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The Language of the Night by Ursula K Le Guin

Le Guin, The Language Of The NightFollowing my mewsings on Michael Moorcock’s Wizardry & Wild Romance, I thought I’d take a look at another book on imaginative fiction (fantasy and science fiction, in this case) which I came across early on — in one of those wonderful bookshop sales where a single table would be crammed with all sorts, from academic obscurities to battered, failed bestsellers, and where you really could make discoveries, back before the internet neatly ordered everything — Ursula Le Guin’s collection of essays, introductions and talks, The Language of the Night (or the revised edition, anyway, issued by The Women’s Press in 1989). This book contains some touchstones of writing about fantasy that have stayed with me ever since.

In ‘The Child and the Shadow’, Le Guin retells a Hans Anderson fable and relates it to Jung’s ideas on archetypes (particularly the one he calls the Shadow) and the process of individuation. Fantasy, she says, ‘is the natural, the appropriate language for the recounting of the spiritual journey and the struggle of good and evil in the soul… Fantasy is the language of the inner self.’ This led to me making several attempts on Jung’s own tangled thickets of prose — books about his ideas are usually better than those he wrote himself, with Man and His Symbols being perhaps the best (it has pictures!). And, whether Jung’s ideas are ‘true’ or not — whether they’re the roots of a very peculiar science or (far more likely) an extended, imaginative metaphor for the inner life — I’ve always found them useful.

TheLanguageoftheNightIn ‘Myth and Archetype in Science Fiction’, Le Guin talks about what a myth is, in terms of what a writer is trying to do when they write fantasy or science fiction, and how it comes not purely from the unconscious, or the conscious, but from an equal meeting of the two, a forging of something somehow universal from the deeply personal — something another favourite writer of mine, Alan Garner, has said, too (‘A writer has to live an insoluble paradox. He requires a public, and can achieve it only by becoming most private.’ To which Le Guin would no doubt have said, ‘Less of the “he”, please.’)

The essential essay, from a fantasy reader’s point of view, is ‘From Elfland to Poughkeepsie’. Here, Le Guin provides an almost cruelly neat test to tell the would-be fantasy that just mimics the proper use of faraway never-never lands, dragons, wizards and magic, from a genuine emanation of Elfland. For Le Guin, it’s style that makes something fantasy. She praises Dunsany, E R Eddison, Kenneth Morris and James Branch Cabell, and says Leiber and Zelazny could do better (‘When humour is intended the characters talk colloquial American English, or even slang, and at earnest moments they revert to old formal usages.’) The test is simple: take any passage, change the names from mock-fantasy ones to mundane ones, and see if it still reads as fantasy. She uses as an example a passage from Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni series, which neatly summed up my own feelings the one time I tried to read it — it’s not fantasy, it’s fancy dress.

Elsewhere, there are good short essays on Philip K Dick, James Tiptree Jr., and Tolkien. Moorcock, of course, hated Tolkien with a profound hatred, but for Le Guin, he’s the high point of the genre, a writer she’s glad she didn’t read too early, because that might have skewed her own writing:

‘Those who fault Tolkien on the Problem of Evil are usually those who have an answer to the Problem of Evil — which he did not. What kind of answer, after all, is it to drop a magic ring into an imaginary volcano?’

Wizardry & Wild Romance cover

Wizardry and Wild Romance, Gollancz (1987), cover by Les Edwards

But here, Le Guin is doing a very different job from Moorcock. She is, mostly, defending fantasy and science fiction for their own sakes — often, defending imagination for its own sake — rather than sifting out the good from the bad. (She does have the occasional go at a specific author — not as frothingly vitriolic as Moorcock, but just as damning: ‘The recent fantasy best-seller Jonathan Livingstone Seagull is a serious book, unmistakably sincere. It is also intellectually, ethically and emotionally trivial. The author has not thought things through. He is pushing one of the beautifully packaged Instant Answers we specialise in in this country.’)

Like Wizardry and Wild Romance, The Language of the Night is very much of its time, as a lot of the essays chart the early stages of SF’s emergence from the ghettoes of the past:

‘SF is pretty well grown up now. We’ve been through our illiterate stage, our latent nonsexual stage, and the stage when you can’t think of anything but sex, and the other stages, and we really do seem to be on the verge of maturity now.’

But some of Le Guin’s exhortations are just as relevant. In ‘Stalin in the Soul’ — a wonderfully-argued piece about the art of art — Le Guin holds up Zamyatin’s We as an example of what she thinks is the best of all SF novels, yet one that was written under a repressive regime, and only ever published outside its author’s home country. She compares this to the sort of art most often produced in her own, free country, which is all too often self-enslaved to the market.

