mardi 26 juin 2012

Three Generations of Fantasy

One may say with some confidence that the writing of what in bookstores and libraries and book reviews is called fantasy falls broadly into 3 generations : XIXth C. aestheticism is first, then the generation that knew the Cross, but not always the Cross of Christ, third is the generation of playing around with fantasy conventions.

Obviously there are overlaps. I would place Mervin Peake into the first two excluding only the third, and I would place Lloyd Alexander in the latter two, excluding only the first.

Now more typical products of the third are things like Xanth and Incarnations of Immortality, by Pierce Anthony, Good Omen and Colour of Magic (or all of the Discworld series) by Pratchett and, more than anything else today, outpassing even Dark Materials (which is untypical and in fact an atheist reaction to the second generation, more particularly CSL), Harry Potter by Rowling.

I happen to be personally allergic to Harry Potter. I am therefore not qualified to make a sober criticism of it, and especially of its magic content. I am allergic to it for quite other reasons than spells, and that is the fact that it is a boarding school story. A story in which people who are supposed to be good scheme to give some « rotter » a lesson he needs, and in which bad people, supposedly worse than the good ones, scheme to give lessons to someone who is in fact not a rotter. Maybe because he is not a rotter. And of course the mistake, good guys thinking they are giving a lesson to a rotter and finding out he is not a rotter (I read one such story before I went to boarding school, I think it happens to Harry Potter too, but since I am allergic to boarding school stories, I am not quite sure, I have not checked out. I think C. S. Lewis, who suffered even more, at least directly, at boarding school than I, would have understood my aversion quite well. Whether he would have shared it or not. I am quite as allergic to the story I read before going to boarding school, or to the boarding school stories of Enid Blyton, much as I love her Famous Five series or X of Adventure (for X insert island, mountain, river, ship … et c. in title). Since that is the case, I will NOT offer my opinions on Harry Potter and magic in those. Literarily, it belongs to the third generation, insofar as magic in it is often used for purposes of farce, of buffoonery.

I will tell you of stories I did read and partly enjoy which include spells. Earthsea. By Ursula LeGuin. The stories take spells much more seriously, I think, than Harry Potter, but do not divulge them. I read those, or the first two – Wizard of Earthsea and Tombs of Atuan, I thought the third one was too bleak in outlook to really enjoy it. I will add I read those before my baptism. I have not reread them after with same relish.

It is basically about « the cross » or rather burden of being a shaman. It is in a way lived -according to that book – similarily to carrying the cross of very holy and snatching souls back from the devil kind of priesthood. Ged is harrassed, all through the first book nearly, by a demon « as much as » St John Mary Vianney and Padre Pio were. That is not true. The Christian priests suffered in more security, in a way, but they suffered much much more and longer. But Ged was harrassed, and his solution is very much other than that of the Christian men, indeed it is shocking. He got rid of demonic harrassment by renaming the demon Ged, his own name.

The Holy Curate of Ars and Padre Pio never finally got rid of demonic harrassment, until they died, but always could get rid of it as soon as needed by invoking Christ.

That said, Earthsea is clearly second generation, but Harry Potter third generation, insofar as my division has any validity. Before going into first and further into second generation, let is take what little I still have to say on third generation : Pratchett I never read, Pierce Anthony I ceased reading at my Catholic conversion. There are in any of his novels passages best described as pornographic, though one would politely call them erotic now, whereas pornography is now reserved for a cruder style which did not exist back when « erotic novels » meant novels about being in love without going graphic or explicit.

Now unto first generation. William Morris wrote on House of the Wolfings in a way, and Lord Dunsany much more so on Gods of Pegana, both of which count as fantasy, for the same reason that Rider Haggard and E. Rice Burroughs wrote on exotic and quasi-Babylonic places left standing in novels like She or Jewels of Opar, or for the same reason that Oscar Wilde wrote The Ghost of Canterville or salomé or that Jules Verne wrote about at the time not yet possibly high tech submarines manned by a heavily misanthropic but somehow still very wellclad and wellkemped Captain Nemo or similar steampunk and exploration novels. Lovecraft also clearly plays around with aesthetics, horror and ugliness being part of its subject. Miskatonic University verging on Cthulhu is as much a work of twisted art (the authors would not have minded the word twisted), as a Castle in Transylvania is for Bram Stoker.

