Monthly Archives: June 2012

Elements of Fantasy: Other Worlds

The idea of other worlds besides this one (in fantasy, that means other “dimensions” or other frames of reality, not merely other planets – usually) is a very old element of fantasy, and it has several different roots.

On one level, the idea of having the fantasy action take place in some other reality that the protagonists reach through the hidden doorway, the magical summoning, or a similar means is a way to have all sorts of wildly wonderful storytelling elements while preserving a comfortable view of our own world as one in which magic doesn’t happen and everything is controllable and “normal.” It’s also a way of letting the imagination run wild without it being constrained by the limitations of current reality.

The need to preserve a non-magical Earth has pretty much disappeared from fantasy writing today, and one doesn’t see that so much; in fact, the genre of contemporary fantasy or urban fantasy dispenses with other worlds altogether and places the fantasy elements in our own, which actually makes it a lot more like the ancient and Medieval myth-making (Greek myth, Arthurian legend, the Arabian Nights, etc.) that did the same.

The desirability of a freewheeling canvas hasn’t changed, though, and that means many fantasy stories are still set in alternate worlds, either reached from this one by magical means or simply “the world” inhabited by the protagonists who have no knowledge of our own. That is one perfectly good and literarily sound reason to employ the other-world convention in a fantasy story, but there are some other aspects to it that touch on the spiritual dimensions of fantasy, too.

Before going into that, let’s deal with the variants on the other-world concept as it appears in fantasy.

Travel from here to there: In this conception, the protagonists come from our world but the story takes place in another world to which they travel by magical means. C.S. Lewis’ Narnia chronicles, and, via the cross-genre device of space travel, his Deep Space trilogy (which is fantasy, not science fiction, despite this), Steven R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series, and many others follow this convention.

It all takes place there: In this conception, the protagonists are natives of the other world rather than visitors. The other world is simply the world of the story, with its own history, its own laws of nature, and its own culture. Tolkien’s stories, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, and really too many others to list all approach things in this way. It’s probably the most common approach to fantasy fiction out there.

Multiple worlds interacting regularly: This conception is superficially like the first one, but it posits two worlds that interact on a more routine basis than the hardly-every-happens premise in which the protagonists go to a world where hardly anyone has gone before. One finds this in more than one form. The worlds may be magically-separated, a more-magical world of Faerie linked to a less- (but not necessarily non-) magical world where the protagonists live ordinarily, or they may be technically in the same world but separated by some other device, e.g. the Shadowlands in Tad Williams’ Shadowmarch stories.

The point I’m making in all of these descriptions of the elements of fantasy is that fantasy is myth-making and bears a resemblance to and connection with religion and spirituality. The connection here lies in religious and spiritual ideas of other worlds than this one: Heaven and Hell, the Astral Plane and other ideas of multiple planes, layers of reality underlying the one that we see with our normal consciousness. Two things about the world are suggested by this myth, in the usual metaphorical, sidewinding fashion of all mythos.

1) There are aspects to reality which are not seen normally because our vision is blinded by our preconceptions, our cares and concerns, our narrow-minded focus on the simple and the mundane. Whole worlds exist right before us, but most of us cannot see them.

2) The world may become something which is not envisioned by most, either something much better, or something much worse, but in any case something radically other, and it will. The limits of the human imagination blind us to the possibility of true change.

These two aspects of the mythic message are powerfully connected. We are able to access other worlds to the extent our minds are open, and fantasy fiction provides a way to open our minds while preserving a measure of safety, in that we recognize we are dealing with fiction and can fool ourselves about its significance for the real world.

That other worlds and other possibilities impact the one we live in is, or should be, obvious. If nothing else, we live in a human-shaped world where the power of the imagination is the strongest single factor influencing the reality we live in, bar the laws of physics themselves, and they act more as a limit than as a true shaper; they determine what cannot be, but within those limits the imagination determines what will be. That’s recognizing only the impact of the imagination as mediated by human physical action, not any real-world magical effect.

The importance of the other worlds of fantasy, regardless of the precise mechanism employed by the storyteller, lies in their significance for our lives in this one. They may create a backdrop for the telling of mythical and moral tales; they may present metaphorical images of layers of reality intersecting with our own but unrecognized. At minimum, they invite us to broaden the scope of our imagination and expand the limits of our consciousness, and engage in mythical thinking, which is always of spiritual significance.