Threshold, Gollancz edition. Cover by Alan Cracknell

Threshold, Gollancz edition. Cover by Alan Cracknell

Perhaps the problem nowadays is that fantasy and SF — in certain forms — are too easily accepted, so much so that we fail to remember what they can do, what they can be. ‘Fantasy,’ Le Guin says, ‘is nearer to poetry, to mysticism, and to insanity than naturalistic fiction is.’ It’s a jolt to read this, in a culture swamped with fantastic imagery, in novels, films, and games. It reminds you there are really profound, great, even dangerous things to be found in works of the imagination, and that they are, perhaps, just as rare today, even when fantasy and SF are so much more culturally acceptable.

‘The great fantasies, myths and tales are indeed like dreams: they speak from the unconscious to the unconscious, in the language of the unconscious — symbol and archetype. Though they use words, they work the way music does: they short-circuit verbal reasoning, and go straight to the thoughts that lie too deep to utter.’

Wizardry and Wild Romance by Michael Moorcock

I’d like all the writers I like to like each other. But writers, self-centred and individualistic as cats, are often the worst at being objective about other writers. There’s too much stepping on each other’s toes, too much “You don’t want to do it like that!” and “I was going to do that, and do it better!” As a result, I’ve learned to take a cruel joy in finding out that the writers I like in fact hate each other. There’s M R James on Lovecraft (“whose style is of the most offensive. He uses the word cosmic about 24 times”), Machen on Blackwood (“Tennyson said ‘the cedars sigh for Lebanon’, and that is exquisite poetry; but Blackwood believes the cedars really do sigh for Lebanon and that… is damned nonsense”). Both Tolkien and C S Lewis met and liked E R Eddison, but hated his outlook (Tolkien: “I thought that, corrupted by an evil and indeed silly ‘philosophy’, he was coming to admire, more and more, arrogance and cruelty”); while Fritz Leiber wrote of Tolkien, “He’s not interested in women and he’s not really interested in the villains unless they’re just miserable sneaks, bullies and resentful cowards…”

Wizardry & Wild Romance cover

Wizardry and Wild Romance, Gollancz (1987), cover by Les Edwards

Michael Moorcock’s Wizardry and Wild Romance is subtitled “A Study of Epic Fantasy”, but it’s no academic exercise in objectivity. I’ve read it many times, but reading it used to depress me, and it’s taken a good few years (and re-reads) to understand why. It is, of course, that Moorcock is a practitioner of the form he’s examining, and his “study” is more a cry than a critique. One of the reasons I’ve so often come back to reading it is that I wanted it to be like Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature”: a critical history of a genre by one of its major practitioners. But Lovecraft’s essay is, really, a critical history only by way of being a writer’s manifesto, a definition of what Lovecraft himself was trying to do. Because Moorcock shies away from explicit definitions (though he does offer one: “I am referring specifically to that body of prose fiction distinguished from myth, legend and folktale by its definite authorship and not genuinely purporting to be a true account of historical or religious events”), it leaves a sort of gap, the black hole of a definition which can only be inferred from the penumbra of praise and damnation that makes up the bulk of Wizardry and Wild Romance. And one of the problems is that Moorcock is so much better at damnation:

“…a new school is emerging of would-be Romantics, desperately striving to discover fresh sensibilities in the way repressed products of the middle-classes tried to loosen up with drugs and sentimental egalitarianism in the sixties. These people learned the school rules too well, however, and the main impression given by their fabulations is of red elbows and other miscellaneous bits of anatomy poking out through holes they have, with much effort and personal discomfort, rubbed in the straitjacket.”

And:

“Often the prose is little more than a mindless imitation of the euphonious aspects of the verse which, lacking the substance of the original, takes on the aspect of a mute attempting desperately to sing a Mozart song by mouthing an approximation of the sounds he has heard.”

And, most famously:

The Lord of the Rings is a pernicious confirmation of the values of a morally bankrupt middle-class. The Lord of the Rings is much more deep-rooted in its infantilism than a good many of the more obviously juvenile books it influenced. It is Winnie-the-Pooh posing as an epic.”

