Worldbuilding and the Malazan Book of the … Feminist?

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Worldbuilding and the Malazan Book of the … Feminist?

At the heart of a significant proportion of fantasy is the diegetic reality, the setting itself, the diegesis or storyworld.  It is one of the things that often sets fantasy apart from other forms of literature, those stories that use the real world as the foundational basis for the setting of the narrative.

Fantasy, like a lot of SF and Horror, creates a new reality in which the narrative resides.  So where Dickens, Austen, the Brontёs set their work in a contemporaneous, if fictionalised, England, the settings of their works did not need to be invented as they simply lifted complete societies, customs, economics, races, prejudices and biases from England, the real world.  Not only that, but their diegetic storyworld did not have to be fundamentally altered or disguised, it could be a fairly accurate depiction of the real world.  They could pretty much copy wholesale from what was outside their window.  And lastly, the setting would be immediately familiar to their readers because it was not invented.

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Time for a (lack of) Change: The Passage of Time in Fantasyland.

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Show me a written history that makes sense, and I will show you true fiction. 

Crone, Toll the Hounds

 

This paper was intended to be a brief look at some of the temporal anomalies that occur in genre fantasy writing and using Steven Erikson’s Malazan Books to illustrate different approaches to solving these issues.

However over the course of researching this I realised that this issue was a great deal more complicated and far reaching than I had originally thought and therefore this paper has become more of a series of questions rather than an attempt to illustrate the answers.

In essence however it is an attempt to show that suspension of disbelief is not enough, there must be a rationality and coherency present for a fantasy world to truly function and captivate.  In fact a world must be internally coherent as well as rationally consistent in order for suspension of disbelief to function effectively.  And the treatment of time is one of the major elements whereby fantasy fails to be rational.

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Teaching Genre Fantasy : One Approach

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What I am going to discuss today is my experience with and attempts to construct a 12 week undergraduate syllabus for the study of Genre Fantasy Literature.

So a couple of very quick disclaimers:

  1. This is not prescriptive; this is a starting point for discussion.
  2. This is based on my experience of teaching in the UK therefore it is a 12 week block comprised of four hours contact time each week, with a ‘reading week’ or ‘independent study week’ occurring in the second half of the semester.
  3. The four hours are divided between a 1 hour lecture, a 1 hour workshop in which the lecture is discussed and questions answered, and a 2 hour seminar discussion group in which the reading for the week is discussed in relation to the lecture and topic.
  4. In the UK system we favour essays over class tests so the examination criteria reflect this.
  5. The focus is on Genre Fantasy literature, not fantastic literature in general, SF, horror, genres of fantasy, speculative fiction. Therefore this is a pretty specific remit that does not take into account mythology, folklore, faerie tale, the Gothic, Weird Fiction, Science Fiction, Space Opera, the Fantastic, Fantastik, Fantastique, and so on.  So there are a great many texts that have been excluded or that don’t fall under the rubric for the class.
  6. As with so many subject syllabi, this was an exercise in practical and pragmatic selection, so a number of texts were chosen for their expediency rather than their status or critical appreciation.
  7. The class is aimed at English Literature Students, it would be an elective module, and would be second or third year undergraduates.
  8. The module follows a thematic overview of Genre Fantasy rather than an historical perspective of the genre, although elements of genre history will obviously be discussed.
  9. Each of the three mini-sections utilises a single key primary text, in addition to excerpts from additional texts, short stories and critical works.
  10. Lastly, the focus of this class was to teach critical awareness of Genre Fantasy, Genre Theory, Literary Theory and to develop skills in textual analysis, and as a result texts were chosen that aided the teaching of the subject and that fitted in with the approach that I wanted to take.

So this is not a typical paper presentation.  I thought I would take you through how I designed a Genre Fantasy Syllabus, and at the end we could discuss the pros and cons of approaching teaching this way.

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Illustrating a Dream: An analysis of the art of storytelling in Gaiman and Vess’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

Dream Country

This paper is a brief look at some aspects of The Sandman, in particular issue 19 “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”[1].  For any here who don’t know about The Sandman, it was a series of monthly comic books which ran from Dec ‘88 until the last issue in March ‘96.  However most of us will be more familiar with their current incarnation as a series of 10 graphic novels.  Published by DC Comics, under their Vertigo label, these groundbreaking comics have received critical acclaim, cult following as well as some degree of literary scrutiny.  While the various issues were all written by Neil Gaiman, a number of different artists were employed to illustrate the stories.  Although the term ‘illustrate’ is problematic as this paper will address.

The purpose of this paper is to examine the comic in terms of the meta-narrative and ideas of multiple and parallel realities and how this achieved through both textual referencing and the use of the art.  In particular how the art itself not only illustrates the text but is an added dimension to the narrative and supplies its own coded information for the reader.  As an additional note I owe a great deal of this paper to Jo Sanders’ article in Extrapolation on a similar topic in relation to this issue.

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So You Want To Be A Dragon Slayer? Character Generation in RPGs and Genre Fantasy

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So You Want To Be A Dragon Slayer?  Character Generation in RPGs and Genre Fantasy

The relationship between Fantasy literature and Role Playing Games is well known but is often overlooked and at times misunderstood.  Many consider fantasy literature to be the inspiration behind or inspiration of RPGs and overlook the reciprocal nature of this relationship.  I am hoping that this paper will show how the use of RPG conventions and processes can be used as a basic analytical tool when it comes to understanding and analysing fantasy narratives.

So let us begin with a very brief breakdown of my terminology; Genre fantasy, RPGs or roleplaying games and series fantasy.

Genre fantasy is perhaps the most ambiguous of the three, even if it is bandied about frequently, and we all tend to understand it in our own way. In the Encyclopedia of Fantasy Clute and Grant lay out a few guiding terms in order to define this ethereal concept.  The first is that there is a secondary world where magic exists or can exist, for example Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Feist’s Midkemia, and Brooks’ Shannara.  The world is usually populated by several different races and tribes that may or may not be magical, Elves, Dwarves, Trolls and Orcs for example in addition to humans.  The narratives usually correspond to recognisable sub-genres of fantasy such as high fantasy, epic fantasy and sword and sorcery.   But really those terms are often just as vague or misleading as genre fantasy itself.  To use an analogy, genre fantasy is as wide and varied as Science Fiction, we know it when we see it, but there are so many variants and sub-sets that an overarching definition eludes us.  I am using it to mean typical examples of what we generally call fantasy, for example books by Gemmell, Feist, Jordan, and Goodkind.

