Friday, December 30, 2011

Phantastes by George MacDonald

I’ve been intending for years to read George MacDonald, and I’ve recently finished his Phantastes.  Published in 1858, it’s described as “A Faerie Romance for Men and Women” and takes the form of a semi-allegorical journey through a fairyland markedly different from the standard Victorian model.

A young man called Anodos (pathless in Greek) finds himself transported into an enchanted forest, where he’s menaced by evil tree-spirits and helped by an assortment of beautiful ladies, wandering knights and kindly matrons.  Searching for a woman he’s sung into life out of marble, he finds instead a sinister shadow that follows him without needing to be cast by anything.

During a stay in a vast palace, apparently deserted except for presences just beyond vision, in the course of which he reads (or rather experiences) a number of strange tales, Anodos finds his Marble Lady again.  However, he breaks a taboo on touching her and is plunged into a sunless underworld of suffering.  From here, he must find a way to redeem himself through heroism, and to lose his shadow.

This is a short novel and, for mid-Victorian literature, not a difficult read, although it contains elements that might feel awkward to readers only used to modern books, especially its long paragraphs consisting of description or internal monologue.  Nevertheless, Anodos is an engaging first-person, veering between the ideals, enthusiasm, recklessness and foolishness of a young man, and the mixture of action and mystery comes fast enough to make the story very readable.

MacDonald’s Fairyland has all the blend of beauty and horror, splendour and danger, as anything in the Brothers Grimm, although that isn’t immediately obvious.  Anodos’s first encounter is with a tribe of cute flower fairies, though well realised, but that’s the last time anything of the kind rears its head.  Fairyland is the journey from youth to maturity, so it starts with childhood.  Indeed, many of his encounters seem to have a sexual edge to them, though expressed in symbolic or romantic terms.

Phantastes is an allegory, but not one that pushes its meaning down the reader’s throat.  The shadow that dogs Anodos, for instance, could be interpreted in many ways, ranging from arrogance to the sorrows of adulthood.  Many episodes, though clear enough in detail, are less so taken as a whole, and display a rich symbolism, rather than straightforward allegory. 

When Anodos escapes from the dismal underworld, for instance, he comes to a cottage on an island, where a beautiful, kindly old woman sings him comforting songs between allowing him through the cottage’s four doors.  Each of these doors leads him to a far-off setting, representing a sorrow of past, present and future, and a fourth destination he remembers nothing of on his return.  The episode suggests many interpretations, but its strength lies in the power of the emotions it evokes.

George MacDonald isn’t the most fashionable fantasy writer these days, but he had a profound influence on writers ranging from Lewis Carroll to Madeleine L’Engle, and C.S Lewis regarded MacDonald as his greatest influence.  Reading Phantastes might require a little readjustment of mindset for a reader used to modern styles, but it’s well worth the small amount of effort.  I strongly recommend it, and I’m looking around for other MacDonald books, especially his late romance Lilith.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Using History in Fantasy

You can’t have epic fantasy without history. 

Well, perhaps that’s too sweeping a statement, and someone’s going to produce an example of epic fantasy with no sense of history whatsoever, but it would certainly be an unusual exception.  On the whole, an epic fantasy novel (or trilogy, or dodecalogy, or whatever) arises out of the history of the world it’s set in. 

How well, for instance, would Lord of the Rings work without some knowledge of the affairs of Arnor and Gondor, the War of the Last Alliance, the Fall of Numenor, and even the War of the Great Jewels?  Would Song of Ice and Fire make sense without knowing why Daenerys is in exile, or the past relations between the Starks, the Lannisters and the other great families?  Or the Belgariad, without knowing why there’s no King of Riva?

And so on.  This doesn’t mean, of course, that all that history has to be laid out in the books; but, even when it’s not, the author needs to understand what’s going on, in order to communicate that sense of connectedness to the readers.

This means that anyone hoping to write epic fantasy – and many other types of fantasy – successfully should have at least a rudimentary understanding of how history works.  There’s really no substitute for studying real history – whether that’s in a formal academic course, or just by private reading – but I want to point out a few things to look out for.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that history is never neat, except in retrospect.  We speak, in our own history, of eras such as “classical”, “mediaeval”, “Renaissance” and so on, but these were usually defined much later. 

Even the most obvious of watersheds wouldn’t necessarily have seemed so obvious at the time.  Take, for instance, the Roman withdrawal from Britain.  What could be more simple?  The Romans were here, then they were gone.  That must have been clear even to the people experiencing it.

Well, no.  For one thing, the “Roman” way of life had been changing for a long time: people drifting away from the cities, a severe economic recession, the legions populated almost entirely by barbarians – even a new religion.  The whole nature of the empire had changed – as early as the 3rd century, Britain had been virtually independent of Rome for some time, with its own emperor.

