Monday, May 27, 2013

Back Through the Wardrobe

Like most fantasy readers, I read the Chronicles of Narnia as a child.  I thoroughly enjoyed them, and my increasingly battered copies of the Puffin editions had many rereadings.  After I found Tolkien at fifteen, though, and the wealth of fantasy written for adults in the following years, I revisited Narnia less often.  A while ago, though, my birthday presents included a single-volume edition of the entire Chronicles, to replace my disintegrating paperbacks, and I decided to reread the whole thing.  These are my impressions of the series.

First of all, let me say (since that might not be immediately obvious) that overall I thoroughly enjoyed my return to Narnia.  However, I recall various aspects I felt dubious about as a child, and my dubiety has grown with the years.  On the whole they fall into two categories: sloppy world-making and the attitudes Lewis injects into the stories.

In contrast to Tolkien's decades-long crafting of his mythical history of Arda, Lewis seems to have made up Narnia as he went along, and sometimes you can see the join very clearly.  One very obvious example is that, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, it's strongly suggested that no humans have ever been known in Narnia before — Tumnus has a book called Is Man a Myth?  In the later books, however, we're told that not only has Narnia always been ruled by humans before the Witch's reign, but there are plenty of other humans in the Narnian world, including those just over the border in Archenland.  In fact, this retcon is implied even in the final chapter of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where he refers to all the kings and princes who sought the hands of the adult Susan and Lucy.  Presumably human ones.

Similarly, the layout of Narnia and its surrounding lands seems to shift about from book to book (sometimes even within the same book).  For instance, in The Last Battle the young Calormene Emeth describes his home as lying Westward beyond the desert, whereas we know from The Horse and his Boy that the desert beyond which Calormen lies is to the south.

This sloppy world-making sometimes extends to practical issues.  In the biopic film about Lewis Shadowlands, there's a scene where two children earnestly ask him where the Beavers got their food from, considering that it's been constant winter for a hundred years.  Lewis has no answer, of course, and I doubt if he did in real life.

On the whole, Lewis just seems to have shoved whatever he wanted into his world.  Tolkien criticised him for including Christmas into a world which had Aslan instead of Christ, and featuring Father Christmas there.  Personally, it doesn't worry me too much — Christmas is just our current name for a very ancient feast, and Father Christmas is more than half a pagan figure — but I doubt that Lewis would have used those arguments as a defence.  He includes just about every other mythical figure he could think of from our world, including the god Bacchus.  Whether or not this was a good idea (I'm inclined to think it wasn't) the odd Christian myth is no more out of place than the others.

Lewis's attitudes are another matter.  Some of these can be put down to his time and generation.  By modern standards, the books can certainly be seen as somewhat racist and sexist — although, in fairness, female characters like Lucy, Jill and Aravis see more of the action than girls tended to in most children's books of the time.  As far as race is concerned, the Calormenes come over as a very negative caricature of pretty much every "eastern" culture, from Arabic to Chinese.

A lot has been made of the Christian allegory in the series.  I'll declare my position — I'm not a Christian, but I've never felt particularly anti-Christian, and mostly the religious allegory doesn't bother me.  Whether or not it's also more, the Christian story is a great myth, and I've no problem with a story using its motifs, although I have to say that, as a child, my favourite books were always the middle ones, where the religious allegory took more of a back seat to the adventure.

The one exception to that is The Last Battle, where Lewis vehemently attacks the concept of different religions being essentially the same.  Although he acknowledges that good people of other religions are "really" serving Aslan, he makes it quite clear that the Calormene god Tash is actually the devil.  Tash resembles one of the scarier Hindu gods, though it's likely that Lewis was intending more of an attack on Islam.  Whichever is the case, it doesn't do much for inter-faith understanding.

Lewis "shows" this by using one of his common approaches, of setting up straw men to knock down again.  The ape Shift's arguments are so unconvincing (and we know they're false, anyway) that we're supposed to be persuaded that all such arguments are as phoney.

He uses this kind of technique both in Narnia and in our world.  He makes Eustace and his parents thoroughly unpleasant, and then associates them with everything he disapproves of, from republicanism to wearing a special kind of underclothes.  He criticises progressive education by portraying the kind of school very few people would defend, and his killer blow is that (shock horror) the Head is a woman.

