Tag Archives: fantasy fiction

Christopher Tolkien, last of the Inklings

Christopher Tolkien Hannah Long gives a well-deserved tribute to J.R.R. Tolkien’s son and literary heir Christopher in the latest Weekly Standard. Long’s introduction to Christopher Tolkien’s life work includes insights into what makes the elder Tolkien’s stories so enchanting and timeless.

The junior Tolkien’s task was not easy: He had to organize, polish, and edit 70 boxes of manuscripts his father left behind, many stuffed with scraps of poetry, notes, and incomplete short stories. But out of that chaos, Christopher Tolkien harvested 25 works the world would probably never have seen otherwise, including The Silmarillion and a prose translation of Beowulf. The latest, The Fall of Gondolin, saw publication this August.

Tolkien’s works continue to nourish a reading public hungry for the myths that Tolkien made new, accessible, and meaningful. Tolkien and his fellow Inklings were rebels who waged literary war against the bleak alienation and scientism of their age. As Long puts it in her article:

For the Inklings, the medium of fantasy restored—or rather revealed—the enchantment of a disenchanted world. It reinstated an understanding of the transcendent that had been lost in postwar alienation.

“The value of myth,” C.S. Lewis wrote in an essay defending The Lord of the Rings, “is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by ‘the veil of familiarity.’” In this, fantasy did precisely the opposite of what its critics alleged—it did not represent a flight from the real world but a return to it, an unveiling of it. A child, Lewis wrote, “does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods,” but “the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.”

And isn’t that what attracts us to fantasy fiction? Today, people find themselves in a blur of gadgets, images, and endless consumption that replaces, rather than enhances, human existence. The enduring appeal of the Inklings’ works, as with all good fantasy, is the astounding news that the enchanted dwells with us, that beauty and mystery surround and enrich us even when we’re too busy to notice.

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The Pioneers of Pulp

Science Fiction and Fantasy, once despised by the creators of popular entertainment as well as literary scholars, have not only risen in the eyes of serious students of literature but among the general public. What accounts for this sea-change? We could point to the surprising success of both Star Trek (soft sci-fi) or Star Wars (sci-fan), but the origins of the near-dominance of sci-fi/fantasy in popular entertainment today goes back a little further, as this must-read from Open Culture argues:

Do we start with The Castle of Otranto, the first Gothic novel, which opened the door for such books as Dracula and Frankenstein? Or do we open with Edgar Allan Poe, whose macabre short stories and poems captivated the public’s imagination and inspired a million imitators? Maybe. But if we really want to know when the most populist, mass-market horror and fantasy began—the kind that inspired television shows from the Twilight Zone to the X-Files to Supernatural to The Walking Dead—we need to start with H.P. Lovecraft, and with the pulpy magazine that published his bizarre stories, Weird Tales.

I have to agree. Lovecraft’s the man!

Don’t miss the article’s treasure trove of links to the letters of H.P. Lovecraft, as well as links to classic editions of Weird Tales featuring stories by Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, Dorothy Quick, Robert Bloch, and Theodor Sturgeon. What a great way to get ready for Halloween!

Peter Jackson’s Tribute to the heroes of The Great War

Peter Jackson, known for his movie adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, promises audiences they’ll experience the Great War as they’ve never seen it before in his latest film, They Shall Not Grow Old.

The teaser reveals an astounding technical achievement. Jackson has restored, colorized, and repaired hundreds of original films from World War One to show audiences what it was like to fight and die in that terrible conflict. By doing so, he’s made hundred-year-old images seem real and poignant to modern audiences.

I’ve searched numerous articles to see Peter Jackson’s thoughts on the making of this film, and what drove him to do it. I suspect, though I can’t confirm, that Jackson’s latest project grew from his research into the life and work of J.R.R. Tolkien. It was the shocking carnage at the Battle of the Somme, where Tolkien served as Battalion Signaling Officer of the Lancashire Fusiliers, that tormented and inspired the young scholar to capture in fiction the horror — and hope — he’d learned on the battlefield.

Tolkien’s way of making sense of what he’d gone through in WWI was to craft a tale that warned of the dehumanizing effect of technology while celebrating the courage and decency of ordinary people. That, I think, is the true power of fantastic fiction, which opens us to a realm of rediscovered and reimagined possibilities thought lost but still within our grasp.

Beowulf: The enduring appeal of an Anglo-Saxon ‘superhero story’

Viking

Here’s a great article from the BBC on the enduring influence of the epic poem that defined Western literature and thought:

Some 1,300 years on from when most historians believe it was written, Beowulf continues to be shared, adapted and revised, whether on screen, in print or in song.

JRR Tolkien, who was a noted expert on the poem, is widely thought to have taken inspiration from Beowulf for his Lord of the Rings trilogy.