Very little really changed in 410 – “the Romans” didn’t leave Britain (there were very few actual Romans there anyway), and the way of life didn’t substantially change for a while.  All that actually happened was that the Emperor Honorius ordered the province to look to its own defence, so that, in effect, Britons stopped paying taxes to Rome and began paying them to local warlords instead.  Besides, it was all a temporary measure.  Once the Visigothic menace had been dealt with, the empire would reassert itself, and things would be as they always had been.

That didn’t happen, of course, but it would have taken time for awareness of that to sink in.  Meanwhile, parts of the province were being ruled by barbarians, but that was nothing new.  Barbarians were everywhere in the empire (the Roman general who faced Alaric and his Visigoths was actually a Vandal) and they were quite trendy, in any case – fresh and vigorous, in place of the rather stale Roman culture.  The locals learnt their languages and adopted their fashions.  They became English, but only gradually.

As far as Europe as a whole went, the Roman empire never really ended.  Charlemagne refounded it, and then his creation became the Holy Roman Empire.  Napoleon consciously tried to revive the great European Empire, as did Hitler and Mussolini.  Today, it takes a somewhat different form, with its centre in Brussels.

Wait a minute – did I mention an economic recession in relation to the Roman Empire?  Did they have things like that back then?  And economics certainly has nothing to do with epic fantasy, does it?

Yes, on both counts.  Fundamentally, economics is the production or acquisition of resources, and trading any surplus for more resources.  That’s been going on not only throughout history, but for a good deal of prehistory too.  There’s evidence of surplus production and trade in Europe even before the last great Ice Age.

Most history is driven by economics.  Going back to Roman Britain, the Romans weren’t there in the first place because they thought it was a cool idea to conquer another country; they were there because Britain was unusually rich in fertile land and minerals such as tin.

This is going to be true even of the Realm of Light and the Realm of Darkness, with their armies made up of fireball-throwing wizards and squads of dragon-raiders.  They’ll be, among other things, after control of resources or trade-routes, or simply lebensraum for their populations to expand into.  Of course, I’m not suggesting the author should treat readers to a lecture on these subjects, or even necessarily mention them.  S/he should, however, be aware of how the process is working, and maybe drop odd hints.  Without that, all we have is a bunch of aristocrats playing an elaborate and deadly game.

The fashion in the study of history nowadays is to see the effects of cultural and economic forces, rather than individuals.  This is valid to a large extent, as I’ve already suggested, but individuals can sometimes changes the course of history.  “Cometh the hour, cometh the man,” it’s said, but that’s a retrospective view of when it does happen.  If Alexander or Napoleon, for instance, had been strangled at birth, many things would have been the same, but not everything.  It’s unlikely that another person would have had quite such a decisive effect on the world.

Individuals can certainly affect the way events are perceived, both at the time and in retrospect.  This applies especially to the reasons behind wars.  Most wars are fought for reasons of economic advantage, or collective forces such as conflicting religions (and often both) but that’s not always what starts a war. 

It’s long been recognised, for instance, that the Trojan War – assuming it happened in something like the way Homer described it – was actually fought over the trade-routes between the Aegean and the Black Sea, which Troy controlled and the Achaeans wanted.  On the other hand, that doesn’t mean the story of Helen’s abduction or defection should be dismissed.  If you’re trying to fire soldiers up to spend ten years fighting a war far from home, what do you say to them?  “Fight to protect our trade-routes,” or “Fight to stop them stealing your wife, as they stole mine”?

Many scholars, both historians and literary critics, have dismissed the idea that a war could be started by “one woman’s abduction,” yet we’ve just been through a century in which a world war (the first) was “started” by one man’s assassination.  In both cases, of course, there were far more extensive underlying reasons for the war, but it takes something specific to start it.

A good example is the splendidly named War of Jenkins’ Ear.  This was a war fought between Britain and Spain, starting in 1739, in which Britain was trying to break the Spanish monopoly of trade with South America.  What they actually declared war over, however, was the capture and torture of a British seaman called Captain Jenkins by the Spanish, during which his ear was cut off.  The action involved attacks on ports such as Porto Bello and Cartegena, which were what Britain really wanted, but the great symbol of the cause, then and since, is the image of Jenkins’ severed ear.

It’s certainly possible to write epic fantasy without drafting out extensive accounts of historical cause and effect, but the more thought the author puts into the history behind the wars and quests that form the story’s foreground, the more “true” it’s going to feel.

