Wednesday, 23 August 2017

What's In A World by Steve Gladwin?

I really feel sorry for people when they say that they either don’t enjoy reading, or find it painful. As someone who has loved reading like the very blood or breath of life for as long as I can remember, the idea of not having it would be a torment. I have been thinking recently about which of three loves – TV and film, music and reading – I could least give up and the answer is obvious. Yes I’d miss music, but I’d always have it in my head, whereas without reading I’d have to create the stories for myself. So OK, as both a writer and a storyteller I should be able to do this, but despite my own recent attempts within the fantasy genre, I could never be Tolkien or Lewis, Susan Cooper or Catherine Fisher, Guy Gavriel Kay or William Horwood. Nor could I write like Philip Pullman, and it is my recent decision to re-read the His Dark Materials books that has led to this blog.

Like most books, a good fantasy can be experienced either through discovering it retrospectively – responding to a recommendation or just not wanting to be left out - or as a brand new sparkling entity. The two feelings you get are similarly thrilling, even if they are at one remove from each other. In the first you can barely contain your enthusiasm at being party to all the secrets and thrills that everyone else has told you about. You might almost call this theit’s all true’ factor. In the second it’s more likely to be a ‘oh this is so wonderful and I have to tell everyone about it.’ I’ve met a number of those in fantasy in my life, of which more in a minute.

Back to the Gladwin household in the early seventies, and much to everyone’s surprise, my father took himself into our front room for three weeks running, stuck on the gas fire and meticulously ploughed through all 1076 pages of The Lord of the Rings. I remember him saying how much he enjoyed it too.

The book  club edition my dad read

What was maybe more unusual was that I decided to read it straight after him, and I was only maybe thirteen. OK, I had read the Hobbit, but apart from that my only experience of fantasy must have been the Narnia books and Alan Garner. I too enjoyed it, and also remember meticulously copying out the entire map of middle earth which was in the above edition. It would however be many years before I repeated the experience.

A couple of years later I tried to write my own fantasy novel which I called ‘The Chronicles of Action’ (pronounced ac-tee-on). It wasn’t a bad premise, the discovery after a dust storm that a desert race had once been a great civilisation. I wrote quite a bit of it, but is was usual with these things soon gave it up as hard work. What I did realise years later was that it was partly a rip-off of an absolutely wonderful series called The Trigan Empire which my sister and I used to read in a children’s magazine called ‘Look and Learn’. My sister Chris and I were riveted by this intergalactic story of men in loin cloths fighting over an empire and couldn’t wait for the next installment. I’ve just checked and apparently you can get the whole thing now as a free download, which is a good job as you should see the prices of the originals on Amazon!

But the LOTR experience must have triggered something, because it was in  my teens that I completely embraced fantasy writing and what was then called Sword and Sorcery in particular. For a good few years my bookshelf was crammed with Corum and Conan, Dorian Hawkmoon and Fafhyd and the Gray Mouser, The Witch World and The Worm Ouroborus, Thongor and Elric. I couldn’t get enough of the stuff. Just recently I re-read Michael Moorcock’s second series about Corum, his Celtic myth inspired hero. It must have been a series I had at the time, but didn’t read, but boy had I missed out! With twenty odd years of Celtic myth loving behind me I now positively reveled in this particular world.

My fantasy reading after that splurge was patchy at best, but I’ll always remember the series of books which reignited it and has remained my favourite set of books of any genre. It was in my early twenties that I discovered Guy Gavriel Kay’s magisterial and haunting trilogy, The Fionavar Tapestry.

I’ve talked about it in previous blogs of course, but for me the series had all the things which no other fantasy novel I have read before or since has quite had. Not the least of these is that it has the sort of depth that less empathetic writers like Robert E. Howard - who created Conan the Barbarian, but who was after all paid to write magazine pulp fiction in the same way Conan Doyle was - or Michael Moorcock, who dreams so well ,but doesn’t always seem to care very much about his characters, can only aspire to. After a rather clunky beginning involving our five heroes and heroines actually getting to Fionavar, the world building itself, its geography, myths and customs, is both carefully and lovingly done.

