WRIGHT ON: Elf-Thirst for Waters Beyond the World

Wednesday , 29, March 2017 40 Comments

In time past, I have attempted to define of science fiction, sometimes in earnest (I call science fiction the mythology of a scientific age) and sometimes not.

The eternal debate has sprung up again here at the Castalia House blog, and also touches on my own efforts to reread the lost works of science fantasy, so I hope the kindhearted reader will allow me to weigh in on the topic.

Specifically, I was wondering what in the world made the Gormenghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake a fantasy book? This led me to wonder how any genre was defined.

To answer, let us (as befits this genre) quest upon a journey, tarrying often. In the silver ship of memory, let us sail the Nonestic Ocean of fantasy, starting in the mists of the past. I lived through the latter stage of the Tolkien revolution in SFF, what scholars will someday call the “Lin Carter” period. During this period, circa 1976-1977, the feast of fantasy was thin, and everyone who had read anything in the field had likely read everything in the field.

The three or four great island-chains of fantasy seen on the maps of those days consisted of the Lord of the Rings by Tolkien, the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, the Prydain series by Lloyd Alexander, the Earthsea trilogy by Ursula K. LeGuin. The Dark is Rising sequence of Susan Cooper deserves honorable mention, as does A WRINKLE IN TIME by Madeleine L’Engle.

All of these are far famed enough to have been honored (or abused) by big or small screen adaptations. With no condescension meant, let us call these Children’s Fantasies, for in those days, the fantasy reader haunted the children’s section of the library, since that was where the fantasy was.

Lin Carter at Ballantine books changed that by introducing the pre-Tolkien authors of this strange and perilous genre. Far from the island chain of Middle-Earth, Narnia, and Earthsea, loom oddly shaped mountain-isles, mist-hidden, no two alike. Let me list a few choice names, to stir your fond memories, O Reader:

• GORMENGHAST, Mervyn Peake.
• A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS, David Lindsay.
• THE LAST UNICORN, Peter S. Beagle.
• LUD-IN-THE-MIST, Hope Mirrlees.
• VATHEK, William Beckford.
• LILITH, George Macdonald.
• THE BROKEN SWORD, Poul Anderson.
• THE NIGHT LAND William Hope Hodgson.
• THE PEOPLE OF THE MIST, H. Rider Haggard.
• THE CHILDREN OF LLYR, Evangeline Walton.
• XICCARPH, Clark Ashton Smith.

Because my term pre-Tolkien may lead to misunderstanding, let me explain I do not mean this authors lived or published before Tolkien chronologically. They are ‘pre-Tolkien’ thematically, their works uninfluenced by the great magnetic attractor of the Lord of the Rings. They draw from an earlier strata of inspiration. None of these use the trope of the pseudo-medieval fantasy quest: in none of the books listed above is there a Dark Lord. (While there is King Haggard, Nyarlathotep, Sunday the Anarchist, and the sorcerer tyrant Maal Dweb, they are not Sauron impersonators.)

There is also the archipelago of ‘low fantasy’ which runs parallel to the high fantasy genre dominated by the names above, and it consists of Robert E. Howard and his epigones, who, by himself, defined the ‘sword and sorcery’ genre.

There is some leak or overlap between Howard and H.P. Lovecraft, Clarke Ashton Smith, Wandrei and Derlith, and his little circle, which is an odd little island of stories with one shore upon the ‘Weird Tales’ of magazines like WEIRD TALES, supernatural horror, one shore brushing against science fiction and science fantasy, one shore touching the THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS, and one peninsula snaking into the ancient realm of Cimmeria, Atlantis, Aegypt, and every forgotten land of pre-history, when red-eyed yet dark-robed magicians still stalked the earth, brawny warriors, scantily-clad dancing girls, corrupt courtiers, venal archpriests, serpent-men of Valusia, and all the panoply and pageantry all too familiar to the modern reader, at that time fresh and new; or as new as anything so obviously taken from Arabian fantasies and set in pagan times.

The scientific fantasies of Jack Vance, namely his THE DYING EARTH cycle, is an island by itself very near in the Nonestic Ocean, but otherwise having little connection with it.

(One underground passage leads from the island of the Dying Earth to the more mundane parts of modern dreamland, namely, Gary Gygax borrowed the magic system, indeed several of the names, from Jack Vance, for Dungeons and Dragons. Vance had to solve the perennial problem of introducing magic into a plot, which is, why cannot magic solve the problem? Why can’t it do everything? Jack Vance cleverly limited the magic by having it be a pseudo-science: one where the spells, once spoken, vanished from the memory, and could not be said again without difficult study. And, at that, the human brain was so constructed that it could only hold a certain number at a time.)

On one famed island in hereabouts looms the fortress of Michael Moorcock, who made his name by reversing every trope coined by Robert E. Howard. Howard’s Conan was a barbarian; Moorcock’s Elric was an over-refined aesthete from a corrupt civilization. Conan was bronzed brawny; Elric was pale and sickly; and so on.

