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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Mailvox: illumination and shadow

A physicist notes the way in which Tolkien explicated the distinction between the illuminating fairy tale and the dark deceit of the retrophobic modern fantasy:
I was intrigued by the discussion on retrophobia in fantasy literature, and it made me recall a relevant passage from Professor Wood's The Gospel According to Tolkien:

The essence of fairy-stories is that they satisfy our heart's deepest desire: to know a world other than our own, a world that has not been flattened and shrunk and emptied of mystery. To enter this other world, the fairy tale resorts to fantasy in the literal sense. It deals with phantasms or representations of things not generally believed to exist in our primary world: elves (the older word for faires), hobbits, wizards, dwarves, Ringwraiths, wargs, orcs, and the like. Far from being unreal or fantastic in the popular sense, these creatures embody the invisible qualities of the eternal world -- love and death, courage and cowardice, terror and hope -- that always impinge on our own visible universe. Fairy-stories "open as door on Other Time" Tolkien writes, "and if we pass through, though only for a moment, we stand outside our own time, outside Time itself, perhaps." Hence Tolkien's insistence that all fantasy-creations must have the mythic character of the supernatural world as well as the historical consistency of the natural world. The question to be posed for fantasy as also for many of the biblical narratives is not, therefore, "Did these things literally happen?" but "Does their happening reveal the truth?"

This ties into your discussion of the modern Wormtongues, as well. Wood and Tolkien are essentially saying what you're saying: modern fantasy fails, because important elements of the narrative do not reveal the truth, and readers know it.
The reason so much modern fantasy fails so spectacularly is not because it is soulless and derivative, although it is, but because it quite literally hates the heart.  It is written out of hatred, it is based on lies, and it is designed to obscure rather than reveal.  Take R. Scott Bakker's series, The Prince of Nothing.  The events chronicled within it did not literally happen, but their happening, quite intentionally, obscures the truth, indeed, it claims that there is no such thing as truth.  The ugliness of the disgusting Face Dancers is an apt metaphor for the ugly incoherence at the core of the modernist vision for the series.

This is why GRR Martin will never be the American JRR Tolkien.  What are the truths revealed by A Song of Ice and Fire?  That people of good will are stupid?  That everyone is pointlessly sadistic? That no good deed goes unpunished?  That sex is either rape, incest, or prostitution?  The only truths to be found in Martin are negative; there is nothing beautiful or mythic about Westeros.  There is death, cowardice, and terror, but where is the love, courage, and hope?  When viewed from this perspective, it becomes apparent that decline of the series observed in the two most recent books are merely the flowering of a retrophobic seed that was planted at the start.

My point is not that those who write in the older tradition are better writers.  If anything, it is remarkable that those who handicap their narratives so severely with their moral blindness and ideological retrophobia manage to produce works that are still compelling in some way.  The problem is that, no matter how highly skilled they are, genuine greatness will always elude them and their works, despite their merits, will rapidly fade into the forgotten dust of history because they do not speak to the eternal truths at the heart of Man.

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122 Comments:

Blogger Hermit December 18, 2012 6:25 AM  

As shoddy of a writer as he was, I think one of the reasons I kept reading R.A. Salvatore so long is that he at least tried to speak to the human condition. I wasn't specifically reading for that purpose, but I think it unwittingly drew kept me interested. It's been at least 5 years since I've touched one of his books, so I can't recall if he was successufl or not.

Anonymous scoobius dubious December 18, 2012 6:27 AM  

Is there any good fantasy fiction in your opinion that occupies a world different from the general outlines of the "faerie" type of universe -- i.e. kings and queens and princes, and elves and dwarves and trolls and dragon-type creatures and marching armies of swordsmen and that sort of setup? Or are things like kingdoms and thrones and dynasties and wizards intrinsic to what makes fantasy work? The closest thing I can think of to what I'm asking would maybe be Mark Helperin's "The Winter's Tale" set in a fantasized New York City, but even that doesn't quite count. For instance is there any good fantasy fiction set in a type of world that has things like electricity and steam engines, or their substitutes? (Let's assume Ayn Rand doesn't count.)

Anonymous VD December 18, 2012 6:37 AM  

China Mieville's work is pretty good. His "New Weird" is part fantasy, part science fiction. Neal Stephenson's Anathem is more science fiction, but it has a fantasy feel to it. That's where I would start.

You might also try the Steampunk genre, although I've yet to read anything in it that particularly grabbed me. Jim Butcher's Codex Aleria isn't bad either, and you might try Daniel Abraham as well.

Anonymous Krul December 18, 2012 7:11 AM  

C. S. Lewis elegantly captured the type of modern nihilistic confusion you describe in The Screwtape Letters, Letter 30:

Probably the scenes [of warfare and destruction] he is now witnessing will not provide material for an intellectual attack on his faith... But there is a sort of attack on the emotions which can still be tried. It turns on making him feel, when first he sees human remains plastered on a wall, that this is "what the world is really like" and that all his religion has been a fantasy. You will notice that we have got them completely fogged about the meaning of the word "real"'. They tell each other, of some great spiritual experience, "All that really happened was that you heard some music in a lighted building"; here "Real" means the bare physical facts, separated from the other elements in the experience they actually had. On the other hand, they will also say "It's all very well discussing that high dive as you sit here in an armchair, but wait till you get up there and see what it's really like": here "real" is being used in the opposite sense to mean, not the physical facts (which they know already while discussing the matter in armchairs) but the emotional effect those facts will have on a human consciousness. Either application of the word could be defended; but our business is to keep the two going at once so that the emotional value of the word "real" can be placed now on one side of the account, now on the other, as it happens to suit us. The general rule which we have now pretty well established among them is that in all experiences which can make them happier or better only the physical facts are "Real" while the spiritual elements are "subjective"; in all experiences which can discourage or corrupt them the spiritual elements are the main reality and to ignore them is to be an escapist. Thus in birth the blood and pain are "real", the rejoicing a mere subjective point of view; in death, the terror and ugliness reveal what death "really means". The hatefulness of a hated person is "real"--in hatred you see men as they are, you are disillusioned; but the loveliness of a loved person is merely a subjective haze concealing a "real" core of sexual appetite or economic association. Wars and poverty are "really" horrible; peace and plenty are mere physical facts about which men happen to have certain sentiments. The creatures are always accusing one another of wanting "to eat the cake and have it"; but thanks to our labours they are more often in the predicament of paying for the cake and not eating it. Your patient, properly handled, will have no difficulty in regarding his emotion at the sight of human entrails as a revelation of Reality and his emotion at the sight of happy children or fair weather as mere sentiment.

Anonymous Kyle In Japan December 18, 2012 7:13 AM  

ASOIAF does have truths, but as you said they're all negative - bad things happen to good people, sometimes for no reason, and it's often people who compromise and/or do bad things who prosper. This is echoed by the Bible as well (just read Job and Psalms.) To the extent that it portrays the world as an unfair place with plenty of bad people, I think the series rings true, but the lack of any serious rays of hope is much to its detriment.

But how does one write fantasy that reveals these kinds of truths without succumbing to proselytizing to some extent? You wrote that you intended to avoid subtext and underlying agendas to focus on story and character in A Throne Of Bones. While this is an admirable goal, it feels a little at odds with the other admirable goal of illuminating the truth. I think you managed to do both of these (as I found several scenes quite beautiful and inspiring) but it seems like a careful balancing act, and someone's always likely to criticize you for coming down on one side or the other.

Anonymous VD December 18, 2012 7:17 AM  

Either application of the word could be defended; but our business is to keep the two going at once so that the emotional value of the word "real" can be placed now on one side of the account, now on the other, as it happens to suit us.

This sort of thing irks me to no end. The "realistic" crime dramas where police, who in reality will never fire their gun once in their entire career, are engaging in shootouts every single week. The "realistic" epic fantasies where the only sex is incest, rape, or some other depravity and a warrior woman defeats all comers. It's selective lunacy, not reality.

Anonymous VD December 18, 2012 7:19 AM  

But how does one write fantasy that reveals these kinds of truths without succumbing to proselytizing to some extent?

By focusing on the real and the observable. Is it proselytizing for marriage that a man should look forward to seeing his wife for the first time in months? Of course not! It speaks to the human experience far more genuinely than the Leech's sadistic creep of a son bringing in Reek to warm up his new wife on his wedding night.

Anonymous Rock Throwing Peasant December 18, 2012 7:34 AM  

But how does one write fantasy that reveals these kinds of truths without succumbing to proselytizing to some extent?