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Elements of Fantasy: Magic and the Mysteries

Another staple of fantasy fiction is magic. Like the gods, magic is not unique to fantasy but comes from ideas found in religion and spirituality. The power of the gods is itself magical: an ability to shape reality according to the (divine) will. Without that, there would be no point in worshiping any deity; no deity could answer a prayer, or have any effect upon the world.

But magic of course is not limited to direct divine action. It can be used by people, too, either by calling upon and channeling the powers of the gods (or devils or super-beings), or by making use of natural forces articulated through the human mind and facilitated by ritual and symbolic action, or both at once. Strictly speaking, we should limit magic proper to this action by human beings or the nearly-human, even though it is the same type of power as what the gods employ themselves.

In religion and myth, any miraculous occurrence that is enacted by a human being is magic. The Bible is chock full of magic, from the miracles of Moses to those of the Apostles. There is also a lot of magic in the Vedas and the Baghavad-Gita, and reference to it in the Quran. Whenever a human devotee of the gods draws upon divine power, channels it through himself, and makes something happen in the world by means of it, magic occurs.

Magic can be drawn from other than divine sources, too. It can come from devils – there’s another idea common in fantasy fiction. This idea is derived from actual magical practice in Europe and the Middle East and North Africa during the Middle Ages. Both Christian and Muslim thinking had the world infested with evil spirits who held power over it, and so a magician could, with proper talent and training, summon these evil spirits and either compel them to obedience using the names and symbols of God (so-called “white” magic), or buy their favor with devotions, sacrifices, or the surrender of one’s soul (so-called “black” magic). Diabolic magic appears in fantasy fiction as well.

Finally, magic can come from no conscious, intelligent source at all, but from natural powers inherent in the universe that respond to the trained and talented mind. That’s the way it works in a lot of fantasy, from the powers wielded by the Elves and other intelligent beings in Tolkien’s mythos to the Force wielded by the Jedi and Sith in the Star Wars saga.

Regardless of the source of magical energy, the idea of magic, the idea that human beings can wield miraculous powers given a talent for it and training, is a constant that appears in many fantasy stories. Magic is, in fact, something that exists in the real world, but fantasy magic goes beyond what can normally be done with real-world magic. Just as fantasy gods are sometimes corporeal entities in the objective world, which they are not in our own normal reality, so fantasy magic has dimensions and powers beyond what real-world magic-wielders can do, or at least beyond what they can do routinely. (If that’s not so, then one has an occult story, not a fantasy.) Fantasy magic doesn’t actually have to resemble real-world magic much at all, and fairly often it doesn’t except in the most superficial ways. And yet, just as fantasy gods, while they need not tell a literally true story, should carry mythic truth, so fantasy magic should also express mythic truth about a part of the world.

Magic always follows rules. It is not lawless, chaotic, or capricious, even when there is an element of chance involved. Exactly what the rules are is, in fantasy fiction, a free-for-all and fantasy magic has ranged all over the map in the details of how it operates. But it always has rules, even if they aren’t always the same rules from one fantasy universe to the next.

Although the rules of fantasy magic vary widely, there are some principles that might be called “meta-rules” which all serious fantasy fiction follows in describing magic.

Meta-rule #1: Magic is an inborn talent. Just as not everyone has what it takes to be a great musician, poet, artist, or warrior, not everyone has what it takes to be a great magician. In some fantasy universes, a little bit of magic may be available to everyone, in others most people are unable to wield magic at all, but the most powerful magic is always restricted to a talented few.

Meta-rule #2: Magic requires training, education, and practice. Although talent is necessary to the wielding of powerful magic, it is not sufficient; even the most talented magician must learn, study, and practice the Art, often for years.

Meta-rule #3: Magic has a cost. In becoming a great magician and using the power, something must be sacrificed. Exactly what the sacrifice consists of varies as widely as the rules and mechanics of magic themselves. It may be the ability to relate to the rest of humanity or see kinship with them. It may be years of one’s life. It may be, eventually, one’s sanity. It may be one’s moral code, one’s conventional view of the world, or even one’s soul. It may be simply that the rest of society looks upon one with scorn, fear, and revulsion. But there is always a price to pay.