There is also a strong element of rebellion of Moorcock against Tolkien. Tolkien’s universe has a Dark Lord, whose represents all the evils of the mechanized modern age, the love of power for its own sake, the contempt for nature, and yet also represents an eternal evil; and opposing this darkness is a clear and piercing light, sometimes literally seen in the radiance of the phial of Galadriel, sometimes adumbrated as the light in the West that calls to the dying elves, a divine light.

Moorcock substituted for the concise dichotomy of Light and Shadow a meaningless and endless rivalry between Law and Chaos, both equally deadly to man, should either prove the victor.

Because the moralistic element is absent, replaced by a nihilism by turns melancholic, morose, ironic or inhuman, the Moorcockian body of work never rises above the level of an adventure story. It is not serious, and has no wisdom to impart to a grown-up. A fantasy of despair is no less juvenile than brawny thewed power-fantasies.

Lest any reader dream I speak ill of Mr. Moorcock for categorizing his tales this way, I say humbug. Rest assured that I myself write light escapist adventure stories more often than tales touching deeper things, and there is no shame in it. I honestly to do not regard one approach to be better or worse than the other.

If you find that hard to believe, consider: A good cook knows how to make a confection as well as prepare a dish for the main course. If he can prepare pheasant under glass but not grill a cheeseburger, he is no cook. Anyone who says the filet mignon has have the right to sneer at flan or sorbet as their culinary inferiors does not know how to eat.

The final group, and the one of least concern to us for this essay, concerned the post-Tolkien writers who followed his footsteps. At that period of history in which I speak, only two or three books existed to slake the thirst for fantasy the great fountainhead of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy had stirred: SWORD OF SHANARRA by Terry Brooks, and LORD FOUL’S BANE by Stephen R. Donaldson. There were other and lesser works (Does anyone but me remember URSHURAK by the Brothers Hildebrandt?).

Since those days, the feast of fantasy has grown so abundantly, that we are in danger of being overfed: there are authors a-plenty who are willing to give us a fast food version of the feast, with the elements that made Tolkien so fascinating and Moorcock so subversive carefully microwaved out. There are authors who rebel against Tolkien, like China Mieville, or who rebel against C.S. Lewis, like Phillip Pullman, and there are some (very few) like George R.R. Martin, who take inspiration from other streams (in his case, the War of the Roses) and seem to have nothing in common with Tolkien.

Then there is Gene Wolfe, who takes the all these tropes and makes of it something so unique an strange and awe-inspiring that it deserves a genre of its own: albeit even in a masterwork like SHADOW OF THE TORTURER was can see elements of scientific fantasy, a setting like the “Dying Earth” of Jack Vance or Clarke Ashton Smith’s “Zothique”, perhaps some of the moral atmosphere of Tolkien or George MacDonald, more than a little of the detective work of G.K. Chesterton.

Roughly then, and for purely personal reasons, I am dividing fantasy into five groups:

1. Children’s Fantasy (J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Ursula K. LeGuin, Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper, possibly Madeleine L’Engle);

2. Lin Carter’s strange menagerie of pre-Tolkien writers;

3. Robert E. Howard’s epigones (Fritz Leiber, C.L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, and, whether he likes it or not, Michael Moorcock);

4. Tolkien’s epigones (Terry Brooks, Stephen Donaldson, David Eddings, Terry Goodkind, Robert Jordan, Mercedes Lackey).

A fifth group I will not here explore is the more recent children and grandchildren of these four: Gene Wolfe, George R.R. Martin, Roger Zelazny, Steven Brust, J.K. Rowling, Phillip Pullman, Michael Swanwick, Neil Gaiman, and, believe it or not, Joss Whedon. The entire genre of Urban Fantasy, which consists of leather-clad nymphettes kicking ass and stabbing knives into vampires and werewolves, follows the trail blazed by Joss Whedon’s BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER.

Looking at this varied assortment, the first thing I notice is that the greatest eccentricity rests in the second group.

There is overlap, of course between the second and the third: Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith are pulp writers. There is additional overlap outside the genre Chesterton’s MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY is a detective story, albeit with supernatural (or theological) overtones. Arthur Machen’s THE THREE IMPOSTORS is a horror tale, albeit with supernatural overtones. THE NIGHT LAND is arguably science fiction, or, at least science fantasy like the Dying Earth of Vance, although it has all the mood and atmosphere of some Gothic or terror-haunted sea story.

Why in the world does anyone consider the Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake to be fantasy?

T o answer the question we must address a much larger, which is what defines fantasy? That question in turn leads to an even larger, which is, how is any genre defined? That question leads to one of the largest, which is, how is anything defined?

Being an old fashioned sort of fellow, I submit that there are two types of definitions: proscriptive and descriptive.

A proscriptive definition is like one we use in Euclid: a point is that which has no part; a triangle is any enclosed plane figure formed by three straight line segments. A definition of this type proscribes the set it defines, like a rigid box, and anything not fitting the definition is excluded. Proscriptive definitions have little use outside theological, philosophical, mathematical or other abstract discussion, because only in abstract discussions is the object of discussion something the speakers can conjure into existence by speech. A triangle, in math, is what Euclid says it is because he says it.

A descriptive definition, on the other hand, is like looking for a family resemblance. There is something all members of the primate family have in common, even if we have to concentrate to reduce these similarities to a unique set of characteristics.

