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.


Ruv Draba said...

Margaret, having moved blogsites recently I've added you to my blog reader.

What I love about the 1001 Nights is that it's a seduction. Every story that's told in the cycle is meant to lure, attract and seduce. If you took away the storyteller from this story, it would be poor storytelling, full of arbitrary and unconnected events. But put it in the context of the storyteller seducing a king and it's wonderful in the way that Fantasia is wonderful. It's pure pageantry.

I don't believe that SF has had a detrimental impact on fantasy for the simple reason that readers read these two genres for very different purposes, and many readers read one genre but not another.

But two things have had a detrimental impact on fantasy: 1) the obsession with 'wow' and 'gee whiz' settings, costuming and events at the cost of character impacts; 2) the use of fantasy to merely gratify readers at the cost of frightening and over-awing them.

One thing you can't say of 1001 Nights is that the heroes are cocooned from the world by deus ex machina devices. Deriving as it does from a culture based on submission and fatalism, events are arbitrary - but they're arbitrarily bad as often as good. Often, the hero survives simply because the tale has a survivor and it happens to be him, not because he has the golden light of herodom shone upon him by the author. The stories delight but also scare, and that's what I feel good fantasy should do.

Margaret said...

Ah, Ruv, you missed the intent of my comparison. I don't think SF has harmed fantasy, I think the same attitude that has harmed SF is leaking into fantasy.

Other than that, I agree with you entirely. Fantasy is about events out of our control, events that can't be tucked into tiny little boxes, whether these events benefit or harm us. It's not actually to do with the ending so much as the whole thing for me. For example, the genie who gets so tired waiting to be rescued that he plans to kill his rescuer. The fisherman unlucky enough to find this genie was subject to fate. The ending, though, had nothing in common with a deus ex machina, it's the result of the fisherman's clear and quick thinking.

I don't know which came first, the obsession with rules or the obsession with costuming. All I know is that as a reader, I went straight from 1001 Nights' type fantasy to hard science fiction :).

Ruv Draba said...

read read read...

Oh, I see. You're saying that SF has become mundane and mechanical rather than exploratory, and that fantasy by extension has become formulaic.

I think I agree, but for reasons I mentioned earlier. Fantasy has become formulaic because of the emphasis on imagery over theme; gratification over light and shadow. It's cynical marketing put over original thought.

I picked this up with a rant about magic in fantasy a while back in my blog, and it links to our OWW discussion too. It doesn't matter whether Sinbad's Roc is a magical bird or a mundane bird: the important thing is that's fantastical and awesome.

Dumb readers create cynical marketers, but it's dumb fantasy that creates dumb fantasy readers. My personal answer is not to write dumb fantasy.

I also think it's telling that the whole of the horror genre sits inside fantasy. All the best fairy tales are horrific at core. It's horror and wonder that give you the light and shadow in fantasy.

SF... You said it really well on OWW, and I've burbled about this before too. The really interesting SF is in the soft sciences these days. SF doesn't have to be boring; but it's really rare to find a writer who does strong analytics alongside deep human understanding. Le Guin did it, but few others do.

Margaret said...

Oh good point on the horror and the fantastical bird. It's part of the reason steampunk appeals to fantasy readers even though it is technically SF as you mentioned. It's flash and bang that has absolutely nothing to do with costume glitter.

I wish I had a better conscious grasp of theme, but my subconscious works it just fine. I don't seek the themes, but I see the echoes of them and that makes tales all the more strong.