In one of his letters, J.R.R. Tolkien described his recurring dream of a wave sweeping over the land, destroying all in its wake. He also expressed his surprise at discovering that one of his sons shared that same dream (which came to life in Tolkien’s narrative of Númenor’s sinking). It’s an unusual dream, to be sure, which added to my surprise when I read of a similar incident in Susan Cooper’s fantasy Silver on the Tree. The drowning of the Lost Land is perhaps my favorite moment in her entire The Dark Is Rising sequence. No, I don’t suffer from an abnormal love of flooding, and I have not shared Tolkien’s dream. But perhaps the drowning of the Lost Land is one of the most mythic moments in the sequence. And myth is a thing sadly lacking in too much contemporary fantasy.
When I pick up what I think is a fantasy novel and find, instead, a gladiator story in an imaginary world with a few strange creatures (as I did last weekend), I find it a little ridiculous. There are many wonderful ways to use the fantasy genre, but a substitute for ordinary historical fiction is not a very good one. Perhaps I’m prejudging the book–I didn’t bother reading it in its entirety, after all, so I won’t name it here. But I think the weakness I saw is a very real danger that many fantasy authors face–one that many of them face unsuccessfully.
The earliest fantasies were primarily about inspiring wonder of one sort or another. Unlike modern “fantasies”, they were not about being “gritty” or including a certain predetermined amount of excitement (read: sex and violence).
That isn’t to say that fantasies should not be exciting. It also isn’t to say that fantasy must always be a vehicle for wonder. There are other legitimate uses–as a social critique, for example (think Gulliver’s Travels) or even as a work of sheer nonsensical fun (Alice in Wonderland, anyone?). Where problems arise is when authors try to write a fairly ordinary love-story or war-story in a fantasy setting. A setting that is unnecessary to the plot of a story adds nothing, and can in fact be distracting. And then there are those settings that are less about imagination, of any sort, and more about the author’s darker daydreams. I have no patience for those sorts of stories at all. Not only are many of them morally bad, but their very focus almost forces them to become bad art.
But the lack of wonder in many fantasies has nothing to do with their belonging to a particular subgenre and more to do with a basic misunderstanding. I can’t recall the number of Facebook advertisements I’ve seen for stories “in the tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien.” Well–they aren’t. Or at least they aren’t in the few advertisements I’ve actually clicked on. Many authors seem to think that Tolkien achieved what he did by creating an imaginary world with lots of battles between good and evil. But that’s only part of the story. Before Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings, he studied myths. He read fairy stories. He understood what made them different from realistic novels. Many authors today don’t seem to recognize that distinction. “Gritty” fantasies, according to Tolkien’s view of the genre, are entirely missing the point.
Susan Cooper, so far as I’m aware, made no claims to be writing “in the tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien.” And she wasn’t. Tolkien, for one thing, did not base his stories on the Celtic and Arthurian mythologies that Cooper used so heavily. Cooper also based her works in the recorded history of Britain, while Tolkien was trying to give the English the mythology they never had. Their worldviews, too, differed greatly. But Cooper understood that wonder is the key to fantasy, that fantasy isn’t about being “gritty” or even exciting. Good fantasies “in the tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien” are about learning to look at the world with new eyes–to see the earth truly for the first time. And, after reading Cooper, I think I can say this honestly. I will never think of flooding in the same way again. Or the ocean. Or even a set of doors.
And that, I think, is the point.