Monthly Archives: July 2012

Logos and Mythos

I mentioned the two ways of thinking referred to as logos and mythos in earlier posts, but the concept needs more exploration, I think. It lies at the heart of myth-making and therefore of both fantasy writing and spirituality.

Logos and mythos are both types of thinking that employ symbols: language, pictures, and mathematics for the most part (although mythos also employs music, and for some very limited purposes so does logos). A symbol is one thing that refers to another thing. For example, the letter T in English refers to a sound made by snapping the tip of the tongue against the palate just behind the upper teeth while exhaling voicelessly. The word “cloth” is also a symbol. It refers to a type of material made from woven plant, animal, or synthetic fibers and used to make clothing and other items. Both logos and mythos employ symbols to think with. They manipulate symbols, put them in different combinations allowed by the rules and from this generate new ideas.

As far as symbols are concerned, the main difference between logos and mythos is this. In logos, each symbol has one and only one referent. The more formal the logical discipline, the more perfectly true this becomes. In science and mathematics, which are the most formal of all logical disciplines, each term must be explicitly defined so that there can be no ambiguity about exactly what it is referring to. As long as you understand the definitions and can follow the reasoning, there can be no fuzziness, no way to misconstrue what is said. Even if it’s something like imaginary numbers or quantum mechanics that defies intuitive comprehension, you can still follow the mathematical reasoning and understand what is being said that way. For the purposes of logos, this one-to-one correspondence of symbol with referent is very important. It’s a large part of what allows logos to function.

In mythos, each symbol has more than one referent. In fact, each symbol has an infinite number of possible referents. The goal in mythos is not to communicate simple, linear truths precisely and without ambiguity as it is in logos, but to open the doorways and windows of the imagination and expand the mind. The truths with which mythos is concerned cannot be communicated, they can only be discovered, and discovery requires that the mind be pushed out of its accustomed, habitual pathways. In mythos, a symbol is not a tool for precise, unambiguous communication of easily-comprehensible truth, as it is in logos, but rather it is a tool for connecting ideas that may have no logical and obvious connection and so causing a person to think, feel, and imagine in new ways.

Why these two radically different ways of using symbols? Because each serves a completely different purpose. The purpose of logos is, in the end, technology. All of its questions are of the nature of “how does it work?” What is the best way to describe this or that natural process, so that we can effectively alter it if we want to without making a ghastly mess of things? (I realize that in applying knowledge gained by logos we often have made a ghastly mess of things; however this comes from acting before our logos-acquired knowledge is sufficiently complete. It’s a problem caused by a deficit of mythos, not by an application of logos per se.) The purpose of mythos is not technology but understanding, and that in terms of meaning more than mechanics. Logos asks how. Mythos asks why. The two should never be in conflict, as they aren’t approaching the same questions and therefore can never provide conflicting answers.

I can best explain how mythos functions with examples, and I’m going to choose three from three different religions.

First, from Islam, the phrase in Arabic pronounced (roughly) “la ilaha ila Allah” and usually translated as “There is no god but God.” Part of this is straightforward enough, but what precisely is a “god”? Clearly the shadada or testament of faith is proclaiming that there is only one of these entities, whatever it is, but “god” could mean any number of different things. We can begin the way most Muslims think of this phrase, as saying that people should worship only one deity, and on this basis they object to polytheism, but even orthodox Muslim thinkers take it a step further and say that one should not worship or revere anything above God — money, pleasure, and power being among the most common “other gods.”

The phrase can also be interpreted to mean that however different the deities worshiped by various religions and cultures may seem at first glance, all of them are One — literally, there is no god but God, and all (seeming) other gods really are God. This is of course not an orthodox Muslim interpretation of the words, but it is one that follows from their possible meanings.

Finally, let’s recognize that, as Muslim teachers observe, anything in the world can be worshiped as a god. That being the case, all things really are God (as there is no god but God), and God is all the world. (This by the way is how the Sufi usually interpret the phrase.)

Which of these is the “real” meaning of the Shadada? There is no one “real” meaning; that’s the point here. To assign it one “real” meaning would be to improperly subject it to the rules of logos, when it properly belongs in mythos.

Second example, from Christianity, words attributed to Jesus: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” Now, the way that Christians have often interpreted this is to say that only by being a Christian can one find God — a claim that is of course absurd, and easy enough to disprove — and in fact Jesus made no mention here of Christianity (which did not yet exist) nor of any other religion; he referred only to himself. Setting that aside, Jesus is clearly saying here that nobody comes to God except “by me.” What does that mean?

“By me” could mean, “by following my teachings.” Or, it could mean, “by devotion to me as the Son of God.” Or, it could mean, “by what I’m going to do for you — it’s not something you do.” All of these are meanings appropriate to the words used.

Here’s another possibility. In other statements, Jesus often emphasized that what he was, others are, too; that we are all children of God, all one with God, all capable of the same miraculous feats as Jesus himself and more. Also we should recognize that this was a spiritual teacher much given to being cryptic. And so another possible meaning of “by me” is “the way that I have done,” with “me” here referring to the union of God and man which Jesus was — as are we all, the difficulty being to become aware of this.

As with the Shahada, this claim of Jesus does not have one single meaning, but all of the ones listed above and more.

Finally, from Wicca, the words of the Goddess in the Charge: “I have been with you from the beginning, and I am that which is attained at the end of desire.”

Most simply and simplistically, the Goddess is here proclaiming her eternal nature and promising to be with us to the end and beyond. But look at the words chosen: “end of desire.” And consider the words from the Charge that come before these: “If what you seek you find not within yourself, you will never find it without.” This gives a different depth to “I have been with you from the beginning,” suggesting that she is within us, not merely with us.

“At the end of desire” carries a possible meaning of death, but also of attainment of the same goal as in Buddhism, the overcoming of desire. The Goddess is what we find when we achieve “the end of desire.” But what is that? Without desire, there is no action, not even the act of perceiving, and without perceiving there is no world. So “I am that which is attained at the end of desire” can also mean, “I am what the world is when it comes to its end.”

As with the Muslim and Christian examples above, there is no single “right” interpretation of these words from the Charge of the Goddess. The point is not to discover a meaning which can then be conveyed to others in different words. The point is to make the journey of discovery yourself, allowing your mind to be opened and expanded. That’s the way that mythos works, and in all cases the process of discovery is more important than what is discovered.


Filed under Fantasy Storytelling, Spirituality

What Is Fantasy Fiction (Part 3)?

Why Write Fantasy?

I write fantasy because I read fantasy. In fact, I think one can make that a universal rule: any type of fiction you write should also be what you like to read. If you don’t like to read it, you won’t understand it and you won’t write it well, at least not if you’re trying to write it. (If you end up writing in a genre by accident, that’s different; in that case you’re already halfway to creating a crossover story. But one cannot deliberately set out to accidentally write a particular type of story; that’s oxymoronic.)

The question then is not why one would want to write fantasy but rather why one would want to read it. Answer that question and the other answers itself.

This brings up the question of what we expect from a story, something that varies from reader to reader except in the most general terms. And that in turn brings up the observation that literary genres fall into two categories relating to how they are defined. Some are defined in terms of what kind of plot devices or story elements are present (fantasy, mystery, science fiction, romance, westerns). Others, however, are defined in terms of the feelings they arouse in us (thrillers, horror, romance, erotica). (Yes, I put romance in both categories. It belongs in both, because it’s defined both by story elements and by prevailing emotional tone.) There can be quite a bit of crossover between these two sorts of classifications. The fantasy horror story is a perfect example; actually most horror is also fantasy although not all (and the converse, that most fantasy is horror, is absolutely not the case). The techno-thriller is a cross of the thriller and science fiction. A fantasy thriller is also quite possible. So is a fantasy romance, or a western horror story, or a mystery thriller, or – well, you get the idea.

If a fantasy story is also say, a thriller and if you’re a fan of thrillers, then you have your answer. But most fantasy doesn’t fall into any of the usual emotionally-defined categories. If there’s a common emotional tone to fantasy that isn’t horror, thriller, etc. I would say it’s a sense of wonder. In reading a fantasy story, one should have the sense (part of the time anyway) that one is in the presence of something extraordinary and beyond the norm, before which one’s impulse is to stand in open-mouthed awe, to sink to one’s knees in devotion, or to recoil in loathing. That sense of wonder happens to be something I like and something I seek in real life. I’m also inclined by nature to mythic thinking (though I understand the difference between that and linear, logical thinking and the importance of the latter). All of this is important in fantasy and thus it’s a genre that appeals to me – provided, always, that it consists of a good story told well.

How-To Information about Fantasy Writing

The best way to learn how to write fantasy is to read a lot of it, and then just do it. There really isn’t – or at least shouldn’t be – a fixed set of rules for fantasy writing other than those that apply to all fiction writing in terms of style, characterization, plot development, and so on.

For that reason, I’m going to resist the temptation to present links to web sites or references to books that claim to offer instruction in “how to write fantasy.” If you want to learn how to write fantasy, then you should:

1)      Learn how to write fiction; and

2)      Read fantasy.

Anyone who wants to write fantasy will gain more from courses and advice on writing fiction (style, plot, character development and all that good stuff) than from any book or web site that offers instruction on how to write fantasy specifically. Now, that said, there are a few hints that could be given that apply more to fantasy than to other fiction writing, but mostly they involve what not to do. Don’t let your fantasy elements become more important than the story. Don’t try to write fantasy to a rigid formula. Don’t get so reliant on the fantasy elements of your story that they become a deus ex machina that takes the place of good plot construction.

To make a story be a fantasy story, all you have to do is include fantastic elements in it in some fashion and capacity that makes sense according to the story’s internal logic. Take Gone with the Wind and splice in a slave who hits Scarlett O’Hara with a voodoo curse and you have a fantasy. Take The Grapes of Wrath and add a migrant farm worker who is advised and comforted by his grandmother’s ghost and you have a fantasy. Take The Three Musketeers and give D’Artagnan a magic heirloom sword and you have a fantasy. That part’s easy. The fantasy elements are what make the story a fantasy, but they aren’t by themselves what make it a good story.

The rest of writing good fantasy is just writing good fiction. The rules are no different than they are in any other sort of fiction writing. If you try too hard to conform to what you believe are the conventions of fantasy, thinking that fantasy fiction is somehow going by different rules than other sorts of fiction, you’re not going to be as successful as you could be. There’s only one sense in which the rules are different in fantasy. A fantasy fan may (but then again may not) appreciate fantasy writing that isn’t good enough to appeal to someone who isn’t a fantasy fan. But to set out deliberately to appeal to that sort of reader is, in my belief, a mistake. Write something good, and you’ll still appeal to that sort of reader, but you’ll appeal to others as well.

However, in the spirit of this point, I would like to present one web site that caught my eye in a humorous vein. It consists of a “fantasy novelist’s exam” and presents a number of shticks and tics that anyone who has read a good bit of bad fantasy will recognize and laugh about, and that anyone who wants to write good fantasy should avoid.

There are two tips that could be added and which ought to be common sense (and may be generalized to any other genre of fiction writing) but that apply particularly well to fantasy.

1)      Make sure that your fantasy elements are logically consistent. You are making something up and adding it to ordinary reality. Take care to ensure that your made-up elements don’t contradict themselves.

2)      If you are incorporating non-fantastic elements in your story that are not part of the ordinary reality experienced by most people, for example ancient or medieval arts or facts of life, do your homework and ensure you get them right. There are people who know about blacksmithing, horsemanship, fighting with antique weapons, and the feudal system, for example. If you’re going to write about these things, make sure you do, too.

Other than that, the only rule to writing good fantasy is to tell a good story and tell it well.


Filed under Fantasy Storytelling

What Is Fantasy Fiction (Part 2)

Fantasy, the Imagination, and Spirituality

Any fiction has to connect with its readers and relate to their lives in some way, while also stretching beyond the banal. We don’t read stories where we can’t identify with the characters, but at the same time we don’t read stories that are exactly like ordinary life. We want to engage both sympathy and imagination. The reader wants to feel a connection and kinship with the characters and to imagine being the characters, but in doing so wants to experience things that are outside of – and more interesting and exciting than – what he goes through day to day. In fantasy, the stretching is accomplished primarily although not exclusively through the fantasy elements. Connection with the readers? That’s accomplished, as always, by good writing.

Another common but not quite universal attribute of fantasy fiction is that a lot of it has a theme or sub-theme that’s religious or moral or spiritual in nature. By this I don’t mean that the theme conforms to the doctrines of any particular religion (although that’s possible; C.S. Lewis’ fantasy fiction, for example, was strongly Christian, while Marian Zimmer Bradley wrote fantasy with a Wiccan theme). I mean that it involves questions that religion attempts to answer, such as:

  • What is the ultimate nature of man/the universe/the divine?
  • What should the goal of a human life be?
  • What is the right choice of action in any particular circumstance?

Within the context of the fantasy story, questions like these, great or small, are often posed and sometimes answered, the answers always being of a mythic rather than a straightforward character. That is, they are not literal statements but metaphors for truths that can’t be put into words, impacting our understanding on a non-verbal level – tricky when one’s artistic medium is entirely verbal, but by no means impossible as every poet knows. It’s a type of knowing that arises from mythos, not from logos.

(One may also observe that the pitfalls of any type or genre of writing, where it can easily go wrong, arise from the same source as its defining characteristics. One such pitfall for fantasy is the danger of becoming “preachy” and giving the reader the feel of being lectured. That’s a common mark of bad fantasy and it’s something to be aware of and avoid.)

Sub-Genres of Fantasy

Fantasy is a broad enough genre that several sub-genres exist. First one may distinguish between so-called “high” and “low” fantasy. Low fantasy is mostly another sort of story (any kind, really) but contains a few fantasy elements, such as minor magical or psychic ability on the part of one or more of the characters, interaction with a ghost or demon or angel or elf or some such creature, the impact on the characters of a talisman, etc. High fantasy is a story in which the fantasy elements are more pronounced, typically taking place in an alternate world, and pervasive throughout that world.

(Side note: I’ve seen low fantasy characterized as being set in the “real world,” while high fantasy is set in a “fantasy world.” While that may be a good rule of thumb, I don’t believe it’s the important distinction here; one may have a high fantasy as I’m using this phrase that’s located in the real, contemporary world – actually, my own Star Mages trilogy is exactly that, as is the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling – or a work of low fantasy set in an alternate world, provided the alternate world is mostly non-fantastic. A work of alternate history, such as Harry Turtledove often writes, is set in an alternate world but it is not necessarily high fantasy and most of Turtledove’s alternate history isn’t fantasy at all.)

An example of low fantasy is Stephen King’s Firestarter, which is basically a thriller/horror story with psychic powers as part of the plot and character development, while Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is high fantasy.

Another distinction is between the sub-genre of contemporary fantasy and – well, fantasy that isn’t contemporary. While the classic fantasy template has the story take place in an alternate world or in the legendary past, contemporary fantasy is located in the world we know with fantasy elements added. In contemporary fantasy we have all of the technology and cultural features that exist in modern life, while non-contemporary fantasy is often set in an ancient or medieval milieu. There are a number of sub-sub-genres of contemporary fantasy, such as urban fantasy and paranormal romance, which I won’t go into beyond mentioning they exist. One can pigeonhole a story to the point where the main goal – to tell a good story well – is lost, in my opinion, and anyway it’s better to classify a story after the fact. (I’ve never been a believer in using rigid formulas for writing.)

The main point in even acknowledging the different sub-genres of fantasy, other than being able to choose an appropriate genre designation when indie publishing at Amazon or another outlet, is to show the range of story that can contain fantasy elements. It’s wide open. The technological sophistication of the society of the story can run from the Stone Age to science fiction, and the prevalence of fantasy elements can range from minor to all-pervading. Fantasy provides the writer with a varied canvas and pallete and can’t be simplified to a single formulaic template.

Can Fantasy Be a Crossover?

Of course it can. Why not? Writing from any genre can appeal to an audience outside that genre’s usual readers, if it’s good writing, not overly formulaic, and of broad general appeal – in other words, if it’s a good story told well.

Some fantasy titles have already become crossover books. One example is Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, a retelling of the Arthurian legends from a perspective that was both feminist and Pagan. This was a sufficiently original concept and execution that it appealed to a lot of readers who don’t normally read a lot of fantasy. (Also, it may be that because it’s old and respectable, many don’t consider the Arthurian legends to be fantasy stories. They are.)

There are a number of other fantasy authors whose books have crossover potential, and also there are some fantasy titles that already do straddle the border between fantasy and some other genre. Much of Stephen King’s writing falls into this latter category.

Since fantasy is defined in such a broad way – any story containing fantastic or mythic elements – it’s particularly likely to achieve crossover, compared for example to romance, mystery, or thriller, all of which are defined more narrowly. The range of stories that could be called “fantasy” is simply enormous, and if one avoids formulaic writing and strives for originality, solid characterization, strong plot, and all those other good things that characterize good storytelling, the potential appeal is equally huge.


Filed under Uncategorized

A Coupon for a Free Book

This is a quick intercession between real content items. Part 2 of “What Is Fantasy Fiction?” will be up tomorrow. Right now, though, I want to offer readers of my blog a coupon to get a free copy of The Green Stone Tower. Just in case you like stuff for free, and like fantasy, and want to check it out.

The coupon code is VY86A. It’ll be good from now until August 31, 2012.

The link to the book at Smashwords is here.

More of the good stuff tomorrow.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

What Is Fantasy Fiction (Part 1)

Let’s start with the most obvious thing: fantasy fiction is fiction. All good fiction has certain characteristics in common that can be summed up as “telling a good story well.” Whether you’re talking about fantasy, science fiction, murder mystery, thriller, war story, romance, or anything else in fiction, the things that matter most are the characters, plot, conflict, theme, language, and creativity.

Despite this, we do divide fiction into categories based on story elements and conventions and typical themes. A murder mystery is a story with a murder in it that presents a mystery to be solved in the course of telling the tale. A romance is a story in which at least two of the characters are involved in a romantic relationship and the complications of their relationship form a substantial part of the plot. A science fiction story is one in which future technology and/or societal development plays a role either in the story itself or in setting the background. In all of these the word “story” is crucial because no matter the genre one must tell a story. But the genre elements are what distinguish this type of story from other types.

A fantasy is a story in which fantastic elements appear. What are fantastic elements? They are elements of myth, fable, and fairy-tale: gods and goddesses, demons and super-beings, magic, alternate worlds and realities, quasi-human beings (elves, dwarves, fairies, giants, ogres, goblins, or make-up-your-own), and fantastic creatures, places, and objects. Defining fantasy elements precisely is not really possible; like most art, this is more a matter of how something feels when it cruises, strolls, or rampages through the imagination than it is of anything objective.

Fantasy elements don’t have to dominate the story to classify it as fantasy, but they have to be present and they should preferably be significant to the plot or to at least some of the characters.

Fantasy is often lumped together with science fiction, but the two genres are quite distinct, and fantasy is much the older of the two. It’s as old as writing, actually. The Epic of Gilgamesh, among the earliest stories still in our possession, is a fantasy, as are the myths and legends of the earliest human civilizations and many of the stories in the scriptures of all current religions. Science fiction, in contrast, could not exist until modern science and the accompanying idea of progress came into existence. The earliest science fiction stories were written and published in the nineteenth century.

Still, it’s true that fantasy, although very old in its roots, has experienced a renaissance in relatively recent times, especially since the 1970s. When we speak of fantasy fiction as a modern genre, therefore, it’s reasonable to date the phenomenon from the mid to late twentieth century, while acknowledging its much older roots. That was when the modern conventions of the genre, such as they are, were established and when writers and readers began (in modern times) to think of it as a type of literature for adults rather than just for children.

Mythos and Logos: The Decline and Rebirth of Fantasy

What this means is that fantasy (in the form of myth and fairy tale) was common and popular from the invention of writing itself until early modern times, then for a while became relegated to children’s fiction until the second half of the twentieth century, when fantasy for adult readers experienced a rebirth. Why is that?

The answer, I think, has to do with two different types of thinking, two different approaches to reality called mythos and logos. Mythos has been described as a mode of knowledge rooted in intuitive insight. It concerns itself less with what is in simple description (that’s the realm of logos), and more with the meaning of what is. Consider the Biblical story of Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, and the fall. This is, in fact, a fantasy story, involving a deity, a talking snake, and the fruit of a magical tree, all of which are fantasy elements (at least insofar as the god walks about in a physical garden and talks to people with a literal voice). Now, taken as a simple literal description in the realm of logos, this story is untrue; these events did not happen in real history and that is not how the human race began. (Apologies to any Biblical literalists reading this, but the facts as we know them are the facts.) But the story has multiple levels of meaning which make it “true” in another sense; it relates to the loss of innocence as knowledge is gained and value judgments are made, and on a larger level to the transition from foraging and hunting to farming and agrarian civilization, with its backbreaking labor (“in the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread”) and its subjugation of women to men.

The same is the case with the fantasy elements in all (good) fantasy fiction. These elements do not exist in any simplistic, linear, straightforward sense in our world. (Of course, the characters and events in any type of fiction don’t exist, either – but in most non-fantasy fiction they theoretically could. That’s not the case with the fantastic elements of a fantasy story.) But they are “real” in another, mythic sense: they have meaning. They have significance.

Modern times have featured the empowerment of logos – straightforward, logical, linear thinking and description of what is. We might think of the early modern centuries from the fifteenth through the first half of the twentieth as similar to adolescence, when a person struggles to put childhood behind and strains to be “adult” in a self-conscious way that real adults don’t bother about so much. When the scientific method and rationalism were relatively new, literate society experienced a similarly self-conscious focus on being “adult” in what included both an exaggerated confidence in rationalism and a degree of fear (some of it unrecognized, some acknowledged) that these new and beneficial ways of thinking might vanish away, swamped by a tide of irrationalism and mythic thinking. As a result, mythos was suppressed for a time. Even religion itself largely abandoned it and tried to make itself a wholly-rational enterprise reasoned from the first premises of scripture. A part of that suppression was the banishment of myth and fairy tale – of fantasy – from adult literature.

By the middle of the twentieth century, however, logos had given birth to death camps, nuclear weapons and a threatened environment, and it became clear to many people that, however great the benefits of linear thinking, it would not suffice all by itself to build a good life or a good society. Mythos has enjoyed resurgence since then in many forms. Mythic thinking within religion has reclaimed much of its place, the value of myth has been recognized by philosophers and psychologists, and fantasy for adults has become a popular genre of fiction once again.

1 Comment

Filed under Fantasy Storytelling

Fantasy Fiction and “Literary” Fiction

One occasionally finds a lament expressed in words more or less like this.

Sure, as e-reading replaces the printed page and a new generation becomes accustomed to reading on their smart phones, one finds no diminishing of available genre fiction. Fantasy and science fiction, mysteries and thrillers, horror and romance, all seem to be doing fine. But from where shall we look for the next The Catcher in the Rye, the next For Whom the Bell Tolls, or the next To Kill a Mockingbird?

You already know I’m going to consider this concern misplaced.

It’s entirely wrong in my opinion to regard “literary” fiction as a separate genre in itself. “Literary” fiction consists of all fiction that, like the three examples above, rises above any classification and becomes a work of art that will stand the test of time. There’s no formula for literary fiction, by definition, and it can arise from any genre. It must transcend the limits of its genre, it cannot be a hack piece, but that doesn’t mean it has no classification. Of the three books above, The Catcher in the Rye could be classified as a young adult novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls as a war novel, and To Kill a Mockingbird as either black fiction or political fiction.

To be sure, these categorizations are strained to the point of absurdity, but that’s always going to be the case with a book recognized as a literary achievement. By nature and inevitably, a literary work must not be formulaic. It can be of any genre, but it can’t be “just another” book of that genre. And just as inevitably, such powerful works of literature are rare, and they can only be recognized after the fact. One does not set out to write “the next Lolita” (erotic-tinged psychological drama?) or “the next Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (young-adult adventure?) or “the next Da Vinci Code” (murder mystery?). For one thing, to try to emulate a work of literary fiction that’s already been published and recognized is inherently to attempt something derivative, something formulaic, and therefore something that will never achieve its goal. One does not set out to accomplish this except in the most general way, by attempting to produce creative excellence in whatever one does.

Can a fantasy novel become a literary work? Why not?

Well, actually there is a reason why not, but it involves a certain amount of snobbery on the part of the literary establishment which considers some types of writing as beneath serious notice. Part of what it means to be a literary work evidently is recognition and acceptance by the literary-criticism establishment as such. What that means is that no work of fantasy fiction (or science fiction or murder mystery or romance — although actually Emily Bronte’s work falls into that last category, so perhaps Wuthering Heights shows I’m wrong there) can be a “literary masterpiece.” But it seems to me that it can meet all of the criteria except for that all-important snob-recognition and as such we may thumb our noses collectively at the lit-crit establishment much as a successfully indie-published author can regard the Big Six publishers with scorn and disdain.

What are those characteristics? Let’s start with the objective measures of success.

The book must sell reasonably well, although it does not need to make the best-seller lists particularly in its own time (within a few years of publication). The reading public’s taste being what it is, a hack piece can easily outsell a work of real literary merit and this is in fact not uncommon. (Think Fifty Shades of Gray — not only a hack piece but a really, really bad one. Which is not to say that erotica, if it meets all the other criteria, can’t rise to the level of a literary masterpiece. It’s just that most written erotica is awful, including that book.) So it doesn’t have to outsell everything else on the market, but it does have to at least sell a few thousand copies.

It must continue to be popular and loved for a great many years — decades, at least. (Which means I was premature in mentioning The Da Vinci Code, published in 2003. I think that will one day be recognized as a literary piece, but at this point it’s only nine years old.) A literary work is always one that stands the test of time.

The book must be well-written, according to normal standards of story construction, characterization, and voice.

The book must be unique. It may contain elements of its genre (in this case fantasy elements), but it must not be reducible to those elements, or to a formula of the genre. To call it “a fantasy novel” must feel as strained as calling All Quiet on the Western Front a war novel. Yeah, it is a war novel, but it’s more than that.

So by these measures, are there works of literary fiction that can be classified, however uneasily, as fantasy?

Absolutely! I nominate the following:

Le Morte d’Artur by Sir Thomas Mallory.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare.

La Divina Commedia (particularly Inferno) by Dante Alighieri.

Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum.

One could place other titles in nomination, but those are sufficient to illustrate the assertion and provide support for the argument. All of these titles transcend the conventions of fantasy in some manner (or acted to create those conventions, being pioneering works that have been imitated widely). All have been reasonably popular. All are well written by the usual literary conventions. All have survived at least several decades, in some cases centuries.

Fantasy has exploded in popularity from about the 1970s until the present, which means there are a lot of fantasy titles out there that might one day become literary works, although at this point it’s premature to label them as such. Time will tell. But no matter the genre, the more that gets written in it, the greater the chance that some especially inspired and creative effort will rise above the limitations and conventions of the genre and stand the test of time.

1 Comment

Filed under Fantasy Storytelling

Where is Fantasy Going?

For a long time some years back, it seemed the trend in fantasy was running to vampires, with werewolves as a sub-genre. That may however have been only because it was what the big publishers were looking for. Be that as it may, I just popped over to Amazon this morning for a little informal research as to what was selling on the Kindle store in terms of fantasy fiction. I imagine most people know this by now, but the vampire sub-genre has become a bit passé, “Twilight” aside.

Leaving the sub-genre unselected, the top seller in fantasy e-books at Amazon was, no surprise, George R.R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons, while the second was his A Game of Thrones and the third was a bundled 4-volume set of his Song of Ice and Fire series (of which A Game of Thrones is volume 1 and A Dance With Dragons is volume 5). Getting past books associated with a popular television series (the books themselves, by the way, are excellent, although absurdly overpriced in e-book format), no. 4 is A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness (over- but not absurdly-priced at $9.99). Then a couple more Martin books. Then The First Confessor by Terry Goodkind, a spin-off from his Sword of Truth series. Then another Martin title. Then The Third Gate by Lincoln Child, which a little exploration reveals to be an archaeological fantasy sort of reminiscent of the Indiana Jones movies. Then Deadlocked by Charlaine Harris, which is a kind of occult murder mystery, one in a series. Following this is The Hobbit by Tolkien (one guess as to why that classic has shot up in popularity), and then The Wind Through the Keyhole by some dude or other named Stephen King (part of the Dark Tower series, of course; King is usually classified as a horror or thriller writer but there’s some crossover). That’s the first page. No vampires so far or at least no obvious vampires.

Scanning the second page I find quite a few witch stories, an epic fantasy about religious persecution, a couple of hard-to-classify things, and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Still no vampires or werewolves. If I specify “Contemporary Fantasy,” which is where vampire stories properly belong most of the time, I find one werewolf-related story at no. 10, and finally at no. 13 a book with “vampire” in the title.

(As an aside, you can tell the books that are published by legacy publishers as opposed to those that are indie published by the price without even seeing the publisher imprint. Legacy-published e-books are priced deliberately to retard sales so as not to compete with paper. If it’s above ten bucks, you know it’s not indie.)

Whew! So it’s safe to say, I think, that the epidemic of vampire stories has run its course. If there’s a trend running at the moment it would appear to be witch stories, that is, stories with female magic-wielder main characters. (Come to think of it, I’m working on one of those myself at the moment.) Now, my first reaction is to heave a big sigh of relief, ’cause that vampire stuff never did appeal to me much, but my second is to ponder the mystery of why these trends occur. Why were vampire books all the rage among fantasy readers a few years ago, and now it’s witches? To some extent this is surely a stochastic process, a phenomenon of chaos physics, but in keeping with the connection between fantasy and spirituality/myth that I’ve been suggesting in this blog, there may be other factors involved in setting and changing the trends of fantasy.

First of all, consider the vampire story as it was typically expressed during that sub-genre’s brief dominance of the market. This was typically a dark romance, usually directed towards female readers. The vampire as lover is the ultimate BDSM fantasy, surrender by one lover to another (usually woman to man, although it could be the other way around) to the extreme of giving up her life’s blood itself, with the gift of immortality as a reward. The vampire theme, to the extent readers identify with the undead, involves rejection of ordinariness — this is of course normal in just about all fantasy fiction and much fiction generally — but also rejection of humanity itself, nature, and life, for although the vampire “lives forever” in a sense, he or she does so only as a reanimated corpse, through embracing death and turning away from life, as symbolized by intolerance of the sun.

The witch story is quite a contrast to this. To the extent that it draws upon the lore of real-world witches (which some witch stories do more than others, of course), a witch theme embraces and reveres life and the natural world. In all cases, the witch is an empowered woman, a feminist statement in fiction, in charge of her own life (frequently mucking it up, but don’t we all), and as far removed from the vampire’s paramour as one can easily imagine within the parameters of fantasy. The popularity of the witch story these days might, therefore, actually be a reaction to the prior glut of vampire tales. A healthy one, at that. And in hindsight, it might even have been predictable.

So with that in mind, let me engage in a bit of speculation about where fantasy fiction might be going in the future, when the current rage for witch stories simmers down.

To begin with, we might expect a flip-side of the witch story to emerge in the form of stories about strong, but non-traditional, male characters. This would embody in fiction an emerging new concept of masculinity, with male characters that are a goodly remove from the stereotypical macho warriors, sage wizards, and cunning thieves of prior fantasy.

Another theme that might emerge involves the upsetting of traditional beliefs and norms. This is an ongoing upheaval in our own real-world culture and for it to emerge in fantasy fiction is perfectly logical, given the fantasy-spirituality-mythology connection.

So I’m going to predict that both of those will emerge as prominent trends in fantasy within the next six months. We’ll see if I’m right.


Filed under Fantasy Storytelling

A Bear Tale

This is a deeply spiritual story in a completely Pagan vein and one with lessons about the power of instinct and the connection between the artificial world of civilization and the animal nature from which civilization springs.

It’s set in rural Washington State (not too far from where the author lives in real life) and commences as a bear is reported to attack a woman and her dog. The main character and her dog encounter a second bear, and the instinctive antipathy between dog and bear drives many of the events, as does the fear of civilized man for a big, powerful wild animal. But the story is far more nuanced than any surface accounting of the plot can express.

Diana, the main character, although highly intelligent, is herself very much a human animal, with uncommonly few layers of civilized distancing from her human animal instincts. She works as a student nurse at a nearby hospital, where she must become mechanistic and passionless, suppressing her humanity in the paradoxical course of work as a healer. The small community where she lives with her mother and stepfather is divided over the question of whether to pave the road that runs through it, which is a private road not maintained by the county or the state – in other words, on whether to bring another layer of civilization and taming to the wilderness that it almost still is.

Instinct and animal nature are neither vilified nor romanticized here. We find that they can senselessly kill. We find that they can save life. We find compassion in unexpected places, and deep layers of emotional undergrowth lying beneath the emergent veneer of human society. Magic is done in attempt to save a bear, and magic happens in the relation of bear and human. One is reminded that the natural world is not eliminated by our technology and our civilized ways, but remains under the surface like the tangled vegetation of the western Washington rain forest. (I recall from my own years living in Seattle how it always seemed that the city was under siege by the green wilderness, ready to split the concrete and devour the buildings if it woke up sufficiently, and that was the big city, the stronghold of civilization insofar as western Washington has any. In rural areas of this wet, wonderful wild, the sense is much stronger.)

There is a fantasy element that one sometimes finds, most commonly in children’s fantasy, and that might be called animal anthropomorphism; the talking beasts in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia tales are a good example. A Bear Tale is, if anything, the exact opposite: a reminder that human beings are also animals, and that communication takes place on deeper levels than words.

A Bear Tale is short (novella length) and, in e-book format, is free. The author, Christi Overturf Killien, develops similar themes (and others) in her wonderful blog “Farmlet,” which you can find here. In the distant past, she wrote and published children’s books with some success. One hopes that she will find the time in her busy life to write more and longer fiction, because she has done a fine job here of developing this theme in spare brushstrokes.

A Bear Tale (e-book) free at Smashwords

A Bear Tale (print) at Amazon

1 Comment

Filed under Book Review

Crafting Religion: Ritual and Ethics

Religion can be defined, and therefore crafted, in more ways than one. It’s common to speak of religions in terms of their beliefs and doctrine. Thus we would say that the Abrahamic religions (Islam, Christianity, and Judaism) are monotheistic — they believe in a single God — while Hinduism is polytheistic with an underlying monism, Buddhism is atheistic with provision made for worship of deities as part of the illusion, most paleo-pagan religions were polytheistic with at most the beginnings of monism expressed by a few philosophers, modern Neopaganism is polytheistic with all sorts of philosophical ideas flying about as to the ultimate nature of both the gods and reality, et cetera.

The problem with this, of course, is that all such ideas are metaphors. The reality of anything so cosmic is far beyond the ability of human language to express. When Muslims say that there is no God but God, while Hindus say that there are many gods and goddesses but underlying their diversity (and that of the world) is a Unity, is one of these faiths “right” and the other “wrong”? No. The idea that not only the gods but all things in the world are One is lacking in Islam (except among the Sufi), but then again, the simplification of the multitude of deities to a single universal spirit is itself a strong expression of that idea which is lacking in Hinduism. And it’s not as if a person can understand the reality of Brahman merely by hearing it talked about, anyway.

One God or many or none, Brahman or the Void, all of these ideas may serve as myths to help the mind in its non-rational capacity to awaken the god sense, which is the only way to understand what they are all pointing at; if however one believes any of them to be literally true and others false, then the idea has ceased to be a myth and become a jail. None of them is true. None of them is false. All of them are valid metaphors. Clinging to such ideas leaves a believer far out on the rim of the wheel, unable to approach the hub, and trapped in an expression of the divine fixed by doctrine, unable to adapt.

To my way of thinking, it makes more sense to allow religious ideas and beliefs to float freely in a cloud of myth, akin to the universe of fantasy fiction, and instead concern ourselves with two other matters which bear more strongly on the quest to awaken the god sense and live a sacred life: ritual and ethics. Looked at from that perspective, for example, Christians would not be defined as those who believe in one God in three persons and the sacrifice of Jesus and so on, but rather those who engage in a periodic ritual of symbolically consuming the body and blood of the incarnate God and so taking his divine nature into themselves, who once in their lives undergo a ritual cleansing and dedication to God known as “baptism,” and who believe and try to follow (at their best anyway) an ethic based on compassion and love. Muslims, on the other hand, are defined as those who ritually pray five times a day to God while facing towards the holy city of Mecca, go on a pilgrimage to that city once in their lives, and believe and try to follow an ethic based on submission to God’s will, humility, and compassion. (By these measures I am myself neither Christian nor Muslim, regardless of any agreement or disagreement I may have with those who profess either of those faiths.)

What these people say they believe is less important than what they do.

And so we come to the final installment in this series of crafting religion. What shall we do? By what rituals shall we live? By what moral principles shall we try to live a sacred life? In keeping with the theme I’ve played throughout this series, these are not constants, but must grow and change as our openness to the god sense increases, and as our lives change.

And yet there are some constants. I’m not saying otherwise; I’m only saying that those constants are not sufficient to build a morality by which we may live our lives or a body of ritual by which we may orient ourselves to the sacred in a meaningful manner. It’s fine to promote something like the Golden Rule or the Wiccan Rede, but such principles are necessarily vague and beg the question of how we would have others do unto us, or of what causes harm and what is our will. What is right livelihood — what actions are unworthy in the pursuit of wealth? What are the rules of sexual conduct? By what oaths do we bind ourselves and for what purposes? What are our moral obligations to family, to authority, to strangers, to guests? All of these are important questions that don’t have universal, timeless answers; they change with the times.

One very significant change that is percolating through the universe of moral and religious thought at this time involves the relationship between men and women. A lot of traditional sexual morality (common to most agrarian-age religions) is founded on the idea of women being inferior or subordinate to men. This places obligations on both sexes which don’t make sense in a world where the genders are regarded as equal. This change in our culture has no bearing on the truly universal dicta such as “love thy neighbor as thyself,” but it makes a lot of difference to the specific ways in which that dictum is to be carried out when your neighbor is of a different gender than yourself. If you are a man and your neighbor is a woman, does right action consist of respecting her position as the property of another man (as either his daughter or his wife), or does it consist of respecting her right to choose her own path? In the past, the former; in the present, the latter. The nature of marriage, the morality of premarital sex, the acceptance or rejection of homosexuality, all change in a moral climate when men and women are equal.

Another crucial change involves the relationship of our species to the planetary biosphere of which we are a part. Religious teachings of the past have made nature subordinate to man’s desires, expressing in one way or another the idea that nature exists to serve the needs of man, and that the only competing interests (other than purely religious ones such as sacrifice) are those of other people. With the global ecosystem threatened by human greed and irresponsibility, clearly we cannot approach things that way any longer. What impact does this have on the ways in which we may honorably make a living, or on our lifestyle choices, or on how we organize our lives and our economies? As in the area of sexual morality, many things that were once acceptable must now be questioned.

We must anticipate more changes of this nature in the future, as we continue our transition from the agrarian-age past to wherever it is we’re going. The morality by which we try to live a sacred life, at any level more immediate and practical than the most lofty and universal of principles — all the ways in which we draw in the details — must be free to change, and likewise the rituals by which we express this morality and bind our will and purpose. On a moral and ritual level as much as on the level of myth, crafting religion is not just our right but our duty.

1 Comment

Filed under Spirituality

Crafting Religion: Designer Deities

The title of this post is deliberately silly. The silliness hides an important truth: that all deities are designed.

Referring to an earlier post on this blog in the Elements of Fantasy series, regarding fantasy deities, I wrote the following which also applies to deity in the real world:

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.

I wrote that about fantasy deities, but the same thing is also true of deities that are actually worshiped in real-world religions. A god or goddess is a personification of the universe, or of some important aspect of the universe as it impacts our own lives. The universe or its aspect exists independently of our own imagination. The deity itself does not. It’s a way of making the universe human so that the mind can more easily relate to it, be open to it, influence it and be influenced by it.

So what exactly am I saying here? That the gods are imaginary and don’t really exist?

Not quite. The universe certainly exists; knowledge, love, the earth, the sea, war, life, art, science, and other aspects of reality that have been deified in the past certainly exist; so does the human imagination. Deities are an intersection between the two.

We sometimes use the word “imaginary” as a synonym for “unreal,” but this usage can be deceptive. The only truth to it is that when we imagine something that belongs in the world of sensory experience — the physical world, that is to say — it may not actually reside there, or if it does it may not be where and when we imagine it or behave as we imagine it to behave. For example, I may imagine William Shakespeare sitting beside me and reading over my shoulder as I type this. In actual, physical fact, Mr. Shakespeare is not sitting beside me; he is long since dead. My imaginary Shakespeare is “not real” in the sense that he is not the real William Shakespeare, the man who wrote and produced a large number of plays in London during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I. He is quite “real” in another sense, however: I can see him if I choose to; I can hear his voice; he behaves in ways that I do not consciously control and can even give me advice on my writing style, plot development, and so on. (Better not, though — Shakespeare’s English is archaic and his stories often bloody, bizarre, and macabre. With respect, sir, rest in peace.)

A god or goddess is no more physically real than my imaginary Bard. But as with any imaginary entity, the gods can be real in an experiential sense, and also assume the reality of their aspects: the cosmos, or a significant portion of the cosmos.

Any fiction writer has surely experienced the phenomenon of the character who assumes a life of its own, does things the author did not originally plan or intend, develop in ways that could not have been predicted. One’s characters assert their independence in many ways. That’s even more true of deities, who often become public property. The imagination is a poorly-understood aspect of the mind and has more potency than it’s commonly credited.

In fact, look around you right now at whatever objects are in view. Unless you happen to be camped out in the wilderness (in which case it’s unlikely you’re even able to read this), most likely the majority of what you see consists of products of the imagination. All items of human construction and craft existed in the imagination before they existed in physical reality. The imagination is powerful. The imagination is magical.

In another sense, though, yes, I’m saying that the gods “don’t really exist.” Like all religious ideas, they are metaphors for reality that can only be understood through the awakened god sense and cannot be put into literal words. The gods are important. The gods should not be blithely dismissed. But they do not “exist” in the same way as the chair I’m sitting on or the computer I’m using to write this or my friends. Every god or goddess that has ever been worshiped by human beings is a product of the human imagination.

Because of this, there is no reason why we cannot employ the human imagination to create new ones more appropriate to these times, lacking the baggage that may be carried by existing conceptions of the divine. In all cases, it’s necessary that any deities we designed be:

  • Properly connected to the universe, or to some important aspect of the universe
  • Sympathetic to our own hearts and understanding
  • Powerful in the way that a work of art is powerful

A god or goddess that meets all these criteria will be real in exactly the same way as every other deity worshiped in every existing religion, ancient or modern, is real. By performing rituals of devotion to such beings, we connect with the aspect of the cosmos (or with the cosmos as a whole) that is associated with the god or goddess.

In the future I may write on the subject of real-world magic and the significance of connecting the imagination to the cosmos for that purpose. At present, I’ll only point out that doing this can have a profound effect on our own mind-set and our own behavior. As such, it can be a powerful way to awaken the god sense and to link ourselves in positive ways to the universe which we embody through the fractal mystery.




Filed under Spirituality