Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The State of Fantasy in 1977

Four years ago, Tom Simon's site, Bondwine, featured a five-part essay on the state of fantasy in 1977, with special focus on the impact of Tolkien, incorporating the del Reys, a couple newly-released fantasists, and Tolkien's own posthumously-published The Silmarillion. His essay is keenly astute and tightly focused on 1977 and the works that were released in the nascent days of epic fantasy. As one author wrote in an article for Black Gate Magazine's blog, "The man with two R's didn't invent the field, but he dominates it to the extent that we all write in his shadow."

It is a fascinating read. Simon eloquently and effectively dismantles The Sword of Shannara on its own merits (or lack thereof) and not on its "slavish imitation of Tolkien." His analysis on The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever is impressively penetrating. It reminds me of John Fultz's own series of posts on Discovering the Unbeliever. Although I've not read Niel Hancock's The Circle of Light, Simon's thorough analysis of its story and shortcomings don't really inspire me to pick it up. Tom Simon finishes with a heavy commentary on why The Silmarillion fails as fantasy fiction.

I've written down my own thoughts on Terry Brooks' The Sword of Shannara. By-and-large, Tom Simon's thoughts dovetail with my own, especially concerning Lester and Judy-Lynn del Rey. Although I've not really expounded on the impact of the del Rey's on fantasy as a literary genre, I'm very much inclined to agree with Simon that it's been quite negative, overall. Their attitude toward readers was that of a sneering penny-dreadful salesman and little else. Although some of the editing choices they had on Donaldson's work were positive, their motivations were puerile and avaricious, having nothing to do with the conventions of taste and substance.

Simon's analysis of The Silmarillion is incredibly insightful. He analyzes the causes for its failure and why it was eclipsed by The Lord of the Rings. Yet Simon's major flaw is that he overlooks Tolkien's purpose in writing it. I think Simon was acutely aware that The Silmarillion was written as a compilation and synopsis of Tolkien's entire mythos (that is, what parts of it he had finished). As a fantasy novel it fails. As a history book (or perhaps religious account) of a world-that-never-was, The Silmarillion is not nearly so flawed (although it is far from perfect). If one approaches it as though it is such a text, it becomes much more coherent. Simon's approach, though, reflects that the audience was neither looking nor prepared for the kind of work The Silmarillion was.

In the end, Simon doesn't really support the thesis that epic fantasy was a slavish imitation of Tolkien in 1977. He points out one work by Tolkien that was a disappointment to his fans (because they didn't know how to approach it), one highly subversive and challenging fantasy that most certainly is not an imitation (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant), one puzzling and ultimately unsatisfying work that seems to draw more from The Chronicles of Narnia, Winnie-the-Pooh stories, and The Wind in the Willows (The Circle of Light), and one single highly derivative work that cribs Tolkien (The Sword of Shannara).

Does this weaken Simon's argument? Well, what exactly is Simon's argument in the first place?
But in fact all these things were new under the sun in 1977. To anyone whose reading tastes were formed, even in part, by the avalanche of Tolkien imitators of the last thirty years, the fantasy genre of 1976 must be as alien as a lunar landscape. In those days Sword & Sorcery was king, and king of a very small domain. Except in children’s books, fantasy was the weak sister of science fiction, a kind of playground where authors like Sprague de Camp and Poul Anderson went to relax after a serious day’s work of Inventing the Future.
Well, it's apparent that Simon certainly believes that between 1976 and 1978 a very large shift had taken place in the fantasy genre. That the del Reys had something to do with it is undeniable. They pumped out Donaldson and Brooks.

When Simon speaks of The Silmarillion, The Sword of Shannara, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, and The Circle of Light, he says:
I believe that nearly all the genes, so to speak, of the epic fantasy sub-genre are to be found there, and also the chief reasons for the parlous and shabby condition of the field today.
A-ha! For Simon, what is wrong with epic fantasy today is not simply slavish Tolkien-imitation. It is something much more complex and deep. But what are those chief reasons for the shabby condition of the genre?

