Stardust

by Neil Gaiman

 

Fantasy is an interesting genre. When most people think of fantasy, they seem to think of Lord of the Rings and its derivatives–Game of Thrones, Wheel of Time, even World of Warcraft. Modern fantasy seems to be all about constructing a fiction world and populating it with “realistic” characters. Neil Gaiman does fantasy a little differently.

I hadn’t even heard of Neil Gaiman before around 2012, when my friend drunkenly told me that American Gods was one of his favorite books. I took his advice. I then read another of his books, then bought a couple more, and finally got around to reading Stardust this year. While Gaiman has plenty more out there that I haven’t read, I’m familiar enough with his style that I’m beginning to understand what he’s trying to do. I think.

In my ‘umble opinion, Gaiman cares more about creating the feel of a fairy tale than building a gritty world for his characters to inhabit. It’s the feeling that yes, there’s a real world, but you have only to draw back a curtain to find things that are absolutely fantastical. Fairy tales blur the lines between reality and fiction, either by setting their stories in a mythical past–as in the Arthurian legends, Greek epics, Star Wars, or pretty much any culture’s folklore–or by playing to the idea that the world is a big, sometimes scary, but inherently magical place. See: Grimm fairy tales, Disney movies, X-Men, Jurassic Park. These stories, these fairy tales, seem to say: “Magic is real, or at least it was real in the past. And maybe someday it will be real again.”

It’s a bit of a fine line to draw, but I think it’s tangible when you actually start reading it. Let’s take for example, oh I don’t know, Stardust. This is clearly a fantasy novel but, like American Gods and The Ocean at the End of the Lane, this story takes place in our world. Or at least, that’s where our story begins. Tristran Thorn lives in the English town of Wall, a town named for the literal barrier between the known world and the magical land of Faerie. On a whim, a stupid promise to a girl he thinks he loves, he sets off beyond the wall to catch a falling star.

Let’s pause for a second and consider why Gaiman sets it up this way. As a resident of Wall, Tristran is vaguely aware that there’s a “second” world outside of England, but he’s about as aware of it as an ancient African would be of India. Sure, it probably exists, but if you’re never going there, what’s the difference? It’s interesting to contemplate, or to tell stories about, but it’s completely irrelevant to your life. When the foolish young man makes his promise to do the unthinkable, but not the impossible, he’s forgoing all of the knowledge and certainty about what his life would have become, and stepping into a mystery. Would the story be as effective if Tristran was living in Faerie to begin with? I’d say no. StardustTaking a young man on the edge of reality, both literally (physically living at the border with Faerie) and figuratively (moving from childhood into adulthood), gives him one chance to do the unthinkable before he finds his permanent place in the world.

The structure of the story thus established, I think it’s fair to say that the book went in some pretty unexpected directions with its plot. Tristran comes across plenty of danger in Faerie, but some of it is so unexpected that you might be left scratching your head. In addition to Tristran’s admirable mission to secure the star, Gaiman introduces a good variety of subplots involving witches, feuding brothers, and all sorts of magical creatures and settings. Though Tristran’s story is relatively straightforward, Stardust proves that Neil Gaiman isn’t necessarily interested in writing traditional fairy tales.

And of course, just because Gaiman writes fairy tales, that doesn’t mean we always get a happily-ever-after. Like Tolkien, I think Gaiman understands that a fairy tale should end not with possibility, but with possibility lost. Not every plot thread ends on a high note. While the book encourages its readers to have big dreams for the characters, many of these hopes will be dashed by the end. A young man can’t stay young forever, and the magic that allowed him to do the unthinkable will not repeat itself. Such is the nature of magic.

As an aside, I think the irony of Tolkien’s influence is that while yes, he did succeed in creating big, beautiful worlds, filled with unique characters and cultures, he never lost sight of what he was really doing. He was inventing myth out of whole cloth, creating a bible of stories for a distant past that we all know never actually existed. His works might have often contained more detail than those of the Brothers Grimm, but they were meant to accomplish a similar goal. I would posit that modern fantasy’s major flaw is its disregard for the myth-making at the core of the genre. Treating these stories as legend, rather than history, might reintroduce some of the magic that they largely seem to lack. (The Nerdwriter makes a similar point, though he goes in a somewhat different direction with it.)

A second aside: Since this post went further than I expected into how myths are made and stories told, I just want to take the time to disavow JJ Abrams’ take on the “mystery box.” His view of the mystery box originates, I think, in the idea of the fairy tale, and I don’t think he’s too far off the mark. But Abrams seems concerned about the effect of the mystery box on the audience: what we think is in the box, what we want to be in the box, and what we’re afraid is in the box. Fairy tales concern themselves more with the effect of the “mystery box” on the characters. Abrams talks about the mystery of Princess Leia, but that mystery would be meaningless if it wasn’t for Luke’s interest in finding out who she was. Rey from The Force Awakens, on the other hand, is a classic Abrams-style mystery box. The mystery surrounding her serves no purpose in the movie, but Abrams just can’t help himself; rather than leave some things unknown, he has to stamp his work with question marks, just in case we don’t find it interesting enough on its own.

