The Tragedy of Multi-Volume Epics

Read an interesting article this week on “the perils and pleasures of long-running fantasy series” by Zack Handlen.  The article seems to conclude, ultimately, that all very long, multi-volume epics are by design doomed to disappoint – and yet we love them anyway.  It’s a difficult conclusion to reach.

Zack Handlen appears believes this happens because readers become attached to the characters in these stories – a true enough proposition.  I know I’ve become strongly attached to characters in long-running series.  The readers, Zack argues, are involved in an intimate “relationship” with the series that is ultimately “one sided”.  With each successive volume, the epic fantasy author raises the stakes – and reader expectations – for the final volume, making his job increasingly difficult.  Part of the problem, the article suggests, is that the once a book is published, it’s “set in stone”.  The author can’t go back and tweak it, revise it, and refashion it.  As the story changes in the telling, the details at the beginning of the series may no longer mesh with the reality that comes at the end.  The series accumulates so many threads, some are left loose and other resolved unsatisfactorily for at least some readers.

However, I’m not sure I agree with the general thesis that all long-running epic fantasies necessarily lead to disappointment.  Continue reading

The Maker’s Art, Part 3: Creating Mythopoeia and Anthropological Artifacts

Last week I waded into long discussion in which I tried to draw a clear line between what constitutes a work of “Mythopoeia” and what is only “Fantasy” – acknowledging along the way that Mythopoetic works can be something other than Fantasy.  My position is perhaps an arguable one, but I’m comfortable delineating Mythopoeia as separate from other forms of Speculative Fiction, and even defining it as separate from the physical “artifacts” that represent it.  Mythopoeia is an idea, something that lives in the hearts and minds of both creators and producers of artistic works.  But it is an idea that we engage by interfacing with those anthropological artifacts: be they written works such as novels, poems, epics, webpages and blog posts, or be they visual works of art, sculptures, paintings, and photographs, or be they motion pictures or music, or be they works in an interactive medium like video games, table-top games, or board games, or be they some sort of new and evolving oral history. There are a variety of mechanisms by which mythopoetic works can be expressed in physical form.  But I’m primarily interested in the written form and those that can benefit from the techniques of the written form. 

By now, you must be wondering… so what?  What does it matter?  Why did I set out to try to define Mythopoeia in the first place?  And, having done so, to what use could this definition be put?

Last time, I mentioned my contention that few writers today are consciously attempting to write something that might be called Mythopoeia.  And part of the reason is that writing Mythopoeia is hard.  It requires thinking at a whole different level, layered on top of the thinking that goes into writing a novel.  I could say the entire essay has been a long way of saying it was partly this realization that forced me to conclude that I wasn’t ready to write “Project SOA #1” yet.  Because as I’ve spent years developing background detail, filling several notebooks with thoughts and ideas on historical and mythological complications, I’ve discovered how truly difficult it is to organize a coherent, complete, and engaging mythology, and how challenging it is to weave that into the primary narrative.  Because as an idea takes hold, if you think about it for a while, you realize the idea has implications – huge implications – that must necessarily change the plot and direction of the novel itself.  This is but one of the challenges I faced with making “Project SOA” work (another being a serious grappling with clichés, tropes, and genre conventions, and better understanding them and when and whether to use them, or if not to use them, how to adjust my plot and characters to compensate).

But the whole point of coming to a better understanding of what is or is not Mythopoeia has been to better equip me with the tools to write novels that rest on the bedrock of a solid mythopoem.  Why would I want to do that?  On one level, because it’s intellectually interesting to me.  I find intrinsic value in the creation of a coherent mythological narrative.  But there’s a baser reasoning, too. 