Guy Gavriel Kay had spent a year helping Christopher Tolkien to prepare The Silmarillion, so it’s hardly surprising that some of this rubbed off so beautifully. In the series Celtic and Norse mix effortlessly, but unlike say CS Lewis, who seemed to take shiny bits of myth from here and there like some out of control literary magpie, (and much to the frustration of his more meticulous friend Tolkien), the mix works and adds to the depth of the whole.

Flash forward a good few years and a friend tells me about this set of children’s books which really aren’t like children’s books at all. I order The Dark Is Rising sequence on his recommendation alone and halfway through Over Sea, Under Stone I am roundly cursing him for getting me to read something which seems so juvenile and with such irritating kids in it. Still I’m nearly forty and maybe they’re not meant for me.

Then I read the second book, The Dark is Rising itself and the whole world changes. It changes so much that I wonder if some other writer hasn’t elbowed the writer of the first book out of the way, and is showing her what she really wanted to write.

In The Dark is Rising in particular there is a sense of the ancient and often uncompromising that seems to permeate the whole book with an ominous foreshadowing which just gets darker and darker as the forces of the Dark themselves close in. In the chapter on children’s writing in his recent wonderful book ‘Landscapes’, Robert Macfarlane calls The Dark is Rising the most eerie book he has ever read and I have to agree, for never before had I felt such a sense of what I can only call book claustrophobia. It seems to be not just the walls that are closing in around the reader, but the whole world.

The sequence which Robert Macfarlane regards as the most memorable is Will’s awakening to his inheritance as an Old One on solstice morning. Here he realises that he has been transported deep into the past where everything is older and more intense and the snowbound landscape far more threatening.. Susan Cooper is expert at taking us in and out of Will’s familiar world and almost dipping us into another one, so that, like a wandering pen nib, we pick up some of the story’s mythic ink and add it to our knowledge. Unlike Lewis, where the story passes back to our own many narnian years later, or Tolkien, where there is no passing into other worlds or tricks with time, Susan Cooper renders time fluid, which has the result of making it all the more unsettling.

Again I could spend a whole blog talking just about that series of books, but I have to move on. My most recent discovery is the Hyddenworld books of William Horwood and like The Dark Is Rising, His Dark Materials and The Fionavar Tapestry, they have had an effect on me as a writer as well as an intermittent reader of fantasy.

In Hyddenworld the smaller race called the Hydden live alongside - and for the most part unnoticed - our own, in much the same way as the Muggles co-exist with the magic folk in Harry Potter. The centre of their version of Englalond is Birmingham which is re-christened Brum and it is that area where the myth that underpins the four books, the smith Beornamund and his making of the gems for his lost love, takes place. But like Middle Earth and Fionavar, the southern counties and Wales of Will Stanton in The Dark is Rising series and the adjusted version of our world in His Dark Materials, William Horwood’s books are about landscape and traveling, as much as anyone else. And as in Philip Pullman’s trilogy, the journey to get there and the reason for going is everything.

Robert E Howard’s great warrior barbarian Conan too bestrode the glittering and always deadly world of the Hyborian age, fighting and wenching and rescuing, overturning plots by a combination of brute force and native cunning and by making the right alliances. Conan is no milk sop of a hero folks. When in the story A Witch Shall be Born, he is crucified by his enemies, he bites the head off the first vulture to dare to go for his eyes, before he is rescued by a former ally. One of the many great disservices done to fantasy by modern cinema was that Big Arnie’s versions made him into little more than a one dimensional pile of muscles. The real Conan has a great deal more to him over and above the muscles and head lopping. He gets to be King of Aquilonia after all, and despite all the usual plots, a good and successful one who holds his throne.

I set out in this blog to try and understand what makes a great fantasy novel for both adults and children. I soon became aware however that all I could write about was the fantasy I myself had loved and experienced.