Now, let us first dismiss the postmodern definitions, because they are frankly contemptible and shallow. If you, like Damon Knight, say that fantasy is whatever you are pointing at whenever you point at a book and say “fantasy”, your definition produces no illumination.

I am here looking at a list of what Lin Carter pointed at when he said “fantasy” and trying to find the common characteristic.

If Damon Knight or other postmodern raconteur makes a hidden claim is that there is no common characteristic, we all know that to be false.

If I go into a bookstore and ask for a Samurai Vampire story, and the pretty young clerk hands me a pirate story or a western or a love story, I am within my rights to have my mute but hulking manservant throw the shrieking clerk to the snakes as a warning to others, for she has failed me.

Likewise with science fiction and fantasy: when you are in the mood to buy and read a fantasy book, STARSHIP IN A STRANGE LAND by Robert Heinlein will not scratch your itch; when you are in the mood for hard-SF science fiction, LOST UNICORN OF UTTERBOL is not your cup of tea.

I suggest that, even though moods are fickle things, that when you are in the mood for a fantasy book, you are in the mood for something particular, a thing which includes set of real characteristics.

Again, let us dismiss with scorn the postmodern definition that divides fantasy from sci-fi on the grounds of marketing. We cannot say “fantasy is whatever the pretty young clerk puts into the fantasy section.” Unless the pretty young clerk is acting wholly arbitrarily, she is putting something into the fantasy section for a reason.

The beauty of the capitalist system is that we are allowed to assume she is putting her wares in the fantasy section precisely because she expects (and has cause to expect) that when I go into the bookstore with an elfin, unearthly hunger that only a fantasy book will quench, the clerk will sate rather than starve my hunger, by putting those books where I can find them. She knows the penalty for failure.

Likewise, moving up the chain of command, the editor will decide to put a unicorn rather than a starship on the cover based on the same consideration: Is this what will satisfy the elf-thirst for fantasy?

I would not dare attempt to define what that elf-thirst is, first, because it is as subtle as the color of the twilight of the dawn on new fallen snow, something between luminous gold and blood red that has no name, when all the familiar objects of the world, trees and houses, have been cloaked as if for masquerade in white hoods and mantles, and all the roads buried and therefore lost as unicorns. It is too subtle for me to say what it is.

Second, I suspect this elf-thirst has a theological reason behind it, rooted in human psychology, rooted in the Fall of Man, and so I would not care to disturb my pagan readers (if such kind souls exist) by uttering that Name of Power which makes elves cower, vampires burn, and Liberals grow faintheaded with ire, so that their palms creep toward their dirks.

But, without uttering that Name, I can attest that fantasy books satisfy a thirst that grows in us whenever we feel that this world is not enough; it cannot be all there is.

There is something in man, even among hardened atheists, that grows awed and chary when we walk alone, at night, through a graveyard, and hear a soft, cold voice.

There is a feeling of escape, even when we are frightened, if we chance to see a light in the midnight sky that could not be a satellite, or airplane, or Venus reflected from the mist. It is as if a prison roof broke open, and something not from the fields we know is coming down.

What do the books selected by Lin Vrooman Carter have in common?

I submit that in order to be a genre, a set of stories has to share a common language of images, ideas, tropes. A genre is a genre when the readers can reasonably expect the themes and devices, the machine of the plot, to operate as others in the same genre have done, or, by deliberate reversal, to betray them. A genre, in other words, has a ‘family resemblance’ of themes and expectations to it.

Let us put the matter in a different way. A book can be said to be in the same genre with another if two characters from two different books could meet without either being impossible to the other.

For example, Freddy from NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET could exist either in the horror genre or dark fantasy, since he does things that are unearthly, indeed, impossible by our laws of nature. If he were forced into a science fiction setting, for example, STAR TREK, he would have to be translated and changed in his nature to fit in. (By changed in his nature, I mean something like ‘Jack the Ripper’ in the Star Trek episode ‘Wolf in the Fold’. Jack the Ripper is suddenly an energy-being, something very different than what he was, for example, in the time-travel fantasy TIME AFTER TIME or A STUDY IN TERROR by Ellery Queen.)

Jason from the movie FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH, even though he is (at least at first) merely a mortal man in a hockey mask, can crossover into Jason’s universe without translation, because he is an inhabitant of the same genre. Both are horror figures. Both share with the audience a group of expectations, styles, tropes and themes that make them horror figures.

The most obvious shared characteristic of fantasy is its unearthliness. Something has to be ultramundane, if not ultracosmic, for a tale to be a fantasy. Science fiction shares this characteristic of being non-mundane, which is why we see such a porous boundary line between the two empires; the border guards have relaxed their watch, since nothing of the one genre can really deeply offend the other.

The difference is in the degree of realism involved in world-building: science fiction is based on the scientific world-view which springs from the Enlightenment. Fantasy is based on the ancient world. (We might subdivide this further, and say sword and sorcery, with it cruel and capricious gods, is pagan, and based on the Hellenic era, or earlier; and that High Fantasy is medieval, and based on an Arthurian world view, where the pagan elements have been baptized into a Christian world view.)