RPGs then.  We run into similar problems of scope here too. Roleplaying games can be as different from each other as genres of fiction can be.  Their game mechanics can vary enormously as do their settings, aims and objectives.  However like genre fantasy some general concepts can be found which can be used to describe a lot of, if not all, RPGs.  They usually involve the creation of a player character, who has defined physical and mental characteristics, who then engages with other player characters in a scenario created and managed by a Gamesmaster GM or Dungeonmaster DM.  The players ‘play’ through the scenarios, solving puzzles, defeating foes and accrue experience points or XP and riches which then allow them to develop their character further and get better equipment.  The scenarios are usually set in a gameworld which is different to our own and quite often resembles the secondary world setting found in genre fantasy.  To keep things simple I will be referring to fantasy rpgs when I use the term rpg.

A brief look at fantasy RPGs then.  They come in various forms, Pen and Paper or D20 traditional role-playing games.  Things like Dungeons and Dragons and its many offspring.  Well known and wide spread, Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance are examples of the AD&D approach to gaming.  Computer and console games, ranging from Sony’s Final Fantasy series, through Nintendo’s Zelda all the way back to D&D based games like Baldur’s Gate.  They vary in form and content and can be puzzle based, hack and slash, action adventure or a combination of all these things.  They usually have some sort of overarching narrative that can be as intricate or sparse as the game developer thinks will sell.  Varying from a thin plot to excuse monster slaying, to an intricate narrative that is more like an interactive novel.  There are also the MMORPGs or Massively Multiplayer Online Role Play Games, of which World of Warcraft is a leading example (with over 10 million subscribers as of January this year).  Again these games focus on players creating a character and joining other characters on quests and adventures in order to gain experience and wealth.

The third term, series fantasy, admittedly from Wikipedia, is useful here.  Series fantasy is basically a genre fantasy narrative which utilises an RPG gameworld as its secondary world, so we could rename it Gaming Fantasy to give it an air of credibility.  As such it would appear to be the closest type of genre fantasy to role-play gaming.  It tends to be more simplistic in nature than other sub-genres of fantasy and relies extensively on quest narrative and adventure stories.  Of all the types of genre fantasy, series fantasy seems to be the clearest example of what we call the fantasy template.  That of fantasy by numbers.  We can map out narrative events with a Proppian approach to narrative, we can deconstruct characters using Jungian Archetypes (like the trickster, the wise old man etc.) and because of its connection to the rpg world, we can use the rpg to breakdown many of the incidentals of the story not covered by the approaches above.

However something to bear in mind about Series fantasy is that although it is intrinsically linked to RPGs and these novels number in the hundreds and sell by the thousand.  There is something of a chicken and the egg problem here.  Some fantasy novels have inspired the creation of RPGs, which then in turn inspire more novels in the series, which in turn inspire more games set in and out of the series, as well as some RPGs have inspired novels which inspire the gamers which can lead to more novels and so on.

So why am I proposing to use RPG gaming conventions for genre fantasy analysis and not just series fantasy.  Well the answer to that is basically that the interrelationship between RPGs and fantasy is a great deal more extensive than many of us suppose.  It can influence how we think about fantasy.

So on to the conventions of RPGs and my point.  I want to look at some very specific aspects of RPGs and those are generally all concerned with character creation.  In particular the statistical breakdown, physical description and language of weaponry.

So let’s pretend we are the hero who has to go slay a dragon. It can be a tough job so a group of friends to help us out is likely to be useful, therefore some sort of quest group should be formed.  So who do we need first?  Knocking on the dragon’s front door seems to be a slightly foolhardy plan, and fantasy wisdom dictates that every dragon’s lair has a secret entrance.  So we need someone to find the secret entrance to its lair, and then guide us through a booby trapped dungeon before we can reach the dragon.  We therefore need a sneaky burglary expert or ‘thief’ to locate the secret entrance, disarm the traps, and pick the locks of the inevitably locked secret doors and treasure chests the dragon’s loot will be in.

Sneaky McStab – Thief Extraordinaire

So what sort of things does the thief need to have?  Or, in gaming terms, what attributes must he have.

Well strength isn’t a huge concern, he doesn’t have to be Atlas, but we don’t want a wimp either, so he needs a reasonable amount.

Dexterity must be high so that he can pick locks and disarm trip wires etc., he should also be able to scale walls and lower a rope down for the rest of us so dexterity is a priority.

We don’t want him dieing from the first wound he takes and as he lives in the rough and tumble world of the professional thief he will need to be a little hardy and so we will put at least a few points into constitution.

On to the mental characteristics.  Well he doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist so he doesn’t need huge levels of intelligence, but we would like him to be able to lace his own boots and to be able to work out which items have the greatest value to a fence, so he needs some street smarts and a bit of numeracy.

Wisdom and thieves don’t necessarily go together, but some level of commonsense would be nice, such as enough to realise that picking up the golden idol on the pedestal might be a bad idea until after you have checked for the pressure pad.

So that leaves charisma.  Well this can be important if he is the kind of thief that relies on cons and scams but a dislikable thief can be just as useful to a dragon slayer, we won’t be trying to convince the dragon to invest in a pyramid scheme.  So it is a personal choice but hardly a necessity.

He should be fairly flexible and acrobatic so in broad terms a younger character is probably best, but there aren’t many elderly thieves out there regardless.

Now we have to get him ready for battle.  Well he can’t wear plate mail as it isn’t really conducive to climbing, sneaking around and generally being stealthy.  Chainmail is a possibility but it might limit his manoeuvrability and possibly make too much noise.  So we will probably settle on leather armour as it is flexible, durable and doesn’t clank. Due to the fact that he will be hiding in shadows and dark crevices we should probably use dark leather, blacks and dark browns rather than something in the oxblood or bright yellow suede range.

What weapons should he have?  Well as a stealthy guy he probably will be sneaking up on people so daggers would be useful, maybe a short sword in case someone fights back.  Big swords and shields would probably get in the way of sneaking through airshafts so let’s avoid them.  Maybe a small bow or crossbow if he needs to take out a sentry from afar, but the bigger versions would be impractical for the same reason as the shields and longswords.