I use inner dialogue turmoil. Let the character confront the tension, falter and sin, and seek (even if they can't achieve) redemption. I have a character in a novel that I really enjoy writing. He's morally conflicted, but I leave the door open enough (slim crack) that I feel it gives the reader restlessness about how he will proceed. So, even if he ultimately goes down the evil path, he recognizes it for evil. However, he rationalizes it with resignation.

Anonymous Krul December 18, 2012 7:49 AM  

This sort of thing irks me to no end. The "realistic" crime dramas where police, who in reality will never fire their gun once in their entire career, are engaging in shootouts every single week.

This reminds me. Once you said you wouldn't take "realistic" cop shows seriously until they made one about them doing paperwork all day. Well have you seen "The Wire"? While the show does glorify gangsters somewhat, its depiction of the casual, mundane corruption of a city's public sector struck me as far more realistic than the typical cop drama.

But how does one write fantasy that reveals these kinds of truths without succumbing to proselytizing to some extent?

I'm not a novelist, but I think that one only needs to write the truth as one sees and feels it. One needs not attempt to educate or convince, one needs only to write what one likes. The result will be an expression of one's honest conception of reality. If one is amoral, the story will omit moral truth. If one is moral, the story will show one's ideals of moral good and evil.

Any writers can correct me if I'm wrong, of course.

Blogger Bob Wallace December 18, 2012 7:58 AM  

I can't remember who said it, but he said that young teens who read can go either or two ways - Ayn Rand (a complete nutcase) or Tolkien. At12 I was repulsed by Rand and enjoyed Tolkien.

As an adult I did not enjoy Pullman's "His Dark Materials," which is supposedly for young teens and won several awards. It is very bad, in fact nihilistic fantasy. The series is nearly a perfect example of what is wrong with fantasy, and has been for a long time.

Anonymous Samson J December 18, 2012 8:00 AM  

Great stuff, Vox; it's made me realize why I don't like fantasy anymore despite my love for Tolkien. Maybe I'll give your book a shot.

Anonymous scoobius dubious December 18, 2012 8:10 AM  

Well I haven't read the George Martin books, but I saw the first season of the HBO series. Maybe it departs from the books in some ways, but I thought there was a lot of evidence of the good: Ned Stark seemed like a guy who was trying to do the right thing even though he was naive, and the hotel guests who drew on the dwarf ansd arrested him when Lady Stark requested them to were displaying a type of primitive virtue; Jon Snow defending the clumsy fat guy up at the Wall, and in general the high command of the Nights Watch seemed like people with a coherent conception of honor and loyalty; the little girl who wants to be a sword-fighter has a base element of virtue in her, and I think the Italian sword instructor was my favorite character in the thing -- and he certainly came off as a good guy. (Haven't seen the next season yet, so I don't know if he lives or dies.) Even Peter Dinklage's dwarf character serves to set virtue in relief through his sheer cynical cleverness -- and he sort of follows a kind of twisted path of virtue insofar as he's devoted to cleverness and his own comfort with a kind of purity of intent. And the hot blond chick who married Attila the Hun showed a sort of virtue in her loyalty to him, and her naivete about what a bunch of savages the horse people really were. Also the guy who was sort of her interpreter and guide was a classic type of Humphrey Bogart character: the hard-bitten worn-down sinner who, in Joyce's memorable phrase, has re-entered virtue by falling through the skylight of repentance.

You don't necessarily have to directly illustrate the good and the true by embodying it wholeheartedly or pointing directly to it; you can set it in relief, through contrast. The classic example is Richard III -- the whole play is soaked in a kind of gleeful wickedness, but we don't fail to understand what the good is on that score, we detect the good by observing its opposite.

The most uninteresting part of the Game of Thrones TV show I thought was the creepy neurotic cruelty of the boy king, which too conveniently lines right up with the demands of cruelty which power places on a king. It would have been more interesting if he'd aspired to be king, and was a half-decent chap, only to discover to his horror that the nature of a throne _required_ him to cut off Ned Stark's head and rip out the tongue of an offending minstrel. That the mob _demands_ demonstrations of wanton power like this if they are going to offer their loyalty. That would have been more complex.

But maybe the books are different, I don't know. The show was a bit more cruel and violent than I would have preferred, but it wasn't some all-out nihilistic monstrosity like the "Saw" series or "Hostel" or any of those other revolting torture-porn movies that I won't be watching.


Blogger Duke of Earl December 18, 2012 8:11 AM  

I would add, even in your villains leave some part that is admirable. No human being is 100% evil. In Vox's book even the villains fight for a cause and display a degree of nobility. One has turned to darkness in grief at the loss of a son, an emotion that makes his heinous actions understandable. Others fight for love, or from loyalty to their family.

One of the reasons I don't take Terry Goodkind seriously as a writer is his inability to write sympathetic villains. They're just evil for the sake of being evil.

Anonymous scoobius dubious December 18, 2012 8:12 AM  

"young teens who read can go either or two ways - Ayn Rand (a complete nutcase) or Tolkien."

Some of us took the third path: Cat's Cradle, Mother Night, and Slaughterhouse-five.

Anonymous VD December 18, 2012 8:16 AM  

I haven't read the George Martin books, but I saw the first season of the HBO series. Maybe it departs from the books in some ways, but I thought there was a lot of evidence of the good

Just wait. You'll see.

Anonymous JartStar December 18, 2012 8:23 AM  

If you are an author and a nihilist why would you pick the darker aspects of life to glorify? If good and evil really don't exist then why not focus on the supposed good?

Anonymous RedJack December 18, 2012 8:25 AM  

It seems you new book has given you a shot of passion, which has been lacking.

Blogger Nate December 18, 2012 8:30 AM  

Game of Thrones is awesome TV... but... I can't believe I am typing this... I am sincerely hoping someone in hollywood has the sense to veer wildly away from the source material.

Anonymous scoobius dubious December 18, 2012 8:31 AM  

"You'll see."

That bad, eh? Well at least I hope the bald eunuch in the kimono sticks around and doesn't get bumped off; it's an interesting performance from that actor, and he does a good job of making cynicism seem like a reasonable option, which is a tricky thing to pull off well. And maybe the blond dragon chick will get naked a few more times.

"young teens who read can go either or two ways - Ayn Rand (a complete nutcase) or Tolkien"

See, the big mistake people make is, once you're done with Tolkien at 12 or 13 (or Dune, or Foundation, those work too), you're not supposed to keep looking for more Tolkien. You're supposed to move on to Turgenev and Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Or George Eliot, if you're a girl.

Anonymous Stickwick December 18, 2012 8:31 AM  

The reason so much modern fantasy fails so spectacularly is not because it is soulless and derivative, although it is, but because it quite literally hates the heart. It is written out of hatred, it is based on lies, and it is designed to obscure rather than reveal.

This makes me wonder what kind of person really enjoys reading the modern stuff, if indeed anyone does.

C. S. Lewis elegantly captured the type of modern nihilistic confusion you describe in The Screwtape Letters, Letter 30

That's one of the best letters in TSL, which is saying a lot.

Blogger Nate December 18, 2012 8:36 AM  

"Turgenev and Tolstoy and Dostoevsky"

No 12 or 13 year old has lived enough to grock these. Sure you can grasp at the straws at that age... but go back and read them again when you're 25 and its a different thing entirely.

Anonymous scoobius dubious December 18, 2012 9:09 AM  

"No 12 or 13 year old has lived enough to grock these."

Next thing you'll tell me is that there are no 10-year-olds who can play a Brahms violin concerto with feeling. You'd be surprised what kids can upload. Although I agree with you literally, in the sense that a 12- or 13-year old should be reading Tolkien and Dune and so on; only after that, say 14-to-15, do you start to tackle the Russians. And you do it in the proper order, a bit at a time.

Here's my recommended order (and this is for boys; girls have a different trajectory altogether) -- age 12/13, Tolkien, Dune, Foundation, that sort of thing. 13/14, core Vonnegut (nothing past Breakfast of Champions) and T.H. White. Also rudimentary Shakespeare, usually Julius Caesar and 1Henry IV, maaaybe Richard II and Henry V. 14/15, The Cossacks and A Hunter's Album. 15/16, Notes from Underground, Fathers and Sons, maybe throw in a little Chekhov and Gorky, and some Tolstoy short works. 16/17, War and Peace if you can manage it, but definitely Brothers Karamazov before age 18. In my view if you read Karamazov after 18, you've missed something important about it. That book is made for exploring teenagers, not for adult sophisticates. But then I'm the sort of person who believes that Plato is strictly for teenagers looking to have their minds blown, not for adults trying to get their heads screwed back on straight.

