The Fantasy Movie Canon

The Hobbit is now only two weeks away from release, and upon it’s arrival it will doubtless ascend to a high place in the Fantasy Movie Canon.  Needles to say, I’m excited about it.

And in celebration and anticipation of the imminent release of The Hobbit, I thought now would be a great time to delve into what I, personally, consider to be the Canon of Fantasy Cinema.  This is not an exhaustive list, obviously, because I haven’t seen every fantasy movie ever.  But it’s the list that exists in my own head and heart.

To do this, and limit the number of movies in my list to a reasonable number, I had to make a number of rules.

First: a complete movie series or cycle gets one entry.  So, Harry Potter doesn’t fill eight movie slots.  Many great fantasy movies are stand-alones, but several really high-quality ones exist as part of a series, so this rule was necessary to keep them from consuming the list alive.

Second: I’m only listing live-action movies here.  There are tons, tons, TONS of great fantasy-themed animated movies.  From classic Disney movies to the greats of anime and everything in between… I don’t think I could even begin to list them all in a coherent fashion.  Since I’m celebrating the release of the live-action Hobbit, I thought it useful to limit my celebration to live-action movies.

Third: I’m trying to limit my selection to movies that got an actual theatrical release.

Fourth: I have to limit what I mean by “fantasy”.  I’m talking about movies in which magic, the supernatural, or the mythical play an important part of the story.  I’m not talking about superhero movies.  I’m not talking about sci-fi movies.  Generally, I’m not talking about holiday-themed (especially Christmas-themed) movies.  I’m not talking about movies with spaceships, or weird and implausible science or people with mutations, or just anything that’s generally just unrealistic.  I’m also not talking about horror or semi-horror movies.  I love all sorts of movies in all of those categories, but I’m after a particular subset of this broader “fantasy” genre.  I’m talking magic spells, wizards, dragons, fairies, myths and legends, and what-have-you of this sort.

So, with the rules out of the way… here it is (drumroll please):

The Not-At-All Official Canon of Fantasy Cinema

1. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

There can be little doubt that this movie series is rightfully ranked at the top of the Fantasy Canon.  It was not only ground-breaking in terms of the technology used to tell the tale and the breathtaking visuals and the overall quality of the production itself… but it is a powerfully-moving adaptation of the the single-most genre-defining epic of fantasy literature.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy undeniably deserves the lion’s share of credit for creating the market for literary epic fantasy.  Peter Jackson’s adaption proved that a fantasy movie could be not only good entertainment, but great art.  These movies are the only ones on this list that won Academy Awards not only on technical merits, but for Best Movie and Best Director.  It is, in a word, a masterpiece.

2. The Princess Bride

“As you wish.”

“Hello.  My name is Inigo Montoya.  You killed my father.  Prepare to die.”

“Inconceivable!”

“You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.”

I could go on, but you get the idea.  This movie is not a special effects extravaganza.  The magic is subtle and amusing, but not overtly visual.  It is not typically cited as a sumptuous feast for the eyes.

But on the strength of its script alone, and the amazingly perfect performances of its terrific cast, this is the only movie that can even come close to claiming the number-two spot on the Fantasy Canon list.  Few movies have made so indelible an impact on the popular culture.  Few movies warrant (or reward) relentless rewatching.  Few movies are so amazingly quotable.  Few movies rise to the level of The Princess Bride.

3. The Wizard of Oz

The Lord of the Rings trilogy may perhaps be the most honored movie on this list insofar as the Academy Awards are concerned.  But The Wizard of Oz is perhaps one of the most recognizable and enduringly popular films of all, and ranks among the most decorated and honored.  While it didn’t win a Best Picture Academy Award it did, unlike almost every other film on this list, get nominated (which really is, by itself, an honor).  And it continues to get recognized as one of the greatest movies of any genre of all time.

The 1939 movie was so defining that it left an impact on the popular culture that can still be seen and felt today, nearly three-quarters of a century after its release.  Every adaptation and interpretation of L. Frank Baum’s original stories is impacted by this movie.  There are Tony Award-winning musicals (Wicked, which I’ve seen and is a terrific musical) that exist only because this movie exists.  There’s even a latter-day prequel that’s about to come out (Oz: The Great and Powerful).

