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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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Lords of the Skies

16 Dec

In Tolkien’s Middle-earth, the eagles were immense flying birds that were sapient and could speak. Often emphatically referred to as the Great Eagles, they appear, usually and intentionally serving as agents of eucatastrophe or dei ex machina, in various parts of his legendarium, from The Silmarillion and the accounts of Númenor to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Just as the Ents are guardians of plant life, the giant eagles are the guardians of animal life. In The Silmarillion, they were described as the noblest of the winged creatures of Arda, for they were brought forth by two mighty Valar: Manwë, Lord of the Air, and Yavanna, Queen of the Earth. The Great Eagles were numbered among the most ancient and wisest of races. These birds were always messengers and servants of Manwë. Over all the azure world they flew, like lords of the skies – for they were the eyes of the Valar, and like thunderbolts fell on their foes. In the First Age, a mighty breed of this race lived in Beleriand. These Eagles were far-famed for their deeds in the War of the Jewels. Their lord was Thorondor, said to have been the greatest of all birds, whose wingspan was thirty fathoms and whose speed out-stripped that of the fastest wind.

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The Art of Charles Vess

14 Oct

Charles Vess is an American fantasy and comics artist who has specialized in the illustration of myths and fairy tales. His influences include British “Golden Age” book illustrator Arthur Rackham, Czech Art Nouveau painter Alphonse Mucha, and comic-strip artist Hal Foster, among others. Charles Vess has been drawing ever since he could hold a crayon. Working in his studio in downtown Abingdon, Virginia, Charles Vess adds a little bit of magic back into the mundane world, drawing pixies, swamp things, goth spirits and fantastical forests. If you’re a comics or fantasy fan, it’s likely that you’re already familiar with the works of Charles Vess, an award-winning artist and illustrator.  His collaborations with authors Neil Gaiman and Charles de Lint, as well as his cover art for Marvel and DC have gained him a passionate following across the world. His award-winning work has graced covers and pages from numerous comic book publishers including The Books of Magic, Sandman and Swamp Thing from DC Comics, as well as Spider-Man from Marvel Comics. He currently concentrates on book illustration, where he continues to win praise and accolades for his unique style. The ultimate testament to his talent came when Vess shared the prestigious World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story with Neil Gaiman in 1991 for their collaboration on The Sandman #19, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

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Faith and Fantasy: American Gods

20 Aug

Scary, gripping and often deeply unsettling, Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods has reached a new audience since being adapted recently as a television series. Placing it in a specific genre has however proved tricky since its publication – some have described it as urban fantasy while others label it as mythic fiction. One description that is as good as any, given the novel’s subject matter, is religious fantasy. A fantasy of religion is a text that depicts or makes use of commonly understood religious tropes, but which recasts them in the context of additional fantastic narrative elements. A clear example of this approach is the satire employed by James Morrow in his 1990 novel Only Begotten Daughter. Although it has a notionally science-fictional frame, being set a few years in the future and hypothesizing some near-future technologies, the overall effect of the book is clearly that of fantasy, as was recognised when it won the World Fantasy Award for its year. The book begins by following Murray Katz, a celibate lighthouse-keeper, who discovers that a sperm donation he has made has become a foetus: an immaculate conception. Overtaken by responsibility for his child-to-be, he brings home the ‘ectogenesis machine’ containing it, and ends up superintending the birth and childhood of the Daughter of God, Julie Katz. The body of the book follows Julie’s adulthood, as she arrives at her credo despite the best efforts of fundamentalist ministers and the Devil. Of course, fantasies of religion need not be as overtly revisionist as Morrow’s. Gene Wolfe is an author primarily known for science fiction rather than fantasy. His Catholicism is also a well-known part of his worldview; it is prominent in his most well-known work, The Book of the New Sun (4 vols, 1980-83). It is set on a far-future ‘Urth’, and many of the fantasy tropes that appear – wizards, magic and so on – can be understood from the text as, for instance, aliens or energy weapons. However, it cannot be denied that the experience of reading the series has many similarities with that of a religious fantasy. The unlikely protagonist, the torturer Severian, is a Christ figure sent and enabled to achieve the task of a new sun for a dying world. The many layers of imagery this invokes – Christ/Apollo, New Son/Sun, for instance – are left for the reader to understand.

