Monday, January 16, 2012

A Fantasy for All Seasons

My birthday was last Thursday and, as this annual occurrence is timed so nicely with the new year, I am yet again presented with the opportunity to wax nostalgic.  That, combined with our first Monday’s discussion about C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books, has started me thinking about how fantasy shapes the seasons of our lives.

I must have ordered the Narnia books off of the Scholastic book flyer, because the whole set came to me at once, in all of their new-book-smell and glossy-cover glory.  In those days, The Magician’s Nephew was still last of the set, not first, and I had not a single clue about the Christian allegory.  My favorites, for no explicable reason, were The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and The Silver Chair.  My gateway drug to fantasy, they introduced me to new worlds and places I could only imagine; I thirsted for more. 

Then, in fifth grade, I made an amazing discovery in my elementary school library: Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonsinger.  Once I realized that my mom had all McCaffrey’s books on our bookshelf at home, I read every novel of hers I could find.  Then I moved to the other books on my mom’s bookshelf, which was chock full of fantasy.

If I hadn’t been a fantasy reader by then, eighth grade would have sealed the deal.  My English teacher assigned T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, and a deep and abiding love of all things Arthur nestled deep in my soul, right next to the dragons.  I read other Arthur books, too, a few of which I’ve searched for ever since.   I discovered David Eddings, one of my all-time favorites, and the out-of-print “Tredana Trilogy” by Joyce Ballou Gregorian, which I am afraid to re-read.  From then on, knights, wizards, gods, magic, and the ideal of a better world captured and held my imagination.

Fantasy became my dirty little secret during high school and college.  I was not going to be a geek, so to the general  public I was a wholesome, outgoing, all-American teenager.  Who knew that I played Warhammer in the back room of my friend’s house and wrote Pern fanfic for Star-Rise Weyr?  And NOBODY knew that I would occasionally pick at that old story I’d started during middle school.  That was for me alone.

Of course, my secrecy only lasted a few years.  During a Medieval Literature class in college, I had an epiphany: I could read King Arthur myths in college?  I felt like I was getting away with some elaborate scheme.  I was going to study the very roots of modern fantasy, and the University was going to give me a college degree in exchange!  My scheme persisted through my M.A. in Medieval Literature and cemented my fate.  Not only could I now read and discuss fantasy, I could pick at the author’s historical accuracy.  And eventually, when I was ready, I discovered The Lord of the Rings, and appreciated all of the complexities and subtleties of Tolkien’s amazing world.

Fantasy has formed a significant portion of my personality and worldview.  I no longer care that I’m a fantasy geek—which is ironic, because becoming a geek is so much more cool and mainstream.  The benefits of reading fantasy have far outweighed any drawbacks to my social life or character: I have a rich imagination, a strong vocabulary, and the ability to appreciate political, religious and social systems completely foreign from my own.  I appreciate people of all different races, cultures and ethnic backgrounds, and my mind is open to new possibilities, both in fiction and in life.  I believe I am a better person, more open-minded and less prone to a black-and-white worldview because of fantasy. 

I did try to reread the Narnia books a couple of years ago, and found them thin in plot and character, overbearing in religious message.  It made me sad to have my sense of wonder stripped away, and I wish now I hadn’t reread them, that I could always hold them in my heart with the same charm they once held for me.  Still, I will never forget how they shaped me on this journey to become the reader and writer I am today.

Looking ahead, I expect I will find new fantasies that engage me as an adult.  Eight years ago I tried Game of Thrones and felt it too dark; now I watch the series and see not only the darkness, but the varied shades of grey.  Life changes me, changes not only what I want to read, but what I need to read.  And what I read, in turn, changes me.

Now here is my question for you: how has fantasy shaped you as a reader, and as a person?  And how has your taste for fantasy changed with the seasons of life? 


Terri-Lynne said...

My tastes have DEFINITELY changed, and so has the face of fantasy. All the stuff I loved as a kid--The Belgariad by Eddings, The Thomas Covenant Books by Donaldson, Dragonlance by Weis/Hickman--don't necessarily stand the test of time. Those old tropes that are such big no-nos in fantasy today weren't quite tropes yet. Dwarves and elves, big-bads with little motivation but evil for evil's sake (Evil Overlord) were expected. Now, they're cliche. I tend NOT to go back and read my old favorites, because I fear, like the Narnia books, they won't hold up. I prefer to remember their magic rather than have that particular bubble burst.