Anonymous DrTorch December 18, 2012 9:23 AM  

The reason so much modern fantasy fails so spectacularly is not because it is soulless and derivative, although it is, but because it quite literally hates the heart. It is written out of hatred, it is based on lies, and it is designed to obscure rather than reveal.

I agree with you. And while you dislike her a lot, I'd suggest that JK Rowling is popular b/c she doesn't hate the heart. She wrote a narrative that was explicit cheering on love, courage and hope.

I would add, even in your villains leave some part that is admirable.

I'm glad Rowling didn't do this w/ Voldemort. I was glad to see a writer try to present evil as it is: vile, hateful and something that despises its "friends." Voldemort hated and used even those who supported him. Great character IMO.

Anonymous CJ December 18, 2012 9:24 AM  

Vox,

Is your belief that Harry Potter lacks staying power based on the reasons you laid out here or is it something else? I'm not a Potter fan, but I'm curious as to why you think they'll ultimately fade.

Anonymous CJ December 18, 2012 9:25 AM  

Believe it or not, I didn't see DrTorch's post before I wrote mine.

Anonymous Stickwick December 18, 2012 9:35 AM  

No 12 or 13 year old has lived enough to grock these. Sure you can grasp at the straws at that age... but go back and read them again when you're 25 and its a different thing entirely.

That is true of any book at any decade in your life. You'd be surprised how well some younger boys can grasp the heavier stuff. My husband, after devouring LOTR at the age of eight, moved on to the Russians and grokked them about as well as an educated teenager.

As for the recommended order, my opinion is that Rand can have a place in it. The Fountainhead is useful in shaping a personal philosophy on individualism in a young mind, especially in a time when most kids are saturated in progressive groupthink philosophy. For me, it was a stepping-stone in my progression to Christianity. I first had to have the sense that my life was my own in order to impart any meaning to the act of giving myself over to Christ. But Rand is definitely meant to be left behind at some point. You know you're likely dealing with a serious case of Aspergers if you encounter anyone over the age of 25 who still thinks Rand is the greatest, most important author ever.

Anonymous Papapete December 18, 2012 9:42 AM  

"Is your belief that Harry Potter lacks staying power based on the reasons you laid out here or is it something else? I'm not a Potter fan, but I'm curious as to why you think they'll ultimately fade."

I'm obviously not VD, but my reply would be that Rowling doesn't understand either world-building or storytelling. Her world is silly, and stretches suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. She also doesn't understand the value of implicit rather than explicit, something that Peter Jackson also misses. As an example, Tolkien's Gandalf is the perfect example of hinting rather than shouting. He gives the impression of vast power and knowledge, but when he uses his power it is either trivial or vast and unexplained. All the big magic (fight with Saruman & the balrog) occurs offstage and is only hinted at. Jackson's absurd wizard fight between Gandalf and Saruman nearly ruined the whole movie for me. In contrast, Rowling's depiction of magic utterly removed the sense of wonder and (dare I say it) magic from her magic.

Anonymous VD December 18, 2012 9:47 AM  

I'd suggest that JK Rowling is popular b/c she doesn't hate the heart. She wrote a narrative that was explicit cheering on love, courage and hope.

I totally concur. Her books are stupid, they are not soulless.

Great character IMO.

I totally disagree. Paper-thin stock character with no credible motivations for his behavior.

Is your belief that Harry Potter lacks staying power based on the reasons you laid out here or is it something else? I'm not a Potter fan, but I'm curious as to why you think they'll ultimately fade.

Something else. The Potter books lack greatness for very different reasons than the retrophobic books. Some of the retrophobes are very good writers handicapped by their ideology. Rowling just isn't a very good writer. But it is the heart and soul she puts into them that makes them likable despite their copious flaws, most of which are lost on her audience.

Anonymous Stickwick December 18, 2012 9:47 AM  

I'm glad Rowling didn't do this w/ Voldemort. I was glad to see a writer try to present evil as it is: vile, hateful and something that despises its "friends." Voldemort hated and used even those who supported him. Great character IMO.

I saw the first installment of The Hobbit movie trilogy this last weekend, and it was surprisingly enjoyable. Your observation touches on the reason: the orcs are portrayed as irredeemably vile and hateful, treacherous amongst themselves, and we are not invited to sympathize with them in any way. Furthermore, my recollection is that none of the good characters were muddled by any anti-hero qualities or plagued by self-doubt or any of the modern baloney that is meant to make them seem more realistic. Instead, they were good, courageous, and full of valor. It was about as pure a portrayal of good vs. evil as you'll get these days. What a sad statement on our culture that it's surprising to find such portrayals in modern entertainment, but that's why this movie will crush its competition and make a gajillion dollars.

Blogger Laramie Hirsch December 18, 2012 9:53 AM  

"GRR Martin will never be the American JRR Tolkien. What are the truths revealed by A Song of Ice and Fire? That people of good will are stupid..."

One of your best posts so far, Vox.

I've always thought that Martin's work gets more terrible with each book because it merely reveals his own godless black heart.

He writes excellent prose of the damned.

Anonymous CJ December 18, 2012 9:57 AM  

"In contrast, Rowling's depiction of magic utterly removed the sense of wonder and (dare I say it) magic from her magic."

Agreed. The magical combat model in particular is utterly laughable.

"All the big magic (fight with Saruman & the balrog) occurs offstage and is only hinted at. Jackson's absurd wizard fight between Gandalf and Saruman nearly ruined the whole movie for me."

I also prefer hinting to shouting, but in Jackson's defense some of this may have been driven by the nature of the medium he worked with. IMO, the bigger transgressions by far were Arwen and the Dead Men.

Blogger Drew December 18, 2012 10:14 AM  

" IMO, the bigger transgressions by far were Arwen and the Dead Men."

Also, the movies made Frodo weak and scared. Whereas in the book he was quite the opposite.

Blogger IM2L844 December 18, 2012 10:14 AM  

I suppose it's a matter of taste, but I don't want to think about the author when I'm reading a book. That's the problem I have with the disparate authors Terry Goodkind, Ayn Rand and Dostoevsky. They all read as cathartic exercises. Sure, they all have their moments of pure entertainment, but with all of them I always thought the authors were too present in the text and that was annoying.

Anonymous Krul December 18, 2012 10:16 AM  

I must say, of all the Ilk pasttimes Jackson bashing is one of my favorite.

I also prefer hinting to shouting, but in Jackson's defense some of this may have been driven by the nature of the medium he worked with. IMO, the bigger transgressions by far were Arwen and the Dead Men.

Oddly, my main complaint about Jackson's LOTR trilogy is his treatment of the Dead Marshes. In the book they were dark and creepy; there was both a palpable sense of danger sadness together. The movie's marshes were well lit and dull.

Anonymous Anonymousse December 18, 2012 10:19 AM  

The reason so much modern fantasy fails so spectacularly
 
Define “fails”, as Martin, Bakker or Abercrombie, at least, can't really be said to have failed by any objective measure, let alone “spectacularly”.

Anonymous Daniel December 18, 2012 10:22 AM  

When viewed from this perspective, it becomes apparent that decline of the series observed in the two most recent books are merely the flowering of a retrophobic seed that was planted at the start.

Wow, what a striking argument, so simple. I'm very surprised that I didn't realize that. I have, for so long, just simply assumed that Martin had lost his way in the piles of the money or the ravages of groupies or something, and was now forced to crank out a story he never thought through.

Instead, I now realize: he thought it through. It ends with nothing and meaninglessness and just a mess that no one can do anything about...on purpose.

I'm officially a fool. How did I miss this for so long?

On the other hand, I'm not going to feel bad about diving more frequently into greater past works than trying to pay attention to what passes for the giants of our times: Rothfuss, Abercrombie, etc.

For those who are interested, living authors who are still very much worth reading (because their stories have a point besides "there is no point") include:

Glen Cook
Howard Andrew Jones
Jack Vance
James Enge
E.E. Knight

and...with a minor caveat, Jonathan L. Howard (Howard's religion in stories is a duality, I think between "no god" (it is all a mirage) and satanism (many competing gods/demons are real - just no sign of the creator). In what I've read, it is an unrealistic drawback. However, he is fair to good spiritually-minded folk and certainly not averse to supernatural tropes of real ideals (courage, evil, etc.) Mostly, though, my endorsement is subjective: my trajectory after reading Howard (vs., say Abercrombie) is almost always "up" and not in the drippy sense.