It’s had it’s impact on me, too.  I still remember the first time I saw it.  We didn’t watch a lot of black-and-white movies or classic movies growing up, but apparently this one was important enough that my dad made a big deal of it.  So we gathered together to watch this old, classic, depressingly black-and-white movie.  (As a note: I no longer have the same feelings about black-and-white stuff that I did in my childhood.)  Imagine how impressed and awed I was as my dad waved his hand magically at the TV when Dorothy first awakes in Oz, and everything explodes in brilliant, even riotous color: brighter than anything I was then used to on television.  It made me believe in the magic of the Wizard.

4. The Harry Potter Octology

The Harry Potter movies are not adaptations without faults, let it be said.  On a whole, their quality is uneven, though each of the eight movies is generally quite good and some of the entries in the series even border on great.  On average, the movies get better with each entry as the actors portraying the lead parts get better at their craft.

Given these caveats, why do I rank these movies so highly on the list?

For the sheer audacity of trying to interpret a seven-book epic fantasy series with over a million words of fiction for the big screen.  And for trying to maintain, throughout this process, some artistic cohesion and integrity and faithfulness to the books.

This was not an easy accomplishment, and if the films fell short of perfection, it was only because of how highly they aimed.  That they came so close at all to achieving it is quite remarkable.  The resulting series is a highly watchable and highly enjoyable epic fantasy series: there is magic, whimsy, adventure, danger, and love.  In short, there is everything you need to have a good time enjoying a fantasy movie, and I’ll wager these films will stand the test of time.

5. Willow

For serious fans of fantasy in film, I’m sure the inclusion of this movie will come as no surprise.  For the casual fans, this may be the first you’ve heard of it.

It has a plot that’s derivative of The Lord of the Rings… but in reverse: instead of taking the magic token into the heart of darkness to destroy it, the diminutive hero of Willow is trying to smuggle his magic token (in this case, a baby) as far away from the heart of darkness (the fortress of the evil queen Bavmorda) as he can take it, because the baby in question is prophesied to bring about the end of the evil queen’s reign.

Derivative or no, Willow really is a great movie.  While not quite as quotable as The Princess Bride, it still has some really memorable and often hilarious moments.  Try: “Go in the direction the bird is flying.”  “He’s going back to the village!”  “Ignore the bird; follow the river.”

Or: “I stole the baby from you while you were taking a peepee!”

Or: “What are you looking at?”  “Your leg.  I’d like to break it.”

Or: “That way!”

Or: “Not A Woman?!”  “Gentelman… Meet Lug.”

Again, I could go on… but if you haven’t already seen Willow, none of these quotes will be nearly as funny to you.  Combined with this quotable potential are some really snazzy special effects that were quite good back in the late 80s (and which even today are still pretty impressive): from a fire-breathing wyrm, to magical transmogrification, to a wizard’s deul with competing fireballs and ice blasts.  And there are lots of awesome, old-school sword fights.  So… if you love fantasy movies and if you haven’t already, you should take the time and watch it.

6. The Dark Crystal

The Dark Crystal was truly Jim Henson (in collaboration with Brian Froud of Fairy fame) at his finest.  These puppets are not your fuzzy green frogs or friendly neighborhood Fraggles.  What Jim Henson brought us with The Dark Crystal was a fully-realized fantasy world totally independent of our own.  It had its own flora and fauna, its own visual style, its own magic, its own sense of being.  There has been almost nothing that rivals it on terms of visual imagination or creativity either before or since.  I can still remember the awe I felt the first time I saw Aughra’s massive orrery swing into motion.

There are no human actors in the world of Jim Henson’s Dark Crystal.  Every character and every being in this elaborate fantasy is fully realized using honest-to-goodness puppetry.  But they never feel like puppets.  Every creature and every character feels fully alive.

The plot of The Dark Crystal isn’t spectacularly original: a diminutive elf-like hero has to go on a journey to destroy a powerful magical artifact that will otherwise allow a race of evil vultures to conquer and rule the world for a thousand years.  But even if the plot isn’t fantastically original, this amazing movie will still keep you sucked in and wanting more.

7. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

This was not the first adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books (not even the first live action adaptation).  Nor was it the only film in this series.  But it is the only one that I feel merits inclusion on this list.

Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia” are children’s books, but of course that doesn’t mean they aren’t great fantasy stories.  And the original book of the series, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, is one of the best.  For one thing, the story of this one is different and more unique: it’s not a straightforward quest fantasy like so many others.

