The Realm of Lost Things in ASIM 53, and Gene Wolfe being honoured

A couple of bits of news. First off, my story “The Realm of Lost Things” has just been published in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine issue 53! I haven’t seen the magazine yet, though I’m sure it’s winging (or perhaps floating) its way to me from Australia right now. I’m thrilled for this story to be published, and in such a long-running zine, too. It can be ordered in print, as a PDF, as a Kindle-compatible MOBI, or an EPUB, all from this page. I’m doubly thrilled because this is the first story I’ve been paid for!

Also, a cartoon I did of SF writer Gene Wolfe, in a mewsings post a year and a half ago (“The Secret of Reading Gene Wolfe“) is being used as part of an upcoming event, “An Evening to Honour Gene Wolfe”, in which the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame will be awarding Gene the first ever Fuller Award, by which the city honours its greatest living writers. As a result, I appear on the award’s behind-the-scenes page. It sounds like a great event, with a lot of notable special guests attending. If you’re in the area, you might want to buy a ticket. All details here.

Fallacies of Wonderland

I’ve just been reading Aspects of Alice, a compendium of essays and extracts about the two Alice books and their author, dating from soon after Alice in Wonderland‘s publication (including a near-contemporary reviewer suggesting Carroll was plagiarising Tom Hood’s From Nowhere to the North Pole, which Aspects‘ editor Robert Phillips points out was published some years after the first Alice book) up to the late 1960s (with a short article called “Lewis Carroll — The First Acidhead”, written in such a hippie-ish idiom, it’s quite quaint).

The essays I enjoyed were of two types: those which were about Dodgson the man, full of the sort of facts you’d like to think you could remember well enough to drop into conversations (“Did you know Charles Dodgson invented a machine for noting down ideas in the night?”) but never can; and those which praise the books, usually in a suitably playful or poetic style (Walter de La Mare or W H Auden’s contributions, for instance), without insisting on an interpretation. The essays I didn’t enjoy were by critics who had a theory, and who were seeking to prove their theory by applying it to the Alice books. Or perhaps I should say, were seeking to disprove (disenchant) the Alice books by applying their theory. These critics were what I think of as reductionists.

Fantasy is easy prey to reductionists. I think this is because good fantasy (i.e., not allegory) has a free-floating symbolical quality to it, meaning it can be applied to anything you happen to be concerned about, and still seem relevant. The Lord of the Rings can be read as being about the Second World War, or the Atom Bomb, or political power, or personal greed, or the victory of the small against the powerful. It can even be just a compelling story, free of any sort of interpretation whatsoever. Reductionists say, “Yes, but really, it’s all about X.” And there’s no arguing with them because yes, it is about X; it’s also about all these other things, as well as being about nothing at all, but to this the reductionists just smile knowingly and say “Yes, but really, it’s all about X.”

The most obvious example are the Freudians, who get a whole section of Aspects. Freud didn’t write about the Alice books, as far as I know, and the essays herein are by lesser hands, which is perhaps why they’re so risible — these are lesser thinkers, working with another man’s theory. They go through the Alice books saying, “Ah yes, here of course we have a phallic symbol. And oh look, there’s another.” — counting off the phallic symbols as though the number of them might prove something. The height of ridiculousness comes on p. 361, where there’s a large-type heading, “The Symbolic Equation: Girl=Phallus”, which made me giggle. (I’d say it made me titter, only you know those Freudians…) One thing Freudianism — or any reductionism — can’t stand is laughter, which is perhaps a good test to hold up to any critic-with-a-theory. “Can you still believe it while laughing?”

It reminds me of my last encounter with a stuck-in-the-mud Freudian, Maureen Duffy’s The Erotic World of Fairy (I wrote a review of it on Amazon), where she proclaimed Peter Pan to be a “free-flying phallus”, as though that actually meant something, in fact was a damning indictment. Instead it conjured an image… that again led to giggling.

The Freudians aren’t the only reductionists in Aspects of Alice. That hippie writer is another. His reductionism is that all imagination is evidence of drug use. (Aspects also contains a version of Grace Slick’s lyrics to “White Rabbit”, which are a far better evocation of Alice-as-psychedelia. Slick’s lyrics aren’t reductionist, because they’re using the Alice books as a springboard to create something new, and end up adding to the books’ richness, not attempting to reduce it.) Another was “Alice’s Journey to the End of Night” by Donald Rackin, whose form of reductionism is to assert the Alice books are “a comic horror-vision of the chaotic land beneath the man-made groundwork of western thought and convention”. The counter-argument, that most people’s reaction to the Alice books is to enjoy them rather than get depressed, seems to have escaped him.

As well as laughter, another thing reductionism can’t handle is wonder. Fantasy works best, for those who like it, when it conveys a sense of wonder. Wonder might be defined as a moment of freedom from mere understanding, a sense of something greater than anything that can be put into words. You can only accept wonder for what it is, not reduce it, explain it, define it.

And at the end of it all, it’s the wonder that remains. I’ve forgotten all the reductionists’ attempts to convince me Alice is a phallus, or the tormented soul of modern man, or an acidhead in nursery dress. Instead, I want to read the Alice books again, if only to wash all that (oh so serious) nonsense out of my head and put a little of the genuine stuff in its place — the pure, fantastic, wonder-making nonsense, which is much more what the Alice books are about.