And this Bram Stoker, usually classed as « Gothic » rather than fantasy, brings us to the fact that the Cross of Christ was not quite unknown even in the XIXth C. Even after Darwin, Marx, Engels and Frazer changed the intellectual outlook of English Bourgeoisie on Christianity.

« Crux Christi sit mihi lux – Non draco sit mihi dux » is nearly the main theme of Dracula – a novel ending with the vampire receiving Communion, although it was post mortem and a few centuries late, and dissolving peacefully. Unfortunately – I will come back to it – it is not well executed. The other great non-Pagan was of course George MacDonald, a unitarian parson. Admired by G. K. Chesterton, by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien and by C. S. Lewis.

If the novels of Gilbert Keith Chesterton are more alternative reality or even steampunk, except in reverse, as predicting a future with less steam engines and less big bureaucracies (a thing he fought to bring about in reality as an essay writer too), JRRT and CSL are clearly the second generation : the fantasy writers who knew the Cross. And, in their case, it is really the Cross of Christ that they knew. Accordingly, sorcerers, witches, anything dealing with spells are not looked kindly on in their novels.

Uncle Andrew is just possibly not as clearly damned, but that is because he was so failed as a magician. Anything that can be labelled necromancy is clearly and heavily damned and condemned in those works, as surely as contracts with the devil are so. Koriakin (Voyage of the Dawn Treader) is not a human, and he is doing penance. Merlin (That Hideous Strength) is risking his soul, and his life is theologically or at least canonically and pastorally speaking in ruins anyway. The solution is other than at the end of Shakespear's last play, where the mage – a human in the end – is saved by breaking his magic staff, but the spirit of it is the same : if there is public that finds reading about magic in stories exciting, let the magicians be anything except humans doing a good thing. Non-human, damned, risking damnation. And of course avoid all that can clearly be seen or used as instructions in magic.

Now, since magic is not the protagonist of either Narnia or Eriador, of either CSL or JRRT, what is ? Mortals and immortals, fighting evil on a cosmic as well as on a military scale. And whose moral failures tend to endanger the victory, and whose moral victories aid the victory of the good.

In a way though badly executed that is true of the novel about Dracula too. Every person who gets vampyrised by him endangers other persons further. Every person can also avoid being vampirised by staying in the state of grace. In that way, Bram Stoker furthers Catholic morality. But as he executes this badly, alas he does not : he makes Dracula so much more impressive than any protagonist, including van Helsing as he appears in the novel, that the reader risks getting vampirised morally.

Christ is the hero, but he is not shining forth, for most of the novel, he is so absent as a person : He appears on the Crucifix, He appears in the Host, but he is not quite morally present as our Loving Saviour. In a way that is a point : evil often looks more impressive and looms larger in our lives than God. And still there is another reason, which is known to those who wrote the novel : He is indeed the loving Saviour of Count Dracula.

After all, which is moral enough, Dracula wins nearly every battle, but looses the war. Though van Helsing is a bitter and twisted personality – he calls on Harker to kill Lucy Westenra, his former fiancée as vampire, and he uses hypnosis on Mina – and though his allies are weak, he defeats evil, or the evil of Dracula. Because, in an obvious sense, his light is the Cross and his leader is not the dragon : meaning he is a Christian believer and that he is not a Satanist. However, the means are not pure. In that sense he does not live up to the motto.

But still, Dracula is too glorious for the reader. And the eroticism of some scenes of vampirisation are no good to people who quite as much as Mina would have needed it, in their real lives need to stay clean of mortal sin.

Now, George MacDonald, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien do not make that mistake.

Sauron is impressive in his power, but stupid. The point is that evil is stupid. He lacks the imagination to see anyone « in the know » as not coveting what he covets. Saruman is impressive to a much lesser extent. His sophistication is shown for what it really is : vain stupidity in the case of his loathsome bragging about his goals as « knowledge, control, power … for good » and his kindness fares no better : « in Orthanc » – Orthanc is his castle – « friendship means slavery and help means ruin. » Those are the words in which a mere mortal reproaches the morals of that fallen angelic being.