Like many an internet commentator, he brings the Nazis into the debate early on (mentioning Rudolph Hess in the Foreword). And he has a particular downer on HP Lovecraft:

“An aggressive, neurotic personality, though not without his loyalties and virtues, Lovecraft came under the influence of Poe, Dunsany and the imaginative writers of the Munsey pulp magazines and produced some of the most powerful infantile pathological imagery and some of the most astonishingly awful prose ever to gain popularity, yet his early work, written primarily in homage to Dunsany, from where he borrowed the idea of an invented pantheon of gods, is lighter in touch and almost completely lacking in the morbid imagery of his more successful horror stories in which death, idealism, lust and terror of sexual intercourse are constantly associated in prose which becomes increasingly confused as the author’s embattled psyche received wound after wound and he regressed into an attitude of permanent defensiveness.”

Whew.

That word, “aggressive”, occurs quite often in Moorcock’s little critiques, whether it’s of Lovecraft, John Norman, Tolkien or C S Lewis. But its use does itself come across as, well, quite aggressive:

“One should perhaps feel some sympathy for the nervousness occasionally revealed beneath their thick layers of stuffy self-satisfaction, typical of the second-rate schoolmaster, but sympathy is hard to sustain in the teeth of their hidden aggression which is so often accompanied by a deep-rooted hypocrisy.”

The thing I always failed to notice in my early readings and re-readings of Moorcock’s book (which usually left me feeling how much he must hate the genre, and wondering why he bothered to write a book about it) was his evident passion for it. He swipes so eloquently against the writers he hates precisely because he feels so strongly about what they’re doing — or, to his mind, mis-doing. He does praise writers, some not unequivocally — Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E Howard — others highly — Fritz Leiber, M John Harrison, Robert Holdstock, Mervyn Peake — though never, sadly, as eloquently as his criticisms. But he also presents, if you can spot it amidst the fusillade, evidence of having not only read a great deal of it, but a good deal about it.

Rodney Matthews cover

Rodney Matthews cover

And, of course, he has written a lot of it himself. But here, Moorcock doesn’t discuss his own work, which may account for the key gap I find in Wizardry and Wild Romance (whose title I always assumed was a quote from a genuine poem, till I tried to track it down, and found that the “Wheldrake” it’s attributed to is a Swinburne pseudonym (used, appropriately, to write bad reviews of his own work) as well as, later, a Moorcock character).

Wizardry and Wild Romance was the first book about fantasy I read, and it certainly taught me a lot:

“An intrinsic part of the epic fantasy is exotic landscape…. and no matter how well drawn their characters or good their language writers will appeal to the dedicated reader of romance according to the skill by which they evoke settings…”

And:

“Melodrama and irony work very well together; the best fantasies contain both elements, which maintain tonal equilibrium…”

Moorcock may bash the “morally bankrupt” middle-classes, and he may sometimes present a rather defensive maturismo somewhat reminiscent of Jackie Wullschläger’s in Inventing Wonderland, but you have to admit he does it with style. And if you can stand back far enough not to be splashed by the acid he spits, there’s a good deal of enjoyment to be had from the sheer wit of the book, even if you disagree with the points being made:

“If the bulk of American sf could be said to be written by robots, about robots, for robots, then the bulk of English fantasy seems to be written by rabbits, about rabbits and for rabbits.”

And, perhaps the most revealing statement about Moorcock’s own tastes in fiction:

“If we must be given stories about talking animals, let them at least be sceptical, sardonic and world-weary talking animals.”

While to me, it’s to find recourse from scepticism, cynicism and world-weariness that I turn to fantasy in the first place — that, to me, is what literary magic is all about, what Tolkien called “re-enchantment” — but that, of course, is my own bias.

cover

John Picacio cover

Although it was updated in 2004 for the Monkeybrain Books edition, Wizardry and Wild Romance is, really, a product of its time, and is best read that way. It came from a writer witnessing the commercialisation of what had been, to him and the writers he admired, a deeply individualistic, often revolutionary art form — but that’s a battle that has long been lost, the commercial element of heroic fantasy being here to stay. The updates to the book, to me, feel a bit tagged on and less part of the central, anguished cry that spawned the kernel essay, “Epic Pooh”, back in — when was it? According to the Foreword, parts of Wizardry and Wild Romance were published as early as 1963, and that’s over fifty years ago!

Wizardry and Wild Romance is a book I will come back to and re-read, as I have come back to it many times in the twenty seven years since I first read it. But it’s been a process of learning how to read it: not as objective criticism, more as the expression of a passion, and of an ideal, that Moorcock never clearly states, but certainly defends — in style.

