Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Fantasy Cliché #3 – Orcs!

After a two week diversion, I'm back with the fourth post in my six part series on The Top 5 Clichés in Fantasy Fiction. On the surface, today’s cliché has Tolkien to blame. Ever since the first orc crawled out of Mordor in his 1954 novel The Fellowship of the Ring, these misshapen beasts, in one form or another, seem to have flooded the shelves of fantasy fiction.

Is this where the first orc crawled from?
Of course, before Tolkien called them “orcs” they were the goblins of his 1937 masterpiece The Hobbit. And after that came a small legion of doppelgangers including the Mord Wraiths from Terry Brooks’ Shannara series (1977), Cavewights from Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (1977), Trollocs from Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series (1990), and even the Urgals of Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle (2003). What makes these creatures appear cliché is their arguable resemblance to Tolkien’s orcs, but I wonder if that’s fair. For the concept of a “monster” is practically a universal ingredient in fantasy fiction.

This concept existed long before J.R.R. Tolkien. He borrowed heavily from Old English and Norse mythology and admitted that the word “orc” is derived from an Old English word for demon, stemming perhaps from the Latin word “Orcus” and similar to a Norse word for “ogre.” Meanwhile, goblins in English, French, and German folklore were considered to be a type of evil phantom related to gnomes or brownies. More than 1,200 years before the Hobbit, we had the monster Grendel from the epic poem Beowulf. That story, which was based on an older Norse myth, depicted Grendel as an ogre, although some have suggested his mythical origins are more tied to the biblical Nephilim, the giant-like offspring of the unholy union between human women and fallen angels first referenced in Genesis 6:4. And Greek mythology is filled with monsters: the Cyclopses, Gorgons, and Minotaurs are just a few. In other words, the monster in storytelling goes back a quite a ways.

Poor Grendel goes back to anicent times.
The monster is rarely the primary antagonist in fantasy fiction. Rather, it is an embodiment of evil in a broader, collective sense. Perhaps in some stories the monsters are symbols for the real monsters of our world, such as the Nazis during the time when Tolkien began his epic series. Or maybe their presence in literature and mythology is due to the existence in human history of creatures that mankind, at one time, simply did not understand. Michael Crichton proffers this theory in his novel Eaters of the Dead, where a race of Neanderthals coexisted with early medieval men but were perceived by the humans as monsters who lived in darkness and literally ate the dead.
Here's one explanation for the monster in mythology.
Another explanation is that the monster reflects human perceptions or superstitions of demons and other paranormal beings that haunt our imagination. But whatever the reason, the monster in literature has existed since ancient times and has found its incarnation in various forms, the orcs and its fictional offspring being just the most recent examples in the past two or three thousand years. For this reason, I believe the monster, like the archetypes of the Wise Wizard and the Messiah, are here to stay. And in this light, it’s hard to call any of these elements “cliché” once one realizes how fundamental they have been to storytelling throughout the ages.

Monday, March 26, 2012

“Beginning” of the Week #7

Season 2 of HBO’s Game of Thrones debuts this upcoming Sunday, and I can hardly wait! This season is based on A Clash of Kings, George R.R. Martin’s second novel in his epic series A Song of Ice and Fire. So I decided that this week’s “beginning” should be the one that started it all – the opening passage of A Game of Thrones:
“We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. “The wildlings are dead.”
“Do the dead frighten you?” Ser Waymar Royce asked with just a hint of a smile.
Gared did not rise to the bait. He was an old man, past fifty, and he had seen the lordlings come and go. “Dead is dead,” he said. “We have no business with the dead.”
“Are they dead?” Royce asked softly. “What proof have we?”
 – George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

An epic fantasy masterpiece!
I’ve written before that A Song of Ice and Fire is one the finest epic fantasy series of our time, and A Game of Thrones is a true masterpiece. I question, however, whether this is one of the great “beginnings” of all time. Maybe it is proof that the opening passage is important, but far from critical in determining the greatness of a novel. But let me know what you think – is this one of the great “beginnings,” and how much does the “beginning” really matter?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A Princess of Mars

This week I’m taking another short break from my series on The Top 5 Clichés in Fantasy Fiction for a review of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, as well as some comments on the new film John Carter, which is based on the novel.

Not bad for 1912!
I probably first read this novel in the early '80s and only re-read it because of the new film. It’s hard to believe this story was written 100 years ago. This book is a tremendously fun read and the writing holds up extremely well by today’s standards.

