Monday, October 13, 2014

History in Fantasy – Part 1

When you set aside the fantastic from epic/high fantasy you can surely conclude that you are reading a story that is not modern, but set in a time long past. Today, fantasy fiction is pretty much presented in three different facets—High Fantasy, Urban Fantasy and Historical Fantasy—but sometimes mixes some of the three. Urban Fantasy is usually set in the “real world” in contemporary times, but the other two facets, High and Historical Fantasy primarily takes place in a setting that is far from modern.

High Fantasy is predominant in the use of Anglo-Saxon history, holding strong to the Medieval period for its entire setting, but in a secondary world. Historical Fantasy takes a historical period in the mundane world and adds elements of the fantastic. From this point forward, when I talk about fantasy, I will be talking specifically about High (Epic) Fantasy and Historical Fantasy, as these two sub genres are the keystone of fantasy fiction.

Fantasy is a kind of mosaic of different inspirations from various histories and cultures, with the flavor of magic, adventure, and fantastic creatures—like a recipe of many ingredients to form an imaginative story. Most writers of fantasy are people fascinated by history in one way or another; with a good handful of them being historians themselves, such as J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Judith Tarr, and Sara Douglass, just to name a few.    

Think about how history is presented to us. Whenever a historian writes a non-fiction book about a prominent historical figure or event they construct it into a story in a way. They do not have any way of knowing for sure what Cleopatra was thinking, or why Alexander the Great did a certain thing, or how George Washington acted when he was a kid. The historian is taking recorded facts about an individual or event and piecing it together into a cohesive narrative, often speaking as if they were there and are certain that every account that they are reporting is accurate. But, at the end of the day, it’s all constructed; it’s not entirely true in a sense. Likewise, paleontologist piece together fossils and bones and try to illustrate and describe the appearance of long-extinct creatures and convince us of their survival habits, but they cannot be 100% certain.

The power of the human imagination can take a historical figure like Bishop Nicholas of Myra and turn him into Santa Claus, or take an affair between Cleopatra VII and Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony) and romanticize it, or be inspired by Vlad III Dracula to bring about the iconic character of Count Dracula. A lot of people probably obtain most of their knowledge of Julius Caesar from William Shakespeare’s play, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, which was a fictional dramatization based on the conspiracy to kill Julius Caesar. Creators of fiction, in great sums, have an almost natural urge to be inspired by historical persons and events. It seems to be mankind’s desire to write, read and watch stories of mankind in any shape or form—even in the form of fantasy.

Guy Gavriel Kay is widely know for his fantasy books inspired by historical persons and events, transforming real historical periods within secondary worlds and bringing life to fictional characters inspired by people of the past. He said, “I do as much research as I can in a period of history, and then I do a quarter-turn to the fantastic. …that quarter-turn to the fantastic is under-penned by respect for the actual period and the actual people that I’m using as the inspiration for my novels.” Kay’s strategy is to craft stories out of real settings, letting some of his characters be fictional representations of figures in history. He stays away from retellings of history; in his own words: “…not wanting to project my imagination on to the real lives of real people.”

Robert Jordan noted the use of bits and pieces of historical cultures in his Wheel of Time books; such as the ancient Celts, the Shogunates of Japan, and 17TH century France. In regards to the city-state of Mayene in his books, Jordan said, “Mayene is based culturally on the cities of the Hanseatic League, as well as Venice and Genoa when those cities were world commercial powers and city-states in themselves.” These were just a few of many things he took and used as influences on his fantasy world.

In regards to his book series, A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin said, “…although I've drawn on many parts of history, the War of the Roses is probably the one my story is closest to.” He also said, “I like to use history to flavor my fantasy, to add texture and verisimilitude, but simply rewriting history with the names changed has no appeal for me. I prefer to re-imagine it all, and take it in new and unexpected directions.” In an interview with Time Magazine (online) back in April of 2011, Martin speaks a little more about his work and briefly on how history is related in fantasy fiction—click here to read it.

In my next post I’ll continue the discussion on history in fantasy, expounding on more authors and books that pull inspiration from history. 

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Maps in Fantasy

The map is the second most sought after work of art in a fantasy book (in many cases). Apart from the book cover, readers of the genre love flipping through the first couple of pages to behold the layout of the world/land that they are about to explore (via the characters). Fantasy maps are a great way of bringing visualization to the author’s world, helping to provide just a drop of imagery in the reader’s mind. They assist the reader with locale and perspective while journeying through the pages. They may even help embellish one’s imagination.

