Archive for the ‘Fantasy’ Category

Journal 6- Something Wicked This Way Comes

Sunday, October 13th, 2013

With Halloween coming up it is not hard to conjure an image of a cackling, green woman, one with a pointy hat and warts on her nose. There is also the beautiful enchantress, tall and strong, her magic seduces the handsome hero and distracts him from his obligations. And it would be remiss to forget the ugly, old hag who kills the young maiden for the magic of youth or beauty.  A witch, wicked or otherwise, is a common figure in literature. Though her appearances are many, her characterization has not changed all that much, and with very few exceptions she is always a woman. Modern authors, such as Phillip Pullman, have expanded the image of the witch in literature.


Witches first appeared in Greek and Roman epics, though they were referred to as a sorceress or enchantress. The quintessential ancient sorceress is Circe. Circe appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Homer’s Odyssey. Circe changes her victim’s form; in the Metamorphoses she turns her lover’s new love into a rock and Odysseus’s men become pigs under her magic. Generally ancient witches are depicted as seductive, immoral creatures; they selfishly use their magic to delay or keep the hero from his quest. However, the ugly hag also appears in mythology. For example, the Graeae, a prophetic trio, are depicted as withering, ragged creatures with only one eye between them. One thing the enchantress and the hag have in common in mythology is there lack of backstory. It is interesting that though the name Circe remains in literature, she is never a full character.


This pattern of witches without reason for their actions is repeated well into the modern era. It is as if the wicked witch does not need a story, she simply needs to be wicked. Fairy tale witches (in the traditional sense, not the Disney imagined characters) have no real motivation for their evil deeds. Rapunzel’s witch is merely angry with people stealing from her garden. Even Shakespeare’s witches in Macbeth, appear out of nowhere. Though they normally provide the conflict, and often drive the action of the story, witches in early literature serve no other purpose and disappear like magic.


The characterization of the witch has progressed much since then. Nathaniel Hawthorne in Young Goodman Brown made us believe that witches were not otherworldly creatures, but our neighbors and family. L. Frank Baum showed us that they were not all wicked. J.K. Rowling made children long to be witches (and wizards). Gregory Maguire revealed that not all wicked things were evil; perhaps they were just misunderstood and heartbroken. Gradually modern authors are fleshing out witches. They are expanding upon the traditional trope, playing with it, and at times turning it inside out.


In The Golden Compass Pullman toys with our understanding of good and evil. None of his characters can be clearly defined and the lines are drawn rather blurrily. When Lee Scoresby asks Serafina Pekkala what side he is on she simply replies that they are on Lyra’s side. Interestingly, Pullman shies away from describing the witches as good or evil. Each clan has their own individual interests and their own reasons for fighting in this war. Which side they are on-Lyra’s, Bolvangar’s, the Magisterium’s-are a product of their own free will. Pullman continues to expound on the witch’s character, adding to the ancient descriptions and making them more than their literary tradition.

Journal 5- Daemons

Sunday, October 13th, 2013

The personification of animals is prevalent throughout literature. In early mythology and folklore animals were often the protagonists; they represented certain aspects of humanity. We frequently imbue animals with human characteristics: the sly fox, the wise owl, the loyal dog. Humans and animals have a natural connection. Ancient people made their gods animals. The Egyptians prayed to the jackal-headed Anubis and their most important god Ra had the head of a hawk.


When choosing a form for daemons (visible souls) in The Golden Compass, animals are a natural choice. Pullman could have created unique creatures to represent human souls, imagining ghostlike apparitions or traditional demons. Animals, however, already come with their own personalities. In choosing animals to represent a human’s visible soul Pullman has established characteristics that add to his characters. Mrs. Coulter’s daemon, the golden monkey, reveals aspects of her personality that would otherwise be hard to show. Monkey’s are often depicted as cute and curious animals, however when angered they display sharp teeth and a penchant for violence. The golden monkey exhibits a barely restrained sense of rage; similar to Mrs. Coulter it is also disarmingly, if fiercely, beautiful. The animal fits the human, and fleshes them out, as no unique creature could.


I’m a very introverted person; friendly but reserved. I am sarcastic, independent, and often distracted by my own thoughts. I’m also not really an animal person. Choosing my own daemon was a lot harder than writing the first part of this journal. I tried various online quizzes. At first I was told that I was a monkey: admired, detail-oriented, and full of curiosity. That doesn’t sound like me at all. I tend to not ask a lot of questions, I can be detail-oriented but I don’t pay a lot of attention to life, as for being admired you would have to ask someone else. The next test told me I was a wolf. I immediately dismissed it; I’m not a predator. My next step was to Google deceptively cute animals. I wanted an animal that didn’t seem harmful or aggressive, but could be if needed. I don’t speak my mind often, I have a hard time telling people how I feel, and I am relatively easy-going. But I am also quick to anger, though my temper doesn’t show in any traditional way. I’m full of plans and goals, but I’m slow to act preferring to plan and schedule- and frequently waiting till the opportunity passes by. I stumbled upon the slow loris. This animal is adorable, it moves at a careful, practically silent pace, and it produces a deadly poison.