The novel tells the story of Captain John Carter, an ex-Confederate soldier who travels to Arizona in search of gold. After a hostile encounter with Apaches forces him to hide inside a small cave with seemingly magical properties, Carter find himself transported astrally to Mars. While Burroughs spends little time trying to explain how this is possible, he accomplishes this transition quickly, for after the first ten pages the story proceeds on Mars where the real fun begins.

Carter is captured by a race of giant, green Martians called Tharks, who live in an excessively violent tribal society and inhabit the ruins of ancient cities long abandoned by those who built them. His captivity and his relationship with two of the Tharks, the warrior Tars Tarkas and Carter’s caretaker, Sola, comprised many of my favorite scenes in the novel. Carter, who inherits super-human strength and the ability to leap great distances due to Mars' lower gravity, uses his fighting skills to advance to a position of respect in the Thark’s warlike culture, all the while accompanied by Woola, a dog-like creature that becomes Carter’s lovable sidekick.

The plot takes off after the Tharks capture Dejah Thoris, a human-looking, red Martian princess from the city of Helium. Carter is drawn toward the beautiful princess, but must contend with her mysterious customs and fierce pride, creating some of the most classic scenes in the novel, which at its core is a love story. Carter’s struggle to save Dejah Thoris, first from the Tharks and later from a hostile race of red Martians called the Zodangans, dominates the rest of this rollicking adventure tale. While some of the scenes may seem a bit cliché, that’s only because this novel is the original source material which inspired so many later works of science fiction and fantasy written in past hundred years. And that’s why this book, to me, is little awe inspiring – for without it, it’s hard to imagine what the world of scifi and fantasy fiction would look like today.

If only we'd had more Tharks and less religion ...
Which brings me to the film John Carter, which inexplicably sheds any reference to Mars in its title. While I thought the film did a nice job of capturing some of the story’s more fascinating elements, including the Tharks, Woola, the flying machines and the Martian landscape, I found it to be overly complicated and probably confusing for anyone not familiar with Burroughs’ novels. The reason, I believe, is that the filmmakers chose to inject a religious-based plotline that is missing from the book. I understand this plotline may have derived from later books in Burroughs’ series, but I think it unnecessarily muddles what should have been a wonderfully simple and straightforward story.

All of the religious talk throughout the film also helped dour its tone, and at times it felt like a tedious lecture on Martian religion and some alien goddess (which, by the way, reeks a little too much of the earthy religious elements of Avatar). My favorite part of the novel – Carter’s captivity with the Tharks – is rushed in the film, which doesn’t do justice to it or a related storyline involving Sola and Tars Tarkas. The Dejah Thoris of the movie is a warrior and a scientist – in other words, unlike the princess of the novel – and many of the scenes I enjoyed so much in the book involving Carter’s failure to understand her culture and its rules are omitted from the film in favor of a need-to-save-the-world plotline that distracts from the central love story. These factors likely contributed to the movie’s average reviews and underwhelming box office performance.

This is not to say the film was not enjoyable at times, but I much preferred the novel. For a different perspective of John Carter, I encourage you to read the review by Ryan Harvey of The Realm of Ryan. In my opinion, he has written some of best reviews and commentaries on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars novels available on the web. For others who have read the book and watched the film, I am curious as to your take. What did you think of John Carter and A Princess of Mars?

Monday, March 19, 2012

“Beginning” of the Week #6

This week’s “beginning” is among my favorites. It's the opening passage of Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth. This is a great novel, and its beginning, in my view, sets the tone perfectly for the story that lies ahead:
The small boys came early to the hanging. 
It was still dark when the first three or four of them sidled out of the hovels, quiet as cats in their felt boots. A thin layer of fresh snow covered the little town like a new coat of paint, and theirs were the first footprints to blemish its perfect surface. They picked their way through the huddled wooden huts and along the streets of frozen mud to the silent marketplace, where the gallows stood waiting. 
The boys despised everything their elders valued. They scorned beauty and mocked goodness. They would hoot with laughter at the sight of a cripple, and if they saw a wounded animal they would stone it to death. They boasted of injuries and wore their scars with pride, and they reserved their special admiration for mutilation: a boy with a finger missing could be their king. They loved violence; they would run miles to see bloodshed; and they never missed a hanging.
– Ken Follett, The Pillars of the Earth

Is this the best "beginning" yet?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Patrick: Son of Ireland

This week I’m taking a brief respite from my series on The Top 5 Clichés in Fantasy Fiction in honor of Saint Patrick’s Day, one of my all-time favorite holidays!

