Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Arabian Nights and the State of Fantasy

I wrote this post a couple months before, but forgot to post it. Since it still applies, I thought you might enjoy...


This has turned out to be a crazy year with personal, emotional, physical, and intellectual challenges. Sometimes the simple things are lost in the struggle.

I just finished reading an edition of The Arabian Nights that's been on my shelf forever. Maybe because of the above, maybe just because it had been too long, but I felt the need to go back to my roots. I grew up reading the color fairy books (Red, Blue, Violet, etc.) and the very first stories I wrote all came from that inspiration. I have the three brothers, the arrogant, the mighty, and the naive, I have great monsters that aren't monsters at all but rather cursed innocents, and all the traditional tropes in those 1-5 page stories handwritten on loose legal notepaper in pencil, smeared and hardly legible now.

When I was a kid, I remember taking a match to the back of a sheet of paper to "age" it for the poem I had written there. I don't think that poem survived, but I can tell you all the other pages now look pretty much like the one I'd faked.

Anyway, back to Scheherazade.

I read all the stories with their fantastical natures and fascinating tales only to get to the afterward at the end. The compiler recounted not his efforts to gather this edition but the cause, the first time he'd discovered 1001 Arabian Nights and how the sheer wonder of it swept him away.

It was only then that I consciously noticed what I'd accepted the moment I opened the book to the first page. The Arabian Nights is unique in modern fantasy and I wonder if something might have gotten lost in the translation.

The Arabian Nights is about pure fantasy, fantastical elements, magic, chance, fate, impossibilities galore. It sweeps the reader into a world so distant from any chance of reality that you just have to go along for the ride because any effort to analyze would break the illusion. Don't look behind the curtain.

As a reader of modern fantasy, what catches my attention is the anthropology, the cultural exploration, the interactions between people. I don't generally go for those books with elaborate magical constructs unless they also supply the anthropological focus I prefer because I'm not interested in the logic of magic. Now maybe I wonder if that very logic has broken something for me. Has requiring plausibility hindered fantasy in the same way as hard science fiction is now limited to the mundane because the bleeding edge of science has moved beyond the grasp of the average reader so those novels that still explore it don't get very far?

As I write my fantasy novels, in each one I balance every coincidence, struggle over every time that the plot just falls into place because that might hint at an "act of God." On the other hand, much of my fantasy has active gods who are in there bringing things about. Greek influence? Or maybe the only way I can fit the magic scheme I want to have in with modern requirements?

I've recently adopted the new trend of urban fantasy, as a reader and finally with my latest WIP as a writer. In urban fantasy, magic and technology coexist in a tangled, confusing, contradictory mess that no one really understands. Hmmm? Is it just me or has urban fantasy returned more to those roots of genies and fates and magic for magic's sake. We don't understand it, say the characters, so we can't explain why it does this. It just does.

Anyway, those are some stray thoughts for you to chew on. I'd love to hear your take on the state of magic in fantasy novels, and whether the changes are a good/enduring/sad/whatever event. Or even if you disagree entirely of course :D.