I’ve only made a few scratches on the surface of the subject, but I hope it inspires at least one writer to read more about it.  It doesn’t really matter if you choose to study the history of Europe, or China, or America, or anywhere else you like – the important thing for a fantasy writer is to get a feel for the way history works, and create a truer world.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Naming the Nobility

Epic fantasy, in particular, often deals with royalty and nobility, and many authors use the traditional European hierachy and titles.  That isn’t necessary, of course.  You can make up your own titles, or base them on a different real-world tradition (Japanese, for instance) but some people either find it comfortable to make it familiar or want to give their story a semi-historical feel.  So they fall back on dukes, earls and the rest.

Which would be well and good, except that some of these writers (***coughEddingscough***) don’t seem to have much idea of how the system works.  So I thought it might be useful to give a brief outline of the various ranks, titles and ways of addressing the nobility.  I’m not saying, of course, that you need them in writing fantasy, but if you’re going to use them, use them right.

A few general points to start with.  The first is that all (or almost all) titles have a female equivalent, though for brevity I’ll mainly talk about the male title, since historically the vast majority of title-holders have been male.  The European custom is that the wife of a titled man will have the female equivalent as an courtesy title, but the husband of a titled woman doesn’t receive anything.  A duke’s wife is always a duchess, but the husband of a duchess in her own right won’t be a duke – unless, of course, he has his own title.

The second point is that different names are given in different countries to the same rank of nobility, and some writers make the mistake of using these as if they were different.  You can’t, for instance, have both earls and counts in the same country – though it would make perfect sense to have earls in one country and counts in another.

A third point is that the children of nobility don’t have the same, or equivalent, title as their parents, until they inherit it (this is something I’ve seen in fantasy novels).  They might, of course, be given an equivalent rank in their own right.  For instance, the future King Henry IV of England, who was son and heir of the Duke of Lancaster, was granted the title of Duke of Hereford while his father was still alive, but this wasn’t by right as being a duke’s son.

The only exception I can think of was in the Frankish kingdom, where every son of a king was automatically given the title of king at birth.  The succession worked on a last-man-standing basis.  That was an anomaly, though.

To start at the top, we have emperor/empress.  This is perhaps the least defined of them all.  It was originally a Roman military rank, and was traditionally applied to rulers who claimed continuity from either the Roman or Byzantine empires, but it’s been applied to other rulers, and has been used as a translation of titles such as Mikado.

In general, any single ruler of an empire can be styled an emperor.  He should rule a domain made up from multiple peoples, where one dominates the rest (if they’re equal, it would be a federation).  An emperor or empress is styled his/her/your Imperial Majesty and is officially e.g. Emperor John, i.e. without a surname.  Children will be princes or princesses, although the heir is sometimes styled Grand Duke.

King/queen is obvious enough: a single ruler of a fairly unified realm, usually chosen for life by right of descent, although systems of election have sometimes been used (though not democratic election).  A king will be styled his/her/your Majesty, though in a mediaeval setting, “my liege” is a better form of address, and will be e.g. King John (though many Polish kings, for some reason, are referred to by first name and surname).  The ubiquitous “my king”, “my queen” etc. is incorrect.

A king’s children will have the courtesy title of prince/princess, though any other title they’re given in their own right (e.g. duke) will normally outrank that.

Prince/princess can either be an courtesy title, as mentioned above, for the children of a king or queen, or the ruler of a self-contained region who owes personal allegiance to a king or emperor.  The best-known example of this is Prince of Wales, the title held by the eldest son of the English king since the 13th century, and other European monarchies have an equivalent – in Spain, for instance, it’s Prince of Asturias.

Occasionally, a principality will achieve complete independence, and the prince will become, in effect, a king.  Present-day examples of this in Europe are Monaco and Liechtenstein.

In imperial Russia, prince was a rank of the nobility, rather than being connected with the royal family.

A prince/princess is styled his/her/your Highness (or Royal Highness, or Imperial Highness if the son or daughter of an emperor) and a prince’s children (though not normally a princess’s, unless she rules a principality in her own right) will have the same title.  A prince is Prince John, except for the Russian princes mentioned above, who would be Prince John Smith.

Grand Duke/Grand Duchess is a title that evolved gradually during the mediaeval period referring to semi-autonomous rulers of large provinces, too big and powerful to be styled duchies.  Many, as with the Dukes of Burgundy in the 15th century, were self-conferred, but the title became more common in post-mediaeval times, especially in Germany and Russia.

The only grand duchy in Europe now is Luxembourg, and the autonomous grand duke is in the same position as the autonomous princes.  The correct form of address is “Royal Highness” or “Grand Ducal Highness”.

The heirs to the Austrian and Russian emperors were usually granted the title of grand duke.

