Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Fantasy: 1977-1989

Last post I asked several questions regarding Tom Simon's five-part essay on the impact of 1977's epic fantasy publications on the genre as a whole. I will hesitate to dive right into a discussion of whether current epic fantasy is locked into the sludge-pit that Tom Simon laments (yes, I'm being hyperbolic, but that is on purpose). First, I want to discuss the decade following the release of The Sword of Shannara and The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever from the perspective of the fantasy that was being produced at the time. And to do that, I have to discuss the impact Tolkien had on post-1977 fantasy.

Tolkien invented a few tropes. He also took some from Germano-Norse myth, Finnish myth, and medieval cycles (the Matter of Britain), whether consciously or unconsciously, and canonized them as part of the late-twentieth century epic fantasy genre. Some of these are:
  • The pastoral, bucolic countryman drawn into events beyond his initial ken.
  • The reluctant king in disguise or exile (or perhaps his kingdom is fallen).
  • The wise, sagelike wizard guide.
  • Dark lords, evil gods, or some other source of world-threatening power.
  • Ancient races (elves, dwarves, etc.) that predate humans and live a fey-like existence quite removed from the mundane realities of humankind.
  • Epic battles and wars.
  • A journey into darkness.
  • Evil lands or kingdoms.
  • The chivalric ideal.
  • Orcs, goblins, or some other sort of twisted creature that follows the dark lord/god.
  • Gigantic, formidable monsters.
  • Demonic, ghostly, or otherwise terrifying agents of the dark lord.
  • Copious worldbuilding, history, backstory, languages, and myth.
  • Infodump chapters where the peasant/country bumpkin hero is described the history and backstory.
All of these are present in works derivative of Tolkien. Indeed, many might suggest that they're unavoidable in the modern fantasy genre. Perhaps this is true. But let's take a look at the development of fantasy throughout the 1980s and pinpoint where and how Tolkien is imitated and how this continued to effect fantasy's development.

Let me jump forward from 1977 to 1982. It was not only a watershed year for fantasy and science-fiction in cinema, but also in print. The epic fantasy genre saw the fifth installment of Stephen R. Donaldson's Thomas Covenant books, The One Tree. Terry Brooks published his followup to The Sword of Shannara, entitled The Elfstones of Shannara. Raymond E. Feist's Magician and David Eddings' The Belgariad also hit shelves that year.

Stephen R. Donaldson
In my previous post, I respond to Tom Simon's exhaustive write-up on Donaldson's work, so I'll refrain from repeating what's already been said.

Terry Brooks
As for The Elfstones of Shannara, it's been a very long time since I read the novel and cannot really comment much on the prose, the characterizations, or the plot inconsistencies. I do have the impression, however, that it was, in some ways, superior to The Sword of Shannara. The plot was not quite nearly so derivative as it's predecessor, much more tightly focused on the Westland and the Elves' struggle against the chaotic demons. I also recall it being much more focused on the main character's internal struggles and their outward manifestation via his difficulties with wielding the Elfstones. There isn't much more I can say. It seems to have been a step in the correct direction, but likely suffered from many of the same issues that its predecessor did. I recall the ending to be quite unsatisfying, especially the resolution and the return to status quo as having been weak.

Brooks' 1985 follow-up, The Wishsong of Shannara, was a return to form--a novel that recycled much of the plot of The Sword of Shannara with a few new characters (the Weapon Master, Cogline) and a great many reincarnations (Nazgul = Skull Bearers = Mord Wraiths, Jair = Flick, Morgan Leah = Menion Leah = Strider/Aragorn, Kimber Boh = Shirl Ravenlock = Arwen, etc.). The work is painfully self-referential and self-derivative, wholly lacking in originality to such a degree as to be some sort of postmodern pastiche or lampoon of itself.

David Eddings
David Eddings inaugurated an epic fantasy cycle for which he would (along with his wife) produce novels until his death. Pawn of Prophecy, another del Rey publication, was very much a Tolkienesque fantasy with a great many of the aforementioned tropes. Herb, from Places to Go, People to Be, found that Tolkien's influence was much more limited on Eddings than on Brooks. In his review of The Belgariad, he states:
You've read it a dozen times. It was old even before Eddings wrote it and has become downright cliche since he did. Yet he was able to fashion a very good novel with only a handful of flaws, mostly of language and slight omission, especially in the last book.