Karin Gastreich said...

Oh goodness, this is such a big question and it requires me to remember too much. ;)

There are really only two works of fantasy I remember reading from my childhood: the Brothers Grimm (original tales) and The Once and Future King. I confess, I don't remember ever reading even one of the Narnia books. I do remember Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time; think I may have read that in high school. We also did a whole semester on Kurt Vonnegut, which from a certain perspective could be interpreted as fantasy.

The books that captured my imagination as a girl were the works by Laura Ingalls Wilder; I had the entire collection and read all of them multiple times. During junior high and high school, I also loved mysteries and historical romance.

My exposure to fantasy/sci fi growing up was mostly through popular media; Star Trek, which my brother and I watched religiously with my Dad. And, a little later, Star Wars, which excited my imagination in a way no other film had before.

In high school I read Dune, in college I was introduced to Tolkien. But since college my reading preferences have veered toward history, historical fiction and magical realism.

Several years back, Pullman's series was recommended to me. I loved those books, and they piqued my interest in fantasy once again.

Still, I really don't think I began to appreciate the genre until I started to write it. And so many authors who are well-known and loved by the majority of fantasy readers -- McCaffrey, McKillip, LeGuin, even Martin -- have only snuck onto my shelves in recent years.

Which, I think, is kind of cool. It makes this a very exciting period in my reading (and writing) life.

Terri-Lynne said...

Karin--I envy the "newness" it holds for you. To be able to experience all those old favorites for the first time all over again would be impossible, but bliss!

Pongo Pygmaeus said...

I think the first fantasy story - bar Grimm-style fairy-tales - I read was either The Little Grey Men, The Borrowers (though personally I don't really think that either of these counts as fantasy per se unless the category is widened so far as to encompass everything far-fetched rather than have magic as an essential requirement) or The Hobbit. Then, I think, The Once and Future King, which I was probably a bit young to really 'get' or the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which I really liked up til Aslan's self-sacrifice. After that, The Lord of the Rings and the Conan stories (not just the decent and semi-decent stuff by Howard but the drivel written by the 'pastiche' authors). And actually the fantasy I really like today can be summarised as:

The Lord of the Rings
The Children of Hurin
The Broken Sword
A Song of Ice and Fire (Books 1-3 only, the last two have been average at best)
various, though not all, Conan stories by Howard
The Pastel City
The Amber Spyglass (which I will reluctantly allow as a sort of fantasy)

I also have a sort of fondness for the earlier Gor books, mainly because they were so politically incorrect as to be hugely amusing, though it did grow stale quite quickly. But although I read or tried to read various authors like Lieber and Moorcock, Vance (who's actually pretty amusing to be fair) and Gemmell, they all seem to lack in one way or another (or often several ways for the likes of Brooks).

I'd add Pratchett and, to an extent Gaiman to my 'likes' but I find I can take only so much of each before they pall.

I think in general I like fantasy with low-key magic and on the whole I'm not keen on the sort of (sometimes multi-book) epic quest that really wants to be The Lord of the Rings but doesn't quite manage it. And I've come to realise I like a Norse bent (Tolkien, Anderson), probably because the Norse didn't pussy-foot around with loads of internal angst or fret about giving both sides a hearing, yet they made complex characters (whose solution to most problems is generally a little straightforward violence) and good stories (if sometimes a little slow to actually get started). Also they're kind of doom-laden. Too much fantasy has happy endings for my taste (happy endings are okay, but there generally needs to be a 'cost').

In fairness, I've not read huge swathes of fantasy (and barely touched the sort of ersatz-fantasy that involves trendy vampires and suchlike) - though I have opened quite a lot of books by the likes of Jordan, Rowling (whose success I admire hugely), Brooks and so forth and recoiled either retching or with bleeding eyes. But I am hard to please.

I'm not really sure whether fantasy has had much influence on my life, except possibly that Bilbo's rather dull, comfortable life pre-Thorin and co. may have served as a terrible warning as to what might await anyone foolish enough to embrace middle-class careerism.