Simon says that The Sword of Shannara is "a train-wreck of a book," and gives numerous reasons why, but he doesn't isolate the individual "genes" that are consistently ruining the genre, aside from the reader's inference that it is simply imitation combined with "trying to write the worst book one can get away with." Writing a novel where the writer cribs from another, seminal, author isn't enough, as Simon points out a whole slew of plot and characterization issues where simply being The Lord of the Rings "with the serial numbers filed off" is not enough to make a good story with identifiable characters.

Simon's analysis of Thomas Covenant really seems to support the idea that its lack of success in comparison to Shannara and the del Reys' opinion that Shannara was actually superior (an opinion Simon doesn't seem to share) reflect a problem with both editors and readers of epic fantasy. They want Tolkien and they can't really comprehend the complexity of Donaldson's initial trilogy.

When Simon says Hancock's The Circle of Light's release, accompanied by fanfare recommending it to Tolkien fans was "a portent of worse things to come," I'm not exactly what he's talking about, except perhaps the fanfare. Without giving away spoilers, I'll simply say that the climax and resolution of the story is Deus ex machina that renders every single event in the novels as absolutely and utterly pointless. This, coupled with New Age pseudo-Buddhist/pseudo-Christian/synergistic moralizing turns the entire book into a philosophical/metaphysical upchuck. In this regard, Simon seems to be indicating that there is a lack of coherency amongst many fantasy authors in incorporating coherent philosophical systems into their narrative and then moralizing about them.

In regards to The Silmarillion, I think Simon's words speak for themselves:
I do not mean that a lesser writer should try to fill the gaps in The Silmarillion: God forbid. What I mean is that it, rather than the much-abused Lord of the Rings, should provide a standard and a signpost, pointing the way forward for epic fantasy. The Road goes ever on, but few have cared to follow it so far. If we truly honour the work of Tolkien’s heart, we should be out there, blazing trails beyond the last milestone, seeking our way to vistas yet unattained.
In other words, Tolkien had a lot of other stories he wanted to tell, many of them briefly glossed-over in his Silmarillion. He wasn't locked, like L. Frank Baum was to Oz or Piers Anthony is to Xanth, to Hobbits, Mordor, magic rings, and the Shire. He had a very vast world he wished to explore, with thousands of years of history and stories that had yet to be told. He simply let it pile up and pile up, works unfinished.

So, what are we to take from this? What are those chief reasons epic fantasy is in such muddy waters?

To distill from the above, it seems an over-arching adherence to Tolkien as the defining figure of the genre seems to be crippling it. In addition, attempts to break away from his influence often falter with both editors and audiences. Dabbling in the mythologies and philosophies of non-Western cultures can be interesting, but it must also be coherent--when its not you get confused and pointless sagas that go nowhere like Hancock's Circle of Light. Although I skipped over it, writing down to children seems to be a major turn-off (they're often quite capable of reading stuff that doesn't insult their intelligence--indeed, I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings while other kids were reading Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing).

But is this really the case? Is epic fantasy so locked into a ditch where all of these huge flaws are part-and-parcel of much of fantasy, especially its strongest-selling sagas? Or is Simon writing back to not only 1977, but also 1987 and 1997? Has he missed the past 15 years, with Stephen Erickson, George R. R. Martin, R. Scott Bakker, and Tad Williams?

This I will leave for a follow-up post: is the genre of epic fantasy in such a perilous and shabby condition today as it was in 1977? And if it is, how did it get there in the intervening decades?


Lagomorph Rex said...

See my view is, that in the last 5 years or so certain authors have decided to drag the Fantasy Genre into the midden. Bloody it's nose and then proceed to bugger it senseless.

So in that respect I suppose no, i can't agree with your core theme. I feel it's in a shabby and perilous condition because of some of the authors you mentioned at the end of the post, rather than the beginning.

Dave Cesarano said...

So, I assume you prefer the Tolkien imitations? That sounds accusational, but it's not meant to be. I can perfectly understand it.