Then something clicked, and for the first time I was able to see why I have loved most of the fantasy books and series I have read in my life and what they had in common. For there is something that unites Will Stanton, Will Parry and Lyra Belaqua, Conan and Corum, Jack, Catherine and Bedwyn Stort in Hyddenworld, The Fellowship of the Ring on their long road to Mordor, the four Pevensea children in the Narnia Books and the five travelers in the Fionavar Tapestry. I will try to pace out what it is.

Clearly all of them have a destiny, which they are both at first unaware of. and later refuse to accept. Having finally given into that destiny, they gather companions for their quest and they set out through various trials and disappointments, taking and rejecting advice and friendship as they go, until they enter the belly of the beast, fight their battles, suffer their dreadful losses, win - but often at a cost both personal and spiritual - until in the time to come they must decide whether they can live with those memories or not. Having made that decision they may then either symbolically die, or leave the world in which they have journeyed for somewhere calmer.

In other words they are all of them undergoing the Hero’s Journey, as related by Joseph Campbell in his seminal book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. So far so predictable I suppose, because one presumes we authors had that in our DNA long before it became someone’s life's work.

But in my case one of the things my favourites have in common is landscape. Now I love landscape, but I can't pretend to have walked a great deal of it, with the exception of a 49 mile pilgrimage walk on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. However it does seem that what the fantasy books I have read and loved - from Conan to Corum, Will Stanton to Will Parry, and Bedwyn Stort to the little hobbitses and never forgetting Kim, Jennifer, Dave, Paul and Kevin - have in common is not just the journey, (or more often journeys) themselves, but the lands in which they travel. Whether it be Middle Earth or Brum, the Hyborian Age or Citigazze, the lands and spaces always have thrills and experiences to offer in their own right independent of the characters themselves.

As I was finishing this blog, my partner and I were reflecting on the last, for the most part, very difficult year when an idea lit up like a flame in my mind. 
It is the tradition in a fairy or folk tale to end a story with the phrase 'and they all lived happily ever after'. It's a nice, neat, sealing off device isn't it and we come to expect it. For the most part and even after such horrendous events in something like say The Juniper Tree, with all its child abuse, dismemberment and cannibalism, all can become well just like that.

Of course it can't, because how on earth could a family live with the legacy of those circumstances outside of a fairy tale? There are far too many other examples to mention, but to take just one how, in the story of Tam Lin, after Janet has rescued her husband to be from the Queen of Elf Land, do they then go about living together - the man who has been under enchantment in an enchanted land for seven years and a day and this spoiled if now wiser daughter of an earl who is pregnant with his child. One is after all recovering from years of potential trauma and the other from third degree burns!

Of course the easy answer may be just to say that these are all just fairy stories and therefore make-believe, so how can we expect them to make sense? But equally that isn't good enough.

Surely the people who told these tales - which were after all traditional tales, handed down from mouth to mouth before they were ever collected, published or filmed - were canny enough to understand that some things can never be got over and - as a late friend of mine so wisely said - can only be come to terms with, Perhaps then that neat little ending is in many cases little better than a ' coming to terms'.

'So the little boy, (who had been killed, eaten, resurrected as a magical avenging bird and then brought back to life as himself again), and their father, went back into the their sweet little cottage under the Juniper Tree leaving the smashed corpse of their awful stepmother under the giant mill wheel and they all --- somehow learned to come to terms with it.   

It doesn't quite have the same neat little bow ring to it, does it?

And so in conclusion it's no surprise for me to find that apart from the hero's journey, the landscape and the quest element and the rest of it, the vast majority of the books I've mentioned have a sense of profound loss at the end of them and little choice but for the characters to have to come to terms with all they have endured. Friends, innocence and sometimes a whole way of life have gone, and Jack and Catherine, Will and Lyra, Frodo and Sam, and Kim and Dave now have to adjust to a different kind of life, where memory will always be bitter sweet and the pain of those things they have lost a mere heartbeat away.

Is this why we read these books then, knowing that they will offer us something more mature and searching than fairy stories, knowing as we do that life very rarely is all 'happy ever after'?   

Steve Gladwin - 'Grove of Seven' and 'The Year in Mind'
Writer, Performer and Teacher

Author of 'The Seven' and 'The Raven's Call'


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