Tag Archives: tolkien

Still Thinking About Walking

Back in December 2012, I wrote about reading Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways: A Journey On Foot, and commented then on how few women walkers there seemed to be; how few women seem to casually drop things and wander off to walk in the way that Macfarlane does. They seem either tied to a very small piece of ground (Nan Shepherd – walking into the landscape rather than across or out of it) or else emphasis is laid on their singleness (i.e. the implied freedom to move around) and their interactions with men as they travel (I was struck by this in the readings of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild I heard on the radio, but it is an old, old trope).

This morning, reading Kathryn Schulz’s New Yorker review of Helen Macdonald’s award-winning H Is For Hawk, it occurred to me that there is another aspect to this, and that’s illness – in particular, grief. Or, rather, in Macdonald’s case, as a falconer, she has always been able to walk the landscape on her own, with the hawk on her wrist as a spurious indicator of authority for her right to be there. But it is her father’s death and her grieving over that death, embodied in her decision to train a goshawk, that grants her ‘permission’ to write about it.

I read the book over Christmas and liked it very much. I will write about it at some point, I’m sure, but for now, I’ll say only that my reading was not framed exclusively in terms of of Macdonald’s struggling with grief to a level that seems almost irrational to anyone who hasn’t experienced it, and so far I have not (although, undeniably, this is in part what Macdonald wrote about). Instead, I saw it more in terms of the discipline of training a goshawk imposing some sort of shape to Macdonald’s life at a point when she had few other anchors. And yes, by Macdonald’s own admission, there is a point where she recognises that she has in some way gone feral, but to me it’s significant that she can see this and act upon it.

Yet Schulz frames this element of the book in terms of ‘coming home’.

Macdonald’s story has a different ending. One day, crouching over a rabbit she has just killed, feeling like “an executioner after a thousand deaths,” she comes to see that she has been travelling with her hawk not further from grief but further from life. Scared by her own numbness and darkness, she begins to seek help: from loving relatives, attentive friends, modern psychopharmacology—all the advantages she had that White did not. Slowly, her grief starts to lift. As it does, she finds that she disagrees with Merlyn and Muir. “The wild is not a panacea for the human soul,” she writes. “Too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.” All along, she had wanted to be her hawk: fierce, solitary, inhuman. Instead, she now realizes, “I was the figure standing underneath the tree at nightfall, collar upturned against the damp, waiting patiently for the hawk to return.” Her father, she knows, will never rejoin the human world. But she can. Like a figure in a myth who followed a hawk to the land of the dead, Macdonald turns around and comes home.

There is a delicate path to be traced through this, because on the one hand, Macdonald knows better than any of us what it she experienced, and I cannot and must not presume to understand her grief better than she does. On the other hand, I found myself bridling somewhat at Schulz’s ‘comes home’. Perhaps it’s because I’ve come to believe that you never can come ‘home’, because ‘home’ is always behind you. Where you arrive is not where you left, even if it looks the same, because you are not the same. Tolkien may put those famous words, ‘Well, I’m back’, into the mouth of Sam Gamgee, but ‘back’ implies that everything is precisely as he left it, whereas we know that it is anything but. Not all the restoration in the world can alter that fact.

To me it seems that to recognise that ‘The wild is not a panacea for the human soul’, as Macdonald does, is not the same as to reject it, something I don’t think she does. But home? With all the connotations that carries? I wonder.

I found myself thinking of Margery Kempe, the fourteenth-century mystic. she was an extraordinary woman, famed for her impassioned weeping. No wonder she wept. The mother of fourteen children, some of whom may have survived to adulthood, she clearly experienced at least one episode of post-natal depression, possibly more. She experienced visions, which she, being illiterate, persuaded someone to write down for her. She sought a chaste marriage with her husband, and travelled extensively on pilgrimages, and also to visit the other mystics of her times. Should we think of her as someone who sought to come home, or who carried on travelling?

Another book out recently is Katharine Norbury’s The Fish Ladder: A Journey Upstream, in which Norbury begins a walking project in order to assuage her grief after the loss of a much-wanted child because of a miscarriage. Again, the walk is framed as a project to ameliorate a feeling rather than as something that exists as a thing in and of itself. Can the walk only be justified because it has an ulterior, distracting purpose?

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Archive – The Secret History of Fantasy – Peter S Beagle

The Secret History of Fantasy
Peter S. Beagle, ed., Tachyon, 377pp, pb

To title an anthology The Secret History of Fantasy is a bold move, not least because I am not convinced that the history of fantasy is so much secret as obscure; this is a fine distinction, but there is a difference nonetheless. In part, it is obscure because fantasy is so difficult to define. It is easy enough to point to a work of science fiction and label it as such, even when sf comes in so many forms. The science fiction genre almost invariably retains distinct edges; they may become vague in places, a little scuffed or trampled down, but it is still possible to draw a working division between what is science fiction and what is not.

With fantasy, the task is not so easily accomplished. Is it fantasy if the story remains within ‘our’ world, or must the story be set in a secondary world? Can there be free traffic between this world and that, or does that undermine the veracity of the fantasy? Magical realism? Interstitial? The definitions and distinctions pile up but never really satisfy, and the arguments continue. Perhaps, and this is the other reason why I believe the history of fantasy is obscure rather than actually secret, we should recognise that there is no single evolutionary chronology of fantasy. Instead, it is as though we are engaged in an endless process of rediscovering stories that have always been there, along with a continual redefining of those stories; to the best of my knowledge, urban fantasy has been reinvented at least three times during the last forty years, and looks very different to how I remember it in the 1980s, while the  slipstream/interstitial tango continues to provoke argument. And over all this argument looms the spectre of Tolkien, whose extraordinary narrative, The Lord of the Rings, accidentally created a genre

People either forget or indeed never knew that there was a very rich seam of the overtly fantastic present in mainstream fiction before Tolkien began publishing. After The Lord of the Rings became widely available in paperback editions, publishers were keen to exploit this new reading market. Ian Ballantine, in partnership with the irrepressible Lin Carter, began the  Adult Fantasy series, which brought an eclectic range of material from the likes of E.R. Eddison, William Morris and Lord Dunsany back into print, while introducing new authors such as Katherine Kurtz and Peter S. Beagle. They were marked as being ‘like Tolkien’, which they were insofar as they also contained elements of fantasy.