Meta-rule #4: Magic is dangerous. The consequences of wielding the power cannot be predicted perfectly. It is always possible to make things happen that one did not intend. The greater the magical power wielded, the greater the risk to oneself and others.

Now here’s where we touch upon mythic truth once more. All of those four meta-rules are true in the real world, not only of magical power, but of all power wielded by human beings. It requires talent, it requires training, it carries a cost, and it’s dangerous. That’s true whether the power is persuasive, artistic, economic, political, technological, or anything else. Magic in fantasy is a mythic metaphor for all forms of power, and cautions regarding it apply to power in general. There are lessons to be learned from this in terms of the accumulation of power by individuals and what they do with it. Magic in fantasy teaches us about the morality of power.

There is another subject related to magic which comes up somewhat less often in fantasy fiction and that is what might be called the Mysteries. The use of that word can be a bit confusing to those who aren’t familiar with it, because a “mystery” in ordinary language means the same as a puzzle. “Mystery” fiction, for example, starts with a crime (normally – sometimes it’s a non-crime, but crime represents the archetype) and presents the reader with clues to the crime in the course of telling the story, finally revealing the truth at the climax. That’s not what I’m talking about here. The Mysteries (capitalized) are not secrets that are concealed but may be told; they are things that can’t be told but must be experienced firsthand. To achieve knowledge of the Mysteries is to undergo a mystical initiation and be transformed.

One finds the Mysteries presented in fantasy fiction less often than magic. Probably the reason for this is that many fantasy writers are neither initiates nor practitioners of magical arts (although a surprising number of us are). (Well, perhaps that’s not so surprising on reconsideration.) One can imagine a “magic” that works like driving a car or playing a musical instrument, according to rules that don’t require any personal transformation. Some fantasy stories do that. But where the Mysteries are presented, it can make for an interesting story.

There are several classic examples of the Mysteries presented in fantasy. The works of the late Roger Zelazny deal with the Mysteries on a regular basis, e.g. the experience of walking the Pattern in the Amber series, or the initiation process described in Madwand. Marian Zimmer Bradley also had her characters passing the Mysteries, both in The Mists of Avalon and in the Darkover series. In all cases, an initiate had to undergo ordeals, expand his consciousness, and be transformed in order to gain magical power; in doing so, he also gained insights into his own nature and that of the cosmos.

The Mysteries, where they are part of the story, are usually a prerequisite to magical power, but they are about more than this. On a mythic level, they suggest the existence of levels of reality which most people never see, being blinded by the shackles of ordinary consciousness. Or, as William Blake once put it, “How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way, is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?” (William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.)

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Elements of Fantasy: Gods, Devils, and Super-Beings

An amendment to the pledge in the first post: I will add to this blog at least once a week. That’s the commitment, which I may exceed at my discretion, as now.

 

The elements of fantasy fiction – by which I mean those parts which make it fantasy and not just fiction – bear a close and symbiotic relationship to the elements of religion or spirituality or both.

I’m quite serious about this. It’s true that fantasy does not depict the real world as we know it. If it did, it wouldn’t be fantasy. But something weird and different about the fictional world is not enough to make it become a fantasy. It has to be a particular type of weirdness, and that type of weirdness is shared by religious thinking and spirituality. There is a distinction between the two in that religion at least claims to be describing the real world, while fantasy insists it isn’t doing this, but the truth is that religion doesn’t do it as much as most religious believers think, and fantasy does it more than most fantasy writers pretend.

Here’s the thing about statements: they’re not all simplistically either true or false. A statement may be a claim of fact (“the world was made in six days”), an assertion of value (“you should treat others as you would be treated”), or a metaphor (“Daenerys Targaryen is the Mother of Dragons”). When a religious doctrine makes a claim of fact, it is inevitably saying something either banal or false. (The world was not, for example, actually made in six days.) Religions have no access to the type of truth that goes into making statements of fact – religion is not science – and so a religious doctrine that makes a true statement of fact is also making an obvious one that everyone knows already. All other religious claims of fact are false.