Now we will probably want a wizard too, in case of magical traps that the thief can’t disarm, and in case we have to lob a fireball at the inevitable mob of hench-monsters in the dragon’s employ.

Professor Fireball – Grumpy Wizard

Well we want a good one, so they will need to older and have plenty of experience as well as years of research and practice to make them powerful, not one straight out of wizard grad school.  We also want them to be versatile and know lots of different spells in order to defeat the predictably insurmountable obstacles in our way.  Therefore they will have to be very intelligent and have a good memory.

However we are not expecting them to lug around a lot of equipment or loot so they don’t have to be particularly strong. Nor are we expecting them to shimmy up a craggy rock face or walk across a tightrope to reach a ledge so they don’t have to be particularly dextrous.

We don’t want them to faint at the first sign of blood but we don’t expect them to get into fist fights so they don’t have to be hugely hardy.

We would like them to be wise but as long as they know all the spells and do what we tell them who cares if they think it is a bad idea?  But as they are messing with the forces of nature some wisdom is probably a good idea.

In terms of charisma, well once again it is a matter of whether or not you mind working with a boring unsociable wizard or want one to go out drinking with afterwards.

In terms of armour, magic, like lots of other forms of energy finds metal to be a great conductor, so a lot of armour is right out unless we want an extra crispy mage.  Also, as he is slightly older, leather might chafe a little so we will just let him wear his robes.  He won’t be doing much hand to hand fighting in any case so he may as well be comfortable.  He might carry a ritual dagger for one spell or another but really we will be relying on his spells rather than his ability to hit people.  He can always bring his big walking stick to bash heads with if he is feeling particularly vigorous.

Now, while we are busy being heroic and generally championy we need a bodyguard to look after the others and to take on incidental minions.

Tank the Meatshield – ‘If it moves, hit it with a rock’

We want him to be able to break heads and take names so he is going to have to be tough, hard as nails as well as strong as an ox.  We need someone to do most of the heavy lifting, dragon hoarded gold isn’t light you know.

We would like him to be co-ordinated enough that he won’t accidentally kill us whilst he is dispatching nameless minions 7 and 8, so a bit of dexterity would be welcome.

In terms of wisdom and intelligence as long as he can obey simple commands like ‘kill them not us’ and doesn’t have to be told not to eat the yellow snow we are ok.

Anyway, I would prefer a bodyguard who spent all his time practicing killing things than one who slacked off in order to read Shakespeare and who likes to debate post-Cartesian philosophy.

As for charisma, we need him to be an unstoppable killing machine not spokesperson for the wayward orc home.

As he is going to be slaughtering hundreds of the evil fantasy equivalent of red shirts he is going to need as much armour as he can wear, preferably inch thick metal.  He is also going to need big heavy weapons that are not going to break after a dozen fights.

Ok so that is the core of our support group; Sneaky McStab, Professor Fireball and Tank the Meat Shield.  Basically the point of this was to show that by defining the role that the character needed to fill to make our quest successful we basically ended up with the stereotypical fantasy group.  And this of course is pretty much the way some rpgs work.

This is the list of steps you take to create a character in the RPG Baldur’s Gate, and apart from the very superficial starting points the first major decision is class, and everything then follows that decision, from what armour they can wear, what weapons they can use and what skills they have.  Of course a hard core gamer might decide to play a stupid wizard, a weak warrior or a clumsy thief, but it can be a bit hard to progress through the game if your character is bad at his job.

So now we have seen how you build these characters from the ground up let’s apply this type of analysis to David Gemmel’s Waylander, which is a well known and popular genre fantasy novel, to see if it can work in the opposite direction.

The initial descriptions of Waylander highlight some important characteristics.

The man was tall and broad-shouldered and a black leather cloak was drawn about him.  (P.11)

From twin sheaths he produced two black-bladed knives. (P.12)

So perhaps the first thing to pick out here is the fact that he is “Tall and Broad Shouldered”, this is perhaps the stereotypical way to describe a warrior hero type.  It carries connotations of health, athleticism and strength.

But more important in this sentence is the black cloak.  Now standard fantasy semiotics would suggest that because the cloak is black this is going to be an evil character, but in terms of RPGs we can draw something more interesting out.  The fact that the cloak is made of leather suggests that the cloak is a practical garment, it serves a function.  Now this is because it is not made of velvet, or silk or some other decorative fabric, this is a hard wearing, protective and water-proof garment making it useful.

The fact that it is black suggests that the character is some sort of shady character, now it could be an aesthetic choice to have a black cloak, however as it is a functional garment the dark colour would suggest a practical purpose.  And one of these purposes would be to help the character hide in shadows and darkness.  This then would make the reader think that this character is some sort of warrior thief type.

Now the second description also reaffirms this.  He draws two black bladed knives.  Again the black would suggest ‘bad guy’ but it is more than that.  The blades of the daggers have been blackened to reduce their reflective properties.  Again apart from a strange aesthetic choice, the obvious reason for this is that they are to be stealth weapons, used to sneak up on someone in the dark and stab them.  Added to that is the fantasy idea that daggers or knives are dishonourable weapons, that is you don’t tend to challenge someone to a knife fight, you would duel with swords.  So daggers are quick, dirty wounding weapons used to incapacitate and then kill without mercy or honour.  Lastly in this is the fact that he draws two knives, so fighting with two weapons at the same time, suggesting he is ambidextrous and very competent.  So in RPG terms, a high dexterity score and signifier of a rogue class.
Swiftly the newcomer swept his cloak over one shoulder and lifted his right arm. A black bolt tore into the chest of the nearest man, a second entered the belly of a burly warrior with upraised sword. The stranger dropped the small double crossbow and lightly leapt back. (p.12)

This passage illustrates Waylander’s favourite weapon, a small double crossbow.  This is light and easily concealed, a perfect weapon for a rogue class.  Also unlike the noble longbow, which is usually romanticised, the crossbow is the fantasy equivalent of a hand gun, a point and shoot weapon that anyone can use without a lot of training.  It has a dirty reputation historically as it allowed untrained peasants to take down heavily armoured knights, although this example is far less powerful, has a reduced range but is no less deadly.  Oh and once again the crossbow and its bolts are black, so the dual evil and concealability issues rising.