While much of Gaiman’s work is indisputably fantasy, Stardust doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a literal Faerie tale. I readily admit that sometimes the plot became a bit too weird for me, but I can’t say it wasn’t unique, or that it didn’t spark that feeling of wonder that fiction so often lacks.

The Lord of the Rings

by J.R.R. Tolkien

 

Sometimes I’m an impulsive Amazon purchaser. Earlier this year I decided that it was absurd not to own the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, so I invested. I watched them at least twice. Wouldn’t you know it, I was then in an even more Lord of the Rings-y mood, and I had to make another Amazon purchase. Those covers are so classy…

Having not read the books since I was maybe 14, before I’d read a lot of other adult fantasy and when just getting through them was a struggle, I wasn’t sure how I’d like the series at age 25. The Fellowship of the RingTolkien, after all, can be incredibly dense. Anyone who has attempted his books as a middle schooler, who has valiantly fought through the songs and poems and lore of Middle-earth, can attest to that.

But Tolkien can also be fun. This side of him definitely shows up more in The Hobbit, which is more of an adventure story for younger readers. Readers learn about the Shire a little bit, and about hobbits and dwarves, and then Bilbo goes off on an adventure that makes him very rich. He also wins a magic ring in a riddle contest from a certain cave-dweller named Gollum, thereby setting up a much more serious trilogy, though that wasn’t necessarily Tolkien’s intention at the time. The Hobbit is largely a self-contained fantasy world that’s a pleasure to read.

This fun side of Middle-earth shows up in Lord of the Rings as well, though it’s quickly overshadowed by the darkness that’s descending upon the land and its inhabitants. Fellowship starts off in the Shire once more, as Bilbo and Frodo throw themselves a birthday party. I really enjoyed this part of the book; if it’s true that Tolkien based the Shire off of the English countryside, he clearly cherishes his home, and that shines through in his writing. The long-expected party gets everyone in Hobbiton excited, and it got me excited again too, despite my knowledge of the more dramatic events to come. There’s just something about those scenes, something in their flavor, that can make you nostalgic for a life that you never lived.

After the party, though, the adventure gets going. The One Ring, having passed from Bilbo to Frodo, must be kept safe. Gandalf lays out Frodo’s quest, which will soon send him on a journey out of the Shire, to Rivendell, across the Misty Mountains, and finally to the Gates of Mordor and beyond. Each phase of his journey–along with those of his erstwhile companions–is neatly divided into a single chapter, which I like; it gives his fantasy a “serial” feel. Most authors these days seem to use chapters to either a) divide a book arbitrarily so that each chapter isn’t too long, and b) create cliffhangers. Tolkien uses chapters to divide what would otherwise be a nearly interminable journey into a series of related adventures. It’s nice, as a reader, to take in a small part of the story, put the book down, digest what happened, and continue with another section later.

As you probably know, what starts out as a journey not unlike Bilbo’s changes over the course of the series. While we open with the insular worldview of the Shire’s inhabitants, Tolkien soon draws back the curtain on the rest of Middle-earth, introducing us to individuals and entire nations who live under a shadow that hobbits can only conceive of in nightmares. As Frodo journeys closer and closer to Mordor to destroy the Ring, he passes through lands that do not share hobbits’ carefree view of the world. The Two TowersThe power of the Ring increases with proximity to its maker, making Frodo’s path ever more dangerous. The Ring preys on the noble and the selfish alike, forcing Frodo to bear his burden virtually without help. Frodo marches towards his fate, while the rest of his companions face their own doom alongside the rest of Middle-earth.

Frodo crumbles before our eyes as the Ring takes its toll, while Sam can do little but watch him waste away. The Ring-bearer’s transformation reflects a key theme of the story: victory requires sacrifice. Across Middle-earth, everyone must decide for themselves whether fighting a war will be worth it if all of the old world will be destroyed anyway. Even a total victory will not prevent that.

All change isn’t for the worse, though. Merry and Pippin, too, are transformed by their experiences. Instead of turning into shadows of their former selves, though, these two young hobbits come out of the war with experience and maturity, which they promptly put to use in an effort to save their beloved Shire; in a cruel twist of fate, the four hobbits who set out on their quest reluctantly to preserve the innocence of the Shire return home to find that for their countrymen, the suffering has only just begun.

While the scope of Tolkien’s world is huge, his focus on a handful of major characters is the strength of his story. He doesn’t need a huge cast to illustrate the depth of his world; he does it with the members of the Fellowship and perhaps just a handful of others. Because of this, we actually get to see the growth of the characters, especially the hobbits, which I’m afraid would be lost in a more crowded story. See Wheel of Time.