Appropriately, I’m focusing today’s post on Patrick: Son of Ireland by Stephen R. Lawhead. I had little appreciation for the story of Saint Patrick until I began researching my first novel, which begins in Derry in what is now Northern Ireland. Prior to that, Saint Patrick’s Day was merely a good excuse to drink Guinness at a raucous Irish pub. But once I began my research all that changed, especially after reading How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill. I cannot recommend this book more strongly to anyone who is of Irish descent or who’s even remotely interested in the amazing role the Irish played in the survival of Western civilization during the Dark Ages.

Cahill’s book contained the first account I had ever read about Saint Patrick. Here's the abridged version. By the beginning of the fifth century, with the Goths and Huns threatening Rome, the Roman garrison in Briton became depleted as troops moved back to defend the continent. This exposed Briton to attacks by foreign enemies, including the Celtic Irish who ravaged Briton’s western coast. One of the largest raids occurred around the year 401 A.D., when literally thousands of Britons were captured as slaves by Irish raiders. One of those captured was a teenage boy who we know today as Saint Patrick.

Patrick was a Romanized Briton and the son of a noble family. He was not born “Patrick,” and his original name remains in question, yet at least one source has him named Succat. Patrick served his enslavement as a shepherd to an Irish chieftain named Miliucc, who ruled a kingdom in the hills of Antrim. According to legend, Patrick remained captive for six years before escaping after hearing a voice in a dream about a trader’s ship that would return him to Briton. After finding the ship and returning to home, Patrick eventually made his way to Gaul at a time when hordes of Germans were crossing the Rhine to engage the Roman army. There, Patrick studied religion, became a priest, and later a bishop – the title he held when he returned to Ireland as one of its first and most famous Christian missionaries. It is with this background that I read Stephen R. Lawhead’s Patrick: Son of Ireland.

I had anticipated that this novel would tell the story of how Patrick converted the Irish Celts to Christianity. I was wrong. The book actually tells the tale of Patrick's early life, before he returned to Ireland. Aside from a brief epilogue, the novel provides no account of Patrick’s later years which earned him his sainthood. Instead, the author focuses on Patrick’s captivity and enslavement. And this is where the novel truly shines. Patrick’s enslavement introduces him to a druid named Cormac and his sister, Sionan, the woman with whom Patrick falls in love. After surviving several failed attempts at fleeing his captivity, Patrick, with Cormac’s aid, escapes his brutal life by agreeing to serve in a house of druids, and eventually studies to become a bard. This is where the novel becomes both fascinating and controversial.

The bards and druids of Lawhead’s Ireland can use magic, which firmly places this novel on the fine line between historical fiction and historical fantasy. Many of the druids and bards who teach Patrick are also members of the Ceile De, essentially Christian druids who believe in the one true God. Patrick ultimately becomes one of the Ceile De; he never becomes a priest or a bishop, though this is not necessarily foreclosed because the novel ends before the reader learns what becomes of Patrick later in life.

Not surprisingly, this plot point is controversial for those who feel the novel downplays or even eliminates Patrick’s Roman Catholicism. After all, they argue, the Roman Catholic Church would never have canonized a druid. But I view Stephen R. Lawhead as taking artistic license for the sake of his story. And overall, his story works – especially the two-thirds or so of the novel that take place in Ireland.

Although it was not what I expected, I enjoyed this novel, very much at times. And while the author may have taken artistic license with his subject, it works well in the end, telling a story of faith once lost only to be discovered again.

Monday, March 12, 2012

“Beginning” of the Week #5

With Saint Patrick’s Day less than a week away, Fresh-scraped Vellum is focusing on all things Irish! So for the “beginning” of this week I’ve chosen the opening passage from Morgan Llywelyn’s Bard: The Odyssey of the Irish.