Consider all the most popular works of fiction in the last hundred years.  I’ve talked before about the “triumph of fantasy and speculative fiction” in the larger popular culture.  But at another level, the best works of fantasy and speculative fiction – those with the most enduring fandoms and the most engaged fans – are often among those with strongest mythopoetic frameworks.  This isn’t universally true (for instance, I mentioned Harry Potter last week, and how I don’t find it to be strongly mythopoetic in nature), nor is the reverse necessarily true either: if you have strong mythopoetic underpinnings to your work you won’t necessarily write a best-seller.  But the more strongly a work is predicated on a complex and coherent mythopoetic framework, the more easily engaged its audience.

If you accept this outcome as desirable (or even better, if you find the idea of writing mythopoeia intellectually interesting and stimulating), then you may wonder: how do I do this? Continue reading

The Maker’s Art, Part 2: Refining a Definition of Mythopoeia Through a Sample Exegesis of the Fantasy Corpus

In the previous post I began a discussion of a topic I’ve long wanted to address here on this blog: the concept of Mythopoeia as a distinct genre within the sphere of Speculative Fiction.  However, I ended the first part of my discussion with what appears to be a fatal contradiction.  I defined Mythpoeia as a work of constructed or artificial mythology, but then acceded that most works of modern Fantasy Fiction (and indeed many works of other subgenres of Speculative Fiction) are predicated on invented mythologies.¹  Still, I contend that there is a line of separation between a true work of Mythopoeia and a work of modern Fantasy Fiction.

Just what, then, is that line of separation?  Consider this: I would assert that Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”, in fact, is not a work of Mythopoeia.  It is, rather, an artifact of Tolkien’s Mythopoem.  It is a physical manifestation, in book form, that attests to the existence of the underlying mythopoetic work.  In other words, a novel, or a novel series, is not Mythopoeia.  But a novel – frequently, but not always, a novel of Epic or High Fantasy – is typically the the primary mechanism by which the reading and media-consuming public will discover and interact with the Mythpoetic work. 

It is my contention, therefore, that while many works of modern fantasy and science fiction include mythological motifs and invented backstories and mythologies, few writers and creators are creating Mythopoeia by design.  Most of the imaginary mythologies and backstories exist solely in support of the fantasy novel to which they are attached, with little or no intrinsic value of their own, and with little of interest to explore outside the framework of the novel.

Take the Harry Potter novels, for instance. Continue reading

The Maker’s Art, Part 1: Defining Mythopoeia in the Context of Fantasy and Speculative Fiction

I’ve hinted in the past (digging into the deep history of my blog) that I’d eventually get around to elucidating my views on the genre of “Mythopoeia”, and why I consider it distinct and separate from “Epic Fantasy“.

Let me get this out of the way upfront: this is going to be a long post.  (There’s a fair probability that I may have to split it into several posts.)  So you’ve got to be rather interested in the fantasy genre or in mythology for any of what follows to be of interest to you.

As another caveat: if anything I say here comes off as denigrating or derogatory to other genres of fiction, I assure you this is a misreading of the intent of what I write.  I strive here only to draw nuance and distinction, not to make claims of quality.  I have a particular organizational hierarchy in my head, but that hierarchy isn’t meant to be suggestive of quality or value, per se.  Hopefully that will become clear in the course of this essay.

I’d like to start off my discussion by laying out a lexicon of Mythopoeia.  As I mentioned on one of my early posts on the subject, the term “mythopoeia” is likely unfamiliar to a large number of potential visitors to this site.  The word itself, insofar as I can deduce, can largely be attributed to J. R. R. Tolkien with regard to its use referring to a literary genre: it is the title of a lovely poem written by Tolkien that serves as a defense of the genre (or, more broadly, as a defense of the Fantasy fiction genre).  (As an aside, Wikipedia has an interesting analysis of the poem on its page about the poem itself.)