My own particular form of reductionism as far as the Alice books are concerned (I can’t help having one), is they’re about how ridiculous the adult world can seem to a child. The adult world is a world of reductionists — people who’ve lost their sense of wonder, or replaced it with well-reasoned blinkers against what they fear — which could be why the Alice books attract such a train of critics so blind to their own place in them:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

Alice waited a minute to see if he would speak again, but as he never opened his eyes or took any further notice of her, she said “Good-bye!” once more, and, getting no answer to this, she quietly walked away: but she couldn’t help saying to herself as she went, “Of all the unsatisfactory —” (she repeated this aloud, as it was a great comfort have such a long word to say) “of all the unsatisfactory people I ever met —”

Dragonslayer

For me, one of the joys of watching Dragonslayer is rediscovering what a great fantasy film it is. I’m not quite sure why I manage to forget, each time, how much I like it. Perhaps it’s down to the lack of extras on the DVD — something which always makes me feel a favourite’s going underappreciated — or perhaps it’s because it got a mixed critical reaction on its release, or that, being released in 1981, it lost out to Raiders of the Lost Ark for both a visual effects Oscar and a Hugo. To my mind, though, it’s as good a film as Raiders, it’s just that the way it tempers the straight-ahead heroism of its George-and-the-Dragon storyline with less purely archetypal, more humanly-believable characters — the very thing I like it for — may have weakened it in the public’s eye, particular when compared to the very obvious heroism of Indiana Jones.

Set in an authentic-feeling Dark Ages kingdom called Urland, Dragonslayer begins with a group of villagers, led by the young Valerian, setting out to ask the ageing sorcerer Ulrich (played by Ralph Richardson) for help against the best-named dragon in movies, Vermithrax Pejorative. (Latin is the language of magic in Dragonslayer.) Ulrich dies before he can help, but his young apprentice, Galen Gradwarden, decides to earn a reputation as a great sorcerer by fulfilling his master’s task. And he makes a good go of it, too, using his magic not to face the dragon directly, but to bury its cave in a massive rockfall. Everyone goes home to the village to celebrate, and Valerian reveals himself to be Valeria, a girl raised as a boy by her blacksmith father so as to avoid the lottery by which King Casiodorus picks maidens to sacrifice to Vermithrax. Then greedy Casiodorus confiscates Galen’s magical amulet (wanting to see if he can use it to turn lead into gold), and Vermithrax bursts free, meaning another lottery has to be held, another sacrifice made. Meanwhile, we’ve learned that, despite his protestations of the lottery’s fairness, King Casiodorus’s daughter’s name has been conspicuously absent from the drawings.

One of the most striking surprises of Dragonslayer is that, despite having the Disney name attached (it was a joint Disney-Paramount production), it’s very far from the traditional Disney style of fairy tale/fantasy — a point underlined by the scene where Galen enters the dragon’s lair intent on saving the sacrificial princess, only to find her dead and being eaten by baby dragons. Galen underlines the un-Disneyishness of the scene by sticking the baby dragons with his spear.

Vermithrax itself is one of the best pre-CGI dragons in movies, at least in those scenes where we get to see the whole of it. When it (or parts of it) interacts with humans, it’s less convincing (obviously being played by a large, robotic head, for instance), but when it wing-hobbles, bat-like, through its cave — a scene produced by a variant on stop-motion called go-motion, where rather than being animated a frame at a time, the dragon model was designed to perform a small motion each exposure, thus leading to a more fluid motion — is excellent, as are the scenes where it soars through the sky.

Quite often, it’s the little details that make the film. One of the best comes near the end where, with Vermithrax lying not just dead but partly exploded on the ground, King Cariodorus turns up to stab it with a sword, and thus be proclaimed dragonslayer. This is a world, you can’t help feeling, where although the most obvious evil (the dragon itself) has been dealt with, the background of petty human evils will remain. Our heroes have to set off for another land in search of their happily-ever-after.

And it’s one of the film’s plus points that Valeria and Galen share the hero’s role. Galen may be the one who wields the spear “Dragonslayer”, but Valeria is just as heroic, venturing into the monster’s lair to gather scales to make a fireproof shield, and, most surprising of all, not ending up having to be saved by her male counterpart at any point.

In contrast to the film’s dragons and sorcery, there’s a more historically authentic-seeming Christianity creeping into this post-Roman world via wandering holy men. Dragons and sorcerers are dying out, and Christianity is taking the place of the villagers’ superstitions. This actually seems to put the film’s Christianity in a rather odd light. Just as Casiodorus is going to make sure he goes down in history (which is written not by the heroes, but those in power) as the slayer of Vermithrax, Christianity is, rather by default, going to assume the same role in the eyes of the peasantry. They seem happier to believe it was God who slew the dragon, despite the earlier scene where a holy man (played by Ian McDiarmid, looking surprisingly young considering he would soon be the aged Emperor in Return of the Jedi), taking Vermithrax for Satan, tries the usual “get thee behind me” lines, and ends up being roasted alive. But by the end, the magic has left this world — not with the feeling of poetic loss you get from the departure of Tolkien’s elves, but, rather, like the exhaustion of an old-world magic the new world has no room for.

It’s the departures from what you’d expect of a heroic fantasy film that make Dragonslayer what it is. But it could well be these very departures that mean it’s not as appreciated as it ought to be. People no doubt expect a film called Dragonslayer to be a heroic tale in which some guy slays dragons. It is that. But it’s also so much more.