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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
The National Public Radio folks have decided to ask their listener base to help them select the greatest works of imaginative fiction. Their list contains a lot of surprises, but the finalists were selected by the ubiquitous expert panel, and they are inviting fantasy and science fiction fans to vote on which of these 200 or so works are their favorites.
Here is the list. My choices are in bold:
The Acts Of Caine Series, by Matthew Woodring Stover
The Algebraist, by Iain M. Banks
Altered Carbon, by Richard K. Morgan
American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman
Anathem, by Neal Stephenson
Animal Farm, by George Orwell
The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers
Armor, by John Steakley
The Baroque Cycle, by Neal Stephenson
Battlefield Earth, by L. Ron Hubbard
Beggars In Spain, by Nancy Kress
The Belgariad, by David Eddings
The Black Company Series, by Glen Cook
The Black Jewels Series, by Anne Bishop
The Book Of The New Sun, by Gene Wolfe
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
Bridge Of Birds, by Barry Hughart
The Callahan’s Series, by Spider Robinson
A Canticle For Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller
The Cat Who Walked Through Walls, by Robert Heinlein
Cat’s Cradle , by Kurt Vonnegut
The Caves Of Steel, by Isaac Asimov
The Change Series, by S.M. Stirling
Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke
Children Of God, by Mary Doria Russell
The Chronicles Of Amber, by Roger Zelazny
The Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant, by Stephen R. Donaldson
The City And The City, by China Mieville
City And The Stars, by Arthur C. Clarke
A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
The Codex Alera Series, by Jim Butcher
The Coldfire Trilogy, by C.S. Friedman
The Commonwealth Saga, by Peter F. Hamilton
The Company Wars, by C.J. Cherryh
The Conan The Barbarian Series, by R.E. Howard
Contact, by Carl Sagan
Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson
The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart
The Culture Series, by Iain M. Banks
The Dark Tower Series, by Stephen King
The Day of Triffids, by John Wyndham
Deathbird Stories, by Harlan Ellison
The Deed of Paksennarion Trilogy, by Elizabeth Moon
The Demolished Man, by Alfred Bester
The Deverry Cycle, by Katharine Kerr
Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany
The Diamond Age, by Neil Stephenson
The Difference Engine, by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling
The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin
Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick
Don’t Bite The Sun, by Tanith Lee
Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis
Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey
Dreamsnake, by Vonda McIntyre
The Dune Chronicles, by Frank Herbert
Earth, by David Brin
Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart
The Eisenhorn Omnibus, by Dan Abnett
The Elric Saga, by Michael Moorcock
Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card
Eon, by Greg Bear
The Eyes Of The Dragon, by Stephen King
The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde
The Faded Sun Trilogy, by C.J. Cherryh
Fafhrd & The Gray Mouser Series, by Fritz Leiber
Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb
The Female Man, by Joanna Russ
The Fionavar Tapestry Trilogy, by Guy Gavriel Kay
A Fire Upon The Deep, by Vernor Vinge
The First Law Trilogy, by Joe Abercrombie
Flowers For Algernon, by Daniel Keys
The Foreigner Series, by C.J. Cherryh
The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman
The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov
Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
The Gaea Trilogy, by John Varley
The Gap Series, by Stephen R. Donaldson
The Gate To Women’s Country, by Sheri S. Tepper
Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett
The Gone-Away World, by Nick Harkaway
The Gormenghast Triology, by Mervyn Peake
Grass, by Sheri S. Tepper
Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon
The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
Hard-Boiled Wonderland And The End of The World, by Haruki Murakami
The Heechee Saga, by Frederik Pohl
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
The Hollows Series, by Kim Harrison
House Of Leaves, by Mark Danielewski
The Hyperion Cantos, by Dan Simmons
I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson
I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov
The Illuminatus! Trilogy, by Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson
The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury
The Incarnations Of Immortality Series, by Piers Anthony
The Inheritance Trilogy, by N.K. Jemisin
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
A Journey To The Center Of The Earth, by Jules Verne
Kindred, by Octavia Butler
The Kingkiller Chronicles, by Patrick Rothfuss
Kraken, by China Mieville
The Kushiel’s Legacy Series, by Jacqueline Carey
Last Call, by Tim Powers
The Last Coin, by James P. Blaylock
The Last Herald Mage Trilogy, by Mercedes Lackey
The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle
The Lathe Of Heaven, by Ursula K. LeGuin
The Left Hand Of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin
The Legend Of Drizzt Series, by R.A. Salvatore
The Lensman Series, by E.E. Smith
The Liaden Universe Series, by Sharon Lee & Steve Miller
The Lies Of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch
Lilith’s Brood, by Octavia Butler
Little, Big, by John Crowley