The other two types of statements are more in the expertise of religion, and the third category, metaphor, is also in the domain of fantasy. Although fiction writers (including fantasy writers) aren’t barred from making values statements, either.

There is a type of truth in metaphor, at least potentially, but it is not a straightforward truth. Metaphor – and myth, which consists of stories built on a metaphorical foundation – come at the truth in sidewinder fashion, spiraling in on a target that can’t be approached on the straight and level. Language is only designed to describe things in literal terms if they are already known and familiar. It has to be twisted about to describe the new and different, and the more outside the common arena of experience a truth is, the more language has to be stretched in its meaning to describe it. And that of course is what metaphor does: it describes one thing as being similar to another thing in some way, so that words which straightforwardly describe the other thing can be used slantwise to describe what we’re actually trying to get at.

Myth is a type of metaphor. Either that or it’s a falsehood, but which it is depends entirely on how it’s interpreted. If we take it for a literal, straightforward, factual claim about reality, it’s just false. The sun is not a chariot being driven across the sky by a god. Your heart will not be weighed on a scale by the gods after you die. Winter is not the result of a temper-tantrum by Nature while her daughter is the captive wife of Death. Jesus (almost certainly) did not come back to life after he was murdered. But each of these myths has a deeper meaning (or more than one) for which it is a metaphorical expression, and those deeper meanings are true. The sun is the source of life and should be revered. What you have done in life survives you and the impact of your life may be good or evil in various measures. Winter and Death do have a profound connection. And death and rebirth is the transition by which the human spirit becomes divine.

The same is the case with the best fantasy. Fantasy doesn’t make (and unlike religion, doesn’t claim to make) literally true statements about the world we live in. But it does, or at least in my opinion it should, make statements that express mythical truth.

And that brings me to the subject of today’s writing.

The gods are a staple of fantasy. Not all fantasy deals with them directly, but most fantasy at least gives them passing reference and sometimes they are the main subject. But just because a fantasy calls some critters or other “gods” doesn’t mean that’s what they really are. There are actually three different sorts of super-powerful intelligent being that may be found in fantasy, which I call gods, devils, and super-beings. It’s not uncommon for beings that are called “gods” in fantasy to actually be super-beings, not gods, and it’s not unheard-of for them to be devils.

A god is not merely a very powerful and intelligent creature. A god is also an embodiment of something important about the world, or even of the whole world itself. This is the god’s Aspect. Apollo is the sun god and the god of art. Thor is the god of the storm. Hecate is the goddess of the magical arts and of death and rebirth. Aphrodite is the goddess of love and beauty. In each of these cases, while the god or goddess as an anthropomorphic figure may be imaginary, its Aspect is quite real and powerful and important in the lives of people. The same is true of monotheistic deities, of course, whose Aspect is the entire universe. Can’t get much more important than that!

Because these Aspects are real and powerful and important in the lives of people, there is a natural connection between the gods and human beings. The gods are not completely separate from us; they are not just “other people” who are much more powerful than we are. They are the elements of our lives personified. As such, they have a vertical relationship with us – our creators, our mentors, our teachers, our benefactors, those we consult about important things – and not merely a horizontal one. They are not wholly other; they are part of who we are.

Not all creatures in fantasy that are called “gods” fit this description, although some gods do fit it; Tolkien’s Valar certainly do for example, as do the gods and goddesses in Neil Gaimon’s splendid American Gods and its sequel Anansi Boys. On the other hand, the “gods” of Larry Niven’s Warlock stories (such as Rose-Kattee in The Magic Goes Away) are not gods at all; they are merely very powerful intelligent creatures with a horizontal relationship to humanity only – wholly other than ourselves. There is no reason at all, other than fear or cupidity, why any such being should be worshiped. The same could be said of the gods of Tad Williams’ Shadowmarch series.