Secret Gardens by Humphrey Carpenter, Inventing Wonderland by Jackie Wullschläger

Secret Gardens by Humphrey Carpenter, cover by Mark EdwardsSecret Gardens is Humphrey Carpenter’s study of the writers who created a Golden Age of children’s fiction, from the mid-Victorians (Charles Kinglsey’s The Water Babies and Lewis Carroll’s Alice books) to the Edwardians (Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, J M Barrie’s Peter Pan), with one post-World War I stray in A A Milne. Prior to this, English Literature had only recently “discovered” childhood as a special state; children had previously been seen as little adults, their size making them particularly convenient to be set to work in places adults couldn’t reach — up chimneys and down mines, for instance. But suddenly, to the Victorians (the wealthier ones, at least), children were the embodiment of all that was innocent, like little Adams and Eves before the Fall, and were therefore something to be preserved, prettified and sentimentalised. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886) was the ultimate statement of this approach, leading to a fashion for dressing children up as little English aristocrats and growing their hair in golden ringlets. (In the worst of this strain of children’s literature, whole books were written in mis-spelled baby-talk, surely a joke only adult readers would get, and quickly tire of.)

Then came what Carpenter calls the “Arcadians”, who took a different approach. They made the effort to see childhood from the inside, as a golden age of imagination, freedom and make-believe. Adults, from this point of view, were seen to have lost something as they grew up. Kenneth Grahame, Beatrix Potter and A A Milne were, in Carpenter’s view, the few who achieved perfection, with J M Barrie’s “terrible masterpiece” Peter Pan standing as a self-conflicted statement both in favour of not growing up, and the awful tragedy of not doing so.

The BorrowersIn the books for children that followed World War II, Carpenter detects a new theme, one in which children don’t just disappear into a golden, separated existence for the duration of their childhoods, but one in which they slowly discover their place in an “ongoing narrative”, and so learn to grow up. In The Borrowers (1952), “the first classic for children to emerge in England after the Second World War” (according to Carpenter), Arriety’s childhood world is less a “Secret Garden”, and more a prison from which she must learn to escape:

“The Borrowers’ domain beneath the floorboards, which is in many respects Arcadian… is characterised as above all stuffy, poky, and limiting. It is the precise opposite of Badger’s kitchen: it provides not womblike security but a choking constriction.”

It’s interesting to see how Carpenter focuses on how an “idea of childhood” was slowly developed, first being set aside and polished in its own special place (its secret garden) — necessarily so, to rescue it from pre-Victorian ideas of children being just little adults — then being reintroduced into the main narrative, reconnected with wider society and the idea of growing up, but only after that “special state” has had its properly special time.

Inventing Wonderland by Jackie WullschlagerWhere Carpenter traces the evolution of an idea, Jackie Wullschläger, in Inventing Wonderland, discerns a type. For her, the “Golden Age” of children’s writing belonged to “children’s writers who were also particular psychological types: boys who could not grow up”, and she singles out Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Kenneth Grahame, J M Barrie and A A Milne for particular finger-wagging.

And, sadly, finger-wagging it is. Whereas Carpenter’s Secret Gardens is the study of an idea and a developing literary movement, Wullschläger’s “collective biography”, having stated its theme (that the best books for children were written by “boys who could not grow up”), doesn’t really examine or test it, and so is ultimately unsatisfying. (What about, for instance, the female writers — E Nesbit, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Beatrix Potter — who contributed to the “Golden Age”? Were they “girls who could not grow up”?) Wullschläger has, it seems, an ideal of maturity against which these five male writers offend, but as she never defines it, you can only guess at it — and, sometimes, marvel at its stringency. At one point, she lists a group of children’s authors who, she says, “all lost parents when they were very young and then never fully accepted adult responsibilities”. In this list she includes J R R Tolkien: Tolkien, who served in the war, was a respected academic, had a successful marriage and a family life free of the horrors she describes in the lives of, for instance, Grahame and Barrie (each of whom had a child, adopted or otherwise, who committed suicide). Never fully accepted adult responsibilities? Just what is it that makes Tolkien fail the Wullschläger maturity test?

Lear - Complete Nonsense(The one author she shows some sympathy for is Edward Lear, though she misses the irony that it is exactly the sort of disapproval for human peculiarities she displays in Inventing Wonderland, that drove Lear in such despair from England to find a refuge on the continent.)

Wullschläger’s book, then, is interesting for its short biographies of a handful of writers, but draws no real conclusions as to what made their works successful — only on the fact that the writers themselves were immature. Of Tolkien and Lewis’s work, for instance, she says:

“Yet their work shows how fantasy continued to be shaped by the two forces which had driven Carroll and his contemporaries: nostalgia on the one hand, the need to find symbols and stories to reflect current anxieties, fears and doubts on the other.”

