Sunday 13 September 2015

A History of Epic Fantasy - Part 10

Dare we say it, but some people think that fantasy is a bit funny. Humorous. Comical. Small people with furry feet saving the world from a giant flaming eyeball? Sentient dinosaurs who use gravity as a source of magic? It can sometimes all be a bit daft, no matter how many Pratchetts or Eriksons successfully employ the genre to make sharp points about real life.

Comic fantasy novels are reasonably common. Good comic fantasy novels are surprisingly rare. Fantasy as a genre can be po-faced and self-parodying enough, so writing a genuinely funny book which successfully riffs off the genre without simply collapsing into lazy cliches seems a lot harder than writing a genuinely good epic fantasy novel. But some authors have made careers based on the attempt.

In September 1977, just a few months after the double-whammy of Lord Foul's Bane and The Sword of Shannara, Piers Anthony released (via Del Rey) A Spell for Chameleon. This novel was set in a fantasy world which bore a curious resemblance to Florida, and was considerably lighter-hearted and more playful than its contemporaries. This became the first book in the Xanth series, which as of this year stands at 41 volumes in length. The Xanth books have some genuinely interesting and fantastical ideas, but also rely a little too heavily on puns and poor wordplay for laughs. The books have also gathered a distressing reputation for sexism, with the bemusingly-titled fifteenth novel in the series, The Colour of Her Panties, being particularly singled out for juvenile and distasteful content. Anthony has also written more serious fare, most notably the epic Incarnations of Immortality sequence, but humour is never far away in his works. Xanth is the longest-running American comic fantasy series (more books are expected for years to come, even with the author now in his eighties), but is largely unknown outside of the States.

Another writer who started rising to prominence at the same time was Diana Wynne Jones. Her Chrestomanci sequence is her best-known work, which started publication in 1977. Jones wrote widely and well in a number of subgenres for decades, usually for children. In 1998 she wrote Dark Lord of Derkholm, which riffed off epic fantasy. Its sequel, The Year of the Griffin, also playfully invokes the Harry Potter series by being set in a wizarding school. However, Jones's definitive work of epic fantasy remains The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, published in 1996. The blurb is worth recounting in full:
This authoritative A-Z constitutes an essential source of information for all who dare to enter into the imaginative hinterlands. It provides acute insights into such mysteries as how HORSES reproduce, the various types of VIRGINS and the importance of CLOAKS to those wondering about going on a quest with a fellowship (of the Ring or otherwise).

Features include:
  • A map (obviously)
  •  Live background on those you will meet, including: BARBARIAN HORDES, lots and lots of wild-seeming people advancing under a cloud of dust in order to devastate more civilised parts, and ELVES, who claim they did not evolve like humans...certainly there seems to be no such thing as the Elvish ancestral ape.
  • Full details on the catering arrangements: BEER always foams and is invariably delivered in tankards (what do you mean, "it tastes awful")?
  • Useful hints on coping in Fantasyland: ARMOUR is generally regarded as cheating. TORTURE is obligatory at some stage.
The Tough Guide to Fantasyland remains the definitive guide to the cliches and hazards of the genre, and is recommended reading for all fantasy writers and fans.

Direct parody is rarer in fantasy, perhaps due to legal considerations. In 1969 the National Lampoon released Bored of the Rings, a comic novel based, of course, on Tolkien. It was extremely successful. In 2003 the British SF author Adam Roberts released The Soddit (based on The Hobbit) and followed it up the next year with The Sellamillion (you get the idea). These can be quite witty, but are limited by the source material.

Parodies and mickey-taking of famous modern fantasy novels are proving harder to write, as more recent writers employ humour directly in their works. Part of the success of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire can be traced to the character of Tyrion Lannister, who on occasion seems to be on the verge of breaking the fourth wall and directly commenting on the insanity of the situations he finds himself in. Other comic characters like Dolorous Edd also keep laughs coming even in the story's darkest moments. Joe Abercrombie and Scott Lynch's novels also have a air of knowing self-deprecation about them.

More difficult is taking the genre of fantasy and using it and humour to directly make valid points about both the genre and life in general. But one author has done it with resounding success, becoming the biggest-selling single author of secondary world fantasy since J.R.R. Tolkien himself.

The Colour of Magic

Terry Pratchett published his first novel, The Carpet People, in 1971. It was a humorous book about a tribe of tiny people who lived in a carpet, a world threatened by a destructive force known as Fray. Whilst well-regarded, it was only a modest success. Pratchett's second novel, published in 1976, was a science fiction novel called The Dark Side of the Sun, with employed some offbeat comical ideas but was more serious. It was not successful at all. In 1981 Pratchett published his third book, a serious science fiction novel called Strata. Influenced by Larry Niven's Ringworld, it was again not a major success and it looked like Pratchett was doomed to be a minor footnote in the annals of fantastic fiction.

However, Strata had contained within it an interesting idea. During the novel the characters discover an unusual, huge flat planet floating in space. It serves as the book's "Big Dumb Object" (similar to Niven's Ringworld or Clarke's Rama). Pratchett was taken with the idea but found that he could not explore it to its fully extent in SF. So he decided to repurpose it for his fourth novel. The flat planet remained, but was now mounted on the back of four elephants who stood on the back of a giant, space-faring turtle. The planet was now inhabited by hundreds of millions of people belonging to pre-technological civilisations, with magic and gods as force of reality.

