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The Seventh Circle of Hell

10 Nov

Something a little different but perhaps appropriate for the season, coming on the heels of Hallowe’en and at the beginning of November, known to Anglo-Saxons as Blotmonath or ‘the month of blood’ – a post about Hell! In religion and folklore, Hell is an afterlife location in which evil souls are subjected to punitive suffering, often torture as eternal punishment after death. The modern English word hell is derived from Old English hel, helle (first attested around 725 AD to refer to a nether world of the dead) reaching into the Anglo-Saxon pagan period. Hell appears in several mythologies and religions. It is commonly inhabited by demons and the souls of dead people. A fable about Hell which recurs in folklore across several cultures is the allegory of the long spoons. Hell is often depicted in art and literature, perhaps most famously in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Other religions, which do not conceive of the afterlife as a place of punishment or reward, merely describe an abode of the dead, the grave, a neutral place that is located under the surface of Earth (for example, see Kur, Hades, and Sheol). Such places are sometimes equated with the English word ‘hell’, though a more correct translation would be ‘underworld’ or ‘world of the dead’. From illustrations in The Far Side comics and TV’s South Park, to centuries-old works like Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno, humanity has always wanted answers about hell. Lots of people have theories, some based in fact and some based on fiction.

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Fantasy Masterworks: Little, Big

16 Jun

Little, Big: or, The Fairies’ Parliamentis a modern fantasy novel by John Crowley, published in 1981, which won the World Fantasy Award in 1982. An extraordinary, sweeping and strange novel, it can perhaps be best described through the metaphor of its central setting: Edgewood, the house in which many generations (and permutations) of the Drinkwater family live. Edgewood is designed by the patriarch, a renowned architect, to be many houses within a single structure. It unfolds, as the viewer circles around it, to reveal many different facades — Victorian, modern, gothic — like a complex piece of origami. Little, Big is one of those sprawling, dream-like fantasy novels, much like Mark Helprin’s fantastical history of a mythical early 20th-century New York, Winter’s Tale. Like another counterpart, One Hundred Years of Solitude, but this time set in New England, Little, Big spans several generations of the Drinkwater family and their relationship with the world of faerie. The concept is rescued from tweeness by author Crowley’s dazzling feats of aerobatics with the English language, which at first take a bit of getting used to but, ultimately, draw you in and trap you with their beauty, not unlike the fabled world of faery itself. The esteemed literary critic Harold Bloom called Little, Big “a neglected masterpiece. The closest achievement we have to the Alice stories of Lewis Carroll”, and the vast novel does have an almost soporific, Wonderland quality to it – best read on lazy days in dappled sunshine.

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A Charmed Life: Diana Wynne Jones

26 Nov

Diana Wynne Jones (1934 – 2011) was a British writer, principally of fantasy novels for children and adults. Some of her better-known works are the Chrestomanci series, the Dalemark series; the novels Howl’s Moving Castle, Dark Lord of Derkholm, Fire and Hemlock and The Tough Guide To Fantasyland. Together with her near-contemporaries Susan Cooper, Alan Garner and Penelope Lively, she was one of the most successful and influential of the generation of fantasy writers who rose to prominence in the ‘second Golden Age’ of children’s literature in Britain. But is some ways Jones is a different and rather baffling case from these other authors. After Wilkins’ Tooth was published in 1973, she wrote some forty volumes of fantasy, almost all of them for children. Her books, which are characterized by humour, intelligence, unparalleled technical inventiveness, and a humane but unsentimental view of human nature, have long had a devoted following, not least among other fantasy writers. Yet for all this, she has not, at least until recently, enjoyed the same centrality in critical discussions of late twentieth-century British children’s literature as the other three authors. By 1981, for example, Jones was already the author of ten full-length children’s fantasy novels, including a winner of the Guardian Award (for Charmed Life in 1978). However, of two substantial critical books on the state of children’s literature published in that year, Sheila Egoff’s Thursday’s Child and Fred Inglis’s The Promise of Happiness, both of which give considerable space to Garner, Cooper and Lively, Egoff omits any mention of Jones at all, while Inglis names her just once, in passing. Nor are they by any means unusual in their neglect. As late as 2001, Peter Hunt’s otherwise admirable Blackwell’s Guide to Children’s Literature, though citing Lively’s work on numerous occasions and devoting whole sections to Cooper and Garner, makes no reference to Jones. It seems reasonable to enquire as to the reasons for this surprising attitude from critics towards Jones.

