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Do Androids Dream of Electric Dragons?

This is so wrong upon so many levels I don't know where to begin:

I’m currently re-reading The Belgariad by David Eddings, and are now currently on Pawn of Prophecy. As I’ve been reading it’s struck me, The Belgariad doesn’t read like a fantasy novel. It reads instead like mid-twentieth century mainstream fiction. The style is more like Faulkner than Tolkien.

People approached The Belgariad expecting another Lord of the Rings, and got instead Steinbeck with sleep enchantments.

First of all, let's get out of the way the absurd idea that David Eddings writes like Faulkner and Steinbeck. I'm no fan of either, but I have read some of their work. I have also read two of Eddings' books -- the above-mentioned Pawn of Prophecy and the first book of the Diamond Throne book cycle (or whatever it was -- it may be that the books was "The Diamond Throne" and the cycle had some other stupid, clumsily-derivative-of-Tolkien name). Those were the only two books of Eddings' that I could bear to read; Eddings maybe writes on the level of whatever two-bit hack with a word processor is filling the grocery store book racks this moment. In any genre.

Eddings is an awful writer, flat, clumsy, slack in exposition and dialogue, unable to create an interesting character if his life depended on it. Which it doesn't, because he inexplicably has become a prolific and apparently much beloved writer of fantasy. But the American public's taste for dreck must never be underestimated.

The wrongness deepens further into the post. Two of the major characters, a kind of female Gandalf stand in, and her father, a kind of Elrond-in-reverse (as far as I recall -- it's been many years -- many happy, fulfilling years -- since I allowed Eddings' awful "saga" to pollute my brain):

...bicker and feud. They have issues. Petty issues. They’re not above scoring points and manipulating each other over the most trifling of things. When did Aragorn and Arwyn ever have a knock down, drag out, scream your lungs out and plant the frying pan in the living room wall fight over Aragorn taking the garbage out?

Never, because Tolkien wasn't writing a lame farce populated by sitcom characters.

It gets worse:

Edding’s is the kind of writer who would have Frodo say to Gandalf when he was safe in Minas Tirath, “You used me, you bastard. You knew I’d claim the ring, and so you told Sam to kill me and toss me in the Pit of Doom when I did. You didn’t have the balls you needed to do what you and your masters needed to do ages ago, so you arranged for a poor dumb schlub like me to take the fall for you. If it weren’t for Gollum I’d be a dead hero and nobody would be the wiser.”

If this is the impression Eddings gives his fans, he's even worse at writing fantasy than I remember.

The blogger who wrote all the above then ends his post with "we need more fantasy writers like David Eddings." (Italics mine.)


Where to begin... The idea of fantasy that this blogger -- and obviously, this novelist -- both have is the absolute opposite of fantasy. C.S. Lewis long ago tore to tiny bits the idea that fantastic literature is nothing but detective stories or something gotten up in magical clothes in one of his essays (currently the book is in a box -- he was speaking of science fiction, but at the time science fiction was little removed from straight fantasy), but here I will add my own not-very-humble statement to the prosecution. (And I will mostly use Lord of the Rings to illustrate my statements, because Tolkien is the template.) Fantasy as a literary genre is not "Steinbeck with sleep enchantments" It's certainly not supposed to read like "mid-twentieth century mainstream fiction"! The entire point of fantasy is to evoke an age so remote or removed from our own every day experience that the way we relate to the story is more akin to dreaming than to reading a work of mainstream fiction. Mainstream fiction is set in the "real world" of the human race's concrete experiences in actual time. Fantasy is based on our dreams and myths, which are a kind of cultural dream. Both genres are of course based in the realities of human nature and the world we live in, though some authors have tried (with little success, IMHO) to write something as unrelated to the human experience as possible.

Fantasy stories often begin in some mundane, everyday setting -- Hobbiton (though a fantasy land populated by fantasy beings, the Shire was of course the old rural and village England of Tolkien's childhood), the Professor's house in the Narnia books, etc. -- but that is only to make the magical events that follow stand out with even greater sharpness.

As well, fantasy is about our extreme characteristics -- our most noble and our most base traits. Heroes in fantasy are more noble than they are in real life. That's why we don't have a scene in LOTR where Aragorn does something dorky. Evil characters are evil. That's why we aren't supposed to care about the families of the orcs killed by the Riders of Rohan. The side of good is all good, and the side of evil is all evil. This doesn't mean, of course, that there won't be conflicted characters -- we have Boromir, Wormtongue, Denethor, and Saruman. But their flaws also dovetail with the idea that there are only two choices, the Good and the Evil, and that eventually one side or the other will claim you forever.

