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After more than five years, with more interruptions than I care to mention, I have finally followed Roland Deschaine of Gilead into the room at the top of the Dark Tower. I have to admit that I was surprised at how moved I was when he paused at the entrance and recited the names of all of his friends and ka-mates. It’s odd. Stephen King was never a favorite author of mine. Of all the many books he’s written, the only other one I’ve ever read was 11-22-63, his romance about the man who went back in time to stop the assassination of President Kennedy. I didn’t care for it. The only other book of his I want to read is The Stand. People who have read a lot of Mr. King’s books say it is his best, but after slogging through 4250 pages in eight volumes (I read Wind Through The Keyhole chronologically, between Wizard And Glass and Wolves Of The Calla), I am a bit reluctant to give Mr. King another 1100 pages of my attention. Interestingly, the reviewer who listed The Stand as King’s best book rated the seven canonical Dark Tower volumes roughly as I would have ranked them, so I have reason to trust his judgement.
Roland’s story is a compelling one. Like The Lord Of The Rings, which is just about the only other work I have read to which I can compare it, The Dark Tower series is both interminable and strangely, over far too soon. Both of these works create a desire to explore more fully the world the author has created; to know more about its inhabitants, its history, and its geography. Mr. King includes no maps. There are no sprawling appendices such as Prof. Tolkien included in The Lord Of The Rings to give you the backstory of Mid-World. Another characteristic that Mid-World shares with Middle-Earth is that it seems strangely depopulated. Either that, or the protagonists of both works spent the majority of their time in the parts of their imaginary worlds where the people didn’t live. This seems to be a common flaw with fantasy. Narnia was claustrophobic as well, having only three “countries” that really counted. Earthsea was a collection of islands with, I assume, nothing much larger than fishing villages to house its inhabitants.
The Dark Tower series took Stephen King almost 35 years to write, and it shows. The biggest divide is between Wizard And Glass, which was published in 1997, and The Wolves Of The Calla, which was published in 2003. In the intervening years, Stephen King was almost killed in a near-fatal auto accident, and it shows up in the writing. King himself seems to have felt some pressure to complete the series after his accident. The last three books, despite their more than 2000 pages, have a rushed feeling that is missing from the parts of the series that he wrote prior to the accident. By the time he published his Mid-World “inter-quel”, Mr. King had found his rhythm again. Certainly, even though there are weak parts in the first four books and excellent parts in the last three, I found I preferred the first four to the latter three.
My favorite five scenes from the Dark Tower series were;
1) Roland and his companions in Meijis – I haven’t read enough King to know how much material he recycled from other his other books in order to tell the tragic tale of young Roland Deschaine and the tragic Susan Delgado, but I suspect it was a lot. I detected some of The Children Of The Corn, at least. Nevertheless, as far as raw storytelling is measured, King never approached this level again for the whole 4,000-plus pages of the series. Even the characters seemed fully-fleshed, and I warmed to Alain Johns and Cuthbert Allgood in a way that I never did to wisecracking Eddie Dean. The bad guys Eldred Jonas and Roy Depape are more richly drawn than either the Crimson King or Mordred, and even minor characters like Cordelia Delgado and Hart Thorin are alive with life. Rhea of the Cöos is beyond creepy, and one of the better villains I’ve encountered in any fiction. Other reviewers gush about the love affair between Susan Delgado and Roland Deschaine, but I found it kind of off-putting. I know Roland is supposed to be knowing beyond his years, but a 14 year old boy in love with a 16 year old girl does not act the way Roland acts here.
2. The Drawing Of Eddie Dean – I don’t know if I’m the only one, but I kinda liked Eddie better as a junkie than as the wise-cracking comic-relief he became by the end of the series. The story of how Roland ended up behind his eyes and managed to extricate him from his tangled web of obligation and addiction in 1980s New York was absorbing. It was a shame that Eddie very seldom was allowed to rise to the nobility of character he displayed during the gunfight in Balazar’s gin joint. His “trail marriage” to Susannah was often distracting as well, but in his coming and going, I have to admit that I came to love Eddie Dean.
3. The Massacre At Tull – It has been a long time since I read The Gunslinger, the first volume of the Dark Tower series, Roland’s methodical massacre of all the inhabitants of Tull, including the idiot child Soobie and his paramour Allie, opened my eyes to just how hard-bitten the series could get at a moment’s notice. It also presaged just who Roland would sacrifice in order to attain the Tower. There was a high body count in the Dark Tower series , but this action set the stage for all of the rest.
4. The Manni In the Cave Of The Winds – I enjoyed Wolves Of The Calla far more than I thought I would. After having Roland and the gang meander around blank open country for more than four volumes, actually, since River Crossing, or maybe even Tull, it was good to get back to settled lands and farmsteads. Pere Callahan’s negligent Catholic mission made a good counterpoint to the Manni, who i thought were one of King’s better inventions in the series. It seems kind of a shame that he used them basically as a key to open the door between worlds. They would have benefited from greater exposition.
