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’.

The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

I found this collection a while ago. It’s a.group of Sherlock Holmes stories by authors other than Arthur Conan Doyle, most of which go in the direction of science fiction or fantasy. It might seem like putting the ultimate logician in a situation with no obvious logic would defeat the purpose of the character – and yet, for me, it works.The most famous story from this collection is probably Neil Gaiman’s A Study In Emerald. The non-free version apparently has several more stories.

The Cats of Ulthar

I’m currently working on a verse version of HP Lovecraft’s story The Cats of Ulthar. Since it’s very short, I thought I’d post the original here.

The Cats of Ulthar

It is said that in Ulthar, which lies beyond the river Skai, no man may kill a cat; and this I can verily believe as I gaze upon him who sitteth purring before the fire. For the cat is cryptic, and close to strange things which men cannot see. He is the soul of antique Aegyptus, and bearer of tales from forgotten cities in Meroe and Ophir. He is the kin of the jungle’s lords, and heir to the secrets of hoary and sinister Africa. The Sphinx is his cousin, and he speaks her language; but he is more ancient than the Sphinx, and remembers that which she hath forgotten.

In Ulthar, before ever the burgesses forbade the killing of cats, there dwelt an old cotter and his wife who delighted to trap and slay the cats of their neighbors. Why they did this I know not; save that many hate the voice of the cat in the night, and take it ill that cats should run stealthily about yards and gardens at twilight. But whatever the reason, this old man and woman took pleasure in trapping and slaying every cat which came near to their hovel; and from some of the sounds heard after dark, many villagers fancied that the manner of slaying was exceedingly peculiar. But the villagers did not discuss such things with the old man and his wife; because of the habitual expression on the withered faces of the two, and because their cottage was so small and so darkly hidden under spreading oaks at the back of a neglected yard. In truth, much as the owners of cats hated these odd folk, they feared them more; and instead of berating them as brutal assassins, merely took care that no cherished pet or mouser should stray toward the remote hovel under the dark trees. When through some unavoidable oversight a cat was missed, and sounds heard after dark, the loser would lament impotently; or console himself by thanking Fate that it was not one of his children who had thus vanished. For the people of Ulthar were simple, and knew not whence it is all cats first came.

One day a caravan of strange wanderers from the South entered the narrow cobbled streets of Ulthar. Dark wanderers they were, and unlike the other roving folk who passed through the village twice every year. In the market-place they told fortunes for silver, and bought gay beads from the merchants. What was the land of these wanderers none could tell; but it was seen that they were given to strange prayers, and that they had painted on the sides of their wagons strange figures with human bodies and the heads of cats, hawks, rams and lions. And the leader of the caravan wore a headdress with two horns and a curious disk betwixt the horns.

There was in this singular caravan a little boy with no father or mother, but only a tiny black kitten to cherish. The plague had not been kind to him, yet had left him this small furry thing to mitigate his sorrow; and when one is very young, one can find great relief in the lively antics of a black kitten. So the boy whom the dark people called Menes smiled more often than he wept as he sat playing with his graceful kitten on the steps of an oddly painted wagon.

On the third morning of the wanderers’ stay in Ulthar, Menes could not find his kitten; and as he sobbed aloud in the market-place certain villagers told him of the old man and his wife, and of sounds heard in the night. And when he heard these things his sobbing gave place to meditation, and finally to prayer. He stretched out his arms toward the sun and prayed in a tongue no villager could understand; though indeed the villagers did not try very hard to understand, since their attention was mostly taken up by the sky and the odd shapes the clouds were assuming. It was very peculiar, but as the little boy uttered his petition there seemed to form overhead the shadowy, nebulous figures of exotic things; of hybrid creatures crowned with horn-flanked disks. Nature is full of such illusions to impress the imaginative.

That night the wanderers left Ulthar, and were never seen again. And the householders were troubled when they noticed that in all the village there was not a cat to be found. From each hearth the familiar cat had vanished; cats large and small, black, grey, striped, yellow and white. Old Kranon, the burgomaster, swore that the dark folk had taken the cats away in revenge for the killing of Menes’ kitten; and cursed the caravan and the little boy. But Nith, the lean notary, declared that the old cotter and his wife were more likely persons to suspect; for their hatred of cats was notorious and increasingly bold. Still, no one durst complain to the sinister couple; even when little Atal, the innkeeper’s son, vowed that he had at twilight seen all the cats of Ulthar in that accursed yard under the trees, pacing very slowly and solemnly in a circle around the cottage, two abreast, as if in performance of some unheard-of rite of beasts. The villagers did not know how much to believe from so small a boy; and though they feared that the evil pair had charmed the cats to their death, they preferred not to chide the old cotter till they met him outside his dark and repellent yard.

So Ulthar went to sleep in vain anger; and when the people awakened at dawn-behold! every cat was back at his accustomed hearth! Large and small, black, grey, striped, yellow and white, none was missing. Very sleek and fat did the cats appear, and sonorous with purring content. The citizens talked with one another of the affair, and marveled not a little. Old Kranon again insisted that it was the dark folk who had taken them, since cats did not return alive from the cottage of the ancient man and his wife. But all agreed on one thing: that the refusal of all the cats to eat their portions of meat or drink their saucers of milk was exceedingly curious. And for two whole days the sleek, lazy cats of Ulthar would touch no food, but only doze by the fire or in the sun.

It was fully a week before the villagers noticed that no lights were appearing at dusk in the windows of the cottage under the trees. Then the lean Nith remarked that no one had seen the old man or his wife since the night the cats were away. In another week the burgomaster decided to overcome his fears and call at the strangely silent dwelling as a matter of duty, though in so doing he was careful to take with him Shang the blacksmith and Thul the cutter of stone as witnesses. And when they had broken down the frail door they found only this: two cleanly picked human skeletons on the earthen floor, and a number of singular beetles crawling in the shadowy corners.