And of all the adaptations of the book that I’ve seen, this one ranks as very likely the best, and is likewise the best of the movies produced in this series of adaptations of Lewis’s books.  It tells a complete tale, one that doesn’t need the additional movies to enjoy.  And it fulfills the promise of magic that you would expect if you’d read the books.  All in all, this movie was a delight to see, and for that reason, it deserves a place on this list.

8. Dragonslayer

A movie that many – even many fans of fantasy – may not be familiar with is the 1981 film Dragonslayer.

In this epic fantasy tale, a wizard’s apprentice takes it upon himself to slay the dragon that is terrorizing a medieval kingdom after the wizard’s death.  The people of the kingdom have protected themselves from the ravages of the dragon by offering up their daughters as a sacrifice to the monster, chosen by lottery.  But the kingdom is upturned when the King’s daughter, upon learning that her name has been excluded from the lottery, replaces all the lots with her own name, making the erstwhile Dragonslayer the King’s only hope.

It’s  a classic dragon story ripped from the pages of mythology: but the movie delivers some genuinely unique twists on this ancient formula.

All that alone would not likely make this movie the classic that it deserves to be credited as, save for one critical element of the movie: Vermithrax Pejorative.  That’s the name of the dragon from this movie.  And even though the special effects are clearly dated by modern standards, Vermithrax stands as one of the greatest movie dragons – if not the greatest – of all time.  The creature design, the modeling: this dragon felt real, and it really breathed fire.  It was a true menace, and a true mythic monster.  If you haven’t seen Dragonslayer, and  you’re  a fantasy fan, you owe it to yourself to pick it up and watch it.  It’s truly one of the most underrated fantasy films ever.

9. Labyrinth

I don’t know… there’s just something about David Bowie’s “Magic Dance” (which is quite catchy), and his bizarre and mesmerizing turn as the Goblin King.  And all the Jim Henson creations, of course.  There are also moments of surprising sadness and profoundly absurd whimsy.

I can’t say I’m surprised that Jim Henson and Brian Froud make two appearances on this list.  That said, the creatures of the Labyrinth are all decidedly more muppet-like and are less refined than those found in the earlier The Dark Crystal.  But still: imagination abounds, here, and powerfully so.

And when all is said and done, this is just a fun movie to watch.

What’s interesting about this movie is how compelling the protagonist is: she’s fully human and motivated throughout the movie by very human emotions.  She’s not a typical, high-minded hero.  She’s not out to save the world or defeat evil.  She’s just trying to rescue her baby brother, who’s been stolen by the Goblin King.  Not because she loves the little tyke, but because of more complex motivations including guilt and fear.  She was responsible for the Goblins taking the baby in the first place, calling upon the Goblin King in a moment of resentment.  The emotional depth of the character makes the story more interesting.

10. The Neverending Story

The story-within-a-story and the interplay between book and reader made The Neverending Story a strong metaphor for my own fantasy life, as a child.  Given the enduring popularity of this film, I would venture to guess this is true for others as well.

For readers of fantasy literature, The Neverending Story is a resonant reflection of their inner lives: many fans of fantasy have reason to identify closely with the bullied Bastian, and recognize their experience of total immersion in the world of a fantasy novel that the movie portrays.

Fantasia itself is like the imagination of the fantasy fan: a shifting, unknowable, unmappable place, constantly surprising and constantly changing as new ideas and new discoveries are made.  And it is a place that can’t exist without the engagement of the imagination.  In the end, it’s a place that can’t exist without the imagination of the story’s true hero: the reader of the book.

This portrayal of the reader as hero makes The Neverending Story a unique and important entry in the Fantasy Cinema Canon.

pirates_of_the_caribbean_sm11. The Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy

Yes, I realize that there are actually four “Pirates” movies, not three.  But, first of all, I haven’t seen the fourth movie and, second, the first three tell a complete, closed story arc.  Regardless of the existence of a mostly unrelated fourth movie, that makes the first three “Pirates” movies a trilogy.

And, well… despite some unfortunate misfires, the “Pirates of the Caribbean” trilogy really is a rip-roaring and highly entertaining fantasy trilogy.  Johnny Depp’s turn as the wildly eccentric Captain Jack Sparrow was both hilarious and engrossing.  Don’t tell me you didn’t fall in love with the character the moment you first saw him on screen, perched atop the crow’s nest of his sinking skiff.  Not to mention Geoffrey Rush as Captain Barbossa and Bill Nighy as Davy Jones, plus Orlando Bloom as Will Turner and Keira Knightly as Elizabeth Swan.  All fantastic actors and truly memorable characters.