5. Jake and Pere Callahan in the Dixie Pig – I really warmed to Pere Callahan and was sorry to see him depart so early in the seventh book, but boy! did he go out with a flair. I hadn’t read Salem’s Lot, so I only knew as much of the Pere’s backstory as King revealed in Wolves Of the Calla and Susannah’s Song. There were a lot of nice touches in the Dixie Pig segment; the Mid-World kitchen boy serving under the taheen cook, Jake switching bodies with Oy to get past the guardians in the passage to Fedic. There were also some typical King gross-outs as well, but hey, I could almost smell the meat roasting on the spit behind the curtain. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, though.
My five least favorite parts were 1) the lobstrosities – i was so glad when the story moved passed them. 2) the Emerald City sequence with Martin Broadcloak/Randall Flagg. 3) the demon sex that brought Jake into Mid-World, although the bifurcation of Jake and Roland was handled very well. 4) Susannah/Mia “dining” in the swamp. I nearly lost lunch. 5) basically everything that took place from the Castle of the Crimson King until Roland reached the Tower. The Dandelo/Patrick Danville episode was pretty anticlimactic after the chiaroscuro of Algul Siento, and the removal of the Crimson King was very cheesy. I suspect King just wanted to finish by this time.
Something has to be said about how American the Dark Tower series is. Any American mythopoesis is going to have a lot of the Western in it, because the Western, with the free man remaking himself on the Frontier, is our great myth. Stephen King took it and ran it out farther than I would have thought possible. Maybe this isn;t, yet, the Great American Novel, but it is without any doubt the Great American Fantasy series. I’m glad I went on this journey. Thou hast spoken well, may it do ya, gunslinger. Long days and pleasant nights to you.
Thankee sai, Mr. King
Not too many years ago a young monastic aspirant went to Mount Athos. In talking with the venerable abbot of the monastery where he wished to stay, he told him, “Holy Father! My heart burns for the spiritual life, for asceticism, for unceasing communion with God, for obedience to an Elder. Instruct me, please, holy Father, that I may attain to spiritual advancement.”
Going to the bookshelf, the Abbot pulled down a copy of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. “Read this, son,” he said.
“But Father!” objected the disturbed aspirant. “This is heterodox Victorian sentimentality, a product of the Western captivity! This isn’t spiritual; it’s not even Orthodox! I need writings which will teach me spirituality!”
The Abbot smiled, saying, “Unless you first develop normal, human, Christian feelings and learn to view life as little Davey did – with simplicity, kindness, warmth, and forgiveness – then all the Orthodox ‘spirituality’ and Patristic writings will not only be of no help to you-they will turn you into a ‘spiritual’ monster and destroy your soul.”
A while back, blogger with similar interests to mine posted that Christians ought not, and Orthodox Christians most definitely should not, read fantasy literature:
Fantasy… is a pure expression of the passions. Basically it’s whatever the mind imagines ends up on paper. So then we end up with werewolves and vampires and a celebration of evil that in the modern genre completely lacks what the original characters were intended to portray. In this way, a genre that was meant to lead someone toward Christ now pulls them in the opposite direction by tantalizing every wicked fantasy and passion imaginable, and infusing it with a lustful voyeurism so that people constantly want more and more perverse and graphic fantasies.
On the surface, I have to say that I agree with her. “Man’s imaginations are wicked from his youth”, Genesis says. I made an offhand comment about fifteen years ago to a friend on the ‘darkening’ of the fantasy genre; most of the material that was coming out at that time seemed to be concerned with the demonic, and with the infernal side of occultic powers. There didn’t seem to be any celestial counterweight and a lot of fantasy material seemed to be moving from the Tolkienesque to the “gritty”, “realistic” outlook. The best of it was pagan/stoic and the worst of it was flatly demonic. Once the pornification of Western society got underway in earnest, wrought in great part by the Internet, fantasy literature followed suit, and now you can’t turn a page without some sexual practice that would have shocked a jury forty years ago described in painstaking detail between orcs and elves.
It is not fantasy material exclusively that as fallen prey to this; romances are saucier and kinkier; simple murder no longer suffices to carry a detective novel, you need cannibalism or torture. The problem is that there is no longer any intermediary between the head, the eyes, and the loins. Lewis’ Men Without Chests have arrived, and they are worse than any glittering vampire or werewolf out of the latest potboiler. There is in Tibetan Buddhism the concept of the Hungry Ghost (ཡི་དྭགས), an entity with overdeveloped mouth and stomach, but with a neck and chest too thin to allow for the passage of food. This parcel of decayed human energy lives in constant torment as its enormous stomach demands input from its hypertrophied mouth, but there is nothing in between that can mediate the transfer. We have starved the sentiments for so long that we may be said to exist in a state of spiritual diabetes. We devour and devour all manner of stories; fantasies, romances, novels, but we seem incapable to extract even the minutest nutrition from any on them, We are like those who lack a vital digestive enzyme.