The Liveship Traders Trilogy, by Robin Hobb
Lord Of Light, by Roger Zelazny
The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Lord Valentine’s Castle, by Robert Silverberg
Lucifer’s Hammer, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle
Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees
The Magicians, by Lev Grossman
The Malazan Book Of The Fallen Series, by Steven Erikson
The Man In The High Castle, by Philip K. Dick
The Manifold Trilogy, by Stephen Baxter
The Mars Trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson
The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury
Memory And Dream, by Charles de Lint
Memory, Sorrow, And Thorn Trilogy, by Tad Williams
Mindkiller, by Spider Robinson
The Mistborn Series, by Brandon Sanderson
The Mists Of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley
The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein
Mordant’s Need, by Stephen Donaldson
More Than Human, by Theodore Sturgeon
The Mote In God’s Eye, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle
The Naked Sun, by Isaac Asimov
The Neanderthal Parallax Trilogy, by Robert J. Sawyer
Neuromancer, by William Gibson
Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman
The Newsflesh Triology, by Mira Grant
The Night’s Dawn Trilogy, by Peter F. Hamilton
Novels Of The Company, by Kage Baker
Norstrilia, by Cordwainer Smith
The Number Of The Beast, by Robert Heinlein
Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi
On Basilisk Station, by David Weber
The Once And Future King, by T.H. White
Oryx And Crake, by Margaret Atwood
The Otherland Tetralogy, by Tad Williams
The Outlander Series, by Diana Gabaldan
Parable Of The Sower, by Octavia Butler
The Passage, by Justin Cronin
Pattern Recognition, by William Gibson
Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville
The Prestige, by Christopher Priest
The Pride Of Chanur, by C.J. Cherryh
The Prince Of Nothing Trilogy, by R. Scott Bakker
The Princess Bride, by William Goldman
Rainbows End, by Vernor Vinge
Rendezvous With Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke
Replay, by Ken Grimwood
Revelation Space, by Alistair Reynolds
Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban
The Riftwar Saga, by Raymond E. Feist
Ringworld, by Larry Niven
The Riverworld Series, by Philip Jose Farmer
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
The Saga Of Pliocene Exile, by Julian May
The Saga Of Recluce, by L.E. Modesitt Jr.
The Sandman Series, by Neil Gaiman
The Sarantine Mosaic Series, by Guy Gavriel Kay
A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick
The Scar, by China Mieville
The Shannara Trilogy, by Terry Brooks
The Shattered Chain Trilogy, by Marion Zimmer Bradley
The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Sirens Of Titan, by Kurt Vonnegut
Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett
Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson
The Snow Queen, by Joan D. Vinge
Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem
Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury
Song for the Basilisk, by Patricia McKillip
A Song Of Ice And Fire Series, by George R. R. Martin
The Space Trilogy, by C.S. Lewis
The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell
The Stainless Steel Rat Books, by Harry Harrison
Stand On Zanzibar, by John Brunner
The Stand, by Stephen King
Stardust, by Neil Gaiman
The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester
Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein
Stations Of The Tide, by Michael Swanwick
Steel Beach, by John Varley
Stranger In A Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein
Sunshine, by Robin McKinley
The Sword Of Truth, by Terry Goodkind
The Swordspoint Trilogy, by Ellen Kushner
The Tales of Alvin Maker, by Orson Scott Card
The Temeraire Series, by Naomi Novik
The Thrawn Trilogy, by Timothy Zahn
Tigana , by Guy Gavriel Kay
Time Enough For Love, by Robert Heinlein
The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells
The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger
To Say Nothing Of The Dog, by Connie Willis
The Troy Trilogy, by David Gemmell
Ubik, by Philip K. Dick
The Uplift Saga, by David Brin
The Valdemar Series, by Mercedes Lackey
VALIS, by Philip K. Dick
Venus On The Half-Shell, by Kilgore Trout/Philip Jose Farmer
The Vlad Taltos Series, by Steven Brust
The Vorkosigan Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold
The Vurt Trilogy, by Jeff Noon
The War Of The Worlds, by H.G. Wells
Watchmen, by Alan Moore
Watership Down, by Richard Adams
The Way Of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson
Way Station, by Clifford D. Simak
We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin
The Wheel Of Time Series, by Robert Jordan
When Gravity Fails, by George Alec Effinger
Wicked, by Gregory Maguire
Wild Seed, by Octavia Butler
The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi
World War Z, by Max Brooks
The Worm Ouroboros, by E.R. Edison
The Xanth Series, by Piers Anthony
The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Chabon
1632, by Eric Flint
1984, by George Orwell
2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke
20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, by Jules Verne
I was glad to see both Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen and Gaiman’s Sandman series in such august company. Both Earth Abides (Stewart) and Lord of Light (Zelazny) are close to perfect works of science-fiction. Unfortunately, Stewart never wrote another book, and Zelazny fell off precipitously after LOL. Amber wasn’t nearly as good.