I can see how authors like Martin and Bakker are not for everybody. What I've heard about some other authors is pretty rough and there was a lot of debate a few months ago (as I'm sure you're aware) in places like The Black Gate and Brian Murphy's blog.

Tom Simon's problem (and mine) isn't so much as the imitation of Tolkien, but the ineptitude that his imitators display. They take the elements of his story but none of his technique, style, or poetic language.

Lagomorph Rex said...

I wasn't much of a reader until the end of year 5 at school. We were tasked with picking a book for the summer and then turning in a book report on it in septembe. For whatever reason I chose the fattest book on the table. It was called the Hobbit, and had a Black cover with a short fat guy being menaced by a glowing eyed creature. I read that book 10 times over the following 3 months, and turned in a 14 page (the requirement was 2) book report on it. I got an A+. I've been trying to recapture that feeling reading the Hobbit for the first time ever sense.

I'm exactly the demographic that these publishers were trying to get when they put out stuff like Brooks and Eddings.

I enjoy some of them.. but I think I'm more interested in the Idea of them. Because I certainly can agree there is a large amount of hamhandedness in the process of doing it. It's a dangerous business really. I've either got to put up with subpar writing.. or try to struggle through stories I don't particularly like. I think its probably because the more "Literary" influences an author has.. the less likely they are to write the sort of stories I want to read.

WriterJosh said...

I know I'm quite late to the game here, but I must comment on a couple of things:

First of all, the attitude expressed by Lagomorph Rex is, in my opinion, exactly why fantasy refused to grow for so many years and why brilliant authors like David Gemmell and Glen Cook weren't really celebrated until their definitive works were several years old.

Throughout the 80's, we were subjected to a number of standard-issue fantasy fiction which, while few were the abject rip-offs that The Sword of Shannara was, nonetheless followed a certain mold and refused to break out of it. This is what gained fantasy much of its poor reputation.

Rex seems to want more of this; for the genre to stay as it was when he was a boy and never grow beyond that. Assuming that's true, it is an attitude that I as a fantasy reader and hopeful some day fantasy author, simply cannot stomach.

Let's point out what Simon said about recommending Tolkien's readers to Circle of Light. What he meant about that being a "portent of worse things to come", he was referring to the maddening tendency by fantasy publicists to place somewhere on the cover of their latest epic fantasy some quote that seems to suggest the novel can be compared to The Lord of the Rings. Every WOT novel once had the inane quote "Jordan has begun to dominate the world that Tolkien began to reveal" plastered on the cover. Authors as diverse as David Gemmell, George RR Martin and Scott Lynch have all been compared to Tolkien, usually by way of praise. "The greatest epic fantasy since The Lord of the Rings!" "(Author) has the same sort of epic storytelling capability of Tolkien", etc.

I don't want to read the new Tolkien. I don't want to read another Eddings. I don't want to read the spiritual successor to Donaldson. I want to read the next (name of author). Just as I don't want musicians I enjoy constantly compared to the Beatles (and they never are), I don't want to read Abercrombie or Lawrence or Brett and feel like they've got to be conforming to some mold set down by an author before them.

I also can't agree that fantasy, now or in 2011, was stuck in a "perilous and shabby condition", but instead it seemed then, and seems now, to be thriving, and finally throwing off the impression that it's for kids, or too silly for mature readers, or "it's all the same".

Fantasy has had really three main "booms", in my opinion. The first, and most obvious, was the late 70's boom that Simon talks about. The second I think happened in the early 90's, when Robert Jordan's WOT books really took off and helped draw attention to other "fat fantasy" epics and finally the third boom (so far) was in the mid 2000's when ASOIAF became the new standard by which new fantasy authors were judged and a new era of low-fantasy, magic-lite, character-driven, gritty-and-grim novels began. Many hated these novels and loathed their success. I firmly believe that they are the future, or at least will prepare the way for the next boom that keeps fantasy alive, and to discount their impact is foolhardy.

jon cobb 1971 said...

you guys are leaving out one of the more important fantasy series here - The EarthSea books. Totally different than Tolkien. Superior in many ways.