There was subsequently much talk among the burgesses of Ulthar. Zath, the coroner, disputed at length with Nith, the lean notary; and Kranon and Shang and Thul were overwhelmed with questions. Even little Atal, the innkeeper’s son, was closely questioned and given a sweetmeat as reward. They talked of the old cotter and his wife, of the caravan of dark wanderers, of small Menes and his black kitten, of the prayer of Menes and of the sky during that prayer, of the doings of the cats on the night the caravan left, and of what was later found in the cottage under the dark trees in the repellent yard.

And in the end the burgesses passed that remarkable law which is told of by traders in Hatheg and discussed by travelers in Nir; namely, that in Ulthar no man may kill a cat.

On the Nature of the Eighth and Ninth Rays

As some people will know, in the Barsoom series John Carter finds that Barsoom has two new colors, unknown on Earth. The people of Barsoom call them the Eighth and Ninth Rays. David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus (which I thought was earlier, but was actually published three years later, in 1920) has extra colors called ulfire and jale. HP Lovecraft’s The Color Out of Space has an unknown number of “shining bands unlike any known colours of the normal spectrum.”

Carl Sagan wrote that as a child he, inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs, “spent many long minutes with my eyes tightly closed, fiercely concentrating on a new primary color. But it would always be a murky brown or a plum.”

There’s an article on this concept on the TVTropes wiki, but it doesn’t have any earlier fictional examples than Edgar Rice Burroughs (which doesn’t necessarily mean that he came up with the idea. TVTropes tends to be very focussed on more recent fiction).

Anyway, some scientists claim that they found a way to enable people to perceive ‘new’ colors. The link is here.

I remember when I was a child we had a View-Master, which allowed you to see 3-D images. Each 3-D image was a combination of two pictures. One of the ‘reels’ we had was based on the Transformers cartoon. They’d colored all the laser beams different colors in the two pictures. The effect was very strange – it wasn’t the same as what you’d get by mixing paint in the two original colors – and I wonder if that’s similar to the experiment described above.

from The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath

Three times Randolph Carter dreamed of the marvelous city, and three times was he snatched away while still he paused on the high terrace above it. All golden and lovely it blazed in the sunset, with walls, temples, colonnades and arched bridges of veined marble, silver-basined fountains of prismatic spray in broad squares and perfumed gardens, and wide streets marching between delicate trees and blossom-laden urns and ivory statues in gleaming rows; while on steep northward slopes climbed tiers of red roofs and old peaked gables harbouring little lanes of grassy cobbles. It was a fever of the gods, a fanfare of supernal trumpets and a clash of immortal cymbals. Mystery hung about it as clouds about a fabulous unvisited mountain; and as Carter stood breathless and expectant on that balustraded parapet there swept up to him the poignancy and suspense of almost-vanished memory, the pain of lost things and the maddening need to place again what once had been an awesome and momentous place.

HP Lovecraft.

Arkham Horror encounters as role-playing inspiration

(I got this idea from another blog, but after extensive searching I can’t find the original post. If you know it, please say so in the comments.)

I played my first game of Arkham Horror tonight. For those who don’t know it, it’s a board game whose theme is the fictional world of HP Lovecraft. It’s one of those ‘almost role-playing game’ board games, where each player has a character that has their own skills and attributes. I quite liked the game, although it was more complicated than I’d usually choose. Once a game gets to a certain level of rules complexity I’m never quite sure that I’m playing it properly, and for me that gets in the way of enjoying the game.

Anyway one of the elements of the game is drawing a card and seeing what you run into. There are custom decks for each space on the board. Some of the cards are quite flavourful, and I thought some people who role-play might want to look at the texts for inspiration. So I went looking on the net, and found lists here and here.

from Fungi From Yuggoth

V. Homecoming

The daemon said that he would take me home
To the pale, shadowy land I half recalled
As a high place of stair and terrace, walled
With marble balustrades that sky-winds comb,
While miles below a maze of dome on dome
And tower on tower beside a sea lies sprawled.
Once more, he told me, I would stand enthralled
On those old heights, and hear the far-off foam.

All this he promised, and through sunset’s gate
He swept me, past the lapping lakes of flame,
And red-gold thrones of gods without a name
Who shriek in fear at some impending fate.
Then a black gulf with sea-sounds in the night:
“Here was your home,” he mocked, “when you had sight!”

HP Lovecraft.

from Fungi From Yuggoth

IV. Recognition

The day had come again, when as a child
I saw – just once – that hollow of old oaks,
Grey with a ground-mist that enfolds and chokes
The slinking shapes which madness has defiled.
It was the same – an herbage rank and wild
Clings round an altar whose carved sign invokes
That Nameless One to whom a thousand smokes
Rose, aeons gone, from unclean towers up-piled.

I saw the body spread on that dank stone,
And knew those things which feasted were not men;
I knew this strange, grey world was not my own,
But Yuggoth, past the starry voids – and then
The body shrieked at me with a dead cry,
And all too late I knew that it was I!

HP Lovecraft.

from Fungi From Yuggoth

III. The Key

I do not know what windings in the waste
Of those strange sea-lanes brought me home once more,
But on my porch I trembled, white with haste
To get inside and bolt the heavy door.
I had the book that told the hidden way
Across the void and through the space-hung screens
That hold the undimensioned worlds at bay,
And keep lost aeons to their own demesnes.

At last the key was mine to those vague visions
Of sunset spires and twilight woods that brood
Dim in the gulfs beyond this earth’s precisions,
Lurking as memories of infinitude.
The key was mine, but as I sat there mumbling,
The attic window shook with a faint fumbling.

HP Lovecraft.