Waylander is also wearing leathers and a partial chainmail shirt.  This again would suggest that he is a rogue character armoured for speed and agility rather than an out and out fight.

The man’s eyes were narrowed in concentration, but the priest noted that they were extraordinarily dark, deep sable-brown with flashing gold flecks. The warrior was unshaven, and the beard around his chin was speckled with grey. (P.13)

The first was a dark-haired warrior of a type she was coming to know too well; his face was hard, his eyes harder. (P.23)

In terms of his physical description, Waylander is dark haired, with dark brown almost black eyes.  With eyes being windows to the soul we can see how this easily reflects his dark status.  However they are also flecked with gold which would suggest that there is still something good, pure and precious in that darkness, leading to the possibility of redemption.  Also his dark beard shot with grey confirms this idea of darkness with a chance of light, and also lets you know he is not a young man.

Interestingly, as Waylander embarks on his redemptive quest he picks up some short swords (black handled and with black scabbards to be fair) and these add some air of nobility to his character whilst staying true to his roguish background.

So a combination of fantasy semiotics and rpg based analysis yields a great deal of information long before the author divulges secret dark past of his character.

“Let’s hunt some Orc!’ – Re-evaluating the Monstrosity of Orcs

Orcs from Jackson's Adaptation of LotR

With the exception of Dragons, one of the most recognisable ‘monsters’ of genre fantasy is the humble Orc.  Orcs, commonly found in hordes™, are the disposable foot soldiers of every evil wizard’s army, and are useful opponents/victims for would-be heroes-in-training.  They are evil, barbaric, ugly, brutal and, above all, monstrous.  But given the trend of modern Genre Fantasy to move away from simplistic moral polarities to more complicated moral relativistic positions, can we still treat and react to Orcs in the same way?  With some notable exceptions, Mary Gentle’s Grunts (1992) and Stan Nicholls’ Orcs (1999-present), the treatment of Orcs has remained fairly consistent ever since Tolkien popularised them as the enemies of the hero.

Using established critical techniques already associated with the fantastic, in particular the Monstrous Other, Otherness, and the psychological readings of Monstrosity, the position of the Orc will be established in the context of the genre.  Then, by examining how the Orc has been used in related fantasy media, such as the RPG, it will be shown how the function of the Orc has changed into a ‘disposable’ monster.  Lastly, with the Orc as a cypher for almost every evil sentient monster deployed in Genre Fantasy, this paper will examine how we ‘read’ Orcs and suggest that the true monstrosity is the reader’s casual acceptance of racial genocide rather than the Orc’s position as Monstrous Other.

I took the idea of monstrosity as being constructed through a limited, subjective and external perspective and this therefore limits empathy with the subject.  By considering the narrative from the perspective of the monster we gain a new view of the story and of monstrosity.

With the exception of Dragons, one of the most recognisable ‘monsters’ of Genre Fantasy is the humble Orc.  Orcs, commonly found in hordes (Which I believe is the ™ term), are the readily identifiable disposable foot soldiers of every evil wizard’s or Dark Lord’s army, and they are the ever useful opponents for would-be heroes-in-training.    But given the trend of modern Genre Fantasy to move away from simplistic moral polarities to more complicated moral relativistic positions, can we still treat and react to Orcs in the same way?  Is it time to re-evaluate Orcs and as a result, the texts in which they appear?  Can we now view Orcs as the victims of the self-proclaimed heroes?  With some notable exceptions, Mary Gentle’s Grunts (1992) and Stan Nicholls’ Orcs (1999-present), the treatment of Orcs has remained fairly consistent ever since Tolkien popularised them as the enemies of the hero.

I am sure that everyone here is familiar with the Orcs of Tolkien’s world.  We could describe them as barbaric, evil, corrupt, treacherous, cannibalistic, and irredeemably evil.

In short they are ugly, snarling monstrous creatures.

Yet they are clearly also sentient, some are at the very least bi-lingual.  As Tolkien points out:

To Pippin’s surprise he found that much of the talk was intelligible; many of the Orcs were using ordinary language. Apparently the members of two or three quite different tribes were present, and they could not understand one another’s orc-speech.’ P.580 (The Uruk Hai – The Two Towers)

So clearly these Orcs speak at least two maybe even three languages: The black Speech of Mordor, their own Orcish language, and Common.

Therefore not all Orcs are the same.  There are different tribes with different languages, and given that language and culture are intertwined, we could at least argue that there may be significant cultural differences as well.  Certainly the most obvious example is made apparent between the Mordor Orcs and Saruman’s Uruk Hai, as the dispute between Grishnakh and Ugluk in The Two Towers clearly demonstrates.

But that conflict also proves that Orcs can evaluate social or group goals and needs in addition to their own personal goals and ambitions.  They have loyalties, can choose to follow orders and possess at least some element of free will.  They understand social and cultural hierarchy as well as individual positions of power.  Grishnak and Ugluk argue over what to do with the Hobbits, should they killed, should they be brought to Sauron, should they be searched.  There is tension between the Orcs as they struggle to assert personal dominance as well as the dominance of their respective allegiances and military hierarchies.

What is clear is that they can reason and explain their reasoning.  In effect, these are sentient beings, they are rational, thinking people… at least to some extent.

And while they appear cruel, at least by our standards, they feed Merry and Pippin their Orc-draughts to give them enough energy to keep running. In effect they demonstrate some level of compassion for their prisoners, minimal though it may be, and for which the motivations are not necessarily discernible or clear, as Tolkien does not investigate the Orcish perspective given his focus on the Human and Hobbit perspectives.  But these Orcs are not creatures, they are not monsters, and they are not dumb animals.

So where can we find stories that address this lack of Orcish voice, that give us the perspective of the Orcs, that tell the story from the Orc side of the war.

A book that purports to redress this balance is, of course, Mary Gentle’s Grunts!.

Gentle takes the Orcish perspective as a group of Orcs prepare for the great battle between the forces of good and evil.  However, this is not a ‘straight’ redressing of the imbalance of perspective, it is, from beginning to end a pointed satire or parody of a perceived stereotype of genre fantasy fiction, the great war.

