Monday, March 8, 2010


As part of my quest to distinguish myself from other fiction writers, I've been teaching myself about the fantasy fiction created before The Lord of the Rings showed up and changed everything. You see, as much as I appreciate the epic scope and mastery of Tolkien's work, dragging myself through the books before seeing the movies (mind you, I was in my early teens at the time) really took its toll on me. I admit: I'm not much of a fan of LotR. I was bored by the lengthy descriptions of the landscapes, and was monotonously depressed by the doom and gloom of The Return of the King in particular. It was hard to trudge through, and it certainly wasn't pleasant feeling pretty much the same way Sam and Frodo did on their journey to Mordor. I just wanted it to end. In fact, I don't plan to read them again, and I'm perfectly satisfied with the extended cuts of the films.

If there's one thing that gets my goat, it's the fact that most fantasy writers don't really care, or worse, know about anything beyond Tolkien's work and maybe some of the other things made into movies, TV shows, and cartoons. When one thinks of the word "fantasy", they usually picture something resembling Dungeons and Dragons. No one really likes the elves we associate with Santa Claus and a certain poor shoemaker, and the tall, mysterious, and holier-than-thou Tolkien elves have pretty much replaced them. The same goes with hobgoblins: Tolkien himself knew that hobgoblins were originally smaller, more benign versions of goblins, but he had already made them larger and meaner than regular goblins inThe Hobbit- so despite being renamed Uruk-hai, a lot of people treat hobgoblins as if they were bigger.

My problem is that for some bizarre reason a lot of people feel its necessary to similarly reinvent what has already been fully developed in folklore and mythology, such as the fairies shaped like beetles and flowers in The Spiderwick Chronicles, the lumpy bat-like dragon in Zemeckis' Beowulf, and of course the pretty boy sparkly vampires of Twilight. Even Harry Potter commits a minor offense by making boggarts unfriendly shapeshifters instead of the household nuisance they originally were. See, I don't see why anyone would bother making these sort of things any different when they're perfectly fine already... if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Mass culture, world culture and all the knowledge in the world is so easy to access that traditional mythology has been set in stone, because after so many millennia of being developed and refined without anyone's awareness, we can finally map out how it evolved and where it wound up. Any changes we make now is self-conscious.

I don't think this means that mythological creatures and other elements are limited in their possibilities. It means that there are certain ground rules that we've come to expect, but that doesn't mean we can't juggle and play around with what's been established. Personally, I think if you're going to add something new to what's been done already, it's better to fill in the gaps rather than change something entirely. A simple example follows: what would happen if a vampire and a werewolf crossed paths? This simple question has opened up many, many possibilities, and that's just because it hadn't been explored before. In fiction, it's not what the thing IS, it's what you DO with that thing.

Another good example is to realize that it's unrealistic to assume that every member of a certain species is inherently good or evil. They would have certain tendencies, but I like to think that any intelligent creature can have as many diverse personalities as a human. I mean, why not have an evil unicorn? Okay, maybe that's kinda obvious and stupid, but you get my point, right?

What I'm really saying here is that I'm a traditionalist, and I dislike it when writers make absurd changes to a fantasy creature or other motifs by disregarding their previous natures or making some bizarre additions. I don't have any proof, but I blame Tolkien for that trend. I don't really care for his version of elves or dwarves, and much prefer to return to what they were before. In fact, I prefer spelling it as "dwarfs", and I intend to skip tall uppity elves altogether since Tolkien's essay on the subject amounted to "I just like them better that way". I'm having a hard time figuring out whether or not anyone uses "elfs", though.

One exception I'll make, though, is Brian Froud, 'cause I like his book The Goblins of Labyrinth way too much. I don't care too much about his fairies (or "faeries", as he likes to call them) and elves, though, and I certainly think he has the completely wrong idea about Alice in Wonderland (which I've read, by the way).

Since my introduction to fantasy as a child comes from Disney films, The Secret of NIMH, other cartoons, a couple of fanciful encyclopedic books, and whatever random children's book I came across but didn't read, I've come to like anything with talking animals in it (although I admit to being only somewhat acquainted with the Redwall series). I enjoyed The Chronicles of Narnia a lot more than LotR (I read those before seeing the films as well). My first serious dive into pre-Tolkien fantasy was during high school, which was my mother's doing- always the literary type. I read or listened to translations of Gilgamesh, The Iliad, The Odyssey, about half of The Aeneid, and Beowulf. I enjoyed The Odyssey a lot better than The Iliad, mainly because Achilles is a self-centered, chest-beating jerk who hardly does anything, and I can see much more storytelling trends in The Odyssey. I liked Beowulf best of all. I dunno what was wrong with the translation of The Aeneid, but it was dreadfully boring. Later, I got through Dante's Inferno and Purgatorio. Epic poems can be pretty darn cool, I admit.

More recently, I've introduced myself to the works of Charles Perrault, Hans Christian Andersen, and of course The Brothers Grimm, who did just about every folk and fairy tale you've ever heard of. It's always a riot to see how tame the Disney versions are in comparison, of course... and I also read a near-complete collection of Aesop's fables. Hans Christian Andersen has been very appealing to me, especially as a Christian. I guess it's sort of part of my quest to revive my childhood, since that sort of thing makes up a large part of the roots of it all...

I've begun reading a book called Irish Myths and Legends, and I got through the first installment of the Greek tragedy The Oresteia, "Agamemnon". I'm thinking of going on to the other folk tale collections in our library after reading Perrault, Andersen, and Grimm, the rest of The Oresteia (which relates to a specific project of mine) and other works related to the Trojan War, The Divine Comedy's final installment Paradisio, and maybe Arthurian legends. I might reread Beowulf, which is very rare for me to do, as I almost never reread fiction. In fact, I'm not so sure if I want to reread the Harry Potter series, although I enjoyed The Tales of Beedle the Bard immensely.

Somewhat ironically, I enjoy the pop culture versions of the fantasy genre seen in video games and cartoons more than the deadly serious post-Tolkien novels of the 20th century and today. To me, they seem more creative. For one thing, instead of messing around with the old stuff, they usually create NEW creatures and myths, and add the appeal of exploring. I especially like 8-bit Zelda games. I've come to really like the musical subgenre power metal recently, with bands like Divinefire, Blind Guardian, and Rhapsody of Fire. I think I mainly became interested because I was looking for Christian bands who played that style. And hey, a metalhead cross between Queen, Yngwie Malmsteen, and a Renaissance Faire certainly must kick dragon butt, right?

My goal here is to learn as much as I can about the classic mythology, folklore, and fantasy that came before Tolkien in order to detach myself from what he brought to the genre and revive at least a part of what made fantasy what it was then, taking into account the noncontradictory additions that people have come to expect after Tolkien as well. After all, what sort of fool would I be if didn't make my werewolves look more like they do in Van Helsing and made them look like Lon Chaney Jr. instead? I admit, some modern modifications have improved such things for the better. Generally, though, if the common folk or the scholarly literate thought of such creatures in a certain way, I prefer to think of them that way, too.

I dub this viewpoint "Pre-Tolkienism". Compare it to the Pre-Raphaelite movement, which is what inspired the term.

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