Tag: Fantasy

A Defense of Elves and Orcs

And so the time has finally come for me to reread The Lord of the Rings. In case you don’t already know, this is one of my very favorite stories. I’m a huge fan of both the books and the movies–this is one of the rare stories for which I feel that both versions have something great to offer, and that the movies actually did justice to the books. To be honest, I’ve generally liked the movies better than the books. They were always easier for me to connect to, so I was able to see their beauty in a clearer light than I could see that of the books. However, I have now come back to the books again. It’s been probably three years or so since the last time I read them. I attempted to start another reread much more recently, but didn’t get further than the first couple chapters of Fellowship. I can see now that that wasn’t the right time, because having just picked up Fellowship again, I have been completely pulled into it, for the same reasons I was recently pulled into The Hobbit, and more.

 

Enough has been said in praise of Tolkien’s work (although I reserve the right to say more in a future blog post). What I’d like to talk about right now is something else. One common criticism I’ve seen of Tolkien’s work, and of other fantasies influenced or inspired by it, is the matter of entire races having one moral alignment–namely, the matter of Elves and Orcs. People say that it is very unrealistic and doesn’t make sense for an entire race to be good or evil. I think that argument is bosh. It wouldn’t make sense for all humans to be either good or evil. But nonhumans do not have to and probably should never operate under the exact same rules as humans. And this is what we see in Tolkien. There are many humans in his stories, and some of them are good and some of them are bad, just as humans on earth. There are bad apples even among the nations that serve good purposes, and though we do not see any “good apples” among the men who have pledged themselves to evil, those men have so little a part in the story that it only makes sense for us not to see the exceptions. The Dwarves, who are most like humans, are often good, but also often greedy and self-centered. There are many mentions made in the books of rather shifty dwarves, though none that I can recall of any who are outright evil. Elves and Orcs, who are less like humans, are removed another level, morally speaking. The world is not the same for them. In the Elves there exists a higher good than that which is in humans, and this allowed it to be abased beyond human evil in the Orcs, who came about when Elves were twisted and broken. In this sense Elves and Orcs are a metaphor, but they are also solid and physical, as is everything in Tolkien’s work. They shouldn’t be judged by human standards because they are not human. It makes no sense to say that it’s unrealistic for all elves to be good and all orcs to be bad, because you can’t apply human logic to them. And generally in the books Elves and Orcs are held to be apart from men, unable to truly related to them or to be related to, and perhaps a large part of that is the rigid moral nature that characterizes each race.

 

It’s true that in The Silmarillion, there were some Elves who went bad, who were traitors or brigands or what have you. But those times were ages before The Lord of the Rings, and it seems to me that the Elves became gradually more rigid as the years passed, less able to change, and more and more aloof from men.

 

As far as this goes in other fantasies, I think they have to be taken on a case by case basis. It works well in The Lord of the Rings. Other, less masterful stories probably don’t pull it off quite so well. But even in those, I think the basic principle generally still stands. I think it makes for a much more interesting world when the races truly are different, on a deep, moral level, and not just humans dressed up in different disguises, as is often seen in fantasies.

 

(Disclaimer: None of this is to say that I’m sure this was Tolkien’s intention. But it seems to be the case in his books.)

 

~ Jared

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A Fairy-Tale Life and the Temptation of Cynicism

“You’re living in a fairy tale.” What a derisive phrase, full of the worst connotations. You’re hiding from reality, you’re running away, you’re lost in your own little world and you don’t care about anything or anyone else. Sometimes it’s not meant so badly; sometimes it’s said in a pitying way, of someone who is absorbed in their dreams, perhaps because the real world is too hard for them to face any longer. But no one ever says “you’re living in a fairy tale,” and means that as a compliment. But I would like to propose that they should.

 

I don’t mean to write a defense of fairy tales here, although that is sadly something that still needs doing. The attitude that’s been prevalent since the 18th century or so, that  they’re just for children, unimportant fantasies, useless and unreal, really seems like it ought to have died out by now. Nevertheless, it’s still around. But fairy tales themselves have been defended more than adequately by the likes of Tolkien and Lewis. Instead, I want to present the idea that “living in a fairy tale,” in a certain sense, is more than just not wrong–it is the best thing a person could do.

