Thursday, July 24, 2014

Romanticism as an essential element of fantasy

Let me start with a few quotes from Wikipedia:
"Fantasy is a genre of fiction that commonly uses magic and other supernatural phenomena as a primary plot element, theme, or setting. Many works within the genre take place in imaginary worlds where magic and magical creatures are common. Fantasy is generally distinguished from the genres of science fiction and horror by the expectation that it steers clear of scientific and macabre themes, respectively, though there is a great deal of overlap between the three, all of which are subgenres of speculative fiction.
In popular culture, the fantasy genre is predominantly of the medievalist form, especially since the worldwide success of The Lord of the Rings and related books by J. R. R. Tolkien.
"The identifying traits of fantasy are the inclusion of fantastic elements in a self-coherent (internally consistent) setting, where inspiration from mythology and folklore remains a consistent theme."
Here's something from Andy Greenwald, in reference to The Game of Thrones TV show.  I think it's broader in its scope than just that show, however.
"So I listened closely as Tyrion told his tale of Orson, the simple Lannister cousin who spent his time not planning out wars or paying off debts but sitting in a garden smashing bugs. Day after day, Orson would pick up a stone and settle into his grim task, splattering beetles by the thousand. There appeared to be no rhyme or reason to Orson’s slaughter, no motive or purpose. Just the endless “kung kung kung” of a big man murdering something smaller, again and again and again.
But Tyrion, we learn, wasn’t satisfied. Though he was born to a powerful family, he couldn’t help but empathize with the littler creatures. And so his interest in his cousin morphed from mockery to curiosity to something bordering on obsession. What was the reason for this constant extermination? It was inconceivable to Tyrion that butchery on Orson’s scale could simply be the way of the world. A life was a life, whether it was protected by a suit of armor or a carapace. Surely, it deserved better. If that wasn’t possible, then at least it deserved an explanation. What, after all, was the point?"
Recapping a specific episode, he said the following:
"It was all quite thrilling, for a time, with the Red Viper leaping balletically through the summery air and Alex Graves’s camera swooping vertiginously to catch him. Game of Thrones has often punched me in the heart, but it’s rarely had it fluttering so mightily in my throat. But then, just as Tyrion was getting his hopes up and Cersei was reaching for her Big Gulp of merlot, Oberyn spiked the ball at the 1-yard line. Rather than finish off the Mountain, Oberyn was just getting warmed up, demanding much more than an improbable victory. Instead, like Tyrion in the garden all those years ago, Oberyn demanded logic and an answer. And we all know what happened next. Kung. Kung. Kung.
Actually, the sound of Oberyn’s head exploding was much more terrible than that. The defanging — and defacing — of the Red Viper was among the worst things I’ve ever seen on a screen, but it was definitely the worst thing I’ve ever heard: It somehow managed to remind me both of my own mortality and of Gallagher. (Trust me when I say I’m not sure which was more unbearable.) And in that gruesome, hideous moment I realized that the real takeaway from Tyrion’s story isn’t that he’s a fool for wanting order when there is only chaos. It’s that we just might be for greedily tuning in to the Orson Hour every week and expecting the same thing.
Look, contra Ramsay Snow, I have been paying attention. I harbor no illusions of a happy ending. But even in the midst of an epic, excellent season that has provided more wit, resonance, and emotion than I had previously thought possible, I am growing slightly weary of being taught the same merciless lesson again and again. I’d like to think that Charlie Brown had some grudging respect for Lucy the first time she pulled away the football. But the fifth? What happened to dashing Prince Oberyn was gripping, horrifying television. But, unlike his skull, it was also rather hollow. Few authors could introduce such a fantastic character with such economy and skill (and fewer showrunners could do the same on television, with even more of both). But only George R.R. Martin would so sadistically run that character into the buzz saw of disappointment and plot that is Game of Thrones just to prove a point — and, I suppose, to tighten the noose a bit more around Tyrion’s neck. Like a beetle, Oberyn was born to die, and in the most gruesome, splattery way possible. And to what end? Shocking us isn’t the same thing as challenging us. A simpleton with a rock might not need to explain himself, but a writer usually does. At this point, the most radical thing Game of Thrones could do is to make the audience exhale in relief."
This is in stark contrast to what Tolkien himself felt about fantasy, which was fundamentally—and profoundly—mythic and even romantic (not in the Romance genre sense of the word, however.)
"Eucatastrophe is a term coined by J. R. R. Tolkien which refers to the sudden turn of events at the end of a story which ensures that the protagonist does not meet some terrible, impending, and very plausible doom. As such, it is a kind of deus ex machina common in fantasy literature. Tolkien formed the word by affixing the Greek prefix eu, meaning good, to catastrophe, the word traditionally used in classically inspired literary criticism to refer to the "unraveling" or conclusion of a drama's plot. For Tolkien, the term appears to have had a thematic meaning that went beyond its literal etymological meaning in terms of form.[how?] In his definition as outlined in his 1947 essay "On Fairy-Stories", eucatastrophe is a fundamental part of his conception of mythopoeia. Though Tolkien's interest is in myth, it is also connected to the gospels; Tolkien calls the Incarnation the eucatastrophe of "human history" and the Resurrection the eucatastrophe of the Incarnation."
In this sense, which the more I think about, the more I believe strongly that there's something to this.  The bleak, nihilistic sense of much of the modern fantasy genre is completely opposed to fantasy that I (and many like me) grew up on, and which made us love the genre in the first place.  As John C. Wright said (this is my last quote in this post; I promise!)
"An artist can draw a picture of the rotting skull of a dead dog on a dungheap with maggots and blind worms crawling on its exposed brains with perfect perspective, shading, composition, and balance of light and dark, and yet it is still a picture of a dead dog."
And yes, I'm actually mimicking somebody else's post about a similar topic; quoting some of the same material (and some other material) because he made the point first and he made it well, and well, why not ride his coat-tails in that case?  But if this bleak, nihilistic, "crapsack" world fantasy is in opposition to "real" fantasy as we have known it, as we grew up on, and as we think of the genre, why is it relatively prevalent?  And why is (at least some of) it relatively popular?  And what does that have to do with DARK•HERITAGE anyway?