Eddings' problem, and the problem many contemporary so-called writers of "fantasy" have is that they are not writing fantasy, and actually don't seem to like it very much. The evidence is what they remove from or botch in their fiction.

First to go, because it's easiest and also so rebellious, man! -- is the heroism. See, in real life people aren't heroes like that -- not all goody-two-shoes stuck-up and making all those boring speeches. People are complicated, man -- like they're not one thing or another, people who act like that are phonies!

That Aragorn, man, what a phony.

The second thing to go is all that weird "language." I don't mean made-up language words -- fantasy writers all seem to think that tacking a few -iads and -ils on the ends of words and a few vaguely Celtic or Finnish-looking phrases tossed here and there into their word-gruel like so many raisins is de rigueur, and in fact they overuse the device, where Tolkien was content to tell his story in English. I mean the antique speaking and writing style that is traditional to fantasy. Man, people don't talk like that anymore! So these writers, thinking they need to reach "the people," churn out stuff that calls to mind such producers of lyrical prose as Tom Clancy.

The rest is what I call "fixing what isn't broke." One favorite fix is to add more women in "active" roles. One Eowyn isn't good enough, not so long as Arwen is stuck back there in her daddy's lodge sewing that flag. Their heads filled with four decades of "women need to be shown in more empowering Roles," these writers went to their keyboards and produced legions of female warriors who could fight side by side with a man (or in front of one) without crying or getting cramps, female sorcerers as good as Gandalf, wise women galore, spunky girls who bicker and sass their way into the king's heart (only they turn him down in order to Remain Free -- to be killed by brigands or a disease that twelfth-century medicine couldn't cure... hey, if you're going to shove "reality" into a dream world why not go all the way?) -- and so on.

And then we have the issue of magic. If any of these writers are ever able to make it all the way through Lord of the Rings, they notice that there really wasn't a whole lot of actual magic performed. And what's even more unfair, none of the human or hobbit heroes gets to do any of it -- it's all done by the wizards (who are not human) or the evil Ringwraiths (who are not human any more)! It's almost as if Tolkien was saying that human beings (and hobbits) should not have magical powers. How unfair and limiting! This goes straight against the contemporary Western notion that mankind is capable of anything. Tolkien, obviously, did not subscribe to this view, but most modern fantasy writers do, and the idea that for a human to grasp at the power of an angel is to recreate the Fall is not anathema to them -- it's something they've probably never even heard of. So the typical fantasy novel has everyone and his pet dragon casting spells and writhing around on the ground in visions. This gets old after a while.

I could go on and on. (In fact, I have.) But I'll end with the effect all of this downgrading, flattening out, and fluffing has on the fantasy story: it breaks the wall. It jolts the reader awake from the dream. It reveals the gold and scarlet gems to be tinsel and plastic. It's like being told in a particularly unkind and mocking way that there is no Santa Claus, and by the way that Virginia chick died of diphtheria. And then going on to describe the symptoms of diphtheria in gruesome detail, and then trying to cop a feel. To do this is worse than a blasphemous act -- it's a destruction of the underpinnings of civilization, which is built on dreams and myths. The men with minds of metal and wheels have gone far down the road to replacing the stone of dreams with the plastic of "the real world" in all other aspects of our life already. It was only a matter of time before they got to fantasy. Just about everything that is published today under that heading seems to be written for robots.

Comments (10)

Poor soul, that awful Mr. Eddings don't do it no proper. There's a right way, and an awful way to write fantasy, and David Eddings do it awful.

Well aint your piss blue? Swear you were fussier than a cat with fish oil between the shoulder blades. The bus isn't exactly on time you have to stay at the stop for the rest of the day?

Clue time. Like Faulkner. Same sensibility, same focus on the people. The Belgariad is about the people involved, not the goshwowiness of it all. Eddings set out to tell a story that also happens to be a fantasy. He succeeded. Now aint it about time you got over your snit?

(Think I'm cruel now, wait till I'm actually ticked. :) )

You know, if you're so into stories that focus on "people," instead of the "goshwowiness" (whatever that's supposed to refer to) of fantasy, why do you read fantasy? Why not just read Faulkner? What I don't understand is what people like you get out of fantasy. I don't understand why you read it. There are thousands of non-fantasy novels that do that focusing on "people" you demand. Why not read them instead?

I think I know the answer though. You want to have your cake and eat it too. You want to be able to read thrilling tales of magic and heroism, but you want to be able to stand back and wink and declare that you're not reading that sissy fantasy stuff, you're really reading a real novel full of realistic characters. But they get to do neat things like cast spells and fight monsters. But that's not the important thing -- the important thing, you are careful to note, is that the "people" are "focused on."