What then makes Eddings in my mind the epitome of the 80s fantasy quest to save the world and an huge influence on those who took up D&D at the time it was published. In my mind there are two main influences he brought to bear on fantasy RPGs: a literary realism and a knowledge of pre-Tolkein influences which imparted a fairly formalized structure.

..Eddings admires Tolkien but has knowledge of the same sources that Tolkien drew on and was influenced by them as well. ... The result was a kind of formalism that later fantasy literature would imitate. This shows most directly in two ways. First, each and every country on his map is visited. In fact, he uses this fact to structure the books into segments that, with two exceptions, carry the name of someplace on the map. The second is the usage of character archetypes. Instead of the fighter, magic-user, cleric, etc that D&D players know he used types more familiar to mainstream and medieval literature: "the wise man", "the knight protector", "the princess", and "the questing knight".
He goes on to describe the character archetypes throughout The Belgariad, implying that they draw far more from the likes of Chaucer and the Matter of Britain than from Tolkien. Herb states, "Eddings proved that quest fantasy that didn't slavishly imitate Tolkien could be successful without being weird or edgy like Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant." Herb is mostly focused on Eddings as an influence on role-playing games but from a fantasy aspect, he has a point. Perhaps The Belgariad wasn't purely Tolkienesque imitation, but it certainly didn't deviate from the established norms and cliches in any inspired manner. I do not think it very coincidental that he found a publication outlet with the del Reys. Although Eddings draws from pre-Tolkien sources, the end result is so similar that it might as well be imitation. It also should not be lost on the reader that, like so many other fantasy authors, Eddings continued to work in the world of The Belgariad right up until his passing.

Raymond E. Feist
Similarly, Raymond E. Feist's Magician (so large it was divided into two volumes in the United States) birthed a sequence of novels from which the author has yet to move (with the exception of Faerie Tale). The initial Riftwar Saga takes only a few cues from Tolkien. Indeed, Feist appears to only have approached Tolkien indirectly through role-playing games, since his novels tell only the backstory of the Midkemia of his gaming table (I will discuss the impact of gaming on fantasy in more detail later). Many of the Tolkienesque tropes listed above are either not present or subtly subverted. As a result, The Riftwar Saga only held a limited appeal for fantasists who preferred the quest perilous. Feist's own inspirations are much more obviously drawn from the pre-1977 sword & sorcery genre. Echoes of Moorcock and Zelazny can be heard throughout the series, with only a passing nod to Tolkien in the elven-language-derived terms "Moredhel" (i.e. Dark Elves) and "Valheru" (i.e. mighty lords), the dwarven Mac Mordain Cadall (Moria), and Elvandar (Lorien). Feist combined a variety of inspirational elements from more than simply Tolkien, combined them with a completely unique story of a war between two massive kingdoms from different worlds, linked only by the magic of rifts through space-time. There's gimmick there, the sort that fueled mid-twentieth-century science-fiction but it's propped up by a definite sense of adventure and discovery. There's real drama and tension throughout the novels. Feist makes political intrigue a major factor in his novels, as well as having characters that grow and change. Humans are human--capable both of good and evil, flawed and conflicted at times, at other times determined. The Riftwar Saga demonstrated a keen, fertile imagination determined to tell a damn good story.

Feist's work has gradually degenerated in quality (most critical reactions to his works from The Serpentwar Saga on have been rather dismal), but that does not diminish the uniqueness of his The Riftwar Saga. Unfortunately, he never seemed to acquire the notoriety and acclaim that Brooks, Eddings, or even Donaldson have. He's rarely blogged about on the most noteworthy fantasy literature blogs, even in retrospect.

Two years after Eddings and Feist debuted, three other series appeared on fantasy bookshelves: Glen Cook's The Black Company, Dennis McKiernan's The Dark Tide, and Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman's Dragons of Autumn Twilight were the first novels in their respective series. Cook's novel was quite unlike anything else post-Tolkien and displayed precious few of the tropes that are listed above. Meanwhile, Weis & Hickman had fused the Tolkienesque heroic quest with the mechanics and stylistic trappings of post-Gygaxian "Silver Age" role-playing.