Blogger Nate December 18, 2012 10:30 AM  

" IMO, the bigger transgressions by far were Arwen and the Dead Men."

No no... the worst thing... was making Sam and Frodo gay.

Blogger Nate December 18, 2012 10:32 AM  

Scoobs...

We'll not only disagree with the timing... but the content in general. Grimm... Narnia... then Tolkien...

Then is Berserkers and Man-Kinz Wars.

Anonymous Stephen J. December 18, 2012 10:39 AM  

Talking about Martin's books, it struck me that the fatal paradox at the heart of ASoIaF is that Martin knows people well enough to know that virtue, loyalty, honour and striving for the good are an ineradicable part of us; but he seems not to know, or to no longer be able to believe in, a reality where that striving is actually rewarded at least as often as not.

I say "seems" because one vital caveat has to be remembered in all analysis of ASoIaF: the story isn't finished yet. All stories which pass through the underworld have a descent and an ascent, and if you only know about the descent you'll naturally misunderstand the story.

Conversely, Bakker's "Prince of Nothing" series falls down, I have come to see, because even moreso than Martin he depicts everything about his religiously-driven society except why people would choose to believe it (which to be fair, he would have a hard time doing and still maintaining his thesis that faith is only a combination of social conditioning and rationalized weakness).

One thing I have come to notice a lot: No matter how vividly or meticulously anyone creates a faux-Christian faith in fantasy, none of those Crystal Dragon Jesuses (to use TVTropes.org's term for the trope) ever have their prophets quote anything like the Sermon on the Mount, or the story of Jesus welcoming the tax collector, or telling the judges of the woman caught in adultery "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone," or celebrating the woman who gave only a penny because to her that was all the money she had in the world; where piety is genuine and innocent, it is always the product of naivete and shelteredness, rather than genuine belief in the moral truths and principles proclaimed. One of the things I'm trying to do with my own fantasy opus is to create a debate between religions that is actually over different moral understandings of the world and the purpose of life, not just between manic power-hunger on one hand and wishy-washy live-and-let-live benevolence on the other.

Anonymous L-C-B December 18, 2012 10:46 AM  

The more enthusiastic praise I've heard for ASOIAF and other modern fantasy tends to be tinged with the thought that 'realistic' fantasy is the best sort of fantasy - usually through recommendations like "try this book, you'll like because even though there are dragons or magic or something it's so realistic" and it turns out "realistic" in these means characters poop and pee or get flaming bowel rot or have awkwardly written sex scenes that don't really add anything.

Blogger JDC December 18, 2012 10:47 AM  

Re Martin - love his books. My favorite epic after Tolkien (even with the disappointment of the last two books). Vox's statement regarding "good people being stupid" really hit me. Yes...without spoilers the good are constantly doing stupid things - namely, expecting good will to be extended from those who love the darkness.

Anonymous Daniel December 18, 2012 10:56 AM  

Oh, I should mention Tanith Lee, except that some of her books are written for an entirely different audience. In general, her older stuff is superior to her more recent stuff, but again, that's doesn't hold true throughout.

Blogger Doom December 18, 2012 11:05 AM  

Ah! I've been reading you on this for some time. I haven't been able to crack that acorn though, damn my numb mind. However this is written in terms I can easily understand. Further, in terms I could have written and have thought myself. Not just sf/f, however. The "news", revisions of history, "works of art", much of what is offered to the general and self-selecting groups of the public, all solidly coiled around death, seething with hatred for the consumer.

The hatred is especially targeted at those who don't buy the device. Solid Christians top the charts, but that isn't the end of the list by far. Thanks for clarifying to my humble needs.

Blogger James Dixon December 18, 2012 11:13 AM  

> For instance is there any good fantasy fiction set in a type of world that has things like electricity and steam engines, or their substitutes?

As Vox says, the genre you're asking about is called Steampunk. Check out http://www.girlgeniusonline.com/comic.php for a representative comic. There is at least one novel set in the same universe.

> ...and it's often people who compromise and/or do bad things who prosper.

That's always been the case. But people already know that. They don't need to read a book to have it endlessly reinforced. When all a book does is reinforce the bad things you already know exist, and not the good things, why should anyone bother to read it?

> "young teens who read can go either or two ways - Ayn Rand (a complete nutcase) or Tolkien."

Hmm. Well, I read both as a late teen, so I can't really say much. I don't think Rand is a "complete nutcase" though. Merely severely hampered by her upbringing.

> But Rand is definitely meant to be left behind at some point.

Agreed. At least in the sense of realizing that her vision is sadly incomplete.

> ...but the content in general. Grimm... Narnia... then Tolkien...

I'd start with Aesop's Fables and Bulfinch's Mythology myself. Though for most those will come pre-teen. Then Grimm. And am I the only one who would include Zane Grey, London, Kipling, and L'Amour?

Anonymous Tad December 18, 2012 11:14 AM  

@Vox Day

the eternal truths at the heart of Man.

You mean: "love, courage, and hope"?

Anonymous Stephen J. December 18, 2012 11:19 AM  

In all fairness to Martin, it should be noted that the evil people in his books are pretty consistently stupid as well. Even Tywin Lannister, magnificent bastard and strategic/political genius that he is, lays the grounds for the self-destruction of his family and the post-war collapse of the entire Seven Kingdoms purely through his failure to understand, or admit to himself, what his children have actually become.

Anonymous Matthew December 18, 2012 11:19 AM  

scoobius, you might try Dave Duncan, an undeservedly obscure Canadian author with a penchant for strange worlds, strange gods, and strange magic. Some of his works:

the Dodec books: set on a dodecahedral world. Two adjacent faces are at war, but crossing an edge is non-trivial due to the cold and thin atmosphere

Ill Met in the Arena: a civilization where noblemen have telekinetic powers, and noblewomen have short-range telepathic powers. Letting a woman touch you is thus a huge risk.

West of January: an SF dressed as fantasy. Takes place on a planet that was thought to be in a phase locked orbit when the colony ship was sent out, but instead has a very slow rotation relative to the sun. Story begins hundreds of years after the breakdown of the colonial civilization.

The Seventh Sword: Manages to combine a swords-and-sorcery tale with a riverworld while being intelligent and surprising.

Blogger Positive Dennis December 18, 2012 11:41 AM  

A most interesting discussion. What I liked about Bones the most was that the evil characters are not without some goodness, Aulun and Magnus. Nor are the good characters without some evil. You know the way the world actually works. Even the evil Nephilum are more goal driven than evil.

Anonymous zapbrannigan1 December 18, 2012 12:14 PM  

I love this post.

It gets to the heart of something that has bothered me about A Song of Ice and Fire in particular. While I have enjoyed reading the series, I found that I had to stop periodically because I became "tired" of it. Looking back, I now realize that I wasn't tired but depressed. As Vox points out, there is nothing, nothing uplifting about Martin's tale. Evil, more often than not, wins. Bad characters get away with almost every misdeed and the very few moral characters are either humiliated, marginalized, or simply killed outright. The tone of the story is overwhelmingly dour and cynical, and Martin seems to take pleasure in describing the depredations of the world he has created.

Now, I understand that Martin is attempting to write a very different story than Tolkien. ASOIF is supposed to be historical fiction with a vein of fantasy running through it, and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings was intended to be a uniquely English legend in the mold of the classics like Beowulf or Gawain and the Green Knight. Still, I believe that Martin has so lost himself in the sordid details of history (which are always recorded precisely because they are so horrible) that he has lost sight of the good in Man. Conversely, Tolkien beautifully depicts this goodness in his epic: the hobbits' love of their home and the simple pleasures of life; Sam's steadfast devotion to Frodo in the face of a seemingly hopeless quest; Aragorn's love of his people and his acceptance of his duty to lead them; and in the mercy of Bilbo who spared Gollum's life. Tolkien doesn't sugarcoat evil or make it powerless against the heroes of his story. Quite the opposite. Sauron is the most powerful being in Middle Earth and his minions outnumber the dwindling forces of Elves and Men. No, the seeds of Sauron's defeat are the qualities of love, honor, and friendship that bind the heroes together, qualities that are in very short supply in Martin's epic.

In short, the message of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is that evil exists and must be confronted, but that it can be defeated through acts of bravery and charity. Martin's ASOIF shows the reader only the most jaundiced view of humanity and offers not even a sliver of hope that it can be saved, nor even if it should be.