In fact, not since The Princess Bride has there been such a fantastic, funny, and engaging ensemble cast in a fantasy film.  And so, despite some of the significant misfires in these movies, they still deserve to take a place on the Fantasy Canon.

dragonheart12. Dragonheart

While Draco, the heroic, good dragon of Dragonheart, doesn’t quite hold a candle to Vermithrax Pejorative, he is nonetheless a pretty spectacular cinema dragon (probably the third best to appear on screen; the second-best dragon having appeared in a mostly otherwise execrable non-fantasy flick that I won’t mention).  Dragonheart tells a fantastic, traditional heroic tale in which good and evil struggle for the fate of a kingdom.

It’s not a groundbreaking or deep movie, there aren’t many surprises, and you could even argue that the script and plot are a tad trite.  But it’s a movie that truly believes in the idea of dragons, and the fantastic world they represent.

And it did something else that was important and groundbreaking: Draco was the first fully computer-generated character with a speaking role in a theatrical film (voiced perfectly by Sean Connery, whose acting was also captured to provide Draco’s expressions).   As such, he paved the way for Gollum and, ultimately for Smaug.  And that deserves some recognition.

(Now, the less said about the uninspired Direct-to-Video sequel, the better.)

jasonandtheargonauts-skeleton-fight_sm13. The Harryhausen Cycle

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts, and the original The Clash of the Titans aren’t strictly a single movie series: none are sequels or prequels or at all related to the others.  But these three movies do hold something else very important in common: each is a classic of fantasy film on which Ray Harryhausen’s special effects genius was on display.

Ray Harryhausen is the pioneer of stop-motion animation, an early special effects technique that made some of the most amazing fantasy images possible for the first time.

Harryhausen made possible fantastic sword fights with animated skeletons and six-armed goddesses of destruction.  He brought to life Medusa, the Cyclops, Pegasus and the Kraken.  And he did these in an age when computer-generated graphics in movies was still a notion of science fiction, rather than movie science fact.  His artistic and technological breakthroughs made possible the most amazing movie images of his day.  And still today, his works have left their permanent mark on the popular culture.  What more can be said but this:

“Release the Kraken!”

Honorable Mention: The Original Star Wars Trilogy

Per the original rules I set out at the start of this post, I couldn’t include the original “Star Wars” Trilogy.  There are spaceships, lasers, and robots. All very non-fantasy things.  Indeed, many people classify “Star Wars” as Sci Fi or, to be more exact, Space Opera.

But let’s be frank: “Star Wars” is a fantasy movie.  There are magic swords, a wise mystic who guides the young hero (only to expire at an inopportune time, forcing the hero to step up), a beautiful princess and a dark lord.  There’s a mysterious, magical power possessed by an ancient order of warrior-wizards.  (Unexplained, of course, because we’re ignoring the Prequel Trilogy; the explanation there basically sucked, and didn’t make sense, anyway.)  I could go on, but in short, the original “Star Wars” Trilogy had all the ingredients of a major Epic Fantasy movie series.

And of all the movies listed here, none can be said to have had as powerful an impact on the popular culture as “Star Wars”.  No characters are more instantly recognizable and memorable as those from Star Wars.

So there you have it: the Not-At-All Official Canon of Fantasy Cinema.  These are the movies that are must-see for fans of Fantasy.

But hey, don’t take my word for it.  See them for yourself!

Speaking of… have you seen all of these movies?  Would you order them differently?  What movies did I miss that really should be included on the Fantasy Cinema Canon?  Talk back in the comments and share your knowledge of Fantasy Movie Trivia.

Epic Fantasy: Archetypes & Window Dressing

A couple months ago I posted a short essay in which I began examining the ideas and archetypes that are particular to the Epic Fantasy genre.  This is important to me, because while Epic Fantasy is my first and primary literary love, I don’t want to write in it simply out of habit: I want to make the choice of writing Epic Fantasy an informed and intentional choice.

In the essay, titled “Post-Tolkien Fantasy“, I questioned the decision by many latter-day “Post-Tolkienists” to eschew the common tropes, archetypes, and aesthetic trappings of Tolkienesque-flavored Epic Fantasy, and I questioned my own relationship with those same tropes and archetypes.