Karin Gastreich said...

Pongo -

Thank you so much for including Eolyn on your list of favorites; I'm honored.

I have to agree with you on happy endings; oddly enough, I feel a sense of disappointment if things are wrapped up too neatly and nicely at the end of a novel. This is one of the areas in which I like fantasy to reflect real life -- some things resolved (including the central conflict of course), but many issues, including important ones, just not.

Bleeding eyes? Really? That must hurt!

Pongo Pygmaeus said...

Well as I may have said before, I tend to like specific books and/or authors rather than specific genres, so while probably historical fiction just about pips fantasy as my 'favourite genre', it also contains such egregious horrors as the works of Conn Imakeitupasigoalong (or whatever his name is) and that Italian idiot who pretends to be a professor of classics who writes about Alexander the Great -- my carers now prevent me from coming within 10' of one of their books in order to prevent uncontrollable gibbering with rage. Not much fantasy annoys me that much.

It's quite interesting to me that Tolkien thought that fantasy depended on the eucatastrophe -- a sudden joyous turn, something that is present in LotR (Aragorn's unfurling of his standard at Minas Tirith when all seems lost, Gandalf and Theodred (and the ents) arriving in the nick of time as Theoden rides out of Helm's Deep) but hardly the 'Happy Ending' that he claimed fairy stories needed (though I suppose the LotR has a sort of happy ending in that the good guys win and Sam and Aragorn get their girls, but it has a downbeat side too with Frodo's alienation from his former life and the departure of the elves, but the Children of Hurin seems to lack it entirely).

Mark Nelson/ Pevanapoet1 said...

Grade 5: The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe, teacher had an awesome voice. Grade 6: The Hobbit, complete with teacher voices that have stayed with me to this day. Good ol' Ms. Cowans. She's to blame for my life-long addiction to fantasy.

At first I read for the battle scenes and the heroes. Later, I used LOTR for a research paper. 1979, in fact, on Samwise as the real hero of the book. Kinda fun to have my argument borne out over time and the films. Ego, thy name is...

Eventually, my tastes ran to history, and my reading became a blended experience of the real and the escapist--I hardly make a distinction anymore. The journey has led me to some outstanding writing and useful instruction.

I have steered clear somewhat of what I consider the derivatives of the old masters. Eddings didn't hold me. Covenant was intense at first but in the end left me feeling like he tried too hard. That was my first introduction to the problem of 'over-writing'. The first set of Covenant books rocked. The others, meh. The same thing happened with Jordan. After book four...meh-squared.

For me, in the end, the journey through the realms of fantasy (egad, that sounds pompous) is what led me to poetry and my love for words--their shape, their sound, their amazing variability. I first found the music in the written form with fantasy, and I have since found it in almost every other genre.

Not a bad way to spend one's reading life, actually.

Terri-Lynne said...

Not a bad way to spend one's reading life, actually.

Mark--you got that right.

I feel the same way about Donaldson's Covenant books. The first trilogy rocked! At least, to my teenager brain, it did. I'm not sure if they're stand the test of time or not. I don't want to find out.

When I tried to read the second set that came out--meh. I stopped with the first one. I couldn't even tell you what it was about.

J.A. Campbell said...

A set of YA fantasy books that I can still go back and read and enjoy 20 years later is the Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper... Great tales, very Arthurian. They even made a movie out of the second one. (OMG I said 20 years... I feel old)

The Pern books, Redwall, LOTR, So many, to many to name. I'm a fantasy nut and I pretty much always have been. Not sure how it happened, but I'm sure glad it did. It has shaped my writing, my reading habits, my general desire to live in a fantasy world and pretend the real one doesn't exist... (I'm a functional geek, but man when I get into the mountains, it's middle earth time.)

Thanks for sharing!

Terri-Lynne said...

Julie--I'm glad to see I'm not the only one who journeys INWARD when I journey OUTWARD. When I'm on the beach, down by the river, or really, ANYWHERE, I will often be someone else, somewhere else--in my head, of course. :)

Do you make up dialog for yourself too? ;)

J.A. Campbell said...

LMAO, yeah... I do make up dialog for myself. Guilty. Glad I'm not the only one. Sometimes, when I'm sure I'm alone, I even say it out loud.