Are creatures such as these legitimate fantasy creations? Of course they are. They just aren’t proper gods; humanity in a story like that has been victimized by opportunistic superhuman tyrants who call themselves gods but aren’t. (Or perhaps, although no such story comes to mind off the top of my head, humanity might be assisted by superhuman benevolent despots. There’s no particular reason why a superhuman creature must be hostile if it isn’t a genuine god.) In addition to gods, properly so called, there are two other categories of vastly powerful highly intelligent being in fantasy, and also in myth: devils and super-beings. Devils are powerful beings who, like gods, have a vertical relationship to humanity, but it is a hostile relationship. They wish to destroy, enslave, corrupt, damn, condemn, or otherwise afflict us. They are the self-destructive side of ourselves personified, or the hostility of nature to our existence. It’s a fairly common theme, although with most fantasy nowadays hewing towards Pagan spirituality and avoiding anything with Christian overtones, less often seen than was once the case. Still, devils can slip into fantasy in disguise. Tad Williams’ gods are very close to being devils; so are the nastier examples of the Tide Lords in Jennifer Fallon’s series of that name. So, obviously, are Tolkien’s Melkor/Morgoth and Sauron, and the Emperor Palapatine – or perhaps the Dark Side of the Force itself – in the Star Wars saga.

The philosophical implications of gods and devils need not be developed to any particular depth in a fantasy story and of course, any such development should always be secondary to the development of plot, character, and theme, for fantasy fiction is fiction first and fantasy second. But there is room in a novel to explore such things if it is done in a way that contributes to the story rather than supplants it. The line between fantasy and mythos is not hard and fast. Indeed, the human characters in the best fantasy are living a myth or a legend themselves and the stories retell themes that are ages old in new ways and new voices.

The third category of superhuman intelligence, super-beings, is something of a catch-all. A person of vast power and intelligence with only a horizontal relationship to humanity and with no mythic significance is a common enough fantasy element and can make for an interesting story. A good example is, on one level, the Princes of Amber in Roger Zelazny’s Amber series. Not perfectly so, though; the mythic strongly intrudes, the Pattern and Logrus are clearly gods, not mere super-beings, and a few of the immortal somewhat-human denizens border on the mythic: Oberon, Dworkin, Benedict, and (in a diabolic aspect) Brand.

Yes, the super-being is certainly a legitimate fantasy element; yet, to my way of thinking at least, the best fantasy stretches beyond depicting the fantastic merely as fantastic and enters the arena of myth. The gods of a fantasy pantheon (if they are proper gods) should be such that a perfectly viable religion in the real world could be made of them. So what if they don’t exist as corporeal beings in the objective world? Neither do any deities which human beings actually do worship; their reality is found in the human heart, not in the observable world. If they do exist as corporeal beings in the objective world of a fantasy story – which is sometimes, but not always, the case – that’s how myth works. It’s a metaphor, telling a truth in sideways fashion that cannot be told straight. And it can also make a fine tale.

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A Good Greeting to All

This is the first post in a new blog. I’ve learned two things from my first toe-in-the-water experience at the blogger’s craft, and that is that one should not blog about an unlimited variety of subjects or about “whatever interests me.” Because if one does, the only person who will want to read all of one’s posts is oneself. Or, just possibly, one’s mother. Even that isn’t guaranteed.

So I’m going to limit the subject matter here to the following:

1) Fiction, especially fantasy and science fiction

2) Spirituality, especially Pagan spirituality, but an open-minded and hence essentially heretical take on other perspectives may also be indulged from time to time

These two subjects, I believe, work together well. That’s because fantasy (and, to a somewhat lesser extent, science fiction) is in essence mythic in its storytelling. Its themes are usually spiritual or religious in nature, and its subject matter includes the stuff of Faerie, of myth painted with a vivid brush, of Heaven and Hell and the worlds between. The gods of actual religions are created the same way as those of fiction, through interaction between the human imagination and the greater cosmos, so that the cosmos is humanized and at the same time humanity is transcended. At some time in the past, every deity worshiped by living human beings in the real world was a fictional character brought to life, and so a storyteller who creates fictional deities and other mythic beings is also creating real ones, whether or not they ever achieve any actual worshipers.

I’ll have book reviews here, links to sites that I think have something to say about one or both subjects, poetry that relates to one or the other or both, short fiction or (maybe) excerpts from longer fiction by me or by others if I like them and if I have the authors’ permission to present them.

I’ll also have philosophical ruminations on such things as enlightenment, our place in the cosmos, the art of magic (whether fictional or real-world, together with some exploration of the differences between the two), myths new and retold, and similar wanderings in the world of the spirit.