Forty years ago, Father Seraphim Rose also noticed this strange deficiency in young pilgrims coming to his California monastery for spiritual guidance:
[There is a] problem [which] lies in the poverty of our modern soul, which has not been prepared or trained to receive the depths of true Christian experience. There is a cultural as well as a psychological aspect to this poverty of ours: The education of youth today, especially in America, is notoriously deficient in developing responsiveness to the best expressions of human art, literature, and music, as a result of which young people are formed haphazardly under the influence of television, rock music, and other manifestations of today’s culture (or rather, anti-culture); and, both as a cause and as a result of this–but most of all because of the absence on the part of parents and teachers of any conscious idea of what Christian Life is and how a young person should be brought up in it–the soul of a person who has survived the years of youth is often an emotional wasteland, and at best reveals deficiencies in the basic attitudes towards life that were once considered normal and indispensable
Father Seraphim went on to say that what was needed in this situation was a “Dushevni diet”, one that would nourish the middle soul, the Chest, in Lewis’ vocabulary. The idea of the “Dushevni diet” is to allow the soul to learn those responses to an object which those objects ought naturally to invoke, or which a well-trained soul should naturally feel. Lewis himself, in The Abolition Of Man, uses the example of Samuel Johnson’s observation that
That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force
upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the
ruins of Iona.
with the caveat that the man whose patriotism does not swell at Marathon or whose piety is not warmed at Iona will inevitably complain that because his [lack of] patriotism and his [lack of] piety are neither strengthened nor fortified at either Marathon or Iona, it must follow the idea of these places doing either is a subjective fantasy, and that his feelings of tedium and his desire to find an inn where he can grab a beer and watch the soccer matches are just as valid as all that sentimental nonsense about brave ancient Athenian citizen-warriors or Celtic monks standing waist deep in freezing water chanting the Psalms. I’m sorry, but those thoughts are the grandfathers to the complaints of overweight women that they are equally as desirable to as wide an array of men as their slender sisters. That just is not so. Value is as objective as anything measured by the positive sciences. It is just that the instrument used to measure it is not a scale, or a measuring stick, or a pipette, but rather the human soul itself. If that soul is faulty or unbalanced, it will perforce register a different value for the object than will the purer soul.
Until this point, I have said nothing that Fr. Seraphim and Dr. Lewis have not said before me, and much more eloquently. However, as far as an Orthodox Christian who enjoys and appreciates the fantasy genre as I do, I would like to make the following observations:
First of all, salvation is offered to us through What Is, not through what we would like it to be. The very first time I saw an Orthodox icon of Christ, I was struck by the Greek legend Ὁ ὮΝ, “That Which IS”, in the nimbus of his halo. In itself, this would appear to be reason enough to exclude anything of a fantastic nature from Fr. Seraphim’s “dushevni diet”, and with the vast majority of modern fantasy, I would be in complete agreement with myself. There is a lot of brutality, a lot of anxiety, a lot of lasciviousness, and a complete lack of transcendence in most fantasy material these days, both Western and Eastern. I include Eastern fantastic literature because Japanese and Korean manga (comics) and anime (cartoons) are occupy the same literary niche for young people of my son’s generation that The Lord Of The Rings and the Narnia books occupied for me when I was younger.
But there is an important point I would like to make: For all the popularity of the ‘gritty’, ‘realistic’ fantasies of Joe Abercrombie, George R. R. Martin, and China Mieville, we would do well to remember that they are considered ‘realistic’ because of one important point; their narratives unwind in created worlds that resemble our own in one essential way; they are closed worlds where even magic is technological in nature. It obeys ‘rules’ that cannot be broken, which can be observed and mastered, and using techniques which can be perfected through experimentation and practice. There is no help coming from beyond the circle of the invented world. Self-interest rules all things, and the struggle of omnes contra omnes continues apace. In the hands of the aforementioned authors, this “realistic” approach to fantasy has produced some engaging yarns. They are gifted writers, and, interestingly, Mr. Mieville has produced a story which points beyond itself in a way I’m not certain the author didn’t intend.
In The City And The City, Mr. Mieville has created two separate cities, Beszel and Ul Quoma. The two cities occupy the same physical space, and may even share buildings and streets. Each ‘city’ has its own airport and port district. Citizens of each city can dimly glimpse, at times, residents of the other city or the outlines of buildings. However, to admit to this is to commit Breach, risking arrest and incarceration. Citizens of both cities have been strictly trained since earliest childhood to disregard all evidence of the other city. The narrative of Mr. Mieville’s book unwinds as a policeman in the less wealthy city, Beszel, is investigating a murder of a young woman which implicates a well-connected functionary in the corresponding, wealthier city of Ul Quoma. His distress increases as he realizes that the world in which he grew up believing does not correspond to the world as it actually is.
In the same way, there is something fantastic about the life we live in our sanitized, corporatized, modern world. We fly across the landscape like Djinn in metal boxes. We know the thoughts of others at multiplied hundreds of leagues. We hear no animals bawl out their agonies when their time comes to keep us nourished. In addition, a constant barrage of intellectual static that attempts to convince us that This Truncated World Is The Real World, that nothing exists outside of what can be measured, monetarized, and manipulated. If you want to maintain little fantasy religious worlds or little counter-cultural worlds within strict boundaries of a “religious” or “intentional” community, you are by all means free to do so (We are not tyrants, after all, is another song that is sung constantly). If you try to smuggle anything out from behind those well-guarded frontiers, though, you will find yourself committing Breach and arousing the ire of the Gatekeepers. In this way, something like The Lord Of The Rings, or even Spirited Away, can serve to cast doubt on the Official Narrative. Spiritual forces and proper human sentiment can be experienced as liberating and empowering, and in this way, the Real World, The Only One That Truly Is, that which is signalled by the Greek letters in the halo, can be made more real than this dreary official fantasy in which we find ourselves.