Maps in fantasy go as far back as 1908 when L. Frank Baum presented his map of the Land of Oz, projected on a large screen, at his multi-media stage shows (The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays); which were used to promote his first three Oz books. In 1914 the first printed Oz map was included in Tik-Tok of Oz, the eighth Oz book, along with another map at the back of the book titled Map of the Countries Near to the Land of Oz.

One will not find a map in all fantasy books, but any fantasy novel set in a secondary world most commonly will feature some kind of map. As stated above, this can assist in visualizing a world not like our own, and help pull the reader into a “belief” of that fantasy world.

Not every reader of fantasy likes or has respect for maps in fantasy. Some ignore them completely; others glance over it with a shrug; yet others tend to delve into them like one on a quest. There are even cases where people will select or reject a fantasy novel based on whether or not it contains a map—or based on the judgment of the quality of the map. Like the old saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover;” the same should apply to judging books by their map(s).

Fantasy maps are an extension from the text. The fascinating thing about reading fantasy books is being able to use one’s imagination; but wrapping that imagination around a visual relation to the story can often expand that imagination. Yet, this is not so for all readers. Personally, I tend to be the one who simply glances over the map and then move on with the story. However, if I find myself really engrossed in the story, I will look more intently at the map just to suck up as much as I can of the world that I’m experiencing.

On the blog, a Fantasy Reader, there’s a neat list of links to the maps of various popular works of fantasy. Click here.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

A Discussion Panel of Fantasy Authors - VIDEO

A panel consisting of fantasy authors Joe Abercrombie, Lev Grossman, Diana Gabaldon, George R. R. Martin, and Patrick Rothfuss speak humorously about their writing styles and epic fantasy. This took place at this year’s San Diego Comic Con on July 26. See video below…

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Secondary World

The secondary world is practically the ruling art of epic fantasy, holding within it not only scenery, names and races that are different from our world, but producing histories, laws and creatures that make it a world in and of itself. It is not only other-worldly creatures that differentiates the fantasy world from our own, but it is the law of magic and how it effects that world and its inhabitants. In epic fantasy, the setting of the secondary world dwells in the likeness of the medieval period, and seldom veers from it. We can probably thank J.R.R. Tolkien, who was a medievalist, for such a permanent brand since it was he who set the mold for (modern) epic fantasy. It makes me wonder if Tolkien had not been a medievalists, and, instead, created his epic story within a more modern setting or a setting that reflected the ancient worlds of 3000 years B.C., would epic fantasy have taken a much different form?

Edward James, former professor of Medieval History at the University College in Dublin, wrote:  “After 1955 fantasy writers no longer had to explain away their worlds by framing them as dreams, or travellers’ tales, or by providing them with any fictional link to our own world at all.” Here James was referring to the publishing of The Lord of the Rings, the original epic fantasy which popularized the secondary world. Even though Tolkien had said that Middle-earth was simply a pre-history of our world, we all know that Middle-earth is a fictional world outside any realm we’ve ever known. Maybe Tolkien was not ready to admit that he was severing his work from the standards of previous fantasy literature which always had some ties to the “real” world. Today, we cannot think of epic/high fantasy being any other way. As Edward James had also written: “This has become so standard in modern fantasy that it is not easy to realize how unusual it was before Tolkien.”

For a writer, building a secondary world can be a pleasure, almost like a hobby—fed by many other interests that correspond into a cohesive system. In other ways it could evolve into an obsession of knitting together histories, magic systems, and order of societies down to the slightest detail. The latter can be good, if skillfully used as the backdrop for good characters within a good story; otherwise, it does no good and is simply just a made-up world. A writer has to avoid being geeky about their world and concentrate on the story. The secondary world, no matter how complex, is still only the setting for the author’s characters and their story—not the story itself.

The secondary world can be that neutral ground between the author and the reader where ideas and issues are explored without making things too personal—as they may be if written in a more contemporary fashion within our world. It can be a means of helping us relate on some things that we experience in the real world. The secondary world can be a way to undo the complexity or confusion of our own world, simplifying things and bringing a kind of focus to the characters and the story that may be lacking contrast within tales that take place in the primary world. Yet, at the end of the day, the secondary worlds that we journey through in fantasy fiction still consist of the same old trials and conflicts that plague us in this world: life and death; war and peace; good and evil; etc.

Tolkien wrote about the secondary world in his 1947 essay, On Fairy Stories. He talks about the art of the “story-maker” to become a “sub-creator” in order to present a world where the reader can step into a state of belief of that world. He says of the story-maker: “He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside.”   