1) I think it's perceived by some to be more sophisticated, more mature, etc.  I think this perception is false, however.  Bleakness, nihilism, hopelessness, despair—these are not mature emotions.  This is not the perspective of an adult, it's the perspective of a whiny, angsty, bratty adolescent.  It's not sophisticated and deep, it's merely empty and soul-less.  2) Is it really that popular?  Sure, GRRM is a pretty big deal, and guys like Joe Abercrombie and a few others.  But how much room for more is there?  Is there any nihilistic work that is still read 100 years after being written?  And how much of it can you stand, even if you can stand it, without needing to break for something more light, anyway?

Keep in mind, I'm referring specifically to nihilism, not tragedy.  Although they may resemble each other superficially in many respects, they are not the same.  There's no catharsis at the end of a nihilistic work.  The same is also true of most works of horror fiction—they're not nihilistic (well, some of them are) although certainly they are dark and the end is not usually happy for the protagonists.

3)  DARK•HERITAGE is fantasy and horror, not nihilism.  The world is bleak, there are certainly issues that resemble that of a horror fiction story, but characters meet them like horror fiction protagonists. They may not triumph, they certainly don't "win" in a traditional sense, but their heroism can be seen and it has meaning.  Like the bleak fatalism of the Norse sagas, which Tolkien reflected in many ways, it's not purposeless.  It's not senseless.  It's not nihilistic.  This is part of the reason why fantasy is so fundamentally rooted in a romanticized Medievalism.  My own setting has looked in many ways to other romanticized adventurous periods; pirates and Westerns, in particular, but the end result is the same—without that romanticized adventure story baseline, the horror is just bleak nihilism.  It doesn't ring as profound as that of Norse sagas, Shakespearean tragedies, or even more modern works like Dracula or Lord of the Rings.  It would just feel like a tawdry snuff piece.

Anyway, between this and the earlier post on a similar topic, I think I've talked enough about the tone of my setting for the time being.  Unless I run a game or actually write a novel in the setting soon, it doesn't really matter much.

Computer Magic

I don't talk about music much on my blog anymore, but I just discovered this gem of three year old electronica (thank you Lexus commercial!) that I think it absolutely fantastic.

Maybe a touch too long, but I'm not complaining.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Religion in Dark Heritage

Well, the World Cup has come and gone.  The US did relatively well, which was fun to watch.  I'm not a huge fan of Brazil, so I admit to a bit of schadenfreude watching them completely fall apart near the end in a humiliating display of tears and incompetence.  And more tears.

