19 November 2021

Fantasy, ecology and children's literature

A couple of days ago I participated in a webinar on Imagining Ecological Pasts and Futures: Folklore, Fantasy, and Speculative Fiction in the Climate Crisis, in which one of the speakers, Gina Lyle, spoke on "Fantasy, Ecology and Children's Literature".

Immediately after the webinar I happened to finish reading the third volume of The Spiderwick Chronicles, and it ended with a trope that seemed very applicable: children meet elves who are hostile to humans because of the damage that humans cause to the environment. The same trope may be found in The Moon of Gomrath by Alan Garner, where the elves of Sinadon come to Fundindelve, and show a similar hostility to human children for the same reason.

Lucinda's Secret (The Spiderwick Chronicles, #3)

Lucinda's Secret by Tony DiTerlizzi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the third book of the Spiderwick Chronicles. I've read the first, but the second was not in the library, so I'm having doubts about whether I'll be able to read and review the whole series, in which the Grace family go to live in an old house belonging to a great aunt, and find it has some strange inhabitants. 

The main character seems to be Jared Grace, aged nine, with his twin brother Simon, and their older sister Mallory, aged 13. They discover a book about faeries, which apparently belonged to their great uncle, who disappeared many years before. But the faeries, or some of them, want the book, and seem determined to get hold of it, by fair means or foul. Each volume in the series is fairly short, about 100 pages, of which nearly half are taken up with illustrations. The ecology trope is seen here:

The leaf-horned elf sniffed. "We have long known that mankind is brutal. Once, at least, humans were ignorant. Now we would keep knowledge of our existence from you to protect ourselves."

"You cannot be trusted. You cleave the forests." Lorengorm scowled and his eyes flashed. "Poison the rivers, hunt the griffins from the skies and the serpents from the seas. Imagine what you could do if you knew all of our weaknesses."

In The Moon of Gomrath the same trope appears:

... no elf has a natural love of men; for it is the dirt and ugliness and unclean air that men have worshipped these two hundred years that have driven the lios-alfar to the trackless places and the broken lands. You should see the smoke-sickness in the elves of Talebollon and Sinadon. You should hear it in their lungs.  That is what men have done.

There is a similar trope in Prince Caspian by C.S. Lewis:

He remembered that he was, after all, a Telmarine, one of the race who cut down trees wherever they could and were at war with all wild things; and though he himself might be unlike other Telmarines the trees could not be expected to know this.

For more on this and similar themes see Inside Prince Caspian. Though in that case it is trees rather than elves, the theme of ecological damage is similar. 

Another similarity in all three instances is that the children, though not necessarily personally responsible for the evil, nevertheless belong to the the race that has caused the evil, and are hated or feared for it. In other contexts, this phenomenon is known as "white privilege". In all three instances mentioned here, the children belong to a class that has been enriched by damage they have inflicted on the environment that others depend on, and the children have benefited from that enrichment. The children were not aware of the damage, having been insulated from it by their privileged position.

In the webinar nobody mentioned capitalism as being responsible for damage to the environment, yet Alan Garner alludes to the Industrial Revolution as being responsible for the damage, and explicitly mentions the Age of Reason -- the Enlightenment, and thus the mentality of modernity.

In C.S. Lewis the context is more colonialism -- the Telmarines are conquerors, and implicitly propagate an ideology of Telmarine supremacy. A similar ideology characterises Weston, the villain of his adult science fiction series, with capitalism being represented by his partner Dick Devine who, while not an allegory of Cecil Rhodes, is at least cut from the same cloth. Both are combined in Prince Caspian.

I'm sure other instances of this trope could be found in children's literature -- environmental destruction, children as unconscious beneficiaries, and the resentful victims. 

14 November 2021

The Hollow Hills

The Hollow Hills (Arthurian Saga, #2)The Hollow Hills by Mary Stewart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The second volume of Mary Stewart's Arthurian trilogy, written as an autobiography of Merlin the Enchanter and Prophet. In this volume, having engineered the conception of Arthur Merlin makes himself responsible for the young prince's upbringing though largely indirectly, as much of it is in the care of others he chooses.

The period in which the story is set has sometimes been called "the Dark Ages" by historians, because there are very few historical sources available for it. That period lasted from about AD 400 to AD 800, when applied to the British Isles, though other pares of Europe were less "dark", as there are is more historical source material available. But much of what happened in that period in Britain is anybody's guess, and that gives great freedom to a novelist who wants to write about it.

The problem of the Arthurian legend is that it was really only fully developed in the High Middle Ages, but Mary Stewart tries to make the setting authentic for the 5th century rather than the 12th. She tries to portray the relations between the different cultural groups in the British Isles -- the Celts, the Romano-British, and the old British. The Saxons, at this stage, appear only on the periphery, as a threat.

At one point Merlin becomes a hermit, looking after a chapel or shrine in the woods. He takes over the shrine when the previous guardian, Prosper, dies, and there is some ambiguity about which God or gods the shrine belongs to. I found this particularly interesting because a long-lost play by Charles Williams, The Chapel of the Thorn was recently found and published -- see my review here. Though the country that is the setting of Charles Williams's play is never named, its situation is sufficiently similar to the Green Chapel in Stewart's story to make an interesting comparison. I suspect that Mary Stewart's perceptions of the  relations between Christianity and paganism at that period may owe more to 19th-century folklorists and is not as nuanced as that of Charles Williams.

The characters of Arthur and Merlin are well developed, and Merlin seems to have gained some confidence since the first book, because he is older and more mature, and also because of his travels, which are rather briefly described.

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10 November 2021

On writing fiction

Here are two articles that may be of interest to writers, or potential writers of fiction. 