 

As I’ve gotten older and matured, I’ve come to see the world in a much less rigid way than I did when I was younger. Where before I believed mostly in what I could see, or in conclusions which could be drawn from logical thinking, now I believe that the world is so much larger than anyone can ever know. I believe in a very certain kind of magic, and I shouldn’t be surprised to be strolling through a forest one day and meet up with an Elf or other Fae. Now that I’m older I’ve become brave enough to think that these things might be real. But more than that, I’ve come to see the beauty of the earth; the power and majesty of true love and the way it permeates life; the ultimate hopefulness of all things; the underlying strangeness and fey quality of the world we live in. The universe has become a much brighter place for me. I’ve put cynicism aside for the childish thing it is, and now my eyes are open to the wonder all around us.

 

Now, an integral part of a real fairy tale is its sense of wonder, but this is a very matter-of-fact wonder. There is usually not much rhapsodizing about it. Nevertheless, it is there, under everything, this sense that the world is strange and mysterious and wonderful, both beautiful and terrifying. And so, if one views life as a fairy tale he is living, than he can’t help but see the wonder in it, even as it becomes tragic and gruesome. He can’t help but see how events are interconnected, how everything  seems to be forming one vast story, as he remembers an event  from his past and sees how it foreshadowed his present circumstances.

 

Then, too, if life is viewed as a fairy tale, you are forced to start taking some parts of it extremely seriously, while other parts might be joked about which you would never have joked about before. I myself have often had trouble taking life seriously. I’ve made the mistake, more than once, of turning something somebody said into a joke, when they really meant it seriously. In fact, at one point, even a fairly recent point, I believed that it was silly to take life very seriously and the only way to get by was to joke about everything you possibly could without being incredibly offensive.  But that attitude is starting to change. Now I think that life ought to be taken very seriously–but not all of it. As I’ve come to see life more and more as a fairy tale I’m  living, I’ve realized that I just need to take different things seriously than are often touted as important. In a fairy tale, a promise is extremely serious. How many fairy tales revolve around a curse which comes into play because someone broke a promise? Finding and knowing truth is very serious, for any number of fairy tales involve an unmasking or revealing of someone’s true self. But if there’s one thing that viewing life as a fairy tale forces you to take extremely seriously, than it is this: consequences. Every action has a consequence, often an unintended one. In a fairy tale, this might lead to someone being turned into a frog or drawn-and-quartered. No choice should be taken entirely lightly; no consequence should be totally disregarded. For there is a price for everything, which cannot be put aside or ignored if life is taken to be a fairy tale. If life is viewed as a fairy tale, then you know that love is the very last thing to be taken lightly, for any spurned woman could turn out to be a dreadful witch, any brokenhearted man could be a werewolf.  In a fairy tale some things are sacred mysteries, not to be unraveled; there is a certain sanctity to things, to wisdom, traditions, history, the land itself, the oldest pacts of nature and of the heart.

 

Living in a fairy tale forces you to look at yourself and at others differently. You are a hero or a villain, a champion of good or an evil sorcerer, and so is the cashier at the grocery store, the friend you play video games with, your boss, your teachers. People are so much more noble, so much brighter, so much braver. But they may also be ogres. The beautiful maiden who has taken your heart might be half-elven. The thuggish mechanic who cheats you every time you visit his shop could have a little bit of troll in him. You must see everything different; you must see that atoms are held together not by the electric force of protons and neutrons, but by magic. Every glade could be the site of a fairy revel.

 

To live life as a fairy tale, one must be both extremely serious and endlessly joyous; for the world is both incredibly unfunny and brimming over with the most wondrous things imaginable. The fairy-tale life embraces the duality of reality. And so, I don’t believe that it can really be said that “living in a fairy tale” is a bad thing. Living in a fairy tale is in fact a supreme acceptance of reality, but more: it is adding another layer of mystery and delight that reality would never have had without us.

