Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

In 1765, a book was published called The Castle of Otranto. The title page proclaimed the text as translated by "William Marshal, Gent. from the Original Italian of Onuphrio Muralto, Canon of the Church of St. Nicholas at Otranto." The preface discussed various issues, such as dating the original (the style of the Italian suggested the Renaissance, the subject-matter clearly belonged to the period of the Crusades) and the author's habit of interrupting the high doings of the main characters with the commonplace absurdities of the servants.

The book was a great success, prompting a second edition in which the writer and politician Horace Walpole (left), son of Britain's first prime minister1, admitted to being the author of the work. In a new preface, he apologised to the reader for the deception, claiming that "As diffidence of his own abilities, and the novelty of the attempt, were his sole inducements to assume that disguise, he flatters himself that he shall appear excusable."

In fact, Walpole was far from being the only author of the period to foist such a deception on the public, literary follies being almost as common as architectural ones in the later 18th century. The most famous is the poet Thomas Chatterton, who committed suicide in 1770 at the age of seventeen2, having published "translations" of an imaginary 15th century poet called Thomas Rowley. There was also James Macpherson, who similarly claimed to have translated the works of an ancient Scottish bard called Ossian. It's generally accepted that Macpherson used genuine fragments of ancient Highland poetry, but most of Ossian's poem were his own works.

The Castle of Otranto was immensely popular and kicked off the tradition of gothic fiction, which Walpole implicitly defined in his second preface as a combination of the supernatural elements found in mediaeval romance with the realism of modern novelists such as Fielding and Richardson. At first, the genre consisted of lurid novels by authors such as Matthew Lewis and Ann Ratcliffe3, but it strongly influenced the Romantic poets, especially Coleridge and Keats, and found a more sophisticated voice in authors like Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe and, to some extent, the Brontës.

Quite early on, the genre began splitting. Lewis's bestseller, The Monk, and many others of its kind, featured magic, ghosts and other unearthly elements, whereas authors like Ratcliffe, played down the supernatural in favour of the over-the-top love stories the genre also featured. In time, one strand came down through Poe, Stoker and many others as the horror and paranormal tradition, while Ratcliffe's fainting heroines and mysterious heroes evolved into romantic fiction4. Both traditions are alive and well today.

A little while ago, I picked up a Penguin Classics volume called Three Gothic Novels, featuring Shelley's Frankenstein, Beckford's Vathek and The Castle of Otranto. I'd read and loved the other two many years ago, but I'd never read Otranto, so I recently decided to remedy that.

It's described as the first gothic novel, but it's really no more than a novella, about a hundred pages in the standard-sized paperback. Still, it takes a while to get through. Those hundred pages consist of mammoth paragraphs (I counted one at seven pages), many of them consisting of back-and-forth dialogue without breaks. And, to make matters worse, Walpole uses absolutely no punctuation to indicate either the start or finish of speech (not even the French-style dashes), making it sometimes very difficult to work out who's supposed to be saying what.

The story is a bizarre one, which Walpole claimed came to him in a dream. Manfred, Prince of Otranto, has a son and daughter, but his son is killed on his wedding day by a gigantic helmet falling from the skies. Cheated of his chance for an heir through the male line, Manfred decides to divorce his saintly wife Hippolita and marry his would-be daughter-in-law Isabella.

Appalled, Isabella flees to the nearby abbey run by Father Jerome, and is helped on her way by a young man called Theodore, who just happens to be Jerome's long-lost son. Then, as strange happenings intensify, a strange knight turns up, silent and anonymous in his armour, and the tale proceeds towards its tragic conclusion.

This is a story full of portents, hauntings and miracles, generational curses and staggering coincidences, noble heroes, swooning heroines and dastardly villains — not to mention the endlessly prattling servants. It also has not a little absurdity — the giant helmet falling on Manfred's heir wouldn't have been out of place in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It certainly isn't especially frightening to the reader.

It's been suggested that Walpole was well aware of the absurdities in the story, and that he didn't actually take his work very seriously. Certainly, he didn't seem to have anticipated the birth of an immensely successful literary genre that spread not only throughout the English-speaking world, but all across Europe, and whose literary heirs have ranged from Charlotte Brontë to the Marquis de Sade, and in the 20th century H.P. Lovecraft to Barbara Cartland.

Ultimately, I wouldn't rate The Castle of Otranto as a great work, certainly not in the same league as Vathek, let alone Frankenstein. Perhaps, like many trail-blazers, it suffers from the fact that the novelty alone was enough in its day. From a modern perspective, the plot comes over as incredibly clichéd, and it progresses largely by coincidences and non-sequiturs. Though the shortcomings in the writing may be partly put down to the conventions of the time, the two masterpieces that share the volume read much more easily and naturally.

Nevertheless, I'm glad I've read it, and I'd suggest it would be worth anyone's while to try it. It isn't very long, and you'll be witnessing the exact point at which the modern horror tradition and the modern romantic tradition both had their birth.

1 Robert Walpole never actually held the title of prime minister, which didn't become an official government position till the end of the 19th century, but he originated the concept of one minister dominating the government, in place of the reigning monarch actively heading it. Walpole held the posts of First Lord of the Treasury, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons, with his allies in other key roles. "Prime Minister" was a description applied sarcastically by his enemies.

2 Or not. There appears to be some evidence that, far from deliberately taking poison, he accidentally ODed on prescription medicine.

