The Lounging and the Bon-bons

Followers of this blog will have noticed that I haven’t posted recently. I can hear you all muttering, “He’s lounging in the November Vermont sun eating bon-bons.” Well, I am. But I’ve also been writing articles about fantasy — they’ve just been ending up in other places. For those of you who are curious, here’s a recap:

The Problem with Prophecy: On the role of prophecy and the troubles it presents. Ruminations on the irritating oracle at Delphi, the book of Revelation, and the Bhagavad-Gita. Also, a raging discussion in the comments section.

Depicting the Divine in Epic Fantasy: Gods are all over the place in fantasy, but it’s tricky to do them well. I take a look at a few different approaches here, with discussion of ass trumpets and brain eaters along the way.

Asymmetrical Ass-Kicking: On real life heroism and what it can teach us about the writing of fantasy. If you don’t know the name Miyamoto Musashi, you don’t know about one of the most bad-ass real-life people ever to wield a sword (or two). Myke Cole was generous enough to post this over on his blog, which is filled with great content. If you head over there, it’s well worth spending some time looking around.

Finally and most exciting, the first seven chapters of The Emperor’s Blades are now up for your reading pleasure. You can check them out on tor.com, here. Feel free to let me know what you think, either on this blog, or in the comments below the chapters themselves. If you like what you find, please consider pre-ordering the book here. It’s cheaper than waiting for the publication date, and it helps me out a lot!

As always, thanks so much for reading, chatting, and generally loving fantasy. Now, back to my bon-bons.

 

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Axe Murder at the Ball Game; Our Shifting Conception of Heroism

One nice thing about soccer games between six-year-olds is that no one kills anyone with an axe. You might see a drunk mom screaming at the ref, or a couple of dads in a fistfight, but that’s about it. People don’t bring broadswords to Pee-Wee soccer events.

It hasn’t always been that way. As exhibit A, I present Egil’s Saga, a 13th century Icelandic tale composed (the scholars think) by Snorri Sturluson. Early in the story we encounter a ball game between our hero, Egil, age six at the time, and an older boy, Grim, age eleven:

“The game began and Egil proved to be the weaker, while Grim made the most of his strength. Then Egil got so angry that he lifted the bat and struck Grim with it, but Grim took hold of him, hurled him to the ground and gave him some very rough treatment. […] Egil went to look for Thord Granason and told him what had happened.

 “ ‘I’ll come with you,’ said Thord. ‘The two of us will pay him back.’

“ Thord gave Egil a thick-bladed axe he was carrying, common enough at that time, and they went to the field where the boys were playing. Grim had just caught the ball and was racing along with the other boys after him. Egil ran up to him and drove the axe into his head right through to the brain.”

So – I think it’s safe to say I wouldn’t hire Thord as my Little League coach. Even more interesting, however, is the reaction of Egil’s parents:

“When Egil came home, Skallagrim [his father] made it clear that he was far from pleased, but Bera [his mother] said that Egil had the makings of a real viking and it was obvious that as soon as he was old enough he ought to be given fighting-ships.”

The modern equivalent would be discovering that your son had murdered a kid with a brick during a game of pick-up basketball and deciding, as a result, to buy him a Dodge Viper.

Given this level of parenting, I suppose it’s not surprising that Egil never outgrows his childhood brutality. Just at the end of the saga, when he is an old man nearing his death, there’s a great moment in which he tries to decide what to do with two chests of silver he won earlier in his life:

“I want to take my two coffers with me, the ones I got from King Athelstan, both full of English silver. I want them carried up to the Law Rock when the crowd gathered there is at its biggest, and I’m going to throw the silver about […] I’ll bet there’ll be a bit of pushing and punching. Maybe in the end the whole assembly will start fighting.”

When you can no longer kill people yourself, I guess it’s a comfort to know your money can still be used to start a respectable brawl.

The thing I find interesting about these passages, and about Egil in general, is that he is the story’s protagonist. He is the hero. Modern notions of genre and plot structure don’t really apply here, but everything about the saga invites us to sympathize with Egil and to root for him, even when he’s picking fights with the innocent or murdering his Irish slaves.

Between the time Egil allegedly lived (10th century) and the time his saga was finally penned (13th), Christianity came to both Norway and Iceland. Sturluson himself received theological training. And yet, the narrator of Egil’s saga refrains scrupulously from any imposition of Christianity’s ethical precepts onto his pre-Christian characters. Of St. Ambrose’s four cardinal virtues – temperance, justice, prudence, fortitude – Egil possesses only the last, and yet he is admired by the narrator (and presumably by the audience), for his own qualities, primarily his physical strength and his ability to compose poetry.

Fantasy, of course, is replete with protagonists of dubious morality – assassins, con-men, barbarians. It’s not often, however, that the writers of these characters find themselves able to utterly discard our modern notions of morality. As one example among dozens, we can take a look at Durzo Blint, the ruthless assassin from Brent Weeks’ The Way of Shadows. In the very first chapter Blint splits open a few bad guys, not realizing, evidently, that his murders are witnessed by a local orphan. It’s revealing to take a close look at the end of the chapter, when Blint discovers this hidden child:

“Just above Azoth on the other side of the floor, Durzo Blint whispered, “Never speak of this. Understand? I’ve done worse than kill children.”

“The sword disappeared, and Azoth scrambled out into the night. He didn’t stop running for miles.”