Let us try the simple ‘elf and elf-land’ test. Could an elf, dragon, or unicorn visit these worlds without being impossible? Does the setting take place in elf-land?

Well, some of the worlds of Lin Carter have elves already, such as THE KING OF ELFLAND’S DAUGHTER, or THE BROKEN SWORD, or unicorns, such as THE LAST UNICORN. They clearly take place in elf-land, at its heart.

Some books begin in our world, or something like it, and end in alien epochs remote beyond imagining, THE NIGHT LANDS, or supernatural worlds whose meaning cannot at first be guessed, VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS.

The dreamer in THE DREAM-QUEST OF UNKNOWN KADATH begins in Boston and returns sane from his voyaging, even if the quest is by his houseless soul.

THE WORM OUROBOROS begins on Earth, and also voyages in dream, but ends in a whirlpool of time without ending in a land that only an alchemist would call Mercury, the Second Heaven, and the sphere of magicians.

LUD-IN-THE-MIST is explicitly situated on the border of the Perilous Land, and the discomfort of the people there is the main driver of the plot.

LILITH takes place in a spirit world. Vathek hails from the perfumed golden cities of the Near East, Kai Lung of the Far East.

XICCARPH by Clark Ashton Smith has several settings, remote in time and space, but the mood and flavor is the same Oriental mystery and horror, the same sense of strangeness, as its more earthly counterpart.

To my mind, this test seems to be a failure, simply because relatively few of the creatures or character from one world here could exist in any of the others.

The imagination is perhaps amused at the idea of Lord Juss of Demonland transported to Tormance in Arcturus, and drawing his noble sword against the malignant Crimtyphon; or seeing the fumbling magician Schmendrick trying to make Lirazel, the King of Elfland’s Daughter smile as she pines for her lost home—but alas, to see either of them confronted by the Night Gaunts of Lovecraft or the Night Hounds of William Hope Hodgson is a jarring note.

And surely none of these exquisite or horrific creatures could appear at Saffron Park in London, during that twilight of the memorable sunset, when Gabriel Syme, the Poet of the Law, was preparing to argue with Lucian Gregory, the poet of anarchy. Only the murderers of Machen’s THREE IMPOSTORS might intrude into the peculiar world of THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY without upsetting the delicate laws of nature there, and no doubt the Man in the Dark Room (whom knows a bit about imposture himself) would send out agents secretly to pursue them.

And yet these all have something in common: they made a demand upon the imagination of the reader to enter into a world not his own.

We can tentatively deduce that there are degrees of fantasy. A world that is much like our own as it now is or was is “closer” to the fields we know that a world that is utterly unearthly. Chesterton and Machen set their tales in our world, and can be read without disorientation even by muggles and mundane: they have only the slightest whiff of elf-land about them, and perhaps do not belong in the genre at all.

The WOOD BEYOND THE WORLD, for example, is closer to us than THE BROKEN SWORD, since the High Middle Ages are closer in mood and theme to us than the wild and fierce despair of the pagan Norse.

The world described in the NIGHT LAND is so unlike ours that it cannot be (and is not) described; the world of Tormance in VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS asks the reader to envision colors that cannot be envisioned, beings of a third positive sex but as human as him, stark landscapes, dreamlike dialogs, a light that cannot appear in this world. Indeed, I am hard put to name any book as purely unearthly as this one: again, it hardly seems like a member of the genre, since no elf-horn could possibly be heard blowing along the slopes of the Ifdawn Marest, or in the glass-colored shadows of the Lusion Plain.

Now, I emphasize that these stories represent a departure, and indeed often a nostalgic one, away from the world we know to worlds our ancestors might have dreamed. There is an archaic flavor even in far future tales such as The Night Land of William Hope Hodgson or the Dying Earth of Jack Vance. The addition of science there does not make it science fiction, because the worlds in which their machines operate is an elf-land, or a goblin-land, inhabited by darker elves from the days before Disney.

Whether or not the work of John Bunyan, Milton, and Dante can technically fit in this genre, I leave as an exercise for the reader to deduce. I would argue that these great epics, while they contain elements of the supernal and even supernatural, speak to something more fundamental and serious than fantasy: they do indeed, no less than fantasy, drive our thoughts beyond the seas we know and into wilder waters, but they bring us at last to a harbor at the World’s End, and slake the thirst with something more real than water, and wash us with something more vivid than blood.

There are some books these days that are clearly fantasy, but which the main stream world, the mundanes, can read with pleasure. I speak of Harry Potter. Notice that while there is magic in abundance in J.K. Rowling’s world, the story is not very magical at all, if you take my meaning. Harry goes to school in fairyland, this school being reached by the quaint mechanism of a steam locomotive. But he meet nothing there that would require a very large leap of the imagination on the part of the mundane reader. Indeed, the book can be said to be set in Halloweenland: the creatures are ones my children dress up as (or you yourself, depending on your age) each Walpurgisnacht. Odd as it seems, MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY would make a greater demand on the imagination, and urge the reader to come farther away into the fields we know not.