According to Prof Andrew Burn, from University College London (UCL), the roots of popular medieval-themed video games and TV shows can also be found in this epic saga.

“Look at Lord of the Rings, Dungeons & Dragons, Game of Thrones, any of those big TV franchises, and you realise what the perennial source of interest there is in the same themes: bravery, mortality, power struggles, social hierarchy,” he says.

Beowulf was one of my favorites as a student in high school and college. I now own translations by Kevin Crossley-Holland, Burton Raffel, JRR Tolkien, and Seamus Heaney. Of the four, my favorite is Heaney’s. Its sparkling, dynamic prose best matches the spirit and power of the story and its characters. Here’s a taste from page 51. It’s the scene where Beowulf, who has chosen to fight Grendel bare-handed, first tackles the monster in the mead-hall of King Hrothgar:

And now the timbers trembled and sang,
a hall-session that harrowed every Dane
inside the stockade: stumbling in fury,
the two contenders crashed through the building.
The hall clattered and hammered, but somehow
survived the onslaught and kept standing.

The legacy and importance of Beowulf was not only established by its being a robust and entertaining tale, but because it defined Western civilization itself. The worldview here is one of accommodation and repurposing of pagan traditions. Instead of scouring the old ways it encountered, Christianity adapted pagan values and made them its own. For example, Beowulf is presented as a warrior-savior, a kind of Nordic Jesus. And as James C. Russell argued in The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity, Christianity in northern Europe was significantly altered to become a “world-embracing” rather than a “world-denying” religion. As Kevin Crossley-Holland concludes in the BBC article, one of Beowulf’s themes is that “On the whole, life’s to be relished, lived to the full, laughed with and at.”

JRR Tolkien certainly concurred with that view, as every page of The Lord of the Ring confirms.

Quote of the day

del Toro

“And I want to tell you, everyone that is dreaming of using the genre of fantasy to tell the stories about the things that are real in the world today – you can do it! This is a door. Kick it open and come in!” – Guillermo Del Toro, accepting an Oscar for The Shape of Water.

By GuillemMedina – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66203883

Why we need fantasy

Explore!

The great struggle of our age is to re-assert our humanity against those institutions that define and treat us as simple automatons. Freudian “Drive-Reduction Theory” attempted to minimize all life into simplistic, mechanical terms. B. F. Skinner went so far as to claim that ALL behavior results from external reinforcement: Reward “good” behavior and punish “bad” behavior, and humans can be conditioned for the better. Utopia, therefore, is just a few conditioning sessions away …

Problem is, living things are inherently complex. Life refuses to be contained within formulas. So when behavioral scientists observed subjects ignoring rewards and spontaneously exploring and experimenting, they had to admit this impulse was internal, rather than external, as Skinner had assumed. A new term arose to describe this activity, as this refreshing article from Medium reports:

Intrinsic motivation refers to the spontaneous tendency “to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise one’s capacity, to explore, and to learn” (Ryan and Deci, 2000, p.70).

Exercise, games, travel, reading, and even watching TV all satisfy the seeking system to varying levels of effortful operation. On one side of the spectrum someone could climb Mount Everest, and on the other they could browse Netflix. Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp defines this exploratory behaviour as being driven by the organisms innate seeking system. To reiterate, the anomaly behind seeking is that it provides seemingly very little utilitarian value — it does not fulfil some physiological needs deficit, but we do it anyway. We create our own value from within. Also fascinating, we now know that organisms behave in intrinsically motivated ways even when they are lacking ‘basic’ needs such as food, water, or shelter. How many times have you seen a homeless person reading a book? Do you think they’re practising for a job interview? No, they’re seeking.

The drive to seek, to explore, and experience new things is what attracts us to fantasy. We revolt against the dreary uniformity of globalism by seeking out realms of imagination. That’s why science fiction and fantasy fuel so much popular culture these days. The fantastic is that place where we can once again experience wonder.

The Real Conan

Robert E. Howard

What accounts for the enduring popularity of Robert E. Howard’s most famous creation, Conan of Cimmeria? Author John C. Wright offers this perceptive analysis:

Conan is somewhat more deep and complex than the cartoon image of a brute in a bearskin loincloth found the popular imagination, with a dancing girl clutching his brawny thigh and a devil-beast dying under his bloody ax. The theme and philosophy he represents is not the product of adolescent neurosis (as certain bitter critics would have us believe) but of somber, even cynical, reflection on the age of the world, the costs of civilization, and the frailty of man.

Howard, despite his lack of formal education, was well-read and intellectually curious. The worldview behind his Conan stories is broad, well-crafted, insightful, and still worthwhile for the modern reader. Wright’s introduction is an invaluable introduction to one of the great writers of our age.