My purpose was to point out that neither Tolkienesque Epic Fantasy nor Post-Tolkien Epic Fantasy is inherently a superior mode, and that both have potentially valuable aspects as well as potential pitfalls and challenges.

I’d been thinking about the subject, in general, because my current WIP is an Epic Fantasy of the predominantly Post-Tolkien variety: inasmuch as it lacks things like a pseudo-medieval setting, magic swords, dark lords, hidden heirs, and other such archetypes and tropes.  But it was my contention that my WIP is still, despite these things, an Epic Fantasy.

In writing that essay, I referred to some of the common tropes and aesthetic trappings of Tolkienesque Epic Fantasy as “window dressing”.  My contention was that some tropes and trappings add to the aesthetic “flavor” of a given literary work, but don’t fundamentally interact with the core foundational archetypes that constitute the being of Epic Fantasy.  In other words: elves, dwarves, and dragons, knights, kings, and castles – these aren’t foundationally important elements of Epic Fantasy.  Their presence or absence doesn’t make or break an Epic Fantasy.

In referring to these things as “window dressing”, I entered into an exchange of ideas with a pleasantly articulate fellow named Jeff (Confidentially: I found your last name from your LinkedIn profile… but since “Jeff” looks a little like an alias I figured I’d respect that and refer to you just as Jeff) who responded to my article with his essay “My Plea for Philological Fantasy“.  Jeff approaches the topic from an angle decidedly more in favor of Tolkienesque Fantasy – a choice that I can’t disagree with.  At the same time, it’s clear that he doesn’t advocate for this choice based solely on an appreciation for the aesthetics of a Tolkien-like fantasy.  Continue reading

Post-Tolkien Fantasy

Like a lot of fans of Fantasy literature, and especially of the Epic Fantasy subgenre, I grew up on what today you might call “Tolkienesque” fantasy.  You likely know what I mean: Dragons and Elves and Fairies and Wizards and Magic Swords and Hidden Heirs and Noble Destinies.  I could take a year off your life just by linking to the relevant “TV Tropes” pages.  (Don’t worry, I won’t do that do you.  I love you too much.  You can get lost all by yourself if that’s your inclination. Oh ye gods, I almost got lost myself just by linking the home page!)

One of the first fantasy novels I ever read was Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three, the first in his “Prydain Chronicles”.  It wasn’t much longer before I’d read Tolkien and Dragonlance and a slew of other Tolkienian fantasy works.  Although Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy didn’t feature all of the major tropes and archetypes we now associate with fantasy of this type, his work was nonetheless so seminal in the foundations of this genre that we now consider him to be arch-progenitor of the form and genre, even if some of these tropes actually predate him.

And yet, it’s all the fashion and rage, these days, to dismiss Tolkienesque-style Epic Fantasy, to bemoan the woeful and backward state of the genre, and to denounce as tired, and trite and boring all of these old tropes.  Most of the big names in modern Fantasy Literature make a big deal about how about how they’re not writing Tolkienesque Fantasy.  When Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings came out he wrote an essay called “Postmodernism in Fantasy” (and got a lot of attention in the blogosphere grumbling that he’d misused the term “postmodernism”), he was essentially making this point.  Perhaps what Brandon was really talking about wasn’t Postmodern Fantasy.  Perhaps what he was really talking about was, to coin a phrase, Post-Tolkien Fantasy.

To hear the Post-Tolkienists talk, the world of fantasy has heretofore been nothing but a sad and endless stream of cheap Tolkien knock-offs and drudgery.  But at last, they promise, there will be an end to this otherwise endless tide of backward fantasy literature.  At last, they will create something new, something that challenges the old, familiar tropes.  At last, we will shed the shackles of Tolkienism!

Me… I don’t think that way. Continue reading

Why Yes, I AM a Fan of the Old Rankin & Bass Hobbit Movie, And I’m Not Afraid To Admit It

And it looks like I’m not the only one.

I’m pretty sure this:

is at least in part an homage to this:

Partly, of course, that’s because both utilize the same source material.  But the style of the song in the Peter Jackson/Howard Shore version of The Hobbit is strikingly reminiscent of that of the song in the Rankin & Bass version. (It’s also a bit reminiscent of Aragorn’s song in Jackson’s version of “Return of the King”, but that’s probably because it’s the same composer.)

