On Realism in Fantasy, Part I: Credibility.

So, it’s time for my first real blogging entry, in all its random, trivia-filled, desultory glory. It’s March 2013, and it’s also high time in Hollywood for another franchise reboot. This time, hot on the heels of Tim Burton’s delightfully standard (for him) take on a Lewis Carroll story, Sweeney Wonkahands in Wonderland, it’s L. Frank Baum’s beloved children’s classic, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

The new Disney take on the lovable series-turned-franchise is Oz: the Great and Powerful, and might be subtitled Or, Every Girl Secretly Wants to Sleep With James Franco. There are some disturbing things to be said for the film’s sustained insult to Baum’s original and sometimes startling feminism: he was, after all, married to Maud Gage Baum, daughter of radical feminist Matilda Gage. He was a major advocate for women’s suffrage and many of these attitudes surfaced in his Oz writings. But that’s not really what I’m writing about. I didn’t want this to be a movie review.

What I’m thinking of, instead, is an idea inspired from two places, the first being Raimi’s New Oz and the second being Daniel Grotta-Kurska’s idiosynchratic, fascinating, and terribly edited Tolkien biography, J.R.R. Tolkien: Architect of MIddle Earth.

The line that sparked me in DGK’s biography is a fairly off-handed comment from Tolkien on the LotR: "In The Lord of the Rings," he writes, "I have tried to modernize the myths and mske them credible" (80). Grotta-Kurkska goes on to say this, which is pretty elementary stuff as far as fantasy criticism goes, but no less true for it:

Myths develop a link with the past, a continuity that helps people weather the present and look forward to the future[…]the roots of the past–mythology–are no longer acceptable in their traditional form and have to be recast in a more contemporary, relevant mode. (80)

This is not an unfamiliar way of thinking. Artaud, in my favorite piece of his delightful "No More Masterpieces," shortly before he was institutionalized and had a woefully excessive amount of shock therapy, wrote that "a public[…]can be affected by all these grand notions and asks only to become aware of them…but on condition that it is addressed in its own language"–not, he says, in the now-obsolete trappings of dead language from a dead age. If kids today don’t understand Hamlet, it’s not the fault of the kids; it’s the fault of Hamlet for not holding up.

Artaud’s a bit of a wacky extremist that way. But the idea is still fundamentally the same: we retell myths in the cultural and symbolic language of our times. Tolkien needed to "modernize the myths" of medieval England, Norway, and Iceland. It’s important to take the stories we have already had and, as Tolkien says, make them credible. But what does "credible" actually mean? His credible story is about a nonexistent race of little people who take a magic ring across an imaginary land to defeat an incorporeal Dark Lord. So obviously, what Tolkien means by "credible" is not what we normally think of as "believable," is it?

At issue is what we want to believe–what we’re willing to suspend disbelief for, and what kinds of internal logic we expect to be given in return. In Victoria, years ago, I was privileged to meet William Gibson at a reading of Spook Country. For him, The Hobbit isn’t credible anymore because the economics of it didn’t hold up. "How much does a bag of pipe-weed cost?" he shrewdly asked. Today, then, George R. R. Martin has got to sort that stuff out if he wants to be "credible." The background for our fantasy has to go deeper. We have to know there’s an "expanded universe" of some kind now. In effect, by giving us the fully-realized, or almost-fully-realized Middle-Earth, Tolkien has effectively set the bar high for expanded universes. Now we demand them. What made Tolkien a genius in the 1930s and 1940s is something that even a meiocre fantasy writer needs to have now: a complete history, a developed cosmology, a sense of where the world–not just the small setting in it–came from and where it’s going. By the 1980s, a whole generation of D&D gamers turned TSR fantasy novelists–Weis and Hickman, Ed Greenwood, even progenitor Gary Gygax–weren’t being particularly groundbreaking or ambitious with their developed worlds. They had to do all the extra work just to break even, just to keep up with what’s now expected of our mythologies. The price of "credibility" has crept higher, and people who lack Tolkien’s gift for understanding whole tribal nations of quasi-medieval peoples–how language, culture, migration, and all the rest bleed into the tapestry of imagined history–are still forced to take their best shot at it to satisfy the demands of modernized myth.