Glen Cook
Regarding The Black Company, I've written my own review and analysis here. Thus, I'll turn to Dennis L. McKiernan and Weis & Hickman.

Dennis L. McKiernan
The inaugural volume of The Iron Tower Trilogy, McKiernan's The Dark Tide is even more than The Sword of Shannara a copy of The Lord of the Rings "with the serial numbers filed off." Brian Murphy wrote a post for Black Gate Magazine, describing his "guilty pleasure" in reading what really amounts to little more than Tolkien pastiche.

Murphy's own words are more effective than mine:
One problem is that they [McKiernan and Brooks] borrow surface elements wholesale from Tolkien and repeat them ad nauseum until Elves and Hobbits (or Warrows, or whatever you want to call the little people they inevitably employ) become clichéd and galling. The deeper problem is that they’re imitations of style, not substance, and don’t engage in any of Tolkien’s underlying ideas. The result is a pretty vapid product. They strip LOTR of its literary qualities and reduce it to “mixed band of unlikely heroes on a quest to save the world” without any anchors to the human condition, mythology, or applicability to real world events.

... Even if today it now reads like a soap-opera version of LOTR with little of the poetry, and none of the depth or mythic grandeur. But with a bit more swordplay.
Not much more remains to be said. In McKiernan's defense, The Iron Tower was originally meant to be a tale of the fall of Arnor, set a few thousand years prior to The Lord of the Rings. When the Tolkien estate denied McKiernan the rights to publish a prequel, he simply redrew the map at the front of the book, changed all the characters' names, and retooled it into an "original" fantasy work.

This doesn't really help McKiernan's case, though. As Simon discussed with his segment on The Silmarillion, there's ample opportunity to explore the mythopoeic world of Middle-earth. His favorable review of The Children of Húrin and emphasis on the darker aspects of the human soul prove that great literature can be written from the annals of Middle-earth without being overly self-derivative and still preserve the mythopoeic flavor of Tolkien's prose and setting. Whether it is Tolkien pastiche or prequel, The Iron Tower trilogy does none of that.

Weis & Hickman
Dragons of Autumn Twilight, Dragons of Winter Night, and Dragons of Spring Dawning, all published within a few months of each other in 1984, are derived from a series of gaming modules designed for Dungeons & Dragons. The aim of the modules were unprecedented in the gaming world: to take a party of characters and insert them into a Tolkienesque quest of epic proportions, each one featuring one type of dragon found in the D&D Monster Manual. The characters are derived from the standard D&D adventuring party, with a few unique features and races (such as the kender, the setting's answer to the halfling) thrown in. The resulting Dragonlance Chronicles were a fast, fun read, but also an extremely puzzling one. Page limitations resulted in several modules being glossed over and left out since they didn't advance the main plot very much. Those that did advance plot but still weren't featured in the narrative appear piecemeal through flashbacks or as after-action-reports info-dumped by characters at council meetings. As with Brooks, the resonance and substance of Tolkien's work was largely absent from The Dragonlance Chronicles. It was so busy trying to marry the railroad D&D module with the perilous quest that it never really moved beyond being just another epic fantasy.

The Dragonlance Chronicles were incredibly popular, but their impact was highly limited. They're also an incredibly curious artifact, since they invite an entirely new discussion of the impact of D&D on mainstream fantasy and vice-versa (see James Maleszewski's post on Grognardia regarding the impact of the "Hickman Revolution" on D&D). To say that the plethora of novels published by TSR (and continued by Wizards of the Coast) do not have any relationship with mainstream fantasy would be erroneous, but it isn't for this post to posit on the exact extent of that relationship. Suffice it to say that The Dragonlance Chronicles are a thematic copycat of The Lord of the Rings, despite the massive amount of non-Tolkienesque D&D elements thrown in. The adherence to a cycle of gaming modules (and extremely railroady modules at that) weakened the series, but didn't break it. It did, nevertheless, demonstrate a lot of the difficulties Tom Simon isolates in Brooks' work, such as weak characters (some are incredibly well-defined while others, such as Riverwind and Goldmoon, are cardboard plot-pieces or token members of a necessary character-class) with inconsistent or pathetically shallow behavior and an illogical plot structure (mostly due to the necessity of adhering to the modules). Certain characters die meaningful deaths (Sturm Brightblade) while others die utterly pointless deaths that serve little advancement to the plot (Flint Fireforge).