Yet despite being a parody of the good versus evil cataclysmic battle/apocalypse, trope that appears in much early Genre Fantasy, Gentle does attempt to give voice to the Orcs, who despite being nearly ubiquitous in their appearance in diverse fantasy series, are a peculiarly voiceless and underrepresented fantasy race, narratorially speaking.

But this synopsis is slightly disingenuous.  While Gentle begins with a focus on the Orcish perspective she rapidly ‘alters’ the Orcs.  That is to say, by introducing an external magical factor, a geas or magical spell on the weapons the Orcs find in the dragon cache. She alters the Orcs, changing the Orcs from recognisable fantasy characters to caricatures of US Marines fighting a war in a fantasy world.

Barashkukor straightened his slouching spine until he thought it would crack. The strange words the big Agaku used were becoming instantly familiar, almost part of his own tongue. No magic-sniffer, he nonetheless felt by orc-instinct that presence of sorcery, geas or curse. But if the marine first class (Magic-Disposal) wasn’t complaining… He fixed his gaze directly ahead and sang out: ‘We are Marines!’. P.51

The introduction of an external force to ‘change’ the Orcs allows them to behave in different ways, to act contrary to their established fantasy characters and characteristics.  This is of course perfectly in line with Gentle’s focus and intention for the novel, to lampoon the ossified ‘Ultimate Battle’ motif that seems to recur with alarming regularity.

However, this means that the inversion of the Tolkien type Orc is used only for comic effect and does not actually attempt to give a voice to the Orcish world view, or attempt to actually investigate Orcs in anything other than parody.  In effect, Gentle’s work ultimately fails to provide the Orcs with their own voice, to represent their world view and it fails utterly to present the Orcs as an actual race of rounded developed characters.  Only their Marine characters and characteristics are given full voice.

Another narrative that purports to tell the Orc side of the story, is Stan Nicholls’ Orcs.  This is a series of fantasy novels which tells the story of a fantasy world’s battles from the Orc perspective, following the trials, tribulations and adventures of Orc Captain Stryke and his warband The Wolverines.  This series is not a parody, it is not a satire and it is not attempting to lampoon fantasy cliché.  For all attempts and purposes Nicholls appears to be writing the very thing I am talking about, a fantasy series from the perspective of the much maligned Orcs.

However, rather than using the narrative opportunity presented by Tolkien in The Two Towers, that is the rare insight we get to Orc internal politics and the tensions between Mordor Orcs, Mountain Orcs and Sarumans fighting Uruk Hai, Nicholls uses an old ‘bait and switch’.  In the first chapter the Wolverines are sacking a human village and come across a baby.

The cries of the baby rose to a more incessant pitch. Stryke turned to look at it. His green, viperish tongue flicked over mottled lips. ‘Are the rest of you as hungry as I am?’ he wondered.

His jest broke the tension. They laughed.

‘It’d be exactly what they what they’d expect of us,’ Coilla said, reaching down and hoisting the infant by the scruff of its neck. […] ‘Ride down to the plain and leave this where the humans will find it. And try to be … gentle with the thing.pp.13-15

Unfortunately the ‘gentle’ there is a coincidence.

Nicholls has done much the same as Gentle in that he has changed the Orcs to something much more sympathetic.  He has rewritten what an Orc is and in effect reduced them to another fantasy cliché, that of the noble savage, the barbarian tribesmen, the put upon native people who have an overriding sense of honour that has been abused by ‘evil’ masters. These Orcs are the unwilling servants of a Dark Power.

So again this is another attempt to redress the narrative imbalance of a widely used fantasy race that suffers from a seeming lack of ability to genuinely conceive of what Orcs are like, despite the fact that this is clearly evident from Tolkien’s work.

Yet there are examples in which Orcs remain Orcs and yet their stories are accessible, their point of view is articulated and they are given a voice.

While not exactly the most respected or critically examined areas of fantasy literature and narrative, D&D and the various worlds and fantasy series associated with it provide a fascinating perspective on the evolution of Orcs as a fantasy race.

What is interesting is that D&D had to confront an issue with Tolkien’s initial construction of the Orc.  If Orcs are sentient then why were they treated as monsters and not simply as enemies?  Early editions of D&D used Orcs in much the same manner as bad fantasy does, they were simply a stack of low level cannon fodder enemies to be killed off by the heroes to prove how wonderful Sir- Killalot and Princess Smack-them-in-the-head are.

However, as the game developed and grew increasingly more complex, in part to continue to expand the world so that players had greater variety and choice and therefore would keep buying more supplements and products, but also because as the fantasy world grew and the game developed it became increasingly more sophisticated and began to probe and investigate difficult areas of what is assumed to be a simplistic paradigm.  If you can have half-elves, half-dwarves, as playable characters etc… can you have half-orcs?

If you can have half-orcs as playable characters, can you have full blooded orcs as a playable characters?  How does Orc society actually function?  What are Orcs actually like?

In order to continually develop D&D for market, the company continued to add races and playable character types, including some that the confining ‘moral alignment’ rules describe as evil.  Orcs have gradually entered the game as a playable race, equal to and on par with Elves, Humans and Dwarves.

D&D is not the only game to do this.  Orcs appear as playable races in a number of Gamesworkshop products (Warhammer, Warhammer 40K, Blood Bowl, etc.)

However, the simple inclusion of something called Orcs (as Nicholls has proven) does not necessarily guarantee that they remain identifiable as Orcs.

So let us consider R.A.Salvatore’s Legend of Drizzt Series, a long running (and still ongoing) fantasy series concerning the adventures of a Drow (Dark Elf) and his companions.  In The Hunter’s Blades Trilogy {The Thousand Orcs 2002, The Lone Drow (2003) and The Two Swords (2004) (books 15-17 of the Legend of Drizzt series)} one of the major secondary narrative strings is a developing storyline about an Orc chieftain or warlord Obould Many Arrows.  Obould Many Arrows, is initially allied to a clan of Frost Giants and has amassed a massive horde TM. In other words he has called together a large military force or army… but as he is an Orc we are stuck with horde.

As the books develop his army manages to push the Dwarves back to the gates of the Dwarvish realm, Mithral Hall.  And the purpose of this conflict is to clear space in the foothills of the Dwarvish mountain range so that the Orcish clan can establish a genuine kingdom free from the interference of giants, dark lords, evil wizards etc. And so that Obould can open diplomatic relations equal to Elves, Dwarves and Humans.  In effect, to create a recognised Orcish sovereign territory.