A Study In Comparative Fantasy
I’m halfway to the Dark Tower, at the hub of all possible worlds. If you look at the architecture of Stephen King’s epic series, I am almost exactly halfway, having just now started the fifth volume in the series, The Wolves Of The Calla. Two volumes I have read deal in backstory; Wizard And Glass was almost entirely the story of Roland Deschain’s first years as a Gunslinger in the outer barony of Meijis and of his first love affair with the tragic Susan Delgado. The other volume was The Wind Through The Keyhole, a volume written by Mr. King and published last year, which was meant to “fill a gap” between the ending of Wizard And Glass and the beginning of The Wolves Of The Calla. The Wind Through The Keyhole is actually two stories nested inside each other like a wooden Russian babushka doll, which Roland tells as a single tale on the grandfather of all dark and stormy nights. Since Keyhole doesn’t advance the narrative of Roland’s ka-tet at all, I feel justified in saying I am still halfway to the Tower, despite having read more than 2/3 of the material in the series.
Comparing Stephen King’s Dark Tower series to another modern fantasy which I re-read before taking up the thread of Roland’s story again, I find that the Dark Tower series compares very favorably to The Lord Of The Rings. There are some superficial similarities. Both series deal with an epic Quest; that of Frodo to dispose of the Ring Of Power and that of Roland to reach the Dark Tower. Both series introduce a sworn brotherhood; The Fellowship of the Ring and Roland’s Ka-Tet. Finally, although I seldom see this commented on, invented language plays an important role in both series. Tolkien’s Elvish languages, of course, form the backbone of his mythopoetic work. Indeed, Tolkien himself claimed that he invented the elves and Middle Earth so that he would have speakers for his invented languages and a place for them to be spoken. Stephen King, being a professional writer instead of a professor of Anglo-Saxon, uses a subtler device. The High Speech hasn’t greatly factored into the first four books, but it appears to have an ancient Egyptian/Phoenician flavor to it. The Low Speech, the Westron of Mid-World, is English, but with very subtle differences. Listening to The Waste Land and Wizard And Glass after having read them in book form, you get something of the flavor of the Low Speech. There are words that you have to learn by context, such as “cullie“, “jilly” and “roont“. There are repeated tag-sentences, “so I do”, “ken thee?”. There is the non-grammatical use of the pre-Caroline English pronoun thee, differing from the customary King James usage. All of these, and the use of stock phrases such as “set your watch and warrant by it”, or, “forget the face of your father”, set a linguistic tone for the series and with great economy underscore the alienness of Mid World.
For Mid-World is not a nice place. Indeed, throughout the whole of the Tower books so far, I can almost hear Gollum hissing in the background – “We’re not in decent places”. Mid-world has “moved on”. Things have changed. The relationship between men and Creation has altered deeply, and the change has not been for the better. Time has, in the opinion of Eddie Dean, one of Roland’s companions, “gone on vacation”. A day may be fifty hours long, or it may stop altogether, or it may fly at a furious pace. Indeed, all of Roland’s companions have been gathered from New York, our New York, the New York of Robert Wagner, of Abraham Beame, and of Edward Koch respectively, but they are contemporaries in Mid-World. Causality is iffy. Things that produced a particular effect at one time may not at another time, for no apparent reason. Directions have become unhinged, and a moon that rises in the east one night may wobble over to the southeast the next. We are told that the Gunslinger’s world has “moved on”, but the direction it has taken is not an improvement.
Middle Earth, by comparison, is a stable place. Even though its wars and rebellions have altered the coastlines and the continents, the fabric of space and time remains the same. Actually, that isn’t entirely true. The Valar and their charges removed themselves entirely from Arda (the created universe in which Middle-Earth exists), and hence are no longer directly accessible to the inhabitants, be they Men or Dwarves or stubborn Elves who continue to refuse the summons back to Aman. Since there is a renegade Maia loose in Middle-Earth, this absence of the Valar forces the inhabitants thereof back onto their own resources. Sauron, the antagonist of The Lord Of The Rings, never appears directly in the narrative, and indeed is seldom referred to by name. He has slaves to do his bidding, and his bidding appears to be entirely ruin and blasting.
The central metaphor for evil in The Lord Of The Rings is that of barrenness. Mordor is a dead land. Nothing grows there, or at least in the ash-choked Plain of Gorgoroth surrounding both the Dark Tower and Mount Doom, although we are assured that to the south, around the sad shores of Lake Nurnen, there are immense farms tended to by slaves, a prophecy of the industrial agriculture that “feeds” (or fattens) our nation. Samwise, under the influence of the Ring, faces this temptation and masters it:
“The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command.”
There is a sense in which there are two antagonists in The Lord Of The Rings, Sauron and the Ring. Sauron represents the Manichean, external aspect of Evil, the kind of evil you can, and must, resist with swords, bows, and valor. The evil of Sauron is something that would destroy everything “that you hold dear on this green earth”, but unaided, it cannot destroy the soul. It is the resistance, finally, of Aragorn and what remains of the West that allows Frodo and Sam to triumph, albeit imperfectly, over the Augustininan, internal aspect of Evil, represented by the Ring. The Ring speaks to that inner voice inside all of us that if only we could have things Our Own Way, whether by persuasion or coercion, that we could put Things to Right. Alas, it would begin that way, as Galadriel said, but in the end, the corruption of the Ring, which is the corruption of our own hearts, must be overcome by a different, but no less necessary, kind of valor; that of renunciation, self-denial, and voluntary suffering on behalf of others.