Blint tells us (and Azoth) that he kills children (and worse), but then he blinks. He doesn’t actually do it. Why? Well, we’d have a pretty damn short book without Azoth, for one thing, but for another, Weeks isn’t willing to allow his protagonist to inhabit an utterly alien morality. If you swapped Egil in for Blint, Azoth’s brains would be leaking into the mud.

I’m not trying to pick on Weeks, here. I love his book, and this type of thing is extremely common in fantasy. We (as readers and writers) can wrap our minds around invented magical systems, new races, and civilizations millions of years old more easily than we can accept protagonists whose ethical makeup is entirely different from our own. Steven Erikson’s barbarian, Karsa Orlong, is the only exception that leaps immediately to mind, and Erikson has written an outstanding essay on just this topic, asking, “How far from our own sensibilities can we be pushed before it’s too much?”

I’m very curious to hear how readers would answer that question. Also, I wonder what other fantasy protagonists out there really do buck the central aspects of our modern ethical and moral systems? What modern writers, like Sturluson, are able to fully imagine an alternate conception of heroism?

Christ Would Not Be Pleased: Religion in Fantasy

A few days ago, Christians all over America celebrated the resurrection of Jesus Christ through an odd combination of church-going, egg-hunting, chocolate-eating, and rabbit-venerating. It’s not really news to anyone, of course, that a number of Christian holidays have subsumed elements of earlier, pagan worship, that Easter is also a celebration of spring and fertility, that Santa Claus wasn’t one of the three kings. In fact, the syncretic nature of Christianity, its ability to assimilate and adapt diverse and divergent traditions to its own ends, is often cited as an important factor in its broad appeal. In political parlance, Christianity has a “big tent” that shelters all manner of bunnies, saints, reindeer, and polar dwellers. You need not (outside of the strictest communities) put aside your celebrations of spring in order to worship Christ’s resurrection.

It’s not just Christianity, of course. Over the centuries, the Japanese have fused their traditional Shinto with Buddhism (imported to the islands in the 6th century) to the point where it’s difficult to tell where one ends off and the other begins. Buddhism, of course, originated in India, as a reform movement within Hinduism, which then, in a fascinating move, re-amalgamated Buddha as the ninth avatar of Vishnu. This mixing and blending, borrowing and re-appropriation, are important sources for the richness and variety in the world’s religions today.

Oddly, fantasy writers have largely overlooked this fact. The gods and goddesses of fantasy, however vivid, tend to be monochromatic; they usually have a single (or limited) function or association, and, as a result, the iconography and worship regarding these gods tends to be relatively predictable.

Take, R’hllor, from Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. R’hllor is a god of light and fire, and so it’s no shock to discover that his priests and priestesses wear red, that they read the future in the flames, and that they like to burn shit. Now, don’t get me wrong: I like R’hllor. I like the stories of  Azor Ahai. I think it’s a nice touch that Martin points out that the god of flame is also, by logical extension, the god of shadow.

It’s instructive, however, to compare R’hllor with Agni, from the Hindu tradition. Agni is also a fire god, (his name is cognate with the Latin ignus, from which we derive our English word, ignite), but he’s a lot more than that. He’s also two-headed and three-legged. He is a messenger god. According to the Rg Veda, he arose from and abides in the water, an odd characteristic for a fire god. In some traditions, Agni is a god of sex and virility. In others, he’s not his own god at all, but an incarnation of Brahma, or maybe Shiva. Clearly, Martin’s conception of R’hllor is far tidier, far more explicable.

Or take the pantheon of DragonLance. It’s a complex and exciting collection of characters. Each god and goddess has her own interests, motives, and adherents. There are quite a few names to learn, but it’s still strikingly simple to sum up these deities. A glance at this wiki shows that they are easily categorized. Branchala is the god of inspiration, Sirrion is the god of flame, Reorx is the god of the forge, etc. Moreover, the pantheon itself is rigidly organized with an eye to balance: “Each group of gods has seven members, with one major god, five lesser ones, and a god of magic.” Very neat. Very tidy. I like systems, and so I appreciate the thought went into ordering the Dragonlance pantheon. There is pleasure to be found in structure. Nonetheless, this careful structure is utterly unlike the hodge-podge pantheons of other religions (Norse, Greek, Hindu) with their messiness and contradictions.

A quick glance at the dodekatheon, the twelve Olympic deities of Greek tradition, should illustrate what I mean by messiness and contradiction. These gods and goddesses were the big ones, the heavies, the ones who beat the Titans, the relations of Zeus abiding on the mountaintop. Except there’s no real agreement on which ones make the list. Sometimes Hades is there. Sometimes not. Or Persephone. Or not. Heracles? Hestia? Asclepius? Maybe. Depends who you talk to, and where, and when. The same is true of Christ’s twelve apostles; the list of names varies from gospel to gospel. I imagine Christ would not be pleased that we have bungled this detail, but bungled it we have, and that is the point.

The reasons for these discrepancies are clear: unlike the pantheons of fantasy, which are the products of a single mind (or two minds, in the case of Dragonlance) working toward a specific goal, the religions of our real world developed over centuries, under the pressure of historical circumstance and the frailty of human communication and memory. The question, for the writer of fantasy, is whether or not it would enrich a novel to create a “messier” religion. Would the confusions and contradictions of the real world make for a richer imagined setting, or is this the sort of thing we’re trying to get away from when we read fantasy?