Why I Like My Fantasy Ole
(In Defense of All Things Elvish)
By Eric West
©2002, Eric West
For many people, Tolkien was the beginning of fantasy.
Oh you may talk about Lord Dunsany, William Morris and George MacDonald,
but the simple fact is that most of us wouldn't know what fantasy was if not for
Lord of the Rings.
So why is it that lately I've encountered so much
disdain for authors who wish to carry on in the tradition Tolkien built?
People act as if these writers finished reading the last pages of Return
of the King
and wished desperately that there were more.
I can recall that moment when I chose to write
Tolkienesque fantasy quite vividly. It
was a rainy afternoon, and I'd just discovered that all those pages at the back
of the book were appendixes. Tracking
down my mother, I asked her if there were any more stories about hobbits.
When her answer brought tears to my eyes, she added,
"But you could write some."
Thus began a hobby that developed into an obsession.
During those long years, I soon discovered the fantasy section of the
library and devoured Terry Brooks and David Eddings, Piers Anthony and Raymond
Feist. Each of them amazed and delighted me, pulling me into magical
worlds where I could forget for a while about the rather mundane and
sometimes-ghastly one I was living in.
When I was frustrated with school, I had somewhere
wonderful to turn. Depressed by my
parent's divorce, for a while I could bury myself in the stories and forget.
After being picked on by a bully, I could read about unlikely heroes
triumphing over far greater evils.
But fantasy wasn't just an escape.
Because of my exposure to fantastic story elements, I've been a more
open-minded person -- one not locked into a rigid world-view, but constantly
allowing myself to be wonder-struck by the surprises life reveals.
Fantasy's recurring themes have found their way into
my personal philosophy: Everyman
can achieve the impossible; self-doubt is an obstacle to success; great power
always comes with a great cost.
As a student of mythology, I've read about the Greek
Gods and the Native American Spirits. I've
studied the Bhagavad Gita, and the African Anansi tales.
But the legends I've always enjoyed the most are the folk tales, myths
and fairy tales of my European ancestors.
I think I've been drawn to them in a longing for
cultural identity. While many other
ethnic groups have a strong sense of heritage, those of us with
Celtic/Anglo/Norse backgrounds often don't.
So it's no small wonder that I find something powerful
in The Mabinogion and the Icelandic Sagas, and that I crave stories that grew
out of those mythos.
In other genres, following a form that produces
pleasure reliably isn't just all right; it's a requirement.
Try publishing a romance without the Happily-Ever-After ending and see
how far you get, or write a mystery that doesn't give the reader any clues, and
I doubt you'll find an audience. But
in fantasy, following in the footsteps of those who have gone before gets
labeled cliché, whether it is or not.
The best definition I've ever been given of cliché is
"that which is so familiar the reader glosses over it."
If the story brings a smile to my face, can it really be cliché?
However many plots there are in the world, (and I've
heard there are as few as three and as many as forty,) they've all been used
before. But authors can bring
something unique to stories that have been told a thousand times before.
They can give themselves.
I also enjoy some of the "non-traditional"
fantasy, that which draws on non-Western mythologies, or creates brand new ones.
China Meiville left me speechless and Neil Gaiman is definitely a writing
god. But when I want to spend a
long afternoon under the covers, I'll take a book that will draw me into
Bring me elves and goblins, knights and brave small
folk, and Dark Lords to be overcome. Show
me good versus evil, and sprinkle it with pixie dust.
Give me humble heroes with overwhelming odds against them, and let them
win their battles.
me with tales from a world a little bit more magical than our own, and put a map
inside the cover so I don't get lost along the way.