Friday, September 21, 2007

Writers Passing

The last couple of weeks, a couple of writers of certain note passed away, Madeleine L'Engle on September 6th at the age of 88 and Robert Jordan (real name James Oliver Ragney Jr) at the age of 58 on September 17th. I won't attempt to recap their lives or even the totality of their works. By this point most news sites will have given most of the details on the latter and the former has a wonderful official website:

It's interesting that both writers really helped me think and see things and yet I've read exactly one book of theirs each.

With Madeleine L'Engle, it was A WRINKLE IN TIME. I read it when I was much younger than I am now (leading me to the impression that I thought she was currently a bit older than 88. It was one of those books that I would pick back up occassionally and read yet again and always be surprised at some little detail that I had missed or forgotten about the first time around. I remember being struck at the idea and dilemma of how would you describe the concept of color to someone that has never seen? And that to a kid, she described the perfect concept of Hell, leastways to me when she talks about houses all alike and at a set time, all the kids come out of the houses and bounce a ball exactly in sync. Even though I loved to read more than play sports and such, such discipline and exact order was anathema to me. I'd squirm to even read and think about it. I still have that beat up paperback from 30 years ago stashed away somewhere.

Robert Jordan, it's a different case. I had long ago read and re-read Tolkien's LORD OF THE RINGS as well devouring all the mythology I could as a kid. Yet, when I cast about for other fantasy novels, they mostly just fell short. They either struck me as being too much like Tolkien without the actual charm and breadth of his vision. And I gave up. Until around the time they made the movies and I revisited the world of Fantasy and thought I might try my hand at it. And, I read a bunch of Fantasy novels from the likes of Drake, Feist, Weisman, Simak, Goodkind, Brooks, Martin, Leiber, Howard, etc. And I worked my way towards Jordan, though I wasn't seeking to start such a major series already in progress. But I found a good deal on a paperback version of the first book and I was shortly going on a trip overseas and the book would make good airplane reading.

From all of this reading, I discovered several things. One, unless you're reading the novels based on role playing games, there really isn't much in the way of the European folklore based fantasies. There really aren't that many with elves, dwarves, and goblins and such. There were many good ones, some better than others with intriguing worlds, characters and such. Though I realized few really approach the likes of the older writers or even seem to try. Although one friend did say he liked Jordan's take on the Howard characters, that he was one of the better writers of the character, which my friend considered high praise.

Two, almost all fantasy novels are parts of a series and rarely self-contained in one volume. This is where the curse of Tolkien is truly felt in the Fantasy genre. I don't mind series books in that the characters continue from book to another. I love finding in the Mystery genres detectives that I like to follow from one story to another. But, with Fantasy, each book is usually part of a finite series, a trilogy or such even if the characters will continue on past this particular trilogy to another trilogy and another. You cannot just pick up ONE book to get the story.

Third, there really is a set formula that links almost all of these books, even when the styles and such differ wildly. And this really gelled for me while reading Jordan's WHEEL OF TIME book. First off, despite the fact there is world-building going on, the defined world of this particular fantasy world in whatever book you're reading is pretty small, about the size of South Carolina. Often there's a reason, some impassable mountains or seas, but the operating world is isolated instead of feeling vast and big. Second, the novel must start even smaller. The hero will be some common man from a smaller backwater community of this world. There's a certain logic to this, it allows the reader to quickly get on the same level as the main character(s) in the book. Of course this means very quickly the character must leave this small sheltered area and enter into the much larger world. There's a reason for this structure, most fantasy novels are mileau novels, they exist to explore the fantastic world they are set in and for this they must travel away from their comfort zone. The other all too familiar tropes brought out, the hero of destiny. The hero is destined to be the champion of the realm, is heir to be king, a prince or princess in hiding, the end result of prophecy. It's basically shifting the focus from Frodo in LORD OF THE RINGS to Aragorn. And you cannot have a Child of Destiny without having the Big Evil. Only, frequently the Evil is ill-defined, they are evil because they do evil things and they do bad things because they are evil. As such, the bad guys have no real charisma, no real motivations, they just are.

Not to say these books are bad or anything. Just that these patterns emerged. Some books play with those patterns or change them around some, they'll keep one or two and discard others. WHEEL OF TIME pretty much has all of them though and while there were some scenes I liked, for the most part I just didn't see a reason to continue past it. I think part of that may be that since he was telling a mileau type story, I just didn't find this particular world all that interesting or fantastic with the first novel, pretty much my same response with Goodkind's WIZARD'S FIRT RULE. It didn't draw me in, making me want to search out the immediate next book. Instead, I was a bit relieved, thinking, "well, I finished that."

Jordan has loads of fans, and for their sake I do hope that maybe someone can be found to finish that last book, to give the heroes and villains the send-off they deserve while remaining true to Jordan's vision. Guess it depends on far he had gotten and how extensive his notes are. As a fan, I'd hate to be a book shy of finishing an epic.

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