Mythopoeia, as used throughout this essay, is a noun, referring to the genre much the way I might refer to “fantasy”.  Mythopoeic and mythopoetic are synonymous adjectives.  A work of mythopoeia could be described as mythopoetic.  A mythopoem is a noun, and means a work of mythopoeia.  It does not mean a poem (in the rhyme-and-verse sense, at least) that is about mythology, although a poem about mythology might be a mythopoem.  (In other words, “mythopoem” is a higher-order category of work that can include some poems about mythology, but also includes works that are not poems.)  A mythopoet, noun, is the creator of mythopoeia.

All of these, then, are contingent on understanding what mythopoeia is – and to a lesser extent what it is not. Continue reading

Tidbits of Inspiration: Vive la Resistance!

I’ve held back my thoughts.  This is a writing blog.  It’s not the right place, I reasoned, to say something about this.

But today, I must say, I am inspired.  What the Egyptian people have done, using massive, peaceful protests, is nothing short of inspiring.  They’ve changed the course of history.

Sometimes, the sorts of stories we tell in epic fantasies – stories of young heroes fighting against all odds to topple villainous autocratic dark lords – are thought of as escapist fare.  It’s unrealistic.  But what we’ve been seeing unfold in Egypt, and the results they’ve achieved, are a reminder that young heroes really can topple autocratic dark lords.  It’s not a fantasy after all.

And that inspires me.  It inspires me to keep telling these tales.  Because there is something important revealed about the human character and the human condition in these epic stories.  And the Egyptians have reaffirmed vital truth.

So here’s hoping this story has the same happy ending it would have if I were writing it: with the birth of a new, free, democratic nation.  Good luck!

Friday Flash: Where It All Began

Someday I’ll write a sci-fi or something else like that in response to T.S. Bazelli’s weekly writing prompt.  I thought it would be this week, if I wrote anything, but that’s not what happened.  Instead, as is often the case, fantasy happened.  The challenge this week was to focus on setting:

The Challenge: Write a story (1000 words or less) that is set in a place you have never been. This place can be real or imagined. The theme: “home”

I sort of cheated, though.  I used a place I really had been to (the Dun Beag fort outside Dingle, Ireland) as the source of inspiration for the setting of this tale, even if the place itself is “imagined”.  (Also, of course, it’s just over 1,000 words, but I do that almost every time, so that’s not new.  This one’s 1,306 words long.)  And so, let’s take it back to:

Where It All Began

By: Stephen A. Watkins, Jr.

Sea foam sprayed up as waves crashed against the cliffs of Dun Chuain, where Aran was born.  At the very edge of the cliff, as though a stray wind might rip it from the cliffside and send it plunging into the churning waters a hundred feet below, rose the House of Dun Chuain.  It was a small wooden manse – long oak planks, steeply-pitched roof, and a watchtower – growing out of a mortared stone foundation some seven feet in height.  The current House was built seventy-five years ago, and the gray wood showed its age, but the House of Dun Chuain had been inhabited for several centuries.  Around the cliffside manor were the remains of the old village – stone huts and walls built without mortar, stacked with exacting care, by Aran’s ancestors. Continue reading

Review: Wheel of Time Books 1 thru 12

So, over the holiday weekend, I finally finished The Gathering Storm, the twelfth book in the “Wheel of Time” series by Robert Jordan.  I’d mentioned some time ago that when I finish this book, I’d do a review of the series up to this point.  My reasoning for doing a review of the series, and not of just this book, is that by this point fans of the series are likely to know whether or not they want to read the next book, whereas people who’ve never read these books are more likely to want to start from the beginning.  So, a review is of little worth to the former (especially some ten months after the book’s release) and the latter will be more interested to know if the series as a whole is worth investing in.  So, here’s my review: the good, the bad, and the ugly of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time.

