Archive | November, 2012

The Great Harry Potter Controversy

29 Nov

Since the release of the first Harry Potter novel in 1997, J K Rowling’s books about the boy wizard and his adventures have gained immense popularity, critical acclaim and commercial success worldwide. But it is also fair to say that the series has also attracted more than its fair share of criticism. There has been ire from Christian groups about the books’ ‘pagan’ content, legal disputes over stolen ideas and complaints that, in the end and despite the hype, the books just aren’t that good in the first place. It has always, in particular, interested me that so many people have complained that J K Rowling allegedly lifted chunks of the Potterverse from other sources. How true is this? I wondered, and hence thought that it might be useful some day to sort through all the alleged prototypes for Harry Potter in a post on the subject. I’ve always been put off doing this until now, however, because the Rowling-machine have been remarkably ready to stamp on any and all criticism of this sort, including going to court where necessary. Before I get started, therefore, let’s be clear here — I’m not saying that any of these accusations are true! As any fantasy readers out there will be all too aware, if anything, when people point out similarities between two fantasy books, they’re often simply pointing out that they both belong to the same genre. Nevertheless, I will of course proceed with my usual caution!

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The Golden Age of Kids’ TV

22 Nov

The approach of Christmas inevitably brings to mind the TV shows I watched as a child. But defining children’s fantasy television is a bit like looking for bundles of straw in a haystack. After all, which kids’ fare doesn’t contain some element of the fantastic or the impossible? Still, we generally known what we mean when we talk about children’s sci-fi and fantasy TV in Britain, even if the  boundaries can generally be quite shaky: it’s drama you only find between four and six pm, or on Sundays; it’s drama in which earnest drama school types called Tom and Tizzy go off to spend their summer holidays with a great aunt or uncle in the country in a big house with a garden which holds a secret that only the ghostly apparition of a grubby Victorian street urchin can unlock; it’s drama, more often than not, with really immaculate sets, portentous music and generally cheap but earnest special effects. If there is a predominant theme to this genre, it’s of children and teenagers finding their identities and coming to terms with the often dysfunctional adult world around them. Which is where the fantasy comes in. It might be a kindly old wizard or an amorphous jellyfish with a nice line in aphorisms but, whatever their shape, their role is to provide the wise, understanding, benevolent authority figure that’s been missing from our unfortunate heroes’ lives, and set them on the road to a brighter future. Looking back at the golden age of kids’ TV isn’t purely an exercise in nostalgia however, for these were the series that, in many cases, first entranced  today’s fans of sci-fi and fantasy – after all, these were the tea-time delights that fed our imaginations at the most impressionable of ages.

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Castles in the Air

15 Nov

One seemingly inescapable fact about fantasy novels is that, if you’re going to write one, then you will almost certainly have to, at some stage, put a castle, fortress, palace, tower or fortification of some type in it. This is hardly surprising given that so many ‘fantasy’ worlds are actually based on a fairly narrow period in our own history when castles were of supreme importance as seats of power, symbols of prestige and, in many cases, bastions of civilization in an ever dangerous world. What I remember best about some of my favourite fantasy novels are the places as much as the characters.  A Song of Ice and Fire, for example, has dozens of wildly different citadels which are home to the series’ various warring families. The Starks of the north live in the brooding stronghold of Winterfell, while the powerful Lannisters are based in the gold-rich fortress of Casterley Rock. The severe island citadel of Dragonstone, the mountain fortress called The Eyrie and bustling King’s Landing, seat of the rulers of all the Seven Kingdoms, are some of the other memorable locations in George R R Martin’s saga, all brought vividly to life in the HBO adaptation. In creating these castles Martin is carrying on the fine tradition of the many fantasy authors who went before him. J R R Tolkien named the second book in The Lord of the Rings trilogy after the opposing towers of Minas Tirith, last rallying point of the Free Peoples of Middle Earth in the War of the Ring, and the Barad-dur, stronghold of the Dark Lord Sauron. Mervyn Peake created one of the most iconic castles in all of literature in the form of the vast, crumbling ruin of Gormenghast, seat of the Groan dynasty in the trilogy of the same name. But what were the real world inspirations behind these fantastic creations?

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By the Power of Grayskull!

8 Nov

One of the most popular and enduring cartoons ever made, He-Man was the result of a collaboration between toy giant Mattel and animation outfit Filmation. Mattel had put out two figures in 1981 (a barbarian warrior and his skeletal blue nemesis), only to find themselves inundated with letters from children demanding to know who they were and why they were fighting. Mattel brought in TV scriptwriter Michael Halperin to write a series bible that would form the backbone for Filmation’s series. He came up with the world of Eternia, a fantastical planet where Star Wars met Conan the Barbarian. Filmation specialised in producing animation quickly and cheaply, and were one of the last US animation studios to resist outsourcing their work to the Far East – probably a contributing factor to their sad demise in 1990. The studio kept budgets low by repeatedly re-using stock footage in episodes and featuring long takes panning across backgrounds. Continuity was something of a mess as a result, although in truth it was unlikely that many younger children even noticed the repetition. Bringing on board then-unknown writers such as Paul Dini (Batman: The Animated Series), Larry DeTillo (Beast Wars) and J M Straczynski (Babylon 5), the studio churned out 130 episodes in just two years. The show proved to be an instant success – in the early eighties, it was almost impossible to spend more than 20 minutes in a children’s play area without witnessing at least one child yelling “I have the power!”.

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Thomas the Rhymer

1 Nov

Thomas the Rhymer, also known as Thomas of Erceldoune, Thomas Learmont and True Thomas, may or may not have been a Scottish poet and prophet who lived between 1220 and 1297. I say ‘may’ because in many ways Thomas is as much myth as man. He is mentioned in the chartulary (1294) of the Trinity House of Soltra as having inherited lands in Erceldoune, a Berwickshire village now known as Earlston. He is said to have predicted the death of Alexander III, king of Scotland, and the battle of Bannockburn, as well as being the traditional source of many (fabricated) oracles, one of which ‘foretold’ the accession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne. He is also the reputed author of the poem Tristrem, based on the romance of Tristan and Isolde, which no less an authority than Sir Walter Scott considered genuine (it probably in fact emanated from a French source). What Thomas is best known for, however, is the ballad Thomas the Rhymer, included by Scott in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802), which tells of his visit to the land of faerie and his imprisonment there by a fey enchantress. In popular lore he was often coupled with Merlin and other British seers. An elusive, inspiring figure, Thomas the Rhymer slipped in and out of the Otherworld, creating new myths and legends that have only grown in the telling in the many centuries since his seeming ‘death’. He is also the probable source of the legend of Tam Lin.

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