The next year, Weis & Hickman returned with The Dragonlance Legends. While still locked in a D&D gaming world with all the necessary mechanics, Weis & Hickman actually managed to tell a story, complete with meaningful characters, a unique and engaging plot, and moral/ethical dilemmas. Despite a confused and somewhat unsatisfying ending, the series was leaps-and-bounds superior to The Dragonlance Chronicles, both in prose style and in narrative content. This would be again followed-up in 1988 with The Darksword Trilogy, an epic fantasy series unattached to any D&D mechanic. Weis & Hickman played around with some of the fantastic tropes, including an incomplete prophecy that is largely misunderstood, as well as a conflict between science/technology and magic.

Little else occurred during this period except for the continuation of many of the epic series mentioned above. In 1986, David Eddings would begin publication of his sequel to The Belgariad, entitled The Malloreon, which was, by-and-large, a continuation of the previous trilogy, except the characters were older and a new shadowy power must be defeated. In 1989, Del Rey would start releasing Eddings' The Elenium, which was slightly more original and politically motivated but still focused on the destruction of a dark god, relegating the series to a rehashing of The Belgariad and The Malloreon, except with a knight errant as the protagonist instead of the "boy-who-would-be-king." Eddings would become one of the most prolific writers of epic fantasy during the 1980s and also perhaps the most high-profile and influential in solidifying the derivative nature of the epic fantasy genre.

Genre-crossing British author Storm Constantine would begin a dark series known as The Wraeththu Chronicles in 1987. However, her publisher, Immanion Press, was far too weak in the United States for her work to have much of an impact on this side of the Atlantic. Alongside her, Mickey Zucker Reichert would take a page from Donaldson's book, transporting an American soldier in the Vietnam War to a fantasy world where the Norse Gods are real. Although fun, The Bifrost Guardians novels were not noteworthy or influential and were relegated to a single, abridged omnibus volume by the mid-1990s.

Then, in 1988, what appeared to be an ultimately derivative American series was released by Tad Williams. The Dragonbone Chair, on the surface, appeared to be little more than the Matter of Britain combined with The Lord of the Rings. It's full impact on the fantasy genre wouldn't be felt, however, until it was completed (at which point I'll comment further in the next post). But Williams' vision of "adult fantasy" being both challenging and literary as well as complete and self-contained would run up against the giants of Eddings' and Brooks' continuations as well as the new juggernauts, Terry Goodkind and Robert Jordan.

Where do we go from here?
From all this happening in the 1980s, what should we conclude?

Perhaps it is too early to posit. Nevertheless, it seems, on the surface, that Tom Simon was correct. Post-Tolkien fantasy seems to be dominated by the epic quest tale that is heavily derivative of Tolkien himself (or his influences). Authors like Donaldson, Cook, and Feist seem to be hovering just under the radar. Brooks' work becomes a pastiche of itself with The Wishsong of Shannara simply rehashing The Sword of Shannara. McKiernan simply wrote a prequel to The Lord of the Rings using paint-by-numbers without any of the drama, poetry, or substance of Tolkien's writing.

One thing has become abundantly clear--authors are not producing stand-alone works but sagas. Many of these authors would effectively beat their worlds to death. Feist and Brooks are still writing novels that center around their respective settings. Cook wrote a number of books set in his Black Company universe before (thankfully) turning to other subjects. Unfortunately, it seems that the subversive and unique nature of his novels diminished and became more lackluster and derivative as he wrote on.

In addition, these books are becoming doorstops. Tom Simon describes, in his essay Procrustes the Publisher, how page-counts grew as paperback prices started to increase during the late 1970s/early 1980s. Publishers were demanding more fluff. The terse, rapid style of the pre-Tolkien novelist (Zelazny, Moorcock, LeGuin, etc.) was gone--in its place, long descriptions of characters and actions were becoming more common. This would eventually lead to the word-bloat that would plague fantasy during the 1990s (which I'll discuss later).