The new novel was called The Colour of Magic and was published in 1983. The book was an overt parody and satire of sword and sorcery, most notably the works of Fritz Lieber: the great metropolis of Ankh-Morpork is heavily influenced (in the opening novel at least) by Lieber's Lankhmar. The book was a big hit, selling out of its initial print run. Building on good reviews and word-of-mouth, the book took off in a massive way and Pratchett quickly wrote a sequel, The Light Fantastic, publishing it in 1985. Again Pratchett satirised sword and sorcery, this time using the character of Cohen the Barbarian to riff on the works of Robert E. Howard. Readers wanted to hear more about this world and wanted more adventures with the wizard Rincewind and his hapless tourist companion, Twoflower, but Pratchett found the idea of using the same characters in book after book limiting, not to mention the fact that he was running out of authors to parody. For the third novel in the series, Equal Rites, Pratchett changed tack. He introduced two new protagonists, a witch named Granny Weatherwax and a young woman named Eskarina Smith, and used the book to comment on sexism, discrimination and resistance to change.

Thus the Discworld was born, a world where Pratchett could examine any topic he chose using any characters he chose. Disliking doorstops and cliffhangers, Pratchett also made each book self-contained and able to be read in any order, although he also contained enough continuity to reward regular readers. Ankh-Morpork's evolution from a standard medieval fantasy city to, forty volumes later, a proto-steampunk metropolis is particularly cleverly handled.

Pratchett used Discworld to address the foibles of modern life. He attacked the cult of celebrity in Moving Pictures and Soul Music, ossification and ludditism in Pyramids and the media in The Truth. He also told one of the best coming-of-age stories ever in his exploration of the character of Tiffany Aching (from The Wee Free Men to The Shepherd's Crown), and also addressed old age with Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg. He also explored middle age and rejected the idea that those later in life could not change with the character of Sam Vimes (starting in the Guards! Guards!). Most famously, Pratchett scathingly attacked fundamentalism and religious hatred in the brilliant Small Gods. Finally, through Mort and Reaper Man he movingly examined the idea of death and mortality. Discworld may represent the finest use of fantasy and the secondary world to date, to say intelligent and sometimes challenging things about the real world in an approachable manner. Int his manner Pratchett is less of an heir to Tolkien or Lieber and more the successor to Dickens.

Discworld isn't an epic fantasy, although its worldbuilding, story construction and characterisation outclasses those of almost every epic fantasy ever written. But it shows the huge potential for fantasy to reach and move readers when used in an imaginative and intelligent way. In the mid-1980s fantasy became a battleground between writers striving for more intelligent and, some might say, grimmer explorations of the genre and those who wanted popcorn fun, with the next vital milestone in the genre waiting in the wings.


Ghost said...

As a fan of fantasy outside of the U.S, I totally agree with you on Xanth. I don't get the Xanth series. It's more stupid than fun, and this from a guy who totally get Discworld. I have the feeling you really need to be an American to understand Xanth fully.

Zaister said...

I must dissent here. I read "The Colour of Magic" and "The Light Fantastic" when they came out in their German translation in the Goldmann Fantasy imprint, because back then, I read all the books they published. But I found them trite and almost unreadable, and anything but funny – only silly. Consequently I have stayed away from Pratchett's works, with one exception: "Good Omens", which he co-wrote with Neil Gaiman. I liked that book, but I credit Gaiman for that.

dwarf74 said...

I've made this same mistake many times and for many years, but it's Fritz Leiber, not Lieber. :)

Keds said...

This was so interesting! I haven't heard someone bring up Xanth in AGES.

Anonymous said...

Keep up the good work!

Adam Whitehead said...

In the Pratchett fandom, the German translations are pretty infamous for being not very good (apparently they give up at certain points and explain tricky jokes in footnotes). It is difficult to translate puns and wordplay into another language, and we're getting it the other way with the English translations of THE WITCHER books which apparently lose a lot from the originals.

On top of that, Pratchett evolves as a writer massively between books. He takes a big upward leap after the second volume, again somewhere around the sixth and eighth and an absolute quantum leap forward with the thirteenth (SMALL GODS). The early and later DISCWORLD books could have almost been written by completely different authors.

I have to say that your English seems pretty good, have you tried reading them in the original language?

Jens said...

Yeah, language-based humor is nearly impossible to transport into another language - literal translations rarely work (unless you want to explain the puns in footnotes or so but everyone who ever explained the punchline of a joke to someone will realize that this is generally fatal to the humorous impact of the intended joke). A good (very good) translator may be able to replace puns of the original by fitting ones of the their own language but this is risky. Or alternatively, some of the humor will be lost in translation.

Despite the described difficulties, Pratchett is very popular in Germany but I assume that this is rather due to his satire than the purely pun-based humor and the genuinely funny plot.
I read his Nome Trilogy in German in my early twenties but even then with my English less developed I spotted one or two funny phrases that I realized when translated back into English was pretty good wordplay. At that point I decided to read Pratchett in English only going forward! Nevertheless, I enjoyed the trilogy (which seems to be very little know) quite much as it doesn't depend on puns to work, they just enhance it.

BTW, Anthony's Xanth has been translated in Germany up to volume 22 - quite surprising as these very heavily rely on puns. So they are not completely unknown outside of the US.

Those appreciating novels humorous may want to check out Mary Gentle's 1992 novel Grunts!, a satire of The Lord of the Rings written from the villains' PoV.
I fell in love with Michael Shea's In Yana, the Touch of Undying (1985) just by the way it was written.
There's also Robert Asprin, especially his Myth Adventures series which was developed throughout the 1980s.

Jens said...

Oh, forgot to say: this series is great.
Posts like these have made this blog one of my sites to check almost daily! (I still remember your amazing Arc of Truth posts!)

Unknown said...

Great series need to do some rereads the Gap! Amber, wow.
Where is Terry Goodkind? (grin).
But serious where is Robin hobb? been reading her books now and they are awesome.

Keep it up love to read more, too little time though :)

Tony Marine said...

The way this post is worded, it seems to be saying Piers Anthony wrote Lord Foul's Bane - that was written by Stephen R. Donaldson. :)