I am not surprised that A Voyage To Arcturus didn’t make it onto this list. It is very poorly written and hard to parse, but it does have a sticking power that many better works lack. I was surprised to see that nothing by Lord Dunsany made the cut, nor was James Cabell represented, nor George Macdonald, nor Jack Vance. In the mean time, you can amuse yourselves identifying the pictures off to the right.
Waiting in line for Isabel Allende to sign my son’s copy of La Isla Bajo Del Mar, I struck up a conversation with a fellow lit-fan who was clutching a copy of a Russian grammar. She was planning to visit Russia shortly with her husband and wanted at least to learn the alphabet and a few elementary phrases. It turned out she was widely traveled, and had spent the cusp of the millennium in Arequipa, Peru with a group of curanderos on the summit of the Misti volcano.
We discussed the ephemera of the event; the rituals performed, the incantations spoken, and the atmosphere generated. However, I completely missed the opportunity to ask her what the experience meant to her. It would have been very interesting to hear why a pagan would find it significant to celebrate an event calibrated according to a Christian calendar. I remain highly interested in non-Christians’ appraisals of Jesus Christ, and of His significance to them.
I have been reading Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series and it is good beyond hope. Over and over again, I found myself saying to myself, “This is a comic book, how can this possibly be as good as it is?” It was the first time in a long time when something surpassed the expectations that I had of it, or the rumours of its quality.
The Sandman is the best Gaiman I have read to date. The narratives related in the comics have a non-Euclidean, surreal quality to them that is unlike anything outside actual dreams. Uncannily, dreams have been propelled into the forefront of my attention lately due to some striking dreams that have occurred [and been fulfilled] in my wife’s family, and to a reading of Pavel Florovsky’s Iconostasis, which deals extensively with dreams, non-waking states of consciousness, and iconography.
More on all of this much later, but I would like to take the time to especially recommend Sandman issues #15, #19, and #50. They are as good as any imaginative literature I have ever read. Interestingly, first editions of the magazines are still available on Ebay for very reasonable prices. I have always daydreamed about a collection of first editions of the works of the Inklings. Uncirculated first editions of Tolkien and Lewis are now running into the four digits, but if I ever had such a collection, I would not be at all hesitant to add the Sandman comics to it. Even in that mighty company, they would not be ashamed.
His art was very, very sexy, but I was virginally unaware of that. When I heard of his repose, I thought back on all of the covers he drew for the Ace editions of the Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter of Mars books, the Pellucidar books, the Carson of Venus books, and the Tarzan books. His men were creatures of high testosterone, brandishing swords and exploding with muscular virility. His women were feminine, curvy, and jaw-droppingly beautiful without ever appearing weak or dependent. One look at Duare facing off against the tharban on the cover of Escape On Venus, and you knew this woman meant business.
He also illustrated the covers for the Robert E. Howard Conan books, Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser collections, and a number of heavy metal album covers, where his beefy aesthetics were widely appreciated.
Although he was never tapped to illustrate anything from the Tolkien mythos, I believe he would have drawn a marvelous Beren, Boromir, or Aragorn. When I got older, and began to appreciate fantastic art for its own sake, I found I preferred Boris Vallejo. Nevertheless, it was very sad to hear about the passing of this great artist yesterday.
May you rest in peace, Frank Frazetta.
Update – Frazetta did draw some Tolkien illustrations. Now that I see them, I remember having seen them back in the 70s. I must have thought they were Bakshi’s.
Thank you Mr. Herron
The news that Guillermo del Toro and Neil Gaiman were collaborating on a short film called Death And Me , and that the film had just recently moved out of limbo and into active production sparked a controversy in our family as to which actress should portray Gaiman’s perky little Goth-girl Grim Reaper:
I always thought that Selma Blair would be the perfect choice. She’s dark-haired, slender, puckishly beautiful, and has experience in the fantasy/horror genre (Scream 2, Hellboy). My children were aghast. “Dad, you do know she’s almost forty, don’t you?” It was to no avail that I tried to point out that Gaiman’s fictional character was a good deal older than forty. Indeed, forty centuries would probably be a better measure. It didn’t matter. Death should have no wrinkles.