The same thing can be found in the Narnian world.  When Caspian confronts the Governor of the Lone Islands about the slave trade in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the Governor defends it in the name of progress, enabling Caspian to dismiss the whole concept of progress in a simile that would be easy to counter.  It makes me wonder how many advocates of progress Lewis knew who would be anything but shocked by slavery.

Lewis can also be quite cruel.  In Prince Caspian, Aslan punishes a bunch of obnoxious little boys by turning them into pigs, without any indication they'll be turned back.  While it's true that children often enjoy this sort of draconian treatment of unpleasant characters, it hardly seems to fit the loving Christian message to condemn children to a terrible punishment for, essentially, being badly brought up.

Perhaps the most questionable message in the series comes at the very end.  Philip Pullman has pointed out that Lewis is essentially telling the children reading the books that the sooner you die and don't have to live out your life in this world, the happier you'll be.  While I've no problem with encouraging children (or adults) not to fear death, that's different from encouraging them to look forward to it.  Enough kids attempt suicide as it is.

Well, you might be coming to the conclusion that I only have criticism for the Chronicles of Narnia, but, as I said at the beginning, I did thoroughly enjoy rereading them, with reservations.  To turn from Lewis's weaknesses to his strengths, he always tells exciting and inventive stories.  I said before that I always enjoyed most the books that concentrated on the adventures, without so much overt allegory, especially The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Horse and his Boy.  The former is exuberantly inventive from start to finish, while the latter is a nail-biting adventure.  On rereading, The Magician's Nephew has joined my favourites, although that contains more obvious allegory.

Perhaps Lewis's biggest asset, though, is his characterisation.  The various children who visit Narnia are very realistic — even when they're nice, they quarrel and have moods, and they don't always behave ideally.  Even Lucy (clearly Lewis's favourite) has her moments of weakness.  On the other hand, he doesn't fall into the trap of making Eustace's transformation unrealistically instant, and in his subsequent appearances, when he's firmly in the "nice" camp, some traces of the old Eustace show through.

Even better than the children, though, is the string of Narnian characters they meet, especially the animals and mythical figures — Tumnus the faun, Reepicheep the mouse, Puddleglum the Marsh-wiggle, Bree and Hwin the horses, and many, many more.  They're a sheer joy to read about.

And Aslan, of course.  Allegory aside, Aslan's a wonderful character: strong and awesome, everyone's hope, but not always reliable as an instant answer.  As the Narnians put it: He's not a tame lion.

One thing that did strike me very strongly on this reread was how Lewis's writing improved as the series progressed.  This was brought home to me because I was reading the books in sequence, not in publication order, so I started with #6, #1 and #5.  The fluent style and technique of the later books contrasted strongly with the awkwardness of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  The awkwardness has its charm at times, but not always.  Does Lewis have to remind the reader quite so many times that it's foolish to shut yourself in a wardrobe?

The later books, although still in the chatty, storytelling style of the early ones, are much more assured, and on occasion they show ingenuity in their technique.  In The Horse and his Boy, for instance, the hero Shasta gets himself involved in a battle.  Quite realistically, he has no idea what's going on, so Lewis switches between what he sees of the battle and the commentary being given by the Hermit of the Southern Marches, watching far away in his magical pool.  Without feeling at all contrived, it enables Lewis to give both an overview and an intimate immersion of the same battle.

I'd probably characterise the Chronicles of Narnia as a flawed masterpiece.  Most masterpieces are flawed somewhere, of course, but this probably has more flaws than most.  The series can be annoying, even objectionable at time; but, if you can get past the shortcomings, the books are a delight to read.  Whether you go through the wardrobe (remembering of course not to shut the door), or through a picture, or whatever route you choose, I thoroughly recommend revisiting Narnia.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

End of an Epic?

Forty-four years ago, while I was still at school, I had an idea while I was taking our dog for a walk in the country.  The title The Winter Legend came into my head, followed by elements of a story it could go with, about the downfall of an evil sorcerer called the Winter Lord.  I didn't want to go home till I'd got it well enough worked out (my home environment was supportive to reading and writing, but there were always distractions) so the poor dog was exhausted by the time we got back.

I began writing it as a series of ballads, but I abandoned that, partly because I realised that there was a whole earlier section to the story, and started writing it as a blank-verse narrative — I abandoned that, too, after about 2000 lines.  A few years later, I wrote a proper prose novel version of the whole first section, but I didn't go any further.  This was partly because no-one showed interest in it (and, looking back on how it was written, I'm not surprised) and partly because, though I knew what should be in the first and third parts, I only had a very vague idea of how to link them.