I believe that it is because we lost the struggle outlined in the Lord Of The Rings that we find ourselves, a generation and change later, in the situation of the Dark Tower books. Evil in King’s created universe is much more consistent than that in Tolkien’s world. The Crimson King, the antagonist of the Dark Tower books and the Sauron of Mid-World (he even has the sigil of a single red eye) goes beyond the Maia’s hatred of the organic, yearning for the predictability and order of the mineral. The Crimson King hates the very idea of order and predictability, or reason and morality. Significantly, he is represented as the offspring of Arthur Eld and a demoness of the primordial Chaos, out of which Gan (God) erected the Dark Tower and the beams of the multiverse, and which Arthur Eld and his descendants the Gunslingers swore to uphold. The Crimson King, like the Joker in the film The Dark Knight, just wants to see Creation burn. Inevitably, he hates himself as well, since he reflects the order of Creation within himself. His desire for destruction includes a desire for self-destruction. The Crimson King is, of course, barking mad.
One of the criticisms I have of modern horror fiction is that is hard for moderns to grasp the essence of evil. When you have no absolute values, nothing is ultimately at risk. Most threats in film or literature deal with the loss of Stuff or of social standing, which is scarifying enough for fragile egos in an increasingly turbulent world. Failing this, one of the most time honored ploys in horror literature is to put either children or the virginal Good Girl at risk. But the threat is always either death or dismemberment, bad enough in itself but not ontologically threatening. However, there is a disturbing undercurrent that one of the worst things that can happen to you is to be Found Out. Fear not him who can kill the body and all that. The scariest movie of all the time, The Exorcist, came close by showing its viewers a universe where good was evil, order was chaos, white was black, and worse, by telling its viewers that this is what they secretly wished for as well.
To me, true Evil is a mystery. It is a no-thing, even less than the vacuums between stars that nevertheless pulses with energies. I guess the closest metaphor I could invoke would be that of the Singularity, the Black Hole, a metaphor that could not have been available to Dante or Bram Stoker. Something that wants to draw all creation to itself and to unite all distinctions, isolate all similarities, reducing all things to the primeaval chaos; confusing, changing, dividing, and separating all things in an infinite falling from which no escape is possible.
Stand true. All things serve the Beam.
Many times during my long lifetime of reading imaginative literature, I wondered why Tolkien spawned so many imitators in English, but not in other languages into which The Lord Of The Rings had been translated. Now, anybody even cursorily familiar with The Lord of The Rings can see that would be a difficult work to translate, but that didn’t keep people from trying. The first Dutch translation came out only a year after the final volume was published in the UK. It is considered to be an adequate translation, and has been retained despite a revision by Tolkien’s publisher. Since then, The Lord Of The Rings has been translated into more than thirty languages, and the difficulties were such that Tolkien himself before his death published a guide for prospective translators.
Indeed, the conceit behind The Lord Of The Rings is that it is supposed to be a translation itself, from the invented Westron, to modern English. Tolkien excelled in finding, or creating, place-names that were redolent of an older world, such as ‘Rivendell’ for the Sindarin Imladris, “Valley of the Cleft”, and, of course, his wonderfully evocative Hobbit family names; Baggins [Bolsón in the Spanish], or Brandybuck, or Took [Berkova in Slovak]. Tolkien the linguists made certain that his place-names and his family names had an etymological depth to them which is not matched in the works of his imitators and followers, although I think George R R Martin’s “Winterfell” ( along with the felicitous Spanish translation Invernalia ) and Joe Abercrombie’s “Adua” come very close indeed.
Now, it may be that there are a multitude of derivative works in other languages, just that I am not familiar with popular literature in all the other languages of the world. Usually, genre literature does not attract much attention, and the only works that are likely to become well-known outside their own speech communities are the works of major writers such as Solzhenitsyn, Garcia Marques, or Nakagami Kenji. When I googled for obras literarias de fantasia en español [literary works of fantasy in Spanish], I was surprised that so little material turned up. Of course, even mainstream Latin-American literature has a strong undercurrent of the fantastic, as anyone familiar with Isabel Allende, Mario Vargas Llosa or Jorge Amado would know. However, the only reason that Argentine writer Angélica Gorodischer’s little volume La Kalpa Imperial seemed to come up was not because of its own considerable merits, but because it had been recently translated into English by a great fantasist who writes in English, Ursula LeGuin.
I was delighted to find that La Kalpa Imperial was available to me in its original Spanish through interlibrary loan. Having worked my way halfway through, I find this little gem equal to anything produced since Tolkien in English, and better than most. Most of all, I wanted to see how a non-English speaker would handle the issue of “fantasy names”. There is a lot of faux-Elvish out there. That isn’t a bad thing in itself, but you can get seriously tired of Elves named Eldemar , Dwarves named Darmûk, and Orcs named Yog-Ar-Ghazh. There are no non-human races (yet) in Sra. Gorodischer’s La Kalpa Imperial,but the names of her humans are delightful – the trickster Loo Löo, the tragic Hehrehvontes dynasty. Indeed, the silent Spanish ‘h’ does yeoman’s work for fantastic names in this story. In this, she learned well from her great predecessor and, I suspect, ascended spiritual master Jorge Luis Borges, whose imaginary lands Tlön, Uqbar, and Orbis Tertius have tantalized me ever since I first heard of them.