My son wanted to see Thora Birch (Ghost World, American Beauty) take on the part. Miss Birch is an impressive actress and I think she could bring both what my son calls “indie cred” and old-fashioned sex appeal to the part, but a large part of Death’s cachet is her appearance of waifish vulnerability. Miss Birch can certainly do vulnerable, but waifish she is not.
My daughter stood up for current Disney Channel queen Demi Lovato. Demi is dark, slender and very pretty, but she doesn’t have a hint of mystery about her. I was surprised that she didn’t mention fellow Disney protegée Selena Gomez. Selena has the same coloring as Miss Lovato, but she looks more like she could have a mysterious side. Of course, here we are talking about very young women with no track record outside the tightly programmed Disney teen market environment, but then former “Diz kids” like Reese Witherspoon and Hayden Panetierre have emerged from that environment and have established themselves well in the larger world.
Finally, this past week, I was able to catch a movie I had been wanting to see for some time; 500 Days Of Summer. The movie didn’t really live up to its hype. As a chronicle of post-modern relationships among the angsty twenty-something Belle and Sebastian set, I have seen better, but I thought the female lead, Zooey Deschanel, despite the obvious Glass family reference, deserved to be on any short list to play Gaiman’s heroine.
Anybody else with me?
I am no big fan of graphic novels. I find them less satisfying than books because of the peculiar way I read. It appears I process language directly off the printed page without subvocalization. IF the book is the right sort of book, and if I am in the right sort of mood, I merely open the book and watch the movie projected for me by my imagination on the frontal lobe of my brain. It is hard for a graphic novel to compete with that.
Unfortunately, that makes the better part of Neil Gaiman’s body of work inaccessible to me. Most people ask me, when they learn of my interest in Gaiman, how I liked the Sandman series, and I have to confess that I know very little about it. This is a major lacuna in my knowledge of fantastic literature and mythopoesis. With the possible exception of the Joss Whedon’s Buffyverse, Sandman is probably the best known and most beloved post-Tolkien legendarium out there.
Nevertheless, Mr. Gaiman has published some traditional novels. I read and enjoyed American Gods earlier this year. Neverwhere I was unable to finish because the male protagonist was so unappealing (honestly, he reminded me too much of myself). But Stardust, which appears to be his first novel, has completely enraptured me.
I am not enough of an authority on Gaiman to comment on what others have found in the book; that it is different from the rest of his works. It does lack the brooding melancholy that I found so deeply embedded in Coraline, Neverwhere, or American Gods, and so, it is a much brighter work than any of those others. Another thing I appreciated is the almost encyclopedic knowledge Gaiman commands over fantastic and folkloric themes. You know a falling star has to be a beautiful woman (Gabrielle Anwar as Ramandu’s daughter in the BBC version of Voyage of the Dawn Treader), you know that a ruthless king must have seven ambitious sons, of whom the youngest is the canniest and most relentless in his ambition, and you know that a boy inevitably must pass through fire and water to become a man.
The book was made into a movie, which I also enjoyed thoroughly. It was better than any other fantasy film I have ever seen, apart from Jackson’s Tolkien films. I preferred it to Willow, to Labyrinth, to Terry Gillam’s Baron Munchcausen, to either of the Narnia films, and even to The City of Lost Children, which is high praise indeed. Of course, I love Claire Danes, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Robert DeNiro, who I never would have believed as a cross-dressing pirate if I hadn’t seen it.
As an aside, there are fantasy movies which are unwatchable. Please avoid Eragon, The Golden Compass, and Inkheart. Take my word for it.
For an Orthodox Christian, I sometimes think I have altogether too much sympathy for other religious expressions, especially Taoism or Sufi’ism and others of that stripe which concentrate on the immanence of God. Pantheism is a continual temptation for me, so you can see where I would find neo-paganism attractive in the abstract; first, neo-paganism purports to be eco-friendly, venerating the biosphere, that Web of Exchange which is the living, breathing skein of our planet. Then, neo-paganism purports to honor Tradition and Ancestors, and I have always believed that anything built up by increments over millenia as a result of mostly unconscious impulses has to contain something of value, and anyway is always to be preferred to a system created by a group of Really Smart People using their brains to Figure Things Out. As an aside, Arturo Vasquez deftly captures something of what I want to say in a post of his, The Modern War Against Folk Religion. Take what he has to say to heart, all you people with the highly developed frontal lobes, the next time someone passes you on the highway with the Virgin of Guadalupe garishly splashed all over his back window, and remember the Wahabi.