What makes this interesting is not that there is an Orc horde, but that the purpose of their ‘invasion’ is actually to find a kingdom and land of their own.  They ‘push’ the Dwarves back to their own Kingdom… which without too much thought you realise means that the Dwarves can be redefined as evil imperialistic conquerors hell bent on wiping out another race in order to steal land and wealth.  Not that Salvatore does this, but the subtext is present.

The Orcs on the other hand are pushing the Dwarves back.  In essence containing an evil expanding army… The Orcs are not ‘stealing land from the Dwarves, the Dwarves live underground, they don’t need nor use the land above the mountain, the lower slopes of the mountain are free, unoccupied and not in use.

And the purpose of the Orc army is not to kill off the other races, it is not to destroy the forces of good, it is to create a consolidated home land where the Orcs can live free from persecution and being hunted down like animals.

In effect then, Salavatore has done something that Gentle and Nicholls could not, he has created a political, interesting and engaging storyline which considers and addresses the Orcish perspective without altering who and what Orcs are.  In hindsight it seems strange that no-one thought to do this before.  Yet the earlier examples given could not seem to conceive of the Orcs as anything other than monsters.

Returning then to the LotR with this new perspective of Orcs we need to reconsider them in this new light.  While Tolkien at least focused on the fact that Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas weighed their decision and chose to try and rescue Merry and Pippin at the beginning of The Two Towers, Jackson’s film adaptation is more revealing of my point.

When Aragorn turns to his companions and says with barely restrained glee ‘We travel light. Let’s hunt some Orc’[1] we can now see how this reduces a sentient and potentially ‘redeemable’ species to an animilaistic and monstrous fate.

But Jackson is not entirely to blame because aspects of this concept, this attitude, appear in Tolkien’s work.  At the battle of the Hornberg in Helm’s Deep Legolas and Gimli have a competition to see who can kill the greatest number of Orcs.  This friendly competition is presented in an heroic light and in the film adaptation is even a source of humour.

But if we consider this episode from this new perspective, counting the number of Orcs killed now appears as crass, distasteful and even malicious behaviour.  In effect it appears as a mis-guided glorification of the murder of enemies and rather than the joyous celebration of monsters put down.

Furthermore, in this battle the remaining Orc horde is herded into an indefensible position surrounded by the Ents and Huorns, who then, rather than letting them surrender, simply destroy them, off page, without a sound, without a murmur, without a second thought.   Tolkien describes this in fairly unambiguous terminology:

‘Wailing they passed under the waiting shadow of the trees; and from that shadow none ever came again.’[2]

Yet, while this is a cause for the heroes to celebrate, the Orcs were an enemy that need to be defeated, why do we as readers never once consider that this is the systematic extermination of a race.  That this is mass murder.  That this is attempted genocide.  The heroes might feel justified in their attitudes as such positions might be necessary in war and combat, but for readers, surely we should question the heroes’ actions.

The heroes do not take Orcish prisoners.

The heroes do not even set up forced labour camps or prisoner of war camps.  All enemy combatants, even if they are retreating or have surrendered, are slaughtered.

When it comes to honouring the dead, the heroes do not give the Orcish dead a modicum of respect or attempt proper funeral rites, rather they are stacked and burned or tossed into mass graves.

So if we have never questioned this it seems that we as readers, not actually involved in the war, tacitly or openly agree with the mass extermination of an entire species, we revel in the slaughter of a sentient race, we delight in the murder of surrendering enemy combatants, we never once treat Orcs as people, as a sentient species, as a race that may be on the other side of the war, but still deserve consideration and respect.

In short, Orcs aren’t monsters.  We are.

[1] The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (dir. Jackson, 2002)

[2] Tolkien The Two Towers Chapter 7 ‘Helm’s Deep’ p.707

(Originally delivered as a paper at ICFA 35 and a variant published in NYRSF)

An initial intrusion becomes an accepted reality: Narrative slippage in Urban Fantasy series

Harry-dresden

Urban Fantasy Series, such as Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles, and to some extent Charlene Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries, illustrate a weakness in current critical approaches to fantasy series.  Put simply, when a fantasy narrative is part of a series rather than a stand-alone, a trilogy or a closed narrative system, many of our critical approaches to fantastic narrative break down.  Urban fantasy series almost invariably begin with what Mendlesohn has termed ‘Intrusion’ fantasy, however, as each series progresses, the narrative shifts towards another of Mendlesohn’s taxonomic terms ‘Immersion fantasy’.[1]  The fantastic elements of the world building have a tendency to become more complex and feature more prominently leading to a distinct change in style of narrative, no longer does the fantastic intrude upon reality, the fantastic becomes the reality.

Early instalments in the series feature intrusions of fantastic elements into the relatively mimetic diegetic setting or story world.  These intrusions lead to the hero protagonist engaging with elements of the fantastic and resolving the problems created by the intrusion, Dresden defeating an evil wizard, Atticus fighting off faerie, and Sookie dealing with the repercussions of vampire Bill moving into the neighbourhood.  Later instalments in these series move further away from this structure of intrusion and rectification toward a more accepting or immersive stance toward the fantastic and a more active exploration of the fantasy elements.

Dresden routinely leaves the environs of Chicago to frequent exotic locales and other planes of existence, Atticus abandons Arizona in favour of visits to Tir Na nOg and Asgard, Sookie spends less time in the domestic settings of Bon Temps and begins to engage with the complicated politics and social structures of the supernatural world.  In each case, the base line diegetic reality becomes more fantastical and less mimetic.  Fewer mundane characters feature prominently, and a substantial portion of the dramatis personae are magical or fantastic in some way.

Framing this in structural narratological terms.  Rather than narrative tension being created through confrontation between the hero and an intrusive fantastical element, the narratives derive tension and impetus from interaction with and exploration of wider supernatural and magical realms.   The hero is no longer preoccupied with the defence of reality from a magical intrusion, but rather the hero is engaged with a broader reality, it is just that the reality in question has now become fantastic.