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The Mythic Fantasy of Robert Holdstock

18 Jun

A storyteller par excellence, Robert Holdstock wrote with considerable insight about the power of dreams, the unconscious and human desire. He began by writing science fiction, but although his early books were well received, they remain under-realised. Holdstock had yet to find his true subject and the mode that would allow him to write with passion and depth – this would occur in the Mythago Wood novels. You can find the setting of the novels on any map of England – almost. There’s Herefordshire, a peaceful little county, ‘Middle England’, as is said sometimes; looking westwards towards the Welsh border. The Ryhope estate might be approximately there, and Oak Lodge, and also the ancient forest – the primeval woodland of oak, ash, beech, and the like, with its untrodden dark interior – which gives the first novel in the sequence its magical name of Mythago Wood. Like Holdstock’s characters, we find ourselves lost in the vastness of that ancient eponymous forest when we enter the wildwood with its stench of ash, blood and animal. The Mythago Wood novels exist as a whole, and that whole is no ordinary fantasy story, with its extraordinary beauty. Rather it is about time, time solidified, death pickled, and that way we might have had to live, once upon a time.

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Celtic Otherworlds

18 Sep

Enchantment permeates Celtic mythology, shrouding the tales in a haunting, dreamlike quality. The all-pervasive otherworld lies behind much of the mystery and magic, penetrating the forests and lakes, and crafting charmed rings and weapons such as King Arthur’s sword Excalibur. There are in fact many otherworlds of Celtic myth: invisible realms of gods and spirits, fairies, elves and misshapen giants, some of them sparkling heavens while others are brooding hells. The veil between the visible and invisible worlds is gossamer-thin and easily torn, allowing seers, bards and some privileged heroes to pass in and out on spirit-flights or journeys of the soul. Common gateways to the otherworld are by water and across narrow bridges, beneath mounds or wells which hide glittering subterranean paradises or dark purgatories. Above all, it is on the eve of Samhain, October 31, that all the gates to the otherworld open and spirits emerge from beneath the hollow hills.

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The Wolf in the Attic

21 Aug

1920s Oxford: home to C S Lewis, J R R Tolkien and, in Paul Kearney’s novel The Wolf in the Attic, Anna Francis, a young Greek girl looking to escape the grim reality of her new life. The night they cross paths, none suspect the fantastic world at work all around them. Anna lives in a tall old house with her father and her doll Penelope. She is a refugee, a piece of flotsam washed up in England by the tides of the Great War and the chaos that trailed in its wake. Once upon a time, she had a mother and a brother, and they all lived together in the most beautiful city in the world, by the shores of Homer’s wine-dark sea. But that is all gone now, and only to her doll does she ever speak of it, because her father cannot bear to hear. She sits in the shadows of the tall house and watches the rain on the windows, creating worlds for herself to fill out the loneliness. The house becomes her own little kingdom, an island full of dreams and half forgotten memories. And then one winter day, she finds an interloper in the topmost, dustiest attic of the house. A boy named Luca with yellow eyes, who is as alone in the world as she is. That day, she’ll lose everything in her life, and find the only real friend she may ever know. Kearney’s is a great Oxford novel; and the wonderfully conjured period detail – Tolkien and Lewis in particular stand out – is given added resonance by the long and complex real-life friendship on which it is partly based.

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The Light Fantastic

11 Oct

This is the first of two linked posts about the sub-genre of urban fantasy, in which the tropes of pastoral or heroic fantasy are brought into a modern setting. Within the elements common to all urban fantasies – a city in which supernatural events occur, the presence of prominent characters who are artists or musicians or scholars, the redeployment of previous fantastic and folkloric topography in unfamiliar contexts – there are two fundamental strains of urban fantasy. In the first, a more or less recognisable city – New York or London, Minneapolis or Galveston, Newford or Bordertown – is revealed to be in contact with the realm of Faerie, or some magical realm, and the resultant narrative redeploys the tropes and characters of older fairy tales and folklore, forcing them into collisions with a contemporary urban milieu. This I have termed the ‘Light Fantastic’, as it tends to involve a strong element of wish-fulfilment. In the second, what I have termed the ‘Dark Fantastic’, a greater debt is owed to the gothic or horror genre – the distillation of mankind’s greatest fears and nightmares rather than hopes and dreams – but more on that next time.

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Different Kingdoms

14 Feb

Paul Kearney is an author who is perhaps best known today for his Monarchies of God series, a fairly standard epic of sword and sorcery that will be familiar to many readers of the genre. However, back at the start of the 1990’s he wrote a far more intriguing set of novels, each stand-alone but linked thematically – A Different Kingdom, Riding the Unicorn and The Way to Babylon. The most notable common thread in this ‘Different Kingdoms’ series was Kearney’s use of a hero from our world who journeys into a fantastical one. Despite strong reviews, these books had commercially disappointing sales, and Kearney was asked to consider a more traditional fantasy epic, hence the Monarchies of God was born. Although I can completely understand the decision of Kearney, his publishers and his agent from a commercial perspective, for me it is most unfortunate that the author was not allowed to pursue his original vision – after all his concept, known as the ‘portal quest’ theme in fantasy literature, has a venerable history.

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The Inn at the Edge of the World

17 Jan

cover

Click to get the January 2015 issue of Bards and Sages Quarterly and read my short story The Inn at the Edge of the World.

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