20 November 2006

Short thoughts on contemporary fantasy

I was just informed by one of my students today that Eragon is "The best book ever." I wonder if any of my readers share that opinion? I haven't read it yet, and will try to do so before The Movie comes out in December. So I'd love to read your thoughts on this book -- no spoilers, please!

And then let's expand the conversation a bit further. You Harry Potter fans: what's so good about it? Does Rowlings stand up to Lewis & Tolkien, think you? Are her books "great literature," whatever that may be, and will they find a place in the Canon, whatever that is & whoever decides what goes in it?

And (thanks for doing my research for me), I'm wondering who the other heirs of The Inklings' imagination might be? I plan to talk about this at the end of my current course on MacDonald, Lewis, Tolkien, & Charles Williams. I'd include Dorothy Sayers, Christopher Tolkien, Owen Barfield, Walter Wangerin, Jr., Madeleine L’Engle, Mervyn Peake, Phillip Pullman.... Who else would you include, and why? I'd love recommendations, reviews of these books/authors/movies, links, and all intelligent thoughts on -- what shall we call it? -- spiritual fantasy?

I'll try to chime in more profoundly at some point.


Anonymous said...

The question of what makes great literature great has always been a very tough one.
Hans Christian Anderson was writing in the 1800's, at a time of fervent nationalism during which the Romantic movement was elevating the form and the passion above all things.
He tried his hand at becoming a dramatic playwright and a serious novelists. He tried so very hard.
His writing was called immature, unsophisticated, and self-reflexive, among other things.
He was not in dire poverty, having talked himself into a royal stipend, but he was not wealthy. Nor was he that which he desired above all else to be, famous.
On a lark, he wrote down some of the tales his grandmother had taught him back in his little hometown of Odense. He also included tales of his own creation.
These were written in a totally unsophisticated vernacular. Vernacular in the true sense of the word. He tried to write these tales exactly the way his Grandmother or he would tell them to a child.
A few months later, to his embarrasment and delight (he wanted to be a very famous novelist) he heard there were pirated copies of his work as far off as America. Children began to recognize him on the streets of Copenhagen, and Europe embraced him as a genius.
Meanwhile, his plays and novels continued to overwhelm.
The point of that (I hope not overlong!) story is that no one, it seems, not even the artists themselves, can determine when their work will be important enough to be added to the canon.
More soon, I've taken more than enough space for now.

Anonymous said...

Darn it, I was typing faster than I am able...
In the last post, in the penultimate paragraph, I meant to say UNDERwhelm.

Rosie Perera said...

I haven't read Eragon yet, but coincidentally just picked it up in a bookstore a couple of months ago, never having heard of it, but figuring I needed to read more fantasy.

I read the first three of the Harry Potter books, partly to see what all the hype was about (any book that Christians ban for fearful reasons tends to make me all the more curious), but also because I'd heard from some people that they really are good. I loved the first one, the second was almost as good, and by the third one, I'd had enough. Not quite the caliber of Tolkien or Lewis, but darned good story-telling. Especially surprising for a first-time author. I think part of the mystique of J.K. Rowling is how she rose up from being a welfare mom to being this publishing phenomenon. It's hard to tell whether her books will stand the test of time. I think kids will probably still be reading them 20-30 years from now, but whether they will be considered "great literature" I'm not sure.

I don't know enough about spiritual fantasy to recommend anyone else to add to your list. I suppose Stephen Lawhead might count, though I haven't read any of his works so I don't know if they are "great literature" either.

See also the list of "Other Inklings" in A Beginner's Bibliography of the Inklings at the Mythopoeic Society website. Also there's a very thorough bibliography called Christian SF and Fantasy Reading List on the website of Christian Fandom ("an interdenominational fellowship of SF fans interested in the courteous and accurate representation of Christian viewpoints within the SF community"). And there are a bunch of relevant links in Aslan's Kin: Interfaith Fantasy and Science Fiction

Anonymous said...