Shows such as BEWITCHED and I DREAM OF JEANNIE likewise make no demand on the imagination of the viewer: that sense of disorientating magic, the feeling that we are not in Kansas, does not arise. Every muggle knows what a witch is or what a genii is, at least in their sanitized and Disney versions. These shows are what we might call ‘common-man fantasy’ where nothing is introduced to which we must strain our imaginations to see.

It is interesting to note that the book version of WIZARD OF OZ was a straight fantasy, where a fairyland is visited by a Kansas girl carried there by accident, whereas the movie version of the same tale was not. In many older fantasy stories, the machine of a dream was used to introduce the tale. This dream-mechanism acted as a bridge or doorwarden to quiet the reader’s disbelief at the outset, because even an unimaginative reader knows what a dream is.

The genre very rarely uses this mechanism these days, now that the genre of fantasy is established.

Remember, I proposed that the definition of a genre was a set of reader expectations. Before fantasy broke away from its parent genres of tales, the magical element had to be introduced as if new.

Likewise, the first science fiction stories had to introduce the basic principles of rocketry and ballistics to establish the reader expectations that later could be taken so much for granted that when, even in a comic book aimed at youth, Superman is sent to earth as a baby, he is merely said to have been sent “in a rocket.”

The other tropes and stereotypes of fantasy should be well known enough to the reader—especially who has read so inexcusably long an essay as this—to need no further emphasis from me. I will say only that if I were designing a Linnaeus classification for books, I would not use words like “detective story” “sword and sorcery fantasy” “hard SF” “military SF” “space opera” and so on. I would name them by the author who first, or who is best known for, bringing the genre to its present form.

Hence, all detective stories were henceforth be “Doyles”; and when someone breaks the tropes and forms a new subgenre, “Hammets.” Military SF will be called “Heinleinesques”, and space opera will be called “E.E. Doc Smithians.” Everything that copies Tolkien will be called a “Tolkienade.” And the works of writers like Moorcock and Pullman will be called ‘Antitolkienades’ — a term that might delight or infuriate those fine writers, depending on their mood.

I cannot attempt a definition. You will recognize the tropes when you recognize them: if the hero is a farmboy sent on a quest to foil the Dark Lord, you are in Tolkien territory. A barbarian with a sword is in Howardian realms. If the nymphette in a leather skirt is uttering quips and spiking vampires, you are in Joss Whedon’s lair. And so on.

The one trope all fantasy must have in common is the element of the fantastic. But you knew that before you read this far. It must be magic. The book tell of the echo of elf-horns blowing in the distance, of miracles and sudden transformations, of heraldic creatures stepping forth from shields and tapestries to run riot, the glint of light on the horn of the unicorn—in brief, whatever is of fantasy is something that breaks a crack in the hermetically sealed coffin lid of the material world in which we live and die, a world of tax returns and dentists visits, and where true love never strikes like lightning.

Even the most debased fast-food version of a sword and sorcery yarn has something of magic in it. I do not mean magic-users casting plus-five spells at each other, with fireworks for fingernails, no: I mean real magic, that whispers to the reader that there are fields beyond the fields we know.

Finally, armed only with this dim recognition that fantasy, whatever it is, contains a greater or lesser element of magic, let me return to the original question. What makes GORMENGHAST a fantasy?

The plot is too dreary for me to summarize, and the characters too subhuman for me to trifle your time by describing them. Everyone is either melancholy, insane, vicious, dull-witted, cruel, ambitious, or some other form of monstrous deformity of subhuman stature. The action, such as it is, concerns a kitchen page driven by ambition to commit several murders. The only fantastic element in the story seems to be the size of the castle, which is Brobdingnagian. But it is merely large and empty; there is nothing about it which could not be built in the real world with ordinary materials, perhaps with an enough exaggeration of its size to make it grotesque. It is not even haunted by a ghost. If the castle had been of ordinary proportions, is there any event that happens in its walls, which might not have equally occurred in a moldy castle in Rumania?

I conclude that GORMENGHAST and the ghastly books that surround it to either side are not fantasy at all, since they, if anything, have less magic, less unearthliness, less sense, than the real world. This is not fantasy; it is simply more mundane than mundane. It is a satire after the fashion of GULLIVER’S TRAVELS by Jonathon Swift, but it does not have the unearthly elements, tiny people or flying islands or talking horses, that enlivens Mr. Swift misanthropic but diamond-hard satire. Swift was making fun of real defects seen in real people. Peake is — well, I have no knowledge of what the point of his books was, and I am not sure I care to know.

If the role of fantasy is to crack the coffin lid of the material world of death and taxes, and show us a glimpse of something older, greater, grander in the unnamed seas beyond, then the role of this book is to slam the coffin lid more tightly, and drive home the nails. It is the kind of book a nihilist, a man who believes in nothing, can praise, for it robs the world of beauty rather than adding to it.

*  **  *  **  *

(Note: the above is an updated version of a column from 2010.) 

  • Fenris Wulf says:

    “I call science fiction the mythology of a scientific age.”

    Thanks for the reprint. I didn’t know you originated the phrase. It’s pretty much the only definition that makes sense.

  • deuce says:

    An excellent essay, Mr. Wright!