The lament of the dwarves, as portrayed in the Rankin & Bass version, was actually a big inspiration to me. It became the model for a particular culture in my currently-shelved novel-I’ve-been-working-on-since-forever, “Project SOA”. Continue reading

Worldbuilding & Relevance

I’ve been doing a good amount of writing this week so far (we’ll see how things go in my weekly writing recap).  Since finishing the first draft of the short story I’m working on, all of my wordcount has been on worldbuilding for “The Book of M”.  And so I got to thinking about the subject of worldbuilding this week.

As I’ve reported previously, the topic of worldbuilding came up during author Brandon Sanderson’s Fantasy Writing Crash Course Q&A at JordanCon 2011.  The relevant question related to avoiding “Worldbuilder’s Disease”.  If you lean toward the “Planner” end of the Planning-Pantsing spectrum (or we can call it the “Architect” end of the “Architect-Gardener spectrum”), you likely know what that means: endlessly tooling around with the background world details – the history, the magic system, the cosmologies and religions, the languages, and so on – without ever reaching an end-point and saying “I have enough now to write the actual book”.  It’s really quite common, and I’ve felt that urge.  Brandon’s advice was to focus on the key elements of the conflict of your story, and worldbuild out from there.  As your worldbuilding gets less and less relevant to the conflict and the plot, you stop worldbuilding and focus on writing the story.

What, then, is relevant?  How do you find that line where the worldbuilding you’re doing becomes irrelevant? 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

Great Minds Think Alike, They Say: A Poll

It’s true.  Great ideas aren’t that uncommon, and it’s not infrequent that many people will approach the same great idea and take it in different directions.  And that’s a good thing, as great ideas are like Legos: they can build on each other.

But, I think, there may also be a caveat to this wonderful exchange.  In the marketplace of ideas and story seeds and plots, there can come a point in the life-cycle of a given idea that it becomes an “already-done”: where in the collective mind of the story-consuming public that idea has already had its fullest expression in a prior work of art or fiction, and any later work that starts from the same point is classified as a “copy-cat” work.  Even if that later work adds something new, different, or substantive – something unexplored by prior works – if it starts from the point of an “already-done” idea, I suspect it may never gain a significant audience.  Over time, the collective memory of the “already-done” may wane, but is the memory of the book and art-consuming public not a long one?  I’m not sure.

To some extent, this question is the pervading problem of epic fantasy, in general.  Every epic fantasy written in the last forty years lies in the shadow of Tolkien‘s “Lord of the Rings“, and incorporating any of the same ideas is considered cliché, passé, or even taboo.  I have read many times that there is nothing – full stop – that you can do, say, or write about Elves, Dwarves, or Orcs (and to a lesser degree Wizards and Dark Lords) that will add anything new or original or interesting to the general fantasy framework Tolkien laid out.

It doesn’t matter whether that’s true or not.  Enough influential voices within the halls of speculative fiction creatordom and fandom believe it to be true that we’ll get relatively few opportunities to test that hypothesis.

Which leads me to the subject of today’s poll.  It is for the above-stated reasons that over the past few days I’ve become concerned about the future publication prospects of my most recently completed novelette, “PFTETD”.  Continue reading

Writing Quotes: Mythopoeia

Yesterday, in my list of ten great books that moved me, I made mention of the term “Mythopoeia” – a term which is no doubt unfamiliar to many readers and potential readers.  Professor Tolkien coined the term, at least in the sense of mythopoeia representing a distinct literary genre.  As a genre, it is defined as an artificial or constructed mythology.  In theory, then, many – if not most – works of fantasy are works of mythopoeia.  But truly, Mythopoeia really means something more than just a fantasy story with an invented mythological backstory.  A mythopoetic work is the mythology itself, related and told on its own terms.  It is a work that explores mythological and anthropological themes, one that reexamines comparative mythology, digests it, and re-crystallizes it into something that is at once familiar and distinct, that hearkens back to a shared history before memory and that comments on the human condition.

Besides all that, Mythopoeia is also the title of a poem written by Tolkien: one that defends the making of invented mythologies (and by extension the writing of fantasy stories) against a friend who found them distasteful because they were all “lies”.  The poem must have had an impact, because that friend went on to write his own fantasy stories – stories that are nearly as beloved today as Tolkien’s work.

Today’s writing quotes are selections from that poem:

The heart of Man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons, ’twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we’re made.

 

I will not treat your dusty path and flat,
denoting this and that by this and that,
your world immutable wherein no part
the little maker has with maker’s art.
I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,
nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.

~J. R. R. Tolkien

Happy writing

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!