The Silmarillion and Writing Fantasy
I started reading The Silmarillion, and in so doing I’ve been reminded of the singular vision of Tolkien. The introduction to the book, written by Christopher Tolkien, includes a letter J.R.R. wrote to his publisher in which he summarizes the content of The Silmarillion and goes into a little detail about his philosophy behind the crafting of it. As he says, he detests allegory, but his work is wholly Christian in spirit. His is a myth which springs from not only his love of the mythologies of Teutonic and Nordic cultures, but also and primarily from his love of “the True Myth”, the Biblical account of Creation and its Creator. It’s a beautiful piece of work, and I look forward to those opportunities when I can sit down and spend more time with it. Most of the time, I tend away from writing fantasy because I have a hard time escaping the notion that It’s All Been Done - Tolkien and Lewis did it best, in my opinion, and there are other big names that I enjoy (Lieber, Howard, Beagle, Le Guin, Alexander, King, Gaiman, and Smith), but when it comes to putting pen to paper and creating something of my own, I can’t help but feel derivative. I daresay the bulk of printed fantasy out there is either trying to emulate Tolkien (some more obviously and openly than others) or is trying to recreate historical Europe with modern-day sensibilities. Facing the former, well, Tolkien already did it; why try to create something that, at best, would only be remembered as a shadow of a greater work? Facing the latter, why manufacture something that could never be as varied, colorful, intriguing, internally consistent and accessible as real history, or the historical world? I originally chose to focus on historical fiction and historical fantasy because I was already quite interested in history, and I came to that latter conclusion: why write a story set in the Kingdom of Pretendia and try to make readers feel the impact and importance of that when I could write about Camelot, and everyone would already know what I’m talking about, at least to enough of a degree to make an emotional impact. I also feel as though I do creative work better when I have a foundation to build upon, a framework around which to construct my story. I don’t know if this is a byproduct of playing roleplaying games for most of my life or if it’s something I was already predisposed to do, but I suspect I have a better time of it when I’m creating characters and situations that take place in a setting that’s already been described to me than I do when trying to create a setting out of whole cloth. Either this means that I have a future of writing historical fiction, or of writing game fiction (which I think I fear more for the stigma of it and the poor quality I’ve seen in some of it), or of writing other people’s comics (which may be what I do for a career after all, if I happen to get a job with DC), or it may mean that I simply need to find a way to think outside of this box.
One of the things that started me upon this train of thought was something that Tolkien said in his letter. He was explaining that he wanted to create a myth for his own people, the English; something that wasn’t a product of one of the many cultures which invaded the British Isles over its history, but something which it could truly call of its own native culture:
“There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish (which greatly affected me); but nothing English, save improvised chap-book stuff. Of course there was and is all the Arthurian world, but powerful as it is, it is imperfectly naturalized, associated with the soil of Britain but not with English; and does not replace what I felt to be missing. For one thing, its ‘faerie’ is too lavish, and fantastical, incoherent and repetitive. [Here’s the part that really got my attention:] For another and more important thing, it is involved in, and explicitly contains the Christian religion. For reasons which I will not elaborate, that seems to me fatal. Myth and fairy-story must, as all art, reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error), but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary ‘real’ world. (I am speaking, of course, of our present situation, not of ancient pagan, pre-Christian days. And I will not repeat what I tried to say in my essay, which you read). [Referring, I think, to his essay “On Fairy-Stories”]”
Anyway, he goes on to describe some of this reflection, how his tales reflect the themes of the Fall, Mortality, and what he calls The Machine, the use of ability and innate talent with the corruptive motive of domination.
These thoughts, then, have started me thinking afresh on the writing of fantasy. I can’t deny that it’s long been a desire of mine, and I certainly love to read good fantasy. When I think of the stories that have moved me the most, they tend to be of the fantasy genre; the Romantic blood that runs through them has a strong effect on me. After reading Tolkien’s thoughts on creating Middle-Earth (and thus being reminded of Lewis’s thoughts on writing Narnia and the Space Trilogy), I think I’ve felt a reawakening of that old desire, especially given the importance that they both placed on fantasy; I don’t think it would be a misappropriation of their statements to say that they stressed society’s need for fantasy. Not to mention, as I’ve said to Michael Slusser in our discussions on this topic, it’s not as though no one else is writing (and selling) fantasy. Even if we don’t do it, other people will.
I guess that leaves the next obvious question: how do I write good fantasy?
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