Anonymous rycamor December 18, 2012 12:39 PM  

Nate December 18, 2012 10:30 AM

" IMO, the bigger transgressions by far were Arwen and the Dead Men."

No no... the worst thing... was making Sam and Frodo gay.


Yes, this pervaded the movie like a sickly-sweet stench, and only got worse toward the end. And Elijah Wood was just far too delicate and fine-boned to make a good hobbit.

Just saw The Hobbit with my daughter. At least Martin Freeman made a better Bilbo than Elijah Wood did a Frodo. The dwarves were quite well done, too. My kvetch there was that everything else was just too overblown. The director got so carried away with special effects that every mythical creature is out of proportion and every fight scene lasts forever, with so many close calls with bridges crashing and boulders falling that you start to tune it out.

About halfway through I started wondering how they would have the time to wrap it up, and then I realized this is only the first of 3. Huh??? It's going to take three movies to tell The Hobbit's story? Talk about milking it...

Blogger Beefy Levinson December 18, 2012 12:53 PM  

No, no. The worst thing of all about the Jackson films is Faramir.

Anonymous VD December 18, 2012 12:54 PM  

Define “fails”, as Martin, Bakker or Abercrombie, at least, can't really be said to have failed by any objective measure, let alone “spectacularly”.

Of course they can. Despite being said to be among the best their generations have to offer, they have failed to achieve the literary greatness of their predecessors in the genre. Martin and Bakker couldn't even manage to maintain the level of quality they reached in their first book for the duration of the series.

Now, you can perhaps point out that they never tried to reach such heights, but whether that is true or not, you can't argue that they have fallen spectacularly far short of the mark. No future generations will love their books, future generations of readers won't even know they existed.

Anonymous VD December 18, 2012 12:56 PM  

No, no. The worst thing of all about the Jackson films is Faramir.

True. I was going to say the non-Tolkien dialogue was the worst, but that's merely irritating. But what he did to Faramir downright offends me.

Anonymous bw December 18, 2012 1:07 PM  

quite literally hates the heart. It is written out of hatred, it is based on lies, and it is designed to obscure rather than reveal.

Damn that's perfect.
Perfect description of The State, its True Believers, and those behind it and them - and the one behind all of that.

obscure rather than reveal

Anonymous Daniel December 18, 2012 1:10 PM  

True. I was going to say the non-Tolkien dialogue was the worst, but that's merely irritating. But what he did to Faramir downright offends me.

Hobbit (film) defender here - the additions from the LOTR appendices are very welcome. Jackson's cinematic shortcuts (Faramir, Battle Elves, welsh relief dwarf, and the ghost army, and the skipping of the scourging) are not to be found here. I very much wish the characterized "foe" orc was more similar in depth to the Goblin King, but what do you expect: Tolkien only wrote the Gob-king. The orcs were mostly sketches.

Blogger Bob Wallace December 18, 2012 1:15 PM  

"-- age 12/13, Tolkien, Dune, Foundation, that sort of thing"


Even now, I never got much beyond that. Shakespeare, Dostoevsky...couldn't do them.

In fact, I never got beyond "The Count of Monte Cristo," which I think contains just about all you need to know.

But then, there is the Bible.

Anonymous Daniel December 18, 2012 1:20 PM  

It's going to take three movies to tell The Hobbit's story? Talk about milking it...

No, no, no. In this case, that's the very best part. I loved that the movie took the same pastoral approach (even including one of my favorite side stories - the invention of the game of golf) as the book. Yes, I think the stone giant battle could have been majestic and frightening without them all being in such dramatic danger, and the goblin fight certainly could have been less Indiana Jones and more Ran, but those conflicts are all straight from the book - the whole "out of the frying pan" sense of the second 1/6th of the book (following the pastoral, soft comedy and comfort of the beginning).

Not milking it: taking its time. The problem with LoTR wasn't that it was overlong, it was that it crammed six books into three movies.

The Hobbit corrects it by incorporating the LOTR appendices regarding Smaug, the fall of Moria, the necromancer and Radagast, etc., and dividing the book neatly into three parts.

The content is plenty rich to extend for three movies. Now, whether the other two will end up getting gummed up with the wrong rabbit trails (Beorn, brutish woodsman, or sexy-tender werebear?) I can't say. I can only say Hobbit I built a solid platform. I haven't had that much fun in a theater, legally, in a long, long time.

Anonymous Negromommy Babylognian 777 December 18, 2012 1:32 PM  

Actually, current fantasy is spectacularly horrific because of its obsession with Tolkien. It is so bad that simply declaring that fantasy relies too much on LoTR for inspiration is becoming tiresome itself.
ASOIAF is turning into a pile of manure mostly because of the cumbersome breadth of the plot and cast and GRRM’s inability to pace. The nascent failure of it really has nothing to do with the alleged nihilism and “retrophobia” that made it popular in the first place, as cute of a statement as that sounds for those fundamentalists perturbed by the ethics of this series.
I actually like the direction fantasy's going in these days, though I wish it would take more than baby steps towards what I see as the goal, and stop relying on excessively "gritty" and "grim" characters and situations to make an otherwise powerful statement about "real life". In comparison to the SFF of yesteryear, there's movement towards a more authentic portrayal of the psychology of real humans; no one is a character in some epic poem anymore, and although we are at a point where rapes and massacres are blithely being committed or caused by main characters we are absurdly supposed to empathize with, I'm sure that we will reach a time where there are some protagonists who are neither taking any extreme action to stop or cause either side of the moral spectrum either because they are in no position and lack the resources or just lack concern...because, you know, this is how people are in real life, like it or not.
Whether you believe in clear-cut dichotomy between GOOD-WHITE/EVIL-BLACK or in relentless moral ambiguity, it is still well observed that life is nowhere near as simplistic as it is morally represented in the works of Tolkien and most fantasies were heroes are strong, sword-wielding 6'3 alpha males with all of the confidence in the world (and not a modicum of self-doubt or pity for some terrible event that's happened in their life) and an insatiable hunger for bringing goodness into the world. Obviously, Frodo and Bilbo do not fit this archetype completely, but the general idea is the same.
You all do know that fantasy, like a few other literary genres, is not read as wish-fulfillment by everyone, right?
And doesn’t the latter half of the Bible (all those quotes about Satan being the ruler of the world, you can’t be a server of both god and mammon, don’t be worldly, etc.)only reaffirm the insidiousness of this world? That in conjunction with the Fall of Man? A very popular answer to the problem of evil is God’s allotment of freewill. It is an answer to a question that tortures so many who are witnesses to the hellish nature of some aspects the world. We all may be middle classed westerners able to afford computers and Wifi, but please let us not forget not only all of the shit that happens on the other side of the planet, but all of the injustices that have taken place in the past.
Besides, people pretend that ASOIAF is unrelentingly dark and tragic, as if there’s a dearth of cartoonishly good characters who act as beacons of light for the squeamish readers.

Blogger Duke of Earl December 18, 2012 1:34 PM  

“Fairy tales are more than true; not
because they tell us that dragons
exist, but because they tell us that
dragons can be beaten.”

One of Chesterton's observations about fantasy. A story should inspire us as well as entertain us.

Yes, Jackson's treatment of Faramir was the worst part of movie Lord of the Rings. We never saw what Eowyn sees in the books, a man of learning, but also one who no rider of Rohan could stand against in battle.

Blogger James Dixon December 18, 2012 1:38 PM  

Well, since it is nearly Christmas, and the Lord of the Rings has come up, and most of the readers here probably never followed Usenet; how about a little derivative work originally published on Usenet that ties it all together?

https://groups.google.com/forum/?hl=en&fromgroups=#!msg/rec.arts.sf.written/HsUzyW51OUc/IJ6U-o6UNVYJ

Anonymous VD December 18, 2012 1:48 PM  

The nascent failure of it really has nothing to do with the alleged nihilism and “retrophobia” that made it popular in the first place, as cute of a statement as that sounds for those fundamentalists perturbed by the ethics of this series.

This alone shows how misguided your perception is. No one is perturbed by the ethics, or rather, the lack of them in Martin's series. And why do you assert that the "alleged nihilism and 'retrophobia'" are the elements of ASoIaF that made it popular in the first place? After all, there is even more of both in the last two books.

Anonymous VD December 18, 2012 1:49 PM  

Besides, people pretend that ASOIAF is unrelentingly dark and tragic, as if there’s a dearth of cartoonishly good characters who act as beacons of light for the squeamish readers.

Who is pretending this? I didn't say the good characters were nonexistent, I said they were uniformly stupid. How can they be simultaneously stupid and nonexistent?

