Monday, July 18, 2005

Post Number Forty-Two: Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!

Of Fantasy and Fairy Tales

"Suddenly the King cried to Snowmane and the horse sprang away. Behind him his banner blew in the wind, white horse upon a field of green, but he outpaced it. After him thundered the knights of his house, but he was ever before them."
(The Return of the King, ch. V)

Whether you are one of the half a billion readers of the Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, or one of the (presumably) as many viewers of the movie by Peter Jackson, I think few will fail to recognize this excerpt. Both in the movie and in the book, this is one of the most emotionally powerful and breathtaking scenes of the Return of the King, the third book which completes the saga of the Lord of the Rings. As the Orcs of Mordor, gathered in the hundred thousand on the fields of Pelennor to siege the human bastion of Minas Tirith, seem close to triumph, swarming in the streets of the white city, there rings a horn in the distance. And hence appear the ten thousand knights of Rohan, the legendary Rohirrim, rallied by King Théoden to bring much needed help to the lands of Gondor. "Death", they cry, loud and terrible, and like a tide they sweep across the battlefield, overwhelming the Orcs.
Personally, both viewing the movie and reading the book, I felt this scene as a magnificient moment of relief. When everything seemed lost, when catastrophe was obviously upon Minas Tirith, hence upon Good, upon the free men of Gondor, there comes the Rohirrim, and they ride to victory, for the world's ending. I could write a novel on the feeling but certain things are better felt than described. If you are as sensible to the Lord of the Rings as I am, you know what I am talking about without my need to speak further.

According to J.R.R. Tolkien's definition of a Fairy Tale, moments like the arrival of the Rohirrim in the fields of Pelennor are essential to the very fabric of a Fairy Tale. The ultimate purpose of such a story, in fact, is to lead the reader through an apparently hopeless drama, and then, when everything seems utterly lost, when all hopes are almost forgone, only then there comes a sudden change of events, that gives the reader that sense of relief which is exactly what the Fairy Tale is meant to provide, and which is what the reader ultimately seeks.
Fairy Tales are not stories for children, as many tend to assume since the nineteenth century. But this requires a little historical/philosophical explanation.

During the European Middle Ages, the greatest bards (because stories were sung by bards more likely than written down by authors) told tales of elves and goblins, knights and damsels, Kings and (especially) Dragons. Stories like this hold little ground in the everyday experience of the Medieval laymen. Nonetheless, such stories are anything but limited to the Middle Ages, or to Europe. The Greeks told fantastic stories of Gods (usually called Mythology, but ultimately, not very much unlike Fairy Tales, from which Mythology differs because it lacks the "happy ending"). The Chinese of all ages record stories of Dragons, damsels that pretend to be guys and fight in the Army (Walt Disney's Mulan is but one of the many), and if we move on to Africa, Oceania and South America, everywhere in the world human beings invent stories that hold no resemblance with their everyday's experience. It appears therefore, that telling stories is not a cultural mishap of Europe, but rather a human need. Or at least, a human instinct.
In fact, it never fails to strike me that a story like the Lord of the Rings, which is obviously very European (very English, to be precise) is nonetheless universally appreciated and read by the Japanese and the Moroccan, the Scandinavian and the South African, the Australian and the American, the Argentinian and the Russian.
When the Enlightment came, together with its values and its Reason, Fairy Tales fell its prey. For stories of Dragons and Trolls were considered close to Unreasonable superstition, and therefore deemed unsuitable for the mature reader. Hence, the Tales ended up in the realm of Children's Books, where they never belonged. In the 1800's, philosophers changed their mind quite radically. They decided that telling fantastic stories wasn't that wrong. Actually they enjoyed superstition, they felt a return of esteem for the Middle Ages. But it wasn't until the Twentieth Century that at least a part of the authors decided Fairy Tales could be for mature readers, after all. Which is what they had always been, though.
In the Middle Ages, the adventures of King Arthur, Roland and Orlando were not intended for children. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was all but a story for children.

Tolkien is among the first authors in the 20th Century to recognize the value of Fairy Tale, and in the intent of giving England its Mythology (because he didn't deem King Arthur a truly English legend, as it was imported from France), he created the now (righteously) legendary saga of the Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings, and the Silmarillion.