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After the King: Tolkien’s heirs

22 Oct

It is something of a relief, having looked last month at his critics, to turn this time to Tolkien’s many admirers. It would not be true to say that there was no such thing as epic fantasy before Tolkien: there was a tradition of English and Irish writers before him, such as E R Eddison and Lord Dunsany, and a parallel tradition also of American writers appearing in pulp-magazines such as Weird Tales and Unknown. The Lord of the Rings however altered reading tastes rapidly and lastingly. Several hundred English-language fantasy novels are currently being published annually. The influence of Tolkien on them is often apparent from their titles – Guardians of the West (David Eddings), The Fellowship of the Talisman (Clifford D Simak), The Halfling’s Gem (R A Salvatore) and so on, to name just a few. Most writers do better at concealing their literary ancestry, but the first works even of authors who have found their own highly distinctive voices, like Stephen Donaldson or Alan Garner, habitually betray deep Tolkienian influence. Terry Pratchett, whose works have now been reliable best-sellers for almost forty years, began with what is obviously in part an affectionate parody of Tolkien, The Colour of Magic. Tolkien furthermore provided much of the inspiration, the personnel and the material, for early fantasy games and for role-playing games of the Dungeons & Dragons type. Spin-offs from these into computer games are still developing and multiplying. Middle-earth has become a cultural phenomenon, a part of many people’s mental furniture. Any full study of Tolkien’s legacy would have to be at least book-length – and will not be attempted here – but there is some interest in recording what at least a few of his most evident emulators have found most inspirational in Tolkien.

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Tolkien: The Monsters and the Critics

24 Sep

“This is not a work that many adults will read right through more than once.” With these words the anonymous reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement (25 November 1955) summed up his judgment of J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. It must have seemed a pretty safe prophecy at the time, for of course in those days very few adults (or children) read anything right through more than once, still less anything as long as The Lord of the Rings. However, it could not have been more wrong: of all popular best-sellers, The Lord of the Rings is the one most likely to be read over and over again by readers eager to immerse themselves in Middle Earth. This did not stop critics continuing to say the same thing. Six years later, after the three separate volumes had gone through eight or nine hardback impressions each, Philip Toynbee in the Observer (6 August 1961) voiced delight at the way sales, he thought, were dropping. Most of Professor Tolkien’s more ardent supporters, he declared, were beginning to “sell out their shares” in him, so that “today these books have passed into merciful oblivion.” Five years afterwards the authorised American paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings was moving rapidly past its first million copies, starting a wave which never receded and has in the 21st century reached levels Toynbee could not have dreamed of. This general phenomenon of intense critical hostility to Tolkien in the face of his undeniable popularity is open enough; however, the reasons for it often remain unexpressed, hints and sneers rather than statements. Several attempts have been made to explain this deep and seemingly compulsive antipathy. This is the first of two linked posts that deal, firstly, with Tolkien’s critics and, secondly, with his legacy in the form of his many admirers and emulators.

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The House on the Borderland

23 Jul

The House on the Borderland (1908) is a supernatural horror novel by British fantasist William Hope Hodgson. The novel is a hallucinatory account of a recluse’s stay at a remote house, and his experiences of supernatural creatures and otherworldly dimensions. A manuscript is found: filled with small, precise writing and smelling of pit-water, it tells the story of an old recluse and his strange home – and its even stranger, jade-green double, seen by the recluse on an otherworldly plain where gigantic gods and monsters roam. Soon his more earthly home is no less terrible than this bizarre vision, as swine-like creatures boil from a cavern beneath the ground and besiege it. But a still greater horror will face the recluse – more inexorable, merciless and awful than any creature that can be fought or killed. The book was a milestone that signalled a radical departure from the typical Gothic fiction of the late 19th century. Hodgson created a newer more realistic/scientific cosmic horror that left a marked impression on those who would become the great writers of the weird tales of the middle of the 20th century, particularly Clark Ashton Smith, and H P Lovecraft. Lovecraft listed The House on the Borderland and other works by Hodgson among his greatest influences, and Terry Pratchett has called the novel “the Big Bang in my private universe as a science fiction and fantasy reader and, later, writer.”