Duke/Duchess (spellings vary, e.g. French duc, but the title doesn’t vary greatly) is normally the highest rank that qualifies as nobility rather than royalty, although many dukes have tended to be members of the royal family.  A duke/duchess is styled his/her/your Grace, and their children have the courtesy title lord/lady (always with the first name – Lord John or Lord John Smith, not Lord Smith) although they may be given specific titles of Marquess or Earl that are in the family’s gift.

A duke will always be the Duke of Somewhere – he might be referred to as Duke John, but that isn’t strictly correct.  Occasionally, a woman holding the title in her own right will be styled duke, rather than duchess.  Queen Elizabeth II, for instance, technically holds the title Duke of Normandy and of Lancaster, not Duchess (it’s as Duke of Normandy that she reigns over the Channel Islands).

There are two kinds of dukes – those that hold a dukedom and those that hold a duchy.  A dukedom is simply the state of being a duke, but a duchy is, like the semi-autonomous principalities, a state ruled by a duke who’s the personal vassal of a monarch.  The only two duchies in England are Lancaster and Cornwall, and, in a feudal sense, inhabitants of those are subjects of the duke, who’s a subject of the queen.  This is academic, firstly because citizenship laws outrank feudal ones, secondly because the Duke of Lancaster is always the monarch and the Duke of Cornwall the heir.  In a mediaeval-style setting, though, this distinction would be very important.

Marquess/Marchioness (French Marquis/Marquise, German Margrave/Margravine) was originally an earl/count/graf who had extra powers and rights in return for holding the marches (i.e. border-country).  Many marquesses are the eldest sons of dukes, waiting to inherit the main title, but some hold the title in their own right – the Marquess of Bath, for instance.

A marquess/marchioness is styled his lordship/her ladyship/my lord/my lady, and can be properly addressed or referred to as e.g. Lord Bath (this is also true of an earl, viscount or baron, but not a duke).

Earl/Countess (general European Count, French Comte/Comtesse, German Graf/Gräfin) is, along with baron, the most common rank of nobility, and can be either the Earl of Somewhere, Earl John or Earl Smith (though the two former are probably safer for fantasy, and certainly for a mediaeval setting).  The correct style and address are the same as for a marquess.

Earl was the Anglo-Saxon title, while count was used in the Frankish domains.  William of Normandy tried to rename the English earls as counts, but that didn’t last.  However, the wife of an earl had no specific title, other than the all-purpose Lady, so the female form stuck.  That’s why the wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia, is properly Lady Godgifu (or Godiva) but is referred to in the Domesday Book as the Countess Godiva.

A count could be the ruler of a “county” (not really the same as a modern county) in the same way a duke was of a duchy, but might be either the direct vassal of the king, or vassal to the local duke.

The sons of an earl have the courtesy title “the Honourable” (shortened to “the Hon.”) before their names, while daughters are “Lady” (like Lady Diana Spencer).  An earldom may also be given as a courtesy title to the son of a duke or marquess.

Viscount/Viscountess (French Vicomte/Vicomtesse) is literally a “vice-count”, and therefore one step down from an earl/count.  The rank is often given to the heir of an earl, but can be held in its own right.  The style and address is the same as above, and the title is either Viscount of Somewhere, Viscount Smith, or Viscount Smith of Somewhere.

Baron/Baroness is the lowest rank of nobility.  Under the feudal system, a baron held a large stretch of land either directly from the king or from a duke or count, and individual knights would hold their manors from the baron.  A baron isn’t “of” anywhere (although modern life-peers are usually “Baron Smith of Cleethorpes” or whatever).  They would normally be Lord John in a mediaeval context, or Lord Smith later.  The correct style is as above.

The children of a baron have the courtesy title “the Honourable”.

Knight (French Chevalier, German Ritter, many others you can easily look up) counts as gentry (i.e. a gentleman) rather than nobility.  A knight was specifically a military rank, so traditionally there was no female equivalent – if you want a female knight in your world, she’ll just have to be a knight.  I’m not aware of any historical cases, but several appeared in the mediaeval romances.  A knight’s wife would simply be styled Lady, or Dame in French, and the latter is used as the female equivalent in modern times.

A knight may be styled either Sir John or Sir John Smith.  He should never, ever, under any circumstances, be styled Sir Smith.  His wife would be Lady Mary.

Baronet is, essentially, a hereditary knight – Sir Winston Churchill was a baronet.  The title is post-mediaeval, and is in all other ways the same as knight.

This isn't by any means a complete explanation of the subject: for that, you'd need Burke's or Debrett's, which you might find in a large reference library, although they're probably online by now.  I hope, though, it's given enough idea of the nobility's overall structure to be useful in writing fantasy.