This then poses a question, if these series transition from intrusion fantasy to immersion fantasy whilst retaining a reader base and remaining ‘true’ to the series with no apparent or significant alteration of plot, story, character or type, what does the identification of intrusion or immersion really highlight and illustrate?  Or perhaps less aggressively we could ask, given that these fantasy series are a continuation of an existing narrative, how can this transition be explained?

What are the narrative structures being discussed?

A standard structural approach to analysing narrative is to locate the source of the driving force of the narrative, the narrative tension.  This can usually be found as existing between two opposing forces:   The protagonist’s goal or desire acting in one direction and driving the narrative toward that, and a counter force that exists to thwart or counteract this put in play by the antagonist’s goal or desire which places obstacles in the hero’s path, or vice versa.

The Heroes want to destroy the ring, Sauron wants to reclaim the ring.

The detective wants to solve the murder, the serial killer wants to go on killing.

The Martians want to invade Earth, the Heroes wish to repel the invasion.

It is a nice, straightforward, if slightly reductive way, to visualise narrative tension.  Of course there are other ways of framing this conflict that take into account broader concepts.   Vladimir Propp created an outline to a hero’s journey in his work Morphology of the Folktale.  Simplistically put, he suggests that a lack or wrongness initiates a call to adventure, the hero then journeys and passes trials before redressing this lack and concluding with a restoration and healing of the world order.  Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth[2], posits a similar narrative trajectory that moves from a diegetic story world that has been disrupted, the rising of a hero to counteract this disruption and the resolution of the adventure in which the disequilibrium is negated and the world order is restored.  John Clute, in The Enclyopedia of Fantasy suggests the concept of the ‘Full Fantasy’ which posits that the adventure begins with a wrongness of the land, which, following the successful hero’s journey, is redressed, and the land is healed and restored.  So despite the variants and intricacies of each of these approaches, there is apparently an underlying pattern here of the supposed structural narrative paradigm of a fantasy adventure.

How does this then relate to Mendlesohn’s concept of the intrusion fantasy?

The trajectory of the Intrusion Fantasy is straightforward: the world is ruptured by the intrusion, which disrupts normality and has to be negotiated with or defeated, sent back whence it came, or controlled.[3]

It seems that each of these approaches is highlighting much the same thing, and in terms of Urban fantasy we can view it as the following:

A mimetic reality is placed into disequilibrium/wrongness/lack by the intrusion of a fantastic element which does not belong.  So in effect, the mimetic, mundane world has been disrupted by a fantastic intrusion.

The hero then seeks to remove or resolve this by attempting to remove/defeat/contain the intrusion and return the world to the status quo, therefore returning the world to normalcy and mundanity.  So far so good.  It all seems straightforward.  All these models seem to agree. Rather suspiciously one might feel.

So is that what happens in Urban Fantasy Series?

Consider Book 1 of the Dresden Files – Storm Front

In the case of Storm Front, modern day Chicago is under magical attack, the police are out matched and don’t really understand what is happening, and the only wizard listed in the phone book is Harry Dresden.  Harry, who is perceived as a charlatan by a number of the characters, acts as a private investigator and consultant to the police.  He eventually tracks down the evil magic user and defeats him, thus saving the city, protecting the mundanes from knowledge of the supernatural world, and returning to his apartment to await the next case.

So the majority of the narrative focuses on Harry’s efforts to track a supernatural killer on the streets of modern day Chicago whilst hiding this information concerning the fantastic from the police.  In effect, Harry acts as a supernatural guardian protecting the mundanes from a fantastical world they are not ready to, nor capable of, accepting.

The narrative tension is created through Harry’s drive to protect the innocent civilians of the city, solve the case, prevent himself from being killed by the intrusion of an evil fantastic element that does not belong in his city and to bring the villain to justice.

A fantastic intrusion disrupts the mundane reality.

The Hero seeks to correct this wrong.

The Intrusion is contained, normality resumes and the narrative ‘resets’ ready for the next adventure.

So far Mendlesohn’s, as well as Campbell, Clute and Propp’s, narrative structures hold true.
The next example is Book one of Kevin Hearne’s The Iron Druid Chronicles – Hounded.

Attitcus, the 2000 year old or so last remaining Irish druid, is living peaceably in modern day Arizona.  Some faerie characters arrive having finally tracked him down, including some of the Sidhe, they cause havoc as Atticus attempts to counter them and protect the locals from being exposed to the supernatural elements, he defeats them and ultimately the world returns to normal at the end of the book.

So clearly the arrival of an unwanted fantastical element, the faerie and the Sidhe, create the narrative tension in the book, or to put it another way, the fantastic intrusion creates a disequilibrium which much be opposed and thwarted by the hero to resolve the problem and return the world to normalcy.

So in the case of Book Ones… or should that be books one… Mendlesohn’s taxonomy, like that of Campbell’s, Clute’s, and Propp’s, appears to be an accurate narrative template.   They each describe what is happening within the text in solid reasonable and identifiable terms.  A wrongness, lack or intrusion begins the tension.  The hero progresses through trials and adventures before ultimately repelling the intrusion and righting the wrong.  The world is returned to equilibrium.

But, what happens when we consider later books in these series?

While initially these series appear to begin as intrusion fantasises with mundane mimetic realities which have been invaded by fantastical elements, the later books have embraced the fantastic reality and there is a more active exploration in the narrative of the magical or supernatural potential in these story worlds.  Or more accurately, the fantastic has become normalised and magical or supernatural has become matter of course.

In Changes (book 12) of the Dresden Files as the title suggests marks a radical change to the main series and signals how the series will transition.  Harry’s points of connection to Chicago, his car, his apartment and his office are destroyed.  Harry’s hitherto unknown daughter has been kidnapped by Red Court vampires, and even with the resolution of the narrative Harry cannot become a father to her and thus fully embraces a magical existence.

The narrative culminates in a journey with his faerie godmother (faerie with an ‘ae’), his apprentice Molly, his brother the White Court succubus Thomas, a magical dog, two half-vampire vampire hunters, and another group of wizards as well as mercanaries strongly linked to Norse Mythology, to Chichen Itza via the Never Never, to battle hundreds of vampires, their familiars, servants and vampire masters.  It is a full blown epic battle, in an exotic location with only a passing resemblance to the real world locale, populated by hundreds of magical and fantastic characters.