…implying that the only thing these extremely successful authors have going for them is a pair of negatives — nostalgia and fear. (If only she’d looked beyond her horror-word “nostalgia” to find, for instance, Tolkien’s deep, strong, and heartfelt connection with values in a past he both studied and admired.)

If it’s genuine insight into what made the “Golden Age” of children’s literature a golden age, then, you have to go to Carpenter’s book. The “Secret Gardens” so often located in children’s fiction are, at once, childhood itself, and an image of the imagination. A well-stocked imagination is one of the things that will, I think, see a child properly on his or her way towards a genuine, deep maturity — or at least arm them to withstand the jibes of the maturity police (those prey to what Ursula Le Guin has called “maturismo”: a swaggering, machismo-like version of grown-up-ness). This, I think, is more likely to be where these authors, so wounded in childhood that they could not, or would not, buy into the wider world’s maturity game, found their particular imaginative treasures, and thankfully passed them on to the rest of us.

Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings

It’s pointless to compare Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated film of The Lord of the Rings with Peter Jackson’s trilogy. They’re two completely different things. Jackson’s live-action film makes every effort to bring out the human drama of Tolkien’s story while presenting an exquisitely-crafted, seamlessly “real” version of Tolkien’s world. Bakshi’s, on the other hand, is a far pacier telling of the first half of the trilogy, and in style is more an illustrated thing, story-bookish and textured like a hand-made artefact — expressive and Romantic rather than dramatic and realistic. Jackson’s is convincing in every detail, but Bakshi’s works through the charm of its style.

Three rings for the Elven Kings...

Three rings for the Elven Kings…

Or perhaps I’m just saying this because Bakshi’s was the first version of The Lord of the Rings I was exposed to. I’d made attempts at reading LOTR before (the school library had a fat one-volume paperback of it, with a Pauline Baynes cover), but I always got stuck in the Shire. When I finally did get past that point and really enjoyed the books (those Barrow Wights!), I did so mostly with Bakshi’s version of the characters in mind — Aragorn had John Hurt’s voice (and, as in Bakshi’s movie, genuinely “looks foul and feels fair”, as compared to Viggo Mortensen’s much un-fouler look), while Gandalf, lean, aquiline, and hobbling around with his staff, was a far more authoritative and scary wizard than Ian McKellen’s (to my taste) rather too fond-and-friendly version. (I didn’t know it at the time, but there’s also Anthony Daniels, aka C3P0, as the voice of Legolas, and Mrs Victor Meldrew, Annette Crosbie, as Galadriel.)

Galadriel

Galadriel

Aragorn

Aragorn

Some people criticise the film for its uneven use of rotoscoping (where live footage is traced over by animators), but to me it’s just one of the many textures the film uses, and to great effect. Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings seems so wonderfully, hubristically 1970s, mixing animation styles like a prog-rock concept album mixes musical genres. (Apparently, he at one point wanted to use Led Zeppelin for the soundtrack.) For me, though, the rotoscoping adds a gritty, grainy quality to the action and battle sequences, recalling World War newsreel footage; and where it’s used to show the Nine Riders in their true form, in a sort of ivory-tinted black-and-white, it creates a genuinely creepy, otherworldly feel that to me is far more effective than the strangely windswept look Jackson used for the Ringwraiths’ true form in The Fellowship of the Ring.

BakshiLOTR-08 BakshiLOTR-07

The film does have its oddities. Saruman is sometimes referred to as Aruman — in one scene, he’s referred to by both names. In another scene, we see Merry and Pippin being carried along by a group of orcs after the pair have escaped into Fangorn Forest. But the greatest oddity, of course, is the fact that it ends halfway. There was going to be a sequel, but Bakshi found the process had taken more out of him than he’d expected. (In the end, there was a 1980 animation of The Return of the King by a different company. I saw it once, on US TV. The only thing I remember is my shock at finding it was a musical, with one song being called “Where There’s A Whip There’s A Way”.)

I still watch Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings occasionally. It has certainly not been out-dated by Jackson’s version (which I also like, but which had to first win out against my pro-Bakshi prejudice). The two are perfectly able to co-exist, being so different as they are.

BakshiLOTR-03 BakshiLOTR-04 BakshiLOTR-05 BakshiLOTR-09 BakshiLOTR-10 BakshiLOTR-12 BakshiLOTR-13

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