When fantasies fail, as many do, to accomplish this, it’s something I term the "Amazon Effect," after apocryphal stories I’ve heard about the Amazon River. In Brazil, the logging and cattle-farming industries depend on the clear-cutting of massive swaths of the rainforest to produce billions of dollars in revenue. The tourism industry is a close runner, and a massive number of tourism dollars come from Amazon river cruises–from people who want to travel up or down the river and see the majestic rainforest, and participate in a myth of their own making. As a result, Brazil’s tourism board (probably with help from whatever passes for environmental regulation) has demanded that the rainforest be preserved on both sides of the Amazon river all the way along. It’s illegal, I’m told, to clear-cut within a certain distance of the Amazon river. That distance is about how far you can see through the dense rainforest. It’s less than you think–something like twenty or fifty meters. The result of this is that as long as you stay on the boat, and go where the tour guide takes you, you are surrounded at all times by the majestic natural beauty of the Amazon rainforest. But in the wrong place, if you walk more than fifty metres off the river, if you stray from the path, you enter the wasteland. You emerge from a tiny, tiny green strip bordering the river and cast your eyes across a thousand square miles of bleak wasteland where the rainforest once stood.

It’s a sad state of affairs environmentally, but a great metaphor. The "Amazon Effect" is the nagging feeling in a narrative that if you walk off the narrow path set out by the author, you walk into nothingness–you reach the end of the world and bump up against the edge of the fantasy map. What happens at the end of The Graduate is typical of "realist" fiction: we don’t know where, geographically speaking, Dustin Hoffman’s going on that bus with his runaway bride, but we are naturally inclined to believe he’s going somewhere. Even in a fantasy world we might consider very well developed, like Tolkien’s, that absolute faith isn’t always there. What do you get if you walk south of Mordor? Well, you get to Near Harad, where the Haradrim come from. And past that, you get Far Harad. And past that–then what? We don’t really know.

There have been maps that try to extend the world of Middle-Earth/Arda/Endor, trying to fight off the Amazon Effect for Tolkien. Here’s a pretty good one on Aidan Moher’s blog, which I think comes from one of David Day’s excellent Tolkien books. Here’s another one from a fan in Poland, I think (my Polish could use some polish), that is completely different. Here is a third that is different still. Look how small the "known" part of Middle-Earth is, relative to the rest of it! This one might be informed by the glut of Middle Earth Role-Playing books from Iron Crown in the mid-’80s–again, I don’t really know. Fantasy gamers DID get fully on-board with the business of making imaginary lands, even though most of them (even the relatively good authors) took fairly amateurish swings at it.

[Optional Tolkien Geek Digression]: Which of these is accurate? As a Tolkienist, I think the first is probably closest thematically, though it collapses several Ages of Middle-Earth into one map. The Sea of Helcar, where the north lamp sits, isn’t actually formed until after the lamp is fallen. The tower itself was actually called Helcar in JRRT’s early versions; only the lamp on top is called Iluin. In his earliest mythologies, Melkor made the towers out of ice in polar regions, and knew the secret to their destruction. I don’t know how late this survived in his writings, but the preserved etymology still indicates a tower of ice: the word itself is preserved in Helcaraxë, the Grinding Ice. But anyways….I think my bet on the most accurate Full Map is this one in Spanish, in which many of the First Age realms are submerged. There’s apparently an event during the War of Wrath called the Drowning of Beleriand, in which the Hill of HImring is one of the only things that stays above water; it becomes the Isle of Himling. As far as "credible" realism goes, the Valar seem to have had a grand old time screwing with tectonic plates. But I digress. [End Digression]

The key as far as the Amazon Effect goes is that every road has to lead somewhere; every person must come from a family, and that family from a nation or an ancestral background of one sort or another. It’s underscored in Tolkien, who loves his lineages. But the idea is there in all fantasy. The question is only one of how many questions you must ask before we bump up aginst the great wall of the setting. These boundaries need not be geographical, either: are they easy to make? There are Time Turners in Harry Potter. They’re not standard issue to youngsters, but they are something a high-school aged student can sign out and borrow when needed, like the wizarding equivalent of expensive A/V equipment, So they are sufficiently common, then. Are they easy to make? Can they be made in secret? Are time travel devices, or time travel itself, regulated by wizards? What would a Harry Potter spin-off series involving the Time Police even look like? Would David Tennant, the former Barty Crouch star as a benevolent time-traveling Englishman? If you ask enough irritating, precocious questions, the mythology falls apart. Any mythology does. Rowling’s strength, as with Tolkien’s, is that you get so very far before you bump up against the Amazon Effect. This is one kind of "realism," of "credibility," we expect from our fantasy.

This finally brings us back to The Wizard of Harry Oz-bourne, a sly-dog James Franco, in a universe-expanding new film that addresses with great originality and skill (except that Gregory Maguire did it better in Wicked more than 17 years ago) the rich mythic tapestry behind a familiar story. As Tolkien would say, the film’s mission is to "modernize the myth and make it credible." And how does it seek to accomplish this?

It does this in the usual way these days: by setting out to make it "dark" and "edgy."

More to come on this in the next update.

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