Are fantasy stories worth telling?

My latest piece on MercatorNet is all about…surprise, surprise…my new novel To Create a World. Specifically, it’s about the profound spiritual theme at the heart of so much fantasy and other fiction, everything from Disney’s Aladdin and The Lion King to Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings:

What motivated me to write in the end was the discovery of a theme, an idea, that couldn’t be adequately expressed or transmitted directly in non-fiction form. It’s an ancient theme with profound spiritual significance that has been propagated and retold in various stories, often without our realising it.

It’s not my personal theme or my own idea, but it’s something that needs to be told and retold, and is therefore reflected in the many stories of our culture.

The theme is simple: the King’s advisor has usurped the throne, throwing the kingdom into chaos. The young hero must defeat the usurper and restore order, thereby finding his own place in the world.

https://www.mercatornet.com/features/view/are-fantasy-stories-worth-telling

If you like the article, you might like my new novel that inspired so many of these thoughts about creativity, fantasy, and the meaning of life. Check it out by clicking on the cover below, or go straight to Amazon, iBooks or other online stores.

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Overcoming Low Elf-esteem

I grappled with a lot of issues in writing my new ebook To Create a World.

One of the biggest was elves.

The novel is contemporary fantasy rather than high fantasy, but it still needed elves in it and that presented an unforeseen challenge.

Tolkien.

How do you write elves in a post-Tolkien context without becoming painfully, transparently derivative? I defy you to turn your hand to the task without suffering recurring nightmares of J.R.R. sitting smoking a pipe and wryly mocking you in Sindarin. You know, one of the Elvish languages he created before, during, and after writing his epic books.

If you’re not a professor of linguistics and you don’t already speak half a dozen languages, you’re at a disadvantage. I have a pretty good working knowledge of English and a passing familiarity with two other languages…and zero interest in creating new languages.

Not a problem, I decided. Nobody expects anyone to replicate Tolkien’s philological exploits. That’s clearly above and beyond.

And all was well, until the moment came in which an elvish character required a name, and I realised two things:

First, that all Elvish influences in the depths of my mind can be directly or indirectly traced back to Tolkien.

Second, that each and every Elvish name (make that every name) in Tolkien’s universe will undoubtedly have an etymological pedigree backed up by his enormous, unnecessary, unassailable body of fictional languages. I didn’t have to check. I just knew that names like Celeborn, Galadriel, and Glorfindel would have a watertight linguistic provenance.

For some authors this poses no problem. Just shrug your shoulders and come up with something that sounds cool. And if you need to name a second elf, just come up with something else that sounds cool. Bonus points if the two cool-sounding names are phonetically similar.

Which is all fine, until you discover that your idea of what a cool elf name should sound like is also transparently derivative of a certain over-achieving philologist.

If you still don’t see the problem, consider for a moment if someone asked you to come up with a Chinese-sounding name, or an American-sounding name, or a Scottish or Indian or Arabic-sounding name, without actually using existing names from those language groups, or using their languages to create new names.

What would you end up with? You would end up with an unspeakably shameful and racially provocative parody.

In contemporary fiction making human character names consistent with real cultural and linguistic sources is fine.

But try it with elves and dwarves and suddenly you’re writing LOTR fanfiction.

One solution that comes to mind is to have Tolkien’s fictitious peoples recognised as States under the UN, and his linguistic work rendered public domain forthwith, so we can all pretend it’s just part of our shared global culture.

The other solution is to not take it so seriously in the first place. Allow your elves to have whatever names they like, and not stress too much about their etymological integrity.

Incidentally, I think that’s why authors like J.K. Rowling began with overtly silly names for pretty much everything in their magical universe. The names seemed to become more serious as the series continued, matching the tone of the books (and increasing age of its readers). At the same time, names that were there from the beginning like Dumbeldore, and even Hogwarts itself took on different emotional resonance as our experience of them grew throughout the series.

Giving things silly names implicitly lowers expectations and takes the pressure off, as well as offsetting the shock of Harry’s entry into a parallel magical world. And if even a silly name like Hogwarts can become infused with meaning and gravitas, there’s no need to stress unduly about the quality and internal coherence of naming schemes for mythical races in the first place.

Just in case that’s what you were doing…

Now go buy my book. It has elves with linguistically arbitrary naming conventions!

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The paradox of fiction

The struggle to write (good) fiction continues, and it occurred to me today that there is a paradox inherent in the desire to create a world, or characters, or situations that are on the one hand fictional, and on the other hand deeply meaningful and therefore worth writing.

What is paradoxical about profoundly meaningful fiction? For me, all meaning must ultimately be real meaning; yet fiction is by definition unreal. We’ve discussed already how the unreality and freedom of fiction can make it more potent than non-fiction; but now that potency itself raises the paradox. If I can create a supremely potent and meaningful fiction, wouldn’t that fiction either approximate or take the place of my own real ideals and perspective of reality?

If you were going to build yourself a house, you would want it to be the ideal house because it will take a lot of effort to build and you’re going to be living in it for a very long time.  A novel also takes a lot of effort and time to construct, but you don’t have to live in it when it’s done. In fact you live in it until it is done.  Nonetheless, because of the effort involved you want it to be as good as it possibly can. You want it to meet your ideals.

The problem then is that to meet my ideals the fiction must be so meaningful that it ceases to be ‘fiction’ and instead becomes somehow a reality.  This is not so much an expected outcome as a pressure and it explains some of the difficulties I’ve been having: I feel pressed to make my fiction so meaningful that all seemingly conventional fictional efforts immediately fall short and are discarded. I can’t invent a character unless he is the most appropriate and meaningful character – but what if that character ends up being me?  I can’t invent a goal unless it is the most meaningful and significant goal – but such a goal must transcend the boundaries of fiction.

Tolkien may have avoided this problem by regarding his efforts as the creation of a myth for his people. In other words, all his work on Middle-Earth could be justified under the auspices of mythology – a context that lent it gravitas and significance beyond mere fiction.  In this sense, his work broke the boundary between fiction and reality. Myth is, after all, neither truly fiction nor fact but sits in its own strange landscape where history and ideas can coexist. Tolkien’s exorbitant efforts make sense because the meaning he created was not just for himself nor for the sake of writing fiction but for a whole people, for posterity; nor simply for entertainment but for all the vital significance of mythology.*

None of this is to imply that all the good fiction out there is somehow insignificant or inferior. This is a personal creative challenge, not a generic critique, and it likely strikes only a small subset of those who turn their hand to fiction.

How I see the paradox unfolding is that my continued efforts to write fiction must somehow satisfy my desire for it to be supremely meaningful – a work of fiction that transcends the banality of everyday life. If it succeeds in this, it will then somehow encapsulate the meaning in this life also. In other words, it will have to be more than fiction. It will have to be real, and that is both a frightening and an exhilarating prospect.

 

*People often describe Tolkien as having created his own world, but the implicit solipsism doesn’t ring true. It seems more like Tolkien was reshaping the world, or at least his corner of it, enriching his world through the domain of myth. Perhaps that is why Tolkien didn’t like Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia: as allegories, analogies, or on the level of conceit, their significance cannot translate into the real world in the same way that the mythology of Middle-Earth can. Many authors create a few words of a foreign language for the sake of their stories; Tolkien still stands out for having created actual, workable languages. His fictional languages became real things, just as his stories became real as myth.