That summing up is also fair about much of modern administration and business – and education. I did mention boarding schools and « giving lessons » to « rotters ».

Empress Jadis too (another figure of evil, like Sauron and Saruman) is out of her depth in London, where she is greeted as « Empress of Colney Hatch » – a locality which in 1900 was a wellknown mental hospital. Later in her carreer she behaves like Nurse Ratchett in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Turning people into stone because they feast ? Mistreating a poor guy who has enjoyed his first and only occasion of sexual intercourse with medication or electroshock, and starting that with intimidation ? Not very impressive characters, either of them. When they loose, they have it coming. And fantasy is superior to that film insofar as Empress Jadis really looses. Nurse Ratchett is more likely to be live and well.

Fairy tales are truer than reality, not in saying there are dragons, but in saying dragons can be defeated and killed, Chesterton somewhere said.

And in Tolkien and CSL, the good guys are not quite as awestricken with Sauron (except Pippin in a horrid minute or two, and Frodo when tormented by the Ring : unlike Lucy Westenra both are saved), nor, in the other story, with the White Witch : – « So she is the Emperor's hangman, and that is how she came to imagine she was Queen ? » said a beaver.

Yes, CSL and JRRT knew the Cross. They regarded History as being in the end a long defeat. Redeemed at just the last moment, when History will be over. Christ has not returned yet, nor will he before things get even worse in society than they are right now. And yet we must resist changes for the worse, even though here and now we sometimes, indeed often fail. Everything is in the hand of God : and so is the death of the righteous. Sometimes ignominous to earth. Whatever glory of bearing a load of suffering Satan may have got by getting defeated as a rebel, Christ overturned by being executed along with rebels, and persecuted Christians have it also – with the difference they face real tyranny and rise or stand up for real good causes – and some of them now look as lost causes. Satan regarded the presence of one better than he was himself and having a right to his adoration as « tyranny » – and is not courage, it is only very bad taste. Christ and the martyrs and heroes have a better one.

An aside on present issues : here in France we are celebrating 600 years since St Joan of Arc was born in Domrémy. She was tried as being an ally of Satan, but she was really a servant of God. She was burned on a stake symbolising the flames of Hell, but she was destined for Paradise. She fought in battles, and yet it is true generally that women should not.

Tolkien and Lewis both knew that. The War against the Kaiser of Berlin they both fought in trenches or on horseback on the side of the Entente. Here in France, if they had been of a poorer class, soldiers rather than officers, they would have been called poilus. The last of them died a few years ago. And poilus means their beard was growing wild. There were no ladies on the cavalry charges or in the trenches.

From the same war they also knew the Cross, heavily, they lost their friends and never more spoke with them on earth. Ursula LeGuin, whom I spoke of also earlier. She was daughter of an anthropologist who entertained in his house one Amerindian who was the last survivor of his people, the last Native Speaker of his language. I think they knew God, or at least CSL and Tolkien did – Ursula is still alive I think – because they knew the Cross. Like Dostoëvski. But unlike Dostoëvski, they wrote for people who are in another sense, hopefully than in a case like Dracula, afraid of the Cross.

If Bram Stoker wrote so as to incite sometimes to sin – sins of cynicism and of sexual fascination – and if Dostoëvski wrote incessantly inciting to penance, Tolkien and C S Lewis knew how to tell a story as a story before anything else.

And Lloyd Alexander – he might in a sense have been placed in the last generation, but he is chaster and has more depth – who came to Paris after its liberation in WW-II, who I think briedfly knew Gertrude Stein, he grew up under the shadow of Sister Saint Katherine Drexel, patroness of Drexel Hill. He died on the day of Ascension, 2007. Who grew up in poverty, like so many saints (Sister Drexel grew up in riches and chose poverty).

Funnily, when I look up Drexel Hill I also find Drexel University, founded by an uncle of Saint Katherine Drexel : its mascot is a dragon. And I have two dragon killers in my patron saints.

Hans-Georg Mikael E. Lundahl
St Anthelme of Belley
26 – VI – 2012

2 commentaires:

  1. This reminds me: I have not yet read Christopher Paolini's Eragon series.

    Anyone knowing my tastes in fantasy from above: should I or should I not?