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H G Wells, The Time Traveller

21 May

At the end of the 19th century people felt excited over the new discoveries of science, which seemed to promise so much for the future. No English writer expressed this feeling so well as Herbert George Wells (1866-1946). He was born at Bromley in Kent and grew up in poverty and hardship. He struggled to educate himself by winning scholarships, and studied biology under T H Huxley. He used his knowledge of science as the starting point for a series of exciting and fantastic stories, such as The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds and The Invisible Man. Some of their most startling ideas have since come true. As a novelist, he is best remembered for his science fiction novels, but his literary output was vast and extremely varied. Before he became a successful novelist, Wells worked as a draper’s apprentice, a chemist’s assistant and a teacher. He knew about the problems of ordinary people, and wrote about their ambitions and disappointments in novels such as Kipps and The History of Mr Polly, which are full of life and humour. Wells became a socialist and wrote many books about history and science so that people would be able to understand the important ideas of the modern world. These works include The Shape of Things to Come, The Science of Life and a popular history book, The Outline of History.

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The Extraordinary Journeys of Jules Verne

19 Mar

Jules Verne (1828-1905) is sometimes called the ‘father of science fiction’. He was born in Nantes in France, and studied law before turning to writing both plays and stories. In 1863 he published in a magazine the first of his Voyages Extraordinaires (literally ‘Extraordinary Voyages’ or ‘Extraordinary Journeys’), a sequence of fifty-four novels, originally published between 1863 and 1905. Entitled (in English) Five Weeks in a Balloon, this was an immediate success, so he decided to write more exciting stories of speculative fiction. Although his stories had fantastic settings, Jules Verne was careful to put in a good deal of realistic detail, so making the story more convincing. He had a remarkable imagination. In Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea he wrote about submarines and aqualungs (neither of which had then been invented), and in From the Earth to the Moon he predicted the birth of space travel – long before the first aeroplane had even taken to the air. His other books include A Journey to the Centre of the Earth and Around the World in Eighty Days. First published as a serial, this tells how an Englishman called Phileas Fogg attempts a round-the-world journey to win a bet. Jules Verne remains to this day the most translated science fiction author in the world as well as one of the most continually reprinted and widely read French authors. Though often scientifically outdated, his Voyages still retain their sense of wonder that appealed to readers of his time, and still provoke an interest in the sciences among the young.

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An Interview with William Horwood

19 Feb

I’m delighted to post today an exclusive interview I recently conducted with William Horwood, author of the Duncton Wood series. Dedicated followers of this blog will be well aware of the high regard in which I hold William and his Duncton novels in particular, so it was a real pleasure to chat with him about a range of topics, including what got him into writing in the first place, inspirations for his work, the most enjoyable and challenging aspects of being a writer and, perhaps most interestingly, the potential forthcoming re-publication of the Duncton novels with Unbound, an award-winning crowdfunding publishing company. As you’ll see from the interview William was very open and incredibly generous with his time, giving answers that were sincere, full, interesting and, often, quite amusing! Read on for more…

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The Realm of Ice and Fire

23 Oct

Long before George R R Martin ever conceived of Westeros, a true realm of Ice and Fire existed in our world in the form of Iceland. So-called because of the oddity of glaciers and ice fields existing in a land that also has volcanoes and hot springs, this land of ice and fire has a coastline deeply indented by inlets called fjords; mountains, some of which are active volcanoes, that rise from the plateau and sometimes erupt; many geysers that spout steam and scalding water; and massive glaciers that cover one-eighth of its surface – Vatnajokull in the southeast alone is half the size of Wales. Iceland is the most thinly populated country in Europe. However, this small country produced a national literature which became the greatest in Europe during the early middle ages. Although the quality of Icelandic literature fell off somewhat after the middle ages, the country has never lacked poets and writers, and their verses and prose have been strongly influenced by the style of the sagas – a special kind of heroic story, or group of stories. The most famous of these storytellers was Snorri Sturluson, and his best known saga is called the Heimskringla, a historical saga about the rulers of Norway. This storytelling tradition continues to this day when, relative to the size of its population, Iceland publishes more books than almost any other country.

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