I wrote other things, including a number of stories set in the same world, which extended it in both history and geography, but eventually returned to The Winter Legend about ten years later and rewrote the first part, now called The Tryst Flame.  Besides general writing quality, I made a number of improvements, most notably changing the main antagonist from a cardboard pantomime villain into a more interesting character.

I immediately followed that with the second part, Children of Ice, having realised what story it needed to tell, but came to a halt again after that.  This version, too, was failing to impress anyone and, as the rejections came in, I began to understand why. 

Anyway, I got distracted, becoming intrigued by the backstory  I'd given to one of the supporting characters.  I started writing stories about the Traveller, extending the world by thousands of miles and thousands of years, and the main backstory I'd created became the basis for my novel At An Uncertain Hour, published in 2009.

In the mid-00s, though, I decided I was going to go back to The Winter Legend and make a concerted effort to get it done.  I wrote new versions of the first two books and then started writing the third, Dreams of Fire and Snow (it was originally going to be Songs of Fire and Snow, but some guy called George got there first — serve me right for not using ideas when I have them).  This was odd, because I was now using the plot elements I'd come up with on that walk for the first time since the ballad versions, although they'd mutated almost beyond recognition.

I got about three-quarters of the way through and came to a grinding halt.  There were various reasons, I think.  The story had developed a good deal since I'd started, and I found I'd written myself into several corners that would need some thought to get out of.  Beyond that, though, I think I was a bit scared of actually finishing this thing that had been a work-in-progress for most of my life.

So I wrote more about the world, extending it even further.  My novella The Treason of Memory, for instance, is set at a later period after the discovery of gunpowder, while a forthcoming story, The Flowers of Kebash, manages to link its neolithic and computer ages.

About three years ago, though, I came back to The Winter Legend.  I revised The Tryst Flame into submittable form, and did a more radical revision of Children of Ice, before finally returning to Dreams of Fire and Snow earlier this year.  I'd worked out how to fix the plot holes (more or less) but, instead of going back and changing them, I ploughed on to the end, simply retconning several issues and marking them to be changed in revision.

On Monday, I wrote the final words of the epilogue.  For the first time in forty-four years, I have a complete version of The Winter Legend.

It's a strange feeling — partly elation and partly bereavement.  I've felt that to some extent when I've finished novels before, something almost like postnatal depression (not that I'd seriously compare it to the traumas some women go through for that) but it's far stronger this time.  I think I understand why Tolkien never finished work on The Silmarillion, which he spent nearly sixty years writing.

Of course, I haven't finished with The Winter Legend.  The Tryst Flame is currently doing its best to impress the good people at Harper Voyager, but I have revision to do on Children of Ice and a lot of revision on Dreams of Fire and Snow.  And then I'll have (I live in hope) extensive copy edits and line edits to work through on all three, till I'm sick of the whole thing.  But that's all just tinkering, if on a large scale.

And what then?  Well, I have a novel ready to go that's a sequel to At An Uncertain Hour and a prequel to The Winter Legend — I'm using The Empire of Nandesh as its working title, though there's almost zero chance that'll be the title it'll finish with.  Then there's a trilogy set a couple of centuries later, and a further novel to finish off the whole process, though hopefully that won't be the end of my exploration of the world all these are set in.  And I have unrelated projects, too.  My Sam Nemesis stories have been well received, and I have several more ideas, and I also have another world, which uses magic technology, I want to develop further.

But The Winter Legend has been the central pillar of my imagination since childhood.  Besides the story itself, it's given me a world of seven continents and ten thousand years as a playground, and my most successful recurring character, the Traveller.  I feel both proud and scared to have finished it.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Fantasy Names - Diversity or Prejudice?

There tends to be a lot of debate about names in fantasy, with many people complaining about "unpronounceable" names.  The problem is, this is a very subjective complaint.  Unpronounceable by whom?  It's one thing if you encounter a character called Xxshkry'wwqivhx'shq, but I've read comments about Tolkien's names being unpronounceable, which I consider patently absurd.

It reminds me of the annoying habit some people have of "revealing" a fact that's common knowledge and then inanely demanding "Who knew?"  I always want to yell at them, "I knew, and probably half the people you're addressing did too.  Don't try to drag the rest of us down to your level of ignorance."