However tempted I may find myself, I will have nothing else, nothing that doesn’t relate to these topics, not here. Somewhere else, maybe. Not here.

The other lesson is that blogging is a responsibility and one must post at regular intervals and not when the spirit moves. So a new entry will appear here every Saturday. Why Saturday? Because today’s Saturday. Just a coincidence, although Saturday happens to be the day of Saturn which is the planet associated with discipline, so it’s appropriate.

All that out of way, here’s a little something.

THE CREATION

In the beginning there was Nothing, but Nothing contained the seeds of Everything. It was both Infinity and Zero. It was the universe in its undifferentiated cosmic oneness: no past, present or future; no here or there; no I and no Thou; no this and no that. All alone, with nothing going on, and where there is only One there is no one to see it or hear it or understand it, and so there is Nothing.

But no one understands these things except the universe itself, so we’ll skip all that for now and you can ask It when you get there.

Anyway, as I said, the universe was both Infinity and Zero, and It wanted to create all the other numbers and tried various ways to do this. It tried adding Inifinity and Zero together, but of course when Zero is added to any other number it remains unchanged, so that didn’t accomplish anything. It tried subtracting Zero from Infinity with the same disappointing result.

Then it hit upon the idea of dividing Infinity by Zero. (Or it could have been that it multiplied the two. Either would have worked.) This process generated every real number, since that is the solution in mathematics of the equation X = ∞ ÷ 0; any real number satisfies it. Since Nothing occupies no space and no time, the sudden appearance of every real number in existence was impossible to contain within the universe as an undifferentiated oneness, and so Everything exploded in a great burst of light from an infinitely small point out into an ever-expanding space.

The first thing to emerge into the new world of Many Things was Time. It had to be the first, because otherwise there couldn’t be a beginning, and without a beginning nothing can exist. Time started at the beginning of itself and finished at the end, and gave all events and things a place between the two. And into its place each thing emerged as it burst upon the new world of Many Things.

Now the universe, still an undifferentiated oneness in the eternal reaches but having become Many Things within the context of Time, took on two forms above and beyond the Many Things. One of those was the Beginning, when the universe divided or multiplied its infinity by its nothingness and all the Many Things burst into the world. The other was the End, when the last action will be taken and the universe will once again be Nothing. And the Beginning said to the End, “This new situation we’ve created has a lot of potential. Inside each of these Many Things, at the very heart and core of it, there’s a little image of Us, a remembrance of the Oneness in each fragment. But none of these fragments are aware of that about itself, because they are all moving as pieces of the whole. But what if we were to have a fragment that could think and know and imagine and feel? It might be able to discover and remember Me in the core of its being, and thereby embrace all of the world in Love, for it would recognize Me in itself and in all other things, too.”

Then the End said to the Beginning, “Yes, that would be a possibility. But while You are certainly there in the core of each of the Many Things, so am I. And that means that this creature that can think and know and imagine and feel would always be torn between You and Me, between Love and Loathing, between the joy of creation and the despair of annihilation. It would be a destructive force as well as a creative force.”

But the Beginning said, “That is true. But it is more likely to embrace Me in its core rather than You, for I am bright and bold and life-affirming and good, while You are dark and cold and self-destructive and bad. And any of them that do embrace You will destroy themselves, leaving those who embrace Me triumphant.”

And the End said, “Perhaps, and yet you know very well that I will be the one who triumphs once all the course of Time is run.”

And the Beginning said, “That’s all right. In the meantime we will live and love, My children and I, and put you off for as long as we may.”

But the End said, “So you say. Yet You and I are one, as You know very well, and so in order to find You within themselves, these minds of your creation must find Me, too. And so there will always be a darkness in their natures, and they will be as much Mine as Yours.”

The Beginning had to admit that this was so, but put its plan into action anyway. And so within the world of Many Things there appeared creatures who could become aware of themselves as reflections of the universe in its oneness, both the Beginning and the End. And because they had both of these within themselves, the light and the dark, the creative and the destructive, the loving and the loathing, their lives were not a simplicity of bliss but rather a Story, full of Conflict, in which creation and destruction both have their place.

 

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