Welcome to the Great Travelling Round Table Fantasy Blog. This month, we in the northern hemisphere have been celebrating harvests and thanksgiving feasts while our friends down south have been watching their crops grow strong and green under a strengthening sun. Both of these give us thoughts of gratitude and plenty, so we thought we talk about the greats of science fiction this month. In the first installment, Carole McDonnell pays homage to Lord Dunsany, Andrea Hosth to Andre Norton, and Warren Rochelle to Ursula K. LeGuin.
Carole McDonnell—Lord Dunsany
November is harvest and gratitude month, so the travelling tour is about the bounty of our favorite fantasy writer, or the best ones, or the best known ones. The one’s we’re grateful for—that make us read fantasy.
I suppose if gratitude is about fairness, I should begin (in all fairness) with the homegrown storytellers. My grandmother, my grandfather Uncle Bertie, my uncle Winston, my aunt, and my mother. When I was growing up in Jamaica –in the city but especially in the country– there was no electronic entertainment. My There was maybe a TV but it was turned off pretty early. And there was also radio. But for the most part, those dark nights were spent with books, my mother’s favorite English authors, or someone telling a riddle or a story. I especially loved riddles because they showed a logic –a game– that the mind had to struggle to understand.
Books, themselves, were few and far between and my mother, coming from an oral culture, could repeat the beginning of her favorite novels — her favorite authors being Charles Dickens and Sir Walter Scott.
On my own I discovered Shakespeare. Hamlet is fantasy, right? I also discovered Edgar Allen Poe. And without trying to, I ended up memorizing the opening of the Tell Tale Heart. I especially liked Poe’s gothic worlds where the psychological and the fantastical met together in a surreal world of unreliable narrators.
But the story that took my heart away and that opened worlds for me was Lord Dunsany’s Ghost. Readings of this story can be found here among other stories in the librivox collection 004 and here read individually at Miette’s Bedtime podcast http://www.miettecast.com/2006/03/21/the-ghosts/.
Sure, I loved The Sword of Welleran, and the world Welleran inhabited, a rich world like all of Dunsany’s worlds. But the craft, the suddenness, the weird paradox of believer in ghost/non-believer in ghost…the sheer science of the epic fantasy battle. It was as if the narrator of Ghosts was fighting against what he sensed was the unreliability of the world and he was not going to allow himself to fall into it.
Of all Dunsany’s works, Ghosts — for me– has stood the test of time. OR the test of rationality. OR the test of faith. When I first read Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter.
I loved it but found some of it too much. The language was too ornate, almost overdone. Now, I can make it through the language of Elfland…and there are moments where Dunsany’s tendency to indulge beautiful language bores me or annoys me because it is excessive. I also have found myself balking at his easy disdain of Christianity, something I tolerated or ignored in the past but which now irks me because I sense an overbearing meanspiritedness in it. The story is beautiful but it’s hard to love a story that subtly –or not so subtly– sneers at one’s religion.
Carole McDonnell is a writer of ethnic fiction, speculative fiction, and Christian fiction. Her works have appeared in many anthologies and at various online sites. Her novel, Wind Follower, was published by Wildeside Books. Her forthcoming novel is called The Constant Tower. http://carolemcdonnell.blogspot.com/
Andrea Hosth—The Greats of Fantasy, Andre Norton
I expect everyone has a different definition of who a “great” of fantasy is, and part of the basis for that definition will be the circumstances in which the writer was encountered.
For instance, I read all the Harry Potter books and enjoyed them thoroughly (except, perhaps, Harry Potter and the Extended Camping Trip), but J K Rowling doesn’t fall into my own personal set of “greats”. I’m well aware that my reaction of “Hey, those were some fun books, a bit like The Books of Magic, and a bit like Witch Week – Hermione was cool, and Snape is nicely grey, but boy did Draco’s character arc turn into a damp squib,” falls far short of the sheer veneration awarded by a generation where a Potter book was a major event, a shared coming together which no other book or writer will ever offer.
All of which is a long-winded caveat to note that “great” is a highly subjective term, and that when I approached this subject and tried to find some objective standard of “greatness”, the most I could come up with is “really loved this, will go back for more and more and more”. So what fantasy writers are great to me? And why?
Almost always it comes down to “girls doing stuff”, but I’ll talk about a writer whose books were often an exception to that rule.
Andre Norton, although she was acknowledged as a Grand Master of both Science Fiction and of Fantasy, rarely shows up these days on lists of “Greats”. Her books, ranging from the Witch World series, her magic books for children, and her many space novels, aren’t held up as examples of brilliant and lyrical writing, or complex and searching psychological portraits, or extrapolations of advancements in technology on what it means to be human.
Sheer adventure – the grip of the story, the need to know what happens next – a writer who can serve that up over and over will catch me every time.
Along with adventure, Norton gives us an eerie, almost alien voice, and outsider protagonists whose predicaments and dogged endurance make you want them to find some place to call their own. Norton’s story are full of people trying to find their place – refugees, outcasts, and the different.
