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Sunday, 15 December 2013

The Hobbit: English fantasy vs. epic fantasy

In preparation for the second part of Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy, I'm currently rereading JRR Tolkien's original book. I've been wanting to get back up to speed with it, and as I did with the Lord of the Rings movies ten or so years ago, I'm rereading it to try and get an idea how this new movie will look - after all, Jackson's sent the Nerd World into an uproar by trying to expand a slim book (my edition, which comes with a few illustrations by Tolkien himself, tops out at 280 pages) into three movies running at around three hours each.

But what's struck me on this re-read is how much it reads like a fairytale. This shouldn't be surprising, as legend holds that Tolkien used to read it to his own children, and more reliable history says that Stanley Unwin only published it on receiving a favorable review from his ten-year-old son. Not only that, but the whole narrative reflects folklore from across northern Europe, from England to Scandinavia. This is, I think, what China Mieville had in mind when he listed the things he likes about Tolkien's work, and referred to the "knotty, autumnal, blooded contingency of the Norse tales".

The other thing that got me thinking about this was Neil Gaiman and his work. When I read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke, I was impressed to see a foreword by Gaiman, and his associated blurb calling it the "best work of English fantasy of the last 70 years". Note the expression "English fantasy", as opposed to the epic fantasy that we usually see dominating the shelves at the back of the bookstore.

I don't have my copy of Strange & Norrell in front of me, so I can't refer back, but I remember Gaiman being at pains to stress what he meant by English fantasy. Given what else I've read of his body of work, my understanding is that it's much wilder than the epic stuff, less formalized, and more influenced by the fairytales and folklore of the past few thousand years. In another essay, written for the  World Fantasy Convention's commemorative book, he talks about the genesis of his own book, Stardust, which he intended as a fairytale for adults, and refers also to Hope Mirrlees' Lud-in-the-Mist.

The secondary world elements in these books are much less pronounced - Strange & Norrell takes place mostly in an England adjacent to the Faerie realm, while Lud-in-the-Mist is set in a fictional world that pretty closely resembles Britain (from my understanding, not having read the book yet).

Thinking about all of this, it seems kind of a shame that what fantasy fiction has taken from Tolkien is the epic trappings of The Lord of the Rings, rather than the folkloric elements of The Hobbit. The latter is joyous and magical and scary, but most of all singular. The former, on the other hand, has given rise to a sort of kabuki, where the work is judged on how slavishly it follows the original template, while trying at the same time to do away with as many of the "tropes" as possible.

In some ways, I think this has caused the book to be unfairly maligned, although I can't really disagree with much of what Mieville said in his review of the first of Peter Jackson's LOTR movies. But we're looking at it through around 60 years of inferior copies, for instance Terry Brooks's Shannara books. So many of these copies missed the point that of course subsequent works have felt the need to distance themselves from LOTR by making the wizard untrustworthy, or having the dark lord win, or something like that. As someone pointed out, trope-avoidance has become a trope in itself.

Just to add a disclaimer, I think a lot of these criticisms could be leveled at my own novel attempts. My reading group constantly pointed out bits of my first attempt that read too slavishly like the final battle in Return of the King. I don't think it means epic fantasy isn't worth writing, though - it's just important to know the full range of what you're taking from, to go to the source, and to try and tease out the original meaning.

And if you do that, you might even turn up something truly original, rather than a fresh spin on old material. That's the work that gets remembered, like Tolkien's, for the greater part of a century.