This novel was an easy call for today’s “beginning” because it tells the story of the legendary origin of the Irish and their founding of Ireland. As I’ve written before, Morgan Llywelyn is considered one of the great novelists of early and medieval Irish history; you can read my review of one of her finest books, Lion of Ireland, here. The opening passage of Bard focuses on the story’s protagonist, Amergin, and his yearning for a green land he has yet to discover outside of his imagination:

See a tall man pacing alone on the twilight beach, caught between the dying day and the incoming tide. Smell the moist air, heavy with salt. Hear the lapping of the waves slapping the shore, the hiss of their withdrawal, their rushing return. Tide flirting with sand, seducing, inviting, whispering tales from beyond the dark sea. 
Dark sea, fading light, and an old familiar restlessness combined to haunt Amergin the bard. All his life he had suffered an itch in his soul, a formless yearning that blew toward him on the north wind. The green wind, he named it to himself, for to Amergin it seemed laden with verdant aromas from some fair otherworld existing only in his imagination. Yet the north wind persisted in torturing him with hints of that achingly beautiful and unreal land, his heart’s home.
– Morgan Llywelyn, Bard: The Odyssey of the Irish

Read about the Sons of Mil and the Tuatha Dé Danann!
While these first two paragraphs contain only a hint of conflict, the passage suggests for the reader that a long and rich journey lies ahead. But I’m curious as to your thoughts – does this opening make you yearn to read more?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Fantasy Cliché #2 – The Wise Wizard

In the third post in my six part series on The Top 5 Clichés in Fantasy Fiction, I’m discussing the second of my listed clichés: The Wise Wizard. This character is so recognizable in fantasy novels it almost seems like a mandatory ingredient. He’s the one who teaches the protagonist how to be a hero – and frequently how to be a wizard. We’ve seen him with many faces, though often ones similar to those who proceeded him. Just look at Merlin from Arthurian myth, Gandalf from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and even Dumbledore from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, and try to identify each one out of a police line-up. Odds are you can’t.


As with Cliché #1, The Farm Boy with a Secret, the reason this character is so common is because it represents another archetype in fiction. This archetype goes by a number of names, including the "Mage,” the "Mentor” and the "Guardian,” but the purpose of this character is always similar – he (or she) is the wise teacher who sets the protagonist on a path critical to the storyline. In this respect, the Wise Wizard may indeed be a necessary character in many novels. After all, lots of us have had a teacher or mentor, someone who for better or worse shaped our choices in life and made us, in part, the person we are. Since this is nearly universal to the human experience, it’s no surprise that it’s a familiar element in stories, at least those about people, whether it’s part of the protagonist’s backstory or the main plot line.

Sometimes this character can be a hard or even abusive teacher who proves to be more villain than hero, but he or she still profoundly impacts the main character and his or her direction in the story. Examples of this archetype in film and fiction abound – here are just a few in addition to the three bearded gentlemen mentioned above: Obi-wan Kenobi and Yoda from Star Wars, Morpheus from The Matrix, Allanon from The Sword of Shannara, Polgara and Belgarath from The Belgariad, Ogion from The Wizard of Earthsea, and Cort from The Gunslinger.

In my view, the frequency of this Guardian or Mentor character is a testament to the universal appeal of this archetype. Maybe we’ll see less of them with long beards and pointed hats from now on as reaction to the cliché, but I believe the Wise Wizard, in one form or another, is here to stay.
Name this Wise Wizard?

Monday, March 5, 2012

“Beginning” of the Week #4

With the debut of the film John Carter, I chose the opening passage of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ first John Carter novel, A Princess of Mars, for the “beginning” of this week. Burroughs wrote this novel in 1912, so the writing may differ a bit from today’s norms, but I think the first passage delivers an interesting hook even by today’s standards.

I’d be curious to know what you think? In the meantime, if you want to know more about this novel or the John Carter of Mars series, author Ryan Harvey has been posting reviews on the series, starting with A Princess of Mars. The Passive Guy also just posted an article on the topic, which you can read here. But without further ado, here’s the “beginning” that started it all:

I am a very old man; how old I do not know. Possibly I am a hundred, possibly more; but I cannot tell because I have never aged as other men, nor do I remember any childhood. So far as I can recollect I have always been a man, a man of about thirty. I appear today as I did forty years and more ago, and yet I feel that I cannot go on living forever; that some day I shall die the real death from which there is no resurrection. I do not know why I should fear death, I who have died twice and am still alive; but yet I have the same horror of it as you who have never died, and it is because of this terror of death, I believe, that I am so convinced of my mortality.
– Edgar Rice Burroughs, A Princess of Mars

John Carter was superman before Superman!