Wednesday, January 9, 2013

So What Makes Fantasy Literature Valuable?

       This piece is a response to a guest post in the website Mythic Scribes entitled Secrets of Fantasy Literature – Interview with Harry Potter Scholar John Granger
       I looked up John Granger's biography because he is obviously an academic.  While reading the article, I felt like I was back in graduate school, charged with preparing an exposition of I. A. Richards' Practical Criticism (I believe that was the title in question -- it's been a long time!)  I'm not sure such an approach is very accessible to the 19-year-old college freshman who has just read Tolkien and is inspired to write a fantasy novel, but I did find some interesting material here.      
The post opens as follows:
       "I think Mircea Eliade was right when he wrote that reading serves a mythic or religious function   in a secular society, which is to say that we read fiction in general because it offers us an escape from or transcendence of our ego existence.
       "I think we read fantasy literature because it, more than any other genre, is designed, if you will, for just that sort of persona transcendence. As Ralph Wood said, fantasy literature is not an escape from reality but a means of entering into it, our subjective existence being a relative delusion."
       In other words, fantasy provides a mythic function for a society that has rejected traditional dogmatic religions but is willing to accept traditional religious stories as myth (fantasy).  This may not be exactly what Granger meant, since it seems he is a Christian and I'm a spiritual humanist, but it certainly plays perfectly with my Mythmaker philosophy -- that (according to Precept No. 6) "The closest humans can attain to deity is the symbolism of myth and art."
       The interview then goes on to discuss how fantasy achieves the goal of achieving "not an escape from reality but a means of entering into it."  In fact, this question boils down to -- how do you write a good novel?  (The genre really doesn't matter.)  Granger mentions three things.  Two of them are givens for all fiction:  great plot, great characters.  I won't even discuss those. 
       I will quote the third requirement: "Artistry of the traditional sort — ring composition, literary alchemy, symbolism, soul triptych/diptych, etc. — that not only delivers meaning alongside the morality of the plot points but an experience of the meaning the reader has alongside the protagonist."
       Frankly, in reading this sentence several times and supplementing it with the subsequent paragraph, I don't especially get it.  Let me paraphrase what I think Granger means.  The writer should work within a realistic context, while utilizing symbolism, metaphor, and analogy, together with subtle literary structuring according to certain rules.  This helps the reader suspend disbelief and be carried along in an empathic relationship with the characters.  The reader can thus absorb the "moral" (the "mythic content," the underlying implications of the story) -- in a way that causes it to enter and become part of his or her consciousness -- "the reading heart."  Is that any clearer?
        So what is "this ring composition"?  It seems to me that it's really just parallelism (or even dramatic ironies) within the plot -- tying everything together and bringing things back to where they were at the beginning.  Let's use the ouroboros for an illustration -- the snake that eats its own tail.  (Remember E. R. Eddison's novel The Worm Ouroboros?)  In Granger's context this even has a "literary alchemy" function, since the ouroboros is an alchemical symbol. 
       Here is how Granger defines "soul triptych": including in the story three characters who represent "desires/passions, will/mind, and heart/spirit (what we call 'body, mind, and spirit')"  More on that in a minute.
       Being a Harry Potter scholar, Granger uses those books as examples.  But since this is my blog, I'm going to point out some examples of ring composition from my own book, The Termite Queen, and also talk about the "soul triptych" in that context (I have never written anything that includes his "literary alchemy" thing in it -- I don't get the point of that unless your book is about the kind of magic that uses alchemy).  My main premise here will be that I suspect very few writers sit down to write a book and first say to themselves, "Now how am I going to make this circular?   And I must be sure to have characters that represent body, mind, and spirit."  That certainly is not how I think.  I rarely think in terms of literary theory, although I certainly studied it back in my higher-education days.  I have an idea -- an inspiration -- and I just start writing.  It has to come out the way it wants to come out, or it won't come out at all.
       Strangely enough, The Termite Queen actually exhibits the quality of ring composition.  Three events in the book mirror one another, one near the beginning, one at the big climax at the end of Part III, and one right at the end.  (If I tell you what these events are, I'll be playing the spoiler!)  It seemed natural to do it that way.  Other incidents and events mirror each other throughout the book and foreshadow each other -- the emphasis on the concept of forgiveness, for example, and the discussion of ancient religious values.  I think I did pretty well in unwittingly creating an ouroboros!
       What did I do about a "soul triptych"?  I have to say, I don't think I have that.  I can't say, Kaitrin is mind, Gwidian is body, Kwi'ga'ga'tei the Shshi Seer is spirit.  I suppose you could divide it that way, but it's too simplistic.  Kaitrin finds her sensual side during the course of her relationship with Gwidian, and her spiritual side in the way she copes in Part IV.  Gwidian holds all three aspects within himself, although we can't see that that until near the end of the book.  Kwi'ga'ga'tei is both mind and spirit but hardly body.  And then there is Mo'gri'ta'tu. He fits only as a personification of evil.  I think any story where a character is too rigidly tied to one aspect of this triptych is going to be shallow and lack satisfying complexity and ambiguity.
       So what does all this amount to?  My advice to beginning fantasy writers is to produce a well-written book with a soundly constructed plot and great characters -- a book with something complex to say that is portrayed not overtly and moralistically but through metaphor and ambiguity (almost as if the book were poetry).  This is what myth does, and fantasy writers are constructing the myths for a modern age.
       Or, as John Granger says at the end of his interview, "If you just like dragons and swords, well, I guess there is a place for that, too"!
[Illustration from Wikimedia Commons: "Ouroboros drawing from a late medieval Byzantine Greek alchemical manuscript"]

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