In his essay on fairy stories, Tolkien speaks profoundly on the art of creating a secondary world. The skill of the writer must be good enough to make their world credible. Tolkien says, “To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode.” He also mentions the course in which writers draw from reality when creating their world, saying: “Probably every writer making a secondary world, a fantasy, every sub-creator, wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it. If he indeed achieves a quality that can fairly be described by the dictionary definition: “inner consistency of reality,” it is difficult to conceive how this can be, if the work does not in some way partake of reality.”

So to use a simple illustration, when watching the makings of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, we see all the great detail that they went into in order to bring life to Middle-earth on the screen. They took time to grow vegetation and gardens to make the Shire a reality. Great detail was given to everything from the cooking ware to the armory to the selection of the landscape. Now, when watching the films prior to seeing the behind the scenes creation, the viewer has no care as to how much work and meticulous designing it took to create the visuals that sucked them into the film. No, the viewer is simply immersed into a story within an enigmatic world where they are caught up into 3 hours of wonder, suspense, humor and adventure. The camera does not zoom in on all the artistry and skill used to bring life to Middle-earth; its focus is on the characters and the incorporated scenes used to present an epic story.

The secondary world is the bones of epic fantasy; and, as Tolkien said, it takes a skilled writer to make a world real enough to make the reader cast aside all disbelief of that world.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

All-Powerful Dark Rulers

The fantasy genre is full of stories where one (or a group, or race) of great power rules over a kingdom or empire with malice and corruption. The subjects are forced to live under the cruel, heavy hand of the dark rulers, and there’s always mention of a group of brave souls who attempted to rise up against the powers-that-be in hopes to overthrow the reigning darkness—but they failed. And so begins the story of a chosen one, and those that follow, who rises and succeeds against the evil power.

“The Lady” from the Chronicles of the Black Company betrayed her powerful, evil husband, the Dominator, to control and dominate the Northern Empire herself. She is a cruel empress, destroying all who oppose her. The Black Company, who were employed by the Lady, later change their course to prepare to fight against the Lady.

My all-time favorite, Emperor Palpatine, is the one Dark Lord of the Sith, who took the ancient principles of the Sith, the rule of two (one to harness the power of the darkside, and one to crave it), and patiently and skillfully took over the galaxy—creating the first galactic empire. With his apprentice, Darth Vader, Palpatine holds the galaxy in his powerful clutches, yet we see the Rebel Alliance defy his rule as we read (or watch, in most cases) in what’s called the original trilogy of the Star Wars saga.

In the Halfblood Chronicles, the all-powerful Elvenlords long ago entered the world through the Great Portal from another dimension and enslaved humankind, making concubines of choice women and gladiators of choice men, and oppressing all life forms to their will. Shana, half elven and half human, leads a band of intelligent dragons, half-blood wizards, and escaped human slaves to undo centuries of cruel elven reign.   

Like the Halfblood Chronicles, the Annals of Drakis takes place in a world ruled by cruel elves, yet they are not tall, fair, and good-looking like the Elvenlords of the Halfblood Chronicles. These are beings with (mostly) dark skin, elongated heads, and sharp teeth, enslaving not just humans, but races of all kinds—controlling them with aether magic to do their bidding.

In the original Mistborn trilogy, the first book, The Final Empire, gives us the Lord Ruler, a seemingly all-powerful, god-like man who controls the known empire. All who even attempt to oppose him meet their demise.

I could go on with many examples in fantasy fiction of seemingly all-powerful dark rulers. The genre is laded with them. It’s not too difficult to understand why authors bring to life characters with great power who are nothing but ruthless and dominating. It brings about conflict, and heightens the stakes for the “good” characters that we will root for.

But why do authors create ruling characters who possess great powers who are malevolent? Why don’t they make ruling characters with great powers who are benevolent? Stepping aside from the reasoning that evil characters with great powers makes for a more climatic story, could it be that writers have rested on the fact that no man/woman, or being, is able to be all-good if they were to possess great powers? The writer may not see this consciously, but it’s just a rooted fact within the human psyche. Anyone harnessing great powers will succumb to their dark side, and force their will upon the weaker to advance their own cause.