If you must read garbage like this (and it is garbage, where good fantasy properly done is more like dessert), at least read a better writer than Eddings. Neil Gaiman does this "real" people/fantasy archetype merging rather better. Barbara Hambly is also not bad. C.J. Cherryh does a pretty good merging of scifi with fantasy in her Gate novels, though you might not be able to identify with her characters -- they aren't at all American.

I clicked "post" too soon. I will go on: Ursula K. Le Guin, before the pseudo-feminists and the PC cultists ate her brain, very astutely called this sort of writing barging into Faerie with a camper and a radio and so on. (I don't have the exact quote because the book it is in, Language of the Night, is in a box. You should try to find it if you can -- it is a series of essays she published in the early 70s before, as I said, her brain had completely been taken over by PC feminist multiculturalism. Another good reference for why fantasy should be written a certain way is J.R.R. Tolkien's essay "On Fantasy," and C.S. Lewis essays in On Stories.)

Anyway, whether you like it or not, there is a right way to write fantasy and a wrong way. I didn't make the rules, I just explain them.

Thank you Andrea, that's just right. More please.

I'd add that even with Tolkien's skill it is difficult to make things magical and otherworldly work in fiction. If you clutch at them eagerly they are gone.

He succeeds by making them rare—there's a reason we trudge for tedious weeks and months before getting to Lothlorien or Rivendell. And they work because we see them through the eyes of Hobbits, who are dazzled and half-asleep.

The elves in The Silmarillion are not very "magical," because they are not removed from common experience. It's hard to tell them from the humans.

When a dream is born in you
With a sudden clamorous pain,
When you know the dream is true
And lovely, with no flaw or stain,
O then be careful, or with sudden clutch
You'll hurt the thing you prize so much.

Dreams are like a bird that mocks,
Flirting the feathers of his tail.
When you seize at the salt-box
Over the hedge you'll see him sail.
Old birds are neither caught with salt or chaff:
They watch you from the apple bough and laugh.

Poet, never chase the dream.
Laugh yourself and turn away.
Mask your hunger, let it seem
Small matter if he come or stay;
And when he nestles in your hand at last,
Close up your fingers tight and hold him fast.

-- Robert Graves

Nazdar [TypeKey Profile Page]:

I read one of Eddings's series and most of a second, but grew increasingly annoyed by the recapitulations - turned about two books' worth of material into 5. He needed serious editing, but then there wouldn't have been five purchases of product.

Another fantasy writer who abused the privilege in that way (and also garners an inexplicably large following) is Robert Jordan. He's a better writer than Eddings, but his Wheel of Time series just went on and on, and his characters weren't interesting enough to entice me into reading past the first book. Apparently he's dying, or at least very ill. My friend, who is one of his fans (she has all his books in hardcover) is worried that he will die before he ends his series.

Another fantasy writer I can't get into, though his writing is not bad, is George R.R. Martin. He also applies what I think are mistaken techniques to the genre, at least in the latest series he's been working on. I'd get more into this but it means I'd have to read up on current fantasy and I'm not sure I want to. To tell you the truth, I don't read much fantasy these days, except for the old ones.

Nazdar [TypeKey Profile Page]:

I came to Wheel of Time after about 7 or 8 books were out, so I read those in a fairly brief span. Seemed to me that Jordan didn't do so much recapitulate as simply hyperexpand his story to the extent that he lost control of his characters & story. I had heard about his illness (amyloidosis?), but apparently it is being treated with some encouraging results.

aelfheld [TypeKey Profile Page]:

Having cut my teeth on Tolkien, I have to agree with your assessment of David (and Leigh) Eddings. Dressing up post-modern fallacy with the trappings of fantasy is akin to putting lipstick on a pig - when it's all said and done, it's still a pig.

I would disagree with your take on Martin's "Song of Ice and Fire" series; while Byzantine in its complexity, there's little modern (or post-modern) in presentation or execution.

The "Wheel of Time" series is, I think, up to book nine, with no end in sight. If Jordan dies before it's finished, he will only have himself to blame.

CGHill [TypeKey Profile Page]:

"It was only a matter of time before they got to fantasy. Just about everything that is published today under that heading seems to be written for robots."

No small fraction of it seems to be written by robots.

wf [TypeKey Profile Page]:

I hate this tendency by certain people to pull everything from Shakespeare to Tolkien down into their own small frame of reference and make it vulgar and everyday. "Why are there no toilets on the Enterprise?" I did ask such questions myself, but I was about 14 at the time and wasn´t done growing. If only I had known that some people build whole careers on that "insight".

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