(I will try to keep this review spoiler-light, as it is intended for those who’ve never read the books, but I can’t promise I won’t mistakenly slip one in here or there.) Continue reading

Ten Books That Moved Me

 So, apparently there’s this game going on in the “blogosphere“, started, as I understand it, by Tyler Cowen on the blog “Marginal Revolution“: name the 10 Books that influenced your view of the world.  I first saw this on the blog of T. S. Bazelli, who’s commented here a few times.  So, at first I had a bit of trouble with this.  I didn’t come up with ten, right away.  It took a little thinking about it, but I did come up with ten.  And the list is a little surprising to me: they’re not all fantasy and science fiction novels (in fact, there’s comparatively little science fiction at all, which may make sense considering I’ve read very little sci fi as compared to fantasy), though they almost all are.  Further thought caused me to consider a few others that impact that list – additions I’d make or possibly substitute if I wasn’t going with the first ten influential books I thought of.  So, here they are:
The Book of Three Cover

The Book of Three

  1. The Chronicles of Prydain” by Lloyd Alexander: starting with The Book of Three and concluding with The High King.  Originally published in the 1960s, and the conclusion of which is a Newbery Award winner, these are books written and intended for a children and adolescent market, and that’s the age at which I discovered them.  I’ve blogged about the influence these books had on me before.  Suffice to say, I’m not certain I’d be a writer today – or an aspiring author, rather – if not for these books.  If everything else in my life were stripped away, this still lies at the heart of who I am, and it is these books that started me down that path.  The final book, if I had to choose, is of particular note in my memory.  The books concluded with such a tangible bittersweetness that writing that emotion has been a sort of quest of mine ever since.

    Picture of an Open Bible

    An Open Book of Scripture

  2. The Bible and other books of Scripture: In some circles (including among many of my friends), claiming the “Bible” or any other book of scripture as one of your biggest influences is by definition a cliché.  The fact is, through most of my life, I’d read and had read to me bits and pieces of the Bible, but I’d never read the whole thing.  Still, I was taught about its importance and preeminence among books, just as a matter or religious instruction.  However, when I was about 19 years old and in college, as I was finding my religious beliefs challenged in unexpected ways, I undertook to read the book, from cover-to-cover as part of a separate religious-studies class looking at a different religion from my own, at that time.  What I discovered there was interesting and exciting.  It challenged some of my long-held beliefs, re-affirmed others, and made me think more about the nature of christianity than I had before.  Was God, for instance, a benevolent and merciful being?  The Bible doesn’t always suggest that he is!  And yet, it concludes with a resounding affirmation of those very traits!  What to make of all that?  In the end, it lead to a profound shift in the direction of my life.  I can honestly say, were it not for that change, I would not be where I am today, I would not have met my wife, and I would not now be bringing a new life into the world with her. 

    The Lord of Rings in Hardcover

    The Lord of the Rings in Hardcover

  3. The Lord of the Rings” by J. R. R. Tolkien: starting with The Fellowship of the Ring, of course.  These are the books without which no list of “the most influential books” is truly complete, making it a cliché of its own.  But, of course, there are reasons the books are so influential.  It’s hard to imagine a world without these books: half of popular entertainment and pop culture would be radically different if so.  But this is about the personal influence these books had on me.  As a writer, this can’t be understated.  Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books were what made me a writer, but it is these books that made me think more deeply about my writing.  I find myself turning time and again to the indices at the back of The Return of the King, and to companion books like The Book of Lost Tales and The Silmarillion for inspiration in the way that I approach writing fantasy and world-building.  I find Tolkien’s influence in my work so strong that I have come to consider that “novel-I’ve-been-working-on” (cue obligatory reference to “blathering”) not so much a novel, or a pending novel-series, but a work of Mythopoeia.  While it is, perhaps, pretentious, that is nonetheless my aspiration – and why I’ve put the book aside until I can develop my skills as a writer sufficiently to be able to tackle such a daunting task. 