Borges’ fingerprints are all over this slender volume. I would have been more surprised it they weren’t. Gorodischer isn’t as coy as Borges, nor is she as metaphysically deft. Knowing something of the recent history of Argentina, I expected La Kalpa Imperial to be more political than it is. That is not surprising. Tolkien abhorred allegory, and it doesn’t actually play well in fantasy literature unless the readers are far enough removed from the situation being allegorized to disregard it. Sra. Gorodischer’s poetic parables, for that is how the story of the fabulous Empire of Kalba, the “greatest empire that never existed” is narrated, is more mythopoetic, and say as much about the power wielded by the storyteller as about that wielded by an Emperor. The history of Kalba is recognizably the history of our own world, but ever so much more so. I haven’t seen LeGuin’s translation, so I don’t know how the story of Kalpa plays out in English, but if the Spanish is any indication, it is worthy of wide acceptation.
Due to a change in my external circumstances, and the necessity of two hour commute (both ways) daily, I have been glutting myself on imaginative literature in the past few months. There is a wealth of good stuff on audio, and it is a very good way to ‘catch up on your reading’, if you define reading loosely enough. Since the commute began, I have been fortunate to acquaint and re-acquaint myself with some of the great names in imaginative literature; JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, George Macdonald, Ursula LeGuin, Stephen King, Tim Powers, ER Eddison, Jack Vance, and many others too numerous to mention. In a way, it has been kind of an exercise in “comparative fantasy”.
One of the most frequent objections to fantasy literature is that it lacks ‘depth’, that fantasy literature is an endless repetition of a “good vs evil” theme that resurfaces in book after book, series after series. Usually, the critics blame Tolkien. The contrast between Good and Evil that Tolkien traces in his epics are as sharp as shadows on the moon. It is not nuanced enough to reflect the “real world”. Then, to hear some people talk, all writers of fantasy literature written since The Lord Of The Rings have slavishly followed Tolkien down the path of rewriting Paradise Lost according to their own moral vision.
The critics are wrong. Prior to Tolkien, fantasy literature, what there was of it, was strangely amoral. James Cabell’s Jurgen was a flighty rascal. Dunsany’s little fables were as likely to celebrate hashish eating as martial courage. Mirlee’s Lud-In-The-Mist incarnated no Manichaean vision of good and evil. The resolution of her tale was a satisfying Hegelian synthesis between the quotidian comfort preferred by her Whig protagonists and the whimsy of the Jacobite fairie folk they so disdained E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros was thoroughly aristocratic both in tone and aspect, a sort of a High-Tory-on-LSD ‘romaunce’, peopled by proud-speaking haughty grandees entirely dismissive of the pettier sort of folk and their concerns. There was no room for hobbits in Ouroboros. Indeed, inasmuch as fantasy literature dealt with Good and Evil at all, it was to offer an escape from the stultifying decayed-Evangelicalism public morality of the day into an earlier, more permissive world.
Tolkien’s great achievement was the creation of a morally consistant parallel world. To me, the single brilliant imagining of the race of hobbits brings his re-creation of the Good into sharp focus. The hobbits are good, almost Pelagian, although some of them can be better than others. There are individual hobbits that appear “spoiled” (or ‘bent’ to borrow from Lewis’ mythology), such as the Sackville-Bagginses or the Sandymans. These two families, however, were introduced as foils for the healthier Bagginses and the Gamgees who good-naturedly suffer their trepidations. Because the Sackville-Bagginses and the Sandymans are so rare, the Shire appears to govern itself. The rules are unwritten, all offices are mostly ceremonial, and the canons of good behavior are everywhere acknowledged and practiced. As fantasist Gene Wolfe observed in a clairvoyant essay; living under what Mr. Wolfe calls Folk Law in a face-to-face society may be the most salutatory framework for human life, much in the same way that folk tales have the deepest resonance, and folk tunes have the most haunting and unforgettable melodies.
Yet, the Shire is not good in a vacuum. The hobbits are King’s Men in the very best sense of that word. The King, although absent by the time of the narrative recorded in The Lord Of The Rings, serves as a locus for the values of The West. ‘The West’ is shorthand for all those parts and peoples of Middle-earth not yet seduced or tyrannized by Sauron, although it can include more easterly populations such as the Beornings, the Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain, the Wood-elves of eastern Mirkwood. Although the King has been absent from the government of the Shire for more years than separate us from the Battle of Hastings, his health is toasted at every meeting of the Shiremoot and his will is followed as best the hobbits can in their political vacuum.