 

The opposite of this is the cynic’s view, which is all too prevalent in today’s world, and growing stronger. It is the sneer of the nihilist thrown up against the laughter of the mystic. But there is a certain dreadful temptation in cynicism and the nihilism that underlies it. After all, if reality is senseless, if love isn’t real, if honor isn’t real, if there is no magic and people are nothing more than what they seem, then one can do whatever he wants. But how cold is his pleasure at the end of the day. Of course, cynicism is not, or not obviously, nihilism. To expect the worst of others and the world is not the same as to disbelieve in others and the world. But I would like to assert that cynicism is the child of nihilism. After all, if one always expects others to be bad, then he must have serious doubts about the reality of goodness, whether he acknowledges them to himself or no. Cynicism must ultimately lead to coldhearted acceptance of the lie that says the world is senseless and wrong. Now, I’ve flirted with cynicism in my day, but I could never truly believe that the only real things were the earth beneath my feet and the flesh of the body. Recently I decided to give up cynicism completely. And now here I am, and the world is so horrifying and so beautiful.

 

I don’t claim that this path is right for everyone, but I truly believe it is better to believe in magic, even if that magic is ultimately not real, and to live my life as if I were in a fairy tale, than to cling to material reality, to doubt the existence of love and truth, to view the world coldly, scientifically, and cynically.

 

~ Jared

My Holy Grail

Well, one of them.

 

Lately I’ve been asking myself a question: why am I not writing a medieval fantasy story? Whenever I think of fantasy, Medieval fantasy is what I think of. Knights. Dragons. Elves. Goblins, wizards, magic rings, nobility and sacrifice and evil, adventures. Cliched as the genre has become, it, above all things, carries away my imagination. A medieval fantasy world is the world I long to live in. When I want to escape, when I want to lose myself in dreams of adventures and other places, that is the place I want  to escape to. I am still looking for a perfect medieval fantasy story which can fully satisfy that itch deep down inside me. Setting aside all speculations on whether that itch is not really an itch for some deep spiritual thing rather than a certain sort of story, this is the kind of story that I most love and, deep down, most want to write.

 

But I always run into this problem, which is that whenever I start developing an idea that’s going to be a medieval fantasy, I always get carried away with making it unique and original. I come up with really interesting stories and worlds, but by the time they’ve reached the point that I’m happy with them, they’ve passed beyond the point where they are recognizable as that quintessential Medieval fantasy. I don’t want to write a cliched story, but at the same time, work too hard at excising the cliches, and the story is no longer what I set out to write. It’s pretty frustrating.

 

As I was thinking about it earlier today, something that C.S. Lewis said sprang to mind.

Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.

So I’m thinking I would be better off if I simply try to tell the truth in a Medieval fantasy setting. Perhaps I should stop thinking about how to make my wizards unique and cool and think instead of what kind of truths I can tell about a wizard. If I treat the medieval fantasy world no differently than if I were writing a story in our own world–if I tell the truth about characters both startlingly familiar and decidedly strange, describe how beautiful the land is, bring up great questions like good literature always does, tell tales of heroism and nobility and evil, without stopping to think about how this is a world where dragons are daily occurrences and a giant could stomp on you around any corner, then maybe I will be able to write that quintessential fantasy that I’ve been looking for.

 

This particular quest is one which I’ve actually only just been awoken to. I get the feeling that it could  be a quest lasting years, maybe even a lifetime; but if so, then it will be a worthy quest.

 

~ Jared

A New Age Dawns, Part I

Well, I forgot 3-D design class was canceled this morning and got up early even though I didn’t have to. So I suppose there’s nothing for it but to write a blog post. Huzzah for unexpected free time!

Anyway, after reading Rich Burlew’s excellent series of articles about designing a D&D campaign setting (which can be found here: http://www.giantitp.com/Gaming.html; it’s the “New World” series), I felt inspired to write about my own world building techniques and theories. Now, I’ve been building worlds since I was knee-high to a fairy dragon. World building is what got me interested in writing stories, in the first place. I had all these worlds I’d made up; I needed stories to put in them, didn’t I? I’ve drifted away from world building a little in my current works, but it’s still an integral process to any fantasy story, be it novel, game, or movie–and it’s quite fun, as well!

