Archive | October, 2012

The Era of Excess

25 Oct

Hearing about the recent 25th anniversary of the release of The Princess Bride made me think of that most cherished of film sub-genres: the 1980s fantasy flick. Defined by films such as the aforementioned Bride, as well as Willow, Krull, The Neverending Story, Excalibur and Ladyhawke, all of these motion pictures were marked by an anarchic sense of humour, picaresque adventure and often, unfortunately, some truly terrible scripts, acting and dialogue. Quite what prompted this mini-boom in over the top fantasy movies is something of a mystery. Maybe it was a reaction against the in-yer-face realism of 1970s cinema that saw Hollywood fall so insatiably in love with fantasy films in the ’80s. Or maybe it was the optical effects triumphs of the late ’70s sci-fi films that convinced film-makers that they could finally mount stories of this kind convincingly. Whatever the reason, the ’80s was a decade of mythical adventures in thrilling, faraway lands, ruled over by wicked, dark forces. It was a time of callow, would-be warriors setting off on life-changing quests against dastardly enemies and finding love – or at least lust – on the way. Let’s take a magical mystery tour through the era of excess in fantasy films.

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Durin’s Folk

18 Oct

“Concerning the beginning of the Dwarves strange tales are told both by the Eldar and by the Dwarves themselves…” – so says Appendix A to the Lord of the Rings. As one of the most iconic sentient fantasy races, the very word ‘Dwarf’ (plural, post-Tolkien: ‘Dwarves’) immediately brings to mind a highly distinctive image. Dwarves, we imagine, are a short and stocky folk, standing between four and five feet tall by the measure of men. Strong and hardy, they are known to endure pain, fatigue and suffering more readily than other races. At need, they can push themselves hard to cross rough terrain quickly or to come to grips with a foe. Their men grow thick, luxuriant beards in which they take great pride, often colouring, forking, or braiding them. They are stern, often stubborn and proud, and are prone to resist any attempt to dominate or sway them. They rarely forget insults or wrongs done them or their families, even over centuries, and they take the burdens of vengeance (and other obligations) placed upon them seriously. But, to balance this, they rarely forget a favour or kindness either. With such unique, appealing attributes, it is no surprise that Dwarves have consistently been a feature of fantasy novels both before and since Tolkien’s day. Given the important role that Dwarves will play in the forthcoming big screen adaptations of The Hobbit, now is an opportune time to take a look at the ‘strange tales’ to which Tolkien alludes concerning the beginnings of the Dwarves.

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Duncton Wood

11 Oct

There have been many great fantasy sagas that have had animals rather than humans as their central characters. Perhaps the most famous example of ‘anthropomorphic fantasy’ is Richard Adams’ tale of the rabbit kingdom of Watership Down but there are many other distinguished entries in this sub-genre. The Silver Tide and the other books in Michael Tod’s Dorset Squirrels series tell of the struggles of England’s indigenous Red Squirrels against invaders from overseas. Tod has also written fantasy novels with other animal characters – including elephants and dolphins – as his main protagonists. The hallmark of Tod’s books is his ability to make readers sympathise fully with the animals despite (or perhaps because of) their non-human nature. Of older vintage are the novels in the Kine saga by A R Lloyd, an heroic fantasy trilogy that charts the struggles of a wild weasel from youth to old age. Lloyd’s anti-hero Kine (which is an old English word for weasel) is presented realistically – there is no ‘magic’ as such in his world – but his ‘kingdom’ in the form of the English countryside is every bit as fully realised as Middle Earth, Narnia, Earthsea or any other fantasy world which you might care to mention, thanks to Lloyd’s lovingly descriptive prose. Martin Hocke’s The Ancient Solitary Reign tells of the struggle of a community of barn owls against a ‘monster’ eagle owl that encroaches on their territory, forcing them into an uneasy alliance with their traditional rivals, the tawny owls. Tod, Lloyd and Hocke all portray nature unflinchingly as ‘red in tooth and claw’ – there is nothing ‘cute’ about the squirrels, weasels and owls that feature in their novels, any more than the rabbits of Watership Down resemble fluffy cartoon bunnies. In all of these animal fantasy sagas, each author’s serious approach, coupled with their obvious immersion in the world which they are striving to depict and their devotion to realising their protagonists as fully-developed characters rather than animals with human characteristics, is what makes their work so unforgettable. William Horwood’s Duncton Chronicles are a worthy addition to the creature fantasy sub-genre, as well as a superb illustration of everything that is great about these types of books.

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Egypt’s Divine Kingship

4 Oct

In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte and his French troops conquered Egypt. They were the latest in a succession of foreign forces to dominate in the wake of the pharaohs. The expedition’s reports of countless temples, tombs and monuments lining the banks of the Nile – the remains of an ancient yet sophisticated civilisation – helped to spark a new interest in the region that has never abated. The power of ancient Egypt, at its zenith in circa 1450 BC, extended from the border with Libya in the west to the river Euphrates in the east, and from the Nubian deserts in the south to Syria in the north. The heart of the empire lay along the Nile, a haven from the surrounding deserts in which the Egyptians could nourish their own unique vision of the world. A stark duality – harsh desert versus fertile river margins – was woven deeply into Egyptian thought. Myths were expressed in Egyptian iconography, hieroglyphics and ritual, but no one version of a story was held to be authoritative. Egyptian religion was a cult of the pharaohs’ ancestors, with the attendant rituals conducted in temples open only to priests and the pharaohs themselves. Indeed, so pervasive was the presence of the gods and goddesses in every aspect of life that there was no separate word to denote religion. The gods, the world and the planets were all part of the same cosmic order, known as ma’at, which humans sought to maintain.

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