December 18, 2003
Once upon a time,
there were fairly straightforward retreads of Tolkiens Lord of the
Rings like Terry Brooks first Shannara book. Simple enough: after
Lord of the Rings turned into a commercial success, use some of the recognizable
motifs, characters and plot devices to bootstrap a ho-hum work to greater commercial
success. Nothing to get too exercised about.
Now we are in a
different moment. I recently read China
Mievilles all-out assault on JRR Tolkien and Lord of the Rings,
and disagreed vehemently with much of it, especially the specific criticism
of Tolkien himself. I think, though, that Mieville is right in one respect:
the further iterations of Tolkien have led to the withering of imagination,
the forging of invisible chains on a generations creativity.
genres are: a set of implicit, understood rules and motifs that organize and
typify creative work. Theres nothing wrong with genre: it gives a writer
a place to hang his or her hat, a platform on which to stand, a prior organizing
principle. If genre becomes too apparently constraining, it can even provide
a creative opportunity, by allowing a creator to entertaingly violate its constraints
and rewrite the rules, or it can spur a quest for new sources and wellsprings.
The proliferation of Tolkienesque fantasy trilogies is clearly what led George
Martin to look for a different template in his Song of Fire and Ice,
and he found it in the Wars of the Roses and similar narratives of late medieval
Grand Guignol, or what Guy Gavriel Kay similarly was able to do with the Byzantine
What worries me
is when genre conventions, through obsessive reiteration, begin to dissolve
into a grammar of creativity, invidiously naturalized as necessary first principles,
so that younger writers come along and never even think to rebel against them,
any more than we might rebel against the sun rising or water flowing downhill
on any given morning.
You can see this
happening now with many computer games and other derivative forms that draw
upon fantasy motifs, but the book that really brought this home to me was Christopher
Paolinis Eragon. Its gotten a lot of press because of the
young age and evident drive of its author, and I agree that aspect of the book
is really neat.
Paolini is living
every young fantasy geeks fantasy, and it's hard to be too churlish about
that. But the fact is, the book on its own merits is pretty terrible, though
in the last third or so of the book, it begins hazily to take shape as a minimally
adequate work of fantasy in its own right.
In the first two-thirds,
though, it is impossible not to be dismayed by the shackles weighing down Paolinis
imagination, not to mention his prose. This is no cynical, calculated imitation.
It is more that Paolini has absorbed certain motifs in through his pores. We
have the mishmash of Northern European names; we have dwarves who make underground
cities, immortal elves who come from oversea, ugly humanoids who are orcs in
all but name, dark spirits who could double for ringwraiths; we have dragons
who are psychically impressed by riders; we have magic that derives from speaking
the primal language of the world. We have a protagonist who is seemingly a boy
of humble origins but who in fact is a child of destiny, with mysteriously unknown
parents, who is fated to rise to the pinnacle of noble power and authority.
The book ends up reading like a Dungeons and Dragons campaign with all the spontaneously
and unconsciously derivative gestures that such campaigns invariably entail.
I dont blame
Paolini for any of this, but I think it is time for the readers of fantasy,
including teenagers, to step back from the secret language of genre convention
and ask why any of those conventions should be so. In the end, Tolkiens
great achievement is that he did an immense amount of scholarly work to create
a total world. Thats the key to his success with so many of his readers.
If we sense there is more to Tolkiens world than what we see in the pages
of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion,
its not because Christopher Tolkien continues to spew out every scrap
of paper he can find in the trunks in his fathers attic, its because
the original works drew upon a vast body of existing, lived mythology and gave
those myths a little shove in a new direction.
The more distant
fantasy becomes from a rooting in something organic, the more shallow and alienating
it feels, unless the author troubles to do something even more difficult, which
is to systematically build a largely unanticipated imaginary world from the
foundations on up. You can only do that as an aspirant author by interrogating
each and every one of the rules and conventions you use to build the world.
With Paolini, I felt like I wanted to hop in a time machine and visit him when
he was 15 or so and ask him a long series of questions as Eragon started
to take shape in his mind:
1. What are dwarves, and why do they live underground? Where did they come from?
2. What are elves, anyway, why should your world have them, and why do they come from oversea?
3. What exactly are the languages that people in this world speak that yield you names like Galbatorix, Razac, Murtagh, Arya, 'Saphira' and so on? (I especially find fantasy words with apostrophes in the middle annoying as hell given that they make no linguistic sense whatsoever unless theyre related to some common orthography or pattern of speech in the imaginary world being described.)
4. Why does magic exist in this world?
5. How can a dragon be born with an adult consciousness? Does their consciousness exist in some mystical or physical way before the dragon itself is born? If not, how can Saphira possibly speak with evident experience about the way the world is with such speed? Why do dragons have telepathic powers? What do they get out of being associated with human or elf riders?
6. Why do the Urgals [the faux-orcs] exist? Why are they instrinsically, genetically brutish and evil?
7. Why are there evil spirits waiting to possess humans who use the wrong kind of magic? Where do they come from?
8. Exactly how does the Emperor Galbatorix exert power over his subjects, anyway? Why is his power strong in some places and weak in others? What is his empire based on? (As far as I can tell from the book, there are very few civil authorities even in large cities who administratively represent this empire or communicate with its capital.)
9. Why is there a desert in the center of the landmass, a forest in the north, a mountain range in the south? What actually causes deserts to form, for example, in Paolinis world? (The geography of his imaginary map is a textbook case of the arbitrary scattering of typified geographic features in derivative fantasy works.)
And so on. Note that Tolkien offers answers to every single one of these kinds of questions within the body of his text, and often without a grotesquely obvious info-dump, or at least an expository info-dump credibly disguised as lore. When Tolkien runs into problems, they are often problems of a very deep kind that resemble the basic questions we have about our own spiritual and material existence. (Say, for example, the problem of theodicy: it is no easier to explain why Eru, the high god or primary cause of Tolkiens universe, permits Melkors rebellion and evil than it is for a Christian to explain why an omnipotent and loving God permits evil to occur.) Little is arbitrary in Tolkiens case.
In Paolinis case (or a host of other creators) much of the substance of his book is entirely arbitrary. That doesnt make me angry, just sad. He and other young writers have a long career ahead of them and a lot of native tools to work with. Heres hoping they can spurn their own inheritance and look for other ancestors, or perhaps rechristen themselves entirely.