Thursday, December 1, 2011

Fantasy, Lite

At the risk of becoming one of those people who gets sniffy every time Tolkien is mentioned in the mainstream media, I'm going to take a minute to look at this New Yorker article by Adam Gopnik. Which isn't actually about Tolkien; as far as I can tell, it's an attempt to explain the popularity of Christopher Paolini, into which Tolkien is awkwardly interjected. Of course Paolini is influenced by Tolkien; he is, as you would expect from a writer who began his series as a teenager, influenced by virtually every piece of fantasy and science fiction he ever read. But, superficial points aside, is there an actual basis for comparison? Paolini has the same relationship to Tolkien that caffeine-free diet soda has to the caffeinated, sugared variety: everything that makes it what it is has been taken out. Considering Tolkien through the lens of his imitators is inevitably going to diminish what makes his work different. Focusing on Paolini, and to a lesser extent Stephenie Meyer, also means the article flirts with treating The Lord of the Rings as a similar young-adult saga, even though it manifestly isn't.

Considering which, the key thing about the article is that it isn't too bad. There are problems, of course, or we wouldn't be here. We're told that The Silmarillion and The Children of Hurin are early works, which is of course an oversimplification: depending on which texts you're looking at, they're early, they're late, they're contemporaneous with The Lord of the Rings. The context in which they're called early is the interesting part; they're distinguished from The Lord of the Rings because they lack "Hobbits and humors and pipe-smoking wizards" and are "as dull as dishwater in consequence." The irony is that the earliest version of The Silmarillion has a frame story that, while hardly a counter-balancing social comedy like Hobbiton, is more immediate and human than the later approach that of necessity won out in constructing the published text. That both The Silmarillion and The Children of Hurin are, despite the existence of editorially-managed continuous versions, incomplete is also something Gopnik doesn't mention or consider.

But none of that really matters, and one can hardly argue the general point that for a lot of readers The Silmarillion as it stands is less interesting than The Lord of the Rings because of the absence of "lovable local detail." (One might, however, demur from the notion that J. K. Rowling's invented world is anything like "Tolkien's sword-and-sorcery realm," or that Tolkien's realm has anything to do with what's usually called sword-and-sorcery. All fantasy is not pretty much the same thing.) More important is this:
Modernist ambiguity, or realist emotional ambivalence, is unknown to Tolkien—the good people are very good, the bad people very bad, and though occasionally a character may be tossed between good and evil, like Gollum, it is self-interest, rather than conscience, that makes him tip back and forth. Betrayal and temptation happen; inner doubts do not. Gandalf and Aragorn never say, as even the most patriotic real-world general might, “I don’t know which side I should be on, or, indeed, if any side is worth taking.” Nor does any Mordor general stop to reflect, as even many German officers did, on the tension between duty and morality: there are no Hectors, bad guys we come to admire, or Agamemnons, good guys we come to deplore. (Comic-book moralities, despite their reputation, are craftier; the “X-Men” series is powerful partly because it’s clear that, if you and I were mutants, we would quite possibly side with the evil Magneto.)
That's a little better than an absolute denial of moral depth, but not much so; in the fundamentals it's no different from the usual response you get when readers of psychologically realistic fiction bounce off Tolkien's epic morality. Several things might be said in response: that in a novel about the seductive nature of power, self-interest is not readily separable from conscience; that Frodo's failure, a vital part of the novel's moral structure and not reducible to "self-interest," hasn't even been mentioned; that talk about who "we" do or don't come to admire or deplore is an act of projection. The underlying problem is that some readers confuse the style by which moral complexity is conveyed in twentieth-century literary fiction with the substance of that complexity. That the tragedy of Boromir is not described in interior monologue doesn't mean it doesn't exist, or that it isn't part of the appeal of the novel. The absence of a debate about the morality of takings sides in a particular invented war is not the absence of morality.

Eventually, after some mockery of the Inheritance Saga, we get the explanation of the appeal of fantasy:
And the truth is that most actual mythologies and epics and sacred books are dull. Nothing is more wearying, for readers whose tastes have been formed by the realist novel, than the Elder Edda. Yet the spell such works cast on their audience wasn’t diminished by what we find tedious. The incantation of names is, on its own, a powerful literary style. The enchantment the Eragon series projects is not that of a story well told but that of an alternative world fully entered. You sense that when you hear a twelve-year-old describe the books. The gratification comes from the kid’s ability to master the symbols and myths of the saga, as with those eighty-level video games, rather than from the simple absorption of narrative.
 It's not so much that that's objectionable, although there are young adult fantasies that don't deserve to be treated as mere exercises in world-building, or that it's inaccurate, although I'm not inclined to take someone who writes with such anthropological distance as an expert on how kids read. It's that, as an explanation, it's utterly banal. Fantasy is unrealistic but people respond to the depth of the mythology-- this is an insight worthy of four pages in The New Yorker? It's like writing an article on Cubism whose big insight is that Picasso actually meant his paintings to look that way. The young-adult spin, that books like Eragon and Twilight provide typical adolescent struggles plus a light gloss of magical wish fulfillment, is equally unprofound. This, I suppose, is what gets on my nerves: that in 2011 the audience of a putatively intellectual magazine still needs to be told that fantasy isn't purely juvenile escapism, that it has some connection to the real world. An article like this should be an elaboration of the complicated appeal of fantasy, not a basic look at how the other half reads. The argument Gopnik makes ought to go without saying.

(By the way, is Huckleberry Finn really "a narrative whose purpose is to push the hero toward a moment of moral crisis?" I rather doubt it.)

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