According to Tolkien, Fairy Tales are not allegories: they do not represent a metaphor of something happening here and now. They are rather "applicable". That is, they tell something of such universal value and meaning, that anyone, in any age, can find a way to apply the Fairy Tale to his experience. Because, as Tolkien puts it, he doesn't speak about lightbulbs, which are contingent to our time and experience, but about lightnings. Anybody can see the difference between a story where a policeman born in New York City on Jan 23rd, 1969, manages to arrest a local Mafia boss, and a story where a valiant ageless Knight, armed with shield and a magic sword earned through great peril, confronts and finally defeats an evil dragon whose intent is to burn down the whole Kingdom.
Everyone has a Dragon to kill, like Bilbo in The Hobbit. Bilbo's Dragon is called Smaug. Our Dragon could be called Established Beliefs, The Math's Teacher, Adolf Hitler, Physical Impairment...
In everyday's life, victory is never certain. Sometimes "evil", whatever that word might mean, wins. Sometimes, it loses. The power of Fairy Tales consists in providing the reader with hope. In this sense, holy books like the Bible or the Quran are "Fairy Tales", for their aim is precisely that of giving hope to the readers. So, Fairy Tales should really be taken much more seriously and not confined to the diminutive and often misused realm of children. Tolkien goes as far as to say children should never be spared the most gruesome details of a Fairy Tale. Either they read it all, or they'd better not read it.

Fairy Tales, in modern literature, have acquired a new name, one that was applied to them to account for the impossibility of relieving them from the sign "Books for Kids". They are now called Fantasy stories.
And I am fixated with Fantasy stories.

I am in complete agreement with Tolkien: Fantasy stories, the truly good ones, are those that ultimately give hope to the reader. In fact, they should be defined as stories about the Fantastic, which lead to a happy ending. Anything lacking one or both such attributes, should not in itself qualify as a truly Fantasy story.
Science Fiction, for example, is not truly Fantasy, or at least not in its most traditional form. Science Fiction (with which I am equally fixated) is only as good as it is acceptable by the reader. Star Trek is a very good example of perfect Science Fiction, and the books by Asimov are equally wonderful. In Science Fiction there is little room for what is Fantastic, because depicted stories must have a relatively cogent scientific basis. I hope to make it clear through a simple example: can you perceive the difference between a positronic robot a-la Asimov (incidentally, also like Data from Start Trek TNG, and not by chance), and a Dragon?
Dragons do not exist. They cannot exist. There has never been, nor there will ever be such a thing as a fire-breathing reptile with huge bat-like wings and mighty fangs.
Positronic robots do not exist as well, but they could at least in theory be real. They are loosely based on scientific theories.
Ultimately, the difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy is summarized in one, critical, detail: magic. There can be no magic in Science Fiction. Science Fiction is about technological marvels, which is precisely what Fantasy cannot be about. Because Science Fiction is about lighting bulbs, and Fantasy is about lightning bolts.
Mixing the two genders is usually criminal. They just do not intertwine. The only case I have seen Fantasy and Science Fiction mingle without devastating both genders was in the Star Wars Saga. But in that case, the mingling is purely superficial. Star Wars is ultimately not Science Fiction as much as it is "Space Fantasy". Especially as long as the concept of The Force was left out as some Magic rather than spoilt with the whole idea of Midiclorian (honestly, that completely spoilt the balance of Star Wars, in my opinion).
But I'd rather not digress and stick to Fantasy.