I've discussed this issue before on this blog and pointed out that the world contains a great many languages and naming styles, and by no means all of them conform to the anglocentric prejudices of many fantasy readers.  If a world consists of three kingdoms, whose royal families are descended from three brothers, then there isn't a great deal of need for linguistic complexity, and it's easy enough to keep all the names familiar.  If, on the other hand, an author wants to give their world an impression of the richness and diversity found in ours, that's going to mean people and places with a great variety of names.  You can hardly call three heroes from different corners of the world Tom, Dick and Harry.

But does this really matter?  It's all just for entertainment, isn't it?

Well, yes and no.  The entertainment aspect is a big part of it, but I believe any art-form has a duty to show some degree of social responsibility, even if it's only a minor aspect.  I've no doubt some people will disagree with me, and I don't think it's an argument that can be won or lost — you believe it or you don't.

Fantasy is, first and foremost, about the strange and exotic, and that seems to me to be highly relevant to this issue.  The great and mysterious world we live in, with its stretches of terra incognito marked Here Be Dragons, is in the process of shrinking into a global village, and we're daily in touch with all its diversity.  And we can't really pretend we're handling it well.  Too often, the reaction to encountering a very different culture is That's just wrong — they should be more like us.

This can be particularly true of names.  Names are vitally important to a person's sense of culture, especially if they're cut off from that culture, but in the West we're generally not very tolerant of this.  We've come some way since the days when, for example, Hollywood insisted on anyone with a non-Anglo-Saxon name changing it, but not all that far.

For many years, for instance, there have been jokes about Polish names being unpronounceable.  They're nothing of the kind, of course: for the millions of Polish-speaking people, they're as straightforward as Smith, and this is true of every culture that uses "difficult" names.  Most of us encounter people from cultures from all over the world, and that's likely to increase as the twenty-first century progresses.  Are we going to refuse to recognise, say, African names that begin with Mp- or Nd-, or Polynesian names with three apostrophes in them, just as many of us refuse to accept similar names in fantasy?

Fantasy, as I've said, is very much about the exotic, and it gives us the chance to practice at understanding huge cultural differences and test our tolerance against our prejudices.  The extent to which we use it in this way probably varies a lot, but the opportunity's there.

We love it, on the whole, when things are strange and wonderful: worlds carried on the back of a turtle, or on the inside surface of a bubble; bizarre races of beings, and creatures that appear in no zoological text; magic and miracles, immortality and weird planes of existence, titanic forces of good and evil, or of order and chaos.  And some of us run screaming when these have names that couldn't derive from one of the major western European languages.

Of course, fantasy names can't be a free-for-all.  For a start, they need to be linguistically believable and consistent.  That means all those consonant clusters, double vowels and apostrophes (they represent glottal stops, not an excuse to make the name look cool) have to be there for a reason, and names from the same culture need to have similar phonology and morphology.

It's also advisable to meet the reader halfway.  If part of the story is set in a culture whose language has forms the reader might find difficult, keep the hardest names for the background ones that might come up once or twice, and give the character we're going to be spending a lot of time with the simplest name possible within the parameters.  Or a shorter diminutive

In the same way, if there's a culture the reader's supposed to see as "us", that can often (though not always) be given the most accessible language.  Tolkien did this in an extreme way, by "translating" hobbit names into English, though it's not necessary to go to that extent.

It can also help to flag up when a name's supposed to be difficult.  Michael Moorcock did this, for instance, in his Elric novella The Jade Man's Eyes, where Elric is asked about a legendary city built by an ancient, unhuman race:

            "You mean R'lin K'ren A'a?" Elric pretended a lack of interest he no longer felt.
            "Aye. A strange name. You pronounce it more fluently than could I."

What Moorcock's telling us here, very succinctly, is Yes, I know it looks a mouthful.  It's meant to — that's the whole point.

Nevertheless, pandering to narrow cultural prejudices isn't what fantasy's supposed to be about.  If readers are never given challenging names in fiction, chances are they won't try to cope with them in real life, and that way lies intolerance, division and strife.

Fantasy is fun.  At its best, it's a roller-coaster ride of exuberant entertainment, but it can be other things at the same time.  It can challenge readers, help them confront and overcome their prejudices; but not if writers constantly give in to those prejudices.

And, in any case, where's the fun in reading about Bob the Barbarian and his true love Brittany?

Friday, May 3, 2013

Heroes & Villains Blog Hop

Welcome to the Heroes & Villains Blog Hop, which will be running on the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th.  Various authors of fantasy, science fiction and historical fiction will be giving us their insights on the heroes and villains of their stories, or perhaps those created by authors they admire.  A complete list can be found at the bottom of this article - please visit as many of them as you can.