Anonymous Anonymuss December 18, 2012 1:59 PM  

Vox; future generations of readers won't even know you existed either.  Of course I don’t know that to be true anymore than you do of Martin or Bakker, but it’s fun to assert.

Blogger JaimeInTexas December 18, 2012 2:16 PM  

"For instance is there any good fantasy fiction set in a type of world that has things like electricity and steam engines, or their substitutes?"

Would you consider the engineer trilogy (Devices and Desires) fantasy?

Blogger JaimeInTexas December 18, 2012 2:27 PM  

Where would y'all place the Dresden files? Literature, cheap fantasy?

Anonymous Stickwick December 18, 2012 2:27 PM  

@ Daniel: I concur wholeheartedly about The Hobbit.

Off the top of my head ...

Pros:

- The pacing is just right.

- The right balance of humorous and dramatic elements.

- Incorporating elements from the appendices fleshed the story out. Jackson deftly wove in threads from the LOTR to tie the two movie trilogies together.

- Clear-cut good vs. evil.

- Bilbo is well-portrayed. Fond of the comforts of home, but rises to the occasion when called for. Sentimental and merciful, but not weak. Jackson took some knocks for the way he portrayed Frodo and Sam, so perhaps he learned a lesson and made an effort not to repeat the mistake with Bilbo. This is the way Frodo and Sam should have been portrayed.

- The dwarves are also well-portrayed. Gimli in the movies is a caricature, but these dwarves are more solemn and other-worldly. Thorin and Dwalin in particular are good. Thorin is a heroic figure with a cause, and has just the right amount of pride and elf-dislike to build towards the denouement in the third film.

- Gandalf was well-portrayed, faithful to the original story.

- Erebor was stunningly portrayed, if a smidge overdone. You get a sense of what the dwarves created and why they would desire to return.

- The songs. Not soppy or cutesy, but very much how I think Tolkien imagined them being sung.

- Some of the "big" action was beautifully done: the stone giant battle was awesome (in the original sense of the word); and the eagles were also awe-inspiring.

- Almost entirely an all-male, masculine movie.

Cons:

- Most of the action sequences are over-the-top.

- The two main evil characters are exaggerated.

- Radagast. Ugh. Just seemed like some forest weirdo instead of an esteemed member of the Istari.

The good aspects of the movie far outweigh the negatives. In some respects, it is superior to the LOTR movies. Like Daniel, I had more fun in the theater than I have in a loooong time.

Anonymous . December 18, 2012 2:38 PM  

Tad December 18, 2012 11:14 AM @Vox Day

the eternal truths at the heart of Man.

You mean: "love, courage, and hope"?


No, he means the eternal truth: "Tad's comments are asinine."

Blogger JaimeInTexas December 18, 2012 2:38 PM  

I saw the Hobbit, last Friday. I think that the cause for those long scenes, that caused me to wonder when they would end, are due to the movie also being filmed in 3-D.
On balance, I liked it. It should have been made into a two part movie, not three.

Anonymous Daniel December 18, 2012 2:52 PM  

Stickwick, I agree with you on everything but Radagast. He was a forest weirdo - of the five who came to address the Sauron problem, the blues went off and did whatever, Gandalf puttered about putting off the inevitable, Saruman actively led the counter-operation, and Radagast went full metal zookeeper. His biggest concern in the books is the harm that might come to the flowers of what came to be known as Mirkwood. He definitely picked his battles unconventionally, and don't forget that he is ultimately, as big of a failure as Saruman, with the key difference being that he was good, humble and honest, and Saruman was prideful and ambitious in his error.

I don't think Tolkien ever said as much, but I don't know how to read Radagast as anything but a warning against one of Tolkien's deepest affinities (nature) - you can love a great good too much to the point that you end up jeopardizing the main goal and your deep love at the same time. I actually found him to be a delightful adaptation. His help, while modestly useful, was laughably insufficient.

Anonymous Josh December 18, 2012 2:55 PM  

 I haven't had that much fun in a theater, legally, in a long, long time.

That's how I felt about the film as well. It's never a bad thing to return to the shire, and the beginning of the film, when Gandalf and the dwarves show up, is perfect. And they put all the songs in there.

Anonymous Daniel December 18, 2012 2:57 PM  

Oh, yeah, I forgot about the 3-D. I saw the normal flat version.

Anonymous scoobius dubious December 18, 2012 3:02 PM  

I'm surprised there isn't more love in these parts for The Once and Future King. To my mind it's a great stylistic bridge between pure Tolkien-type fantasy and more realistic psychological literature and historical currents that can't and won't resolve neatly.

To the commenter who was complaining about the moral simplicity of Tolkien's world: I think maybe the way to look at it is, since it's such a detailed and fully-realized world, you could view all the various archetypal characters as cogs and moving parts within the complex moral and psychological makeup of Middle Earth itself, viewed as a unified, single entity or consciousness, whose story the whole thing really is. In that reading Middle Earth itself is an individual and the sole character, perhaps moving through a dream, undergoing a great internal struggle between evil and ambition on the one hand, and perseverance and humility on the other... and making some surprising discoveries about itself.

Anonymous Daniel December 18, 2012 3:03 PM  

And they put all the songs in there.

To great emotional effect. I didn't think about it at the time, but "15 Birds," quite simply, would have been awesome. Cinematically, I think it would have caused a blur between the evil but merry goblins and the evil but dull orcs, but I wouldn't have cared. That would have been as creepy as Robert Mitchum singing Leaning on the Everlasting Arms in Night of the Hunter.

Anonymous Randy M December 18, 2012 3:17 PM  

"that life is nowhere near as simplistic as it is morally represented in the works of Tolkien and most fantasies were heroes are strong, sword-wielding 6'3 alpha males with all of the confidence in the world (and not a modicum of self-doubt or pity "

Okay, you're just baiting Vox, aren't you?

Anonymous Negromommy Babylognian 777 December 18, 2012 3:19 PM  

>No one is perturbed by the ethics, or rather, the lack of them in Martin's series.

lol, ok.

>And why do you assert that the "alleged nihilism and 'retrophobia'" are the elements of ASoIaF that made it popular in the first place? After all, there is even more of both in the last two books.

Yes, but the reason AFFC and ADWD haven't been as well accepted by everyone has nothing to do with the nihilism of the story as a whole. AFFC had characters no one cared about; in ADWD, nothing happened.....And in both, the pacing and plot were terrible, and gave off the idea that GRRM had lost sight of his own story.

When the books first came out, everyone was praising it for the very reasons that people here hate it for: the anachronistically strong female women, the focus on seemingly "evil" characters, the violence, and whether they want to admit it or not, the taboo sex. Sure, there were always people at the beginning who loathed all of that, but they were always a disgruntled minority.

I don't think it's a risky wager to make that GRRM's "retrophobia" and moral dissolution are what made the series so accessible to this generation of fantasy readers in the first place. So what if there's more of it in ADWD and AFFC? There are other reasons they fared so badly.

>Who is pretending this? I didn't say the good characters were nonexistent, I said they were uniformly stupid. How can they be simultaneously stupid and nonexistent?

You probably didn't, but then again, that wasn't directed only at you.

Anonymous Daniel December 18, 2012 3:26 PM  

Who was it directed at?

I think the only non-existent people are the ones you are arguing against.

Anonymous Randy M December 18, 2012 3:27 PM  

What are the strong female characters in the first 2 or 3 SoI&F books? They are central to the plot, certainly, but as was discussed recently, they aren't butt-kickers or leaders, but manipulators, schemers, and sneaks.

Anonymous VD December 18, 2012 3:33 PM  

lol, ok.

The point you seem to have missed is that most of the people who criticize Martin's nihilism and amorality actually LIKED the first three books.

What are the strong female characters in the first 2 or 3 SoI&F books?

I was going to ask this too. Cersei is almost the complete opposite of a modern retrophobic heroine. And I don't know anyone who thinks Brienne of Tarth is even a tertiary character, must less a reason to like the books.

Anonymous VD December 18, 2012 3:34 PM  

life is nowhere near as simplistic as it is morally represented in the works of Tolkien and most fantasies were heroes are strong, sword-wielding 6'3 alpha males with all of the confidence in the world (and not a modicum of self-doubt or pity "

Like Aragorn? Have you even read The Lord of the Rings?

Anonymous Negromommy Babylognian 777 December 18, 2012 3:52 PM  

>The point you seem to have missed is that most of the people who criticize Martin's nihilism and amorality actually LIKED the first three books.