Norton’s influence is all through my work. I repeatedly write time-displaced people, alone, needing a place to call theirs. Her effortless blend of science fiction and fantasy may well be why a spaceship showed up in my very first high fantasy attempt. The idea of Forerunners permeates my world-building.
And I love trying to put together a plot which keeps drawing the reader to find out what happens next.
Andrea K Höst was born in Sweden but raised in Australia. She writes fantasy and science fantasy, and enjoys creating stories which give her female characters something more to do than wait for rescue. See: www.andreakhost.com
Warren Rochelle—Thank you, Ursula K. Le Guin
One of my former students recently told me that while she appreciated Ursula K. Le Guin and understood her place and significance in the pantheon of American science fiction and fantasy, she just didn’t care for her work.
Clearly I have failed her.
Or—seriously—the student didn’t connect to Le Guin’s fiction as I did, and as I still continue to do. Her loss (and I thought she was such a nice person …). For me, Le Guin, is one of a small number of writers who changed my life and profoundly influenced my own fiction and my teaching. As I have written about this influence in more detail in another essay, “A Wave in My Mind” (Paradoxa 21 (2008): 293-309), I want to focus on just one particular node or point of influence in this thank-you essay, the power and strength of storytelling, especially as it is concerned with the Other, the “not-us,” and why I think this matters, and thus, why I am grateful to Ursula K. Le Guin.
Le Guin argues, in her oft-quoted essay, “Prophets and Mirrors: Science Fiction as a Way of Seeing,” that . . . “the story—from Rumpelstiltskin to War and Peace—is one of the basic tools invented by the human mind, for the purpose of gaining understanding. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have no societies that did not tell stories” (The Living Light 7 (Fall 1970): 112). She uses this tool in Earthsea Revisioned (Cambridge, MA: Children’s Literature New England, 1993) to examine a particular story, that of the Hero and the Quest, or the Monomyth, the Hero’s Journey, and suggests it can provide even greater understanding of the human condition if the myth is reinterpreted and reimagined.
In the traditional Monomyth, “The hero is a man” and “the hero-tale has concerned the establishment or validation of manhood. It has been the story of a quest, or a conquest, or a test, or contest. It has involved conflict and sacrifice” (7). And it is about men—and in the Western European tradition a white man. In the first three books of the Earthsea cycle, while using the traditional elements of the myth—the public quest, conflict and sacrifice, the public grail, and so on—Le Guin, through Ged, asks what if the hero is a man of color and all the villains, white? What if the hero is the Other, one of society’s Outsiders? In Tehanu, the fourth Earthsea novel, she goes a step further: the hero of the novel is a woman and one without overt power, who performs her tasks in private, on a far smaller scale than that of the first three novels. What, then, if the hero is Othered by gender? What assumptions and beliefs are challenged, and questioned, what is learned about human experience and the human condition through these challenges and questions?
In The Dispossessed, Shevek and Bedap are friends and they love each other as adolescents. Separated by time and circumstance, they reunite in Abbenay, the main city on their world. This friendship is reaffirmed; trust is re-established, in this reunion, through sex. Bedap is primarily homosexual; Shevek, heterosexual. But on Anarres, the taboos and boundaries we accept as givens don’t exist. That Bedap and Shevek can express their feelings physically is unremarkable. The Other that both men would be in our society doesn’t exist.
That Le Guin has included these challenges in her fiction, that she demands her readers see the Other as human, as themselves, is one key reason that I am grateful for and to this writer. She deconstructs the Other and Otherness and what remains is our common humanity. As a gay man, I am, to many, Other—alien, not human, not us. While Le Guin is not the only writer of fantasy or of science fiction to challenge the Others we have constructed, she is the one whose stories resonated—and still resonate—for me. I saw myself; I was present and accounted for.
So what? In the introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin explains why this matters: “But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth. The only truth I can understand or express is, logically defined, a lie. Psychologically defined, a symbol. Aesthetically defined, a metaphor.” Fiction is a lie that tells the truth. I tell my students in intro creative writing that, above all, they must tell the truth, even as they make up their stories. Through the metaphor of fantasy, Le Guin is telling the truth: there is no Other, except for those we construct ourselves out of misconceptions and ignorance and fear.
For doing this, for telling this truth in fantasy, I will always be grateful to Le Guin.
Warren Rochelle has taught English at the University of Mary Washington since 2000. His short story, “The Golden Boy” (published in The Silver Gryphon) was a Finalist for the 2004 Gaylactic Spectrum Award for Best Short Story and his novels include The Wild Boy (2001), Harvest of Changelings (2007), and The Called (2010). He also published a critical work on Le Guin and has academic articles in various journals and essay collections. He is currently at work on a novel about a gay werewolf and a collection of short stories. One of the collection’s stories, “The Boy on McGee Street,” was just published Queer Fish, Volume 2 (Pink Narcissus Press, http://pinknarc.com) in October 2012.