However, on the ground, I am finding that “neo-paganism” is becoming a favorite feint of the “spiritual-but-not-religious” crowd, a means to continue their undiluted worship of their own reflections while avoiding the inevitable demands a god would make on them.
Now, Neil Gaiman strikes as close as any living writer I have read to the mythopoetic spirit of the Inklings (I haven’t yet read Tim Powers or Gene Scott). OK, so he’s a horror writer. To anybody who isn’t sufficiently anesthetized, our age must seem an unending horror. Indeed, I don’t think you could possibly write mythopoetic literature, have it accurately describe our present spiritual circumstances, and not descend into horror.
Nevertheless, Mr. Gaiman deftly dispenses with modern American Wicca/neo-paganism in this scene from American Gods. Please forgive the format. My daughter borrowed my copy and there obviously isn’t a soft-copy version of a best-selling current novel available for cutting and pasting. But thank God for books.google and FastStone Capture.
Mr. Gaiman, if you stumble across this insignificant blog, I invoke the Fair Use clause, and want to thank you for a fascinating and thought-provoking read.
Also, if you are a neo-pagan who has wandered in here and are offended, leave a message and let’s try to be friends.
In one sense, its a little misleading to speak about “successors” to the Inklings. The Inklings were not a self-conscious literary movement, and as far as I know, l there are no little coteries of academics gathering in a tavern on Saturday nights to drink and read excerpts from their works-in-progress. Would that it were so. Also, I think it is hard for us to appreciate how counter-cultural Tolkien, Lewis, and Williams were, writing and publishing tales of the fantastic when the literary world was dominated by modern realists, by the likes of Lawrence, Hemingway, and Joyce.
These days, though, writing fantastic literature appears to be a lucrative pursuit., and the bastard children of the Inklings appear to have swept the field. “Fantasy and Science Fiction” occupies a healthy percentage of my local Barnes and Nobel bookshop, even more if you add the two or three shelves of “graphic novels”/manga with which it is customarily bundled.
What hath Tolkien wrought? There is so much fantasy on the shelves that I wouldn’t know where to begin. Trilogies abound, of course, and a lot of them take place in a pre-Modern setting where the red iron of brutish trolls and tragic High Elves clash on darkening plains. There is so much of this that I haven’t read because I don’t know where to start. In the ‘seventies I read the Earthsea books by Ursula Le Guin and found them engaging. I yawned my way through the first Shanarra book by Terry Brooks and the first Thomas Covenant trilogy and found both of them tedious and uninteresting.
Nor do I think that the self-consciously Christian fantasy works that have belatedly crawled out of the Evangelical presses in Wheaton or Grand Rapids to sulk on the shelves next to Janette Oke’s prairie romances or the horrid Left Behind series will beget much in the way of mythopoeia. Sure, there are plenty of brutish Shadowghouls clashing with High Lightbearers on the Iron Plains of Bethania, but there is always a Lost Book of Hidden Wisdom that restores the Balance, or even worse, smites the agents of Darkness with the light that pours off its pages.
I think the problem with “Christian” fantasy is that Williams, Lewis, and Tolkien operated in the jagged edges of Christendom, whereas the modern Evangelical lacks that framework. “Christendom” as a political and geographical substance is great mythopoeia in its own right, and the fantastic works of Williams, Lewis, and Tolkien don’t make much sense apart from it.
There are three series I feel bad about not reading. The first is the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. I have heard much good about this series, but also I have heard that it rambles badly. If I read something that requires that much patience and effort, I’d prefer to start with the Gormenghast series by Melvyn Peake.
The Harry Potter books I haven’t gotten around to yet either, although I did read the first volume in His Dark Materials. From a philosophical point of view, Christians should be far more concerned about Pullman, who definitely has a bitter axe to grind, than they are about Rowland, who just wants to tell a good story.
Finally, I think Steven King as a mythopetic writer has been woefully underappreciated. I haven’t yet read his Dark Tower series but I believe I shall have to. I believe King, along with such writers as William Vollman, Walker Percy, Philip K. Dick, Cormac McCarthy, and even William Burroughs are participating in a project of which the Inklings would be proud; the mythopoesis of America.
Neil Gaiman, in American Gods, stumbled upon the main theme of this project; America is poor breeding ground for the supernatural. We have no myths. Our country is an abstraction, based not on blood or belief, but on a sort of least-common-denominator secular frame of exchange, and we don’t know our hills and our rivers from the inside yet like the Germans know the Rhine, the British the Thames, or the Central Europeans the Danube. The strength of the hills is not yet in us.