So what can be said of such characters? Do they reflect a reality that, in the words of John Dalberg-Acton, “absolute power corrupts absolutely?” Putting Acton’s words more in context, he said: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.” An example of this in fantasy fiction can be found in The Neverending Story. The main character, Bastian, becomes corrupted after obtaining the talisman, AURYN, given to him by the Childlike Empress. AURYN gave him the power to wish for whatever he wanted in the land of Fantastica. Consumed by the world he created with his wishes—creating havoc for the creatures of Fantastica—Bastian comes to the brink of wanting to conquer the Childlike Empress so that he can become the Childlike Emperor.

What would a work of fantasy fiction be like if the tables had turned? What if the all-powerful ruler was benevolent and good, ruling his people with peace, kindness and justice, but evil characters attempt to rise up to subdue them? Makes you wonder how such a story could work.

Good vs Evil 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Discussion Panel on Magic Systems - VIDEO

Below is a video of a panel of fantasy authors at the Phoenix Comicon earlier this month discussing magic systems. The video quality is not that good, but the discussion is perfect. The authors are: Jaye Wells, Myke Cole, Jim Butcher, Sam Sykes, Stephen Blackmoore and Patrick Rothfuss.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Inspirations of Fantasy

We can say that all writers collect the seeds acquired from an assortment of influences and plant them in their gardens of literary creativity. Not only that, but there are the nuggets of life’s experiences and the flow of imagination that fuels the drive of the writer’s story. Fantasy fiction is that one facet of speculative fiction where not only the fantastic is given liberty to reign, but an author can interject a riot of influences in a pliable universe.

Religion and mythology inspired ancient epics like Gilgamesh, The Odyssey and Beowulf. Fairy tales sprouted from the folklore of legends and imaginative narratives of morals, humor and fears. Without these foundations, modern fantasy would not exist.

The titan of modern fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien, poured all of his inspirations, passions and experiences into his creation. The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and all other Middle-earth companion books, would not have existed if it weren’t for the intelligence, knowledge, faith and experiences of Tolkien bleeding into his work as he spent years building a world that would dominate the genre for decades. It wasn’t only mythology and early works of fantasy that inspired Tolkien’s epic, but it was his knowledge of history, language, culture, as well as his service in World War I. These motivations, joined with masterful storytelling, are what produced the saga adored by millions today.

I think what gives George R.R. Martin’s work of A Song of Ice and Fire such great intrigue and grandeur is Martin’s inspiration from historical events like the War of the Roses, and the historical fiction of French author Maurice Druon. Nothing is more fascinating than the accounts of history—true stories of real people and momentous events of the past. That’s what I’ve come to enjoy in fantasy—books that have some sort of inspiration from history and/or real life situations, making for a more believable fictional world.

Similar to the ancient epics, modern fantasy continues to be inspired by the faith and beliefs of authors. C.S. Lewis’ Christianity was a key influence on his Chronicles of Narnia; with the result of a messianic lion (Aslan). Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials produced a work of fiction that drew upon John Milton’s Paradise Lost to tell a story with Atheist overtones. Likewise, Brandon Sanderson’s many works of fantasy show reflections of Mormon ideas, such as mortals attaining divinity; and it continues in his largest epic yet—The Stormlight Archive.

Sometimes it’s simply just the activities and occupations of a writer’s life that sparks an imaginative epic. Though the love of fantasy fiction altogether can be the basis of inspiration for all fantasy authors, nothing forms the author’s story like that in which he/she is familiar with. Patrick Rothfuss’ life and experiences in college clearly comes through, masterfully, in his Kingkiller Chronicle, giving readers more than just a heroic adventure story. Before writing fulltime, the late Sara Douglass was a registered nurse, which gave her the ability to write some pretty graphic scenes of brutal childbirth and what happens to the human body in certain conditions. Playing role-playing games like AD&D (Advanced Dungeons & Dragons) set the creative wheels spinning for Steven Erikson. He and a friend simply wanted to build a better and stronger role-playing universe, and thus the Malazan Empire was created, along with a whole cast of characters and histories, which would evolve into the Malazan Book of the Fallen series.

Obviously, fantasy stories can come from a vast pool of inspirations; however, it seems too often that writers draw their inspirations from the same sources. It can be nice seeing different renderings of similar settings and ideas in the genre, but it can get stale after awhile. We are definitely in a new age where most readers are anticipating something “original” in fantasy. If writers are dipping into the same limited reservoir of ideas, then you tend to have a stagnant genre. Yet when writers venture out a little and wade in a pool of fresh concepts—marrying it with exceptional storytelling—then the fantasy genre, once again, can celebrate another landmark in its great frontier.

History in Fantasy - Part 1