Many of the major aspects of the novel focus on the politics of the supernatural realms such as the vampire courts, the council of wizards (The White Council), the Faerie courts and the holy knights of the church.

Few of these aspects are directly explained to the narratee, as there is an assumption that with the 12th book in the series readers will already be familiar with each of the concepts.  The tone and style are clearly immersive given this assumption of knowledge.  And there is a shifting of the tension from a passive counter-action in response to an intrusive element to an active journey and quest adventure to battle fantastic elements in a magical locale.

This is a quest to find and rescue Harry’s daughter, not to stop the intrusion of Red Court vampires into Chicago.  The destruction of the Red Court vampires does not reset the world ready for the next adventure.

So what has changed and how do we explain this?

So firstly let’s examine the function of the mimetic setting.

The mimetic setting, be it Chicago, Illinois or Tempe, Arizona establishes a base line diegetic universe or setting for the reader.  It suggests a diegetic reality that is easily understood and negotiated given its cultural verisimilitude and implied ‘rules’.  It is an easy to understand reality about which the reader can make a series of assumptions and educated guesses.  Gravity will function, police and fire trucks will respond to emergencies, characters have to pay taxes.  In effect, it eases the reader into a state of assumed security and comfort which can then be intruded upon by a fantastic element to unsettle, entertain, or entrance the reader, depending on the author’s intention.

By establishing this base mundane norm, any fantastic element will seem ‘more fantastical’ by contrast.  But it will also create certain expectations about how the fantasy elements will be explained within the setting.  There must be a rationalisation of the fantasy.  For instance, if dragons exist and are flying around, why have they never been seen (an issue with the Harry Potter universe).  If vampires exist, why have they never been caught, and so on and so forth.  There must be a reason to explain their existence in ‘our’ reality.

The author must find various ways and means to allow the reader’s perception of reality to coincide with the diegetic reality created but make the inclusion of potential fantastical elements both believable and credible.

This is a clear distinction to secondary world fantasy in which entirely fantastical worlds can be created that function perfectly rationally according to entirely different rules and versimilitudinous norms.

The reader’s understanding of reality can then be subverted or played with by the author in order to create the desired effect.  In horror, sinister, frightening or disturbing elements may be emphasised.  In urban fantasy it tends toward the more wondrous end of the spectrum.  To put it in the vernacular, Excitement, adventure and all things that a Jedi does not crave.

In essence then, a mimetic setting provides the initial cultural, geographical context for the narrative, as well as implying a number of base norms about the diegetic reality that function as a shorthand notation to explain the rules of the diegetic universe, leaving the author to explore and explain only those aspects that do not conform to our base reality.

Therefore the appearance of an initial mundane reality circumvents the need to establish a base norm as it is already implied. It avoids the necessity of explaining how the world functions.  It also provides a mundane contrast to potential fantastical effects to heighten the impact of the intrusion and create wonder.  And lastly, it provides a continuous and re-usable setting for fantastic stories.  Our world keeps on spinning and so too does the diegetic reality of a series.

We then have the altered structure of ‘series’ to consider.  Series are part of an extended narrative – There is no ‘conclusion’ to the narrative or story world that results in true resolution, but there must be a meaningful end to the episode to provide closure and to resolve aspects of the story.

But series are ongoing adventures.  Each building on the last.  So we commonly have an Escalation in each subsequent instalment and a desire for the new, be it adversaries, locations, concepts or effects.  As each episode ends there is a desire to level up characters, give them new powers, to ratchet up peril, tension and goals for the next story.  To use an example from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  In the first episode a single vampire can be a challenging foe, by the end of season 3 ‘normal’ vampires are now incidental villains that can be easily dispatched.  Heroes grow more powerful and adept as they grow and therefore their challenges need to escalate to match that, which is very much a concept borrowed from RPGs and the idea of character levelling.

Practical matters of the author reader relationship also need to be addressed.  Unlike with a book one or a standalone narrative, there is an established readership who are already well versed in the reality as the series progresses, therefore there is no need to re-explain the base-line reality each and every time.  Thus the style of the narrative can become much more immersive as there is an assumption of narratee knowledge and understanding.

A reusable setting or diegetic world, is a necessary part of a serial narrative.  Should the world be healed and resolved then there are only a certain number of times and ways it can be re-imperilled without sounding contrived or trite.  An example of this problem can be found in David Eddings’ Belgariad and Malloreon quintets, in which the world ending narrative of the first five books is essentially repeated in the subsequent five book series.  He then repeats this pattern with the Elenium trilogy and its sequel, the Tamuli trilogy.  In each case he simply repeats the narrative pattern and structure of the first story in the sequel with minor variations in setting and character.

Linked to the concept of escalation is the need to cover new territory, visit new locales, introduce new and more exciting characters, abilities, magical creatures.  The fantastic reality that intruded in the first book, now must be explored, mapped, codified and tabulated in an effort for the fan to understand all there is to know about that world.  The author in a series often adds new storyworld material as a way to create

Fundamentally then, the series has transitioned from a closed narrative system to one that is open-ended and that must continue to evolve and grow, adding new elements and greater threats.  The hero must become more active and seek out adventure rather than passively wait for an intrusion to disrupt normality.  In fact, as the series progress, they become more and more like portal quests conducted over many instalments.  This results in many of these series becoming immersive, portal quest fantasies that alternate between passive and active reactions to Intrusion in a cycle of escalating power dynamics.

An interesting aspect of the move toward immersive fantasy is that heroes gradually accumulate several magical helpers and allies, resulting in the construction of a balanced party of individuals which is of course a trope of the portal-quest or the quest adventure.  They end up touring various new lands and finding more acquisitive plots rather than the defence of an established territory.  Therefore, series are fundamentally different to assumed closed narratives and the existing critical paradigms we use.

Given the recurring use of setting, the continuing development of characters over the course of a series, the need for new adventure after new adventure. In effect, the need for new interesting developments, growths, settings, locations and adventures, there can be no closing of the narrative to allow for the traditional ending and resolution of the story.

The fantastic intrusion is too passive a structure for the acceleration of growth of character and development and exploration of the diegetic reality.

[1] Rhetorics of Fantasy

[2] Joseph Campbell The Hero with a Thousand Faces

[3] Mendlesohn Rhetorics p.115

(Originally presented as a paper at ICFA 34)