While, of course, I would have loved to see the US win, I never really considered it to be particularly likely, so my favorite to win was Argentina.  I picked them to come in second, which they did.  I picked Brazil to come in first, which they did not.  I picked Germany to come in third, and they did much better than expected (by me, anyway) although I was not at all surprised to see them as extremely competent and dangerous.  Lionel Messi was a bit disappointing.  He played very well, certainly, but he had very little of the type of incredible displays of athleticism that I was hoping to see.  And with Dimaria injured and out, and Higuain and Aguero at less than 100% because of past injuries, the Argentines hopes were a little too dependent on him alone.

I also discovered (yet again) that I can't watch too much soccer at a time (I utterly reject this notion that seems to be gaining some steam that we should call it futbol in America.  That's absurd.  Futbol is obviously not an English word, at least with that spelling.  It's obviously, also, an English word transliterated into Spanish.  The English word is football.  We have another sport here that already bears that name.  So we have a perfectly adequate and appropriate name for the sport already: soccer--and I think it's absurd that we should take an English loanword into Spanish back out of Spanish with the Spanish spelling to replace our own perfectly fine word for the sport.)  It's simply too boring if you watch too much of it.  I mostly only get into the sport during World Cup, and for the same reason I get into the Olympics--i.e., not because I love the actual sport, but because I like the idea of friendly patriotism vis a vis sporting events.  By the time the entire spectacle is over, I've seen enough soccer to last me for quite a long time, and I'm finding that watching games bores me.  They're too long and not enough happens to really keep my interest, in general.  Even in a game like the final, where one of my favorites (arguably, my actual favorite since I never had any hope whatsoever that the US would be in the game) is playing for the biggest prize in the sport.  At least, in a final with Argentina vs. Germany, the instances of drama and flopping were considerably minimized in favor of simply playing the game.  I've got to give both teams credit for that.  Another reason why I wasn't terribly put-out watching Brazil get so dramatically humiliated.

So... I won't say any more about the World Cup, even though a post-game commentary on the final wouldn't be unexpected.  Instead, like I said, it reiterated to me why, exactly, soccer has never really taken off in America and never will unless the demographic changes sufficiently such that socialist soccer fans start to outnumber actual Americans.  Of course, we see the Obama administration doing all that it can on our southern border to facilitate exactly that change, so... I dunno.  Maybe in my lifetime.  I hope not.

Instead, I'll talk a bit more about my long-neglected setting, DARK•HERITAGE, which is putatively the actual purpose of this blog.

For much of its existence, the setting has been, to borrow an overly trite term from TV Tropes (they're all overly trite, but they've created a lot of labels for things that needed labels.  Whatcha gonna do?) basically a crapsack world.  I've gradually, over some time, lost my enthusiasm for that mode of thinking.  I guess I've read a little too much of it, and now find the intellectual underpinnings of the notion unappealing, to say the least.  Or maybe I've just hit a few too many who are a few too free with their crapsackiness.  When Glen Cook pioneered the notion in The Black Company, and with a bit of Lovecraftian flair to it, it sounded attractive.  After reading a bit too much George Martin and Joe Abercrombie (and it's not actually like I read that much of either) I find the crapsack world nihilistic, dreary, and frankly... kinda whiny.

Now granted, horror fiction is still a major influence on DARK•HERITAGE and I suspect always will be.  But the notion that being heroic, of doing what's right is always the wrong choice... I can't support that kind of paradigm anymore.  Not sure that I ever really could, without playing it off for laughs eventually.

This isn't necessarily a major change; more of a minor one that has significant implications.  However... as a very visible symbol of this change, I need to have an element of some hope inherent in the setting itself.  I've decided that the pantheon as a crapsack pantheon with nobody good to look at is, perhaps, problematic.

Rather than change it outright, however, I'm going to posit a religious movement--more grassroots rather than organized--that recognizes a Creator over the pantheon, who recognizes a hope for an afterlife for those who live well.  In addition, I'm going to completely abstain from the temptation to make this religious movement in any way an analog for a corrupt and political Catholic church.  Rather, I'll have it more like Protestantism in the early 1800s in the US... very grassroots, very decentralized, with traveling pastors or teachers who aren't sure exactly of their authority or their doctrine... but who feel called to try and make the world a better place by teaching of the rewards of Heaven.