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Thursday, December 17, 2009

(Updated) Time for a Break: Literature for the Fantasy-Prone, Part One (book reviews)

Looking over this thing I realize I'd been awfully grim lately. Not my fault, surely... I mean, Afghanistan War; Copenhagen Climate Talks; Still No Health Care; Rich Sociopaths on Looting Spree... no wonder. What else am I supposed to think about? Oh, yeah -

Hey, kids, it's Fantasy Time!

Why read fantasy? I suspect it's neurological; either you get it or you don't. If I could take a stab at explaining why I like it, good fantasy is a way to explore, through relatively coherent narratives, forms of experience that are otherwise inexplicable in logical terms. Well written and conceived fantasy literature makes somewhat concrete the illusory or internal or unprovable. It makes allegorical, and thus examinable, the inarticulable. Think Joseph Campbell and his "hero's journey." Or Jung, and his forays into forbidden territory; he provides much inspiration for fantasy writers. Or take Tolkein's Lord of the Rings trilogy: there must be reasons why that was the most popular literary work of the twentieth century. Myth, spirituality, and fantasy are all part of the same psychological fractal, and a lot of humans find it deeply meaningful. It can be refreshing to a world-weary mind. And, not least, it's fun.

An old flame from my college days, as I was bemused to learn some decades later when he looked me up out of the blue, spent years of his professional career as a psychologist trying to get to the bottom of the mystery of "fantasy prone personalities" -- and thought of me as one of those (I'm still not clear exactly what he meant by the term, but it seemed to have something to do with my love in 1968 for Tom Bombadil, a character in Tolkein). Apparently I had been serving this guy (the psychologist, not Tom Bombadil, more's the pity), all unknowing, as some sort of muse, inspiring him to do scientific studies involving brain scans and fantasy prone volunteers instructed to visualize styrofoam cups on plastic tables in Psych Dept cubicles.

I'm sure that, seen from the right angle, this work was interesting.  Still, besides feeling somewhat vampired by this use of my psychic space while I was sleeping (or at least physically absent), I couldn't help wondering why, if he found a propensity toward fantasy so interesting, he didn't just read Tolkein. That's where the meaning is. I mean, he had spent years studying "the fantasy prone" but, when I asked him about it, said he'd never read Lord of the Rings, which is surely the iconic work of literature most universally shared  throughout that very subset of the population which he was studying; or, in other words, he'd never taken advantage of what seemed to me a much more obvious way to get inside his subjects' heads. That's how it struck me, at any rate. But then, I was an English major with an interest in anthropology, not an experimental psychologist. (Luckily, I escaped this encounter with the fellow with no worse injury to my head and heart than a mild concussion - purely accidental, but so wonderfully symbolic - and a healthy correction of memory.)

More recently, I read that some psychologists were beginning to acknowledge the existence of high-functioning female Aspies (girls with Asperger's Syndrome), and wondered if that fellow was now busy correlating his studies of fantasy-prone personalities with those recent descriptions of Aspie girls. Because with girl Aspies, a fascination with fantasy literature simply is a normal feature, revealed early in life, that reflects our atypical (or perhaps simply non-majority?) brains. At first I thought, if it takes a special kind of brain function to understand a fantasy-level kind of allegory, then, obviously, neurotypical people (NTs) will never get it. But then, Tolkein wouldn't be so widely loved if only an atypical brain could appreciate him. So clearly there's more to fantasy than what I see in it, or my erstwhile college friend either.

But I digress. Anyway, personally I can't read most of what's published as fantasy, but I'm always very happy to find another author besides Tolkein who can handle it at a level of literary excellence that makes it work for me. So far I've found only a few such writers. Here, in Part One of a projected roundup of my favorite fantasy authors, I'll introduce a fine series that I really enjoyed reading and reviewing as it came out, in 1998-99. I suspect it never found the following it merits. If you enjoy Tolkein (elves, above) or Marion Zimmer Bradley, or just have an interest in different versions of the Arthurian tales (the Matter of Britain) this set of books, collected as The Hallowed Isle, has to be among the very best. Diana L. Paxson reimagines the legend by telling it from the differing perspectives of  cultural groups that shared Britain's soil at that time and fought for control over its future.

Come to think of it, it's probably time for me to reread these - one nice thing about getting older is that you forget the details of the books you enjoyed in the past, and can do it all over again. Here are some of my SLJ recommendations. Books One and Two were later reissued as a single edition, and my review of Book One seems to have disappeared from the Web in the process, but if I come across it later, I'll edit it in here. (Update: Found it!) Then when Book Two came out, I didn't get it in time for a full review but did squeeze in a short mention. Here's that one, and the reviews I did of the third and fourth books (for SLJ).