You say they criticize Martin's nihilism and amorality; I say they are perturbed by it. That semicolon is the area where you decided to split a hair...unless you want to assert that I exaggerated their criticism.


And you are right about the female characters. I just realized how well written within the confines of history most of them were. But the nihilism of the first three books, exemplified by the deaths of (spoilers) Ned and Robb among other things, was one of the primary things factoring into ASOIAF's initial success.

Again, his inability to handle all of his characters and stories is what's grating on the nerves of most of his readership.





Anonymous rycamor December 18, 2012 3:55 PM  

Totally agreed with Stickwick, Josh, and Daniel about the quality of the songs. "Over the Misty Mountains Cold" really did send chills down my spine.

And yes, The Hobbit stuck to the story far better than the LOTR series. I just still think the pacing was spoiled by the interminable battle scenes, and the close escapes that just were not necessary to the story and went far beyond realistic physics--even for a fantasy story. The stone giant battle is a perfect example.

Otherwise, great story and characterization, except for Radagast.

Anonymous Randy M December 18, 2012 4:13 PM  

"But the nihilism of the first three books, exemplified by the deaths of (spoilers) Ned and Robb among other things, was one of the primary things factoring into ASOIAF's initial success. "

There's a difference, though, between having the apparent main character die, then have his heirs carry on the fight and, not neccesarily win, but accomplish something; and on the other hand, have the main character die... then his children scattered... then his heir die... then his wife dies (or something)... then his home razed... etc.

I think the first book generated a lot of tension, and the later ones, by using the same device but more wantonly, degenerated it into something of a shaggy dog story (see TVTropes on that term for context).

Darkness before the dawn is one thing. Stumbling around in the dark for hundreds of pages is another.
(I've read up to but not including DwD).

Anonymous VD December 18, 2012 4:14 PM  

You say they criticize Martin's nihilism and amorality; I say they are perturbed by it. That semicolon is the area where you decided to split a hair...unless you want to assert that I exaggerated their criticism.

You're both incorrect and missing the point. Why would they be "perturbed" by something that is so easily avoided? I criticize it more overtly and publicly than most; do you seriously think I am perturbed by it in the least? I suspect you either have a very naive and immature view on why people would criticize such things or you are projecting.

Have you ever seen anyone fainting, crying, or claiming they feel like puking after reading Martin's fiction? I get that practically every time I write a column that offends equalitarian sensibilities.

Again, his inability to handle all of his characters and stories is what's grating on the nerves of most of his readership.

I won't argue with you there. I can't. I agree. I simply don't think it is entirely unrelated to his nihilism and amorality. I do, however, think it is also partly the result of his poor project management. But that merits a separate post tomorrow.

To a certain extent, we're talking past each other. While I think the nihilism and the amorality limits Martin and prevented him from reaching Tolkienesque literary heights, it isn't what destroyed his last two books. It can't be, because it was present in all five.

Anonymous Stickwick December 18, 2012 4:28 PM  

@ Daniel: Thanks for correcting me about Radagast. Very interesting how it all came down to Gandalf to do the job.

@ rycamor: There was one really cool battle sequence, and that was the one in which we learn how Thorin Oakenshield got his name.

Hey, whaddya know, someone posted "Over the Misty Mountains Cold" to YouTube a long time ago. There are few things more stirring than male voices singing like this. Can you imagine partying with dwarves? Eating, drinking, storytelling, followed by fireside songs like this ...

Anonymous rycamor December 18, 2012 5:06 PM  

Stickwick-even that Youtube posting doesn't include the full cut. It looks like they just re-pasted the part from the trailer. In the full version, it is just stunning when the harmonies swell, especially in surround-sound. Whoever composed and arranged it is a genius.

Anonymous stg58/Animal Mother December 18, 2012 5:17 PM  

Rycamor,

Link that full version, please!

Anonymous Daniel December 18, 2012 5:31 PM  

Gandalf didn't even volunteer for the job: he was much more interested in heavenly things, and was very frightened of Sauron, plus he didn't want to be an old man with diminished knowledge. I think that might have been why Saruman liked, but could so often dismiss, Gandalf as not understanding or paying attention to the evils of their old buddy Sauron. I'm not sure, but I think Gandalf was more concerned about Sauron opening thing gate for Morgoth's return than Sauron himself, whereas Saruman was very task focused, obsessed with checking Sauron's every move. Radagast loved the world too much to save it, and the two mysterious blue wizards ended up setting up cults or secret societies to worship or benefit themselves. The relationship of the three wizards (Saruman to Radagast to Gandalf) is very complicated.

Anonymous Stickwick December 18, 2012 6:45 PM  

@ rycamor: Yes, lamentably, it's just the part of the song from the trailer -- I couldn't find the full version anywhere on YouTube. It looks like the soundtrack was released last week, but surprisingly, it seems no one has posted the full version of the song yet.

@ Daniel: While it is true Tolkien eschewed allegory, it cannot be denied that there are definite Christian parallels in the story, and Wood claims (correctly, I think) that the Maiar are essentially angels. Makes sense in terms of the fallenness of Sauron and the Balrog, etc., but I don't know enough of angel-lore to know if what you describe with the five Istari is analogous to what happened with some of the angels. And it sure makes me wonder if there are connections to pagan mythology, particularly if there were corrupted angels like the blue wizards who desired worship for themselves.

Anonymous Anonymous December 18, 2012 7:53 PM  

I'm surprised no one has mentioned Glen Cook. Vox's own novel reminds me some of the way Cook writes--Several sides, no one side is especially evil (well, maybe the Orcs, but then they're orcs, after all) things don't work out, sympathetic characters get killed off causing all sorts of other problems and so on.

Anonymous stg58/Animal Mother December 18, 2012 7:53 PM  

Maybe the Istari are analogous to the judges. Saruman fell, like Samson. I don't know, kind of grasping at straws. A significant portion of the Tolkien mythology was pulled from the Finnish legends and myth. The elven languages are very similar to Finnish. Maybe the Istari archetypes are found there.

Anonymous Unending Improvement December 18, 2012 8:24 PM  

I don't see the Orcs in Tolkien's works as being evil, but I do think they are wickedness. They are not evil because they did not make a conscious choice, but they are wicked for they are designed to kill and despoil.

If that's not a meaningless difference of course.

Anonymous Kickass December 18, 2012 8:39 PM  

I guess what has always bothered me is that the fantasy world are always the same. Is it because these world actually existed? It isn't that I don't believe in the Bible, it is just that all the literature seems to include the same type of characters throughout the world. Just slight differences in names or characteristics, but it's essentially the same cast of characters throughout different cultures and time in much of the literature.

I guess I just find it strange and interesting at the same time.

Anonymous Kickass December 18, 2012 8:40 PM  

What on earth is a face dancer?

Blogger Duke of Earl December 18, 2012 8:50 PM  

I think it's from Dune

Blogger Huggums December 18, 2012 9:38 PM  

What are the flaws in the Harry Potter books?

Anonymous Stickwick December 18, 2012 10:01 PM  

@ stg58/Animal Mother: Maybe Markku will weigh in on the Finnish influence and any possible connection with the Istari. I asked my Finnish husband about it this evening, but when he launched into his description of the Kalevala, my eyes started to cross from all of the detail. How Tolkien managed to slog through all that material, I'll never know, but he apparently thought he'd stumbled on a treasure. The Finnish language is quite interesting, though, I'll grant him that.

@ Kickass: IIRC, it was C. S. Lewis who explained this by saying the Bible relates a meta-narrative -- the true, overarching Story of our world -- and as such it would make sense that all of these other mythologies would have certain elements of the Story filtered down to them. I think it was Joseph Campbell who tried to explain the similarities in terms of modern psychology (?), but maybe that is not as far-fetched as it sounds. If Lewis is correct, then it's as though the Story is spiritually imprinted on each of us, and of course that would manifest psychologically in the stories we tell.

Anonymous stg58/Animal Mother December 18, 2012 10:02 PM  

The Harry Potter books.

Anonymous Wendy December 18, 2012 10:07 PM  

They are not evil because they did not make a conscious choice...

I have long thought one of the more interesting (albeit minor) passages in ROTK is when two orcs are talking amongst themselves saying if the other side wins, we're dead because who's going to spare an orc? They know they're the bad guys, but they don't really have a choice - they can't really switch sides because who's going to believe an orc? (Ok, really rough paraphrase. It's been too long since I've read the book.)