So far, however, we've a number of examples of writers succeeding where McKiernan and Brooks failed. Eddings was capable of creating halfway decent characters by drawing from medieval romance (as opposed to Tolkien), but the end result was still the same cliched epic quest. I, myself, never got past The Pawn of Prophecy because I could predict where the whole of The Belgariad was going from halfway through the novel, robbing it of any dramatic tension. In addition, as I quoted from Herb above, Eddings (with the help of Brooks) helped to formalize fantasy (such as "each and every country on the map is visited" and "the usage of character archetypes"). This formalization can be useful in structuring novels but in the end turns into a sort of literary crutch that eradicates any distinctiveness individual fantasy books might demonstrate.

Weis & Hickman's first foray was ultimately derivative and uninspired, but that was entirely due to the source material having been railroad gaming modules that were themselves derivative of Tolkien (but stripped of the mythopoeic luster and possessing a heavy reliance on the game's engine). Their later works were stronger and more substantive, displaying a desire to explore the possibilities of fantasy and challenge some of its thematic assumptions. However, Weis & Hickman were largely damned to the "D&D dungeon" for most fantasy fans uninterested in gaming, and like Cook and Feist, ultimately flew under the radar with The Dragonlance Legends and The Darksword Trilogy.

Thus far, the most noteworthy fantasy of the 1980s is, yes, derivative. Everything that was strong but more original was noticed by only a few and had a limited impact on the genre. Subversive stuff was almost completely ignored until later, when popular authors of later decades would reference them. The popular stuff emphasized description and tropes as if they were the secret formula to a great fantasy epic.

What would emerge in the 1990s would appear to submerge fantasy in a morass of doorstop-sized volumes loaded with fluff, dominated by quest-oriented trope tidally-locked to the above-mentioned bullet-points, bereft of the substance and poetry of Tolkien's narrative despite thematic imitation. In combination, fantasy would rely on gimmicks of worldbuilding as a source of originality, but these would, by-and-large, be superficial elements, as the overall stories would progress along the same lines as before. Meanwhile, the likes of Eddings, Brooks, and Feist would continue to hammer out less-and-less inspired novels (with a few exceptional gems here-and-there).

Nevertheless, there was hope in the form of the aforementioned Tad Williams' nascent Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. But I'll discuss this in a later post.


Chris Cesarano said...

When you mentioned Elfstones of Shannara, I tried to remember enough about it to comment on its quality. In truth, I don't really remember anything about it. There's some vague imagery in my head, something about the protagonist and a girl on a boat, firing off an arrow, shooting down some evil looking thing...

...or wait, wasn't that The Dark Crystal?

It is no wonder that First King of Shannara left a most foul taste in my mouth after reading it, particularly at the sudden Deus Ex Machina to save the day. Channeling your magic through some "super talented" child so that he napalms an entire chasm of goblins isn't interesting. If you channeled a single fire ball that managed to bring down a massive avalanche, sure, I'll by that. But as it was executed, it just felt like Terry Brooks wrote himself into a corner, thought about it for ten minutes and said "Fuck it!"

It especially caused me to wonder why no such amazing magic came from that same character in adult form in Sword of Shannara, except there he was playing the part of Gandalf.

I'm surprised I even read Elfstones, to be honest, but it's no wonder I haven't even looked at Wish Song.

Brian Murphy said...

Nice work on this series, Dave (and not just for the shout-out--thanks). And I'm glad you found Tom Simon's stuff as thought-provoking as I did.

This unending epic quest fantasy boom of the 1980s nearly turned me off of fantasy. I think it was on the second book of The Belgariad (after having plowed through the Iron Tower Trilogy, The Dragonlance Chronicles, and the Thomas Covenant books) when I stopped and asked, "why am I still reading this stuff?" Fortunately I found Howard around that time, which led me to writers like Leiber and Poul Anderson and a superior style of fantasy.

I've never read any Feist and will have to correct that. It sounds like his early stuff is worth pursuing.

Lagomorph Rex said...

Hurm.. and here I've come to find the bulk of the 80's stuff to be exactly the sort of thing I want to read.

