Jewish epic fantasy

I recently found this book review which argues that “there is no Jewish Narnia”.

The author seems to mean two things:

  1. There is no major Jewish writer in the ‘epic fantasy’ tradition of Tolkien.
  2. There is no fantasy world which is Jewish in the same way that Narnia is Christian.

There are major Jewish writers of fantasy in the broader sense (for example Neil Gaiman), several important people in comics (Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster), and of course lots of science fiction writers (Isaac Asimov).

The essay is interesting, but I think it might be needlessly complex, and possibly inaccurate, to argue that Judaism is inherently oriented towards the real world and modernity while Christianity is inherently oriented towards imaginary worlds and the past. How does Kabbalah fit into that theory?

It seems to me that the most likely reason for point 1 above is that (as the author points out), Jewish people are going to have problems overlooking the problems with medieval chivalry. You’re probably going to have problems writing ‘orcs’- near-humans that are there to be killed by the heroes- when your ancestors were forced into that historical role.

I can’t, however, think of a similarly simple explanation for point 2.

Middle Africa

A while ago I read The Real Middle Earth: Discovering the Origin of The Lord of the Rings (unfortunately there’s a documentary about the films, and a book about ancient European tribes, with almost the same name).

This has the quite interesting theory that many of the elements of The Lord of the Rings that aren’t in The Hobbit – for example Rohan, Gondor, and Mordor – are inspired by the history of medieval Abyssinia (now Eritrea and part of Ethiopia).

I have no idea whether it’s true or not, but it’s worth thinking about if you’re interested in such things.

Planning a series is a bad idea.

I’ve noticed that a lot of other amateur fantasy don’t plan to write books, but to write a whole series.

This makes sense given the popularity of Game of Thrones, the Wheel of Time and others.

However, I think it’s a bad idea.

In practice, writers don’t decide whether there’s a sequel. Readers do. And having the original written with a sequel in mind doesn’t make a sequel more likely.

The Hobbit, for example, is obviously not written with The Lord of the Rings in mind. The Hobbit makes no mention of Gondor, Rohan, Mordor, or rangers. The elves and goblins/orcs are very different, and so is the ring: in fact one chapter had to be rewritten to remove a blatant contradiction between the two books.

Star Wars is another prominent example (despite George Lucas’ claims to the contrary). Darth Vader and Anakin Skywalker are obviously different characters in the first film (Ben Kenobi specifically says so). Equally obviously, Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker aren’t related.

I’ve sometimes heard people justify particular elements because “this has to be there for the next book”. If you have enough of these, there probably won’t be a next book- and if the book is good enough people will be OK with some inconsistencies.

Nick Frost: Hobbit

I didn’t see The Hobbit for other reasons (the filmmakers disputed the allegations in the second link, but not the first), but this also annoys me about it.

Bilbo Baggins is meant to look (and initially act) like a complete non-hero. He’s not a ‘leading man’ type.

Nick Frost, on the other hand, not only looks the part…

…but in Sean of the Dead and Hot Fuzz he played characters who start off basically useless but who step up to the plate when necessary.

I guess fat guys aren’t allowed to be the hero, even in a story about how the fat guy can be a hero.

China Mieville (part 2: Is Tolkien a wen on the arse of fantasy literature?)

As I said yesterday, China Mieville once said that Tolkien was “a wen on the arse of fantasy literature.” A wen, by the way, is a cyst on the skin. Mieville is like Tolkien in that he likes using obscure words. Another, more significant, similarity is that he has good guys that are good and bad guys that are bad. I can’t imagine either of them having characters like Conan or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, who are far from evil, but who arguably do more harm than good, and certainly aren’t fighting for anything other than their own wealth. I also can’t imagine him having a hero appointed by a prophecy.

Similarly, in Mieville’s stories it always matters to the broader world whether the good guys win or not. If Conan was to die his ex-lovers and comrades in arms would be sad, but it wouldn’t cause any great suffering in the general population. The people he’s robbed might even be relieved. But in the New Crobuzon stories the city is always in actual danger unless the heroes win.

However that didn’t stop him saying that

Tolkien is the wen on the arse of fantasy literature. His oeuvre is massive and contagious – you can’t ignore it, so don’t even try. The best you can do is consciously try to lance the boil. And there’s a lot to dislike – his cod-Wagnerian pomposity, his boys-own-adventure glorying in war, his small-minded and reactionary love for hierarchical status-quos, his belief in absolute morality that blurs moral and political complexity. Tolkien’s clichés – elves ‘n’ dwarfs ‘n’ magic rings – have spread like viruses. He wrote that the function of fantasy was ‘consolation’, thereby making it an article of policy that a fantasy writer should mollycoddle the reader.

(source)

The point about “elves and dwarves and magic rings” is probably one that lots of people will nod their heads at. Of course they aren’t really Tolkien’s original ideas, but it’s true that most examples of elves, dwarves and magic rings in modern popular culture come to us via Tolkien (probably by way of D&D and the computer games that copied it, and by fantasy authors copying all of the above).

However it wasn’t Tolkien who made these things cliches, it was all the people who copied Tolkien. That isn’t a reason to dislike Tolkien, it’s a reason to dislike copying. If Tolkien had never lived, I don’t imagine fantasy fiction would be any more original. There’d probably just be a lot more sub-Robert E. Howard and sub-HP Lovecraft and China Mieville would be talking about “sorcerers ‘n’ barbarians ‘n’ forgotten, slumbering gods” (which, of course, actually are fantasy cliches). Or if those writers had never lived either, “lost valleys ‘n’ dinosaurs ‘n’ Martians”. The lazy, ‘vanilla’ version of fantasy would be different, but just as lazy and vanilla.

In any case, I think talking about Tolkien’s style or ‘literary merit’ is missing the point. The real issue here, I’m pretty sure, is that Mieville doesn’t like conservative Catholicism.

I can sort of see why Mieville dresses up this fairly straightforward argument so that it sounds like he’s complaining about too many dwarves. A lot of people really, really hate the idea that fantasy writing can have a political agenda. Or at least they hate the idea when it’s writers they like, and when they agree with the ideas. I remember having an online debate with James Maliszewski of the Grognardia blog about this, in which he seemed to argue that the Catholic Church has never engaged in politics, and therefore Lord of the Rings has no politics. I imagine that he’d say that China Mieville is trying to drag politics in where they don’t belong, and that this is both evidence that he’s an inferior writer and one of the causes of his inferior writing.

A lot of people, maybe even most, seem to be ashamed to say “I enjoy writing more when I agree with the political ideas behind it”. Perhaps there’s a pervasive idea about ‘great books’ that everyone should prefer, or that good writing is about ‘eternal truths’. Whatever the reason, I think people’s inability to own up causes a lot of ridiculous arguments about books where everyone tries to find another reason to justify their preferences (‘Tolkien is cliched’. ‘No, Mieville is a bitter cynic’).

So I can see why Mieville would want to try and argue around that. However I don’t think you should fight bullshit with more bullshit. Clearly fantasy writers have ideas about how the world works, clearly they use these ideas in their writing, and therefore clearly fantasy has political ideas. Those ideas might not be very interesting or controversial ones in some cases, but that’s partly a function of the society in which they were written. “Black people are savages” was quite an uninteresting and uncontroversial assumption in past decades, and if someone had written with the opposite assumption they would have been the ‘political writer’.

So I guess I’m saying that “I don’t agree with conservative Catholicism” is quite different to saying “Tolkien is the wen on the arse of fantasy literature”, and you shouldn’t say one when you mean the other. However a lot of the arguments you hear in response seem to be equally dishonest, because they pretend that Tolkien is ‘apolitical’.