Journal 4- The Characterization of Evil

Sunday, October 13th, 2013

We have discussed, at length, the ambiguity of evil. Every act labeled evil is not wholly evil; we must think of a character’s intentions when judging their actions. This is especially true in The Fellowship of the Ring. In Tolkien’s world there exists no pure evil. Lewis takes a more simplistic approach to the characterization of evil.


In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe it would be difficult to find a redeeming quality in the witch or any of her monster minions. She is driven by greed and pride and ambition. Her negative qualities have overtaken her- if there were positive qualities to begin with. The monsters in this book are unlike those in Tolkien’s novel; they did not begin as a good creature. The orcs were first elves, mutilated and reborn as grotesque monsters. Whereas the dwarves, the wolves, etc. in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe did not begin their lives with good, they have always been corrupted.


Edmund’s betrayal, an evil act by a good person, complicates the essential duality in Lewis’s world. However, if you consider the Christian message behind the novel it becomes clearer. Edmund is a sinner, who in the end realizes his faults and is redeemed by the Christ figure, Aislan. The center of Christian theology is the idea of salvation and redemption. The bible teaches us that we are all sinners and only through love for God may we be redeemed. Edmund, unlike his siblings, serves as an example of the type of sinner Jesus especially cared for.


When looking at the characterization of evil in these two works it is necessary to consider the audience they were written for. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was written for children, whereas The Fellowship of the Ring was written for an older audience. Bruno Bettelheim in The Uses of Enchantment explains that children enjoy fairy tales subconsciously. They solve the inner problems that children are unable to articulate and offer meaning to them. Bettelheim asserts that evil is omnipresent in fairytales. There is a duality in life as well as literature but in fairytales there is no ambiguity: characters are good or bad, there is no grey area. However, evil is not present just so the hero has something to fight against. Bettelheim assures us that evil characters are present to show children that bad actions do not yield rewards. Children do not learn morality when the villain is vanquished. They learn when they see that the hero is rewarded for his actions and the villain doesn’t get the throne.

Journal 3- Tolkien’s Line Between Religion and Fantasy

Sunday, October 13th, 2013

Jason Bofetti in “Tolkien’s Catholic Imagination”, reminds us that Catholic theology teaches that evil is “the absence of good.” No character is inherently evil; at some point they had some good in them or at the end they are somehow redeemable. The essentially “evil” characters are those that fall to their vices.


Pride and greed are two of the most common faults in The Fellowship of the Ring. The characters that recognize they cannot wield or carry the ring, despite their desire to, are saved. But even those who do not, such as Boromir and Gollum, are not wholly evil. Boromir does not understand the power of the ring and wishes to use it to help his kingdom from the doom they face at the hands of Sauron. He does not have selfish intentions, but his lust for glory and ultimately the safety of his people drive him to madness. Gollum was once a gentle creature, much like a hobbit, but over time the ring turned him into a monster. But even so Frodo and Bilbo find pity for him. (Let those who have not sinned cast the first stone.) They recognize that Gollum’s behavior does not stem from any inborn evil; rather his desire for the One Ring has blinded him to all other pursuits. As long as he does not possess his “precious” he will continue to seek it, to the detriment of our heroes.


Humility and sacrifice are themes throughout the Catholic Church and Tolkien’s literature. The most humble of god’s creatures are the ones that succeed. Frodo offers his service even though he knows he is not the most logical choice for the ring bearer, just as a Jew from an ignored corner of the vast Roman Empire was not the most powerful choice for the Son of God. The bible shows us that God does not desire the most powerful creatures for his service.


Bofetti also points out the accidental Catholic imagery throughout Tolkien’s work. Tolkien also presents us with a trinity of Christ figures: Frodo, Aragorn, and Gandalf represent different aspects of Christ. Gandalf is the wise and powerful Christ, Aragorn is God’s patient warrior, and Frodo is Jesus with his burden.


Sauron’s story, as explained in the Silmarillion, is very similar to the story of the devil. Both were once angels, close to god, and a force for good. Their longing for power, and in Sauron’s case an ordered world cause them to fall. In their respective narratives they then become the agent for evil and temptation. Those who desire power above all else, even those with good intentions, will perish.


J.R.R. Tolkien in his Tolkien Reader asserts that the bible is the ultimate fairy story. He says that Fantasy and the gospel both present the reader with a eucatastrophe. The end of the story offers hope or salvation for downtrodden heroes or weary readers. They both create a separate, larger world, in which there are many marvels, but these worlds touch on our own reality. Tolkien believes fantasy serves a greater purpose, one that is similar to the Christian teaching of Salvation. The reader, at the end, believes that though the hero may still continue to suffer and die there is an joy to look forward to.