Even the West is not good in and of itself, though. It is good because of the loyalty of the remnants of the Numenoreans and their allies to that which is Beyond the Sea that ‘the West’ stands as a bulwark to the trepidations and contaminations of Sauron. The weight of this allegiance is never explicitly explained within The Lord Of The Rings itself, but its presence can be felt in the same way you can tell where the sun is with your eyes closed. Tolkien’s continual references within the narrative to older, more primordial material; even Gondolin being mentioned in the first few pages of The Hobbit, weave a web of numinosity about his tale whose nexus is the Elder Race, the immortal Elves, who had opposed Sauron (and his greater master Morgoth Bauglir) in the past.
The Silmarillion revealed plainly what The Lord Of The Rings only hinted at. The Elves are good because they revere the Valar, the preserving and governing Powers of the World, who came into it at the behest of the world’s Creator Eru Iluvatar, a monotheistic deity. It is this realm, the realm of Valinor across the Sea, whose values are echoed by the denizens of ‘the West’.
In a sense, you have a kind of a neo-Platonic universe obtaining in the Tolkien legendarium. The Elves know next to nothing about Eru, the One, except for what they have learned from the Valar. The Men of the West have no direct access to the Powers in Valinor. Everything they know about it has been mediated to them by the Elves, who are abandoning Middle Earth. The hapless Hobbits, in their turn, would not have survived as long as they had in the rough and tumble of Middle earth without the constant protection and supervision of the Men of the West, the Dunedain.
You can hear all three layers in a musical representation on the soundracks to Peter Jackson’s films, especially in the Council of Elrond. First, there is the Elvish theme; atmospheric, ascetic, and other-worldly. Then, there are the virile horns of the theme of the West, vigilant and ready for action. Finally, there are the homespun strings of the Shire theme. They blend and fade into each other by the end of the piece. I don’t know how deliberate that was on the part of the composer, Howard Shore.
Wheels within wheels, indeed.
Immediately post-Tolkien, there were a lot of Good-vs-Evil sagas, most very derivative, retelling Tolkien’s story after him. Others, like Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea series, eshewed binary Good vs Evil to create a more nuanced, more Buddhistic unary moral Universe. LeGuin’s emphasis on “balance”, as if good and evil were polarities like male and female or acidic and basic, came to be echoed in a lot of fantasy worlds, such as the Star Wars universe with its depiction of the Bright Side and the Dark Side of the Force, or the recent popular animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, where all the tension in the series is caused by the Fire Nation getting out of balance with the other three elemental nations; the Water Tribe, the Earth Kingdom, and the Air Nomads. Fire Lord Ozai is not Satan or even Sauron. Ozai’s opponent is not Avatar Aang, but rather his son Zuko who, through the tutelage of the saintly Uncle Iroh, can restore the Fire Nation’s necessary line to the spectrum that is the Avatar universe.
I didn’t like Star Wars, and although I dearly love the Avatar animated series, unary, “balance”-based moralities don’t seem to produce satisfying eucatastrophes in the same way that fantasists are able to when good is truly good and evil is truly evil. I haven’t read, or even followed the movies inspired by, the Harry Potter novels, but I think I am correct in assuming that Rowland’s moral compass is more like Tolkien’s and less like Lucas’, which makes the opposition to her tales by conservative Christians even more puzzling.
Finally, there has been a movement within the fantasy genre itself away from a strict good vs evil paradigm and more towards what TV-Tropes.com defines rather pungently as Crapsack World, where all the choices are between real-l-l-ly bad, bad, and not-so-bad-but-still-iffy. I have digested several works of this sort, some of which are very good; China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station and The City And The City (both of which are brilliant), Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, and of course, the Crapsack World to end all Crapsack Worlds, George R. R. Martin’s Westeros.
Funny thing about Westeros, though. Just when I was beginning to tire of Martin’s unrelenting cynicism, the pointless violence, and the continual betrayal which punctuated life in his series, Martin showed a bright little corner where life was good, men were fair, and decent people could live decent lives. It was buried deep in Brienne’s arc in A Feast Of Crows, when she accompanies the septon Maribald from the ruins of Saltpans to the Isle of Silence, where a strong abbot has created an island of peace, faith, and rest in the turbulent sea of conflict, cynicism, and blasphemy that was the norm in Westeros.
I read somewhere that George R. R. Martin is the son of a dockworker from Bayonne, New Jersey. True to his working class roots, Martin teaches us that the good is not something that occurs haphazardly. It is the result of consistent effort over an extended period of time by people who actively desire to be good and just, and it flourishes best where the eyes of the powerful are elsewhere. It also seems to me that Daenarys Targaryen’s extended and somewhat tedious sojourn in the Slavers’ Bay is to allow her to learn the difficult lessons in statecraft that will make her the kind of queen Westeros so desperately needs. As a wise man once told me, good works do not make you righteous the way paying your bills makes you solvent, but they do make you righteous like exercise makes you strong.
I can live with that. I can more than live with it, I can applaud it.
It is depressing how quickly writers, even very good ones, can be forgotten once the public eye moves off of them. I am now in my seventh decade, and I remember reading very good, very engaging books in my adolescence by authors who are seldom mentioned these days. Equally amazing to me are the authors who endure, and whose popularity continues. For example, I read JD Salinger’s Frannie And Zooey early in my high school days, but I thought the works of his near-contemporaries John Hershey (Too Far To Walk) and William Goldman (Boys And Girls Together) superior as studies of alienation. I haven’t met anyone under 55 who has even heard of those two writers.