Sorry to have left off where I did.
Anyhow, the problem Hans had (and I would consider his fairy tales definately to be spiritual fantasy) is amplified by time and genre.
Generally, the works we consider important are the works that stood the test of time. And the time for Eragon and Harry Potter has not yet passed.
Fans are even worse at predicting which works will be important than the artists are. (but if there are enough of them, they MAKE it important; ie. Star Trek- the original series).
This problem is amplified even more by the genre itself.
After the brief flowering led mainly by Tolkein, Lewis, and LeGuin, fantasy went into a deeply self-reflexive and imitative mode (if one can talk about a genre doing something).
This was bad for fantasy because it had not yet been proven as a literary form.
But the trouble is, that unlike other forms of fiction, fantasy draws upon an imagined magical past.
So, unlike science fiction, which was born around the time of modern fantasy, fantasy has a harder time appearing relevant.
Elves are always elves, and they're only symbolic, but the newest science fiction has access to nanotechnology, for instance, and can use it both literally and symbolically.
So what's all that have to do with Eragon or Harry Potter?
I have not yet read Eragon, and when I saw the preview for the film, I was skeptical. How many coming-of-age coming-to-power stories do I need? (Harry Potter is one of these)
This got me thinking an awful lot on the role of fantasy in general.
The truth is, every generation (almost) grows up with the conceit that they're totally different than all previous generations (in western culture only does this apply), with totally new problems.
So, in general, teens don't want to read the coming-of-age tales that their parents grew up on. They also don't want to listen to the same pop music, or watch the same films.
But these teens will grow up, like we did.
I will not be reading my children R. L. Stine books, nor will I be reading them the endless piles of low-quality science fiction and fantasy I read as a youth. Neither will they be interested in "MacGyver," "Look Who's Talking," "Kindergarten Cop(well, maybe...)," you get the idea.
But, like my parents, I will be sharing "Lord Of the Rings," "Planet of the Apes," and Hans Christian Anderson, among others.
It is the aggregate of our descisions as consumers, parents and teachers which determine the canon.
When these works came out, there were many who were simply left behind, who, instead of enjoying the works for themselves, lost all relevance by explaining how terrible these works were.
So I try to avoid that fate by mantaining a familiararity with the current crop.
But the truth is, the latest trend in fantasy is distasteful to me.
The writing is not getting better, nor is it getting denser. But it is getting much longer.
The current trend is to write a story that takes place over at least four lengthy novels.
Lately, when I read a new work of fantasy, I imagine how I could have made it better with a good edit, if only they had called...
If I hear any more about Eragon, I'll read it and tell you what I thought, but I do have a recomendation to share.
More influential to me than Tolkein, and much more so than Lewis, more accessible than LeGuin by far, and more relevant to me than Donaldson (a recomendation I was able to sneak in), was Lloyd Alexander.
Specifically his book "Taran Wanderer."
This was part four of a series, but, like the rest of them, stand alone quite well.
It's the tale of Taran, assistant pig-keeper of Caer Dalben. He wants so badly to know who his parents were, and who he is, so that he can ask his beloved princess to marry him.
Most of the tale foregoes magic, battles, or villians in favor of weaving, scavenging, blacksmithing, and farming.
Then he tries the craft he would most like to do for his living and finds, to his horror and despair, that he just does not have the touch.
When he finally returns home, he doesn't have a happy or a sad ending.
He seems just different somehow.
Like himself, like he always had, but more.

Rosie Perera said...

Wow, great post, Michael. So many good points. Glad to see you back commenting on the blog. Hope you stick around for more! (Just curious: Why do you post as anonymous and then sign your name, instead of posting as your name?)

Lizzy Bennet said...

Yes! Someone else loves Lloyd Alexander! The High King Series are some of my favorite books and I particularly love Taran Wanderer. It’s incredible. The rest of the series is very enjoyable as well. There are unforgettable characters . . . and then there is Gurgi, who was fun but reminded me of a good version of Gollum.

I have read some of Stephen Lawhead’s books. I read The Dragon King Saga several years ago but I remember that I enjoyed it thoroughly. The thing I would say about Lloyd Alexander and Stephen Lawhead is that I don’t think they spend a lot of time on developing symbolism. Unlike sitting down with Mrs. Higgins and digging apart The Princess and Curdie for longer then I should, I don’t think there would be much time needed in discussing The Dragon King Saga or The High King Series even though they are amazing. There are only a few things in The High King Series that need to be discussed and most of them are prevalent themes. I don't think they will like Tolkein or Lewis in the folowing generations, but they should be read anyway. They are worth it.

Iambic Admonit said...

Thanks, "Lizzy"! I have read some of LLoyd Alexander's books, as a child, and they're on my medium-sized "Must read soon" list--the list of fun things to read if there's ever a time when I'm not reading too many required things! Along with Eragon, Harry Potter (believe it or not), and the rest of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. Thanks for your thoughts! We'll have to wait & see if they become classics. Or will any of us live long enough?

Iambic Admonit said...

Oh, and I've listened to some of Llawhead's Arthur saga books on tape. They were really excellent. Overly violent, though; very disturbing. I've heard that he's a Christian, and if I remember correctly, he makes Merlin a Christian, which obviously has a huge effect on the whole direction of the story.

Lizzy, I'm not sure I agree. Literary scholars, for better or worse, tend to be able to talk forever about just about any text, finding layers & layers of meaning that even the author would probably be startled by!

E.Houben said...

To be blunt, No, Eragon is not, by far, the best book I ever read. I read a lot of fantasy books and I would give Eragon a 6 (on scale 10). After all the critics had to say about Tolkien rip-offs in the last years, I can't believe they are so possitive about Eragon.

Still, there's no accounting for taste.