Anonymous stg58/Animal Mother December 18, 2012 10:08 PM  

Stickwick,

Tolkien was a philologist, so languages were his trade. He was able to amalgamate Finnish with other ancient languages to come up with Quenya and Sindarin. That ability was what allowed Tolkien to slog through the Kalevala. Tolkien's goal in writing LOTR was to provide the British Isles with a national mythology, like the Kalevala is to Finland.

Side note, it must be hard to be his grandsons and great grandsons. As soon as you drop your last name, nerds mob you immediately.

Anonymous stg58/Animal Mother December 18, 2012 10:12 PM  

Stickwick,

Orcs were created by Melkor/Morgoth as a mockery, perversion of the original creation and an insult to elves. They were created to be evil. Think about what a creature created by Satan would look like and what its nature would be.

Anonymous Stickwick December 18, 2012 11:11 PM  

That ability was what allowed Tolkien to slog through the Kalevala.

Sure, but I didn't mean his linguistic ability. I was referring to his patience / tolerance / curiosity that allowed him to read through the whole thing. When my husband and I were first married, my father in-law sent me an English translation of the Kalevala. It's LONG. I tried to read it, lost patience, asked my husband give me the gist of it, it just confused me, so I've kind of given up*. My hat's off to Tolkien for mastering it as he did.

* The superlative Finnish metal band Amorphis has several concept albums that revolve around characters from the Kalevala, so I pick up bits and pieces of the story from their songs.

By the way, your orc observation was intended for Wendy, no?

Anonymous stg58/Animal Mother December 18, 2012 11:30 PM  

Oh yeah sorry.

By the way, where would you find an English copy of the Kalevala? My mouth is watering at the thought. I might check out Amazon.

Anonymous Stickwick December 19, 2012 12:24 AM  

This is the translation of the Kalevala dad in-law sent me. Good luck!

Anonymous Unending Improvement December 19, 2012 12:43 AM  

"(Ok, really rough paraphrase. It's been too long since I've read the book.)"

Well, it's just a silly little idea I came up with, but then that goes into philosophical issues I honestly haven't studied at all.

Anonymous Stickwick December 19, 2012 1:28 AM  

@ stg58/Animal Mother: I left a response for you, but it disappeared into the ether. Anyway, the translation I have is this one. Good luck!

Anonymous stg58/Animal Mother December 19, 2012 2:18 AM  

Stickwick,

I jumped on Amazon and found all the editions. I only buy hardcover books, and I was able to find several nice looking editions. The best one was 449.00, apparently it has some illustrator's work attached to it which is unreal. I found several good hardback versions for about 50-60.00.

Blogger Markku December 19, 2012 5:30 AM  

I've looked at the English translation of Kalevala, and it is absolutely painful. I'd just not read it at all. Even Tolkien read it in Finnish (and learned the language in order to do so, which later resulted in inventing the elven language).

It's not really that the translators were bad, it's that the original is complex poetry, with EXTREMELY complex usage of Finnish. Such as kantele -> kanteloinen. It is immediately obvious to a Finn what was done there, but it would take so many words to carry the nuances over to English. So, they would simply be dropped. And that needs to be done so many times that the text becomes dull.

Blogger Markku December 19, 2012 6:00 AM  

Let's just compare the first paragraph:

English translation (John Martin Crawford):

Mastered by desire impulsive,
By a mighty inward urging,
I am ready now for singing,
Ready to begin the chanting
Of our nation's ancient folk-song
Handed down from by-gone ages.
In my mouth the words are melting,
From my lips the tones are gliding,
From my tongue they wish to hasten;
When my willing teeth are parted,
When my ready mouth is opened,
Songs of ancient wit and wisdom
Hasten from me not unwilling.

-> Over 70 words

Original Finnish:

Mieleni minun tekevi, aivoni ajattelevi
lähteäni laulamahan, saa'ani sanelemahan,
sukuvirttä suoltamahan, lajivirttä laulamahan.
Sanat suussani sulavat, puhe'et putoelevat,
kielelleni kerkiävät, hampahilleni hajoovat.

-> 22 words

Blogger Markku December 19, 2012 6:26 AM  

I'll attempt a direct translation, although I'll have to drop a ton of nuances. This is exactly why the translation is so long, because most of the expressions make zero sense in English.

It is my mind to, my brain thinks to
go singing, arrive for wordsmithing,
unwinding a family-song, singing a species-song
Words melt in my mouth, speeches drop from it
They rush to my tongue, they break at my teeth

Blogger James Dixon December 19, 2012 7:14 AM  

> This is exactly why the translation is so long, because most of the expressions make zero sense in English.

And because it tries to maintain the poetry form. A non-poetic form might make a lot more sense.

Anonymous stg58/Animal Mother December 19, 2012 1:44 PM  

I would rather read the version that resembles Markku's translation than heavily anglicized versions. I want to get as close to the original flavor of the source material without spending years learning Finnish. Same as translations of Sun Tzu.

Markku, would you be willing to entertain a Christmas gift for the ilk and tell us which version on Amazon is the most faithful to the original? Most books on Amazon now have the first page displayed.

Anonymous Daniel December 19, 2012 2:46 PM  

No, Markku, just do your own full translation like you did up there. I'll format it for print, even (I'll let you format for ebooks on your own - you've got that down). I've published two print books through createspace and will be doing two more in the next few weeks, so I know I can do that bit. I believe you could earn fairly steady (albeit low) monthly income off it for not a whole lot of work outside of the scanning and translating.

Your jumblemash English version is totally worth doing. Far superior to the overwrought Crawford.

Anonymous Stickwick December 19, 2012 2:55 PM  

Markku, I'm curious what you think of Magoun's translation, to which I provided a link above. He did not bother trying to preserve the poetic aspects, but instead did a straight-up prose translation. The editorial description calls it "eminently readable."

Blogger Markku December 19, 2012 6:02 PM  

Yes, it seems quite straight-up, although I'd still expect a boring read. More than half the fun in reading the original is that it puts things in words you wouldn't have thought for a million years, and does this about every other line.

Occasionally the translation seems to choose the implied meaning rather than what's actually there. For example, here:

lauloaksemme hyviä,
parahia pannaksemme,


The first line "so that we may sing fine things" is accurate, but the plain meaning of the second line is "to do our best". However, the juxtaposition appears to be a pun, where the words can also mean putting forth what is best in the absolute sense, and the translation "give voice to the best things" goes for that.

An awkward translation that preserves the brevity of the original would be thus:

To sing the good,
To put out the best

Blogger Markku December 19, 2012 6:35 PM  

I also get the feeling that the translator doesn't understand the narrator's emotions very often. Here's my translation of the portion that starts with "for a long time my lays..."

My song has been frosty for a week,
long time laid in longing.
What, I should pull out lays from my coldness?
Stack up some songs from the frost?
(...)
Yeah, I'll sing you a good song,
Chime you a pretty one,
By the food rich with rye
By the beer rich with barley
But I don't think beer is forthcoming
Brewed water in the offers(...)

Anonymous Stickwick December 19, 2012 10:36 PM  

Markku, this is the one reason I wish I had the patience to learn Finnish. Husband assures me that you can get really creative with the language and alter the meaning of a piece with very subtle changes to the words. He's a published author in your homeland, by the way, and has written some very "out there" stuff that plays with the language. He's tried to translate his books into English, but says it loses too much in the translation. Anyway, I think stg58 may be on to something -- you should write your own translation of the Kalevala.

Anonymous stg58/Animal Mother December 19, 2012 10:54 PM  

Daniel suggested the translation, which is a good idea. I just wanted Markku to recommend a translation from Amazon.

Anonymous Stickwick December 19, 2012 11:34 PM  

Ah, yes, Daniel may be on to something. Translation a la Markku.

Blogger Markku December 20, 2012 4:32 AM  

Haven't had time to look up the different translations, but Stickwick's one seems fine. However, Kalevala was meant to be chanted by two people, with one chanting the odd lines and the other the even lines (this is why the structure is such that it repeats each and every statement using different words). Wikipedia entry gives the melody. John Martin Crawford's translation can be chanted. But for reading, no. Just no.

It was sort of ye olde rap battle. You had to do it from memory, and if you forgot or didn't know your line, you were the losing shaman.

Anonymous stg58/Animal Mother December 20, 2012 10:37 AM  

Then they use you for axe throwing practice?

Anonymous Koanic December 22, 2012 12:49 AM  

Amen. The snakes eat dust.

Anonymous Ize19 December 22, 2012 4:42 AM  

I never read Grey, but loved the other three :).

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