    The Hobbit Cover

    The Cover of "The Hobbit"

  4. The Hobbit, also by Tolkien: Another publisher of such a list might classify this as part-and-parcel with “The Lord of the Rings”, but I have to list them separately.  Even before I eventually read this book – which is a children’s book, as opposed to a work for adults such as “The Lord of the Rings” – stories from The Hobbit formed the backdrop of my childhood (along with other tales).  Before I ever read the book, I’d seen the Rankin/Bass animated version of it.  As a story of heroism and adventure, it sets a very different mood than the later books, and have different inspirations. It was only later, with the writing of “The Lord of the Rings”, that Tolkien tied the world of The Hobbit together with the world he’d been creating since his youth that we see in The Book of Lost Tales and The Silmarillion.  It’s another part of the mythopoetic process that’s well worth reading. 

    The Cover of "Dragons of Autumn Twilight"

    The Cover of "Dragons of Autumn Twilight"

  5. The Dragonlance Chronicles” by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman: which begin with Dragons of Autumn Twilight.  Long before I discovered Role-playing, or took up “adventuring” in Dungeons & Dragons, I read the Dragonlance books.  And those books were perhaps the first books that nearly brought me to tears because of the death of a character (I won’t share which one, so as not to spoil it).  It was heart-wrenching.  Of course, that’s besides the epic scope and incredible fantasy-milieu at the heart of these books (and the companion series, The Twins chronicles; read those two trilogies but the rest of the “Dragonlance” books, most by other authors, are extraneous to these two series).  Again, really, these books skew to a slightly younger audience, but they’re still fantastic, in my opinion, and were the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration between Weis and Hickman that continues to this day. 

    The Cover of "The Eye of the World"

    The Cover of "The Eye of the World"

  6. The Wheel of Time” by Robert Jordan: which begins with The Eye of the World.  For all its flaws and detractors, “The Wheel of Time” has earned a place as one of the best epic fantasies every written, and this is especially true if we narrow our focus to the first three books of the series.  These books are among the most thoroughly-researched and richly-detailed fantasy books I’ve ever read, and even during the long slog in the middle, I always found myself eagerly anticipating the next book in the series (when I started reading them in High School, there were six of them).  Even the flaws – and yes, even an ardent fan of these books such as myself must admit that there are flaws – are a source of inspiration to me: I ask myself, as fabulous as Robert Jordan’s books are, what did he do wrong?  And how can I avoid those mistakes in my own writing?  In a future blog posting (after I finish reading The Gathering Storm), I will likely go into greater detail about the series as a whole, what I perceive the flaws to be, and how this all influences my writing. 

    The Cover of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"

    The Cover of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"

  7. The Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling: which begins with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, as per the U.S. title.  These books changed my opinion of YA literature (or at least of YA fantasy and science fiction literature).  I had staunchly refused to read the Harry Potter books, believing them to be a fantasy-light that was unworthy of the attention of someone like me who was interested in serious, adult fantasy (such as the “Wheel of Time” books above); and I held out reading these until after the first movie came out.  Of course, I had to eat my words: these books are really well-written and enjoyable, regardless of what age you are when you read them.  In retrospect, it was silly, naive, and frankly stupid of me to hold the books in such contempt: some of my favorite books were written for the juvenile market (see “Chronicles of Prydain” above).  Can you spell hypocrite?  Regardless, I also learned a thing or two about writing fantasy by seriously considering just what made these books so darn popular in the first place (and by extension, caused Ms. Rowling to become the richest woman in England).  One part of the answer, I surmised: the role relationships between characters play in these books.  I also discovered, after reading these books, how annoyed I was at the U.S. title-change.  It smacks of pandering to the lowest-common-denominator, or of assuming the general stupidity of the American reading public.  The fact is, Ms. Rowling obviously did research on folklore and mythology in writing this series, but you wouldn’t know it by the American title: there’s really no such thing as a “Sorcerer’s Stone”.  But the British title has it right: there’s loads of interesting things in folklore and mythology about a “Philosopher’s Stone“.  