Journal 2- Discussing Evil

Sunday, October 13th, 2013

It is not always easy to identify the bad guys in our own world. People can easily hide evil behind a pretty face or a few clever lies. Certainly, my own enemies are not Black Riders or things that go bump in the night. In fantasy literature the evil characters are usually fairly recognizable. The presence of evil, while not always the main plot line, is an important tradition in fantastic literature. Without evil whom would the hero fight against? How would they prove themselves in this secondary world if not for evil? Good versus Evil is often the central conflict in many fantasy stories.


Evil, in some form or another, is necessary in most forms of literature. For every story there needs to be a conflict, whether it is Huck Finn trying to rescue Jim from slavery or Frodo attempting to destroy the ring. However, in most fiction Evil is not as overt as it is in fantasy. You will rarely encounter a character such as Sauron in realistic fiction. Fantasy tends to handle Evil in a much more fantastic and straightforward way.  Characters such as Sauron and Voldemort in works of Fantasy are described as pure evil, without a redeeming quality. This characterization of the villian makes the hero, even a flawed hero, seem more good. Frodo has his negative qualities, at times he is foolish and unwilling, but nevertheless he perseveres against this horrible force. Evil is necessary to flesh out the good characters and provide more contrast. It lets us appreciate even the bad characters in more nuanced ways because we have pure evil to compare them with. The defining characteristic of the good character is their ability in the end to resist evil.


Evil is more extreme and obvious in fantasy literature. In Fantasy evil beings are usually the personification of our baser sins and negative emotions: greed, lust, gluttony, pride, wrath, etc. The Black Riders were once men that have now become corrupted by their pride and greed. They could not resist the power the ring offered them and now they are irredeemable. Evil beings are also those humans or creatures that cannot see past certain extremes. They are the tyrant who believes that there is only one way to love, that life is black and white, and drive is only successful if it is single minded and blind. Sauron was originally an angel of sorts, but his need for an ordered world (and ordered in his own way) warped him into a purely evil being bent on destruction. He could only see his End and he was willing to destroy all that was to reorganize and reconstruct. Evil in Fantasy warns against extremism in all forms. As humans it is easy to give in to lust or envy, it is often admirable to pursue a single goal, but when we are blinded to all reason by these emotions we lose sight of the good in the world and we are halfway to Mordor.

Journal 1: Defending Fantasy

Monday, September 2nd, 2013

Fantasy is often mislabeled as simple kid-lit. Stories that are not challenging and they lack serious literary merit. I won’t argue that all literature is created equally, certainly Fifty Shades of Grey is not on par with Moby Dick, but all literature has value. It is ignorant to dismiss Fantasy as simple escapist fare. Escape is the main function of Fantasy, but it is not the only function. J.R.R. Tolkien in Tolkien Reader says that Fantasy has merit outside of Escape. He argues fairy stories also offer readers Consolation, Recovery, and Fantasy itself, and these are needed more by adults than children.

As a genre Fantasy opens readers up to a multitude of worlds. I would argue that it is far more difficult to “escape” into Narnia or Middle Earth than it is to go to New York or Mexico. As a reader you are required to delve into an unknown setting where little is familiar. Fantasy allows readers to stretch their minds and create new settings. However, this is one of the reasons Fantasy is derided as children’s stories. Some argue that submerging oneself in a Secondary World is akin to imaginary friends and playing pretend. Tolkien assures us that Fantasy is a truly rational activity. It relies on the knowledge that this world is not real; it is a genre that has to be based on facts otherwise it is only delusion. Enjoyment of Fantasy does not depend on a childlike belief in this other world; rather it is about the desire for the other.

Another facet of Fantasy is Recovery, or the “regaining of a clear view.” Successful Fantasy has the power to take a familiar setting and make it new again. We can become blind to the people and places we see everyday and imbuing those things with Fantasy calls fresh attention to them. Fairy stories often deal with normal or simple things, but the injection of Fantasy lets us see them at a new angle.

Consolation, the consolation of a happy ending, is a necessary aspect of most Fantasy. It is comforting to read stories that consistently offer a Happily Ever After. Even when everything has gone wrong, the dragon is defeating the knight and the princess is still stuck in her tower, Fantasy gives our hero a second wind, the dragon is mortally wounded, and the princess is swooning because she’s so happy. I believe this is where Fantasy draws most of its critics. They accuse the genre of being optimistic and unrealistic, apparently life does not guarantee a happily ever after. They don’t seem to realize that Fantasy does not deny the existence of tragedy, but offers hope for a way out of the sorrow of both worlds, Primary and Secondary. In the end many have died, hearts are broken, places are ruined, but whatever Evil there was in this world has been faced and conquered

Escape is simply the most obvious and arguably the most important function of Fantasy. It should not be looked at as a frivolous hope for children and some adults. Life is hard, we face very real problems daily, and when adults feel the pressure of the Primary World it is almost necessary to escape in some way.