A bit of history: So the very first world I built didn’t start out as a world; it started as an island. I’ve always been fascinated with dinosaurs, and after seeing an ad in the newspaper for that old Dinotopia TV show, I was inspired to create my own Dinotopia. I hadn’t read the original books or seen the show, but the idea appealed to me so much that I spent months building my own world of dinosaurs and humans. By the time the original island had grown to the size of a continent, I decided it needed its own world. I made up several more continents and tossed them all together, started coming up with an overarching history for the place… of course, the Dinotopia continent (the name of which became Dunor), was still the center of the world. That world went through so many permutations… in its current incarnation, it has been combined with another world of mine, Shadowglade, and the overall world is called Stella Aetherium.

Anyway, that’s a pretty haphazard way to build a world. I’ve learned a thing or two about the process since then, and while I’m definitely not the most talented or creative world builder around, I thought I’d share some of my experience. So there’s any number of starting points for a world. Maybe you need someplace to set your new story idea that features martial arts master gnome and a gentleman dragon; maybe you wanted to explore your obscure theories about the development of ancient democracies in a fictional setting. I shall assume, for the purposes of these articles, that we are creating a world simply because we want to, without the intention of setting a particular story there or really doing  much of anything with it (though I may discuss integrating stories into the world in a later post).

The first thing to figure out is what kind of world you’re working with, or what genre it is. Is it a steampunk world? A far-future version of earth? An alien planet? A high fantasy world filled with elves and dwarves and dark lords? Each of those will determine various and sundry things about the world; of course there’s many other sorts of worlds, nearly infinite permutations. I think I’ll build a world from the ground up in these articles, for the purposes of demonstration. So let’s see… hm… my initial thought is to make this a fantasy/sci-fi blend world, featuring gnomes, a beautiful, vast, and intricate underground, and an extremely hostile surface. This is the first thing that jumped into my head after a minute or so of thought, so I’ll just run with it. I think it’s good not to spend too much time on the initial concept. If you were making a world to put stories in, or for a campaign setting in an RPG, or some other more serious purpose, then you’d probably want to come up with several ideas, write them down, and pick two or three that you like best–I’ve found that combining two or more base concept ideas often makes for a more vibrant world. Variety is good!

Okay, so the next step is geography and the general universe around the world. I think a bloated, ancient, scarlet sun would be appropriate for this place. There’s five other planets in its solar system, all gas giants, one of which is fairly large in the night sky. The planet has four moons, but only one of them is very large. Now, the world has a hostile surface… I’m thinking a lot of desert, but cold desert. A good deal of craggy stones. Vast, rocky basins which were once lakes and seas. Perhaps some poisonous oceans? I like that idea, so I’ll stick with it. Maybe all the water found on the surface is poisonous, and the only thing safe to drink is the springs that bubble up from underground. I’m going to say that there are four continents in the world: a small, icy one at the north pole, a much bigger one south of that, and two smaller continents, sort of circling each other, in the east. I think there will also be a whole lot of floating islands, which obviously won’t have any water safe to drink on them, but are rich in certain other resources. At this point, I find it useful to draw a basic map. It really helps to get the structure of the world cemented in your mind, and can lead to a lot of geographical information that would’ve been much harder to come up with without it. So, let’s do that…

And there you have the most basic map of the world. Now for the underground. I won’t bother drawing a map for that at this point, because it’d be way too complicated, what with all the tunnels and caverns. The underground is going to be really different from the surface. It’s vibrant. It’s alive. It’s magical. I’m seeing someplace with a lot of glowing fungi and crystal formations. Maybe something a bit like Journey To the Center of the Earth, with huge open caverns that have lakes and oceans, animals, some sort of light source. The underground seems like the place where the fantasy side of this sci-fi/fantasy blend world is going to come in.

I think that’s enough for this first article. We’ve got the world defined in broad strokes; now it’s going to be time to start determining what sort of life lives on it. Gnomes, of course, but who knows what else might be there? Now, remember, it’s best not to think too hard in this stage. Just brainstorm, write down whatever ideas come to mind, start assembling the basic framework of the world. At this point, it doesn’t have much flavor, but there are definitely some suggestions of heart and life.

Anyway, I hope this will be helpful for some people, or at least interesting. Until next time!

~ Jared