    The Cover of "1984"

    "1984" with the same cover as used in my High School

  8. 1984 by George Orwell: 1984 is easily the best book I have ever had to read for school.  It’s also the most darkly chilling, and most culturally, socially, and politically relevant I’ve ever had to read.  Basically, if you didn’t have to read it in High School like I did, then you should go read this book right now.  Seriously.  I mean, how do you even know what the rest of us are talking about whenever we snidely suggest that “Big Brother is watching you”?  Anyway, 1984 is the science-fiction (yes, it’s science fiction, even if they made you read it in school and even if Orwell didn’t know he was writing science fiction) dystopian-future magnum opus from before dystopian future sci-fi was the cool thing to write, and is the touchstone from which all other dystopian futures ultimately draw their inspiration.  And it is a book that continues to warn us against the dangers that lurk in our futures – dangers of our own making and born of our own complacency. 

    The cover of "A Wizard of Earthsea"

    The Cover of the same edition of "A Wizard of Earthsea" as was owned by my parents

  9. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le GuinLe Guin’s books are deceptively simple to read, and belie their deep exploration of complex themes.  My parents had a huge collection of books from my childhood, and buried in that collection was a box-set of the first three Earthsea books.  Pressed into the pages of the books were dried flowers: flowers I can only assume were given to my mother by my father.  I did my best to take care not to damage the dried, pressed flowers when I read these books.  I included these books on my list because I think there’s something deeper or more meaningful here than in many of the other fantasy and science fiction books I’ve read.  Also, I think Ms. Le Guin’s campaign to protect her copyrights from corporate take-over are worthy of note. 
     
     

                                                                  

  10.  A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
    Cover of "A Thousand Splendid Suns"

    Cover of "A Thousand Splendid Suns"

    This is a very surprising, non-speculative fiction item on my list.  Dear Wife very much enjoyed The Kite Runner by the same author, which she had read before we met, and when she got her hands on this sophomore novel by Hosseini, she convinced me to read it to.  Later, we saw the film version of The Kite Runner.  These stories were deeply disturbing and eye opening, and reading A Thousand Splendid Suns gave me a new understanding of evil that goes beyond the simplistic sense most often understood in fantasy fiction.  And it made me ponder such a situation in which “the good guys”, as my preconceived notions understood it, existed in a world where there were no “good” options, where every choice, every action conceivable would lead to more death, destruction, and evil, no matter what the intentions of “the good guys”.  Indeed, I was forced to ponder a world in which “the good guys” were a force for evil and ill in the world, simply as a consequence of their existence.  That is a stark reality to face, and it is one that A Thousand Splendid Suns made me face.  Also, this book has a fabulously enticing title!  

Honorable Mentions 

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: At once instructive, iconic, enduring, and immortal.  Plus, it’s about my favorite time of year!

 Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson: Adventure! Treasure! Pirates! And a boy in need of a father.  A bildungsroman that still delights young readers to this day.  This book is beyond being a mere classic.  Plus, may I say that this book began my love affair with maps?

 The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells: Veritably the grandfather of science fiction (alongside Mr. Verne, the genre’s other grandfather).  As far as I know, it’s the first time aliens invaded and conquered Earth, and also the first time they were a metaphor of something deeper.  What I read was an illustrated, abridged version for children, at a fairly young age.

 The 1,001 Arabian Nights: While I’ve never read them, the existence of this book nonetheless has a profound impact on my world, and my conception of a heroic tale: from the voyages of Sinbad, to the tale of Aladdin, to Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, these are adventures and stories that were a part of my childhood and formed the backdrop for my early development as a writer.

 Fairy Tales: From Mother Goose to the Brothers Grimm and everything in between.  My childhood was steeped in fairy tales – many of them from children’s books recounting the tales in question.  Others came from movies and television, still others were related as bed-time stories. 

 Wikipedia: It’s not a book.  But it is my one-stop-shop, where all of my more in-depth research begins.   (Which is to say, I know Wikipedia’s not where my research should end, but it’s a great place to begin!)

Happy reading!