Archive | September, 2012

Winter is Coming

28 Sep

Now that it is almost October it’s impossible for me to keep those famous, ominous words, first uttered in book one of George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, out of my mind: ‘Winter is coming’. The landscape of A Game of Thrones is irresistibly marked by the clash between winter and summer, warmth and cold, ice and fire. The freezing lands beyond The Wall contrast sharply with the sun-kissed southern lands of Westeros, which end ultimately in the desert principality of Dorne. This climatic imagery reaches its critical point when the imprisoned Davos Seaworth is informed by the red priestess Melisandre of Asshai that their entire world and all its people is no more than the mortal battleground between two gods whose conflict is everywhere and everlasting. On one side is R’hllor, the Lord of Light, the Heart of Fire, the God of Flame and Shadow. Against him stands the Great Other whose name may not be spoken, the Lord of Darkness, the Soul of Ice, the God of Night and Terror. They are opposites who present all men with a choice between light and dark, good and evil, death and life. But by no means is this a concept that is new to fantasy novels. Again and again, the cold lands of the north and the winter season are associated with death and darkness, while it is in the warmer southern lands and summertime that life and joy abide. In Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, Sturmspeik in the northernmost part of the world of Osten Ard is the forbidding fortress of the undead Storm King and his minions; the bleak wasteland known as The Blight is the domain of the Dark One, Robert Jordan’s principal villain in The Wheel of Time; and the witch-realm of Angmar in the north of Middle Earth is home to Tolkien’s Witch King, chieftain of the Ringwraiths who serve the Dark Lord Sauron. What is it that has lodged such dread of the perils of snow and ice in the minds of generations of storytellers?

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Barbarians at the Gate!

21 Sep

What is it that makes barbarian characters so popular and appealing? The original barbarians – the Huns, the Goths, the Gauls, the Saxons, Jutes and Picts etc – were history’s Hell’s Angels, credited with nothing less than bringing about the fall of western civilisation and the onset of the Dark Ages. They were anything but heroic, yet their fantasy equivalents are some of the most enduring and well known characters in the genre. Few have not heard of Conan, Robert E Howard’s muscle-bound anti-hero (although in fairness that may have more to do with Arnold Schwarzenegger than the character on the printed page). Of rather more respectable vintage are Druss, axe-wielding hero of many of David Gemmell’s Drenai heroic fantasy novelsand Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd in the Lankhmar novels. Barbarian warriors are also, of course, a staple of role-playing games. In this medium they are often represented as lone warriors, very different from the vibrant historical cultures on which they are based. Several characteristics are commonly shared, including physical prowess and fighting skill combined with a fierce temper and a tolerance for pain. No doubt due to their animal magnetism (though not to their general lack of personal hygiene) they appear to be irresistible to the opposite gender, and seem to possess an equal appetite for food and drink. While Conan, Druss and Fafhrd are all fairly standard examples of this archetype, the graphic novel character Sláine is a somewhat more ambiguous and intriguing take on the classic barbarian.

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Three of a Kind

14 Sep

I thought I’d try something a little different with this post. Instead of looking at a specific fantasy theme, author or book, I wanted to take a look at three books, each written in a very different era but all nevertheless having a great deal in common. Robert Holdstock’s World Fantasy Award-winning Lavondyss can be read as a stand-alone novel as well as forming part of the Mythago sequence. A product of the drab, materialistic eighties, much of Lavondyss is set in a much earlier, but still recognisable age – rural England in the forties and fifties. With much of the action centering on deep woods and wild, hidden places it almost seeks to re-establish a disappearing link between the modern era and a more innocent age that has virtually been lost beyond the possibility of recall. Jan Siegel’s Prospero’s Children appeared a decade later, at the end of the nineties, and in common with much of the fantasy fiction from that time it brims over with epic, apocalyptic themes, perhaps reflecting the uncertainty surrounding the rapidly approaching end of the millennium. The setting, however, is solidly small scale: a house in the wilds of Yorkshire that straddles more than one world. This house becomes the focus in a struggle between the ancient forces of good and evil and a young witch girl’s coming of age. Freda Warrington’s Elfland is a 21st century novel, filled with modern characters with current concerns, yet whose lives are touched by the irresistible lure of the twilight realm of Faerie. Somehow, despite the fact that a gap of over twenty years separates Lavondyss from Elfland, both novels – together with Prospero’s Children – can be seem as forming part of the same tradition. Located on the elusive boundary between mythic fiction and urban fantasy, Holdstock, Siegel and Warrington’s work also represents the very best in a peculiarly British approach to fantasy. Let’s take a closer look at their books.

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The Music of Howard Shore

7 Sep

Canadian composer Howard Shore first rose to prominence for scoring the films of David Cronenberg in particular. His memorable themes for The Brood, The Fly and Dead Ringers won him other projects for a range of other major film directors, including David Fincher (Seven), Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs) and Martin Scorcese (After Hours). The project that earned him his greatest success, both in terms of awards and popular acclaim, was the score of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. What is interesting is that in many ways Howard Shore’s selection as the films’ composer was something of a surprise. After all, given his past collaboration with the likes of Cronenberg, Fincher and Demme, Shore was associated with dark, ominous films rather than popcorn blockbusters. Furthermore, he had never before taken on anything that compared with the sheer scale of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien trilogy (although in fairness hardly any composers in the history of film-making have either!). Of course, the Lord of the Rings films were no ordinary motion pictures and this is what attracted Howard Shore to the project in the first place. Shore’s score was hugely successful and won him his first Oscar, as well as a Grammy Award, and nominations for a Golden Globe and a BAFTA. Ultimately, perhaps Shore’s greatest success, on a more prosaic level, is that it is now almost impossible to imagine any one of the Rings films without simultaneously humming one of Shore’s theme tunes.

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