    Williamson’s THE EVOLUTION OF MODERN FANTASY is well-researched and makes a good case that Lin Carter and the BAFS did much to solidify the modern fantasy canon.


  • Daddy Warpig says:

    Ghormengast is called fantasy because subversive LitFic advocates wished to undermine and destroy any nobility and wonder the genre could evoke in readers.

    They are loathsome and tedious books, bereft of any virtue.

  • The problem with defining Fantasy is that the word is used on different levels. (Which is my problem with genre designations in general.)

    On the “Bookstore Clerk” level, Fantasy describes a particular setting, with Traditional Fantasy set in a pre-industrial historical period with the addition of mythological creatures, magic spells, and the like, and Urban Fantasy being a contemporary setting with the same.

    Works that are Fantasy on that level may or may not be Fantasy in the sense of the Unknown and Wondrous that you are discussing here–and also works that are Fantasy on the deeper level may not satisfy the Bookstore Clerk requirement.

  • Cambias says:

    I love this analysis, and I think that it also includes, implicitly, an apologia for the much-maligned “Hard SF” subgenre. To wit: if fantasy “cracks the coffin lid” of the material world, showing us a reality beyond, Hard SF is a celebration of the wonders of reality — where a hero whose consciousness has been embedded in a nanotech spaceship speeding out of the Galaxy can be saved from certain doom by the opportune hypernova of a real (and really near-death) supergiant star. I pick that example entirely at random.

    Now, whether or not one believes sincerely in a higher reality than our own, I think it’s still a fine thing to celebrate the glories of the real world.

    It’s true that there can be boring or didactic hard SF stories. It’s equally true there can be boring or twee fantasy stories, boring or formulaic adventure stories, boring or implausible mystery stories . . .

    One aspect of Hard SF which we’ve been neglecting is that it’s a fantasy of _earned_ power — power which the reader himself can earn. None of us are going to be Conan, none of us are going to be Gandalf, or even Luke Skywalker. But you _can_ be Captain Kirk. You _can_ be Mark Watney (though most of us would rather not). You _can_ be Shane Kimbrough.

    If fantasy whispers “there is more to the world than you know”, science fiction says “you can learn more of the world than you know.”

    • While I agree with much of what you say, I will point out that fantasy is more realistic, by and large,than hard sf. I know people who claim to see ghosts, remember past lives, and cast spells. I do not know anyone who claims to embed his consciousness in a nanotech spaceship.

      I am proud of the fact that I use real stars in real locations, for example, in my make believe, because a dash of the real helps the illusion of realism, and, more to the point, some readers appreciate the extra effort.

      That is what hard sf is: sf that adds a dash of realith-flavored science to the baloney.

      It is a spice, not a dish. The dish is character, plot, drama, thrills.

      To me, arguing about hard or soft sf is like arguing about Coke or Pepsi. The are both a drink made of lime, vanilla and caramel. The difference is a pinch of sugar.

      Hard sf writers who sneer at soft sf writers, in effect, are proud of a pinch of sugar. Upbraid this pride, for it is folly. But do not upbraid the extra pinch of sugar, for some folk buy Pepsi.

      Asking hard sf fans to not appreciate the spice of real scientific detail is like asking regency romance readers not to like real historical detail. The readers won’t change their tastes because of an argument.

      And there is no point in complaining to writers. We write for the readers.

      • The difference is a pinch of sugar.

        Extending the analogy beyond its range of validity, I suppose this makes the recent set of arguments against Hard SF the equivalent of New Coke.

    • True_poser says:

      The aspect of a fantasy of earned power is under heavy assault of video games.
      They just do it better.

      Instead of reading about hard SF docking I can just go and try to dock already in Rogue System.
      Instead of lengthy explanation of hard SF planetary invasions I can just go and master SEAD missions in DCS World in my Su-25T.
      Instead of hard SF explanations of planetary defences I can go and down some B-52 in SamSim clicking buttons of a faithfully recreated S-125M1.
      Instead of just reading about aphelion, perihelion and delta-v I can go and throw my fleet in a daring out-of-plane intercept maneuver in Children of the Dead Earth.

      As niche as hard SF, the simulation games deliver earned power (as it stems from procedural aspects) arguably better.
      And when it’s non-niche, well, Kerbal Space Program probably gave more people a grasp on orbital mechanics than all astronomy teachers in the last decade combined.

      What sims don’t give you is adventure and characters and Kirk and Reynolds.
      I’m sorry, you can’t be them nor in soft SF, nor in hard SF, because they are made to be creatures of another world.
      But you can go on adventure with them.

      • Cambias says:

        I’ve been a Kerbal fan since something like version 0.10, whippersnapper.

        But stories and games do different things. A hard-SF game can please and impress me with its graphics or its physics engine, but a story has to show people in the fantastic setting.

        Otherwise one could argue that the existence of World of Warcraft makes fantasy adventure stories obsolete because the player can take the role of a sword-and-sorcery hero and hack through various mooks until his thumbs get tired.

        Now, it may indeed be true that games are competing with books and stories for audience dollars and attention. Certainly that’s one of the reasons male readers are doing less reading. But I don’t think the problem is unique to hard SF, or SF in general.