I'll be giving away a free copy of my fantasy ebook The Treason of Memory, published by Musa Publishing.  To enter the draw, simply follow this blog and then post a comment to let me know you've done so.  After the hop is over, I'll pick a name using the latest high-tech randomising device (the exact design is a trade secret, but it involves slips of paper and a hat) and announce the winner.

For excerpts of the three publications mentioned below, click on the cover images.

Heroes and villains.  Well, that seems simple enough.  In one episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for instance, Giles explains to Buffy that heroes are always stalwart and true, while villains can be easily recognised by their horns or black hats.  But all it not what it seems — this is a response to her plea, "Lie to me," and is conspicuously untrue of the rest of the show.

It's never as straightforward as that, at least not in the more interesting stories.  It's not that some people aren't admirable, trying their best to do the right thing regardless of the cost to themselves, or that other people aren't despicable, selfish and vicious, but people are too complex to pigeonhole into angels and demons.  In any case, the most interesting characters tend to be those who fall awkwardly between the absolutes.

The main character of my novel, At An Uncertain Hour, certainly looks like a hero.  Known only as the Traveller, he wanders the world, helping the oppressed and fighting evil.  On the other hand, he doesn't really want to take up noble causes, just to see the world and enjoy himself, and he frequently resents giving in to his feeling of duty.

He can be mischievous, stubborn and thoughtless; and, as an immortal, he has the potential to be dangerous, too.  In another story in which he appears, he tries to explain his insistence on keeping a promise against reason by saying, If I were to let myself abandon a clear sense of right and wrong, I could be far more dangerous than Kargor [the "villain" of the story].  The lure to abuse his power and immortality is always there.  He's a hero, not because he's simply "stalwart and true", but because he succeeds in fighting temptation.

The main villain in the novel, the Demon Queen of the South, is for much of the story an intangible, distant figure, much like Sauron, but that's not all there is to her.  She's a human being who's been hurt — appallingly — and has chosen to do anything it takes to prevent herself from being hurt again.  This has led her to unspeakable evils, but her reasons have always been very human and make sense to her.

In my novella The Treason of Memory, the situation is less defined.  There are certainly people struggling to uncover and fight an ancient evil, and there are people hoping to gain from that evil, but the heroes aren't especially heroic: a young innocent who remembers the guilt of a terrible crime he probably didn't commit, and a seedy spy who doesn't remember a terrible crime he probably did commit.  The villains (mainly politicians) aren't really what this story's about.  If anything, the theme is that it's always difficult to know who's hero and who's villain.  The point is to try the best you can to do the right thing.

The Temple of Taak-Resh could be said not to have heroes or villains, just people we root for and people we don't.  It's the third of a series of stories (the first two were published by the sadly defunct webzine Golden Visions) about Karaghr and Failiu (Kari and Fai to their friends), young, wandering sorcerers.  Air-headed and irresponsible, they could be described as juvenile delinquents — but, being teenagers, they naturally prefer to think of themselves as a pair of outlaws, together against the world.  They take sides in the story not so much on moral grounds, but according to their personal interests.

Kari, though, has a long and strange life, and these tales are actually his back-story.  He originated as the villain of my trilogy The Winter Legend (referred to above as Kargor).  When I first came up with the story, many years ago, he was simply a traditional Evil Overlord, but I gradually realised that, for many reasons, this didn't work.  He needed to be nice.

That might seem a contradiction in terms, since he was still going to be the villain, but it's been much more interesting to write him that way, and I hope he'll be equally interesting to read.  He still conquers and terrorises the neighbouring countries, but he's not only charming on a personal level, he really cares about his friends and those under his protection.  Forget telling your minions that they're less than worms under your feet — this is an Evil Overlord with genuine people skills.

Like the Demon Queen, Kari took a step that seemed reasonable at the time, and that led to another and another, till he feels now he has no choice but to continue on his course.  Also like the Demon Queen, his main concern is his own safety.  Doing the right thing is all very well, but he always falls back in the end on doing whatever safeguards him.

It would be an exaggeration to say that Kari goes from hero to villain (antihero to villain, perhaps) but I hope he illustrates that, fundamentally, no-one is simply either.  Just a human being, who leads their life better or worse than others.

Heroes & Villains taking part are: