Elements of Fantasy: Marvelous Things

The fifth and final post in this series deals with a set of fantasy ideas that might at first glance seem like a hodge-podge catch-all for whatever is left over from the others, but I hope to show why that’s not true, and that these elements have a common theme underlying their diversity. I refer to fantastic creatures, places and things, natural and not-so-natural wonders of the fantasy world, magical beasts with more-than-human intelligence, and powerful talismanic objects both crafted and otherwise: marvelous things.

The One Ring of Power. The Staff of Law. Mount Doom. The Eye of the World. The Sword of Truth. Elcho Falling. Caer Paravel. The Phoenix. The Sphinx. Dragons.

What do all of these things, somewhat arbitrarily pulled from fantasy at random, have in common? Let’s explore each of them in turn.

The One Ring of Power (from The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien) was created by the devil/evil god Sauron as part of his devious plot to dominate the Elves. He had previously helped the Elves to create the Great Rings that empowered them with superior magic, but he had his own hidden agenda. The One Ring was created as a way to enslave all of the other Rings and their users. Into it he placed a large part of his own natural power. When he lost the Ring in the war of the Last Alliance, it became a temptation to the abuse of power, for anyone who found it and was strong enough to make use of it would become an evil creature much like Sauron himself.

The Staff of Law (from The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever by Stephen R. Donaldson) was created by Berek Hearthew, first of the Lords, to articulate the Earthpower in service of natural law. It was the greatest talisman of power wielded by the Lords until it was lost by Kevin Landwaster at the Ritual of Desecration, leaving the new Lords who replaced him stunted in power until they recovered it. Its misuse by Drool Rockworm for evil purposes caused his degeneration and eventually his death. Lost again, its destruction by Thomas Covenant caused the weakening of the Law itself and eventually empowered Lord Foul to create the Sunbane.

Mount Doom (from The Lord of the Rings) was the heart of Sauron’s realm and a source of natural magic where he performed his greatest works, including the forging of the One Ring. We would call it a volcano today, but Sauron drilled into the side of the mountain and tapped the fiery power of the place. It was the only source of heat great enough to destroy the One Ring, by returning it to the furnace where it was made.

The Eye of the World (from The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan) was a pool containing a deposit of pure, untainted Saidin, the half of the One Power that could be used by men. When the Dark One’s prison was sealed by male Aes Sedai at the end of the Age of Legends, the Dark One retaliated by tainting Saidin so that men who drew upon it went insane and then rotted away and died. The result was the Breaking of the World, a spasm of destruction wreaked by psychotic male wielders of the Power. The Eye of the World distilled Saidin free of the taint for use by the Dragon Reborn when the time came for him to appear.

The Sword of Truth (from Wizard’s First Rule by Terry Goodkind) was a sword of great power that could be wielded only by the Seeker of Truth, a great warrior appointed by the First Wizard to always seek truth and uncover lies. The sword had two sides to its functioning. In one side, it responded to the user’s anger and turned that into great destructive power. In the other, it responded to the user’s gentleness and was if anything even more deadly. The ability to use this second side of the power was the mark of the Seeker who could fully master the blade; all others were cursed by it and lost their humanity over time.

Elcho Falling (from Dark Glass Mountain by Sara Douglass) is a mighty sentient fortress that resides ordinarily in another plane of reality, but can be raised by magic into manifestation in this world by the Lord of Elcho Falling when the need arises to oppose the soulless power of Infinity and the Magi. Although Elcho Falling is a mighty force for the preservation of nature, it is vulnerable to corruption and in that case would become a terrible danger to those who depend on it.

Caer Paravel (from the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis) is a castle on an island in the sea off the coast of Narnia with four empty thrones, where four children from another world are destined to sit and rule according to a prophecy that also says that when this happens, the White Witch and the grip of her spell of eternal winter will be broken and Narnia set free.

The Phoenix (from the Greek mythos) is a great bird endowed with intelligence and magical properties, the greatest of which is its periodic renewal in fire. The bird, after 500 or 1,000 years, builds a nest of twigs, sets it afire, burns itself to ashes, and is reborn from the ashes. Other magical properties are sometimes attributed to the Phoenix, its feathers, or its tears.

The Sphinx (from the Greek mythos) is a wondrous beast with the hindquarters of a lion, the wings of a great bird, and the face of a woman. The Sphinx accosts travelers and poses them a riddle, which if they answer correctly causes the Sphinx to destroy herself, but if the traveler fails to solve the riddle they are killed and eaten.

Dragons (from many different mythical traditions) are large reptilian creatures of powerful intelligence and magic, of whom a great many things are said. They are variously endowed with the ability to fly, to breathe fire, to control the weather; they are said to hoard treasure. In Chinese tradition the dragon is a benign upholder of the authority of the gods, but not a creature to cross.

This is only a small sampling of the wondrous things found in fantasy and myth, of course, but not a bad representative sample as it includes places, things, and creatures, some made by man and others natural. What do they have in common, and what common truths can we learn from them?

The most important things communicated to us by all of these wondrous things are that power is always limited and always dangerous and treacherous. All of them must be approached with respect and caution, whether they are themselves evil (e.g. the Ring of Power) or simply too great for casual mastery (the Staff of Law, Elcho Falling), or are an answer to division and wickedness (Caer Paravel, the Pool of Decision), these elements of fantasy communicate that man is a part of a greater whole that must be approached with reverence.

Even when the marvelous thing is a product of human imagination or human craft, it assumes a stature beyond human control. As with so much of fantasy, there is a moral lesson in this, a kind of anti-cynicism, and a call for reverence and awe, both towards nature itself and towards the powers that we wield as human beings. Approached without respect, nature will avenge itself. Used wrongly, our own powers will destroy us.

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One response to “Elements of Fantasy: Marvelous Things

  1. Pingback: More Thoughts on Contemporary Fantasy | Brian Rush

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