Speaking of which, it’s important to note that Lord of the Rings is pretty much the foundation of fantasy as a literary genre. Myth and adventure have been around forever, but it’s impossible to deny that the world building, the character archetypes, and many of the tropes of modern epic fantasy come from Tolkien. I read somewhere that he’s the reason that fantasy characters speak with British accents; haven’t you ever wondered why American author George R.R. Martin’s characters talk the way they do? So much of what we know as fantasy is clearly built on what Tolkien created, sometimes subtly, sometimes as blatantly as Robert Jordan’s homage, The Eye of the World. Unfortunately, this means that sometimes Tolkien’s story doesn’t hold up to the various sub-genres that it predates. Fans of the nihilistic Game of Thrones series will probably see Lord of the Rings as simplistic and naive, while young Harry Potter fans might not be up to its challenges. Wheel of Time fans might prefer simpler writing in a more epic setting. The immense, diverse, and fractured fantasy/sci-fi landscape partially owes its existence to Tolkien while simultaneously rendering his epics seemingly irrelevant.

As for myself, I don’t think Lord of the Rings is irrelevant. But I do, with great honesty and a tinge of regret, admit that I think the movies improve upon the books. I’m a sucker for film, so I’m sure that plays a part, but I could point to a few specific aspects of the movies that I think are better, while I can only point to a couple stellar moments from the books that were omitted in the film adaptations. The Return of the KingI think it’s hard to argue that with regards to pacing, eliminating the Barrow-downs and Tom Bombadil from the films was a wise choice. Likewise with the Scouring of the Shire; as much as I would’ve loved to see the visions in the Mirror of Galadriel come to fruition on the big screen, faithfully adapting Return of the King was going to result in serious pacing problems, and the movie’s approximately one thousand endings were already pushing the limits. Thematically, I think that the Scouring is a hugely important part of the books, but I just don’t see it working as the ending of a film series. Maybe whoever adapts this series the next time around will figure out a way to do it right.

Of course, the written word will always have a magic that won’t exactly translate to the big screen. I’m a big proponent of the idea that you can like a movie and the book that it’s based on just about equally. Refusing to appreciate a movie because you see the medium as inherently inferior is just as silly as refusing to read the source material of a movie or TV show that you absolutely love. So while I think that Peter Jackson’s adaptations often improve upon the books, there are often things that are lost. Going to the source material is a unique and rich experience, even if you end up agreeing that the films are just a little bit tighter than the books.

It’s Lord of the Rings. You know them. You should read them. That’s all.

The Chronicles of Prydain

by Lloyd Alexander

 

I loved these books as a kid. I don’t always regress towards children’s books, but sometimes I tire of more “adult” fare, or I just need to go back and enjoy something I’ve already read. This is one of those times. Ironically enough, though, it took me way longer to finish this children’s series than, say, a Wheel of Time entry, despite the comparative brevity. Why? I hate to say it, but I think some of the magic might be lost on a twenty-five-year-old. Maybe it’s because I’ve been retrained by heavier tomes like Wheel, but it was hard to get into a fantasy that seemed to just zip along, moving from scene to scene without giving the story a chance to rest. A longer book isn’t always a better book, but it’s important to let tension build awhile before resolving a conflict.

The two hundred or so pages of each of the five books in the series have our hero Taran embarking on an adventure, usually to save his beloved Prydain from the evil Arawn Death-Lord or one of his buddies. At the start, Taran is just some young gun- a hot-headed Assistant Pig-Keeper- but he grows in each novel, as a young man and a leader. The Chronicles of PrydainThe books all follow the classic quest structure; while each has a different feel, and though the object of the quest changes, they all fall into that general category.

The installment I enjoyed most, Taran Wanderer, has Taran riding around the countryside in search of knowledge; he sets out to learn where he comes from, and when he fails to find a satisfying answer, he looks for other ways to define his identity. As he travels from village to village, learning new crafts and ways of life, the book becomes more like a parable or a fable than an adventure novel. This tonal shift, along with the slower pace and the lower stakes, really sets the fourth book apart from the rest.

At some point I realized that I was reading these books not in isolation, but as part of the larger fantasy canon. I’ve read a good bit of the stuff by now, and pretty early on in The Book of Three I found myself comparing aspects of the series to other famous fantasies, both earlier and later. Alexander supposedly based the Prydain series on Welsh mythology, which I know nothing about, but it’s impossible to miss the influence of fantasy epics like The Lord of the Rings and The Once and Future King on these books. Likewise, it was clear to me that Alexander inspired authors like J.K. Rowling and Robert Jordan to create their famous fantasy series. It reminded me of Neil Gaiman, asked about the similarities between Rowling’s Harry Potter and one of his own characters, responding, “I thought we were both just stealing from T.H. White.” There are countless examples of this across the years, and it’s fun to try to pick out what came from where.

An unfortunate result of a genre that’s constantly borrowing from itself, however, is that the stories might not seem as fresh as they did the first time you read them. I felt that there was nothing in Prydain that wasn’t done in a more original way in another fantasy book or series. Though this obviously isn’t really Alexander’s fault, it took away from what was clearly supposed to be an exciting narrative. I ended the series unable to recall what excited me so much about it in the first place.

No, Alexander’s Prydain novels don’t hold up too well as an adult, not as well as, say, The Golden Compass. But they’re meant for children, so whatever.