        • True_poser says:

          That’s exactly what I’m saying.

          Making an adventure that’s comparable to a good book in a modern video game is very technically complex, artistically complex, time-consuming and very, very expensive.
          That’s why, to recoup the costs, they are made for the widest audience possible, even the relatively “low budget” wonders like Witcher 3.

          A SF book has an inherent advantage in adventure that can be, due to the negligible in comparison costs of making a book, targeted on audiences that are too small for a non-niche game.

          But trying to compete with video games in procedural, skill-based, even knowledge-based ways is futile.

          Hard SF should work through characters, their motivations and actions, like, you know, any other book.

        • deuce says:

          “Hard SF should work through characters, their motivations and actions, like, you know, any other book.”

          Well said. It can’t be said often enough.

  • cs7850 says:

    You mentioned C.L. Moore, who I just start reading this month. She’s an interesting combination of Robert Howard and Lovecraft, but the way she writes about desire and beauty is unlike either of them in her Jirel of Joiry stories (and her Han Solo-like Northwest Smith.)

    • I used a C.L. Moore villain from Northwest Smith as the final boss inthe first rpg I ever ran, so I have a warm spot in my heart for her.

      Never understood the crackpots who claim there’s no women writers in sf, either now or in times past. They’re there, always have been. They just write more feminine stuff.

      • Man of the Atom says:

        But isn’t the problem you discuss that these complainers want more female writers who write like men, i.e. act like a faux-male writer, rather than be an effective real female writer.

        It strikes me as they are another part of the group who want Literary SFF uber alles, and want to suck all the interesting bits out of a story and leave only the boring husk behind.

        Hmm. SJWs as the Lit-SFF vampire who take the story’s life, and the remaining “book of gray goo” as the Lit-SFF undead zombie.

        Seems like these are more problems that could be solved if additional sunlight were thrown on the perps.

    • icewater says:

      Oscar Wilde once said of one writer’s work that it was so beautiful that it must have been written by a woman.

      Today, such a remark would be described as sexist.

      • deuce says:

        Wilde was gay, so he *might* get a pass on that from the Thought Police. Then again, maybe not. He was a white male, after all.

  • Durandel Almiras says:

    Appreciate this write up, Mr. Wright. Apropos considering some of the recent posts and really adds something useful to the conversation about classifications.

  • Anthony says:

    Brilliant! Reposted on Superversive SF.

  • True_poser says:

    The “pre-Tolkien” fantasy works seem to be akin to the low-background steel.
    Post-40s steel is absolutely fine for almost all purposes…

    Fantasy seems to work with a world that can be only partially comprehended, by design.
    Once a troll is revealed to be a man in a rubber mask or elves are traced to their most recent common ancestor with humans, fantasy’s gone.

    SF seems to work with a world that is one hundred percent comprehensible and, given enough resources, can be modeled with a pretty good accuracy.
    Even if there is a mystery, the question is who is exactly under that rubber mask.

    It is silly and dumb to expect a magical civilization to evolve a DnD 3.5 magic system – it’s magic, duh! And that’s probably why fantasy characters can’t always be transplanted into another fantasy world.
    It is reasonable to expect type II Kardashev civilization to build a Dyson sphere – how else can you harness the whole energy of a star?

    Basing on these assumptions, fantasy works through adding the inexplainable into the mundane – because a hard-boiled detective or a love story do add distinct, but explainable types of magic into the mundane too.
    SF works through adding the mundane (anchor points for the reader) into the explained.

    Gulliver in this case falls into SF and I’m not sure if it’s wrong.
    But X-Files is a pure fantasy and I can see agent Mulder investigating Nazgul sightings in the 4th era, but not on any of Enterprises.

    Setting the actual contents of a book aside both work.
    We don’t really comprehend our world, but we like to pretend we do.

    • Mary says:

      So, when Beowulf described the ylfe as descendants of Cain?

      • True_poser says:

        …it falls into the same vein as Adopted Children of Iluvatar.
        We know who made them, how did they got their lives and free will and even in what circumstances did it happen.
        It doesn’t make it any less magical.

        On the contrary, the attempts to explain vampires in Blindsight effectively push it away from fantasy (as probably was the author’s intent).

  • deuce says:

    cs7850 says: “You mentioned C.L. Moore, who I just start reading this month. She’s an interesting combination of Robert Howard and Lovecraft, but the way she writes about desire and beauty is unlike either of them in her Jirel of Joiry stories (and her Han Solo-like Northwest Smith.)”

    You’ll find a much closer analog in A. Merritt. We know Moore was a big fan. Jirel pretty much splits the difference between Sharane of THE SHIP OF ISHTAR and Lur of DWELLERS IN THE MIRAGE — both redheads, BTW. In some ways, you could almost say that Lur is even more of a hardcore, feminist warrior-woman than Jirel.

    When it comes to love and desire, Moore reads a lot like Merritt. The gender roles and archetypes are very similar. Northwest Smith is an intense, kinda damaged hero just like Kenton from “Ishtar” and Kirkham from SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN. Smith constantly meets up with femme fatales and damsels in distress, and those women track pretty close to those in Merritt’s tales. Of course, Moore was also a fan of Hammett.