3 Jane Austin had a love-hate relationship with these authors. She read them voraciously, but also mercilessly parodied the genre in Northanger Abbey.

4 The original meaning of "romantic" was resembling the mediaeval romances, so called simply because they were written in the "romance languages" (ie those derived from Latin). The word was almost interchangeable with "gothic", but the two terms became applied to the two diverging branches of the genre and are now poles apart.

The images of Horace Walpole, painted by Joshua Reynolds in 1756, and an illustration from a 1794 German edition of The Castle of Otranto are both in the public domain.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Reblog: On Dothraki and House Elves: Developing Fantasy Cultures, from Dan Koboldt

My attention was drawn today to an excellent guest blog on Dan Koboldt's site, written by sociologist Hannah Emery, explaining why cultures don't just sit still so that fantasy writers can present each culture as a single, unchanging entity.

This is a message I've been trying to get over to fantasy writers for many years in blogs like Messy Worlds Rule OK, only expressed with eloquence and a great deal of expertise. I'd encourage everyone interested in fantasy cultures (or real-world ones, for that matter) to read the article, and then to explore this excellent blog further.

The only point I'd add to it, as I've pointed out in a comment, is that another crucial driving-force of cultural development is always going to be trade, which seems to be a fundamental human instinct.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Which World Is Your Story Set In?

People who don't like fantasy often base their objections on the claim that they prefer to read books or watch films set in the real world. For these people, the dichotomy is obvious. Fantasy is set in an invented secondary world, which obviously makes it trivial and irrelevant, whereas good fiction (that is, whatever they happen to like) is set in the real world, which automatically makes it superior and relevant.

Leaving aside the fact that many of the books, films and TV shows ostensibly set in the "real world" are neither superior nor particularly relevant (the James Bond stories are nominally real-world stories, for heaven's sake), this attitude shows a fundamental lack of understanding about the nature of fiction — not to mention the nature of reality.

My contention is that every story ever written is actually set in an invented secondary world, and fantasy (as well as some SF) is the label given to those that are upfront about it. It doesn't matter how uncompromisingly gritty a slice of social realism a story might be, it's set in a fictional reality, not an objective reality.

Consider two authors both writing stories about a maverick cop who rides roughshod over the rules and procedures. In one, he might be the hero who nails the bad guys that would get away if he played by the book. In the other, he might end up destroying innocent lives the rules were there to protect.

This isn't just a matter of attitude. Depending on their views or agendas (often, but not always, the same thing), each author will create realities in which their take on the story is objectively true. The first will quite genuinely be a world in which bleeding-heart liberals are letting the crooks get away to prey on their victims. The second will just as genuinely be in a world where the rule of law is the only thing separating the good guys from the bad.

Of course, a reader who entirely agrees with one or the other point of view will interpret that fictional reality as objectively true, but another will see the opposite as being true. The point is that the difference isn't between the attitudes of the characters within the story, but lies in the author's primary worldbuilding. This is analogous to the way Tolkien writes about a world in which morality has the force of a law of nature and can affect the outcome of events just as surely gravity or the weather. The differences can be a lot more subtle, though.

Soap operas* are generally presented as ultra-realistic slice-of-life drama, but actually they tend to take place in an odd half-reality. Besides obvious anomalies like location (EastEnders, for instance, is set in a rearranged version of London) there are usually odd social habits that are unlike anything you'd actually find, simply to facilitate the dramatic necessities. There isn't necessarily anything wrong with this, but it's not the real world.

Most of all, perhaps, the fictional reality of a story will be determined by selecting what to put in and what to leave out. The complete reality of our society contains everything from cosy village life to inner-city gang warfare, but the reality in which a story takes place rarely includes all this. The author will select what's relevant to go into the story, and the rest won't exist.

This kind of selection, like the two ways our maverick cop can go, largely reflects the author's views and/or agenda. The fictional reality of a story isn't the world as it objectively is, but the world as the author wants it to be — not necessarily wants as a good thing, but wants in order to make a point. It's set in a custom-made world, just as a fantasy story is, but masquerading as the real world.

Does any of this matter? I think it does. Fantasy is often accused of portraying unreality, but it doesn't pretend otherwise, concentrating instead on using that unreality to shine a light on the world around us.

The more the fictional reality looks like our own world, though, the harder it is to make that distinction. I recall an argument I had once with a work colleague — I can't remember the exact topic, but I think it may have been about the precise effects of particular illegal drugs. What I do remember, though, is that the killer argument presented by this otherwise intelligent person was "Of course it's like that. Didn't you see EastEnders last week?" To which I gently explained that it had been that way in EastEnders because that was how some author had written it, not because it was necessarily true.

Fictional reality isn't restricted to fiction. Each of us sees the world in a slightly different way from anyone else, selecting what we admit and what we don't, explaining events according to our own assumptions and interpretations of reality. Most of the conflicts in the world are due to the fact that we do this unconsciously and assume our own fictional reality, whether individual or broadly shared, is objectively true.

If we could learn to understand how fiction works, critique it not in absolute terms but in terms of its unique fictional reality — its own secondary world — maybe we'd be better at understanding our own and others' unique inner worlds.

And what place better to learn how to do that than fantasy?

* The term soap opera is used with different meanings in different parts of the world. I'm using it in the usual UK sense of a continuous series (ie no breaks or seasons) about some kind of community that takes place in real time, so that, for instance, the characters are preparing for Christmas or anticipating the Cup Final at the same time the viewers are.