So while I sort of view Memory Sorrow and Thorn as the pinnacle of 80's fantasy, I also view a lot of the stuff that attempted to go further with Williams ideas as not really being something I care to read. Patrick Rothfuss being a specific exception to my ambivalence towards new authors.

Elfstones is/was the best of the original Shannara Trilogy. It was also the one they intended to adapt into a film at one time.. relegating the entire story of Sword to nothing but flashbacks. But I don't think it is ever going to happen.

Wishsong was excruciatingly bad. However, the series really improved with the second series.

Feist I've still not read. I own the first 18 books in his series.. but I've never actually read them. I suppose I'm waiting on him to finally finish it.

Dave Cesarano said...

@Chris: First King was a train-wreck of inexplicable proportions. Agreed. Tonight's post should really drive that point home.

@Brian: I always cite my sources, especially if I like what they have to say. I wouldn't say Leiber is "superior" because a lot of his later Fafhrd & Grey Mouser stuff was pure schlock. Early stuff was certainly high-quality, though. I've only read a little bit of Poul Anderson and have to read more.

I didn't hate The Pawn of Prophecy, but by the end of it, I could see where the whole series was going. Hence, when I read the backs of the later books of The Belgariad and The Malloreon, I just totally lost interest. Same with The Diamond Throne. They're not badly written. They're just so predictable with such stereotypical characters as to not be particularly interesting.

@Lagomorph Rex: Wait until tonight's post for more Tad Williams (if I manage to even fit it in). So much fantasy came out in the 1990s, its incredible.

Feist is awesome. Well, at least the first four books are. Quality peaks with A Darkness at Sethanon, then diminishes. Krondor: The Betrayal and it's two sequels were absolute garbage not worth reading, despite the fact that The Betrayal at Krondor was an awesome video game.

Lagomorph Rex said...

I'll try and keep that in mind when going into it.

Michal said...

First off, I applaud this gargantuan task. A comparative survey of popular fantasy works is something I haven't yet seen quite done (Tom Simon stops short).

However, I'd like to point out that the 1980s also brought us Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun, Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint, some awesome work by Charles de Lint (Jack the Giant Killer is an absolutely lovely book featuring the Wild Hunt...on motorbikes in faerie Ottawa; most certainly a landmark in Canadian fantasy) and other books "off the beaten path". In interviews, Guy Gavriel Kay said that the best writers were pursuing smaller, more personal works, and leaving the epic fantasy genre for hacks. His explanation for the popularity of such copycat works was that they were very much like a soap opera--people wanted to just be with these characters/world, but had no clear investment in the ever-turning plot, didn't even have to pay much attention to it. It was a demand for a world, not a story. Even this early on (it's not that far from 1977, after all), some writers recognized that high fantasy was fast becoming crap, and the labels applied to high fantasy drove many capable writers away from dipping their hands in the genre.

Dave Cesarano said...

@Taran: I've not read Kay (as I've mentioned on your blog), nor have I read Gene Wolfe (more's the pity), Ellen Kushner, or Charles de Lint. That's why I avoided mentioning them... I really can't speak for someone I've not read.

There are going to be omissions... it's necessary and unavoidable in such a broad survey with such a specific purpose. It's not as if Moorcock, Leiber, and others stopped publishing after 1977--they didn't. But I'm focused on authors that emerged in 1977 and afterwards to purposely tighten my framework.

I'm glad you're enjoying it so far. And I'm glad you brought some interesting comments for consideration as well (such as Kay's own viewpoint on where the genre was going).

Anonymous said...

As someone who was reading Fantasy at this time I dont think your review of the 80s is a fair reflection. Tolkien underwent a revival in the early 80s and Dune was finding a new audience. What I would point out is Gene Wolfe's Shadow of the Torturer and new Sun series was written here and that's pretty much a masterpiece in style and quality. There was also Zelazny and his Amber series, Thomas Covenant and Julian May all producing excellent quality books. These stand well above any of the Eddings, Weis Hickman and Brookes efforts. Chalk and cheese.

If you havent read Gene Wolfe then it's a must read.
Ps I know your post is 2011, bit its interesting to see what you think as I'm catching up.