Two Faerie Novels

coverIn Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale (published earlier this year), a teenage girl disappears into the woods only to return, two decades later, having aged a mere six months. In that time her parents have become OAPs, her brother has married and had children, and her ex-boyfriend, a once-promising musician (who was at one point accused of her murder) has seriously failed to live up to his promise. Joyce’s novel explores the impact of her return, and the sudden perspective it puts upon the passage of twenty years in each character’s life.

coverRamsey Campbell’s The Kind Folk (published last month) opens with one of those “real people’s problems” tabloid-style talk shows, where the host, Jack Brittain, is poised to reveal the results of a DNA test that will prove if, as Maurice Arnold suspects, his grown-up son Luke isn’t really his son at all. Maurice suspects his brother, Terence, who has always been overly proud of the boy, taking him on trips to remote parts of the country and telling him odd little fairy tales. But despite a family resemblance, it turns out Luke isn’t related to either. Nor, even, to the woman he calls his mother. A stand-up comedian with an uncanny knack for imitation, Luke comes to suspect the truth about his origins by retracing, through his uncle’s tersely-worded journal, the odd places they visited, where they always seemed to meet with “kind folk”. Nice people? By no means.

Joyce’s novel uses a multiple viewpoint approach to work at two questions. One, the rational, is just what happened — is the returned Tara really Tara? And can she really still be a teenager, twenty years on? Or is it all self-delusion and an extreme case of arrested development? The other (and far more interesting) question, is how her disappearance and reappearance have affected the people who knew her (among which the most compelling stories are those of her ex-boyfriend Richie, to whom she was a sort of muse, and who, as a result, was left like the traditional fairy-thralled knight, bereft of his inspiration and life-drive; and of course Tara’s own, having lost twenty years’ worth of family life, and finding herself in a world with which she’s now two decades out of step). My one criticism of the book is that I didn’t think the two questions quite gelled. It’s interesting to compare it to Alan Garner’s Boneland, another Faerie-tinged book published this year which also dealt with the devastating, lifelong impact of loss, though in an even more intense way (perhaps because entirely focused on one character). Garner combines the psychoanalytic and fantastic threads of his novel into one meaningful narrative, whereas Joyce spends a chapter psychoanalysing Tara only to disprove it later, which left me feeling a bit cheated. But in Boneland, psychoanalysis, even if it has a dangerous air, is ultimately seen as an aid to self-understanding and self-healing, while Some Kind of Fairy Tale‘s take is more about the abuse suffered at the hands of the profession by people whose experiences have taken them beyond the norm.

For most of The Kind Folk, Ramsey Campbell takes a more traditional horrific approach to the presence of a race of half-seen non-human beings at loose in the world. As usual with Campbell, his novel is mostly about the isolating, destabilising effect of the supernatural on one man’s family relationships, identity, and sanity. But the end managed to step clear of the simply horrific to a glimpse of something a little more magical. A far more claustrophobic but focused novel, Campbell’s worked that little bit better, of the two, for me.

Both The Kind Folk and Some Kind of Fairy Tale are well-written, interesting modern takes on the traditional matter of fairyland. Cornered as it is by hordes of zombies, vampires and teen wizards, I’m wondering if Faerie isn’t becoming one of the last refuges of the fantasy novelist who wants to do something genuinely different. There’s something about these outward blasts of the irrational & incomprehensible, and how they impact on real-seeming human characters, that smacks of those areas of life that fantasy, perhaps, is the best way to write about. The loss of a loved one may have a rational explanation, but that goes no way to explaining or expressing the impact it has on the people who feel the loss. The fantastic can. Besides, there’s something about the Perilous Realm and its inhabitants that, however much they may be commercialised into butterfly-winged, tutu-wearing Tinkerbells, there’s always a dark underside that resists commodification, a marshy creature lurking in the weeds, a too-wild dance echoing from over the next mist-wrapped hill. All too often, vampires and zombies are more and more restricted by rules and behaviours as their literature grows, but Faerie only seems to increase in its ability, the more it’s written about, to be what you don’t expect it to be. (Which may be its defining feature.) Besides, I don’t believe in vampires or zombies, but can’t help being a little bit afraid that if I say I don’t believe in fairies, they’ll get me.

Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber

Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber. Cover by Jeff Jones.