The Hallowed Isle series by Diana L. Paxson --

Book One: The Book of the Sword
The legend of King Arthur continues to fascinate modern readers. Diana Paxson's retelling is fast-paced, focusing on key points in the saga. Part One of a projected four-volume work which will tell the entire story, The Book of the Sword is set in a war-torn Britain abandoned by the now-disintegrating Roman Empire. The country still enjoys the advantages of its Roman heritage, but is beset by raiders and plagued with violent disunity among its own peoples.

The story here chiefly follows the life of the wizard and prophet Merlin who, at age eleven, observes, "I don't know what metal I'm made of, or who will have the forging of me." Merlin's shrouded origins, and the unfolding discovery of his identity and purpose, make a compelling myth and underscore Paxson's message that humanity, like the sword the smithy forges in this scene, is stronger if it is made up of different "metals." Future volumes, projected for publication within a year, promise to continue this theme of diversity, telling the story from the perspective of other major cultural players on the Hallowed Isle stage such as Germanic peoples, Celts, and ancient Britons.

Teens with a taste for fantasy and myth should enjoy seeing how this writer creates new art from old motifs, as Paxson's version takes its place among other major modern Arthurs such as those of T.H. White, Mary Stewart, and Marion Zimmer Bradley. The Book of the Sword will also appeal to readers who enjoy historical novels with an element of fantasy such as Gillian Bradshaw's Island of Ghosts (1998), which takes place in a Roman Britain more or less compatible with Paxson's fictional universe, or Paxson's own previous novels such as her Wodan's Children trilogy.


Book Two: The Book of the Spear
Part two of a four-part Arthurian saga that focuses on the diverse and conflicting cultural groups occupying fifth-century Britain, this volume tells the story of Oesc, a Saxon warrior whose magical spear opposes Arthur's famous sword. Those who enjoyed the first book will not want to miss this continuation of Paxson's highly original version of the great legend.

Book Three: The Book of the Cauldron
This series, a vivid four-part retelling of the legend of King Arthur, portrays fifth-century Britain as a tapestry woven from richly multicultural strands. The Book of the Sword and The Book of the Spear (both Avon, 1999) revealed Merlin's secrets and described key episodes in the years of war that established Arthur as High King. Here, in Book Three, several enigmas are addressed, including his failed relationship with Guinevere and his problems with his evil sister (called here Morgause). Often lyrical, with frequent moments of startling beauty, Cauldron places the Old Religion at the center of the story, touching on questions of sexuality and spirituality inherent in the saga--and providing a plausible resolution to some of its mysteries.

Fans of Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon (Del Rey, 1985) can be steered directly to this book (the author acknowledges her debt to Bradley), though the earlier volumes also offer much to interest these readers. Others who are simply intrigued by the classic Arthurian legends, or who are fans of fantasy in general, can enjoy Paxson's fresh take on the classic tale, but probably should be advised to read the volumes in order. Readers who find themselves confused by the spellings and usages (e.g., Alba for Scotland, Gualchmai for Gawain) can refer to helpful lists of people and places.

Book Four: The Book of the Stone
This volume concludes Paxson's series on the "Matter of Britain." The previous volumes focused on Merlin's life and his origins in prehistory; the Roman influences underlying Arthur's values; the role played by the Saxons; and the variety of spiritual traditions seeking to prevail in determining the fate of Britain.

This volume begins in A.D. 502 when peace has been established and Camalot (note the author's different spellings of familiar names) rules, but Arthur soon leaves on a seemingly hopeless quest to bring peace to Gallia. In the years of his absence, Guendivar grows in stature and becomes a true queen; Morgause finally finds peace as a priestess of Avalon; Medraut, Arthur's troubled son, attempts to usurp the throne; and the kingdom is once again torn by strife. Ultimately the land itself ("the stone") asserts its power to guide the key figures through these cataclysmic events. Though it is the end of one age, spiritual and cultural traditions have been set in motion that will continue to guide Britain's destiny in the years to come.

Paxson's vivid retellings of the familiar story bring out the depth of its mythical and magical qualities and should please fans of Gillian Bradshaw, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and other writers who mix historical fiction with fantasy.

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A post script - you're probably familiar with the late Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon and its several sequels and prequels. Paxson was a long-time collaborator with MZB but I honestly like her Hallowed Isle series better than MZB's Avalon books. (Of MZB's works, I think her Darkover series is the best, or at least I like it the most. I re-read that every few years too.) I see on Amazon that Paxson has continued publishing Avalon/Arthurian novels as collaborations with MZB, even recently (MZB apparently bequeathed to her trusted collaborators a vast archive of notes from which future books could be crafted). Next time I get a craving for Arthurian lore I'll check those out too, and maybe reread all of these.

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I've titled this part one of fantasy reviews; sometime I expect I'll get around to my other favorites. Maybe when they're all together in a blog it will become apparent to me just what distinguishes these from the vast majority of fantasy novels I can't bear to read more than a few pages of.

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