The Adult Fantasy series was ideal for the experimental reader, but as Peter S. Beagle notes, in the introduction to The Secret History of Fantasy, there were who simply wanted more Tolkien rather than more like Tolkien. He tells the chilling story of how Judy-Lynn Del Rey gave him the manuscript of The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks, hoping he would say a few appreciative words about it. Beagle quickly realised that Brooks’ novel was a blatant rip-off of Lord of the Rings which Del Rey acknowledged, saying ‘This one’s for people who’ve read the Tolkien book forty times, and can’t quite get it up for the forty-first – but they still want the mixture as before.’ At this point, Beagle suggests, fantasy writing was transformed into systematic production, and irrevocably changed.

The Secret History of Fantasy stands as a reminder that while fantasy is now a commodity, some writers still write stories which do not fit the generic template, though the markets remain limited. The acknowledgements page shows that while half of these stories were published in genre magazines, the others appeared in a variety of markets, reflecting the former eclecticism of mainstream publications where fantasy was concerned.

This collection avoids becoming an exercise in nostalgia because the stories are presented without much in the way of historical or theoretical positioning. Context, such as it is, comes from articles by Ursula K. Le Guin and David Hartwell, recapitulating the history of fantasy publishing, and the critical reception of fantasy by mainstream critics. This is familiar ground and both essays seem slightly detached, perhaps because they are reprinted from elsewhere. I would have preferred a more direct engagement between stories and commentary, something to develop the argument.

Likewise, we learn nothing about the authors other than their names. Most have published in genre markets; those, like Yann Martel, Aimee Bender and T.C. Boyle, who are published in the mainstream are recognised for their offbeat stories. The stories do indeed remind us that there is a greater variety to fantasy than many suppose but there are no surprises for the wide-ranging reader. The stories offer a wide range of subjects and settings, yet there are certain similarities. Something fantastically unquantifiable irrupts in the contemporary world (Stephen King’s ‘Mrs Todd’s Shortcut’ falls into this category, as does Kij Johnson’s ’26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss’) or else a fairytale trope is vigorously reworked (Francesca Lia Block’s ‘Bones’ and Neil Gaiman’s ‘ Snow, Glass, Apples’ are two examples). What all these stories have in common is a distinctive ‘tone’. The narration is generally measured; the stories themselves are deeply layered and open-ended. The reader is given a series of story pieces (sometimes blatantly, as in Steven Millhauser’s ‘The Barnum Museum’, with its distinctly postmodernist assembling of observations; sometimes more subtly, as in Terry Bisson’s ‘Bears Discover Fire’) which they must put together to produce a story. The narrative spreads far beyond the visible words on the page. Some may suggest that we are now talking about ‘literary’ fiction, the place where fantasy goes for respectability but that is an argument for another day.

In the end, The Secret History of Fantasy is nothing more or less than a showcase for a particular kind of fantasy, which is neither secret nor historical, just not immediately visible if you don’t know where to look. To me, reading the collection was rather like catching up with a much-valued friend. I enjoyed it immensely, and it is well worth reading, but it confirmed my tastes rather than challenging them. I hope other readers may find it eye-opening, inspiring even, but I remain obscurely disappointed.

Things I read on the internet – week ending 18/1/2014

Russell Hoban – The Mouse and His Child: moving metaphysics for kids

George Orwell explains in a revealing 1944 letter why he’d write 1984

In the Los Angeles Review of Books, Andrea Hairston reviews Paradoxa 25, Africa SF, ed. Mark Bould

Paul Kincaid discusses Frankenstein and Sherlock Holmes at Big Other.

And to go with it, Lynd Ward’s illustrations for Frankenstein, courtesy of John Coulthart at [feuilleton].

Also via John Coulthart, a link to a performance of Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach.

Republic of the Moon is an arts project currently ensconced at the Barge House, Oxo Tower Wharf in London. One component of this exhibition takes as its inspiration Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone, in which, famously, a traveller goes to the moon in a vehicle drawn by geese. There is more information about Agnes Meyer-Brandis’s work here.

I have a rather odd interest in the inappropriate use of dangerous substances. I swear I once saw an advert for radium toothpaste, and I try not to think about what was in the paint on the toys I chewed as a child. So, radioactive toys (which is not entirely as awful as it sounds).

The latest instalment of ‘which European nation really got to Australia first’ features a rather adorable kangaroo. It’s almost too good to be true, it looks so convincing.

Long-time readers of this blog will know I have a thing about paper sculpture. Here, a model of Smaug emerging from The Hobbit.

A new biography of Tove Jansson, author of the Moomin books.

Orson Welles’ film of Kafka’s The Trial

Jeff Wayne and David Essex: how we made War of the Worlds (and I bet, if you’re of a certain age, the chords are all crashing through your brain)

Extraordinary black and white photos of superstorms.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s own Alice illustrations

Via kuriositas, a French sea serpent

2013 Philip K Dick Award nominees announced

And finally, John Coulthard (who seems to be taking up residence here this week) has a nice post on [feuilleton] about illustrations for The Angel of the Revolution by George Griffiths.