secondary belief, an immersion in the story where you find yourself totally drawn in, almost believing in the words on the page.

We’ve all had that feeling at some time, that moment where you find yourself completely sucked in by a book, turning pages at an ever faster rate because you’re practically living the story. It’s an awesome feeling.

Studying literature – full analysis

Now think of the experience you got reading a book at high school, when you were studying it for a course. All that thinking about the text, looking for symbols and literary tricks, breaking away from the story to understand how it was presented. Despite his place as a literary scholar this wasn’t how Tolkien wanted people to experience his works. It disrupts that secondary belief, takes you out of the story.

But for me there’s a great pleasure in this sort of reading too. Feeling smart is enjoyable. I like the experience of picking something apart, of noticing how it fits together, of making new connections between the pieces. It’s a very different engagement with the text, but it is still engagement.

Stop spoiling my story

The problem is that you can’t really have both at once. You can’t immerse yourself completely in the story, attaining that prized secondary belief, if you’re paying attention to how it’s put together. It’s like seeing behind the scenes at the theatre or watching DVD extras – it destroys the illusion. I think it’s the problem with a lot of bad writing – the words intrude, preventing us from enjoying the story.

'That's for calling Brandon Sanderson a derivative hack!'

‘That’s for calling Brandon Sanderson a derivative hack!’

I think that this is also the source of some of the bad-natured discussions we see about books. If someone prefers to just be immersed in the book then an analytical comment threatens to disrupt that immersion. It creates a feeling of discomfort, especially if they don’t agree with the analysis. So they snap back, accuse people of being wrong or over-thinking it.  I’m sure it adds fuel to the fire of disputes around feminist analysis that I mentioned the other day – if an analysis disrupts your immersion in a text and threatens your world view then you’re going to be doubly edgy in your response.

Of course this cuts the other way too. When people who prefer immersion are dismissive or casually reject analytical responses they are rejecting what someone values, the intellectual endeavour they enjoy and the ideas that they have crafted. So this can create bad feeling on both sides.

This isn’t a problem to solve, it’s a part of human interactions to acknowledge. But if we notice it, openly discuss it, and are aware of it in the way that we discuss books, then I think we can have more enjoyable and productive discussions.

What do you think? Are you more immersive or analytical in your reading? How do they affect your experience? Share your thoughts below!

 

 

Photo by Paul Kitchener via Flickr creative commons