Thomas Pynchon will be with us forever, as will Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. Other writers who seem to have legs are Kurt Vonnegut and John Updike, but Peter De Vries, Mary McCarthy, Louis Auchincloss, and even Ray Bradbury are disappearing from the catalogue. Gore Vidal preens himself and offers frequent fussy comment on the social scene, but who remembers Alfred Chester? It is though there is only one niche in the literary ecology for a particular kind of author, and Vidal grabbed it to Chester’s despite, as did Updike to De Vries, Vonnegut to Bradbury, and Walker Percy to Richard Yates.
Moving from canonical, mainstream literature to imaginative literature, no one can call Jack Vance a forgotten writer. For one thing, he is still alive, and for another, he is enjoying something of a boomlet in popularity due to his being lionized by popular genre authors like Neil Gaiman and Stephen King. I was fortunate to find his Lyonesse trilogy on audio book. Having already been introduced to Jack Vance in my extreme boyhood through The Languages of Pao and The Dragon Masters, the Arthurian-tinged trilogy, composed of Suldrun’s Garden, published in 1983, The Green Pearl, in 1987, and Madouc , in 1991, was a delight to stumble upon.
It won’t change your life, but as entertainment and as an exercise in that kind of fantasy set in our own world, it is highly recommended. The central conceit is somewhat similar to Robert E Howard’s, but set in late antiquity, about the time of the waning of the Western Empire and the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of Rome. Nevertheless, the martial technology is late Middle Ages, with trebuchets and plate armor. Vance follows in hallowed footsteps here. All the Arthurian writers followed the same convention, until recently when Mary Stewart and Stephen Lawhead created more chronistically appropriate Arthur stories.
The Arthurian connection is tenuous. Vance imagines a large Ireland-sized island in the middle of the Bay of Biscay, Hybras, with a cluster of smaller islands around it. The idea is that these islands have since disappeared, Atlantis-like, under the waves, leaving behind only a smattering of irreconcilable legends and a few place names; Hy-Brasil, Avallone, Lyonesse, and Ys. There are petty kings; beautiful, sad princesses; wizards benign and malicious; knights noble and dastardly. There is also a lot of Realpolitik and spycraft, which fortunately seldom gets in the way of the rollicking adventures.
The Lyonesse trilogy is kind of sad. As another reader/reviewer points out, all of the adventures and intrigues of the characters are pointless, since the Elder Isles are doomed to disappear eventually under the waves. For some reason, I thought it would add a touch of poignancy to the narrative, but it didn’t. For all of the playfulness and light-heartedness of Vance’s prose, something just didn’t quite click. The magic (and there are a number of wizards fair and fell in this series, not to mention fairies, ogres and boggarts), struck me as being very prosaic. Vance is, alas, a modernist in a postmodern world.
All in all all, it read like a copy of a greater original. It wasn’t at all like Tales Of The Dying Earth, by the same writer.
As I said, no one can accuse Jack Vance of being a forgotten writer, but just under the surface of his prose lurks one of the most unfairly forgotten writers of the 20th century. Working from a stray comment about the Lyonesse books on GoodReads, I was able to uncover the original of which they were the copy. The writer was James Branch Cabell, an American writer of fantastic literature from Richmond Virginia, who enjoyed a period of great popularity in the immediate postwar period. To my surprise, I was able to find a copy of his complete works at a nearby college library. They certainly appeared to be the works of a prominent and successful writer; gilt-spined and lavishly illustrated.
I took one book down and opened it, Jurgen; A Comedy Of Justice, reputed to be Cabell’s masterpiece. Three hours later I shut it, enthralled with where Cabell was able to transport me.
Cabell will never be one of my favorite writers. He is snarky, something I deeply dislike. Cabell shares this trait with other writers such as Douglas Adams, Kurt Vonnegut, and even Thomas Pynchon, all whom are good writers (Pynchon is great, like Sopohocles-great) but just not personally my cup of tea. Alan Dean Foster, who wrote The Last Starfighter and most of the original Star Wars trilogy as well, wrote a forgettable but very sexy little romance called Glory Lane, that gets snark just about right.
Cabell, in what I read of Jurgen, takes snark to realms of high art. The protagonist, a middle-aged pawnbroker, has his youth restored and, of course, sets out to do what any right-thinking man in his postion would do; seduce all the beautiful young women he can. On the way, he encounters a number of creatures magical, infernal, celestial, or any combination thereof. Since Jurgen, the protagonist, is irreverent and quite superficial, there is a lot of snark, but somehow, Cabell uses it to break your heart. It looks as though Jurgen is going be schooled by his second youth in the lasting virtues. I will have to finish this book, at least.
Reading what I have of Cabell’s writing career, I am surprised that he is almost completely unheard of by the legions of Tolkien, Rowling, and Gaiman fans. He continued writing in the same vein until his death in the 1950’s, in increasing obscurity. Serendipitously and coincidentally, the critical examination of Cabell’s work which I also found in the same section in the university library, was written by another once-popular writer; Hugh Walpole, who is also almost entirely forgotten today.
“It is submerged now, and as irrecoverable as Lyonesse” – Evelyn Waugh referring to Oxford in Brideshead Revisited