So, the ultimate difference with Dragons and Robots is that Dragons are magical. Magic is essential for human beings in many senses. Magic represents the desire of men to master what's beyond their control. It can be either a positive or negative concept, depending on who's the writer. Tolkien was adverse to Magic as he perceived it as an unspoken instinct to technology (after all, it is technology that serves the purposes ascribed to Magic). He even insisted that Elven Magic was not Magic, and that another word should be invented to describe it (the elves try to explain Frodo this very concept, in the Lord of the Rings).
Personally I am not adverse to Magic. I of course know that Magic doesn't work, but it somehow defines the charm of a Fantasy Story, which I have described as based on Magic after all.
Exposition to Fantasy (in the Tolkien's sense of stories that, through a Happy Ending, provide the reader with a sense of Hope) is in my opinion essential to every human, and this is the reason why humans of all ages and cultures keep inventing such stories.
I also believe that a stubborn belief in improvement can be the result of heavy exposition to fantasy, as opposed to a nihilistic pessimism which is often typical of our age. Personally I deem myself relatively optimistic, in the sense that I recognize this world basically sucks (with few notable exceptions) but I am also stubbornly convinced that it can improve and that in the end it will be improved.
I am convinced , as well, that this stubborn belief of mine is a consequence of the fact that I have read, and keep reading, a lot of fantasy that inevitably leads to a happy ending. In fact, I tend to dislike stories that lack a happy ending. They do not provide me with that sense of hope that is what, after all, we are looking when attempt to evade this world where happy endings are not necessarily the norm. This is not to say that I do not read or fail to enjoy completely sad stories, but I deem them less evocative and less poignant, in many ways.
Because, after all, let's be frank: take the story of a love that ends in tragedy when the beautiful young maiden is killed by disease (see, for example, Autumn in New York with Richard Gere and that marvelous beauty of Winona Ryder). As much as I loved that movie (and the main actress), and as much as it filled my heart with sincere grief and my eyes with warm tears (I weep a lot when I see such movies), there wasn't anything there that could compare with the feeling that stormed upon my heart when I saw the Rohirrim riding their horses against the evil Orcs, crying Death with their axes and swords raised...
The same feeling after all, that I felt when the Ents marched out of Fangorn to move war against the industrial abomination of Saruman. Considering my almost irrational love for nature, there's no reason to explain how it feels to see the trees reacting to the insults of men. Every time I see the movie or read the book, inevitably I tell myself "I wish trees could move war against industries".
Fantasy is about Dreaming, and there's no point at Dreaming if it's a bad dream. We all dream of a better world, and I presume no one is dreaming of a worse world. Hence why Fantasy is so dependant on its ultimate Happy Ending.
Tolkien called it the eucatastrophe, the "Happy Catastrophe". A final catastrophe that, when everything seems lost, reveals its happy ending.

There would be no relief if Sauron won. Saurons of our world win all the time. My Saurons are called Silvio Berlusconi, the evil dictator of Italy, Microsoft, the evil industry of Bill Gates, and pollution, and so on. I need, and I believe many others need, stories that tell us Bill Gates is not ultimately unbeatable. So, I feel no need to read that Sauron wins.
I also believe that most of those that would rather have it the other way, either weren't exposed to enough fantasy and are therefore lost their chance to become "hopers", or they have been disillusioned by the world, and therefore they have lost their ability to dream.
But dreaming is what humans do best. Dreaming is a natural feature of our brain. Dreaming is what led philosopher to state ideals that contrasted the obvious reality, and ultimately, it's been thanks to the dreams of certain people that civilization progressed. I already addressed this matter in another post a while ago.

A year ago, or so, I started my first attempt at writing a novel. I seriously lack time, and sometimes I doubt the skills either, to pursuit such an endeavour, but I am supported by a very limited number of readers. It is a fantasy story, and it's written in Italian (it also existed in an English translation, but it turned out too hard to type it in two languages, and my English reader wasn't even too satisfied of the result).
It is about two girls (I find it easier to write about girls, for many reasons - including the fact that when I was a kid, my favorite books included Little Women and Little Princess). One of them is a dreamer, the other one is anchored in her real world. They are both transported in some Elsewhere, where Magic works and castles float in the air. One through the power of her dreams, the other one sucked into it by the very fabric of the reality she was so fond of. In the Elsewhere, they will both learn to measure things, that is, mingle Dreaming with Realism to cope with life on both planes of existence. But first, they will have to join forces with the Five Wizards of the world of Elsewhere to defeat the evil Barnsheth, the Robber of Dreams.
At the level the story has been developed so far, Elena and Manuela, the two friends from our own world, are teleported to a magic land. Elena wakes up in the Castle that once belonged to the valiant Silver Paladin, a red haired maiden who lived centuries before and already defeated Barnsheth. The Castle is now inhabited by the Archmage Aristius, who believes Elena is the reincarnation of Artemis, although the teen-ager girl seems unfit to wear an armor and wield a heavy sword. Aristius sends Elena and five companions, chosen among the most powerful adventurers of the known lands, on a journey to recover the lost Diadem of Diamonds, a magic artifact that would grant Elena immense powers and account for her lack of physical strength.
At the same time, the athletic blonde Manuela is imprisoned by Barnsheth himself, and with great difficulty she finally accepts to be in a world of magic, where her main need is that of escaping Barnsheth's yoke.
The two friends will live an incredible adventure before meeting again, and the outcome has yet to be unveiled.

I love Fantasy. I love it because I love the Ride of the Rohirrim in the Fields of Pelennor. Because I love seeing Sauron's Tower of Barad-dur shattered like I'd hope for Bill Gates' empire.
Fantasy is about Dreaming.

And above all things, I am a Dreamer.