    Robert E. Howard thought highly of Moore. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith called Moore “Queen Catherine”. So much for the Narrative, as Mr. Wright pointed out.

    REH, HPL and CAS were all, also, Merritt fans, by the way. Merritt’s one story published in Weird Tales, “The Woman of the Wood,” was voted the most popular in the magazine’s history. One could easily imagine Moore having written it.


  • Trevor Elder says:

    Fantasy and Science Fiction are the two main sides of the speculative fiction coin, and what people want when reading them is exploration of the fantastical past or the fantastical future. Science is the logical bridge to the fantastical future, legend is the logical bridge to the fantastical past.

    Fantasy = What if this was real?
    (magic, dragons, wizards)
    Science Fiction = What if this becomes real?
    (time travel, space travel, AI)

    Contemporary Fantasy = What if this( thing from the past) IS real?
    EX. : Harry Potter
    Contemporary Science Fiction = What if this(thing from the future) IS ALREADY real?
    EX. : The Matrix

    So if you want a definition:

    Science Fiction:
    Fiction that explores the ramifications of science.

  • caleb says:

    I think that reasonable number of folks have been guiding themselves by the comparisons with “formative” works or authors when seeking genre fiction, rather than purely by the arbitrary genre classification.

    That said, even such a classification becomes useless once something reaches certain degree of mainstream popularity. One knows not what one is getting from a novel or a short story collection that is described as “Lovecraftian” or “Tolkinesque” nowadays.

    • deuce says:

      A very astute observation, Caleb. A great deal of the modern fiction you refer to could really be called a “reaction against” or a subversion of what those writers were trying to accomplish, all the while riding the commercial coattails of what those titans created. Sad!

  • john silence says:

    Well now. I daresay that, among those early Tolkien-inspired authors, Donaldson and Brooks are the lesser ones in comparison with Joy Chant. One is but ugly, nihilist inversion while other is a mindless copycat (shows that love of original and passable writing are for naught when one lacks genius and imagination, as well as being far removed from the mindset and erudition of original’s author).
    But that is my own opinion. Few share it, as seen from the enduring fame and good sales of those two gentlemen.

    • icewater says:

      What I’ve tried to read of Brooks has been embarrassingly bad. I think that it is his stuff, and not Tolkien, that folks mean when they talk of “Tolkien-like generic fantasy”.

  • maniacprovost says:

    Ghormengast – Good story of people living in a castle. It’s fantasy because one character has violet eyes.
    Lord Foul’s Tedium – Good but too boring to be worthwhile
    Brooks – Landover was better than Shannara

  • NARoberts says:

    What is the Castalia consensus on Zelazney and Wolfe? Are they in the tradition of the classic fantasists or are they Moorcock/Peake new-age nihilists?

    • Jesse Lucas says:

      Jeffro liked parts of Jack of Shadows, but I can’t remember what he thought of Lord of Light. Wolfe is loved and adored by all.

      I personally am a huge Zelazny fan. He tried for moral ambiguity in his works but he couldn’t help but love heroes.

    • icewater says:

      Usual suspects love Wolfe because his fiction tends to be literary, difficult and extremely erudite, not because of its contents.
      Man’s a devout Catholic, and his writing is infused with non-materialist, esoteric-Christian outlook.

    • deuce says:

      Regarding Zelazny, Jesse is spot-on. I think Roger kinda wanted to be the “Ameican Moorcock” with books like DAMNATION ALLEY, but he really didn’t have it in him. He was a lapsed Catholic who never actually turned on and attacked his old faith. His books were certainly not thinly-veiled screeds against his home country or in favor of anarcho-socialism. He wrote a fine Halloween novel where the heroes are dogs, fer Crom’s sake! Roger was one of the good guys, when all is said and done.

      I really like Wolfe and have never had a problem with his prose. I thoroughly enjoyed THE SHADOW OF THE TORTURER when I was 14. Gene is very Catholic. His interconnected “Sun” series could almost be looked upon as as an SF — and Catholic — PILGRIM’S PROGRESS.

      No, Gene and Roger are both in the classic tradition.

      • keith says:

        Solar/Sun cycle, that is specifically Severian’s arc within the Sun cycle, is something of a direct successor to MacDonald “Lilith”. I’d call them Christian “transmutational” fantasies, they are like the process of inner alchemical transformation of their narrators put to paper.

      • deuce says:

        I hadn’t thought of it that way, since I’ve yet to read LILITH.

        I always looked on the “Short Sun” books as Wolfe retelling the life of Paul in an SF setting.

    • deuce says:

      Wolfe wrote JCW’s favorite essay on JRRT. It is also my own favorite such essay. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be on the Net in its entirety at the moment. You can read some of it here:


    • deuce says:

      Ooops. JCW preserved it in its entirety in a later post here:


      I truly do love it. He also gives Robert E. Howard props therein. How can you beat that?

  • Jesse Lucas says:

    I can imagine Ransom visiting Tormance.

  • […] C. Wright, in a post at Castalia House, […]

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