A little while ago, I almost posted a bit of a rant about a comment Philip Pullman made in a recent interview in which he makes clear, once again, that he doesn’t like, read, or write fantasy. I’ve heard him express this view before, and am at once annoyed (because I like fantasy) and embarrassed (because I really liked Pullman’s Northern Lights), not to say a little disappointed (a lack of generosity in a favourite author always disappoints me, because generosity — of understanding and imagination — is one of the things that makes an author a favourite, for me). In this case the actual quote was:

“I don’t read fantasy because I’ve very seldom found that the story in the book rewards my effort in getting to know the world of the story. You know, it’s all about the Sword of Gungleblath, and the Stom-Swallower of Zenbar or something… and it’s such an effort to do that…”

So, I thought, is it possible to come up with a book that would provide a counter-argument to that blanket dismissal of all imaginative fiction that strays that little bit too far beyond what is acceptable by serious (perhaps too serious) readers? I mean, for instance, Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan and Gormenghast? Or Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood? Or Alan Garner’s Elidor? Or Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan? The trouble is, with many of these books, there’s always the possibility of special pleading. Peake’s Gormenghast contains no magic, so might be real, therefore we can pretend it’s not fantasy. Holdstock’s Mythago Wood takes a rationalising, scientific approach to the fantastic, so we can call it science fiction instead. And Garner and Le Guin — both accepted by the literary crowd — used fantasy when writing for children, and you’re allowed to do that.

So, is there a book that is both undeniably fantasy of the “Sword of Gungleblath” type — by which Pullman means, I suppose, heroic fantasy, or otherworld fantasy — but which I think would stand up to a serious reader (or at least one who wouldn’t giggle in flustered embarrassment at the mention of magic)? Two candidates come to mind. One is Gene Wolfe’s The Wizard Knight, but I’ve only read that once and would like to give it another go to make sure (and as it’s a long book, that may have to wait). The other is Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser series. And, to limit it to one book, I’d choose the first, Swords and Deviltry.

The Knight and Knave of Swords by Fritz Leiber. Cover by Peter Elson.

Leiber’s Fafhrd (“Faf-erd”) and the Gray Mouser stories are unashamedly of the “Sword of Gungleblath” type. They’re sword and sorcery, the most Gungleblathy type of fantasy there is. (Leiber coined the term “sword and sorcery”.) The pair, one a tall, brawny, Northern barbarian, the other a short, quick, wily southerner, are (to use Leiber’s own words) “the greatest swordsmen ever to be in this or any other universe of fact or fiction”. They do battle with sorcerers. They name their swords (not Gungleblath, but Scalpel and Graywand). They do derring, and engage in derring-do. But two things make these books truly magical (not in the fantasy sense, but in the wonderful-to-read sense). One is Leiber’s love of linguistic play. Leiber was the son of Shakespearean actors, and was brought up on the plays. He seems to have absorbed Shakespeare’s attitude that language isn’t a dictionaried thing (as it wasn’t, in Shakespeare’s time) but is to be played with, toyed with, tinkered with, enjoyed, owned. The other is that Leiber, as a writer, seemed to be driven by a need for a sort of human honesty, perhaps even self-confession, not usually found in writers of sword & sorcery. His pair of heroes may be “the greatest swordsmen ever to be”, but are far from perfect human beings. What’s more, pre-stealing a trick from Rowling a good thirty/forty years in advance, they mature as the series progresses. Their first-published tale (“Jewels in the Forest”, 1939) may well be a pretty much standard sword & sorcery yarn, but by the end of the series (The Knight and Knave of Swords, 1988), we’re dealing with two battle-scarred (Fafhrd has lost a hand) ex-bravos trying to put their wayward days behind them and live normal lives.

But it isn’t just at the end of their lives that the more serious themes appear. The first book in the series (which was not the first written) sets up the pair of adventurers for their first fall — a fall into disillusionment, loss of love, and loss of innocence.

Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber. Cover by Geoff Taylor.

It’s a book of three novellas. “The Snow Women” is about what forces Fafhrd to break with the oppressive battle of the sexes in his homeland, and go in search of the supposed wonders of civilisation. “The Unholy Grail” tracks the transformation from a rather hippie-ish hedge-wizard’s apprentice called Mouse to the darkly cynical, grey-magicking Mouser. And best of the three, the Nebula-winning “Ill Met In Llankhmar”, is about how the two heroes join forces for the first time, are egged on to a dangerous adventure by boastfulness, a little too much wine, and an attempt to impress the women they love, and in which, although it could be argued they succeed, they pay a price far higher than they expected.

No character in Leiber’s stories is a cliché, however much they may wear the costume of one. Fafhrd may be a brawny barbarian, but he is thoughtful, is trained as a singing skald, and is, therefore, a poet; and the Gray Mouser’s air of sophistication is always just being undermined by Leiber’s own constant sense of self-deflating irony.

I don’t think Pullman would ever read Swords and Deviltry. Perhaps, if he did, he’d get no further than the introductory chapter that introduces us to the ancient world of Nehwon (a rather clumsy name — yeah, it’s no-when backwards, but forwards it’s not among the great fantasy-world names) — that would sound, to him, I’m sure, uncomfortably like “Gungleblath”. But you, dear reader, gentle reader — oh, so perceptive and imaginative reader! — if you have any sympathy for fantasy, and can stand invented names, and heroes who name their swords, and perhaps can even bear to read a little about magic, surely you might enjoy Swords and Deviltry.

(If you haven’t read it already. In which case, wasn’t it good?)