I've sometimes wondered whether there's any point in writing stories that no one will want to read anyway. Is it just a way of filling in time between retirement and death? "Why kill time when you can kill yourself?" as one character said in a film I saw a long time ago. So this article is an encouragement to carry on writing: 

Is writing a waste of time?  

But there is also the question of what to write, and, even more important, what not to write, and that is where this article comes in: 

Find your own well  

... which is a criticism of those who write fan fiction (fanfic) and write on National Novel-Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). 

Now I have in the past challenged people to join NaNoWriMo and write a novel in the genre of Charles Williams. 

I don't regret giving that advice, but I do see its limitations, having taken my own advice and tried to write such a novel. The critique I received, comparing it with other stories I had written, showed that trying to write a 50000-word novel in a month is not a very good idea, at least not for people who write stories the way that I do.

The problem is that journalism has deadlines, but novel-writing shouldn't, unless you are suffering from a terminal illness or are under a death sentence.

No matter how much editing, rewriting and revising one does, a novel written in a month is likely to have a lot of shortcomings that no amount of patching can fix, unless, perhaps, you are one of those people who can outline a plot well beforehand, and simply write to fill in the outline. But I'm not one of those. I often start writing a story and have no more idea than the characters in the story where it will end up.

Now I'm writing a story that leads me into unfamiliar territory, and so I have to check other books to see if I've got the background information right. One can't do that in a month when one is dependent on fortnightly.trips to the library. But I'd still like to see more stories in the genre of Charles Williams and the early Alan Garner, so, to my friends who like those authors I say:  please get writing, but do find your own well and don't try to write fan fiction.

Most of the fiction I have tried to write have been children's stories (like the early Alan Garner), and some of my reviewers have compared them to Enid Blyton's "Famous Five" stories. I don't find the comparison flattering, because I never liked the Famous Five as a child, finding the very term "Famous Five" rather pretentious and silly, and preferred Blyton's "Adventure" and "Secret" series, which had more interesting plots, even if they weren't better written. And it surely doesn't take much to write better than Enid Blyton (What a surprise!)

An online friend, whose own writing was cited in the first article mentioned above, commented that he had written a few children's books, but was deterred from preparing them for publication, or self-publishing them on a site like Smashwords, because as an academic he would not be able to put them on his CV. 

Now my academic field is one where works of fiction wouldn't be much use on one's CV, so I don't face his particular problem, but I still say don't let your manuscript moulder in a drawer or on a hard disk somewhere, but publish it on a site like Smashwords where anyone who wants to can read it. 

I mention Smashwords because publishing there is dead easy.

They give you a template. You format your manuscript according to the template, upload it and it is done. The first time I did it, it was sent back for a few tweaks, but my subsequent books were accepted first time. And, if you want to publish on Amazon's KDP, a simple Search and Replace, on a copy of the manuscript, changing every instance of "Smashwords" to "Kindle", will do it for you though Smashwords also produces the MOBI format used by Kindle readers. 

If your first few readers spot any typos you missed, you can upload a corrected version, and offer those readers a free coupon for the corrected version too.

How does this compare with commercial publishing? 

If you don't need to put it on your CV, I think it compares quite well.

For my first children's novel I queried dozens of literary agents who  said they handled children's books. I didn't get any rejections slips. None of them rejected it, they didn't want to read it at all. I thought writing books was more fun than writing query letters, and gave that up. 

I have had a couple of academic books published by university presses. The most recent one, where I collaborated with two other authors, did not produce a single review, at least not any that I have seen. My most recent children's book, The Enchanted Grove, has had several reviews on the GoodReads site and elsewhere. 

OK, these are not reviews from academic specialists in children's literature (I'd love to have a couple of those, if any such people could be persuaded to read it), and even more I'd love to have reviews from kids in the target age group (9-12), but at least there are reviews, whereas the book published by traditional academic publishers produced none. And while not all reviews are useful, a good review (which is not necessarily the same as a flattering one), can show you how to write better next time.


03 November 2021

The Crystal Cave: an autobiography of Merlin the magician

The Crystal Cave (Merlin, #1) (Arthurian Saga, #1)The Crystal Cave (Merlin, #1) by Mary Stewart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first part of a biography of Merlin the prophet and magician, mentor of King Arthur, based on the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth.

It reads like a historical novel, though Merlin is not a figure of history, so it is probably most accurately described as a fantasy in the form of a historical novel. It is said that Geoffrey of Monmouth created the figure of Merlin by combining elements of the stories of two earlier prophets and adding a few bits of his own. Mary Stewart adds several details of her own to round out the figure of Merlin.

In this story he is the bastard son of a daughter of the King of South Wales, who refuses to reveal who is father was, and does not deny rumours that he was the son of the devil. In Stewart's story Merlin meets a hermit-prophet Galapas, who becomes his tutor, but runs away from home at the age of 12, fearing members of his own family.

As a fictional autobiography it makes a good story, but since it is written in the first person it gives a definite impression of the character of Merlin, which differs from that of other writers. Given the basic outline of the legend of Merlin (of which Mary Stewart gives a summary at the end, an author is given great freedom to shape that character as they wish, and in this book Merlin is shown as rather diffident and lacking in self-confidence. He has to be told by other people what he has prophesied, and even how he interpreted it.In this respect a more appropriate title for the book might have been The Reluctant Shaman.

Perhaps the weakest part of the book is the end, dealing with the conception of Arthur. I haven't read Geoffrey of Monmouth's original, so I'm not sure how much of the blame is his, and how much Mary Stewart's but it felt like an inauspicious beginning for a predicted marvellous reign. Merlin's grand scheme seems pointless, as does Uther's reaction 

Other authors, medieval and modern, have written Merlin with a very different character, and I've wound some of them more convincing than this one.  

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